How you get somewhere is often just as, if not more interesting than where you are going. Andrew Kotting is a filmmaker very much interested in the journey and from his 1996 feature debut Gallivant he has been wilfully exploring that space between A and B. Kotting exposes the value in and meanings behind the routes we take and those that have been taken before us, who we take them with and why we take them.
Gallivant saw Kotting traverse Britain's coast with his young daughter (Eden, a frequent feature in Kotting's films) and aging grandmother, three generations of Kotting exploring landscapes both external and internal. Since then, amidst a sizeable, varied body of experimental works, Kotting has returned to the filmic journey multiple times. Ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games, Swandown saw Kotting escort writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair on a 160 mile route from Hastings to Hackney, this time moving (in characteristically idiosyncratic fashion) by swan pedalo along the river Thames. New feature By Our Selves sees the two journeymen reunited, as they, along with a growing band of friends and collaborators, recreate a route first travelled by "minor nature poet who went mad" John Clare.
Clare, who found himself confined to the Epping Forest High Beach mental asylum near the end of his life, plotted an escape and made a valiant attempt to return to his Northamptonshire home on foot, hoping to reunite himself not with his current wife Martha Turner who had him sectioned, but his first love Mary Joyce, who he believed himself still married to despite her death years before. Inspired by both Clare's book Journey Out of Essex and Sinclair's interpretation Edge of the Orison, By Our Selves sees Kotting and his troop (Alan Moore, father and son Toby and Freddie Jones, Kotting's daughter Eden as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and at points Kotting himself, albeit dressed as a large straw bear) stage their own investigative deviation on the journey, taking the route, texts and individuals involved as a jumping off point for a wandering experiment that proves insightful, interesting and surprisingly emotive by its end.
By definition a wandering film, By Our Selves largely follows Toby Jones as a muted gnomic avatar of Clare, as he journeys silently northward out of the forest, accompanied by the large straw bear used to signify his madness. (In one particularly satisfying scene, Jones struggles silently against the straw bear, attempting to drag him forcefully through a vast field, before giving up and letting the bear lead.) Iain Sinclair joins him, clad mostly in an unsettling Donnie Darko type goat mask, reading from Clare's text as well as interviewing admirers of the poet on the way. Alan Moore first muses on Clare's relationship to Northamptonshire, a shared hometown for them both and what Moore describes as a place no one has any reason to go to yet one that holds a mythic pull all the same. Later, a Clare academic Simon Kovesi talks in greater depth about Clare's writing and reputation, then dons boxing gloves and spars a few rounds with Sinclair, just case it seems all a bit too serious.
Passers by interject sporadically, mostly confused as to exactly what Kotting and his band are up to, wandering roadside through motorside England, reading aloud, and filming nothing in particular. Kotting and his cameraman Nick Gordon Smith find many great images along the way, framing even the most mundane scenes in a captivating fashion and experimenting with composition and movement constantly. In an early deviation in a film where zigzagging takes preference over the following the straight line, Kotting's helicopter drone camera floats smoothly over Jones' shoulder as he stumbles around the forest undergrowth before abandoning him and bursting dramatically out of the forest and flying way up above the foliage. The now distanced camera captures an ant-sized Jones running loose into the open from afar, before spiralling outwards capturing the sprawling milage of British scenery all around, finally seizing up and plummeting to the ground. Kotting doesn't cut, instead exposing the DIY nature the project by leaving the crashed camera running.
Similarly, Kotting's soundman is seen frequently in the shot. His presence, following doggedly with the large fuzzy mic, is fitting considering that perhaps most pivotal to the film's success is the sound design, a mix of songs, recordings and readings from a number of collaborators (Jem Finer and others) spliced together masterfully to create a haunting, guiding and highly textured blanket of sounds to tie the contrasting images and ideas together.
This sound collage is perhaps especially necessary consider the screen version Clare himself is silent. It's odd to see Toby Jones, one of Britain's leading actors and probably the biggest star Kotting will ever work with not given any speaking lines, but his silence proves poignant by the end. Toby Jones' father Freddie, who also features, played John Clare in a 1970s BBC adaptation which Kotting lifts scrambled audio from, connecting father and son through a shared role, channeling Clare as Kotting and Sinclair aim to with their literary and filmic reconjurings. Though the two Jones' never share screen space, a final, intensely moving sequence, sees Jones senior struggling wistfully to recall Clare's poetry, beautifully topping off the experience of hurtling through generations and time that Kotting's manifold 'channelings' evokes.
Funded partially by the Arts Council, but mainly by a successful kickstarter campaign, By Our Selves marks a small victory for innovative funding models for small audience passion projects in a time where such things are under no small threat of annihilation. Not all filmmakers as wilfully experimental and satisfyingly idiosyncratic as Kotting are also as popular and well connected within their relevant circles, but seeing a film as impressive as By Our Selves on a screen as large and packed out as the one the film premiered on in Hackney's Picturehouse should serve as a sign of hope that future works of a similar fashion can find both an audience and platform on which to be made and seen. Having the director dress as a large straw bear is optional, but welcome.
By Our Selves plays at Picturehouse Central on Saturday 20th June, as part of the Open City Docs Festival 2015.