Originally published by Film International, 1 July 2017
Savage Witches, a feature length film by Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais (collectively known as The Underground Film Studio), is itself a remarkable piece of film witchcraft. The film’s plot seems, at first glance, to be a cliché story of adolescent rebellion: two teenage girls (Victoria Smith and Christina Wood) escape from their repressive school by retreating into a playful make-believe world of witchcraft. But then the two filmmakers insert themselves into the story, transforming the film into a meditation on the act filmmaking as a form of ritual Magick.
The film begins with an extraordinary sequence of abstract imagery: fields of blurry, saturated colors which bubble and bleed into one another. The colors have an organic look, as if flowing water has been run through a color synthesizer, while the music also sounds like electronically altered water. A whispering voice encourages us to relax and go with this “exploration,” this “dream.”
Out of this visual swirl, we are introduced to two girls, whose red faces literally seep out of the colors. The narrator tells us that he’s decided to call them Gretchen and Margarita, “after the lovers of great men whose search was, like ours, concerned with truth.” Thus the film opens by announcing that the two heroines are the creation and projection of the filmmakers, imaginary figures who do the work of exploring the truth of the mind.
We see the girls escaping from their overly strict teacher, and playing dress-up games for which they seem distinctly too old, evoking countless books and movies about adolescent rebellion. But brace yourselves. This iteration of the story is only Fawcett and Pais’ first attempt to project themselves into the film, and like many explorations, the first things they hit are familiar.
Having escaped from school, the girls enter a flower garden. They see a bee, and the film enters into the world of the bees. The viewer is immersed in an abstract animation of swarming and buzzing. They see an ornamental pond, and the film explores images of fish. We are veering into a fully abstract film of nature imagery. This is exploration, indeed.
We hear the two actresses describing the differences between their two characters, while we see sped-up footage of the two of them painting each other’s portraits. We are being pulled away from the story, and into an exploration of what the story means to the people telling it. At the end of this sequence, the actresses casually admit that the two girls are “really the same person.” I would add that they are also really the same as Fawcett and Pais. The film is an elaborate projection apparatus, in which the filmmakers project themselves onto the girls, who act as a kind of lens, leading the viewer into different visual and musical worlds.
The visual language becomes extraordinarily inventive, mixing dance and collage, animation using photocopied photographs, markers, and finger paint, and using a variety of formats of film and video. In one sequence where a tree is struck by lightning, which would have been difficult to film with a camera, the filmmakers cheerfully use their beautifully drawn storyboard instead. The discovery of a new visual language for each scene becomes the point of the journey. Greatly enriched by Fiona Bevan’s musical score of strings and percussion, the film loses any sense of narrative and luxuriously swamps itself with visual and musical textures. At the same time, the filmmakers themselves appear more frequently, and the focus shifts to the creative process of the filmmakers and the actresses.
In the film’s one formal Wiccan ritual, the girls use a magic spell to invoke spirits which will free their thoughts. In a sequence both horrific and lovely, this spell creates a powerful transformation, in which both the girls and the filmmakers emerge as new selves. Fawcett and Pais, like Kenneth Anger, see filmmaking as a Magickal act, a spell to unleash freedom of thought, of vision, of the imagination. Setting up their magic cameras, lights, and equipment, casting a circle, they use the story of two freedom-seeking girls to free themselves from film conventions, and transform film-viewing into a garden of earthly delights.