The White Nightingale
by Joao Penalva

mud under the river Avon


  • 1Video still from The White Nightingale
  • 2Video still from The White Nightingale
  • 3Video still from The White Nightingale
  • 4Video still from The White Nightingale
  • 5Video still from The White Nightingale
  • 6Production image: Joao Penalva filming under the Clifton Suspension Bridge

Video still from The White Nightingale


Joao Penalva’s film The White Nightingale presents a forensic-like exploration of the bed of the River Avon under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of Bristol’s primary icons and the subject of many stories and myths.

Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge, spanning the Avon Gorge, is a beautiful and breath-taking piece of engineering, the bridge is an icon of Bristol's cityscape. Its story began in 1754 with a Bristol wine merchant who left a legacy to build a bridge over the Gorge. 24 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was eventually declared the winner and appointed project engineer - his first major commission. The foundation stone was laid in 1831 but the project was dogged with political and financial difficulties.

It is also the subject of urban myths and the site of many suicide attempts, and it is this aspect of dread and loss of self that the bridge evokes which captivated Penalva and became the subject for his film. The White Nightingale undertakes a forensic-like exploration of the bed of the River Avon under Clifton Suspension Bridge. The 45 minute long piece entwines forensic-like footage of the river bed under the Clifton Suspension Bridge with the narrative of a written Hans Christian Anderson-like dark folk tale. The images, evocative soundtrack, fairy tale and installation combined to create a brooding atmosphere where the audience could suspend their disbelief and be carried along with the river and the narrative.

Penalva's dream-like journey draws on documentary footage to construct a fiction and to conjure fantastical places. What began as an exploration of the mud-banks and the bed of the River Avon becomes a mythical tale of quest and wonder.


Year 2005
Duration 40 minutes
Medium Single screen video projection
Original format DVCAM
Screening format Beta SP / Digital Beta
Aspect ratio 16:9 FHA
Audio Yes
Colour / B&W Colour
Screens 1


Co-commissioned by Picture This and Situations at UWE as part of Thinking of the Outside, and funded by Arts Council England, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and South West Screen.

Screening history:

21 May - 03 July 2005
'Thinking of the Outside'
St. Nicholas Markets, Bristol, UK

Related Items:

João Penalva

Joao Penalva researches actual events right down to the smallest detail, in order to associate them with fictitious discourses and notions.

Historic Sites
2003 - 2005

Between 2003 and 2005 Picture This produced a suite of commissions, each looking at the site and stories within historic buildings.