John Gillies: Old land, new testament

Ruth Holdsworth

John Gillies, Divide

John Gillies, Divide

We join 4 men traversing land and water, their journey a visual retelling of the Old Testament. The historical and religious text is played out by 2 men who in turn hold open a bible, ripping out its pages as they roam the Australian landscape. Once a page is read it is gifted to nature…strewn across the bush and washed downstream…dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We see a burning tree reminiscent of the bush Moses encounters in exile from his land.

Divide is immensely poetic and it feels very much like a quixotic picaresque tale, a narrative rooted in journeying. Although filmed in black and white, every image is reminiscent of a sepia photograph, capturing eras far removed from our own. These are strangely interrupted by a mirage-like hallucination of a Chinese opera singer, “found” moth-like in the forest staying close to his lantern flame.

The pace of the film speeds up and slows down to draw our attention to minute details (the feather veins of a leaf, ants magnified and marching over a sun-baked earth), whilst the sheep on the screen opposite steadfastly fix their gaze on us and the men. They seem to occupy one side of a riverbank between them and their shepherds; they have been separated from the herded flock which thinks and moves as one. The viewer is situated in the space of this imagined river, attuning us to the sounds of nature (flowing water, birds and utter silence) which Gillies so exquisitely attends to.

One of the strongest moments comes when the oldest man of the group is thrown from his saddle. It is unclear whether he dies. The horse just stands there, inert. Its master no longer there it cannot act of its own volition (as we understand the term). We later see the same man holding a lamb, the only one of the flock, symbolising a transition from Old Testament to New.

Gillies points to the fragility of man and his subservience to the forces of nature: a man is suddenly crushed when a tree sheds a limb. Man may try and make a ‘picture of the world’, as Heidegger discusses in relation to an Enlightenment notion of our way of being, but some things are beyond our control. The men in this film seem to understand this, as do the sheep who observe them, their sides heaving like bellows with comforting regularity. The sheep are metaphorically the flock of Moses. They are counted, but the whispering narrator never gets beyond 34 at the second tally; one has been lost, but finally will be found—a hint of redemption.

3 February 2006