“Dreaming In Exile: The Alchemical Cinema of Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais” by Nikola Gocić, in Microcinema New Artists Moving Image Then And Now (Cambridge Film Trust, 2017)


This article has been originally published in Microcinema: Artists Moving Image Then And Now (Cambridge Film Trust, 2017).

“It’s all connected.” – repeats Haruki Murakami in his novel Dance Dance Dance, either through the unnamed protagonist or through a mysterious entity called Sheep Man. So, I guess that it is not by mere chance that I had noted down Jean Cocteau’s quote on film as an art form just one day prior to reading these very same words in Daniel Fawcett’s declaration ‘My Independence is More Independent than Your Independence’ for the first issue of The Brighton Filmmakers Journal, One+One:

Film will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.

And since one plus one makes two, let me add that I could not agree more with Clara Pais who finds the most exciting cinema experience to be when it is hard to categorize and understand what we are shown on the (silver) screen.(1) Yes, everything is connected.

Working under the moniker The Underground Film Studio and harkening back to the times when filmmakers were more daring and not to mention free, the über-creative and immensely talented duo Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais follow the alchemical principles and apply both exoteric and esoteric knowledge to conjure their magic. Inspired by the likes of Maya Deren, Jeff Keen, Vera Chytilová, Derek Jarman, Raúl Ruiz and Nobuhiko Obayashi, they operate in some sort of dreamed, self-imposed exile which also happens to be a recurring motif in their oeuvre.

The beginning of their elaborate “motion picture exploration” which involves the head-first diving into the very essence of the seventh art is marked by Savage Witches (2012). This kaleidoscopic ‘adventure’ (for the lack of a better term) draws heavily upon Daisies (1966) – one of the milestones of Czech New Wave Cinema – and yet, it feels quite fresh in its frequent reinvention of every aspect of film, from the narrative to the presentation.

It follows two adolescent girls, Gretchen and Margarita (respectively portrayed by Christina Wood and Victoria Smith), revolting against the norms of society (which they see as the sickness of the world) and going about doing anything they please, whether it’s turning a gardener into a magician simply by means of their imagination or casting a spell which eventually leads them to their surreal demise (no, this is not a spoiler, because this film cannot be spoiled).

Their non-linear story is one of the ‘coming of age and wisdom which is keeping in touch with your inner child and, especially, its wide-eyed curiosity’ kind. In fact, there are quite a few sequences reminiscent of children’s books, such as these rhymes:

Lost and alone, in the forest they journey.
Through the trees and shadows, they creep.
Deep and dark, dark and deep, they journey.
Two witches alone while others sleep.

At one point, the narrator says that “their eyes are our eyes and their journey is our journey too”, inviting us to accept their mantra “wild and free” and join them – the authors’ alter egos, no doubt – in their ‘infantile’ mischief, gleeful non sequiturs and many instances of breaking the fourth wall in the most peculiar ways (such as storyboards replacing live-action scenes). What’s fascinating is that by dispelling the illusion, they manage to intensify its strength.

Fawcett and Pais utilize every (visual) trick in the book – negative, superimposition, color filters, rear projection, collage animation and whatnot – to provide the almost tangible sensation that you, the viewer, are an integral part of their “expressionistic exploration”. Complemented by the fittingly eclectic score, the delightful imagery bursts with inventiveness, even when lead is not transmuted into pure gold.

The following collaborative project between Daniel and Clara is also made in 2012 and it helps you refresh your Latin. Titled Sacrificium Intellectus, it is arguably their most extreme experiment by far, as it features only one protagonist (Bradley Tuck) ‘trapped’ in one location and dancing to a long ‘gothic’ tune in jerky slow-motion for a little bit over an hour. It does require some patience, but it is not nearly as tedious as it might sound on paper.

And speaking of paper, it is the exact material that the tutu dress worn by the protagonist is constructed from, given that recycling is an important factor in low-budget filmmaking. This doll – an overgrown homunculus – is an androgynous figure performing in a cage-like space, somewhere in the Pavilion Gardens area of Brighton, while slowly shedding its ‘skin’ (of lies) until it remains naked (in truth).

Looking as if straight out of a Tarot card, it appears as a living string marionette whose transformation – (meta)physical, emotional and spiritual – is required for a “Dionysian ritual” to work. A mystical celebration of artistic freedom, this contemplative piece of pseudo-ballet is draped in deep shadows and yellow-pink veils, whereby the strange colorization and stroboscopic effect are achieved via re-filming the projected images. The reality turns into a vivid hallucination which often comes very close to the abstract opening of Savage Witches, prefiguring their next collaborative feature film In Search of the Exile.

Preceding the just-mentioned phantasmagoria is “a twin screen cine-poem”, Splendor Solis (2015), named after a well-known, beautifully decorated alchemical text which is paid homage to via the title-card fashioned as a page from an ancient manuscript. Composed from footage – dailies, home videos, unfinished films and the like – shot over the period of 17 years, it is Fawcett’s most personal opus, a sort of cinematic autobiography, with Pais as assistant editor (and let’s just say there’s a lot of splendid editing to be found here).

Both auteurs appear in front of the camera, joined by many “angels, saints and shadows” playing themselves and/or the characters in Daniel’s dream called life. Considering that the film is dialogue- and voice-over-free, we do not know who exactly they are and how they are related to the artist, and yet we get fully invested in his growth by virtue of playful direction as well as a plethora of odd and seemingly incongruous juxtapositions.

After a cryptic six minute long prologue that ends with a candle being blown out, the screen splits in half and soon you wish you had two heads or at least another pair of eyes to catch everything that is going on. At times, it feels like you are leafing through a photo-album at ever-accelerating speed and that feeling is overwhelming; at other times, it’s like some tall tale exploded and its meat got glued to a tape. We are treated to the visuals processed in various ways, not unlike Savage Witches, which virtually means that twofold superimpositions simultaneously generate four moving images at once!

Drenched in mood-setting music, this wonderful, stream of consciousness chaos of human skulls, moss-covered statues, cross-dressing and hair-dressing, angels with vacuum cleaners, butterflies and street musicians, plastic doll amputations and trips to abandoned houses comes together as a full-fledged spectacle rich in colors and textures. A lot of meanings are lost to the viewer, yet the helmer’s vision remains clear, albeit this might sound like an oxymoron.

Following this ‘exile into the past’ is a transcendental fantasy, In Search of the Exile (2016), which represents a huge step toward the creation of a filmic panacea, or rather, an alkahest that dissolves the solid mask of our reality and reveals its true liquid face (to paraphrase a part of the official synopsis). It could be described in various ways, but none of the descriptions would be good enough to convey the lasting impression it leaves.

Think City of Pirates (1983) disintegrated, its particles squeezed to the last drop, blended with the sour juices of Begotten (1990) and filtered through light itself into a highly intoxicating tonic and you might get the idea of what to expect from this trance-like ‘fairy tale’ of divine reveries and primal memories. Chronicling the solitary journey of the protagonist referred to as the Wanderer (a silent performance by Fabrizio Federico at his mime-from-the-Otherworld best), it plunges you into a mercurial realm of shapeshifting dreams and soul-baring nightmares wherein the arcane forces assail the lost intruders.

The titular search is shared by the deeply mesmerized viewer, the (anti)hero yearning for gnosis, as well as by Fawcett and Pais themselves who appear – totally unrecognizable – as the Witch and the Red Knight. Together with the Lovers (Joana Castro and Bruno Senune) and a hound of Hades, the latter figures impel us to take a risk and dive into the murky waters of the unconscious, reaching for whatever is concealed under their surface.

The puzzling proceedings are enveloped in iridescent, hyper-saturated colors that wash over you in an uninterrupted flow of ambiguous images which constitute a non-verbal mythos of avant-garde proportions. Accompanied by the evocative and familiar, yet somewhat uncanny soundscapes, the astonishing, infrared-like visuals radiate an eternal, indefinable emotion holding the power to unlock the gate of The Kingdom of Shadows.

However, before entering the said kingdom, one is recommended to undertake The Quest for the Cine-Rebis (2016). As liberating as its feature-length brethren, this twenty-five-minute companion piece to The Underground Film Studio manifesto – a “mutant film” that “accepts its deformities” and goes further and further – proposes new, logic-free approaches to filmmaking and challenges the industry-based preconceptions of what a film should be.

Once again, the enchanting visual as well as aural ‘artifice’ is at play, with “a light flickering across the emptiness” and “the darkness shining in obsidian glory”. Poetic monologues narrated by Fawcett and Pais carry the inspiring messages, strengthening the assumption that cinema – the one of personal and universal mythos, symbols and metaphors, meditation and non-religious spirituality – is as natural as breathing for both of them.

Split in two parts bridged by the witty intermission with hens pecking around as in Savage Witches and Splendor SolisThe Quest for the Cine-Rebis acts as “a looking glass through which we see our inner selves”, the directors being shamans and guardians of oft-hermetic visions with a slightly twisted sense of humor (taking their shoes and even socks off to tell us something important in German).

And so, we finally open the doors of The Kingdom of Shadows (2016) – an unheralded masterpiece of low budget/DIY cinema built upon “dreams, biblical myths, alchemy and family history” in a multi-layered unreality. Part pseudo-thriller, part contemporary dance performance, part anti-drama with incestuous undertones, and all inscrutable fantasy, it is like David Lynch meets the spirits of Pina Bausch, Sergei Parajanov and Derek Jarman under the cloudy skies of Raúl Ruiz’s eternal subconscious. As a matter of fact, it is so much more and it never seems derivative, despite its many influences.

A fragmented, extremely lyrical, delightfully baffling narrative which subverts the stories of Adam and Eve (Portuguese dancers Bruno Senune and Joana Castro from In Search of the Exile), as well as of Cain (Fabrizio Federico) and Abel (Andrei Rautu), also focuses on strange familial dynamics between Mother (portrayed by Carina de Matos with agitated elegance), Daughter (the graceful Flavia Barabas), Father (Daniel Pires), Uncle (Diogo Jesus), Grandfather (André Rodrigues) and Grandmother’s Ghost (Marisa Freitas, creeping the viewer out in a veil-lifting scene).

These archetypal characters – presumably the embodiments of human emotions – occupy an ancient house that once belonged to Ms Pais’s grandparents and that has another mysterious inhabitant – a bearded, Jesus-like hermit/spectre wearing red nail polish! All of them, including our ancestors and their sons, appear to be puppet-mastered by the hermaphroditic and gold-handed Alchemist (Kay Fi’ain) who operates from his/her candle-lit laboratory.

And then, there’s Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Inspector – a subtly comical ‘cosmic dandy’ who arrives in that God-forlorn, yet charmingly decorated home to investigate the fratricide incident. Add to that a myriad of questions stemming from the actions of ‘The Alchemist’s marionettes’ (some of them being pariahs) and you are in for some serious deciphering. Of course, there is another option – just open your mind and let yourself be taken over by the harmonious interplay of the grimly oneiric, elaborately composed shots of associative imagery and the haunting score ranging from classical music to Badalamenti-esque jazz and Meredith Monk-like vocalizations.

Like the previous works, The Kingdom of Shadows owes a lot to its makers’ intuition which is “the key to everything”, especially when it’s as sharpened as an ornate knife that cuts through the fabric of dreams.

Nikola Gocić is a film critic, collage artist and writer of the blog NGboo Art.  His writings on films have been published on Taste of Cinema, Cultured Vultures, Film Panic Magazine and EFS Publications.

[Footnote: 1. In the documentary Anarchy in the UK: The New Underground Cinema, directed by Fabrizio Federico’s alter ego Jett Hollywood.]