Global states of uncertainty

Tanya Bhavani on isolation-themed offerings from the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Festival.

The annual Scottish Mental Health and Arts festival (SMAF) 2020, led by the Mental Health Foundation, announced a special programme of online art for audiences in a time of uncertainty. There were opportunities for creative discussion and expression in the form of film screenings, live-streamed events and five new artistic commissions responding to the theme ‘my experience of isolation’.

SMAF’s online film programme opened with two experimental shorts; first, ‘Solastalgia’, a lyrical film exploring one woman’s obstructive confrontation with eco-anxiety, featuring poet Tanya Davis, directed by SMAF 2019 award-winner Millefiore Clarkes.

‘Solastalgia’ follows Ava, a mother of two children, steering her way through the humdrum of life, seemingly comfortable on the exterior. The sounds of the radio reporting climate crises force their way into Ava’s thoughts, leaving no doubt as to what the reality of the world is right now. Newspaper front pages display images of forest fires and breaking news articles are all that we can read about on our smartphones. Ava’s anxiety over the future of our planet match our current anxieties, but they’re quickly draped over with other, more ordinary radio announcements, the dishes in the sink that need to be washed, beaming children too young to understand, and the same-old trips to the supermarket. A laboured normality.

Although ‘Solastalgia’ is about the global climate emergency, its broader philosophy explores themes all too familiar with the current pandemic we find ourselves in. Both are global states of uncertainty. Our rapid adjustment to new ways of working, whether that is at home, a temporary home away from home, or exactly where we always were (with a dash of overwhelming fear of contracting a deadly virus) – we’re finding a way to exist in swift change. Some of us are only just realising the fragility of our lives, an angst that burns in the back of our minds whilst we, nonchalantly, join the next Zoom call. In the same way, Ava is searching for and upholding normality, but acknowledging the fear of what lies ahead.

The second film, ‘Knock, Knock, Knock’ inspired and directed by Arom Choi, is a dialogue-free drama about the psychological effects of isolation through the lens of Hana, a young woman confined to a Goshiwon room, a type of Korean housing; small and box-like.

‘Knock, Knock, Knock’ utilises the power of sound; a slow buzz, becoming increasingly intense. Hana is not only surrounded by her belongings, too many with no real place, but her own sighs and her own breath. It is a film that resonates with the combat we all have with our internal selves, especially in a time of isolation. The neighbour’s television, harmless echoes, thuds and coughs bleeding through the thin walls may, for a moment, dissuade Hana from feeling alone. Her ability to move, dance and imagine may take this even further. But this euphoria is short-lived; the sounds and actions that have the power to bring peace can also turn and feel destructive, inducing anxiety and panic. The film reminds us that hearing, or even imagining and seeing life go on, isn’t a remedy for the deeply conflicting feelings we are facing during this pandemic.

Both films illustrate the consuming weight of psychological burden, but also the ultimate strength, spirit and resilience we all have when facing each day, knowing things could dramatically change, or better or for worse.

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- Tanya Bhavani is postgraduate student at UCL. Twitter: @tanyabhayani

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