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Q&A with Mark Chapman, dir. of Camrex at Clermont 2016

Sunday 14 February 2016, by Abla Kandalaft

We met up with Mark Chapman, whose film Carmex is screening at this year’s Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival, as part of the Lab selection.

Camrex is a cinematic and photographic project exploring the stories of residents at the notorious Camrex House hostel in Sunderland.

You were working on a drama in the area, when the idea to film Camrex came about. What sparked your interest ?

I was casting a feature drama and as part of this process, I met up with an ex-drug-dealer in a pool hall in Stockton. He mentioned that after leaving prison he lived at Camrex House for 2 weeks. I reported back to the production team and we went out and visited the hostel. After production on the feature was completed, I returned to the hostel eager to explore the characters and stories as a photography project. However, I soon found that there were certain images, stories and atmospheres I couldn’t capture in the photos and moving image offered me that possibility, so it naturally developed into a film. I didn’t want it to just be an unrelentingly grim piece about desperate people in a desperate place. It would be easy to produce an exploitative film in that environment and you see that kind of work a lot these days on British TV. I wanted to make something that used the expressive tools of cinema to craft an intimate, visually-led and atmospheric film. Though I was working with real stories, the film is almost entirely constructed. Based on a series of interviews, scenes were written and performed with the residents playing versions of themselves.

What was your intention with the film?

The intention was to make a strong 15-minute film. For me, the film exists in the space between the sedate routine of the hostel and the extraordinary, fierce emotions expressed by the residents. I see the film and set of stills as one project and at some point I hope to show them together. However, I didn’t want the first screenings to be in a gallery, where an audience is perhaps less engaged and people tend to think spending 5 minutes with a work is enough. Film festivals are a great platform to screen the work and the cinema space allows for a different kind of contract between filmmaker and audience.

Where will it go next?

Clermont-Ferrand is the film’s international premiere, and its next UK screening is at Glasgow Short Film Festival next month. There are other things planned, but nothing that can be announced yet!

What’s your background in film ?

I studied film production at art college, and because it was a small place many disciplines had a chance to mix. For example, it’s there that I took up photography. I worked freelance in the industry after that on all kinds of projects - mostly forgettable! In my late 20s I went back into education and completed a theoretical MA in International Film at Newcastle University. This turned out to be the best thing for my practice, as it allowed me to conceptualise and communicate cinematic ideas in a more sophisticated way. I then started to explore non-fiction stories and my first documentary got me into the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2010. Shortly after, I started working with Third Films, a production company based in the North East, on features and installations. I’m currently doing a practice-based PhD looking at art methods in the documentary film at Northumbria University, where I also teach.

Do you differentiate between non-fiction and fiction in your work?

I don’t draw a line. There’s no natural separation and I think the most interesting cinema is that which combines the two. You find this trend particularly in Austrian cinema, such as the films of Ulrich Seidl and Michael Glawogger. In documentary, there is an ethical dimension to every image and sound you use. By blurring the line between documentary and fiction an audience has to engage with their own moral compass throughout, so you create a more ethical cinema. This can be pleasingly uncomfortable for the audience.

Are there any filmmakers in the UK that have inspired you in your work?

When I was at art school I loved Lynne Ramsay’s shorts. A lot of their energy and authenticity comes from using non-actors. Three recent UK films I regularly return to are THE ARBOR by Clio Barnard, SLEEP FURIOUSLY by Gideon Koppel and UNDER THE SKIN by Jonathan Glazer.

What is your particular interest in non-fiction?

What I’m interested in is using real stories and exploring the interior world of the characters. This is something that is easy to do in straight drama, but rare in non-fiction. When people think of documentary, they tend to think of films that are observational and educational. I hope we’re starting to move on from that.

Any ideas in the pipeline or anything you’re working on?

I’m very intrigued by the Polish landscape, so the next film might be set there. I’ve also got a number of long-term photography projects that I’m always quietly working on.

Can you tell us a bit more about the logistics of it, funding and putting the crew together?

I couldn’t take a lot of crew into the small hostel rooms as it would compromise the intimacy of the images. That was the primary thing for me. So throughout production it was just me and a sound recordist. They had to be robust enough to deal with the environment, because it is as oppressive as you see on the screen. In terms of budget, there was some money from the University for post-production, and I was very thankful to them for that.

Any coups-de-coeur at Clermont and on the rest of the festival circuit?

The standard in the Lab competition here at Clermont is fantastic. The first two films that come to mind both experiments in non-fiction storytelling: Alon Sahar’s GELEM, which is a reconstruction of a suicide of an Israeli soldier and Nick Jordan’s Iceland-set THE ATOM STATION.

CAMREX’s sister photographic project can be found here: mark-chapman.co.uk/three/

Find out more about Mark Chapman and Camrex at the Brasserie or get in touch with us for any additional questions and comments.

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