Where to begin with Andrew Kötting

A beginner’s path through the wayfaring, psychogeographical films of Andrew Kötting.

16 December 2019

By Adam Scovell

By Our Selves (2015)

Why this might not seem so easy

The idiosyncratic films of wandering British filmmaker Andrew Kötting are often a mixture of experimental travelogue – exploring on foot being a key feature of his work – and portraits of eccentric communities, all told through a collage approach to visuals and sound. In many ways defining an era of BFI-funded British experimental features, Kötting’s work draws upon every form of camera format, while taking visual inspiration from the most varied and unusual places.

After study at Slade School of Art, this Kent-born filmmaker began making shorts in the late 1980s and 90s. His debut feature Gallivant, a peripatetic odyssey around the coast of the UK, developed out of one of these in 1996. This was at the tail end of the era of the BFI Production Board, a state funding body that also supported filmmakers of the time including Patrick Keiller, Isaac Julien, Margaret Tait, Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway.

To confine yourself to Kötting’s feature films is to only understand half the picture though, as his work has spanned across many forms of media, including gallery installations, scrapbooks and performance art. Kötting’s work defies boundaries, limitations or pigeon-holing, meaning there’s a wealth of material to explore.

The best place to start – Gallivant

Heralding Kötting’s arrival as a feature filmmaker, 1996’s Gallivant is a highly distinctive and revelatory documentary. Breaking apart the form of more typical travelogues, it lives up to its title as we follow the director on a journey around the coastline of Britain in the company of his grandmother Gladys and his daughter Eden. Filled with chance and improvisation, the film sets down the blueprint for many subsequent low-budget British films built on journeys, such as Grant Gee’s 2008 release Patience (After Sebald). Kötting captures a genuine sense of new radicalism in a post-Derek Jarman cinematic landscape by staying true to its curious vision of the British coast and the people who live there.

Gallivant (1996)

A collection of wonderful and uniquely personal postcards, Gallivant is the template for Kötting’s filmmaking too, one in which people and places are portrayed with a sense of anything being possible. In finding unusual and interesting characters to talk to, Kötting’s films explore aspects of the British Isles that feel vividly real yet which are rarely seen on screen without melodrama or condescension.

What to watch next

Continue your exploration with one of the director’s fiction films: his 2001 drama This Filthy Earth. Adapted from Emile Zola’s novel La Terre, this film takes the same pleasure as its source material in puncturing the bucolic, pastoral vision of country life, showing it to be brutal and, more importantly, messy. Kötting brings together an unusual cast, mixing newcomers such as Shane Attwooll and Rebecca Palmer with theatrical stalwarts Dudley Sutton and Ina Clough. Applying Zola’s radical vision to the English landscape creates a refreshing turmoil in its presentation, which can be seen to have paved the way for a whole host of recent gritty landscape films, from Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016) to Clio Barnard’s Dark River (2017), the latter also starring Attwooll.

This Filthy Earth (2001)

Following the format of Gallivant, Kötting’s strongest films often hinge on interesting journeys and the challenges they throw up. This is certainly the case in his 2012 collaboration with Iain SinclairSwandown. The film is simultaneously humorous and melancholy, protesting the developments then occurring in the run-up to the London Olympics. Taking a swan pedalo from Hastings through to the mouth of the Lea, the pair take on various obstacles and passengers (including Stewart Lee and Alan Moore) as they attempt to break through into the river, closed due to private contractors working on the gentrification of Stratford and the valley beyond.

Swandown (2012)

Kötting’s collaborative relationship with Sinclair has defined his filmmaking of the last decade. He’s worked alongside the writer on a number of projects, adopting the same rebellious sense of protest as the backbone for their urban explorations. Whether in the watery journey of Swandown or walking the paths of the overground line for the writer’s book London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line, the pair make for great company, their lucid conversations mixing humour with history. The duo walked the same path for John Rogers’ 2016 film adaptation, which shares the DIY spirit of Kötting’s own earlier film work.

With meandering in mind, Kötting’s strongest film since Gallivant to date is probably By Our Selves (2015). The film follows a band of musicians and artists as they walk a route from Essex to Northampton undertaken in a spell of madness by the 19th-century poet John Clare, at the same time exploring the life of this tragic yet enigmatic figure.

Smart Alek (1993)

Toby Jones is cast as Clare, with the narration provided by his own actor father, Freddie, who had played the role of the poet in an early 1960s episode of BBC Omnibus. Mixing hallucinatory visuals mimicking Clare’s psychopathology – where aspects of the modern landscape come to represent mental disorder – with academic detail regarding the man’s life and work, it’s not just one of Kötting’s best films but one of the most beautiful documentaries of the millennium so far.

For a taste of Kötting’s earlier experimental shorts, Klipperty Klöpp (1986), Hoi-Polloi (1990) and the nightmarish Smart Alek (1993) make for an all-encompassing trilogy showcasing a mix of satire, biography, drama and landscape.

Where not to start

In a similar vein to By Our Selves, 2017’s Edith Walks takes a ramshackle group on a pilgrimage, this time from Waltham Abbey in Essex, where some of King Harold’s remains now reside, to St Leonards-on-Sea, where a statue of his wife Edith the Fair stands. Although filled with interesting history, the film’s short running time doesn’t give the past quite the same breathing space in comparison with other Kötting projects, and the film is also visually weakened by the use of fake Super 8 visuals. The filmmaker’s published scrapbook, Edith (The Chronicles), gives a richer experience of the research and history behind this uniquely eccentric expedition.

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