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Massive Attack Films - Part 1

See a video by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin based around songs from Massive Attack’s recent album Heligoland

In this month’s Dazed & Confused, Robert “3D” Del Naja talks about Massive Attack’s film project for their fifth album Heligoland. The band commissioned seven low-budget videos – most of which are still in the making – by both established names and those with little experience of directing. “We are always keen not to be in the videos, and not to compromise the idea by having to make an appearance,” says Del Naja. “But on the whole it has been a case of carte blanche with the directors, to the extent where we said: ‘We will give you the stems of the tracks and you can use whichever components you want, loop some parts, take the vocals out…’ We have always been totally unprecious.”

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s new film for Massive Attack’s “Saturday Comes Slow”. It looks at human rights with a sonic, scientific slant; imagine sitting inside a perfectly silent space – a room so quiet you can actually hear your own nervous system functioning. Now, imagine the opposite – a dissonant, freezing cold concrete chamber with extremely loud music blaring for hours on end. These two extremes come together in the beautiful new film from Broomberg and Chanarin, created for Massive Attack’s short film series. Part music video for “Saturday Come Slow” and part experiment, it features former British Guantanamo Bay prisoner Ruhal Ahmed, whose measured, soft-spoken speech stands in contrast to the torture he is describing…

Dazed Digital: How did the idea of working with Ruhal Ahmed come about?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: We had a conversation with Massive Attack – as you may know they collaborate with Reprieve which is a human rights organisation that represents all the British ex-detainees that were in Guantanamo Bay. We got in touch with Ruhal and went to have a chat with him, and we ended up meeting him many times, and interviewing him, and just talking to him quite a lot about his experiences.

DD: How did you get involved with Cambridge University, where the video was shot?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: When we started thinking about the physical effect of sound on the human body, we started thinking ‘OK, now how would you start test these things?’ So we contacted Cambridge University and started working with the acoustics engineers and academics. Then we decided, because they had one of these anechoic chambers, to film it inside there.

DD: What’s an anechoic chamber?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: It’s a perfectly quiet room – they were made famous when John Cage went in one, because supposedly, they kind of remove any kind of ambient sound, there’s no echo, there’s no reflection of sound. And the engineer said to John Cage, you know when you go into this place, it’s going to be absolutely silent, and he went in and said, ‘there must be some thing wrong, because I hear a sound’, and the engineer said, ‘no that’s the sound of your own nervous system.’ And that led to John Cage’s meditation on what is the meaning of silence and what is the meaning of any kind of sound.

DD: So when you first interviewed Ruhal, did he remember a lot of the songs they’d played, or was there on particular song they’d played a lot?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Yes, for him particularly it was the song “Kim” by Eminem, and they played heavy metal, but because he was familiar with the Eminem song, he could identify that one, and also because he totally wasn’t into heavy metal, he couldn’t identify it. And what’s quite interesting about what he did, and something we were trying to figure out was, is how do you take something that is designed to be so easily assimilated, and how does it become so abstract that it becomes painful, that it becomes kind of toxic to the body and the mind? And I think that’s what we were trying to get at, and that’s what the film tries to describe – the move from something’s that seamless into abstraction, and then into something toxic.

DD: What was it like for you to go inside the anechoic chamber, did you have a chance to go in by yourself and listen to the non-sound?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Yeah it’s totally remarkable. It’s quite claustrophobic, but also I don’t know how to explain it, it’s almost kind of dense in there, sort of deadening.

DD: What was Ruhal’s take on that experience – in terms of psychological stuff, he sounds like he’s pretty strong now. Were you worried about any flashbacks, or ill-effects?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: No, not at all. Ruhal is super strong.

DD: That’s great to hear!
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Yeah he’s amazing. What’s quite interesting is that he said, you know in researching him we just saw so many interviews, he says the same thing in different permutations. And one of the things we were thinking about was how the media becomes a laboratory, and turns these people into specimens. We asked if this was problematic, and whether it was hard to condense these two and a half years of the most excruciating  experience down into these simple sound bites. He says that’s probably just what saved him, because imagine if his memory was as detailed that he could remember those two and a half years in such perfect detail, you know he wouldn’t be able to cope with that. So I think this process of being interviewed and reiterating the same point, and kind of narrowing down experience into these key facts in a way, has allowed him to cope with it, which is quite an interesting thing to think about.

DD: Did you choose the Massive Attack song specifically?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Yeah, it was totally our choice, and there’s something quite poignant about this song being a love song essentially, and then us putting it through the trials we put it through. I haven’t quite described the key to the whole thing yet, we used the Massive Attack song for the driver for all these experiments, so what you’re watching is a kind of deconstruction of the song, because obviously we needed to change certain frequencies in the chamber to act as a catalyst for certain experiments, we broke the song down into various parts and adjusted each of them as necessary. So kind of, the song becomes the tool through these kinds of experiments, and in that process becomes progressively broken down and deconstructed.

DD: Do you see it more as a political work or as a scientific experiment, or both?
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: I think both, yeah, it straddles a lot of these different kind of places. I don’t think it fits the criteria of a music video, nor is it a documentary, nor is it a kind of human rights awareness film, nor is it strictly a piece of materialist film making in a very strange place. And I’m just interested to see what people make of it.
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