By Our Selves
By Our Selves‘ haunting refrain reminds the audience constantly: “John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad,” which is the basis of Andrew Kotting’s latest cinema venture. Inspired in part by filmmaker Iain Sinclair, psychogeographical work By Our Selves takes the form of a rather bizarre and completely unique documentary, charting Clare’s 1841 walk from an asylum in Essex to Northampton.
Filmed in atmospheric black-and-white and featuring a disheveled-looking Toby Jones as Clare – or at least, following his path – this is certainly no ordinary documentary. There are very few sit-down interviews (the more notable ones being with Alan Moore and Freddie Jones, Jones’ father, who once portrayed Clare); instead the audience is treated to voice-over readings of Clare’s writings, snatches of songs, the filmmakers discussing their choices and thoughts, Kotting prancing about in a rather nightmarish straw bear suit… It doesn’t sound like a film suited to the average mainstream viewer, but even those with no knowledge of Clare will find themselves easily absorbed, if a little lost here and there.
Jones is magnetic, stumbling silently through the modern landscape, looking every bit as isolated and odd as Clare must have done. Early scenes shot in Epping Forest have a sinister feel to them, choppy and shaky, full of bizarre sounds and eerie figures, “paraphrenic delusions,” the voice over says time and time again, all of it an excellent musing on Clare’s fragmented state of mind. The filmmakers and interviewees discuss Clare’s reasons for writing at length and provide some interesting insights. The film does not only comment on Clare, however: it explores wider themes of madness and isolation, of classism and the changing landscape, England as a mythic place and, in the words of Alan Moore, Northampton as a “vision stump.”
While it might have benefited from a more linear approach, or perhaps a little background (though this would arguably detract a little from the experience), By Our Selves is a fine piece of experimental filmmaking and an excellent tribute to John Clare.
By Our Selves is released nationwide on 2nd October 2015.
Watch the trailer for By Our Selves here: