Identity and time

Who am I? It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves at least once in our lifetime. We are trying to identify ourselves and consequently relate to our environment. This mental process is the subject of the film History’s Future by Fiona Tan. It features a man (Mark O’Halloran) who literally does not know who he is due to memory loss caused by being beat up. The movie shows him traveling and taking on different personalities which lead him into diverse situations.

History's Future_Film Still 1
Fiona Tan, History’s Future (film still), 2015.
Amsterdam based artist Fiona Tan mostly works in photography and film. She is well known for her use of archival material, like her Vox Populi series (2004-2012), a collection of found photographs of unknown people.

Tan questions the role of the observer and the observed. In History’s Future this is demonstrated by changes of perspective in the narrative. Sometimes we follow the perspective of an omniscient narrator and other times we suppose we see things through the eyes of the main character. This shifting of perspective makes it possible for us to understand some images as thoughts or memories of the protagonist. It shows Tan’s interest in memory and the creativity of the human mind in remembering events of the past.

History's Future_Film Still 2
Fiona Tan, History’s Future (film still), 2015.

Time is another important aspect of this film; it is set in recent past, made clear by the archival images from actual events. Obviously past and present alternate each other through memories or television images in the film. However time is also present in a more abstract way; your past shapes you and leads you into a future. The movie seems to investigate what this means for all of us after the turbulent times we had. The protagonist could be understood as a representation of society.

History's Future_Film Still 5
Fiona Tan, History’s Future (film stills), 2015.

Not remembering who he is brings the hero to assume different personalities and behaviors, which in turn influences the way other people respond to him. Thus he finds himself in divergent situations, like lying to a woman to have a one night stand with her and aggression caused by drinking. I think it is here that Tan´s references to the Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch become significant. The meaning of this painting is not entirely clear, but a number of scholars believe it to be a warning for immoral conduct since it is accompanied by representations of paradise and hell. Tan might, in a similar fashion, set people to think about what their behavior does to their environment and themselves.

Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (center panel), 1505-1510, oil on wood.

With this film Tan explores the current human condition. She leaves her audience a little unsatisfied for her main character does not get his memories back, maybe because the search for identity never really stops. We continually need to determine our position in relation to other people and developments within society, as our actions decide our future.

History’s Future will be screened on 5 and 6 February at the IFFR.

For more information on Fiona Tan:

Film stills: Courtesy of the press office of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

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