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> > > Interview with Lou Birks

Having heard many people commenting on the authentic voice and haunting poetic quality of Lou Birks' Black Dog - a short film which explores the experience of manic depression, Joe was eager to find out more about Lou's work as an independent filmmaker.

group of people Lou Birks

Lou Birks conducting a workshop

Image: Lou Birks

How did you get into filmmaking?

I originally started in community and political theatre about 20 years ago. My first play Food for Thought, about a young woman with anorexia, was snapped up by the National Student Theatre Company and produced in Edinburgh.

Through being a survivor, I got involved in the disability arts movement when it was quite young in the 80s, and led primarily by people with physical and sensory impairments. I have been in and out of the psychiatric system since my early 20s, and I was out as a survivor, but didn't relate that so much to disability at the time. Unfortunately I have been largely silent and isolated both within the survivor and the disability movements.

As that silent, isolated survivor, I went to the BBC to work as a facilitator on the One in Four disability magazine programme. I have no qualms in saying that there would have been little chance of me getting in any other way - I hadn't done well at school (maybe due to prolonged childhood illness), had no A Levels, wasn't Oxbridge, and had no confidence. But once at the BBC, I was able to observe and learn about programme making and basically got a BBC training through observation, which was fantastic! To give credit to the BBC, they did later part sponsor me to complete the Goldsmith's M.A. in Documentary Television.

My school's Careers Adviser laughed when I said I wanted to work in theatre and the arts. He advised me instead to apply for a job on the production line in the local clothing factory, which I didn't do. I realise now, that what drew me towards theatre, drama and acting was the fact that it's all about being someone else. In my worst moments of mental ill health now, I experience other people inhabiting me and taking me over, etc.

on being an independent filmmaker

After leaving TV production, I slowly made my way towards being an independent filmmaker, continuing to move in and out of the psychiatric system being an in-patient, out-patient and often just hiding myself away for long periods unable to cope with going out the front door. I've also done lots of other jobs. Somewhere along the line I qualified and worked teaching video production, have worked as a solicitors' clerk, run an arts centre and a myriad of cash-in-hand jobs.

Over the past 6 or 7 years I developed a production company Pie Films and so far we've had a dozen or so commissions. I'm very interested in the ethics of production, particularly coming from a mental health perspective. Through my experience in the industry over the years, I've seen a very unhealthy environment, and a survival of the quickest, the fittest, the fastest, the loudest. With the advent of technology having become more accessible (for people with the dexterity that is - as often it's quite small) the broadcast industry has cashed in on cheap programming, resulting in numerous reality TV shows, where programme makers don't have to pay actors or contributors, and everything is done as quickly as possible with the smallest possible crew. I don't thrive well in an environment like that. In fact, I don't think many people do. So with Pie Films there is a focus on making the production environment as stress-free as possible for crews as well as participants. A lot of ethics is about mutual respect. Filmmaking for me is about doing what's in your heart, and my heart is in social change: raising awareness in an attempt to change the way people think.

About Black Dog

still image from film Mr Stocker Lou Birks

Still image from film Mr Stocker.

Image: Lou Birks

Tell us about Black Dog.

I'm always trying to raise awareness and make the world a better place! I'm not an artist who says This is my thing; this is what I'm going to say and you either like it or you don't. My work is always intended to comment on society. Black Dog was a bit of a response to the Prozac Nation thing taking off where all of a sudden everyone's got depression. And I wanted to show the difference between someone with mental ill health who is going through a depressed stage in their life (as painful as that can be for any of us), as opposed to the cyclical aspect of long term mental health issues, where you're in and out of statutory care, and that possibly may not change. I'm not saying one is better or worse than the other, it's just different.

I didn't want to tell a story based on one particular state of mind, moment or experience; impossible because all our experiences of mental health are so different. It was about finding a new visual language. I dealt with the extremities of states of mind in a symbolic way. I wanted to evoke a mood that would stay with people, as opposed to telling a story through traditional narrative.

I worked with modern, classical composer Panos Ghikas, who was involved in the process from the beginning. I would go out and shoot and show him pictures, and he would write music in response to those pictures and from what I explained. The film was made with virtually no budget on a borrowed 3-chip Panasonic camera. I sold it to Channel 4 and it's also part of the BFI Disabling Imagery DVD.

Mr Stocker

The abstract style of Black Dog contrasts with the realist approach of Mr Stocker (UK 1999, 24 min), in which you explore the effects of institutionalisation on a person who is now living independently.

I'm very interested in the power relationship between the filmed and filmmaker. A person who takes someone's image and presents it to others is in a very powerful position. Images can communicate in very subtle ways. I spent a lot of time explaining to Mr Stocker (Brian) why I was taking a certain image and what I might be intending to do with it. All the way through the process there was a lot of discussion with my subject about what was, or was not being presented.

Brian initially didn't want me to film him in his home. It's a tip! to use his words. And that is an understatement. I have enormous respect for Brian, who now manages Newham People First, which tells a lot about who he is today. But filming the flat was more about the background, where the legacy of his institutionalisation becomes really clear. This was the only place where I was aware of doing a bit of persuasion and we did eventually come to a compromise. In the end Brian was happy with the sequence, and was there at the edit.

Social Services were very helpful in the making of the film but unfortunately they didn't actually like what I did with one of their sequences. The social worker asks Brian a series of questions, and I hard cut out all of his answers, because the whole point of the sequence was the invasiveness of the questions: How often do you wash? Clean you teeth? Etc. Really personal stuff that we didn't need to hear the answers to.

Mr Stocker was filmed observationally, meaning virtually nothing was set up, which made it hard to edit. This partly influenced the fact that there was a lot of snappy fast editing, but that also happened because Brian doesn't speak at a standard rate, and I needed to achieve a balance between realistically representing the way he spoke, with not asking the (unaware) viewer to wait too long.

workshops, future plans

Pie Films Logo Pie Films

Pie Films Logo

Image: Pie Films

Can you tell us something about the workshops you run at the Disability Film Festival?

There are two workshops: How to make a no-budget film developed from Making a film in 3 hours. Making a film in 3 hours is an absurd concept really (but we did it!). The thing to remember is that the physical act of filming pictures is truly only about 5% of the process. The rest is planning and deciding what it is you're trying to say.

There's a huge need for training for disabled people in film - it's so hard to access training because of either physical or attitude barriers. I also feel that we really need new voices - new people getting a camera and having a go. You don't need to be a celebrity to have had an interesting and inspiring life. The workshops are a way of encouraging those new voices.

I get a kick out of encouraging people to get hold of a camera and make a film. If you want to be a filmmaker that's what you need to do. You need to make films! You can live on ideas for so long, but there come a point when you burn out if all you do is have ideas for things. That's what I see a lot of people do.

If you're starting out, make a film in a day: plan it, shoot it, edit it, and get it onto tape. In the beginning quality doesn't matter so much - it's content you should focus on. We've all been to the cinema and seen glossy films with crap content. You can make a fantastic film with crap equipment. Set yourself achievable targets. Most people know somebody who's got a camera, so borrow it and go out filming and see what works. It doesn't have to be brilliant, just bear in mind who you're going to show it to eventually; it is a method of communication after all.

If you're thinking of buying a camera, get What Camera magazine. In the back is a list of cameras on the market, with price and basic technical specifications.

A very important thing is to put an end to any project. There's always going to be something not quite right when you finish a film, but you have to be able to put an end to it.

Future Plans?

I'm going back to my artistic roots and my next production will probably be a drama. I'm doing a lot of creative writing at the moment to get stories out. I've also invested a lot of the money I've made in Pie Films production equipment, so am in a situation of being able to produce myself if I need to.

I'm also working for the London Disability Arts Forum as Business Development Director of the Disability Film Festival, to be held in December at the NFT.

Black Dog (Lou Birks, UK 1999, 6 mins) is part of the training package Disabling Imagery, which is available from the BFI.