French actor Xavier Tchili first played a character named Lek for Andrew Kötting in the 2001 film This Filthy Earth. A reimagining of Emile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre by way of John Berger’s Pig Earth, it channelled Bosch and quoted the Polish surrealist filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk in a familial tragedy of myth, mud and madness. In it, Lek was a foreign farm labourer, an observer and scapegoat (“Away, darky! Away!”) who was ultimately unable to convince a young woman to escape her plight.
United Kingdom 2017
Certificate 15 92m 4s
Director Andrew Kötting
Lek Xavier Tchili
Voice of Lek as a young boy Clay Barnard
Mina Catherine Tchili
Voice from radio Anamaria Marinca
Voice of wizard/eternalist Alan Moore
In Colour and Black & White
Tchili played another Lek in Kötting’s Ivul (2009), this time the mute servant to a family whose exiled son vows never to touch the ground again, living on rooftops and in trees; in that film, Lek occupied the roles of voyeur and would-be protector, though again his efforts were in vain. In the Sight & Sound review of Ivul, a reference was made to a mooted third appearance from Tchili as Lek. If This Filthy Earth was about people living on the soil, and Ivul about someone living above it, Lek was next to venture underground. Almost a decade later, he does exactly that in the science fiction-inflected tragedy Lek and the Dogs.
Both of the previous films in this loose ‘Landworks’ trilogy are about people trapped on the margins and tied to the land, struggling to survive. Kötting could hardly have found a more fitting source of inspiration for a third instalment than Hattie Naylor’s 2010 play Ivan and the Dogs. Lek had occupied a position on the fringes of the earlier films but takes centre stage here, replacing the eponymous Ivan. The play was based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, who spent two years living on the streets of Moscow as a feral child with a pack of dogs. On stage, the story was relayed in a monologue by an older Ivan, accompanied by ‘soundscapes’ and projected imagery that brought memories crashing into the present. All of this makes it a perfect jumping-off point for Kötting’s typically singular new work.
The focus on a social outcast allows him to push Lek to the furthest periphery yet, while the play’s own multimedia texture prefigures the filmmaker’s employment of various visual and formal techniques that blur recollection, imagination and warped psychology. The narrative itself is relatively easy to follow, presented in linear fashion from Lek’s flight from the family nest, aged four, through his time with the dogs, his capture by the authorities and his adulthood.
However, both visual and audio channels are composed of several different streams that intertwine, resulting in a dense tapestry of meanings around an ostensibly straightforward tale. Chapter titles appear regularly, offering a rabbit hole of interpretation by quoting, or alluding to, philosophers such as Montaigne and Emil Cioran, writer W.G. Sebald and modernist poet Basil Bunting. Abstract archival footage, newsreels and home movies commingle with empty landscapes and Tchili’s strange, sad, absorbing performance. Voiceover commentary punctuates a symphony of echoing confession, as Lek speaks to the camera, is heard via recordings or listens to tapes of himself as a child – and all the while distorted screams interject from the past.
The most striking of these layered component parts is the post-apocalyptic framing that is unique to the film, shot in the Atacama Desert. Tchili wanders a barren landscape, initially naked and scrambling on all fours, later clothed and on two feet, as a minimalist electronic score emphasises the ruin. This is a desolate future that Lek inhabits, one in which he is forced to spend much of his time ‘underland’.
In this shadowy subterranean home, he is recording his testimony to the camera, like an artfully composed talking head in a documentary. “I don’t remember everything because I was so small,” he admits, in an apparently gibberish approximation of Russian. The real Ivan was able to relearn human language when he returned to society, but Lek has been more deeply altered by his experiences, it seems.
Various other voices are heard over footage of the arid Chilean landscape, offering expert opinions on the implications of Lek’s experience. These voices – listed in the credits as a ‘body psychotherapist’, ‘child psychologist’ and ‘animal behaviourist’ – all stress the import and permanence of what he learned on the street. Even if he wanted to forget, Lek will carry his dogs and their instincts with him. A number of the landscape shots that accompany these diagnoses prominently feature the animals – including dogs – that still inhabit the otherwise lifeless environs. Lek shares their will to survive, and eventually reveals that this saw him abandon his wife and child to escape the impending, disastrous end of civilisation; they would not come with him.
In a separate voiceover, frequent Kötting collaborator Alan Moore – credited as ‘wizard and eternalist’ – talks about planetary and individual destruction, speculating that they are perhaps the same thing. He posits that we encode one on to the other because the end of the world is easier to comprehend than the end of our individual lives. There is suddenly a crack in the reality of Lek’s post-apocalyptic survival in the suggestion of a conflation with personal demise. The extent to which the audience is, in fact, witnessing the internal workings of Lek’s own psyche becomes a valid question. Visual glitches that had seemed to be purely genre embellishment now suggest psychological strain. “I think back to everything,” says Lek, “no longer certain of what I can remember, but I relive and revisit the past… Maybe I have changed some of it.”
As the horrifying sound of Lek’s abusive stepfather barks through time at him, an unwanted connection is formed. Lek’s abandonment of his own young family suggests the instigation of a terrible cycle. Thinking back to This Filthy Earth and Ivul, we are compelled to focus on his ostracisation and inability to save those he cares for – in this instance hamstrung by his unshakeable canine knack for self-preservation at all costs. The tragedy and trauma of his childhood keep clawing at him even when he has discovered some form of contentment. The dogs will be with him always.
Another observation from Moore argues that time is a solid in which everything is occurring simultaneously. In this model, linear time is just our experience of passing through the solid. Moore asserted something similar in Kötting’s Edith Walks (2017), and the collapsing of time was also employed in By Our Selves (2015). These films saw the respective spirits of Edith Swan Neck (Claudia Barton) and John Clare (Toby Jones) summoned to transcend chronology and join Kötting and his compatriots on contemporary pilgrimages through a psychogeographic British landscape.
In these films, place acts as a unifying point through which the solid can effectively be traversed in multiple directions simultaneously. In Lek and the Dogs, these events are linked with the neurological networks of “a disrupted mind”. A polarised image of tree branches flashes on the screen, and we again hear the abusive holler of Lek’s stepfather.
The film ends with a Eugene O’Neill quote: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” And Lek walks away across the Yorkshire landscape at the end of This Filthy Earth. And Lek abandons his incantations and his master to the flames at the end of Ivul. And Lek wanders between gravestones, tied to the earth but never its people, and longs for his dogs.