In Review: ‘KEITH’ by AF Webb

Alex Webb’s latest work, ‘KEITH’, presents a mycology-infused film about how a man named Keith Eldred and his wife, Margot, came to acquire a declassified site in Norfolk from the Ministry of Defence in 1966. Shot against the secluded backdrop of RAF Barnham 94 MU, the film skilfully merges an array of visual styles that bring together an unnerving sense of British landscape unease, anecdotal storytelling and artefact as archive in a creatively abundant experimental documentary.

Alex Webb (b. 1991) is a British photographer born in London who studied photography at the University of Brighton. His photographic talent is evident in the opening of ‘KEITH’ with a split-screen displaying lush, overgrown shrubs dotted with red berries hazily seen through a camera viewfinder. Setting up the dexterous editing format, the viewer is subjected to rapid-fire analogue montages as the film progresses. Alex’s background as an independent art book publisher is also discernible in the stark red and white diagrammatic title sequence, a reference to nuclear infomercials of the latter half of the twentieth century and the site once used to house Britain’s first nuclear weapons.

Introducing the film is the voice of Keith Eldred himself, layered over black and white landscapes of the sparse compound, reading aloud the classic nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb. The poem, which is of Massachusetts origin, has an echo of the British pastoral tradition while also alluding to the film’s promise to eschew linear space and time, in keeping with the rhyme. Keith’s life plays out in sequential segments, with Keith playing his younger self alongside Tom MacQueen in supporting roles. The pair take us through an eventful life, from reaching rock bottom, playing in first division football, national service, land development and romance in Hong Kong, mushroom grower, and the eventual purchase of RAF Barnham (in that order).

As a subject, Keith is a regular fellow in many ways, but he is able to locate and celebrate his inner anarchist through Alex’s photographic eye. The film’s richness is foraged by beauty represented by colour, black and white, Super 8 and abstract image. The audience sways between a prism; a myriad of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialecticism that harkens the stark naturalism of war-time Britain, 60s psychedelia and the world in a grain of sand. The finest moments within the film are Hong Kong and Mushrooms, during which the sequences wreak mesmeric havoc on visual expectations, unspooling personal and social history.

“Keep an eye on it… I’m not sure about this nitrogen sample… barbed-wire spools, concrete wall, earth traverse, outer picket post, vehicle storage, RAF picket post, fire shed, football pitch, mess, kennels, fissile storage hutch, plutonium core, Blue Danube, small boy, mushroom cloud…”

Keith Eldred

Thomas Ross Fitzsimons’s score is resplendent throughout ‘KEITH’ oscillating between a powerful sense of dread in line with the nuclear undercurrent of the territory, shoegaze dream pop and sustained synth-minimalism that resounds conjunctively with transistor radio bleeping. Richard Vossgatter’s sound design is also excellent, adding a layer of diegetic sound that carries the film brilliantly throughout its narrative highs and lows, similar to This Heat’s 1979 self-titled avant-garde album that foretells Cold War paranoia.

An obvious analogy with the content and form of ‘KEITH’ is Paul Wright’s Arcadia, which tracks Britain’s complex relationship with its land. Whilst Arcadia is constructed entirely with compiled footage from the BFI’s archive collection, Webb utilises RAF Barnham as its set, exploring one individual’s relationship to his most extraordinary lot. There’s something wilfully industrious in a hand tracing the scars of an outer concrete wall against the lush rolling woodlands shot in transit. Other references that come to mind are Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

‘KEITH’ exists as an original experimental film-poem. It is formidably dense in its image layering, creating a nuanced portrait of man and land. Abstract but not arbitrary, it’s possible to envision Alex picturing the subject of Keith as a photography publication before realising it as a film. As an artist committed to the enduring topic of place and its multitudinous meanings, I am sincerely looking forward to seeing where his lens goes next and what he might uncover beneath and beyond our strange, dreadful and enduring British landscape.

No.94 (special edition book) coinciding with the release of KEITH can be purchased through Alex’s website:

‘KEITH’ was awarded Best Experimental Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021.

Published by Andrewfinch

Andrew Finch 03/01/1994

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