Arts: When is a film not a film?

...when it's an essay-documentary. And it's made using a camcorder. John Sergeant's The Blue Summer took this year's London Film Festival by storm. Not bad for a meditation on technology and alienation.
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The first basic assumption of film-making," says the director John Sergeant, "is never pick a subject that's not going to infinitely interest you." In the three years it's taken him to make The Blue Summer, his broad, ambitious essay-film, Sergeant has had ample opportunity to delve deep into the found footage that constitutes the bulk of his first feature. It comes out of left-field for current British cinema, an encyclopaedic essay-film that was only just completed in time for its London Film Festival screening and is yet to find an exhibitor. However, it's already received an enthusiastic reception from those who've seen it. JG Ballard, one of Sergeant's key references in the film, viewed an early cut and commended its maker for the quality of his commentary. Ballard expressed particular enthusiasm for its askance take on the self-absorption of so much contemporary British art. The documentary film-maker and BBC film pundit Mark Cousins wrote Sergeant a ringing endorsement, admitting that he found the film "very moving".

Sergeant's background in television documentary has made him a professional archive-hound but The Blue Summer dispenses with the "voice of God" commentary characteristic of conventional documentary. The film is a discursive anthology of two parallel declines, its found-footage material chronicling the late 20th century's loss of faith in the idea of technological progress. Sergeant frames his encyclopaedic assembly of documentary material - a virtual history of the post-war British infrastructure which takes in road-building, aviation and telecommunications - through the fictional narrative of an investigation.

The unseen narrators are a couple, Bill and Sarah, whose exchange of letters filter and refract the images we see. Having taken off to the Herefordshire countryside to put together his thoughts on "the modern age", Bill disappears. At Sarah's behest, the investigator uncovers their correspondence and slowly reveals Bill's decline into madness and the collapse of the couple's relationship.

"I was interested in some complicated business to do with personal memory and collective memory," Sergeant explains, "with the collective memory being represented by the images that had been accumulating in documentaries over the century. I had doubts about non-fiction programming presenting itself as some kind of absolute truth. It struck me as very interesting to construct a story that was based partly on personal experience and that blurred into imagined experience and to try to blend in the documentary elements."

One could easily imagine Sergeant delivering updates from the Commons lobby or filing despatches from afar on From Our Own Correspondent. But there's equally a touch of the BBC dissident about him, the sense that television formats only allow for so much stylistic latitude. After a decade of working as a researcher and assistant producer for television, this sensation of straining at the leash is fully expressed in The Blue Summer.

A literature graduate from Exeter University, Sergeant followed up with a Masters in journalism from Berkeley where he won "a minor Emmy" for his graduation documentary, then departed for travels among the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Returning to the UK, Sergeant worked on several current affairs and arts programmes, including a spell covering defence issues for Channel Four during the 1987 election, followed by work on the BBC's 1989 Inside Story investigation "Who Killed Martin Luther King ?"

"I was tending towards the social-political stuff," he says. "And that's when Caroline Pick at the BBC sent me to see Petit." The idiosyncratic career of Chris Petit as a film-maker and TV essayist had a direct influence on Sergeant. "It was going to see Petit that, in a way, put me back on to my original track where I'd been more oriented towards the cultural. He really opened my mind up again." Having worked with Petit on five of his TV films, it's evident from The Blue Summer that Sergeant has absorbed some of Petit's approach in constructing televisual essays that are lyrical as well as acute, and refracted through a particularly personal sensibility.

The essay-film has seen something of a renaissance in British independent film-making in recent years. The Blue Summer joins Patrick Keiller's films London and Robinson in Space, Andrew Kotting's first-person travelogue Gallivant and Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair's The Falconer. For Sergeant, The Blue Summer could be seen as a personal reckoning with the images of our recent past. When the images are of redundant technology, airliners grounded and decaying, Bill comments that "modernity's surviving images were carrying a new kind of aura, acting as carrier-images of a new kind of collective memory". Sergeant approaches these images as carriers, finding planned obsolescence at work even within the images themselves. Nothing dates as fast as the future, except visions of the future.

"I'd been fascinated for a long time by modern ruins," Sergeant says. "Particularly by a collection of American photographs of Sixties rocket- launch sites. These extraordinary hi-tech ruins look like they're Mayan but are actually only 20 years old and covered in jungle. Every time you see a futuristic thing looking aged it raises the question of how your vision is shaped by technology. Of course, JG Ballard discovered this in 1945 when the Japanese invaded China and he saw the modern age in its apocalyptic state. Anyone who has that susceptibility towards technology, particularly being male in a Western society, and then sees it subverted, is grabbed."

Yet for all its scepticism about technological progress as this century's grand narrative, The Blue Summer would have been impossible without Hi- 8 video and the Avid digital editing system. "It's only now, with the fluency of control over digital elements, that you're able to juggle and rearrange vision and sound. This hi-tech digital machine that's integrating all my stuff is, at the same time, throwing up this weird miasma of events. And that's where the force and the poetry is, when you get these impossible combinations of causality and accident."

The Blue Summer is an inspired baggy monster of an essay-film, a millennial British version of Chris Marker's seminal Sunless (1983). Sergeant delivers a number of tight, wry and acute mini-essays on the contemporary British art scene as well as building up a portrait of the Herefordshire countryside that virtually invents a new genre that one might call "camcorder pastoral". The Blue Summer delivers an undeniable slow-burning emotional impact as it charts Bill's breakdown, his rural idyll turning dark and threatening, the countryside sky torn apart by the sound of low-flying jets, toxic dump sites putrefying nearby. Sergeant's vision of English landscape starts out bucolic and concludes tragically.