A Conversation with Scott Barley, The Chronicler of Darkness

Scott Barley’s feature debut will be shown on June 13 at this year’s Magnificent Seven festival. We got to talk with Barley and ask him about his film, his relationship with nature and hear his philosophical thoughts on stars.

Born in Newport, South Wales, in 1992, Scott Barley is the London-based fine artist and film director whom the founder of the Remodernist movement Jesse Richards bestowed the title of “the greatest filmmaker of the millennial generation”. Best described as the chronicler of the darkness itself, he is often compared to the greats such as Maya Deren, Béla Tarr, Aleksandr Sokurov and Philippe Grandrieux. Armed with a penchant for long, meditative takes and, as of late, underexposed, pareidolia-inducing imagery, he has ventured “into what is considered the inexpressible” (in his own words), creating a good number of short films in the process. Since 2015, he observes the (nocturnal) world, so to speak, exclusively through the eye of an iPhone, emphasizing the lightness of this “tool” and the immediacy that it provides him. A great example of synergy between modern technology and cinema as high art is his mighty impressive feature debut Sleep Has Her House which the Belgrade audience will be able to see at this year’s Magnificent Seven festival.

Scott Barley (image taken from www.scottbarleyfilm.com)

K!K: Your feature debut Sleep Has Her House (2017) will be screened at the 14th European feature documentary festival Magnificent Seven in Belgrade, on June 13. But, before we speak about it, let us get back to your roots. For starters, could you introduce yourself to the readers of Kultur!Kokoška?

Scott Barley: My name is Scott Barley, and I am a filmmaker from South Wales, UK. My background is fine art, specifically painting, but around six years ago, I moved to filmmaking.

K!K: The audience who is not familiar with your oeuvre does not know that you are not only a filmmaker, but an excellent drawer and, in your own words, “occasional musician” as well, not to mention that your reflections on cinema betray your inner poet, as well as a philosophical side. Why have you chosen to focus on film rather than some other forms of (visual) art?

SB: Filmmaking is my main passion these days, but increasingly so, I am trying to incorporate other disciplines that I love into my work, such as including some of my drawings and paintings in Sleep Has Her House, superimposed into the footage, and composing all the music and sound for my films too. I love to write, but when it comes to filmmaking, I try to write with images and sound, rather than incorporating literary elements, such as dialogue. I believe that the power of film is simply what it is made of, image and sound. I want to make films that give plenty of room for people to dream, and so my filmmaking style is quite stark, and minimal, but I hope, evocative and expressive too.

K!K: As noted on your official page, your work has often been compared to the likes of Stan Brakhage, Philippe Grandrieux, Béla Tarr, Maya Deren and Jean Epstein. There have even been comparisons with Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Sokurov. So, who amongst these directors had the greatest influence on your evolution as an artist and what is it that you find so alluring in their offerings? Are there any modern filmmakers whose work you appreciate and can relate to?

SB: Tarkovsky doesn’t consciously influence my work much at all, but I can see why my work is compared with his sometimes; the use of long takes, and the depiction of the elemental, natural world is in both our work, but I don’t feel as connected with his filmmaking as I do with some others, though I do like some of his films very much. I don’t think there is one filmmaker that has influenced me more than others. I take inspiration from a variety of places, in film, music, literature, paintings, poetry, but most importantly, from my own experiences and feelings. I think you must express what you feel inside in order to really make something meaningful.

There are very few modern filmmakers whose work I appreciate. I think a lot of it is terrible, careless, ignorant, and conveys an arrogance of the filmmakers involved. Some filmmakers are also placing too much concern on where their films fit within the context and history of cinema. I think you should make what you feel you really need to make, and not much else should matter. I appreciate what Wang Bing, Antoine D’Agata, Sylvia Schedelbauer, and Philippe Grandrieux are doing, but beyond that, I mostly appreciate filmmakers who have been working for quite a long time now, but are still making, like Nathaniel Dorsky, Pedro Costa, Jean-Claude Rousseau, and Phil Solomon.

Still Shot from The Ethereal Melancholy of Seeing Horses in the Cold (2012) (image taken from specchioscuro.it)

K!K: A silent short with an extremely lyrical title, The Ethereal Melancholy of Seeing Horses in the Cold (2012), marks the beginning of your filmmaking career. Could you elaborate on the (personal) symbolism of horses and, generally speaking, animals that are recurring motifs in your films?

SB: There is an uncanny semblance of humanity in the spirit of the horse – the simultaneity of elegance and vulgarity, and also pathos – so I am naturally drawn to that creature in my work. They are like my actors. The great thing about animals is that they never act. They always just be. When I am filming in the wilderness, in the height of a storm, we are responding together, truthfully, innately to the elements. There is no conceit. That’s what I find beautiful about making films with animals. The film being made is a movie on the eyelids at the very same moment the animals and I are living it.

K!K: The aforementioned title also reveals one of the most pervasive feelings in moving images that you create. In addition to being oft-hazy and unfathomable, they are imbued with sadness, loneliness and pensiveness. Where does this deep, whispery, all-encompassing melancholy come from and what does it mean to you?

SB: From inside. I go into quite dark places when making. They are very personal, and solitary experiences to make. I always work alone, and so this personal, vulnerable aspect usually comes through in the final film, which is something I try to embrace.

Still Shot from Hunter (2015) (image taken from www.scottbarleyfilm.com)

K!K: Although melancholy is most commonly associated with humans, your works seem to be pretty devoid of human presence. Even when there are human characters involved, they are draped by or rather, subjugated to dense shadows, as seen in Nightwalk (2013), Ille Lacrimas (2014), Hunter (2015), Shadows (2015) and Womb (2017). What is your standing point when it comes to humanity? And are those shadows our own or do they emerge from some external source?

SB: The human race is hell-bent on superseding nature itself, which is laughable when you think about how inane, and ridiculous a folly that is, but the results of this folly – in our short time of being here – are profoundly devastating. I don’t make political films, but in some sense, my work is concerned with the Anthropocene. Humanity is yet to truly realize that we are nature in an active sense, and our attacks on nature will lead to a horrendous end. It won’t even be a pyrrhic outcome. The devastation caused if we continue the way we are going will be beyond all language and current imagination. In part, I want us as human beings to lose the ego, through conveying how vulnerable we are in the face of the elements – that is an important part – but my films are more about the mirroring, oscillatory qualities of the phenomenological and cosmological than anything else; that is what I am most interested in pursuing and sharing through my work. Shadows and darkness are the beginning and the end of all things.

K!K: Speaking of shadows, how was the idea of “painting with darkness”, as one might address your filming technique, born? Which masters of chiaroscuro in the fields of painting and photography have influenced you the most?

SB: I think that began with Shadows, a short film I made in the beginning of 2015, which was the last film I made before moving to shooting on iPhone. The film was about my grandmother’s deterioration and social immobility in old age, and living alone after her husband (my grandfather, Raymond Barley) died. The film combined realism with Caravaggio-inspired lighting. The film I made after that was Hunter, and I tried to incorporate what I had learnt in making Shadows into that project, and it has continued from there.

I like Caravaggio, as I mentioned, and many other painters, not just those who specifically work in a chiaroscuro aesthetic, but again, I don’t try to emulate or recreate paintings that I admire in my films. I try to keep doing my own thing, and go with what I feel.

Still Shot from Sleep Has Her House (2017) (image taken from www.scottbarleyfilm.com)

K!K: You are also a landscapist, considering that the landscape plays an important, if not a central role, in the great majority of your films. Along with darkness and the Unknown, the landscape is the main character of Sleep Has Her House. Can you tell us more about your interest in these three subjects and the correlation between them, maybe in the metaphysical/ontological context?

SB: I try to anthropomorphise the landscape. I see the body, the landscapes, and the sky, or the unknown beyond as shivered mirrors of one another. They are interconnected, in a mystic way, but also in a very lucid, scientific way. I am interested in all of the things that you describe, of course. The landscapes hold scars of the past, like our bodies, of history, and stars are like scars of the past too, colossal explosions of celestial energy, that eventually created these landscapes before us, and our bodies. The inside and the outside.

Science has proven we are literally made of stardust. We can look upon – in awe – of the night sky. Because of how far the light has to travel, to gaze at the stars is to stare back into time itself. It is a mirror of ourselves and the landscapes around us. We see them, these tiny specks of light, and yet it is like staring into a mirror of death, the death of us from before, and now we exist in another form, and we are able to bear witness to that; to stare at our own death in that mirror, while we remain in this form, alive, here, now. We die and live again, and live to see our previous death, our ancient death. The night sky, this mirror is an infinite black pool; a cathedral full of ghosts; the ghosts of stars… stars that in some cases no longer exist – the very stars that we are now made of. We are the guest, and the stars are our host. And now the stars are our ghosts. I find it incredible. The very stars that now form our landscape, both exterior landscapes (our world), and our own interior landscape (body) are in that mirror above us in another form. Perhaps we have no purpose in life except to oneday return, after this death, to pass through that mirror, and reunify with the stars that birthed us. To become the Before, or the Whole (whatever you want to call it) – again.

K!K: It is hard to decide whether your feature is set in primordial times or in the distant future, and there are many other ambiguities and challenges awaiting a potential viewer. Swimming against the tide, you embrace the hypnotic rhythms of “slow cinema” and provide plenty of space for contemplation. Aren’t you afraid of being rejected by the modern audience who have gotten increasingly lazy? While you were making SHHH (an appropriate acronym, the interviewer’s note), were you thinking about who the film would be intended for? What do you expect people will see or find in its uncompromising opaqueness?

SB: No. My films are not for everyone, I know that. But I believe that if someone surrenders themselves to the film, the world on the screen will resonate with them. I never think about the audience. It’s completely the wrong way to go about making a film sincerely. I often say that the filmmaking process is mine, but once the film is finished, it is no longer mine. It is for anybody who let’s it resonate with them. It’s a surrendering, watching a film. Filmmaking is taking this chaos of inner feelings and sometimes pain, and re-arranging it into something else. That’s my journey, and a journey I have to walk alone. I cannot do that if I was thinking about who the film is for.

I hope people will see something of themselves, their innermost feelings, which paradoxically are mine, and everyone else’s, in the film.

K!K: There are sparse intrusions of light in SHHH, as well as throughout the short films that it is preceded by. Do you regard brightness as immersive as darkness or do you think it holds no big answers? What urges you to embark on these nocturnal adventures?

SB: I think that both light and darkness can be overwhelming, and more questions than answers exist within them. I don’t think one has more power over the other. They are inextricable. They are one and the same. I try to make films in such a way as how a blind person may feel their way through their surroundings, using other senses more, with more tactility and questioning. I find darkness, just like light, a seductive, almost erotic phenomenon. I want my films to use darkness in a seductive way, hinting at a further, a beyond, that we cannot see, or understand, and yet, we feel.

Still Shot from Sleep Has Her House (2017) (image taken from www.scottbarleyfilm.com)

K!K: In the film, the elements of nature – water, earth and air – appear to be dormant (even the waterfall in the opening sequence is in some sort of dream state), with fire missing or rather, being replaced by the element of mystery or some inscrutable emotion. How would you describe your relation to nature itself and her varying moods?

SB: I would simply say, I try not to obstruct it. I want to let it dance around and through me. Sometimes nature can seem banal, and in other moments, uncanny, and occasionally, sublime. I am trying to convey nature in how it resonates with me, both personally and in a very vast, incomprehensible way.

K!K: SHHH is utterly fascinating for its seamless blending of the footage shot on iPhone with hand-drawn images, which provides a fine grainy texture reminiscent of an old filmstrip. How did you come up with the idea to shoot exclusively with iPhone and what is your view on traditional vs. modern technology?

SB: In the last year of my undergraduate studies, we had the opportunity to use an ARRI Alexa. The film that we made using the Alexa was Shadows. TheARRI Alexa was a terrific camera, but each shot took a long time to set up. All the equipment was big and very heavy and made the set very cramped, all the lights made it very hot, and progress was slow. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that we were trying to convey this vulnerability, an authenticity with my grandmother, and here we were with £200K worth of equipment in my grandmother’s own home which was worth not much more than half of that. It felt wrong to me. I wanted to take what I had learnt visually, sonically, and simply the humanness from that experience, and apply it to something where I could harness the opportunities of immediacy and lightness that only a smaller device could deliver in future. I also believe that the best camera is the one that is always with you; in this case, my iPhone.

I don’t think the populism of the camera I choose to use matters. I use my iPhone for the immediacy, and because it is the camera I always have on me. Somebody else may always carry a DSLR around their neck, or even something bigger. And of course, it doesn’t have to be an iPhone, it could be any phone with a camera. I just use my iPhone because it’s the camera that is always with me, it’s light, and freeing and enabling for the way I wish to work. Since then, I always begin a film almost like one would keep a diary. I have no idea, or agenda to make a film. I simply document. Once I have built up a body of footage, I start to see connections. These pieces of footage could be taken months or even years apart – and miles apart too. Once these connections are established, a narrative – through images – begins to germinate.

I think there is too much of a fetishistic nostalgia for analog technology, rather than using the technology that suits your method of making. The medium you choose should be inseparable from your process, your style inseparable from the substance. They should not be extricable. And you should never think that having lots of expensive equipment automatically makes you a great filmmaker. Nothing could be further from the truth. That belief is often where bad films are born. But I believe you should use whatever you need to. There is no hierarchy. All of it is cinema when used sensitively.

K!K: Would you like to share some more of your insights with us? What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?

SB: When it comes to watching and making films, I will simply say, don’t think too much, just feel.

Right now, I am attending a few different festivals, with Sleep Has Her House. When I return, I will continue working on my next film. It’s a very slow process. I have been working on it for over a year, but I only have two or three sequences that I am very happy with at present. I am also working on a Blu-Ray release of Sleep Has Her House, alongside a book of essays on the film by some very talented scholars, filmmakers, and writers, which I hope to release late 2018, or early 2019 through my website, and hopefully in a few physical stores in Europe.

K!K: Thank you for taking a precious portion of your time to answer these questions.

SB: Thank you for inviting me!

By Nikola Gocić

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