The French ambassador’s wife sings bleak arias behind the shutters of her fortified residence in Ouagadougou. Somalian refugees perform the epic verse of their homeland on the streets of Turin. Rock drilling turns up great chunks of the earth’s mantle in the Mojave desert, alien in winter, while dancers in their 90s turn the boulevards of Argentina into sweltering outdoor ballrooms – global visions appearing on screen.
Art can take you anywhere, and nowhere more immediately or more variously than in the ceaseless cycle of films that makes up the Artists’ Film International programme at the Whitechapel Gallery. The AFI, as it is unenticingly known, is one of the hidden treasures of the contemporary art scene in Britain. It is always there, always free and perpetually changing, with tranches of new films rolling out through the year from all over the world. They aren’t bulletins, although each brings news of elsewhere; nor are they movies in any conventional sense, although some artists work with actors, film stock and plot.
What they are, it seems to me from watching over the years, is roughly the equivalent of literature to raw knowledge: the world seen and understood through the mind and gifts of an artist. Sometimes the adjustments are minimal. A riot occurs and the camera runs, coming to a significant halt or changing sides without the mollifying explanatory voiceovers of television news. Sometimes the artist turns to pseudo-documentary, impromptu theatre, or superimposed animation. But what’s crucial is the prominence of the contemporary world. There may be themes – truth, beauty, gender – but all of these films are anchored in everyday reality.
With the latest edition comes a tremendous new work called Dun (Home), by the Turkish artist Senem Gökçe Oğultekin (born 1982). It opens with the most startling pan across the parched and stony highlands of eastern Turkey, homing in on the bare feet of a girl clambering over sharp rocks. These…