‘Arcadia’ is a term full of meanings for cultural work. In one definition on Wikipedia it is seen as “a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires”. The name derives from a region of Greece, so that it is through classical studies that is known in the UK. The GFF Brochure describes the film Arcadia as:
A provocative and poetic exploration of Britain’s relationship with its own land . . . a dense and elegiac essay of wonder, hope, horror and decay.
This shortish documentary feature (78 minutes) was put together by Paul Wright, the director best known for his fiction feature For Those at Peril (UK 2013) about the impact of the deaths of several fishermen on a remote Scottish fishing community. Original music was composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. The film was produced by Hopscotch Films, one of the leading Scottish film production companies and supported by the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland.
The film is divided into various chapters and there is a narrative of sorts that reflects the seasons. I have problems writing about these kinds of ‘poetic’ documentaries, especially when the subject matter is so diffuse and difficult to pin down. I find my concentration wanders when there is not a pithy argument to follow. In this case I did recognise some of the ‘found footage’ taken from various film archives as well as extracts from named documentaries and, I think, possibly from some fiction features. The festival blurb for the film suggests that we are:
following an unnamed protagonist from the future as she travels through metaphorical ‘seasons’; from spring’s romantic agricultural idyll to winter’s political turmoil, as nature reacts with violent storms.
I couldn’t make much sense of this.
What is the relationship between people(s) in the UK and the landscapes of these islands? It’s certainly mixed. For some it’s about the ‘pastoral’ and the concept of living close to nature and some kind of innocence. For others it’s about superstition and inward-looking cultures and for some it’s the ‘folk horror’ of The Wicker Man (UK 1973). Although this film is produced within a Scottish context, many of the ideas in the film seem to come from a rural ‘English’ culture (and are often seen from the perspective of the middle-class – UK archives carry a lot of footage taken by amateur filmmakers, most of whom were middle-class). There is also input of material from the rather disparagingly termed ‘Celtic ‘ and ‘Nordic’ ‘fringes’ – there are several events from Padstow and the Up Helly Aa day from Lerwick. At the beginning of the film I remembered John Major’s famous misuse of Orwell and the “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. We were watching a seemingly timeless scene of an English village coming alive in the morning. I feel that sometimes these images can be a pernicious form of nostalgia. They mask so many political realities across rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (North and South). The one extraordinary element I remember from Arcadia was the amount of ‘naturist’ footage. Who on earth shot all of this footage? Is it from a naturist archive? Nubile young women did form more of the naked figures on display, though to be fair there were some naked males as well. What was the point of including this footage? Is it as simple as ‘naturism’ and ‘nature’?
You might be getting the impression that I was not as enthralled by this film as perhaps I should have been and you would be right. I’m interested in both industrial history and social/cultural history but not the ‘pastoral’ so much. Having said that, Arcadia did remind me of the great film directors who have attempted to use the British landscape. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Powell in The Edge of the World (1937), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Gone to Earth (1950). Powell was a ‘High Tory’ and with Pressburger he was interested in passion expressed through landscapes. I’d love to see a documentary collage of the use of landscapes in British cinema. It would also be interesting to compare Arcadia with Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (UK 1942) as a poetic documentary representation of Britain during the early part of the Second World War. This last year has also seen the release of three successful small independent films dealing with the loneliness of small farming families: God’s Own Country (2017) and Dark River (2017) set in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire respectively and The Levelling (2017) set in Somerset. Arcadia certainly has a subject to explore but perhaps not in the way it worked out. I’ve been rather hampered in writing this review as I haven’t found a full crew list (who edited all the clips – was it Paul Wright himself?) and I struggled to find images, even on the Hopscotch Films site. I’m not sure how Hopscotch Films are going to follow up this festival screening (and previously London and Leeds with Borderlines to come) with a cinema, download or DVD release, but I think they need better promotional materials. The images from the film that I did find were from the website of another production partner Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity with some interesting projects. This film is worth seeing but probably with an introduction and a discussion. It might even work best in a gallery installation. And that reminds me to recommend John Akomfrah’s work, especially The Nine Muses (UK 2010) if this kind of film interests you.