Piercing Brightness is a British science fiction film in the same way that Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death are British science fiction films. It was commissioned by In Certain Places, a Preston-based arts initiative who work with artists of regional, national or international renown on community-minded events and installations. The artist is this instance is Shezad Dawood, whose multimedia works combine film, painting and light sculpture – a previous moving image project, Feature, was part-zombie movie, part-Western, part-rumination on the working relationship between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton and featured an appearance by the Danish opera singer Hetna Regitze Bruun. Piercing Brightness isn’t quite so strange, instead taking inspiration from Preston’s status as the UK’s hotspot for UFO activity and constructing a tale that dwells on concepts of race, immigration and home.
Written by Kirk Lake (who had previously collaborated with artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard on a video installation inspired by the silent 3D film The Man from M.A.R.S.), the screenplay envisions a group of alien visitors, named the Glorious 100, who arrived on Earth many years ago in order to study the planet. Forbidden from making contact with each other and seemingly abandoned by those who sent them, their original purpose has become lost. As two from their world appear with the aim of re-establishing contact, it becomes clear that the influence and enticement of their new home has taken effect – they are no longer the people they once were, but now exist somewhere in-between, subsumed by the culture around them yet not quite assimilated.
Of course, the connection between Piercing Brightness’ alien contingent and the UK’s immigrant population is hard to miss. The two new arrivals are both of Chinese appearance and converse in Mandarin – a nod to Preston’s ever-growing Chinese community, reportedly the largest in mainland England – while their first contact within the Glorious 100 is with a Pakistani shopkeeper. Dawood himself has a mixture of British, Irish, Indian and Pakistani roots, and that blend has always fed into his work. Indeed, the science fiction elements are essentially window dressing, a means with which to address such themes from a slightly different angle. (Ngozi Onwurah did something similar with Welcome II the Terrordome in 1994, which considered the Black British experience via dystopian sci-fi albeit to less successful ends.)
Piercing Brightness also exists as a recently published book and a pair of re-edits derived from the rough footage. One, entitled Trailer, was 15 minutes in length and played galleries, while the other was a mere three minutes and screened on Channel Four as part the Random Acts strand. The adaptability of the film points up its slippery nature. Whilst it themes may be readily apparent, Lake and Dawood are keen not to overstate their case. The storyline is merely a thread in a densely layered work that shoots off in a number of areas. Staged scenes involving actors (and members of the local community) co-exist with 16mm ‘documentary’ footage and materials from the archives pertaining to UFO sightings. Dawood clearly enjoys the clash of textures as well as seeking out the more sci-fi qualities of Preston’s architecture, whether it’s the Brutalist design of the Bus Station or the disco ball-lined ceiling of a nightclub.
To be honest, the visual ideas have a tendency to be a touch more interesting than their narrative equivalents. Dawood’s skills as a filmmaker are such that he can certainly control the aesthetic side of things, yet he’s less sure footed when it comes to handling his actors or maintaining the dramatic impetus. Dialogue scenes occasionally veer into the stagey, while the use of non-professionals doesn’t always pay off when it comes to quality of performance. (His main players include a number of familiar faces from television and low-budget British movies, most notably Emmerdale regular Bhasker Patel.) With that said, thanks to Piercing Brightness’ concerns clearly extending beyond its storyline, such flaws are easy to overlook. There’s more than enough to maintain our interest, not to mention a certain novelty. Though it may not quite stand comparison with The Falls or Jubilee, there’s something incredibly pleasing in seeing an intelligent British science fiction-infused art film once again.
Click here for details on Piercing Brightness’ screenings during June and July, plus an interview with Dawood.
Where sci-fi meets artists' film.