British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien, the son of immigrants to England from the small Caribbean island state of Saint Lucia, says his art film Better Life offers an allegory of the 2004 tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned at Morecambe Bay, northern England. “We have lots of facts and figures and news reporting of these kinds of events,” he told reporters in Venice at the weekend. “I’m using that factual information and embellishing it with emotional intelligence.”
Julien, whose film was included in the Venice film festival’s Orizzonti sidebar, added: “I want it to have a much longer durability than the headlines allow, so for me it’s important that it’s allegorized.” He likened the work to The Raft of the Medusa by French romantic painter Theodore Gericault, commemorating a shipwreck in 1816 in which just 15 people survived — partly thanks to cannibalism — out of nearly 150 who were set adrift on rafts. “Over a hundred years later we can see that painting still,” at the Louvre in Paris, said Julien, who was nominated for the Turner prize in 2001 for his films The Long Road to Mazatlan and Vagabondia. “I’m really thinking of my work like a painting, I’m thinking over this longer period of time,” he said.
The Morecambe Bay disaster occurred in February 2004 in northern England, when the 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned by the incoming tide. The film — a single-screen adaptation of a nine-screen installation titled “Ten Thousand Waves” — interweaves three “ghost stories” including a 15th-century Chinese fable starring Hong Kong’s Maggie Cheung, scenes of contemporary Shanghai and echoes of a 1934 silent film, The Goddess.
Many immigrants “are people who are in some sort of way in conflict with their kind of surroundings, and so this is a theme that I wanted to bring out,” Julien said. “One of the problems is the fact is that we’re prisoners in the way in which we approach these issues,” said Julien. “I think about that also in relationship to my own family coming to Europe for a better life … I felt I could make a piece of work, or two works, that would try to explore why people would do this kind of thing,” he said.
Julien’s Western Union, Small Boats also deals with immigration, focusing on boat people who risk their lives voyaging to Italy from Libya aboard rickety vessels.
Julien divulged another highly personal underpinning of the project: “I can’t swim, and I have a real phobia of water. Coming to Venice is quite trying because I’m really quite nervous about boats as well.”
Ten Thousand Waves premiered in Sydney in May and is currently in Helsinki. London’s prestigious Hayward Gallery will show it in October.
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