When I hit sixty I realised that if I wanted to make a feature film, I had better get going. I had wanted to do it since I was fifteen and first started to make films, with an 8mm camera you had to wind up, at the same time falling under the spell of the clever, rule-breaking ‘new wave’ movies of people like Jean Luc Godard, Alan Resnais and Chris Marker. But soon I got distracted by the excitements of a nice job at the BBC, making TV programmes and documentary films, and then, to complicate matters, I fell in with a group of seekers after truth, people investigating the meaning of life, and that became my main interest apart from work.
But my passion for cinema still burned. It ignited when I saw El Cid with my brother on holiday in 1961. At the end of the film El Cid knows he is dying and asks to be tied onto his horse so that he can be seen to lead his men into battle, even after he dies. The emotional power of this scene knocked me out, aged 11. It took me into world of heroism and self-sacrifice which I had never met before. Since then I have always loved that feeling of sitting in the darkened cinema, watching the ads and trailers, waiting to be transported into a world of deep and strong emotion, a world realer than what we normally called the ‘real’ world.
Later I also started to enjoy the kind of films which shifted your perceptions in a shocking or door-opening way. One afternoon, skiving off work, I sat alone in the Curzon cinema in Mayfair and watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He is on a planet which manifests the material of your thoughts and memories, and at one point a woman comes crashing through the walls of the spacecraft.
It is his wife, who had committed suicide some time before. I will never forget the violent hot-cold thrill which ran through my body: I had witnessed something impossible and yet true! I wanted to do that too.
I believe that cinema is the great spiritual art form of our time, but I don’t think it needs to be the kind of out-there spirituality of – say – Terence Malick’s Tree of life (though I do love this film). A more subtle current favourite is Fill the Void by Rama Burshtein, a woman director who is also a Hassidic Jew.
I re-watched some of this the other day with cinematographer Oona Menges and both of us were entranced by the quality of light in it. Every scene, whether in a supermarket or a house or during a religious ceremony seems infused with a supernatural light, the Jewish mystics might call it the ‘Shekina’(the Glory of God, said to be feminine). There is a soft glow to the scenes showing the life of this small community which lights a beacon to the unfashionable virtue of devotion to your religion.
Now my film, The Dancing Floor, is not ‘religious’ in that way, but it is suffused with a particularly British or Celtic sensibility, one shared by many people, and perhaps best expressed for me by the phrase from a hymn ‘there is a green hill far away.’ When we sang this in school assembly, I always thought not of the ‘Holy Land’ but of Scotland where my family came from, and now I think of the green hills around my home in Wales. I think of the silence of remote, forgotten chapels, the calling of curlews at dead of night, the rumble of sheep or ponies thudding over the hills, all part of a kind of magical resonance where the landscape and its beings seem to reflect or echo something familiar and yet ‘other’, that otherworld which the Celtic bards wrote about, that place where our perceptions slide and slither into new shapes and forms. Or become formless.
crystalline morning, or on a frosty night when the Milky Way (called Caer Gwydion in the old days in Wales) floats above like a glittering banner, proclaiming that the external world is not separate from us, that we can interact with it in all sorts of hidden and mysterious ways, that we can change our forms and become each other, just as characters in the Mabinogion sometimes do!
For me this is all about the Celtic (Christian or Pagan, I don’t mind) sense of relationship with the creator (or the ‘creative’ if you prefer), a sense that we can participate in creation, and we can learn to do it skilfully and artfully rather than blindly or destructively. And cinema is the ‘magical art’ par excellence, hard to get right but devastatingly powerful when it hits the mark – think Avatar, think Laurence of Arabia, think 2001 – to name three which thrill more audiences than they repel.
In the Dancing Floor feature film, I would like to do for our native mystery tradition what Rama Burshtein did for orthodox Hassidic Judaism – make a window into a world which still protects and values something most of Western humanity has forgotten and dismissed, but which has the power to impart a direct knowledge of who we are, where we come from and how we might make the best of it while we are here. You could call it a mystery religion like the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, to which all people, male or female, free or slave, were invited and which liberated its initiates from fear of death. That seems like something worth doing to me.
Our Dancing Floor crowdfunding campaign will be finishing in 3 days. Have a look if you would like to contribute something and be part of this project. And a big thanks to those who already have.