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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge