It’s not like I’ve fallen out with the art form, or look down on it in anyway. I have had a realisation that independent short filmmaking in Scotland, whether through neglect from funding bodies and creative industries, through “false success” attempts to level the playing field for women and members of the LGBT and BAME communities, or whether through something else entirely, has become extremely toxic.
Let me set the scene a little. It is Saturday the 21st of July 2018, and I am attending the Scottish Short Film Festival as the Producer for the short film “Escape”, along with several members of my team, including writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Mark.
This is not the first film festival screening I have been to. In fact, being an independent short filmmaker based in Glasgow since 2014, I have been lucky enough in my career to attend several, whether as an audience member only or a representative of a curated film. Sadly, every single time I approach the short metre of red carpet, the same dread settles on my smart but casually dressed shoulders, and I am certain that the evening is going to be disheartening.
Before the event even starts I am willing to bet I will be faced with an abundance of male directors in their twenties, all dressed similarly (shirt and jumper/blazer combo, beard, bonus points if you have glasses), sitting awkwardly on a stage, giving unsatisfying answers to the questions the charmless host pulls from the audience like teeth.
I was correct.
The setup of the evening was unusual in itself. Three hours of short films were scheduled in two blocks, which is a marathon for short film viewing. Watching anything for three hours takes a certain amount of will and determination, but with short film you have to relearn the universe and meet new characters every 5 - 20 minutes, and after a while everything blends into one. It’s exhausting. The romantic comedy you’re watching tastes like the genre horror you were consuming only moments before. While the selection of films were captivating, innovative and impressive enough to keep our attention for such a time, our posteriors were not so lucky as they were on conference chairs.
My first assumption of the evening was confirmed as the first block of filmmakers was invited on stage for a Q and A. As you can see from the photo, there were certain variations on a theme. All white men, beards and glasses optional but encouraged.
Now, as the Producer of “Escape”, I was more than welcome up on that stage, however I felt that my presence would detract from the sheer amount of time, effort and work Mark put into his film, and I assumed there was no question that could be asked of the film that I was more able to answer than he. So I stayed seated, and stayed quiet.
“Escape” was the first film shown, so I was pleasantly surprised when someone asked about the origin of the story. Being a surreal, futuristic, post apocalyptic piece, the film was from its very conception a narrative that was driven by the visuals. The story took second place to the cinematography, and the film was always intended to be more an experiment in visual storytelling.
Mark’s answer surprised me, as he told a story about sitting in New York with his family, witnessing a Black Lives Matter movement and thinking profoundly about the future of the world and what it might look like because of “certain presidents being in charge of certain large countries” and how the story took root from that.
Escape was made before the 2016 election.
I am not disputing any truth in Mark’s answer at all, only his voice didn’t sound like one I recognised, and in that moment I realised that he, and every other filmmaker up there, was playing a part. That is what an independent filmmaker in Scotland looks, sounds and acts like. This is the behaviour of the industry I have worked so hard to be a part of, and in that moment I realised there was no space for me or my voice on that stage, whether I was entitled to it or not.
I put my unease to one side in support of Mark. I have worked with him many times because he is the most talented and hard working creative I know. Also, he made the effort to ask other filmmakers questions during the Q and A showing, unlike anyone else on the stage, a genuine care and interest in other’s work. Although slightly thrown off, I was proud of him. The Q and A came to an end, and we were given ten minutes to stretch out all the parts we had lost feeling in, before filing back into the hall for another hour and a half of short films.
The headline piece of the night was a film called “Close to the Bone”, which was developed and funded through “Scottish Shorts”, a programme funded by the Scottish Film Talent Network (SFTN). They are currently the only film funding body in Scotland. The film was a brutal and visceral story about a man with bulimia, brought on through childhood trauma living with an abusive father, and how it affects his life and relationships.
Before I make my comments I need to say two things. The first; any independent filmmaker who manages to secure funding from the SFTN gets my wholehearted congratulations, as I have tried and failed a number of times to secure funding through their programmes before. Getting public body funding for independent film is almost impossible these days so, to the team behind “Close to the Bone”, well done, I hope to have your success in the future. The second thing is there is a desperate need for more stories that depict eating disorders in men. Men suffering with body issues are not given nearly as much exposure and reference in mainstream narratives, as opposed to female characters, who seem to need something to hate about their body to be a complete and relatable person.
However, there is something to be said about the use of gratuitous footage of “purging” in order to represent this illness. During the film I held my breath as there were several shots of a child being force fed cake, a man being choked by coal and the main character bent over the toilet throwing up with saliva and mucus all over his hands and face.
As a writer, director, filmmaker and bulimia survivor I can say with all certainty, it is completely unnecessary and utterly irresponsible to turn your film into an instruction manual.
I had a panic attack in the audience.
During the most graphic scenes I sat gripping my partners knee, frozen to my seat as he tried to get me to leave the theatre, silently hyperventilating and crying. I could feel my throat burning like I was the one retching, and the phantom tingling across the back of my neck, forcing my throat shut and making my stomach clench resurfaced in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time.
The film won five awards, and I clapped a long with shaking hands and a tear stained face, ashamed of my reaction.
To say that every audience member reacted to the film the same way I did would be ridiculous. I will never be able to give an objective opinion of the “Close To The Bone” because of the themes that have directly affected my life, and so I will not try to do so now. I will go so far though, to say that as a filmmaker, you have a responsibility to your audience, as well as your vision, and you must respect both. Then again, shock value is the new macho, and gratuitous imagery is the pissing contest of the film industry.
I question how much research was done by the creative team into the illness, whether they asked how sufferers and survivors visualise their symptoms, and how they would feel when exposed to images and themes such as the ones in “Close to the Bone”. Did they think that a content warning would be necessary, or a rating. I cannot speculate, but I have been in recovery for several years, and can look objectively at and deconstruct a film and its themes, and I had a panic attack in my chair. I do not feel the filmmakers gave any thought to the people who might be in the audience.
The lights came up and the person who was booked to give out the awards leapt on stage to fire through them, before running out the room so she could catch her last train home. Then, the next batch of filmmakers were invited on stage for a Q and A.
Again, there were no women.
My hand was the first raised and I said “I don’t want to be that guy, but this is the second line up with only men on the stage and I have to ask; how many women were on your teams and how many of those women were in the high up creative roles of writer, director, editor and cinematographer?”
Half the room erupted in applause. Apparently, I wasn’t being “that guy” at all, but a voice for all the other women in the room who dedicate their time and creativity to the development of the Scottish independent short film industry, and could not find a space for their voices or stories within the films or on the stage. The flustered festival director promised to do better next year.
This lack of responsibility within the short filmmaking scene is the very reason we are seeing the problems we are. It is the reason films aren’t rated and content warnings are not placed where necessary. It is the reason we can get to the Q and A portion of the evening, and everyone seems surprised when no female or ethnically diverse person stands up as representative for a curated film. It is the reason why I am writing this article.
I am lucky to be involved in a number of creative industries, including the poetry community. Within poetry, especially spoken word poetry, creatives are encouraged to stand up and tell authentic stories and lay bare the things they don’t understand. They use the art form as a way to figure things out in their own way. In their own words.
Why can’t independent short filmmaking be the same?
As we exited the room I turned to Mark to comment on the complete lack of women, and he said to me “I know, what needs to happen is a Scottish Female Short Film Festival, and Sarah, I nominate you to make it happen”.
As flattered and humbled as I am to know that my colleague and friend has faith in me to lead the charge in this, I feel he, and potentially others, missed the fundamental point of my argument. I don’t want to have to create a whole new table, I deserve a seat at this one. As does every woman, LGBT or BAME creative who has poured pieces of themselves into this industry.
If you think that women need their own festival to have their stories heard, you are part of the problem. If you feel you have to tell stories that aren’t authentic to you, your writer or any of your team to get to where you want to be, you are part of the problem. If you feel that you have to look, dress, act or answer in a certain way to be seen as a Scottish short filmmaker, you are part of the problem and finally, if you claim to be the “Scottish Short Film Festival”; a festival that celebrates the best short filmmaking talent in Scotland, and you fail to recognise the utter lack of gender equality or ethnic diversity in your programme as a problem, you are absolutely part of the problem.
Filmmaking is a place where people come together to tell great stories, and as Scottish filmmakers, it is in our blood to do so. We are known the world over for being dark and funny and self deprecating and resilient, and that is the very spirit needed on a film set; we should excel at this.
Also, filmmaking is hard! It can take years to go from the first idea to a finished edit, with many back breaking days of shooting and late night of editing, all the while knowing that you have to believe whole heartedly in your story and your film, for no one will want to see it unless you convince them too. All the films I was privileged enough to see on Saturday night were wonderful and deserving, and I congratulate all the teams for their efforts and their accomplishments. My support, however, does not negate the fact that we are seeing in our festival programmes one kind of narrative from one kind of voice.
Short filmmaking will always be a scene and a community. As long as there has to be more than one film in a programme, we will always exist in a communal forum. We rely on each other to support and lift each other up, for every person who comes to see and support another team’s short film, they are supporting your short film too.
But I must ask myself, when an inauthentic and unoriginal point of view will always win the day, why should I continue? If I am going to pour my money (mine, crowdfunded, public body or otherwise), time and energy into telling my authentic stories, why would chose a medium that does not support those narratives? Until short film can, like poetry, appreciate every story and voice for its individuality, without comparing it to their own voice and narratives, we cannot have the scene we need, which is developed and supportive and diverse.
I came away from the event heart broken and uninspired to do anything except write this article. I am a BAFTA New Talent Award nominated, CIPD Award Winning, Sky Academy Art Scholarship receiving, passionate filmmaker, and have dedicated the last four years of my life telling great stories and participating within the Scottish independent scene, and I am sorry to say I am no longer convinced that anything I do will make any difference to the toxic, broken environment.
Change has to come from above. The powers that be, the public funding bodies, the government and the Scottish film festival curators need to make drastic changes if we are ever going to reach our full potential, for we never can when as long as one group of individuals is favoured so publicly against another.
Until that time happens, I don’t want to make short films anymore.