Bella in the Wych Elm
A review and interview with filmmaker Tom Lee Rutter
Ellis Reed reviews Bella in the Wych Elm, a ‘Midlands phantasmagoria’ by local filmmaker Tom Lee Rutter, and discusses the film with the man himself...
Part documentary, part art film, but with a much wider appeal than either label would suggest, Bella in the Wych Elm (UK, Tom Lee Rutter, 2017) is advertised as ‘a Midlands phantasmagoria’ – which is about as good a description as you could hope for. It’s been a labour of love for Black Country local Tom Lee Rutter, who even lodged a copy with the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. He’s also shipping a definitive Blu-Ray and DVD edition from 18 April, including generous bonus features.
On paper, the film is a short docudrama about the 1943 discovery of a skeleton, found by four boys in the trunk of a tree near the village of Hagley. The unknown victim was christened ‘Bella’ by an anonymous graffiti artist, who daubed the words ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ on nearby Wychbury Obelisk. At the time, theories included ritual sacrifice and even wartime espionage, both of which are covered in Rutter’s film. Apparently, the graffiti has since reappeared at various times in various places, stoking the fires of this long-running mystery.
However, there’s a lot more to the film than the synopsis conveys. In visual terms, the dramatisations are shot in black and white, evoking the dreamlike style of German expressionism. As well as being a creative choice, this is great for a low budget film; it adds buckets of atmosphere (if that isn’t mixing a metaphor!) to otherwise modestly-produced scenes. In this way, Rutter gets a surprising amount of value from a small number of well-chosen props and costumes. The action footage is then interspersed with newspaper cuttings and other relevant images, making for a heady and spooky experience. There’s even one exceptional jumpscare that had me dropping my popcorn in surprise. All in all, Bella is a triumph of editing and presentation. Despite being highly stylised, it has an authenticity – that all-important ‘ring of truth’ – far in excess of its budget.
And for my money, what really distinguishes Bella is the way these visuals are supported by the audio. The narrative is told in voiceover, delivered in a mellow Brummie style by Dave ‘Tatty’ Jones. His voice is a perfect fit for the material, and I honestly think he could add a folksy twinkle to something as bland as the shipping forecast. The music is supplied by local musician John-Joe Murray (also known as the Worrisome Ankletrout) and is superb throughout. The audio could easily stand on its own, either as a concept album or radio production. When experienced with the visuals, as intended, the end result is something really quite special.
Bella in the Wych Elm is an enchanting piece of filmmaking, bound to delight fans of ‘hauntology’ and regional folklore. Judged purely as a documentary, there are times when the music threatens to overwhelm the speech, but such a judgement wouldn’t really capture the film’s appeal. It’s an audio-visual experience rather than a straightforward piece of factual programming, and the music is every bit as vital as the spoken word. Definitely worth a watch, and very deserving of a place in your collection!
After watching Bella in the Wych Elm, we had the opportunity to ask Tom Lee Rutter some questions about his work.
Ellis: Part documentary, part art-piece, Bella in the Wych Elm feels like a real labour of love. Obvious question, but what brought you to the subject matter in the first place?
Tom: A friend of mine I was living with at the time told me about the graffiti and how it would appear in various locations around the West Midlands. This immediately piqued my interest as eerie, ominous, mysterious – and right under my nose. I then asked my folks about it. They all knew about Bella, but of course they would – I was brought up on stories of ghosts and the macabre. My mom would read to us from The Unexplained, my one nan loves horror films and as a child even played in Hagley Woods with her friends and would go looking for poor Bella. My other nan would tell us about her friend who would speak to the ghost of an old man who haunted an old pub in Old Hill. We were brought up to appreciate the supernatural and the unexplained. Black Country folk are quite spiritual and superstitious folk as well as salt of the earth types, from my personal experiences. The more I dug myself into finding out more about the Bella mystery the more I found the ingredients were too irresistible to pass up. In making a film about it I was also able to celebrate that Black Country mindset.
E: The visuals are very striking. What films inspired you, and what made you think of using this style for this story?
T: The film was set in the early 1940s and beyond but I was actually inspired a lot by silent films and esoteric pseudo-documentaries of the 1960s and 70s. The main two would have to be Häxan (Sweden/Denmark, Benjamin Christensen, 1922) and Legend of the Witches (UK, Malcolm Leigh, 1970) – I think it’s fair to say Bella is quite the estimation of those two films. Throw in some Wisconsin Death Trip (USA, James Marsh, 1999) for good measure. I am really fascinated by this pseudo-documentary style that is on one level documentarian but in imagery is completely fantastical and/or expressionist. I also wanted to create a visual style that would reflect hazy memories, the sands of time or the uncertainty of fact. The grainy, feverish, handheld style best fit that idea for me as well as serving as a mask to my lack of budget and limited resources.
E: The music, also, plays a huge part in lifting the short and making it more than just a documentary. How did the score come about?
T: If a film I made was so married to its score it has to be this one. Bella literally couldn’t function in any way without it and it’s a huge part of its identity – which is why it’s so funny that initially the score was only put in place as a temporary soundtrack. My friend and (in my opinion) understated genius musician John-Joe Murray had released a solo album under the moniker The Worrisome Ankletrout, called Deep Streams Steep Dreams. It is a beautiful mixture of instrumental pieces and little ditties and I basically dragged them onto the edit to see how my visuals would come to life until I would look at getting an original score made. Before I knew it I was starting to edit around these wonderful pieces, they fit like a glove and expressed at the right cues – it was one perfect fit after another. Those pieces and my images fused together as one and it became clear that it couldn’t be anything else other than those pieces. John-Joe didn’t mind because he’s a ruddy diamond. Trouble now is that I cannot listen to his album without picturing my little film!
E: Would you ever want to revisit the story of Bella in the Wych Elm, maybe as a more traditional narrative film? Are there any other aspects of Midlands folklore that you want to explore as a filmmaker?
T: I am constantly on the look-out for more local stories, not necessarily rooted in folklore but ones that are extraordinary in some way. Either way, I’m not finished with making films about the Black Country yet. I am concerned about trying to run with the same formula so have consciously tried to offer up something different whilst still staying in the same gene pool with the next film. As for Bella there are so many other strands and facts surrounding the mystery that it would make a stunning and dense Netflix series but I personally said what I wanted to say with my featurette. I stated at the end that perhaps we don’t care to know what really happened so I’m sticking to my guns on that. I like to promote the unknown!
E: In terms of your other work, you’ve said that making your acid western Day of the Stranger (UK, Tom Lee Rutter, 2019) really took you to the brink(1). What was your experience of making Bella, and how was it different? Do you find working with a low budget constraining or liberating?
T: We started filming Day of the Stranger way before I started making Bella! It was because of that film becoming such a muddled mess that I started to give my focus more to Bella. It became my respite from the anxieties of Day. I realised with it that I could finish it in a reasonable amount of time. My experience making it was joyous, freeing and I was continuously happy with the results of our shoots. It was all shot within a year and premiered in 2017 whereas Day of the Stranger would give me grief until it finally premiered in 2020! Working with a low/no budget is both constraining and liberating – you just have to use your imagination and craft something that is a good as it can be with the tools and resources you have. Bella was designed to be made with barely any money. We didn’t use on-location sound, the scenes were fragmented and only made sense when put together with a narration track.
E: Based on the trailer, your upcoming anthology The Pocket Film of Superstitions seems to be cut from the same stylistic cloth as Bella, but with more fantasy and surrealism. What can you tell us about the film? Do you see this becoming your signature style, or do you have other kinds of film in the pipeline?
T: Yes! They are bedfellows and I want them to sit side by side. The Pocket Film of Superstitions is a continuation of the filming style of Bella but with a bit more money and care thrown at it. It is, again, in a sort of pseudo-documentary style but there is no fascinating story to hang onto like there is with Bella. It is a series of vignettes exploring various superstitions through the ages – it is a more risky approach but I hope all of the silly dadaist humour mixed with creepy and fantastical sequences come together to provide the viewer with a lot of fun and atmosphere. It is feature length this time round and there will be a few familiar faces in the mix too. Already we have Caroline Munro and Lynn Lowry and there are more to come! I would very much like to take these styles further after this one. I have sights on upping the ante, so to speak, so will be taking things in yet another direction whilst retaining some of the looks.
E: Lastly, what other projects are you working on?
T: Mainly looking at getting The Pocket Film finished as we’ve been held back a bit in the last year thanks to the world coming to a halt. It has been quite a mammoth undertaking for someone working with next to nothing but I like to keep things ambitious. Preparing the Bella Blu+DVD has taken up most of my time recently though. It has an alternative silent movie version of the film with three scores to choose from and a bonus featurette which riffs on Fortean and paranormal television shows of yesteryear.
Many thanks to Tom Lee Rutter for taking the time to answer our questions! You can watch the trailers for Bella in the Wych Elm and The Pocket Film of Superstitions below, and order a copy of Bella here.