NWR Issue 75

Wales and Film

A low-lying camera pans over a former airfield, recently colonised by folding chairs and unruly tents. It is 2002, and the National Eisteddfod occupies a square of land just outside Wales's medieval city, St Davids. A slightly sinister soundtrack, heavy on the electric guitar, accompanied by images of eisteddfotwyr (eisteddfod-goers), sets the tone for what follows: nothing is as
innocently coincidental as it seems in Dal:Yma/Nawr [Still:Here/Now], an exuberant paean to the centuries-old tradition of Welsh poetry. Symbolic sequences featuring the number seven have been shot in a variety of locales, from the Eisteddfod itself to a beach in Santa Monica, lending a reassuring solidity to the presence of actors Rhys Ifans, Siân Phillips, Ioan Gruffudd, Matthew Rhys, Daniel Evans and Nia Roberts. From the seventh-century poet Aneirin to Wales's first National Poet, Gwyneth Lewis, the film offers an 'odyssey' through the long and variegated tradition of poetry in Welsh. Including quiet, intimate readings by contemporary poets such as Alan Llwyd and Gwyn Thomas, and a combination of straight and dramatised readings by the actors, the film also features musicians Cerys Matthews and John Cale.

Film-maker Marc Evans's exploration of Wales's bardic tradition might have seemed an 'oddity' at the time to The Guardian's Sean Clarke (February 2004), but to me, his subtle exploration of the internal connections between film and poetry made for an entirely natural pairing. Interviewed by Fflur Dafydd for this issue of New Welsh Review, Evans points to the poetic qualities of film itself as a genre, and describes how he and co-producers Ed Thomas, Fizzy Oppé and Ynyr Williams worked to apply the principles of poetry to the film-making process in order to intensify the similarities between the two art forms. Abandoning straightforward narrative for a series of sequences that 'read' as visual verses, Evans juxtaposed image and sound in order to realise the otherness common to film and poetry. 'Making a film is a strange contradiction,' he says. 'It's essentially an industrial process applied to a poetic medium. Films work like dreams, they are illuminated "other realities" that reflect and inform our own lives. By attempting to put poetry on film we were trying to exploit this connection.'

Perhaps, though, it wasn't this heightened 'other reality' that seemed a little odd to the Guardian reviewer, but a (maybe justifiable) bemusement in the face of a film focused unapologetically on poetry. In most places in the world, after all, poetry, is seen as niche at best, and, at worst, elitist and somewhat esoteric, while film is largely popular and populist. Here, though, and in the Welsh language in particular, poetry exudes a resolutely central, unaffected normality. Wales's poets, while they are perceived as visionaries, prophets and significant recorders of an ancient culture that refuses to lie down and die despite the steady creep of globalisation, have day jobs as teachers, tax collectors and trading standards officers. Through the generations, they experience the world through the lens of the eisteddfodic tradition, with its emphasis on performance and charisma, and their connection with their audience is marked by its sometimes uncomfortable immediacy. It is this immediacy which is so apparent in Dal:Yma/Nawr, and which the film turns inside out without any vindicatory nods to the mainstream. As Evans concludes: 'It [making Dal:Yma/Nawr] also reminded me that we don't have to constantly think about exporting our
culture. It's OK to make films for ourselves.'

Evans's perspective - which combines the creative concerns of an international portfolio with the healthy introspection (as opposed to introversion) evident in his Welsh work - is indicative of the outlook of a whole generation of artists and writers who are reaching their prime a decade after devolution. The work of performance artists Eddie Ladd, Marc Rees and Sean Tuan John, for example, discussed by Jodie Allinson in this issue, combines internationally-influenced performance practice with an attractive cultural rootedness. Common to all three artists is the increasing use of visual media in their performance work, bringing live and filmed/virtual performance into a constant engagement with each other. The Welsh film industry per se, of course, has in the last ten years nudged definitions of 'edgy' from the wacky provincial kitsch of Twin Town (the film that kick-started Rhys Ifans' deservedly meteoric rise to fame) to Russell T. Davies's imaginative Torchwood. The industry is currently undergoing many changes, mainly due to a major overhaul of its subsidy infrastructure, and I can only hope that the productions of the next decade will be as passionate and inventive as those of the early years of devolution.

Counterpoint and juxtaposition are the leitmotifs of this issue, highlighting the ways in which film and other art forms, such as poetry and/or performance can be brought into creative dialogue. While the portraits of Angus McBean, by contrast, feature here primarily in order to tie in with a major National Portrait Gallery exhibition which is now touring to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, their relevance to the theme is more than incidental. The feature articles in this issue on poetry, performance and film explore the moving image and its connection with the written word or with live performance; similarly, Michael Corris's overview of McBean's life and work tellingly points up the narrative aspects of the photographer's work, particularly in his portraits of the numerous film stars who sat for him. Although his images are technically 'static' portraits, they encapsulate a story of some sort, be it a reference to the surrealist visual artists of the day (as in the images of Audrey Hepburn and Viven Leigh, for example), or the biography of the sitter (as is the case with his striking image of dancer Margot Fonteyn) and, indeed, in his Christmas card self-portraits, which subtly and wittily convey McBean's own experiences.
Angus McBean: Portraits runs at the National Museum until 3rd June.

Editor's Notes

I would like to thank Kathryn Gray, Tristan Hughes, Patrick McGuinness and Matthew
Jarvis for guest-editing New Welsh Review so generously and ably in my absence last
year. Their thoughtful commissions and selections made for a series of fascinating issues
on the themes of 'Inside Out: Poetry in Private and Public', 'Pastiche, Parody and the
Picaresque' and 'Environment and Identity'. All of us at New Welsh Review remain deeply
grateful to them for sharing their creative vision and commitment with the magazine.

While I was on leave, Wales lost one of its most celebrated writers. Leslie Norris, poet and
short-story writer, was born on a farm near Merthyr Tydfil. His first book of poems, Finding Gold, was published in 1967 and his first short story colllection, Sliding, in 1978. He left the UK for America nearly thirty years ago, where, like Vernon Watkins before him, his work found a particularly warm reception. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales draws attention to 'a deep melancholy' in Norris's writing, 'which is more obvious in his later work and gives an especial poignancy to the pastoral eclogues of childhood. It is almost as though he is aware that he himself is "the last of the old Merthyr" and that the farther he fares the emptier seems the world. His experiences in America have made his poetry more diffuse and urbane - the emotional centre of the work is less visible and the emphasis more descriptive - but his contact with Wales has by no means diminished.'

Leslie Norris died on 6th April, 2006 in Provo, Utah, aged 84.

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of highly acclaimed landscape painter Peter Prendergast on 14th January. An obituary by Tony Curtis will appear in the next issue of New Welsh Review.

We continue to receive a large number of unsolicited submissions and remain committed to putting them through a rigorous selection process. All submissions are read by the Editor and a shortlist for further consideration passed to our Poetry Editor Kathryn Gray or Fiction Editors Tessa Hadley and Tristan Hughes. Once a final selection from each batch is agreed we respond to the authors concerned and accepted work is placed in a queue for publication. Due to the limited number of pages that we can devote to poetry and fiction, we now have a small backlog of accepted work awaiting publication in 2007. In order, therefore, to be fair to writers whose work is of a high standard but which, due to lack of space, we are unable to place, we are regretfully unable to consider unsolicited submissions for the rest of the year. We will, however, welcome unsolicited work again as of January 2008.


previous editorial: Dead Poets' Society
next editorial: Writing on the Land


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