Winter 2017: The Truth doesn’t have a shape.

Here’s my latest blog-post, the spelling and grammar for which I’ll be correcting as I go along – but not the sentiments and opinions expressed in it. Any corrections or typo comments are most welcome.

At the moment I’m trying to work out if I count as a BrexitDoc Film-maker, or ScottishDocumentaryIndy Producer. But I’m fast coming to the conclusion that I’m neither anymore. And am instead a nomadic, internationalist who doesn’t believe in borders – of any kind.

Which is kind of a nice place to be in…

The end of our street: Kronborg aka Hamlet’s Castle, HelsingĂžr, Denmark.

The winter hasn’t been as hard this year out on the North-Eastern, Cold War frontier of Denmark. In fact I’ve hardly noticed the gloom and darkness at all, mainly because I’ve been in lock-down in my cutting-room, continuing the development work on Legacy of an Invisible Bullet  and working on a series of 10 short films for Football’s very own ‘Special Forces’ the N.G.O: Spirit of Soccer. These are Films designed as training tools rather than for cinema and are to be used as viral’s and on an App, aimed at raising awareness among young people in war-zones about the lethal risks they face from Land Mines, the Explosive Remnants of War (or ERW) and booby-traps left by the Daesh.

Unexploded Daesh Mortar in the Cutting Room, Winter 2017. 

And while it’s been nice to actually get paid for once for doing rewarding humanitarian work, it’s also helped see me through not only the dark days and long nights of the Nordic winter, but also through a painful shoulder injury which has kept me out of the water and off a SUP board since Christmas. My Doctor has put the injury down to a combination of 50 years of hit, run-and-gun Film-making, Martial Arts, falling off  Surfboards and more recently over-doing the SUP board paddling in my down-time. On the bright-side though – and this being Denmark – he did proscribe exercise, physiotherapy and acupuncture rather than cortisone and pain-killers as the cure, and I’m now starting to feel like I’m on the way back in more ways than one and getting ready for the Spring swell.

Sore Shoulders and a Last Winter SUP session, the Kattegat, 2016.

This year I’ve decided to at least try to spend less time working for free on Facebook or Twitter  and instead upload any commentary/content that I produce directly to my blog and this website. I’ve also promised myself to include a lot more visuals along with words in what I do and – even though it’s against my better nature to do so – will try to keep the rants, rages, long sentences and word-smithery a bit more under control.

All of which you can probably tell I’m already failing at miserably here….

Living in a state of perpetual “homelessness” as an EU resident at the moment and in a land where I don’t inhabit the native language – despite frustrated efforts on my part to do so – I’ve become acutely aware that whenever I let-off steam on this blog, Facebook or Twitter, that quite often my council estate “Ranters-English” and Glasgow common-sense of humour often get lost somewhere in the translation. Especially among those of you that don’t live in the broken, class-obsessed language that I do, or who happen to inhabit – as most Danes do when the speak English – a subconscious, colonizing American version of the language, which as well as being unable to spell the word: Colour, correctly just doesn’t seem to get or see the purpose of irony.

All Quiet on the Cold War Front 2017, Marienlyst beach, North-East Zealand, Denmark.

Like many of you 2017 began with a firework display, a hang-over from 2016 and a sense of both disbelief and pessimism about what is going to happen to our world. The Xenophobic “Little Ingerland” mindset that Brexit has unleashed in my increasingly alienated homeland, along with the election of a Corporate Billionaire-Fanta-coloured-Fascist-Reality-TV Celebrity as leader of the western world will – inevitably – lead to more war. Conflicts in which you can already guarantee the poor will suffer, while those responsible for starting these new wars will grow even richer, yet still expect free invitations to film premiers, award ceremonies and modern art gallery openings.

What’s happening in the UK and USA at the moment reminds me too of the bleak Thatcher/Regan years and a song by The The: “Heartland” that I listened to again recently, and whose biting, pessimistic lyrics are just as relevant to the current state we’re in as they were back in the 1980’s.

So as well as just getting on with doing what it is I do in a Winter of discontent, I guess the big question I’m asking myself in my work is not just what and why am I still doing this stuff ? But what is and where is there a place for what I do in an over-saturated art form that calls itself a Creative documentary?

I do try to get out of my comfort-zone to see as much as I can. Although some would argue that’s probably nowhere near enough to be entitled to have an intellectual/critical opinion on the state of  Independent Film-making, especially when I compare my involvement to others whom I know, love and respect, that are obsessive to the point of “Geek” about watching everything and participating in every event that include the words: Film, Documentary, Festival, Prize, Pitch or Talent Development somewhere in their title.  But then my withdrawal from such events over the past few years especially is self-imposed – even though I did kind of go to Film school for 2 days last Summer in Ebeltoft; While my decision to ration and be more selective about what I watch is down to the need to keep a clear head, remain focused and not let what I’m doing become lost  in the digital fog and to be blunt Bullshit that’s out there.

From a health and well-being perspective too, after spending long days hard-wired into my edit suite because of my hearing problem, quite often the last thing I want to do is watch films or TV, let alone listen and talk at Transmedia think-tanks, Pitching forums, or seminars on the future of Film-making. All of which are things that my life partner because of what she does as a day job – and which probably either makes her your best friend or sworn enemy at the moment – the New Danish Screen Commissioning Editor: Marie Olesen positively thrives on.

But when I do take part in the kind of events that I really should be at more often if I want to be a “player” in the game, I’m becoming increasingly aware – as a punter as much as a film-maker – of the emergence in the Creative Documentary scene of a political orthodoxy and constructed style of film-making, which often makes me feel like I’m watching the same film only with different titles or names attached to it on the credits. And that’s something I the think technology – because it’s really difficult to make something look bad these days – Pitching forums, Talent Development schemes and Film schools have all played a part in creating; Along with the willingness of an ever-growing legion of highly educated, often privileged young film-makers who believe “talent development” is all about winning prizes, rather than inciting rebellion, nurturing and articulating the fire in their bellies and changing the world – even if only a bit.

After the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, Winter 2017.

On my most recent trip “home” to Glasgow in February for my 6 monthly blood tests and check-ups at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer centre, I found time during what is always a difficult and tense few days to attend a Glasgow Film Festival Industry event billed as a “Truth–shaped Films Afternoon”

Quite why it was given that title I don’t know, because I for one certainly don’t believe that the truth has any shape to it.

And while I’ve never really expect anything new, radical or controversial to be said by any of the Game-keepers-turned-Poachers – who still want to be the Game-keepers that were moderating and speaking about themselves at the event, I did become acutely aware while watching the clips selected to illustrate their “love-in” of the emergence of an institutionalized House style.

Something which – despite competent production values – was perhaps best summed up by a comment for a senior Controller present from BBC Scotland, who described the kind of films being championed as the future of the “Creative Scottish Documentary” as:

“Too long and too boring…”

From what I witnessed taking place at the Truth-shaped Film afternoon, I fear that there’s a real risk of an exclusive mono-culture emerging in Scottish Documentary making scene.

In fact you could even call it an exclusive “club” or “cartel” of like-minded, privileged and institutionalised mindsets, who are creating a climate in the production sector, that stifles any film-maker who dares to be different, who thinks independently, or who can’t rely on an academic salary, or the bank of Mum and Dad to fund their activity or “Talent Development”

But then to be optimistic tough times need tough people to make Films still and it’s encouraging to know that there’s still a few of them left out there….

While in Glasgow – and in-between what a UKIP voter might call my “NHS Tourism” – I did get to spend time with someone who typifies the kind of independent spirit and free-thinking that I admire in any Film-maker or Artist: May Miles Thomas, who has just completed her 4th feature film against all the odds, in a cold cultural climate at the end of Northern Europe. May and I first met back in the 1980’s, when we were both effectively “conscripted” onto a Government Training scheme during the Thatcher era. Back then we were considered by the State to be “unemployable art school graduates that needed training” rather than talent that should be developed. Because at the time in that repressive True-Blue climate, a career in Art or Film-making still wasn’t considered like it is now: An acceptable “reserved occupation” for public school kids in what is calling itself a Creative Industry; And sadly “Chirpy Proles” who were “good drawers” like May and I probably wouldn’t get into an Art school these days on the strength of a portfolio alone, as long gone are the days when an Art school education was an escape route for poor kids who refused to “Know their place” and who were looking for a way out of the oppressive British Class system.

Guerilla Film-making with May Miles Thomas, circa 1984.

May has spent the last two years of her life without any state cultural funding, working on an intriguing and beautifully crafted one-woman narrative feature film. Which is also – as she rightly claims – probably the only indigenous narrative feature film to come out of Scotland in the last few years, and probably the only one that’s been made by a woman.

It’s an ambitious film that’s risky, provocative and inventive in both its narrative form and visual style. From what she showed me in her edit suite, having said quite rightly before I watched anything that I’d only get to see the whole picture on a Big Screen, her film: Voyageuse looks like a brilliant combination of Big-screen Visual Cinema and intimate, personal storytelling. It’s based on the life story of her late mother-in-law, Erica Thomas, and to quote from May’s blog is a “mix of romance, science and conspiracy theory that’s drawn directly from her (Erica Thomas’s) journals, a vast archive of personal film, photographs and new video material….”

From what she showed me – and as well as dealing with the kind of conspiracy theories and occult truths that Documentary Producers dismiss at their peril now – it’s also a film which is a different take on history, full of Cold War intrigue and with a real “edge of darkness” feel to it. Voyageuse is a one woman show in every respect really – both on and off the screen, with May having written, shot, edited, graded and composed the sound score herself. While significantly also it was neither pitched, vetted or worked-over by a talent development scheme – which for the most part tend to favour 30 something film-makers anyhow – rather than people like May who have a life time of film-making experience behind them.

You can read more about May’ s latest film for yourself on her blog: Voyageuse

But perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to May Miles Thomas and her film is that it takes you to another place. Into another cinematic dimension and different time-frame.

Like many other non-conformist – heretical even – cinematic “Labours of Love” made in Scotland over the years, May’s film will probably be largely ignored by people who should no better, even though it deserves international recognition on the Art-house circuit. Which is sad really because in a healthy cultural climate, the truth should exist in many independent forms, radical shapes, sizes, shades and in different House styles. While in terms of film-making talent, the out-put should also reflect the many and diverse voices that exist in a small nation at the end of Europe.

In general I’m not a fan of short films. Mostly because many seem to be an exercise in seeing if a Director can get an Actor to walk through a door without falling over. Which brings me to the reasons why I’ve found myself this winter not only making the short films for the App I mentioned, but also continuing working on more than a 120 for want of a better word “short” films that I’m developing in collaboration with the Actor: Charlotte Munck and the legendary avant-garde Jazz  Musician and Poet: Dane TS Hawk, which together form the basis for my current project Legacy of an Invisible Bullet.

Like most things I’ve ever done as a film-maker it’s a journey of sorts and is the closest I’ve come yet to making a self-portrait. I prefer to call it an “Existential Surf Movie” which I began filming in the winter of 2012, when life took me to a place that I didn’t expect to go. And while it also has been partly shot with the Surfer’s camera of choice: A Go-Pro it’s hardly what you could call a Big Wave Surf action movie. I’ve also filmed with my mobile phone and other cameras that  I’ve had at my disposal, since I first felt I had Flu that wouldn’t go away, found a lump on my neck and took the decision to turn the camera on myself. Which is something as an observer of the world that I haven’t really done since my Art school days in the 1980s as a student exploring Artists Video, Experimental Film, Performance, Punk, the sweat of my Youth, DiY culture and body politics.

Young, Angry, Art school and Punked…

When I started out on the “pocket cinema” Existentialist Surf Movie that is becoming Legacy of an Invisible Bullet, which I should also really be calling by its Danish name: Sporene af en Usynlig Kugle I had no idea what and where it would end. All I knew was that because of cancer diagnosis, it may well be the last film-making I ever did. And that even though I still have a lot of other unfinished business in the world – my 20 year project: Minefield comes to mind here  – I was going to give what I was doing my best – and possibly last – shot.

But then I also needed something to occupy myself – A meaningful distraction if you like from pain that has helped me confront my fear. So – yes – I guess an element of what I’ve been doing was and is – like most creative activity – a form of therapy, that’s helped get me through 3 tough years and into a process of recovery that I’ll be in now for the rest of my time in this world.

The last thing I’ve ever want to do is make yet another one of those “victim films” about Cancer, let alone produce a “selfie” about my cancer. And there are certainly enough of them out there in all the digital noise, that include some new ones from Scotland. And most are to quote that BBC Scotland Executive again at the Truth-shaped Film Afternoon:

“Too Long and too boring…”

But I still began writing with my camera anyhow, as well as keeping a blog about fear, pain, love, death and life in-between wars, languages, cultures and the countries that I now inhabit. At the moment what’s developing out from what I’ve filmed and am currently filming with Charlotte Munck – who is playing both herself and me in words as well as images – is a number of what I will call connected “pocket cinema” short films. Fragments and records of the moment, that when taken together as a whole tell a much bigger long-form story: My Existentialist Surf Movie.

Some of these shorts border on the abstract, while others are just records of journeys I’ve made with a Go-Pro and mobile phone while cycling around and creating a Copenhagen Cycle Geography. Others still are intimate and sensitive portraits and philosophical muses, while some are hard to watch; Visceral, raw self-portraits of what I’ve been through over the past few years, which – despite their graphic nature – have a certain tough-beauty to them. Others are straight forward pieces to camera, or a record of time and the seasons passing outside of my window, while those scenes that involve Charlotte playing Me, are mostly drawn on the blogs I’ve kept since all this started, and are a real leap into the unknown for both of us as both performers/image-makers.

I’m also exploring a new way of shooting as well as performing with Charlotte, that’s based on a similar 4k I-phone set up that the film Tangerine among others has used in the past few years, and I’m knocked out by the picture quality of what we’ve shot so far. And even if it doesn’t actually fit into my pocket as “Pocket Cinema” it easily and securely wraps into a Cycle pannier – which is our main source of transport when we film in and around Copenhagen together. But then it’s also something of an experiment with a production model that’s been born out of cultural and economic necessity, and perhaps is even a new digital re-working of the Poor Cinema ethos and idea of the Camera Stylo of the 1960’s and 70’s. While pragmatically, it’s also probably addressing the reason for my suspicion of many conventional short films in the first place. Where far too much attention – and probably far too much of the production budget is spent on shooting with the latest Camera, in the hope it can turn an often orthodox screenplay into something that it’ isn’t. While quite often the on-screen talent remains unchallenged, untested and is usually expected to work for free, because the budget has been given to the rich-kid – who probably doesn’t need it with his own Red Camera.

Shooting Rig for Sporene af en Usynlig Kugle. Based on a 4k i-phone 7 plus and the Filmic Pro App. Shooting Anamorphic with a MoonDog adaptor, mounted on a Beastgrip camera support – It does the business….

At the moment what Charlotte and I are doing involves an ongoing process of writing with a camera, performance and editing voice/language in an inventive way. Although as the project develops further, I do see it existing both as a long-but not to boring-film and – just as appealing – as a 120 (tbc) short films that you can watch in any order on a mobile device. And to this end, I’m looking at the potential for an App that would take you as an audience to the locations that I’ve filmed in as part of the experience. Only I should say you’ll probably need a bike and air plane ticket – to do this….

Cinema is a Girl and a Bike…

Charlotte Munck after Pilot filming on Sporene af en Usynlig Kugle .

Creatively on a personal as well as a professional level it’s great to be working again. And I’m, lucky, honoured and – dare I use the word after what I’ve said elsewhere “Privileged” to have around me people who – in a true spirit of collaboration – are willing to invest their time, talent and cash in what is I am trying to do, in a way that would never have happened or been supported back in Scotland. I also have to admit that  – along with all the love and emotional support I’ve had, the actual act of Film-making – of “Just doing it” – along with learning to “Walk on water” during my recovery – which I’ll be writing more about later in the year – have all helped to keep me alive.

And yes there really is some real – if bad and Existential – Surfing in the film…

Which really is all I’ve got to say about the project – until the Spring comes..

Quote spotted and stolen from a Danish Commissioning Editor’s Pintrest board…

Afterwards: Thanks to May Miles Thomas for corrects!