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Documenting the city
2 of 2
Documenting the city
Tom Garner and John English have spent the last few years in Barcelona making films that matter. In 2014, things are getting even better for their production company, OTOXO Productions. They’ve started a new internship programme for budding filmmakers and have several productions underway, one of which explores the daily lives of chatarristas—scrap merchants. I had the opportunity to talk with Tom Garner about the challenges of breaking into the market of social documentary filmmaking in Spain.
“I’m originally from Malvern, a town in the West Midlands near the Welsh border. I came to Barcelona by pure chance just over eight years ago for a month, but ended up staying for longer. I remember when I first arrived I looked in my dictionary to learn how to say hello. When I went up to the info desk and said “buenas tardes,” the lady smiled at me and said, “hola.” I was totally clueless. But I fell in love with the city and things worked out for me and so, here I am. John English is the other co-founder. We became friends when a mutual friend put us in contact.
One day, we were sitting around having drinks (at that point we had both finished our studies and were teaching English in Barcelona) discussing a different career path. But we weren’t too excited about any of them. John had always been talking about making documentaries and so, with his background in social research and mine in art direction and the moving image, we decided to give it a go. Our first film was called Me, Migrant. It was about the fragmented identities of four migrants in Barcelona. We didn’t have much experience and technique: we did it with handycams. The only preparation we had was reading about documentaries
and watching a whole lot of them. Nonetheless, we finished it. It took us six months and right away we got addicted to making films of this type. We were very proud. We did a big screening and moved on from there. We were not the best in the beginning but we knew we were going to get better. We wrote letters to directors of films we liked asking for advice and we even found some here in Barcelona to teach us some stuff.”
What is one of your high points?
After Me, Migrant, we invested all our money into equipment and made La Lliga, a film about a football league for the most vulnerable of people in the area of the Raval. It was bought from us by TV3. That was a huge moment.
And your lowest?
One of our lowest points was getting all our equipment stolen. There was also the time when we pitched an idea to a local TV channel. We worked on a proposal and found a slot that suited our level of filmmaking. We even did a trailer to show them but then we find out soon after that the programme had been cancelled.
What is some advice you could give young documentary filmmakers?
To plan things out carefully, to choose the world they want to examine and to make sure they have an engaging, idiosyncratic character. Many budding documentary filmmakers just decide they want to make a film, pick a general subject and start filming. Get to know your subjects, reflect on your ideas, and write a treatment. Make sure you know what you want your film to look like, the scenes, themes and subjects. Only when you know what you want to get out of it, start the production phase. I love the challenge of building a connection with people. For some, the trust comes naturally; for others, you need two or three encounters. In my opinion, it’s all about being honest. As a production company we are focussed on positive stories and inspiring characters. We don’t do exposé type stories. We always go with an open heart, and a good conscience of what our intentions are because we want to show their humility in difficult times.
What was your inspiration for making a film about scrap and rubbish collectors?
The idea for Throwing It All Away came from a previous documentary we made about a knife sharpener called Manuel, also known as El Alfilador. We spent a lot of time with Manuel as he walked around looking to make a few quid by sharpening knives (by hand or with his old creaky motorbike’s engine connected to a belt and cutting stone). We realised that the problem with waste was something we both felt very passionate about. We saw how Manuel looks after things and gives rubbish new life. That inspired us so we started working on a film about chatarristas, the scrap merchants who, as we saw it, have great relevance, especially with the economy as it is. We wanted to know how many in the city were surviving by making a living selling waste. The chatarristas are people who are in no position of getting legal employment, no money to go back home. But what they’re doing is effectively cleaning up our city and turning our waste into a resource.
What opportunities came after receiving your first few awards?
We had the chance to work on other bigger productions, but we didn’t want to. We wanted to make our own low budget, social documentaries, but of course, during such times, we lost plenty of funding. It also didn’t help that three documentary channels in Spain disappeared, leaving only one. We then started thinking about how we could finance our films and realised that we were self-taught so perhaps we could teach, do workshops, or take on students. This idea was great because we were always getting a huge amount of requests for internships, placements, applications, after we started winning awards, of course.
We developed the Industry Program which consists of six months of professional training for young filmmakers who take part in the production of OTOXO’s next films. Some pay all out and see it as education, others fundraise the entire fee which pays for training and film production. For example, we currently have 10 fundraisers trying to raise money for 10 productions. We’re trying to produce independent filmmakers, as they get training not only in production, editing and direction, but in the business side. This is a new way of making filmmakers as well as building strong working relationships. All the films are then submitted to documentary programmes around the world. The filmmakers get a co-direction credit and real professional experience on their CVs. We want people to avoid those pitfalls that we fell into. We know the mistakes as we made many.
We are currently making a film about ADAMA, an organisation that provides alternative therapy for marginalised and socially vulnerable people. We are in post-production and hopefully we’ll submit it in the summer to awards programmes. Then there’s Voices, Faces, City Spaces which we have published on www.bcnmes.com. There are also 10 participants focussing on an exciting social project with Coop Mercat, a cooperative which sources local ecological products from local producers, and who also provide employment for people with severe learning disabilities.
What do you want people to get out of your films?
We want to raise awareness of the social issues that surround us. For example, with Throwing It All Away, we want people to be aware that the chatarristas are working hard and doing something positive which we should all be grateful for. There’s a good amount of open minded people in the city who share the same opinion, but there are still plenty who see them as illegal, homeless people doing dirty work, and to whom we should give a wide berth. We also want people to be aware of the waste they’re producing and to give whatever they throw out love, attention and greater appreciation. On a human level, for the people of Barcelona to look at those who are turning waste into resources a little differently and to see them as positive and necessary members of society.
To follow the journey of Throwing It All Away and many other films you can follow OTOXO on Facebook (facebook.com/pages/Todo-a-la-basura/443048219156367) and Twitter (twitter.com/Todoalabasura)
If you would like to support or sponsor Throwing It All Away or other OTOXO productions, head to www.otoxoproductions.com and make a donation. Businesses can also contribute and have their company’s logo featured at the start of the film. The donations will go towards production and post-production needs such as, equipment, access to specific locations, food and travel expenses. Garner and English have developed a programme to train young filmmakers.