Watching Joële Walinga’s new experimental found-footage documentary Self-Portrait, one is reminded of Abbas Kiarostami’s thoughts upon the Cannes premiere of his 2002 film Ten: “If anyone were to ask me what I did as a director on the film, I’d say, ‘Nothing and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.’’’ Here, Walinga has amassed a trove of footage from unlocked security cameras from around the world and carefully edited them into a rhythmic approximation of the seasons. Instead of “directing” the film in any traditional sense, she is instead acting as a kind of digital curator, creating meaning through careful shot selection and a keen eye for visually precise juxtapositions. It’s a remarkable work, not just for the sheer breadth of imagery on display, but also because of Walinga’s thoughtful construction.
While Kiarostami seems like an obvious touchstone here, there are also evocations of James Benning, as well as the digital textures of Mann’s Miami Vice and Lynch’s Inland Empire. The low-fi security cameras that Walinga is utilizing all share a few common traits, regardless of where they are located; low resolution, wide-angle lenses, and fixed, stationary positions. In this sense, each shot becomes a tableau, gazing out upon a field or an ocean or a cityscape. Self-Portrait isn’t a structuralist film: scenes don’t seem to follow any kind of mathematical pattern or set duration. There are far too many shots here to do a detailed breakdown of each, a la Erika Balsom’s monograph on Ten Skies. The rhythm here is more akin to breathing, the editing compressing and expanding scenes in varying ways. The first shot is a suspension bridge of some sort that recedes into the background of a misty mountainscape. There follows in quick succession shots of beaches with crashing waves, windmills emerging from the ocean like totemic monuments, solitary roads winding through flat plains, and skyscrapers bathed in fluorescent lighting. Some images hint at a story; a dilapidated, boarded-up building covered in snow still has a rainbow-colored sign that reads “Tropical.” Another shot finds a dog laying down in the middle of a road. Is it sleeping or dead? We’ll never know, as the film continues on unabated. (Call it Shrödinger’s dog.)
It takes a few minutes to get acclimated to the constant stream of images; some suggest liminal spaces devoid of human figures, while others are teeming with people. Lush landscapes are paired with extreme close-ups of claustrophobic interiors. Some images are almost purely abstract, as the digital cameras struggle to record raindrops or snow flurries and instead register them as pixelated flecks of light. There’s also the progression of Walinga’s approximation of color grading; the film begins in winter, and accordingly each scene features snow or ice and cool tones. As we move into spring, and then summer, the images become warmer, each scene bathed in natural light. Eventually, the movement into fall brings with it browns and grays, as fewer and fewer shots contain people. In this way, Self-Portrait suggests not only Walinga’s specific POV, but also the general movements of humanity in general — emerging in the spring, frolicking in the summer, then retreating back indoors in the fall and winter.
Of course, these kinds of found images bring with them certain preconceived notions. We tend to relate them to security cameras, autonomous and impersonal or even ominous. Theorist Shane Denson has dubbed them “discorrelated images,” post-cinematic digital artifacts that disrupt the traditional phenomenological relationship between viewer and image. But with her film, Walinga has in effect brought a personal touch back to these otherwise impersonal images — the mediating hand of the artist. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.