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.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit