Helpyourself Manchester, a recent film telling the story of Manchester’s unsung DIY music promoters, will be screening at this year's Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair (Sunday May 5), accompanied by an exhibition of original fliers from gigs featured in the film. The documentary focuses on a group of friends who found new and creative means of organising and promoting gigs in the mid- to late years of the previous decade, featuring bands such as Burnst, Cat on Form, the Enablers and McWat. From living rooms to basements, the promoters shown in the film put exciting and unheard bands on not for financial reward, but because they loved the music. The film, which makes uses of animation, photography, interviews and archive footage in a cut-and-paste style appropriate to the subject matter, is the work of Castles Built in Sand, a Manchester-based documentary film collective working on a DIY, not-for-profit and copyleft basis. The Shrieking Violet spoke to Castles Built in Sand to find out more about how they formed as a group and their collaborative approach to film-making.
SV: Tell me a bit about Castles Built in Sand – who are you and how did you come together as a collective?
CBIS: We are a group of visual anthropologists, artists and musicians. Paddy, Huw, Insa, Yas and Birgitta met through their studies (some of us did an MA of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester). Simon joined us later.
SV: Why did you decide to start a film-making collective?
CBIS: After our graduation we all wanted to continue making films and to improve our skills. That's why we decided to start working together as a collective – to share skills, equipment and to motivate each other.
SV: You've also collaborated with some of the participants in your films. What do you gain from working collaboratively, both within the collective and with other groups of people such as interviewees, that you don't get working alone?
CBIS: Working collaboratively allows us to gain different perspectives on the topics we are working on. It also ensures that everyone feels engaged and represented. This is especially important for us in regards to the people we are working with. We want to ensure they feel like they had a say and are portrayed in a way that leaves them empowered. Filmmaking for us is a mutual process, a give and take and learning from each other.
SV: How does the filmmaking process work – how do you set the theme and direction of where your projects are going? Is every project a joint project, or are there some films where certain people take the lead based on their interests or choose to adopt a lesser role?
CBIS: If we work on a project together there is a lot of discussion involved. We are never quite sure what exactly a project will end up as, because of the collaborative approach, everyone has an input which means a project can change quite a bit in the process of making. For our next project we are going to define our roles a bit more, which will be an interesting new approach for us.
However, we are also not always all working together on a project. Sometimes some of us decide not to be engaged in a project due to time constraints or varying interests or because it doesn't make sense to have too many people involved.
SV: How do you choose your subjects? Is there anything that ties all your projects together, either thematically or in the approach taken to filmmaking?
CBIS: Our projects are not necessary linked in any way, we choose them according to what we are interested in or think is an important topic to portray.
CBIS: The idea to make a film about Helpyourself Manchester and this part of Manchester's DIY scene came out of conversations Paddy had with Lee, one of our friends who was involved with Helpyourself Manchester. Huw was around for the last few gigs, whereas Insa and Paddy came to Manchester in 2009, a few years after Helpyourself. We wanted to look at the way people had used space in Manchester to organise culture outside of the mainstream. With all the government cuts and the current debates about gentrification it seemed like a topic that is actually quite timeless and important to discuss.
SV: How did you go about making the film and how long did it take?
CBIS: From start to finish it took us about one and a half years to complete the film. We collected material on the way, interviewed our friends and tried to get as much info as possible. Then we edited separate sequences which we thought should be in the film and which we joined up eventually. Once we had a first watchable version of the fllm (which at the time was about two hours long) we showed it to the people who we had filmed and to friends who hadn't heard about Helpyourself Manchester before. These sessions provided us with a lot of different opinions as to what would work and what wouldn't and suggestions for changes. In the end we cut the film down to 54 minutes.
CBIS: It's less a conscious choice to make films which might be considered political, but it rather comes out of our interests and ways of looking at the things going on around us. So it happens naturally rather than us trying to provide a political stance.
SV: Whether focusing on DIY promoters, the residents of a temporary care home, protestors or young people affected by cuts to education, your films quite often depict the type of subjects and people that might not normally have a film made about them. What do the subjects get out of being part of the filmmaking process – and what do we get out of it as viewers?
CBIS: It is important to show what wouldn't be shown otherwise and to make people conscious of what is going on around them. Film, photography and sound are powerful tools which offer people outside the media focus a way to express themselves. The collaborative way in which we are working hopefully leaves the people we are working with with a feeling of actually having had a possibility to say what they wanted to say.
SV: You've collaborated with bands like Levenshulme Bicycle Orchestra and Tubers in the past; can you explain the importance of sound in your work?
CBIS: Sound lets us see things differently. When the sound is good, the images seem more powerful and engaging.
SV: There is also a really strong sense of place in your films. How would you describe your approach to representing and describing place?
CBIS: We try to engage with the place or space we portray – you could almost say we let it speak to us. Using different media is very important for this approach. We don't confine ourselves to one medium but use whatever medium we think best conveys a sense of the place. That's where sound is also very important – if we listen we discover different aspects of what contributes to our notion of a place.
SV: Your webpage has quite a few texts as well as films, which seem to stand together – what is the relationship between the texts and the films, and do you find it to be a useful process to write about the processes of making and conceiving films?
CBIS: What we tend to forget is that each medium has its own qualities and its own place in the context of representing a topic. We try to use different methods and media depending on their usefulness to portray a topic as complete and from as many perspectives as possible. Film can't express or explain everything but it gives a good sense of place and people's personalities. Sound lets us experience place from another standpoint. And texts can help us putting everything into a greater context or to deconstruct the images we present. It is important to question different methods of representation and using mixed media allows us to bear the construction of these representations in mind.
SV: What are you working on at the moment and what are you planning to do next?
CBIS: We have just started working on a trailer for our next project, which will be an apocalyptic photo essay film. This should keep us busy for a while.
SV: Where can people see your work?
CBIS: We have a blog which we update as regularly as possible. There you can also find a list of upcoming screenings, the next one being Helpyourself Manchester at Victoria Baths on 5 May, as part of the Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair (12-14pm).
Helpyourself Manchester trailer: