Filmmaker: Nicelle Davis

The First Hour of Being Buried Alive in the Walls of a Half-Built Cathedral by Nicelle Davis

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Like Betsy Newman’s video for Ed Madden’s “Red Star”, or film interpretations of Jade Anouka’s poems by Mickael Dickes and Sabrina Grant, this collaborative effort from filmmaker Anita Clearfield and poet Nicelle Davis shows how to include the poet as an actor while still keeping the main focus on the poem. I was alerted to its existence by a post at Davis’ blog, The Bee’s Knees: “Collaboration: The Walled Wife.”

The Walled Wife is a project that has haunted me for the past six years; it is my retelling of a story about a woman who is buried alive in hopes that her soul will hold up the walls of a church. “The Ballad of the Walled-Up Wife” is a folk song at least 1,000 years old; it is one of the most famous in the world, according to folklorist Alan Dundes. In an interview Dundes explains, “the song has inspired more than 700 versions — mainly throughout eastern Europe and India — as well as countless essays by scholars.”

Countless, he says.

Countless, I questioned, and so began exploring the many cases of women being buried alive. I compared variations of a song sung across the globe. The lyrics go: a wife is buried so a structure can rise—it implies a room is worth more than a woman, and as a place she approximates value.

I started to wonder if the architecture of intimacy is dependent on violence—if art is the ultimate form of violence—if women, especially in the role of wife, are worth anything (or nothing) at all? Countless being the inverse of priceless, it would seem that this ballad proves that we are not worth much at all. It shows that the easiest thing in the world to replace is a wife—it says a woman is a thing.

Read the rest to learn how Davis attempted over the years to re-create the experience of being walled up or buried alive, what she learned from it, and how she came to collaborate with Clearfield and composer Silke Matzpohl. The post also includes the text of the poem, which first appeared in Manor House Quarterly.