Rural drama and tragedy in This Filthy Earth, a 2001 film directed by Andrew Kötting and cowritten by Sean Lock, released on DVD by the BFI. Gary Couzens reviews.
This Filthy Earth, inspired by Emile Zola’s novel La Terre, could happily be set at almost any time in the present or recent past. The story takes place in a small rural community and centres on two sisters, Francine (Rebecca Palmer) and Kath (Demelza Randall). Their cousin Buto (Sean Attwooll) covets their land, and seeks the hand of Kath in order to take possession of it. And then comes along Lek (Xavier Tchili), a foreign stranger…
Earthy is the word for this, Andrew Kötting’s second feature and first dramatic piece. This is a rural landscape of bad teeth and mud-caked faces. In the opening minutes, we see a bull mating with a cow and Rebecca getting some of the semen on her hands. This is followed by her father (Dudley Sutton) having a boil on his foot lanced. At other times we see characters squatting down to defecate and urinate, though you may be glad that Kötting spares us the sight of that. There’s nothing elevated about these men and women: they are of the earth and the earth is in them. Although there’s nothing too graphic in this 15-certificate film, you’ll probably need a strong stomach to get through it, but then the squeamish would have bailed out during those early sequences. Stick with it and it has its rewards: though many will prefer Kötting’s earlier feature Gallivant, as I do. While both features are very different – Gallivant is a documentary essay, and certainly more benign than This Filthy Earth – they are noticeably the work of the same filmmaker, and share a strong sensitivity to place.
The surprising name in the credits is that of co-writer Sean Lock, one and the same person as the comedian. (Kötting more recently directed a live performance video for Lock.) How much he contributed I don’t know, though the film’s dirty realism is not without its flashes of very black humour. This Filthy Earth was shot mostly in Super 16mm, with some sequences in Super 8mm and digital video, which ensures that it doesn’t look much like any other British film of its time. Like some other British directors, Kötting is more European than American in his sensibility, and is more feted in France (where he has worked) than in his own country. This Filthy Earth played on one print in its British cinema release, while in France you can buy a three-disc boxset containing both features plus his early shorts. And sadly, like many a British arthouse filmmaker, Kötting has been unable to make another feature since. At least his two features are available via the BFI, as he is one of the more distinctive directors this country has.
This Filthy Earth is released on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1 (cinema ratio would have been either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1) and is anamorphically enhanced. Given the mix of source materials, and the fact that (as per the BFI’s booklet), the DVD was transferred from digibeta, that may well explain why there is no Blu-ray edition. There are some specks and jumps, noticeable particularly during the opening credits. (This may be intentional.) Given that most of the film was shot in 16mm, there is some grain present, but the colours are true and the blacks solid. The scenes – mostly short – which originated in 8mm or video inevitably look softer.
That digibeta source might well explain the lack of a 5.1 soundtrack. There would be such a sound mix as the end credits say that the film played with a Dolby Digital track in cinemas. Instead we get a 2.0 (Dolby Surround) track. It’s clear and immersive enough, but if 5.1 had been available it would have been preferable. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature. The extras don’t need them.
First up amongst the extras is the This Filthy Earth art gallery installation (31:13), first shown at the LAC Gallery in Sigean, France. Intended to play in a loop, this showed mini-DV footage from the film on three video screens with new sound design and music by David Burnand. For this DVD is presented as a three-way split screen (in a ratio of 4:1), and anamorphically enhanced, with a LPCM 2.0 soundtrack.
“Shadows Across the Baked Earth” is a series of short video pieces produced in 2006 and 2007 when Kötting was Artist in Residence at Centre Cat’Art, Sainte-Colombe-sur-l’Hers in the French Pyrenees. These are all non-narrative pieces presented in 4:3 with LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. They are: “I am a Living Shadow #8” (1:05), “I am a Living Shadow #2, 4, 5” (2:23), “Looking for a Living Shadow” (2:08), “A Shadow is the Colour of Silence” (1:29), “Our Heritage is Written on the Sun” (4:49) and “Loud Speaker” (5:45). In the first and last, Michaël Glück speaks a mixture of French and English, though apart from at the beginning of “Loud Speaker” none of it is subtitled.
The on-disc extras are concluded by the theatrical trailer (1:11), which is presented in 4:3.
As ever, the BFI have provided a booklet to go with the disc. Over forty-eight pages it contains essays by Gareth Evans, John Roseveare and Kötting, programme notes by the Kötting brothers for the Sigean exhibition referred to above, and notes and credits for the feature and the extras.
While I don’t think This Filthy Earth is a complete success, being overlong for one thing, it’s certainly worth seeing if you’re interested in the more singular and challenging works that independent British cinema throws up now and again, and which in recent years has become harder and harder to make in this country. As ever, it’s well presented on DVD by the BFI, though you may need to take a shower afterwards.
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