I do so wish I could say something more positive about 'Signal', a film directed by Simon Tegala. I went with a friend to see it at the Prince Charles Cinema last week where its screening was accompanied by a lived performance of the score and, somewhat disastrously, a discussion with Dr Kevin Rigley, an immunologist who mentored Tegala.
The film, which was three years in the making but lasts just 15 minutes, is set in the British Library's iconic reading room. A cast of four female characters perform in the space -- some collecting parts of puzzles, others striding about or lying on the desks. A sparkly glimmery 'thing' appears which interacts somehow with the characters. Okay, so I didn't understand what was happening while watching the film, so I eagerly looked forward to being enlightened by the discussion. Rigley, who is badly in need of some science communication training, proceeded to give a totally baffling minilecture on how cancer cells recognise 'self' and 'non-self' which seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with what was depicted in the film.
Tegala, prompted by a question from the audience, did eventually explain which cells the 'characters' were meant to represent. The sparkly thing was the antigen or invader and the actresses were all different types of immune cells. Ideally, Rigley would have explained how these cells work in relation to the metaphor of the Reading Room as an organising system.
Tegala wanted to create a film that did not rely on a didactic explanation of the immune system to 'work' as art. I can sympathise with this -- we don't necessarily need everything spelled out for art to be a transformative experience. The problem is that the immune system already abounds with metaphors -- bioinformation, communication, the military metaphor... I was really looking forward to a new system of metaphor being introduced in the film that avoided these cliches and revealed a provocative and novel gaze. But by making our previous frames of reference irrelevant and providing no explanation for the events on screen, the audience was left baffled. It's a question of expectations: the billing promised 'a surreal exploration' -- but the surreal relies on what we know as 'normal' to make sense as a departure from the norm.
I think the film could still work if Tegala is willing to be more upfront about the symbolism. Librarians wear name badges -- it would be a huge help to know what kinds of cells the actors represent from the outset (all we get is a brief glimpse in the credits). In my opinion the musical soundtrack added little to the film. A commentary giving at least an introduction would enhance the narrative intelligibility. Rigley comes across as badly prepared and patronising ('If there's one thing I want you to understand...'). It's not too difficult to explain the rudiments of the immune system to a lay audience in relation to cells depicted in the film. He let down Tegala on the night.
The whole enterprise was clearly well intentioned and I hope it can be rescued. In its current form, though, it sadly seems somewhat pointless.