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Watch and Listen: Charlie Shackleton's "As Mine Exactly"

The formally daring filmmaker tells us how the artifice of VR led to a deeply personal performance piece.
Simran Hans
As Mine Exactly (Charlie Shackleton, 2022).
Deep in the bowels of London’s BFI Southbank, Charlie Shackleton is recounting a story about his mother. We’re sitting opposite one another in someone else’s office, separated by a desk; I am wearing a virtual-reality headset and cannot see him. For the next 30 minutes, he will read a script and control the wraparound screen I see in the headset. My role is to simply watch, and listen.
As Mine Exactly, which won the Immersive Art and XR Award at the 2022 London Film Festival, is part one-to-one performance, part desktop documentary, using the contemporary technology of VR to build the kind of intimacy that such technology seems to deny. I am his second performance of the day. “Don’t feel you have to perform your reaction,” he tells me. In doing so, Shackleton embraces the inherent awkwardness and artificiality of VR. The effect is startlingly intimate.
Shackleton is an artist, documentarian, and, it should be said, my friend. A knack for formal invention (and a tendency toward mischief) animates much of his work. This playful spirit runs through his debut feature Beyond Clueless (2014), an essay film about American teen movies soundtracked by British indie band Summer Camp, whose own aesthetic is a knowing, conceptual pastiche of the genre; the crowd-funded Paint Drying (2015), whose single, ten-hour shot of white paint drying on a brick wall aims to protest the expensive certification all films must procure from the British Board of Film Classification; and Fish Story (2017), a short documentary that cheekily sets out to disprove a friend’s family mythology. Most recently, he directed The Afterlight (2021), which collages together footage of dead actors who now live solely on the silver screen. Romantically, Shackleton made exactly one 35mm film print, which is currently touring the world. As another self-reflexive layer, this very print will eventually erode and disappear. As with many of his films, there is an invitation to search for the truth in As Mine Exactly, which insists on each participant's active listening.
As Mine Exactly (Charlie Shackleton, 2022).
As Mine Exactly tells the story of Shackleton’s relationship with his mother, Jane, which changed when she developed epilepsy in the early 2000s. The screen space extends outside the viewer’s peripheral vision, encouraging them to look beyond what’s right in front of them. Over three screens, Shackleton places childhood photos, images of the log book Jane kept of her episodes, and the strange, hypnotic footage of her seizures, which he filmed on a mini DV camera as evidence to show her doctors. He also cuts in archive footage of some of the earliest seizures captured on film, reflecting on the clinical and often cruel nature of those medical observations. 
“I’d never really thought of that as filmmaking, in the sense of what I now do for a living,” Shackleton tells me after a day of performances. He was prompted to return to the footage by a filmmaker friend who asked about the first thing he ever shot. He asked Jane to dig out the files, which they revisited separately. Initially, the raw material felt “untouchable” and not something Shackleton felt he could use in any way he would feel “morally okay with.” If he was going to revisit his personal experiences with his mother’s epilepsy, he would need to find a way to honor its sensitivity.
In As Mine Exactly, Shackleton plays one particularly haunting video of Jane sitting on the sofa, visibly dissociating while he, the clip’s thirteen-year-old director, shoots from a low angle (or perhaps simply a child’s point of view) and repeatedly asks her if she’s okay. It’s a vulnerable moment, for both of them, and according to Shackleton, an outlier among the half-dozen clips he went through when selecting material for the project. “I was struck by how uncanny Mum’s placid expression is, but also by how much younger I sounded than I expected I would,” he recalls.
Over the top of the clip, we hear audio of Shackleton and Jane re-watching the video together for the first time. Shackleton performs his lines live, while Jane’s voice plays from a speaker set up behind the participant, rather than right in their ears. Shackleton’s choice to perform his lines in-person rather than to play a recording is a reminder of his real-life stake in the project. By choreographing their commentary in this way, he and Jane invite the participant into an otherwise private moment. They are not just privy to their conversation, but part of it. The careful staging discourages the participant from assuming a perspective that is not their own, which might be a kind of uncomfortable emotional voyeurism. The effect is involving, and often moving.
A Machine for Viewing (Charlie Shackleton, Richard Misek, Oscar Raby, 2019).
In the film, Jane describes the feeling of having a seizure as being set back from the world around her. As Mine Exactly takes place in a kind of half space, too, using the physically dislocating experience of wearing a VR helmet to give form to what Jane describes as the disembodied experience of “nothing.” Of course, witnessing a seizure is nothing like having one, but according to Shackleton there are “feelings of distance and dislocation inherent to both.” He clarifies that “the last thing I ever wanted to do was attempt to mimic for the viewer the experience of a seizure.” That kind of immersion, he says, is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the world of VR. “There is this slightly false idea that empathy is rooted in directly having the experiences of others,” he says, but “the whole definition of empathy is that you have to be able to imagine it.”
Instead, Shackleton became fascinated by the “completely detaching” experience of wearing a VR headset after participating in A Machine for Viewing, an expanded-reality group project at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam in 2019. Shackleton’s “episode” was a video essay in VR that explored unusual aspect ratios in film. “It renders you this stranded body trapped in the corporeal universe,” he says. He wanted to play with the limitations of the format, and to use the headset as a tool to “immobilize and focus” the viewer and to create “an incredibly intimate space that seemed ripe for the act of confiding.”
In 2017, Shackleton made a short essay film called Personal Truth that was inspired by the cultural response to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The film’s seemingly-off-the-cuff narration sees Shackleton gradually coming to terms with his own susceptibility to popular untruths as he looks into the storied history of a guest house in his hometown in southwest London. That narration, he explains, is “incredibly fake.” He re-recorded the voice-over hundreds of times, replicating the vocal nuances he hoped would convey spontaneity of rumination. The process of making it caused him to think differently about “the inherent artifice of the director,” especially in documentary filmmaking, and how the trope of “matter-of-fact, prosaic narration is always a performance of narrative and emotion and revelation.”
As Mine Exactly is the first piece of work that Shackleton has made about his own life. “It felt like I couldn’t do that without directly confronting the nature of that artifice,” he says. To deny it would also be an elision of ethical responsibility. “I think with personal storytelling, there is this tension between the responsibility to the people whose lives are being depicted, and the inevitable, greater control and subjectivity of the person who’s doing the telling,” he says. That artificiality feels like a way to articulate the project’s clear moral boundaries. Despite the fact that his subject was involved in the making of the piece, he didn’t want to exploit Jane’s collaboration as “a get-out-of-jail-free card that would absolve me of the responsibilities of actually being the one with the dominant agency over the project.” Even if his mum had a co-director credit (she doesn’t), Shackleton is the one in the room controlling the screen, crafting and shaping the final performance. There is an honesty in Shackleton’s decision to lean into the unnatural aspects of the piece’s set-up, like the headset or the script. 
The Afterlight (Charlie Shackleton, 2021).
Shackleton is currently touring both As Mine Exactly and The Afterlight, two artworks that can only be accessed in person. “A lot of people assume they’re pandemic responses because they’re both contingent on people being in the same space together,” he says. In fact, both projects predated the pandemic. Shackleton says that his growing “unease with the way the whole idea of spectatorship has been slowly but surely de-materialized” ambiently informed the need to make work that requires a physical audience. 
The problem is not, he says, the accessing of films over the Internet. “I cannot express what torrenting has done for my personal cinephilia,” he says. “It is, by far, the thing I cherish most in all of film culture—I’m not being a fetishist of an older idea of cinema.” It’s more that online film screenings are “the antithesis of everything you gain from going to a film festival, which is entirely wrapped up in other people.” For Shackleton, a millennial, “other people still means people physically in the space with you.”
After London, Shackleton took As Mine Exactly to New York City, Columbus, Denver, and, most recently, Belfast, performing it live for up to eight people a day. I feel privileged to have been one of them. No two performances are exactly the same. “I feel like I’ve become one of those Daily Mail body language experts,” he says jokingly, explaining how he’s become newly attuned to meaning imbued in the twitch of a smile, or the lean of a torso. Those subtle physical cues guide the pace of his narration. His project reaches for a resonance that is deep, rather than wide. “I would love to at least hit a thousand performances and that would be a thousand people,” he says. “Obviously that's negligible on the scale of a streaming release, but I would argue that for those thousand people, there is a level of meaning there that is not attached to the average Netflix viewership count.” 
During Shackleton’s performance, I felt my eyes misting over inside my headset. I was simultaneously reminded of both my proximity to the story and my distance from it. To participate in an experience like this is to enter a space where you must actively negotiate the moral conflicts, ethical boundaries, and emotional realities of “consuming” documentary films, instead of simply bearing witness to them. In doing so, Shackleton and I were able to create a new kind of connection.


Charlie ShackletonNew MediaInterviews
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