Together we Stand

By Jack Newsinger

launch-amber-films.jpgLaunch, 1973

Formed in 1969, The Amber Film Collective's body of work is an internationally recognised and unique representation of working class culture in the North East that probes the boundaries between documentary and fiction. The first and sole survivors of the Film Workshop Movement, Amber have always maintained their commitment to experimental documentary practices outside the mainstream, working collectively with specific communities. Jack Newsinger talks to Graeme Rigby about their work, independent filmmaking and the legacy of their founder, Murray Martin (1943-2007).

Jack Newsinger: When did you join Amber?

Graeme Rigby: It’s always a fairly moot point – when somebody joined. People don’t so much join as drift into it. I’ve worked with Amber on different projects since 1982 but became paid in 1999. I got involved when we looked at the future of Side Gallery and that drifted into becoming part of the filmmaking operation and running the gallery.

JN: So the activities are very integrated?

GR: Very. But that has varied throughout the history. That is also part of a choice from about five or six years ago that we should rebuild the integration of Amber very deliberately. There were various possibilities like splitting things off and re-integrating the operation was the favoured option. There was always the Amber Collective. At times in its history Side Gallery has been a separate group and what we are now is very much going to focus on this is Amber. It’s moved and developed and changed over the years, and in scale. In the 80s the Collective was much larger.

JN: How many people?

GR: At times there were around twenty people. The thought is that if it gets bigger than ten-to-twelve it doesn’t actually work as a collective because you stop being able to work in communication with each other.

JN: Presumably the composition of people has changed a lot over the years as well?

GR: Up until Murray died there were three original members of the Collective: Sirkka and Murray who were founder members of the group at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Peter Roberts joined in about 1970.

JN: Could you characterise Amber’s relationship with funding bodies? Where does the money come from for film production?

GR: It does vary. Originally Amber came to Newcastle and set itself up and funded its own work. It was self supporting: people did various jobs and they pooled their income and they paid an equal wage to everybody and paid Lorna to administer the group. They got certain project money for example to make films like High Row from Northern Arts. The money for film at that time went through the Regional Arts Associations up until the late 1990s when it was taken out of there.

launch-amber-films-2.jpgLaunch, 1973

JN: I’m interested in the transition from regional Arts funding to Channel Four funding…

GR: The key thing – it’s changed since – but the key thing was that people were getting project funding for film throughout the 1970s. Some was commercial: there were some things that Amber did commercially to earn money. Murray in particular put a huge amount of effort in the 70s working in the context of the Film Workshop Movement. He became very involved – Amber became very involved – but he particularly became very involved in the ACTT and negotiated the Workshop Agreement which was based on the ACTT Union Declaration under which Amber still works. (I don’t know if anybody else uses it but it saves us bothering about another constitution.) The Workshop Agreement was negotiated with the Regional Arts Associations and Channel Four.

JN: That was around 1980?

GR: Around 1981. The first film made under The Workshop Agreement was Byker. There was Channel Four funding for the Franchised Workshops – Workshops could apply for a Franchise with Channel Four – and you got revenue funding from the Regional Arts Associations.

JN: So that was a massive change.

GR: It was. A massive change. If you look at the history of Amber what you can see is a massive expansion of activity and that’s when the Collective grew in scale, when it moved towards doing feature films in 1985. The ambition of the films increased, the level of the work increased. Channel Four knocked it all on the head around 91. The last film that we got funding for under that was Eden Valley which didn’t come out until 94 but was the last film that was made under the terms of the Agreement. In the early-to-mid 90s Northern Arts which was then a Regional Arts Board stopped revenue funding clients as well so there was no revenue funding. Then for the next two films – The Scar and Like Father – Amber filmmaking was made through BBC Budgets. Essentially what happened was people made films for development money which allows Amber to retain ownership rather than full production funding. Whoever’s funding you has a voice in the making of the film and that’s fair enough. The group worked very creatively with Tessa Ross (who’s now at Channel Four but who was with the BBC) on the development of The Scar and Like Father. Tessa Ross left the BBC and encouraged Amber to develop its next film with Channel Four. We got some development money from Channel Four towards Shooting Magpies. Channel Four went pear shaped, everything was up for grabs, it went on and on and on and we decided we would just make this film on what we can do, scraping around and earning a bit of money on the side which was just as well because I don’t think that by the time they had come through to the other end that they would have been commissioning Amber. But at that point the Northern Rock Foundation came in and effectively encouraged and responded to an application for revenue funding the film operation for five years. They are giving us £100 000 a year for five years and we’ve got two more years of that to go, after which who knows.

JN:: It sounds constantly precarious. Are these things approached pragmatically – to keep functioning without giving up control?

GR: Murray was always the first to argue that it’s better to work with next to nothing to make the film you want to make than to take the big money and have to deal with all the strings. Because strings there are. You have to be pragmatic: these films are not ever going to be commercial blockbusters. They can survive in the filmmaking context of a commitment to cultural film, which is something that is disappearing. The Film Council came out very strongly against cultural film. They basically said ‘you’re welcome to do it; you’ll get next to nothing from us, it’s not out major concern.’

JN: And they’ve been much criticised for that.

GR: Probably not enough.

glassworks-amber-films.jpgGlassworks, 1977

JN: Yet they still have on paper a rhetorical commitment to film as culture.

GR: They do say that. What they made clear was that they did support the idea of cultural film but they were not going to put significant resources into cultural film. So you can get small amounts of money. For Magpies I think we got about £40 000 out of them which was quite good, but that was before they had sorted out their priorities. We put in for development money for two documentaries, one which is a new film we are making in BykerByker Revisited – and one which is a project with a Horsey family in Craighead and for the two documentaries between them we got £10,000. When we’ve recently talked about finishing money they said ‘we don’t have any finishing money.’ Basically, unless you can get a television budget now, or other commercial funding it’s very difficult to get anything other than small amounts of money - £5000, £10,000.

JN: It depends on definitions of culture, how they’ve changed over the years as well. The language with which the Film Council talks about culture seems to be in line with other cultural policy which is around ideas of ‘diversity’ and ‘social inclusion’ whereas in the 1970s and the 1980s there was much more explicitly politicised ideas behind public funding for film.

GR: I think there has been a change generally, not just with film but with photography as well. In 1989 Side Gallery found its funding getting cut from £120,000 a year to £25,000 a year because it would not become a generalist key strategic organisation.

JN: Which is?

GR: Well, we would show all kinds of photography and they would give us the money. Amber decided they didn’t want that because Amber is interested in documentary photography, humanist documentary photography at that. So there has been a movement away from oppositional funding, oppositional work. I don’t know if funding bodies saw it as their responsibility to fund oppositional work, it’s just that you were able to get away with oppositional work: it was a legitimate function of the Arts and media.

JN: Those debates were happening.

GR: Those debates were important. If you asked me to date, I think the Miner’s Strike actually created the change. I think after the Miner’s Strike the funding bodies stepped back from that kind of… At the time I personally don’t think the Conservative government gave a toss about what was coming out of the Arts – it was too small. They didn’t worry about it. But I think the Arts were constantly keen to present themselves in a new way and in that new way that was very much about making the case that they were economic, it was about supporting the national economy through culture and things like that. And that trend has continued and what we get now is that film presents what it is doing, the UK Film Council presents what it is doing, as generating a vibrant industry. That’s the priority. Now you may look at the films that are produced and say ‘well that’s not very vibrant.’ But that’s the intention and the overwhelming priority. In similar ways the Arts are being asked to what extent they are addressing different targets. And those may be social inclusion, diversity, whatever. Amber has got social inclusion coming out of its ears but that doesn’t necessarily translate itself into support, partly because we’re arty and we tell them that we think this is all bollocks and tell them that whatever returns we are making is all complete bollocks. This is also in the context of Northern Film and Media and the Arts Council have been supportive to us. It is more that we no longer fit the structure that has become the necessary structure. We work in a different way. We suffer in terms of filmmaking funding because we cannot come up with a two-line pitch for what we’re doing because what we do is we’ll go into a situation we think is fruitful – we think ‘this feels right, this is interesting, this is important’ – and we trust that a narrative will emerge, we trust that a film will emerge. If you want to sell something to television nowadays you have to be able to say ‘it’s going to be this’ and once you agree to do that you can’t go back to them and say ‘well, actually it’s not that at all, it’s this.’ And that’s the way Amber has always worked and that’s one of the reasons why there are difficulties there I think.

JN: Obviously Amber are the last regional film workshop but at one point there were lots and the North East was particularly strong in comparison to other regions. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an ‘independent sector’ in a way in which there isn’t anymore.

GR: There were different things within the independent sector. There was the Film Workshop Movement. The history of the Film Workshop Movement seems to have been marginalised in the current telling of the story.

launch-amber-films-3.jpgLaunch, 1973

JN: Why do you think that is?

GR: Well Murray would have said that the BFI was always against the film workshop movement and the Agreement was something they pulled off in the face of a certain amount of opposition. I’m not saying that this is the case now but there was already written into the system a prejudice against the Film Workshop Movement.

JN: That seems to have been carried into the way the history has been written.

GR: We’re showing a film again called Acceptable Levels. Back in January or February we showed Acceptable Levels which was made by the Belfast Film Workshop and Front Room and we showed Burning an Illusion which was Black Audio Collective. Those films stand. Acceptable Levels is a fantastic film. It’s one of the most powerful and effective films I’ve seen on Northern Ireland and on the BBC and on media betrayal. It’s a very, very sophisticated, powerful drama. Ellie, Murray’s partner, came to Amber from Front Room and was involved in making that film. You see a film like T. Dan Smith - its an extraordinarily bold experiment. There are some very, very good films. The BFI put Seacoal in the Mediateque for British film. Some of these things may be changing. But you are dealing with a certain amount of historical prejudice.

JN: It always surprised me because a lot of people who were involved in the Film Workshop Movement have since gone on to become film academics in various capacities and so on. There seems to be a reluctance to write anything about it.

GR: At the moment you are one of many. Sunderland University have been talking to us about the possibility of doing something on the Film Workshop Movement, Northumbria University want to do something on Amber, we’ve just had someone from Newcastle University wanting to do something on Amber as a film and photography collective. Things come round.

JN: Looking back to the ‘independent sector’ days; a lot of individuals or groups seem to have left little trace. Do you have a sense of how much activity was going on in the North East at that time?

GR: I’ve just spoken to Stuart McKinnon from Trade Films, you had Martin Spence who was at Trade, Penny Woolcock was at Trade. You had Swingbridge Film and Video which was Huw Kelly and Sarah McCartney, There’s Siren Films which was Wendy Mcavoyen and Dave Eington, A19 which was Nick… him anyway. That’s five film workshops in the North East alone. There was a lot of work.

JN: Presumably there was a lot of contact between different groups?

GR: If you want to talk about the whole dealing with the Unions you probably ought to speak to Stuart now: he was certainly involved in those discussions with Murray at Channel Four.

in-fading-light-amber-films.jpgIn Fading Light, 1989

JN: What was shared between the groups? Was it a political commitment?

GR: Yes. Everyone in the Film Workshop Movement nationally was on the Left. There were different agendas within that and people’s work varied and people would have arguments about other people’s work. You had for example the black filmmaking groups that emerged with the possibilities that the Workshop Agreement offered. As well as having a broadly Left agenda they also had a black agenda and that was very important. There would be things that you would share and there would be things that you would follow through yourself. It wasn’t a line.

JN: Was there a felt distinction between London-based groups and the regionally-based groups?

GR: What perhaps differentiated that era was in the context of the Workshop Movement you had a situation where the regions were on an equal basis with London-based groups. If you look at the model of the industry there’s London. I mean there’s regional centres of television production but the Film Council is overwhelmingly metropolitan in its view because it’s interested in the industry. Murray was key in setting this up, Stuart was key in setting this up – the regional voice was central to it so that if there were London-based groups coming out of this, which there were, they were enabled by the work that was going on up here so there was more of an egalitarian sense. I don’t think that there was a tension particularly. There was a tension between regional filmmaking Workshops and the system, but not within the Workshop Movement.

JN: There’s a long-standing metropolitan bias in Art and culture.

GR: Culture generally, not just film. It’s a strange thing. If you look at literature, you look at film, you see that sometimes the most interesting things that have been happening over the last fifty years have been provincial, regional – call it what you like. The degree to which the recognition has shifted back and forth over the years – I think there was a time during the 80s when people recognised the whole regional strength and encouraged it, allowed it, responded to it. Things came back from that: Newspapers stopped covering regional arts so thoroughly. They’ve kind of shifted back but not nearly so much as they did in the 80s. If you take the BBC: you used to have a programme called Kaleidoscope that did the Arts which was partly run out of Manchester, infinitely more regionally locked in than Front Row which is incredibly metropolitan. You look at Newsnight Review: you can’t bear to watch it it’s so metropolitan. I think it’s a defensive thing really. I think metropolitan culture feels quite threatened. I would argue that’s what happened with the Film Council. The reason it’s so shit at the moment is because it’s quite defensive about what culture is. If you look at what has happened in our culture the key things are coming from regional, ethnic – I’m not talking about money-making things but I am talking about cultural strength. You look at novels, poetry, you look at films, often that engagement with that particular area delivers something strong and vibrant and identifiable.

JN: What about Regional Screen Agencies like Northern Film and Media?

GR: Different film agencies do different things. Northern Film and Media have been very helpful to us but they are constrained by what they are having to address. They don’t have flexibility. Some people would argue that if they wanted to they would find the flexibility. But these things are not easy. They get funded by so many agencies themselves and each agency requires this, or this depending on where you are getting the money from. It’s not easy for them either in that respect. But actually in terms of supporting the making of a film; they don’t have the resources to do that independently.

JN: That seems quite paradoxical because you have this supposed devolution of film funding but also decision making which seems to be controlled from the centre even more.

shooting-magpies-amber-films.jpgShooting Magpies, 2005

GR: If you look at cultural policy – it’s not just cultural policy – if you look at health or education there’s a certain amount of talk about devolving power. Then these targets – managing the economy through targets, managing public services through targets, managing culture through targets – you tie people into something in which it’s really hard to make anything independent and strong. The odds are against you.

JN: So there was more flexibility with the Regional Arts Associations?

GR: There’s more flexibility if you give people revenue funding. If you give people project money they have to do so much to get each bit of money and that limits their freedom because once you’ve got money for something you then have to deliver that; you aren’t fully in control of your own agenda.

JN: An increase in bureaucracy as well.

GR: Absolutely. To be fair Northern Film and Media aren’t nearly as bad as some cultural sources of funding. But they have become – and it’s not their fault – but they have become much more so. The people that are doing these things – it doesn’t give the people working for them any joy. Their jobs have become intolerable. Obviously they find them tolerable but I wouldn’t find it tolerable. It’s squeezed the freedom out of the situation. These things are not irreversible.

JN: Do you think it might take an independent sector emerging to change these conditions?

GR: I think it’s about creating opportunities. Those agreements happened because it was a conjunction of different things happening. Channel Four wanted material that would address its obligation to do certain things. The Regional Arts Associations wanted a link with a national broadcaster. It answered a lot of people’s interests and within that there was a certain freedom to operate. You still had to sell ideas to Channel Four but there was a certain freedom that was created. I think the sad thing about culture is that people ultimately follow the money. When Amber set itself up in the early 70s people did things for next to nothing – it was possible to do things for next to nothing. We live in a different context: it is not as easy. Although what is happening in terms of digital technology is changing things and certainly the fact that we have been able to continue making films has been largely to do with the fact that we have shifted into digital production. Filmmakers can make a film themselves now. There are things opening up in terms of distribution. All that is something we are in a process of learning about and in a process of exploring.

JN: Internet distribution for example.

GR: Yes. That is our strategy because there aren’t any other strategies open to us. We would still like to make films for broadcast and will do so if the opportunities come up but we are not betting on the availability of that.

scar-amber-films.jpgThe Scar, 1997

JN: So for Shooting Magpies – where was that shown?

GR: It wasn’t shown on television. It’s been shown on the festival circuit, it’s been toured quite extensively within the region, it’s available on DVD. Where we’re looking to develop is ultimately DVD or download and developing the website. In sense you bring your audience to you and encourage people to look at the work. That’s where we see the possibility. It’s something that is still in development.

JN: Has Amber ever been involved directly in political activism or party politics?

GR: Amber is not party political and has never been party political. People in Amber have belonged to the Labour party. Although Amber has often engaged with unions directly and has looked at things within the Labour party a lot at particular times it has never aligned itself, it has never been partisan in that respect. There is a general thing where you wouldn’t join Amber, you wouldn’t become a member of the Collective, unless you were on the Left. It would be hard and I don’t see why anybody would. But it is not a question. I joined the Labour party in 84 because where I was living, a village in County Durham, it was the only way you could directly engage with supporting the Miners. So I joined the Labour party and at some point after the Miner’s Strike my membership lapsed and that was that. Amber was very involved in trade union education in the 80s. It had a unit called the Current Affairs Unit – Pat McCarthy and Richard Grassick were very involved in that. And Murray was very involved in that. You’ve got films like Where Are We Going, The News From Durham and things like the Tony Benn by-election Behind the Vote, Beyond the Vote. You’ve got films like Can’t Beat it Alone which was about that whole link between the Peace Movement, the anti-Nuclear Movement and the Coalfield communities campaign. Similarly you’ve got exhibitions that were directly about the situation in the Miner’s Strike. There were exhibitions that were commissioned – people knew that the Strike was coming, that the struggle was coming. So there was a directly oppositional effort, but at the same time it never party political.

JN: Why do you think Amber has survived?

GR: I think it has survived for a number of different reasons. It’s film and photography. When photography funding collapsed it was able to support itself partly from the film funding. When film funding has disappeared its managed to build up photography funding a bit and its built up a collection which is valuable. It’s a photographic collection of huge importance and I think that’s sometimes staid people’s hand. At times when they might have knocked Side Gallery on the head they didn’t because they didn’t know what to do about this valuable photographic collection. The other thing to say is the films Amber have made have been good. The quality of the work has been important. People do recognise that creatively there is a quality in that and that has also been important. I think it’s also been important that Amber has bloody-mindedly refused to go down the roads that some people have wanted it to go down. If it had I think it wouldn’t have survived. There are lots of reasons. I think that the reason the films are as good and the reason why the photographic exhibitions have been as good, the photographic collection is as good as it is, is to do with the fact that Amber has always gone into situations, has encouraged people to go into situations and actually respond to what you are seeing rather than what you want to see. It’s never about finding things that are illustrative and I think that that’s important. You could not make the work that Amber has made from a party political viewpoint because you don’t allow in the ambiguities and I think that it’s the ambiguities that make Amber’s work.

JN: So that’s to do with an integrated approach to filmmaking practice and how you approach the subjects, and so on. The qualities that you are talking about come from this sort of approach.

GR: People work with Amber because they know or they trust you to be honest with them. The people we are making films with have access to the process. Things are discussed with them so we are not using people to make a point and they know that you are trying. You can’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get it right but they know or they trust you enough that you are going to try to be honest, that that’s what you’re interested in, you’re interested in them, you’re not interested in making a series of points. You’re interested in the points that they might want to make as well and they understand that you have points but the film emerges between that really. Amber have at times been criticised on the Left because it has not been pursuing an overtly political agenda or agitprop agenda. Even in its campaigning work such as on the Quayside that was directly done for the campaign against them knocking down the Quayside, the approach was: show people what we’re talking about. You don’t say you must not do this.

in-fading-light-amber-films-2.jpgIn Fading Light, 1989

JN: What about the debates that were going on in the 70s around film form? I’m thinking of the idea of the structural film. Amber’s films don’t fit that model but there is the experimental work. We’ve talked a bit about T. Dan Smith as an obvious example.

GR: I would argue that Amber’s films are more experimental than anybody acknowledges in the history.

JN: The social realist side gets privileged.

GR: I think what people don’t recognise is the degree to which you’re experimenting in the relationship between documentary, community and fiction. When you’re talking about the reconstruction – people look at something like Byker and they don’t think about it being a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction, and it’s quite an experimental one in terms of the relationship between film and photography. Some of the scenes that are there are not actually shot in Byker. There’s never been any pretence that they were. There’s an element of Byker that involves dramatisation. An early film like High Row: Amber developed a script, the miners didn’t like it, they sat down and worked with the miners on developing a script that was about their working day, Amber paid them and they worked. That was 73. It was a dramatic reconstruction of their work. A film like Last Shift. The place closed, they paid them to come in to do another week, nobody seemed to mind, they went through the process for Amber. Actually the factory had closed down. If you look at a film like Seacoal where equity would not let the community have scripted lines. So all the actors had scripted lines but if they were talking to people in the scene – members of the community – those members of the community did not have scripted lines. Ellie had been looking at that way of working with Acceptable Levels in Belfast and when Amber was developing Seacoal she drew in some of those approaches. There was a playwright – Tom Hadaway was working as a writer – but actually it was an enormous experiment. T. Dan Smith is an enormous experiment. In Fading Light where you actually taught the actors how to fish, to look convincing enough fishing and the whole relationship between those actors and the fishermen who were guiding the process and were absolutely involved in the process. That, if you compare it to anyone else’s filmmaking process, is enormously experimental. Yes it had a script, yes it’s social realism, yes people would say ‘gritty little Northern drama.’ But their not really recognising, because they can’t see it. It’s not overt, it’s not shaky camera. It’s a far deeper level of experimentation than actually most experimental film is. Most experimental film; the experiment is often very much on the surface. You want to show how experimental you are. You look at a lot of artist’s film and video now: is it experimental? It’s not experimental at all.

JN: Maybe the term experimental has those connotations: it’s an experiment with form?

GR: Yes, it’s overtly non-realist in its style. That’s not experiment, that’s just a style choice. I would argue that a film like Shooting Magpies, where you had people playing versions of themselves and their own stories/lives and taking that quite a long way in terms of constructing a drama out of that, the edge between documentary… There are real bits of documentary in there. I would argue that that is as experimental as any experimental film. It isn’t always recognised as such.

JN: Amber’s often placed in the documentary tradition going back to Grierson and Jennings. Maybe you would dispute this but looking at the documentaries of the 70s they seem quite traditional industrial documentaries.

GR: There’s a mixture. Those documentaries in the 70s are trying to record something. If you are trying to document something like the Glass Works you don’t want stylistic innovation getting in the way. Your prime function is to make a visual record of a way of work. In that sense it is continuing in the British documentary movement tradition. You look at a film like Launch – that film, there is hardly a sequence apart from the boat going down the terrace that lasts more than twenty seconds and the reason is because they had a clockwork camera and that’s how long a shot could be. You’re dealing with the same kind of techniques as Eisenstein for similar reasons: he only had short bits of film. Those things condition those things. There are certain portraits that came out of those periods. Once you start getting into the 80s and a film like Keeping Time: that is wildly experimental. And if you look at a film from the early 90s like Writing in the Sand. All of the stuff that is linked to photography – Byker, Keeping Time, The Writing in the Sand, Letters to Katja, are really quite experimental films because they are exploring what you can do in the relationship with photography. That’s at the heart of the experiment. I think Amber’s always experimented and I think it’s experimented pragmatically with certain things and that forces certain experiments onto the group. It’s not so much that you go in and say ‘I want to do an experimental film.’ But if you want to go in and make a drama involving the community of seacoalers there is no template.

JN: I find it interesting that you mention In Fading Light because I was going to mention that as an example of a more classically structured film.

shooting-magpies-amber-films-2.jpgShooting Magpies, 2005

GR: It is. It is very written. They wrote half of it and then they went off on a voyage together. Tom knew the territory and was writing the script. It is a very formally structured film compared to T. Dan Smith because what T. Dan Smith was trying to do was on the surface quite an experimental structure in terms of the juxtaposition of documentary and parallel drama. The convention often masks what is often quite radical experiment. Not many people would buy a boat, get actors to work on it. It’s not something that on the screen looks experimental.

JN: Authenticity is something that is always raised with Amber’s films. You get these authentic representations. To take In Fading Light as an example: do you think it would be impossible or so much more difficult to achieve that without that particular way of working?

GR: I think there are lots of things that contribute to it. Murray always argued that buying a fishing boat gave you access. You were looked at differently by the fishing community of North Shields because you were making a commitment and drawing them into something that was quite serious. Similarly with Eden Valley, buying a field. That gives you access to the community. What then arises out of that is something that you don’t get in a lot of conventional approaches to filmmaking. The key thing is to do with going into the community and genuinely creating the film out of that engagement rather than imposing your narrative on that and necessarily if you’re trying to develop something genuine out of that engagement it is necessarily experimental because you are busking all the time, you have to and you have to busk with confidence that it will deliver. What is problematic with conventional approaches is you sort out your narrative and you find something that doesn’t fit. What do you do at that point? Do you close that down because it’s inconvenient? Or do you follow that? Amber, broadly speaking over the years, has tended to follow the wild cards. Because of the cost of film production, most films tend to create an alternative reality because it is easier to control. If you’re not trying to control it you are forced into experimentation because that’s the only way you will find a solution.

JN: The documentary tradition has always been accused of being anthropological: being an outsider’s view of regional working class communities and people. What we’ve been talking about is ways of overcoming that limitation. Was that tradition something that Amber have been conscious of?

GR: That’s always been something that Amber has tried to overcome. To a certain extent you are always going to be an outsider if you aren’t an insider. Amber’s always been interested in people like, for example, photographer Jimmy Forsyth. That is seen as a classic working class portrayal of their own communities. Jimmy Forsyth came from Wales. That’s probably one of the reasons why he wanted to document it because one of the urges of documentary is trying to understand something and that can be a patronising thing. It can be anthropological and detached. And that can produce quite good work. You can do that. You can also do what Amber has done and try and find ways of opening the process up to the community within which you’re working. High Row: the script was developed with those people. Seacoal, In Fading Light, Eden Valley, The Scar, Like Father, Shooting Magpies – as the film begins to emerge you bring people in and you show them what you’ve done and you talk about it with them. It’s a very interesting process. It emerges out of the relationship that you start to build with them. You’re working with those people very, very specifically, allowing them to see what you are doing, taking on board what they’re saying. When they say something isn’t right you listen to what they say. As the film begins o emerge you bring in other people in the community and show them the film as it emerges and you take on board what people say. If they feel that something’s not right – partly you’re testing, but it’s partly you’re allowing people to talk about whether something feels right. What was good with Shooting Magpies – I can remember people coming to screenings and saying ‘that’s it.’ That’s great. Other people might have easily said ‘no, that’s not it at all.’ But actually people were coming up to us and saying ‘you’ve got it – that’s the way it is with our lives.’

JN: Certainly it seemed like a more complex portrayal than you see in film. I can’t think of anything that comes close to that.

GR: It was interesting when we finished it. When you screen it to voluntary carers involved with substance abusers they tend to say to say ‘that’s right.’ If you work with professionals they were worried because you were not saying ‘do this.’

JN: Well it’s very gloomy.

GR: When we started making the film Emma was living with her partner. We talked to a doctor and everybody was saying, by and large, they don’t get off it. So to have presented any way out for the character Darren plays would seem to be… All we could say was ‘cut the rope Emma.’ It isn’t a particularly positive message about drug addiction but it is about people’s lives.

JN: Talking about the blurring of the traditional distinctions between documentary and fiction: Amber have worked with the same actors over a number of films. It raises the question when does a documentary subject become an actor?

launch-amber-films-4.jpgLaunch, 1973

GR: If you’re working on a fiction, they become an actor. Full stop. If you’re working with someone, even if they are portraying themselves, that’s acting. Both Barry’s performance and Emma’s performance in Shooting Magpies are interesting. Emma because she seemed to go into it again and she was there in her head. Barry developed his performance. All you can say is that it has a ring of authenticity about it. Brian Hogg – the reason Amber works with Brian so much is that Brian fits into that world and doesn’t seem like an actor. One of the difficulties that you face when real people are playing themselves and their own lives, if you put them against an actor, that actor will seem quite artificial. Because the other person’s performance challenges the way an actor constructs a performance. That’s their craft and when you see it done well it is a fantastic thing but when you juxtapose those two things you become aware of the artifice. There are certain actors that you wouldn’t use because it would be very difficult. Brian fits because he likes that territory, he feels at ease, it’s like his life anyway. And that’s part of the reason he’s able to develop those performances. And the same with other actors Amber’s used.

JN: At the same time you could say that the distance between filmmakers and subjects is blurred with this type of filmmaking: developing a project over years, working closely with communities, and so on. So are Amber still outsiders in the sense that we have been talking about?

GR: It varies. Amber’s been here for a long time, it’s worked exclusively in the North East. You find that people often know about you, they’ve worked with you before, they know you. But you’re still an outsider to the community. I wouldn’t pretend that you are anything other than an outsider to those communities. With Murray on horse culture he was an insider. If you look at the film that we are making at the moment; it’s very much about that.

JN: So there are degrees of insider and outsider?

GR: There is trust from some people and if you are working with new people some people will vouch for you. It’s the same thing that any documentary photographer finds: that the relationship is really important. The quality of that relationship is what delivers the film. Also digital allows the film to move further because you are not going with a crew. You could work much more informally. That’s quite an interesting area for future experiments across the board, what that begins to open up.

JN: Looking at Amber’s back catalogue it’s easy to see the early documentaries as precursors to the feature filmmaking. Do you think that’s correct?

GR: If you’re looking at the launch of a ship then that’s what you’re looking at, you’re documenting that. If you’re looking at the working processes in a brick works you’re looking at those processes. We’ve just made a portrait that we’re releasing in September, a portrait kind of film. It’s not that those have been abandoned. A film like Seacoal: one of the reasons for pushing it to drama is that a lot of the people working on Seacoal were working in the black economy. By fictionalising it you give them some protection. Also, Channel Four at the time we’re saying ‘we could do with a feature film.’ The opportunity seemed to be there to do it. If you were to do it as a straight documentary there would be some things that you want to do that you wouldn’t be able to. That opened up a strand. But in a sense High Row was a dramatic reconstruction. The Filleting Machine was a straight-forward drama. They were drama experiments. You are talking about a group that is developing its range, its ambition.

JN: I’m interested in these techniques that explore this documentary/ fiction area like direct address of the camera.

GR: It’s testimony. It’s ways of bringing these things together. If you look at a film like Tyne Lives which isn’t released which was an experiment in 1980. Some of the drama in that didn’t work at all. It’s learning how you do it. I think most filmmakers would see every film as a learning curve. It’s very much so for Amber. You’re always trying to do something to push it further. You don’t want to repeat things.

launch-amber-films-5.jpgLaunch, 1973

JN: The documentary tradition has also focussed on men and masculinity as the most important part of working class identity, regional working class identity. Obviously Amber’s films don’t do that.

GR: Absolutely. In photography people often say the same thing about Northern documentary. Amber’s by and large the most significant thing in Northern documentary in the last forty years and it isn’t. It’s partly to do with the way people choose to see things. A lot of people look at Amber’s work and say ‘it’s all about men, it’s all about the industrial worker crucified.’ It’s not true, really. And I don’t think it’s just Amber. It is the way people choose to present this work. People choose to think about British social realism as being like that but if look at the milestones. A film like Cathy Come Home: that wasn’t. It has always been a much more complex picture. Post-industrial change necessarily does tackle male experience because most of those iconic locations were male locations. Certainly Amber has never been exclusively involved in looking at those figures but those figures have always been important to it.

JN: In Amber’s work you get a more complex idea of regional working class identity or working class identity in the North East based on things like gender difference and age and these sorts of things.

GR: I think there are all sorts of interesting issues around this. I don’t think it is as clear cut, generally, as people often present it. People have said ‘well, where is the portrayal of gay and lesbian experience in Amber’s films?’ That has certainly not been to do with Amber being uninterested in gay and lesbian experience but it has probably been, when you are working in a community and people are talking about their lives it does not arise if it’s not part of what they are trying to talk about. Similarly you could say that Amber has not worked particularly extensively with ethnic minority communities. Partly that is because the communities in the North East have been, up until more recently have been smaller and separate than in other parts of the country. That is changing. If you look at the film we are working on at the moment in Byker: inevitably you are dealing with the refugee community in Byker and working directly with that. There will be gaps. But gender is certainly not one of them. You could argue that there are limitations in Amber’s work over the years in terms of sexuality or ethnicity. People have made that point and fair play. The way Amber have worked is much more about moving from project to project in an organic way and following things that interest you rather than trying to impose. That’s not really the way Amber works. Maybe these things evolve more slowly.

JN: The general trajectory of the films: the films move from work and industry in the 1970s towards an increasing look at leisure time and sociality.

GR: I think there are different things going on here. Those iconic industries were disappearing. The urgency of recording them was they were actually closing. If you don’t record it, it is never going to be. So there is an urgency created by that.

JN: You could say the same thing about Byker.

GR: But that was about recording a community and leisure time is a part of that. There has been post-industrial change and often you have been recording industry. A film like In Fading Light is about recording something that Amber thought was on its way out. Which it was.

JN: And in Shooting Magpies it is unemployment and heroin and the things which go with that. In that way the films follow the political and social changes over that period of time.

in-fading-light-amber-films-3.jpgIn Fading Light, 1989

GR: Murray was very conscious that what Amber has tended to do is celebrate. It has wanted to celebrate working class and marginalised culture because it values it. People like Murray and Peter set up the group partly because they didn’t want to lose that connection to what they perceived as their own roots. It has become harder and harder to find the things to celebrate and what you are celebrating in Shooting Magpies, and I think it is a celebratory film, is just about survival. That is quite minimal. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to celebrate. The film we’re making at the moment in Craighead is celebratory of horsey culture and the film we’re making in Byker is celebratory of a whole host of different cultures and things. Celebration is important. That is one of the reasons you are attracted to something: because you think there is something important, even though it may be difficult to do it. You’re not trying to hide things and celebrate by pretending certain things don’t exist. You’re trying to find something in people’s lives that is there to be celebrated. If you look at the dramas, that’s the drive. T. Dan Smith is more an engagement with what was happening in Newcastle and shouldn’t be seen as separate from Quayside and Byker. It’s following through the argument, trying to understand something. Although there is an element of celebration in T. Dan, however, because he was an interesting bloke. Celebrating and criticising at the same time. It’s always critical celebration. It’s never about celebrating without some element of critique.

JN: I’ve read before that Amber has been criticised for romanticising working class lives. But it seemed to me that every time something is romanticised it is immediately undercut. The example I am thinking of is In Fading Light where you have these fantastic shots of the boat but then it immediately we see someone opening a wound on their finger and you get this gender discrimination plot, and so on.

GR: There is a strong visual response to communities and landscapes in the region and Amber tends to make films in places that it feels enriched by and is drawn to those landscapes and those contexts which are extremely visual. It has no desire in saying ‘these lives are banal.’ Like Launch: people might dismiss that as romanticising the landscape of industrial culture. It’s probably more important to realise that this is actually what’s been taken away from people’s lives. This is a whole dimension within which they found identity, an identity in which they could feel proud. You take that away and people’s lives are diminished and that should be acknowledged. It is looking at things that are important. They’re interesting and important to the people with whom Amber is making films. It is recognising the visual impact, the richness of a landscape, of a community. There is a kind of dirty realism that would always try to create a context for the line that is putting them down.

JN: The total body of work paints quite an indictment on the wider economic and political changes that have happened to the North East in the last forty years.

GR: I think it’s a complex picture. You can’t stop industrial change. The region has adapted to industry and has adapted to the post-industrial. It’s a continuum, it’s not a break. Amber has always been interested in those people who fall outside the mainstream. The work hasn’t always been one hundred percent popular with people who are pushing the bright image of the North East.

JN: Has there been a big move to disavow the industrial past?

GR: There has been, very much so in this region. Some of the people involved in doing that have been quite surprised at the speed with which it was done. The disappearance of the slag heaps – every pit village in Durham has got this little, sanitised pit wheel. Everything else has been wiped. People felt that was the way forward. You can’t criticise people for doing everything they can to keep the community together. Regional Development Agencies have done things to try and keep the economy going and that clearly wasn’t going to be about coal. Coal was seen as being something that put people off the region. There’s this whole recent thing of the culture-led regeneration. Amber’s not against any of those things but its work has been focussed on those communities where what seems to have happened is people have almost been cut adrift from that mainstream economy. The people we were working with on Shooting Magpies; they didn’t have bank accounts, they had gold that they could take to the pawn shop. What was happening in the villages: the absolute visibility of heroin. That’s not to say that heroin doesn’t happen in central Newcastle: it does. But it’s not as noticeable as in a pit village. Those are the lives you are interested in, those marginalised lives, people whose voices are not being heard. Amber’s always been seen as not on message in terms of regional redevelopment. Avant-garde film is necessarily intellectual and if you’re working with communities to bring in a self-consciously experimental form based on intellectual argument is a barrier to creatively opening up to those people’s contributions. It tends to be the individual filmmaker. It is very difficult to make a film like that with any kind of integrity, collective sense. Where you are self-consciously exploring the art: it is difficult to do that from the basis of a group argument because sometimes the decisions are so individual and unexplained. Where it is at its best the decisions are instinctive to the artist in the same way as a poem or a novel. You couldn’t make an Amber film like that because it’s an insult to people. I’m not saying that all those films are bad. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s your imposition of structure in ways that alienate. I am annoyed personally by a lot of contemporary visual art film because people don’t know how to use the gear. They get the budget to do a 35mm film and they don’t even know how to use the kit. They make a big thing about something being a single shot. A single shot where half of it is out of focus is not really that clever. Artist’s film and video is often crap, I think.

JN: What next for Amber?

GR: We are making two films at the moment. One of them is Byker Revisited. Sirkka went to borrow the original exhibition from the community centre where it was hanging and there were refugees using the centre and people were saying ‘you should come back and do something on the new Byker and she thought she would which initiated a photography portrait and landscape project. Out of that contact we are now making a film that is exploring the new Byker. It’s interesting: you’ve got the Byker wall itself, you’ve got beautiful views of the Tyne and those flats tend to be artists and young professionals.

JN: So it’s been gentrified?

in-fading-light-amber-films-4.jpgIn Fading Light, 1989

GR: No, well, the ones with the views. It’s interesting because Byker was a white, working class community within which Sirkka was the only foreigner. You now have the artist’s thing and the traditional working class and the non-working class and refugees. Depending on the quality of the housing is where people have been located. That is quite a rich territory of exploration. We’re making a film about a horsey family in Craighead. At the moment we can’t get a budget to do a drama. We’d quite like to do a drama out of the Byker work when we’ve completed the documentary. And if we can get the funding for it we will do so. You can’t really do a drama without some extra funding from somewhere.

JN: Maybe it’s a bit soon to ask, but what do you think Murray Martin’s legacy will be?

GR: You can point to so many things. If you look at the architecture he was significantly responsible for the campaign that preserved much of the East Quayside. You look at the photographic collection, which Murray was absolutely central to the development of, the production and collection and purchase of – which is a huge thing; you’re talking about a thousand photographs, two hundred and twenty different bodies of work. There isn’t anything like it in the country. There’s certainly nothing over the last forty years. If you add that to the films, forty films. I’m yet to come across anything that has the scale and diversity within the coherence of that work. It’s all related to a group exploring what’s going on, learning about its own traditions. As a complex of work it is extraordinary; there isn’t anything that I can think of like it. It isn’t recognised to a large extent because the critical worlds are separated and the funding worlds are now separated even more so. At some point people will recognise it. He was a great man, he was huge and I think people who have known him recognise that, even if they argued with him at the time. The other thing is that people in this culture find it hard to deal with the idea of the collective. Amber films probably would have got a bit more noted if they were all down as being directed by Murray. They weren’t all directed by Murray, but if they were then Murray would be a major figure. The fact that it is Amber Collective and on most of them, there is no distinction on what roles different people have had, it doesn’t fit. It’s not malicious, it’s just that you don’t fit neatly. I think those things make it difficult for people.

JN: You say it’s not necessarily malicious but in some senses…

GR: There is that. At the same time if you were to compare Amber’s filmmaking with most other directors it is certainly as identifiably single in its field as any of the major auteurs.

JN: I would say that Amber have been very successful in terms of British filmmaking in the last thirty years: a huge body of work. Certainly successful by any standards. But it hasn’t got the recognition for it.

GR: To be fair if you look at filmmakers like Terence Davies, they haven’t had recognition. If you make films in this terrain, that’s why you don’t get recognition. We haven’t found a way to make money out of it, nobody else has.

JN: But he would have a certain critical reputation.

GR: I think that’s true. Seeing the films again, as we’ve been doing recently, I was struck at how well they stand. A film like T. Dan Smith or In Fading Light or Seacoal. They stand.

Jack Newsinger is a filmmaker and researcher. He writes about film in the regions and lives in Nottingham.