Roscoe Neil: The Sheffield director with a film at Robert De Niro’s New York festival

From Sheffield to the Lebanon – and now New York.

Tuesday, 23rd April 2019, 12:51 pm
Updated Tuesday, 23rd April 2019, 12:54 pm
Roscoe Neil.

Film-maker Roscoe Neil’s first documentary has followed a speedy trajectory since its completion, and it is about to gain even wider exposure. 

A Song Can’t Burn, which examines the work of a professor who offers music therapy to refugee children displaced by the war in Syria, has been picked to be shown in competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the event co-founded by Robert De Niro to provide a boost in the wake of 9/11 and named after a district of Manhattan.

Nigel Osborne, centre, leads a programme that offers music therapy to refugee children as a way of overcoming trauma.

Roscoe, who grew up in Mosborough where he still lives, studied at the Northern Film School in Leeds and directed the 11-minute piece after honing his skills editing music videos for bands including Royal Blood and Kaiser Chiefs. He is about to fly to the US to promote the documentary at Tribeca which runs from April 24 to May 5 and is, Roscoe says, a ‘really big deal’.

At just 26 he will be rubbing shoulders with directors of the highest pedigree. One of this year’s headliners is Francis Ford Coppola, who will be unveiling his ‘final cut’ of Apocalypse Now to mark the war movie’s 40th anniversary.

“There's thousands of film festivals but there's maybe 10 that are really prestigious – Tribeca is one of them,” says Roscoe. “We never really had any grand intentions for it and suddenly it's being played at one of the biggest there is.”

A Song Can’t Burn had its world premiere last year at the Dam Short Film Festival in Nevada, where Roscoe says it 'went down a storm’, winning its category.

Roscoe Neil with children on a refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley, where A Song Can't Burn was filmed.

It was shot in eastern Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley bordering Syria, with funding from the Yusuf Islam Foundation – the charity started by singer Cat Stevens, who changed his name on converting to Islam – and the Wakefield-based Penny Appeal, which tries to relieve poverty across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Roscoe’s friend, the documentary’s producer Martin Ball, suggested the idea of a film about the music therapy programme.

“For me it was just like 'How do you need to convince someone?' A man that's going into refugee camps teaching kids to sing and express themselves – it's an open goal for a filmmaker,” says Roscoe.

Professor, composer and aid worker Nigel Osborne has been leading the scheme since 1992, when he discovered the positive effects music therapy was having on children in Bosnia as a means of overcoming trauma.

Roscoe spent a week in the Beqaa Valley last July with Martin and director of photography Dave Galloway. There were benefits to having such a small crew, he says. “It was a nice chance for us all to shine. There wasn't any massive pressure to include anything in the story, we were given a bit of free rein and creativity so we went for it. The programme for the kids is 12 weeks and we were only there for the final week. As a storyteller you want to be there to see it all unfold and tell it as it happens, but we were doing it retrospectively. It was a challenge, but we're really happy with what we made in the end.”

He has travelled widely – his portfolio of stills photography includes pictures from Peru, Palestine and South Africa – but flying to the Lebanon presented certain risks.

“Before you go out there you've got lots of people telling you that people from the UK and the west are more likely to get kidnapped for ransom. We were going out there a bit worried because the threat was quite high at the time – I think it was 'likely' on the Home Office website. Somebody had taken our taxi from the airport and we had to randomly find a taxi. He pulled over at the side of the road after about 10 minutes and a different driver got in. We were just looking at each other thinking 'What's going to happen here?' But obviously everything was fine.”

Roscoe quickly established a rapport with the children. “The people living in the refugee camps don't have anything, it's all been taken from them, and they're some of the nicest people you could ever meet just because they're so grateful for what they have. If they understand what you're doing they're really appreciative. When you're there you're speaking to people who can barely speak any English but you end up putting together a bit of a shorthand and laughing and joking about stuff.” 

Nigel, he says, is an ‘amazing’ individual. “He was so wonderful to be around. The kids love him. He just strikes up instant connections with the children through crazy songs he's made up over the years. The main thing he taught me was that it's not that difficult to be a good person. You're able to do so much with your skill and your time, and that's what he's been doing his whole life. He's one of the best people I've ever met, just so nice.”

Do his methods work?

“Yeah, 100 per cent. The kids come in and they've obviously got no structure or routine - the effects of trauma are very visible, but over time it gives them a place to be. Everybody's got a connection to music and it's one of those things that's a bit mysterious, but you see it first-hand in the film, what it means to them.”

The project wasn’t without jeopardy. After the first week of post-production Roscoe arrived at the office to find his computer and equipment, including the hard drive containing all of the footage, had been stolen in a burglary.

“It was all backed up but straight away it had just been marred by a pretty grim event. I got going again and instead of working from an office I worked from a tiny desk in my housemate's bedroom, just clawing it together and trying to make up for lost time.”

Roscoe says his early days spent editing other people’s footage spurred him on to become ‘more of an author’. “I got the urge to do it myself and see what I'd learned.”

His ambition is to progress to full-length features. “At the moment I'm just trying to enjoy what's happened, because it might not happen again. I'm trying to figure out a way of doing this as a living, to come across more stories – at the minute that's my focus.”

And he has his fingers crossed that A Song Can’t Burn will be shown in June at the 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest.

“It would be great to be in my home city, showing a film I made on the other side of the world.”