John Smith's Citadel, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing starting January 25, 20201 in MUBI's Brief Encounters series.
Although I only got around to it in 2020, I had planned to film the view from my bedroom window ever since I moved into my house in Hackney, east London, in 2003. At that time the distinctive 30 St Mary Axe building, better known as The Gherkin, had just been completed and was a central feature of the London skyline visible from my 3rd floor vantage point. In those days The Gherkin was one of only a few tall buildings on the horizon, but in the intervening years the relentless expansion of the business centre of the City of London has resulted in a dense mass of skyscrapers that vie for attention, culminating in the colossal building at 22 Bishopsgate which has just been completed and now holds pride of place in the centre of my field of view. My desire to film this particular scene came out of observing the changes in light on the skyline in varying weather conditions at different times of day. Although the clutter of different architectural styles has now become an aesthetic mess, the effect of the ever-changing light on the heavily glazed buildings is highly dramatic and frequently mesmerising.
I have long been fascinated by the effects of natural light on our environment, an interest that goes right back to my early film Leading Light from 1975. Every year since 2003, usually in the winter when the sun was low and shadows were long, I intended to film my spectacular view, but something always held me back. Every year the ever-increasing number of buildings made the view even more engaging, but I still didn’t get around to filming. As the years passed by the situation started to become more and more urgent, as a tree in a garden between my house and the city, which had been a mere sapling when I moved in, was getting so big that it was ruining my planned composition and starting to obscure a large part of the architecture. Eventually it became a ‘now or never’ situation.
There was a reason for my lengthy procrastination. Although I had made numerous films in the past that were concerned primarily with the aesthetics of the image, this was something that I could no longer feel comfortable with. I couldn’t look at the buildings of the City of London without thinking about what they represented, and without feeling a need to present them in a critical context. After Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019 and formed a Tory cabinet that was even more ruthlessly business-driven than that of his predecessor Teresa May, I decided that I would start filming, with a vague idea of adding a spoken or written text to my images that would provide some kind of critique of neoliberalism. Then COVID-19 shook the world and I discovered a speech that Johnson had made to UK business leaders on February 3rd.
“When barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that goes beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange. Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020 I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
Suddenly everything fell into place and I knew that I had a clear starting point for my film. It became obvious very quickly that Johnson’s Tory government was determined to place business interests before public health, initially seeing the spread of COVID-19 primarily as a business opportunity. I decided that I would combine excerpts from Johnson’s speeches with my images of the city, filmically relocating the centre of power from Parliament to the financial district of the City of London, simultaneously presenting the city as a site of horror and visual pleasure.
Many of my films have been recorded over several months or more and Citadel is no exception. The first shots were recorded in January 2020, well before COVID hit the UK, and the last were recorded in early summer, soon after Johnson announced the relaxing of the lockdown that had been in place for many weeks. As is also common with my work, the film was not scripted in advance but allowed to evolve over time, shaped in response to political developments and unexpected events that occurred in front of the camera. I am a strong believer in serendipity and approach my work with the confidence that, if I am patient enough, unforeseen events will occur during filming which will complement and connect with material that has already been gathered. A key example of this in Citadel is the modulated light that emits from the windows of the central office building at 22 Bishopsgate.
In order to match framings of the city skyline exactly, my camera remained in a fixed position for several months, securely mounted on a sturdy tripod that was screwed to my bedroom floor. Over this period I spent many hours behind the camera, waiting for interesting changes in light and little events like the passing of a plane or the swarming of a flock of pigeons. Very late one night I was about to go to bed when I noticed that every light in the newly completed 22 Bishopsgate building was on, and that the building was shining like a brilliant beacon onto the surrounding area. As I watched this eerie spectacle the lights were suddenly extinguished, not simultaneously but in a wave-like motion, starting at the top of the building and ending near ground level. This movement immediately made me think of a digital audio meter, so I decided there and then that I would cement Boris Johnson’s voice more concretely to the scene by editing the movement of the lights to match his speech patterns. Having done this, it seemed appropriate to show some of the people that Johnson was addressing, so I started filming the illuminated windows of people’s houses and their night-time activities during lockdown, contrasting faceless corporate power with the particularities of individual lives. This subsequently led me to think of editing the domestic windows so that they flashed on and off to spell out SOS in Morse code, something that would never have occurred to me if I hadn’t encountered the late-night testing of the lighting at 22 Bishopsgate.
After the initial excitement of the idea I don’t often enjoy the early stages of filmmaking, as I am usually fearful of failure and mediocrity. But this trepidation is more than compensated for by the tremendous excitement that I feel when the elements start to connect in the way that I have described above and the work begins to take on a shape that could never have been anticipated at its outset. The unpredictability of events makes each new film a journey and an adventure.
Citadel was commissioned and produced by steirischer herbst ’20, Graz, Austria.