In the horror film in Welsh, Celebration (2021), Cadi (Annes Elwy), a young woman serves special guests at a dinner hosted by MP Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) and his wife Glenda (Nia Roberts). Unbeknownst to guests, the secluded rural Wales house will be where they take their last meal.
Trained actor turned director, Celebration is the directorial debut feature of Lee Haven Jones. He has produced television in his native language, Welsh and English, including crime dramas, Vera (Cleeves, 2011 – present), The Bay (Carville and Clarke, 2019 – present), The long call (Jones, 2021 – present), and the Scottish ensemble Shetland (Cleeves, 2013 – present), as well as the sci-fi series Doctor Who (Davies, Moffat & Chibnall, 2005 – present).
In conversation with PopMatters, Jones tells us about his attraction to high horror movies with a message. He wants to reclaim horror cinema from his American roots, he says. In addition, he wants his work to challenge the removal of the Welsh language from the global market.
A good place to start is to ask questions about the genesis of Celebration. What prompted you to tell this story?
Roger Williams, the writer and I have worked together on a number of projects. The way we work is to discuss things and then decide what themes we want to riff on and what kind of story we want to tell. I will then throw a few ideas at Roger and that could include pictures and songs, or photography. I am a little pious in the way I work.
It seems like a lot of directors refer to other movies, and they’re obviously in my subconscious, but I have an acting background, so I watch the theater. I also like architecture and photography. I throw a lot of stuff at Roger to see how it affects him and then he goes away and will write something. Then we’re going to question what he did, and it becomes a back-and-forth process between us.
This story is based on three elements. We are both passionate about horror and recently I have been charmed by the works of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, or films like RAW (Ducournau, 2017). I love these lofty horrors that have a message, as well as a load of blood and gore.
The other passion is for Wales. We both speak Welsh and we are keen to tell our stories to a global audience. There is the element of passion, and then there is the pragmatism. To tell a Welsh story in Welsh to a global audience, we felt it needed to be told through the lens of horror – like a Trojan horse, to overcome the cultural barriers that the Welsh language and themes of the story pose. It was the pragmatic element, and then the politics was that we wanted to say something about the world from our point of view, as Welsh people.
What are the challenges of the Welsh language, and is there a hierarchy where certain foreign languages ââare more accepted by global viewers, for example the Scandinavian languages?
This movie seems to have done something that I instinctively knew it could do, which is speak to a global audience. In terms of Welsh TV production, every time we’ve done something that’s half-decent we’ve had to do it again in English to get it accepted in international markets. This is certainly not the case with the black scandi.
I had a theory about it and part of the film was born out of that theory. Historically, the problem with Welsh drama on television is that it has a British or English tone. What I tried to do was try to make it singular.
Celebration draws heavily on Korean or Japanese horror lore, and there is a Scandinavian feel to some of the visuals. It doesn’t sound like English and it helped. So the language, rather than being an obstacle, has helped to make it different, more exotic and strange. To make this happen, I had to combine the language with some very non-British or non-English visuals.
So your approach was to overturn preconceptions about the Welsh language by connecting it to foreign genre cinema with proven appeal?
The play does not refer to it, but it is influenced by a body of literature written in the 1300s called the Mabinogion. It is a series of folk tales, legends and myths. What’s interesting about them is that they are full of horrible things, and what I tried to do is claim the horror genre as Welsh, because horror in cinema is an American form.
In developing this film, I was struck by the fact that a lot of our literature from the Middle Ages has a lot of horror content. I looked east, looked inside Welsh culture, and tried to create a hybrid that didn’t look British. This is partly why [The Feast] had international exposure. We created at South by Southwest, then we went to BiFan in Korea, Switzerland [NeuchÃ¢tel International Fantastic Film Festival] and portuguese [MOTELX â Lisbon International Horror Film Festival]. We had a good festival in many different markets.
Celebration echoes the ancient tradition of parables, and it is one of those films that is made by its end. The sudden descent into violence contrasts with the previous slow rhythm, where the atmosphere is ambiguous and threatening. The moral message addresses our relationship with the planet and warns of a violent environmental backlash.
I continue to speak of it as a contemporary moral tale. On a personal level, this is about the importance of being true to yourself and to your people. On a broader level, it is a stern warning against the consequences of greed, greed and consumerism.
At the heart of its heart is also this message about environmentalism and sustainability, about how we use the land and abuse the land. In its bloody conclusion, as you said, it gives a stern warning about the kind of vengeance the planet will take against us if we continue to abuse this fragile Earth.
The movie plays out like a fairy tale, or a very simple Grimm story, and it was on purpose. It’s interesting when you talk about how the ending makes the movie – I’ve talked about it a lot lately. We’re creating a space that some audience members love and others find incredibly claustrophobic, and they hate it. We create a space for the audience to enter the room and project their own thoughts and feelings onto the characters.
Many ideas are shown but not explained. For example, when Cadi comes to the aisle, we see her damp hair and the image enters our subconscious, but we don’t know exactly what it is until later. We are never explicit and we do not tell with a spoon, in the televisual sense, what the characters are talking about. We let the public linger in this atmosphere, and it is only at the end that it is explained.
â¦ This film demands a lot from the public and some do not have the patience. I’m aware of it, but it’s not instant gratification. It would be weird if that was because the message is instant gratification is bad, and that’s what’s killing the planet. The form reflects the content here, but I fully accept that slow cinema is not for everyone.
By challenging the tendency to speak directly to the public, instead of creating a space for them to think for themselves, it is Celebration designed with subversive intent?
This movie is the antidote to a lot of the work I did in the past as a television director, where I swam in a sea of ââliteralism, telling everyone everything. Here we are trying to show but not to say. Hopefully, this is the kind of movie that if you see it a second or third time, it will become a richer experience, rather than throwaway entertainment. It’s about engaging an audience creatively and imaginatively, not spooning it all in.
I trained as an actor and one of the things in theater is that without the audience, of course, the theater doesn’t exist. You need an audience and I tried to bring this idea to my cinema. You need an audience that is engaged and engaged, and the rewards are much greater for the audience. They imaginatively engaged in a movie and it became more complex, deeper and richer for him.
I made the kind of movie that I love to watch. They say when you make your first feature film, do what you know. Celebration is an expression of what I know.