“So Doug just what is it you freelance people do all day when you’re not being paid to make films?”
It’s a question that all of us have probably been asked at some point in our lives as freelancers. And it’s a question I was asked not for the first and probably not for the last time in Mikkeller’s bar up in the Nørrebronx (as the locals like to call the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen) by a concerned Personnel Officer – or as they prefer to be known now in Corporate speak: A Human Resource Executive; who also as it happens has the sharp dress-sense of an ageing Mod rather than a corporate grey-suit kind of Guy.
In trying to answer my ageing HR/Mod mates question though, I also need to reflect here on why it is I’ve been working for the most part unpaid throughout 2014 – because of cancer treatment – and now through the best part of 2015 with my battle-scarred EX1 camera, a number of Go-Pro’s – which I have a habit of trashing – and a Nokia 1020 mobile phone on a ‘pocket cinema’ project about Cancer, Cycling/Surfing, Life/Death, Glasgow/Copenhagen and being nowhere. And to illustrate this post and reveal something visually of just what it is we freelance people really do all day when we’re not being paid to go out and film in the world, I’ve also set-up a Go-Pro time-lapse. It’s actually the output from the third Go-Pro that I’ve been through in just under 2 years; the others having either fallen from window ledges in storms, been broken while I’ve been out cycling around a city, surfing the Atlantic or SUP boarding in Copenhagen harbour – and all that in-between their main use – which was to document a body and the intimacies of life/time passing with cancer.
Around this time last year I was back over in Glasgow, my hormones and mindset in chaos because of a thyroxine imbalance, which has now thankfully been sorted by a vigilant and hard pressed NHS. It’s also been a year now too since 55% of the voting population of Scotland said NO to Independence; And a year too since I along with many others – judging by the number of cameras present – witnessed through my viewfinder the high hopes and sense of solidarity that was evident in George Square on Referendum Voting night, trashed and hijacked the following evening by the red, white and blue bile, prejudice and hatred that the NO campaign had stirred up at their ‘Victory’ party.
It was a dark and fearful night for Glasgow that night despite the fact that the city itself had overwhelmingly voted YES to independence. Probably one of the ugliest I’ve seen in fact – and believe me – I’ve witnessed and filmed some serious unrest and violence in Glasgow over the years. It was a stark reminder too of just what makes the British state function in its current form and how it depends on the violence, fear and loyalty to a Monarch/Union of under-privileged blue-bloods and misguided young lions who in the end it really doesn’t give a fuck about.
Since that night in George Square and along with a self-funded trip back to the front-lines of the Middle East on another long-term project I’m working on: Minefield, I’ve pretty much been working unpaid, editing 50 odd short films that will eventually form the basis of a pocket cinema feature called: The Legacy of an Invisible Bullet.
Which actually brings me back nicely to the question I was asked by my HR/Mod mate in the pub and the fact that to even attempt to answer his question here I also need to ask a few more:
What exactly is it that I am doing for free here if it doesn’t help others or save the planet?
Why have I put so much unpaid love and sweat into such a venture and how/why do I still manage to get up in the morning to do this kind of stuff in the first place?
Just who is it for in the end and why am I even bothering if there’s no chance of recouping what Producers like to call deferrals and what we film-makers call working for free..?
I’m no longer a young or aspiring film-maker and neither have I really been classified/commoditized as Talent either by State funding agencies or Broadcasters, both of whom I have a life-long love/hate relationship with. And to be honest now whenever I hear the words: Talent Development mentioned or a term like: Talent Lab used, I usually want to reach for a Kalashnikov. Because for the most part Talent has become increasingly associated with Academic elites and the financially privileged; While attending a thing called a Talent Lab implies a willingness to quite often pay out of your own pocket for the right to be a Lab-Rat in a bad science experiment; during which you get to take snake-oil formulas or even play with Lego bricks, in the hope that you’ll discover the X-factor that persuades people – who say they have money but often don’t – to invest in you and your masterpiece. Having attended such Labs and pitching clinics in the past myself, you eventually realize especially as you get older and more committed to what it is your actually doing in the time you have left on the planet rather than in what you want to do, that most of these events are an end in themselves. They’re not about making films, film-makers and are certainly not about nurturing free-thinking.
But I guess if I’m to get my HR Mod mate to carry on buying me a few beers occasionally, as a struggling artist I owe it to him as well as myself – to try to be positive here and attempt to answer his question and explain why I/we/you still do what we do in an over-saturated profession in which only a few chosen ‘Talents’ will realistically make a living and win prizes from their films? At the same time, there’s also the daunting prospect that perhaps no one out there really wants to watch our films about Life and Death/Singing and dancing Psychos/Boys meeting Girls by a lakeside or in war-zones/Girls with guns/Zombies/Life on Council housing estates or in my case: Cancer/Cycling/Surfing/Glasgow/Copenhagen/War and Football; Even if we end-up offering the end product for free on-line to an audience who in the UK at least is currently more interested in pictures of cats, porn, pigs and politicians? And while I’m on the subject of making a living or being paid for that most precious of all Human Resources called creativity:
We ALL knowingly and stupidly work as free content providers and willingly share our dreams, art, intimacies/successes, failures and private lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Tumblr et al, who despite all the bullshit about “Here comes Everybody” and “Broadcasting ourselves” are still at their rotten cores about an old-fashioned analogue TV idea: Delivering an audience to an Advertiser. Only now an audience who also happens to think they are broadcasters and content providers rather than just passive consumers. But unlike you or I who give our stuff away for free the billionaire geeks behind these .coms get paid lots of money for their services.
So much in fact that they get to employ Lawyers to protect their intellectual property and cover their skinny arses, Accountants to launder their cash and bribe politicians, and even HR executives to keep their worker/drones in place and on low wages; Only they’re probably not even nice HR Executives who still have a social conscience and dress sense like a Mod, but instead are the kind of folk who would never consider buying either you or a skint/angry/ageing film-maker a beer, because they don’t go out to meet real people in places that we call pubs.
Like many people my age who’ve lived through the end of the analogue era and witnessed the birth of the digital economy, and something called the Creative Industries, I’m still romantically as well as ideologically attached to an old-school idea that what I’m doing as an independent film-maker is way of life and not just a way to make money. But at the same time I still also do regard what I do every day as work, just as much as my HR Mod mate calls what he does work. Because I get up in the morning usually early to write although sometimes not – because I’m meant to be bohemian after all – and so get to stay up, work late and get pissed on a Wednesday night. But still first thing I think whenever I wake up is:
I MAKE FILMS.
I don’t fill in monitoring and evaluation forms or spend my time researching a PhD on the perfect documentary pitch, neither do I write and re-write the log-lines for speculative projects in a coded/dead language that fit’s onto one side of an A4 sheet of paper (not that any of us use paper much these days – even in corporations where humans are now treated as a resource in the same way that the office stationary cupboard once was) And for me it’s always been that way; from the first time I picked up a Super 8mm camera as a teenager in the last century until the next time I pick-up my battle-scarred digital camera in the current one: I get up in the morning and look at the world.
And thankfully there are still lots of people out there who are just like me. People who I’m in healthy competition with, yet show solidarity with everyday; People who I’ll argue with and who’ll argue back and yet whose work I admire and respect and will watch without prejudice, with the noted exception here of a celebrity kilt-wearing cineastes/TV presenters and former Edinburgh film festival Director, who claims to make films for a tenner and is beneath contempt for doing so; People who have fire in their bellies and are probably at the same time border-line nut-jobs because of it; People who are thrawn and often poor yet rich and tenacious; People who feel they have an obligation – as resourceful humans and not as a Human Resources – to look/reflect/comment/love and rage against the world, and in the process capture what they see and live through; People who take risks and bare witness to things and are willing to hold power to account rather than just be seduced by wealth, status and celebrity.
I fell out of love with what it is I do before I got diagnosed with cancer. The result of burnout, being screwed-over once to often by a Nations and Regions Controller and one knock-back too many from a dazed and confused token/geek who passed himself off as TV Commissioner (for a while anyhow) And the soul reason I’ve found my passion for film-making/doing stuff again is down to the fact that it has been therapy in tough, dark and desperate times over the past few years. But then in the end isn’t all film-making/art/writing or whatever it is that some of us chose to do to give meaning and purpose to our lives always going to be some kind of a therapy? Even if it doesn’t happen to be the answer my HR Mod mate was looking for?
When I look at what I’ve been editing this year and shooting throughout the last, I’d say that: The Legacy of an Invisible Bullet is an autobiographical film. A self-portrait of what happens when an observer becomes the observed. And if I were to try to pitch it in the wind and not at a Talent Lab, I’d say its an intimate film about losing your armour, that portrays cancer and illness at times in a graphic, painful, explicit and desperate way. It’s also what I would call ‘pocket cinema’ a term which I love the idea of and it’s probably an anti Go-Pro movie about (not going) surfing – not least because of the cameras I’ve trashed. And in between the serious and dark matter that it’s dealing with its also quite funny; Because you need a sense of humour no matter how dark, angry and sick it might seem when you have cancer to: ‘Break all the Bad’ And then it’s also a film about living between 2 cities: Copenhagen and Glasgow and finding yourself outside of a normal life and instead in a blur-zone of the senses; A place where you live each day as it comes as if under a state of siege, cherishing things that are often taken for granted; Rediscovering things that make you feel human again. Things that test you, make you angry and want to start looking at the world with fresh eyes. But above all else it’s a film about the reason to do this kind of stuff in the first place as a resourceful human and not just as a human resource. And that final comment might even go some way towards answering my HR Mod drinking friends first if not his last question:
“OK!!! But Doug – How do you make a living…?”