Interview with Joshua Bonnetta: “For me cinematography is really a form of notation for sound”
Could you talk about the origins of THE TWO SIGHTS?
I developed the film as part of an artist residency at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre/UistFilm in the Outer Hebrides. Andy Mackinnon, who oversaw my residency and also runs UistFilm, invited me to develop a site-specific work that would respond to the environment and community; I ended up making several projects here, one of which became THE TWO SIGHTS. It was fortuitous for me, as there are not many residencies for filmmaking, let alone ones run by a filmmaker, and he was completely comfortable with me having a non-traditional approach and made the time and space for me to develop a project from the ground up.
Initially, I set out with the broadest of intentions to explore the relationship between a physical environment and its place narratives; I wanted to think through how stories get shaped by their surroundings. In particular, I was interested in the role of acoustic ecology in that context, but also light, weather, geology, etc. I set about interviewing as many different folks as I could. The interviews were unstructured, conversational, with no set questions beyond trying to find stories in which the environment figured prominently. I ended up with a series of interviews, mostly about sound, and this became an early version of the film which was focused on a shifting acoustic ecology of the islands.
While conducting research, I was seeking connections between sound and environment in folktales and other island lore and I came across lots of material on “second sight” – an ability to foretell future events, usually pertaining to a death. The Outer Hebrides was once thought of as a place of seers and this figures prominently in these stories.
The prognostications would come to the seer in the form of visions or sounds, or they could be augured from animals, bones, or weather patterns. I was intrigued by the sonic element of these visions and started to ask questions pertaining to the “second sight” after I had conducted my regular interview. My intention with this new material was to make an entirely different project. During the editing process, I realised that this had been part of the film all along and the sounds and images that I had been collecting resonated deeply with these stories.
During the making of THE TWO SIGHTS I often thought about what happens when a place loses the narratives that are embedded in its surroundings, especially in the context of a shifting environment. In the end, I’ve come to realise that, for me, the film is not only about the “second sight”, it is also an exploration of historical twilight.
Filmmakers carefully consider how to start a film. Can you talk about how you decided to open the film with a shot of you, the sound recordist and filmmaker, setting up a microphone?
The image of the recordist setting up the microphone on the hill was one that I was seeking early on and I was always certain that it would be the first shot. I wanted to set up the film with one shot that would reflexively foreground the cinematic relationship between sound and image representationally – the asynchronous symbolic image and the synchronous spatial image. This moment of switching from async to sync deliberately marks an opening into the space of the film through the technologies and language which will mediate the experience.
How has your practice in sound informed this film?
I think of sound design in cinema as an extension of musique concrète, so for me cinematography is really a form of notation for sound. When approaching this work, I was always thinking about it as a longform sound composition and I used the visual element and montage as a way to guide its form and structure. All images, I think, are notation for sound.
Some of the sequences gesture toward a critical engagement with the archive, specifically the audio archive in a state of neglect or decay. Were you thinking through this relationship with the augurs, whether associatively or more critically?
Engaging with the archive in this capacity came about more from an anxiety about preserving the materials that I came across while working on the film, in terms of physical media but also in relation to the stories, and then thinking of everything out there that might not be preserved. In a way, THE TWO SIGHTS is itself a small archive, as it preserves part of the changing acoustic ecology and the interviews which only ever existed within oral history. But it’s such a minuscule window in a place with a landscape that holds an immense wealth of knowledge that’s mostly oral.
I think these anxieties manifest in certain parts of the film and they could be considered augurs for things that might be lost. The two things that come to mind are the cassette and the friends cutting peats. The tape I found in an abandoned croft, and the voice that you hear singing over that image is from the tape. I worked with Taigh Chearsabhagh to translate it but we couldn’t find out who it was. The cassette is filled with people talking, laughing, singing, dogs barking in the background, and sometimes folks singing into the microphone. I wasn’t keen on removing the tape from where I found it, but I worried about what might be lost that was on it. The other sequence I am thinking of the peat cutters, Duncan and Ian. Duncan is communicating to Ian different places names, their meanings, and locales in relation to where they are cutting. It becomes evident that there is so much inscribed in the language of the landscape which could be lost, like the decaying books someone had left in the grass maybe only ten metres from where they were cutting. For me they serve as an augur or metaphor for the volumes of knowledge the land holds which might disappear.
(Interview: Stephanie Spray, February 2020)