Last week at a film summit at the Glasgow School of Art I was invited to contribute towards their proposal for a film course. This prompted the thought – can ‘film’ really be taught? And if, as the GSA believes it can, should such a course feed into the industry – i.e. vocational – or anticipate more radical forms of filmmaking? Having worked at both ends of the cultural and commercial film spectrum, at least I’ve acquired a skillset that allows me to answer the question, having worked equally with large crews and as a one-woman band.
With the days longer and the trees still bare I’m about to embark on the next part of the shoot. In my last blog post I stated “Voyageuse” spans 40 years but takes place on a typical if fictitious day on the cusp of spring. With that day fast approaching, the task requires a trip to Edinburgh to cover various locations in and around the city, a city adopted by Erica when she arrived in 1959 to take up a research post at the Zoology Department of Edinburgh University.
Unlike most narrative features, my method is unusual. While most films go through discrete phases – development, pre-production, the shoot (aka principal photography) and post production, my plan is to follow in Erica’s footsteps by documenting the places where she lived, studied and worked, as well as other locations referenced in her journals. Rather than follow the usual trajectory – weeks of prep before continuous weeks of shoot – in the coming months I’m making a series of road trips across the UK fuelled by Erica’s memories, albeit the selective memories that reinforce the themes of her story.
I have an advantage when it comes to this run-and-gun approach. Far easier to arrive at a location on one’s own and get on with it than be tethered to a crew that shows up with all the fanfare of a travelling circus. The sense of liberation that comes from working solo can’t be overstated although there’s a limit to the type of shots one can acquire – for instance, having assembled and operated a 14 foot jib on top of Arthur’s Seat on my own I can testify to the hard labour involved. The other plus is invisibility, allowing access to places that otherwise would demand permits and fees. Not that I condone a free pass, particularly on commercial shoots, but as I recall from my last solo film outing, had Glasgow City Council imposed their fee structure for filming in the city – currently £693 a day – I’d be staring down the barrel of bankruptcy.
As one speaker from the GSA film summit remarked, there’s much to be said for the collaborative process and working with talented individuals. However in the context of “Voyageuse” a lack of funding dictates a certain unorthodoxy. I simply can’t retain a crew on standby for months on end nor employ post production facilities. There’s only so much begging, borrowing and stealing one can do in pursuit of a film.
Nowhere in all the talk of micro-budget filmmaking have I noted the crucial yet unmentioned issue of how to think, not spend, your way out of a problem. In spite of technology hitherto undreamt of, filmmakers still seem shackled to an outmoded model, that of a steep hierarchical pyramid in terms of crew even for the most modest films, typically those of the ‘two guys in a room’ stripe. The myth of ‘crew up or woe betide’ persists because it a) legitimises the non-productive agencies who advocate it and b) assuages those egos in thrall to the circus: scores of bodies, lots of trucks, kit and kaboodle galore.
Recently I was dismayed to read the terms and conditions set out in a call to action by the EIFF Short Film Challenge. Not only are its organisers soliciting films they would never consider funding, they’re also dictating the ‘theme’ – this year’s is ‘Light’ – and imposing onerous contractual conditions that most so-called pros would balk at.
The EIFF isn’t an exception, merely symptomatic of the current dirigisme of the cultural and creative enablers that suck the life out of anyone’s motive for making a film. And this troubles me. The GSA wants to offer a film course at a proposed fee in excess of £23,000, suggesting that only a privileged minority are placed to take up the offer, though I’m sure they’ll have plenty of potential takers given the hyperbole over the Glasgow Miracle and the seductive gleam of the Turner Prize.
The GSA risks making a category error by betraying the Seventh Art, an art invented for the masses. During the film summit round-table discussions, I was appalled when someone opined that the proposed course be ‘non vocational’. Tell that to the beloved Norman McLaren – who quit Glasgow for want of a career – but who knew and practiced his craft. So my advice to the GSA is this – if you want to put ‘Film’ on the curriculum you could do worse than teach students how to think, not spend.
The above photograph is of one of Erica’s stock cages at the Zoology Department, Edinburgh University, where she bred Bengalese Finches.