Director: Andrew Kötting
Starring: Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair, Eden Kötting
Words – Natalie Mills
“I found this piece of film. It was in the belly of a whale.”
The Whalebone Box sits alongside The Lighthouse as one of the strangest sea-related films of the year. An enjoyable, although hard to put into words, piece of work that feels fresh out of an art gallery.
The film is a collage of dreamlike sequences and documentary footage centred on the titular box – a mysterious object belonging to writer Iain Sinclair, made and given to him by Yorkshire-born artist and sculptor Steve Dilworth. Sinclair describes the box as his “animal battery”; if he opens it, his words will stop.
Sinclair, alongside his long-term collaborator Andrew Kötting, wishes to return the box to its birthplace on the Scottish coast.
The result is a fantasy quest, a road trip movie, and an intimate home video of director Kötting and his daughter Eden. The 16mm film of Iain and Andrew’s 800-mile journey from London to the Hebrides is interspersed with Eden recounting her dreams, bizarre animation, archive maritime footage, and pinhole photography from cinematographer Anonymous Bosch.
If you came here expecting a conventional plot, you won’t find it. The Whalebone Box is an art house stream of dialogue and imagery relating to whales, mythology, journeys and boxes. From musician MacGillivray (captioned as “MERMAID”) singing a whale-like lament, to the ancient British sites they visit, to the cloudbusting-esque idea of charging the box with energy – it’s folk horror without the horror. There is something magical hiding just below the surface.
There is plenty of thought-provoking, mystical dialogue about the whalebone box itself – “Today it has the extreme weight and depth of the oceans,” someone remarks, casually implying that the box is getting heavier a la The One Ring.
Spoiler: we never see what’s inside the box; although someone mentions it is “filled with calm water”. The film never glosses over the box’s grisly origins – you see plenty of living and dead whales. Dilworth’s art studio, which they visit, is like a charnel house. They have to treat the box with reverence to avoid unsettling the oil inside. It is a living, ageless thing of whalebone, honey, beeswax and lead. It sits menacingly on the dashboard as they drive, like a curse. Inside, it contains a coffin-like box made from the melted lead of fishing net weights. One of the group wears a hat saying “ANCIENT MARINER”.
The film has a sense of humour – you need one to get through it. One minute you are in the middle of a deep conversation about quantum physics; Schrödinger’s Box (as well as Pandora’s) is discussed. The next they are merrily trespassing on ancient stone walls, stating, “Wherever it says forbidden that’s where we need to go.” It is a road trip you’re happy to be a part of.
The film builds an otherworldly atmosphere and features an equally alien soundtrack. Its use of vintage 16mm and Super 8 film, saturated colours and woodland scenes are reminiscent of recent indie folk horror film Antrum. There is talk of witchcraft in The New Forest, spiritualism, and “all those other weirdnesses”. The film casts a spell as much as the box does. Eden dreams of two dead or sleeping people on the floor, reasoning, “they must have touched the box”. It’s unapologetically experimental, using offbeat digital animation (notably the box pulsing and an eye in a tree) alongside film and Bosch’s lo-fi pinhole photography.
Holding the film together are the box pilgrims themselves – Andrew, Iain and Anonymous. Eden Kötting does not physically join them, but the father-daughter relationship is at the work’s heart. She feels like the anchor of the film, keeping it grounded and providing some of its most interesting quotes.
Born with Joubert Syndrome and an artist in her own right, Eden offers a unique perspective throughout. Whether she is musing, “The box is a ticking bomb, whatever that means,” whispering, “I love your bones and blood and organs,” in the film’s opening, or watching the waves saying, “I’m cold. Papa, the whale sings. Papa home”, you feel invested in her experience.
The surreal dream sequences, alongside footage of her in places as familiar as London’s Natural History Museum or a swimming pool, elevate the film from being just a road trip movie.
A memorable vision from artists you want to know more about.