In Conversation with Tom Rowland, ASFF 2015 Winner, Best Dance Film: Primitive

Set against the iridescent backdrop of night-time London, director Tom Rowland’s Primitive follows a dancer’s journey from bitter heartbreak and violent anger through to creative self-discovery. Featuring choreography and performances by Dane Hurst, one of the world’s most highly-acclaimed contemporary dancers, stunning cinematography and projection-mapped lighting, the film explores the corrupting force of inner rage and redemption through creativity. Primitive featured as part of the BAFTA Qualifying Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2015 Official Selection, and won best film in the Dance category. We speak with Rowland about his experience of the festival.

A: Primitive is triumphantly soaring through the festival circuit at the moment. How do you feel to have won our ASFF Best Dance Film for 2015?
TR: Quite frankly I feel amazing. When you spend so many months and so much energy on a project, you can only get through it because you simply need to make the film, regardless of what anyone thinks in the end – the process is a reward in itself. But to get the recognition of such a prestigious award is totally mind-boggling. For all I knew when I was making it, the film could have languished unseen on Vimeo for eternity. But now audiences from York to New York have been able to see it, and I feel overwhelmed that the judges at ASFF watched it and really got what I was trying to do. This was way beyond my highest hopes for the film!

A: How do you hope Primitive will have resonated with audiences during ASFF?
TR: I hope audiences find the film helps develop an understanding of the emotional conflicts that can take over anyone’s life, seemingly from out of nowhere. Sometimes life can seem like a battle against the world, but I think that the outer world is rarely more than just a canvas on which we project our inner struggles. Throughout the film I used light projections, sometimes overlaying the physical action, as a metaphor for this inner energy and mental imagery that become psychologically tangled up with real people and events we encounter in our everyday lives. The film starts with a dreamlike image in the opening credits, derived from footage of the dance which will take place later in the film, which you then see proceed behind the dancer on the stage in the opening scene. Everyone goes through this at some stage, and it can be a lonely place, but films and narratives help us see that these are actually a basic part of being human, and we aren’t alone in feeling that we are in a fight.

Also, I hope they get a little bit of an insight into the human story behind any dance piece. I know how much work goes into the creation of a dance, from performers and choreographers and everyone else. I think it is difficult for someone to go into a dance performance and immediately comprehend the human story that went into its creation, and I’m afraid that programme notes just don’t cut it. I hope that audiences get to see that dance is more than just aesthetic movement, and that creativity in any form is an invaluable tool to process our emotional responses to life.

A: It must have been an exciting prospect for dancer and choreographer Dane Hurst to star in your debut film. What was it like to work with him?
TR: Dane is a truly great dancer, and has become a good friend to me over the course of the various projects on which we have collaborated. His talent as a performer is pretty hard to take in when you see it up close, he appears to express himself physically on a different level from normal people. I don’t think I’m going too far when I compare him to a great like Michael Jackson in that respect. Nevertheless, Primitive is a 30 minute film but only about 10 of those minutes are actually dance, and only about seven of them feature Dane. The rest of it is narrative cinema in which Dane shows his natural acting talent. I think a good film actor just has a way of conveying complex emotion and thought with their presence, and when I first met Dane I could immediately tell he had that ability. He gets the pain and the anger, the frustration and the desire, and conveys it powerfully. On a practical level, and perhaps this applies to all professional dancers,  he is so physically self-aware that when he returns to his starting position for another take, he will always place himself in exactly the same position down to a millimetre! It’s an almost uncanny quality, but also very helpful under the pressure of filming when every tiny detail is important.

A: A key theme in Primitive is the main character’s displacement of unreasonable behaviour into something much more artistic and inspiring. Some viewers may relate strongly to the redirection of emotions into a more suitable outlet. Is this something that you had in mind whilst creating this film?
TR: Yes, it was pretty much central to my thinking when writing the script, it was really what brought the production into being. Making this film functioned for me in the way that the creation of the dance in the story works for the main character, helping to process emotions in a positive form. So really that displacement which you refer to applies as much to me as the dancer in the story.

The story of Primitive is based upon a real life event which happened to Dane – he saw a woman being aggressed by her partner in the street one night. This happened about the time of the terrible Delhi incident in which a woman was raped on a bus. Dane was so moved by these events, he started work on his own choreography about violence towards women. When I listened to Dane talking about this, I felt that the episode spoke powerfully to me about the way artists deal with overwhelming emotions with creativity. At the time there were pretty heavy emotional processes I was experiencing in my own life about anger, love, and creativity. So I adapted and broadened this narrative to reflect my response. When faced with life’s overwhelming disappointments, a person can feel a lot of emotional energy from the resulting anger and sadness. When it is too much for the mind to bear or process, it can be bottled up in depression – the situation in which we find the dancer in the opening sequence of the film. Eventually, this sublimated rage will find its way out, I have found – either in a primitive form such as violence, or perhaps, if we can gain that self-understanding, it can be channelled into a more beneficial, creative form such as art – a painting, a piece of dance, or even a film maybe. The final scene of the film is supposed to show control and letting-go of the terrible emotional predicament from the start of the film, as the dancer symbolically drops a poster for his new work onto the dressing room table. The poster bears a picture of him, his lover resting her head on his chest, but a hand gripping his hair from outside the frame: it’s this scenario from which he frees himself over the course of the story.

Art is the way we make sense of our emotional response to our environment; my grandfather called it our “emotional technology.” In the same way that tools and technology help us master our physical environment, so art helps us attend to our emotional challenges – at least in a better way than venting rage on strangers! Also, the process helps to inspire other people to do the same. As such I wanted Primitive to feature as much art as possible – and film is such a great medium for combining different art forms. So Primitive has paintings, music, projection art and fashion design, as well as of course dance and cinematic work.

A: How did you find the experience of ASFF and the city of York?
TR: ASFF felt like paradise for anyone who loves film – the city of York is incredibly friendly and hospitable, and is the right size for it to feel like you are part of a real community. It was so much fun exploring all the venues and films. I also made a lot of good friends! The quality of the programming was extraordinary. The films set the bar very high, which makes it all the more of an honour to have won the award. I will definitely be back, whether I have a film in the festival or not.

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1. Still from Primitive, 2014.