We sit chatting in a stadium meant for many thousands. Slowly the roof closes above our heads, the chatter fades as the sky shrinks. The giant screens switch from the blue logo of Outcasting : Fourth Wall festival to black and white.
To our left a man, his back to a theatre full of seated men; to the right, her back to us and him, a woman in a black veil stands, facing rows of empty seats. Below them both the real seats of the stadium, tipped up until the next rugby match.
The man leans forward to the microphone in front of him and starts to sing. Everyone is silent as the extraordinary, passionate song echoes around the space, bouncing into our ears and building in intensity. Even if I understood the language it would be secondary to the meaning of the performance. Across the pitch the woman stands motionless, waiting. The man steps back. His audience – on screen and off are appreciative – and he stands, looking out at us, his gaze not reaching the figure across the cavernous space.
A sound swells from the woman. It seems not-quite-human. The hackles on my neck begin to lift. She turns and pours out music that is so other, so different from my experience that my mind stumbles to relate it to something familiar and can’t. Visceral is a word that gets bandied about, but it feels apt here. This sound goes beyond sound or language. It is raw, pure emotion. We are transfixed. It rises, an outpouring of feeling that is as universal as the sound is alien.
She stops. It is over. The empty seats behind her remain silent. A performance for no-one. Except us. We pause as the title roll. We clap.
As the hackles fold back to the napes of our necks the screen brightens again. This time we are in more familiar territory. People are standing at the roadside, waiting for something. Their faces anticipatory, anxious, strained or perplexed and bored, depending on their age, experience or understanding of what the waiting is for. There are men in garish regimental ties, older men with medals and uniforms, children, women clutching flowers. Behind them a High Street like any other – bright fronted shops, street furniture. Dogs strain at their leashes. We understand that something is expected and it’s not a good thing, not something to encourage bunting and flag waving.
We never see what it it is but Katie Davies in her 2011 film The Separation Line creates a sense of expectation, of sadness and manages to evoke the mixed emotions that accompany any crowd gathered together to mark something important. Although the film is edited from a series of recordings made over several years, when Wooton Bassett (now Royal Wootton Bassett) was the scene of all too many repatriation ceremonies to mark the return of the bodies of soldiers killed in action far away, the film is seamless and seems to exist in a continuum of anticipation, aftermath and grief.
Again we clap. The artist is present but doesn’t rise or bow – artists can be ridiculously modest in the face of appreciation.
Again the screen switches from the blue to black and white. This too seems familiar. Old footage and a face addressing a crowd. I know this scene, Martin Luther King is about to share his dream. Will this be our rousing finale to damp down the range of emotions stirred by the last two films? No, wait a minute, that would just be an appropriation of existing footage. As King begins his defining speech his words are transmuted into the staccato of stringed instruments. The sound penetrates us through a public address system more used to accompanying a sporting fixture. As each swell of oratory reaches for punctuation, the sound burst forward. The applause from King’s crowd also bursts out of the PA, so that the whole experience becomes a pure interpretation of feeling
Again, we clap, again the artist doesn’t bow.
In a half hour loop we have run through a gamut of emotions. We leave, but need to stick together a while so head for the pub while we process what’s just happened.
Artists’ film, at its best, is like a really good short story. In half an hour and three films, I was as stirred as I might have been (but often disappointingly am not) by three feature length movies. Here things are stripped down to the essentials, little details are pulled into focus, emotional peaks are reached quickly, laughs come faster. And then they’re gone.
When we set out to put on a modest festival for artists’ moving image in Cardiff, we thought we’d get some films, commission some new ones, show those and we’d try and find the right platforms and contexts for showing them. We didn’t dream of being let loose on the Wales Millennium Stadium traditionally the home of rugby, of the stadium rock gig, but we thought we’d ask and found ourselves pushing at an open door. As Roger Lewis Welsh Rugby Union Group Chief Executive, and the man in charge of all things Wales Millennium Stadium, noted earlier on the day of the screening, when he welcomed the Arts Council of Wales to the WMS for the annual conference, culture is culture, be it rugby, music, art.
So, in a place that usually reverberates with the hymns and arias of thousands of rugby fans, or the eardrum-challenging anthems of a rock concert, for one night only the stadium became something else, something equally stirring.
The first artists’ moving image festival for wales, Outcasting : Fourth Wall (O:4W) runs to November 30 in spaces and places across Cardiff, co-curated by Michael Cousin and Ruth Cayford. It is supported by the Arts Council of Wales festivals fund and Cardiff Contemporary, a new initiative from Cardiff Council. O:4W headquarters in the Queens Arcade