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.
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.