By Our Selves (2015)

“I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down.”

‘By Our Selves’, directed by Andrew Kotting in 2015, is a British experimental docudrama about the journey of poet John Clare from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire. The film stars Toby Jones as the poet, silently wandering through woodland, whilst Freddie Jones, his father, recreates a role he played in a 1970s documentary, narrating Clare’s poetry over his sons journey. Intercut with these scenes are interviews with Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and academic Simon Kövesi, the latter two famous for their use of British psychogeography in fiction and travel writing, and this is a key to the balance of the documentary. It combines interviews, abstracted and symbolic episodes, poetry reading, all glued together by Toby Jones’s charismatic, mute performance. It’s one of those pieces of film that needs to be experienced rather than followed, much like Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson’ trilogy (‘London’, ‘Robinson in Space’ and ‘Robinson in Ruins’). The result of ‘By Our Selves’ is multi-layered: it offers a commentary not only of Clare’s poetry or on the idea of the flâneur, but also applies these two studies to the modern world. Kotting’s film is threaded with shots of cars, motorways and brownfield sites, bedding his analysis in the same kind of locations as Keillor’s films. Unlike Keillor, Kotting is far freer with his style and imagery, at times his documentary is so abstract slips into the hallucinogenic, but really it’s the soundtrack, the birdsong, the leaves, the poetry, that makes this piece so distinctive.

Would I recommend it? It’s a slightly impenetrable, but visually rich meditation on landscape, madness and poetry. Any film that includes both Sinclair and Moore is worth watching. A double bill with ‘Robinson in Ruins‘ would be interesting.


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