Necropolis is a film essay about the death of the city, shot entirely in cemeteries, graveyards and burial grounds in Belfast, Berlin and London. The accompanying voiceover narrates a story about attitudes to death and the dead over many centuries. Throughout the film, the cemetery is shown as a parallel to the city, with its own architecture and spatial plan, and its own social divisions. With this concentration on the city of the dead, the film asks simple questions: after decades of dispossession and privatisation, what is the future of our city, the city of the living? Where, and how, will we live?
Valand Academy Research Board Bergman Estate on Fårö Foundation Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin Centre for Media Research, University of Ulster
Description of project
Shots from eleven different cemeteries, burial grounds and graveyards, in Belfast, Berlin and London, are edited together to suggest that we could be looking at one continuous, single space. We track down the long avenues between graves and linger on natural features: flowers, bare branches, lichen on stone. Silhouettes of headstones crowd around the bottom of a grey sky, branches and man-made structures intermingle. The shots combine different seasons and different times of day. The necropolis is an active, teeming place, even though we push it to the margins physically and mentally; our own city, where we live and work and love, is moribund, filled with buildings that are the decaying monuments of a dying social order. Necropolis uses the imagery and history of the cities of the dead to try and understand the death of the city of the living. The voiceover mixes original material with excerpts from existing texts (historical and theoretical pieces on architecture, landscape and art, as well as discussion of our changing attitudes to death and the dead). The texts run together, so the viewer is unaware of the different sources until they read the final credits: the words spoken appear to be the spontaneous thoughts of the narrator, some sort of didactic treatise. A personal dimension enters. The death of the city is the death of a love affair. Characters start to appear in the locations, almost incidentally, at the very end of a pan, or in the far distance. These figures ‘inhabit’ the spaces filmed, performing simple, everyday actions. The combination of the voiceover, the continuous ‘location’ constructed in the edit, and the presence of these everyday figures normalises the space: it is no longer a morbid or melancholy site, but revealed as complex, living. Someone sits over their hurried lunch, someone uses a laptop, a woman reads a letter. Occasional views back to the distant city intrude: the same buildings are seen repeatedly from different viewpoints, but without completely disrupting the spatial unity that the montage has constructed. The ‘living’, everyday city seems to reorient itself in relation to the city of the dead at its edges. Similarly, the voiceover makes references to the decline and fall of the city, while we look at the cemetery. The film began as a film portrait of Belfast, following on from my earlier work NLR (danieljewesbury.org/nlr.html), but one in which the city itself is almost entirely absent. The idea of this film first occurred to me after the financial crash of 2008, when work on the spectacular new developments then filling Belfast ground to a halt. Other influences crowded in: a view from a painting, for example, one of the first picturesque views of Belfast, cradled beneath the hills that surround it, painted from the site of one of its graveyards. The painting came to be owned by the city’s richest property developer, who declared himself bankrupt in the wake of the crash. The city asks us to unpick our binaristic thinking about death and the city. Only then will we see the death all around us in our slavish occupation of the city of endless, moribund production; and only when we realise that we must escape this, will we start to see the freedom in the city of the dead.
Type of work
Screened at Belfast Film Festival 2019. Accepted for distribution by Film Form, Stockholm, in October 2019.
Link to web site
death of the city