While Smith has written that ‘all film is fiction’,1 one might also add that all film (live-action, at least) is documentary. The ‘controlled representations’ Smith has described consist of traces of people and things that have passed before the camera lens.2 At the turn of the twentieth century Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon’s Lancashire-based film company produced hundreds of actualities: short non-fiction films capturing glimpses of daily life, festivals, parades, factories and – importantly – street scenes in Britain (fig.1). In filming a Dalston intersection for an uninterrupted ten minutes, Smith recalls the work of Mitchell and Kenyon, resuscitating a filmic genre that largely died out with the development of narrative filmmaking in the 1910s. The Girl Chewing Gum may be a ‘creative treatment of actuality’, but it remains actuality nonetheless.
The film’s images were always images of the past in that they are retrospectively described by a voiceover that is revealed to be situated later in time than the images it accompanies. But this notion of retrospective examination becomes even more important today, as The Girl Chewing Gum now appears not only as a reflexive examination of cinematic conventions but also as a document of a neighbourhood that has undergone immense changes since 1976. Smith himself highlighted this aspect of the film in his remake, The Man Phoning Mum 2011 (fig.2). Here, Smith paired the soundtrack of the original with an image-track consisting of colour video filmed at the same location in 2011 and superimposed over the 1976 film. From time to time, he varies the balance of the two images, allowing one or the other to fully inhabit the screen. During the 360-degree pan at the film’s end, subtitles appear: Smith was unable to find the exact location he filmed in 1976 and remarks upon the differences between Letchmore Heath then and now.
In the following conversation, John Smith and writer and historian Patrick Wright reflect upon The Girl Chewing Gum as a film of place and a document of the past. Among many other books, Wright is the author of A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London (1991, revised edition 2009), which turns to the East End, and more particularly to a short stretch of Dalston Lane, to examine the transformations of British life under Thatcherism. This interview took place on 20 November 2014 at King’s College London.
Interview with John Smith
Patrick Wright: What took you to Dalston?
John Smith: I lived there, a few hundred yards from the place that you see in the film. Most of my work is made in places I’m familiar with, often near my house. I lived in Lansdowne Drive then. I later moved away for twenty years and moved back to the area in 2003. It’s interesting how the location of a film becomes more fascinating and significant over time. When I made the film, I didn’t particularly care where the location was. I chose it because it had a cinema and a street clock. I also wasn’t thinking about anything to do with time, or that I would record this place and then later look at it in a very different way. I just wanted an image of an ordinary present-day place, and the most convenient ordinary place I could find was this one.
The Girl Chewing Gum is a film that has taken on a new layer of meaning as time has gone by, because it has become an historical document. It’s a kind of Mitchell and Kenyon film of Dalston. I like to think that at the time the film was made it probably contained the only ten-minute shot of Dalston ever recorded. It’s an ordinary place captured in a single shot. It is an historical record, which of course I didn’t think about at the time at all. I wasn’t thinking beyond the day it was made, and as a twenty-three-year-old art student I never imagined that people would still be watching it nearly forty years later. I was trying to make something from the ordinary, the mundane – from something as grey as possible. But looking at the film all these years later, the place has become coloured by the passage of time; it has become exotic and full of character. It’s very strange.
Patrick Wright: The year you were beginning to work on The Girl Chewing Gum, I fled to the west coast of Canada. I came back in 1979 and moved into Clapton, then Stoke Newington, and then Dalston. In those days, you could pick up a house for sums that now seem entirely trivial. Of course, we still struggled to do it, but people without regular work could still buy houses. I wrote about Dalston in my book, which has now strangely become part of the geography of the area. The area at that time had tremendous imaginative possibilities. What struck me was that it was such an impressive place of accumulated historical traces. I loved those arguments that people like [the French philosopher and sociologist] Henri Lefebvre had made about the inner city being remarkable because nobody has managed to codify it or impose a single order of meaning on it. It’s full of things that exist in different cultures, different places, and different times. Cut through the familiar poverty scenario and the talk about drabness, and those streets could become the richest places in the world: you only had to walk through them to find yourself incredibly stimulated by places and objects that had defeated, or at least escaped, time and power. Those streets were also lines of intersection between the working class and bohemia, and it was great to discover that earlier observers had known about this. I remember reading Barbara Jones, who praised the funereal culture of the East London undertaker. Where others saw nothing but a drab blackened shopfront, she detected ‘a nice, rich, debased Baroque’.3
John Smith: I should say that I come from a lower middle class background. I grew up in Walthamstow. It wasn’t as rough as Hackney, but I felt just as at home with working class people in Hackney as I did with my contemporaries at the Royal College of Art. I thought I was middle class before I went to the Royal College, but then I saw that there were whole upper echelons of society that I never knew about. So my view of things in Dalston wasn’t so anthropological. In the early 1970s, the separation that I experienced was mainly between me as a dope-smoking long-haired art student and all the straight people who were around, whatever their class was.
Patrick Wright: You put the camera there, but people didn’t engage with it the way that they might now. You must have been quite visible.
John Smith: Yes, I was very visible: I had a big Arriflex BL 16 mm camera on a tripod. I’ve often wondered about why people didn’t interfere more, or even ask what I was doing, as they would now. In retrospect I think it has something to do with the class divide and how at that time there was more of a sense that people knew their place. The camera used to have a lot of authority. So even though I was this slightly weird looking bloke, people thought ‘There’s a professional person going about his business here, we’ll let him get on with it’. It was only the kids who reacted; everybody else looked the other way. Of course, it’s entirely different now. When I went to the same location and made The Man Phoning Mum three years ago, some people looked at me really aggressively. In fact, after walking in front of the camera, one person did an abrupt turn, came back, and said ‘Oi mate, are you fucking filming me?’ He got really angry. You’re never quite sure whether it’s because someone expects that they should be given money – that they should be paid for being in a film – or whether it’s just that they feel that their privacy is being intruded upon.
Patrick Wright: So you stood on that street corner in 1976, and then you went back.
John Smith: Yes, in 2011. It happened partly because I was interested in how much the location had changed, but also because I discovered all these homages to the film on the internet. These were shot in many different places around the world, but in several cases people had traced the actual location of the film and made their own versions in Dalston. I got interested in the fact that it had been remade already. I thought, ‘I know exactly where my camera was, I can go and re-do it myself’. I liked the remote possibility that one of the people in the original film might still live in the area and might walk in front of the camera, so that in the new video they would confront their younger self when the 1976 and 2011 footage was superimposed. What struck me when I turned up – this is one of the reasons that the video is called The Man Phoning Mum – is that every second person was carrying a mobile phone. Of course, in 1976 this would have been considered science fiction! You’d think, where are all the wires? Why aren’t they tripping over them? The omnipresence of mobile phones is something that we’re all very aware of today, but to look through the camera and see how many people were using them was still very striking. Since I know the original film so well, I noticed that people were not looking at the world around them as much as they did in the 1970s. It sounds kind of corny, but I found it disturbing that a lot of people just looked glazed and stared straight ahead. All they cared about was whether they would get knocked over crossing the road, whereas the people without phones seemed like they were taking in the world a bit more.
Patrick Wright: It’s also the case that music is now played through headphones instead of on the street. That used to be a real feature of those streets. I remember once studying the bus queue on Dalston Junction. I was interested in watching the way people milled around in that area. Where the station was and now sort of is again, there used to be a wide pavement where people could gather for buses but also just mill around. It was very interesting to watch this whole way of life at the bus queue. It was always dishevelled but always formal as well. It was not a military queue of people, but there was a code about who did what. The kids were the only ones to break these unwritten rules, but everyone knew that. In central London, the street is for transit: you walk because you’re going somewhere. But in that part of Dalston, there were people who actually lived in the bus queue. You’d see that they’d hover around the queue but then back up without ever getting on the bus. At first I couldn’t work out what this was about. And then I realised that there was a law that you could be arrested by the police for loitering. This meant that you had to act as if you were doing something or on the way somewhere, but there were people who were in or at the edges of the bus queue for hours because it was the only way of existing. I always thought that this way of operating in the street was fascinating. It was non-purposeful, quite differentiated, and irreconcilable with the planners, who speak of a purposeful thing called ‘the pedestrian’s line of desire’. These people didn’t have a line of desire anywhere near them. I think that your slow shot is also very revealing of that difference, of this other way of inhabiting space.
John Smith: There are a few people in the film who linger and come back. There’s an old man with a peaked cap and a cigarette who walks up and down the street, lurking and lingering behind the kids standing in the cinema queue. There is this sense of a lack of purpose. It’s surprising how many people go backwards and forwards across the frame more than once.
Patrick Wright: What are the other differences you notice between 1976 and today?
John Smith: This is one that I should look at more closely, but one thing I noticed in the parts of the film where I superimpose one image on the other and have the scale exactly right is that people in the 1970s appear smaller. We hear that through nutrition we’ve gotten bigger and bigger, but this impression was so strong to me when looking at this footage. Several times I’ve looked at it and wondered whether a person was further from the camera than another one, but it really looks like they’re in the same place but that the figure from the 1970s is smaller.
Patrick Wright: And of course the cultural mix is different now. In The Girl Chewing Gum, you were filming a working class street. Now you’re filming a round-the-world-in-three-hundred-yards street. Everything is there.
John Smith: When I look at it now, it’s amazing. I thought that the community was very multicultural at the time of making The Girl Chewing Gum. But in the film, a black person walking down the street really stands out – there are probably no more than ten non-white faces that appear in the whole ten minutes. What I’m also aware of now when I look at the original film is how everybody looks really poor. It was before the time when people would spend their last penny on getting a good pair of trainers – they would rather eat. So a lot of people are dressed in really worn out clothes.
Patrick Wright: The street for you is not a local object, is it?
John Smith: No, but it is important to me that I film in places that I know and that the work comes out of my own experience. I wouldn’t dream of going to Northampton and filming a street corner there to make something like The Girl Chewing Gum. It was important that it was close to me. I feel more comfortable documenting a place that I’m familiar with, even though I wouldn’t want to go as far as to be seen as being any kind of authority on it. Knowing the place probably doesn’t affect my judgement on how I film things at all, but I’m very opposed to the kind of documentary tourism that takes place in the world an enormous amount, when people go somewhere to make a film about a subject they are not familiar with. The familiarity of place is important.
Patrick Wright: Yes, it’s a desire not just to be a visiting outsider, not just an eye. It seems to be that television journalism does create a demand for that kind of thing. People who try to make a living in that world end up going to streets they’ve never seen before and calling them ‘Benefits Street’.4
This film is now almost half a century old. All the technology’s changed, but what about the aesthetic? What’s happened to your eye and the way you think of film now?
John Smith: When I was making The Man Phoning Mum, it was very interesting to me to combine the grainy, black and white 16 mm people from 1976 with the colourful, high definition video people from 2011, drawing attention to the aesthetic differences between the two media. My ideas are often shaped and facilitated by developments in technology. The formal construction of a lot of my work comes out of what’s available technologically. For example, The Girl Chewing Gum was shot on one 400-foot roll of 16 mm film and one 100-foot roll. There was just one take of each shot. Conceptually, I wanted it to be that way, to rely on chance and allow the length of the roll of film to limit the duration of the shot; I wanted whatever happened to be what I directed. But that being said, if I’d wanted to do more than one shot I couldn’t have afforded it. As a student, I could only afford one roll of film and that was it. Whereas thirty-five years later I could shoot as much digital footage as I liked at no material cost. I replicated the camera movements by putting the original film on my iPhone and strapping it to the LCD viewfinder of my digital video camera so that I could attempt to follow the movements of the original film. This would have been utterly impossible only five years ago, working independently anyway. With a big crew, you could set up monitors and things, but I prefer to work on my own.
Patrick Wright: Near the end of The Man Phoning Mum, you move out to what looks like open country (fig.3), but the sense of having returned to the same place you filmed in the earlier work is hardly sustained in the closing scenes. Letchmore Heath is scarcely recognisable as you remembered it.
John Smith: Well, it’s because I couldn’t find it! I only went to Letchmore Heath twice: once to record the voiceover and once to film the second shot. So thirty-five years later I had to find this place. All I knew was that the place was called Letchmore Heath and that there were pylons and trees there. So I spent a very bizarre day traipsing around trying to find the precise location and camera position. It was so frustrating. I thought that maybe I would get there, but in the end I gave up and had to settle for a similar view. Afterwards I was glad that I hadn’t found it because it allowed me an opportunity to introduce the voice of the present, in the form of captions. The Dalston shot was very easy. I could put the camera in exactly the same place. But I did get very confused when filming it. Although Steele’s – the glass merchant – had turned into a scooter shop and the clock had gone, architecturally the building looked exactly the same. I really liked this idea of tilting up to the top of the building so that in one image you’d have the clock and in the other you’d have sky. But somehow I couldn’t manage to get the camera movement fast enough and I couldn’t work out why. I was following the speed of the movement of the original film, but I couldn’t get to the roof in time. Suddenly I realised that probably thirty years ago they built another storey on the building in the same style. It’s very well done, so it’s blended in. With age, you can’t see any trace of it.
Patrick Wright: Did you have a political investment in making The Girl Chewing Gum? Was your impatience with documentary connected to an impatience with certain political assumptions?
John Smith: Absolutely. It was largely concerned with the way in which voiceovers in documentaries can be used to determine the way that we see images and thus tell us how we should see the world. Also, the film was made at the time when there was a lot of controversy around the ‘sus’ law. This law was introduced in the early nineteenth century as part of the Vagrancy Act, but was increasingly enforced in the 1970s. I imagine that the law about loitering that you mentioned earlier must have been part of the same act. The ‘sus’ law allowed the police to stop and search any person in a public place whom they suspected might be intending to commit an offence. My voiceover indirectly refers to the ‘sus’ law through telling the viewer that a young man in a raincoat who passes in front of the camera has just robbed the local post-office. If we find it funny, it’s because we can so easily imagine that he has done something dodgy because he looks a little shifty. I go to the extreme by saying that he has a gun in his pocket. Within the context of The Girl Chewing Gum, you know of course that you are being lied to. But if you actually took that little piece of footage out, presented it as surveillance footage, and a very confident policeman said ‘Yes, this is the suspect walking away from the crime scene, as you see here’, you can imagine how people might be led to believe that he had done something wrong. One reason that the ‘sus’ law was so controversial was that a very high percentage of the people who were stopped by the police were black; to the racists within our police force being black was suspicious in itself. In the later part of The Girl Chewing Gum I ascribe imaginary identities to the people that appear and call them things like ‘the dentist’, ‘the window-cleaner’ and ‘the two naughty boys’. But when a black man crosses the frame I refer to him as ‘the negro with the briefcase and the newspaper’. By deliberately denying him a character and describing only his outward appearance I was attempting to draw attention to the inherent racism of dominant perception that existed when the film was made.