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“Nothing to See Here”: a Film by Paul H Williams

Author: • Jan 14th, 2018 •

Category: Abu Dhabi, airports, alternate worlds, CCTV, Dubai, film, flying, hyperreality, Lead Story, memory, non-place, perception, surveillance

Nothing To See Here from Paul H Williams on Vimeo.

“Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there – a city, a pyramid, a motel – stands outside time.”

(J.G. Ballard)

In 2010 ballardian.com featured a series of videos I had made while living and working in the United Arab Emirates. They showed a landscape of futuristic buildings, most under construction, punctuated by motorways and dunes – a very Ballardian landscape indeed.

I produced them during my 15-month stay as a way of making sense of the places I saw, and the social and work situations I was embedded in, as well as reflecting my feelings of being away from home and family for extended periods.

But there was one film that I never made publicly available, until now: “Nothing to See Here”. It is the film you see at the top of this page. It is also the last film I made there and provides a conclusion to that body of work. Seven years have passed during which I have obtained some kind of closure around its subject matter and now it seems right to share it here.

The essay available on the source video site describes the personal circumstances surrounding the film and the reflections below provide further background to my stay in the UAE and my film work there.

Female Flight Attendant

“Nothing to see here” were the first words I remember saying to myself on looking out from the fifth floor balcony of my hotel room in Abu Dhabi at the vast building site sprawling before me. It was the morning after I arrived and I was still in shock from the transition from family life and home, in the suburbs of London, to this over-lit, overheated, artificial construction zone.

My flight there had become imbued with paranoia when, half-way through the journey, a female flight attendant had leaned over to me while I was reading and, in a heavily nasalised east-European accent, said: “So are you looking forward to going to Abu Dhabi?”

“Oh yes,” I replied beaming.

“Why?” She said abruptly, her decompression-proof make-up a Noh mask hovering over my face.

“It seems very… interesting,” I said, the smile already wilting on my lips.

“Iiiiinteresting,” she repeated, time-stretching the word until it broke up into a crackle of condescension.

“It’s fake,” she announced. “It’s all fake.”

Something appeared to be seriously wrong with the airline’s customer-care training.

I spent the rest of the journey, clamped into my seat, in a kind of shrivelled paralysis. According to her I was heading for a fake world, a fake land, the land of fake.

Weird Organ Transplants

Fake is one of the mantras of the 21st Century. Social media sites are peppered with fierce declarations of “FAKE!” in a kind of frenzy of epistemological trolling. News is fake, the moon landings were fake, Obama’s birth certificate is fake, 911 was fake, the British Royal Family is fake, 70s family entertainers were fake, climate change is fake, vaccination is fake and all those UFO denials, fake, fake, fake. When the sprawling rug of reality is pulled from beneath your feet with the battle cry of “Fake!” what can you do but tumble into the void?

“Is this for real?” was a phrase I often heard repeated by people who’d come to work in Abu Dhabi. While sitting out-doors, at yet another hotel drinking a cocktail, blinded by the reflections from the latest shiny new building, a recent arrival would look around, peer over their sunglasses and murmur “Is this for real?” But then, I’d think, what about the cocoon of the ex-pat life we were all living? Was that for real? Colonies are fakes aren’t they? Like weird organ transplants or tissue grafts required by the exigencies of trade.

Anomalous Behaviour

I’d come to Abu Dhabi to help with the development of a complex surveillance system that would aggregate information from CCTV, airline booking systems, hotel rooms and vehicles hired, withdrawals from cash machines and borders crossed and look for ‘anomalous behaviour’. The aim was to identify potential criminal or terrorist activity enabling security forces to act before any major incident occurred: a powerful IT version of the precog technology in Minority Report. As one Emirati asked at a presentation: “Are you saying you can predict the future?” It didn’t seem feasible to me in 2010 but now with the rise of Big Data it’s a concept we have submitted too. It’s just how things will be. It’s for our protection. Some faceless agency will always know where you’ve been and what you’ve done and who you know and what you like.

It’s hard not to see the videos I made as some sort of surveillance footage of my own. My impressions of the Gulf, before arriving, were a mash-up of the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the photographs of the explorer and travel writer Wilfrid Thesiger, fairy-tale towers from half-glimpsed Dubai travel adverts and TV news of middle-Eastern war and atrocity footage. None of these images reflected my real experience.

I originally started taking photos but progressed quickly to making videos assembled out of statically-framed shots recorded in real time. One of my principles was that even if nothing actually happened in the shot I had still recorded a meaningful duration of time and space. I was using a very simple camera with an LED screen. The sunlight was so bright that I often couldn’t see the display properly. I would point the camera and hope for the best. Later, returning to the ‘editing suite’ that was a cheap laptop in my hotel bedroom was like opening up a stolen hoard of treasure and I was often surprised by the gems I found.

Theming my videos around the work of JG Ballard came about quite quickly. I was well aware that I was living in a Ballardian landscape with its relentless scenery of motorways, malls and deserts. In fact this awareness made it all the more bearable. I had always been attracted to empty structures, construction sites and dunes before I ever read Ballard. He was the only author I’d discovered who described landscapes I recognised from deep inside.

Ruthless Trajectory

Westerners working in the UAE, and most of my work colleagues, acclimatised to their air-conditioned environment in a very specific way: by drinking and eating. Hotel brunches seemed to swell outside the boundaries of their allocated time and space and spill across an entire weekend taking in pools and beaches and balconies in an eternal symphony of clinking glasses and cutlery jangling on plates. This was a world I never fully engaged with preferring to use my free time to voyage across the country’s surface, camera and tripod in hand, where camels lolloped along by the side of gigantic white 4x4s whose denizens remained forever chilled behind the smoked glass of their own windscreens.

Into this hazy mirage blew a very cold wind: the illness of my father. His dementia began to increasingly take hold during the period I was there. On my monthly visits back home I would spend the few days I had trying to be a father to my boys and a son to my parents both of whom were struggling. There was a ruthless trajectory to my dad’s condition and it was reflected in my attitude and feelings about my life in the UAE. At the beginning, for instance, I would lie on the hotel’s artificial beach, the industrial soundtrack of jack hammers faintly echoing from the vast building site across the inlet slowly mixing into the soothing exotica of the call to prayer. It was all alien spell-binding music to me. But over time that faded and the Adhan assumed all the pragmatic functionality of an announcement at the airports I spent so much time passing through.

Distant Walking Figures

In the last few weeks of my time in the UAE I made my last video. It was created from footage I filmed on a visit to Dubai. The sequencing reflects the progress of my pilgrimage showing the landscape around the city first and then moving closer and closer recording the shifts in atmosphere and mood.

Aside from the vistas which are typically Ballardian, the whole video seems to be suffused with paranoia, which is a mood I’ve only really felt in Ballard’s books Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, and arcs back to my feelings experienced during my first flight.

Amongst the concrete and sand grew plants whose slow movements in the hot cream-like breeze were infused with a curious sinister quality. In places where little moved any gesture by the landscape generated a sense of low-level alarm; a dream-like patina of dread lay over everything I looked at as if I was preparing myself to meet some shadowy threat.

On the outskirts of Dubai titan-like pylons stood gripping power lines that crackled as they poured energy into the city. And always in the distance, like lonely sentry guards, endless arrays of receiving stations cast their metallic ears to the sky.

I travelled from inert desert spaces, through seemingly unpopulated suburbs and into the heart of the city itself where cars rumbled and screamed past sun-drenched towers occasionally interrupted by the sight of distant walking figures – just like me.

I believed I was in search of the soul of Dubai… but this narrative was a fake. The landscapes I was passing through were reflections of the journey I was undertaking through inner space – trying to make sense of the end of a life that was so precious.

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2 Responses »

  1. An outstandingly beautiful film, and a suitably Ballardian back-story, thanks Paul!

  2. A brilliant film. Also educational. Myths of the Near Future indeed. Seems related somehow to DeLillo’s “Zero K” and to Ballard’s “Hello America.” Loved the very welcome lengthy shots.

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