Rhonda Lee Reali interviews the co-director of a new Welsh animated short, The Fairytale Of Water, showing on Sun 19 Sept as part of the Wales One World film festival’s EcoSinema programme.
If you’re an avid swimmer, water sports fanatic, diver, boater or just someone who loves to be by the water and is concerned about pollution, you need to plunge into Wales One World EcoSinema, their latest film festival. The theme is ‘Reflecting On Water’, and it’s an opportunity to view a series of films (three features, three shorts) and events that “reveal the different ways water touches the lives of people around the world.” WOW hopes it will “inspire audiences to cherish the rivers and seas that sustain us all.”
One of the shorts is A Fairytale Of Water, directed by filmmaker/sound artist Jacob Whittaker and storyteller and illustrator Peter Stevenson. It’s filled with stories and myths about Welsh waters, including creatures real and imagined such as mermaids, swan girls and water horses.
Stevenson, a Lancastrian who has lived in Aberystwyth for some 30 years, is a man of many talents and seems to have the gift of magic within him – and is able to weave that magic for others. He’s also an author, folklorist, musician and organiser of Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival and Y Mabinogi Project, in collaboration with Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Among the almost 200 books he’s illustrated (mostly for children), plus a dozen or so written for adults, are his Ceredigion Folk Tales, Welsh Folk Tales and The Moon-Eyed People, the latter a book of folk tales from Welsh America.
What drew you to storytelling, and what is your favourite aspect of it?
I loved listening to the storytellers as a child. It’s the conversational and community nature of it. Being face to face, in a different landscape every time, the story changing and adapting to each telling, and perhaps most of all the presence of the listener. And the most important skill a storyteller needs to acquire is the ability to listen.
Why are you drawn to Welsh myths and tales?
They are a folk history of the country. They are set in very specific landscapes that you can still visit to this day. And then there is the beauty of the myth and the mystery. They contain truths from the past that are still relevant today, and can help guide us into the future by showing the errors of the past.
Can you sum up Y Mabinogi and its part in The Fairytale Of Water?
Y Mabinogi tells of the stories of the beginning and aftermath of the wars with Ireland, and so offers ways to avoid conflict. It appears only briefly in the film, in two ways. In the second branch, Bendigeidfran walks to Ireland, crossing two rivers, to rescue his sister from an arranged marriage, suggesting Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea were once land before they were flooded, an idea confirmed by marine archaeologists.
In the fourth branch, Blodeuedd is conjured from oak, broom and meadowsweet to become a mate for Gwydion’s son Lleu – what could go wrong? – so Jake brewed three wines using the three flowers, and filmed the brewing process, and so Blod became transformed into a drink.
What is the advantage of using crankies over books?
No advantage really. They’re different. Books are perfect to read a story alone, while crankies are like an illustrated book come to life as oral storytelling to be shared with others. Like a film, but live.
Your film focuses on pollution in our waters. Do you have any ideas to clean them up and keep them clean?
Education. And from an early age. Caring for the local environment should be even more central to our school system. If we need to see how it can be done, check out the New Zealand education system, and the influence of Maori ideas and culture.
Water can be so calming, restorative and invigorating but, especially with climate change, can also be so destructive.
It’s a looking glass into our lives. Beautiful and serene, giving life and a home to many, yet capable of destroying everything around it. As a metaphor of how we behave, it’s perfect. We should watch the water and learn. Read Tove Jansson. Amidst life, there’s always a storm coming.
EXTRA BONUS QUESTIONS
Favourite bodies of water in and around Wales? What draws and inspires you to water?
Llyn Eiddwen, on Mynydd Bach. One of our many ladies of the lake lives there, and it has stories around it like nowhere else. It’s such a peaceful place, despite having a crazy history. See the film Jake and I made based on a crankie of the story of Rhyfel Y Sais Bach.
What were your favourite stories and fairytales as a child?
I always loved the way gossip and conversation leads into fairy tales. I was brought up on Grimm, until I slowly realised we have our own extraordinary fairy tales. Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Rose Red, and The Elves And The Shoemaker were favourites. And I got to illustrate them later in life, too. But I love the storytellers almost as much.
Did you love to draw as a child?
Oh yes. And I drew the characters in the stories I heard and made them into what we would now call artist books. Something I still do. I see images when I tell a story.
Besides Japan, what other countries are your favourites for tales and illustrations?
New Zealand, Czech Republic, Norway, Appalachia, the dark North, would be favourites, but I have in enquiring mind, so everywhere.
words RHONDA LEE REALI