Evoking the early artistic sensibility of Mark Jenkin or Derek Jarman, filmmaker Edwin Miles utilises a travelogue-style of filmmaking which remains relatively uncommon in contemporary filmmaking culture. Perhaps that’s due to the overwhelming presence of the somewhat similar vlog, which places the narrator in front of the camera, but there’s something welcoming and evocative about Miles’ artistic style which feels fresh despite its strong history of cinematic lineage. Shadows in a Landscape is Miles’ latest venture, though the filmmaker has multiple projects on the go at the moment, and it sees a filmmaker reconnecting with his hometown before being confronted by a ghostly apparition. Twelve Cabins spoke with Miles about the development of his latest project, the organic evolution of his filmmaking style, and the real-life family myth which inspired Shadows’ paranormal centre.
What interests you in telling stories through a travelogue-style narrative?
I’ve always been interested in place and, particularly, the relationship between people and place. My favourite places aren’t the grand cities I’ve visited or the short holidays abroad I’ve had, but are the places that have resonated on a deeply personal level: Bewdley High Street on New Year’s Eve, North Beach in Tenby making sandcastles with my Grandad, beach-side barbeques while living in Cornwall. These places eventually move into memory and it is while there that they are eulogised and made eternal. I can’t seem to let go of memories and they seem to permeate my work as a result.
Moving to London was quite a shock at first. The expansive cityscape drastically contrasts the small riverside town I grew up in; Bewdley’s timelessness vastly juxtaposes London’s constant ever-changing, ever-growing landscape. London fails to stay still long enough for you to make a connection to it in the same way as my hometown, though I hope some connection will grow the longer I live here. This fact makes you look at the city in a different way and my work naturally started to comment on London’s unique difference to the rest of the country, particularly the West Midlands I knew well.
I’m a huge fan of British travelogue or psychogeographic cinema – for example, the short work of Mark Jenkin, the clever of John Smith, the highly political of Patrick Keiller, the immensely homemade of Margaret Tait, the early work of Peter Greenaway, or the untouchable Derek Jarman. These films often used image and voice over as its form, a style which felt attainable for a self-shooting, early-career filmmaker like myself. This simple, yet effective, narrative device effortlessly manages to draw a connection between person and place all the while drawing attention to film form; how the film is put together, layered, how it is composed, its pacing all start to come into view more directly. These films all started to comment on a British landscape that I was either aware of or coming to terms with, too, so there was an instant, integral interest already there.
How did you approach shooting? Did you capture the footage first and then develop in the edit? Or did you come up with the concept pre-shoot?
When making a film I currently try and stay away from writing scripts. I like to approach film firstly from the viewpoint of The Image. The Image is key. This doesn’t necessarily refer to its pictorial qualities but, moreover, how a subject is contextualised within a particular framework. This could be a stairwell seen in my first film Window Works, the Four Stones that sit atop the Clent Hills in Shadows in a Landscape, or a river seen in my upcoming short The New River. Structure is then naturally borne from image, primarily using journeys that navigate around these spaces. I see myself as an opportunist filmmaker, taking inspiration from the great Margaret Tait, where images come from the surroundings that I situate myself in. From image to structure then comes narrative.
Despite having used voice over in Window Works, I hadn’t initially envisaged using a similar device in Shadows in a Landscape. I went to the Clent Hills hoping to, at least, capture a picturesque portrait of Worcestershire and its surrounding fields and valleys but was instead greeted by fog, rain, wind, and a crowd of people. As the narrator describes in the film, I almost turned to go until I looked through my viewfinder, which only displays a monochrome image, where I was greeted by moving shadows appearing from a cluster of trees nearby. This discovery made me realise that the landscape I went to capture wasn’t of Worcestershire, as such, but of the people and things that inhabit, interact, and navigate that landscape. These shadows seemed inseparable from the hills and fields they occupied, as if organically extending the landscape vertically into the skyline. This is only one example of how Image can influence style and story but it is one that leads to unexpected yet beautiful discoveries.
So far, throughout my film work, I have treated filmmaking like a series of layers, a slow construction of pieces that fit on top of one another, eventually combining to make a whole. The major narrative device I used in Shadows in a Landscape, and my other films, too, is voice-over narration, though even this is born from the image, being inspired by the real-life journeys I take and the images my camera captures. So planning (or pre-production), by and large, goes out of the window as these film projects almost naturally construct themselves over a spanned period of time, all the while trying to experiment with formal elements that help add thematic importance.
What spurred the decision to include the ghost narrative?
There are always themes and ideas I like to explore in each film – or, at least, that have managed to reoccur in my work – mostly connected to my interest in home and the difference between my current circumstances in London and my riverside hometown in the West Midlands. Because of this connection I often turn to look at memories as a means of driving narrative, dramatising them in order to play with ideas of authenticity (most notably seen in Shadows in a Landscape where my Dad plays his own apparition).
My Dad drove me to the Clent Hills but didn’t join me on the journey as my Mum hadn’t brought the appropriate footwear. I was surprised to see him later on during my walk, then, wet and worn out while walking along the misty horizon. The rain and fog made him look like an apparition and he seemed oblivious to me or my camera which made me question whether he was actually there. He seemed to slowly navigate the scenery in comparison to everyone else who was there and seemed more engrained in the landscape somehow, too. That said, I could make out his figure more clearly than the silhouettes that had surrounded me on my walk up until that point, though this further made him feel otherworldly. He stood out in a landscape that was starting to become more and more interesting the longer I stayed there. His appearance (or reappearance) reinforces the idea that I didn’t go to see Worcestershire the landscape but the real Worcestershire, the people that occupy it.
It seemed only natural to use this as a narrative device, playing on the real-life family myth that he was destined to die at the age of 65 as his Dad and Grandad had both died aged 65, this was a narrative that permeated my childhood (my Dad is now 72). This play on authenticity, and the idea of a psychological knot that passes down generationally, is then mirrored through the questionable authenticity of the Four Stones, and then again in the form of the film itself.
The black and white Mini DV footage gives the film a timeless feel. What is it about the medium that inclines you to use it?
I like to think that my association with video, and Mini DV in particular, has something to do with how my Grandad always held a VHS camcorder during my childhood and the subsequent home movies that would be watched; Jason and the Argonauts would quickly be followed by the Miles Family Christmas 2002. From this, I have come to have a close connection with home movies and consider them as the most experimental films ever made; they pan with an amateur twitchiness, erratically zoom in and out, cut from scene to scene with a harsh abruptness, have a terribly low image quality, and the relationship between subject and filmmaker is directly explored in the fabric of the film. They are the most experimental by nature yet the most cherished too. With home movies, the avant-garde is pulled right into the mainstream, from the underground into the comfort of a living room. And this I absolutely love.
Shadows in a Landscape was the second film project of mine that was shot using Mini DV. Having been a big fan of Derek Jarman for a number of years, I was initially interested in Super 8mm and particularly the texture and graininess of outmoded filmmaking formats and the way these films seemed inextricably linked with formal experimentation. The crucial difference between Super 8 and Mini DV for me, though, was how Mini DV was reminiscent of the videos I watched growing up – that is, my Grandad’s VHS home movies. Introspection, memory, family, and home as themes prevalent in my current film work seemed to go hand in hand, then, with Mini DV while simultaneously adding a textured, grained look to the images that I was interested in with Jarman’s Super 8 work.
The score adds a really interesting, unsettling dynamic. What was it like working with Zuhair to develop it?
Zuhair and I have known each other for years having lived together throughout University in Falmouth, Cornwall. He comes from Birmingham, too, which is always an added bonus for me, further representing West Midlands-based art/artists. Zuhair is very patient with me and knows how quickly and easily I can change my mind on ideas, so working with him means I don’t end up annoying someone who isn’t aware of that part of my process. Because we know one another it is much easier to talk through ideas and not take things too seriously.
Shadows in a Landscape was the first film I had decided to use a traditional score for so the process was a bit slower than expected. We live in different cities so I’d often call him to give him direction, he’d then send back a response, I’d make notes and then call him again. This cycle happened for a few months until mid-November where we decided to ditch music from the first half of the film and substitute it with natural sounds to build a soundscape. We used wind and birds to construct an authentic atmosphere, here, while footstep sounds we had recorded of Zuhair walking across his back garden in the summer of 2019 were used to depict the narrator traversing the foggy hilltops. Once these were added, the shift to the inauthentic music as my Dad’s apparition appears midway in the film seemed more well placed and used for specific thematic purpose.
I owe Zuhair a great deal. He taught me one thing I live by to this day when making films: “make it for yourself first.” Vital advice I constantly remind myself of. He gives me so much: amazing sound design and music, brilliant poster art, hilarious stories related to Karak Chaii, information on the nutritional value of spinach, general life advice, artistic inspiration and drive, guidance on how to make porridge, someone who respects my work and champions it, and a great, great friendship. A friend as a collaborator? Seems like the way art/film should be made, right?
What are you working on at the moment?
I have two films I am working on at the moment. First is a film called The New River. Second is a film triptych called The Meeting House.
The New River is another travelogue-style film set along The New River in North London, a 28-mile-long manmade river that travels slowly into Islington. In this film I wanted to push the fiction further in my work and I’ll be playing a convict on the run from his hometown. The film (if completed) will be part travelogue on the real-life journey I took along the entire New River route, part fictionalised convict story, and part warning signal for climate change, reflecting, too, on the West Midlands flooding that kick started last year and re-emerged at the beginning of this.
The Meeting House is a film project commission on the working class community in Newington Green as part of a larger event on the subject that will take place in the Meeting House building later in the year. The Meeting House will use a triptych to create a congregation of images shot around Newington Green, Stoke Newington, and the surrounding streets to form a meeting place for the locals to reflect on their understanding of the working class. This is an exciting project as it has made me start to think deeper about and embrace my own class heritage and it is a project that substitutes my own personal connection with places with other peoples. If Shadows in a Landscape is my story about my hometown, The Meeting House is their story about their home, their place. This excites me.
I have a list of other projects in mind – a film called Flood Water, a series of homemade short films called The Home Video Series, and a fiction film – but these are mere ideas so far and may not come to fruition.