Waiting in the Dark

A response to our call-out for uncivilised films

This spring Dark Mountain planned to host an event called How We Walk Through the Fire. The programme included a matinee show of short films, our first dedicated exploration of the medium. Then the pandemic closed the doors to our gathering, as it has to thousands of events in theatres and public spaces across the world. While we wait until they open again, our film editor, Jonny Randall gives an overview of some of the work sent in response to the call out.
is a filmmaker and community arts practitioner living in North West England. His films often focus on performance, landscape and how identity is shaped by the stories that are embedded in all of us. Recent projects include Rannoch Wolves made with Dougie Strang and the Kairos Collective and Óshlíð: River Mouth \\ Slope with Sarah Thomas which explores the stories of an abandoned coastal road in North-West Iceland.
Last December, I was invited by Dark Mountain to curate a call-out for ‘uncivilised’ short films film work which felt elemental in subject matter or form and engaged with the turbulent times in which we live. The invitation also called for submissions which undertook the challenge of offering a platform for more-than-human voices. We asked the question: what might that approach to filmmaking look and sound like?

Our original intention was to host a screening  for a selection of these short films  at Dark Mountain’s We Walk Through the Fire weekend event at The Cube in Bristol in April. However, as the coronavirus pandemic escalated globally, swiftly followed by the indefinite closure of all cinemas and events venues nationwide under lockdown, the curtain came down on our Picture Show at the End of the World. Sadly, we wouldn’t be gathering together in the dark to watch films anytime soon.

In the continued absence of a screening event, we’ve wanted to offer a response to some of the film submissions which came in from all around the world. The 60 responses varied across a wide range of forms: from short documentaries exploring social, economic and ecological collapse to visual poems, dynamic performances and more abstract sequences of sounds and images.

One undeniable thread amongst the submissions was a number of apocalyptic visions of the future, characterised by climate breakdown and post-human landscapes. Laura Spark’s nightmarish stop-motion ecological horror, Madder Isle, features a strange and disturbing journey of a woman at the hands of a holy sect seeking to bring about a new era. Animation, as a form, works well here to challenge anthropocentric values and breathe life into a living island as the ground rises and falls like a heaving bosom. Standing stones dissolve into bubbling pools before reforming to swallow human bodies. The film’s darkly surreal imagery blurs the boundaries of where sentience lies in both human and other-than-human life.

cloud-cuckoo-island (dir Hanna Tuulikki and Daniel Warren)

Shape-shifting forms in animation are also centre-stage in Yixuan Maisie Luo’s stark painted stop-motion short, Healer. Luo’s striking film renders the devastating consequences of consumption through a series of images which morph via successive layers of paint: a dead fish peels back from the head to become a doughnut, which becomes an eyeball that closes before being sewn shut, to then change into a pair of lips on a mouth which opens in the sky to consume all life in the ocean. Luo said that she drew inspiration from the Kāli stories in Hindu mythology, which depict a goddess who sometimes kills her children as an act of love to let them confront fearful acts of the life cycle.. Similarly, Covid-19 is considered by some as nature’s vengeance for the ecological destruction that humanity has wrought on the planet: our species needs to be brought to heel. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on our own destructive tendencies and acknowledge that we are fundamentally a part of the interconnected web of all life.

Luo describes her film as also depicting ‘a healing ritual for the dying Earth’ which ‘urges us to be present with the troubles of the Earth’ and take responsibility for the impact of our actions. This idea resonated with me on viewing  the film again during lockdown. Amidst all of the human chaos and the restrictions on global movement, there seemed to be a heightened awareness of wildlife. People noticed an increase in birdsong. As the tourist industry shut down in Italy, Venice’s canal waters cleared and  the swans returned. With fewer planes in the sky and cars on the road, air-pollution levels dropped. Goats wandered the empty streets of Llandudno in north Wales. Hundreds of monkeys overran the town of Lopburi in Thailand. Such images have given us an eerie glimpse into a world of reduced human activity in which other-than-human species have space to roam.

Cycles of destruction and regeneration were a theme which ran through a number of other submissions. Jayne Ivimey’s …because I’m part of this is a collation and curation of photographs and footage, taken over 13 years on the cliff tops at Happisburgh, Norfolk, which reveals a pattern of seasonal regeneration in which new life replaces old. Coastal erosion threatens the dwelling of a local resident, Bryony Nierop-Reading, who steadily retreats as the ground beneath her home crumbles into the sea. As she clings to the place of which she is a part, seasonal cycles continue.

Sculpting in the Pyrocene: A Disappearing Act (dir Julie Williams)

In the wake of an Australian bushfire which swept across the Newnes Plateau in 2013, Julie Williams’ Sculpting in the Pyrocene: A Disappearing Act presents the regenerating landscape of a patch of eucalypt forest. A static frame bears witness to a fire-sculpted tree whose roots still anchor it in the rejuvenating bushland. A collaborative ritual between the tree and the artist unfolds as they both sculpt with a light-filled net which reveals an interplay between memory and the present. Williams noted that since filming, the same area of bushland had been burned again by a firestorm on 21st December 2019, and that at the time of writing she was prevented from returning to the site to check on the status of the sculpted, burned tree. In this sense, the film acts as a stark meditation on the nature of impermanence and exposes the vulnerability of the natural world in the face of an escalating climate crisis.

Words often fail us in response to species extinction and collapse. Navigations of grief and trauma through movement and wordless sound are performed in a number of the short films.

Words often fail us in response to species extinction and collapse. Navigations of grief and trauma through movement and wordless sound are performed in a number of the short films. Nicole Garneau’s Deer Remedies beautifully and simply portrays a grief ritual for a dead doe. Eivor Slågedal offers a meditation on deep ecology in the mountains of Norway in I Thought The Earth Remembered Me. Elsewhere, cloud-cuckoo-island sees Hanna Tuulikki perform a solo vocal improvisation in a natural amphitheatre on the Isle of Eigg. The performance is inspired by the tale of Buile Sweeney (Sweeney’s Frenzy), an Irish king who was driven mad in battle and condemned to wander lost in the landscape, leaping bird-like from place to place. Tuulikki’s moss-bearded king has ‘gone cuckoo’ and mimics the mournful call of the bird as it echoes around the surrounding cliffs. This plaintive call-and-response culminates in exhaustion as Tuulikki hangs her head, as if in despair for the culture that sent Sweeney into madness.

Emergent Seas (dir Augustin of the Road) – Bob Lovelace of the Ardoch Algoquin First Nation

Moving through the pain of collective grief is shot through the short documentary, Emergent Seas: Re-indigenising the Great Lakes by Augustin of the Road. Envisioned as an experiment in ‘slow-wave cinema’, it focuses on asking what it means to reindigenise, especially for Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) members of the Great Lakes, but also for black, brown, and white people severed from their deeper cultural roots. Redbird Woman Korii Northrup of Fond du Lac reflects that ‘you have to hurt to heal’ and that ‘now is the time to adapt to what is happening’. Re-rooting ourselves, the film posits, is at the heart of resistance. Bob Lovelace, a participant in Emergent Seas and member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation on Eel Lake in Eastern Ontario, Canada says, 

All humans have the capacity for indigeneity […] we all have to find indigenous ways of living that allow cultures to emerge out of the ecology that we live with. That, to me, is the best inoculation against the coming tide of collapse.

Bill Finnigan’s short documentary also seeks to address an emotional response to collapse in After Denial, which is structured around the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. In moving towards the final stage of acceptance, Dark Mountain co-founder, Dougald Hine, offers some thoughts on the subject in one of the film’s interviews. He encourages us to see despair ‘as something to be willing to sit with, to stare into the darkness, and let your eyes adjust and then see what faint shapes of hope are still moving there, in that darkness.’ Perhaps some of those faint shapes are conjured as stories on the screen.

Many of the responses to the film call-out offer a variety of reflections on our unravelling world. As we all stand on shifting sands, there is much to be indignant, depressed and angry about. Film can offer a platform for expressing what we see from where we stand and reflecting on the narratives that have led us here. One of the challenges of filmmaking as a vehicle for storytelling is how to tell new stories or recall forgotten old ones. The film editor Walter Murch writes that this is the question and responsibility for filmmakers: ‘at its best, film could supply the braided coherence ordinary life does not. Such films would fulfil a unique social, almost spiritual, function, helping people to resolve contradictions within themselves, and then to align with each other in a healthy society’1. If film doesn’t provide us with answers, perhaps it can encourage us, as Rilke says, to ‘live the questions’. Indeed, Roger Bygott’s visual poem Everything I Never Did But Never Left Behind asks ‘if there is no ground, how can there be dizziness?’.

At its best, film could supply the braided coherence ordinary life does not. Such films would fulfil a unique social, almost spiritual, function, helping people to resolve contradictions within themselves’

*

In the midst of uncertainty, ritual can be a remedy. During lockdown, I’ve really missed the communal ritual of gathering with a group of strangers, in a cinema, to experience what Murch calls the ‘mass-intimacy of the darkened theatre’:

Humans have been assembling in the dark, listening to stories, since the invention of language. It is indelibly part of who we are and how we bond with each other. The theatrical experience is a recreation of this primeval gathering, the flames of the campfire replaced by shifting images that are telling the story itself.

This awareness of our commonality in the cinema is something that I yearn for us to hold on to, as the lights go down and the darkness sharpens our senses.

I spent many years working as a projectionist and witnessed the rapid transition of cinemas adopting digital formats and scrapping their old 35mm film projectors. I still feel sad at losing this tactile relationship with screening a film for an audience. I always felt a sense of pride in the skill it took to take responsibility for lacing the reels from giant silver platters through the projector so they could appear on a distant screen. The mechanics were magical. Starting a screening was like casting a spell. Sparking the bulb into life with an electric buzz. A metallic tang in my nostrils as the metal heated. Flicking a switch to hear the loud whirr and clatter of the film beginning its journey through sprockets and wheels. Seeing light pass through the frames before they were cast out into the theatre. Glancing through the projection-box window into an auditorium of huddled figures in the dark, waiting for the flickering images to begin to dance.

 

Emergent Seas – tent (dir Augustin of the Road)

Though we might not be able to gather in the dark in the near future, we hope to host a  screening of a selection of films submitted to The Picture Show at the End of the World online this autumn. Do keep an eye out for the announcement in our September newsletter and on social media. For further info; [email protected]

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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