A Satisfyingly Fruitless Search: On Charlotte Prodger's SaF05
The easiest way to distinguish between a lioness and a lion is that the latter has a mane, that halo of hair that lends itself so well to the kingly anthropomorphisms of the big cat. In Charlotte Prodger’s SaF05 (2019), the third in her trilogy of films that started with Stoneymollan Trail (2015) and was followed by BRIDGIT (2016), the subject—a word I use lightly here, given how enigmatically it figures in—is the last known lion(ess) with a mane, which seems to beg a gender-neutral pronoun. If Stoneymollan Trail initiated the viewer to Prodger’s approach to queer subjectivity, loss, memory, and the ways in which they are all mediated by language, and BRIDGIT traced out the artist’s fixation on the eponymous Neolithic deity and other female subjects of admiration, then SaF05 is a meditation on relations, however tangible, that expand and diffuse conceptions of intimacy, family, sexuality, eroticism, and kinship.
The film was shot on a smartphone, drone camera, Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera, and an Arri Amira camera. Its footage reads like the outcome of a diaristic impulse to document, contrasted here and there by more composed, intent shots and structured by the voiceover narration read by Prodger, whose voice is low, contemplative, self-assured but porous, seductively butch. While SaF05 opens with a few camera trap shots of SaF05 (the acronym attributed to the lion[ess] by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust), the animal is never shown again, which we might presume to mean that Prodger’s ground search was ultimately fruitless. But SaF05’s existence and activity are made manifest in other ways, namely through Prodger’s reading of observation notes (ostensibly taken by the Trust), which include 26-digit location coordinates, and other categorical details like date, time, behavior, and habitat.
These tracts of hard fact are deftly interlaced with a number of the artist’s personal narratives, making the project feel singular within a tradition of queer essayistic filmmaking that tends to foreground and even extol abjection in expressions of vulnerability. Under Prodger’s handling, the personal narratives come to feel strangely exacting for their proximity to this quantitative information, and inversely, the latter connotes something like respite—seemingly an acknowledgment that when the complexities of intersubjective relations seem impossible to parse, there is peace in knowing that certain aspects of life are, in fact, measurable. Which is not to suggest that the textual aspects of this film can be neatly parcelled onto either end of a single spectrum spanning autofiction to nonfiction; Prodger’s anecdotes, spotlight memories, and reflections are often packaged in ways that echo the affect of the data, deliberately developing the space between those two poles.
Not only do the fragmentary but poignant narratives similarly begin with dates and locations, but each character from her past is given an alphanumeric name comprised of three letters and two numbers, like SaF05’s. As in: when they were high on acid, Prodger put her hand between the legs of BaF89, who “says nothing, just my name”; once, while showing DuF69 images of a recent sculpture she’d made, she accidentally scrolls too far, exposing a photograph of GaF13 with a glass buttplug inside her; and, after having met GaF93 one night at Club X, she mistook her “dark triangle” of pubic hair for her mother’s.
Though Prodger is riffing on a taxonomical naming format in which there is an inherent power of the namer over the named, this gesture of domination comes off as coolly affectionate. The application of this convention doesn’t just anonymize the individuals referenced, but also has the intriguing side effect of levelling them with SaF05, and vice versa. Each of the women are, in a sense, likened to the last living example of a breed, and given a name that ensures their unmistakable identification as such. And, on the other hand, SaF05, in their extreme singularity as a female lion with male traits—roaring at a deeper pitch and more often than other lionesses, mounting females, killing and feeding in the open—is extended membership into a pack. This conflation is particularly interesting considering that the artist has, to the viewer’s knowledge, never made contact with the lion(ess), whereas the women described are all intimate figures from her past, who seem to be cast as specters in Prodger’s present (notably, all the stories are told in the present tense). This gesture conveys a sense that experiences of longing are comprehensive, archival, and prone to flooding, even if we’re under the impression that the subject of our longing is specific.
This equation of the unseen cat with Prodger’s coterie of amorous subjects is exemplary of Prodger’s attempts to denature understandings of relationships as finite, or adherent to social scripts. In the aforementioned pubic hair incident (“For a split second, I saw my mother’s dark triangle, then it switched back to [GaF93’s] again”), too, this denormalization takes shape as a layering of the queer with both the familial and the sexual. In BRIDGIT, for example, there’s a sustained shot of white swans and a few ducks milling about on the shore. The voiceover (not delivered by Prodger this time) reads out a number of diary entries related to queer women/gender non-conforming people in public: being mistaken for boys, or asked if they’re their partner’s child, or if their partners are their sisters. While these comments that stem from confusion (or worse, disdain dressed up as confusion) are no doubt offensive, they also unwittingly point to a truth that relationships actually do contain so many of these dynamics—particularly queer relationships, wherein roles are often determined from scratch, rather than by default—and weirdly work to draw wider relations around everything.
This is at the heart of Prodger’s project, and the manner of her output serves these amorphous, ineffable aims. There’s a subtle, syncopated rhyming of locations, movements, formats, background sounds (of bagpipes, drones, cicada mating calls, free jazz, a Jeep crossing the plain) and the contents of the artist’s voice itself. Her writing is closely cropped and spare, displacing an immeasurable amount of detail to subtext, invoking contact rather than actually orchestrating it. I’m reminded of the opening shot of the “DUF96” chapter. It’s dark, at either dawn or dusk, and a modest blot of pale orange rests above the horizon, near the top of the frame. The camera and flash seem to be mounted on Prodger’s forehead as she walks briskly on the side of a road, smoking a cigarette. The smoke materializes in front of the lens in different densities but, just as quickly, is bypassed by the camera, the flash, the artist, the cigarette itself. The flash illuminates what’s just a couple meters ahead, recalling the small field of light created by the camera trap that successfully captured videos of SaF05, and the artist is walking toward it, continually pursuing this field of light, but remaining always just outside it.