The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival has given SLO Review the opportunity to review some of the narrative and documentary feature films on its 2024 program schedule. Follow the links to purchase tickets to see these notable films for yourself.

A Journey of Wonder

Like a satisfying conversation, director Dylan Howitt’s The Nettle Dress provides us a rich glimpse into seven pivotal years in the life of Allan Brown, an artist who in his 40s finds his medium in the form of stinging nettles.

Allan discovers how healing a journey of unraveling their potential can be.

Just over an hour long, the documentary (produced in the UK) follows Allan developing a new relationship with nettles after having fallen into a patch as a boy and being stung all over his body. As the film unfolds, his early explorations with the nettles provide him with tools he is able to use in working through subsequent losses, first that of his father and then of his wife.

The Nettle Dress is Allan’s story of turning tragedy into a transformative experience that leaves him, and the rest of us, feeling connected and hopeful in life.

His history was being captured into the fibers themselves and would be woven into the dress to come.”

Filmed over a seven-year period, the story opens with Allan and Bonnie, a recently acquired family dog, walking in Lime Kiln Woods near their home to gather nettles. It was on walks with Bonnie that Allan developed an unexpected appreciation of nettles and learned how to handle them to render them harmless. He initially learns how to strip the leaves, flatten the stingers, bundle them, soften them to peel them apart, separate the fibers, and spin them into thread. Over time, he learns to weave the fibers into cloth using carefully-researched, centuries-old methods. His progress is shown amidst scenes of natural beauty and softly meditative music as well as Allan’s own thoughtful reflections.

As his dad becomes more and more muddled and ill with leukemia in 2016, Allan sits by his side spinning thread and listening to his dad’s breathing. He notes the rhythms and sounds of the “tides” coming in and out until the final tide goes out, never to return. Allan reflects that “It’s a good way to go,” and realizes that having the spinning to work on in his hands was a tool that had kept his anxiety at bay. Unbeknownst to him, this tool was to become even more useful.

In 2018 Allan’s wife, Alex, was diagnosed with stage four cancer at just 45 years old. According to Allan she showed “the rest of us there was nothing to be upset about,” as Alex lived her life full steam until shortly before her death just months later. When her energy gave out, she created a nest in her bed and slept while Allan spun.

Once again the act of spinning kept Allan’s anxiety at bay and he realized that through experiencing the illness and deaths of first his dad and then Alex, a range of feelings was being spun into the fibers as he was spinning them. His history was being captured into the fibers themselves and would be woven into the dress to come.

The rest of the movie follows Allan’s progress in weaving cloth and creating a dress out of the nettles.

He had heard the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Wild Swans,” in which brothers are turned into swans, with the only solution to breaking the curse being for their sister to gather nettles in a graveyard at night and silently weave each of them a shirt. In the fairy tale, their sister makes the shirts, throws them over her brothers, and each one turns back into a prince.

While Allan recognizes that nothing will bring Alex back, making this dress not only becomes a tribute to her indomitable spirit, but it can long be worn by her daughter; then, being made from all-natural materials, the dress can be thrown back into Lime Kiln Woods to be reclaimed by the earth.

Allan experiences the entire process from gathering nettles to completing the dress as a journey of wonder. In his words, the process “keeps demanding that you take the slow road,” with the Nettle Master only revealing itself to him “bit by bit over the years.”

The transformations taking place in the nettles are also taking place within Allan, and we see him coming alive and finding joy again as the dress feels like it’s coming alive in his hands. When his youngest daughter, Oonaugh, wears the finished dress in Lime Kiln Woods, Allan reflects that it feels like the cycle is complete.

Reminded of the inherently healing quality of nature, the value of slowing down, and the benefits of alternating grieving with soothing activities, I found this film a meditative experience.”

As the family comes together for an annual Mumness Day celebration, remembering Alex on the fourth anniversary of her death, Allan reflects that the anniversary has lost its bite. He now appreciates that her legacy is alive in the children, who Alex infused with her love and good energy, resulting in them being happy, well, and strong, even in her absence . . . a beautiful legacy to celebrate.

In a brief epilogue, Allan adds that the nettles gave him a gift in demanding of him a different way of being in order to unlock their secrets.

I found my heart rate slowing as I watched the film. Reminded of the inherently healing quality of nature, the value of slowing down, and the benefits of alternating grieving with soothing activities, I found this film a meditative experience.

I recommend The Nettle Dress wholeheartedly for those who are interested in grief and healing, earth-friendly practices, and enjoying an hour of peace and tranquility.

:: Ingrid Pires

The screening of The Nettle Dress (run time 68 minutes) at the SLO International Film Festival is sponsored by Victoria Grostick & Pam Stein.