Teodosia Dobriyanova talks to Alex Barrett about his documentary London Symphony, his love of 1920s cinematic experimentation, and whether film still retains the power it once did.
When the “city symphony” film first came into being—films that sought to showcase the magnetism of a modernist, industrial city—cinema itself was a new modernist victory. It seems natural that the machinery of a camera would be used to showcase the machinery of society, two human achievements working in tandem, ready for a post-war utopia.
One of the great advantages of the new moving image was seeing places that people never had. Working-class people, who spent their entire lives in the vicinity of a British city or town, could now see the everyday workings of the Soviet Union in a film like Man With A Movie Camera (1929), or ponder the beauty of Paris in Nothing But The Hours (1926). As cinema continued its aesthetic and formalist experiments, it soon became more interested in novelistic and codified narrative over the avant-garde; invested in psychologies of individuals and their desires, and less concerned with the external world of place. As Hollywood tightened its grip, the symphony film all but went mute.
But as the world struggles into the post-modern, post-industrial era and cinema goes into the cloud, is there a role once again for the city symphony? This is a question we sought to ask Alex Barrett, director of London Symphony, a brand new city symphony feature about the British capital, shot in an anachronistic manner that we associate with the silent-era pioneers. We organised to meet the effusive and personable Alex in the heart of the city in question at BFI Southbank, where we talked at length about his latest project, his inspirations, and the value of cinema itself.
electric ghost: What do our readers need to know about London Symphony before they see it?
Alex Barrett: London Symphony is a modern-day city symphony and the city symphony was a genre that ran in the 1920s, predominantly, and they were creative documentaries that sought to find the spirit of the city, to try to capture its essence. They were also made by filmmakers that had a background in the avant-garde, or experimental film, and so the actual form of the documentaries was innovative and exciting to watch. They were also sort of time capsules of life in that era, so what we wanted to do with London Symphony was try and make a film about contemporary London in a similar style to the filmmakers of the 1920s.
We looked at the city symphony almost as a genre, in the same way we would look at a horror or romance, and we looked at the sort of generic codes of the city symphony, and tried to update it a little bit to the 21st century, but really what we were trying to do was look at life today through the lens of the past. In the same way that historians would look at the past to explain life today, we thought it would be interesting to make a film in an old-style, but about contemporary life, and to look at the way life has changed since the 1920s, as well as explore modern life in a slightly different way.
You have the stylistics of the 1920’s, which evoke those times, but you place them in a contemporary context, which seems to sharpen the contrast between the two eras, to emphasise on the space between them. What do you think has changed in the meantime?
One of the things I find interesting about making a film in that style, is that it does raise the question of what has changed. When you look at those films, they are very much portraits of their time, but if you watch a lot of city symphonies made in the 1920’s in a row, they will all have similar aspects. And that was actually something we were interested in as well: looking at what makes London unique, but also what makes it universal, a part of the world rather than a big isolated country.
One of the themes of London Symphony was modernism and the way the city has evolved and changed into the modern metropolis that has sprung up around the historic centre. I think that a lot of the films in the 1920s were also about modernism, but then modernism was about industrialisation, it was about factory work and metal. You always see these great scenes about steelworks. Whereas for us now, we are no longer in the industrial age— e are in the digital age. So when you look at our film, you have people sitting in an office on their computer. That was one of the things we were interested in looking at: how does the digital era affect life? And you see it. We have scenes in museums where people are walking around with their smartphones, taking photos, which is sometimes, I think, to the detriment, because they are not necessarily looking and engaging with what’s before them in a proper way, they are more concerned with taking a picture and walking off. So, I think when you watch London Symphony, there are all these elements pointing towards a digital era rather than the mechanical and industrial era of the 1920s.
You mentioned the scenes in the museums, which made me think of something. There is a degree of self-reflexivity in the film—a fascination with moving images themselves. There’s a small segment on Eadweard Muybridge, you go to the Cinema Museum in Elephant & Castle, and I noticed at the Tate Modern segment people are attending Russian Revolutionary art exhibitions. Do you still see moving images having the same revolutionary potential as they were seen to have at the turn of the 20th Century?
I think that is a very interesting question. I don’t know if film can be as radical these days, because now we are so oversaturated by image. When those films were made, there was no television, no internet, it was only the big screen. You know the famous story about the first screening of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat  when the spectators thought the train was going towards them and everyone started fleeing the cinema. The way we perceive images today is very different and I think it’s harder for a film today to have the same revolutionary impact that it would’ve had in those days. In terms of what we were doing with London Symphony, we were trying to avoid, as much as we can, making as much commentary and being as politically revolutionary as, say, the films of Eisenstein.
So would you say that you were pursuing a more observational approach?
I think there is an interesting debate around the differences between The Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). People said that Vertov was very political and his film was a revolutionary political text. Whereas with Symphony of a Great City people have argued that Walter Ruttmann was more interested in the aesthetic form of the film and playing with the medium, rather than being engaged with politics. I would say that our film was more like Berlin. We were interested in the aesthetics of the film. Yes, you could say in observing life, but I think that if people pay attention to the film, they will also see political commentary in there. One of my cinematographers said to me quite early on that if we didn’t choose our politics, it would be chosen for us. And this spurred me on to inject certain political commentaries into the film, but I think that what we have done is there for the spectators to perceive and I hope the film is not too didactic in the way you could argue that Vertov was. Politics was his main agenda, shall we say, while it was never ours.
“I think this film is a celebration of the city and, of course, a celebration of its diversity, but we also didn’t want to shy away from some of the negative aspects of the city.”
Of course, it’s hard for a film not to be political. Especially a film about a city as multicultural and diverse as London. So I guess, even if you only juxtapose images from different areas in the city, it becomes impossible not to create a certain commentary as well. I did account moments of inequality between the population of the city in London Symphony, but never for a moment felt that the film is trying to impose emotions on me.
Yes, I think we were mainly trying to respond to what is around us, so I think at moments there were certain inequalities and aspects of the city that are there. You can’t disguise them, and we didn’t want to disguise them. I think this film is a celebration of the city and, of course, a celebration of its diversity, but we also didn’t want to shy away from some of the negative aspects of the city. Negative is a strong word, but there is, for example, great financial inequality in the city and we do touch on that in the film — we show homeless people and opulent houses. That divide is there in the city, so it’s there in the film. Not including that in the film, I think, would be a miss, it would be irresponsible not to include that. So, as you say, the political points start just by nature of observing the city. I think what we do with the political commentary, if you want, is to present it in a way that the audience would have their own emotions about it, rather than forcing onto them viewpoints.
I also wanted to speak to you about the editing of the film, as it is definitely central in London Symphony. While one can definitely trace a logical periphery-center movement, a lot of the shots seemed to be constructed on the principle of intellectual editing. Is this something you consciously considered during the production process?
Yes, very much so. Out of interest, when you said intellectual editing, did you mean Eisenstein?
Okay, I will try to answer this in a systematic way. Eisenstein’s five different types of montage were very much on my mind. I think we probably used only three of them in the film, but that was very much the theoretical underpinning that we were trying to do. I was thinking about Eisenstein throughout the whole editing process, but I was also thinking about Pudovkin and his idea of how a film image is a dead piece of image until it’s put together. Obviously Vertov is a major influence here and some of his idea are in parallel with my own ideas of non-narrative cinema, and of what I consider a type of pure cinema, so we were very much influenced by the Soviet montage theorists, and everything that was happening in Russian cinema at the time was very much the theoretical underpinning of what I was doing.
“You know, when I look at something, I always think ‘How can I photograph that? How can I film that?’, or you have a conversation with somebody and you think ‘Is this good enough to go into a film one day?’And I think I have always looked at the world quite cinematically.”
In terms of the overall structure of the film, when we were still at the script stage, the composer wrote a structure for the music which broke the film down to the four movements, but also broke down each movement into subparts. It it told us, basically to the second, how long each movement in a subpart will last. It also told us the mood, the tone, and the temper of each movement, and that dictated everything. So a lot of the editing, as well as almost everything else, was coming back to what James was doing with the music. Actually, I was editing, for the most part, before the music was written, so I was basically editing off the structure he had written rather than off the music itself. But we are doing something else in the editing, something I kind of came up with, which I call continuity and discontinuity.
You know, classical film editing is based on rules of continuity—cutting on motion and all these kinds of ideas. I was applying some of those traditional continuity rules, but to footage that had nothing to do with each other, that was shot months apart. Someone stands up; instead of cutting to a shot of that person standing up, you cut to, for example, a pigeon doing a similar movement or something. So there was this idea of continuous movement in different places and there was also a kind of geometrical matching. If someone was walking in one shot from left to right and then in the next shot he was walking away from the camera, I would cut the point on which the overlap geometrically on the screen. Which, again, gives a certain continuity of the movement between the images, and also, as you have probably noticed, there are a lot of shots in the film have strong diagonals. And so, if you have a tilt from left to right, in the next shot you will have right to left, so there is a kind of clash. Going back to some of the Soviet ideas about images juxtaposing and clashing into each other to create a joke for the viewer.
My next question is related to editing again. I definitely saw your film not only as a love letter to London but also as a cinephile’s exploration of both the genre and the subject. Going back to the Muybridge segment, I was fascinated by the way you saw a film reference embedded in architecture. Would you say that your cinephilia mindset influences your perceptions of the spaces you visit?
I think I’ll break that down into two answers. First, about that specific sequence you are talking about: I’m from Kingston and so is Muybridge. In Kingston, those who know who he is are very proud of his heritage. So those figures in the building you are talking about are actually the same models from this same series of still images, only we animated them in the film. And because, essentially, it is an image of a naked woman, that building has been quite controversial. I wanted to do something that would celebrate his heritage, because in a way I feel like I come from the birthplace of the motion picture. Of course, this is a controversial view and a lot of people that come from the same place as another cinematic pioneer would claim the same, but I really wanted to pay tribute to Muybridge. Also, the whole film is indebted to silent cinema and so it felt very relevant to include this kind of reference.
Going on to the other part of your question, I am a filmmaker and I suppose also a photographer, as well a a writer, and it’s very hard to disengage the other aspects of my life from that. You know, when I look at something, I always think “How can I photograph that? How can I film that?”, or you have a conversation with somebody and you think “Is this good enough to go into a film one day?” And I think I have always looked at the world quite cinematically; for better or for worse, this is who I am. So I think that the type of work that I do takes of your life, and it is a lot about personality and passion. I mean, no one gets rich from making this kind of film, you don’t make a symphony for money, you do it for other reasons.
Apropos, to what extent can you plan shooting a film like this? Is it merely a case of you going out with a camera and recording what captures your interest at any given time? Or did you have specific locations that you wanted to capture?
It’s a mixture, I suppose. Rahim, who is our writer, and I, planned the themes. And then Rahim wrote a script around them, which was quite specific in terms of the images. For example: “We see an empty fish and chips pack floating along the street.” But I never quite wanted to take these scripted images and put them into the film because I thought it was slightly too written and I wanted to respond more to the environment that was around us. It’s not like we completely ignored his images, but I took his script, which we had developed together based on the themes that we discussed, and made a location list of the places we need to shoot based on the script, and then we expanded the list, so we ended up with a list over 400 locations.
At the same time, I was encouraging my cinematographers not to go on a shoot with a fixed idea of what an image would look like. In doing that, we moved away from the specific idea of what we wanted, and at the same time we were going out with specific ideas of locations and buildings we wanted to shoot. So what we did was that we were would go out with maps with the locations marked on them. Then we would take the tube to one of the locations and then walk to the other instead of using other ways of transportation. So in walking between locations, we would come across new things. So the whole film is probably 60-75 percent what we planned, and then the rest is things we have come across in the process, but we did have a plan. When Vertov shot Man With a Movie Camera, for example, he just went and shot what he saw on the street, and then his wife edited the footage together. We were a lot more organised than that, it wasn’t one of those completely improvised film, and yet I removed some of Rahim’s script because I wanted to add spontaneity to the film.
I do understand the need for spontaneity, especially in a film that is about loving a city. After all, this is how you fall in love with a place—by discovering things as you roam around.
Yes, definitely. Also there are a lot of things that you just can’t plan for. Like that shot with the whole flock of seagulls, this is not something that you plan for. That was why I did not have too much of a preconceived idea about the locations. When we filmed that Hindu event, we had no idea what was going to happen. We turned up and saw a large group of people sitting respectfully, so we thought “Okay, this is nice.” And then suddenly they pull out this curtain and everybody starts to dance. So it was a lot about being alive for the moment and I was always encouraging my cinematographers to look for animals, or light, anything. I really like the shot with the orthodox church where suddenly the sun comes out. Those are the type of things that you simply can’t plan for. You can certainly wish for them, but you just can’t plan them. For sure, the film is a personal experience of London, but I did not want to plan everything. I wanted it to be slightly more organic.
“Normally I’m interested in characters and their psychology, but London Symphony is not about that. I guess you can argue that the city is the character, but it’s not a character piece in a conventional sense.”
Of course. You’re also a writer with a background in film theory. Do you let this aspect of your personality influence your work when it comes to your own filmmaking?
Yes, I think so. I also do a lot of script writing, but in terms of critical writing, yes very much. I think my first feature was too theoretical, I was too obsessed with the idea that every shot had to mean something, and there was so much meaning in every aspect of the film, but I think this crushed it because what happens is that most people sit down to watch the film and they don’t care about this, they just want to see the film and be entertained. It was the opposite of London Symphony, the film was very much planned and storyboarded, very thought through from a theoretical perspective. But it was so thought through that I guess I wanted to let go of this in London Symphony and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to be more responsive to what was around us. But that doesn’t mean there is no theory behind London Symphony. Only that most of its theory comes in the editing.
There is an aspect of filming on the streets of London that I want to ask you about. I know that different hamlets have their own laws when it comes to filming and I was wondering if it was hard for you and your team to get permits? I guess you definitely needed a permission to shoot scenes such as the one in the mosque, but were there moments when you went guerilla style?
There was a little bit of a mixture. For the most part, we were doing street photography where you don’t really need a permit. Officially, you need a permit for a tripod, but not for hand-held. This is kind of where shooting digital and with a light-weight equipment blurs the distinction a little bit. But obviously, as soon as you’re inside a building, you need permission. So when it comes to the mosque, the people were amazing to us. When it comes to religious institution, you need to ask months in advance, and there was a lot of back and forth, and there were a lot of clauses. You can get anywhere around the building, but you can’t film anywhere, for example. There was always a negotiation, but I think because the kind of project that it was, and because we wanted to do something that was celebrating the community and the diversity, most places were very welcoming and supportive of what we were doing. A lot of them waived their fees or gave us big reductions. After all, we were an incredibly small crew, with incredibly low budget, so we had to shoot everything quickly. We did the war museum in an hour, we did all of the Tate modern scenes within an hour, because that was all we could afford when people were charging for it. I don’t want to make it sound too easy, because it wasn’t always, but a lot of the places were very welcoming and I think the biggest difficulty was that we had over 300 locations to shoot. We did have a couple of places that wouldn’t let us in at all, but generally speaking everything was going smooth.
With the upcoming premiere of London Symphony, you are probably more concentrated on the present, but I am curious to hear about any future projects. I know you are currently working on a Bulgarian co-production and I would very much love to hear about it.
Oh yes, I work with a director who is quite established in Bulgaria as a documentary filmmaker: Andrey Paounov. It’s a really great project based on a play. We kind of describe it was Waiting for Godot meets The Shining. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about it, I guess to an extent it’s okay because it’s based on a play. It’s about a bunch of men being trapped in an old Socialist hotel, about this existential fear of our desire, but it has also morphed into a commentary about socialist and post-socialist Bulgaria. It’s a really great project, I had a lot of fun writing it, but my role is officially finished now and I we’ve written the script in English and the director will be translating it to Bulgarian. They will continue their work from there.
Interesting. It’s true that Paounov is known as a documentarian, but you also make fictional films. Yet, London Symphony is doubtlessly a documentary in a way. Is there a filmmaking genre you feel more strongly drawn to?
I am a fan of cinema and I love a lot of different kinds of cinema. Basically, everything interests me. Normally I’m interested in characters and their psychology, but London Symphony is not about that. I guess you can argue that the city is the character, but it’s not a character piece in a conventional sense. But as well as the Bulgarian film, I am also working on a kind of a psychological horror based on a silent film. I think I just want to keep doing things that interest me, but I don’t feel that I want to be a genre director. I really admire Steven Soderbergh, for example. To me, he is a great experimental director, and not experimental in the same way as Michael Snow, for example, but he is innovative in the sense that each film he makes is constantly pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing and he’s constantly fluctuating between small movies and more commercial projects. And I would love to do something commercial, so I can, combined with doing something I love, do something with which I can actually advance my life and my bank account a little bit. I think he’s had a very interesting career and I think that is what I look to as inspiration in terms of how I would like to move my career.
Is genre something that follows as a consequence of the themes you work with, then?
I used to say, when I was younger and more naive, that I was interested in thought-provoking cinema and I used to say that I make cinema spaced around ideas. I’m not sure if I would necessarily use those words anymore, but that is still what I want to do. You know, I was joking when I said that I would do something commercial, but I don’t think that I would do something that is just pure story or pure entertainment, because I wouldn’t make something I personally wouldn’t like to watch. I think that cinema as an art form should be more than simplistic entertainment, it should be challenging or thought-provoking in some way. So I think the ideas I had are still kind of true, only my work is now more character-based, probably, although London Symphony is more estranged from that, probably.
“I do think that the 1920s was probably the best moment for cinema; it was a great moment of creativity and experimentation.”
It also connects well with your writing for BFI. I saw that you are one of the people producing the “Where to begin with…” articles that BFI releases in order to introduce a given director to the readers. You mentioning Steven Soderbergh reminded me of this, as I read the article on him a few days ago. I usually ask the artists I interview to recommend our readers something to watch or potentially discover. So what would you recommend our readers to watch this week?
Interesting. I will always go back to one of my favourite directors – Carl Theodor Dreyer, and recommend The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is the greatest film of all time, and it’s always worth going back to it. There is cinema, good cinema, and then there’s Dreyer. He is a level above anybody else who has ever worked in the medium. He is a great example of someone who was really experimental, — Joan of Arc is a very avant-garde piece of work — but it is centred around a really emotional heart, and one of the greatest performances in cinema, so it kind of gets away with it. If it look at it from the perspective of conventional film grammar, it is breaking so many rules, and yet because of that anchored performance most people don’t realise that it is breaking these rules. It’s such a phenomenal piece of work.
There was a phase when they were showing the film a lot around London, so I decided I will never miss a screening. And they would show it with a different score every time. It is interesting to see it screened with different scores. London Symphony is so tied up to what James has done, and I don’t know if it will work, but I hope that in the future it will inspire composers and potentially have different scores, I think that would be interesting, because, in a nice way, every silent film has been given a new meaning everyday when there’s been a different score attached to it. You know, we were talking a bit earlier and I was thinking, silent cinema is in a way for me a slightly different medium to sound cinema. And it is interesting to see the resurgence that it is having, and how people are re-exploring it. Joan of Arc is a very good example for this, because it has so many different scores, and plays so differently with each score, while Dreyer wanted it to be silent.
I have been noticing something about you. You speak a lot of the silent cinema era, and it seems to be that the aesthetics you are interested in borrow a lot from that specific era, is this something you consciously pursue?
Well, there are two jokes about me that you should know. One is something I say—that my favourite directors are either dead or retired. Which is partly true. And then I was once accused of not having watched anything made after 1934. I do certainly feel slightly less interested in contemporary cinema than I do in old cinema. On the other hand, one of my favourite directors is Béla Tarr. He is retired now, but he is a contemporary director, and Scorsese is one of my favourite directors as well, and so are Linklater and Soderbergh. But yes.
My first film, for example, was very influenced by Dreyer, as well as silent cinema, but other influences were also Linklater and Bergman, as well as Robert Bresson. For a while, Linklater was one of my biggest influences, the type of career he was making was where I could see myself going, and my film was trying to mix what Linklater was doing with what Bergman had done. So it’s not like I don’t like anything out of the silent era, but I do think that the 1920s was probably the best moment for cinema; it was a great moment of creativity and experimentation. If you look at a lot of film consecutively, it was just a masterpiece after a masterpiece, not that it didn’t happen since, there were some great moments in film history, but I don’t know, I do think there’s something there. And, you know, film is ultimately a visual medium, but it was also a sound medium, so this is something me and Andrey were talking about while working on the Bulgarian project. He was often saying “Okay, how do we make that into a more visual cinema”, and I would think “Well, you don’t necessarily have to, cinema is also a sound medium” and you can do a lot of great things with sound design. Ultimately, it is a visual medium and that was what the silent filmmakers were really good at, because they didn’t have much more.
You know, all the directors you mentioned just now are more or less interested in Slow Cinema, and the idea of time. And thinking about these filmmakers as your influences, and then thinking about London Symphony, I find differences, of course, but I am more interested in the fact that I can see something that makes them very similar. LondonSymphony, of course, is a very dynamic film, by the nature of its editing, but it does demand the same kind of acceptance and will for observation, as slow cinema does perhaps.
Yes, it is kind of interesting how quickly London Symphony cuts, because my first feature Life Just Is (2012) was slowed down in the edit. I was aiming for a piece of slow cinema, which is one of the reasons why the film struggled with the audiences because it is essentially a story about a bunch of graduates—something that could potentially be a kind of a commercial comedy, but it was essentially a piece of slow cinema. And a film I had on my mind while making Life Just Is, was actually In The City of Sylvia (2007), which is a prime example of slow cinema, and I was very interested in the concept of dead time in cinema.
But, as I said, it was a very highly theorised film, whereas London Symphony is very quick, but I think that’s partly because… well, there is a great quote by Dreyer again, who talks about the difference between sound cinema and silent cinema. He uses the example of someone being tied up by the train tracks with the train coming towards them. And he is saying how in silent cinema you show the train tracks and then you cut to the train, and you have to build a rhythm, wherein sound cinema you hold on the tied person and you show the sound of a train approaching. And I think that silent films that tend to be a bit slower sometimes don’t work. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, for example, is a director I really love, but the silent section of Three Times (2005) does not work very well and I think partly it is for those reasons Dryer was talking about, but then in The City of Sadness (1989), which is also an unconventional film, but it has a soundtrack and uses both voice-over and intertitles, and it has an interesting narrative and engagement with its viewer.
You can read our review of Alex Barrett’s London Symphony here.