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Inverness men Mike Webster and James Roddie's world premiere of new film Down The Rabbit Hole at Inverness Film Festival delves into Highland caves and mental health issues

By Margaret Chrystall


Down The Rabbit Hole


THERE’S a photograph late in this documentary where filmmaker Mike Webster looks out at us and into the lens with wide staring eyes and we laugh.

On the voiceover, caver and professional photographer James Roddie also laughs: “I’m not going to lie, there’s a slight glint of fear in your eyes which is adding to it…”

The guys have just got through a particularly challenging part of the Cave Of True Wonders at a secret location on the Applecross peninsula.

And James has just said that it is absolute madness doing photography in this section of cave.

“But ain’t nobody else doing it!”

In the documentary, the two tackle three important caves in the Highlands, James on a mission to photograph them, some for the first time those parts of the cave will ever have been professionally-photographed, Mike to film it.

And Mike had to learn to cave to make the film.

Mike Webster and James Roddie fresh from a cave expedition.
Mike Webster and James Roddie fresh from a cave expedition.

But the documentary is also witness to James and Mike talking about mental health, James devastatingly frank as he opens up about a long-running eating disorder and the death of his father which triggered a bad period for him. He also reveals the crucial role that climbing, and now caving, has played in his recovery.

So with all that in mind, Down The Rabbit Hole is likely to be one of the bravest pieces of filmmaking you will ever see.

As well as sharing the thought processes of someone coping – or trying to – with mental illness, you get to relive the dangers of risking all in underground enclosed spaces.

You see ‘chokes’ and ‘hanging death’ – where big slabs of rock that have fallen from a cave roof are just lodged, maybe waiting to fall on an unwary caver.You can squeeze through “the Sphincter” with them, not to mention witness cavernous narrow wells sinking away into dark shadows deep in the earth that James crosses with one long stride. And of course there are the narrow spaces like chimneys in which we see Mike inch upward or the magical longest-in-Scotland stalactites he crouches beside to act as James’s model.

Down The Rabbit Hole, poster for Mike Webster and James Roddie's film.
Down The Rabbit Hole, poster for Mike Webster and James Roddie's film.

And as well as exposing and sharing things that make them face their own fears about both internal and underground places, the duo’s documentary makes you the viewer a wide-eyed explorer in what for many might be brave new worlds too.

The editing means the flow of the journeys and the voiceover from James drives the 40-odd minutes of documentary forward, though it lingers where it should.

The music by Deborah Shaw soundtracks the film in a perfectly-judged, understated way matched by a chilled guitar instrumental by Nicky Murray.

One of the most moving moments in the film sees the two men emerge from the ground in dawn sunshine at 6am after an overnight caving expedition, where a little deer in trees is caught for a few moments on camera, mesmerised and silhouetted against the green as it watches them.

What happens: Climber, caver and professional photographer James Roddie takes his friend and filmmaker Mike Webster to three Highland caves he wants to photograph, where some parts of the caves will be captured for the first time ever. While on their mission, James talks about his mental health issues, reveals his story and how his climbing and now caving affects his well-being and recovery.

Who for:

People fascinated or horrified by caving – this is your chance to look around and spend some time in some unique and unseen spaces with James and Mike taking the risks! But it’s also a revealing insight for anyone interested in the conversation about mental health, hearing one man’s story as he bravely opens up to share what he has learned.

Best quote: James: “The period of recovery from severe mental illness has in some ways given me or contributed to my better character aspects in my work as an outdoor photographer. It’s not an easy industry to work in, you have to persist and work really hard and you have to come back from being repeatedly knocked down. Odd as it sounds, I don’t think I would be able to do what I do as a job and in life if it hadn’t been for that period of recovery.”

An exhibition of some of James's photographs is on show in the first floor stalls gallery at Eden Court now until the end of November. It is also hoped to bring back Down The Rabbit Hole to the venue for another screening. Look out for further details.

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