Currently showing at The Cob Gallery in Camden is a cinematic installation directed by Alex Warren and Tobias Ross-Southall called Eleanor. The film follows three solitary women over the course of one eventful night and examines what it means to be alone in a city like London.
The directors drew inspiration from three different poems: ‘If I Could Tell You’ by W.H.Auden, ‘Acquainted With The Night’ by Robert Frost, and ‘The Faithless Wife’ by Leonard Cohen they then approached three young British writers – Polly Stenham, Michael Lesslie and Anya Reiss to interpret the poems from which the characters had been conceived.
BAFTA nominated actress Ruth Wilson plays all three women and the installation itself unfolds across three large interplaying screens, with one screen for each character. As the night progresses and the three narratives cross, characters move between the screens, stepping from one to the next, creating a real-time immersive experience.
The Cob Gallery is headed up by curator Victoria Williams and playwright Polly Stenham. They have also launched a charity called Cobble Together For The Arts, aimed at tackling inequality (in the arts and through the arts) by providing education, employment and community projects for young people in London.
The charity is inviting students within the borough of Camden to view Eleanor and respond with their own piece – in whatever form, from painting to poetry to film. The work will form an exhibition and be judged by a panel including Matt Smith and Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak.
We spoke to both Alex Warren and Victoria Williams to find out more about the project.
Alex Warren – Director
WHAT WERE THE KEY IDEAS THAT STRUCK YOU WHEN YOU READ THE POEMS FOR THE FIRST TIME?
The idea for the film first started developing when I read ‘The Faithless Wife’ by Leonard Cohen. It instantly struck me as having a cinematic quality to it, and got me thinking as to other poems which had something similar. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with any that I found, and didn’t really know what I was looking for, but nonetheless spent a few weeks trawling through heaps of poetry, before finally settling on two poems I had loved for years – If I Could Tell You by W.H.Auden, and Acquainted With The Night by Robert Frost. To me – these three poems all left me wanting to know more. They seem to pose as many questions as they do provide answers, and this is something Toby and I wanted to carry through into the development of the film. Mainstream cinema today often does not only lack imagination itself, but also assumes that the audience lacks any. We wanted to make a film which gives just enough for the audience to follow it, and to buy into the emotional lives of the characters – but also allows them scope to invest their own ideas and imagination.
HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARISE THE THREE CHARACTERS? HOW DO THEY DIFFER?
The three characters are all women who either due to circumstance, sexuality or their own volition, are living lives of solitude. They are women who to a greater or lesser degree are living on the periphery of society. However, despite the characters being unified through their sense of isolation – the women are all remarkably different.
The purpose of asking Ruth to play the three different roles, was to simultaneously highlight both the differences and the similarities between the women. We obviously live in a time increasingly concerned with physical appearance. Since the characters bear a striking physical resemblance to one another, the viewer is forced to look beyond outward appearance and go deeper, to look into who these women really are. As a result, speaking broadly, Eleanor is a film about humanity. It is about celebrating what we all share, as well as our individuality.
It goes without saying that it requires an exceptionally talented and special actress to pull this off. Ruth is able to bring such extraordinarily subtle and nuanced detail to her three performances, that it made our life really quite easy. It would have been an obvious trap to make the differences between the women too bold, too strong, but instead Ruth brings an ability to change something deep inside, something fundamental. And that is what hopefully allows the film to be moving: that we are drawn into the heart of what makes these women tick.
HOW DID THE THREE POEMS INSPIRE THEIR TRAITS AND PERSONALITIES?
Each of the three original poems carry a sense of solitude, of being an outsider. Broadly speaking, this is where the characters were drawn from. In terms of their individual personalities – they came from a mixture of Toby and my interpretations of each original poem, and how they spoke to us; Michael, Polly and Anya’s beautiful adaptations of each of the original poems; and of course Ruth, and what she brought to the table as an actress.
To be honest the film has a kind of character of it’s own. I think it feels truly loved. And that’s down to the incredible amount of hard work that everyone involved put into the project. From Blaine Harrison (Mystery Jets), Johnny Lloyd (formerly of Tribes) and Roger Goula who wrote the music, to Kristen McNally and Romany Pajdak from the Royal Ballet who choreographed and performed the stunning fantasy section of the film, and Rebecca Luff our remarkable editor. Cutting one film is hard, let alone three whose stories all simultaneously cross over three screens.
Victoria Williams and the ‘Cobble’ gang:
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH ‘COBBLE TOGETHER FOR THE ARTS’?
We were inspired to launch the charity after seeing the same faces at the Gallery week in and week out – and even though we love our visitors and supporters very much, we were just aware that the gallery could be doing more to engage with the community, particularly young people, and to bridge the gap between local people and what the gallery was up to. We were also discussing with a couple of friends doing a film installation and as that idea took shape, we wanted it to be the launch of being proactive and coming up with a programme that would benefit local people – which is where the workshops and competition come from. Everyone involved in Cobble is interested in the arts but we don’t all necessary have arts backgrounds or jobs as such and I think that says a lot, we want to show students that there are so many jobs that demand and need creativity and artistic tendencies…and help them see their creativity as something to celebrate and cherish when looking at jobs and further education. We also want to use arts and creativity to tackle social and economic problems that we see across London – so have lots more projects on the horizon that will illustrate arts is not precious for its own sake (although of course it is) but what impact it has on people and how we connect with one another, skills, confidence and communication. All key to our community and society’s wellbeing!
WHAT DO YOU THINK STUDENTS WITHIN THE BOROUGH OF CAMDEN WILL GAIN FROM SEEING ELEANOR?
From seeing the film they will hopefully be inspired on a number of levels. From an artistic view – it explores life in London, alone, and the different characters and stories that make up this city – which is of obvious relevance to young people who have grown up here and finding their feet as young adults. From a wider project perspecitve, we hope to show them the different stages in film making and give insight into all those hundreds of jobs and roles around films – from being the star of the show to technical to being an agent or doing the finances. We want to show that being interested in film can lead to all sorts of things even if you’re not going to be the next Brad Pitt.
DO YOU THINK SOCIETY UNDERVALUES THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ARTS IN NURTURING YOUNG PEOPLE?
I am not sure society undervalues it as such but I think sometimes it can be seen as something that can take the odd funding cut and people won’t be too bothered. It’s horrible because no one wants to cut funding to anything, we all need hospitals, schools and roads of course! But, I think sometimes we see arts in isolation from the rest of the economys’ needs and actually art and creativity is needed by employers and is a great tool to increasing confidence and skills in young people which is key to getting them onto a positive start in life. Art and creativity can overcome language barriers, cultural barriers, help people with disabilities, can help people understand their emotions better which is invaluable when looking at thing like behavioural problems or addiction. The arts are great in themselves of course and must be valued for that – but for anyone who doesn’t see its relevance beyond something to look at or enjoy is missing its incredible potential
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE ELITISM OF THE ART WORLD?
It’s such a tricky one. Engaging with the arts is unfortunately quite a pricey business but I think it is far more than the cost of theatre tickets that put people off – there is certainly issues of it being seen as something for a certain type of person which is a concern and something we are trying to overcome by getting young people from Camden schools to engage with us now and then hopefully as young adults, they will continue to see galleries as a space they can engage with.
WHAT OTHER PROJECTS DOES COBBLE TOGETHER FOR THE ARTS HAVE PLANNED FOR THE FUTURE?
We are working on a number of plans for future projects. We would love to do something around disability and the arts. We were reading recently about a project that helps people with learning disabilities and mental health problems access sport by pairing them with mentors who have been through similar experiences, and working very closely with them to engage with a local sports team or club. Would be brilliant to do something similar with arts venues and activities. We are also looking at doing something that tackles the idea of technical arts and digital being a bit of a boys space – as so much value and investment is going into tech and digital creativity that it is awful to think of girls and young women being put off as they don’t want to be seen as geeky. A lot of plans – we just need to work on our fundraising and hopefully we will be able to get going with it all asap.
Find out more on the Cob Gallery website.