This true story comes from an academic friend who specialises in shamanism. During the harshest Soviet years there was a push to exterminate shamanism in Siberia. Shamans were imprisoned or executed. Their ‘bundles’ of head-dress, robe and drums were destroyed, to stop them passing on their power to their descendants. One such descendant was a woman in her fifties who had become a psychiatrist and worked in a hospital. Her father had been wiped out in the bad old days.
One day two men came to her door and passed over to her a bulky package. They told her that her father had made a second ‘bundle’ before he was arrested and asked them to hide it until conditions improved. Then they were to pass it on to her.
She unwrapped the bundle, put on the robes and head-dress, took up the drum – and danced and sang the song of power. Her father’s knowledge flowed into her and she became a shaman too. I have seen a video of her dancing. I know, such things can be faked, but this was moving and convincing to me,
It’s a resonant story about how valuable traditions can be saved and passed on and it is one the main inspirations behind The Dancing Floor film. I wondered if it could happen to a psychiatrist here in the UK, who had been brought up to practise rational science-based psychiatry. How would her father (in this case uncle) pass on his knowledge after his death? Would she fight against the call? I felt this should not be presented as a simplistic science-versus-faith battle – it is something much more interesting about the battle between current orthodoxy and a much, much bigger view of the world and its possibilities, which includes magic, science, mystery, intellect and everything else; which doesn’t need or want to exclude any creative way of viewing reality. The film would ask the question: what is ‘real’ magic?
And that’s a question which Sally Pomme Clayton will be asking when she performs The Magician’s Apprentice at my chapel on May 21. If you think about that question too, come along – contact me to book a place.
This morning I came across a taster which I made three years ago for The Dancing Floor, then called The House of the Waters. I edited it with Windows Moviemaker software on my PC, so it’s a bit rough but it does give a strong sense of the film, and the mystery underlying it. It also has a strong ‘solstice’ feel to it and the Mabinogion connection is clearer than in the pilot. Gill and Dylan’s music is on there and sounds as good as ever. You can see it here
It shows how the ideas behind the film have developed over time – and no doubt will continue to develop. Meanwhile we have been busy making contacts and thinking about the next phase – getting some serious finance for this microbudget film. But we needed a break to allow the darkness of the solstice to seep into body, mind and spirit and invigorate us anew for the next push, so more news in the New Year!
Meanwhile, enjoy the soft solstice dark, soft and damp solstice dark this year. And do take a look at the old taster – it’s only two minutes long, and share if you can. We need to create an audience for the feature film, and your help and support is needed and appreciated.
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.
Brechfa pool, where I live, does this in a particularly striking way: shrouded for days in fog, it can suddenly emerge shining like a new-minted shield on a
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 notseparate 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.
On Saturday I invited three friends for a meal. We are all singletons, independent thinkers certainly, and there were two men and two women. After we had scoffed curry and crumble and a certain amount of wine we had a jolly good argument, about the state of the world and the meaning of life. It was very animated and I for one was surprised at the intensity with which I expressed my point of view. Even Hilary, who thought she wasn’t arguing, noticed that the rest of us behaved as if she was.
Well, I reflected afterwards, that’s ‘fourness’ in action. It is a warrior number. Either the knights of the ‘Fours’ are occupied defending a cause, or fighting for it ; or they are fighting each other, albeit sometimes, as in our case, good-humouredly. Which is why fourness, and in particular the fourness of the 4 Hallows is so important as a foundation for democracy. When they (the two ‘female’ hallows are the cauldron and the stone, and the ‘male’ ones are the sword and the spear) are creating our foundation we can have vigorous debate and disagreement in the chamber of parliament, without our aggression building up into civil war. This is because the four are at the service of the principle of Sovereignty, in the case of Britain, that’s the Queen. The Queen is not allowed any executive power. She just is, emanating the spirit of our land on every state occasion.
If you have been to visit parliament in London, you will have noticed that the floor the lobby is based on the interaction of four fournesses.
So how is this foundation of fourness made and maintained? In myth you will find many interactions between the male and female Hallows and each one achieves a magical end: when Arthur pulls the sword (male) from the stone (female) we find the rightful king who will save the land. When Lleu (in the fourth story in the Mabinogion) throws his spear through a stone at his rival and murderer, Gronw, he restores the balance of justice. When the Pagans perform their ritual of plunging a blade into a cup, they are enacting the moment when the sacred marriage happens between male and female, between eternity and time, between spirit and matter. And behind this, is the moment which all the great creation myths are pointing at, when nothing becomes something!
At this extraordinary moment, which is not a moment at all because it is before time, Unity splits and 1 becomes 2 –though immediately this happens 3 also arises because of the relation between 1 and 2. This is why many creation myths feature brother and sister incest, because the ‘first two’ who must copulate to create the third – and all of creation, are intimately related. In the Mabinogion story there is a sense that the magical child, Lleu is the result of brother-sister incest between Arianrhod and Gwydion. And yet, if this ‘transgression’ does not happen, nothing will come into being. Necessity dictates that it does and so here we are, all of us. We have come out of nothing and yet we are something, an incredible paradox!
And how do we get from 3 to 4? This is the key move which turns the ineffable into the tangible, by laying down the principle of fourness. Somehow one of the three mirrors or doubles itself, so that it is the same and yet different. In the Four Hallows: the sword and the spear are two things and yet they are quite similar. Are they a reflections of this moment? And any rate the Hallows point to and yet protect the Great Secret: how the virgin bears a child/how something comes out of nothing. This is not something which we can understand with our normal mind, and yet we can grasp it, albeit fleetingly by studying sacred geometry, or by watching or participating in movements or dance, or listening to or acting out a story…
..or watching a film? That’s why I want to make The Dancing Floor feature film because I want to carry on the tradition of the Children of Don, the ‘race who brought magic to these islands’ and who gave the Four Hallows to Britain and Ireland. In this tradition the great truths about reality are embedded in symbol and story, so that they shall not be forgotten. In the midst of our crazy, image-proliferating, hyper-ventilating materialistic world, don’t you think that’s a good idea?
One of the big themes of The Dancing Floor, (which I have half-forgotten in the crowdfunding push) is mental illness. Both Sita, the heroine, and Cathy the young musician who stalks her, have ‘problems’ with it. Sita has had a psychotic breakdown in young adulthood which makes her terrified of exploring uncle Mal’s mysterious old tradition. Cathy is bipolar and treats her condition in a cavalier manner, taking drugs which may make her a better fiddler but push her into wilder highs and more grisly lows.
I have built these themes on experiences of my own. I have never been called ‘mentally ill’ but I have been in some very scary places – and, and this is the point, in some very illuminating and non-ordinary places – you could call them otherworldly. And this is without drugs, because I have never been able to tolerate drugs, and even had to give up the occasional spliff when I started meditating because it pushed me immediately into a psychotic nightmare place.
So I am pondering the relationship between exploration of non-ordinary reality and mental stability, especially in relation to old native traditions which encourage the taking on of archetypes, of gods, animals and elementals, the contacting of ancestors and a generally bold and imaginative interaction with ‘reality’. Is it actually good for us to do these things, to explore the experience of other beings and other worlds? Or is it too dangerous, in society wedded to ‘safety’ and a rigidly rational view of reality – except for in movies and games sanctioned by the powers that be?
In the film Sita has to travel back to a terrifying and ego-dissolving moment which she has tried to forget, before she can, with Cathy’s help, open up to the extraordinary possibilities offered by the native tradition. I wrote this section of the screenplay remembering my own moment of terror:
My mother had just died, my marriage was in a grim state and I was alone in the house of my beloved but demented dad in the middle of the night. I began to feel that I was guilty of a terrible crime (I was actually only guilty of normal idiocy), that I what I had done was endlessly destructive and unredeemable. I felt as if the core of me was exploding and shooting outwards into the void and very soon there would soon be nothing of me left. This was the inevitable punishment for my wickedness.
This was the most frightening experience of my life, worse than nearly drowning or dying on a snowy mountain. What did I do? I switched the radio on and listened to World Service while forcing myself to read a humorous book, and after a couple of hours it passed. We’d call it a panic attack, I suppose.
On the other hand I have stood on a beach in Orkney at dawn and felt arising in my own body, in my own mind, the knowledge of how something comes from nothing, the kind of knowledge you can never put into words but only treat as a jumping off point for a different view0 of reality, a new kind of exploration. I write much more about this in my book Becoming the Enchanter, but for now I just want to say that I feel it is important, for some of us at least, to know these kinds of things.
I am sure whoever wrote the fourth branch of the Mabinogion did and although there are respectable academics who agree with that, the whole point about this kind of knowledge is that it is not just intellectual – it reaches into the deepest, oldest and newest regions of our being and it changes our neural wiring. Myth is a carrier of it, because it deals in riddles which trick the mind into jumping to a new position. Once we know the ‘new position’, beyond the ratiocinating mind, many other things become possible and meditation is a way to do it safely without succumbing to mental instability or losing contact with our common reality.
In the Dancing Floor film Sita is helped through her crisis by Cathy, who is less afraid of the ‘otherworld’ than she is, and in the end they both find salvation through the re-invention of a sacred dance, that is through creativity. The ‘Children of Don’, the family of gods who appear in the Mabinogion, were said to be ‘the race who brought magic to these islands’ (See previous post about the Four Hallows) And magic is the understanding of the rules of creation, how something can come from nothing….which is is one reason that these mythic stories must be told and re-told in modern form. So that we don’t forget.To read more about the projected Dancing Floor feature film click here.
At the launch event for our film funding campaign I told this story, as an illustration of the galvanising power of the tales in the Mabinogion once you start interacting with them.
Years ago I had come to Wales with a group of friends, also researchers into our native tradition. We were staying in North Wales, near the sites where many of the events of the fourth branch tale ‘Math’ are set, and this day we were acting out the moment when Lleu Llaw Gyffes is slain by his rival Gronw, having been betrayed by his wife, Blodeuwedd, the ‘woman of flowers’. It was December, around the winter solstice, and we’d gone to the actual river Cynfael where, it’s said Lleu stood on the back of a goat, under a makeshift thatch,with one foot on a cauldron and naked as the dawn, to demonstrate to his wife the obscure conditions under which he could be killed.
Mark, a young actor of daredevil temperament, was playing Lleu and he jumped across the fast-flowing river to a stone in the middle to act out his part. Mike stood on the bank, as Gronw, with a pretend spear ready to throw. He threw it and Mark made the required shriek which presages Lleu’s change into an eagle, then threw his arms in the air and was swallowed by the swollen river. As he was swept downstream I was visualising the newspaper headlines and the ruin of our fascinating project, never mind the drowning of our reckless friend.
A hundred yards downstream, we fished him out and made a fire to dry his clothes. He was cocky as ever and none the worse for wear. But the lesson was, and I have never forgotten it: these tales are about the Children of Don, the Plant Don, the Tuatha de Danaan, the race who are said to have ‘brought magic to these islands’. Don’t mess with their tales, they are powerful stuff and they can sweep you away to shores you never dreamed of.
The tale mentioned above is the fourth story in the Mabinogion and is the inspiration behind the Dancing Floor Film. Have a look at our crowdfunding site and support us if you can. We want to spread the magic of the Plant Don around the world!
Before I write about the inspiring and wildly talented women directors I met last week, I want to remind you that, if you’d like to come to our special event at 7pm on Wednesday 9 September at Hay Castle, with music, storytelling and a chance to see the pilot version of ‘The Dancing Floor’, then please RSVP us at email@example.com. We need an idea of numbers. It’s free with refreshments by donation and celebrates the launch of our crowdfunding campaign.
Meanwhile….women directors are being celebrated here, and I have just returned from a special Female Directors’ lab run by the BFI/FFilm Cymru Wales and funded partly by BARBARA BROCCOLI’s company EON. I knew I was lucky to get a place but not how lucky till I met the mentors for the events, four of the most talented women making films today. That’s Destiny Ekaragha who made the boisterous and hilarious ‘Gone Too Far’ set in south London and the Lenny Henry biopic ‘Danny and the Human Zoo’, (on BBC 1 at 9pm 31 August); Desiree Akhavan, an Iranian-American whose sharply scripted ‘Appropriate Behaviour’, about being a confused bisexual in New York, has made quite a stir – I loved it, seen it twice. Those two are the comedy experts.
Then there’s Rebecca Johnson who made ‘Honeytrap’ an exquisitely crafted tragedy about a young woman who sets up her aspirant suitor to die, and Corinna McFarlane whose ‘The Silent Storm’ is set on a remote Scottish island and presents a dramatic yet painterly version of the mythic love-triangle. We also had a visit from the charming Debbie Isitt whose largely improvised films (‘Confetti’ and ‘Nativity’ x3) manage to combine big laughs with a lot of heart. In fact all these films have heart, they all make you think, they are all extremely captivating and good to look at, and I strongly urge you to seek them out, in cinemas, on BFI Player or wherever you can. It is just so great to see this flowering of the female point of view in cinema. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of films designed for fourteen year old boys and jaded couch potatoes.
Among the gems of great advice given by these women, to those who want to direct, were:
If you get harsh but truthful feedback, then suck it up, don’t talk back and justify yourself!
Be nice, you never know who you might need to help you in the future.
Your strength comes from your collaborators
Your journey can be very lonely and full of rejection, but there are these amazing moments….!
There was good advice from other great women from the industry, including the distinguished editor, Mali Evans:
many directors don’t visualise the script before they shoot
and this from, I think Sadie Frost but also from others in different words:
Be ruthless, work really hard and don’t give up. Give yourself permission, don’t wait for someone to give it to you!
I think that last one might be the most important – and the hardest too.
So now I feel enthused, energised and inspired and ready to go for the next phase of this film-making journey.