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Devil's Plantation - Elemental Films

the devil’s plantation: the last post

posted on
8 January 14
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Terminus

Years ago, after completing my first feature, One Life Stand, I was surprised to see it listed in the Time Out Film Guide where it was favourably reviewed. Inside our copy my husband wrote a thoughtful inscription – Because it lasts forever. Now, sitting in my shed at the start of a New Year, I reflect again on his words because – to the chagrin of many an ex-porn star, I’m certain – films really do last forever, no matter how famous, infamous, popular or obscure they prove to be.

This is both a blessing and a curse. A year on from making the movie version of The Devil’s Plantation, I’ve no idea whether the film will screen again. With no backer, distributor, PR machine or exhibitor, it’s nigh on impossible for any film to grab attention and in spite of – indeed, because of – self-distribution and social media it’s become all the harder to get noticed; only a freak event can make one’s film visible.

On that score, last year brought several near-misses – everything from the suggestion that The Devil’s Plantation could be selected for Director’s Fortnight at Cannes to consideration for several other A-list film festivals to being picked up for limited arthouse distribution. Nothing happened, of course. But the film was noticed, even admired both by the audience and a few notable cinema-savvy individuals. So to win a nomination, as it did in November for the BAFTA Scotland/Cineworld Audience Award came as an unexpected bonus. That nothing resulted was no disappointment to me, having zero expectations when it comes to film.

At time of writing, barring the unforeseen, I’ll be giving a talk in February about the project at the Pollokshields Heritage Trust. Certainly The Devil’s Plantation has been an interesting journey but for a long time it’s felt as if I’m waiting at the terminus at end of a long desolate road, kicking my heels, ready to move on.

Emily-Dickinson

While musing on my next piece of work, I recall how last Christmas my husband gave me a copy of The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. At the time I was too distracted to pay it much attention beyond a casual browse, too busy meeting a deadline on the DP film and equally preoccupied with what I hoped would be my next project, in retrospect ironic because for a long time I thought about making a film about poetry and my native city.

Flashback to July 2008 – when, in the small hours of a Sunday morning, I took my camera to witness the controlled explosion of two Sighthill tower blocks. In the five seconds it took to raze the buildings a sudden, involuntary thought entered my head – that Glasgow was a perfect backdrop for James (B.V.) Thomson’s poem, The City of Dreadful Night. It had been on my mind for a while, not least because of Tom Leonard’s Places of the Mind, his take on Thomson’s epic verse.

blowdown

While finishing the DP film, I sketched out a treatment based not on Thomson’s poem but on a more ambitious plan – a series of films showcasing Scottish poetry. These would be performed in unlikely locations across Glasgow by poets, actors and non-actors, culminating in a live performance and screening. While devising this plan, the City of Glasgow launched a fund, Culture 2014 to coincide with the Commonwealth Games so at least there was an outside chance that I might attract interest in and money to the project.

To that end I met with the Scottish Poetry Library to discuss my proposal, unaware they had already made their own submission to the said Fund. The upshot: a reported £19m worth of submissions made to a £4m initiative left my film as one of the majority of rejected projects, leaving me to reconsider the viability of Plan A – a wholly self-funded film. Later it was reported that The Scottish Poetry Library proposal was successful so I wish them every success.

City Centre map

This led me to think of all the other stillborn projects kicking around. There’s even a planned exhibition of the rejected Culture 2014 bids – The Glasgow Possible – which in the organiser’s words states If by an even more conservative estimate those proposals each took 2 days to complete, that represents 800 days or 2.2 years of continuous artistic endeavour.

Right or wrong, this is the artist’s lot. I can’t think of many other occupations that rely on so much speculative and unpaid effort. Here it’s worth recalling the doomed Dutch Pictorial Arts Scheme of the 1980s when, in a laudable attempt to remunerate artists, the state accumulated 220,000 unwanted works, warehoused in some vast edgeland shed.

It’s not that I’m troubled by unseen or even unmade works but where my own bag – filmmaking – is concerned, I’m increasingly depressed by what does get made and its cultural impact, most recently the creep of the victim genre where the subject becomes, tacitly or overtly, worthy of our pity: those with life-threatening or terminal conditions, mental health issues, sexual abuse, homelessness, chronic drug or alcohol problems and those just simply poor and unlucky. For decades this has been the staple of factual TV where the words if you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised… at the end of a TV or radio programme disclaim the shortcomings and sensationalism of the content in the guise of upstanding public broadcasting. Anyone watching Benefits Street on C4 surely knows there’s a certain breed of TV producer who has no soul.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak at a public debate on Peter Mullan’s film Neds vs. BBC Scotland’s poverty porn TV series, The Scheme. In weighing up the arguments for and against, I soon realised I wasn’t being asked along for either my oratory skills or my filmmaking chops. Rather, I felt I was being put up as a token schemie rent-a-gub, hailing as I do from Pollok. Doubtless the organisers hoped I would defend the right of the benighted folks of Onthank and Knockinlaw to appear on telly. On balance, I saw little merit in the debate itself since both the film and TV series were inherently bogus in their ‘realism’, each striving too hard for effect in the hands of their respective authors. Objectively – and depressingly – I also knew that when it came to intentions and fulfilling audience expectations the makers of The Scheme succeeded where Neds had failed. In the end, I declined.

So what’s prompting this shift among my filmmaking peers? In the worst scenario, like their counterparts in the tabloids, daytime TV and true-life magazines, filmmakers have lately caught on to the victim genre as a means of career advancement. Online, one regularly encounters call-outs, such as the request by Take-a-Break magazine, for stories dealing in quote – love and betrayal, loss and sin – for purely vicarious ends. Not that I blame filmmakers who turn to human tragedy to attract funds and raise profiles; I’m simply pointing out the trend. Indeed, the impulse to portray pain and suffering often stems from the best intentions – a personal connection with an issue, perhaps, or the story of a close friend or relative or simply having enough conviction to flag up an otherwise neglected cause.

Many filmmakers working in the victim genre solicit crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. They partner with charities in a synergistic attempt to ‘raise awareness’, i.e. market themselves. They have become – unwittingly or not – the perfect accompaniment to Austerity Britain.

At best, the victim genre offers a worthy depiction of and insight into human plight that nurtures the viewer’s understanding. At worst, the genre debases both its subjects and its audience by promoting sympathy over empathy, pity above dignity and worse, where filmmakers and charities arrogate to themselves virtue and altruism under false pretences. Having brought such tragedy to our attention the authors of victim films are morally and ethically bulletproof and thus immune from adverse criticism.

No wonder then that the business model on which the genre depends is thriving, having evolved in tandem with the growth of social media. By harnessing crowdfunding to online distribution both platforms take a piece of the action. In the case of Kickstarter, it’s 5% of any monies raised, assuming the filmmaker achieves their defined target. Distribution platforms such as Distrify and VimeoPro demand a cut of any revenue – 30% for the former, 10% for the latter after a $199 joining fee. In the end it’s down to the numbers but, headline-grabbing projects apart, because there’s no reliable stats it’s impossible to say how many films fail. Or the reason why they fail, given how filmmakers themselves are responsible for their own marketing – i.e. by selling their sizzle on Twitter and Facebook and inventing ever more novel sales tactics. For filmmakers, it’s less risky than betting away the farm but for the platform operators the model clearly works otherwise they wouldn’t be in business.

With limited public funds available for Scottish, UK and European filmmaking, the need to appeal, to be relevant becomes ever more pressing. Thus it was ever so. The dirty secret of most films, however, publicly underwritten or not, is that they don’t return a profit, never have and never will. It’s no exaggeration to say that the most innovative and aesthetically daring European films of the late twentieth century – the arthouse darlings – were privately funded.

Amid all the recent lobbying for Scottish film, this point gets lost because like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one, not even Creative Scotland, the nation’s sole public funder for film, will admit this inconvenient fact. But rather than slash subsidy to force filmmakers into more creative solutions and invest in films outside the perceived mainstream for their cultural, not commercial value, CS persists in backing so-called ‘winners’ in their continued support for Hollywood movies, big budget UK films and thinly-veiled victim-themed TV shows posing as documentary. Because guess what? Even the winners don’t recoup their investment.

At this writing, CS has yet to announce the findings of a Film Sector Review commissioned a year ago. The organisation has also failed to appoint a Head of Film and Media. To borrow from Jonathan Meades – the parasite believes itself to be the host. How much time and money, I wonder, has been spent so far on the problem of Scottish film to such little effect? Sitting in my shed, as I contemplate my own lost projects – that poetry film, I suspect, will never get made – I console myself with the knowledge that The Devil’s Plantation did get made, it did get seen and will last forever.

Road to Walls Fort

Right now I’m working on my next film, based on a screenplay I wrote 10 years ago. Knowing I have little prospect of funding what began life as a conventional feature film has forced me into thinking more creatively. As yet I’ve no idea where it will take me but it means – at least for the foreseeable – this is the last blog post for this project. A couple of days ago, finally I opened The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and was inspired by these words.

A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

To all my subscribers, or if you’ve just stumbled on to this blog, I wish you a Happy New Year and the best of luck with your own projects.


Leave a Reply

 
10 comments
  • Deirdre Campbell - 13 January 14 at 11:58 am - Reply

    Dear May

    I am sorry to see your blog go as I have only just discovered it late in 2013 and had the good fortune to have the opportunity to see your film Devils Plantation and then alerted a friend to go along and see it. We were both very impressed and would love to see it again.

    I am sad that film makers in Scotland cannot receive funding for their work and get their art out to a wider audience.

    I look forward to your next project.

    Good luck in all you do – keep positive and strong.

    Regards

    Deirdre

    • May Miles Thomas - 13 January 14 at 12:37 pm - Reply

      Thanks Deirdre,

      That’s very kind of you. I’ve loved writing the blog but need to move on with my new project which I hope to start shooting this year. Of course funding would be useful but as it is, I – and many of my fellow filmmakers – are ineligible under the current criteria at Creative Scotland. Maybe that will change when they appoint a new Head of Film/Media. Thanks again for watching my film and for recommending it to your friend. It means a lot to me.

      Best wishes,
      May

  • Donna Coomer - 12 January 14 at 12:06 am - Reply

    Rock on May, and be sure to take us along!

    • May Miles Thomas - 12 January 14 at 10:57 am - Reply

      Thanks Donna! I will.

  • Doug Aubrey - 9 January 14 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Wonderful blog post May to end the Devil’s Plantation with. I fully understand and appreciate the issues and concerns you raise. It seems as the act and art of film-making becomes ever more accessible, film’s distribution and exhibition has gone in the opposite direction.

    You, I and several other wonderful Scottish film-makers whenever we do get a chance to screen our works often globally, end up playing to full houses and audiences who appreciate our work – even if Scotland’s less than wild bunch of film festival directors and the pitiful group of so-called film critics here, cynically ignore what we do and the reaction it gets elsewhere.

    Sadly film-making and the thing that use to be called Feature documentary in Scotland is controlled and made by an exclusive Edinburgh club, who increasingly seem to be making the same kind of film you refer to in your blog.Film-making comes with an academic tenure attached to it, rather than the kind of maverick spirit, vision and sense of independence that you represent as a true professional. But in the end the fact is you’re still doing it and that’s what really matters. I – like you wake up in the morning and the first thing I think is I’m a film-maker with an independent spirit who’s on a journey that matters – even if a few cynical broadcasters and an academic clique like to think otherwise.

    All the best with the new project!
    Doug Aubrey

    • May Miles Thomas - 9 January 14 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks Doug,

      I’ve written this blog since 2007 and in many ways I’m sad to close it. Over the years I’ve had tens of thousands of active readers, many of whom, like us, have seen a vibrant, risk-taking filmmaking culture hijacked by a minority of self-serving, perennial subsidy seekers with no vision other than keeping themselves afloat on the public dime. These are hard times – and as long as people are forced to work on zero-hours contracts, minimum wage, or depend on food banks, filmmakers ought to look to themselves to change how films get made and seen and quit lobbying for the status quo, or worse, the return of Scottish Screen and its attendant nepotism.

      All the best,
      May

  • David Gibson - 8 January 14 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    Hello May,
    As always the quest for Truth in art is elusive.

    But the certain truth which you write I share.

    Is it possible, in 2014, in the UK, ‘Artists’ have befallen the same fate of the Mineworkers, Steelworkers, Shipbuilders, etc. un-globalised and priced out by cheap imitations and commercial pap?

    What kind of Society and Culture feasts on TV with trailers for ‘another’ series of programmes lifting big fat people from their homes, for example, into an ambulance with roof cut off to accommodate the person so obese yet yearning for celebrity at any cost.

    Today, in my studio, looking at thousands of photographic negatives, all self funded, and thinking about over 30 years of making art – paintings, films, etc. The self costed journey I can hardly fathom and knowing the vast amount is unseen, incomplete, and no one comes knocking with offers of critical appraisal, exhibitions, publications, archive etc. All, I must continue to do as always I have done – D.I.Y.

    Add the Town Planning-as-Art, also some nigh 30 years worth, the stuff which ‘should’ make Places, Society and Culture better for People but not realised.

    Deduction suggests dumbed down freedomless society feeds on the stuff keeping culture and certainly art at base level of sub-worth elevated to the lowest common denominator of trash as illusion of wealth and celebrity afforded to anyone desireing their ‘own’ truth or vulgarly consuming that of ‘the other’ greedily and accepting no morals or ethics because its ‘democratic’ to do so-the majority does it.

    Ironic? This suggested ‘fascist’ democracy for UK living in 2014.

    The only solution may be to fight greed by making art selflessly with soul seeking truth.

    I give you honesty May, one to one, recognising and rejecting all that is false.

    As always, I wish you the best of all you can muster and good luck on the next chapter and project. The last one was quite brilliant and not elusive.

    Love,

    Yours aye,

    David

    • May Miles Thomas - 9 January 14 at 12:08 pm - Reply

      Thanks David,

      I’m very touched by your comments. It seems that on the ground of creative endeavour here in Scotland many people feel the same way as you and I – just as I know that for many years you’ve had the conviction to keep working for what you believe in. There’s something fundamentally wrong with a system of arts funding that fails to support, recognise or give a platform to those of us who, year in, year out, continue to contribute to the culture, regardless of a lack of public largesse or media hype. I wish you all the best with your future projects. Never give up.

      May

  • Mary Henderson - 8 January 14 at 11:15 am - Reply

    What a depressing situation, with a small smidgin of hope. At least you are still in there fighting – as I expect lots of others are. All the best with your endeavours anyway. The poetry film sounds a great idea.

    • May Miles Thomas - 8 January 14 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Thanks Mary,

      You’re right – it is a depressing situation but it’s positive too because it means being forced on your own initiative and resource so I intend to go on fighting to make what I can with what I’ve got. I know many talented but overlooked filmmakers who are effectively barred from applying for funding because, like me, they don’t meet the funder’s criteria. Onwards and upwards!

      Best wishes,
      May

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