The chances that you are reading this in a building are very high. Perhaps it’s your flat, your office, a train station - maybe a restaurant, café or even a public toilet? Although many of us spend the vast majority of our lives within the confines of concrete, I would bet that most of us don’t give a second thought to the stories of these buildings. David Stock’s short documentary Memories of Ladywell Baths brings bricks to life with its collected memories of Ladywell.
The film follows the chronological journey of Ladywell from a Victorian bathhouse to a modern day play centre. What comes through most strongly in this short is the profound connection between place and memory, both personal and communal. The building is not only entwined with the lives of the individuals who lived there, but it becomes ever more clear that it is woven into the identity of Lewisham as a whole.
The natural and genuine style of the interviews enhances the sense of organic, oral history that makes this documentary so touching. No matter how they may have been orchestrated, they appear unstaged, spontaneous and genuine. In contrast to famous documentary makers such as Louis Theroux, Stock makes himself practically invisible; it almost seems as though the interviewees just happen to find themselves in front of the camera. This is a good thing, as the intimacy of this style allows the viewer to connect with the past in a way that is much harder to achieve with facts and dates.
Eschewing the traditional documentary voice over, the film is instead made up of a patchwork of people talking about their experiences in the building. While some may find this collage structure a little loose, it is arguably one of the main strengths of Stock’s short, because some single, disembodied narrator doesn’t coordinate the myriad experiences of day-to-day life. To represent the diverse stories of the building under one overarching narrative would risk homogenising the eclectic histories contained under one roof. This would detract from the message of the film: that just one single building enfolds an unimaginable number of stories, experiences and memories. The sense of wonder this instils in otherwise unremarkable street views encourages the viewer to pause, to look and to appreciate underrated urban landscapes.
The ending image of Butch Attai’s graffiti bathhouse encapsulates the bond between past and present that is contained in the building, and emphasises the more profound understanding of our past, our place and ourselves that we achieve when take a deeper look at our surroundings.
The Cost of Living is another non-fictional film about personal and collective history, although Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran’s short could not be more different from Memories of Ladywell Baths. In contrast to the natural, organic sense in Stock’s documentary, this film is purposefully and explicitly concerned not only with Cochran’s personal history, but also with the medium of photographs, writing and film as a way of organising, telling and, perhaps, preserving one’s life.
The experimental short film could be seen as a scrapbook of Cochran’s life, following him from his teen years in the sixties to the present day. However, rather than centring on Cochran, the viewer spends most of the film looking out at the world through his lens – people watching in cafés, the threat of nuclear war and a used condom are collated by his gaze and commentary. Stock film of Jimi Hendrix, advertisements, songs and radio clips are interleaved with personal photos and poems. This produces a mesh of sounds and images that do not necessarily coincide, but form a disordered and imperfect representation of memory, which of course in itself is disordered and imperfect.
What is most striking about this semi-biopic short is its intermediality - the cohabitation of photographs, poetry and film. The film begins with an explanation of how it evolved from polaroids to notes to poems and, finally, into film. There is an emphasis on the physicality of the art: square plastic photos, notebooks, sheaves of white paper and chunky cameras remind us that this is not a direct, pure representation of life but a mediated representation made of humans, materials and machines.
Although this style will certainly not please everybody, Falkenberg and Cochran make it work by drawing so much attention to the artistic process. This is not so much a film about one person but a film about film. The combined autobiographical and self-consciously constructed form highlights the relationship between art and life by emphasising how we use paper, pens, computers and cameras to create a version of ourselves. It is for this that The Cost of Living deserves its recognition.
'Memories of Ladywell Baths' and 'The Cost of Living' were film submissions in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.