A seaside promenade: when Liam follows a ghostly man into a tunnel in the cliffs, he discovers a secret network of chalk passageways. But he isn’t the only visitor. For the underground tunnels are inhabited by an array of lost and mysterious souls…
Conceived by writer and director Christopher Brown, Coccolith is an experimental drama that was shot in the Ramsgate wartime tunnels, which extend over 5 kilometres under the maritime port town.
Departing from typical storytelling conventions, the film depicts an imaginary realm in which devised performances evoke the unique history and feel of this eerie environment.
Coccolith features performances by Eugenia Caruso, Matthew Harvey, Kazeem Amore, Emily Outred and George Naylor.
Coccolith takes its name from the microscopic calcite shells shed by ocean algae. They're tiny: to cover the face of a £1 coin, you’d need 400 million of them. When coccoliths accumulate on the sea bed over millions of years, they form chalk, the rock into which the Ramsgate Tunnels were dug. Chalk is visible in virtually every frame of our film, so the coccoliths are there too, if only our eyes were capable of seeing them.
Coccoliths not only constitute our film’s location, they also inspired our characters, who resemble shells of beings who once lived, shadows without an object. When Liam enters the tunnels, he discovers an array of lost souls. Are they unwitting spectres in a ghost story? Or are they caught in a series of sci-fi wormholes, passageways of compressed time?
The film is puzzling, and audiences looking for a conventional storyline or plot points will likely be frustrated. Characters come and go; most of them have no names; we are left to guess at their motivations and desires. Instead, I wanted to focus on shifting moods, on changing states, on the performers' immediate experience of these wonderful, scary, eerie tunnels. Coccolith challenges the audience to respond to raw emotions which they may not understand.
The tunnels are the subject of countless local legends, and while I was not seeking to recreate these, history and folklore do creep into the drama obliquely. Chalk is, after all, an unmistakable national symbol. The White Cliffs of Dover, fifteen miles down the coast from Ramsgate, evoke British pride, strength, and resilience in the face of foreign adversity. But does chalk – with coccoliths as its secret constituent – have a darker side? Who might be excluded from its pristine beauty? Which of us, like Disco Woman, must yell defiantly into the dark?
In 2016, the gloomy year in which we entered the tunnels and started shooting, I did a lot of re-watching. I revisited A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, for instance, as I attempted to construct a mood that fit with the space of a wartime installation. Having pondered returning angels, I turned my attention to the dead cinema-goers in Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I was staying in Taipei in the months before we shot, and appreciated the ghostlike mannerism of his performers, wandering around that dilapidated movie theatre, as if on autopilot. They seemed sad, as if they had lost something.
The tunnels offer us a chance to search, whether or not we find what we are looking for. So proceed into the dark, with a torch to light the way - or failing that, a disco ball.
Christopher Brown, 2018