Throughout its history, most filmmaking has been focused on narrative and the representation of
'reality' (akin in form perhaps to the novel and fiction writing). Other approaches have been taken by
filmmakers such as Maya Deren, a pioneer of film-as-art in the 1940's. Interested in a more psychological,
symbolic or ritualistic representation of reality, Deren, with a background in poetry, was interested in
'the credibility of the un-real… the manifestation of the unknown in the known, in discovering the laws
of unknown forces which com-pulse the universe'. (note 2.) Her films explored trance-like states and
surreal imagery, and she argued for film to be recognized as an art form in its own right, separate from
the narrative style of mainstream cinema. She stated that she was "content if on those rare occasions
whose truth can be stated only by poetry, that you will perhaps recall an image, or even only the aura
of my films". (note 3.) Ossian and the Hare shares many of Deren's interests and aspires towards developing
its own kind of personal film poetry.
As a film, Ossian and the Hare is not focused on narrative or plot, but on atmosphere and symbolic
meaning. It attempts to re-create a dream-state, a progression through different spaces that can be
understood to be happening as much in the mind as in any 'real' world. (The choice of film as a medium
was made because of its capacity to mimic the state of dreaming). The film itself is based on a fragment
of Irish folklore. As with a musician playing traditional tunes in order to maintain connections between
past, present and future, this rendering of an old story-fragment is similarly interested in issues of
interpretation, signification and transmission. The title is stylistically 'factual', as is often the
case with folktales, indicating a preference for minimal, non-psychological explanation; the framework
is left open and meaning is not prescribed.
Leaving interpretation open can make for uncomfortable
viewing. Not everyone wants to be placed in the confusing position of not being sure what, if anything,
is 'going on'. But such is the film's intention, to bring the viewer through a strange unexplained
journey that comes from a mythical or by-gone era. We are placed into a gritty, black and white world
that is intensely focused on the texture of each passing moment. The images flicker, demonstrating their
fragile and transient nature; the image is here and not here; scratchy and aged, an emissary from another
Flickering (a feature of old film footage) is also reminiscent of firelight and starlight, energy constantly in flux or transformation. Like starlight, (which takes so long to reach the earth that by the time the light hits us, the star itself may have long since ceased to exist), this fragment is a trace, the imprint of a mind-set whose thinking is now gone. (This flickering also continues into the underworld of the beach which glistens with golden sparkles emanating from sunlight reflected on water; another incarnation of starlight). Within the vernacular tradition there is often a desire to pass on old stories and folktales despite the lack of obvious relevance to our own contemporary world. Perhaps it is because of a nagging sense that there may be something of significance in them (even if the significance is just poetics, metaphor or use of imaginative thinking).
The fragment of folklore that this film is based on describes an experience that is not plausible
in our rational thinking world but follows the basic pattern of an archetypal shamanic vision-journey.
On a hallucinogenic trip, the shaman might encounter a 'totem animal' that may (or may not) reveal some
important insight. The film takes this as its form or structure, presenting the fragment almost as an
artifact of sorts, leaving us to figure out whether there is anything of significance being communicated,
however obliquely. This projection of a dream-language into our rational, material world is partly a kind
of enchantment, but is also done in the spirit of its (imagined) original intention, for the potential
to meaningfully shift consciousness. In the shamanistic tradition of the vision-journey, after a
psychological and/or physical ordeal, a revelation of the inter-connectedness of all life often occurs.
Perhaps the significance of myth and archetype lies as much in its structure as in its content, in
maintaining awareness of this doorway into the subconscious mind.
Theatre director Peter Brook talked of 'never being able to see all of the invisible,
so after straining towards it, we have to face defeat, drop down to earth, then start again', and of 'rediscovering that a holy theatre is still what we need, but where do we look for it? In the clouds or on the ground?' (note 4.) A combination of both, of feet
in mud and imagination in flight, is something that poet Ted Hughes uses to great effect, blurring the
line between real and imaginary. (note 5.) This film attempts a similar type of surreal experience,
obscuring the point of departure into a dream-world.
The shots are slow and long, pulling us along a thread of spatial continuity. The slow
‘contemplative’ shot is something that director Bela Tar uses extensively in his work, a technique
described by his cameraman as ‘the thinking image’. In his films, the camera moves as if part of a
thought process, regarding the characters with great intensity and following them unobtrusively as
they move through their worlds. Tar himself is not so much interested in stories, which he feels
“mislead people into thinking that something has happened. Nothing really happens as we flee from one
condition to another. All that remains is time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds”.
(note 6.) Ossian and the Hare shares (in its own small way) an affinity with Tar’s approach; a sense of
distance from the protagonist, the perspective of ‘nature’ or ‘time’ as the observer, and the striving
for a certain kind of ambiguity between the real and the symbolic.
The story-fragment itself comes out of a (Celtic) fascination with surreal imagery, liminality,
crossing thresholds into other dimensions and a questioning of our human-animal identity. The
protagonists are hunter and hare. We follow the hunter chasing its quarry; we climb underground to
find a 'beautiful woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a wound in her leg'. What are we to make of
this image? On a basic level it's a poetic way of acknowledging (and empathizing with) a beautiful
creature in the sorrowful moment of its death at our own hand. The rich and multifarious associations
that the hare has as an icon throughout history also allows for readings on a symbolic level. (note 7.)
The hare, a cipher for existence itself, is confronting us with an age-old dilemma - survival at what
cost - are we, unwittingly or otherwise, destroying ourselves? In that way the film can be read as a
somewhat troubled meditation on existence.
Alchemy, the magical power of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a
substance of great value, is being evoked here. All aspects of the film are a part of this alchemical
experiment (an experiment in 'transfiguration' where the divine is made visible in the revelation of
animal and human as one, and of an understanding that ultimately our fate is tied up with the fate of
all life on this planet).
A recording of a screeching hare was analyzed and used as the basis for
melodic structure (and is itself embedded in the soundtrack in very elongated form). Even the wind
(which is tuned to particular notes) has the presence of a character or consciousness, a conduit
between sky and earth. All of the elements are communicating on an emotional level. Sounds, usually
considered 'noise', such as loud crackle, resonant frequencies and feedback, suggest an energy force
on the brink of chaos.
Paradoxically this layer of odd and seemingly out-of-place sounds constitutes
the most straightforward representation of ‘real’ reality in the film. Electromagnetic energy is hitting
our planet from all sides, causing huge electrical storms in the upper stratosphere. We are not aware
of this constant electrical activity, but if it was audible, this might in fact be what our world
actually sounds like. In the reverb of these VLF recordings (note 8.) we can hear the membrane around
our planet, the skin between our habitable 'earthly' world and the vast unknown that is outer space.
These sounds make audible a threshold that challenges our comprehension, a modern day ‘edge of the
This electricity is energy in its natural raw state. The scale of it is deeply unsettling.
In hearing these sounds, we are somehow looking down on the earth from above; looking in at this ancient
dream through a haze of time-less-ness. The materiality of this crackling is hard to determine, at times
sounding wet, dry, like fire, rain, or strange birds and insects (slowed down, these sounds become
massive rolls of thunder and lightning). This electricity charges the film, creating an unstable
atmosphere that permeates everything.
Something fundamental resonates and disturbs in the combination
of blood, electricity and water, the smell and taste of iron. Electricity, as the very spark of life,
becomes the most basic element to which everything is eventually reduced or returned. Electricity is so
entwined in our world as to be almost invisible to us (sounds of distortion and feedback are used for
emotional effect and are part of our contemporary musical vocabulary). At the end of the film, music
(played on electric mandolin) whittles down to the sound of electrical feedback as we pass through the
eye and merge with the random sounds of electro-magnetic energy in outer space; the final screech of
the dying hare is heard as electricity. Like Janus, the pagan god of transition, with one face looking
into the past and another looking into the future, we straddle the ancient and modern mind.
Ossian and the Hare aspires to a combination of sound and image that works on the level of poetic
effect. As with the structure of much poetry, it is the very last line (or image) that throws the whole
shape of the poem into relief. Here, the very last image is of the dead hare and the hunter's feet
approaching (the very last frame is in fact a white flash of electricity). We feel exhausted by the
journey; it's hard to remember where we even started. At what point did we enter the dream… if the
hunter walks over to the dead hare at the end, did the rest of the imagery just exist in our head? Did
his conscience create it; did the hare manifest it; did Nature herself conjure up all the images?