11 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Katherine Waugh discusses I See a Darkness
07 Nov 2023 : Luke Shanahan
I See a Darkness
We sat down with Katherine Waugh to discuss I See a Darkness, the latest film from co-directors Waugh and Fergus Daly. The film essay will screen at Cork International Film Festival later this month.

Katherine Waugh is a trans-disciplinary artist whose works covers filmmaking, writing, and curation. Her most recent film, I See a Darkness, had an accompanying exhibition at Photo Museum Ireland in November 2022. The film essay, which was co-directed by Fergus Daly, is set to screen at Cork International Film Festival on November 17th.

Waugh and Daly describe I See a Darkness as “a political and philosophical manifesto for seeing differently”. The film essay uses rarely-seen archival nuclear test footage alongside more poetic images, to question cinema’s relationship with the material and animal worlds. The chrono-photographic experiments of Irish-born Lucien Bull play a central role in the film’s exploration of how images, cinema, and atomic science connect.

We caught up with Katherine Waugh to discuss how she and Daly first became interested in the Venn diagram of this film’s themes, how the figures at the centre of the film (such as oceanographer-filmmaker Jacques Costeau) represent various ways of seeing the world, and the emotional and intellectual effect they hope to have on audiences.

IFTN: When did you first become interested in exploring the relationship between photography, cinema, and atomic science?

KATHERINE: “With the kind of films both I and my co-director Fergus are interested in making (in this instance one of our film essays), the subject matter emerges in a very different way to conventional documentaries, whether investigative or more lyrical.”

“We are both fascinated by thinking as a process across different forms and disciplines, so for us ideas evolve, ferment and emerge, as much from literature and philosophy and music as from film itself.  We also tend to be drawn towards what can be called shadow archives in culture, overlooked or neglected subjects and connections that might not seem obvious.” 

“I’ve always liked that quote from Nietzsche, ‘We hear only those questions for which we are capable of finding an answer’, which suggests that to really think critically we must create new modes of questioning rather than seek easy answers, that fostering new problematics is what thinking in film (as in any art) should promote.”

“In this sense, the way different subjects come together in I See a Darkness became a kind of organic process whereby certain ideas, concepts, histories, and political and philosophical concerns, formed their own Venn diagram and impetus, finding expression in the final film in the form of creating new questions.”

“I had, as far back as 15 years ago, thought of curating an exhibition in London inspired by this beautiful book that I loved, Atomic Light: Shadow Optics by Akira Mizuta Lippit, with a focus on the concept of darkness and shadows in cinema linked with the atomic. Then I began to feel that weaving this book and Akira himself into a film which created a constellation with other thinkers I admired, who are at the forefront of contemporary thought on technology and cinema, such as Jimena Canales and Jonathan Crary, and folding their ideas back onto the figure of Lucien Bull and his chrono-photographic innovations, might make for an interesting film.”

“So, it was more the case that the subjects made themselves interesting to me than my forcing connections between them. The inclusion of a lot of thinking about the animal and nature, in relation to the history of cinema and the atomic, became much stronger during covid lockdowns, as we lived in an isolated cottage on a mountain, in the company of many very impressive goats, sheep and horses, but also birds, insects and plant life, and we both share a deep love of animals and nature. Added to that, I re-read Akira’s book Electric Animal in which he yet again philosophises so eloquently about the relationship between the animal and cinema, and this exquisite book The Animal Side by Jean Christophe Bailly. Bailly’s book The Instant and its Shadow about early photography also shaped our thinking. Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 and Scorched Earth in other more explicitly political ways became important touchstones.”

“Spending time with Crary in New York recording him for the film was such a privilege, so all of these texts and that strange covid-based existential state, sharing time and space with animals, shifted the axis of our film towards a more elegiac register about what was lost in the way cinema as we know it evolved.”
IFTN: The film is centred around the work of photographer Lucien Bull, scientist Harold E. Edgerton, and oceanographer-filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Can you tell us why you choose these figures to explore the main themes of the film?

KATHERINE: “I’m not particularly interested in overly biographical films which use what I consider to be an inadequate psychological mode of thought to create an aura of genius or innovation around the subjectivities of certain figures (seductive as that may be). For me these three iconic figures were more conduits for very complex forces at work politically and culturally around how we perceive the world around us through carefully constructed regimes of the visible.”

“The work that Dublin born Lucien Bull was involved with on high-speed photography was indeed groundbreaking, but he was situated in a highly specific moment in time and space in Paris where institutions such as the Institute for Scientific Cinematography and the Marey Institute were re-configuring what it was to see photographically. Lucien Bull in this sense represents a cultural moment rather than just an individual.”

“Likewise, Harold G Edgerton was translating engineering into a discipline which found a new companion in cinematography and was being pulled into very problematic experiments within the new field of atomic science and nuclear testing. Edgerton drew on the work of Bull to invent high speed cameras for the US Atomic Commission to film nuclear tests in Nevada and the Bikini Islands, but was also involved in inventing triggers for nuclear bombs.”

“What I found compelling and disturbing in ways, was discovering, during an extended period of research for this film, that Bull, Edgerton and Jacques Cousteau met each other frequently. Bull was courted by Edgerton and spent time in the US with him. Bull was also a good friend of Jacques Cousteau’s father (a fascinating man in his own right). Edgerton spent a lot of time on exploratory as well as informal adventures on Cousteau’s boat the Calypso and invited Cousteau (an ex-military man) to do research on underwater cameras at MIT where Edgerton was based.”

“But outside of all these personal mappings and intersections, it was really that these three iconic figures could be said to represent three distinct new visual modes of interpreting the world around us: Bull helped shape how we imagine the universe as his work influenced the Hubble Telescope, Edgerton with his atomic cameras shaped how we see the micro-atomic world, and Cousteau opened up a whole new world of the deep seas to us.”

“I grew up watching Cousteau’s Undersea World series and like many of my generation (pre-Attenborough’s Living Planet), was entranced by it (also by stories about him sailing into Baltimore near where I grew up in west Cork), so his re-appraisal more recently in terms of the cruelty used in much of his filming was disturbing.”

“The three men can essentially be seen as pivotal points revealing important cultural forces at work in the 20th century.”
IFTN: What do you hope audiences will take away from I See A Darkness?

KATHERINE: “Both Fergus and I have described our film as a ‘manifesto for seeing differently’. 
In making films we aim to try to stimulate new ways of thinking, drawing on writers and thinkers we admire deeply, but also drawing on decades of an ardent cinephilia which we share.  
We care about what images do in the world, their affective and political force.”

“We concur with Jonathan Crary in his brilliant analysis and warnings about digital culture and capitalism, and see the importance of what Trevor Paglen said about the legacy of filmmakers of integrity and political commitment such as Harun Farocki: ‘It is imperative for other artists to pick up where Farocki left off, lest we plunge even further into the darkness of a world whose images remain invisible, yet control us in ever-more profound ways’.”

“The work of research group Forensic Architecture is also admirable and important. We include an excerpt from the work of Susan Schuppli at the end of our film.”

“With this film of ours, we would like audiences to be challenged intellectually, made feel the importance of resisting the control of images by the military/industrial/entertainment complex, but also moved aesthetically and affectively. Hopefully (on a more personal note), viewers will emerge from the film feeling an intense tenderness towards the world of animals, excluded and abused so brutally in the name of scientific ‘progress’.”

“So, perhaps, the hope is that audiences will feel disturbed, moved, stimulated and even confused in a good way. Oh, and I’d like them to feel haunted for life by the coyote we filmed in Death Valley.”

IFTN: Are you working on any upcoming projects at the moment?

KATHERINE: “I have dozens of potential film projects lingering in folders on my laptop, and many more in notebooks and floating around in my head, but the issue (as always) is persuading funding organisations to trust you, and believe that after a few film essays that have screened internationally and having pulled in some of the leading thinkers of our time, that it might be obvious that we know what we are doing, and need time and resources to develop intensively-researched films. Often such films are based on many years of reading and thinking about subjects, and conferring with other like-minds in film and art.”

“I find that perceptions of what is considered ‘experimental’ in film can often be naïve and fall back on overly-used tropes that just nod to repetitions of various age-old formal ‘tricks’ to just look ‘experimental’, but the ideas and affects end up being quite conventional and just more eye-fodder. Experimenting with ideas and questioning culture on a deeper level can be harder to garner support for.”

“Films such as the ones we want to make will never have flashy hooks or ready-made seductive pitches, but are difficult, even awkward creations, that require effort on the part of the viewer, as they aren’t made to ‘entertain’. If I had regular funding I think I’d make a film a year, or certainly every two years, but they would have fermented over many years.”

“I have two films I have been mapping out which I’d like to see progress more quickly if I get funding to allow me to engage in more research for them, and do pre-production in a more focused way. But Fergus and I always try to build up a body of images we film over time, and archival materials we collect, ready for activating and shaping into new films.”

I See a Darkness will screen as part of Cork International Film Festival on Friday, November 17th.

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