Interview with Robert Dee, Director of ‘The Devil’s Harvest’

A fascination with horror is often considered macabre and perhaps slightly misaligned, but by combining his passion for the genre with a diverse career and a well-chosen MA, Robert Dee brings us his visceral short ‘The Devil’s Harvest.’ The film offers a haunted dive into identity and childhood trauma. Whilst exploring themes some might feel are better left alone, Dee delves back into his youthful discovery of the uncanny by Freud. An unsettling sense of psychological vertigo provoked by an encounter with people, places and things that are both familiar yet strange at the same time, which forms the basis of his deliciously dark folk horror. He speaks about the influences he has garnered from some of the great directors and names in movies and the sometimes conflicted application of film theory in developing the spark of an idea into the production of an intense 11 minute short film.

“The focus of my creative work is on psychological horror as it enables me to marry my interests in the uncanny, the occult and psychoanalysis with my love of film.”

With an intoxicating mix of religion, identity and mythology how did you come to write the ‘The Devils Harvest’?

I have a large reference library full of weird, macabre and counter cultural subjects that inspire me and I love horror in all its forms and directors such as Lynch, Strickland, Kötting and Deren among others whose works are both intensely personal and irrational. I rarely remember where my ideas come from and I often wake up at 4am and write them down on my phone before I forget. It’s not a reliable method but I think the most important thing for me is filling my head with the stuff that interests me and eventually something rises to the surface. A sort of a guided intuitive process rather than a commercial approach and ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ was one of the ideas and that became my short film in the first year of my Masters.

How did your Masters degree enable you to actualise all of the ideas you have?

I decided to undertake the Masters in Filmmaking at Raindance Film School which was very much self-directed, so I was able to design my own pathway and focus it on developing a way of connecting the ideas I was gripped by to a working practice. During my undergraduate degree I read Freud’s essay on the uncanny which really spoke to me, touching on subjects I found fascinating. Leading on from this I decided to explore the subject and write/direct a short film with folklore overtones. I also started exploring art and photographic references and building a lookbook for the film. It was an intuitive process but guided through the course structure and the support of mentors like Kate Shenton and Ruth Paxton

The MA program at Raindance seems to have fitted perfectly to your needs – is it a course you would recommend for others trying to move into directing?

I definitely would not be where I am without it. I’m not a very good blagger and I need to know what I’m doing and I’m also a bit of a theory junkie. On the first day I was told ‘you are now professional filmmakers and you need to treat yourself professionally’ – an empowering thing to hear. I am vastly different now than I was before in terms of confidence and knowledge but, mostly, in terms of approach. I now have a proper way of working. I don’t feel ashamed of saying I’m a director, modest though my track record is. During the MA I researched directing in depth and now I feel I know what I am doing when it comes to directing dramatic work as opposed to a thirty second viral. As long as I can use the theory I learnt to support the films I want to make rather than shoehorn the films into cookie cutter theory templates I’ll be happy.

What challenges did you find in the jump from post production and advertising to film writing and direction?

I was struggling to find an artistic practice that helped me create the films I’ve always wanted to make and found the experience frustrating. Whilst I gained a film degree at university my learning was mostly on the job and technical rather than artistic. In post and advertising there’s a division between the directors and the technical artworkers so I knew how to realise the work of other people, but not my own which was very frustrating.

I also was dealing with a weighty dose of imposter syndrome. Alan Moore has a writing Masterclass on the BBC and he talks of the Wand suit in the tarot and its relation to will. You can have great ideas but you need will to see those ideas through to completion. A great idea in a pub can be the most amazing film if it’s never actually made and that, a little painfully, resonated with me. You have to earn everything so putting down the bottle and facing up to the fact that no-one was going to do it for me was an important personal step.

How did the script progress from the aforementioned ‘unreliable’ method of jotting down ideas at 4am?

I initially wrote the film as a short story and then screenplay and directed the short in the summer just before lockdown. As it was part of my MA my timings were very tight and I worked on the script for about 3 months, looking explicitly at visual subtext as the language that sits underneath the film and helps convey all the elements below the plot. I was looking into themes, visual motifs and symbolism and how to add weight to a film which is a tricky balancing act. Robert Mckee talks about image systems in his book ‘Story’. What you really want to aim for is generating your own symbolism within your film rather than relying on external symbolic sources. You also need to strip back anything that doesn’t have a loaded meaning so you don’t weaken your thematic message. Don’t hit your audience over the head with a message, they want questions, not answers.

In terms of writing I used Dan Harmon’s ‘Story circle’, a lot of people hate story structure methodology as they think of it as constricting and/or commercial. However I found it helps to be aware of it, then write organically, returning to it during rewriting to see if it helps fix things that aren’t working. I don’t buy into the ’you need to hit this beat on page 3 and the midpoint has to be page 8’ but I do think knowledge of these models can help fix things that aren’t working.

Even outsider filmmakers have clear structures in their work. It always amazes me that no matter how alternative any particular film is, you can still see the first major plot point happening around the 12 minute mark. I like to think of filmmaking theory as a toolkit that you can use if and when you need it. You can also challenge it. It’s the old cliche about jazz. Know the rules first before you throw them out.

You have mentioned various directors draw inspiration from – who do you look to as some of the greats in writing and directing and do you think they follow the theory you have spoken about?

I love most cinema and I’ll happily watch a blockbuster as much as an arthouse film. That said, too many blockbusters can feel like empty calories. I’m a big fan of David Lynch though I cringe a bit when I see too much influence of his stuff in my work. I also deeply admire Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarkovsky, Fulci, Kubrick, Park Chan-Wook, Andrew Kotting, Louis Bunuel, Mark Jenkin, Julia Ducournau, Argento, Peter Strickland, Roy Andersson, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, Maya Deren, and Hitchcock and anyone whose work is psychologically driven. Overtly political stuff tends to leave me cold as I’m just not built that way. That said, the Zizek documentaries on cinema and ideology are great.

As for if they follow theories or not, I don’t know. I know Ari Aster is a student of Peter Markham who’s written a very good book on script analysis for Directors. Scorsese did a great three part series on Classical Hollywood cinema and Gilliam did a great series on Early Cinema. As I also love horror, Mark Gatiss’ documentaries on horror for BBC4 are outstanding.

We’ve heard a lot about your theory and writing, what about the more practical elements in the shooting of ‘The Devil’s Harvest’?

Production for ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ took 3 days starting in some community owned woods in Uckfield which saved us having to compete with dog walkers and joggers. As it was outside and we had a cast and crew of about 20, I organised hot food to be delivered thanks hugely to my partner Anne. I couldn’t pay anyone so I had to feed them well! My brother, Luke, is a games producer and an organisation whizkid so I pulled him in as production manager and he helped run the show along with Thom O’Driscoll, the First AD. After unfortunately having to part ways with my first DOP I put an ad on shooting people and found Jonathan Nicol who had a superb showreel and we both had the same vision for the film. Jonathan really upped my game, the Director/DOP relationship is a complex one as it’s never the same. I knew with Jonathan that if I stepped back or slacked off at any point he’d jump in and take over. I don’t mean that negatively at all. He was just super efficient, creative and professional. The sound recordist and mixer was John Valledy who I’d worked with on some corporate work. We’d bonded over Lynch. He did a great job, particularly with the sound mix. A very good and long time friend, Jeff Stonehouse, who is an ambient artist, created the music bed and we weaved that in with the mix to keep things organic.

When it came to the edit I cut the film myself in Final Cut Pro (sorry, Premiere fans) and, through an old contact of mine, Andy, was lucky enough to get it graded at The Moving Picture Company in Soho by Philip Hambi. We hit it off straight away and it was an amazing experience to be able to sit in a suite grading my film in the same building that worked on Dune, Blade Runner 2049 and other massive features.

Can you tell us more about your experience of working with the actors?

At the time I was less comfortable working with actors than directing camera so I consider myself lucky that I had such good talent involved. Fintan Shevlin and Cerys Knighton I’ve worked with previously and they are both very gifted and professional. I had them in mind from script stage. Matthew Jure who played the dad was a firecracker in terms of performance and gave me loads to work with. Dave Pepper revealed a green man tattoo on his arm at the audition so I knew he HAD to be my Rotten Man. I pay attention to those kind of synchronicities. The two boys, Sam and Monty, were absolutely superb – it wouldn’t work without them – and they handled the shoot day like professionals.

What do you hope for your film?

I feel that ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ is the first film I’ve made that really expresses who I am as a filmmaker. The process I developed on the course helped me join the dots from the initial idea through to the finished film. Of course, I see things that bug me about the film that I’d like to have done differently but there’s no point looking backwards. As a good friend of mine says, wipe your mouth and move on. I developed ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ idea into a feature script which became my final dissertation piece and I’d love to direct that some day and I’m trying to work out the finance now, how to step up to a feature. My plan is to keep my ideas complex but the practicalities simple and cheap. As I love the uncanny that’s not so tricky as it needs to be grounded in reality rather than involve huge CGI work. In the meantime I’m working on another short that blurs psychological realism with the supernatural and a micro budget feature that’s a cross between Funny Games and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m excited about both of them and that’s a good place to be. It’s lovely to have the film in festivals but, as Alan Moore says, the important thing is to keep going and get the damn things made. I may have found my voice a little late but I’ve only just got started. Hopefully what I do will be good and other people will like it.

Interview with Mark C. Hewitt, Director of ‘Les Coffrets: Boobs’

Inspiration can truly come from anywhere as shown by Mark C. Hewitt, a freelance playwright, poet and stage director, who launched into the writing of a surrealistic sequence of poems which he then decided to use for the basis of a series of stylised films all under 90 seconds. With the overarching title: ‘Les Coffrets’, Hewitt’s 8 ritzy and enigmatic micro films mimic the structure of his poems. The pieces have received audiences at festivals the world over, and Hastings Rocks International Film Festival is proud to be showing two of these: ‘Boobs’ & ‘Camp.’

We spoke to Mark about the beguiling ‘Boobs’. He tells us that the writing of the poems was challenging, “sort of a game, but a game with particular rules”. Whatever these rules are, they have led to a truly unique and innovative series of films, with each one standing alone in its own right . The artistic collaboration between Mark and filmmaker Matt Parsons seems to break with any conventional notion of directing and has pleasantly led to the extremely clever and enjoyable films inspired by the neo-noir vignettes of the 30s and 40s, with no conventional message. Who needs one?

Be driven by what you love.

What was the initial idea behind the films?

The films were conceived as the visual online counterpart to a quirky, slightly surrealistic sequence of poems which I had written, with the title ‘Les Coffrets’ (meaning ‘the boxes’) which comes from the shape of the texts on the page. Small boxes of thirteen and a half lines surrounded by a lot of white; each line approximately 34 characters long. There’s eight poems in the sequence and they have other particular features, most notably that the final phrase is something overheard. In the same spirit, the texts also use other chance elements, such as phrases seen on clothing or in ads.

How were you inspired in the writing and structure of the poems and then developing them into films?

The shape of the texts was influenced by something I thought I saw by Canadian poet Anne Carson, whose work I love. I was pushed by the desire to embrace chance and reject a rational authorial development of the texts. In 2019, I got a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England which allowed me some budget for the project and the idea of making a few film poems alongside this collection was part of the Arts Council project. I finished working on the collection of texts around the end of 2019, and was drawn towards the sequence of ‘Les Coffrets’ as material for the video project, partly because they were very short and the idea of a collection of micro films appealed to me.

The works are intricately created together with filmmaker Matt Parsons, how did you two come to be working together?

I was already committed to working with artist filmmaker Matt Parsons because I’d worked with him once before on a performance project made with addicts in recovery and I like his cleverness with using text visually and treating footage etc. In early 2020 I had a few meetings with Matt and I’d already decided I didn’t want the moving image material to be ‘illustrational’ of the texts. Matt had tried a couple of things that didn’t really appeal and I realised these little poems are so off-the-wall that they don’t really suggest any clear visual counterpart. I have this personal maxim: ‘Be driven by what you love’. And in the end, we sort of followed that and allowed my artistic sensibility or personal aesthetic be the key that opened up the project. We talked about shadows and doorways and abstraction and I expressed my love of the textural qualities of old 30s/40s film noir. This led Matt to start exploring out-of-copyright black and white footage from that period, and being the meticulous artist that he is, sifting through hours and hours of footage to find images of shadows moving across walls and doors opening and closing etc, so sort of creating a bank of potential material we could use.

Not long after this, the pandemic went crazy and suddenly we were in the first long lockdown of 2020. We had made key basic decisions about how we would move forward with the films but Matt still wasn’t entirely sure about how I wanted him to use the footage. I referenced my love of early surrealist photography as one thing he could draw on, which I think helped free up his thinking in a narrative sense. I also sent him a list of keywords and suggestions that I felt related to each poem. For ‘Boobs’ I said to him: “baroque 18th century architectural features, opulence, statuettes, caryatids, scrolls, exoticism, pagan kitsch”.

Drawing on those aforementioned keywords was the particular inspiration beyond ‘Boobs’?

In my work as a theatre maker and stage director, I directed a one man show by Caribbean-British poet John Agard, called Roll Over Atlantic, which we toured fairly extensively in the UK. After a performance at Nottingham Literature Festival, we were taken to a nearby pub by the festival organisers. In this pub, I overheard a woman say: “It’s alright, I’ll get my boobs out, you’ll be alright.” So, of course, I wrote this down in my notebook. It became one of many overheard phrases that were available for me to use when it came to writing this sequence of poems and was sort of irresistible. With ‘Boobs’, the whole invented narrative was about making that one line work plausibly. It’s curious that when I put these works on Vimeo, ‘Boobs’ attracted way more interest than any of the others. (Can’t imagine why.)

What direction did you give for the voicing of the short

I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t want the pieces to be spoken in my own voice. Some, I realised, clearly asked to be spoken in a female voice. The first piece I asked an actor to voice the text for was ’Premium’ which I imagined might sound good in the voice of actress Melissa Sirol, a French performer with whom I’d worked on a previous theatre project. As soon as Matt and I heard Melissa’s rendition of the text, we knew it was right. Her European accent connected with the noirish black and white feel and it just somehow gelled. So I started thinking about each piece and asking other actors who I knew if they would consider voicing one of the texts. With ‘Boobs’ I first got a male actor to voice the text, then afterwards changed my mind and decided it should be female. I had involved Isabella McCarthy Sommerville in a bit of R&D once and felt her very cut-glass clear English diction would work well for the piece, which I think it does.

Film noir is beautifully apparent in the works, who and what types of film and work have inspired you to be making the material you are?

I do like the textural qualities of 30s/40s film noir. I was also influenced by early surrealist photography. There must be a whole complex of subtle influences and inspirations behind these works but I find it hard to identify in any clear way what they are. When I recently met with Matt he said he had re-watched them all again and liked that they were so weird and unapologetic and also felt that they seemed a bit Lynchean.

What do you hope for in your films?

After we’d finished, I had no particular idea of what I was going to do with the films apart from put them on Instagram. Normally I’m busy working on stage productions but in late June we were still in lockdown and that was not an option. I eventually started looking around at film festivals and discovered FilmFreeway. In due course, I started sending them out, one or two, here and there, and soon discovered that the best chances of getting them accepted was to focus mainly on festivals that have a super short or micro film category. They’ve now variously been shown at 35 film festivals in 18 countries, and the most successful of them, ‘Premium’, has been a category winner three times. I guess, for me, the important thing about this whole project is the way it’s opened up the possibility of working in film and putting stuff out digitally as a parallel to my other artistic activities. I’m now interested in seeing how my drama writing can work within a film context, maybe creating pieces that have both a live outcome and a digital/filmic outcome. So, it slightly changes the way I might conceive future projects. I have a monologue project with the working title ONESIES that I’m planning to develop in this way.

‘Les Coffrets’ is showing at 3.30pm on the 23rd of April at St Mary in the Castle as part of Hastings International Film Festival.

Interview with Sarah Wishart, Director of ‘Excluded’

One of the wonderful things about our modern times is that more and more voices are being heard on issues that desperately need to be addressed. . Whilst there is a long way to go, in 2018 a group of determined South London students started a movement for #EducationNotExclusion by using the London Underground to make a powerful and subversive statement about exclusions on GCSE results day. A Tube map from ‘school to prison’ could be seen on Northern Line trains, shining a spotlight on the number of pupils permanently excluded from school each day. The satirical poster shows a direct line from ‘sent out of class’, stopping at ‘permanent exclusion’ and with ‘prison’ as its final destination. People were forced to take notice and address a huge problem in the education system over the whole of the United Kingdom. Dr Sarah Wishart, the creative director of a UK-focused charity EachOther, directed the impressive and important documentary ‘Excluded’, shown at Hastings International Film Festival, and captures voices we need to hear as well as setting up a collaborative and informed environment where the young people featured on the film were all involved in the creative decision-making and are listed as co-creators.

A clever, admirably collaborative and thought-provoking first feature documentary where we are not focusing on politicians or journalists, but giving young people the floor so that the audience hears from those directly affected.

S.S: What is your background and what brought you to documentary making?

S.W: I have a background in performance art with a PhD on collaborative artwork and the processes of how they get made. I work with film, sound and text in my practice and so this job is a weird melding of all my skills and knowledge. EachOther is a human rights space for digital journalism so I find myself involved in all sorts of formats. We historically have made short explainer films about rights issues. This was our first feature length documentary and it was amazing to do.

S.S: Where did the initial idea for the film come from?

S.W: Originally I’d been looking to expand onwards from my film project funded by the EHRC with young children talking about human rights. We visited four Rights Respecting Schools around the country in the process of creating ‘Fair Play’. However, the minute I heard about the ad hack about school exclusion that took place on the Northern Line in the summer of 2018, everything changed. I originally thought the format of the film would be the journey into finding those young people and their story, but I actually made contact with them very quickly which totally shifted the whole project. My desire to look at education with young people around rights grew into a film project that listened to what these young people wanted to talk about in relation to rights, and that was exclusion.

S.S: How did you go about developing the idea after reading about the hack?

S.W: I tend to find that the restrictions on a project are what develops the project. Who can be involved, how do we pay them, how do we film etc. and restrictions on this project were fairly significant! It was initially a passion project that I hoped we could get some funding for but until we found any money, I was eeking out shoots around other work we had on. Just as we found out about a small amount of funding, the pandemic hit. We were just booking filming time in Scotland and we had to completely rethink what we were going to do. I sat with the idea that perhaps we had to give it up, but I was working with a fabulous producer who told me about how her partner was sending microphones out to guests on his show – and we followed suit. We bought microphones and sent them out to all the young people, and started all our workshops on zoom.

‘Excluded’ – Kadeem

S.S: You mentioned it was a relatively easy process but how did you find the young people who you ended up working with?

S.W: We worked with partner organisations, as we aren’t a client-facing charity, so we have to build relationships with other charities and individuals working in relevant spaces. Some of the young people were then introduced to the project through their friends who were already involved. Two young people I met when I was presenting our work at a young people driven event in Leytonstone. 

It always takes time to find people who want to get involved with a project like this, and time for the organisations we engage with to build our project into their own timelines. People have to feel like they understand what we and all our team are going to do and how we’re going to work with the young people. Time is a huge issue.

‘Excluded’ – Joe

S.S: When you sent out the microphones how were you directing what was being filmed from afar?

S.W: We’d had workshops with all the young people and circulated questions and ideas back and forth. We also worked with some of the young people’s youth workers and on occasion, these guys helped with the interviewing.

S.S: What were the advantages or perhaps pitfalls of working this way?

S.W: It was an amazing feeling to work in this way – to stand back and enable other people to be involved in a way they weren’t expecting. In relation to the pitfalls, time is always a massive issue. There are inevitable delays when you’re working with such a varied and far flung cohort. Some people needed more support so that took time to enable.

‘Excluded’ – Betty

S.S: The collaborative approach is perfect for this film. Can you talk us through some of the workshops and what the students brought to the table in terms of the actual film making?

S.W: We started with an initial brainstorming session to establish trust, discover what participants anticipate the film could achieve along with listening to what they want it to achieve and enable the space for discussion about how they want to be involved. We also saw this as a useful opportunity for discussions about consent and to get input around creative themes which could run through the project. We focussed primarily on listening to the attendees with only a few open questions to guide the workshops and give them a loose structure. We circulated in the session a rough cut of the footage we had already shot to give them a sense of what the project looked like and to anchor the discussion. After they’d watched it in the session, we dedicated a good proportion of the session to getting feedback on the film. We then opened a discussion centered around those questions. 

From the workshops we identified that the young people wanted us to include spoken word, photographs of some of the young people throughout their education, and a letter from one of Natalia’s uncles who had ended up in prison after his exclusion. The group felt like we needed to include more detailed stories of exclusion and so we asked for nominations of people whose story they thought should feature. A number of names were put forward from within the group and they also requested that youth MPs of some description were included. Although we approached several young Mayors in London, we found greatest engagement and interest when we approached the Scottish Youth Parliament. We discussed sending out audio recording equipment which is how we captured several of the voices throughout the next year. The young people felt there should be a narration track and that a young person should do that “in terms of the voice-over it is quite important that it should be a young person that does it, to really be able to capture the story, it is ok to drill home the points that are most important.” We implemented all of these aspects so the workshops and the co-production they allowed were therefore absolutely central to the development of the film.

‘Excluded’ – Jordane

S.S: Using the stop motion to hide identities works so well. Who did you work with on this and what guidance did you give as director?

S.W: This was done in-house by my film producer Jack Satchell, we decided we wanted to try and summarise the actions of the ad-hack whilst keeping everything anonymous. I absolutely love stop motion and have always wanted to work on an animation project with stop motion animators and Jack, who’d never really worked with this kind of format before, jumped at the chance to illustrate it. It was great finding a tube train model!

‘Excluded is showing at 1.30pm on the 23rd of April at St Mary in the Castle as part of Hastings International Film Festival.

In Review: ‘STABAT MATER’ & ‘COUSCOUS’ by Marina Sagona

Experimental New York cinema might bring to mind Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas or Maya Deren but whatever your fancy it has the power to stimulate and draw out admiration, contemplation and so much more in the viewer. It diversely tests and breaks traditional aspects of filmmaking thus allowing the director to break free from narrative and to focus creative efforts on the statement being made. ‘STABAT MATER’ and ‘COUSCOUS’ by New York-based Italian Marina Sagona adroitly pay homage to her artistry and explore themes of family, memory and almost overbearing sentiments of longing and loss.

Marina Sagona, Directior of ‘STABAT MATER’ & ‘COUSCOUS’

In ‘STABAT MATER’, a project perhaps bewilderedly named after a 13th-century hymn portraying the suffering of Jesus Christ’s mother during his crucifixion, we are teased with the reveal of a striking nude painting superimposed with a text we see repeating 15 times. The first line appears to be acting as a censor for what is within the open legs on either side. Why would we censor this woman, and what is this straight line actually going to turn into as the text becomes legible? I wonder as a viewer if the religious naming is reflective of these opening frames and where this is going.

The following individual 18 second frames slowly progress to reveal the entirety of the text which we soon recognise as a translation of the chattering we hear between a man and a child. The text itself masterfully brings the viewers attention to the background dialogue fading out as the joyous yet sorrowful sound of the musical composition of the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi emcompasses our senses. Sagona describes the nude, a portrait of the artist herself painted by her former husband as “a powerful testimony of my biographical circumstances of the time.” 

The glaring religious significance of the films title and the auditory chorus commissioned to Pergolesi by the brotherhood of Our Lady of Sorrows clash superbly with the aesthetic yet graphic nude figure who, whilst slouching informally on a sofa, screams of discomfort, pain and suffering. It is private, personal and yet undeniably relatable all at the same time and also arresting in its simple repetition. The pain Sagona is clearly dealing with is all over her face, only made more evident with the slow panning from the painting as the text fades away into an indiscernible size.

Sagona’s ‘COUSCOUS’ is an auditory journey with stunning and equally stylish vintage footage exploring the director’s own history and cultural and geographic legacy, spanning Libya and Italy. Sagona hails from a Maltese family who settled in Tripoli in the 1700s during the Ottoman Empire, only to be forced to flee after Muammar al-Gaddafi’s coup d’etat. 

The split-screen film shows an emotional and linguistic decoding of a seemingly simple recipe for couscous which is actually describing and conjuring up the nostalgic family footage which evokes the smells, sounds and recollections of a life left behind. The musical voiceover and images expertly highlight the director’s expertise in visual media and is a true testament to one family’s unique and poignant story. ‘COUSCOUS’ makes me long for a simpler time which might be mere fiction and makes me envious as my family name Smith doesn’t hold quite nearly as much intrigue. Through both films I felt the director’s intentions, struggles and desire to tell a story. Experimental film may not speak to everyone, but for those who are willing to work hard at reading dissonant sounds and images, the end is worthwhile. 

Interview with Alan Cross, Director of ‘For The Love Of Noise’

The often-repeated adage – “it’s not what you know but who you know” is perhaps irksome, but the case of director Alan Cross shows that being in the know and knowing the right people can be the golden combo. Cross possesses a motley and enviable background as a member of a successful band from the 80s, years of songwriting, international DJing and music video direction. After bumping into Kevin Hough who would ably contribute to the writing and production of ‘The Love Of Noise’, he commenced an epic 10 month journey to provide us with a fascinating insight into a twilight world. It is a film celebrating Brighton’s underground and experimental noise scene and the city itself, a lieu known for embracing creativity and the downright weird. Our festival audience can expect alluring drone videos of Brighton, in depth and revealing interviews and most importantly, a rare view of a relatively unknown world.

A UK documentary pulsing with passion, filmed in lockdown where we see a city and people going through trying times whilst the throbbing pulse of noise and experimental music is itching to come back to life before our eyes. 

S.S: Where did the inspiration for the film come from?

A.C: The film came out of a chance meeting in the street during lockdown between Kevin Hough and myself. I was loosely looking for a subject that was music-based to make a documentary about and he told me he always wanted to make a film about the noise scene, so we just got cracking to make it happen!

Kevin is a key player on the noise scene and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of its history and all the precarious components. The scene is firmly rooted in live performance and encompasses a huge spectrum of styles, so Kevin’s knowledge was invaluable in putting the film together. Initially the idea was to put together a potted history, but the scene goes way back to the 20s and even has roots in Italian futurism so it was too big a subject for one film. Therefore we decided to make it more about recent history, mainly the last 20 years. 

While making the film, it took on a life of its own and really became a celebration of the Brighton scene and the diversity of Brighton as a city. It encompasses everything from pure noise to more experimental jazz aspects.

S.S: There are unique chapters and movements to the film – how did you go about your storyboarding and planning for these?

A.C: Storyboarding and planning was fairly fluid. We knew from the start that we wanted to include sections on Brighton’s musical history, a run down of Brighton’s noise venues, women in noise, cassettes, DIY and the future of noise, but while we were interviewing people I was listening out for patterns and themes that we could build on. Some of it wasn’t planned but evolved from those early recordings and into the edit. I spent months of late nights listening to, labelling and tagging all the material. I built a massive library to pull stuff from then just went for it. 

S.S: How did you connect with your interview subjects in a time where going to venues wasn’t an option?

A.C: The first job was to find people who were happy to be interviewed, as a lot of people on the scene don’t want to put themselves in front of the camera. We knew we had to base the film mostly on interviews because the live venues were all closed due to lockdown under Covid. Awkward! Thankfully, Kevin is a big player in the noise scene and plays in Noiseferatu and Three Bald Knobbers among other bands, so he knows most of the key personalities. It’s a close knit family and Kev had the access.

S.S: As it is such an underground scene with fascinating characters, how did you find the right technique to draw out their stories?

A.C: By being as nosey, impertinent and rude as possible! Asking personal questions and threatening never to let them go if they didn’t tell us their innermost secrets!

Seriously – I was genuinely interested to know why people would spend their time doing noise work or performing live in the strangest of ways, so we just tried to get them to reveal the motivation behind it. Their dedication and belief meant I was genuinely curious so we asked! There’s a lot of humour in the scene and there’s a real bond between people making noise – it’s a great group of characters so there’s a lot of love involved.

I’d like to have gone further – I think performing a noise gig also embodies a strong rebellious streak so it would’ve been good to get their take on that. It’s a kind of rage against the machine. We should’ve maybe asked why they feel the need to be so rebellious or whether they think it’s attention seeking, or just being antisocial even? But that would maybe be too much “on the nose”. We went as far as we could in the time available.

In the end we just tried to let the speakers provide us the story they felt most comfortable telling.

S.S: It might seem obvious due to the subject matter but how did you put together the soundtrack for the film and where did the material come from? 

A.C: The soundtrack is mostly made up of tracks from the Spirit of Gravity catalogue on Bandcamp which they kindly allowed us to use when artists gave permission. All tracks are listed in the end credits. There are a couple of sections where I improvised short bits of noise or ambience myself during the editing process purely for the fun of it, or where I didn’t have any music that fitted. You can probably spot those pieces! 

S.S: Among other things you are clearly a very talented drone photographer – were the shots in the film specifically for this documentary and what do you think they add to the film?

A.C: Thanks! Apart from the YouTube footage, which is framed on the screen with a black border, all the other shots were captured specifically for the film. I try to capture a big library or pool of shots before I start editing so that I have plenty of material to play around with in the edit – that’s the fun part.

When we were planning the film, the challenge was to avoid the film becoming an endless string of talking heads so we set about creating entertaining visuals to create as many layers as possible while the interviews played out, and to portray Brighton as the vibrant and diverse city that it is.

S.S: Alongside the stunning aerial shots we see a big dose of  daily street life in Brighton – why did you want to include these? 

A.C: As we couldn’t shoot inside live venues we were shooting scenes of people on the street (the only place crowds could go during the pandemic) and while we were going along we realised we were creating a kind of portrait of the city during the pandemic and it became a story of two worlds: one of the overground Covid world with people wandering aimlessly around the city waiting for a solution to the global problem, and the other a portrayal of the underground night club live performance world we are all missing so badly. 

There’s a duality between the normality of sunny, overground Brighton and its underbelly, home to the darker, rebellious underground noise scene. Hopefully we succeeded in portraying that contrast at least in part with the visual elements. We wanted to give the noise scene a context and show where the scene has its home, whilst also showing the city under lockdown during the day, then moving into night at the end of the film. It’s a sort of contrast between “normal everyday life” and “those crazy weirdo freaks” making wild noise and daring to call it “music”!

S.S: What do you hope for your film?

A.C: We hope the film receives some recognition for showing an otherwise undiscovered part of Brighton’s culture – some awards would be great, but it’s already rewarding to see an otherwise unrecognised scene being documented in one place. We are both really proud of how the film pulls all the elements of the noise scene together into one unique document. We hope we’ve done a good job and that people will find it as fascinating and enjoyable as we did putting it together. 

There is so much creativity out there in Brighton city and beyond, so we hope the film gives due credit and exposure to the artists that we have involved and included in the making of the documentary. It’s a vibrant scene and one we felt needed documenting so people can maybe get involved and create new acts and live performances to showcase their own talents in the amazing venues Brighton has to offer. There’s life beyond the stifling digital world – live music and the analogue audio cassette tape are not dead! 

DIY is available to everyone and costs nothing so we hope potential future artists will watch the film then go out and make some noise!

Interview with Barry J Gibb, Director of ‘The Gift’

We are at the dawn of a new year and January is heralding all its sparkling and freshly anticipated opportunities – but what if you knew that the only thing awaiting you was your final end? Barry J Gibb is an award-winning filmmaker with a beguiling background in molecular biology and neuroscience who has deftly turned his inquisitive and accomplished mind to the world of film, and in this case, documentary. ‘The Gift’ is a meditative exploration of the phenomenal life of the vibrant artist Barbara Bird as she lives through the contemplation and acceptance of her death.

An agonising yet heartwarming introspection into the strength and resilience of one woman portrayed in an unexpectedly beautiful way.

S.S: Where did the idea come from for such a compelling piece?

B.J.G: I’m sort of obsessed with time. Initially, I wanted to make a single film all about time – its measurement (as in watches), its very nature (as in the physics of it) and its perception (the human experience of it). The grand plan was to somehow weave these 3 threads together. I started by interviewing a physicist about the fabric of time. For research I read ‘A Brief History of Time’ so I at least had a grasp of the area and asked decent questions. I then interviewed Peter Whibberley at the NPL, the National Physics Laboratory, to chat about atomic clocks and time. All this was fascinating stuff – I tend to start with areas people feel comfortable with, then I ask more probing questions. It’s interesting, for instance, to ask a physicist about their first memories!

Once it got to the idea of exploring the perception of time, I had all these thoughts about, how does a monk perceive time, or a farmer, a prisoner, a refugee..? But then I wondered, what if you knew you were going to die – how would that affect your perception of time? Ultimately, I think, rather than exploring time, I decided that it was the preciousness of the time we have that was intriguing. Of life.

So I got in touch with Living Well Dying Well (LWDW) – I’d made a short video with them about being an End-of-Life doula, and asked for a little help. I wondered if they might be comfortable reaching out to see if there were any people prepared to talk to me – people who knew their time was limited, that they were dying. After an initial project with someone whom I first met in 2017, LWDW got in touch with me about a woman in Hastings, Barbara. I was surprised by how young she was. I just don’t imagine terminal cancer patients being so young, vigorous and funny. I also loved her Californian accent.

Sam Hill (left, Barbara’s end-of-life doula), Barry J Gibb and Barbara Bird in Hastings

That first interview was a challenge. Barbara cried throughout much of the hour-long chat and it was hard not to feel bad, that I was somehow dragging up unpleasant feelings and thoughts – several times I asked if she wanted to stop but she refused. I think it was cathartic. During the interview, Barbara mentioned wanting to leave her body to science at which point, my mind simply said, wow – imagine filming a single person before and after death…It actually took me more than a month to summon the courage to write to Barbara after that and ask her – and her husband, Mark – if they were cool with me filming them over an extended period of time which would also include her death and beyond. I mean, it’s not a normal ask, is it?!

We filmed over two years. I created a list of events it would be good to film and made sure Barbara kept me in the loop of anything that might be a good film opportunity. People are so guilty of thinking their life is boring, but to a filmmaker it can be gold. One morning an idea came to me as I was waking up that made far more, poetic sense, for the ending – and this is how the film now ends, with Barbara herself becoming an integral part of her collage

S.S: Are documentaries a mainstay for you and how do you feel they can be used to tell a story creatively?

B.J.G: Big Question! Yes, they’re what I live and breathe for. Primarily because I love the creative treatment of reality. Actually, this is tougher to answer than I thought! Let’s start at the beginning – I love reality – there’s nothing more pure, honest and important than the very moments in which we find ourselves. Ever since watching Albert Maysles docs (I met him in New York, which was awesome) and some of the early works by the founders of documentary, like Grierson, I’ve been entranced by the idea that every human, indeed everything that passes through time, has the potential to contain a story within it.

The creative part, for me, is the impressionistic treatment of that reality – not trying to change the reality of the story but trying to use editing as a means of enhancing and finding and playing with the emotional content and beats of the story. I suppose it’s a bit like music – there are the notes but it’s how you play them that alters the feeling of them. At heart, I’m a romantic, sympathetic heavyweight looking to tell the most emotional stories I can with what may appear to be the most normal of situations.

Barbara Bird

S.S: Do you think your background in science has an effect on the way you approach filming and if so how?

B.J.G: Absolutely. Part of doing a PhD is learning to be self-sufficient. You design your own experiments, learn new experimental techniques, interpret your results and move forward. Filming is the same. It never even occurred to me to go to film school – while still working in a lab, I got a Mac, a camera and taught myself how to film, edit and capture sound. I used to practice editing by downloading movies from and creating remixes, using editing to usurp the original purpose of a film, find the humour in it… I love collaborating on ideas and sometimes in the edit, but I work largely alone. The initial idea for a film can be like a hypothesis, the footage I capture is like the raw experimental data, the edit becomes the real experiment where you attempt to see if the hypothesis was correct or – even better – you discover something entirely new.

Today, 90% of my client work is science based – working with scientific institutions to help tell their stories. My past training helps me understand what they want, allows me to easily communicate with the scientists being interviewed and helps me edit and tell their stories in a way that’s relatively simple, clear and uncomplicated.

S.S: Interviews can be challenging at the best of times, so what sort of questions did you ask Barbara in order to gain insight into her person/character and her intimate journey?

B.J.G: I love interviewing people. I had no idea I was reasonably good at it until clients started commenting on it. Perhaps aided by the fact I work alone, when I interview someone, it’s pretty clear, this is just about them – I am interested, I am listening. I care. With Barbara, the initial interview was trying to cover a lot – her attitude to life, time, death. In a situation like that, you have to tread respectfully – you’d never start with question 1, tell me how you feel about death! The way I structure interviews is much like I’d imagine getting to know a friend – start light and gradually (as you build trust and rapport) start getting emotionally deeper. Barbara and myself touched on her childhood, her mental wellbeing, her first memories, her diagnosis, how she started to prepare for death and, of course, how all this has affected her feelings about the time of her life.

S.S: The music featured alongside this heady subject matter really melds – how did you come to create the soundtrack?

B.J.G: All the sound and music is created using Logic Pro. I’d always wanted to learn how to use that software and the combination of ‘The Gift’ and lockdowns allowed me to do an online course to learn it (very crudely) and then use it to create the sort of feelings and sound I was after. I work with music libraries all the time and I know they are brilliant. But whenever I stood at the edit, this film felt like it needed something of its own – maybe not music, as such, but more a sound that would guide the emotional landscape and help provide story beats as the viewer went through it. I saw the film again recently and I couldn’t really remember coming up with some of the musical beats and pieces but they still felt like they were working (so that was a relief!). I also noticed there’s a sort of religious, choral feel to a lot of the sound – born more of reverence for the subject matter than anything to do with religion. I guess I wanted people to feel they were watching something vital, important – a person’s life passing.

S.S: You spoke about filming over a 2 year period. Do you struggle with such a long league time?

B.J.G: With docs, I think it’s pretty easy to just keep filming and convince yourself you have a film. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity Barbara and myself were sharing – this journey we were on – so I was pretty strict with myself. A list was created of ‘things I’d like to film’, aspects of Barbara’s life and death that I felt would help. When thinking about a doc, I tend to think there are at least two aspects to the story – what the film is about, and what the film is really about. For ‘The Gift’, at a simple level, this is a chronological journey that follows a woman to her death. But for me – and hopefully a viewer – it’s about far more.

S.S: What do you want audiences to take from ‘The Gift’

B.J.G: The film is Barbara’s literal gift to the audience. A viewer may be passively watching her story but at the end, Barbara flips the script and starts to talk about you, the viewer – that your life is like a collage and that means you can change it. So, I hope that people come away from the film inspired by the honesty of Barbara’s journey and also motivated to make the most of the life they have, realising they still have agency to change it, to shape it the way they’d like it to be. I want people to watch ‘The Gift’ and come away more able to cherish every moment on Earth they have.

S.S: What is next for you?

B.J.G: This pandemic has been awful for the world. As a person who thrives on documentary, on being in the room and filming a person’s world, it’s been hard. For personal films like ‘The Gift’, getting access has been harder – most people have barely seen their friends, let alone allowed a filmmaker into their home! That said, there’s something bubbling away about grief. I realise as I write this I must sound like such a downer – what is it with this guy, films about death, films about grief?! But, having looked into the area a little, I think it’s possible to tell an emotionally powerful and uplifting story about humans and what we do with grief, how we survive it and find happiness again.

In Review: ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ by Helen Browning

Helen Browning, director of ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is a documentary that takes a spellbinding look at contemporary druidry and witchcraft in Australia. It shines light on a world you may not know existed and will invite you to contemplate nothing less than the eternal mysteries of sex, life and death.

In fine documentary tradition, you will learn lots of new things from watching this film. Did you know that Yule is the pagan celebration that predated Christmas? That “awen” is the Celtic word for inspiration, also meaning “flowing spirit, the essence of life”? The Egyptian god Thoth is synonymous with eloquence, and Nut (or Nuit in Crowley’s Thelema) is goddess of the sky? Most forms of witchcraft date only from the 1950s? These facts emerge from the adepts’ passionate conversations while they are busy with various aspects of pagan life.

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is not primarily about facts. It offers us, rather, a stimulating portrayal of a broad cross-section of contemporary paganism, one that entirely dispels – pun intended – mass media’s crass hyperbolic reporting. One might expect a documentary on paganism to have lurid content, and no doubt the made-for-TV version would frame its subjects as oh-so-Australian weirdos. Yes, we encounter nudity in the rituals and meet, don’t laugh, a surfing druid. But the colossal strength of this film is its refusal to sensationalise its subject matter and to demonstrate beyond doubt that paganism is a serious subculture worthy of attention.

From the outset, we learn that pagan culture in Australia has deep respect for Aboriginal communities with their own rich tradition of spiritual rituals. Bilawara, a Larrakia Elder who is famed internationally as a healer and teacher of ancient wisdom, has been involved in many pagan events over the years. She is quick to counter the idea that her rites involve any kind of anarchistic licentiousness. “There are laws,” she insists.” If you are going to conduct your rituals or ceremonies, get permission from the custodians of that particular area.” She is not terribly keen on nudity in rituals as a rule, although this is also possible with consent.

Professor Douglas Ezzy and Bilawara Lee

Douglas Ezzy, Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania, provides a lively commentary throughout the film. He informs us that rituals, with masquerade and theatrics, “provide deep, profound, moving, wrenching, amazing experiences” and can be seen as a healthy response to Western culture’s “lost sense of transcendence.” Ritual also has a therapeutic value – “a way of working with those parts of ourselves that we find it hard to change.” It is good to see that Ezzy is not just a theorist but a practitioner too. When asked about whether a parent should be worried if their daughter has joined a local coven, he says no more or less so “than if she’d joined the local Catholic church.” Paganism doesn’t do morality in the same way as religion – but that doesn’t mean it is unethical. It is, in Nietzsche’s term, beyond good and evil.

The diversity of topics tackled by ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how deeply eclectic esotericism is in Australia. The film also looks at how different traditions interpret Aleister Crowley’s cryptic concept of magick. The different strands of paganism, which include new age groups, new witchcraft, folklore, as well as artists and musicians, are all brought together by the desire to be at one with nature. A druid ritual can be as simple as taking a walk in the bush or yes, surfing. The community is engaged in environmentalism in a big way, supporting rallies against the destruction of the forests and effects of climate change, clearly seen in the scorched woodland of New South Wales.

Julie Brett, a practising druid
A wicker man at the English Ale Festival held in the Adelaide Hills

Could the documentary have been more critical about whether the many strands of paganism (Aboriginal, European, Latin, Ancient Greek etc.) truly fit together as a united collective? Perhaps. But the film does extremely important work in challenging misconceptions about pagan worship and, even more powerfully, any crude stereotype that modern Australians are bereft of culture and spirituality. At the outset of the film, we are reminded that “the English brought their calendar customs with them, but they didn’t ever think to be in touch with the land they were on.” Maypole dances, wicker men and Jack in the Green festivities are still widely celebrated in English towns such as Hastings. ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how the pagan communities Down Under have reappropriated and reimagined these hand-me-down traditions and forged a new kind of spirituality – one that is strangely suited to the 21st century. Kudos to Helen Browning and her excellent film for turning long-held prejudices upside down.

‘UNDER A PAGAN’ sky will screen at Hastings Rocks International Film Festival, 24-26 April 2022.

In Review: ‘QUEER BLOOD’ by Alexander Roman

Appearances can be deceptive and ‘QUEER BLOOD’ is a striking example of a film where nothing is quite as it seems. An indie neo-noir set in North Hollywood, this drama features characters whose wants and desires are hidden by their own internal struggles and locations so authentically brought to life and meticulously put together you can’t help but be drawn in.

Nino, played by Roman himself, is brought to us as an affable, gentle and long-suffering soul who merely wants to be left in peace to work. His macho, swaggering boss Reggie, played by Jesse Tayeh, seems to accept him for who he is, and as we see later on in the film, actually cares for him very deeply. However, he is unable to protect him from the continued close-minded mentality and quite frankly disgusting views held by some, in particular a man whose voice we only ever hear – Mr Vega. 

Nino, played by Alexander Roman

A tale as old as time plays out on our screens where we witness Nino being persecuted for merely being who he is at the hands of an aggressive gun-for-hire, Sean, deftly played by Kyle Williams who performs his Neanderthal-like duties with gusto. The violence is truncated by a phone call from someone we might not expect your typical hitman to answer to, and the film unexpectedly takes us into the warm embrace of a fabulously kitsch 70s setting. Grandma, whose character confirms that a woman’s intuition is always right, is played superbly by Holgie Forrester and our formerly imposing hitman’s resolve is downtrodden by someone who knows him best.

Holgie Forrester as Grandma

Nobody wants an ending ruined for them and ‘QUEER BLOOD’ needs to be watched all the way through for the individualities to be wholly revealed and the sweet relief of acceptance to wash over. Roman pays homage to the city where his film is beautifully set as it opens with a glorious montage of times gone by, and his talents as a location scout are fully on display in the iconic garage where the film starts. 

The dialogue is not subtle, as we can listen to in Reggie’s conversation with a guy trying to get stolen cars fixed and Grandma’s frank and revelatory chat with Sean, but these words and personas are merely fronts to the relationships we see blossom before us. The drama could easily be extended to be a feature-length movie, but quite honestly, it is refreshing to see so much packed into 22 minutes and for a world to open up and do a total 180 in that time. I have no doubt Roman will continue to do what he loves and bring more of his individual and earnest content to our screens as he succeeded so well in doing with ‘QUEER BLOOD’.

Interview with Sam Seccombe, Director of ‘LESSONS’

* * *

LESSONS’ won best LGBTQ+ drama at London Rocks 2021. Deservedly so. It begins with an awkward Dan and a nonchalant Tommy the morning after a one-night stand. Tommy picks up on Dan’s nerves, wondering if he hasn’t properly come out. “Are you a virgin?” he asks, half in gest. But after some protracted banter and a much-delayed breakfast, we discover that Tommy has his fair share of issues, having yet to deal with a painful breakup. Gay or straight, the universality of their story hits home, and it is incredibly refreshing to watch a drama that dares to talk in such raw terms about love and loss.

Writer-director Sam Seccombe works in the film industry while aspiring to “truth and beauty in his work and future storytelling.” We interviewed this talented filmmaker to see what lessons we could learn . . .

.JR: How and when did you first get started on ‘LESSONS’?

SS: It was during the first lockdown and I was trying to spend as much time on writing as I could. I had several scripts and concepts on the go, but as soon as I got started with ‘LESSONS’ I knew that it was going to become something. It was an early challenge turning what, at first, was very much a conversation between two people, into an actual short film. Using details like different rooms and various props to explain what was originally just spoken word. With a lot of editing, advice and creative focus, I was able to bring the story to life.

JR: The dialogue and situation are very relatable, as if we are in the room with Dan and Tommy. How did you achieve this sense of realism?

SS: It was important for me that the boys felt like they had their own influence over the script. We workshopped and rehearsed to make sure everything felt natural. The last line of the film was actually improved by Guy Remmers, a demonstration of just how in touch the boys were with their characters. As the film discusses very relevant topics like sexuality and relationships, I wanted to present it in a way that allows the audience to project themselves into the scene. The sense of realism is so prevalent because anyone, however they identify, will be able to find something true and relevant in the film.

Ashley Byam as “Tommy” (left) and Guy Remmers as “Dan” (right) facing up to some home truths

JR: Both actors are fantastic, with Ashley Byam (Tommy) naturally confident and Guy Remmers (Dan) realistically nervy. How did you coax these great performances?

SS: In order to develop Dan and Tommy I wrote up a lot of information on their lives; hobbies, families, starsigns, taste in music / fashion and career paths / ambitions. I knew these fictional boys so well, which meant when it came to casting I was determined to find people who could bring them to life. Incredibly, I managed to find the two perfect actors. Ashley and Guy both recognised many things about their characters that paralleled their own lives and they worked hard to create that connection. It was this thorough preparation and deep understanding of their roles (as well as their acting capabilities) that made working with them such a pleasure and allowed for such impressive performances.

JR: Despite Dan’s protests (that he has dealt with coming out), is this drama, in truth, still about coming out?

SS: I think Dan’s journey in understanding himself is far from over. Everyone is different, so it makes sense that every ‘coming out’ story is different. Dan isn’t struggling to ‘come out’, that is to say, his sexuality isn’t a secret. His struggles lie in his reflections on his past and the complications and influences that led to the delay in his realisation and understanding of himself. He is afraid of what the future holds and concerned about the permanent affects of suppressing his sexuality. Coming out is a part, but not the entirety of what Dan is struggling with. His demons are many-headed.

JR: Tommy exudes confidence, but we come to realise he is brushing thorny issues under the carpet. Dan appears on edge and a little lost, faced with the question of how to be himself. Does one worldview win out over the other?

SS: It’s difficult to know if one individual is in a worse position than the other, as we are only hearing of their hardships from them. One of the issues that both characters struggle with is wallowing in self-pity. Tommy has progressed further than Dan at overcoming this, which is evident in the most heated part of the film. Quantifying emotional pain is impossible, and as their experiences are so different you couldn’t pit either against the other. The film does not aim to do this, but quite the opposite.

‘LESSONS’ is about realising what you need to learn. It shows how we can unite with others, and by owning our painful truths, we can hope to move forward to a better place, somewhere we hope both these boys can get to.

JR: Which part of their dialogue do you think resonates the most with audiences?

SS: There is so much going on in both these characters’ lives, the dialogue covers such a wide range of topics and painful experiences. One of the challenges I had in writing was actually pulling back and making sure there wasn’t a tidal wave of information which would become lost by the overwhelmed viewer. I think different aspects of the film will resonate with different people dependent on the perspective from which you are watching, as well as your own personal experience. You could say that the main theme of the film is voiced by Tommy in his line, “As long as you learn the lessons, otherwise what’s the point of all the pain?” Which basically means that we must not let our hardships defeat us but help us grow. No matter what a person has been through we must try to find the lesson.

JR: Do you agree that we don’t see enough of talk about love and life (aka “philosophy”) in UK drama?

SS: I think the superficial nature of love and life can often dominate our screens. Deeper, in depth, analysis of what love is and what it means to be in love are essential in our understanding of one another. Certainly, there are shows that do a great job of capturing these truths and struggles. Normal People, for example, was a huge inspiration for me while writing the script. I studied its beautiful portrayal of emotion and the way it bewitched audiences without being forthcoming.

JR: Will Tommy and Dan see each other again? Is there a follow-up in the works?

SS: The final scene was actually the first thing I came up with. I always knew it would end with their exchange out the window, echoing the beginning of this strange relationship. I think the only way these boys could be so vulnerable was that they were completely anonymous; they were removed from the consequences of their honesty. It wouldn’t be fair to give Tommy and Dan a “happy” ending because it wouldn’t be what is best for them. What they’ve gained from one another will benefit them far more than a romantic relationship. I wanted to play off the irony that to sleep with someone is so physically intimate, and yet it is actually far more ominous for many people to be emotionally intimate.

Sam Seccombe accepting the award for Best LGBTQ+ Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021

JR: How has ‘LESSONS’ been received by friends, critics and festivals?

SS: I have been incredibly lucky to receive the support I have. I was very nervous to share the script with anyone, there were moments when I thought it might exist only as a draft, hidden on my computer, or that Tommy and Dan would exist only in my messy scribbles that make up my notebook. I sent it to a friend who immediately responded with excitement and it was her encouragement and analysis that pushed me to make the film. I’m indebted to my film crew who worked so hard. The film has been a way for me to start conversations and discussions that I never would have before. It’s had positive feedback from festivals and this affirmation and success is a blessing. Like I said, I’m very lucky to have the support that surrounds me, and I hope that the level of work I do will only grow and improve with time.

JR: Please tell us about your current and upcoming projects.

SS: I’m constantly working on ideas and have so many concepts on the go and in development I lose track of them with each new plan. There isn’t anything official in the works but my main energy recently has gone into expanding my knowledge of the industry and the aspects of filmmaking I want to improve on. I work professionally in location management for film and high-end television, which keeps me very busy, but is the perfect platform for experience, education and building a strong network in the industry. I look forward to being on set again, where I can sit in a director’s chair and watch my work brought to life.

‘LESSONS’ won Best LGBTQ+ Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021

In Review: ‘KEITH’ by AF Webb

Alex Webb’s latest work, ‘KEITH’, presents a mycology-infused film about how a man named Keith Eldred and his wife, Margot, came to acquire a declassified site in Norfolk from the Ministry of Defence in 1966. Shot against the secluded backdrop of RAF Barnham 94 MU, the film skilfully merges an array of visual styles that bring together an unnerving sense of British landscape unease, anecdotal storytelling and artefact as archive in a creatively abundant experimental documentary.

Alex Webb (b. 1991) is a British photographer born in London who studied photography at the University of Brighton. His photographic talent is evident in the opening of ‘KEITH’ with a split-screen displaying lush, overgrown shrubs dotted with red berries hazily seen through a camera viewfinder. Setting up the dexterous editing format, the viewer is subjected to rapid-fire analogue montages as the film progresses. Alex’s background as an independent art book publisher is also discernible in the stark red and white diagrammatic title sequence, a reference to nuclear infomercials of the latter half of the twentieth century and the site once used to house Britain’s first nuclear weapons.

Introducing the film is the voice of Keith Eldred himself, layered over black and white landscapes of the sparse compound, reading aloud the classic nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb. The poem, which is of Massachusetts origin, has an echo of the British pastoral tradition while also alluding to the film’s promise to eschew linear space and time, in keeping with the rhyme. Keith’s life plays out in sequential segments, with Keith playing his younger self alongside Tom MacQueen in supporting roles. The pair take us through an eventful life, from reaching rock bottom, playing in first division football, national service, land development and romance in Hong Kong, mushroom grower, and the eventual purchase of RAF Barnham (in that order).

As a subject, Keith is a regular fellow in many ways, but he is able to locate and celebrate his inner anarchist through Alex’s photographic eye. The film’s richness is foraged by beauty represented by colour, black and white, Super 8 and abstract image. The audience sways between a prism; a myriad of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialecticism that harkens the stark naturalism of war-time Britain, 60s psychedelia and the world in a grain of sand. The finest moments within the film are Hong Kong and Mushrooms, during which the sequences wreak mesmeric havoc on visual expectations, unspooling personal and social history.

“Keep an eye on it… I’m not sure about this nitrogen sample… barbed-wire spools, concrete wall, earth traverse, outer picket post, vehicle storage, RAF picket post, fire shed, football pitch, mess, kennels, fissile storage hutch, plutonium core, Blue Danube, small boy, mushroom cloud…”

Keith Eldred

Thomas Ross Fitzsimons’s score is resplendent throughout ‘KEITH’ oscillating between a powerful sense of dread in line with the nuclear undercurrent of the territory, shoegaze dream pop and sustained synth-minimalism that resounds conjunctively with transistor radio bleeping. Richard Vossgatter’s sound design is also excellent, adding a layer of diegetic sound that carries the film brilliantly throughout its narrative highs and lows, similar to This Heat’s 1979 self-titled avant-garde album that foretells Cold War paranoia.

An obvious analogy with the content and form of ‘KEITH’ is Paul Wright’s Arcadia, which tracks Britain’s complex relationship with its land. Whilst Arcadia is constructed entirely with compiled footage from the BFI’s archive collection, Webb utilises RAF Barnham as its set, exploring one individual’s relationship to his most extraordinary lot. There’s something wilfully industrious in a hand tracing the scars of an outer concrete wall against the lush rolling woodlands shot in transit. Other references that come to mind are Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

‘KEITH’ exists as an original experimental film-poem. It is formidably dense in its image layering, creating a nuanced portrait of man and land. Abstract but not arbitrary, it’s possible to envision Alex picturing the subject of Keith as a photography publication before realising it as a film. As an artist committed to the enduring topic of place and its multitudinous meanings, I am sincerely looking forward to seeing where his lens goes next and what he might uncover beneath and beyond our strange, dreadful and enduring British landscape.

No.94 (special edition book) coinciding with the release of KEITH can be purchased through Alex’s website:

‘KEITH’ was awarded Best Experimental Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021.