In, Out, Out, In: Maria Anastassiou’s Way My It Did I
by María Palacios Cruz
Towards the end of Maria Anastassiou’s Way My It Did I (2019), we race through fields dominated by transmission towers and power lines. A landscape which is neither urban nor countryside, an in-between space glimpsed from a commuter train from Tilbury Town to London. As the train gains speed, we leave behind by now familiar views of the Amazon warehouse, of wind turbines, motorways and port cranes.
Edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities. Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas, a texture we build up speed to escape as we hurry towards the countryside, the distant wilderness. The trouble is, if we can’t see the edgelands, we can’t imagine them, or allow them any kind of imaginative life. And so they don’t really exist. 1
Places like Tilbury—familiar yet ignored—in the fringes of the urban landscape, not quite London but defined by their closeness to it—present a problem of definition. The geographer Marion Shoard first used the term “edgeland” to describe the neglected peripheries of the city, “characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland.” 2 As Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley explain in their book, such zones are difficult to portray, constantly changing, “reinventing themselves as economic and social tides come in and out”. 3 Anastassiou’s film is a snapshot of an edgeland, Tilbury in Essex, at a particular time—that of the months leading to the Brexit deadline in March 2019. Fleeting images of an anti-Brexit march in London appear now as a blurry memory. Radio news bulletins anchor the time and place, taking us back to the days of parliamentary debate and rebellion—“order!” “unlock!”—and to bygone characters in the Brexit drama such as Theresa May and John Bercow.
Home to the historic Tilbury Fort, which was built in the 16th century to protect the Thames approach into London following tensions between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire, Tilbury has been an entry point to England for centuries. Its former strategic importance may now be forgotten, but its port is still the largest on the River Thames. Tilbury continues to operate as a gateway between London and the wider world, its function no longer to keep the enemies out but to allow goods and merchandise in. Out, in, in, out. Simultaneously “In” and “Out” is a condition that defines both Tilbury—as a customs border, as an edgeland—and many of its inhabitants: West-African asylum seekers taking part in a ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop, Filipino seafarers stranded in Essex for nine months at a time, Romanian immigrants seeking EU settled status. Tilbury is where the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain from Jamaica 72 years ago and also from where the ‘Ten Pound Poms’—British immigrants to Australia and New Zealand after WWII—departed.
Romanians constitute the biggest migrant community in Tilbury today and Anastassiou follows a number of characters as they negotiate the uncertainties of their situation in post-Brexit Britain. A lorry driver reads a series of questions to the camera (“What do I have to do if Brexit happens to make everything legal and remain and work legally here?”, “How do I check that my child has a British citizenship?’ etc.) that are revealing of his anxieties—and those of many others—but also of the difficulties and contradictions of a hostile bureaucracy. 4 A young man who works in a phone repair shop recites a series of questions from a ‘Life in the UK Test’ manual. The questions are read out loud but the answers are never given. Their randomness and breadth seem equally distant and disconnected from the images that we are watching, from the reality of life in Tilbury. Oscar winning actors, medieval kings, Lewis Hamilton, voting rights, the flag… is this what constitutes Britishness?
Although the Port of Tilbury is no longer at the centre of the town’s economic activity—jobs having shifted after the 1970s to the surrounding distribution warehouses—it’s still at the heart of Tilbury’s symbolic importance and its imaginary representation. Way My It Did I moves back and forth between the individual, human-scale portraits of migration and the representation of the town’s (and by extension the country’s) economic activity. The port is ever-present in this film, its cranes constantly glimpsed in the background, its sounds accompanying us even when we enter the domestic space. Just as it dominates the local landscape, the port dominates the film’s soundscape.
The port also provides Anastassiou with the film’s entry point into Tilbury. Way My It Did I opens as we approach land from a ship, the river seen from on-board. The port cranes look like two giant figures with arms outstretched, waving us a welcome to the UK. The camera seems fascinated by the precise choreography of containers, cranes, ships and lorries. It is also drawn to the materials of the port, its surfaces, its grids, its letterings and signs in a manner reminiscent of Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street (1966)—another film that uses the sounds and sights of a cityscape to convey its particular industrial mood and feel. Baillie’s Castro Street is dominated by its proximity to the Standard Oil Refinery—which defines its landscape and motifs (trains, trucks,) just as the port defines Tilbury’s landscape. Later, Anastassiou will film a printing workshop for West-African women with a similar emphasis on colour, materiality and geometric design. Fabrics receive the same treatment as rougher, more “industrial” materials; a knitted blanket filmed against the light is not dissimilar to the steel girder bridge that follows it.
As a recipient of an Acme Studios residency in Purfleet, Anastassiou has lived in the area since 2017. Whilst a previous work Kleep-toowit, klip klip, too-ow-wit (2018) was a portrait of the nearby Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve—wilderness being another characteristic of the edgelands—in Way My It Did I, it is the social and human context of Tilbury that interests her. In spite of appearances, this is not a landscape film, but a “people” film—a social documentary which continually draws connections and comparisons between the individual and the global, between the human and the geographical, between the domestic and the industrial, between the formal and the political. Formal experimentation has not always been associated with social commentary in the UK—notable exceptions include the Berwick Street Collective, the Black Audio Film Collective and the contemporary work of Luke Fowler—but this is certainly no observational documentary feigning neutrality. The film’s visual language—its attention to textures, patterns and colour—is heavily emphasized.
For one, Anastassiou works with a 16mm Bolex camera, not exactly the most invisible or transparent of film tools. The Bolex—the camera of Jonas Mekas, of Margaret Tait—brings with it a certain aesthetic, a connection to a specific history of avant-garde filmmaking, filling with poetry the seemingly unpoetic sites that it documents. A timelessness, or rather an out-of-time-ness. Working with a Bolex also means working within self-imposed material and economical constraints—the length of shots, the quantity of rolls of film, the wait between shooting and viewing the images, the inherent separation between shooting images and recording sound. It is the use of non-sync sound—so characteristic to the work of the solitary avant-garde filmmaker, often working on their own or with very small crews—that allows Anastassiou to render the influence of the port onto the other sites of Tilbury, including the domestic space in which a woman and her daughter are filmed and interviewed. Associating sounds from the one with images of the other, blurring the two spaces through the medium of film.
And although the presence of a film camera can present a barrier for a filmmaker’s attempts to establish a relationship with their filmed subject, the Bolex would prove to be an ice-breaker for Anastassiou when she started her exploration of Tilbury; an excuse for conversation, a labour- intensive mechanism that highlighted the connection between the representations of labour in the film and the filmmaker’s own labour in making it. 5 The complicity between Anastassiou and her filmed subjects is palpable. They read to camera, they perform for the camera. The filmic apparatus is not hidden but transparent. In the rare sequences in sync, the clapperboard can be seen.
It is also an instance of that complicity that provides the film with its singular title, a nod to Frank Sinatra’s signature song “My Way”, sung backwards by a Filipino worker during the opening sequence of the film in Tilbury Port—the cranes, the forklifts, the trucks apparently dancing to it—a gesture that brings in both irony and human emotion to the images. 6 On the one hand, broken English, sung backwards, is a reminder of the global role that English plays as a lingua franca and often-misused international language. On the other hand, there’s agency to singing. Throughout history, songs have been a means to proclaim identity and profess ideals and beliefs. Singing can be a defiantly political action but it is also a reminder of our humanity, of our fragility, of our loneliness and melancholy longing for home—as the seafarer’s singing brings to light.
We return to the karaoke at the end of the film, as the sun sets on Tilbury. We hear laughter and conviviality, we hear the filmmaker herself. The participation that she elicits from her subjects is one that only a fellow migrant could— someone who equally understands what it means to feel included and excluded, someone who is also a temporary resident in an area marked by the weight of history and the burden of transience.
- Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, Edgelands.
- Marion Shoard, ‘Edgelands’ in Jennifer Jenkins (ed) Remaking the Landscape: The Changing Face of Britain, 2002.
- Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness, 2012.
- The questions were collected during the Q&A at the EU Legal Advisory Session that can be seen in the film and which Anastassiou facilitated.
- According to the filmmaker, Skype conversation with Maria Anastassiou, May 2020.
- Sinatra’s “My Way” has been associated with a number of killings in karaoke bars in the Philippines—a phenomenon known as ‘My Way killings’ which has been reported by the local and international press (“Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord”, The New York Times, 7 February 2010). As a result many Filipinos refuse to sing the song in public, which makes the film’s performance—and the seafarer’s choice of song—ever more poignant.
María Palacios Cruz is a film curator, writer and educator based in London. She is course leader for the Film Curating course at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in San Sebastian (Spain) and was previously Deputy Director of LUX, the UK agency for artists’ moving image. She is a programmer for the Punto de Vista and Courtisane festivals and in 2019 she edited Telling Invents Told, an anthology of writings by British artist Lis Rhodes published by The Visible Press.