Our Civic Lives
Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy talk to Dan Prichard about their body of work, their continuing commitment to the community and their future plans.
A leisure centre in Dublin, a public park in Enfield, the bridges of the Tyne, a town hall in Manchester – over the past seven years all of these have served as the backdrops for Civic Life, a series of large scale community moving image projects involving hundreds of community volunteers under the direction of UK-based Irish artists and filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (aka desperateoptimists). The resulting nine short films, largely shot in one take on 35 mm cinemascope, have been acclaimed not only for their extraordinary visual quality but for the depth of commitment the artists have demonstrated to the communities with which they work and who are the stars of the films which result. Their acclaimed debut feature film, Helen, premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2008 where it was nominated for a prestigious Michael Powell Award, and led to their being hailed by critics as stars to watch for in the future.
How did the Civic Life films, and their particular process, come about?
CHRISTINE: It’s been very much an artistic journey for us, an evolution through which we’ve arrived at this body of work. We have been collaborating on community arts projects using different forms of creativity – theatre, photography, writing – since the mid 80s so and a lot of our initial work was based around working with different kinds of groups such as elderly people or young people, to explore issues which were important to them. The form wasn’t so important as much as the activity, the process of engaging and collaborating with the community. Alongside that, we have always had a deep love of cinema and this has increasingly informed our work, leading us to adopt this form as the medium in which we were most interested in working.
Why motivates you to work in this way?
CHRISTINE: We feel strongly that culture can play an important role in developing a cohesive sense of community identity and if you don’t have cultural work going on, then it makes for a very fractured and discordant existence – your locality just becomes a place you eat and sleep or work in rather than a place to LIVE in as such. So we are very much focussed on exploring the relationship between people and the environments they find themselves in. All of the locations we use are not private locations, but rather civic spaces (parks, streets, markets) – the very public places that people converge, and it’s the idea of how people interact with each other within these spaces that so interests us as artist, but also as a means by which to foster a sense of community identity.
What is the process that lies behind each of the films?
JOE: Cultural organisations invite us to come in and work with them and the local residents and neighbourhoods on celebrating and exploring the richness and diversity of that particular community. Quite often these are communities in the process of change, either through immigration or as a result of regeneration and so part of the motivation for these projects is to capture this moment of transition. We then begin a series of consultations with the communities, asking them to join us in sharing their emotional responses to the space we are exploring.
But the films are not documentaries?
JOE: No, they aren’t. They are very elegant, lyrical pieces of work, more emotional and reflective rather than issue led, real life documentaries and we shoot them on 35mm cinemascope to give them this beautiful visual existence, unashamedly glamorous really, to enable the community to see their civic spaces in a way they have never been captured before. In our consultations, it’s not a question of asking people what they want the film to be about but to find out about HOW they feel about the area in which they live. These conversations are a key component of the work and an essential tenet of our engagement with the residents. From this we draw out a storyline which we then set about filming, with the cast made up entirely of members of the community. We then shoot the film and screen them in a big social event in the community, to which all of the community is invited and we are unapologetic about the glamour we want that event to have. It’s chance for the community to see themselves up there on the silver screen.
How do people get involved in the projects? And what’s the level of their involvement?
CHRISTINE: What makes the project accessible is that we don’t demand too much time – the films are generally shot in one day, in one take. If you say to people it’s going to demand a week of your time, most people wouldn’t be able to join, so we have to make the entry points easy and so we often have the structure where some people come in for lunch and we talk through what we are aiming to do, we rehearse between two and four and film from four to six, so its super quick. But we work in the weeks and months leading up to that, knocking on doors, and having community meetings and trying to convince people and to reach out to people who may want to get involved. Some people just turn up on the day and they’re in but if people who want to be more active in the film, if they want to do a particular action or movement or want to talk they will have to work longer with us, a little bit longer just because we want everyone to look good and sound strong. We have found that across the films people have been incredibly generous with their time.
What problems do you face?
CHRISTINE: Inevitably and rightly so there is a hesitancy, a scepticism. We have to show our work, we have to show how and why we have rendered this community and slowly people begin to realise what we are trying to achieve, that what we are trying to do is to celebrate the civic life of the area. So for the film Leisure Centre, for example, we went in at the request of an organisation called Breaking Ground, set up in Dublin as part of a regeneration programme, to work in area called Ballymun – which as it happens is very close to where both of us grew up. Now this area was a very economically deprived area and had constantly been represented in the media for its problems: its high levels of crime, its drug problems, its poor housing and so forth, so the community was very wary when we first approached them for the consultation. We had to convince them that our intention was never to focus on the bad areas, but on the new sense of hope this regeneration was engendering and we eventually filmed in the new leisure centre a piece that was very much about looking forward to what their lives were going to be like as a community. But a lot of people, you know, can’t get involved, they’re either too busy, or too shy or sceptical, so they come along to the screening and are convinced by that and maybe they’ll say, hey maybe I SHOULD have gotten involved or I’m glad to see we look good for once.
Your debut feature Helen carries into the long form your trademark techniques of working with non-professional actors and long takes. Will you continue to work this way as your career develops further?
JOE: In our next feature film we will begin to break down the approach we have to both working exclusively with non professional actors and the long take itself. Whilst they are of great interest to us we want to continue exploring new possibilities. Our next feature film is called Mister John and will be set in Thailand. In some ways the themes to this film have much in common with Helen but we want to be even more adventurous in our handling of the material both in formal and content terms.
You have chosen the Tiong Bahru heritage estate and hawker centre as the location for the 10th Civic Life film. Why?
JOE: We’re always on the look out for interesting civic spaces that lend themselves cinematically. It’s that combination of an architectural setting that will look good under the glare of a camera, AND a space that is genuinely a site of multiple and meaningful civic interactions, that we search out for every Civic Life project. When we came to Singapore in January (2009) we considered a number of places as prospective locations but when we were brought to Tiong Bahru we were, firstly, hugely impressed by the unique art deco buildings of the estate, and then, when we were taken up the escalators to the hawker centre, completely blown away by what we saw: it’s an archetype, a classic civic space, one that has, because of how the architects have thought carefully about the space, a sense of openness, light and togetherness.
It is also, something you may not know, a civic space quite unlike any we have in the UK or in Europe. These are such amazing spaces, utterly unique to Singapore and I think, in particular audiences internationally would find this kind of civic space compelling and inspiring, while at the same time presenting another side of Singapore that I think would surprise everyone. And both the estate and its hawker centre will look amazing on camera!
What have you managed to learn about Tiong Bahru so far?
JOE: In the various conversations we have had so far we have noticed that people in general, and local residents in specific, are not ambivalent about Tiong Bahru. The estate generates strong reactions and it certainly touches on the memories of a far wider section of Singaporean society than just the residents who now live there. Clearly this has something to do with the fact it occupies a unique historic and architectural position in Singapore but there is obviously more to it than that. Again this makes us feel Tiong Bahru is an intriguing locale. There are many contradictions here in Tiong Bahru and it feels very much alive.
It certainly is going to be fascinating to explore these contradictions and we would invite everyone who has ideas, thoughts, images and reflections to share these with us. We would love it for as many people as possible to join this conversation as it will make for an all the more richer dialogue which will mean a more resonant, powerful work at the end of it. We are going to be updating you on the conversations we have and the development of our thinking through the website, too (See: The Making of Tiong Bahru blog.)
And after Civic Life: Tiong Bahru what is next?
CHRISTINE: We are in the final stages of scripting and putting together the funding for our second feature, Mister John, which we are aiming to shoot in Thailand later this year. A second feature is always a major challenge for filmmakers, so we have been very careful to only go ahead with this when we are 100% satisfied with the script and what we want to say. So, we are planning to shoot in late summer, after shooting Tiong Bahru in June, and we will be back in Singapore for the premiere of Civic Life in October. So, it’s going to be an interesting year for us!