Seeking Jo: A Spirit in Place
Author: Tilly Craig with Russell Cleave
Format: Digital Video
Published: February 2020
How do environmental adjustments in response to a subject impact the quality of an interview?
How can the documentary film convey an idiosyncratic subject’s story sympathetically, without eliciting pity or sensationalising the subject?
A Spirit in Place (2018) is a short documentary responding to the connection between magic and place intrinsic to Ithell Colquhoun’s body of work. The film follows Jo O’Cleirigh, a friend of Colquhoun’s towards the end of her life, as he revisits Lamorna Valley. O’Cleirigh’s experiences span archaeology, activism and paganism and, tangentially, include a friendship with Ithell Colquhoun – a British surrealist artist and occultist whose work was long-overlooked but whose profile is beginning to gain increased recognition. Recalling stories of magic, myth, ritual, folklore and history, O’Cleirigh tells his own story of the place in which Colquhoun lived and worked for almost 40 years.
The documentary film was produced as part of the development of Seeking the Marvellous, an international interdisciplinary symposium which took place at Plymouth College of Art in March 2018 and sought to explore and recognise the life and works of ‘lost’ women surrealist artists, including Ithell Colquhoun. Besides his connection to Colquhoun, O’Cleirigh, then in his 80s, had led a rich and varied life. Our intention was to interview him with a series of questions focussed on Colquhoun, but also to capture as much context about O’Cleirigh as was necessary to provide a clear narrative for the viewer.
We did not approach the project as commercial filmmakers aiming to create an audience-driven or financially motivated venture, but rather as artists attempting to frame some essence of O’Cleirigh and Colquhoun’s shared time together in the 1980s. Our artistic approach to making the documentary impacted our methodologies by encouraging, above all efficiencies, a sensitive and considerate approach to our subject; from our behaviour to our equipment and editing choices. We spent time understanding the different environments, never rushing either conversation or location. Cutaways and photographs supplied by O’Cleirigh worked to illustrate and amplify his recollections.
There are clear overlaps and areas of slippage between the categories of art and documentary. Gail Pearce and Jill Daniels describe the practice of documentary as “more diverse than ever before and its boundaries, including those with works that have traditionally been labelled as ‘art’, have become increasingly blurred […] above all they remain practices, difficult to pin down, always changing” (2013: pXII).
Once we began filming, it quickly became apparent that the film we had set out to make was not the film that we would end up making. O’Cleirigh’s emotional sensitivity, combined with his age was amplified by the fact that we were asking him to draw upon memories within a relatively brief period of time in his life – around ten years – that occurred over 30 years ago. As a result, we had many factors to take into consideration, in terms of both our technical approach and our interactions with O’Cleirigh and his environment. Filming eventually took place over two days, the first at O’Cleirigh’s home in Plymouth, and the second in Lamorna, Cornwall where both he and Colquhoun had lived.
On the first day of filming, we set up in O’Cleirigh’s house with only essential equipment and a focus on minimising intrusion or overly dressing the space. Our aim with this was twofold; we were instinctively considerate of O’Cleirigh’s generosity with his time and space and did not want to disrespect either him or his home. This would be at odds with our genuine interest in him and the subject matter, opening up potential for distrust and subsequently a flat or hollow film. Secondly, O’Cleirigh’s colourful personal style and visual artefacts from the stories he told were already visible throughout the filming space – we agreed it felt like a more honest and genuine reflection of O’Cleirigh to depict the environment of his living space as part of the framing. His library of books covering his varied interests, along with with objects collected from his travels to Egypt and Crete, and a personal archive of journals and letters all wove into the visual and spoken material in A Spirit in Place
We used a Blackmagic Ursa Mini, locked off on a tripod for two reasons. Firstly, So it wasn’t too intimidating for O’Cleirigh to have a large camera moving around and secondly, to avoid any camera movement that would distract from what O’Cleirigh was speaking about – as camera movements can have the potential to pull the viewer out of a narrative in a documentary format. There is camera movement within the establishing shots to give a sense of discovering the internal and external space, allowing the viewer’s mind to drift around the caravan and explore the environment that O’Cleirigh discusses. Adding any camera movement on the interviews would be a manipulation of his account: a camera tracking out could suggest submissiveness while a track in might could give a more sinister suggestion. A Zoom F4 digital recorder and Cmit shotgun microphone were chosen to enhance the clarity and idiosyncrasies in O’Cleirigh’s voice, adding some weight to the subject matter particularly as his recollections were coming from and relating to a historical place. A single Arri 2000w Tungsten light was positioned through the window to enhance the natural sunlight falling on his face. O’Cleirigh’s physical appearance is busy; in order to capture all the detail in his clothing and jewellery heavy light sources were integral to create this emphasis.
As the interview began, what had once been easy conversation on topics of shared interest was suddenly strained and stunted once a camera was rolling with lights and boom in place. He spoke clearly, passionately, and at length about his time on archaeological digs overseas and other subjects, but as soon as we tried to circle conversation back to Colquhoun and Cornwall, O’Cleirigh became quieter and seemed less inclined to divulge. It felt neither appropriate nor useful to continue in this vein, and we chose instead to let him tell us his story as fully as he could, from his birth in Plymouth and move to London, to his eventual move back to the South West of England.
During the interview at O’Cleirigh’s home, we started to recognise that Lamorna was the vital element in his story and the hinge on which his connection with Colquhoun was situated. We realised that in order to do justice to the recollections which had initially prompted the idea of the documentary, we would have to take O’Cleirigh to the place in which those memories were forged. With an additional crew member, we drove to Lamorna to visit the locations which bore such significance. This environmental change created a shift in O’Cleirigh; visiting his wooden caravan, which Colquhoun writes of in her travelogue Cornwall: The Living Stones, and entering the ancient site in which the two had once performed a ritual helped to bring the texture to each story. On a more subtle level, our commitment to the project and to giving O’Cleirigh the environment necessary for him to share the passion he and Colquhoun felt for the place. On this shoot, we used a Nikon D610 DSLR, a light camera for mobility as we knew from O’Cleirigh’s descriptions that we would be walking over some difficult terrain in terms of camera operation. We also used a Zhiyun Crane Gimbal to create an almost ethereal, spiritual glide to the cutaway shots of the interior of his caravan, which was too small for us to bring much equipment into.
2017 saw the formulation of Seeking the Marvellous. Two members of the symposium organising committee, Judith Noble, Head of Research at Plymouth College of Art, and Tilly Craig knew that their common friend O’Cleirigh had known Colquhoun personally in her final years when she resided in Cornwall. It was from a shared recognition of the potential to examine a more personal aspect of Colquhoun’s life, through capturing O’Cleirigh’s recollections of her, that the concept for the short documentary film A Spirit in Placeoriginated.
From the outset, there was a pedagogical objective to the film’s creation, with an intent to screen it at the symposium the following year. Subsequently, it’s purpose was to reach students and researchers engaging with Colquhoun’s work – offering them the opportunity to engage with this material and reflect its influence through their own practice. Filmmaker Russell Cleave’s skill with lighting, sound, camerawork and editing elevated the technical capacity of the project, while Craig’s focus was on producing the subject, scripting, and location. The subject did not have an internet connection or mobile phone, so communications to organise shoot dates and script revisions took place in person or via phone calls. Both collaborators worked closely editing the film. A sympathetic viewpoint aids the suspension of reality to invite an audience to participate in O’Cleirigh’s perspective and world, and it was important to capture imagery of him within the natural environment which was so vivid in his conversation.
An interesting contrast can be seen in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason(1967), which demonstrates the manipulations inherent within the filmmaker/contributor relationship. Clarke consciously injects herself and the medium into the documentary, and aligns her filmmaking methods with industrial practices (Gustafson 2011: 28). The film opens with narration detailing the number of film rolls already shot, includes offscreen taunts aimed at Jason, and closes with dialogue between Jason and Clarke, including the words, “the end…”. Irene Gustafson reflects that Portrait of Jason, “wants us to ponder the conditions of its production, reflexively pointing to its own construction and constructedness, anticipating how it appears before our eyes and ears” (22). Gustafson further describes how “we are forced to negotiate the tension between Clarke’s scientifically inflected empirical camera and the elusive object of its studious gaze” (2011: 16). We were conscious that our film did not turn into this kind of study, giving O’Cleirigh’s voice and story respect and credence through the approach to filming and editing. Unlike Clarke’s film, ours was not intended as a ‘portrait’ of our subject. Instead, our focus was on creating a platform for O’Cleirigh to talk openly, using camera and editing techniques to illuminate and hone his recollections – as opposed to reinforcing the constructed format.
The disciplinary fields of practice and theory that our methods derive from are predominantly film, cultural studies and philosophy. A Spirit in Place is situated somewhere between Poetic and Observational modes of documentary. Poetic documentaries “sacrifice[s] the conventions of continuity editing and the sense of a very specific location in time and place that follows from it to explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions” (Nichols 2016: 102). In this sense, we were guided by the preliminary interview with O’Cleirigh and sought to respond to him and provide an environment in which he could show, rather than just tell. This resulted in splicing the filmed interview with footage of Lamorna, as well as images and diary pages shared by O’Cleirigh, making more immediate the spaces he had visited with Colquhoun. This editing choice also intended to create a quality offering the viewer the chance to walk ‘with’ O’Cleirigh and inhabit these spaces through their own imagination. When O’Cleirigh discusses ‘Vow Cave’, the hut in which Colquhoun lived and worked, we include his photograph of this as it was then. We follow his detailing of its destruction with a panning shot behind O’Cleirigh as he looks on at the building now in its place. Without attributing emotion in words, there is a strong, ‘poetic’ sense of the history and haunted quality of the landscape. As Nichols writes, “the poetic mode is particularly adept at opening up the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to the straightforward transfer of information [since the] mode stresses mood, tone, and affect much more than displays of knowledge or acts of persuasion” (2016: 103). The ‘observational’ quality stems from allowing O’Cleirigh to lead us, once we had identified and agreed with him the most suitable locations to visit in Lamorna. Nichols defines observational documentaries as, “allow[ing] viewers to ‘look in on life as it is lived'”(2016: 111). Similarly, by giving O’Cleirigh’s voice prominence and intervening minimally with the environments and his appearance, his voice and stories take prominence over a pre-conceived message or narrative.
An important distinction in A Spirit in Place is that the process was not an attempt to profile or study O’Cleirigh, but to provide him with a platform from which to share information. To reflect this in the final film, the editing process involved considerations around arranging a narrative that was true to O’Cleirigh’s recollections, while being mindful of more personally poignant moments and conveying these sensitively.
Allowing the documentary to be led by O’Cleirigh’s tie to the land by visiting Lamorna with him on the second day of filming provided richer and more compelling material. Our respect for his environment when shown his caravan and sacred circle were the foundations for creating a final work which aims to be informative in an engaging way, without entertaining by conveying our distinctive subject through parody or sensationalism.
A Spirit in Place was shown at the Seeking the Marvellous Symposium in March 2018 to a broad audience including scholars, curators, occultists and archivists, providing opportunities for it to inform various academic and institutional projects around placemaking, myth and history. Simultaneously, it was screened at the Ancient Scent exhibition held at St Saviours in Plymouth and, later, during a Pagan moot. These more public disseminations extend the potential for A Spirit in Place to share O’Cleirigh’s story on a more personal and community-based level and to shift individual perspectives beyond the comfort of familiar, contemporary markers of modern society and into O’Cleirigh’s world of the intrinsic magic within nature.
Clarke, S (1967) Portrait of Jason Milestone Films
Herzog, W. (English: 2009). Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. New York: Ecco.
Gustafson, I. (2011) Putting Things to the Test: Reconsidering Portrait of Jason. Camera Obscura 77, vol. 26, no. 2. Duke University Press https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-1301521
Nichols, B. (2016). Speaking Truths with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary. Oakland: University of California Press.
Pearce, G; Daniels, J. (2013) Truth, Dare or Promise: Art and Documentary Revisited. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Renov, M. (1993). Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge
Renov, M.(2004). The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions.
The author raises intriguing questions about the interactions between filmmaker and subject and how the shooting environment impacts this relationship. The intriguing video work, A Spirit in Place, which is largely constructed from an extended interview with Jo O’Cleirigh (as well as incorporating some archive stills), demonstrates some skill in allowing its subject to open up to the camera, but it perhaps relies too heavily on its primary interview rather than its images to create meaning for the viewer. The video persuasively utilises some of the methodologies of documentary practice, but the film would certainly benefit from a more judicious edit as your subject’s frequent digressions obscure as much as they illuminate.
The research statement is well-written and structured, and is at its most engaging when discussing –with obvious affection- O’Cleirigh himself and the sensitivity with which you approached the technical requirements of an interview situation.
There is scope to discuss your creative and conceptual approach to the screen work in more depth. For example, it’s perhaps too simplistic to state that you used a locked off camera to ‘avoid any camera movement that would distract from what O’Cleirigh was speaking about – as camera movements have the potential to pull the viewer out of a narrative in a documentary format.’ Why? Camera movement can surely be as seductively invisible to an audience as it can be distancing or distracting. Your statement does not make it clear why you suggest that camera movement is problematic within a specifically documentary context…? The ever increasingly textual examples and growing body of literature on the documentary film’s ever-expanding creative and formal variation means we can no longer assume that a documentarian relies primarily on a limited use of the tools of cinema to attempt to ‘disappear’ into a subject as per the observational techniques of direct cinema. Contemporary documentary is as much about foregrounding the formal characteristics and methodologies of the form as it is about dissolving them.
As such, how the video work relates to your research questions remain somewhat vague, particularly with regards to avoiding sensationalising or parodying your subject. Also, you state that, ‘We did not approach the project as commercial filmmakers aiming to create an audience-driven or financially motivated venture, but rather as artists attempting to frame some essence of O’Cleirigh and Colquhoun’s shared time together in the 1980s’ and it would have strengthened your statement by commenting further on how your approach as an ‘artist’ rather than a ‘commercial filmmaker’ impacted your filmmaking methodologies. The work of Michael Renov has extensively focused on the boundaries of documentary and art practice. At present, this distinction -which informed your creative and theoretical approach- remains underdeveloped.
You satisfyingly provide a contextual basis for your filmmaking methodologies by referencing oft-cited theorist Bill Nichols’ framework for categorisation of the documentary form and situate your film within the Poetic and Observational traditions. However, more eccentric was your comparison with Werner’s Herzog’s Grizzly Man in opposition to which you attempt to define your creative approach. This comparison is not especially enlightening, not least because Herzog inherited the footage of Timothy Treadwell after the young man’s death rather than have the opportunity to develop the kind of intimate filmmaker/contributor relationship that is at the foundation of your own project. A more potent comparison might have been Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), which explores the manipulations inherent within the filmmaker/contributor relationship.
However, this project presents an engaging discussion about how minute technical considerations can impact the relationship between filmmaker and contributor within an interview scenario.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions.
Craig and Cleave’s documentary A Spirit in Place is a gentle exploration of subject Jo O’Clerigh. The pace of the film suits the character himself, and slowly draws the viewer into his world. The paper by Craig is a good explanation of the choices the filmmakers made with regard to how to treat the subject, how to tackle the practicalities of the shoot, and the choices made around allowing the subject’s story to unfold, and thereby capturing a sense of truth, rather than pushing him to respond to what they wanted to hear him talk about. There is a sensitivity displayed here, regarding how documentary film can be handled by a film crew, who were making the film out of genuine interest in the subject, as opposed to financial gain.Although the discussion is well planned and organised, where the submission is perhaps weakest is in how it relates pedagogically. It is an interesting account of a project, and the film is of good quality and has been well received by critical audiences. How could the authors use this case study as a pedagogical tool? Is there a way of framing their practice as a methodology for documentary making? The use of Nicholl’s documentary modes does not strengthen their submission, as placing their project within these modes suggests that it works merely within an existing methodological framework(s). It would be interesting to hear how the authors might frame this as a new or refreshed practice, and how it could inform student documentary film projects.