Sunday, 23 June 2013

Recent Articles for NARC magazine

Tina Gharavi

Apart from this blog, I write articles on other platforms. Here are some links to articles I've written for NARC magazine in the last few months (they are all about filmmaking in the North East of England):

An article about Mirrorvael, a film made by the local production company Canny Pictures (NARC magazine, April 2013)

An article about Tina Gharavi, about life after a BAFTA nomination  (NARC magazine, May 2013)

An article about The Big M, an artist film installation from Isis Arts  (NARC magazine, June 2013)

Friday, 8 February 2013

Interview with Mark Dobson, director of the Tyneside Cinema, about the Proposed Funding Cuts by the City Council

Mark Dobson, director of the Tyneside Cinema

Recently, the Newcastle City Council proposed to cut 100% of their funding to the “independent cultural organisations” in Newcastle by 2015/16. This plan is still in consultation and it remains to be confirmed.

If these cuts were enforced, the Newcastle-based cinemas would be affected by them. On the 29th of January 2013, I went to interview Mark Dobson from the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby from the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell from the Star &Shadow Cinema to ask them how they might be affected by the cuts (financially and in terms of their programme).

This is the transcription of the interview that I made with Mark Dobson, director of the Tynesdie Cinema.


Currently, the Tyneside cinema is funded by various organisations, and receives £59,000 a year from the City Council. The proposed cuts from the City Council come at a time when all the other funding organisations are also having to reduce the amount of money that they give away, and Mark Dobson told me about the porposed reductions in funding from the Newcastle city council, but also from the Arts Council of England, and the British Film Institute (or BFI):

Mark Dobson: “At the moment, we have some revenue funding from the Arts Council for our digital media project, which we run at the cinema, and which is additional to what we do in terms of the core film programme. And we know that the Arts Council have just been asked to deal with another 3% cut over the next 2 years, so we know that they are passing that on directly to their clients, which is perfectly reasonable I think. So we’ll see a cut in that money over the next 2 years.

The City Council is out with their consultation at the moment, and they’re proposing that the funding for the Tyneside will reduce to zero over the next 3 years.

For the British Film Institute at the moment we have no confirmation, so we’re waiting to hear from them what their position will be in terms of the grants-in-aid, revenue funding for the next financial year. We’ve been told to expect to hear some time in February.”

I then asked Mark Dobson if these general reductions in funding might endanger any particular project at the Tyneside Cinema:

Mark Dobson: “The danger for us is that a lot of the activities that we see as being vital to the entire energy of the place are at risk through the erosion of those funds. So some of the more innovative programmes that we run, around our digital arts programme for instance, or a lot of our work with young people, would conceivably become at risk, because they’re not economically-driven projects. There’s no way to really earn an economic return on them, in the way that we can earn some kind of return through selling cinema tickets for example. So that work becomes more challenging to support over time.

Our strategy is absolutely to try and support this work through our trading as we go forward into the future. The biggest risk to us is that our revenue funding goes in a terrible hurry, because if it does that will be destabilising. In the short term, it could be quite unnecessarily damaging to us as an organisation.
In the longer-term, if the funding’s removed over a gradual period of time, that’s kind of what we’ve been anticipating for a decade now. So we’re kind of building ourselves up towards that point anyway.”

The Factory is part of the Young Tyneside programme exploring the Future of Cinema and screen based media.
Mark Dobson then explained to me what Revenue Funding was, and what its advantages were (Revenue Funding is precisely what the Newcastle City Council is proposing the cut), and also what the risks might be in cutting down on that type of funding.

Mark Dobson: “Revenue funding is not a huge part of our turnover (about 7%), but it’s a very significant part of our finances.

With revenue funding from the City Council and the Arts Council, they have tried to give funding for more than one year at a time. So typically with the Arts Council you get a 3-year contract. Unfortunately for various reasons, the Film Council, on the other hand, could only give its revenue funding annually. The disadvantage of funding like that being annually renewed, is that it doesn't give you much flexibility in terms of planning. You haven’t got much certainty looking ahead. But also it doesn't give you the flexibility of spending less one year, and more the next year to move the money around in a slightly more creative fashion to reflect how the world is. And that’s one of the beauties of revenue funding, in that it allows you to do that.

So I think that without doubt, nationally, there's intense pressure on revenue funding. The treasury money that goes into revenue funding right across the cultural sector, is under enormous pressure. Because, if you like, that's the free money, it's the available money that’s being stretched to do so many other things. So we have a strange situation in some parts of the cultural sector where there is more money available from the lottery, so more project funding is becoming available, but what there is much much less of in the system is revenue funding.

So I suppose if you wanted to paint what would be the end result of that, if that journey was to carry on to perhaps its illogical conclusion, would be that cultural organisations could access lots and lots of lottery money to do things that are additional to what they are there to do, but that there would be nobody left to do it, because the core resource would have disappeared, because the revenue funding would have gone. That’s a crude way of describing it, but crudely, that’s sort of what it looks like.”

Pixel Palace, the digital arts project of the Tyneside Cinema, commissioned Kelly Richardson to make Mariner 9 which was shown at Whitley Bay’s historic Spanish City Dome in August 2012

Mark Dobson then talked to me about the strategy that the cinema has had since he was appointed director of the Tyneside in 2000, and how he was given the task of making the cinema an institution that would be more self-sustainable and less reliant on funding:

Mark Dobson: “When I started working here, about 12 years ago, the cinema was in a great deal of trouble financially. But it had a very talented and prescient board of trustees who, at that point, were very determined to plan for the worst. And planning for the worst is planning for the end of revenue funding. So what they tasked me to do was to try and create a new version of the Tyneside Cinema so that, if the terrible day came around, the cinema would have grown and grown as a business sufficiently so that revenue funding wouldn’t be entirely critical to us anymore.”

The Classic screen at the Tyneside Cinema

And indeed, Mark Dobson explained to me that at the moment, 77% of the cinema’s turnover is earned – meaning through ticket sales, the tyneside bar, the coffee rooms, the hires or the friends scheme. Also, part of the strategy of the Tyneside Cinema over the last few years, has been to diversify its programme, and to programme more accessible films. Mark Dobson explained to me how that worked, and how that strategy has been incredibly successful and made more people come into the building:

Mark Dobson: “So when we developed the building in 2008, we added an additional screen, and we did lots of research into people who were going to cinemas in Newcastle. We researched which cinemas they were going to and what they were interested in seeing, and it became really obvious to us that a lot of people who are fantastically keen cinema-goers weren’t really coming here. And a lot of that was to do with the range of programme we had on offer. So we altered the programme very slightly. In the jargon, we are a specialised cinema, but we’re 80% specialised. So 20% of our programme is mainstream, and we choose that part of the programme with, I would say, extreme prejudice – or a reasonable degree of prejudice - in terms of trying to pick mainstream work of quality to put into the building.

The real reason for doing that, is not to gain a financial return on that work, because quite often, some of these bigger titles don’t perform terribly well here compared to other cinemas - not compared to cinemas who say put them on in 6 or 7 screens at a time for instance. But what they do do, is they give people a point of entry into our building, and a point of entry into the rest of our programme.

And what we’ve seen over the last 4 years since we started doing that, is that we sell nowadays almost double the amount of tickets that we used to sell in the old building. So I think, in the old building, we sold about £90,000 tickets in the last year that we were there. And we set ourselves a target to sell £120,000 tickets per year in the new building.

In the end, I think that last year we sold £184,000 tickets, and that’s really an absolute consequence of that shift of the 80%-20% balance in the programme. Because we know that people are now finding a way into the building through some of these easier entry points in the programme, and then coming back to see the rest of what we have to offer, which is really the reason why we’re here. So that’s been a great success story for us, and that’s what’s driven the numbers through the building. And also it’s got us on that track to hopefully one day being able to stand on our own 2 feet as an organisation.”

Interview with Graeme Rigby from the Amber Collective about the Proposed Funding Cuts by the City Council

Graeme Rigby from the Amber Collective

Recently, the Newcastle City Council proposed to cut 100% of their funding to the “independent cultural organisations” in Newcastle by 2015/16. This plan is still in consultation and it remains to be confirmed.

If these cuts were enforced, the Newcastle-based cinemas would be affected by them. On the 29th of January 2013, I went to interview Mark Dobson from the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby from the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell from the Star &Shadow Cinema to ask them how they might be affected by the cuts (financially and in terms of their programme).

This is the transcription of the interview that I made with Graeme Rigby, one of the founding members of the Amber Collective.


The very cosy screen of the Side Cinema

The Amber collective is a group of filmmakers and photographers, who've been making work since the 1970s. The collective is organised around 3 sets of activities: they produce and make films and photography, they hold a photography gallery where they show work made by themselves and by photographers from all over the world, and they also have a 48-seat cinema in which they programme films – again, either their own films or films by other directors.

I first asked Graeme Rigby how the Side Cinema was funded and how the cuts might affect it, and he gave me some background about how the Side Cinema is integrated as part of the Amber Collective:

Graeme Rigby:

“Side Cinema gets very little funding. We get a small amount from Creative England, which replaced the Regional Screen Agencies. But Side Cinema is largely speaking supported as a voluntary enterprise. We have to try and make it pay its way, mostly through commercial bookings and box office.

Side Cinema is part of the Amber film and photography collective, and we integrate its activities as part of it. We run a cinema because we want to be able to screen films that excite us, and the whole presentation of which excites us, just as we want to show documentary photography in the gallery because it inspires us, and inspires our audiences as well.

The cinema is not specifically funded by Newcastle City Council or the Arts Council. But it can’t run without the gallery organising the whole schedule, and the ticket sales, etc. It can’t run without the members of the collective who are mostly involved with production, coming and doing the box office or the projection, the programming, etc. There’s isn’t really the money to cover that properly. There are little bits of money that come into the organisation to enable that, but they are quite small.

The impact of the cuts is that as everything else becomes harder and harder to keep doing, so then Side Cinema becomes even harder. Because it doesn’t get much funding. And it’s mostly done out of love.”

Picture from Shooting Magpies (2005, 80 min, feature film, by the Amber Collective)

I asked Graeme Rigby how much the Newcastle City Council was giving to the Amber Collective, and what the proposed cuts were:

Graeme Rigby:

“We used to get £20,000 a year from the City Council, and it was reduced to £15,000 a year a couple of years ago, and it’s now being held on £15,000. In the current proposal, they will stop funding us completely by the end of 2013-14.”

Graeme Rigby then explained to me that the Arts Council and the Newcastle City Council were advising them to apply for money from foundations and trusts. However, he also explained how in his eyes, the reductions in funding from the city council, might actually make these further fundraising activities more difficult, because of the bad story that would be attached to the Newcastle-based arts organisations:

Graeme Rigby:

“The problem is that the City Council is saying “we are not going to be funding the arts”. And that tells a bad story to people around the country. Foundations, trusts and philanthropists can support the arts all over the country. Most of them are not based here in the North East, they can support work wherever. And they will support work where, in a sense, they feel like their investment is matched and is in a stronger position to achieve the kind of really positive results that they want to associate themselves with. That story is not a good story at the moment for Newcastle.”

One of the iconic photos form the Amber Collective - taken by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen for her project on Byker

Graeme Rigby then commented on the way he felt the arts funding was changing in the UK as a whole at the moment:

Graeme Rigby:

“At the heart of this, there is a political direction. The government actively wants things like culture off the books. It doesn’t want culture being funded at a national or at a local authority level. It wants these things shifted, as they are very much in the United States, and for cultural organisations to apply to philanthropists, trusts, foundations and sponsorship. And that’s a political agenda.

We have seen that come through the Arts Council, and the changes that the Arts Council has been pushed towards, and they themselves are pushing that onto arts organisations. And we’re seeing it in the local authorities too. So yes, we are being attacked through all of those avenues.

But it is deliberate. It is absolutely deliberate. And you can accuse the government of vandalism, you can accuse the government of stupidity, but they do think they know what they’re doing. And it isn’t just the arts that are suffering in this way.”

Photo from the shooting of the film Seacoal (1985, Amber's 1st feature film) - here with Peter Woodhouse, Peter Roberts and Ellin Hare

Graeme Rigby then talked about the changes in the type of funding that the Amber Collective now gets from the Arts Council – the change between revenue funding and project funding – and the impact that that has on their work:

Graeme Rigby:

“We no longer get revenue funding from the Arts Council, we are in receipt of project funding [which is less regular funding that revenue funding], and we’re trying to make things work in that way.

Again that’s hard, because it’s deliberately not regular. It just introduces difficulties. And at the end of the day, you can overcome those difficulties, you find other ways of doing things, etc, but you spend more and more of your time doing that, and necessarily less and less of your time doing the things that really are where your skills lie, and where the benefits to society at large lie. You spend less time creating things.

You can spend less time in the creation of things or alternatively you can decide that you’re going to do it all for nothing, and within the collective, people don’t do things only if there is money. But it becomes harder and harder. Everybody has to live at the end of the day.”

Photo from the film The Writing in the Sand (1991) - Photography by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Graeme Rigby did explain to me though that he is and remains an optimist for the future of Side Cinema, and he told me about their future projects and development pan:

Graeme Rigby:

“Personally I’m an optimist. Always. There are ways forward, and I think one should try to push forward as best one can. We have a big and ambitious development plan in which the cinema plays a major role. It will be about opening up access to our film and photographic archive, and generating a whole range of activities around what is a unique collection, and one of the most significant bodies of cultural work to have come out of the North East over the last 50 years. It’s a fantastic thing, and it must be made accessible to people.

Basically at the moment we’re digitising everything, that’s the plan. It’s a major project. We have digitised about 15% of the collection, and you can see a lot of photographs on amber-online, and we do regular presentations of our films on SideTV. We work quite a lot with what we’ve done, but there’s a huge amount. Not just films and the body of photographic work, but there’s a mass of research videos from the 80s, which really should be put in the public domain. Also, digitising all of that is part of the plan to do with generating income, because as it is digitised, where we have rights, we can exploit it, so that’s a major part of the plan, so there is a logic.

And yes, we have a development plan, and I am full of optimism. But I would not pretend that success is guaranteed, and I wouldn’t pretend that I don’t have moments when it looks a bit difficult.”

You can see the whole list of films made by Amber here.

Interview with Ilana Mitchell from the Star & Shadow Cinema about the Proposed Funding Cuts by the City Council

Ilana Mitchell, one of the founding members of the Star & Shadow Cinema

Recently, the Newcastle City Council proposed to cut 100% of their funding to the “independent cultural organisations” in Newcastle by 2015/16. This plan is still in consultation and it remains to be confirmed.

If these cuts were enforced, the Newcastle-based cinemas would be affected by them - ie funding from the council to these cinemas would be reduced to zero by 2014-15.

On the 29th of January 2013, I went to interview Mark Dobson from the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby from the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell from the Star & Shadow Cinema to ask them how they felt about it and how they might be affected by the cuts.

This is the transcription of the interview that I made with Ilana Mitchell, one of the founding volunteers of the Star & Shadow Cinema.


A photo of the 65-seat single screen at the Star & Shadow Cinema - here a full house for the Delia Derbyshire night on 20 January 2013

The Star & Shadow Cinema is a cinema that opened in 2006, and that is entirely run by volunteers in a non-hierarchical structure.

I first asked Ilana Mitchell how much funding the Star & Shadow Cinema was getting from the Newcastle City Council at the moment, and what the proposed cuts were:

Ilana Mitchell:

“This financial year coming up, so April 2013 to March 2014, we’re going to get £15,000 from the Newcastle City Council, as we did last year. And then from 2014-15, we'll receive nothing.”

Ilana Mitchell clearly made the difference though, between the funding decisions made by the City Council as an authority, and the staff from the Arts Development team at the City Council, who she felt were very supportive of the Star & Shadow Cinema. She also explained that she would really worry if these members of staff had to go:

Ilana Mitchell:

“The staff in the Arts Development Team at the Newcastle City Council are really clear that they value the Star & Shadow, and they want to find ways to support us. They want to see if there are other bits of money.

At the moment, the people who support us, the key members of staff at the Newcastle City Council, are still in jobs. When they go I’ll be really worried. Because I think that there’s a lot of value in having those great relationships and the trust. Because there aren’t many people who give you £10,000 by sending you an email, and then say, “oh, actually do you want a bit more?” [the City Council used to give £10,000 a year to the Star & Shadow Cinema, and they decided 2 years ago to give the cinema £15,000 a year, without the cinema asking for it].

These aren’t grants that we’ve had to write hours and hours or funding applications, and email backwards and forward and justify with a million receipts, and all of that admin. The City Council get what we do, they trust us. And they trust us because they can see what’s happening. So that’s a fundamental issue. And it is a real worry about the staff going for me, because of the relationship that we have.”

The bar at the Star & Shadow Cinema - here during Josie Long's gig (live comedy).

Ilana Mitchell also explained how much she is proud of the Star & Shadow Cinema Cinema and of what it does:

Ilana Mitchell:

“There’s a lot of love for what we do, because we do so much on so little. Basically running on entirely volunteer-time is worth so much. But also, what we do is genuinely crossing out of art-form boundaries and demographics. Looking at the English language group today I was thinking “someone really ought to take a proper photo of this!” [The English Language Group is a group that gathers every Tuesday 4pm-6pm, for people to come and practice their English]

There were 18-year olds with 70-year olds, working together  to make sure that people from all around the world, who happen to be in Newcastle, and who are trying to make their lives here, of all ages and all nationalities, are finding ways to meet people and communicate. For free, while having a nice cup of tea, and in a really relaxed way, that feels incredible social and incredibly lovely.

And it’s just easy and sociable, and nice. And about being real people. I just felt really heart-warmed by seeing this, and at the same time I felt really sad, because, yes, that can happen anywhere, but there aren’t that many resources for it, and there aren’t many places where the tea’s also free. So in that sense seeing things like that makes me really proud of the Star & Shadow Cinema and of what we do.”

The Star & Shadow Cinema bar

I finally asked Ilana how she felt about the cuts, and if she was still hopefully for the future of the cinema:

Ilana Mitchell:

“I am spurred on to do the work to make it happen, and I think other people are as well, so that makes me hopeful. I am pessimistic in general, about things in a much broader sense, because I think that the things that are happening in the whole country are destroying our social structure in an extremely horrible way.

And I think that makes me more determined to make something like the Star & Shadow Cinema live on. The Star & Shadow is an alternative, but the great thing about it is that we’re different, but we’re still part of the society, rather than being totally marginalised. And I’m really determined that there is a culture outside the mainstream consumer culture, and that we’ll fight for that. And I think that other people will as well.”

Fundraising and percentages

The Star & Shadow Cinema is entirely run by volunteers, and this makes fundraising activities more difficult simply because it represents a lot of hours of work. Most cultural organisations have a team and full-time members of staff whose job it is to fundraise, but this is not the case for the Star & Shadow Cinema. For that reason, the revenue funding that the City Council is currently giving to the Star & Shadow is particularly precious, as it doesn't require much administrative work.

To put things into perspective, the £15,000 a year that the Newcastle City Council is currently giving to the Star & Shadow Cinema represents about 20% of its turn-over, and pays for the rent of the cinema for about half of the year. It is therefore a very small amount compared to what is given to larger organisations, but it is a rather large amount for the Star & Shadow.

Podcast: Newcastle Cinemas reacting to the proposed 100% cuts in funding by the City Council

Michael Pierce and Philip Wood have recently launched a new project, Cinema Nation, which is a "London-based research and development agency that supports, champions and encourages all forms of film exhibition in the UK and Ireland."

As part of this project, they'll be running a monthly radio show on Resonance FM, a great London-based radio, and they'll choose a different theme for each show.

 For their first show on Thu 31 January, they looked at the question of what "independent cinema" means today, for example in the light of the Cineworld/Picturehouse acquisition.

Newcastle City Council Funding Cuts

Also, they asked me to make a podcast about the proposition of the Newcastle City Council to cut funding in the arts by 100% by 2015/16, and more specifically to investigate how the Newcastle-based cinemas reacted to it.

 On 29 January 2013, I interviewed Mark Dobson, director of the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby, member of the Amber collective that runs the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell, one of the founding volunteers of the Star & Shadow Cinema, and I asked them how the cuts were likely to affect them and how they felt about them.


You can also listen to the report that I made with these interviews on my soundcloud, here:

Cinema Nation Podcast

You can also listen to the whole Episode 1 of the podcast of Cinema Nation (about 55 minutes) on mixcloud here:

This podcast includes my report, but also includes interviews with Gabriel Swartland (Picturehouse Cinemas) and David Sin (Independent Cinema Office). The show is about what "independent cinema" means today and is hosted by Philip Wood and Michael Pierce. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Film Shoot: Cleopatra in Northumberland

Between 11 and 19 Oct 2012, the shooting of a short film, Cinelove (working title), directed by Josephine Halbert, took place in Haltwhistle and Belsay Hall in Northumberland, in the North East of England. Josephine Halbert also wrote and produced the film (which will be about 15 minutes long), and the shooting of the film was organised in collaboration with Newcastle based co-producer and production manager Jack Tarling.

Charlotte Quita Jones and Rhodri Miles as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963)

On 12 and 19 October, I was kindly allowed to go on the film shoot to observe, take some photos and write about it for this blog. I had never been on a film shoot before, and I enjoyed the experience very much: the variety of people present amazed me, but also the shoot felt like a place where a lot of contradictory emotions met - fear, happiness, nervousness, seriousness and excitement – making it all feel very special.

Aiste Gramantaite

One of the 1st people that I met on the shoot was the Lithuanian lead actress, Aiste Gramantaite. She seemed really excited to be there, and explained that she felt a bit like the main character that she played in the film – walking around wide-eyed in awe of what was happening to her, and of the set that was around her.

Aiste Gramantaite
 Aiste finished her MA in acting a year ago, after doing a BA in journalism and media. She was interested in acting, but never thought that it was possible to go on an MA in acting without having studied acting before -“it wouldn’t be possible in Lithuania”. However, following someone’s advice, she applied and got onto an MA in acting in London. She loved the course, and has worked hard since she graduated at getting experience in varied roles. This is her first experience in a lead role in such a well-funded film, and she is beaming with happiness.

She is really friendly and enthusiastically tells me about the film, which surprises me as I thought that actors would be too stressed to chat!

A scene in the lush garden of Belsay Hall

The Plot, the Set

Cinelove is set in Rome, in 1962, and takes place on the set of the film shoot of Cleopatra, the 1963 film directed by Joseph Mankievicz – one of the most expensive films in the history of cinema. Cinelove tells the story of Sofia (played by Aiste Gramantaite), a young woman who goes on the set to deliver a parcel for the actress ElizabethTaylor, and who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up working as an assistant for the star. Everything is marvellous and new to her, and she ends up having an affair with one of the Italian assistants in the film.

The set of Cinelove is very impressive – it is a replica of parts of the set of Cleopatra, so it includes Egyptian furniture, a massive golden sphinx, a few golden panthers, and some old cinema lights and cameras. The design team has worked hard to find all the right furniture and they even made some of it, like a gorgeous white Egyptian seat with a little cat/dog/interesting creature on each arm.

Detail of the Egyptian seat made for the film

The cast

The Italian assistant with whom the main character, Sofia, falls in love, is played by Cesare Taurasi, a British actor with Italian parents. He explains that he believes to be the only “Cesare Taurasi” in the world – not a common name! He’s very friendly and doesn’t seem stressed about the shoot. When the camera is rolling he concentrates, but otherwise he’s relaxed and happy to chat.

Cesare Taurasi

Many actors play the roles of the real actors from Cleopatra. Charlotte Quita Jones plays Elizabeth Taylor, and with her makeup and her gorgeous pink dress, she looks disturbingly like the real Liz. Beautiful and star-like. The costume designer, Rachel McWha, made that wonderful pink gown herself. Rhodri Miles plays Richard Burton, and Donald Sinclair plays Joseph Mankievicz.

Charlotte Quita Jones as Elizabeth Taylor
The crew

While each scene is being shot, the costume designers and the make-up artists look at the monitor, a screen that shows what is in front of the camera, to check that the actors’ make up and costumes are fine and that they are the same from one take to the next.

The lighting design and the electricity are in the hands of a team of 3 electricians – a gaffer (Dan Chaytor), a best girl (Ileana Cardy) and a spark (Kev Todd). Ileana is apparently the only woman in the UK to have this job: “I don’t know any other British woman who has this job” - she says - “and I don’t understand why, as it's a great job to have. I love it!”

Ileana Cardy, Best Girl
On the last day of the shoot, on 19 Oct, a steadicam specialist is present to film a scene on a vespa: it’s Andy Johnson. He shoots while sitting on a special bike ridden by someone else, and follows a beautiful 1960s Vespa ridden by Aiste Gramantaite and Cesare Taurasi. He used to live in Newcastle but has now moved to London for work reasons.

He talks with passion about the beauty of steadicam shots, about that great shot through a nightculb's kitchen in Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese), about how much he loves operating the machine despite the heavy weight, and about what a steadicam shot can add to a scene.

Preparing for the steadicam shot with Andy Johnson

The sound recordist on the film is Andy Ludbrook, who won the award for best Post Production at the Royal Television Society in 2012. He enthusiastically talks about how much he likes recording sound, and how he enjoys the post-production work too. He is full of interesting stories about the old Tyne Tees Television studios. He is also in a band, The Agency, and you can listen to their latest album here.

Andy Ludbrook


Adding to this already eclectic mix of people, on 12 Oct, an interesting group is on set: about 20 men dressed up as Romans! They are not just extras dressed up as Romans - they do this all year-round. They are The Antonine Guard, a Roman Living History Society based in Scotland. They wear the exact same clothes as the 6th Roman Legion, the legion that conquered Egypt at the time of Cleopatra. I speak to John Richardson, who created the Antonine Guard, and who proudly explains that in his society, all the Roman clothes and military items that are used have been proven to exist. They look excited and happy in their Roman clothes, and certainly make everybody smile.

The Antonine Guard
A dancer

In the continuous interesting mix of people on the shoot, a bit later that day, two 20 year-old men from Gateshead arrive: it is Martin Bagnal and Sam Irwin. They are in a boy band, Raw, and Sam Irwin is also a dancer (his professional facebook profile is here).  In the makeup room, he shows a few hat tricks with his cap and everyone seems impressed.

Sam Irwin

Later, on set, with the camera pointed towards him, he improvises an Egyptian inspired hip-hop dance. As he improvises in front of the camera rolling with precious 35mm, everyone holds their breath, not a noise is heard, no-one talks, everyone’s attention is focussed, time seems to stop – and magic seems to happen.

With 35mm being so expensive, every time the camera is rolling, it feels like a big risk is being taken – and even more so in that scene, when the dancer is improvising and that no-one knows what to expect. The scene seems to go perfectly well though, and as soon as the 1st AD shouts “cut”, people look at each and smile. Sighs of relief. Josephine Halbert seems really happy and congratulates the dancer.

Sam Irwin


In general, a sense of magic is definitely floating on the shoot. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling, and it reminds me of the fascinating power that is generally associated with cinema. Although I have often felt this fascination as an audience member, I suddenly feel like I have discovered another aspect of it – the kind of emotions that you get when the camera is rolling. Fear, excitement and intense emotion all at the same time.

Charlotte Quita Jones

In that sense, the film shoot seems to be a mix of many contradictory feelings: tension (because everyone is aware that time is limited, and that a certain number of scenes have to be shot every day); happiness about meeting new people(most people didn't know each other before the shoot and seem excited about working together); a sense of adventure (about working on a demanding project without really knowing what the finished product will be); the need for concentration and rigor (as every member of the crew has to make sure that each scene goes smoothly), and an equally strong sense of creativity – as at the end of the day, the aim of this big team and production machine is to make art, to realise someone’s vision, and to share emotions with audiences.

I can’t help but noticing, and also enjoying, this contradictory idea that rigor is needed to make someone’s imagination come true, that a tight sense of organisation is essential to make surreal visions come to life, as if adulthood and childhood were clashing and found a way of working together.

Charlotte Quita Jones and Rhodri Miles as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

After the last scene has been shot, the production manager, Jack Tarling, and the production co-ordinator, Gerry Maguire, seem very tired - but they are happy. They open some bottles of champagne and offer them to everyone. Josephine Halbert gets a big bunch of flowers. She says that she’s in a bit of daze, but that she’s really happy about how the shoot went. A few good nights of sleep, and the post-production work can begin!

Group photography after the last scene has been shot: Rachel McWha, Lisa O'Grady, Jack Tarling, Charlotte Quita Jones, Cesare  Taurasi, Josephine Halbert, Gerry Maguire (from left to right).

Monday, 29 October 2012

Podcast + transcribed interview with Ellie Land about her latest film: Centrefold


This is a 19-minute podcast with an interview with the international award-wining filmmaker Ellie Land, which I recorded in August 2012 (I have also transcribed parts of the interview below).

In this podcast, Ellie Land talks about her latest film (released in July 2012), Centrefold, a 9-minute animation film about Labiaplasty, which gathers the accounts of 3 women who have had labia surgery. Ellie Land has made many animation films on documentary subjects around the themes of femininity, gender politics, education and identity, and she is also a Senior Lecturer in Animation at Northumbria University Design School.

Centrefold was released online in July 2012, and it was incredibly successful very fast: in the first 2 weeks that it was released, it had had 125,000 hits, and it had featured in the national and international media on the radio and in the press.

You can watch the film online here

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Feminism in Newcastle

North East Feminist Gathering, Newcastle, October 2012

This film also comes at a certain time when feminism seems to be talked about more widely in the media, and where it is certainly more present at the moment in Newcastle upon Tyne. 

Many feminist initiatives have sprung up recently in Newcastle: the Star & Shadow Cinema has been holding film screenings on feminism throughout the whole of 2012, in partnership with the gender research group at Newcastle University, (LOUDER NOW: Feminism on film); in September 2012, Dr Julia Downes, Research Associate at Durham University, organised a Girl Gang film season on Riot Girls and the punk feminist movements in the USA, also at the Star & Shadow Cinema; in October 2012, the North East Feminist Gathering organised a whole weekend of workshops, debates and discussions; and finally, between 12 and 14 October 2012, a new festival called Imprint Art took place in Newcastle, which focused on the work of experimental/feminist/cross platform female artists.

Transcription of bits of the interview with Ellie Land

Centrefold is an excellent film about labiaplasty, but it is also about more than that – through this subject, the film talks about the way women perceive their bodies, and about the sense of disgust that some of them might feel towards their own genitals. This in turn, can be linked to the way women are portrayed in the media, to consumerism, and to the way certain women still feel insecure and pressured about the way they look.


I talked about all that with Ellie Land, and this is a transcription of part of the interview that you can find in the podcast:

Q: The film doesn’t seem to condemn labia surgery – was that important to you?

Ellie Land: Yes. Actually, I set out to make a film that I thought was going to be damning to labia surgery, because it’s not necessarily something that I think women should be going through. However, when I met the women [whose interviews feature in the film], that’s not what they think. So that’s why the story talks in that kind of way, because as a filmmaker I’m really interested in what these women have got to say, and to bring that forward in the film.

That’s also why I didn’t include the voices of the research partners who’ve done a lot of work around labia surgery , Sarah Creighton and Li-Mei Liao, because I didn’t want to have that voice of authority in the film, to undermine what the women were saying. So I think that the film is definitely not the film that I set out to make, but the film is very true to what the women say.

And actually, I didn’t’ find a woman who’d had a labia surgery, and who completely regretted it, but that’s because none of the women I interviewed had had their labia surgery more than a year, so I think that they haven’t really had time for it to sink it. It’s a serious piece of surgery, so your body’s got to heal, and get used to that, and you have got to get used to it, and your partner has to get used to it. And as you grow older, you also possibly get more comfortable in your own skin anyway, so your thoughts about your body and how you feel about it also change. 

So it would have been great to have found a woman who'd had labia surgery for 10 years, but labia surgery was not so popular 10 years ago, so it was very difficult to find someone who’d actually had it done.

Q; Was it important for you to use animation to talk about that subject?

Ellie Land: You know, talking about genital cutting is not something that we do very often anyway, and then, to do it in quite an accessible form, like animation, just brings it out of the space where it would normally be talked about, which is probably in feminist and academic circles. So hopefully the film might be more attractive to a wider audience of people.

But also to use animation with documentary subjects really interests me, because you can do whatever you like, you’re not tied down to using live action, and having to try and recreate things in live action. With animation you just have complete freedom. So a flying sequence, to describe the ups and downs of how women feel about their labia surgery, would be quite difficult to achieve in live action, and you probably wouldn't do that, you would probably try and talk about it in a different way. But it’s about communicating these ideas through animation in a way that I feel is much more emotive than a talking head shot of that person talking about labia surgery.

But one thing that’s quite interesting is that people often say “well, actually I would like to see those women who talk about their labia surgery”. They miss that talking head shot, but I really like to keep that out of the process.


Q: You have made several films that talk about feminist issues, and female body identity, why and what exactly interests you in these issues?

Ellie Land: So I suppose, what I am interested in is just how do we, as women, feel about our bodies, how do we look at ourselves, how do we reflect and critically appraise what we think about ourselves. Because I think that in our society, there is so much information and cultural wash about how we should look and how we’re supposed to look as women, and that changes depending on what’s fashionable at the time. And I think that it’s quite easy to get lost in all of that. So I’m quite interested in picking up on these kinds of things. So I suppose it’s body anxiety and body identity mixed up together.

Q: Do you feel like this pressure that women are under (or put themselves under) regarding their looks, is the result of hundreds of years of women being regarded primarily as objects or sexual objects?

Ellie Land: Yes, very much so, but I also think that it’s wrapped up in consumerism and business. So it’s not necessarily just because women are regarded as an object of desire, it’s also about making money from being that object of desire, which I think is a big thing that surrounds us, for both men and women.


Finally, I also talked with Ellie Land about the difficulty that she had in finding the right vocabulary for talking about labia with the women that she interviewed, and about the sense of shame that women might feel regarding this part of their body.

Ellie Land: I think that shame is a good word, there is this feeling of shame about “down there”, about your genitals. I remember when we were starting the project, we thought “what are we going to call it when we speak to the women?”. The women were saying to me: “how shall I refer to myself?” - and I was saying - “well the actual term is your genitals". But it doesn’t sound as good as "fanny" or "vagina". So in the end, people just referred to themselves as they wanted to. 

And there was also a discussion about the way to pronounce “labia”, and is it “labiaplasty” or “labioplasty”? There are all these different terms, so even getting the language right was something that we had to discuss, because it’s not something that is generally talked about.

Music at the end of the podcast: Feeling Good by My Brightest Diamond (a woman singing about feeling good, I thought it fitted well!)