The Spirit of Place, Interview with Filmmaker Christopher Ian Smith



James Curcio: The first thing that struck me about Sulphur was a sense of psychogeography, which I know is a topic with some history and precedent in the UK, though not just exclusively there. Generally, the idea that there is a relationship between place, the events that happen there now, and those that came before. That can take on a spiritual bent, or it can be approached in the sense of systems theory, and how similar contexts can recapitulate similar situations. I’m also reminded of Alan Moore’s recent tome Jerusalem, which I have only so far read about, but it seems to be in this vein as well.

I’m wondering how conscious that was, and if you could spell out some of your thoughts on the subject?


Christopher Ian Smith: As someone with a long-term interest I’m very conscious of psychogeography and it’s cultural history. I’m a follower of Iain Sinclair, W.G Sebald, Peter Ackroyd — as well as the film work of Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller. My other films — including the short film Arterial and the upcoming feature documentary “New Town Utopia” are more reflective of a psychogeographical approach — reflective, meditative explorations of place through character, image and interweaving narratives. I’m looking forward to Alan Moore’s Jerusalem and further adventures across time in Northampton!

“Sulphur” is perhaps more a reflection of my interest in neo-romanticism or genius loci (the spirit of place). For better or worse, the starting point for my films is never plot or character, but always a place. For example, the planet Jupiter, the A13 road, Basildon, a derelict chemical factory, and in the case of Sulphur — Lewes in Sussex. The place is a geographical anchor for the characters, stories that are generated by it or live within it, across time.

I’m an avid follower of writers such as Alan Garner, David Rudkin and Nigel Kneale — who seem to be categorised as ‘Folk Horror’ now. Much of their work reflects on modern life, behaviour and attitudes but uses place, landscape, folklore as a lens through which to explore it. This isn’t dissimilar from the approach of artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, who subvert and distort the British landscape to understand our past and present. I feel an affinity to this approach and attempt to use time in a way closer to our reveries than our real lives. Our memories and thoughts are not chronological — they are triggered by experiences, places, faces, smells etc… as we leap from one thought to another. Our mnemonic capacity is not always reliable, so our imagination often fills the gaps. Those gaps are an incredibly interesting sandbox for storytelling.

JC: I entirely agree. The idea of “nonlinear narrative” being offputting always struck me more as a matter of people not understanding what it means in the first place. Our day to day lives is a nonlinear narrative, as you say. There’s a kind of editorial process going on in our heads all the time, though of course that doesn’t apply to the outside world. That’s a key part of how film can give us a sense of interior experience, though unlike literature written in first person there’s always an externality to it thanks to the camera. Would you say your work is more focused on internal experiences?

CS: External environment and internal experiences, memories and reveries, yes. I’ve tried developing more plot heavy screenplays in the past and they don’t work for me — they get reduced to base emotions and core themes. This works well for my experimental shorts — but as I step up now to feature length projects I’ll be adjusting my approach, developing narrative strands from well-developed characters, but always with an furtive eye on the strange and uncanny things that might tip those characters’ lives off balance.

JC: What’s the background in “Sulphur”… Are there specific traditions you were inspired by or referring to, or was it more a gesture toward generalized ‘paganism’?

CS: Bonfire night at Lewes is less directly related to paganism, than perhaps longstanding tradition, ceremony and celebration. It’s a night of costume, ritual, noise, colour and fire… These annual ‘festivities’ were inspired by Guy Fawkes’ actions three hundred years ago. You could speculate that this sparked latent behaviours that encompassed deeper rooted pagan from way before.

JC: Yes, the deeper roots are what I was getting at, though it’s also interesting, the tensions between Christianity and Paganism, and we might consider that contained in the memory of a place as well as its holidays.

CS: I had a very visceral experience in Lewes on bonfire night eighteen years previously. It was intense, dangerous, exhilarating — some wild tribal behaviour, errant fireworks with a palpable tension between the townsfolk and visitors from outside. Thousands of people were coming together for something exciting, beautiful, collective but there was some darkness there.

I always wanted to film something in that cauldron of activity — and eventually I did — deciding to take actors and characters with a loose narrative thread into the day and improvising reactions through the events that transpired. I wanted the experience to feel as real for the actors as it did for me once. All those years later things were a lot more organised, safer and perhaps sanitized — but I had a crew, equipment and actors in the mix so maybe that was for the best!

The people of Lewes are rightly proud of their annual tradition and the bonfire societies and their members spend a huge amount of time, creative energy and grind to create something interesting, different and visceral . Many are uneasy with the religious undertones of the Lewes event — Anti-Catholic sentiment visible in the parades and bonfires, effigies of the Pope are burned, anti-catholic banners held aloft. The counter argument is that these are based on a hundred year old tradition of protest against the corruption in the Catholic church — not a modern real-world protest. You’d have to go yourself to experience it and decide.

JC: Are you planning on expanding on this further, exploring the place or the characters more, or are you moving on to something else?

CS: I’m exploring the idea of shooting a feature film with multiple crew and actors across one day or event. So, taking this approach and putting more focus on story and engineering interweaving narratives, but leaving many of the interactions and secondary (real-life) characters to chance encounters. Notting Hill Carnival would be an interesting challenge….

In the next few weeks my feature documentary New Town Utopia will be completed — so a big focus will be on promoting that, getting it into film festivals and trying to attract distribution or TV commission. That is also living as a book of photography/poetry and an art installation. So that will keep me very busy in 2017.

JC: It’s frequently observed that the utopian vision of creating perfect societies so often results in its opposite, and I think that’s fertile ground for investigating our silent presuppositions about society in general. The movie “Czech Dream” came to mind when I was watching the trailer. The concept was, two students from the Czech Film Academy commission an ad agency to organize a massive campaign for the grand opening of a supermarket named Czech Dream. And the question is, “Will people believe in it and show up for the grand opening?” They wait in long lines with such excitement for the grand opening, but it is a facade. It’s just the surface of a store, with no content inside. The surface is the thing, and the value is in the illusion that serves the interests of profit and unmitigated “progress” at any cost, so long as that cost is not felt in the boardroom.

Obviously, the cultural context there is different, but that idea of the veneer and appearances replacing reality is a common motif in utopianism. Can you tell me a bit of how that project came about, and what you discovered?

CS: Czech Dream is very interesting film. In contrast, I believe that new towns were a genuine and noble attempt to create environments and communities that worked for everyone. However this was a flawed top-down plan made by middle class and upper class politicians and civil servants for working class people. Further, the execution of the design and building was rushed. In the 1940s and 50s the planners of the new towns had no visibility of how globalisation and subsequent death of the high street, industrial automation and the sale of council houses would have on these places.

I grew up in Essex and spent a lot of time in Basildon as a child. It always had a sense of ‘otherness’ compared to other towns. This came from the architecture, textures and the sculptures and public art.

I found the transcript of the New Towns Bill to parliament from 1946. It’s a lyrical, impassioned speech given in the midst of the post-war government’s progressive and radical policy drive. It evoked a desire to create a new type of citizen, with: “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride” and evoked Thomas More’s Utopia. Beauty, culture and civic pride are not terms associated with Basildon now. It has a terrible reputation locally and nationally — in fact in popular culture it’s become a cultural paradigm — ‘the shit British town’. It’s a challenging place that’s been through difficult times, but I knew there was more to the place and its people.

Basildon is representative of many British towns in its economic and social struggles, and not just new towns. The high street is populated with betting shops, pound shops and payday loan peddlers. Artists struggle to get funding or support from the people of the town and local government.

I wanted to make something honest, poetic and emotionally resonant that explored the story of this place.

JC: I’d like to backtrack a little. How did you get involved in film-making?

CS: I was a huge film fan from a young age — mainly horror and sci-fi in the 80s — David Cronenburg, John Carpenter, Spielberg and more trashy fare. Like many, as I grew older my cinematic palette expanded into European and World cinema. Roeg, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Haneke became my regular go-tos.

I always wanted to direct but started life as a DJ and VJ with the audiovisual group Addictive TV. It was fun, crazy, we travelled and performed all over the world. We also created some interesting moving image and sound projects. Then I got sidetracked and ended up in advertising for over 10 years. It was only when I was deep into my 30s I had a reality check, realising I’d lost sight of what I always planned to do. So I quit my job and focused on filmmaking — starting with low budget shorts and I’m now about to finish a feature doc. I’m also working as a Director on commercial films to earn my keep. It’s been a challenging, long hard slog — and will continue to be so — but so it is if you want to make a living doing something you love.

Since I started making films in earnest, I tend to watch less cinema and focus more on getting back to books, poetry, painting and sculpture for inspiration.

JC: Did that initial inspiration stick with you, a kind of narrative that runs through your work, or has it changed substantially?

CS: I think there are definitely themes and stylistic approaches that run through my work. For example my obsession with landscape is probably I’m influenced heavily by growing up by the industrial landscape of the Thames estuary, at once sublime and oppressive.

Landscape, architecture, folklore, the uncanny, the conflict of ennui/quickening and a non-linear approach to narrative all seem to interlink in my films, and if that’s what I’m into then I’ll probably stick with it.

Check out more of Christopher’s work.

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