This girl is haunted by the land, and realises the solution to her unease lies all around her; so begins a series of images connected to Britain's relationship with its countryside, and how that informs our national character. It can be in good ways, as when we respect nature and put it to good use, such as taking its bounty and sustaining ourselves with it, but it can also be in bad ways, as our identity feeds into an insular mentality that breeds suspicion in anyone who seems other, and causes us to misuse and mistreat the resources we should be taking more care of. And then, of course, there's the Morris dancing...
Arcadia was one of a number of documentaries that could be classed as found footage, not in the way that the horror genre co-opted the term to place a false impression that what you were watching was a documentary (had anyone been fooled by that since The Blair Witch Project?), but in that the director and their researchers gathered a selection of pertinent, often striking clips and strung them together to craft an impression of the subject in hand. In this case, it was Scottish filmmaker Paul Wright, who had one fiction feature under his belt when he took it upon himself to serve up his jumble of vintage yet oddly modern views on how Britain could be encapsulated.
Encapsulated as a matter of what earlier filmmakers and television makers had presented as their own impressions, which should really have resulted in a total mishmash of tones that jarred more often than melded, but funnily enough that was not how this unfolded. With captions denoting the various sections this was split into, somewhat superfluously, we were treated to footage from records of around a hundred years of Britain, from the early nineteen-hundreds to the more recent excursions into recording the experiences of the nation's citizens. In each, the presence of the land pressed down on every person we saw, whether they were enjoying themselves or not.
This could mean a glimpse of little kids from the first decade of the twentieth century playfighting among hay, to a more self-consciously arty experimental film, to a news report that was too bizarre to resist inclusion, even down to public information films or home movies. Seasoned ephemera watchers would recognise some of these as they flitted by: there was the kid drowning in slurry from notorious "stay away from farms, children!" public information film Apaches, for instance, or the reanimated rising from the grave from oddball rural project Requiem for a Village, or a clip of the insanely dangerous, once-annual cheese rolling chase from a news report of Cooper's Hill. More often than not, the parade of traditional dances, bucolic scenery and bursts of bad behaviour mesmerically ebbed and flowed before your eyes.
For the ears, there was a soundtrack by Goldfrapp's Will Gregory and Portishead's Adrian Utley, nothing too intrusive, but sympathetic to the montages and occasionally with quotes from existing music woven into their own. Some of this was just weird: the report on the woman who had had her pet poodle stuffed and still pets and grooms it was uncomfortably memorable, as was the woozy look at glue-sniffers, yet the news reporter riding a bull, grasping his microphone, was amusing. Then there was the movement of Brits who truly feel a connection to nature having a tendency to strip off and prance around in the buff, as watching this gave the sense it was a country of nudists. Brushing aside one source of the hippies from the sixties which had been repeated so often it was ridiculous - shaking freakout dancer, daisy chain of flower children running down a hill - more often than not Wright and his team had done very well in picking up on the less obvious. If Koyaanisqatsi and Sans Soleil were the ultimate examples of this style, Arcadia was a later, highly respectable addition.