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Cineformation and Birds Eye View invited us to spend an inspiring evening in the charming and self deprecatory company of renowned BBC director, Philippa Lowthorpe, in discussion with her friend and fellow film maker, Anna Farthing for October’s event.
The evening started with a reminder from Birds Eye View that there is still a real imbalance in the film industry between genders, women still being grossly underrepresented.
Fifteen years ago, Philippa Lowthorpe arrived in Bristol after taking a law course at university (which she said she found uninspiring to say the least). She enrolled as a researcher for a BBC TV programme called “Where there’s life” with Dr Miriam Stoppard. Her job consisted mainly in dealing with real people, getting to know them and encouraging them to open up for interviews. She realized how much she enjoyed that aspect of the work and that she felt genuine empathy with these people.
Although she had no training, she decided she wanted to direct her own documentaries. To do so, she set up an independent film company with a female friend. They made some films for “First Tuesday”. She explained, however, that it is only when she joined the BBC that she really learnt how to make films, under the guidance of Peter Symes, her mentor. He taught her, for instance, the importance of having a real personal take on your subject instead of just amassing random material.
For her 1994 BBC documentary entitled “Three salons at the seaside”, she spent a lot of time in Blackpool finding the right hairdressing salons for her film. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/storyville/philippa-lowthorpe.shtml
Casting, she said, was very important. She also spent six weeks building a relationship of trust and friendship with her subjects. It resulted in a marvellously natural and spontaneous film. Moreover “Three Salons” ended up being much more than a fly on the wall take on a dying breed of resilient old ladies, it became a poetic and empathetic look at grief, loss and human dignity.
Philippa explained how her work was the result of much more than observation. It was also about finding imagery that lifts the story to a more universal level ¬— for instance, the close-ups of the ladies’ well cared for if modest boots adding a real poignancy. Similarly the recurrent shots of one old lady’s long white hair, which her late husband loved and which she kept in his memory, provide a poetic and gripping human motif that runs through the film.
To Philippa there are two schools of documentary film-making. The first one does not feature its author and extracts all its meaning from its images. The second one is full of authorial commentary. The former style is sometimes criticised as artificial, but it is the closest to cinema, expressing itself first and foremost through images.
Her filming style and her deep personal involvement with her subjects (which she found in time
emotionally draining) eventually led Philippa away from documentaries and into drama. “The Other Boleyn Girl”, her 2003 BBC film inspired by the novel by Philippa Gregory, offers an original and modern take on the costume drama genre. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Other_Boleyn_Girl_(2003_film)
Having to film it on DV cam, she was inspired to experiment in order to combat “the flatness of video”. Although she criticised her film for being too grainy, the vividness and spontaneity of its camera work as well as the high quality of its performances made it a memorable experience which attracted much critical acclaim.
She told us how the script was devised by her with the actors, who worked on their characters in great depth. They did a lot of improvisation around the story and ended up with an unwritten yet structured script which was then filmed. This method left a lot of space for the actors’ creativity and allowed Philippa to explore raw emotions. She told us she chose her actors with great care and also tended to work with the same trusted film crew.
Filming on a low budget, she said, keeps you focussed and encourages you to strip things to the bare essentials. “It all ends up relying on strong storytelling and performances.” The story of “The Other Boleyn Girl” was one of the few strong ones, she said, that are about women. Another TV drama of hers, “Sex, the city and me” (2007), similarly explored powerful universal themes, such as bigotry, through the story of a woman.
Philippa concluded the talk on a hopeful note by saying that things are looking up for women in film. There are more and more female directors.
Although she said that motherhood has helped her feel even more deeply for her subjects, the biggest difficulty to her remains trying to be both a successful director and a mother. It demands making choices and working on logistics. For instance, she favours projects that do not take her far from home. She also has ended up not making many films, finding it easier to do more writing and developing. Her current project is a harrowing drama about the five women murdered by a serial killer in Ipswich in 2006. Despite the upsetting subject matter, we are very much looking forward to seeing Philippa’s sensitive rendition of the story when it reaches our screens.
Véronique Martin – firstname.lastname@example.org – email@example.com
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