Ruth Maclennan review by Kamila Kocialkowska
Ruth Maclennan’s elegiac film Anarcadia begins and ends with the desert. It is this sparse landscape which the camera continually interrogates. Sprawled across the vast screen are sweeps of dry, dusty ochre plains, underneath skies which are at times calm, cloud-ruffled or else sparking with electric storms.
This film clearly has its basis rooted firmly in the Romantic sublime. Its all there; the overwhelming nature, the terror of the storms, the vast, unrelenting sparseness of the desert. Yet, this is not an anonymous landscape, but one which self-identifies as being Kazakhstani. As such, a wealth of socio-political signifiers are thrust into the Romantic idyll. No longer an arcadia, but an anarcadia, this desert is a paradise mislaid amongst Middle Eastern politics.
The political and economic history of the desert are inscribed into Maclennan’s film portrait. Given the current overhauling of perceptions of Middle Eastern identity since the Arab springs, her thoughtful and nuanced film is now more than ever, necessary as a multi-layered tribute to the complexity of national identity.
This is articulated by the two narrators of the film, an archaeologist and a geologist. We observe these two solitary figures as they wander through sandy expanses. The camera records their simple gestures - footsteps and silent gazes, and recalls their poetic monologues as they speak of their personal recollections and aspirations for the desert which surrounds them.
Both are concerned with sifting through the earth itself to retrieve remnants of the past. The allure of prehistory is elicited in the archaeologist’s slow repetitive movements, as we watch her sieve sand from underneath the baking sun, removing fragments of cracked clay vases as she murmurs under her breath. The geologist, too, is concerned with ancient time, as epitomised by rock minerals, but his purpose here is not as a poet, but as a prospector. He looks at the material riches of the land to deduce the values inherent in it.
Both of these figures describe an intensely personal and emotional attachment to the country, albeit one which has been scarred by the imperial and commercial exploitation in its recent past. The Romantic allure of ancient history is tainted by the reality of recent history, in particular the tumult of Kazakhstan’s Soviet past.
We witness this in archival photographs which Maclennan has sourced, showing black and white depictions of Soviet railway construction. The faux-assuredness of these Social Realist subjects stands in stark contrast to the lyrical open-endedness of her cinematography, which drifts in and out of focus along the horizon.
What comes across most forcefully here, then, is the contrast between arcadia and anarcadia, hope and desertion, the ironic foreknowledge that the grisly grey truth of the Soviet era was born from a fairytale of utopia.
Maclennans’ poetic and sensitive depiction of the desert, replete with derelict buildings and fragments of broken pottery, becomes symbolic as the archaic remnants on which hope was once founded. All Romanticism - she tells is - is ultimately a process of distancing ourselves from, and denying, reality.