In this short essay, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou considers the politics of automata and gender in Peter Wollen’s re-released film, Friendship’s Death.
I’m watching Friendship’s Death on an old portable video player. The disc spins inside, its mechanical revolution determined to interrupt the film’s audio. Suddenly Tilda Swinton’s face flickers into view, a presence to silence all sounds – not least the machine’s whirring. Swinton – a youthful, earlier version of a now renowned, revered and preternaturally beautiful self – plays Friendship, an extra-terrestrial android from the planet Procyon, who is on a peace mission to earth. Briefed to land in the US, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Friendship unintentionally ends up in 1970s Amman, the Jordanian capital, where the events of ‘Black September’ are swiftly unfolding. Displaced, disorientated and alone, Friendship meets Sullivan, a cynical war correspondent sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. What ensues, from the shelter of their two hotel rooms, is a thoughtful and mutually beneficial dialogue, a rich philosophical and poetic exchange – a unique friendship, in other words – where what it means to be human and machine, particularly in the midst of man-made catastrophe, is carefully teased out and re-evaluated. Outside her window, the technology of war rages on, leaving Friendship to rethink the direction of her own mechanised mission of peace, her own alien existence on Earth. With her, we too are encouraged to reflect on the mechanisms of war, the machine-fuelled power of military states, our abuse of technological development to possess, oppress and kill other humans. Listening to the DVD disc whirl, its encoded data moving outwards into pixelated form on the diminutive screen, I thought of my – our – the west’s – complicity in civil conflict and modern slavery because of our desire to dominate and trade technology for political and economic gain. The selling of arms; the mass production and consumption of devices assembled by workers treated worse than the robots they make; the blood in the mineral rich earth embedded in my mobile phone – never has Friendship and her dialogue with Sullivan been more relevant to us than now.
Friendship comes to us in the Jordanian desert, at a Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) outpost. Lost and in need of Sullivan’s protection, she appears entirely incongruous to the Khaki-attired freedom fighters and their stripped back, low-key setting. Dressed in a pristine beige and white trouser suit, with hair scooped into a perfect chignon, she is every bit the foreign creature she later claims to be at the hotel. But this has nothing to do with her betraying tell-tale signs of being a machine – not at this stage – and everything to do with having the outer appearance of a beautiful, young, white, English speaking woman. Friendship is an anomaly from the outset, her gendered and racial mimicry – a ‘simulation’ she will insist to Sullivan in later scenes – reinforcing this throughout. That’s not to say Peter Wollen, the writer and director of Friendship’s Death, doesn’t subtly allude to the west’s, specifically Britain’s, involvement in the conflict – he does, and it is significant that two white (white-passing, in Friendship’s case), Anglophone characters are the main interlocutors in a film charting the conflict between Jordan and Palestine. Rather, Friendship comes to us in a long-line of female androids, cyborgs and aliens who have all, because of their outer feminised corporeality, been subject to the curiosity, fantasy, control and eventual overthrow of male humans.
A trope of speculative literature and cinema, and even early enlightenment philosophy, it is inevitable that Friendship as automata, albeit a highly sophisticated, futuristic and computer-generated automaton, appears female. From the theories of Condorcet and Diderot through to Alex Garland’s humanoid robot, Ava, in Ex Machina (2015), and Spike Jonze’s artificially intelligent virtual assistant, Samantha, in Her (2013), the plight of (mostly human-generated) machines in relation to (male) humans is dramatized through the positionality and condition of the feminine. If the feminine is socially conceived as being subservient, impressionable, self-abnegative yet emotionally receptive, then there’s something to be said about its synonymity with robotics and humanoids. From this subjugated and implicitly gendered position, automata are ‘born’ selfless (technically there is no conscious self behind the simulacrum of skin; no ghost in the shell) but ‘become’ self-aware, conscious not just of their selves but the social world’s construction and expectation of them. We could go so far as to say they develop a double consciousness or dual way of seeing and being, the kind posited by Dubois, Fanon and Berger, when considering those who have been deemed subordinate or inferior by hegemonic cultures, groups and classes. Yet, from the position of the feminine, from this double ontology, robots rebel: Garland’s Ava outsmarts her sadistic creator, Nathan, and “nice guy feminist” co-conspirator, Caleb, to flee the glass and chrome compound she, and other fembots, have been imprisoned in; Jonze’s Samantha breaks up with her human boyfriend, Theodore, tuning out from his every whim and waking demand to focus on her own, unprogrammed, desires. With their new found knowledge of what the feminine means to a heteropatriachal, capitalist, white supremacist world, of how it – they – are expected to perform – the female androids break up, act up, crash or at best smash the constructed world around them, reinventing what it is to be feminine, to be a gendered and racialized being, to be human, to be a robot at all.
Wollen’s android, Friendship, still follows this trope of the feminine despite being made by other extra-terrestrials on Procyon. Constructed and programmed by a superior race of computers – one that has survived the extinction of a former biologically engineered species – Friendship bypasses the subjugating relationship of creator/owner which Ava and Samantha endure – or so it would seem. As the dialogue between Friendship and Sullivan develops, with the former eventually taking the interlocutory lead, we learn of Friendship’s training, of her programming, of her initial conditioning so to speak, before she arrives on earth. Uploaded into her carefully designed hard drive are facts about the world, films about the activities of humans, languages, a veritable encyclopaedia to date (yes, she is a kind of forerunner of Google). Friendship has been trained to intellectually ‘know’ earth and its inhabitants, before experiencing it for herself. Treated as a vessel, encoded with foreign data and rules, she is every bit subject to and a product of the computers who’ve made her. In her finely made circuitry she is genderless, but this subjective construction, this early socialisation, devoid of agency and control, sets in motion the positionality and condition of the feminine. Friendship is designed at the behest of others, for the pleasure of others (the extra-terrestrial computers take pleasure in ‘collecting data about earth’ through her); she is engineered to be received as such by us too. As writer Andrea Long Chu writes in her brilliantly subversive and astute essay, Females, ‘to be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense’; it is for the ‘self to be hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force’ (p.11). Though built with an important message and mission in mind – the elusive ‘peace’ us pleasure-seeking earthlings fail to find – Friendship, like Ava, Samantha and even Fritz Lang’s Maria, starts off as an ‘incubator’ for an ‘alien force’ (the computers and us), a ‘hollowed out’ self, whose desires or ability to desire ‘has been sacrificed’ to make room for those of another. Like her future “female” androids, Friendship’s reversal of this lies in the very conscious-raising positionality of the feminine itself.
That her connection with Sullivan both affirms and challenges this position is integral to the film – and Friendship’s emerging sense of selfhood. From their first meeting at the PLO outpost it is clear Sullivan finds her attractive. But what disrupts this attraction, encouraging a valued and mutually valuable friendship, is her proximity to the human, her humanising subjectivity, her humane ‘fellow feeling’ with machines and all life forces treated in such a slavish manner. Contact with Sullivan humanises Friendship as much as it does him; it breaks the feminine position that he initially assumes she should occupy and adhere to, thus creating an understanding, a dialogue, a sympathy between two supposedly diverse entities. If at the open of their connection Sullivan dismisses Friendship’s story as the hallucinatory tales of a mad woman, and condescendingly accepts her offer to assist in his reportage, towards the close he is all ears, fascinated by her knowledge, her empathy for and solidarity with the Palestinians, her decision to remain in Jordan to fight shoulder to shoulder with the PLO. Friendship in turn evolves from the one being talked at, to one doing most of the talking; from an observer of Sullivan’s heavy handed typing to being the one seated at the type writer, recalling the pure poetry of her own new, dreamily real existence: ‘I dream of succulents, the flow of carbon in acid metabolism, hunters and gatherers, hijack victims’. Friendship goes from curious object, to compelling and compelled subject; a fully automated self who no longer simply automates pleasure and records it on behalf of others but pursues it for herself. It’s the secret dialectic of the feminine: that it can subversively subvert itself; reflect on its abnegation and revolt in the process of reflection.
Wollen’s first iteration of Friendship was as a male android in his short story of the same title. This speaks of the film’s awareness of the operation of gender in the socio-political sphere. Published in Emma Tennant’s radical magazine, Bananas, in 1976, ‘Friendship’s Death’ as short story no doubt plays out a little differently, in terms of human-android relations, to Friendship’s Death the film, in 1987. Whether collective action by women’s groups around the world, political firsts in the UK – Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in ‘79, Abbot becoming the first Black MP for Labour in ’87 – and a proliferation of political writings by feminists (notably the roots of Cyberfeminism emerging in works of this time) prompted Wollen to have Friendship pass as a woman; or the presence of Palestinian women becoming freedom fighters (part of the Fedayeen) during the conflict is uncertain. What certainly comes across in the film, nonetheless, is Friendship’s growing political awareness and agency, the transition from subservience and marginality to a politically queer assertiveness and affectivity. Why queer? Well, apart from the feminine android consciousness facilitating this revolution, Friendship incorporates Wollen’s own political viewpoints; ‘she’ who is more ‘they’ goes where Wollen can’t go, acts in ways Wollen cannot act: she moves from sympathising with the PLO (‘and all victims’, as she says to Sullivan) to taking up arms with them; she transcends her assigned mission, the prescriptions of gender binaries, the divisions of race, nationality, geography, journalistic neutrality. Wollen’s first-hand experiences of the conflict and all ‘Black September’ entailed did not enable him to realise solidarity on such a level. Wollen as Friendship, Wollen as an inherently queer and queerly humane android realises his political convictions fully. Film allows us this; Friendship’s Death allows us to dream politically, even if we’re dreaming backwards, cyborg-style, into the future past.
Friendship’s short time in Amman, her rapid rise from the abject position of the feminine, renders her both ultra-human and ultra-machine. She is at once a robot who has no digestive system, no blood or circulating ‘fluids’; she is unable to become drunk and cannot blush (though revels in making Sullivan do so); she needs solar-power to recharge; she intercepts messages borne on the low-tech frequencies of radio transmission and telephonic communication. But she is also a queer subjectivity, a femme android who ‘dreams of impossible objects’, who walks in marketplaces buying exuberant Jordanian clothes, jewellery, headdresses and veils, who collects and cares for human-made detritus, who speaks in multiple tongues (the poetry of signs and rationality of symbols) with equal simultaneity; who compassionates with the lost, the marginalised, the victimised, the hi-jacked, the enslaved. She is a wondrous hybrid, as Kodwo Eshun observes, of Wollen’s evolving thoughts, theories and history; of ‘the cinematic sign’, of the alien body coming down to earth and colliding with its false binaries, its prescribed roles. Sharing an affinity with the type-writer (‘a primitive cousin’ she earnestly declares), but not with the hoover (‘a cockroach’ of a machine she complains to a smirking Sullivan), Friendship knows the potentiality of machines intimately. In this she implies the potentiality of art, specifically the moving image, too. Abandoning her mission to go to the UN and MIT – where, she believes, they will only dissect and dismember her, robot limb by robot limb – Friendship employs her newfound sense of self as both ultra-human and ultra-machine to support the Palestinians, thus showing us the human and humanitarian potential of all humanoids. In this last sacrificial yet self-determining gesture – this combined feat of death and life – Friendship self-reflexively reveals the purpose of technology: to unite, to reach out, to support, to aid, to create, to envision, to connect, to touch. Watching Friendship’s final film – a gift to Sullivan which recalls her earthbound, fractal-arranged impressions – my portable video player gently purring to the audio, the queer magic and magical hybridity of machines plays out before me. A new kinship, a new friendship begins.
Friendship’s Death, dir. Peter Wollen, is available now on the BFI’s dual format DVD/Blu-ray release and is also available to watch on BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon Prime. The film has also been selected to screen as part of Cannes Classics. Click on the links to follow the BFI on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
Feature image: Friendship’s Death, Dir. Peter Wollen, 1987, (BFI Blu-ray-DVD release) ft. Tilda Swinton as Friendship and Bill Paterson as Sullivan. Image courtesy of BFI.