|'21st Century elements such as motorways and subway tunnels arguably become metaphors of Clare's confused, distorted view of the world'.|
A film that cannot easily be described or summed up, instead needing to be experienced first hand to truly appreciate it, may sound like something of a cliché. But By Our Selves is undoubtedly the very definition of that type of film. It's also a factor which makes summing up my feelings about the film as a whole - and the reasons why I enjoyed it so much - much more difficult than with more orthodox cinematic offerings.
Whilst By Our Selves regularly goes off in all manner of directions, at its centre remains John Clare, a 19th Century poet who suffered severe mental health issues during his life. What that meant for Clare living in England in the 1800s was that he spent a number of his later years as a patient in a lunatic asylum. Director Andrew Kötting chooses this time in Clare's life as his focus, specifically the poet's journey from High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest towards his home in Northamptonshire, made on foot over four days in July 1841.
With this subject as perhaps the film's sole point of anchorage for the viewer, Kötting creates an experience which is part loose historical re-enactment, part documentary, and part surreal head-trip. The director offers no hand-holding throughout By Our Selves, instead allowing his film to go where he wants it to and putting the onus on the viewer to follow and make of it what they will. The recreations of Clare's journey have an extempore feel, with most quite obviously taking place in the modern day and 21st Century elements such as motorways and subway tunnels arguably becoming metaphors of Clare's confused, distorted view of the world. Toby Jones admirably takes on the part of Clare for much of the film, with his father Freddie Jones - who reads from Clare's writing about his journey at several points throughout - occasionally seeming to take over the role based on his costume.
There are also sections where By Our Selves comes close to being a straight documentary, particularly in two sections where writer Iain Sinclair (whose book about Clare's journey served as a partial inspiration for the film) conducts the closest thing to straight interviews seen in Kötting's film, first with Alan Moore - who has some entertaining views on his home town of Northampton - and then with Oxford Brookes University Professor and Clare expert Simon Kövesi. Kötting can't resist plying even these moments with a healthy dose of the strange, especially the Kövesi interview in which the professor is dressed as a boxer (Clare had delusions of having a prize-fighter alter-ego, amongst others) and Sinclair wears a creepy goat mask for much of the interview.
It's this considerably surreal exectution throughout By Our Selves that is likely to determine how much each viewer will engage with Kötting's film. The self-referential nature of the film is disarming, with the director absurdly choosing to transform By Our Selves into its own "making of" documentary on a few occasions and regularly allowing the everyday world and the film-making process to intrude upon his feature. The truly surreal elements are perhaps where Kötting takes his biggest misstep. The director's choice to include animal masks, such as the aforementioned goat, feels unnecessary and distracting, bringing to mind low-rent horror schlock such as You're Next more than anything else, although his inclusion of the "straw bear" throughout is delightfully unsettling and bizarre.
Ultimately, By Our Selves is a film you need to see for yourself to make your own mind up. If nothing else, this is a unique, enigmatic and beautifully shot film. Above all, Kötting's primary purpose is to educate and raise awareness of Clare, his life and work; as I came away eager to seek out more on the poet and his writing, in that sense By Our Selves has to be seen as an unmitigated success.
By Our Selves plays LIFF29 again on Monday 9th November at 16.00 at Everyman Leeds Trinity.
The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.