South London Gallery, London
8 March – 26 May 2019
The age of Airbnb and crowdsourced local knowledge is meant to have made travel more insightful and more ethical, but Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid’s words from her book A Small Place (1988) still ring true: “A tourist is an ugly human being.” Free-floating consumers devoid of responsibilities, the tourist flaunts their ability to move around the globe freely, dispensing their disposable income. British filmmaker Laurie Robin’s new fifty-minute film “‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’*” (2019) takes as its starting point German writer Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal (1957), his collected writings based on being a tourist in Ireland throughout the 1950s. Using an edited selection of excerpts from the book as voice-over narration, Robins revisits the cities and sites that Böll described in order to see how Ireland has changed over the past sixty years, while at the same time implicitly asking if the tourist’s gaze, rather than their wallet, can reveal anything about a culture.
On the surface, the film is calmly bucolic: empty churches, desolate roads, windswept pastures, and muddy paths into the hills are shown in long takes and a series of slow pans over the landscape, all in sodden greens, washed whites, and muted browns. The narrator accompanying these scenes, speaking matter-of-factly with a heavy German accent on her English, recounts Böll’s commentaries on Irish culture, such as how people there tend to say “it could be worse” when something bad occurs: “what’s worse,” Böll notes apprehensively, “never happens.” As the title of the film indicates, Robins is keen to frame all of this within economic terms, bookending the film with scrolling shots of historical texts recounting how Ireland’s colonial status determined its trade capabilities. A few shots neatly contain the contradictory and uneven state of contemporary Ireland, where in its eagerness for free trade this small agricultural country ultimately became a semi-industrialized, semi-rural sprawl: a church in one small town, looming over a “Service Matters” factory; the mist-shrouded hills of Mayo in the West part of the country giving a backdrop to a set of semi-collapsed identikit suburban-style houses.
Of course, the tourism industry is also currently one of Ireland’s biggest sources of revenue. Reading the Irish Journal directly, Böll appears to be a considerate traveler, attuned to inequalities, keen to learn while also attempting to teach people there about post–World War II Germany. But despite his honesty, it seems that a simplified, idealistic vision of Ireland is what has effectively emerged: having lived in Ireland for almost a decade, I also saw the direct effect of Böll’s writings, with a significant number of wide-eyed backpackers citing his work as the reason they were there, seeking out muddy fields and abandoned villages occupied only by cows. The same danger exists with Robins’s film. While images of a cut-up peat bog paired with Böll’s mid-twentieth-century notes on Irish emigration do tell us something about the financial realities that helped to shape the landscape, it would seem that the slow pans are meant to provide depth and meaning. Yet what they depict are mostly stereotyped images of the Irish countryside: sheep grazing by the Atlantic Sea, collapsed stone huts with a donkey nearby. These are sights that Böll no doubt encountered, but also ones used by both those who have promoted notions of a romantic, pure Ireland and those who have cast it as a backward, simple country in need of oversight. Robins’s economic cues are too subdued—existing more as extended footnotes outside of the film rather than carried within it—to actually supersede or critique such tangled and ongoing tropes. What emerges instead is a portrait of the tourist’s perspective itself, and by turn the documentary filmmaker, as the panning camera continually gives us a calm, surveying view over the landscape. The tourist attempts to penetrate a culture, buying their way in; but they always remain at a distance, owning nothing.
Originally published in Camera Austria, No. 146, Summer 2019