Sunday, 19 May 2013

Swandown DVD review

I was recently asked by the Cornerhouse if I would be interested in reviewing the DVD release of Swandown, which was one of my favourite films of last year (it premiered at the Cornerhouse as part of Abandon Normal Devices festival). As a big fan of both canals and director Andrew Kötting, I was happy to take up the chance to watch the film again.

Swandown review

In autumn 2011, writer Iain Sinclair and film-maker Andrew Kötting set off on a 160 mile voyage from the seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex, to inner-city Hackney in east London, site of the 2012 Olympics. Neither are strangers to the ripe themes of English coastal towns or epic journeys: Kötting previously directed the experimental coastal travelogue Gallivant, whilst Sinclair, who resides partly in Hackney, partly in St Leonards-on-Sea (next to Hastings), is perhaps best known for his book London Orbital, a pyschogeographic exploration of London's M25 motorway. What made the journey remarkable was that it was made by the two men in a cartoonishly oversized craft, a swan pedalo named Edith in honour of poet Edith Sitwell, liberated from Hastings' seashore-facing 'Swan Lake' in the name of 'releasing a trapped soul of the sea'. The resulting film, Swandown, is a dreamlike, fragmentary evocation of their unlikely, ambitious journey and the two men's friendship, as seen from 'silly little canals and creeks and horrible English muddy places' (Sinclair) in the closing light of an Indian summer.

The film-makers admit that Swandown is the 'black swan in the tradition of narrative cinema', and the film offers an impressionistic rather than linear depiction of their adventure. Jem Finer's ethereal score floats hazily over the film amid fragments of loosely connected archive film and voiceovers by Sinclair and Kötting musing on the mythology of the swan. The pair bob up and down, 'awash and reckless', on the English Channel (a journey that almost fails to start), glide up canals and rivers encountering fishermen, cows, dog walkers, paddlers and pleasure craft – the 'invisibles' not normally revealed in officially-sanctioned or popular imagery of the waterways – and, absurdly, get a lift up the River Thames on a tug. The film is a reminder of how much of a presence water is in the English landscape, from calm, bucolic rivers shaded by trees to the industrial waterscape of the Thames, a workaday, working river where boat traffic is overlooked by fast-flowing cars on the Dartford Bridge, and the ubiquitous inner-city canal confetti of bottles, cartons and balloons. Waterways are presented as being ripe for exploration, backwater viewing points into the secret lives of English towns and cities.

As Edith makes her way towards her destination, however, there is a growing sense of unease and a sense of the impending curtailment of physical and creative freedom. Not only are Sinclair and Kötting running out of time as Iain has to abandon Edith for the plane, a faster and more practical form of transport, needing to reach an appointment in America, but the journey is increasingly fraught with potential danger and obstacles, from health and safety to the tight security of the Olympic site, sealed off from canal craft by a vicious-looking fence. During the journey Sinclair expresses the hopelessness he feels when contemplating the huge enclosures of the Olympic site and, indeed, the whole project is positioned as an antidote to the pomp and excess of the Olympics. Hauling the pedalo up riverbanks and over muddy fields, spending a whole month in the same clothes and being able to wet themselves whenever they want to, an image of personal sacrifice akin to the more-celebrated figure of the marathon runner, Swandown is as much a spectacle of physical impossibility as the athletic feats which go on in crowd-lined sporting arenas.

Released in the year of the Olympics, as part of the so-called Cultural Olympiad, yet existing in a parallel universe to the competitive, corporate nature of the games, Swandown puts poetry back into the act of endurance, a timely, touching and irreverent acknowledgement that perseverance, as much as inspiration, is integral to the act of creativity – and vice versa.

To purchase the film on DVD visit

Photos copyright of Anonymous Bosch.

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