When the world of documentary films became a factory production line, I fought back

At this gathering of documentary filmmakers, the only thing to pitch is your tent.

Chloe Ruthven
22 July 2016
 Otherfield Website

Otherfield film festival goers. Credit: Otherfield WebsiteIn 2011, I suggested to family friends who were looking for projects for their old farmhouses and barns in Kent, that we run a film festival. We would turn their old barns into screening rooms, and guests could camp out in the field. They loved the idea, and we soon created the Quadrangle Film Festival – now called Otherfield.

At the time, it felt like the most natural thing to do. The Quadrangle was a place that I had been visiting since childhood, and the huge granary barn and surrounding fields formed the most natural setting for camping and cinema. Like many of my friends, I was carving out a path in the strange world of creative documentary-making. More than anything, I longed for a place where we could gather, talk, watch and share experiences with like-minded others.

Our raison d’etre was that we were filmmakers creating a space for filmmakers. It was a radical idea when set against the industry’s competitive world of TV commissioning and selling that was threatening to overtake all creative practice in non-fiction filmmaking.

We were filmmakers creating a space for filmmakers.

Our tag line was “the only thing to pitch is your tent.” Nobody was allowed to pull rank, and whether still in college or winning Oscars, everyone was on an equal footing, encouraged to eat, drink, discuss and watch together – arguing vociferously about what we all cared about: documentaries.

Over the next four years, we held the Quadrangle Film Festival every September. We had practically no money, our programming was done by committee over bottles of wine and tubs of hummus, and we all descended onto the premises a week before the event to build make-shift cinemas, loos, workshops, bars and kitchens. For two days a year, we would provide a ‘home’ for lost filmmakers in need of love and care.

Fast forward 5 years, and the same team of rag-tag filmmakers, after a year’s sabbatical, have come together to re-launch the festival as Otherfield, which like its predecessor, is programmed by filmmakers for filmmakers over a weekend in the English countryside.

I fell into filmmaking by accident, picking up a video camera shortly after graduating from St Martin’s. Being an artist in the 1990s was an astonishing time: the Young British Artists movement was hitting London big time. But what started out as an energising, reckless free-for-all soon became something horribly self-conscious, as the ‘artist-as-status’ started to eat away at wannabes’ fragile egos. The art world was swiftly becoming the quickest commodity-producing factory on the block, with artists-turned-capitalists basking in their newfound glory and wealth.

It was around this time that a friend invited me to Sheffield Documentary Festival. Back then, I thought documentaries were what David Attenborough made but instead, it was a revelation. It was a place where you could talk about ethics, politics and form and nobody would judge you for it. The films delved into stories from around the world that the news rarely had time for, and after each screening, the director would face intense and informed questioning from a fired-up audience. This, I felt immediately, was home.

But just as I had found a refuge from the art-world’s bullshit, the documentary world was undergoing its own transition into the world of commerce. I wouldn’t want to berate or belittle any art-form finding some mainstream success and recognition. But what happens when the market-place takes over from the discussion of ideas?

The independent filmmaker was now a marginalised, ignored and alienated figure in a world that put financial success above all else.

At Otherfield, we want to create an environment where it is fine to feel like a no-hit loser, but where the practice and ideas of making films inspire everyone, and make them feel part of a process. We want independent filmmakers to know that there is a community. And we want to bring back argument, advice-giving, role-modeling and fear-free experimentation to the documentary world.

We try our best to programme collectively. A porous but loyal group of filmmakers, who have grown to respect one another and work well together, put forward films and brainstorm ideas that we believe young filmmakers want to learn more about. There are no green rooms or celebrity allowances. And we self-fund as best we can, so that we are not subject to the marketing needs of brands or public funding.

Above all, we want to reflect what filmmaking is really about. Filmmaking comes out of thinking, of struggling, of feeling alienated and alone, and wanting to communicate. It comes out of wrestling with the form and trying to learn a language over years so that you might, just might, be able to communicate messages and stories that can reflect the human condition.

For more information about Otherfield, click here

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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