What a title! It has the ring of an instructional film or video, promising constructive guidelines for the achievement of a task, even one as hard to imagine as this. But the words are not defeatist or apathetic. “In order not to be here…” They suggest the real possibility of resistance, albeit it resistance to something which is apparently inescapable – presence.
In Order Not To Be Here is a film of relatively distinct movements, all of which clearly share a thematic concern with public space, power and surveillance, and are precariously connected by the merest hints of narrative continuity.
It starts with police footage and muffled radio communication; in the night-vision images, we can just about make out that a fugitive has been tracked down by a law-enforcement team. This ‘prologue’ is followed by a series of short, mostly still shots documenting a suburban (or small urban) environment at night. The locations tend to be commercial, unpeopled and artificially lit, and their cumulative impression is of uninspiring, even soulless conditions, in which the harsh and functional lighting exists as a warning – “You cannot hide” – as much as a provision. How many chase films have we seen in which fugitives (guilty or otherwise) evade capture by disappearing into an urban crowd? In the world of this film, an oblique thriller, such an escape route is virtually unimaginable.
The very fact that we consider these narrative questions is testament to the film’s delicate balance of abstraction and intrigue, its ability to maintain a sense of possibility and latent action despite the very limited involvement of language and bodies (at least until its extraordinary climax). At times, Stratman’s portraits of empty parking lots and windowless buildings recall the photographs of Lewis Baltz, but while Baltz’s images tend to lament the monotony of built entities, In Order Not To Be Here extends its account of capitalist place-making to more ephemeral features, too; illumination, opening hours, the audible hum of energy infrastructures. It is biopolitical.
Not often do films register paranoia and hope simultaneously. I keep watching the end of Stratman’s to figure out how this one does.
Thanks to Alison Butler for pointing me towards Deborah Stratman’s work.
Adam O’Brien is a Lecturer in Film at the University of Reading (UK). He is the author of Film and the Natural Environment: Elements and Atmospheres (2018), and a number of articles and book reviews engaging with film aesthetics and the non-human world.