There’s this thing called hauntology. The dictionary definition - if your dictionary carries it at all - is from Jacques Derrida, who coined the word to describe that point when a society no longer looks forward and retreats into its past, specifically past visions of the future. Hauntology has developed into a genre all of its own, all half-remembered childhood TV shows and evocative mood music, and while Arcadia - Scottish filmmaker Paul Wright’s deep trawl of the BFI archive - touches on that, it’s also an exploration of Derrida’s concept.
The film is divided into nine titled chapters, each using mostly black and white archive footage to illustrate a loose theme. The focus is the British countryside, and specifically, the people and cultures found there, and the traditions they’ve embedded. Thus, after a gentle introduction which could almost begin any straightforward look at the subject, things begin to get a little weird.
In chapters titled Amnesia, Into the Wild, and Folk, we glimpse May Day, barrows and henges, nudism, Morris dancing, Shrovetide rucks, Obby Osses and Jacks-in-the-Green, fire, and ritual. In Utopia, Wright’s selections - all backed by the vintage folk of Anne Briggs and specially-commissioned instrumental work by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory - encompass the landscape and nature, kids running free in school holidays, hippies, Acid House, and all things summery.
The Turning, and Blood In The Soil see the film take a sinister turn, as autumn fades in, with scenes of harvest contrasted with deforestation, private property, quarries, and pollution, before the never-more-unwelcome tradition of hunting a tired and desperate animal across the land with baying hounds gets its turn (though, to be fair, Wright’s naked view exposes its ugliness without editorialising).
The light-hearted surreality of adult men riding llamas, cows, zebras, and ostriches acts as a transition to In A Dark Wood, which captures solitude and loneliness, death (including a couple of the death scenes from the legendary Apaches), and the contrast between the rich and the poor, who are shown alternately enjoying lavish country balls and marching for jobs (and chasing massive cheeses down steep hills).
The seasons turn again in the film’s last two chapters, as Winter Solstice brings the kind of deep snow you just don’t get any more, and threats to the countryside from industrialisation, mass transport, tourism, housing estates, gyratory systems, chintz, and factory farming, as an odd juxtaposition between glue sniffers and destructive floods carry us into Oblivion.
As winter ends, spring begins, and life renews itself. The truth is in the soil, is the film’s closing refrain, and this may inspire some kind of hope at the film’s end, with scenes of plants pushing through concrete, and the dead rising from their graves, a magic out of place with the preceding chapters.
This is not documentary in the traditional sense, although it documents tradition. Neither is it in any way a linear story. Rather it is pure evocation, looking back on a past that has disappeared or will soon disappear altogether. In the face of an uncertain future - itself brought about by some kind of weird nostalgia for a Britain of the past - this is a timely release. There are no lessons to be gleaned from this, except that we can’t go back. Derrida’s hauntology is not a desired state, and as much as tradition appeals, it’s often an ill-fit for the future.
ARCADIA / CERT 15 / DIRECTOR: PAUL WRIGHT / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 20TH