SSFX Film Festival Is Finding The Humanity In Sounds From Space

The SSFX Film Festival has a compelling concept: the festival showcases several short films inspired by–and featuring–sounds from space. The festival is part of an astronomy and physics project at Queen Mary University of London, where sounds from space have been recorded. Dr Martin Archer, festival director and space physicist, tells the audience all about the festival before the films started.

In the nerdiest presentation I’ve seen in years, Dr Archer gives us a demo of how space sounds work: the audience does a Mexican wave and a two-step shuffle, and this is basically how particles move in space, apparently. Space sounds occur at a lower frequency than we’re used to, so a year’s worth of noise has to be compressed into six minutes of audio in order for us to hear it. This audio was then given to the filmmakers, and we get to watch the best of the results.

The screening starts with one of the shortest films, The Rebound Effect (dir. Aaron Howell). In this film, a dancer moves to sounds from space mixed with more familiar, electronic music – the kind of thing you’d hear in a bar or club. The space sounds are alien, all heavy static and interference.

The dance does not sync to the music or the sounds, but it does reflect the pops and restarts of the static, with repeated shots and rapid editing. While the audience tries to search for something we recognise in the space sounds, we watch the movement of a person. The person is physically limited in all the familiar ways, unlike these noises that came from the incredible expanse beyond our planet.

This focus on what we know–humanity–is a major theme of SSFX. These films use sounds from space to ask a common question: what makes us human?

The Rebound Effect hones in on bodily movement while its successor, Saturation (dir. Victor Galvão), takes a medicinal approach to the human body. We learn in a panel after the film that Galvão used slides in Saturation, found in his local flea market. These slides feature images of a hospital, of patients and doctors, of medical equipment, and of surgery. Galvão uses them to tell a harrowing, mysterious story.

Saturation is very physical, with close-ups of syringes, surgical tools, and tumours bulging beneath strangers’ skulls. Galvão uses discordant noise and metallic buzzing for the soundtrack. These are space sounds that make you feel like something is wrong. He unfolds a narrative in subtitles of an untreatable, unexplained illness taking its toll on a human population, but you don’t really need the words. The images and the noise tell you everything you need to know. At one point, the sound cuts out repetitively, and I feel my body bracing with each pause.

In contrast, the next film on the bill, Dark Matter(s) (dir. Jesseca Ynes Simmons), is a study in texture. The audience is submerged in water, with fish occasionally filling the screen, and then ink unfurling in slow motion. Here, the space sounds are manipulated to mimic the sounds of bubbling water or the blood in your ears when you’re deep underwater. Stirring classical music accompanies these sounds, creating a gentle, ambient feel.

Yet there’s something unsettling about this film, too. I was unnerved by the extreme close-ups of fish and their unblinking eyes, and then the slow, inevitable roil of dark ink, like an intruder, like danger. Nature is unpredictable, after all, and so is the ocean. Though this was filmed in a tank, the images are designed to evoke expanse, like the sea, like space.

In Dark Matter(s), I was reminded of my humanity through my fragility. In both the deep ocean and in space, I wouldn’t be able to survive longer than a few minutes. The space sounds in these films evoke something existential that make us look inwards. We’re reminded of our bodies, our selves, our ability to imagine, and our capacity to ask questions.

Names and Numbers (dir. Simon Rattigan) feels like a question. In this experimental film, a narrator considers the space between binary values – numbers, places, the seconds on a clock. He struggles to place where he is and where he has been, and so do we. Images flicker, recorded on a body-cam and presented now in an oblong box, offset on the screen. It’s non-traditional framing. Over it all, noise from space plays, jarring, repetitive. The sounds, like the narrator, seem to be telling us something, but it’s hard to focus. The film evokes a sense of remembering–or trying to, at least.

The narrator in Names and Numbers is in transit. It’s a film about being in-between, and about the relationship between order and disorder. How can you make time binary when it’s constantly flowing? How do you stop sound when, even in silence, you can hear your own heart beating? The speaker feels like an outsider: maybe he has a different way of thinking and experiencing the world, or simply a different way of asking questions. Watching this film makes the audience feel like outsiders too, trying to order chaos, trying to find solid footing. We need to pick a value or get lost in the in-between.

This character isn’t the only one in transit, of course. Movement and the flow of time have been important themes in all of the films so far, and in the next one too. Murmurs of a Macrocosm (dir. Adam Azmy) is all about exploration. In it, we see ethereal, sci-fi landscapes in bright inhuman hues. What we see looks like it could be an alien planet made up of fluorescent greens and blues and purples–but it also looks tiny. It looks like biology, dyed innards under a microscope.

Azmy shot his film on a drone in Snowdonia, Wales, transforming huge landscapes into something that feels tiny and intimate. The soundtrack consists of space sounds alongside the voices of actual astronauts describing their surroundings. They’re invisible explorers here, in a world that could be the insides of a person. Once again, I think of my own body. I also think of the curiosity that makes us human, and of the curiosity that brought me to this festival.

Murmurs of a Macrocosm uses real-world nature and history to create something unreal and futuristic. We see similar themes in Astroturf (dirs. James Uren and Nidhi Gupta) where the first shot is of a rake scraping over astroturf. The sound of the rake is one of the sounds from space. Here, these sounds are used diegetically–that is, they are used to represent sound coming from the action on screen. The man rakes his fake lawn; pots some plastic plants; acts at gardening.

After tending to his make-believe garden, he looks up at the sky and we see Earth above, burning. He is on the moon, trying to recreate something that has been lost. In their short but punchy film, Uren and Gupta ask us to consider the impact we have on our planet. Being human is not just about individual experience; it’s about how we connect with nature. Space sounds are well and good but what happens when they’re the only sounds we have left?

In the final film on the bill, Noise (dir. Ali Jennings), space sounds are indeed the most reliable thing for our protagonist. In the most grounded film of the festival, we follow a woman through the mundane reality of British life. Though she is disconnected and apathetic, sound brings this everyday world to life for the audience. The splashing of tea in the sink, traffic outside, blaring music, loud sex next door–here is a reminder of what it means to be human, the less glamorous side of life.

But our protagonist has an escape: she listens to space sounds on her headphones. It’s the same alien static from The Rebound Effect- we’ve come full circle at the festival–and she’s looking for meaning in it. It might be a message or a sign of life or just an indication of something bigger. She’s looking for a meaningful connection, and what’s more human than that?

She doesn’t find any aliens in the end, but she does bond with her housemate, who takes an interest in the space sounds on her phone. Noise asks us to consider humanity, sure, but it also draws our attention to sound, like the whole festival has done. Sound is powerful. It brings people together, sparks questions, and evokes emotions. The sounds from SSFX are both those from space–something big and unknown where sound can unleash our imaginations–and those from Earth–human voices, the noise and confusion of daily life, and the ways in which we find meaning, wherever we can. SSFX Film Festival creates a space for filmmakers to experiment, explore, and make their own connections.

Zainabb Hull

Zainabb Hull

Zainabb Hull is a disabled, queer, and brown freelance writer and sort-of artist. You can find them screaming about screens and raging against colonialism on Twitter at @ZainabbHull.