In our mini series following up with former participants of SDI's Bridging the Gap programme, SDI's Agata Jagodzinska speaks to Jane McAllister who is currently working on a 30-minute documentary for Bridging the Gap PLUS, commissioned by BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland.
Jane, how did you get into filmmaking, and what did you do beforehand?
For a long time I have been making tassels for sporrans. The job has given me many things over the years; most importantly, time to think. When your hands are busy your mind is free. I listen to a lot of audio books and the radio. It is piecework so I sew from home and that can be anywhere; I have lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, and Inverness. I have also tasselled a while in Uist, Perth, and on trains back and forth to Aberdeen when I did a passenger survey job. I have found a lot of films over the years, and have a long list.
It took me a while to realise that documentaries would be the best way for me to do justice to my ideas. I tried writing a philosophical work in my mid twenties, 'The Philosophy of a Young Mind'; but soon embarrassed myself enough to stop. I made conceptual jewellery and obviously wrote poetry.
"First lesson: record it now, do not wait"
The first time I picked up a film camera was when I lived in Dundee. The way I had explored the city was via its churches. There are around 75 in various stages of use. I would walk to each one and plot it on the map. My favourite had a flock of starlings living in its rafters in the winter. I had never seen starlings flock before and I couldn't believe how beautiful. I was determined to film them. There was a media access centre in Glenrothes at the time that rented out equipment at very cheap rates. All winter I was going to rent a camera. But I missed my chance, the weather got warmer and the starlings left. Next year, I thought. The next time I went to look at the church it had construction signs all over it. So angry with myself, I rented a camera and filmed the church’s demolition. First lesson in documentary film making learned: record it now, do not wait.
Was your Bridging the Gap film Sporran Makers the first film you directed? Was it hard to come up with a story to a given theme?
You can imagine where my idea for a film about a sporran workshop came from. Films are the natural stories you want to tell, and I loved telling people about this Edinburgh den of boxes and fur, the bear of a boss and old lady sporran makers. The theme my year was 'Future', and I went to SDI’s outreach session in Inverness, armed with an intense idea of exploring theories of freewill and determinism. I told a woman sitting next to me about what I did for a living, and she luckily said: "That’s your film." It wasn't hard to tweak the story to fit the theme of Future: what I was recording was a traditional local business struggling to compete in the global market as sporrans are shipped in from India and China.
Your second film Caretaker for the Lord was made on no budget. How would you compare the experience of making films with and without funding?
Caretaker for the Lord was made with no money, but it was made as part of my MFA in film directing at the Edinburgh College of Art. So the support structure a production needs was all there. Access to equipment, the dedication of time as a full time student, and the invaluable inspiration and guidance I received from my tutor and executive producer Emma Davie. This structure costs, and it’s when you leave the cosseted world of college that the need for funding kicks in.
However much it hurts, you need the pressure, expectations and deadlines that outside money brings. And the other plain fact is that you need to make a living.
I will work my way through my list of documentaries, funding or none; it’s just a matter of how quickly I can do it. I do believe that ideas have to be acted on as soon as possible. Any good art is about anticipating a shift of culture – leave it too long and it becomes stale. I would like to be a prolific filmmaker, I just have to hope my films have enough perceived value to keep me working fast.
After Sporran Makers you did an MA in Film Directing at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). Had this been triggered by Bridging the Gap? Was the experience of the programme useful for your studies?
SDI and ECA have been a very good working combination for me. I wouldn't have considered returning to study if it hadn't been for my experience on Bridging the Gap. Equally, if it weren't for the knowledge and skills I developed at college, I don’t think I would now be working on my 30-minute documentary for Bridging the Gap PLUS, commissioned by BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland.
"Directing without editing yourself is like collecting words and notes and asking someone else to write the song"
Before Bridging the Gap I had made one documentary, Charity Shop Shopping, a tour of Scotland's lesser-known towns, East to West. A friend and I collected clothes and stories from old people on benches from Cowdenbeath to Port Glasgow. I think SDI took a real punt on me, and it was incredible to be given the chance and to be immersed in inspirational masterclasses and one-to-one detailed story development. I’ll always remember the masterclass by Nicolas Philibert, director of Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have), and him saying: “You have to fight for your right to edit.” It’s an unpopular stance but I love it. I feel directing documentary without editing yourself is like collecting a lot of words and notes and asking someone else to write a song.
You seem to keep quite a big distance to the subjects of your films, presumably not wanting to disturb them. What do you like the most about observational documentaries?
I think people use the word 'distant' to describe documentaries that don’t choose to find structure through sit-down, planned-out interviews. When I am filming, I try to be the exact opposite of distant from my story. I get as close to reality as possible. That means hanging about. Watching and waiting, hoping that eventually I will be forgotten about, and people will start to behave naturally. This usually happens in the end. It's not that I don't engage with the story. I seek out scenes that I think epitomise an emotion or a character; I will ask questions in the moment to draw out the essence of what is happening; but I do think that if someone has agreed to be filmed they actually want to say something and will find a way to do that. I’d rather it come naturally than it be steered.
"We are more suspicious of what we are told than what we come to understand"
In everyday life, we are affected more by what we overhear and witness rather than being persuaded by someone to feel something. We are more suspicious, I think, of what we are told than what we come to understand. I like subtlety in my films and try to build up moments of information rather than spoon-feeding it.
You are a Scottish-based filmmaker who makes films about Scotland.
I see films all around me and there's no need to look very hard or far away. I have no desire to go to another country where I don't speak the language and try to make my version of another people's reality. I understand the world of Scotland, that's all.
Your next film is currently in production through Bridging the Gap PLUS, could you tell us a bit about this experience?
It’s a great thing when people show enough faith in you to commission your work. This is my second collaboration with the Scottish Documentary Institute and the first time I really feel the pressure of expectation. Not nice, but it keeps you sharp.
The documentary is about a registration office; full of births, deaths, and marriages. It has been a film in waiting for a while for me, and it is quite complex. I don’t think I would have managed it without the commission. Filming was a long, difficult road and the edit has just begun. I could do with double the time, I'm running full-on into the deadlines, but I'm happy at work.
What are your plans once you finish Bridging the Gap PLUS?
I'm going to make two unusual short documentaries in Dundee: one about lizards and one about a hill. I will begin developing my next feature, set in Orkney, about oil and desire. I have a cross-platform project about Charity Shop Shopping to carry forward, which was developed this year as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest's Devise to Deliver scheme. I have about a month's worth of editing to do on the feature film I co-directed with Mariana Oliva, Garnock Boys about a boxing gym in Ayrshire, which I had to neglect in favour of Bridging the Gap PLUS. And I have thousands of tassels to catch up on.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone new to filmmaking, based on your experience to date?
If you are convinced you have brilliant film ideas you’re either right, in which case you have to make them; or you’re wrong, in which case you still have to make them because it might take you ages to find out you were wrong – and in the meantime you’ll be happy.
With its 10th year coming up, Bridging the Gap's call for applications is still open. Deadline is Monday 3 December, midnight.