In 1951, from a small fishing village in the North East of Scotland, deaf mute James Duthie set off on a solo-cycling trip between his hometown of Invercairn and the Arctic Circle. The result of this 3,000 mile journey was the slight and perfectly formed book, I Cycled Into the Arctic Circle (1955), which Duthie self-published and sold door-to-door.
Fifty years on, Matt Hulse has brought James “Dummy Jim” Duthie’s story to the screen, with his artistic retelling of the journey. Vacillating between genres (documentary, drama, animation), and formats (8mm, 16mm, HD), Hulse has created an evocative and sensory portrait of man who wanted to achieve, explore and learn about the world on bike. Told through re-enactments, community performances and archival footage, Hulse’s documentary is no linear biopic, instead offering a personal reinterpretation of this humble but extraordinary tale.
More than a decade in the making, this second feature from Hulse was nominated for a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year, and will see its UK debut at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.
HJ: Can you tell me how you first came across Duthie’s book, and what it was about his story that inspired you to make this film?
MH: My mum Ruth Pendragon found a copy of the book when she was working at the Iona Bookshop (Isle of Iona). Recognizing my taste for self-published maverick books and pamphlets, she sent it to me as a gift, with a wee note inside that read ‘Do not feel obliged to do anything with this book’. That was the Christmas of year 2000. The book had several aspects that drew me in: Duthie’s profound deafness; his lean, eccentric and gauche way with words; the portentous title ‘I Cycled Into The Arctic Circle’ (brazenly ignoring the fact that his original intention was to cycle to Morocco); the smell and feel of the book itself. By 2000 I’d been making shorts for a decade and was looking for a way to feel out longer form filmmaking. An adaption of this book seemed to offer me a way to continue working with non-verbal, visually-led filmmaking with visceral soundtracks.
HJ: Do you know if there are any plans to re-publish the book?
I shall be self-publishing the third edition of Duthie’s journal along with an accompanying artist’s book – an opportunity to reflect upon 13 years of work.
HJ: Was there much existing information about Duthie’s life? Did he go on to write more travelogues?
Outside of his fishing community of Invercairn he was largely unknown, and even within it he was something of a loner. He was killed in a road accident in 1965 and his grave didn’t have a headstone – until we made one as part of the film.
With the help of producers Tishna Molla and Lucy Brown connections were made with family members and quality time, over years, was spent with them. They had a few photos and postcards, but not much else. So we didn’t have much to go on apart from stories and hearsay. That remained the case until – on the last day of the actual shoot – the local school’s cleaner mentioned the fact that she had ‘reels of film belonging to The Dummy’. These turn out to be 600 foot reels of 16mm he shot on a motor scooter trip in the 60’s which took him to many of the same places he journeyed through to get to the Arctic in 1951. So for the edit we had extra ‘information’ to play with, but of course like all true home movies, most of it was shot out of focus. Bits of it made the final cut. I don’t think he wrote other travelogues, no, but when he died he was working on a book about his father ‘Peggy’s James’ who raised funds for the Cairnbulg Harbour and was part of a team who captured Herr Franz von Pappen in the Great War.
HJ: In the documentary, Duthie is played by deaf actor Samuel Dore, who narrates parts of the film. How did you go about casting him for the role?
I was introduced to Samuel by Lucy Franklin at the BDA Deaf Film Festival in Wolverhampton in 2001. We just clicked as friends and that was it. He’s a filmmaker too. He feels a bit like a younger brother. Samuel has featured in two other shorts I’ve made. One was an animate! / ace production for C4 called ‘Half Life’ and the other was a British Sign Language version of The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’, made to coincide with the Golden Jubilee (links below).
HJ: The structure of the film moves between the re-enactment of James’s journey, and the current community living in Invercairn, and their memory of him. Why did you choose to form the narrative this way?
A key aspect of my work in moving image over the past 20+ years has been an exploration of structure, pattern and the processes of filmmaking itself. I am probably more influenced by the structures found in poetry, music or print design than I am by the structure of screenplays or other films. My enthusiasm and motivation is to gently reveal and share these structures with the viewer, to encourage them into a new way of watching a film, rewarding them for putting in the work of deciphering the film’s internal logic. I hope this is empowering.
Someone cleverer than I once said that it was the filmmaker’s job ‘to put two and two together but let the audience make four’. I’m not interested in giving genre priority over form – if the best way to articulate the sequences in Duthie’s book is with a combination of animation and documentary, then (budget permitting) let’s try and make that work.
When I approached this ‘story’ I was really looking at it from the perspective of an artist asking ‘what’s the intrinsic truth I see buried in here and how can I reveal that using juxtapositions of recorded image and sound? Can I get the feel of the book-in-the-hand up there on the screen somehow?’
It’s complicated to explain in words, that’s maybe why I make films. But that’s partly how the ‘narrative’ ended up being set out in this way. It’s actually more like a musical score – there are several interwoven threads that evolve and resolve over the course of 87 minutes. It’s also a film about the inevitability of death, and that life goes on, and that everything is a cycle. The oldest story we know, but as told through knitwear, baking, masonry, cycling and landscape.
HJ: The film has a distinct aesthetic, with rolling vignettes of 8mm/16mm footage, denoting cultural and national features of the various countries Duthie travelled through. Can you talk a little bit about your artistic vision for the film?
The film’s look and design are strongly influenced by my use of Super 8mm which I’d be using for 20 years. Dummy Jim is probably my final major fling with the medium. The ‘rolling vignettes’ were in large part a practical solution to the problem of how to incorporate Super 8mm footage (digitized at PAL resolution) into an HD project. I believe that editor Nick Currey and I found a quietly innovative and elegant solution. Spliced in with those rolling vignettes you’ll spot some of James Duthie’s own archive footage. These sequences are playful explorations of the notion of ‘document’ and re-enactment, too.
My artistic vision? Surround yourself with talented people of integrity and give them maximum space and time to do their thing. The HD footage (which constitutes the vast majority of the film) was shot by the mighty DoP Ian Dodds who has an unfailing eye for capturing odd beauty, getting coverage, and into the tightest spots. The title animations were created by AnneMArie Walsh – right at the head of the film they lend an air of the tactile, the visceral, and the well-considered. The interlude animations are by Alan Brown who designed the gorgeous website. The film and the website are aesthetically connected and should ideally be viewed as ‘one act’. And there’s no artistic vision whatsoever without editor Nick Currey forever propping up the easel with tireless panache.
HJ: The folkloric aspects of Dummy Jim reminded me of Andrew Kötting’s work, and also Jeremy Deller with this focus on community collaboration. What were your reference points for making the film?
Kötting and Deller are a few years older than me but essentially I fall under the same set of influences as them. That’s where the connections are. Art school, punk, performance / intervention art, DIY mavericks, embracing happenstance, community / family engagement. Essentially it’s about fostering and harnessing a kind of benign creative chaos. I’m happy for you to set my name alongside them. I consider them artists who place integrity high on their list, and who work with the power of absurdity. I don’t know if it’s folkloric, but it’s an approach that likes folk.
HJ: I read that the film has been a decade-long process! How come?
12 years actually! I’m writing a book about that. Let’s just say for now that between 2002 and 2007-ish I was developing the film as a screenplay in order to raise production monies through the conventional channels and it was not great timing. So we took the projects back to basics (see next question).
HJ: I love the interactive elements of the film’s website – you include footage from the film, extracts from the book and regional recipes relating to the journey (Norway offers a recipe for fried cod tongues, whilst a cycle through Scotland teaches you how to bake a dundee cake). Was this always factored into the film as a wider project?
Thank you. The website development came about in 2007 with the help of a modest New Media Scotland alt-W grant and a huge amount of work, particularly from web designer Alan Brown and illustrator / film editor Nick Currey. After the disappointment of failing to raise ‘proper’ money for our film, we developed an approach that is now known as ‘crowdfunding’. Through our website and related activities we raised something like £35k towards the film. Literally from selling pots of ‘Dummy Jam’, finger spelling tea towels, soundtrack CD’s, advance copies of the DVD, badges, etc. Like Bring and Buy sales of yore, but with the emphasis on Buy. So whilst the website was not factored in from the very start, once we’d revamped the project in 2007, yes, it most certainly was. The website became a kind of screenplay or storyboard. And I am proud to say our homespun crowd-sourcing effort predates household name Kickstarter by a full year.
HJ: Your debut feature, Follow the Master, was also about a journey – a 100 mile walk you did in memory of your grandfather. What interests you about these interconnected elements of landscape, perception and emotion?
It’s the other way round. I was trying make certain kinds of films and ‘interconnected elements of landscape, perception and emotion’ where what got captured during the making. In life, there aren’t many reliable truths or ‘plot points’ other than you’re born (start), you live (travel) and you die (end). What you see and do on the way make up the story. Some filmmakers like to control the story from the off and manage it along the way, others let the story write itself as far as possible and then attempt to make sense of it at the end. I’m in the latter camp, and so my films tend to be records of journeys I have travelled. It’s a fluid process, with sturdy channels. Dummy Jim is seemingly ‘about’ a man called James Duthie who cycled to the Arctic Circle but in fact it’s more a meditation on travels of the imagination and the process of the film’s becoming. If I may be so verbose.
HJ: Post Edinburgh International Film Festival, what are the plans for the film? Will people get the chance to see it? Can they organise their own community screenings?
I’d love to tour the film in the UK, maybe partly with The One Ensemble and Sarah Kenchington (who created the soundtrack). There’ll be a DVD – probably issued with the reprinted journal / artist’s book. I’d love for folk to organize community screenings. I’d also love for it to be picked up by a distributor. I need to make sure my mum sees it.
The UK Premiere of Dummy Jim will be at The Edinburgh International Film Festival on 20 June at Cineworld 20:55 and 21 June at Cineworld 20:35. You can also catch the London Premiere at The East End Film Festival on 6 July at Rio Cinema at 16:00.
For more information about the film, visit the website.