In the last few years, a new group of filmmakers has emerged across the UK, including Scotland. From an output consisting of both short and feature-length productions, their films are dark, strange, sparse in dialogue and imbued with an aura of ambiguity and uncertainty, sometimes reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay’s early works; The British Weird Wave. In exploring this new genre, I met up with award-winning British actor Jamie Robson, a key player in this group, having starred in several of these films such as Peter Marsden’s Not Required Back, Charlotte Wells’ Blue Christmas and the upcoming Spin State by Ross A. Wilson. We talked about the fundamental characteristics of the Weird Wave, how it came to be, and the influence of Brexit.
As we begin, I get right into it: ‘why known as the British Weird Wave’? A genre which, by my own initial impressions of the aesthetic (handheld tracking, humble settings, no technical showing-off), would be characterised as realism, yet is certainly tinged by something deeper, darker, and even more ethereal. Robson first likens it to absurdist theatre; critics gave them this name, but elective affinities abide between the two collectives. He says, ‘People often say that [absurdism] is not very “real” – they distinguish it from realism. But for me, reality is incredibly absurd.’ He adds, ‘Reality is very ambiguous – there are so many unanswered questions in this very room […] and it’s the discomfort that we can feel in a crowded room and our fear of the unknown which is what we’re trying to describe in our films. These films are ultimately about an emotional state.’
Indeed, films like Tim Courtney’s BAFTA-winning My Loneliness is Killing Me are anchored first and foremost by an atmosphere of uncertainty, foreboding and sadness. In Courtney’s film, Robson plays a man in a single-sex marriage – neglected by his partner, he opts for casual hook-ups, but finds brief solace in another lonely soul, only to be thrown back into the conflict and discontents of his existing relationship. ‘“Mindfulness” is a very popular term right now, but there is a very ‘mindful’ element to our interpretation of the British Weird Wave,’ he says. ‘In this respect, our contribution to the genre is something like: the past no longer belongs to you, the future does not yet belong to you, all you have is the here and now. And the here and now, if you really observe it, is bizarre.’
Fittingly then, the characters in these films suffer from alienation from almost everything – the people they know, the people they’ve lost, the landscapes around them (be they urban or natural), and themselves. Stuck in an uncanny, in-between place at the very heart of their solitude, the ‘here and now’ no longer the liberating concept we usually think of.
On a technical level, the films are indebted to the utility of
‘holding’ a shot just that little bit longer – ‘There is nothing more
fascinating than watching a person react to a problem on a second-to-second
basis before they’ve handled the situation. [In moments of discomfort], our
reactions show we’re all incredibly vulnerable. And that’s Weird Wave: that
moment before all the questions are answered and our social characters resume
their place.’ By endeavouring to gauge this more primal aspect of human
behaviour, the genre’s ‘target is the body, not the mind. That’s why we had
very little dialogue. We wanted to use breath, and body, posture, pauses,
prolonged stares, location and natural lighting. What we want is a physicality
which we feel has been lacking, a new viscerality.’
In 2017, Peter Marsden’s Not Required Back was featured at the BFI London Film Festival, and hailed by Mark Cousins as ‘the best short film I’ve seen this year’. Despite only 7 minutes long, the film stuns with its visuals and conveys its story through a more abstract and experiential lens. It concerns a contractor just made redundant from the declining Scottish oil industry, and encountering visions of his partner on the drive back home. This marked a new beginning for Robson, but also the zenith of a long-time collaboration with Marsden. ‘Pete studied fine art and I studied filmmaking, but we were both fascinated by various forms of spirituality and holism which have informed our current belief systems. What that culminated in, in terms of our filmmaking, was ultimately the drive to ‘evoke feeling’’.
Robson stresses this point throughout the interview. The singularity of the individual, and the things around us at which we attribute banality and insignificance – simple actions, facial expressions, atmospheres and landscapes – are the primary focus in these films. In Not Required Back, the story is not the object waiting at the end of the drive, nor what has transpired regarding the protagonist’s redundancy (such a scene is never shown). Instead, the wide shots of an abandoned oil rig, or the protagonist taking a piss overlooking a sky strewn with sunset embers, or refuelling at an eerie gas station with no one to take his cash – quiet moments in most other films, but here rendered with great import for a general feeling all of us have at any given moment. Banalities suddenly become invested with a new emotional and haptic logic.
Robson recapitulates, ‘Humans are physical
beings, and our lives are fundamentally experienced through our body. And I
feel this more and more because of how our current relationship with
technology has strained this. We float around in a constant cloud of thoughts,
and disorientation and stress from being overwhelmed by emails and texts, and
pressures resulting from identity crises […] What these films are
trying to do is make the mundane hypnotic.’
And this is the ‘weird’ that Robson is on about. From my perspective, it usually manifests somewhere near the end. Robson’s character’s partner suddenly appears like a ghost in Not Required Back, engaging in stiff contortions more so than a standard improvised dance, while Blue Christmas concludes a minimalist kitchen-sink concept with a languid dance sequence inside a burning house, camera dwelling loose on all the details outside of the impending hazard – the faces of the protagonists, their movement, and embrace.
But Not Required Back was also made right around the time of the Brexit vote, and considering the opening shot is a giant oil rig in Scotland, initially harking back to the concerns of a film like Local Hero, we gotta talk politics. ‘Brexit is a common talking point with us: all of our careers sort of started to take off around the time of the vote […] and inevitably, it’s a worry. But the only good thing that’s going to come out of this will be art. People have a lot to say on the back of this, there’s a lot of anger.’
So how is the focus on individual experience reconciled with broader thoughts about where we find ourselves politically? ‘We didn’t set out to make these film be explicit about Brexit. What was intentional however was our need to make a collective exchange for creatives to express an individual existential crisis, which was then recognised as actually being an increasingly social existential crisis, primarily because of Brexit.’
‘But the best stories are timeless.’ Indeed, while films like these
are just the thing we need to express our current state of helplessness, they
can only be preserved and developed by a primary focus on themes more
universal and immersive, and visuals more bold and immersive. Politics always
speaks of the mind, but what engages us to act, or even just to stir, is that
which hits at the body. ‘I like cinema that comes from there [the body], and
keeps us there.’
Photo Credit: Egle Kisieliute
The highly anticipated Spin State by Ross A. Wilson is due for release later this year.