Film-makers aim to capture poet's delight in water music of the Dart
A new film based on an epic poem about the River Dart has just been launched Martin Hesp has had a sneak-preview.
All rivers are alluring and somehow magical, but some are just a bit more special, appealing, beautiful and regal than others. The Dart is one such royal river – people have painted it, written books about it – it has inspired countless poems and now a charming and engaging film has been made, following its watery loveliness.
Indeed, the 20-minute visual feast is based on an award-winning poem called Dart, by the Devon-based poet Alice Oswald – and, with happy coincidence, has been co-directed by a man whose day-job is to promote the work carried out on our rivers.
Environment Agency media manager Paul Gainey oversees most riverine public relations in this region – but he is also a keen and experienced filmmaker, a writer and, as it happens, an ardent admirer of poetry...
"I have always loved Alice Oswald's poetry," he told the Western Morning News. "She is an inheritor of some of Britain's greatest poetic voices, an heir to Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. It's her second collection, Dart (2002) that inspired the film.
"It combines verse and prose and, like much of her work, draws upon the landscape around her, telling the story of the River Dart," he said, describing the basics of a film which follows so much of the river's scenic story from source to sea.
"To write this poem, Alice spent three years collecting information about the river and talking to people who use it in their daily lives. The result is a highly original dream-like poem told from a variety of perspectives.
"I loved it from the moment I read it. Marc Tiley, the co-filmmaker, also loved it," said Mr Gainey, adding that Alice Oswald was one of only five poets in a list compiled by The Times naming the 50 greatest writers since 1945.
"Alice narrates her poem in the film and I love the way she reads it. It's a moving, changing poem – as fast-flowing as the river and as deep. It was the inspiration for the film, but we didn't want to simply copy the words in visuals."
The text is, indeed, powerfully delivered – but it is the exquisite photography in the film, along with the specially chosen music, which makes it such a pleasure to watch.
"To bring a version of this poem to the screen required a distinctive cinematic ambition that can be seen in Marc's film Anda Union," Mr Gainey explained. "Alice saw Marc's film and was convinced he would make a thought-provoking film of her poem.
"People are forever sifting the Dart or trying to harness its : tin-extractors, millers washing their wool and making dyes, dairy workers using the water to cool their milk, not to mention its ecosystem. That is in the poem – and we tried to capture that in the film," said Mr Gainey, who has previously made television documentaries including productions for Channel 4.
"Film is a visual medium, so we didn't want to just replicate the images in the poem on screen and be too literal, but also capture Alice's delight in the water music of the Dart's 'foundry for sounds'. Both Marc and I loved the way she used words like 'bivvering', 'slammicking' and 'shrammed'. It was like a playful new language or something written by Joyce.
"It's not all lovely river poetry," said Mr Gainey, who hopes to the film will be screened at various festivals in the Westcountry during the summer. "Alice rightly includes the dirty parts of the river and even sewage spilling into it. We were keen to get that balance on screen.
"She also retells the story of Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, setting sail from Troy for the Dart – and our boatman or river pilot reflects that and is really the hero of the film. He bookends the film and leads you through the narrative."
In some ways the film is a work in progress: "We would like to shoot some additional scenes, but will need extra funding for this," said Mr Gainey who obtained original donations and support from South Devon AONB, Dartmoor National Park Sustainable Development Funds, and the Environment Agency.
"I would particularly like to do the dream sequence, which is probably the strongest part of the poem which at the moment is not in the film. Nor is the sewage worker, which I would love to include.
Watching the film again, I feel a degree of sadness – in that the wool factory scenes were shot at the carpet firm, Axminster, which went into administration in March. I know it has since been saved from closure by a consortium of local business people, but 300 people lost their jobs."
Mr Gainey concluded by saying: "I hope people watching have the same thrill with the words and a new audience who might never have heard of Alice or seen the poem will go and read it. I never tire of Alice's poetry, and still get a shiver when I hear those last words of the poem...
With their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft eyes, asking/
who's this moving in the dark? Me.
This is me, anonymous, water's soliloquy,
all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave...
To get a taste of the new film you can watch a sequence by visiting http://dartfilm.co.uk/