Column: Promising time for film-making in Sheffield with new industry lifeline

LOCAL FILM 'FLAKE!' PREMIERES AT PRESTIGIOUS FESTIVAL'Wednesday 8 November hailed the beginning of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival
LOCAL FILM 'FLAKE!' PREMIERES AT PRESTIGIOUS FESTIVAL'Wednesday 8 November hailed the beginning of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival

Last year he Aesthetica Short Film Festival, an annual BAFTA recognised event held in York that each year attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world, brought together at 18 locations across the city to celebrate independent film making at its finest.

Of the 300 international films from forty-one different countries which were programmed in the Official Selection, I am pleased to say that a locally-produced short made the cut, where it received its British premiere and subsequently screened a further three times.

“We have always maintained that film making should be like a family experience – in that it is a team and everybody has a significant role to play in it.”

Over the course of a wildly hectic and exhausting 2016, my brother, James, and I created Flake!, a surreal comedy mystery, which follows the story of a manipulative stranger named Joan Bittenpear who enlists the help of two wayward scoundrels – Dennis and Keith – in order to discover the disturbing truth about her missing fiancé.

After a long, treacherous and somewhat bizarre journey, Joan does eventually find him, but her reasons for doing so turn out to be far more sinister than we first imagined.

I know. It doesn’t sound much like a comedy, does it, but bear with me; there are grown men dressed as old women who bicker hysterically, an elderly eccentric gentleman on a giant tricycle, a man in a skin-tight woollen newt costume, haunting tongue-twisting songs about reptiles, a fight with walking sticks and a pinstripe-suited ghost with a drink problem and a voice like Mickey Mouse.

I admit on face value it’s a little confusing to see how all of this could meld into an understandable narrative, but rooted deeply at its heart and guiding its action is a universal tale of doomed love, desperate addiction, and an exploration into the mechanisms of coping with trauma and grief.

The story behind the production goes back to autumn 2013, when Creative England – the national arts funding body – established a Northern film centre in Sheffield’s very own Electric Works building, just a stone’s throw from the train station. The encouraging premise behind the new initiative was to bring money out of London and into the regions, thereby supporting both new and emerging talents that otherwise may have struggled to find a voice and a platform in what is a tremendously London-centric industry.

The city was chosen above other Northern contenders for its historical and cultural significance in the world of film, acting and further beyond.

In our mid-late 20s at the time and working mainly as dry-stone wall builders, James and I had self-funded several of our own films, but this was the very first instance we could remember whereby grassroots filmmakers were being prompted to submit original ideas and scripts, fuelled with the knowledge that Creative

England were committed to promoting the talent of these regions to the world.

It was an exciting time, and James set to and adapted a self-penned novella called Crisps, an offbeat tale, which due to its popularity upon release enabled us to submit another story, this time being Flake!

We were determined to carry on production in our same, idiosyncratic way: completing many of the crew roles ourselves, using predominantly local and non-actors, filming on locations in and around the city, building our own sets from scratch, setting the story in a fictionalised fantasy-like version of the mid-20th Century and working with Sheffield businesses who printed our theatrical posters, sourced some of our costumes and props and even styled our hair.

We have always maintained that film making should be like a family experience – it is a team effort and everybody has a significant role to play.

In bringing together and harnessing the potential of every person involved, encouraging their individuality and working towards a collective goal, it is remarkable to see collaborators with such full-time professions as builders, engineers, farmers, care workers and computer programmers delve into their given character and explore a creative side that they perhaps often ignore.

I have long been an advocate for filmmaking in this area, and the rich pickings of land and city scape that we are fortunate enough to have on our doorstep provide ample fodder for our cameras. It’s little wonder that so many big-scale productions, from London all the way to Hollywood, travel here to make their stories.

We really have almost everything, and in abundance too – now if only we had a coastline . . . still, for that we usually head to Blackpool.

As the future of UK film production has a tendency to look increasingly uncertain, Sheffield has been handed a lifeline with the creation of a new centre called Film Hub North, based in the Showroom Workstation and backed by the British Film Institute, due to open in April 2018.

I attended a talk earlier this month outlining the centre’s plan, and I was impressed with what I heard. The aim is to build upon and extend the existing support for filmmakers in the area by reaching out to those people who are as yet undiscovered, and to build the cinema sector in terms of development, production and exhibition.

I recommend that any writer, producer, director or storyteller should look up opportunities the Hub offers.

There is no doubt that it is an inspiring and promising time for filmmaking in our city. Long may it continue, and let’s find those stories. More information at site.