SARAH VANAGT FOCUS [UNDERDOX - DOKUMENT UND EXPERIMENT]
UNDERDOX is a Munich-based festival that focuses on artistic documentary films addressing an audience interested both in contemporary art and film. For its second edition, this year UNDERDOX will be presenting, in collaboration with Argos, a special focus on Sarah Vanagt’s work.
Sarah Vanagt (BE, 1976) studied History at the universities of Antwerp, Groningen and Brighton and documentary filmmaking at the London National Film and Television School. Her work is a constant research on children’s “historical imagination”. How do children deal with the past, or rather, how do they shape it in their imagination? Can the fantasy world of a child provide a secret passage into the past?
Begin Began Begun (2005) takes place in the borderline between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A violent conflict has been going on there for over 10 years. Sarah Vanagt went on the lookout for the miniature worlds children set up while they are playing – worlds in which time is stretched out and cut short on their own discretion, where objects are brought to life, where the boundaries between reality and imagination, life and death, order and chaos fade away. The children seem to be playing with pieces from the past, as it were.
First Elections (2006) begins where Begin Began Begun ends: with images of refugee children in Goma, playing amongst the lava fragments which disrupted the city. From found material they build up a miniature city. Old, used phone cards suddenly turn into TV-screens, in a sardine tin which was converted into a living room; a piece of metal is bent to become a wheelchair. Cities rise and fall at each shower of rain. Everything is lava, lava is everything: arms, building bricks, diamonds. The ground underneath their petrified feet, the air for their asthmatic lungs. The cause for their illness, a source of income. In order to make money the children sort the pieces of lava, which is subsequently processed as cement, or they sell paper handkerchiefs.
While Begin Began Begun is mostly situated at the Rwandese side of the border, First Elections was filmed for the most part at the Congolese side of the border. Whereas the game of the Rwandese children was part of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, the game of the children in Goma mainly reflects the current chaos, the corruption and the election fever in Eastern Congo. Their game becomes a barometer for the political climate in the area. Death takes up a central position: dolls are buried between lava fragments, the dead fall and rise again. The children seem to turn into wandering links between the living and the dead, as larvae creeping from underneath the vast, dark lava surface in order to report from another world, the world underneath the ruins. As if they were playing knucklebones with the spines of millions of dead people in packed graves.
The work of Sarah Vanagt offers glimpses of that “in-between space”, as an image of a society in which the surreal and the imaginary keep merging more and more, where the invisible might even have pushed aside the visible. The tiny world of fairytale is used as a prism to watch at the ‘greater world’. The trajectory the dolls cover in their cars – which is also the trip the spectator makes through the imaginary world of the children – is nothing more than a detour to get to reality.
Sarah Vanagt’s work has been shown at Contour (Mechelen), Bozar (Brussels), Tate Modern (London), IDFA (Amsterdam), Transmediale (Berlin), Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid) and EMAF (Osnabruck), amongst others. She lives and works in Brussels.