Review: What Does Normal Look Like?
Collaborative Bristol-based documentary What Does Normal Look Like? explores music, arts, and community in the wake of lockdown, in a deeply moving reflection on its challenges and ongoing conversations. In October and November, the film screens twice, at Strange Brew and at the Cube cinema, with live sets from the featured musicians.
“You’re catching me at an interesting time,” says percussionist Dan Johnson, encapsulating the position of just about everyone who appears in Bristol-made documentary What Does Normal Look Like?
Or, more accurately, a time of colossal uncertainty – for our physical and mental health, jobs, financial security, and social connections. But do we think about all this day-to-day? For those not living with Covid’s long term effects or with clinical vulnerability, it can feel easy to suppress the memory of this intensely emotional time as we process what happened, both individually and collectively.
Enter What Does Normal Look Like?. Aiming for “collective healing,” it is a visceral and visual chronicle that recalls lockdown in all its surreality, cut with glimmers of hope and togetherness. Speaking in a BBC interview, co-creator Tom Whitson says he hopes the film (whose name echoes the words of a speaker at one of the Kill the Bill protests) will be “a catalyst for healing, for having conversations about a fraught time most of us have understandably pushed to the side.”
But it goes deeper, too. Complex questions are raised, whether around protests during a pandemic, their larger goals and particularly the legacy of Black Lives Matter, communities and “progress,” or the perceived value of cultural venues. Most of these questions remain unanswered, which is to the documentary’s credit; to be authentic, such conversations have to be ongoing.
A collage documentary
Bristol-based filmmakers Tom Whitson and Colin Moody met photographing the empty streets during the pandemic. Over the next two years, they collaborated with a host of photographers, filmmakers, musicians, pub and venue owners, and members of the community to produce What Does Normal Look Like? – a collage-style documentary, painstakingly assembled from photographs, video footage, and interviews, with a keen focus on music and sound elements. The result is a rich mosaic that feels both rooted and wide-ranging.
Tonight’s event at Strange Brew – the first of two public screenings – was followed by a live set from electronic artist Kayla Painter, whose music features in the film. Another screening is scheduled for November 9 at The Cube cinema, with a live set from Dan Johnson.
“It’s really important this space survives.”
During the pandemic, experimental solo drummer Dan Johnson found Cattle Market Road tunnel, which runs under Bristol Temple Meads, closed and empty. He couldn’t resist testing out the acoustics. As the documentary opens, Dan plays to a handful of onlookers – not really enough to be called an audience but, as Dan says, “I’m not playing on my own down there. Like, there’s more going on.” Beats echo and reverberate. The city responds. And in Whitson and Moody’s strikingly simple and poetic sound design, phrases and fragments of Dan’s rhythms are stitched through the entire film, a thread of continuity in an almost overwhelming array of subjects and images. But they also feel to me like a ticking, a tolling, a reckoning.
From the outset, the film grounds us in Bristol’s cultural scene via its pubs and music venues. For Bristolians, the names – Full Moon, Queenshilling, Beaufort, Elmer’s Arms, Trinity, Leftbank, Lost Horizon, and many more besides – create a net of familiarity that stretches across the city and encompasses many different communities. But the faces behind these venues may be less familiar. It’s fascinating to hear owners and managers of these establishments and others speak candidly about the precarity lockdown placed them in. Likewise, well-known figures across Bristol’s arts scenes, including prolific gig-goer Big Jeff, musician Grove, nightlife ambassador Carly Heath, musician and journalist Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley, and broadcaster and poet Dr. Edson Burton, along with dozens of others, are generous and forthcoming with their perspectives throughout the film.
Many witness to these venues being places to gather – not simply to have fun, but to connect with likeminded communities, build friendships, build relationships – meaning their social and cultural value goes way beyond the commercial alone. Viewed in this light, the patchy support and flip-flopping expectations for the hospitality sector not only impact people’s livelihoods, but also the mental health of the people they serve – something the pandemic forced many of us to sit up and acknowledge. As Big Jeff reflects, “I came to the realisation that I depended on a lot of the live music venues to be my go-to spaces.”
“If I don’t see you, then I don’t value you.”
But obviously, pubs and music venues are not the go-to spaces of all communities. What about high streets, social clubs, shopping centres? These businesses’ precarity is a little different to that of music venues, because the people they serve are often more disadvantaged, older, living in the suburbs, less connected by transport links, or any combination of the above. And when decisions are made about the future of these areas, whose voices are heard, and whose are ignored?
Rachel and her friends like to meet for coffee on East Street. But for how long will this be possible? “People like us lot,” she says, “we can’t afford to pay £2.60, £3-odd for a coffee. (…) It’s for rich people, isn’t it?” Elsewhere, portraits by photographer Tom Skipp, who spent three months interviewing local people at Knowle’s Broadwalk shopping centre, provide at least a small gesture towards people being “seen.” But, as he is quick to underscore, change will take much more that that. The question becomes how to collectively make sure that whole communities among us are not left behind. Skipp hits the nail on the head: “Be careful who [isn’t] included in this forward-thinking, modern society. And that’s not to say don’t go and enjoy yourself in clubs – fucking enjoy it (…), after coronavirus ripped through our community and we felt such a sense of alienation, being part of that again is amazing. But most of society isn’t part of that, they’re sat at home watching TV, not being able to afford that. And what do we do for those people? I don’t know.”
“It all got too much.”
On top of the pandemic, the social landscape of recent years has clearly been fraught in other ways. With Bristolians joining countless others around the world in the Black Lives Matter protests, footage from various contributors gives a sense of how the outside world saw Bristol on June 7, 2020: the day slave trader Edward Colston’s statue was pulled down and thrown in the river. Khali Ackford’s dramatic monochrome images highlight the historical moment. This perspective is balanced, though, with more personal reflections, including one deeply stirring segment in which Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley is moved to tears as she describes her experience and the questions and conflicts that surrounded it.
This visual and sonic reminder of Black Lives Matter, as well as Kill the Bill and climate action protests and the vigil for Sarah Everard, are a stark reminder of these significant events: vans on fire, chants, protesters on top of bus stops, lines of police in riot gear. But again, we are nudged to look beyond these eye-catching scenes. Daffodils are poked into police shields. Children dance in a circle at a climate march.
And suddenly, the drumming that forms a motif throughout the film is not solo drumming at all, but a samba band. As Grove says, much is “orchestrated to keep us divided, but we actually have so much more in common – we just need to have more conversations.” As Dan, alone on a stage, takes off his headphones and looks right at the camera, the symbolism is clear.
“It was pretty dark.”
Following shots of Colston swallowed up by the river, water seems to creep in from all sides, and the tension continues to mount. We see an underpass under metres of water, a slow zoom-in revealing the “Flood” sign, submerged; the sense of overwhelm is tangible. Several voices attest to mental health struggles: “All that anxiety went inwards (…) It was pretty dark (…) Mentally, it’s just soul destroying.” But as if to temper this harsh reality, it is now that we discover the Dove Gardens project, a community garden space created by residents of the Dove Street housing estate. The garden’s founder, local resident Bernie Munoz-Chereau, speaks eloquently of the project’s beginnings and the positive ripple effects of making one small change in the city. The contrast here is compelling: as we plunge back into the toughest, loneliest, most anxious moments of lockdown, we are simultaneously met with a true case study for building hope and community. This careful balance really speaks to the thoughtful approach of What Does Normal Look Like? – not shying away from difficult truths but approaching them with care and intention.
As the credits roll, chairs are cleared away and Kayla Painter begins her electronic live set. Organic, uplifting rhythms are infused with her signature warmth, along with vocal samples, cosmic chimes, and percussive and textural soundscapes; meanwhile, the screen behind her is lit up with the crystalline, pastel-hued visuals, made in collaboration with artist Jason Baker, that form an integral part of her live performances. Conversations blossom around the room in the half-light, and a few people are already dancing. We are invited to write our thoughts on a poster board of the film. The shift feels sensitive, positive, joyful. We are repositioned in the present, embodying it, looking around to see Strange Brew filled to the corners once again.
Talking earlier in the film about the value of social spaces, Edson Burton says, “We need to have places for people to have conversations. (…) We need cultures within those spaces, where people can speak freely, can be comfortable, uncomfortable… but feel held.” And this seems to be the lasting impact of the documentary. Important discussions are sparked or continued, carried by a vast array of voices. Watching is both comforting and discomforting; questions go unanswered, and we necessarily turn to introspection. Ultimately, though, there is togetherness in all of this – in the watching, the remembering, the questioning. (Let it be said that rewatching the film alone on my laptop for this review was quite a different experience.) A lockdown documentary could easily fall into glib sensationalism, a doom-and-gloom nostalgia of “wasn’t that bleak?” – but What Does Normal Look Like? consciously looks forward as well as back. By asking what comes next, the film carves out a valuable space of reflection and invites thinking towards progress. And coming to terms with our memory of Covid times is a key part of that progress – of that healing.
Photography courtesy of Tom Whitson and Colin Moody.