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.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.