Film in Oxford: The Wishing Horse and Oxford Film

Most Oxford students will come into contact with the University’s rich theatrical scene over the course of their degree. Until recently, encounters with its film world have been far scarcer, but in recent years a shift has been taking place. The Oxford film scene has emerged, with the establishment of the Oxford Film Fund and its annual scriptwriting competition the first of a series of wide-reaching developments. The Oxford Broadcasting Association was recently set up to bring together Oxford’s filmmakers and to help source equipment and funding, and the Oxford Documentary Society was founded last year, with an emphasis on helping budding documentary makers gain practical experience. But where did this flurry of filmmaking emerge from?

Oxford’s theatre scene is, of course, long established, and many of Oxford’s actors, writers and directors come into film from this nexus. One such dual figure is Alex Darby, a student at New College and a Young Writer at the Royal Court. Darby founded the Oxford Film Fund with Jessica Campbell, and he recently made a short film, The Wishing Horse, which dwells on Lily (Imogen West-Knights) and her fractious relationship with her mother (Terry Diab) as they come to terms with the death of Lily’s father (voiced by Richard E. Grant). The film’s twist of magical realism was inspired by G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the Wishing Horse. Its widescreen format makes it formally compelling, and was chosen to signify grief’s solitude. In addition, it reveals that there is beauty in the bleakness, as grief’s catharsis is alluded to through aching panoramic shots of Port Meadow. The film also conveys grief’s numbness, as felt conversely alongside a heightened awareness of the senses; Lily experiences the shattering of porcelain, the cold of a freezing bath, and the strange, comforting warmth of a white horse.

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions
The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

As well as presenting new challenges to writers and aesthetes including cinematographers, directors and editors, the opportunity to act for film gives Oxford’s aspiring thespians an important platform from which to expand their repertoire. The Wishing Horse’s cast is minimal, with West-Knights and Diab the only actors to appear onscreen, and their strong central performances are crucial in carrying the film. West-Knight, like Darby, was part of the Oxford theatre circuit before appearing in this film; again this is indicative of the fruitful cross-pollination between these arenas. Although actresses who weren’t Oxonians were auditioned for the part of Lily, West-Knights suited the role perfectly, and had a professionalism during the casting process that impressed Darby.

The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions
The Wishing Horse ⓒ ABG Productions

Darby’s contemplative approach to filmmaking is just one of many that Oxonian filmmakers adopt; style and subject vary greatly. ISIS Magazine recently showcased a set of student films in a screening at the Magdalen College cinema, and personal highlights were those by Dylan Holmes-Williams (St Peter’s). Influenced by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme ’95 movement, which called for pared-back, naturalistic filmmaking, Holmes-Williams’ films effectively utilise handheld camera and conversational screenwriting. Shibboleth, for example, centres on a group of male friends who drink and mock one another. The simplicity of the film’s premise is deceptive, however, and the tone abruptly changes with the film’s ambiguous ending.

Shibboleth ⓒ Holmes-Williams
Shibboleth ⓒ Dylan Holmes-Williams

ISIS’s screening was indicative of the enthusiasm for filmmaking present across different networks of Oxford students. The same names cropped up again and again as the credits rolled, with some individuals taking on multiple roles as writers, editors, cinematographers and actors in many different films. It’s great that Oxford’s filmmakers help each other out and that a scene is emerging, with students able to experience a variety of the processes of film production. Other exciting events scheduled include the Oxford Film Festival, running until Friday 28th February, which culminates in the premiere screening of another handful of student short films. One of the next challenges for film in Oxford is to increase the pool of those involved, expanding outside of the existing unit of Oxford’s theatre mafia; as the exchange of ideas grows, the results will become increasingly interesting and the film scene even more inclusive. Oxford’s drama scene often unfairly loses out in public perception to the Cambridge Footlights, and should take this moment of opportunity to put this cold war to rights through the new possibilities of film.

L. Brown

For more information about The Wishing Horse, please see our earlier preview and interview with the director Alex Darby.

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