It sure ain’t for the pension plan

Running up to the opening of our new Bridging The Gap call on 2 September we are publishing blog posts from four filmmakers selected in the previous call. They will give you tips for a good application.

Maurice O’Brien is a journalist-turned-filmmaker who has been making factual programmes since 2005. As an assistant producer he was a joint winner of the Grierson for Best Historical Documentary for 1983 - The Brink Of Apocalypse in 2008. Most recently he has been directing short films about culture and current affairs for the BBC’s Newsnight, One Show and Culture Show programmes. 


I was actually a failure at Bridging The Gap the first time I applied. Though I made it through to the last eight, attended various workshops and even made a trailer for the proposed film, ultimately I didn’t get the funding to make it a reality. Pretty disappointing: but I got so much out of the experience I decided to apply again last year with a different project. 

Being realistic definitely helps… The first project I had pitched was about a beaten-up old passenger ferry that sails around Lake Malawi, which was always going to be a bit of a stretch in terms of both budget and also convincing the commissioning panel of my personal connection to the story.

Buffalo Dreams premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is now hopefully going to start travelling around the world. It deals with the many obstacles faced by a family who aim to become Scotland’s first commercial bison farmers. My reasons for making it were partly inspired by my farming roots back home in Ireland.  But for me, the film is also about how far we can afford to go to make our dreams a reality – something I think all filmmakers ask themselves at times.

I’ve always been worried that filmmaking would become ‘just a job’, a career path rather than a passion, which is surely the reason we all get into this crazy business in the first place (hell, it sure ain’t for the pension plan).

The beauty of Bridging the Gap is the creative freedom it provides, the encouragement to think 'widescreen'. To imagine your film playing in a cinema is to approach it in an entirely new way. 

Yes, it probably helps if your proposal has key words like ‘journey’, ‘jeopardy’, ‘conflict’ and so on… but think about the potential for magic as well. What imagery are you going to put up there, what feelings do you want to evoke in that captive audience? As I realized during some of the workshops, it’s about inciting curiosity and emotion rather than offering up simplified answers. 

Filmmaking is all about posing questions, you just have to ask the right ones...

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Tough choices for Being Ginger

Scott Harris came to Scotland four years ago to pursue an MFA at the Edinburgh College of Art. He previously specialized in short observational documentaries but is today releasing his first feature, a personal doc called Being Ginger. Rather than attempting to screen at film festivals or sell to a broadcaster, he is releasing the film for sale directly on his website. 

BeingGinger__still_1a_640.jpgWhen the Scottish Documentary Institute approached me to guest blog for them they suggested I might write about why I'm doing a direct release of my new documentary "rather than the festival game." The simple fact that they'd call it a game is a big part of why my film won't appear on the film festival circuit.

Instead, Being Ginger will have a joint premiere at the world's two largest redhead festivals (this weekend and next) while simultaneously being available for download direct from my website (today).

I should start by saying I'm not quite sure how I should present this. Which is to say that I am mindful of my tone. While I want to be accurate and honest, I don't want to sound bitter and angry, because I'm not. But I also don't want it to seem like this has been easy, because it's been anything but.

I'm a relatively young filmmaker, just 32 years old. I graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art two years ago with an MFA in Film. Being Ginger is my first feature. My graduation film was a 23-minute doc by the same name. It was about my experience as a redhead and my quest for love. If I may be allowed to say, it was charming, warm, and painfully honest. It screened twice, first at the college's degree show, then at a special industry screening, and both times it brought the house down. I had lofty expectations when I sent it to festivals, 35 in all, but I was nervous. Previously, I'd been very proud of my first year film only to see it rejected by every one of the 80 festivals I applied to. I privately told my friends that if the same thing happened this time I was done making films. I didn't see the point in trying to bang my head on the door hoping that someone would let me in. One friend, an industry professional who has been extremely successful with several short docs and was at both screenings, told me not to worry: "There is no way a film that gets that kind of reaction from an audience won't get picked up by some big festivals."

I sent it to most of the usual suspects, plus a few smaller festivals, and it was rejected by each and every one. A handful gave me feedback, and while I won't name names, some told me the film was just too long to program, which is fair (but they had all programmed longer shorts). Two others said there was no audience for a film about redheads.

"No audience for this"

While the film was still out to all these festivals I began to think that I had really only scratched the surface of the topic, and that I could go much deeper, so I decided to turn it into a feature. The original short would essentially become the first act, and I went on filming. I approached several broadcasters and numerous pitching forums but no one was interested. I tried not to take it personally, I was aware that there were an incredible amount of more experienced filmmakers out there, which makes it a very competitive market. Also, I have no problem admitting that for some people my film is just a hard sell. They don’t understand what it’s really about, and some people don’t want to give it a chance. You see it isn’t really a film about my hair at all, my hair is just a MacGuffin of sorts. The film is actually about something much more universal. It’s about being different and never feeling like you belong.  It’s about not having any self-confidence.  It’s about trying to get over the effects of bullying that went on long ago.  Not red-hair bullying, which most non-redheads think is funny, but the kind of nightmarish stuff that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But if I say I’ve made a film about bullying I’m not going to reach the audience that I want. So I decided to approach the subject with humour. My natural audience is redheads, but my hope is that it will branch out from there...

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Remember feeding the penguins?

Running up to the opening of our new Bridging The Gap call on 2 September we are publishing blog posts from four filmmakers selected in the previous call. They will give you tips for a good application.

Felipe Bustos Sierra is a self-taught filmmaker with Belgium-Chilean roots. He is born to a journalist who was an exile of Pinochet’s military coup. This spurred him into making his Bridging The Gap film Nae Pasaran.

Felipe.jpg Remember that instant on your first day of work – when someone asked you to froth some milk, check the gate or feed the penguins – and you realised: 'I don’t know the first step to any of this!' That thought never seems to go away when making a film.

Collaboration is key, especially with more experienced filmmakers. Bridging The Gap offers a depth of experience, a wide network of collaborators within the Scottish Documentary Institute and beyond at each stage of the story, and allows you and each participant to become mirrors for each other’s projects.

After three short films done on little to no budget, it was comforting (I use 'comforting' lightly, as comforting as filmmaking gets) to be part of an established team backed with a respectable budget. Nae Pasaran required access to many eyewitnesses, the use of specific archival footage and music, hibernating classified documents, and three minutes of 3D animation. The support from the Scottish Documentary Institute unlocked doors to new techniques, earned the trust of contributors almost instantly, and secured the help of dedicated researchers.

It’s far from over as the film is now being submitted to festivals by SDI. More doors, new doors, and a more confident boot to open them.

I am now researching a larger film on the solidarity movements for Chile in the UK and their relevance today and looking forward to seeing how Nae Pasaran is received outside of Scotland. It is going to be seen throughout the UK in September as part of the commemorations for the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, and that alone is worth everything.

I would suggest these things...

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Tips for Bridging The Gap applicants

We are getting ready for a new year of Bridging The Gap. Running up to the opening of our call on 2 September we will publish blog posts from four filmmakers selected in the previous call. They will share what it means to be Bridging the Gap alumni – and give you tips for a good application.

The first post comes from Genevieve Bicknell, an artist and filmmaker based in Edinburgh who came to film by way of social anthropology and then painting. Her work explores themes of family, memory and of how we relate to others and to ourselves. 

Genevieve_sm.jpgIt's hard to express just how great an experience Bridging The Gap was. We got in-depth feedback on our projects from top international filmmakers, the expertise of the Scottish Documentary Institute whenever we needed it, both creatively and business-wise, and we were able to pay people to work on our films (I even had enough left over to pay myself). This mixture doesn’t happen often, so to my mind it's pretty special.

It is a lot of work, especially if you are trying to balance it with another job. During the editing stage of Swallow I felt like I was working on it every minute of the day and I regularly hated the film. But that's a normal process for me and even in the depths of despair I never regretted applying.

Thinking back, it was the sharing of ideas with the other participants and later my crew, that really made the experience so worthwhile. There was such commitment and energy and support, it was a very exciting process to be involved in. I discovered that many had applied to Bridging The Gap before and so perseverance definitely pays off, it's probably a matter of finding the right project.

I applied just after finishing my Masters and still felt very uncertain about my abilities, but now I’m beginning, on occasion, to call myself a ‘filmmaker’. My next project is with SDI again, making a 15-minute film about the Commonwealth. I’m also starting an experimental collaboration with friend and filmmaker Matt Robinson. 

Here are my tips... 

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Putting the Edinburgh back into EIFF

What a year it's been for us at the Scottish Documentary Institute, premiering three features internationally, starting with Maja Borg's Future My Love (93') world premiere at last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) which set it off on a great journey around the world, to more than ten countries so far, and counting.

Then we launched Pablo's Winter (76') by Screen Academy's graduate Chico Pereira (shot by Julian Schwanitz) in Leipzig, Amsterdam and Glasgow before opening MoMA's Documentary Fortnight  (Museum of Modern Art, NY) in February this year. It has continued on its international journey, picking up multiple awards in the process.

Since November 2012, I Am Breathing (73') by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon has been making the rounds in over 14 countries after its IDFA competition world premiere and is now launching at EIFF on 20 June, on the eve of our big Global Screening Day in aid of MND awareness. You can book tickets here or arrange home or community screenings (outside of Edinburgh) here.

But that's not everything by a long mile at this year's EIFF. Edinburgh filmmakers are on fire! EIFF will also host the UK premieres of these fine films (click on the titles for ticket links):

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Surviving in an attention-poor world

In 2006, novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow described how ‘technology giveth and technology taketh’; that for every hopeful revolution brought by our networked world there’s a downside, and for every peril, there’s potential. A nice illustration of the idea: running a search to find the article where I first read this quote gives me page after page of results linking to a no longer existing MP3 of Cory's talk, mistaken by a web-bot for a pop song, and I’m invited to send a ‘Technology Giveth Taketh Doctorow’ ringtone to my phone. So while it’s wonderful that the Internet allows you to find – without leaving your home – a recording of a lecture from years ago; it’s not great that the search is full of spam. Conversely, the issues raised in my previous blog – Peak Eyeballs and the Scarcity of Attention – at first glance are quite troubling. They suggest that not only must the independent film sector deal with the collapse of pre-sales and bank financing, with increased piracy and considerably reduced buyouts from distributors and lower acquisition prices from TV – but there’s more filmmakers competing than ever, all trying to communicate with an audience who has far more things hustling for their attention. 

But in spite of this, the global market for filmed entertainment is set to continue to grow by over 3% a year to $100bn in 2016 (PWC), and most of the challenges of the web are come hand-in-hand with benefits. So working back through some of the challenges raised in that blog post:

No limits to platform size

While there is much more competition on digital platforms, the barriers to market access have almost vanished. There is no artificial shelf space limit that prevents Amazon, iTunes, Netflix or LoveFilm from offering your film. One of the biggest frustrations for independent producers throughout the 20th century was the challenge of getting a film into a video store or cinema. In turn, the web has a potentially infinite ‘longtail’ distribution curve where hundreds of thousands of archive, niche and minority interest films combined can outperform the top 50 blockbusters at the head of the curve. (There was some academic research looking at 2000-2005 to suggest this may not apply as well to film as to books but this was done before subscription digital services like Netflix and LoveFilm took off.)

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The invasion of Iraq, 10 years on

Yasmin Fedda is a filmmaker, Bridging The Gap alumna, PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art, and organiser of the REEL IRAQ festival beginning on 21 March 2013.

On 21 March 2003 a US and UK coalition invaded Iraq, under the premise of freeing it from its then dictator Saddam Hussein. On the same day, I found out I was accepted to do a masters in visual anthropology. That day brought together my dream of making films, and the nightmare of understanding the repercussions of what was to become a drawn-out violent conflict. This pushed me further into wanting to make films, using film as a creative medium from which people from different worlds and lives can learn about each other.

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Interdoc Alums (4): Sabine Hellmann & Adam Barnett

Sabine Hellmann is a German-born filmmaker who lives in Edinburgh. Sabine pitched her first feature documentary The Brink of Extinction at Interdoc 2012 together with Adam Barnett who also is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker and editor.


After graduating in Germany with a 40-minute documentary on the use of GMO crops, Sabine moved to Scotland for an internship with renowned producer Leslie Hills. She quickly realised that her passion lies in making films, rather than producing, and completed an MFA in directing at Edinburgh College of Art with two short documentaries. One of Sabine’s graduation films, Joseph’s Road, tells a story of a young boy from Malawi and can be watched on Sabine’s website. She is intrigued by human stories, people at a crossroads, and environmental issues.  

Adam Barnett specializes in documentary filmmaking as a director, producer, and editor. His recent feature documentary Argentina in Therapy received a great response and was distributed to six broadcasters including TVE in Spain. Apart from the film Adam is making with Sabine, he also works on another feature documentary, Carbuncle Town.

The tiger or the tribe? 


The team’s Interdoc project The Brink of Extinction tells the story of the Soliga Tribe in Biligiriranga Hills of South India, which now faces eviction from their homeland due to the government’s new tiger conservation laws. The government is under international pressure to save the tiger. But it ignores both the Soliga’s basic human rights and the crucial role they have played in protecting, nurturing and sustaining the forest over centuries. Who is really at the brink of extinction: the tiger or the tribe?

This is how Sabine describes the team's experience at Interdoc Scotland:

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Interdoc Alums (3): Su Bainbridge

Su Bainbridge works with Glasgow-based Aconite Productions, making international documentary films which bring stories of global significance to the world stage. She took part in Interdoc Scotland 2012.

Su-Bainbridge_320.jpgPassionate about making films, Su has years of experience spanning documentaries, drama, commercials, music and arts. Su has worked as a Production Manager, Producer and Assistant Director with many production companies for almost two decades. Also, in 2004, David Hayman invited her to join the team at his charity Spirit Aid to develop and run a pilot film project which enabled a range of young people to make their own films. They learned how to develop films based on their own ideas. Su looks back at it as a great success. She continued to work with Spirit Aid to further develop the Shooters Film Project and to roll the project out to other areas around Glasgow. As a freelancer she has made many programmes and films for theatrical release and for broadcast on BBC, Channel4, STV, ITV and ARTE. One of the latest productions she managed was My Lives and Times for Aconite which was nominated for a Creative Diversity Network Award and broadcast on BBC2 last July. A longer version will be released later this year, called Everybody's Child.

Su was selected to participate in Interdoc Scotland 2012 to develop an international documentary, Playground  directed by Palestinian director Wesam Mousa in the Gaza Strip. The film explores how four children, between 12 and 14 years old, play in the streets of Gaza. Their games, dreams and fantasies reflect their desire to live normal lives and also their way to survive the consequences of war. It is an intimate portrait that exposes how children view the world and their future when their playground is in the middle of a war zone.

Here is what Su said about her experience at Interdoc:

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Interdoc Alums (2): Jonathan Carr

This is part two of our portraits of Interdoc Scotland alumns. Today we'd like to tell you about Jonathan Carr and his film MY BROTHER THE ARK HUNTER.


Jonathan Carr graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in History, and then worked for ten years as a journalist, writing and sub-editing for a variety of national newspapers. In 2007, he studied practical filmmaking at the New York Film Academy. After gaining practical and administrative experience in London, Jonathan set up his own production company, Plainview Films, and created filmmaking workshops for schools, adult education units and community groups. Jonathan’s short documentary Get Luder produced through the Bridging the Gap scheme, won the Delphic Art Movie Award 2010. It was also selected for screenings at many film festivals such as Sheffield Doc/Fest and Palm Springs ShortFest. In 2012 Jonathan took part in the Interdoc Scotland workshop which is geared towards helping Scottish producers secure feature documentary commissions. He pitched his first documentary feature under the working title, My Brother the Ark Hunter.

The film tells the story of Derick Mackenzie’s brother Donald, a self-styled evangelist adventurer from Stornoway, who went missing in September 2010 while searching for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. No one has heard from him since. He may have fallen from the mountain, perished in a storm, been killed by bandits or targeted by Islamic militants. Or he may have crossed paths with the archaeologists who claimed to have found the ark to exploit those who make the annual pilgrimage to the mountain. Derick leaves his family home in the Western Isles of Scotland and travels to the remote eastern edge of Turkey to retrace his lost brother's last journey in an attempt to discover what became of him.

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