Blood in the Soil: Exploring ‘Arcadia’

Using a mixture of archive film and TV footage and with an original soundtrack by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, ‘Arcadia’ explores our relationship with the British landscape.

“The power of images and sound and how they rub up against each other to create different meanings and emotions is my main passion in filmmaking. With the wealth of amazing material in the archive, fantastic collaborators in Adrian Utley, Will Gregory and the BFI National Archive team, we had the opportunity to make something that explores the light and dark side of our relationship with our land in a vivid way.” – Paul Wright

The premise of viewing Britain through the lens of an unseen narrator in regard to the land itself and our evolving relationship to it through the centuries may not be the most enticing but Scottish director Paul Wright shows a dark, exciting folk horror vision of exactly that with Arcadia. Using a wealth of expertly edited archival footage from the past one hundred years, with the aid of editor Michael Aaglund, this is a visual ode to a Great Britain that could be forever lost if not for the chance of rebirth after terrible self-made cataclysm.

The footage, mainly sourced from the BFI’s National Archive, consists of imagery of the countryside and its inhabitants and snippets of sparse, poetic original voiceover detail a woman’s voyage through this narrative; “Wherever she would turn a great darkness would follow. Then one night she had a strange dream and was told that the answers to all her problems lay within the land around her she was told the truth was in the soil.”

What follows is a journey through our history in this country, mainly through ritual and the strange traditions that carry down through the ages to the future. From ploughing fields and sowing the seeds, villages with narrow roads that are used by cows as much as cars and tractors all of this is interspersed with sinister clips of near paganistic scenes of celebration; grotesquely masked dancers parade around with villagers and adults of frolic through the woods in flickering black and white footage shot against the backdrop of a seemingly endless summer. The games we play not just as children but as adults, tearing up and down the streets and hills of our villages. This sinister, otherworldly wonderland is our past. Stonehenge is just the tip of the iceberg here, this is a land “of great magic, of great mystery.”

Portishead’s Adrian Hutley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory underscore the visuals expertly with an amazing soundtrack that takes in Blake’s Jerusalem, eerie electronica, rock and folk songs. Snippets of voiceover from other films and documentaries are dropped into the mix adding to a real sensory experience that is rarely encountered in film let alone documentary.

If the film has a problem it is what to classify it as. Documentary? Mood piece? It recalls the work of Adam Curtis, an expert himself in taking innocuous footage and making it sinister, and that of Alan Garner’s rural fantasies. It can definitely be classed as hauntology with the way it frames our past against the present and highlights how odd future audiences may find our own pastimes of raves, mass gatherings and cheese rolling. Jesus, we’ve always been weird, haven’t we?

The film is divided into chapters with headings such as Amnesia, Folk, Blood in the Soil and as the footage of rolling hills and valleys, dancing and playing gradually gives way to that of shopping centres, smoke billowing factories and lost youths huffing glue from plastic bags by newly laid motorways it expertly illustrates our relationship with the land of our kingdom. It may seem like a lofty ideal for what could be rudely described as a clip show but it manages it expertly and communicates its agenda which is quite an achievement. This is a piece of cinema that could be shown to someone without explanation and the point would get across clearly and without preaching.

As well as notions of the rural against the mechanical, the occult and the industrial there are also explorations of the class system and the state that clearly come across, showing that utopia can never be achieved if we continue down the path we are already too far down. Arcadia is a real visual and aural experience in folk horror, a multi layered, visual dark hymn of our country, what it was and how its wondrous fantastical nature could be forever lost.

‘Arcadia’ (12A) directed by Paul Wright. Music by Adrian Utley, Will Gregory. Distributed by BFI. Running time: 78mins. Opening at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, Rich Mix Shoreditch, QFT Belfast and Hyde Park Leeds from Summer Solstice, 21 June, and many more cinemas UK-wide from 22 June 2018; with Discover Tuesday previews at 23 Picturehouse sites on 19 June. There will also be a soundtrack album released digitally by Invada Records on 22 June, and on CD and vinyl soon after, and the BFI will release the film on DVD on 20 August.

❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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