Experimental Reviews

The Republics (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Huw Wahl

Cast: Stephen Watts, Catherine Euson, Mike Seaborne, Gareth Evans, Louis Benassi, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Donatella Franceschetti, Maria Giovanna Rizzi, Giancarlo Maculotti

Running time: 1hr 23mins

After reading Republic of Dogs/Republic of Birds, by Stephen Watts, Director Huw Wahl was convinced he viewed the world through a similar lens to the poet. Following a series of meetings between the author and the filmmaker, the two decided to go on an adventure and create an “anti-film,” based on the prose. The result is an artistic, abstract video essay, visualising the poet’s socially-conscious stanzas and walking us through his personal experiences.

The Republics revolves around three main topics: landscape, society and poetry. To begin with, we follow the poet and the filmmaker to the Scottish islands, London and the mountains of Northern Italy, seeing how each landscape has played a different role in shaping Watts and his work. In particular, he found inspiration in the Scottish countryside, where he created a special bond with the nature. Across stunning visuals of the rugged environment, Watts notes how the shapes of the Scottish land and its rocks have always fascinated him – inspiring him to choose the life of an author, trying to conjure such images through words.

When we move to modern day London, Watt’s thoughts shift to society – showing how the second environment added a new edge to his work and philosophy. “Think of all those who came here,” pleads the wordsmith, as he numbers all the hurdles a newcomer faces in atomised metropolises like the British capital. The lyrics tie perfectly with images of big constructions, crowds out in the streets, as well as the poet’s cluttered apartment, crammed to the brim with books.

Finally, Wahl and Watts journey to the mountains of Northern Italy, triggering a series of rhetorical questions. In the conversation, overlooking a landscape which has long survived countless generations of human beings, Watts wonders what came first; art or language; language or poetry? Needless to say, for Watts poetry comes first and then the rest follows.

Filmed in 16mm black and white and with the use of a radio microphone, The Republics is far removed from the sterile precision mainstream cinema audiences will be used to. This, paired with the poetic narrative, produces a certain brand of nostalgia with further evokes thoughts of society at the turn of the 20th century, and the early era of cinema. Indeed, the gritty, aged textures of the film mean that when references to modern world are made, they can come as a shock.

This shows Wahl is just as adept at using the tools of his trade to induce thoughts and feelings in his audience as Watts. The filmmaker smartly avoids overstatements and falling into a number of artistic traps. For example, in a film about the arresting beauty of the natural world, some filmmakers undermine their message by favouring overbearing scores. Instead of music, however, Wahl prefers natural sounds, which bind perfectly together with the landscape, while maintaining Watts as the centre of attention.

Editing in general is also one of Wahl’s strong suits, emphasising some stellar camera work, with clean and precise arrangements of complementary sound and vision. This aspect of Wahl’s approach exemplifies what makes this project special in general.

The Republics is the perfect example of how different art forms can complement each other. Photography, cinematography, poetry, writing, architecture all come together in harmony, serving the purpose of telling a beautiful story. The always curious spirit of a poet walks through this world, observing, taking notes, commenting and moving on, accompanied seamlessly by a filmmaker working toward the same end.

Wahl’s awe-inspiring film pulls off a rare filmmaking feat; the end result is artistic, without being pretentious. While a run-time of 83 minutes might be challenging to the average audience, I truly enjoyed watching it and felt inspired in the end. This film requires a specific audience to be appreciated, an audience with understanding and respect for avant-garde cinema – but at the right festival, or as an art installation it will undoubtedly find that. I for one am looking forward to being part of that audience for Wahl’s future work.

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