Insights: Edward Lawrenson on Collaborating on Uppland


Filmmaker, writer and lecturer Edward Lawrenson writes for us about Uppland, a film made in partnership with Killian Doherty funded through our Border Crossings initiative, and offers his advice for those looking to get involved (and get funded). Border Crossings is back for 2018, with £7500 in funding available for academic-filmmaker research story collaborations. Applications are due by May 23rd.

About three years ago I took part in a pitching session convened under the name Border Crossings by Open City Documentary Festival and UCL. I was there as a filmmaker, but I wasn’t the one doing the pitching. Instead, in a featureless seminar room in the warren-like depths of UCL, I’d joined a handful of other filmmakers to listen to some UCL academics, each of whom were presenting research they were working on.

The idea was that this research would form the basis for documentary collaboration between individual academics and filmmakers. In meetings lasting not more than a few minutes (a time limit strictly policed by the shrill alarm of an iPhone) I met about half a dozen PhD students and lecturers. We’d speak, the bell would ring, then it’d be on to another researcher.

This was how I encountered Killian Doherty, an Irish architect and PhD candidate at the Bartlett. We were the happy recipients of the development funding that Border Crossings offered as a prize to its participants in a later pitching session. We had developed a proposal to make a film about a mining town called Yekepa in Liberia, and the money we were awarded funded our trip to West Africa. The footage we shot there formed the basis of a short essay film called Uppland, which, having premiered this March in the official shorts competition at Cinéma du réel festival in Paris, will play further festivals throughout the year.

Border Crossings is back (with a boosted award of £5000 for the winning team, and £2500 for a runner up), so Open City have asked me to offer some thoughts on my experience. In the spirit of brevity that marked those initial encounters, I offer three tips to anyone thinking about attending this year’s session:

1) Be open and flexible during and after the initial pitching session. Killian had come to Border Crossings with the notion of finding a filmmaker to collaborate on a project about his Phd field research in Rwanda. I wasn’t so sure there was documentary potential there, nor was I keen about filming overseas. But then Killian saw a film I’d made about a town where I grew up in east Scotland, built in the 1950s to accommodate workers at a nearby mine. It made him think of Yekepa, the mining town in Liberia (which he’d visited a couple of times in the past few years), and he got in touch, suggesting we develop a proposal to film there. In this earlier film of mine Killian recognised an interest in a particular type of ‘new town’ architecture that had so fascinated him about Yekepa – and we proceeded on that basis.

2) Collaboration is key. I suspect some filmmakers may think of Border Crossings as an opportunity to fish for ideas – and that it’s his or her job to ‘translate’ into filmic form pre-existing research work. That certainly wasn’t the experience of Killian or myself, and I’m not sure you’d get the most from the initiative if you approach it this way. From the beginning Uppland was a joint venture between us both, and we shared equal responsibility for shaping the project, especially at conceptual level. Our discussions about what Yekepa represented, informed by Killian’s broader research interests, determined much of what we filmed while in Liberia, and these discussions continued and deepened during the long process of editing the film. We also drew on current academic debate around architecture and development – notably from feedback received at several work-in-progress screenings with architects and scholars in Dublin, Chicago and Portland.

3) The fund is for development. If you are lucky enough to be awarded the fund, know that it is intended to support development, not production. It’s a rare opportunity to follow a hunch, test out ideas, produce a proof of concept without the requirements that are attached to production funding. So if you do pitch with a project, be realistic about what you can achieve. This last piece of advice, however, was one that we ignored: the footage we shot on that initial research trip formed the bulk of what was to be Uppland (with some added material shot in Sweden, supported by the Irish Arts Council). What can I say? We really wanted to make the film…