It is a bright, sunny day some time in 2014, and Eden Kötting is alive. She is drawing on a transparent sheet with a big black felt tip, and explaining how powerful people are all fools. This simple set-up is the basis for This Illuminated World is Full of Stupid Men, one of five short films by her father Andrew Kötting and his regular cinematographer Nick Gordon Smith which appears on Soda Pictures’ new Blu-Ray release of By Our Selves. To explain why this short film – and the disc’s main feature – were so moving to me, it is necessary to explain who Andrew Kötting is, and why he might just be the greatest British film-maker you’ve never heard of.
I first fell in love with his cinema when I watched his feature debut Gallivant. Gallivant traces a journey Kötting made around the coast of mainland Britain, recording folk customs and dances he found along the way, accompanied by Eden and his grandmother Gladys. It is, in my book, the Great British Movie, an encapsulation of a whole nation replete with tireless visual invention and emotional heft. The latter comes from the spectre of mortality hanging over the film; although only the daredevil director injures himself during the course of filming, Gladys is very old, and Eden suffers from Joubert Syndrome. As her father explains her condition, he notes that both of his travelling companions might never get the chance to take a trip like this again.
Gallivant was released a year after Trainspotting and a year before Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Its unashamed experimentalism, heading artistically as well as geographically for the rural and marginal, could not have been more out of step with Kötting’s contemporaries. During the 2000s he released two fictional films – 2001’s This Filthy Earth and 2007’s Ivul – as well as a small handful of art projects and shorts. Ominously, two of those shorts, 2000’s Me and 2004’s Visionary Landscapes, were based around unused footage from Gallivant, suggesting either a creative or a financial obstacle was in his way. In the absence of any other information, it was hard not to assume the worst about him – and his daughter.
So it is such a joy to see Eden in By Our Selves and its supporting shorts, and such a pleasure to note that this Kickstarter-funded documentary shows Kötting on strong artistic form. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the death of the poet John Clare by getting Toby Jones to reprise a journey Clare made through Epping Forest, escaping the asylum he was held in to try and find his first love Mary Joyce. Jones isn’t just walking – he has a troubled, bewildered quality that speaks of Clare’s instability – but he’s not quite acting either, or at least, not in the way a conventional dramatised documentary would have him act.
Early on in the film, a long tracking shot of a musician walking behind Clare ends with a car driving past. The length of the shot lets you know that, if Kötting and his team were interested in evoking the 1840s, they had plenty of footage that didn’t feature modern vehicles. But they kept it in, just as they later keep the pylons in a shot of Clare resting in a cornfield, or show a “straw bear” (played by the director) wandering through the car park of a Costa Coffee. The idea is not to create an illusion of going back in time, but to merge the past with the present in an attempt to explain both. At one point Jones and the crew walk past a man in a mobility scooter, who asks them what they’re doing. “We’re filming John Clare”, Kötting replies. The passer-by barks back, “That’s not John Clare!” And he’s right, of course. Kötting and Jones never want you to think otherwise.
Retracing the steps of your ancestors is an important ritual in many tribal cultures, and Kötting knows that placing this ancient urge in modern suburbia creates a powerful unease. This haunted sensibility, this interest in the archaic, the buried and the occult, now has a dictionary’s worth of terms to describe it – “hauntology” if you’re into music, “folk horror” if you like TV and cinema, all of it looking back to the “old weird Britain”. But Kötting was developing his fusion of ancient folk ritual with 20th-century anachronisms like rough super-8 film, RP voiceovers and badly-tuned radios back when nobody else was dabbling in this area.
As a result, his retrophilia is not fashionable, or simply nostalgic. It is personal, purposeful and meaningful. Kötting remembers that Jones’s father Freddie played Clare in a 1970s edition of Omnibus, and the film pays off with a final, intensely moving scene of Jones Senior reciting Clare’s most famous poem ‘I Am’ from memory. The past and the present, the father and the son, all these alchemical connections enrich By Our Selves immensely, making it another of Kötting’s refutations of the charge that avant-garde films are all head and no heart. Nick Gordon Smith’s mostly monochrome photography is also an incredibly sensual pleasure, capturing the British countryside in summer in ways you’ll have never seen before.
Clare’s story, though, is tragic, and Kötting is careful to make sure his formal playfulness never cheapens his subject’s suffering. At the start of the film we are informed that Clare’s journey turned out to be futile; unbeknown to him, Joyce died three years before he escaped the asylum. We also hear an old-fashioned, plummy voiceover – from the Omnibus film? – describe Clare harshly as “a minor nature poet who went mad”. Kötting responds to this by rendering all his film’s captions in the shaky, endearing handwriting of Eden, replacing the patronising voiceover that sought to dismiss Clare’s talent because of his mental illness with the proudly different, irregular writing of a disabled person telling a story about disability.
Threaded through the story are interviews with Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and Clare scholar Dr Simon Kovesi, as well as a mix of haunting folk songs and found sounds assembled by Jem Finer. Finer and Gordon Smith are regular Kötting collaborators, and Sinclair and Moore also appeared in his last film, 2012’s Swandown. Andrew Kötting may always be too weird to be the national treasure he deserves to be, but his cult is worth joining – the closing list of Kickstarter donors includes The Selfish Giant director Clio Barnard, as well as Two Years At Sea’s Ben Rivers. This outpouring of support also suggests an interpretation of the film’s title. Whereas Kovesi is seen reading a copy of the collection “John Clare By Himself”, Kötting goes with the plural, getting support from friends, fans and family, and using that communal support to make a truly singular film.
BY OUR SELVES IS OUT NOW ON SODA PICTURES BLU-RAY