Sometimes an idea, a dream, floats around in your head and heart for a long time and you know and feel it will happen, but it takes a small gust of autumn wind to come along one day to blow the pieces into place, so that the path is cleared before you and you know the time is *now*.
I was told many months ago that my film Earth To Earth: Natural Burial and The Church of England had been accepted in The 20th International Festival of Ethnological film in Belgrade, Serbia. It has also been in festivals in UK, Italy, Iceland and soon to be in Montreal, but I had never been able to attend. I love film festivals just for the fact that they take you to places you may not otherwise have gone, and take you there with a unique objective that allows you to meet interesting people and get beneath the surface of the place.
Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
At around the same time, my dear man and I decided to marry next year! Excitement abounds and quite a party is in the making. In time my thoughts turned to the dress I would wear. There was a picture I stumbled upon months ago on the web of an 18th century hand embroidered coat – wool on linen – which I had metaphorically clutched in my hand for months. The source described it as ‘French’, but it reminded me of Eastern European folk embroidery. Wherever it was from didn’t really matter. All I knew was that I wanted a dress that had lived some generations and was hand embroidered; imbued with that inimitable earthiness that old handmade objects have. A dress with a story.
And so I asked the organisers of the film festival in Serbia if I might find such a dress if I were to come to Belgrade. “Why don’t you come and we’ll find out?”, was the reply. The prospect was too tempting and so I emptied my pockets and did any odd jobs I could before leaving. As it happened I was headed south anyway (anywhere in the world involves going south from here, unless I was taking a boat to Greenland!) for the annual Reykjavik International Film Festival, where I was participating in the Talent Lab for young directors and competing for the Golden Egg Award. It is a rare opportunity in this land to feast on films from all over the world and Iceland in a discursive setting, and the Talentlab was wall to wall workshops with directors, producers and actors.
It was all quite intense for me actually, coming from my slow paced Arctic Circular lifestyle to a place where you are supposed to ‘network’ relentlessly and people are beavering away on their Macbook Pros editing films whilst participating in a workshop. I sometimes looked around and thought, ” This is not me”, but as my good friend reminded me, there are many ways to be a film maker.
My way is to inhabit a space where I feel there is a story, and to live it for some time making mind sketches, understanding the shapes and patterns in that life or theme. Then the moment comes when something that is both me and something outside of me says “it’s time to begin”, and then the film starts to sort of make itself. It is a largely penniless existence, but one in which I can be fully present, and fully myself. One aspect of the festival totally resonated and shall stay with me: the films and words of the festival’s honoured guest and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Béla Tarr. If you have not seen his films I urge you to.
“Be yourself; find your style, your way; find the border and cross it, or else you may be lost or, even worse, boring. Don’t forget what you really want to say; there is no recipe. The recipe is you.”
Wise and beautiful words from a very rare kind of being, especially in the film world. He has uncompromisingly followed his vision and has made his last film because he “has said all he wants to say”. He is planning to spend his time now being a producer for talented but shy directors, and founding a film school in Croatia which creates a space with in which creation is favoured over education.
I also had the pleasure of finally meeting Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson (also brilliant) whose short film The Last Farm is one of my favourites. He was premiering in Iceland his first feature film Volcano. It turns out he once tried to buy the house we live in and knows it and our view very well. So that was cosy. I usually find the prospect of meeting Important People rather intimidating, but he was lovely so I invited him to pop in for a cup of tea next time he’s up this way.
And we were invited to the President of Iceland’s house and allowed to snoop around. No bag searches there, and we had to queue so he could shake each of our hands individually. It might sound like a big deal to foreigners but he’s in the phone book, and besides, life’s a bit different over here.
But I digress. When I’m in Reykjavik, because the international airport is there I feel a lot closer to the rest of the world than where we live, which isn’t really close to anywhere. Is just is what it is. So the Reykjavik Film Festival was an ideal stepping stone for this deliciously nose-led adventure to Europe to find my dress. My heartstrings tugged me to make my first stop my best friend up north in England, and then on to London to begin my quest.
My cousin, who’s a costume maker for the BBC among other things, took me to Goldhawk Road in Shepherds Bush (aka fabric shops galore) to look at what fabrics were available were we to make something from scratch. It was quite a marvel and reminded me of souks in Morocco and India, where there are clusters of shops in one area of town selling similar things. In fact, the whole wedding dress mission took me on a journey through many corners of the world…
I started with a couple of flea markets in South London, as you never know where you might pick up an old embroidered panel. No luck with that, but I did buy a most lovely and engaging Wayang golek puppet from a man in a pirate hat, who proceeded to help me with my search (the puppet, not the man). In fact my ‘up-do’ for the wedding may well be inspired by her elegant coiffure.
Then I saw a girl in a tube station with a beautiful cardigan and thought she might just know where I might find the kind of thing I was looking for, and she pointed me to a woman at Portobello Market. The woman was not there, but I got talking to another woman who, on my casually mentioning that I was also looking for a pair of Tibetan felt boots responded, “I’ve got a pair of those…they’ve been sitting in my garage for years!” and arranged to meet me with them another day. Potential footwear – sorted.
I also found an Afghanistani shop, and one that was refreshingly unboutiquified. At the back was pile upon pile of large rectangular hand embroidered wall hangings (suzani) which I worked my way through to see if one might make an interesting dress. The term suzani is derived from the Persian suzan, meaning “needle”, and variations of these decorative and colourful embroideries are made across Central Asia including in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan where traditionally they have formed the main ornament of a house interior.
The myriad symbolic designs are embroidered onto velvet, silk or cotton, and the piece would form a part of a bride’s dowry. A mother might begin planning the design of the embroidery upon the birth of a daughter, or at least long before her marriageable age. The work is executed by the bride to be to demonstrate her stitching prowess, often helped by experienced female family members and friends shortly before her marriage. Most often suzani designs comprise symbolic representations of a blossoming garden. In the midst of the rich decorative patterns one can make out talismanic symbols: a pomegranate for fertility, knives for protection from an evil eye, a pepper so that evil spirits will pass you by, a lamp for purification from evil, a bird for luck. Legend has it that all authentic suzanis have an intentional mistake in them, as a reminder of human imperfection.
In the end I didn’t find one suitable for a dress (not to mention I began struggling with the idea of cutting one up) but did buy three with which to decorate our wedding tent. According to the wealth of information at Pomegranate Textiles, Eastern suzanis, (which I believe the ones I selected are):
“… are much closer to the traditional nomad designs of the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who in pre-Islamic times worshiped the sun, the moon and the stars. These are bold designs, with an archaic symbolism centered on a circular motif, whose exact meaning is debated by specialists: Does it represent the sun, the moon, the heavens, a flower—or an open pomegranate, a symbol of fertility from the Mediterranean to China? It is clearly a positive image of continuity and survival, and it appears over and over again in the life of the region: It is painted or incised on the walls of houses, stamped onto bread, sewn into other embroideries used for everyday tableware, and even echoed in the brickwork of the domes of mosques and madrasas (religious schools). It often employs powerful contrasts, as if to distinguish dark and light, good and evil, life and death, and strong colors such as red for blood, brown for the earth and blue-black for the sky.”
A fine backdrop to a celebration of your commitment to each other then.
I was rather touched by the shop keeper’s patience (letting me stay some time after closing) and enthusiasm to share some details of Afghanistani wedding customs with me, inlcuding pictures from his own brother’s wedding on his iphone. Apparently the groom wears the dowry suzani on his shoulder during the wedding.
I was eager to return also to the wonderful Rau Antiques in Islington, where I had bought a very special dress some years ago. The owner, Pip Rau, is a delightfully eccentric lady who travelled extensively in Central Asia in the 1970s and was taken by the incredible handwork in the embroidered textiles and Ikats she found there. She had a natural eye for the best pieces and started collecting, and is now one of the foremost collectors of Afghan and Central Asian textiles and jewellery in the UK, if not the world. Her collection of Ikats was shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2008, and she has authored and contributed to several books on the subject.
In her shop, I didn’t find a dress but I did find an antique hand embroidered Tajik headdress which I’ll give you a peek of below. The shop is almost bursting with beautiful textiles, but fortunately for me she said, “I’ve got much more at home, you know”. And so I spent an enjoyable morning at her jaw-droppingly beautiful house (which is also a labour of love and many years), my eyes flitting all around at the wonders she has collected and salvaged, including an old hand carved wooden Nuristani house inlaid with glittering mica, which inhabits her back garden.
I picked through the dresses and tried on my favourites. After not very long there was one that made us both say “Aha!”. It is as if it was tailor made for me, in autumnal colours that I love – deep reds, oranges and even pale duck egg blue, and a skirt with a trim of almost every colour embroidered onto a black cotton ground. The colour may be slightly unconventional for a wedding, but my influences are many, and as it will be an outdoor wedding in the wilds of Iceland, anything light coloured would just get dirty in seconds.
It is actually a dress Pip got at an auction rather than one of her travels to Central Asia, so we are unsure of the provenance. There is another adventure to be had in finding that out. I wish I could put a call out to my readers for ideas but alas, for the moment, as the dress must remain concealed from my man it must remain concealed from everyone! But if anyone does have any ideas as to the origins of this dress just from the embroidery and rik rak trim, please do send me your thoughts! (N.B. the colourful embroidered flowers are a separate head dress with a different provenance). I was surprised, excited and also secretly slightly disappointed to have found something even before going to Serbia, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from continuing a ‘search’ of kinds, as I was enjoying the ride too much!
And so on I went to Serbia, where the folks at the Ethnographic Museum (the site of the film festival and also home to a fine collection of traditional dress from the Balkans) had been busy doing research for me, bless their hearts!
From the collection:
Peacock feathers in a marriage headdress are said to ward off the evil eye, and the coins constitute part of the dowry as well as being for decorative purposes.
After looking at their collection I was allocated two anthropology students to take me on an adventure into the hills around Belgrade to find the man, Kiri, who makes replicas of all the museum’s pieces.
After a good rummage through their beautiful collection of embroidered felt Zubun (sleeveless jackets of various lengths) I settled on one that I thought Orri might like to wear. If he doesn’t end up wearing it, it’s still a beautiful piece and anything made of wool will be well used by us. It is completely handmade (the felt and the embroidery) and it’s a replica of a piece from Bosnia. Here’s a little detail of it:
The museum’s ‘little black book’ of grannies was searched for people who had been in previously trying to sell traditional clothing but the museum had not needed them. One lady came in with a lovely zubun and embroidered apron (and an old black and white picture of her mother wearing it) and as tempting as it was, it wasn’t quite ‘it’ enough to warrant changing my whole outfit.
A national newspaper, Blic, got wind of my story and came to interview me about my search, and what a wedding might look like for someone who is English, grew up in Kenya, and now lives in Iceland! I was also interviewed about my background, my film and the film festival by the national TV broadcaster for a culture programme, in amongst the traditional dress collection in the Ethnographic museum.
I was amused that the newspaper at least was more interested in the wedding dress story than my role in the film festival! But I suppose that is what drew me on the adventure in the first place: I had no idea what would come out of it, but whatever did would make a good story. And that is what life is: a story that we write for ourselves; a dress that we wear and adapt to our needs. So it better be a colourful one!