Ben Slater: ‘Nostalgia simplifies the past’

In a film workshop for The Future of Our Pasts, Ben Slater encouraged the teams to embrace multiplicity in narratives, and cautioned them against pure nostalgia when engaging with Singapore’s past. 

Photography by Min Lim

For Ben Slater, linear narratives no longer suffice for making films or art about the city. Speaking at a workshop for teams supported by The Future of Our Pasts, the film critic and NTU School of Art, Design and Media Senior Lecturer shared, “If you want to be honest about the city represented, then you need to embrace its pluralities, by juxtaposing different layers and elements side by side.”

In his presentation ‘The City, Essays and Psychogeography’, Ben introduced the teams to the genre of the ‘essay-film’. Mirroring the original definition of ‘essay’ — to try, to attempt —  an essay-film takes a viewer into its full thought process, employing what Ben called “the art of the digression”.

He explained that just as new meanings are constantly being produced in the vast, complex city, films can create an accumulation of (non-linear) ideas, which build up towards new interpretations rather than a clear-cut resolution.

Chong Kaiyan, whose team is exploring a history of place through old love stories in Singapore, appreciated learning about different narrative devices she could apply to her project.

“Ben introduced an alternative storytelling method that left us inspired. We are now broadening our strategy to craft a journey for our readers, not just a destination,” she shared.

Ben also screened excerpts from several ‘essay-films’, comparing different techniques those filmmakers employed to complicate conventions of storytelling, and ideas around cities, place and history.

He observed an overabundance and self-reflexivity of narration in Further Beyond (Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor), where imperfections and interruptions in the voiceover were retained rather than edited out. Yet in Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin), it was the deliberate lack of narration and withholding of information that forced viewers to draw their own connections.

In At large in a ‘fictional’ Hackney, we watched the ‘psychogeographer’ Iain Sinclair talk about the history of spaces and past events as he walked through the London Borough. Ben emphasized that while Sinclair may be critical of how the State imposes itself on urban space, “he isn’t just interested in a simplistic return to the past.” On a related note, Ben cautioned the teams against the dangers of “pure nostalgia”.

According to Ben, nostalgia is so seductive because of the “warm and fuzzy” effect it has, whilst simplifying the past and preventing us from being critical about it.

“Nostalgia is that aching feeling of wanting to go back home, but you can’t go back home because home has changed or may not even be there anymore. Nostalgia itself is an impossibility,” he shared, adding “if you walk down a blind alley into the past and give up on the present, then where does that leave the rest of us?”

“[Ben’s] perspective towards nostalgia was a timely reminder for our project,” Kaiyan said, “that despite the charm of the old, we should not disengage with the present.”

Following the discussion of films, the teams shared about their own projects with Ben, who offered honest and precise comments on each of them. An old hand at supervising student projects, Ben urged the teams to dig deeper into the specific historical material that interested them first, assuring them that overarching themes will emerge organically out of those concrete stories later on.

Anne Caroline Franklin found Ben’s advice to zoom in on the specific timely for her team, whose project is concerned with the material memorialization of history in Singapore.

"Ben did an amazing job of helping each group excavate the essence of their project. He was direct and precise with his feedback, and really helped us to move past vague conceptual jargon towards a more grounded articulation of what we were hoping to achieve.”

On focusing their efforts on just a few of the most interesting threads, Ben said “That doesn’t mean you do less work, but you raise the quality and depth of the work that you do.”