Preface - Notes on an unknown religion
The idea of shooting a feature length documentary on the ongoing developments in the 'Zone', a stretch of densely forested countryside in the heart of the French Pyrenees roughly circumscribed by the château of Montsegur, the Rennes plateau and the ragged cone of Mount Bugarach in the south, has been brewing for some time. In fact the first treatment I wrote on the subject ( under the title 'The Devil's Chessboard ) was submitted to Channel Four Television's religion department twenty-two years ago. At the time we were turned down flat and politely shown the door. When it came to submitting a new treatment to the Pyrenean Film Commission a few weeks ago I found that very little other than the title and the names of some of the interviewees who had sadly passed away in the interim needed to be changed. The proposed subtitle however caused considerable debate.
Karim Hussain, the project's director of photography and a friend and ally of long standing, was strongly in favor of 'notes on a new religion' which he considered to be more direct, more threatening and just plain punchier than 'notes on an unknown religion' . The word 'unknown' carries all kinds of negative connotations putting one in mind of cheesy old television shows and that truly regrettably Amicus anthology with Peter Cushing concerning a global conspiracy mounted by killer cats. I tried to argue that at least 'The Unknown' (1927) was a genuine classic but Karim wasn't buying it. It seems to me that this difference of opinion over the most appropriate subtitle neatly encapsulates the two dominant schools of thought over what has really being going here in this remote European backwater.
The same argument obtains to the former inhabitants of this land, the so-called 'Cathars' and the Albigensian heresy that brought about the fourth crusade. There are those who believe that the 'Cathars' represented an earlier extant form of Christianity similar to the creed practised by John the baptist and the Essenes while other historians insist that it was a more recent theological mutation, influenced by Manicheism and introduced to the south by Bogomil missionaries in the latter part of 12th century.
Since the temporal power of the Catholic church beganto wane at the close of the 19th century an ever increasing number of extremely strange individuals have found themselves drawn to this area and over the course of little more than a hundred years they have produced a vast and ever growing body of written material, much of it extremely fanciful – a trend that may have begun with the publication of Napoleon Peyrat's 'Grande Histoire des Albigeois' in 1875 and which finds its most recent expression in the work of popular authors such as Dan Brown, and Kate Mosse, not to mention our own humble efforts here on Terra Umbra.
It is easy to believe that thanks to a series of unique historical and geographical factors the area , affectionately now known as the 'Zone', has become a kind of black hole in modern day 'consensus' reality where odd beliefs and outlandish conspiracy theories can happily take root and prosper. To an unkind outside observer it may appear to be a sort of outdoor psychiatric hospital where a growing legion of crazy folk spouting deeply weird ideas and theories have influenced both each other's thinking and the paradigms as a whole to the point of creating a new belief system, what, to all intents and purposes, amounts to a 'new religion', a woolly, uncodified 'pseudo religion based on pseudo history that bears little or no relationship to the actual past and the mysterious, long vanished faith of the 'Cathars'.
In our lengthy investigation of this neck of the woods I have arrived at a rather different conclusion. When you take time out to listen to everyone's stories, to hear all points of view a disturbing commonality of experience begins to emerge. There are points on which the opinions of various pilgrims, cranks, cultists, neo-Cathars, pseudo historians, treasure hunters and casual tourists seem to concur as if each one is attempting to approach the same indefinable mystery, each in their own way and words. Once one begins to graph those commonalities a vast outline gradually emerges, like the long hidden remains of some invisible edifice, buried for untold generations . I have come to believe that what we are dealing with here is not a new religion but something ancient and unknown, a force inherent in the land that has been here long years before the Cathars or the Druids, a mystery that has haunted our dreams and belief systems since the dawn of time. The stories heard over the years about the area concealing 'portals' or gateways to other worlds may be fanciful enough but here in the Zone it really does seem as if some other realm of experience overlaps with our own, as if the day to day reality of those who wander into this area is steadily influenced and reshaped by the morphogenetic field of some other time or paradigm, a subtle, insistent signal received by the unconscious mind and either blocked out or re-interpreted in countless individual ways. A dream that always returns, often different in its individual details but always the same in its essential characteristics. The old gods it would seem are stirring in their sleep.
As above: Self and Miss Scarlett shooting 'THE OTHERWORLD' promo during the big freeze of February 2012. So below: The Shadow Theatre interceptor fitted out with the new GoPro in order to serve as the shoot's official camera vehicle. ( both photographs by Gina Varella )
In the summer of 2012 a team was assembled in Montsegur to document that shared dreaming, to test some of the wilder claims made about the area and open a window to the 21st century by bringing cameras and cutting edge thermal technology to the borderland between worlds.
Above: Karim Hussain and yours truly back in action - photograph by Chloe Roberts
Sunday June 10 – Montsegur:
It is the first proper day of work on 'THE OTHERWORLD' and as fitting for the first day of any shoot the turbulent weather that has been building up over the last week finally comes to a head. Although the morning was warm and sunny the day rapidly clouded over and by the time Karim and the project's producer, Fabrice Lambot, of Metaluna Productions, were on their way into the Zone from Toulouse airport the skies had opened in a deluge, with enough wind behind it for the rain to be practically horizontal.
The squall was fortunately short-lived and by midnight the wind had lulled. Making our way to Hannibal's Point, the crag overlooking the gorges of the Carroulet, we set up our first shot by the dim glow of the single mag light available to us. We decided to kick off our exercises with a time-lapse on the T2I-550D exposing one frame every thirty seconds with the shutter open all the way to see what the pog looked like when the moonless darkness was stripped away. With the shutter open this long the night is revealed to be amber, probably a side effect of the ambient light from the village's sodium lamps.
We are now sitting back at base camp with Karim hunched over his key board, cutting together the first test shot and comically lip synching the lyrics from the theme tune to 'EMMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS' ( 1977 ). “I'm your queen. You're my king. I feel so good now. Like a cloud...”. Moral is good with the team filled with a spirit of bold enthusiasm for the adventure ahead.
Above: Viewing the rushes - photograph by Gina Varella
Monday June 11 – Montsegur / Rennes-le-Chateau:
A gloomy start to the day with the sky leaden and overcast. I rolled out of bed into my black suit and bow tie to rendezvous with Fabrice for a 9:00am meeting with Jean Michel, the mayor of Montsegur. Fabrice was feeling a little delicate as his sleep had been troubled by strange dreams in which he had imagined I was 'some kind of vampire guy' trying to lure him up the pog.
'To be sacrificed?' suggested Miss Scarlett eagerly.
'No. It was more complex than that.' Fabrice blinked, looking slightly phased.
'Those damned apples just aren't ripening fast enough,' suggested Karim, nose still buried in the screen of his laptop as he reviewed the time-lapse shot we took last night, presumably to make sure we hadn't dreamed the thing.
'You don't understand it's always like that the first night I come here. On 'MOTHER OF TOADS' I thought something was shaking the bed. Last night I completely lost track of time. I woke up, thinking it was morning, but it was only 2:30am. Then I was too frightened to go back to sleep for a long time.'
We had just long enough to get caffeinated before rolling into the mayor's office. Jean Michel, a former gendarme turned civic functionary, was his usual truculent self. He's never particularly cheery in the mornings but brightened once a suitable bribe had been settled on. A generous cash donation to the village's civic coffers. As luck would have it we ran into Fabrice Chambon, the local archaeologist in charge of the work at the château, in the atrium. Fabrice had been ducking our mails but after setting his mind at rest about our motives he gladly agreed to a summit meeting tomorrow night at the 'The Smoking Potato' ( 'A la Patate qui Fume' ), the excellent new restaurant in Montsegur that was to become our unofficial headquarters during the shoot.
Above: Rennes-le-Chateau awaits - photograph by Scarlett Amaris
After making a pit stop for more coffee at Shadowtheatre HQ, we pulled Karim out of the shower and high-tailed it to Rennes-le-Chateau to meet with our second mayor of the day, Alexander Painco. While Jean Michel had requested what amounted to a token fee to allegedly be put towards the welfare of the community, Monsieur Painco, who after all was in charge of one of the hottest 'mystery spots' on the planet, was known to be a good deal more ambitious, charging other crews up to a grand a day for the privilege of shooting in the church and Sauniere's domain. We rendezvoused with Peter and Anneke, our friends and local tour leaders, outside the church and proceeded to the town hall. Peter has had innumerable dealing with Alex over the last few years and we were counting on his presence to come up with an acceptable middle ground solution.
Monsieur Painco didn't seem to have any objections to what we were doing, having doubtless heard similar pitches before, although he was clear that he didn't want us to associate Rennes-le-Chateau or himself with the neighbouring village of Bugarach (“I don't want to have anything to do with those people. They're all crazy.”). The village of Bugarach had been in and out of the news over the last year after allegedly becoming the focus of several international UFO cults, who believe the area will offer refuge from a coming apocalypse, apparently scheduled on the winter solstice.
Considering the fact that Rennes-le-Chateau itself is living under a curse, I was quite taken aback by the opprobrium Alex showed towards Bugarach. Eventually a deal was struck with him that included access to the church, the Tour Magdala, the Domain, and Sauniere's secret rooms. To clinch the deal, we had lunch in the mayor's new restaurant, which only opened a few weeks ago, another sign of the booming 'mystery trade' that has transformed Rennes-le-Chateau over the last few years into sort an esoteric Disneyland, a Mecca for slightly deranged New Ager's, conspiracy theorist's, and occult thrill seekers.
After lunch we repaired to the nearest hardware depot to stock up on a few essential supplies before driving back to Montsegur and literally into the teeth of a gathering storm. The weather patterns have been extremely unstable lately, see-sawing from summer sunshine to freezing wintry rain, from one half an hour to the next. While the rain is bad enough, the turbulent winds could be even more of a problem. After an attempt to shoot another time-lapse image on the 550D – this time of the 'white lady' formation on the Mountain de la Frau – was curtailed by incoming rain. We retired to the 'Smoking Potato' for another sit down meal and chilled out by watching old episodes of Nigel Neale's classic QUATERMASS series. With two huge meals a day and all this rain I am worried I'll start putting on weight unless we see some action soon.
Tuesday June 12 – Montsegur – Bugarach
Once again Fabrice informed us that his sleep had been troubled by dreams, this time concerning a mysterious green serpent.
We got an early start, stopping for a coffee and croissant in Quillan before making our way via Puilarens and Galamus Gorge to the 'notorious upside down' mountain. The village of Bugarach, nestled in the mountain's shadow, seemed as sleepy as ever with no sign of the influx of UFO cultists and 2012 doomsday enthusiasts predicted by the media. The mayor, Jean-Pierre de Lord, jovially confirmed that the story had been blown out of all proportion by the press. This seemed a wee bit disingenuous as Monsieur de Lord has been the principal interviewee in pretty much all the reportage that has appeared to date on this nebulous affair. The fact that his office was actively selling postcards depicting flying saucers hovering over the mountain only deepened our suspicions that village's leadership had been secretly promoting the whole 2012 business from the very top.
Above: Mayor Jean-Pierre de Lord poses with one of the postcards available from his office on ABC news
Monsieur de Lord was extremely accommodating, agreeing to an interview and even signing the release form in advance without charging us a dime – a laissez-faire attitude that contrasted sharply with our treatment in Rennes-le-Chateau. He insisted that while the UFO stories may be little more than hype there really was something going on in the area, insisting that we climb to the top of the mountain to 'feel the energy' for ourselves. He also insisted that we get in touch with Jean-Pierre Montes, a local folklorist and expert in secret societies whom I had first interviewed for Channel Four television's religion department on my first trip to the Zone in the summer of 1990. In point of fact Jean-Pierre Montes was the man who had originally tipped me off to the notion that if I could learn 'who held the patent on the calorimeter then I would uncover the true identity of Fulcanelli the master alchemist' – a scrap of information that had later turned out to be very valuable indeed.
Above: Karim and self at work in Bugarach - February 2012 - photograph by Gina Varella
Wending our way through the densely wooded foothills of the haute Razes we stopped to take lunch in Rennes-les-Bains in the 'Place de la Deux Rennes'. Miss Scarlett and Karim ordered the vegetarian choice, the Boudet Burger, which seemed perfectly appropriate while I plumped for the Pizza Reine in honour of the queen of the Zone – or rather the two queens – the 'deux Reine' – the 'black mother' and the 'white lady' who preside over this time warped neck of the woods, over the white and black squares of the devil's chessboard across whose face we find ourselves shifted time and time again like counters.
As above : Karim at work on the devil's chessboard So below: Uranie - the sorceror of the River of Colours ( both photos by Gina Varella )
Taking the back road across the sacred valley to the Rennes plateau we paused at Lavaldieu to inspect the premises and firm up our reservations for later in the shoot before continuing to Uranie's domain at the edge of the River of Colours. Uranie seemed excited by the possibilities presented by the coming shoot and was keen to discuss the precise bearings that would need to be flown in the microlight to chart the Byzantine geographic alignments that make up the so-called 'Rennes pentagram'.
Gusts of wind rippled ominously through the long grass covering the shrines and marker stones surrounding Uranie's property and the afternoon light took on a curious, golden hue as Karim and myself walked through the tracking shot I had in mind for the film's closing sequence, finding a good spot for a jib up when we finally commit this to camera on the afternoon of the 27th. At one point we noticed Fabrice gazing oddly at a green, plastic snake intertwined with the various bits and bobs in one of Uranie's alfresco 'installations'. “That thing was in my dream last night,” Fabrice murmured, but none of us paid too much attention to his words, preoccupied as we were by the work at hand.
A storm had risen once again by the time we returned to Montsegur, making further attempts at time-lapse work impracticable. We rendezvoused with our archaeologist friend Fabrice Chambon, at the 'Smoking Potato' and convened a meeting under the storm lashed awning on the back patio. Fabrice was reassuringly enthusiastic, consenting not only to the proposed interview, but offering to bring various relics from the museum's collection up to the château on the day of the shoot for a li'l on-camera show and tell.
All in all, it would seem that despite the unstable weather patterns 'L'AUTRE MONDE' is off to a flying start!
Wednesday June 13 – Montsegur
“This is the painful part of the day,” murmured Dr. Roune as he slid a needle into my gum, doping me up for a double root canal procedure. While this may not have been the most convenient time for minor surgery it was the only appointment I could get and having waited almost a year for treatment it made sense to go ahead with the procedure rather than attempt to reschedule. And painful it was! A small 'blood sacrifice' Karim suggested, for the greater good of the shoot. I spent most of the rest of the afternoon on tranquillizers, sleeping off the procedure while Karim and Fabrice drove to Toulouse to pick up the equipment and rendezvous with Corrine the production manager, and Dave the camera assistant. As fate would have it Karim also shed a little symbolic blood for the production when he tripped over a loose cobblestone in Toulouse and bruised his hand. Hopefully after this the way forward will be a little easier. Certainly none of the interviewee's can be as painful to deal with as the root canal procedure.
The last two members of the team, Francoise the standby sound guy and Sylvain, the local gaffer & grip, who hails from Foix, rolled in under their own steam and by 19:00 hours all the crew members and the equipment were accounted for. Shrugging off the effects of the tranquillizers, I began to prepare my questions for tomorrow.
Thursday June 14 – Montsegur
The first day of principal photography gets off to an ominous start when Jean Michel, the mayor of Montsegur abruptly reverses his decision, refusing to appear on camera and telling us that he cannot authorize us to shoot in the local church without permission from the bishop in charge of the region. Corinne sets about tracking down the bishop while the rest of us drive up to the Taulet to get some general views of the castle. We are still experimenting with the equipment available to us and much of what we shoot here and in the Reboule will almost certainly end up on the cutting room floor.
Worse still – once we do hike up into the Reboule we find that the hidden labyrinth where we shot a scene from 'THE MOTHER OF TOADS' the year before last ( see above ) is simply no longer there. The maze has not only been destroyed but all trace of its existence has been expunged. Even the stones it was built from seem to have been removed from the site. Who would do such a thing and why?
The questions are still going around in my head when we meet up with Thierry Salles at the camp de cremat. Thierry owns the land on which the labyrinth once stood and is as perplexed as us by its destruction. Thierry is a true Montsegurien, a direct descendent of Imbert de Salles the castle garrison's sergeant at arms at the time of the siege and talks simply and directly to our camera about his supernatural experiences on the mountain, relating an account of a time slip that took place when he was a teenager. As the sun settles lower over the Montagne de la Frau ( Occitan for 'Mountain of Fear' ) Thierry raises his guitar and plays a moving, heartfelt rendition of 'La Boier', a haunting thirteenth century troubadour song whose words mask a cryptic double meaning. The scenes with Thierry set the tone for the work ahead and will in all likelihood make the final cut.
Relieved that we have something in the can after all the crew retires to the 'Smoking Potato' . While they bid farewell to Francoise and welcome Nicolas our new soundman to the team Miss Scarlett and myself go in search of a bee gun to smoke out the church tomorrow. Miss Scarlett too has shed a little ritual blood for the cause having stepped on a thorn during the first set-up we shot in the Taulet that went all the way through the sole of her shoe and skewered her heel. Although she is walking with a pronounced limp she is at least still mobile.
Morale remains high.
Friday June 15 – Montsegur
The first interview of the day doesn't start out too promisingly. Our contact, Yves M., who worked on the original excavations conducted at the château by the GRAME ( Groupe des Researches Archaeolique de Montsegur et Environs ) who turned in the official archaeological report on the site proves to be less forthcoming on camera than he was in casual conversation, choosing not to speak openly of his experiences on the mountain. Although slightly frustrating it's understandable as it's impossible to predict how anything that is said on record will be viewed by the outside world who tend to be more than a little sceptical about such matters. Besides, Yves has to live here. It is a problem we know we will come up against again and again on this project.
Yves claims that the GRAME forced him to sign a gag order after working on the site and is concerned by the possibility of legal reprisals if he goes on record about what they found there. It is difficult to understand why the GRAME would want to deliberately cover up certain aspects of their work on the mountain, especially since none of those involved have ever submitted a paper on the subject. What do the members of the GRAME stand to benefit by this obsessive secrecy and why do they have a vested interest in propagating the idea that certain areas of the castle, notably the tower room where the celebrated 'solar phenomena' take place, were constructed more recently than they may in all probability have been? Yves seems to fear reprisal not only from the local authorities but from a higher authority, from the mountain itself. He implies that there has been a deliberate move to obliterate all trace of the past and that to talk about it openly would only run the risk of speeding that process. In the end I have to respect his wishes but cannot help feel the interview is a lost opportunity.
On our return to the village we are mortified to hear from the bishop that the mayor of Montsegur has already briefed him that we should on no account be allowed to photograph the church or its contents. The sense that an official cover up is afoot is growing stronger by the hour but with Fabrice already back in Paris there is little we can do. Once again I find myself wishing I had a more fluent command of French. The lay-out of the church at Montsegur, which houses a black Madonna brought over the mountains by monks from Montserrat, is admittedly pretty unusual, containing astrological symbols and Hebrew characters in its interior décor that mirror, among other things, the 'gate of the Old Ones' from the Colin Wilson/George Hay 'hoax' Necronomicon, but what do the local government officials stand to gain from keeping the church a secret? We have photographed its interior dozens of times before using stills cameras but something about the idea of committing this imagery to film has the community leaders running scared.
We manage to salvage something from the day by shooting Raghnhild and Anna-Mie working with their loom and spinning wheel. The Cathars were weavers after all and the the scene carries a faery tale resonance born out by Ragnhild's interview when she tells us about her reasons for moving to the village and how she heard the mountains literally singing at night,. The footage certainly has an interesting look to it but the business with the bishop has left a bad taste in my mouth. It is obvious that the mayor has set it up in such a way as to try and avoid responsibility for the matter. but I can't help but feel our efforts to penetrate what's really happening in this place are being deliberately and systematically deflected.
Saturday – June 16 – Montsegur
Mother Nature arranges a hot and almost cloudless day for the team's first ascent of the pog and accordingly we are all a little out of breath by the time we reach the castle. Corinne in particular is looking pretty sun struck, having climbed the mountain way too fast. Fabrice Chambon is just finishing up with his last tour group of the day in the courtyard and we wait for him to finish, luxuriating in the shade of the keep's ancient stone walls before setting up his interview.
As above: Karim waits as Nicolas wires Fabrice Chambon for sound ( photo by Sylvain Auge )
So below: The team at work in the castle courtyard ( photoby Sylvain Auge )
On camera Fabrice, who looks like a cross between Tin Tin and a young Anthony Perkins, proves to be a live wire, filling in the official history of the castle, his enthusiasm and love for the site coming across in every word and gesture. He happily regales us with some of his stranger experiences on the mountain where he has had to deal with some pretty curious visitors over the years, ranging from Russian neo-Cathars to Argentinian UFO cults.
“She took me by the hand,” Fabrice shakes his head as he recalls one particular cult member. “She kept touching my hands and telling me I was special.”
Above: We set up a time-lapse shot on the castle battlement as dusk creeps up out of the valleys below.The usual postcards one might say. ( photograph by Sylvain Auge )
Arpaix Pereilha and her two sons show up from Lavelanet while we are working and she consents to an interview. Arpaix tells us of her belief that she is the reincarnation of one of the daughters of the former Lord of the castle, Raymond de Pereilha and speaks movingly of her connection to the site.
As above: Karim, self, Miss Scarlett and Sylvain below the north facing tower ( photo by Arpaix Pereilha ) So below: Montsegur at sun down. ( frame grab from the rushes - image by Karim Hussain and Richard S.)
“It gets pretty vibey up here at night” I join Karim in the east facing gate, the so-called 'Gate of the Gods' as he stares into the dark, trying to make head or tail of everything he has seen and heard.
“It looks like there's something moving over there,” he ventures at length. And it's true. There do seem to be shadowy figures moving about in the remains of the old houses on the eastern flank of the pog. Although you can't quite focus on it there is undeniably some sort of vague activity going on in the blackness.
“Do you see that?” Karim turns to Sylvain who has just appeared behind me in the gateway.
“What?” Sylvain pauses, squinting into the night and for a moment all three of us stand staring at something none of us can readily define.
“Looks like a patch that's sort of defocussed or where the grain is really popped out”, Karim rubs his eyes. “But its definitely moving.”
The illusion seems to fade as we approach it and not for the first time I find myself wishing that we had some sort of night viewing mode on the camera. The FLIR will not be available to us until the last few days of the shoot and once we get our hands on it we'll have to make it count.
The so-called 'supernatural' is surely just an extension of the natural world. To participate in the physical universe even the supernatural must surely exert some form of force or energy and if that energy is in any ways electromagnetic or biochemical the FLIR will surely pick up a trace at least.
Just a trace would be enough.
Above: Frame grab from 'THE OTHERWORLD' ( image by Karim Hussain and R. Stanley )
Sunday – June 17 – Montsegur
The team is feeling pretty worn out after hauling all that gear up and down the pog yesterday so we decide to opt for an easier day. Sticking close to the village we ask Patsy the resident speleologist to take us to one of the local caves, one that he promises will be “tres facile”. We only realize later that although it is not that far to go as the bird flies this does not mean that the way will be necessarily easy. The crew's faces fall as they take in the waterproof, all-terrain jump suit that Patsy unpacks from the boot of his car.
Parking up in the gorges of the Caroulet we follow Patsy through a hole in an ancient fence, following the winding trail through a glen that has become an illegal fly tip, a festering slew of kitchen waste, discarded household appliances and fly blown plastic effectively robbing this neck of the woods of any elder magic that may once have clung to it. Beyond the glen the path climbs vertiginously up the base of the Roc de la Mousse ( 'Rock of Shadows' in Occitan ) and we soon find ourselves grabbing at branches and scrabbling for purchase on the rough, steeply sloping terrain. After last night's descent of the pog in pre-dawn darkness our collective calves and thighs are starting to feel the burn. Just when we are on the verge of calling off the mission and turning back we come up a last rise to find ourselves at the gaping mouth of 'Las Mortes' - the aptly named Cave of the Dead.
'Las Mortes' is a neolithic site, originally excavated by the Abbe Durand, a former priest of Montsegur with a passion for amateur archaeology who conducted the only real digs these gorges below the castle have seen. Among other things he claimed to have found a cave in the pog containing a huge stone table and steps leading deeper into the mountain, a location known as 'Abbe Durand's Cave' that continues to elude modern day researchers seeking to verify the Abbe's claims. Not for the first time the curious notion is raised that the paths and the very features of the landscape have the ability to shift and change if you mention them aloud so that you might never find your way back to the same place again.
“It's easy to imagine that some supernatural force guards the lost caves of Montsegur,” Patsy informs us and its certainly easy enough to believe as he guides us through the inky recesses of the 'Cave of the Dead', a system that passes clear through one flank of the Rock of Shadows. Perhaps some things are simply not meant to be seen by by uninitiated eyes, least of all captured on a hard drive. Patsy, who was once a man but changed gender somewhere along the line, is a little taken aback when we ask about the mountain's feminine nature and, for a while at least, we decide to let this matter rest.
Above: The team at the entrance of 'Las Mortes' - ( from left to right ) Self, Sylvain Auge, Karim Hussain, Scarlett Amaris, Nicolas Boyer, David Decottiginies and Corinne Binon ( photo by Patsy Gory )
Returning to the village we wrap up the day with a follow up interview with Fabrice Chambon who displays some of the early thirteenth century artefacts found on the pog. As we are wrapping out of his house my attention is drawn by a display of neolithic fertility goddesses found in the region, prominent among them a tiny but very familiar looking 'white lady' carved from a mammoth's tusk.
Above: The Venus of Brassempouy
When I csually ask about anodd looking stone mounted on a pillar in Fabrice's front garden he tells us that it is one of several that have recently turned up in the vicinity of the pog decorated with a crude sign representing the female reproductive organs. Apparently some maniac has been going around the area carving symbolic vulva's into rocks in much the same manner as someone has etched the eight pointed 'Star of Isis' or 'Roseatte of Innana' into various locations in the landscape surrounding Rennes-le-Chateau and Bugarach, all too often hitting the key points in the vast pentagram described as the 'Vagina of Nut' in David Wood's 1985 book 'GENISIS', an extraordinary work of carto-erotic mania in which a retired British surveyor charted the entire Egyptian creation myth onto the Zone's topography before claiming to reveal the true location of Atlantis. We have previously noted identical graven vulva's carved above a door in Mirepoix cathedral ( not coincidentally perhaps the door facing towards the pog ) and again halfway up the path to the château Another one used to mark a secret pathway just below the donjon-keep but last year it was deliberately sandblasted off the rock by an enraged local who probably has one or two sexual issues of his own.
Monday – June 18 – Montsegur
A little burned out by the breakneck pace of the last 48 hours we resolve that today we really will try and go easy on the crew who are starting to look a\little frazzled.
A 7.00 am call is followed by our first interview at 8.00 am with Richard, the de facto curator of the local museum who regales us at length about the castle's history. Richard, who habitually dresses in white, was at pains to point out that he didn't like the use of the word 'supernatural' in reference to whatever force is at work on the pog. He preferred the term 'spiritual' which is fine by me, although the whole exchange does come across like something out of 'The Wicker Man”. Making such a big deal out of this distinction does seem to be the etymological equivalent of splitting hairs and by constantly emphasising subjective experience and the importance of the individual seeker's spiritual journey tends to duck the issue of the various physical phenomena that have been observed on the mountain over the last many years.
Allowing the crew to break for an early lunch I return to Lavalanet to complete the root canal treatment, the procedure allowing me a little quiet time to mull over the implications raised by our ongoing enquiry. It is evident that we are going to have to up the stakes and box a li'l smarter if the finished film is really going to hit the mark.
As a special treat we take the crew to Madame Couquet's auberge for an aperitif. Madame initially refuses to do an interview. She is a master at playing hard to get but in the end consents, more for old time's sake than anything else as she was one of the original interviewees on 'THE SECRET GLORY' back in 1998 to which 'THE OTHERWORLD' is in all kinds of ways an official sequel. The auberge is, as a great many folk who have stayed there will agree, haunted, being the oldest house in the village but although Madame will admit to the presence of the spooks ( whom she refers to as 'les anciennes' ) off-camera she refuses to go on record about it as she thinks it may be bad for business. She does however share a lovely anecdote about the spiritualistic seances that Rene Nelli held here back in the day and for a moment it really is just like old times. It's warm in the sunshine, sitting quietly at one end of the long table in Madame Couquet's first floor parlour, listening to everyone else talking and laughing and for a moment I half expect Suzy Nelli's voice to come up the stairs, to hear her dog Leika barking in the hall or to see Immo Horn and Otto Rahn step in the door and take off their hats.
Then the anaesthetic starts to wear off, summoning me back to the present.
Above: At Maison Couquet - ( from left to right ) Scarlett Amaris, Sylvain Auge, Karim Hussain, Aimee Couquet, moi, Nicolas Boyer and Dave Decottiginies ( photograph by Corinne Binon )
Tuesday – June 19th – Montsegur
“The mountain looks like a woman bending over with her ass in the air,” Christine Autier explains, as if this were obvious.
“Uh -huh', Karim gamely turns his eyes towards the cliffs that rise above us, trying in vain to work out what she means.
Christine is the proprietor of a medieval boutique in what you might call the village's high street whom we contacted in the hope of bringing a more feminine perspective to the documentary. She tells us the story of Esclarmonde the immortal chatelaine of the castle, whom she has named her boutique after and painted numerous pictures of during the long, cold winter. Her take on the unprecedented equal rights that women held in the 13thc is interesting, but when asked what is the strangest thing that has ever happened to her in Montsegur, she gets a little flustered. Finally she tells us her belief in reincarnation and how odd it was to her to realize that she had given all of her children medieval names and that she is so attracted to a certain time period. Reincarnation is a theme that we hear again and again living in the village. There are so many visitors believe that they were Cathar's who were burned at the stake, that we've given this a name, 'Montsegur syndrome'. With Christine it may be different though, she was born in this village and her ancestors were the original inhabitants. Those ancestral roots must run deep.
After having spied his white lady collection on Sunday, we go back to Fabrice Chambon's house in the afternoon to talk about the tradition of goddess worship in the Pyrenee's and how it never really went away, but went underground. We tell him a little about our research in drawing a direct correlation from the Venus statues found in the caves, to the domina's that the troubadour's sung and wrote poetry about as the worship of the sophia or divine feminine. Fabrice is very excited when we first propose the idea to him, telling us that this tradition indeed exists, that it is very important but for some reason no one ever seems to talk about it. Fabrice then grabs the ball and runs with it, giving a fantastic spontaneous interview on the subject. The goddess and the grail are one after all and it seems to be the perfect subject to be delving into the day before Midsummer's night.
Summer solstice June 20-21 – Montsegur
From the web-log of Scarlett Amaris
Like mules we trudge all the equipment up the steep path to the castle in preparation for the evening before the summer solstice. It's pretty heavy going, but we all eventually make it safe and sound. Richard and myself are the last ones up and we pass an older man on the path who asks us if we are with the film crew. We tell him yes and he laughs and says that the rest are already at the castle all out of breath. Then he feels the need to tell us that his wife is still up there and that she is a believer. In the next breath he tries to explain that he is an atheist, but the word just won't come out. It's kind of like watching a cat with a hairball in its throat and finally after many tries he finally spits it out. After that he looks kind of sheepish and hurries down the path.
“It's so weird the way that people always feel the need to spontaneously share in this place. Happens every time. It's almost like there's truth serum in the ether.” I muse out loud. “It is the other world after all, the normal rules don't apply. Weirder though was the way he couldn't say the word atheist, almost like the mountain wouldn't let him.”
“I bet he wouldn't have had any problem with the word heretic.” Richard dead pans and we both agree laughing..
Above:: Midsummer sunset - photograph by Scarlett Amaris
The pog is noticeably quieter this year. There's still the various groups of people who stake out their places around the castle, but it's not quite the colorful clash of strange faiths that we've witnessed in years past. The weather is gloriously warm and everything seems set for a perfect night shoot and solstice effect in the morning. Just after dark we set Dave up alone in the tower room to do a two hour time lapse on the T2I. I saunter into the castle courtyard to set-up interviews with our resident sorcerer, Uranie, Catalan artist, Ivan de Castries and Michele Ianella, the medieval sword master. The first fires are lit with Michele being the 'master of the sacred fire' as we sit and roast marshmallows while we talk about potential idea's for subjects and swap pog stories. I feel a slight pang of guilt as I hear Richard and Karim on the other side of the castle yelling out instructions to each other and the rest of the crew as they set up another shot.
“Don't let anyone ever tell you that fieldwork isn't a bitch.” I joke with Ivan as I pop another marshmallow onto a stick and into the fire.
As above,so below: Midsummer night in the castle courtyard - Karim and Nicolas set up while I share a smoke with Uranie - the sorceror of the River of Colours ( photographs by Ivan de Castries )
Uranie has driven up all the way from the river of colours to witness his first solstice at Montsegur and he gives an inspired interview on the balancing of the male and female energies, portals and numerous other subjects by fire light which suits him to a tee. I suspect that his interviews will have quite an impact on the wider public and we are all really impressed by what a natural he is on camera.
Midsummer morning – Montsegur - June 21 2012
From the shooting diary of Richard S.
The interviews in the courtyard took a little longer than we had expected, especially when our last subject of the night, a bald, somewhat vulpine looking Occitan nationalist who introduced himself as the 'last pope' proceeded to regale us at length about the fall of Montsegur and the history of the south. Strutting about his camp fire, clad only in a pair of cammo trousers, he looked for all the world like a young Colonel Kurtz or some sort of Cathar Kilgore. He insisted on reading his poetry and by the time we broke away and made it back to the north facing tower it was already somewhere in the small hours of the morning.
Above: Frame grab from 'THE OTHERWORLD' - the image shot from the north facing tower
Dave was perched nervously on the rail of the platform above the tower room floor, keeping an eye on the camera set-up from a safe distance. From here the banter in the courtyard was reduced to an infrequent murmur, the flicker of the camp fires in the long embrasure in the far wall providing the chamber's only lighting.
“I heard noises,” Dave stammered, looking a little pale.
“What kind of noises?” asked Miss Scarlett. “Whispering?”
“Animal noises. I thought they were rats.”
“There are no rats up here.”
“Maybe toads,” He glanced sheepishly back at the black well of the tower ,grateful that the time had finally come to break the set-up.
As above, so below: The summer solstice at Montsegur - June 21 2012 - photographs by Arpaix Pereilha
As dawn approached the castle began to fill up with travellers, maybe two hundred pilgrims in all, converging on the north facing tower to witness the celebrated 'solar phenomena.' Among them were many familiar faces from the village including Yves, Ragnhild and Thierry. The Goddess saw fit to grace us with a clear, bright morning and ideal viewing conditions. The crowd surged forward, snapping photographs and reaching out to touch the blood red beams formed by the east facing embrasures capturing the light of the rising sun and effectively using the earth's atmosphere as a prism to draw a series of glowing rectangles on the far side of the chamber,a fiery sign that has been repeated year after year since the keep's construction. The phenomenon lasts for a little less than fifteen minutes and can be reliably witnessed for approximately six days on either side of the solstice, weather permitting.
Outside the tower I heard some of the villagers begin to sing in Occitan but I felt the need to linger in the chamber a moment longer. Uranie was standing in front of one of the embrasures, staring east into the gathering light and I knew that all too soon we would follow the way he looked, down from the mountains to where the Rennes plateau awaited. The sun rose higher and before us the landscape unfurled itself from the night mists like a labyrinth still waiting to be walked.
TO BE CONTINUED:
In our next instalment:- Action, gags, mystery and romance. The team converge for a bizarre moment of truth at the Tour Magdala and much to their surprise stumble onto the true secret of Rennes-le-Chateau.
Part Two of 'THE OTHERWORLD – SHOOTING DIARY' will follow shortly...