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Dancing With Ghosts: The Mystery Film Reel that Unveils a 30 Year Old Story

By Miles Watts | 4th February 2014

Leonie Mellinger

Leonie Mellinger

Every cinephile at some point has dreamt of finding a piece of film history in a rusty old can at the back of an attic. It may not be a lost Hitchcock or Godard’s holiday films but there’s something ever so magical about an old can of film; the kind that modern filmmakers use images of on their business cards but have probably never actually held.

I was fortunate to receive such a can from my father-outlaw (he’s not in-law and also something of a rogue) for Christmas. He bought it from an antique shop, who in turn found it in a dusty old attic, a scenario that misty-eyed romance is made of. We sat round the Christmas table perusing what might be in it, and whether it might explode upon opening or be full of mutated spiders. Sorry to put that image in your heads but we thought I could either turn it into an office clock, use it as a paperweight or perhaps open it up and take the mystery further.

Flash forward to February 3rd 2014: the aforementioned outlaw and I gathered round a not-so-dusty table to open the can with the Yorkshire Film Archive’s Graham Relton, who was secretly hoping the contents would be something to do with Yorkshire.

The mystery can of film

The mystery can of film

They weren’t. But they were amazing.

Using a flatbed Steenbeck editing machine for the first time since about 1993, I carefully ran the film past the heads, watching the flickering screen with anticipation. Although I couldn’t have become a filmmaker without it, digital technology just cannot replicate the thrill of running a reel of film through a Steenbeck: it’s light illuminating celluloid, twenty five times in a second.

The first few minutes of footage yielded a few interesting, if not earth-shattering, images: a timid lady lurking by a fountain; two figures crossing a busy Paris street, and perhaps more vitally, a clapperboard with the date 1983 and the title Ghost Dance emblazoned across it in crude marker pen.

A clapperboard reveals the mystery

A clapperboard reveals the mystery

A quick Wiki (here’s where modern technology supercedes the romance of the antique) revealed that Ghost Dance was indeed a 1983 experimental, semi-improvised film, directed in Paris by English filmmaker Ken McMullen. The cast list included Robbie Coltrane and Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewellyn, although neither were to be seen in these rushes, and I thought for a while that shots of roads and distant figures was all I was going to get.

And then, a close-up! A lone woman, sad and beautiful, gazing upon the Paris afternoon. IMDb revealed this to be Leonie Mellinger, one of the female stars. Mellinger, who I was pleased to see was a Twitter user, plays Marianne, one of the two women in the film going through similar experiences in Paris and London. Her co-star, who could also be glimpsed from a distance in the footage, was the late Pascale Ogier, daughter of Bulle Ogier who starred in surreal 1972 classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie.

Pascale Ogier sadly died of a heart attack the year after Ghost Dance was released, but Mellinger is still very much alive and well, and responded quickly to my tweet about the film reel’s existence.

Twitter chat

Twitter chat

A quick Twitter search located a Kingston University academic and critic who knew of the film and its director well.

Further correspondence pending in that regard…

A tweet to Robert Llewellyn also yielded a brief but illuminating chat from the then twenty seven year-old actor, who revealed that he remembered the Paris shoot ‘very well’ but had never seen the finished film.

‘How bizarre and spooky,’ said Llewellyn. “I recall Pascale Ogier passing. I never knew Robbie Coltrane was in it. I didn’t meet him in Paris, only years later in London.’

Rooting around the internet for bits of information about Ghost Dance, it’s clearly a film many have a place for in their DVD collection: one review states that ‘Ken McMullen was, along with Derek Jarman, Chris Petit, Peter Greenaway et al, part of a little wave of 1980s experimental British directors who briefly found a wider audience’ and that the film is ‘a flawed, sometimes irritating one, but unique and often extraordinary.’

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