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When I was a kid growing up on a Council Housing Estate in a military town, in the south of England there were 2 things that I’d only ever dream of becoming (well 3 if you included being a Rock Star) However for the purpose of simplicity, I’ll not talk about Rock n’ Roll here, beyond mentioning that I did dream about being a guitarist with The Who after watching Quadrophenia. As for my other 2 teenage dreams, the ones I will talk about here, the first was to become a Professional Footballer and the second was to be a Film Director.
Before mobile phones and You-tube came along, Council estate kids didn’t make movies. At best in the days before reality TV, you might end up being featured in documentaries about poor people, football hooligans or skinheads. Convenient stereotypes created by TV Professionals who for the most part hated working class kids. As for becoming a professional footballer, although we all – black and white alike – played football together every-day, only a few of us were ever good enough to get a trial for the local 3rd Division team: Gillingham. In my case although I was fast and agile, I had very little skill with the ball at my feet as an out-field player. However stick me in-between the jumpers that were goal posts (a place no one except me and a couple of gangly-guys wanted to be in the first place) and it was a whole different ball game.
Being a goal-keeper was the closest thing I would ever get to flying and I was good at it. From my position in goal I could see the whole game – in fact a whole different world – opening up in front of me. I could ‘read the ball’ and anticipated movement and was mad enough to dive at people’s feet – on grass and concrete alike. Suddenly everyone wanted me on their team. My sports teacher and the Football Scout who was recommended to watch me and another 21 kids trial for Gillingham youth, said I had a natural gift for goalkeeping. But, there was one big problem. Although I was fast, acrobatic, fearless and stupid, I wasn’t tall or heavy enough at the time to make the grade as an apprentice goalkeeper. “Put on a stone in weight and grow 6 inches” was the advice of the football scout who watched me “and we’ll take another look at you ” Well I never did grow that 6 inches and rather than grow taller what I developed instead was a physique that’s known where I come from as ‘being built like a brick shit house’.
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With my football dream over, most kids I knew went off into the military, while a few did make it into the lower leagues as professional footballers, and one guy even got to be the road manager for The Clash. I meanwhile set about pursuing my teenage dream number 2 with the aid of a second-hand S8mm camera that my Mum found in a spiritualist church jumble sale. Over-time I managed to beg, borrow and occasionally steal S8mm film stock and was even lucky enough to get a batch of past it’s sell by date process paid Kodachrome from Timothy Whites chemists, which kept me going for a long while. I didn’t really see what I was doing as making Art or Documentaries, I was just ‘making movies’: Portraits of my friends and home movies of council estate life, a science fiction film (based on ‘Silent Running’ that used dustbins as the robots Huey and Dewey), a martial arts movie (after watching Bruce Lee at the Plaza cinema and taking up Karate) and even a soft-porno (called ‘Gill does Gillingham’ – starring a girl called Dawn in her stockings and suspenders who went on to become the real Miss Gillingham and eventually a Tory councillor) Unfortunately Gill (or rather Dawn) does Gillingham was never seen because Dawn’s Dad – a local gangster – got wind of it and demanded that the only copy be burnt “Or else!”
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And then I went off to Art-school and discovered a whole different ‘Way of Seeing’ thanks to John Berger. I soon also discovered a whole world of auteur cinema that council estate kids never normally got to see. I loved Godard, Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, watched Easy Rider and even liked some of the less boring avante-garde film-makers like Stan Brakhage and Jeff Keen. And for a while – like a lot of film-makers – I even imagined being Wim Wenders. And then I discovered documentary and reality film-making and found a home of sorts as an image maker and artist. When I look back now as a film-maker who’s made a career out of writing with a camera and watching and following people to tell their stories I do ask myself what I owe more to: Film-making or Goal-keeping?
(Notes from a project I’m currently developing: “The Town of the Shouting Men”)
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All Stills from Sarajevo Kodachrome S8mm ‘Louder Than Bombs!