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BION IN FILM THEORY and SEA CAVE CINEMA: a book and a film about the retreat in cinema

By Carla Ambrósio Garcia

Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film is a book published by Routledge that was launched earlier this year at the Close-Up Film Centre in Londonalongside the premiere of the film Sea Cave Cinema. This book and this film are two forms of research that originated in the same question: what if Plato’s forms could be found inside the cave? Since then, these two objects of research developed in their own way, yet always maintained a kind of dialogue between them, even if this was not explicitly acknowledged. What follows is intended to go some way towards making that dialogue more tangible.

The project began when I encountered images of a cave located near Sesimbra in Portugal, which, because of its difficult access, was only discovered in the mid-1990s.. The cave’s formations, in vivid colours and various textures, had strange, evocative shapes that led me to ask: what if these were the true forms of the objects in the outside world that they seemed to evoke? There was a sense of wonderment and discovery in the contemplation of these images, and this made me think of an inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave, whereby Plato’s forms could be found inside the cave and could be perceived by the senses.

A still image from SEA CAVE CINEMA

While Plato was interested in the movement from inside to outside the cave – from what he postulated was a place of illusions to a space where the true forms of things could be apprehended through the intellect – I was thinking of the opposite movement, and of a different topography. Implicit in this movement of ‘going back into the cave’ was a gesture of retreat from the ‘outside world’. But this gesture, to my mind, did not simply imply a regression or a mere return to an origin.

Plato’s cave has been used to theorize the cinema numerous times, perhaps most famously by the French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry (1975). Wanting to see how I could challenge this analogy, I began to think about the cinema as a potential space of transformation and discovery, and to see it through a psychoanalytical lens, as a space connected with the internal world.

At this point the work of the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion came into the project. Bion, reader of Plato, Kant, and other philosophers, was also concerned with forms, noumena, ultimate reality. He considered what happened between analyst and analysand in the consulting room to be unknowable, a thing-in-itself in Kant’s sense – what Bion called ‘O’ – as it was always subject to transformations in the mind of the people involved (Bion, 1965). These transformations deserved investigation if we were to better understand what psychoanalysis is or could be.

If Bion was interested in the notion of an ultimate reality beyond our apprehension, he conceived of emotions in a very different way to how Plato saw them. Plato saw emotions as ‘the lower elements in the mind’, opposed to reason (Plato and Lee, 1955, p. 348), whereas for Bion the growth of the mind is in fact dependent on the capacity to think about emotions. The mind grows as it becomes able to assimilate emotional experiences; and the mother’s role in containing and assimilating the infant’s emotions through communicative projective identification is fundamental in the initial stages of this process (Bion, 1961). In later formulations of his theory of thinking, Bion notes that it is not the apprehension of the ultimately real that is stake; rather, it is the capacity to be or become real, which entails the process of being or becoming at one with our own emotional truth.

Parallel to this reading and writing about Bion’s theory of thinking and how it was helping me to rethink the experience of the subject in the cinema, I contacted the speleology group who had discovered the cave I had seen in pictures. The NECA group (Núcleo de Espeleologia da Costa Azul) first showed me some other caves they knew in the area, and it was, in the end, in one of these caves that I decided to make a film. This was a sea cave with a hole in its ceiling, which at a certain time of the day projected a beam of sunlight on the undulating surface of the sea, which in turn projected a moving image of light on the cave wall.

There was something cinematic about this cave. In a way, it was already a cinema. What could my experience of being a spectator of its moving images, of making a film from these images, and of thinking about how to present the film to an audience, tell me about the experience of cinema? What could this film tell us about cinema?

As I filmed inside the cave and the day passed, I saw the light of the Sun being transformed. I also saw the waves become bigger, and the tide begin to ebb, and was reminded of the gravitational force of the Moon. Things were projected and contained inside containers, which then became contained in other containers, such as my eyes or my camera. The coming together of these things produced transformations: different shapes of light and water, different sounds, slow erosions, exposures, and emotions.

I was rethinking the cinematic apparatus with Bion, but I did not want to confine my theory to the space of the cinema. In my view, cinema can happen in other spaces or situations too, but what is it that defines those spaces or situations? What, when, where is cinema? What, when, where is the retreat in cinema? I decided to shoot a last roll of film somewhere outside the cave, perhaps at night, on the coast. I was not sure what I was looking for, but I needed a place to set up my camera. As I walked along the shore, I saw the reflection of the Moon on the water that filled a small hole in the rock. I aligned my camera with the Moon and this tiny reflection, and let the film run. The two long takes that make up this roll are the opening shots of Sea Cave Cinema. The spot of light in the rock gradually disappears in the second shot, as the Earth and the Moon continue along their course. Then, the film cuts to an image inside the cave, filled with bright reflected light.

During the process of making Sea Cave Cinema I realised that it is about a force, an energy between things that move, when they become temporarily placed in relation to each other. The different elements that compose the spaces in the film – the sunlight, the moonlight, the cave, the water, the wind, the waves – seem to come together in certain patterns, in relations that involve a force, a tension, an attraction, and then let go. Cyclical, linear, chaotic – day after day, season after season, through the years. These energetic fields carry with them visible and invisible areas, sounds and silence, sensations, effects, and affects. They make things strikingly visible and audible, or barely perceptible, and then plunge them again in darkness and silence, drown them into horizons, to then return.

Pluto and its moon Charon rotate and revolve around each other in tidal locking. This means that they always show the same hemisphere to each other as they move; in other words, they always face each other as they move. Because Earth’s mass is bigger than the Moon, only the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth. The Moon always faces us, but we turn away from it, only to return again after some time.

The cinema is a massive circulation of images happening around the world in certain patterns, and we are attracted to it also in patterns, aligning ourselves with its energies, at certain moments in time.

Sea Cave Cinema is about how we make space and time for cinema. I made the film on 16mm film, and showed it in a darkened space. I wanted an encounter with space and time for cinema, at a time when our encounter with digital images is so pervasive that most have become completely banal or indistinct. I wanted this film to be seen very much as belonging to this moment in the history of cinema, even though it was made using technologies that have been around for decades, and shown in a space that has existed for even longer, for the experience of film. To paraphrase one of Bion’s comments on the suppression and expression of the epistemophilic instinct (1965, p. 77), I do not see these choices as backward-looking, having been made in relation to what might have been lost, but instead as forward-looking, searching for what can be found.

The image I found in this work is not of a specific or ideal form of cinema; it is an image of a relation, an encounter, a certain energy or force, an effort even, a focused experience. This encounter has a certain physical and psychical quality about it, but it is one that can take many forms.

Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film looks at some of the forms of this encounter: experiences of unpleasure, pain, turbulent moments of psychical change: film’s thoughts in search of a thinker. Within the object-relations paradigm in psychoanalysis, Bion notes the importance of the metabolizing function of the container – mother, analyst, an other – for the development of our own capacity to think. However, a certain energy or effort in that process has to be allowed to take space and to take time. Cinema is about this encounter with ourselves and with others at a deeper level: it is about objects, and about subjects, put in relation. The work of Bion and object-relations psychoanalysis are of crucial relevance to our study of the cinema and its transformations.


Ambrósio Garcia, C. (2017). Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Baudry, J-L. (1975). The apparatus: Metapsychological approaches to the impression of reality in the cinema. In: Rosen, P. (ed.) Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Bion, W.R. (1961). A theory of thinking. In: Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac, 2007.

Bion, W.R. (1965). Transformations. London: Karnac, 1984.

Plato and Lee, D. (1955). The Republic. Translated by D. Lee. London: Penguin, 2003.


Ambrósio Garcia, C. (2017). Sea Cave Cinema. 16mm colour film, 16 min.


New Films and Books By Agnieszka Piotrowska, with Ben Tyrer and others

Psychoanalytically inspired books and films launched at Birkbeck

On 18th November at 6pm, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image will be showing Agnieszka Piotrowska’s documentary film Lovers in Time or How We didn’t get arrested in Harare (2015), followed by the launch of her book Black and White: cinema, politics and the arts in Zimbabwe as well as Psychoanalysis and the Unrepresentable (co-edited by Agnieszka Piotrowska and Ben Tyrer) both just published by Routledge.

Professor Valerie Walkerdine said the following about the Black and White monograph:

Agnieszka Piotrowska comes to Zimbabwe as ‘the subject supposed to know’ –a position of privilege, albeit unwanted, stemming from her whiteness, undermined by her gender.  She interrogates her own experience, attempting to refuse the place of the knowledge, to engage with what it means to tell a story without claiming to know. Beyond black and white, she peers into the grey – the unrepresentable, coming to the recognition that she cannot know, because knowing is so compromised, that engaging with it is challenging, raw, visceral. That she approaches this not knowing through an arts practice is paramount – it is the work together, the embodied creative work of making, that allows the unrepresentable to begin to make its painful emergence. A brave and important book.’-

Valerie Walkerdine, Distinguished Research Professor, Cardiff University, UK

And Professor Caroline Bainbridge noted the following about the The Unrepresentable collection:

This anthology sets out to ‘do the impossible’ in interrogating the paradoxes of unrepresentable and unspeakable experience. Drawing together an impressive array of writers from diverse fields including those of clinical practice, film and literary studies, post-colonial theory and cultural analysis, it weaves a complex matrix of ideas grounded in the work of psychoanalytic thinkers as diverse as Freud, Lacan, Bion, Malabou, Winnicott and Meltzer. The essays are lively and compelling, offering new perspectives on themes such as trauma and embodiment, silence and invisibility in the digital age of media, the psychodynamics of touch, voice, gesture, love, grief, adoption, and anxiety. A wide range of textual material embracing literature, cinema, poetry, language, meta psychology and metaphysics, provides the basis for philosophical and psychological commentary that is often astute, and the daring inclusion of creative work premised on personal experience acts as an emotional coup de foudre. Piotrowska and Tyrer have curated a cracking compendium, one that seduces and challenges in equal measure, and one that will surely become essential reading for anyone interested in the riches of psychoanalytic enquiry.

Caroline Bainbridge, Professor of Culture and Psychoanalysis, University of Roehampton, UK

The event is currently booked out, but please email the organizer Mathew Barrington ( as there may be cancellations.

To coincide with these book and film launches, Reframing Psychoanalysis presents the below text and films by Agnieszka Piotrowska.

By Agnieszka Piotrowska

Below are embedded two short fiction films that I wrote and directed. Both are discussed briefly in the Black and White monograph, but will not be screened at the 18th November event. Both deal with gender relations but also experiment with a filmic language that contrasts rigid ideas and set values with more fluid relations, ones open to new possibilities.

The Suitcase (2015)

Spectacles (2015)


The two short films also subvert the gender expectations in stories–told in Harare–that men are heartless and women powerless. The latter expectation stems also from a Zimbabwean commonplace that it is far better to be married, or at least be with a man of some kind, than single, however painful or destructive the relationship. One could argue that this, too, is part of the colonial legacy and of some of the values introduced by the missionaries: from what we know, the position of a woman in the indigenous culture was very different.

In addition, in terms of its content The Suitcase attempts to subvert the notion that the only stories worth telling from Zimbabwe are those about poverty, HIV or indeed some kind of issues with freedom of speech.  Here our protagonists are well off, but tormented, too.

Charmaine Mujeri, whom I met in 2011, and who is a close friend, stars in both films, playing very different characters. She also played the (transgender) Kaguvi in Piotrowska’s earlier film Lovers in Time.

Mujeri found The Suitcase quite difficult as she wasn’t sure conceptually about the notion of throwing a man out just because he had been seen with another woman. But she overcame this uncertainty in her performance. What happened with The Spectacles was a different matter – the leap between the role of a respectable wife and academic to that of somebody who is prepared to consider a love affair with a woman was a profound challenge. During the rehearsals, Kudzai Sevenzo (of the Playing Warriors fame), the actress originally intended to play the younger woman, Clarissa, began to struggle with the notion that two women could become close physically. In the end, the new performer Pauline Gungidza, agreed to play the part. But the kiss that was supposed to happen between the two women never took place as written – there is a suggestion of the closeness but I had to leave the ending ambiguous.


Above: Charmaine Mujeri 2014. Phot. Joe Njagu. C. Agnieszka Piotrowska


In both films the gaze is of crucial importance: in the first one, The Suitcase, the beginning of the film shows Stella (played by Mujeri) receiving a picture on her phone. We never see it but we presume it is a photo of her husband/partner Mark with another woman. The title of Spectacles,  refers to the optical glasses that one of the characters wears, but it also clearly points to the issues of looking, seeing and changing perspectives. Below, I offer some psychoanalytical reflections connected to the films.

In Seminar XI Lacan boldly states that the gaze can function as an object – this is a reference from The Visible and the Invisible by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964). It is an idea, which becomes central in Seminar XI, that there is a pre-existing gaze in the world. The gaze gives us the distinction between what belongs to the Imaginary order and what belongs to the order of the Real. Antonio Quintet glosses: ‘what corresponds to objet a in the visible is the image of the other. The gaze is not seen because there is something, which covers it over. What hides it is an image – the image of the other (Quintet in Feldstein et al 1995: 140). I have discussed the issues of gaze and structure elsewhere (Piotrowska 2014)  but here it was fun to employ fiction and camera to create shifting perspectives and thus different ‘gazes’ and power constellations in gender relations.

Psychoanalyst Carlo Bonomi (2010) reminds us after Lacan of the importance of the ‘gaze’ of the other (Bonomi 2010: 112) which enhances one’s visibility and on occasion can enhance one’s ‘sense of being’ – either through actual actions or through an imaginary relationship to the world. It can be empowering to imagine that somebody we care about is watching us. But, Bonomi points out, there is a possibility that somehow the benevolent gaze might turn into a sinister one. In the shorts, the gaze changes in different ways and certainly for the character of Mark it does become sinister..

Bonomi talks about the risk of being transformed into an object of the gaze of the other. Worse, there is a possibility of suddenly feeling ‘shame’ arising thereof, and causing ‘a sudden collapse of the self provoked by the gaze (…)’ (Bonomi 2010: 113).  This happens to the male character of The Suitcase: once he realises that he was ‘seen’ by his partner, the collapse of the relationship and the persona he has created for her is inevitable.

Bonomi gives clinical examples of patients hiding behind dark glasses in order to create safe places, ‘shelters’. ‘Our visibility is dangerous because, in certain situations, when our vulnerability is enhanced, we experience visibility as a threat to the core of our being’. He calls this core ‘soul’ – not perhaps a term which either Freud or Lacan would use [1] and points out defences, which, he says, concern making the body ‘filled with libido and ‘make it thick and real’ like a shield. (Bonomi 2010: 113) When these strategies fail, an individual might feel exposed to the ‘evil eye’ which has links both to Freud’s ‘uncanny’ (ibid.: 113-114) but also to myths and beliefs in non-Western cultures and societies. That disembodied gaze might cause a fear of ‘sterility, disease, and death’ (ibid.: 114). In African cultures, too, one has to be careful of the evil eye.

Further in Seminar XI Lacan shows that the eye as an organ has a fundamental relation to that separation. He gives an example ‘invidia, envy which has it etymological roots in “videre”, to see, and is triggered at an image of ‘completeness closed upon itself’ (Lacan 1998: 116) when the subject gazes at someone else who is in the possession of object little-a. This is a circumstance under which the subject gives to the object an ‘evil look’ which is a fatal gaze symbolizing the separating function of the eye.

Lacan gives an example of a (documentary) film of Cézanne painting which shows it to be, according to him, not the result of a natural action but a terminated gesture – it is the termination of the gesture that produces ‘the fascinatory’ effect (ibid.: 118) as it ‘freezes’ the movement.

Berresem points out that throughout the discussion Lacan plays off the double meaning of fascination as both ‘charming’ as well as ‘putting under an evil spell’. The Latin ‘fascinum’ also means ‘phallus’ or ‘phallic emblem’, which captures its relationship to lack, castration and death (Berresem in Feldstein et all 1995: 177) but also places seeing on the par with the Master Signifier.

In my short films, the gaze, and the moment of seeing, empowers the women, whilst at the same time inflicting pain as something is lost. The gaze does something extraordinary here – it un-freezes them – exactly the opposite of the Lacanian example. Women in both films take power back from a patriarchal order – Lacan might say they gain the Phallus. The seeing camera appears to be disintergrating the world they live in too, particularly in Spectacles as the camera appears unstable, out of focus, unsure – as the world inhabited by the women is falling apart. But something  new is beginning  to emerge and tboth women begin to see things they did not see before.

The two shorts can be seen as a diptych and have been shown as such at conferences. I felt very unsure about Spectacles because of some technical problems but it appears that it resonates with viewers because of its imperfections.


Bonomi, C. (2010) Narcissism as Mastered Visibility: The Evil Eye and the Attack of the Disembodied Gaze in International Forum of Psychoanalysis,  19, pp.110-119).

Berressem, H. (1996) The ‘Evil Eye’ of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz on the Gaze in R. Feldstein, B. Fink, & M. Jaanus (eds.) Reading Seminar XI. New York: State University of New York Press, pp.149-175.

Lacan,J. (1998 [1981]) Seminar XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Miller, J-A. (ed.) Trans. By A. Sheridan. London & New York: W. W. Norton.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968 [1964]) The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. by A. Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Universities Press.

Quinet, A. (1995) The Gaze as an Object in R. Feldstein, B. Fink & M. Jaanus Reading Seminar XI. New York: State University of New York Press, pp.139-149.

Piotrowska.A. (2014) Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary Film. London: Routledge.


[1] Although there is an issue as to how to translate the German word ‘Seele’ which can mean both ‘psyche’ and ‘soul’. Freud uses that word often without defining it. Jung offers a distinction.

Hidden Persuaders Blog

The reputations of the ‘psy’ professions – and the status of their ideas – were altered by controversies, myths and testimonies about ‘brainwashing’ in its various guises during the Cold War. Our project uncovers new source materials and promotes original analyses of the involvement (real and perceived) of clinicians in brainwashing and its cognate practices of interrogation, psychological warfare, subliminal advertisement, and therapeutic experimentation. We consider what ethical guidelines and safeguards, past or present, have been formulated to deal with the dangers of mind control so powerfully articulated during the Cold War.

By exploring these historical debates over mind control and their continuing legacies for psy expertise, Hidden Persuaders offers timely historical analysis of continuing present-day controversies. The language of ‘brainwashing’ continues to influence, in diverse and unexpected ways, present understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state; the nature of the therapeutic encounter between patient and psy-professional; and the borderlands between education, persuasion and indoctrination.

Our blog addresses these themes, with recent posts including:

If your research touches on these themes and you would be interested in writing a post for us, please contact

The Hidden Persuaders project is led by Professor Daniel Pick at Birkbeck, University of London, and is made possible by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award. Find us on Twitter: @HPersuaders

Spaces of Psychoanalysis

We are delighted to present, above, a fascinating and informative new film about psychoanalysis at Birkbeck, University of London.

Birkbeck has a long standing and lively tradition of Freudian thought and a distinctive, highly interdisciplinary approach to psychoanalysis. In this film a number of academics with sustained interests in psychoanalysis, drawn from across different disciplines in the College, talk about the many spaces that psychoanalytical ideas occupy in their lives and research. Spaces of Psychoanalysis makes extensive use of drawings and collages offering a panoramic view of the Freudian legacy’s contemporary inflections and elaborations.

This 2016 film was directed by Bartek Dziadosz and produced by Lily Ford at Birkbeck’s Derek Jarman Lab.

CibWK1wWkAE8G6IThe featured image was shared on Twitter by the Derek Jarman Lab on May 15, 2016.