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Brown, Christopher (2018) Coccolith. [Video]

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'Coccolith' is an experimental film drama shot in the Ramsgate tunnels in Kent, UK. The site has long been a focus for local folklore, and central to a range of historical experiences in the maritime port city. Comprised of a railway tunnel constructed in 1863, a scenic railway tunnel built in 1936, and a network of air raid shelters dug in the late 1930s, this network of passageways extends over five kilometers under the city. The tunnels have a rich place in local mythology, offering filmmakers the building blocks of narrative. But what relationship does storytelling have to our immediate experience of a space that is empty and dilapidated, apparently stripped of its capacity to narrate?

The film seeks to investigate how audiovisual practices might represent the experience of the tunnel architecture in a manner that challenges conventional forms of realism. For a ruin offers a challenge to the realist recreation of history that is inherent in its structure: it embodies not its original form, but instead the deterioration of that form; not a historical moment, but instead our inexorable distance from that moment. Exploring issues of sexuality and identity post-Brexit, the film departs from typical storytelling conventions, depicting an imaginary realm in which devised performances evoke the unique history and feel of this eerie environment.

'Coccolith' is currently being submitted to film festivals internationally. It is one of several outputs from a larger audiovisual practice-as-research project exploring the creative representation of derelict or ruined space and architecture. An article discussing the film’s fusing of filmic and sonic approaches to practice-as-research is forthcoming in the journal 'Media Practice & Education', a book chapter on the directing of performance in the film will be published next year, and the film’s sound compositions are shortly to be released.

The film’s website provides further detail and contextualization:


'Coccolith' takes its name from the microscopic calcite shells shed by ocean algae. They're tiny: to cover the face of a £1 coin, you’d need 400 million of them. When coccoliths accumulate on the sea bed over millions of years, they form chalk, the rock into which the Ramsgate Tunnels were dug. Chalk is visible in virtually every frame of our film, so the coccoliths are there too, if only our eyes were capable of seeing them.

Coccoliths not only constitute our film’s location, they also inspired our characters, who resemble shells of beings who once lived, shadows without an object. When Liam enters the tunnels, he discovers an array of lost souls. Are they unwitting spectres in a ghost story? Or are they caught in a series of sci-fi wormholes, passageways of compressed time?

The film is puzzling, and audiences looking for a conventional storyline or plot points will likely be frustrated. Characters come and go; most of them have no names; we are left to guess at their motivations and desires. Instead, I wanted to focus on shifting moods, on changing states, on the performers' immediate experience of these wonderful, scary, eerie tunnels. 'Coccolith' challenges the audience to respond to raw emotions which they may not understand.

The tunnels are the subject of countless local legends, and while I was not seeking to recreate these, history and folklore do creep into the drama obliquely. Chalk is, after all, an unmistakable national symbol. The White Cliffs of Dover, fifteen miles down the coast from Ramsgate, evoke British pride, strength, and resilience in the face of foreign adversity. But does chalk – with coccoliths as its secret constituent – have a darker side? Who might be excluded from its pristine beauty? Which of us, like Disco Woman, must yell defiantly into the dark?

In 2016, the gloomy year in which we entered the tunnels and started shooting, I did a lot of re-watching. I revisited 'A Matter of Life and Death' by Powell and Pressburger, for instance, as I attempted to construct a mood that fit with the space of a wartime installation. Having pondered returning angels, I turned my attention to the dead cinema-goers in Tsai Ming-Liang’s 'Goodbye, Dragon Inn'. I was staying in Taipei in the months before we shot, and appreciated the ghostlike mannerism of his performers, wandering around that dilapidated movie theatre, as if on autopilot. They seemed sad, as if they had lost something.

The tunnels offer us a chance to search, whether or not we find what we are looking for. So proceed into the dark, with a torch to light the way - or failing that, a disco ball.

Christopher Brown, 2018

Item Type: Video
Uncontrolled Keywords: coccolith, experimental film, Ramsgate, tunnels, ruin, space, architecture, narrative, practice-as-research
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Design (DES)
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2018 14:58

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