Directors: Arjuna Neuman, Dan Guthrie and Ufuoma Essi
Using a treasure trove of documentary evidence capturing everyday life in Britain across decades of public information films, news reels and social records, Right of Way is a 90-minute documentary about the British countryside. Based on the protected landscapes of the National Trails, this anthological splicing of film footage is based around the idea of nature, the need to get out and enjoy it, and its role in reflecting and inspiring different forms of British and community identities.
Even more interesting, perhaps, this film is accompanied by three artistic responses, each running at around 13-minutes that utilise archival and newly created footage to creatively comment on the Right of Way concept through quite different representations of the countryside and its purpose. All of these are subversive or inclusive, looking at the alternative uses to which the land has been put for different cultural purposes, upending the notion of peaceability and the poetic possibilities of the landscape.
The first of these is Syncopated Green by Arjuna Neuman, using a dance soundtrack played over representations of the countryside in classic paintings, interspersed with shots from inside the Georgian and Victorian collections in the National Gallery. With a particular fondness for Gainsborough portraits, although landscape masters Constable and Turner also feature, Neuman hones in on countryside pursuits and clothing, windswept landscapes and depictions of the natural world on canvas. Then, the film moves to archival film, to contrast with the contemporary reality utilising footage of revellers in a woodland setting during the 1990s primarily. Following an open-air party until sunrise, Neuman creates a sense of endurance of ravers making it to the dawn while music by Alphabet Shadow and Loraine James and others suggests quite different tones through the night as the party intensifies and then mellows into a new day. A controversial aspect of countryside and the freedom to use it, but one in which Neuman makes an important statement about youth culture.
The second is an exploration of identity and connection down the centuries, Black Strangers in which Dan Guthrie goes in search of a man with the same name who is said to have been buried in the Gloucestershire woods in the early 1700s. Guthrie searches through maps and documents, films himself tramping through the undergrowth and speculating on commonalities between the experiences of Dan and Daniel. It is a confessional piece in many ways, an obsession that reveals much about Guthrie and the desire for connection that this landscape represents as well as the ways in which the woodland marks a kind of continuity with generations that come before.
The final film, Pastoral Malaise is far more elegiac, a contemplation of coastal countryside accompanied by a lilting poem read by Angela Wynter. There is a wistful, perfume advertisement quality to Ufuoma Essi’s film, snatches of moments in which three teenagers in their school uniform interact, relax and play. But is it their acknowledgement of the camera which is more arresting. They look directly at it, recognise its presence in their lives and occasionally stare defiantly. The result is a story that suggests many narrative possibilities and questions – why are they alone here, are they siblings and is this this route home after school? More romantic than its predecessors, the piece wonders what identity and belonging feel like in the countryside as well as the wistful memories of childhood freedom and possibility in a very British environment.
Working alongside the curated archival material as part of a touring film programme, Right of Way explores engagement with rural narratives and notions of equality of access. These artists’ response to Right of Way collectively form only 33-minutes but they make a strong statement about the different purposes, attachment and interactions with the British landscape.
Right of Way is part of a UK Wide screening tour from September 2022 to September 2023.