Intimate Inscriptions

Four films on writing

Hannah Bonner

The Wind Is Taking Them
Year 2023

Leisure, Utopic
Year 2024
Country ITALY, UK

Notes: Remembered and Found
Year 2024
Country CYPRUS, UK

Minevissam (I am writing)
Year 2023
Country UK

A child flops over a wooden swing belly first, bent like a wishbone. As he twists the white ropes, softly kicking sand helter skelter, the camera follows his movements, subtly rocking side to side, as if cradling him through the frame. A wooden beam in the corner suggests a worksite, but the angle of the shot only captures the child listlessly playing on the swing in the sand. In medias res the child’s voiceover counters: “Perhaps but in a few thousand billion years, we all won’t be alive anymore. Either everyone will have died from global warming, or a meteorite hits the earth and makes everything dark and cold. Or a meteorite hits the earth and makes everything hot and lava or,” here the child pauses, “we all die out.” As the child walks away from the play area, a woman’s voice offscreen asks “so how did space occur? And time?” Later, luscious close ups of granite stones and fauna serve as relics of provenance: the earth’s topography, not just human actors, describes our history—and demise. 

Activating the register of apocalyptic endings and origin stories, geological, mythological, familial and material, new films from Ann Carolin Renninger, Beatrice Gibson, Maria Anastassiou and Niki Kohandel foreground the performance of writing and reading, particularly as it pertains to children. Each of these filmmakers offer capacious understandings of what writing can be—yes, there is often the requisite pen and paper featured, but the inscription of weather and time on stones tells just as intricate a story as a grandmother’s journal read out loud. Whether fact or fabulation, these featured stories animate memory or utopian possibilities, distant galaxies or local communities. In turn, the directors ‘write’ their own responses to the objects or people in the films on screen before us; in an iterative loop of inspiration, I am writing in response to their work now.  

The Greek etymology of ‘cinematography’ derives from kínēma, meaning 'movement', and gráphein, 'to write.’ Thus, the movement (or articulation) in each film comes not just from the actors’ gestures, but from the formal choices of each director, too. In Niki Kohandel’s film Minevissam (I am writing), articulation manifests through camera movement and voice over as well as carving words and images directly onto the 16mm film stock. Kohandel etches language onto the film strip not to efface or destroy, but to exalt in all the possibilities material film has to offer. In Maria Anastassiou’s Notes: Remembered and Found, a hand, not just the camera, traces the lines of text in a grandmother’s notebook. As four generations of women grapple with their family’s displacement, the grandmother (and Anastassiou) write into absences that neither institutional archives nor natural environments preserve consistently. The family’s archive is an intimate container of diaries, notes, letters, and photographs. The act of making the film, the recording of the sound, simultaneously explores and adds to the archive: it is not just Anastassiou’s mother that we hear, but her infant daughter as well, burbling and cooing with abandon.

What is it about the grain of a child’s voice that induces such primal delight? In Beatrice Gibson’s film Leisure, Utopic, a child, in starts and stops, reads aloud portions of Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia (1984) as Gibson guides them through the text. Mayer’s breathless decree champions a life without rent, a life in which most of the medical profession is female, and a life in which there is no manipulation of power. The child’s high pitched lilt careens over words like “backyards,” “predominantly,” or “manipulations” as a ship might over what Roland Barthes dubs “the foam of language.” In the tussle for the right pronunciation, the child’s earnest desire to perform the prosody perfectly emerges. Our pleasure is in the listening, both to the words being read as well as the dulcet manner in which utopic sentiments are expressed. Gibson’s film gestures to reading, writing, and teaching as another version of utopia, as creative acts of hope.

In a later section of Mayer’s Utopia she instructs, “stand in a glass in the room next to you emitting a light of all the colors.” The room emitting a light of all colors could be the theater in which we now sit, alert to the screen, another kind of page, before us. Like you, and her, and her, I return to that page, that screen, because of the burgeoning possibilities it instills within me to respond. I want, as Amina Cain writes in A Horse at Night: On Writing (2022), “to reproduce in writing some quality I [have] seen.” Like Mayer, like Cain, I am here in the glass in the room, writing.

Hannah Bonner's criticism has appeared in Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and Senses of Cinema. Her first collection of poems Another Woman is forthcoming from EastOver Press. She lives in Iowa.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the programme I am Writing at Genesis Cinema, 28 April 2024.