‘John’ dir. Jessica Bishopp
John was born in 1937 in South London, he has witnessed the city’s many changing faces first hand. ‘John’ whilst relevant to the current housing crisis, highlighting the issue of families being split up through rising house prices and the need for council housing, is a nostalgic short documentary film that tells John’s personal and local story.
Director-Producer: Jessica Bishopp
FlyCam Operator: Will Hazell
Sound Design & Music: Hannes Wannerberger
C8: Where did you come across John and why did you want to make a documentary about him?
JB: I was working on a community project with a housing association in Bermondsey. The aim of the project was to connect the established community with new residents moving into the area through gentrification, and also connect younger and older generations to the community in which they live, exploring the concept of home. I got to know the local history group and made a short documentary film, ‘Leathermarket’, featuring personal stories of local history (www.jessicabishopp.com/Leathermarket). Through this project I met John, he was a part of the local history film and then I realised he had so much to say and has such a wonderful character that I wanted to make a short film just about him. So much of the local history is lost through forms of unnatural gentrification, John and his family have been living in Bermondsey for generations and I wanted people to stop for a moment and think about what might have gone before in the community they’ve just moved into. John’s film also has a slight political message to do with the housing crisis and as a result of this it was screened as part of FOURWALLS London at the 12th London Short Film Festival (www.fourwalls.london/news/the-shortlisted-films).
C8: How did you approach telling John’s story visually?
JB: There were several different visual elements to the film; archive footage, John’s tour around Bermondsey, and the gliding slow motion footage of Bermondsey. A personal yet informative exploration, leaving the audience with the essence of John’s personal character but placed within the wider context of London and gentrification was what I wanted to achieve. The estates around Bermondsey have always interested me visually and so it was a great opportunity to wander around with a camera and film cutaways of a mixture of 1930s and 1960s architecture. I saw how a diverse community occupy this space and live in such a densely populated area. Many of these estates have been labelled and perceived negatively in the media but people who moved into them in the 1930s-1960s thought they were wonderful and still do.
C8: What was the most technically challenging aspect of the shoot and how did you overcome it?
JB: The tracking shots of the local area are very low-fi and were probably the hardest to get. They consist of a talented and well-balanced camera operator, precariously riding a bike whilst holding a flycam. The best part was the creation of our make shift monitor, we duct taped his phone to his shoulder and then set up a video call so that I could see where he was going and what he was filming and direct him!
C8: What equipment did you use for the shoot and what was the reasoning behind this choice?
JB: I was really interested in gliding through the streets of Bermondsey to give a nostalgic feel to the film; I wanted a first person point of view and so using the flycam attached to a bike worked well. The bike also allowed more flexibility and mobility than a car round the estates and narrow alleys in Bermondsey. The pace and energy of the film was important so I opted for a flycam over a static camera, also to enhance the feel that John is taking us on a tour down memory lane.
C8: You used archive footage from sources such as the BBC and BFI. Can you talk us through the process involved in accessing and then using footage like this for documentary shorts?
JB: The process is relatively long and expensive. I pitched my ‘Leathermarket’ project and film to funders and had a budget for archive footage. I love archive footage, but there needs to be an easier way to access it, it is full of treasures but takes time to look through and then time to license. I would ask for organisations to open up their archives and give the public easier access.
C8: If you could go back and change anything about the film what would it be?
JB: As a whole no. However most films I make, when I re-watch them I always notice little things that I would love to change or that nag at me. I would make it longer perhaps…
C8: You also edited the film. Were there any scenes that you found difficult to cut or anything you didn’t include?
JB: There are loads of scenes and clips that I would have loved to include but that didn’t make the cut. I spent a couple of hours with John wandering around Bermondsey, he told me endless stories about the ‘goings on’ in the local pubs and the docks around the 1950s-70s. Bermondsey like a lot of areas in London in those days was run by particular families and gangs, nothing like the gangs you have now. The gangs in the 1950s-70s were brutal, but they kept to themselves and sometimes even acted as protection or like police for the residents so they appeared to live in harmony with the locals to a certain extent and did more than the police ever did for that area, and each family owned a pub or betting shop. John worked in the local pub when he was a teenager and one day there was a police raid, there was chaos and the police were looking for something. After everyone had left the landlady asked John where the dog was, she was incredibly alarmed to find him eating his dinner. It turns out she had hidden the stolen jewels in the dog food and the dog had eaten them!
C8: What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers who are also editors of their own work?
JB: Be open to constructive criticism and feedback. You are completely embedded in your project and know every second of it. Therefore it is important to get other opinions on your work in order to see the bigger picture. If you have the time, it can be helpful to take a break from editing after you have a rough cut, leave it for a few days or a week and then go back to it. Ask people what impression they get from the film, perhaps it is the impression you intended and perhaps not. Have a clear idea of what you want the film to be, but allowing others to feedback is all part of the process.
C8: What’s next for you? Any exciting projects lined up?
JB: I am focusing on some commercial short films at the moment. I’ve just finished a short documentary film commissioned by Short Sighted Cinema and Talkies Community Cinema so I am looking to distribute and submit to festivals (www.shortsightedcinema.com/articles/here-film-festival-the-commissions-qa). I’ve just made contact with an organisation in Ethiopia so hopefully something exciting might happen there and I will develop a project with them!
C8: Where would you like to see yourself in five years time?
JB: I have a few ideas; directing more films (perhaps a feature?), having a solo exhibition of my films and work, setting up a self sufficient project that benefits young people through creativity. But I am also intrigued in the process and adaptation, so lets see what happens.