Gravity From Above: A Documentary on European Puppetry
- Crafts & Traditional Arts
- Theater Arts
- Visual Arts
The documentary, GRAVITY FROM ABOVE, proposes to explore European puppet theatres to reveal in this unexpected art many connections to the frenetic life of the 21st Century.
Why Europe? The reasons for this are twofold: First, Europe is the place where the art has developed in the most interesting ways, this particularly relates to developments that occurred behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War as well as to early Modernist trends in theatre in Western countries. Second, we can survey the entire gamut of puppetry easily in Europe, which would not be as true in Asia, North or South America. (Perhaps there will be more documentaries to explore these continents one day.)
This documentary is based upon several personal journeys, most specifically upon a three-month research trip taken in 2005. While traveling I attended traditional Guignol performances in Paris, watched shadow puppets in Berlin, experienced philosophical student performances at a French puppet school, witnessed surreal Czech versions of popular films made from scraps and debris, observed puppets that take decades to master in Salzburg, touched the “Roman Polanski puppet” in Krakow, saw the perhaps largest puppet theatre on earth in Warsaw, spent an hour in Prague with the editor of the oldest puppetry magazine in the world, rode with a puppet troupe on some of the most dangerous beer-soaked roads in Europe and interviewed a couple dozen puppeteers along the way about the meaning of their art.
So inspired was I by what I witnessed that I immediately came back to Alaska and started the first of what would eventually become three puppet troupes. In 2009 I received an Individual Artist Award for puppetry from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska. My troupe Reckoning Motions toured North America in the fall of that year.
That experience as a puppeteer, plus hundreds of hours of reading, inform this project with an insiders perspective. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a documentary filled with unusually thought provoking visual intensity. We hope to inspire more interest in puppetry wherever this film is seen. Puppetry is not merely, as it is too often seen in the United States, “something for the kids”. From the wonders of the shadow puppet to the philosophical imagery of the French school to the cry for freedom from behind the Iron Curtain to the mysterious puppet films of Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay, puppetry reveals itself to be an art capable to speaking to the widest possible audience whether through pure simplicity or the density of a grammar that includes all objects.
If I can credit one person with influencing me the most, and every puppet animator in America, its the aging Czech puppet filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. Last time I was in Prague I thought about trying to find him. He is a slippery character. He doesn't use the computer. But I have already cracked that nut. A Czech friend just sent me news that he would consent to an interview if we can work out the timing... and I will work it out. But time is short, at 77 years old he's not going to be around forever. My feeling is if I don't get to him soon I will miss him. He's my number one subject to interview.
And so I have been chomping at the bit to get back to Europe with some decent recording equipment and to capture the wild variety of artistic experiences and profound depths of human thought that the puppeteers of Europe have applied to their art. And there is not one decent documentary on the subject. I have teased out fragments of the story but there is not one film I could recommend to anyone and say 'Watch that.' 'Start there, that's a great introduction to the subject.'
It’s hard to imagine who would not find this documentary fascinating and intellectually stimulating. My experience is that the subject’s appeal is nearly universal. How many countries do not have a puppet tradition? The conclusion is simple: GRAVITY FROM ABOVE needs to be made.
But I really can't do it without your support. I have the passion and the skill to do it, but without your help it will take much longer. The funds for this aspect of this particular project will go for recording equipment (rental or purchase), travel expenses and editing expenses to make a demo to attract the funds to complete the project with performance footage. I will be interviewing as many puppeteers and other related folks as I can, especially the Brothers Quay and Jan Švankmajer. Thanks for the time and consideration you a spent listening to this and watching the video. (Wait! You have watched the video right!) And remember if you contribute through USA Projects in this window of opportunity it is tax deductible!
From Haines Alaska where we really do have to create our own culture...
If you are really curious about to know what I saw in European puppet theatres in 2005 please read my essays on The Anadromous Life. There are eight parts with illustrations. Start with the link here to the first one.