Things to do with 120 short films #1

The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.

RAINER MARIA RILKE, Wendung

I’ve never really been much of a fan of short films.

Especially those that are little better than film school calling cards that prove a Director is a genius because he/she can manage to get an actor to walk through a door without falling over.Even worse still are the kind of shorts that are little better than the developed-to-death bio-waste product of the kind of film scheme’s that make me want to reach for a Kalashnikov every time I hear the words “Talent Development” mentioned.

But then I would also readily admit to having seen some pretty decent what could be called “short films” over the years too – which have mostly been experimental, risk-taking or visionary/complex works by artists; while the few scripted drama’s that I do rate have a directness, simplicity or minimalist feel too them and have in some cases been made by extremely “short” Directors who’ve gone on to make “long” films – even if they stopped growing in physical stature a long time ago and are probably a bit passed-it to sport the kind of baseball cap’s that are a compulsory part of the uniform worn by ‘new talent’ in the Film business these days.

If you’ve visited my website before then some of you may have read the blogs I’ve been keeping while dealing with thyroid cancer over the past 4 years called The Legacy of an Invisible bullet – which in the end I guess are a series of existential muses on life/death, things that matter or that I rage and rant against in the world, rather than a sentimental “cancer journey”

But as well as writing through what would be a dark and difficult time in anyone’s life, I’ve also been filming regularly with a Go-Pro, my mobile phone and a much-loved but shell-shocked XDCam that I should really put out of its misery now….

And the result of all this activity – and despite what I’ve said above – is to-date in the region of 120 short films….

The Wipe-out #1

A key element in embarking on this project in the first place – along with writing blogs – has always been about maintaining a creative self-discipline as much as being – like most art is – a form of occupational therapy.

Writing and filming really have helped me get out of bed in the morning as well as being a reminder of what it is I do actually do as a day job – despite the professional and personal setbacks I’ve encountered since I hit 50.They’re a reminder too of what the film-maker/artist Derek Jarman once said in an interview that I’d filmed with him at the CCA in Glasgow:

That being a film-maker is as much about the process of filming as it is about the end product.

I’ve since heard writers use this same analogy when they talk about why they write – Karl Ove Knausgård‘s masterpiece “My Struggle” comes to mind here – as well as painters, musicians and actors, who will all talk about the significance of the process and exploration being more important to them in the end than the product.

But then too in my case there’s also been lurking somewhere just below the surface a thought that what I was – and am still doing  – might just end-up being the last creative writing and filming that I get to do in this world…..and that it would be nice to leave something behind – even if it does happen to go straight to a Vimeo or You-tube channel.

The Wipe-out #2

It’s been 4 years now since I was first diagnosed with the “crab” and more than 3 since – after a series of tough operations and infections – that I went into the lead-lined “white room without a view” at the Beatson, West of Scotland Cancer Centre for radioactive-iodine treatment …

And all I can really say now is that I’m still here…

…..Still having regular check-ups and blood tests which – as time passes – get harder rather than easier….

……Still taking the thyroxine replacement hormone that I need every-day now to stay alive and to prevent me from going mad – as my Onc Doc’ told me would happen if I lost or had my medication stolen while filming on assignment in the Middle-East….

I’m also living back in Copenhagen again and exercising my rights as an EU citizen to live anywhere in Europe – even though I’m also now officially what Teresa May and her patriotic cronies would call “a citizen of nowhere” – because I don’t want to speak the same political language as her racist and xenophobic government. I also return to Scotland regularly and really hope to make another film there – someday – and still consider Glasgow – which has always been a city of migrants anyway – as my home-town.

I’m also getting out on a surfboard occasionally although I now spend far more time on a SUP – or Stand-up paddle board – out in Copenhagen harbour, or teaching others how to walk on the waters of the Oresund….

….and 4 years on I’m still working on a project which to-date has resulted in 120 for want of a better term “short films” that are currently compiled onto 7 Reels which – if taken together as one “long film” – have a run-time of around 10 hours….

The Hold-down #1

So I guess the big question that I need to address – along with what I leave-in or take-out of a final-cut – has to be:

Just what does a film-maker who dislikes short films and whose spent his entire professional life observing the world do – when having turned his camera’s gaze on himself and his own body – with that volume of material? Perhaps more importantly: Is there anybody out there who would want to watch any of it?

The Hold-down #2

Until this Spring the only people to have seen any of what a creative industries type would probably refer to as my “content” were my life-partner and co-Producer Marie Olesen the project’s Producer Jesper Jack from the Copenhagen Production outfit House of Real my close collaborators on the project from the outset – the performance artist/actor Charlotte Munck and the avant/guerrilla jazz legend/guru Dane TS Hawk – along with a Film Commissioner at the Danish Film Institute who is currently supporting the next stage in the project’s development.

But recently that group of people – who were formerly known as an ‘audience’ changed after my Producers and I were invited to take part in a “Digital Story telling” Lab in Nyon, Switzerland as a part of the Visions du Reel Documentary film festival. Like most things to do with the Documentary scene these days it was an oversubscribed, unnecessarily competitive event, in which we would get the chance to work with experts from the field of digital story-telling to take our project to the next level. Even though it quickly became evident to all the Film-makers and Producers selected that the one thing we all really need to take our projects to that “next level” wasn’t on the table in the first place.

I’m also still struggling to define exactly what “Digital story telling” or what makes it any different from what we already do as story-tellers and image makers. Beyond observing that it’s “story telling” on a digital platform such as VR or Virtual Reality – which I’m still not a huge fan of, not least of all because I find the headsets a form of perceptual bondage, rather than an extension of my senses; Or even something – which is a new buzz-word in this brave new world – called AR or Augmented Reality which mostly seems to be installation based, or experienced via a web-based/digital platform that we would still probably call a website.

Trying to put my doubts aside about what “Digital story-telling” actually is wasn’t made any easier by the keynote speaker at the event from the University of Westminster – where else? –  who told us at the end of her presentation that we should all think of ourselves as “Architects” now rather than as artists, writers, producers, designers or film-makers. Something which is difficult in my case, not least of all because I still have a big ideological chip-on-my-shoulder about what the term “Architect” has come to represent for anyone who was brought-up on a dehumanizing concrete English council housing estate in the 1970’s.

But despite all my reservations the workshop – or rather “digital story telling lab” – did provide us all with an opportunity to share our stories and test-out our images and ideas on a diverse range of film and digital related folk from all-over the planet, most of whom had never met each other before. On a human – let alone a creative – level, I found sharing the material that we’d decided to present from Legacy of an Invisible bullet an unnerving experience, mostly because what we chose to screen was of a highly visceral/intimate and at times traumatic nature.

Visceral  (vĭsˈər-əl): Relating to, situated in, or affecting the viscera.

Perceived in or as if in the viscera; profound: “The scientific approach to life is not really appropriate to states of visceral anguish” Anthony Burgess).

 

Whether it was down to genuine engagement, or simply out of politeness/sympathy the response and feedback that we received was on the whole very positive. Although the doubters present did query whether thyroid cancer actually counted as ‘proper cancer’ and also suggested that there were perhaps still “better” – as well as more politically correct – conventional films to be made about the subject of the “crab” – that didn’t happen to feature a middle-aged, white deconstructed alpha-male with a chip on his shoulder.

But then the last thing I’ve ever wanted to do is make a film about cancer.

Even if the operations I’ve been through did take me close to the final door in this world on several occasions as a result of infections and a hematoma; While you only need to look at my out-put as a film-maker on this website to realize that making a conventional film or otherwise about the “crab” is not my scene and definitely not my style.

But what I do know after my experiences – both on and off camera these past 4 years – is that I’ll never be the same as I was before all this happened. That physically, I’ll never get to ride on those more challenging waves that I’d hoped to catch as a “sore-shoulder” surfer before I hit 60. While psychologically – as well as creatively – what’s happened has allowed me to explore an “inland geography” and body-politic which has led me to question both my identity as a film-maker as well as a deconstructed alpha-male who’s lost his ‘armour’

All about a “C” word

Just as importantly – from a motivational viewpoint – what’s happened has also helped me rediscover my mojo and passion for what it is I do. And something that I started doing with an old Super 8 camera as a teenager during the punk era. Something too that I’d pretty much stopped caring about after the final soul-destroying year that we’d spent trying to stay afloat in Scotland; having seen far too many wonderful stories that needed – and still need to be told – scunnered and spooked by the “Dark Lords” who control things there and who also pretty much blacklisted us.

My first Super 8mm

But coming back to the big question that I set myself in writing this blog:
Just what does a film-maker do with a 120 short films, that are a work in progress and are but at the same point aren’t another film about the “crab”?

Well I guess that was why we’d ended up in Switzerland in the first place – along with a few dozen film-makers and digital experts – for an intense week that was to be spent locked-up in a château which – it  soon became apparent – was also a Catholic conference centre/retreat for the Vatican’s men in suits who looked a lot like members of Opus-Dei.

But the Vatican connection aside – what struck me the most about the good company that we found ourselves in for the event – apart from their ability to consume vast amounts of alcohol – was the energy and passion that everyone shared for what it was they were making, along with a willingness to share their stories with strangers, as well as be open to new ideas about how they might present them to the world.

It was a good reminder to that “lab” after all is a place where experiments take place and where accidents and failures will often lead to new discoveries. Which was something that was in marked contrast to the guarded heard it all/seen it all before/done that mindsets, platitudes and cultural conservatism of the few spoiled TV Execs and Commissioners invited along as the judges on an “X-factor” style speed-pitching forum – which we only reluctantly took part in – and which as we suspected all along quickly turned into an underwhelming anti-climax to what had otherwise been a positive and inspiring week.

Alongside my ambivalent attitude towards short film-making, my suspicion of VR and in-bred class-prejudices towards architects, I also have an intense aversion to the whole concept of Documentary pitching forums – or rather to what documentary pitching forums have now become.

This I readily admit is partly because I’m not very good at them – I’m like a “bull in a china shop” when it comes to the kind of middle-class professional or academic etiquette that’s needed to speak or perform as a show pony at such events; partly too because – as was the case in Switzerland – there’s rarely any serious cash on the table for “proper film-making” at such events, but mainly because I think that Documentary pitching has become a “Creative Industry” in its own right and an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Even though I strongly believe that we should always be ready and able to stand-by if not necessarily always articulate in words what it is we do or want to do creatively – as well as passionately defend ourselves and our art//ideas and visions by all means necessary – what’s happening now because of the bad science and politically correct “cult of pitching” is leading to the creation of a mono-culture, inhabited – for the most part – by privileged millennial’s with very little to say or experience in the world, but who are all more the capable of delivering a clinically perfect pitch and crafted trailer.

Equally I’m yet to be convinced that even if a pitch and trailer are perfect that such precision and polish actually prove that someone can actually get up in the morning and make a film “by all means necessary”

In that respect trailer making and pitching have become a lot like the kind of short films that I mentioned at the start of this piece.

But then I’m conscious too that my time left in this world is running out now, and that I still have far too much unfinished business as a film-maker to deal with. In the end you need to walk-the-walk more than just talk-the-talk.

Which I guess also brings me back to what Derek Jarman said about the act of film-making mattering more to a film-maker than the end product.

Yet despite my doubts and even anti-intellectualism as some might argue I’m still open to new ideas about just what to do with my 120 short films – which I also have to confess at the last count – had turned out to be in the region of 126.

Only please:

Don’t ever ask me to start calling myself an Architect….

The fine art of Surfacing #1