Themed Playlist: Engaged Observation

From filmmaker and sound artist, Mark Lyken: 


This playlist began as a collection of films that I think of as examples of ‘portrait’ filmmaking, a term I often apply to my own work, preferring it to ‘observational’ filmmaking which to me suggests a clinical, one-sided affair rather than what I would aspire to which is a meaningful collaboration between filmmaker and subject (and the breaking down of those traditional roles).

I had initially chosen from films I own, favourites I return too often, but realised I was being overly precious and that during research for a new film and a community-engaged residency, patterns had emerged in the films I was seeking out and stumbling upon – all still have a strong element of portraiture but with extra intriguing premises and inventive strategies for drawing out stories, spontaneous interactions and testimony. 

I feel I encountered the films I finally settled on here precisely when I needed too – as well as being enjoyable, they helped me to confirm creative decisions or pointed me in a useful direction when I felt somewhat lost or overwhelmed with recent work. The films, with the exceptions of Vampir Cuadecuc  & Mysterious Object at Noon, I watched for the first time this past year and variously; hover between reality and fiction, employ play and re-enactment, rewrite the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and explore unique methods of collaboration.

My film 1300 SHOTS (linked below) made with support from St. Andrews University Department of Film Studies, and filmed at The Steps Theatre in Dundee in 2019 represented a shift towards a blend of documentary and fiction that (I hoped) would provide an active framework that would allow the two players to largely forget the camera and allow their relationship to place and to each other to surface organically. The Steps was effectively my film school from the later part of the 80s until its closure as a commercial cinema in 1997. It offered cheap entry (a must for me as a skint teenager) to an eclectic mix of world cinema. At almost every screening I attended, I would see the same couple sat in the same seats, front and centre, eventually finding out they were the artist “LAW” & musician “VEX”. I became good friends with them, a friendship that lasts to this day. 

Because of the cinemas’ unusual location within Dundee Central Library and with the library itself situated within the Wellgate Shopping Centre, The Steps has escaped the developers and is still accessible and largely untouched 20-odd years later.

The idea for 1300 SHOTS was a simple one – bring LAW & VEX back to their favourite seats and capture them watching one last film, the duration of the piece dictated by the length of the film they watch. A portrait film, that gives the viewer licence to gaze intently at human faces for an extended period of time.




Jogos Dirigido (Jonathas De Andrade, 2019)

Jogos Dirigido is set in the Várzea Queimada community, located in the Sertão of Piauí, the backcountry of the northeastern Brazilian state, a place with about 900 inhabitants and a high rate of deaf population, access to water and public investment is scarce, as is the learning of Libras, the official Brazilian sign language. In the face of all these limitations, Várzea Queimada’s deaf community created their own language.

The film features body and speech exercises and an improvised outdoor stage for spontaneous testimonials from a group of 18 local characters, men and women. Most of the statements, many of them untranslated, are revised phrase by phrase, linking gestures to words and systematizing Várzea Queimada’s gestural lexicon as if we were facing an educational video that teaches a new language, beyond its universe and its own questions.

Available to watch via Dumfriesshire based CAMPLE LINE from the 4th-10th July:





Tales of Two Who Dreamt (Andrea Bussmann, Nicolas Pereda, 2016)

Tales of Two Who Dreamt follows a family of Hungarian Roma (Gypsy) asylum seeking refugees living in a large apartment complex in Toronto. The film follows their everyday life routines and also ventures into the characters’ hopes and dreams. Constructed through characters and the building’s corporeal landscape, we drift with various members of the family through spaces and people suffering the effects of displacement and disconnection in their hope to build a sense of community in a foreign space. The film tells the several different tales: a woman who went crazy after her son fell of a balcony, an abandoned dog locked in an apartment, a fire that burned an entire floor in the building, an enormous snake that escaped and was never found, a child that turned into a bird, among other stories.

Available to watch via daFilms (Register to watch for Free):





Does Your House Have Lions (vqueeram, Vishal Jugdeo, 2021)

Does Your House Have Lions is a 48 minute film by Delhi-based poet vqueeram and Los Angeles based artist Vishal Jugdeo. Shot like cinéma-vérité, the piece moves around friends and lovers vqueeram lives with. It documents Delhi, Bombay and Goa, during the time-period of January 2019 to September 2020, and speaks to an intensified political atmosphere in India. This film is just one iteration of an ongoing collaborative process between vqueeram and Jugdeo.

The film is still doing the rounds so worth keeping an eye out for forthcoming screenings. Meanwhile there is a roundtable discussion via MOCA featuring Vishal Judgeo, novelist Anuk Arudpragasam, and subjects of the film, poet Dr. Dhiren Borisa and collaborator vqueeram:





Djamilia (Aminatou Echard, 2018)

This mesmerizing film, shot in Kyrgyzstan on richly saturated Super-8 footage, is a search for Jamilia, the title character in that country’s famous novel by Chinghiz Aitmatov, about a young woman who rebels against the strict rules of her society.

Over the course of its haunting narrative, director Aminatou Echard introduces contemporary Kyrgyz women who, in talking about this literary heroine, reveal their own private lives and desires, the social rules they chafe under and their ideas of freedom.

Jamilia portrays Kyrgyzstan through the prism of these women’s stories. They describe what their lives are like in a country where the patriarchal system may see them kidnapped by would-be suitors, and curbs their freedom to work, desire, love, live and dream.

Jamilia lets the women speak for themselves—about resistance and the freedom they find in unexpected places, despite the restraints and limitations imposed upon them. With dreamy pacing and a shifting relationship to time, the film gives viewers access to its subjects’ desire for adventure, rebellion, independence and sensuality.

Available to watch via True Story (Free trial available):

A recent in conversation with filmmaker Amintou Echard can be viewed here via CAMPLE LINE:




Gubuk/Hut (So Yo-Hen, 2019)

Gubuk is an experimental project growing out of Indonesian migrant workers’ personal experiences in Taiwan. Gathering in a staged hut built out of abandoned materials from a factory, the workers retell and re-enact their own stories under fabricated identities. In this space where fiction intersects with reality, they share tales of escape, of loss, and of suffering.



Available to watch via daFilms:





Fogo (Yulene Olaizola, 2012)

The deterioration of a small community in Fogo Island is forcing its inhabitants to leave and resettle. Places once occupied by humans are now becoming part of the tundra. In spite of a condemned future, there are some residents who decide to remain, holding on to their memories and grieving for the past, when life in Fogo was different.

Available to watch via HIghBall TV, as part of “Present Tense”, curated by Nadin Mai:







Vampir Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1971)

Made in Spain while General Franco was still in power and shown clandestinely, Pere Portabella’s extraordinary Vampir Cuadecuc ostensibly follows the filming of Jess Franco’s shocker El conde Dracula (Count Dracula, 1970) starring Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and the exquisite Soledad Miranda. This experimental ‘making of’ documentary and investigation into the myth of the vampire, becomes a powerful political metaphor for bloodthirsty fascism epitomised by Franco and tyrants like him, a witty allegory with Dracula as the dictator whose demise is certain.

Dispensing almost entirely with dialogue, Portabella utilises an abstract, fabulously idiosyncratic soundscape created by renowned Catalan artist and musician Carles Santos. The effect is surreal and wondrous to behold.

Available to watch via Second Run On Demand:





Utuqaq (Iva Radivojević, 2020)

Utuqaq is a stunning and poetic Arctic-shot short. Acting as her own cinematographer, Radivojević counterpoints elegant and abstract patterns across sweeping planes of ice with more human-scale documentation of the work of four researchers drilling ice cores in the region’s freezing temperatures. The narration — in Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) by Aviaja Lyberth — is from the point of the view of the ice itself, evoking the earth’s geological memory as it confronts efforts of the researchers working in the moment to learn about what is being lost amidst climate change.

Available to watch for Free via Field of Vision:





Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

Mysterious Object At Noon  is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hallucinatory debut feature, an extraordinary mix of experimental documentary and fiction that wends its way through the landscapes and mindscapes of rural Thailand. The film is structured as a surrealist game; a small film-crew travel the Thai countryside asking people they encounter along the way to invent the next chapter of a story. The daisy-chain structure of interlocking vignettes – alternately fantastical, comic and workaday – bridge documentary realism and the avant-garde, resulting in a boldly original debut that looks and feels like nothing else.

Available to watch via Second Run On Demand:





1300 Shots (Mark Lyken, 2020)

1300 SHOTS takes the form of a single-take portrait film that returns two ex-patrons of Dundee cinema ‘The Steps’ to their favourite seats, 20 years after the cinema was decommissioned, to observe them watching one last film.

Captions by Matchbox Cineclub.

Supported by Creative Scotland, University of St Andrews Department of Film Studies, Live Borders, Dumfries & Galloway Council, Dundee Local History Centre and Leisure & Culture Dundee.

Available to watch for Free for the month of June via LUX SCOTLAND:

If you are reading this after June and would like to see the film, drop me a line and I’ll send you a screener link.

There is an online discussion with myself hosted by LUX on June 24th at 7pm. Tickets are free and available here:




Mark Lyken is a pseudonym that stuck.

He is a filmmaker and sound artist living in rural Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

He uses portrait filmmaking and composed sound to make slowly unfolding works that focus on identity and place. The films often draw attention to micro-narratives and gestures that pass unnoticed in the day-to-day.

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