by Ben Diamond
By Our Selves combines the considerable intellectual and creative talents of director Andrew Kötting and writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they attempt to recreate John Clare’s 80-mile, 4-day walk, from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest where he was being interned, to Northamptonshire, looking for a lost love who had actually died some years ago. Sinclair wrote a book about this in 2005 called Edge of the Orison, but this time they have enlisted the help of actor Toby Jones to embody the spirit of Clare, as well as his dad, Freddie Jones, who reads some of Clare’s poetry (as he did for a BBC dramatisation of Clare’s work many decades ago) to enhance and enchant the sonic backdrop. Toby Jones is accompanied on his walk by a man dressed as a straw bear, for reasons that are explained in an illuminating conversation with a Clare expert towards the end of the film. I would say the film is roughly one third documentary, one third re-enactment, and one third is simply left to random chance, edited together to make a moody, unique blend.
I was very impressed with Kötting and Sinclair’s last film, Swandown, where they climbed into a swan pedalo at Margate and made their way to the main site in east London for the 2012 Olympics. The stylistic hallmarks of Swandown are present here, but somewhat exaggerated, perhaps to reflect the state of Clare’s troubled mind. This time they have chosen to film in stark black and white photography, but continue to expose the underwiring of the filmmaking process – quite an important aspect of the film is the sound, which is often shown being captured by the boom-mic operator onscreen. Confusingly, the sound that is being captured onscreen often does not correspond to what we are hearing simultaneously.
Sound and vision are set free here. In a beautiful single take, a handheld camera is left to simply float upwards, high up into the trees, slowly arc 180 degrees, and then descend, upside-down, back to the forest floor. Repeated sonic snatches recombine and gain new meanings with repeated takes. The horrendous audio snippet of someone saying “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” is repeated over and over again, taking various tragic and comedic turns, until it simply becomes mental wallpaper.
Why John Clare? Because he fits with Sinclair’s agenda and interests. A working-class poet. A ‘mad’ poet. A poet working at what Professor Kövesi in the film implied was ‘the end of the poetry era’ (Sinclair, a poet himself, operating well after the era of the poet). A poet who took refuge in the flora and fauna. And a poet who appeared to be operating on some other psychic plane, embodying the spirit of others, notably Lord Byron. A brilliant conversation with author and wizard Alan Moore turns to his native Northamptonshire, a psychic black hole in Albion, where the dead come to rest, and people never leave. Sinclair has an interest in ley lines and is no doubt fascinated by the pull Northamptonshire had on Clare and others.
But perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film is simply Freddie Jones trying to remember Clare’s most famous poem, ‘I Am’. He starts confidently, stumbles, and then triumphantly picks up again at the final stanza. An amazing poem, and just for a second, you can see Clare glinting in Jones’s eye.