The Film Interview: Andrew Kötting

The British director on his new picture, Ivul - and on living in the treetops.

Andrew Kötting is a British artist and director. His first feature film, "Gallivant" (1996), followed the director on a journey around Britain's coastline with his grandmother and young daughter. That was followed in 2001 by "This Filthy Earth", an adaptation of Émile Zola's novel "La Terre". Kötting's other projects include "In the Wake of a Deadad" (shortlisted for the 2008 Derek Jarman Award), in which he transported effigies of his dead father to places they had visited together.

Your new film, Ivul [reviewed here by Ryan Gilbey], is about a boy who takes to the trees after his father banishes him from the family home. One of the things that makes it so striking is the way you blend abstract sequences of archive footage into the story. How did that come about?

My archive was found through happenstance. I applied to a film archive in Brighton and one thing led to another: I was looking for footage of trees, forests, tree-felling, which I thought would work as a meta language throughout, political but in a very understated and subtle way. Then I found a fella who used to film it himself on 16mm and had a collection of children's sports days, which you probably wouldn't be allowed to film these days.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

I had reread Tarzan and also Robin Hood had been on TV. Going through my old notebooks, [I thought] there seemed to be something resonating around this idea of a kid climbing on to the roof of a house. Actually, at first it was a middle-aged man running away from his family, but then I thought: let's make it me as a kid. I had these memories of hiding from my father as a kid in the garden, watching him from the trees.

You originally intended to shoot the film in England, but you had to switch location to France to attract funding. Did that change your approach at all?

We were going to shoot it on the isle of Jura in the Hebrides, which is where the KLF burned their million quid. But we were led a bit of a merry dance, development hell, all those clichés.

But what better place to locate it than the French Pyrenees, which I've had this ongoing love affair with for 20 years? Myself, my two brothers and my sister found this French farmhouse there, so I know the Ariège, the bit we filmed in, well. There's a sense of isolation, a hermetically sealed world, which is what we were trying to achieve on Jura. And the trees were even larger.

Since Gallivant, critics have marked you out as a peculiarly British film-maker, but Ivul suggests wider themes.

Gallivant wasn't essayist in the Patrick Keiller sense. But because of the nature of the project I found myself categorised as English eccentric and folkloric. It would be hard to say that those things exist in Ivul.

But the recorded voices you hear at the end of the film are people who live in the Forest of Dean. There's a grubbiness to the family in Ivul. They're purportedly of Russian descent, but everything you see in the house has been culled by my art director from charity shops in St Leonards. And of course all the archive footage I use is British -- that's quintessentially British.

I spend the summer in France and it's a nice place to look back at things I call British. We get this magazine called The Week and I always want to know what's going on in The Archers. It's a way of looking at things British from a distance which you don't always notice in the hubbub.

You say you were looking for a "political" language for the film. What do you mean by that?

When I first started researching Ivul, the M11 protesters were in the news, lashing themselves to trees, living off the ground. I thought there was something really mysterious and romantic about living off the ground, that it was something possible to do.

Most of my work is not overtly political at all, but the dog-on-the-lead community, the traveller community, were a new wave of people entering into public consciousness. Certainly in that area of France there's a massive community of travellers. They live in plastic bags, up trees, in converted lorries.

Some of the footage -- strange games played by children, old men on stilts -- suggests that you're also interested in passing or outmoded traditions.

I'm very interested in that, and also the notions of lumberjacking and tree-felling and being hands-on. I guess it's a pre-digital world that I'm creating, it's imbued with a sense of nostalgia -- much in the way as the father in the film is always recalling the past but it's hard to know what the fuck he's on about.

A lot of my work is autobiographical. It's a very rich and vibrant and potent theme, memory. It's a perfect tool for confabulation, which is something I do a lot of. You can remember or misremember things, like photographs, or notes in a book, which triggers off other projects.

You also seem to have taken great care over the soundtrack -- which is filled with almost hallucinatory noises and ritualistic music.

I was collaborating with a composer and a sound designer. For me, the sonic aspect of film-making is sometimes as important as, if not more important than the images. I'm a big music fan, people like Jem Finer, who I've collaborated with in the past -- or more recently the folk music of CocoRosie or Devendra Banhart or Beirut. They're taking these very simple instruments -- a lot of it's analogue -- and they're mixing it with digital loops. A lot of it is very childlike, the melodies . . . they're creating something nostalgic, but it's also postmodern, so anything goes.

In his review of Ivul, Ryan Gilbey compares you to the director Emir Kusturica. Which film-makers do you see as kindred spirits?

Kusturica is a big, loud, in-your-face bloke and that's a trait I have. Certainly when I saw Time of the Gypsies, that was a defining moment for me. But there are also people like Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog. Herzog is a kindred spirit for me and someone who continually impresses me. I also feel that someone like Matthew Barney is closer to the tree I'm barking up.

You use a lot of visual "tricks" in the film -- archive material, reverse footage, time-lapse photography -- but why?

I like to light things and set things up as naturalistically as possible. I'm trying to create a world that feels as simple as possible, documenting these characters. I use the archive as a way of trying to coax more meaning, ambiguity and confusion: the archive is another pulse, another heartbeat, that meanders through. I'm loath to explain it because it loses its mystery.

I suppose it gives the sense that this family are timeless. It maybe obfuscates intentionally when this is happening: maybe the Seventies or the Eighties. Different textures have always been important to me, to create this other world that is faithful to itself, ie, the film.

But then there's a very simple story at the heart of the film that holds all these disparate elements together, which brings it closer to conventional mainstream film-making.

If you think of Hollywood, the story is the motor, not even a heartbeat, it just goes: Brrrrrrrrrr! If I think of the work that's inspired me, it's a lot more ambiguous, more literary, but the paradox is that it's more minimalistic, more allegorical, more like a fairy tale.

The French have this great word, bricolage, where things are just chucked at it. You're putting things together almost sculpturally in the edit suite where you don't know why it works but it's just working. Maybe the reason the story is so simple is that it gives me room to play around with the archive.

Do you find mainstream cinema unimaginative?

Not at all, no. Almost too imaginative -- with technology now, if you think it, if you dream it, it's possible. When that's done, it can be done brilliantly. It happens to be something that I'm not aspiring to, but I'll sit down like anyone else and be blown away by a Hollywood spectacle.

But in the UK with film funding, people are trying to imitate that. It's always limp and you need these massive Kafka-esque armies to make those sorts of films. When I make films I'm documenting my own life and experiences. For me it's not more honest, but more manageable. With all those people on set, I would explode.

In 2001 you issued a manifesto, which said: "All director's statements should include something of worth -- a recipe, instructions on how to make furniture." Do you have something to tell our readers now?

We're not, we are, we're not, and I want to know why. Can anybody answer that? And that goes out to all religions; I'll listen to any comers.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era