Originally published by Celluloid Oxygen, 21 July 2013
Wild and free!
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you would allow yourselves to join me on an exploration… let us lose ourselves in these moments.”
So opens Savage Witches, a motion picture exploration. These are words you must live by in the world of the film, but by the time this story has finished with you, you shall know they are words you should always live by. Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais have constructed a masterpiece of experimentation, using the magic of visuals and sounds to create magic of the mind. Your sense of reality, joy and freedom is treated as much as your eyes and ears; this is a film to engage with on every level.
Teenage witches Gretchen (Christina Wood) and Margarita (Victoria Smith) are tired of being bossed around. They want to let their imaginations run wild, play as much as they like, metaphorically kick the rules in the face. “I will not pretend,” they say. They retreat into a world of mischief and spell-casting, living their dream, but as we well know… every dream must end eventually.
Taking cues from experimental films of all kinds (most especially Vera Chytilova’s mad Czech New Wave masterpiece Sedmikrasky), Savage Witches is a fresh player on the cinema stage. Fawcett and Pais’ screenplay isn’t a body as much as a skeleton, it holds together the experimentation with a story of beauty. “Shaking the dust from old books… so our world has a past… a history before us… but we’ll re-write it.” This prose rivals Andersen and the Brothers Grimm; it just happens to be voiceover. The girls’ imaginations are constantly wirling, their mouths filled with words that communicate exactly what they want in this world – they want to see a warlock, so damn it, they’ll see one!
Possibly the greatest inventiveness is displayed in the film’s visual aspects; it’s a hyperactive melange of just about every trick in the book. Filming mediums range from wonder-soaked Super 8 to grainy VHS to DV; colours from monochrome to rainbow-soaked to hand-painted; and animation incorporates stop motion and collage. All of it is gorgeous in different ways, and is the perfect visual embodiment of the world our witches want to create. The revolution in their minds is a revolution for our eyes. If you’re the type to end a film raving to your friends about the bit you thought was the coolest, Savage Witches will have you arguing for hours. How about that opening, like LSD underwater! Or the garden sequences with flower flashes and chasing the bees and the koi fish? Nah, the dance sequence with all the paints, that was insane! Come on, it’s the cold creepy bit in the meadow with the chaos earthquake! No, it’s the abandoned house with all the spells! Tearing up the books in the apocalypse animation! The Victorian schoolgirl bit where they’re trapped inside a painting! The theatre animation with the puppets! The hand-coloured burning sequences where the screen melts and it’s the most horribly beautiful thing you’ve ever seen! The bier covered in flowers! If you have enough opinionated cinephile friends, the whole thing could end in a fistfight. And all of this is just cinematography and post – other types of visuals just keep on giving. Joonatan Allandi’s costumes cloak our witches with acid-bright liberation uniforms or icky neat schoolgirl frocks alike. The insane cat costumes are a particular highlight, interacting perfectly with the sequinned eyebrows and blue lips of Helen Patience’s makeup. Lauren Stevens’ props and sets meld perfectly with the world of the witches, my own favourite being the secret spell-casting, with magic trinkets of all kinds. Sorcery, anarchy and an abandoned house, way to combine three of my favourite things!
With all these treats dancing for the eye, there is more than enough sonic delight to match it. The film is light on dialogue, with atmospheric sound doing the talking for Gretchen and Margarita. Fiona Bevan’s score melds perfectly with the visuals, being as creepy or as playful or as sad as it needs to be. Simon Keep’s sound design had to have been the most fun foley ever to record, with everything from the screaming of girls being chased by bees to the explosions of the apocalypse to soundtrack a collage animation of the witches ripping and tearing through books to symbolise their desire to destroy the world.
Carrying the picture on twitchy shoulders are Christina Wood and Victoria Smith, who are exactly what witches should be. Their huge eyes and physical fearlessness almost outdo all the experimentation being hurled our way; and their glee is visible in every frame. They are willing to act like children, and surprisingly few performers are willing to let themselves do that. When the making of the film starts to pervade the film itself in a stroke of meta-fiction, the actresses discuss their characters and their love for these crazy girls is evident: Margarita wants to get outside the world of the mundane, Gretchen is like nobody else on Earth.
This film delivers on its message of freedom in every way: it’s full of images and sounds, all things to interpret how you want. So many films tell you what to think, but this one lets you tell it what to think, you could find beauty or horror or anything in any part of it you like. Every viewer’s experience is different, and that’s a rare thing. Ideas of artifice, anarchy, joy, dreams, wishes are thrown around in seventy mad minutes – will your wishes ever turn out how you want them? Is everything you can imagine real? Can freedom be damaging? You might find the answers, you might not. Fawcett and Pais make the unusual decision of having the process of filmmaking seep into the film itself, whether with the actresses’ voiceovers regarding their characters, shots of location filming or a storyboard spliced in instead of a sequence. Once the initial shock subsides, you realise what a beautiful decision that is – the playfulness and freedom doesn’t just exist within the film, it’s legitimised by the filmmakers via the inclusion of their process. Playfulness and freedom should be real and they are making it so. And of course, breaking down the artifice of film by showing the making of the film you’re watching while you’re watching it just messes with peoples’ heads in the best possible way. The witches are the filmmakers, seeing their own film take a life of its own; the witches are us, scared of what we’ve seen; the witches are you, the witches are me… they are everyone. The most singular experience in this film is that every thought in your head is preceded by “I have no idea what’s going on but I love it.”
You know those things you think about if you’re tired or drunk or high on sugar or just in a really weird mood? (Or weird all the time, like me.) When you stare at the ocean crashing for a long time and feel like you understand the universe? If you open your mind enough and linger on such sights, then these thoughts form. Art like Savage Witches puts you in that mood effortlessly, and asking these questions seems both necessary and natural. Strangeness is something in all of us, and a film that celebrates it is both daring and beautiful. That’s the trick of experimental filmmaking: it doesn’t have to make sense. People who say that’s lazy or stupid are exactly the brainwashed masses that Gretchen and Margarita scorn. Yes, it means you can whatever you like, but there’s nothing actually wrong with doing whatever you like. If following your heart and soul with no inhibitions means finding your voice or the gift you want to give the world, then that’s the point, now isn’t it? In the words of Bjork, “If you want to make something happen that hasn’t happened before, you’ve got to allow yourself to make a lot of mistakes. Then the real magic will happen. If you just play it really safe, you won’t get any treats.” There’s another Savage Witch at heart. We should listen to them, kids, I think they’re on to something.