A celebration of our love of, and need to control, the countryside around us, Arcadia is an unusual film, a tour through the decades with an element of the horrific as Paul Wright takes us through the BFI film archives, drawing upon the BFI Britain on Film collection and regional archives.
From the opening scenes of mould growing and spores exploding, through the way that farmers treat the land and animals that live upon it, through to the way we, as a population, live upon the land and seek the steady progress of nature to our will, for better or for worse, Arcadia manages to present an effective story, looking at our relationship with the countryside.
The use of archive footage, especially that of children and teenagers of decades gone by, is at times unsettling especially when mixed with clips of adults shaping the world and justifying their beliefs, the soundtrack of Adrian Utley and Will Gregory and the poetic voice of folk singer Anne Briggs. Wright explores how nature is the playground of the people, but also the way we’ve built upon it to dominate it with structures cutting swathes and creating something that is, in its own right, both beautiful and horrific. People are seen as the ultimate manipulator, not just of the land, but of animals and each other.
As the years proceed, we see how people have changed and become part of the environment, whether it be the rural areas or the suburban and cityscapes that we have created. Folk rituals are given a dark twist in Wright’s vision of Arcadia, with some of what we see looking cruel, especially without the full context of what is going on, even as the footage hints at violent and dangerous acts of abandon. As the old traditions are replaced with modern equivalents, we see discos, raves and parades, mixed in with signs of animals in distress, the elements as the true master and how powerless people are to control it, despite clearly wanting to.
Sensibilities change, with a “wiser” group of children replacing those who did what was expected of them and willing to risk their own safety for adventure, whilst their parents continued the work of generations past. The children would, of course, become adults and parents themselves. We quickly move towards the social freedoms of the 1960s, where the concept of respect was largely eroded by the free-spirited will of the people, never to be regained. There may be a belief that, during the 1960s, people were one with nature, but it’s more to do with hedonism than working with the land. Hedonism merges into capitalism as we want more and wish to give less.
As we move through the 20th Century, the film doesn’t shy away from cruelty and animal violence, nudity as part of naturism and how we aren’t as civilised as we may believe ourselves to be. Scenes of fox hunting, glue sniffing and gang violence are Arcadia at its most unsettling. The occasional vox pop gives a taste of what people thought at the time and how comfortable we were becoming in ourselves as we moved further from the folk world that we saw at the start of the film to the metropolis that would replace it.
From the rural communities of yesteryear to the sprawling cities and suburban centres of the late 20th Century, Arcadia explores how we’ve lost touch with nature and the countryside around us, yet still look upon it with a sense of reverence and how, even when surrounded by people, we’re alone.
Arcadia certainly won’t appeal to the mass market, but it is an artistic achievement and a wonderful exploration of how we see the United Kingdom, how big the land is compared to how small we may wish it to be. Even at its most harsh, Arcadia presents the countryside as tender, whilst the men, women and children who live in it are capable of routing the land and each other for their own gain or entertainment. It’s an occasionally chilling look at what we take for granted.
As often seems to be the case, BFI releases are replete with supporting material.
An informative Q&A session, featuring Paul Wright, Alex Utley and Will Gregory discuss the film and its significance at BFI Southbank.
There’s a series of supporting archive films, too, including A Day at the Hayfields (1904), Tame Animals at Work (1909), Championship Ploughing Match (1912), Ancient Cornish Custom (1921), The Kibbo Kift (1923), ‘Oppin Makes You ‘Earty (1925), Old Norse Vikings (1927) all running at under five minutes and giving us much more of the folk stories and exploration of traditional life. Once We Were Four (1942) is a black comedy presented as a documentary about rabbits facing the perils of their existence, whilst Peter and Ruby is the longest of the short films, at 35 minutes, and follows two Dartmoor Farmers and their life in 1972. Sadly, there isn’t anything after 1972.
A beautifully presented booklet features writings from film historians and the makers of Arcadia and provides further background material on the film and the plan to deconstruct our relationship with the countryside around us, without preaching.
Dir: Paul Wright
Prd: Mary Burke, John Archer
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 78 mins
Arcadia is out now on DVD