An Interview with Zillah Bowes - Artist in Residence
Zillah Bowes is a filmmaker and writer. As a filmmaker, her films include Small Protests as director, which won the Current Short Cuts Award and was nominated for a Grierson Award, and Enemies of Happiness as cinematographer, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. As a writer, she was winner of the 2017 Wordsworth Trust Prize, Special Commendation in the 2016 Wasafiri New Writing Prize and a 2017 Creative Wales Award. She also received a New Writer’s Award from Literature Wales in 2014 and was selected for the 2016-2017 Writers at Work programme at Hay Festival.
Zillah is the first artist in residence project within the Elan Links scheme. She spent four weeks in total here. Below are her thoughts...
What drew you to the artist residency in the Elan Valley?
I think the first thing that drew me to the artist residency was the idea of being immersed in a landscape, being resident in a whole valley. Especially one that was so unusual with its mix of natural and manmade structures. I’d regularly passed through on my way to and from the Dyfi valley, where I used to live when I wasn’t working in London or elsewhere, but had never explored it.
The second thing was that the Elan Valley was an International Dark Sky Park. I found this exciting as I’d been writing about dark matter and the subconscious and had come to a bit of an impasse. I wanted to move into writing about darkness more generally, and to expand my enquiry in other media, such as photography. I also wanted to look outside of myself, so found the idea of exploring darkness in the valley itself interesting.
Tell us about your project and how you’ve developed it.
My idea was to investigate how darkness isn’t dark, or what darkness offers. My plan was to take photographs and do research for a new piece of writing. For the photographs, I quickly realised I wanted to capture how, for me, there’s no true darkness unless you add light, which then falls off into darkness. I became interested in representing the shapes illuminated by the dark, the landscape of the dark.
Technically, this was a challenge because a lot of night and astro-photography seems to be about allowing the dark to lighten, though long exposures and other techniques, but I was trying to be more observational. It’s work in progress! I’ve since realised I need to test digital processing to achieve the look I want. I also began a photographic study, by accident really, on how people use artificial light at night, as well as a series of night portraits. These last are the most challenging technically, so it remains to be seen if I manage them!
For the writing, I wanted to record conversations with people, to discover how they see the dark, what I began to call “philosophies of the dark”. I imagined this might develop into a fictional piece of lyrical prose, or a long poem, in several voices, which would credit the people I recorded. I began by talking to astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts, night photography enthusiasts and wildlife enthusiasts. There are a lot of enthusiasts who visit the Elan Valley! I then spoke with residents and others including farmers, photographers, bat surveyors, volunteers, contractors and fishermen.
I talked with people about how they use the dark, how it helps them, why they like it, how they see it. I discovered that people who visit the valley often find the darkness unusual and special, especially those I spoke to, as they visit because of it. Whereas those who live there feel differently. Some appreciate it in the same way but navigate it more familiarly. Some don’t think of it as unusual or even particularly dark, just not the same as the day. I’m somewhere between the last two probably!
What’s been your favourite experience during the residency?
I think my favourite experience has been hanging out with the residents of the valley, just getting to know a community - a place, culture and dialect in Wales, Radnorshire, that’s new to me. It’s really unique. There’s also something unique about the way everyone helps each other in the two valleys and nearby. I’m mainly talking I guess about the farmers, who come together for gatherings and other work. But as well, having grown up as a young girl in a village and recently lived in a village, it’s a familiar ingredient of rural life – helping your neighbour. It’s something that brings me home somehow, something that I experience less in city life, although it’s possible there too.
What have you learnt about yourself/your work?
I found having a focus, but no pressure, in my conversations with people to be liberating. I’m a filmmaker and often, in documentary, you need to capture what somebody says in a specific way. It may have to become a scene or section of interview important to the story. For this project, I mainly had circular chats with people in the dark - walking around outside, sitting on the boot of a car or photographing the night sky. We talked about all darkness, including inner darkness, and people opened up to me about themselves, and I to them. Sometimes we couldn’t even see each other properly, so there was a sort of confessional feel. For me, they became moments of connection which were quite spiritual.
I’ve learnt to trust more in other people to understand my ideas, in collaboration, in community. This project now has its own life. People message me, and each other on Facebook, invite me to things. It makes it easy to carry on, there’s a momentum beyond me. I hope to carry this more into all my work, especially my filmmaking. On a practical note, I learnt more about photography, which I’d only practiced as research for my films previously, and discovered I love it.
How will your time in the Elan Valley influence your future work?
I still have a lot of work to do to continue these projects, so it’s not over yet! As well as the darkness projects, I’m very interested in the working rural community and what will happen with Brexit in Wales, and the discussions around hill farming. A lot of my work, both the fiction films I’m writing and my poetry, is set in nature and concerns the relationship of the individual to it. My time in the Elan Valley has expanded this, allowing me think more deeply and beyond my own experiences, and offering me privileged access into the lives of others. A big thank you to everyone who made my residency such an insightful and enjoyable experience.
To see more from our other artists in residence, see below:
Notes on darkness for a new piece of writing
The valley opens itself to all journeys into darkness now, yes, yours too.
No one will know if you open to yourself here, no one will see.
Nothing will notice except perhaps the sheep, but she’s still. She’s lying on the road, warming her night patch, chewing the last lit grass, waiting out the dark. She can’t see you unless you light her up. She doesn’t care, she’ll just chew along with her lamb, chew up the night until the dawn over the hill picks her up.
So open up to the valley, open up to the dark.
It’s a bowl, a cradle of darkness which will hold up your own.
This dark valley is a slow heart, a giant beat that will steady your small, fast ones, drag them along her slip of river, pull you still like the slim Elan, rock you quiet so you can turn in, turn in to your own dark.