Castles Built in Sand Collective hits 3 Years
Hard to believe but it is 3 years to the week that we first met as a collective in the Sandbar close to Manchester’s various Universities. At that time quite a few of us had just finished a Masters in Visual Anthropology at the Granada Centre in Manchester University, were probably somewhat jaded by the experience of mainstream education, and perhaps were to a degree operating under the illusion that it would be plain sailing into a life as successful independent filmmakers. Well not quite.
The social & political climate under which CBiS was born into the world was indeed incendiary. These were the early months of Lib-Con coalition rule in Britain, the high water mark of the Global Financial Crisis, the age of austerity with students, political activists and trade unionist rising up to resist cuts to education, welfare, wages and a tax culture of avoidance for corporate companies. A week before that meeting in the Sandbar a few of us had been roughed up and/or arrested at a very spirited student anti-fees demonstration in Manchester (you will remember that it was proper kickin’ off in London). This all seems like very distant memory now, as the explosive potential of mass anger of those demos (or the Riots of Summer 2011 or the Occupy movement later that year) appear to have dissipated by a staggering degree.
Much of CBiS early work was in one way or another related to themes of austerity and social movements and many of these now come across as somewhat naïve, but the political context did provide a setting in which to begin working collectively together and to put something out into the world. However, we were conscious not to focus our attentions narrowly on protest. How instead could we examine austerity in a more structural and socially applicable manner? We begin collaborating with a charity- a temporary, assisted living hostel for young people at risk of homelessness. The reality was clear to us almost immediately- it would take a considerable length of time before the structural effects of austerity would become visible- so instead the idea of advancing a framework of collaborative documentary filmmaking appealed to us. The project proved to be fraught teething experience for the collective.
The difficulties of making truly collaborative, and non-hierarchal, film were manifest within the DNA and lifeblood of this project. Collaborative film (i.e. a genuine non-hierarchal skill-sharing between filmmakers, and an active engagement with the filmmaking process on the part of your protagonists or subjects) requires effective communication between all parties involved, a genuine exchange of roles and experimentation with personality, the commitment and consistency of the third party you are working with, and a shared vision for how the final project would evolve. A lot of these factors were not present, and a few people in CBiS at the time went their separate ways. Some important lessons were learned, and a smaller group survived.
One thing we learnt is DO NOT WRITE AND POST A MANIFESTO. In fact not having a manifesto is now our manifesto. Surely the work should speak for itself and people can draw their own conclusions about how to define it. Manifestos box you into a space that you must then justify inhabiting.
Onward in CBiS history brings us to the never completed London Project. This film was to be about all-encompassing surveillance of the digital eye in an age of protest as pre-ordained social spectacle. I think we were watching too much Adam Curtis at this juncture. You can see a short playful edit of that project here, presented to you for the first time in glorious dirty-lens-and-deadcat-in-the-frame-O-vision:
Instead we made a film about DIY music in Manchester circa 2000-2006. Another piece of advice: DON’T MAKE FILMS ABOUT YOUR FRIENDS. Too many eyes to please! In fairness this was an enjoyable film to make. Admittedly the screening-back to the participants and re-editing based on their caprices was grueling but we did produce a piece of film with as much integrity and desire for authenticity as we or anyone else could muster. Our launch night for the film was tremendously well-attended but for some reason we were picking up a local radio station on the soundtrack, so during a quiet contemplative scene the audience was treated to renditions of Jumping Jack Flash or some-such junk. The screenings after got better, but we seem to be cursed with technical problems, making the process just that bit more genuinely DIY.
Notwithstanding technological difficulties and marginality, Helpyourself Manchester did allow us to develop some successful techniques of collaborative filmmaking and advance a style of film that borrowed from the observational cinema form without getting bogged-down in its theoretical pre-occupation with the camera as objective documenter of life. Likewise we made a music documentary that is as much concerned with relationships as it is music, and for a music documentary, the film isn’t overly reliant on archive footage and rapid editing. It’s slow-moving, and for that reason goes against genre conventions (the use animation, extra-diegetic music and arty archive footage similarly goes against observational modes of filmmaking).
What we are trying to tease-out here is the notion of a collective. It is a space in which you can experiment with form and craft approaches to your art-form, free from the constraints of commercialism. If we had formed a production company I doubt we would have had the possibility to produce work with zero commercial potential. Being a collective has allowed us to diversify our work outside the confines of documentary film; hence we have been involved in gigs and exhibitions, have written critical photo-essays for the blog, ran activist and educational workshops, and made some great friends and cohorts outside the independent film world. On the other hand, being a generally money poor, autonomous and completely voluntary collective can mean that work is very slow to bring to conclusion as all of us have to go out and earn a crust to survive. However, projects that emanate from collective endeavours do sometimes open up possibilities to develop… let’s not explicitly about getting a career, but rather about paths to pursue your passions and shape your art, your craft, your writing, your technique, style or aesthetic – call it what you will.
So we thought it might be a nice idea to individually let you know what we are currently up to project-wise. We are still hoping that we can at some stage finance Castles Built in Sand’s first fiction film The Song (see previous posts for details). If you are a rich film financier or patron of the arts and are reading this post, please do contact us and, yes give us your money. Judging from the trailer we made earlier this year, it has the potential to be a strikingly beautiful film. If otherwise you are a regular visitor to the website, we would like to thank you for your support and patience over the years; as most of you would appreciate filmmaking is a slow process, therefore regular posting can be a challenge to maintain. We are all amazed that we have survived 3 years and are hopeful that the coming years usher in more stimulating, critical and eclectic projects. Oh and just in case you’ve been wondering the name of the collective has nothing to do with a Jimi Hendrix song, its origin is even more pedestrian than that but we’re not going to tell you nonetheless.
About Us Now, Innit!
I’ve had a great few years being part of CBiS, frustrating at times but always rewarding. Really appreciated the space to work on film as a form and process- the Helpyourself film was a particular learning curve in this regard. Some of the projects have had life-changing outcomes for me- as a result of making the ‘Ghosts and the Machine’ post come to life, I began to develop a research project on post-crisis housing and commercial vacancy in Ireland and am currently receiving a AHRC research grant to conduct a PhD film as practice-led research into the subject.
As collaboration is how we roll, I’m also working on a short fictitious experimental film on the post-industrial area of Ancoats in Central Manchester with sound artist Shane Lawlor and below there is a link to short teaser from that project (password needed, email CBiS if interested).
I am currently working on a documentary about the German writer Kevin Kuhn. He is in the process of writing his second novel and I have been following him for the past two years documenting this. In this context I am looking at the struggles and hopes of young creative people in Berlin and beyond. Inspired by the topic of Kuhn’s book, the film will also discuss how our generation understands and perceives Germany’s past, 70 years after the second World War.
Recently, I moved to Berlin, so CBiS has again become a bit more international than we are anyways. I hope that over the next months or year I will be able to realise a few of my ideas and keep working on The Song.
I’m currently working on a film about the poet, art critic and anarchist Herbert Read. Using newly found film footage of him, and a whole host of writers, academics, artists and poets, it will look at why he’s relevant to the contemporary art world today. Working title is ‘To Hell with Culture’, a phrase he nicked from Eric Gill and a 1943 Read book still published by Routledge.
CBiS has been great. Insa is helping me edit and colour correct this film while Simon is the sound designer/technician/borrower of equipment from.