Interview with Balbeer Bahi, director of ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’

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DR JAMES ROWLINS, LONDON ROCKS CO-DIRECTOR: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ begins as a gritty tale of a grieving father seeking revenge on the perpetrator of his daughter’s murder, which spins into an exploration of guilt and mental health. It is a gripping and violent film that challenges our expectations at every turn, and casts an unflinching eye on intercommunal tensions in inner London. Please tell us about your background as a writer and working in theatre. Did you always plan to turn to filmmaking? For you, what is the difference between theatre and cinema?

BALBEER BAHI, WRITER/DIRECTOR, ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’: I just love stories, as I think we all do. I believe our primal need for storytelling is as deep-rooted a survival mechanism as Chomsky’s theories that language and grammar are innate. Children, as soon as they can sit, will get absorbed in a good story. So typically, I was writing and drawing comics in primary school.

Balbeer Bahi alongside (left to right) Rez Kabir: Actor, Marina Fusella: Sound Engineer, Esteban Gitton: DoP & Qili Wang: Producer.

There is a huge overlap between Theatre and Film. Old theatre treatises – for Kabuki theatre, or Greek or Indian theatre etc. – aren’t much different from modern screenwriting manuals. The commonality is storytelling.

J.R.: When did you first start developing ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’? We note that it is “conspired by true events” – could you elaborate? How do you feel, incidentally, about the incessant media discourse about knife crime in London?

B.B.: Along with thousands of fellow, heartbroken Londoners, I was on the demo for Stephen Lawrence, as well many demos for lesser-known cases over the years. We also know within the popular folklore of London about Damilola Taylor, more recently Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard… In 2012, a 5-year-old (I don’t want to name her without permission), was caught in the crossfire between rival gangs around the corner in Stockwell. We were all sickened. Discussing the impact of this and other street crimes with my daughter, I wrote ‘UNINTENTIONHELL.’ It really is an impossible subject, these permanent tragedies haunt everyone’s lives forevermore. Maybe that’s why the film is so intense, almost unbearable at times. It might be too packed, trying to create credible, 3D backgrounds for the characters, to fully flesh out their lives and families. As for the media’s presentation of knife, gun, racist, or misogynistic or homophobic street violence, they can analyse and record events, help us grieve, highlight issues – but long-term, complex societal transformation at grass-root level has to come from all of us, I guess.

J.R.: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ is a micro-budget feature, no mean feat in the current climate. How did you go about finding cast and crew? Did the small budget hamper, or fuel, your artistic ambitions?

B.B.: Finding cast and crew in London isn’t difficult. There are so many talented, experienced filmmakers in London who want to get involved with a meaningful project. Also, the script was written specifically for that micro-budget approach. Many of the actors, Rez, Shola, Jacob, Siddiqua, the Assistant Directors Adeel and Catherine, and the co-Producer Qili, contributed their time voluntarily as they felt the subject matter was important. And everyone else generously did it on absolutely minimum fees. We shot 23 days over a 30-day period. There were plenty of problems due to having a minimal budget, a lack of hands mostly. I found myself quickly learning how to schedule a shoot, organise locations, transport, props, permissions, lunches – thank God for the fabulous Chris and Jen at the Ichiban restaurant in Brixton who provided us with the best food, which always boosted morale. There were incredibly frustrating days where I couldn’t focus as much as I wanted on the actual directing and content of what we were shooting. So, any faults within the film are down to me as the producer with limited funds, causing me as director to get over-stretched.

Cast of ‘INTENTIONHELL’ (left to right): Rez Kabir, Samuel Shola Stewart, Jacob Wayne O’Neil, Alphonso Austin & Nansi Love

J.R.: You clearly have a close relationship with your leading man, Rez Kabir (the aptly-named “Manik”). Have you worked together before and if so, how was this time different?

B.B.: Soon after I joined the London theatre company, I met Rez Kabir at the Croydon Warehouse Theatre, when he was contemplating becoming a full-time actor. He’s an exceptionally talented, dedicated performer. We have toured and performed on stage together. This time was different as I was effectively watching him work through a lens, which seems to love him as much as the crew, who adored his professionality. There were several potential actors keen on the role, but in discussions with Rez he pinpointed the story’s thematic development, and I knew I could trust him with the internal mechanics of the character’s journey. All things considered, I think Rez and the cast did phenomenally well.

Rez Kabir as “Manik”

J.R.: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ has a packed cast of young, up-and-coming actors, including first-timers. As director, how did you inspire such raw and realistic performances?

B.B.: Yes! We have Ava Ghir, Shola Stewart, Jacob O’Neil, Alphonso Austin, Nansi Love, and incredibly, Luke Morgan, who had never performed before and I think is amazing… Truthfully, they are all just so talented and passionate about acting, and they connected with the source material – they all knew the stories the script was hinting at – they inspired me rather than me having to draw performances out of them. And don’t forget, we had a few old pros too, such as Sarah Hannah, Siddique Akhtar, Janine Johnson, Samantha Love, Andre Leconite, and the late, great Eamon Maguire, a terrific theatre actor who had retired but thankfully ventured out for this one last role.

J.R.: Was the violence at the film’s end emotionally difficult to film?

B.B.: There is a lot of tension between the primary characters, who are undoubtedly ready to erupt. Personally, I tried to keep the violence to a minimum. A lot of it was difficult to film due to the complicated subject matter. I was desperate to avoid ‘gang’ culture clichés and stereotypes about council estate life. Several White/English actors’ first response (even before looking at the script!) was ‘I don’t want to play a racist’, and the non-white actors didn’t want to regurgitate negative tropes either. As the writer I didn’t want to preach or lecture, just let the viewer reach their own conclusions. It became very dense – the first cut was two and a half hours long. After a huge effort, we got it down to 96 mins. And yet I still worried that it was still too long and chopped it to 78 mins, meaning that yes, it is dense, intense and hard work to watch. As it’s a tragedy, there are no winners in this scenario, everybody loses – those that commit the street violence as well as those that have to suffer it… The film is as tough to deal with as the subject matter.

J.R.: How did you approach the edit? Did you always plan to embrace a non-linear narrative, conveying Manik’s troubled relationship with reality?

B.B.: I was lucky to discover the energetic Lewis Wardell, an editor fresh out of university, who did the first rough cut, and then the multi-talented and experienced Roberto Minelli, who oversaw the post-production. The primary goal of the non-linear narrative was to maintain enough pace to tap the viewer’s curiosity, while unravelling four distinct stories around a central mystery, until the last quarter where the most powerful drama occurs.

J.R.: We particularly like the jazz cacophony, which seems appropriate and symbolic. Was the scoring decided in pre- or post-production?

B.B.: Did you like the original music? That’s terrific, I’ll pass that on. The main character plays the trumpet, which is symbolic of his grasp on reality. Jim Dvorak, one of the jazz world’s most revered trumpet players, and the brilliant guitarist Mark Hewin, graciously explored the themes musically pre-production and suggested different tones. Then Jim, with the sensational Sammy Hurden on piano, composed the original music. Alongside these three world-class musicians, we have the contrasting, contemporary music by the young composer Adam Hare. Plus, one of the actors, Janine Johnson, sings so beautifully, I had to include her voice. AND by chance the actors Nansi and Samantha Love are family with the legendary Alabama 3, so we’ve sneaked in a couple of their tracks too.

J.R.: Does ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ depict a hell with no exit? Is any form of redress or justice achieved in Manik’s revenge?

B.B.: The title suggests these particular kids don’t choose to get trapped in their nightmares as willingly as people presuppose. Maybe if we had more supportive family backgrounds, a more accommodating society, then we’d get all our kids – especially young men – to maturity and to have an adult perspective on these actions. I can partly relate as I had an awful home environment and was out stealing cars when I was 14. So much trouble. And some say I turned out okay… eventually! Equally, many in society may clamour for vengeful redress, but the death sentence in this country was repealed for good reason. Revenge is a very understandable, yet infantile emotion. Quick story: we used to have this beautiful neighbour who was in her 80s. She was mugged, they broke her shoulder, and she never fully recovered. Months later she passed away. My son, who wasn’t yet 5, said, ‘Dad, if I ever find who done it, I’ll kill them’. Revenge may be a highly natural response, but… I’m hoping people notice the lead character’s disturbed search for vengeance makes him as terrible, and perhaps identical to, the ‘evil’ boys he’s chasing down. A lot of people understand that the script is about mental health, schizophrenia in particular, induced by extreme external trauma inducing irreconcilable inner rage and turmoil. Rez and I talked a lot about The Boston Strangler with Tony Curtis, one of the first films that explored schizophrenia.

J.R.: What are your plans and aspirations for “UNINTENTIONHELL”?

B.B.: It would be great to get it in front of London audiences, maybe a streaming platform. We’re so lucky to have found London Rocks and the passionate filmmakers here, who are willing to give a crazy, under-budgeted, raw and flawed first effort a look-in. It’s also been welcomed by First-Director friendly festivals in Canada, Bali, Boston, Cannes… I think we might get a screening at this year’s British Urban Film Festival. I believe it would benefit from a final edit, sound and grading improvements… As a writer the editing process never finishes. Again, the knock-on effect of a limited budget is there is no marketing manager, so I’m open to all advice and suggestions!

J.R.: Is there another feature film in the works? Please tell us about your next projects.

B.B.: I have my hugely ambitious ‘ABHI: BABY DRAGON FLYING TIGER’, in pre-production with an Indian animation studio; there’s ‘BIRTH OF HER COOL’, a tribute to the British Jazz scene, ideally involving several of the cast and musicians from ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’, ready to go; ‘STAR CHILDREN’, about a group of special needs kids on holiday who bump into an alien, which is receiving positive attention. When we talk about diversity people with special needs are gravely under-represented; and I’m off to India soon to film a trailer for a martial arts project, ‘KALARI KAUR’, which is a story that would bring the South Indian martial art form of Kalari to the mainstream. I have dozens of scripts, from low budget socio-political dramas to even super-hero stories, reminiscent of those comics I was drawing in primary school. Having one script manifest as a film is terrific, but I’d love to get one or two more made. I keep repeating that I’m primarily a writer/storyteller, so am keen to work with Directors and Producers looking for scripts they and audiences will connect with.

Writing may at times be a solo effort, but the construction of a film is categorically a team effort, just as watching a film in a cinema is very much like theatre, a social, group event that can subversively bring perceptually different communities together.

‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ will be available for watching at the Rocks Screening Room as part of LRIFF 21 from 1 – 7 November.

London Rocks 2.0: Post-Normal Cinema

As co-Director of LRIFF, I am beyond excited for the second edition of London Rocks Film Festival. Our first festival was held in the grips of Covid19, concluding only a few hours before a national lockdown. A Blitz spirit reigned – the impression of screening films on the deck of the Titanic as the four horsemen galloped overhead, rattling Whirled cinema’s ceilings. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this year we are back and we have grown. We have a packed 3-day screening programme of 66 films, including 3 features, in addition to over 100 films exhibiting online from 1-7 November at the Rocks Screening Room.

London Rocks is a trailblazer for progressive causes. We believe that filmmakers, regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, budget or background, should have the opportunity to make and showcase their work. To this end, LRIFF selections hail from as many different countries and cultures as we could lay our hands on. Diversity and equality are beautiful, period, and art film will die if it doesn’t embrace equality and promote tolerance. LRIFF also has a predilection for the weird and wonderful, the bold and edgy. Our favourite films tend to explore the dark side of the moon, moral grey zones, ambiguities and home truths. While it’s often hard to say with exactitude what we are looking for in selections – we love all kinds of cinematic genres and styles – we are crystal clear about what we do not like: contrived, clichéd, mainstream bullshit. I would argue that being woke and against cancel culture needn’t be such polar positions; that in fact, it is healthy to be a little bit of both.

Film lovers are sick people

François Truffaut

9 Picks for Best of the Fest

A film that illustrates our ideal is ‘TO NOWHERE’, directed by Sian Astor-Lewis. As a writer, she is interested in exploring “complex, self-destructive characters navigating love and sexuality”, and this is perfectly achieved in her first feature. The film is a gritty, intimate day-in-the-life drama about two adolescents on the edge. At its core, it is a no-holds-barred exploration of trauma and abuse in relationships. While this is tough to watch at times, it succeeds where so many other films fail in handling the subject matter with nuance and realism. The actors are all expertly cast and directed. There is the floaty, faraway Tulip (Lilit Lesser), who is dominated by the nihilistic and tortured Finn (Josefine Glaesel), and the misfit uncle (Orlando Seale) who flits through the film on his own strange journey. The locations, the shore of the Thames, the record store, dance studio, Soho sex shop, pub and homes, add to the film’s sense of total authenticity. This goes for the narrative too, which steadily unfolds towards its finale.

To_Nowhere_poster_0821
‘TO NOWHERE’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November at 9 pm.

Sian Astor-Lewis won Best Director at Brighton Rocks Film Festival this year, and has picked up a raft of international awards (“Best No-Budget Feature Film” at Paris Independent Film Festival and “Best Debut Feature Film” at Sweden Film Awards). We look forward to supporting her work long into the future.

LGBTQ+ themed drama is consistently providing depth where straight romances are often lacking. ‘Lessons’ by Sam Seccombe is an outstanding example of this. The film begins with an awkward Dan and a nonchalant Tommy the morning after a one-night stand. Tommy picks up on Dan’s nerves and suspects that he hasn’t truly come to terms with his sexuality. “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 anger issues, and has 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.

Another sophisticated film in the LBGTQ+ genre is ‘CRUISING: OTHER WAYS OF LOVE’ by Abdullah Qureshi – a Pakistani-born artist, filmmaker, and curator based in Finland. Qureshi is interested in using painting and collaborative methodologies to address personal histories, traumatic pasts, and childhood memories. His film presents a stimulating series of sequences exploring Queerness from a Muslim perspective. Dreamlike and expertly lit, the first images at a fairground open up a surreal state of play that evokes an exercise in sexual magic realism. The music (by Zan) mixes a recording of queer Muslims in France talking about cruising with a cool ambient soundtrack.

lessons
‘LESSONS’ (left) will screen on 5th November at 11 pm and ‘CRUISING: OTHER WAYS OF LOVE’ (right) on 6th November at 9.30 pm

The (unofficial) prize for most the most surreal film this year goes to the sublime ‘UNDINE’ by Sjaron Minailo. A mermaid addicted to plastic disrupts the boring lives of a burnt-out female plumber and her neighbour, a lonely philosopher. As absurd and brilliant as it sounds, it is one of those films made to defy expectations; a true testimony to the highs and lows that the fertile, liberated imagination can plumb to (pun intended). Technically, it is reminiscent of masterpieces such as Jan Lenica’s 1960s animations. ‘UNDINE’ also uses decidedly cinematic camera and editing techniques to deconstruct its own processes to enhance the viewing experience.

‘EATING CARS’, a US feature film directed by Trevor Hollen, is also a strong competitor in the surreal genre. It is the story of Max (Lexi Pappas), a failed writer, who goes in search of her estranged girlfriend while simultaneously trying to unload a large quantity of drugs she stole off her bosses to pay for a trip back East to care for her dying mother. She may, or may not, have her dead sister in the trunk of her car … ‘EATING CARS’ was filmed in a single warehouse location during in an intense 8-day shoot, and the Brechtian minimalism, the constant breaking of the fourth wall and guessing-game about what the hell is going on, draws us ever closer into Max’s mad world. The movie reminds us of Lars von Trier (‘Dogville’), as well as David Lynch at his peak (‘Lost Highway,’ ‘Mulholland Drive’). The ending has a touch of Tarantino, too. And yet our overall feeling is that ‘Eating Cars’ hails from a refreshingly new directorial voice. It left our features reviewer “totally exhausted and thrilled in equal measure” – which in our book is as good as it gets.

eating cars 4
‘UNDINE’ & ‘EATING CARS’ will be online at the Rocks Screening Room, 1-7 November 2021

UNINTENTIONHELL’, by London-based director Balbeer Bahi, is another exciting feature film available at the Rocks Screening Room. The film begins as a gritty tale of a grieving father (Rez Kabir) seeking revenge on the perpetrator of his daughter’s murder, but spins into a far-reaching study of guilt and declining mental health. It uses a nonlinear narrative and experimental editing effectively to impart the protagonist’s inner turmoil, leading to a violent climax that will stay with you long after viewing. A man of theatre, Balbeer Bahi’s young performers take an unflinchingly raw look at intercommunal tensions in inner London – no mean feat for a first, micro-budged feature. Please see our extended interview about the making of the film.

London Rocks feature films screening at Whirled Cinema have been selected for their impactful treatment of societal and political issues. ‘ANONYMOUS’, directed by Alasdair Mackay (screening on Saturday 6th November at 7.30 pm) is a dark and intense film dealing with mental health issues affected by addiction, ranging from domestic abuse, relationships, loneliness, violence, self-harm and sadism. The mysterious, silent protagonist and closed-door set compound the film’s sense of dire urgency, while never shutting the door on the possibility of a happier future. ‘ANONYMOUS’ is is certifiably Made in London (Ruislip area), and on crowed-funded budget of £18,000, it is born of passion, conviction, and a healthy dose of defiance.

features

‘ELECTION NIGHT’, directed by Neil Monaghan (screening on Sunday 7th November at 1 pm), sees five liberal-minded friends gathering to watch the TV coverage of a UK general election. Many believe in the optimistic rhetoric from a fictitious firebrand socialist party, the Progressive Social Alliance. Others put their faith in a new populist far-right movement, the New Britain Party, headed by former newspaper baron Dominic Drummond (Bruce Payne). As violence erupts on the streets, there’s a knock on the door and three people desperately seeking shelter enter the fray, bringing society’s deep fissures across the threshold with deadly consequences. It is a starkly dystopian, yet credible portrayal of a future to be avoided at all costs.

Finally, I would like to stress that London Rocks Film Festival is not all doom and gloom! Our first screening sessions will feature incredibly upbeat responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Our documentary series showcases amazing tales of humans triumphing over adversity. A standout short doc is ‘FLUFFYPUNK’, by Thomas Harman, about the life of stand up poet and comedian Jon Seagrave. The film shows how an outsider whose personal integrity playfully rages at the world and the socio-political climate can grapple with insecurity and personal issues, while also – and above all – being a great dad. ‘FLUFFYPUNK’ is a tender film and Jon Seagrave a loveable and inspiring guy.

fluffy
‘FLUFFYPUNK’ by Thomas Harman will screen on Saturday 6th November at 2 pm

These are but a few handpicked highlights from London Rocks 2021 Film Festival. Our jury, composed of academics, filmmakers and actors from London and across the globe, is tirelessly deliberating to pick this year’s awards winners. Cue for drum beats, suspenseful music and the distant sound of fanfare.

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?

In Review: CALIFORNIA

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