Still from Blight (1994-1996) by John Smith
© John Smith, courtesy LUX

In his 14-minute film Blight, John Smith focuses on a residential street in East London being demolished to make way for the construction of a motorway link road. The film is based on original sound and image recordings, put together in such a way however that the film transgresses the boundaries of pure documentary.

The initial images show ruins and abandoned houses in the style of British working class terraced houses, followed by shots of the houses being demolished. These are combined with fragments of speech, in which for example the words “Jordan and Kim” and “Kill the spiders” are repeated like a leitmotif, drawn out until they become sentences and continuously supplemented with new components until they consolidate to form a collage-like, almost musical arrangement of sound. String instruments can be heard, rising to a single chord motif, which suddenly breaks off as soon as the first beams of the houses crash to the ground.

Later, the speech fragments turn out to be texts spoken off-camera and drawn from interviews that slowly become coherent, bit by bit. They are the reminiscences of former tenants who also recite statements by official institutions that were obviously made in connection with the demolition of their neighborhood. On top of this we hear sounds of destruction such as saws screeching or wood cracking and then extremely short fragments of cars driving until finally a heavy flow of traffic can be both seen and heard. The music is compiled of strings, piano, and percussion elements, but also vocal parts that constantly fade, are superimposed, break off altogether. These are joined by images with text, such as “Exorcist,” the semantic content of which is deployed just as unambiguously as the leitmotif “Kill the spiders” or the vocal piece “Don’t really remember.”

Drawing on these elements, John Smith assembles a precisely aligned, intricate construction that, as a result of the halting music, is broken down into individual parts that are thematically clearly-defined. The opening credits and a road map at the end bracket the film with graphics, the words “Kill the spiders” are the auditive framework. Meanwhile, the allocation of colors to objects (cars) and to the text plays just as much a structuring role as the selectively placed noises on the one hand and the short interview segments on the other. It is telling that the speakers are never visible they have vanished. As a result, the voices, just as much as the reminiscent noises coupled to the objects that are left behind, become history, while the viewer sees and hears the cars and the demolition work synchronically, and thus a present (and a near future) are created. In this way, the film creates a complex compositional interlocking of speech, music, noises, frames, and motifs. Filmmaker John Smith, who had already demonstrated an unusual sensitivity towards audiovisual interactions and compositional principles, put his (montage-)art – congenially accompanied by sound design and a composition from Jocelyn Pook – at the service of a clear political statement. Blight is exemplary for a documentary film that perceives sound and image as two complementary layers of a composition – an approach that is quite rare in this genre.[1]

Something similar, although by no means as complex, can be found in the film Megacities by Michael Glawogger (sound: Ekkehard Baumung) from 1998.