Screen test

The north east has a long way to go if it is to create an independent culture of documentary filmmaking beyond the worthy but unimaginative, argues Ian McDonald

Though I can no longer say that I’m new to Newcastle, I still say ‘Newcaarrstle’, I still love walking across the Millennium Bridge, and I still like to take photos of the Angel of the North. I had never even visited the north east before coming to live here 18 months ago from the deep south – Brighton…well, Hove actually. And yet this city has confounded my expectations, including the well-worn stereotype shared by many of my erstwhile colleagues from the south, that it is “grim up north”.

But perhaps most revelatory of all, and really exciting to me as a filmmaker, is learning about the existing film culture in the region. I have enjoyed finding idiosyncratic screening spaces, like the Star & Shadow cinema and the quaint Quilliam Brothers Tea House, and discovering the indispensable Tyneside cinema. Then there is the Amber Collective which has built up a unique and invaluable film and photography archive on the changing industrial landscape and working class communities of Tyneside over the past five decades.

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Filmmaker Ian McDonald (right)

And yet… if we compare the film scene in the north east to the capital, it has a long way to go. Also, an independent culture of documentary filmmaking – committed to producing work outside of the mainstream of “factual” television and beyond the worthy but unimaginative illustrated lectures of informational films – is undeveloped.

I believe that in this region we must advance the idea of the documentary as a cinematic art form, and must strive to educate a new generation of filmmakers rooted in observational documentary and steeped in an understanding of film history, especially world cinema. If our aspiring filmmakers are simultaneously grounded in the craft of filmmaking but also have their heads in the air of ideas and creativity, then they would be able to go on to make distinctive independent documentaries as well as be able to work in the industry, if they wanted to – or branch out to related areas of visual practices.

We shouldn’t be afraid to say that filmmaking is an intellectual as well as a craft based practice. While digital technology has made potential filmmakers of us all, the art and craft of intellectually meaningful creative filmmaking is premised on the cultivation of a filmic sensibility. There is an increasing proliferation of images in our screen-dominated visual culture. It is fast and furious. But our ambition must be to equip our aspiring filmmakers to challenge orthodoxies by developing socially relevant and aesthetically meaningful documentaries based on the cinematic image.

Filmmakers in the north east – as elsewhere – need to be more than technologically savvy. They must be attuned to humanity. The master filmmaker from Hungary, Bela Tarr, once declared that his film academy in Sarajevo would “create artists who have an individual outlook, an individual form of expression and who use their creative powers in defence of the dignity of people within the reality that surrounds us”.

In the north east of England, we should seek no less – creating a challenging space that not only changes the creative landscape of our region, but puts its stamp of filmmaking here and beyond.

Ian McDonald is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and senior lecturer in film practice at Newcastle University, which launches a new degree in documentary filmmaking (BA Film & Media) this September. You can follow Ian on Twitter.

To mark the launch of a film praxis screening and seminar series at the university, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield will be screening his latest film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, on Monday 1st June followed by a Q&A. Follow this link for further details.

One thought on “Screen test

  1. It’s an interesting starting point to call an entire scene undeveloped Ian, and one which will win you few friends within the community you seek to build.

    While I would never argue that we couldn’t be doing more, search a little harder and evidence of a scene which even if not thriving by London standards (and frankly, where is?), is certainly producing work which reaches well beyond the confines of either ‘factual TV’ or ‘illustrated lecture’.

    By way of example, I’d point you towards ‘Last Man on The Moon’ by Darlington’s Mark Craig, or the forthcoming Addicted to Sheep by Stockton’s Magali Pettier. Go back a little further and discover our regional links to Peter Snowden’s The Uprising, or Gillian Wearing’s début feature Self-Made.

    Starting to sound a little healthier? There’s more. Emerging regional talent Mark Chapman, whose latest short doc will premiere at EIFF next month, building on the success of his previous genre pushing short ‘Trans’. Also at Edinburgh you’ll find Mark Cousins ‘6 Desires’, produced by Byker based Third Films, who last year had two films premiering in Venice. Developing yes. Undeveloped? Really?

    Stretch your gaze a little further to our burgeoning festival scene. Last year’s Berwick Media Arts Festival saw their co-commission with NFM awarded to Ben Russell. Admittedly we’d never claim the nomadic yank as one of our own, but his film, Greetings to The Ancestors, which premiered here before going on to win a Tiger Award at Rotterdam, would not have been made without the support of the (I’m now leaning towards thriving) scene in the region. Did you catch the AV Festival last year? Test Department’s DS30 which was first performed down at Dunstan Staithes has now been adapted for cinemas and will soon tour across the north.

    I could go on and extol the work of artists like Cecilia Stenbom blending oral history with the aesthetic of Scandinavian crime drama, activists like Paul Irwin applying a documentary sensibility to teenage drama with his TryLife series, or the new works being commissioned at the Tyneside Gallery (Mikhail Karikis new installation?) but I hope the point is clear by now.

    Yes let us challenge orthodoxy. Yes let us encourage emerging film-makers to discover and extend their own cinematic languages within and without our academic institutions. And please let us set aside any notion that we’ll do ourselves any favours by comparing our output to that of London or dismissing what is already happening across the region in the documentary sphere.

    Later next week we’ll join together as a group of regional talent, yourself included, attending the Doc/Fest in Sheffield. I look forward to taking the discussion forward there as we celebrate the world premiere of Addicted to Sheep and plan for an even brighter future.

    Yours in film


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