Facing Loss with filmmaker Dagmar Dachauer

Name: Dagmar Dachauer

Title: Competing for Sunlight: Ash

Year: 2017

Film Programme: URGENT: Social Shorts 2

Starting in the ‘90s, an Asian fungus has gradually conquered the European continent, infecting almost all ash trees. As a result, it is assumed that the ash tree in Europe will soon be close to extinct. Dagmar Dachauer was inspired by the sad fate of the European Ash tree, and linked it to personal loss in her own life.

Dagmar Dachauer is a dancer, choreographer and filmmaker born in Linz, in a lonely house in the Upper Austrian forest. It is a place that continuously inspires her work. She studied Dance at Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten as well as at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, where she currently lives.

Ash‘ is the second chapter of a dance film series Competing for Sunlight: The Tree Cycle featuring different species of tree as protagonists.

We had a short conversation with Dagmar, who gave us insights into her thought process, personal life and emergencies.

Can you give us some context on your short Ash?

I think that the environmental crisis we are witnessing is a symptom of a missing link, a connection and appreciation that has gotten lost for many reasons; among which an utilitarian approach to “resources”, industrialisation and, in terms of ritual and sacred trees, also christianisation. I wonder, how can we re-vitalise, re-invent or imagine this relationship entirely anew. It could mean for example, to pay tribute to what, next to being graceful and a proven source of recreation, constitutes our very survival: we depend on clean air and so many other things trees provide.

What was the trigger for the creation of Ash?

In early 2017, the process of developing the second episode of my film series Competing for Sunlight: The Tree Cycle, overlapped with a personal process of mourning the death of my sister who had passed away in 2015, and my father who died the year after.
Choosing a tree specie to portray and eventually needing to get on with work, as one has to at some point, while still feeling almost as paralysed as back then at my father’s funeral, I knew I had to also creatively process the theme of death, shedding and transformation. 
I drew the parallel to the loss of a family member with the currently dying Ash tree. The Ash tree’s decline hits me in several ways. The Ash has for centuries been a key specie in our forest ecosystem, had a meaningful role in different mythologies, and not only the handles of our tools and axes were typically made from the strong but bendable ash wood, but also coffins. To know about individual Ash trees wither and die, did not feel emblematic for what was happening in my own life, but literally connected to a larger “landscape” of loss, like the massive extinction of biodiversity across our continent and planet. 

What this story inspired, became an intimate farewell ritual, a dance dedicated to the Ash tree and to my father. In it the dance is but a part of a broader ritual, that relates to more than only one single person or tree dying. It speaks about farewell, a shedding of what has been and a sadness about what no longer is. Finally, I am grateful for having had this opportunity to dedicate a dance at my own pace, a ritual, which this film has become.

What were some of the difficulties you encountered in the production and how did you solve them?

A challenge we encountered while shooting Ash and also Oak was filming in an ever-changing natural light and outdoor conditions (bumpy ground, toes getting caught up in the weeds when dancing, nettles and brambles – funny enough Tom Waits sings of them in the song, endless amounts of ticks, etc). We did what we could in clearing the ground, putting insect repellant and for the rest tried to accept and get used to it. In spite of the difficulties, I really loved working outdoors. I think we all did.
Ash we had to find a suitable spot that ideally would combine Ash trees and grass, as the dance is set to Tom Waits’ Green Grass from the album Real Gone and we wanted to go with the lyrics that describe this beautiful lush ambience. We did find it, close to where I grew up, in rural Upper Austria. Funny enough, it was a spot I used to play at as a child, with young Ash trees, sadly already affected of the fungus and therefore partly shrubby. Somehow we were plain lucky that the weather sustained and kept being sunny, which provided lively spots of light on the set, providing the high contrast we wanted. I also remember having many snacks and chats while waiting for the clouds to pass, so we could resume shooting.

The death of a species, especially a species as significant as the Ash, punches a hole not only in nature, but also in our culture.

George Monbiot, Biologist

How would you summarise the central theme of your film and how did you translate it to film?

I focus on trees and what they historically stood for in myth, craft, medicine and ritual and try to translate it to something that I find relevant, nowadays. It can mean to invent my own ritual or to translate what the tree stood for. For example a gateway into another realm / reality for example for druids (like in Oak). It was to think up an alternative reality I would picture as a person / dancer living in 2019, but always departing from and circulating around the chosen tree. Sometimes this means to imagine the camera movement from a tree perspective, following the concentric circles of the trunk or, as in Ash, to rest in stillness as one does when witnessing a farewell ritual. 

We try to depict or find inspiration in the features of the tree, its meaning in human cultures, its colours, textures, character, history, etc. The Ash tree provided many cues for us: the silver grey of the tree’s bark but also of ashes – as in cinders – helped inspired the costume design.

Don’t miss her latest film and all the other incredible shorts in our programme URGENT: Social Shorts on Saturday 9 March. See you at Eye.

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