The Long And The Tall Of It by Gerald Saul.
review of Black Angels by Cynthia Wells.

During the time that I have been putting images onto film I have seen many people leave Saskatchewan. Greener fields always seem to be somewhere else and so some of our most talented filmmakers are lost to us. It is somewhat gratifying to see that things are beginning to change. Cynthia Wells left Saskatchewan years ago, found her calling in film elsewhere, but has now returned. Saskatchewan has finally become the greener pasture. That is not to say the Wells is seeking the easy path, for no realistic experimental filmmaker expects that. In fact, based upon the dark undertones of her work I would not be surprised if she returned here for the opposite reason. Now based in Moose Jaw, Wells recently presented her collected film works, including her new twenty minute film Black Angels at the Regina Public Library.

First I would like to comment on the presentation of the show. Some of the videos which led up to the film work were more exercises than concise finished works. Consequentially, Wells used them as a backdrop to continue her lecture. For half an hour we sat there in the darkness with her lone voice whispering details of her life in our ears. As a result, the atmosphere was highly intimate when her 16mm films began.

Wells' films utilize cleverly composed visual metaphors, poetic voice-overs and interpretive dance to weave multi-layered stories. In her early film, With Frogs and Fishes, the story is autobiographical, the tragic tale of a drowning for which Wells felt responsible. Powerfully done, this piece is a recreation of the memories (not the reality) of the beach. Although partially shot on a stage, she is successful in presenting the warmth and comfort of a summer night. The panic of the tragic event leads to the inevitable disruption of paradise.

Next, in Roses...Thorns and Dreams, the story is less relevant in favour of the dance performance. The simple narrative regards a woman remembering her extensive sexual past. The dancers are passionate but the film is little more than a document of this stage show. This is definitely not the case with Wells' new film.

The recently completed Black Angels is a much more complex film, merging cinema with dance to the maximum benefit of each. The film takes on a larger and subtler story than her previous works. Primarily, it tells a tale of the slow but steady downfall of a woman. Over a short lifetime, the events which stripped her of her dignity are highlighted until all that was left was to strip her of her clothes and her life. However, the story is also about the rebirth of the woman, a strength of spirit and community which lies out of touch of the corrupting male.

The film moves back and forth in time. Only upon the second viewing did all the time shifts become apparent. One example is the opening sequence. On a flat dry desert a group of people are searching. When I first saw these figures it did not really matter what they were looking for. Black-and-white film heightens the sense of barrenness. In a place so open, how could anything be hidden? The figures are armed with sticks and shovels, searching but unlikely to succeed. It is meaningless labour, a futile task. On second viewing I understood that they must be looking for the body. Even then, this does not become a noble mission but rather an empty gesture. Where were all of these concerned people when the woman needed them? Does such a poorly equipped group truly wish to discover the secrets which are buried a mere breath away from the surface?

The film really begins when an old woman appears on top of a small "mountain". By dancing, she sets the rhythm for the rest of the piece. Her strange black clothing, her style of dancing and her location immediately leads me to read her as a mystical figure such as a priestess or spirit. Other figures, all dancers, emerge from the rocks and caves. Similarly dressed as the old woman, they also become mystically codified, possibly earth spirits.

Periodically the image shifts from black-and-white to brief moments of colour. Monochromatic passages within a colour film are commonly codified as signifying dreams. Therefore one might read the colour moments as the only glimpses of reality with the bulk of the film set in the realm of memory and death.

A particularly poignant moment in the film was a flashback of the woman as a young girl. While visually we see only the girl walking down a quiet country road (overseen by the earth spirits), the voice-over explains her first violation. Boys, armed with twenty five cents, purchased a look inside her panties (and touch for free). On screen, the event is only implied metaphorically as the girl, until now walking unwaveringly along the peaceful path [of life] comes to be off the path, burying her innocence [her doll] in the ditch. Nonetheless, the scene is quite disturbing.

The central story is the aftermath of a rape. Following a lifetime of violations, of which the "panty episode" was but one, the woman has nothing left to lose but her life. A man carries her over his shoulder, removing her from forest (garden paradise?) and brings her to the prairie (in between the forest and the desert, between life and dream/death). At this point it is uncertain if it is her body or her soul which is escaping, but escape she does. Nude and shivering she flees across the desert sand, shaking as if in shock. The trembling only subsides when she is touched again, this time by the old woman/earth spirit. At long last she is not alone.

With Black Angels, Wells uses the landscape as an additional layer in the complex cinematic metaphor about the fall of a woman from an innocent in paradise to refuse in the stark desert. It is a highly accomplished piece, maximizing the strengths of each component, the voice-over, dance, location and cinematography. Wells has created a beautiful and moving film.

Gerald Saul 2005