If I met John Harries today I would consider him a quack- intriguing, but a quack. However, in 19th century Wales he would have been the first person I would have brought my dead cat to. An esteemed medic who carried unorthodox practices, people came from all over to be healed by the strange John Harries. A charmer, or a cunning man, John had many healing specialties including conjuring benign spirits. He owned a padlocked book that he used only once a year to read incantations and summon these spirits. With so many healing gifts, John managed to only transfer few of his powers to his son, a servant and some pupils.
THE CUNNING MAN, written by Ali Cook and directed by Zoe Dobson is inspired by the true John Harries – jumping forward to modern day Wales. Afran Harries (Simon Armstrong), a descendant of John’s, carries the healing mantle as an old laconic farmer. We first meet Afran as he is walking down the countryside road cradling a dead dog. Once he spots the local knackerman (Ali Cook) trailing behind him in a pick-up truck filled with dead sheep, he quickly covers the dog to hide him from the knacker’s hunt. The knacker tips off to a local inspector (Ian Kelly) that Afran is collecting dead animals. The inspector investigates and finds that Afran is building a pile of bodies in his barn. Where one would feel shock and disgust, the inspector and knackerman only see a lucrative payday. With this the inspector warns Afran that he must get rid of the bodies or face a fine and shutdown.
Armstrong does a fantastic job creating a sense of uncertainty as we can’t tell if Afran carefully collecting dead flies in a shallow tin is a sign of sickness or compassion. The tense score coming to a crescendo every time the camera sneaks into the shed of offal certainly does not leave a sense of good intention. But its juxtaposition with an avaricious inspector and knacker makes us question wherein lies the sickness.
This award winning short, contrasts two reactions to life: compassion and greed. Afran, now on a clock, performs a ritual and unbinds a familiar padlocked book to incant what Dobson claims to be the “five key rights of animals as laid out in the EU Lisbon Treaty”, but what I’m sure is meant to just seem like some spooky Welsh witchcraft. While the magic marinates, the unaware knacker and inspector are celebrating their good fortune as they drunkenly figure out how much each head is worth (300 pounds for two bulls!).
The cinematography (Dave Miller) and sound (Lol Hammond) are undeniable. Dobson lets the magic seep through the animals by abruptly cutting the ambient soundtrack, which takes the audience’s breath to give a stilled lamb life. This scene of reawakening was delicately handled and wonderfully shot as the camera focused in on the breath of the reborn.
What I love most about this short is the subtle “fuck you” it gives to these greedy men while also not contending that there are any real winners, good or bad. THE CUNNING MAN ends in a way that brings the loop together. One moment we experience the magic of life and the defeat of greed and in another we witness countless deaths or at least an indifference to it. The point isn’t just to bolster compassion, but to capture its never-ending dance with greed.
THE CUNNING MAN, is touching, subtle, and stunning. In thirteen minutes, it succinctly depicts the human condition as two sides of the same coin. And for that it should not be missed.