Swimming is among the most striking short Australian films of the 1990s. In 16mm, it is comprised mainly of small scenes of domestic life shot on video, as if by one of the characters in the fiction. (It thus predates, by a considerable stretch, the mockumentary/found footage craze in the horror-thriller genre.) These scenes are assembled in a deliberately fragmented, elliptical way, punctuated by violent, glitch edits and finally coming to seem like the ambiguous testament or audiovisual document assembled by a young girl who has uncovered a terrible truth about her own family. The only interruption to the video imagery is provided by something else which is not, in the first place, 16mm footage – Super 8 shots mocked up as the home movie format of an earlier historical moment.
The film is only eleven minutes long. By conventional narrative standards, it is not all that easy to follow. It is built up through inference, “a web of visual cues” (1) and clues, slowly accumulating its sense through a kind of indirect narration. Things are not as laboriously spelt out for the spectator as in so many Australian film narratives (short or long), but rather suggested in a pointillistic way. The title refers not only to a mysterious death, but also the swimming or drifting of sense in the film itself – quietly offering a meaning which seems to circle the film or hover just above it, a meaning which might evaporate if one froze the projector and interrogated the work for specifics at any given frame. Chayko remarks, tellingly: “It’s a film about feeling, not about knowing”. (2)
There is another sense in which this film swims: in its very ambiguity as a material, so-called filmic object. Given the nature of its images, we might say Swimming is clearly not a video – but can we say, with the same old certainty, that it is still a film? The reason Chayko uses video to generate its material is, in the first place, not especially mysterious. In the line of those important mainstream films that have incorporated extensive use of video for key sequences – such as The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983), Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987) and Shocker (Wes Craven, 1990) – Swimming grounds its video images in a diegetic motivation: they belong to the fiction. Yet it takes the disturbance of video’s eruption into the heart of a film – so palpable an unease in Scorsese’s masterpiece – a little further still, by creating a film which is almost all video, completely invaded as it were by this other medium, somewhat brutal and artless even in comparison to the inadvertent poetry of old Super 8 footage (which carries a poignant, expressive effect here, as in many a Paul Cox feature).
But is it really a matter any more, in the 1990s, of one medium threatening, invading, incorporating another? Are there still the same rigid boundaries around the various media allowing such reveries of alien otherness? For today, on the unstoppable capitalist terrains of technological production and market distribution, it seems that everything, ineluctably, is swimming – and that no medium or channel for expression is necessarily drowning. This swimming or drifting is having enormous effects on all sectors of film culture at once: on the relations between film and video, and between all the gauges of film itself (Super 8, 16, 35, 70mm); on the hitherto sacrosanct division between the short and the long film; and on the aesthetics of mainstream cinema vis-à-vis experimental art.
Consequently, a new strategy for surveying the short film in Australia is required of a critic who is at all sensitive to what’s in the air. The old strategy – which has given Australian film culture its distinctive character for about 25 years – was openly polemical and territorial. One staked out one’s ground with a claim to the strategic primacy, and the exotic specificity, of Super 8, or video art, or experimental film, or whatever, and then one railed against those other territories unfairly favoured through the cultural networks of subsidy, promotion and criticism. Some tensions are still very much in play – there will always be a ‘mainstream’ and its ‘margin’ – but much of the ground defining the old battles, or at least the terms in which they could be posed, is now fast turning into quicksand.
Swimming, although at the beginning of the 1990s a unique and exceptional film, is one that points towards a possible future, in all dimensions. Technologically, it marks the increasing intermingling, within any one work, of film (in its various gauges) and video, and of low tech with high tech. In the way it tells its story, it hints at a new kind of fast fiction which may be increasingly understood and indeed demanded by a mass audience brought up on the audiovisual forms developed on television. And last, it is tempting to welcome the film as a kind of breakthrough for experimentation in a training institution – the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) – characterised essentially by an aesthetic conservatism, a tendency to narrow creative options so as to better fit into the mainstream of the media industries. Where are we swimming to?
More than ever, the boundaries which once fenced off and regulated the flows of audiovisual culture are in question. The time is fast disappearing when a short – and already that word is starting to become inadequate, obsolete – meant a quaint little novelty item: a harmless animation, a quirky documentary, a flashy dramatic or comic vignette. Whether we like it or not, we are swimming toward a future in which the short film/video will not be regarded as a miniature, a sketch or an anecdote, but something more akin to a crystal: an object with multiple surfaces and depths, creating resonances for a viewer and complexities of reading that extend far beyond the work’s apparent ‘size’. Those aficionados of the short form who already know and love works such as Swimming, Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (Tracey Moffatt, 1990), Tales from Vienna Hoods (Marcus Bergner, 1989) and Viva (Mark Titmarsh, 1989) already have a fair idea of what this sparkling, crystalline future will be like.
Note: This text draws from the introduction and conclusion to a survey of short film production in Australia published in the early 1990s.
© Adrian Martin late 1990