Edinburgh Art Festival: Sean Burns’ Dorothy Towers

One writer considers the potential of architecture to provide sanctuary and safety in her wistful reflection on EAF's presentation of Sean Burns’ film Dorothy Towers and the recent devastating closure of Edinburgh's Filmhouse

Article by Maisie Wills | 25 Aug 2023

Dorothy Towers (DT) is a film and archival installation by Sean Burns, which explores the queer past and present of The Sentinels in Birmingham. The Sentinels are composed of the Clydesdale and Cleveland Towers, social housing complexes erected in 1971 in Birmingham, located near to the city’s Gay Village. The buildings are known affectionately as Dorothy Towers, in reference to the eclectic bunch of colourful characters who accompany Dorothy on her quest through Oz. Burns utilises testimonies of the building’s present residents to analyse the building of a community and how it operated within the city’s structure. The towers became a haven for queer people and continue to be an important landmark for Birmingham’s queer community. 

The film is a thoughtful meditation on the symbiotic relationship between communities and cities and the nurturing potential within this relationship. It is about how communities reclaim spaces and how we can go about preserving a history so often forgotten. I speak to Burns about the nature of film, influences, and how Dorothy Towers weaves together past and present to construct a sense of place. 

It is an Edinburgh winter and the city is unforgiving. There is no warmth to be found in the concrete facades or the closed shops as you curve up the end of Princes Street to the bottom of Lothian Road and keep going. It is just past 5pm and it is already dark, as though someone pulled all the curtains shut at once along the city’s edges. You finally get there, after what feels like hours avoiding the black ice on the pavement, and you go inside. 

The Dorothy Towers exhibition is housed in an unassuming room on the first floor of the French Institute. The room itself was reminiscent of a (very lavish) conference room or a (very bare) guest room in a big house. There is a broad table in the centre of the room. Displayed here are newspaper clippings, photographs and the original callout for the film. There is even a selection of books which informed the project displayed on one of the shelves above the table. Ephemera floats around the room and as I am handed the beautifully constructed accompanying text by Owain Harrison, I can’t help but feel I now contribute to the continuation of this archive. The curtain at the end of the room is drawn for me and I step into the darkness. 

You are alone this time – that is your favourite way to be there. You flick through the scrolls of old posters and get your paper ticket. You are glad you’ve arrived early and can catch that advert for RBS which always makes you laugh. 

Dorothy Towers is shot entirely on 16mm, a conscious decision by Burns for its ‘unhindered materiality,’ which immediately instils the aesthetics of the film with a delicate sensibility. As well as taking a more conventional documentary approach with voice over narration, Dorothy Towers is intercut with more abstract images – slivers of reflection – of clouds, windows, roads, and lights to name a few. It is in these short blinks of static image that the 16mm’s materiality stands out the most, adding grain, texture, and tactility to these simple moments. I feel as though I could part the cloud with my hands, tearing through it softly. The spots and flickers on the film reel reflect onto the windows like scratches or cracks. 

You have these dreams of what would happen if the cinema shut down: the streets fading like old wallpaper peeling from plastered walls, children running riot, boredom as heavy as a boulder resting on your shoulders. You know it's a little dramatic but then it happens and things kind of are that depressing. 

I speak to Burns about the layering of image with voiceover and music, and he recounts that this overlay "creates a third interpretive space where the audience can project their emotional reckonings," highlighting how the filmic medium facilitates this kind of emotional response. While a lot of the film’s emotional weight is handed to the audience for them to interpret, Burns is clear that he also wanted to utilise the medium to specifically create an "atmosphere redolent of Birmingham – driving, industrial, faded modernity." The city is built through cinematic elements, brought together by the low, humming score composed by Lai Power

The locks were changed, the grand doors were replaced with steel plates and the staff were made redundant with immediate effect. The building still stands, a ghost we pass as we walk up Lothian Road.

Burns’ references and inspirations for Dorothy Towers are numerous, eclectic, and diverse – the film is "a self-conscious composite of different forms of filmmaking: artist, documentary and social." We also speak about Dorothy Towers contributing to a lineage of artist’s moving image work, considering the work of "John Akomfrah, Tacita Dean, Luke Fowler and Margaret Salmon – in particular [...]Salmon’s engagement with the materiality of analogue." It is clear that the story Burns wants to tell in regards to Dorothy Towers can only be expressed through analogue filmmaking. Through this medium voices, music, image (abstract and photographic), and materiality weave together seamlessly. 

After the closure you gathered in the pubs nearby and you reminisce – everyone became awfully sentimental – about whose hand you held in the darkness, which films you fell asleep in (but not because you were bored, no, but because you thought that was actually the best way to experience some films), and one question repeated again and again: what was the last film you saw?

"Clydesdale and Cleveland Towers are the film’s protagonists," Burns states, continuing that the film treats them as "porous containers of memory." Dorothy Towers is concerned with the type of relationship constructed between spaces and their inhabitants. In the exhibition’s accompanying text Cornucopia of Experience, Owain Harrison writes that ‘a building with a listless facade [...] enables its residents to transform it, to attach themselves to its core, creating a history the building alone couldn't provide,’ illuminating how a building and its residents work in tandem to create something reminiscent of what Burns earlier describes as a "third interpretive space." The unornamental concrete facade of the Sentinels with its lines of square windows, metal railings, and blocky rectangular silhouette, mirrors as a kind of blank canvas for residents to cover in whichever way they see fit. Burns looks not just at the imposing structures of the towers but also the "incidental fabric" of the architecture: tarmac, tiles, windows, and doors. 

I liked that all we were there to do was to watch the screen in front of us. They did not even serve popcorn – instead just sweets you could suck silently. The seats were covered in worn and faded red velvet, slightly uncomfortable to be honest but you only paid a fiver to get in so why complain?

There is one scene which I think of long after the film is over. Seemaa Butt, a current resident of the Sentinels, walks along one of Birmingham’s underpasses dressed in a hot pink cape hemmed with fur and feathers, which shimmers in the white streetlights. The pink cape blows in the wind, licking the crumbling grey walls of the concrete tunnel; each time they touch a kind of imagined mark is left in its place. This stark contrast – a dialogue between a building and its people – shows an environment caring for those inhabiting it. As Harrison writes, ‘gusts of wind, strengthened by the height and girth of these great towers, guided our tipsy bodies through the underpass and back to our places of refuge, which cared for us – the lost, dazzled, and sick.’ 

The city’s walls got too tall sometimes and you felt like you might be crushed. When this occurred (often) you went there and you disappeared for a while, embraced by image and sound and soft walls. There was some force there which sat with you as you absorbed the images in front of you and which stayed with you until you closed the doors on the way out. 

Cinema has a unique ability to facilitate travel through temporalities, cultures, realities, spatialities, and emotional states. Its layering of image and sound moves us in a particular way, guided by the darkness of the space we sit in. As I watched Dorothy Towers, listened to the testimonies, and watched the buildings change on screen, I was left thinking of my own city and the impact the architecture has on the people. These buildings are very much alive; sentient characters conducting the city’s inhabitants as they move through winding streets, underpasses, alleys, and stairwells; tingling, humming containers of memory.

This article was commissioned as part of Edinburgh Art Festival's Emerging Writers programme

Sean Burns, Dorothy TowersThe French Institute, daily 10am-5pm, 11-27 Aug