Introducing a New Voice for Rocks Festivals

We here at Rocks Film Festivals are ceaselessly looking to grow and develop our founding passion for all forms of cinema and in particular providing a platform those who work tirelessly at creating and developing their burgeoning talent. In order to really discover their stories and highlight their successes we feel it is integral to work with new writers and aficionados of cinema.

Sarah has been honing her interviewing skills at Directors Notes, and we are now delighted to be welcoming her to our team so we can nurture and cultivate the content within our blog and festival.

Sarah Smith is a UK freethinker who has spent as much time living abroad as she has at ‘home’. She has spent the last 4 years in Brighton and revels in the cohesion of the ocean, pubs, a quirky way of life alongside being able to indulge in her love of film. Cinema and film studies have punctuated her education over the years and a love of writing and desire to tell stories have weaved together with her writing for Directors Notes, where she explores ‘The What, How & Why of Independent Filmmaking’. A linguist at heart and fluent in several languages, Sarah can often be found wondering or despairing at subtitles which is an area she is keen to continue exploring and is able to take advantage of and avoid the perils of Google Translate when interviewing international film makers. She has a varied background which might make a traditionalist reel, but a steadfast desire to always have a foot in the world of film, filmmakers and creation – wouldn’t we all love to travel the world delighting at endless film festivals and sharing that with others?


A not-so-sunny day in the life of a downtrodden millennial

Director Tracy Mathewson’s short film ‘California’ deals with the startlingly relatable and heart-rending tie between father and daughter, and the rippling aftereffects of a tumultuous past. All the while, the film works toward highlighting the limits and failures of our increasingly relied upon, modern-day form of communication – Facetime.

‘California’ begins on Christmas day, which Calli (played by Sophie Birnie Smith) is spending alone with a microwave meal. The plot then reverts to a flashback, an eleven-minute continuous take, with Calli staying at a friend’s house while she tries to make her way in the new city she has just moved to, juggling two jobs to do so. She has migrated to California, but the film is shot entirely inside the four walls of a plainly decorated flat/house – rendering a much drearier, greyer version of the sunny city we have in mind when we think of LA. Mathewson does distance, isolation, and solitude excellently by placing her characters in scenarios that envelope the actors in seclusion.

Whilst navigating a conversation with her father, played by Nick Cornwall (‘In Extremis’, ‘Dragons of Camelot’), over Facetime, Calli uncovers something that she understands will impact her future for the worse, while at the same time causing her to question her whole past. By littering dialogue with insinuations, Mathewson builds a picture of a family history in all of its nuances, while painstakingly demonstrating the inadequacies of digital communication, shown by Calli’s attempt to hide her face from her father as she cries.

Birnie Smith’s brilliant and understated performance delves into a topic that some viewers will share and hold dear – she hides her face from her father, agonising along the way of their one-take conversation. The way of dealing with this not-uncommon news from her father is a testimony to the love we uphold for our parents despite their mistakes. The relationship between Calli and her father (both actors from the Northeast of England) is portrayed lovingly onscreen – it proves to be both complex and fickle – stretching from bitterness to flirtatiousness, but ultimately it shows that love for a parent is undying. 

‘California’ has already been awarded Best Drama Short, Best Actress, Best Made in LA Short and Expectational Merit from a selection of festivals in 2021 from across the US and the UK, including Brighton and Los Angeles Rocks film festivals. It is also an Official Selection at this November’s London Rocks festival, 5-6 November at Whirled Cinema, Brixton.

Dr Tracy Mathewson

Originally from Southern California, now living in the London, Tracy Mathewson has expertly transitioned from sci-fi to drama – her 2016 sci-fi short ‘Appellation’ won Best Direction at Berlin Sci-Fi Film Festival and received a nomination for the Directing Award at BAFTA-Recognised Underwire. We’re excited to see the direction Mathewson will take for her next project.

Brighton Rocks Interviews: Dogwood Writer/Director Steve Sale

We got a chance to speak with the Steve Sale, writer/director behind one of the most exciting films screening at this years Brighton Rocks Festival, Dogwood. He shared with us the story behind the film’s conception, how achieved such epic cinematography, and why artists must suffer for their art.

Can you share with us where the idea for Dogwood came from? Watching it now it clearly has a lot of contemporary resonance with the issues dealt with being on the public’s mind, but I’m wondering if there was a more personal place this story came from? 

Yes it definitely came from a personal place. Modern life is so difficult, I still do fantasise about living off grid. I know my kids would love it but my wife’s not keen lol. This is probably an usual film in that I didn’t work from a script or screenplay. When I first met up with Joe (who plays Martin) all I had was a line ‘a man goes to live in the woods’. This gave a lot of freedom and I was able to develop the story organically whilst shooting. I’m lucky to have the most beautiful woodland on my doorstep, that was probably the biggest inspiration to begin with. I was inspired too by some anti fracking protestors that were living in the woods near to me. There were many feelings about modern society, brexit, environmental issues, mental health, life and death that I wanted to portray in the film but ultimately didn’t know where it was going to end up.

Aerial shot of Brighton's Palace Pier as featured in Dogwood
Aerial shot of Brighton’s Palace Pier

The cinematography is really great and in particular, the aerial shots do a lot to give you this
massive scope of how nature and society dwarfs individuals. Is there anything you can tell us about the process of capturing these shots? How important do you think they were to have in the film?

Thanks, I used to shoot corporate videos and weddings and eventually I was able to get quite cinematic shots very quickly in those circumstances, my business depended on it. Also I realised I had built up a fair amount of gear and I had no excuses in trying to make a narrative film, which has always been my dream. In regards to the drone, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Martin's labyrinth-like apartment building as featured in Dogwood
Martin’s labyrinth-like apartment building

With the film beginning and ending with Martin reading his poetry, the film becomes very self-
reflective with the character sharing his experience through art. Is this something that resonated with you whilst making the film? Did you see yourself in the character of Martin at all?

Thanks that’s a nice observation and yes I did. There’s a quote along the lines of ‘we need to suffer for our art’. Martin definitely suffers for his art and you could say both Joe and I did too.

Scribblings in Martin's journal featured in Dogwood
Scribblings in Martin’s journal

Talking about the ending again, I really admire the way the film addresses homelessness as this is something Brighton has far too much of and it’s easy to switch off and start to not notice just how many people are living on the streets. Was this something you initially hoped to address? 

Yes. When I see someone homeless I think, what is their story, what happened in their life for them to reach this point. We see this transformation in Martin as he goes from living off grid to living on the street, where he is eventually transformed into the poet he always wanted to be.

Is there anything else you hope for audiences to connect within the film, in particular? 

I think the film can actually be portrayed in a few ways just like song lyrics can be. I hope they like it, it’s not a film you should take your Nan to see, in fact I’ve banned my Mum from watching it. At the time of making it I felt we had lost touch with nature but I think we have rediscovered it in lockdown.

Brighton Rocks Film Festival returns for physical screenings this year 23-25 July at the Rialto Theatre, Brighton. For updates on the festival and to hear about when tickets are releases be sure to follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Brighton Rocks Spotlight: Dogwood

One of the standout films at this year’s Brighton Rocks festival is Dogwood, an epic meditation on today’s throwaway world with a particular focus on the human cost of society’s slavish work culture.

Dogwood, by writer/director Steve Sale, follows Martin (Joe Newton) – an undervalued and overworked cog in the corporate machine. One day, overrun by the pressures of his working life, Martin suffers an apparent nervous breakdown and embarks on a new life off-the-grid in the forest. But what promises to be a simpler life at first, inevitably turns out to present a great many challenges for Martin.

Dogwood boasts a bare-bones drama guided by Joe Hill’s third-person narration. The film is reminiscent of a nature documentary, which at times distances us from Martin. The film oscillates between showing us Martin’s subjective experiences of the world and treating Martin as a subject to be gazed at. There is a lot of humour found in treating Martin as an animal, especially in the opening moments where Martin is viewed as a real creature of habit: his days a predictable blur of commuting, mindless work, and explicit pornography. In times like this, the voiceover juxtaposes civility with the crude facts of life to riotous effect.

If there is vulgarity in Dogwood, there is also sharp intelligence and poetry. Alex Caird’s verses elevate the film’s tone, drawing out questions concerning our relationship with nature. There are no easy answers to these questions and to the film’s credit, it doesn’t profess to have them.

Instead, Dogwood is a remarkably unpredictable film which perfectly reflects the chaotic times we live in. Actor Joe Newton does a remarkable job in bringing this unpredictability to Martin’s character. Throughout the film, Martin is well and truly pushed to the extremities of the human condition and Newton works wonders to hold Martin together throughout, shrinking and expanding into the energy of the moment.

The latter half of Dogwood sees Martin wash up on the shores of Brighton as a vagabond

The landscapes also contract and swell, not least because Martin’s main food supply is foraged mushrooms. Thanks to some excellent cinematography (Sale also serves as DOP on this project) we can really feel the different scales at play within the film. Dogwood‘s aerial shots are both visually arresting and loaded with thematic resonance: dwarfing Martin against the city and the woods. Sale’s framing constantly evoked this tone, with careful attention to the constricting geometry of the city and the humbling size of nature. The film’s ending sees Martin wash up on the shores of Brighton as a vagabond, and here Dogwood shifts its focus back to modern society and the homelessness crisis.

There’s much to love about this visceral tale of a wannabe woodsman. Dogwood, which recently won Best Director and Best Narrative Picture at Ramsgate International Film Festival, will screen as part of the official selections at this year’s Brighton Rocks Festival.

Brighton Rocks Film Festival returns for physical screenings this year 23-25 July at the Rialto Theatre, Brighton. For updates on the festival and to hear about when tickets are releases be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Launching Rocks Blogs!

As we look forward to Brighton Rocks International Film Festival returning for a physical event this year at the Rialto Theatre, the Rocks team is thrilled to launch our very first festival blog. 

Brighton Rocks prides itself on inclusivity and being a forum for indie and underground cinema, and with this blog we’re eager to connect more with our wonderful community. The blog will be home to news, reviews, and interviews as well as a forum for our festival team and our audience. 

This is an uncertain and fast changing world, and so many of the submissions for this year’s festival respond to the tough times we’re going through. Whilst this past year has seen many of us cut off from each other, we have also found new ways to connect.

We are hopeful that screenings will take place as planned on 23-25 July and will confirm this as soon as possible. Our team will be sharing the process with you every step of the way, and in the meantime, we hope to bring you all closer to the films selected at this year’s festival, and the filmmakers behind them.  

We’re so excited to connect with you all, 

—Brighton Rocks Festival Team