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Interview with Annette Westwood, director of This Little Girl

Tuesday 21 June 2022, by Alma, carrie

A mother with a substance misuse issue, has to prove herself on her path to recovery,
to prevent her child from being taken away from her and placed into care. We chat here with director Annette Westwood.

Where did the idea come from? Can you tell us a bit about your relationship or collaboration with Trevi?

THIS LITTLE GIRL was inspired by the amazing work of Trevi, a women’s & children’s charity & their unique residential rehabilitation centre. Their centre is one of the last of its kind in the UK where children can stay and accompany their mother whilst they undergo detox and therapeutic rehabilitation for substance misuse and related issues.

I was deeply moved and inspired by their work, having seen a documentary - I think with myself being a woman, from a working-class background having battled to overcome adversity and hardship in my own life, I felt compelled and passionate about telling a story inspired by the charity’s work.

With the charity’s support and co-operation, I was granted access to Trevi’s Jasmine Mother’s Recovery Centre, and had the opportunity of spending time speaking to resident mums & staff and to see first-hand the extraordinary work taking place. This gave an invaluable insight and understanding to help in the development of the film and to ensure the narrative was authentic and representative. The wonderful collaboration and generosity of spirit of Trevi continued throughout production, including some of the artwork seen in the film being created by the mums and children of Trevi’s rehabilitation services.

How did you choose to tell this story? What did you specifically want to highlight?

THIS LITTLE GIRL follows Jessika, a single mother, on her journey in recovery with her daughter Zia and Jessika’s relationship with Ruby, a fellow mother in recovery at the rehabilitation centre, through which the film looks to explore the complexities of parental substance misuse and drug addiction recovery.

The film offers us the opportunity to question ‘can a mother struggling with drug addiction change?’ Whilst also exploring female relationships and challenging stereotypes of women, people with substance misuse issues and portrayals of British working-class people.

The vision of the film I’d best describe as British social realism with a poetic lens. As the story delves into the depths of exploring addiction, the film’s style evolves to a luridly heightened sense of realism, with surrealist elements, looking to create a thought-provoking and compelling drama.

How did you get your crew together and select your cast?

For This Little Girl I worked alongside my sister Emma as our film’s producer - we both decided very early in development that the film should be shot in our home region of the West Midlands - not only is the location an ideal fit for the film’s narrative but the region also offers a fantastic array of talent. A large number of our crew were from the Midlands and local region, with other team members joining us who we’d collaborated with previously. The team were absolutely amazing, going above and beyond, especially as filming took place during the pandemic.

We were also incredibly lucky to have superb casting director Nikki Meadows on board, who did an outstanding job in helping us find our fantastic cast, including our sensational leading ladies - Shireenah Ingram (Black Girl Magic, Doctors, Amistat: Listen to the Silence), Debra Baker (It’s a Sin, Body of Water, London Road), Madeleine MacMahon (Bruised Sky, Higher Ground, EastEnders) and Lowi Mushonga (Lowi began her acting career by playing Princess Lena’s baby in THE SPANISH PRINCESS Series, she has also been involved in commercial and stills work and all of this at only 23 months old!)

Also, I’d a very clear idea in regards to the music for the film, and we were delighted to welcome on board Composer Falk Wünsch who provided the original score and to feature the music of Michael Clark and Gareth Owen.

What were the main hurdles for the production and shoot?

Certainly the main hurdles for the production and shoot were linked to the impact of Covid-19. There were many obstacles during the pandemic, including a change in filming location, budget adjustments and the extra steps to adhere to Covid-19 guidelines. Luckily, due to the rural location of the shoot and the fantastic efforts of the team and support of BFI NETWORK we were able to navigate our way around the issues as they presented themselves.

How did the BFI Network get involved?

I participated in both the BFI NETWORK Midlands Short Film Writers Lab and Talent Camp whilst in the development stage of the script. I found the BFI NETWORK workshops incredibly insightful, informative and inspiring. When the script was complete, we submitted a funding application for the film to the BFI NETWORK Short Film funding programme.

We were truly honoured to be successful and to receive awarding funds from The National Lottery to make This Little Girl. The support & guidance throughout production given by Midlands BFI NETWORK Talent Executive Alexzandra Jackson and the BFI NETWORK team were truly wonderful!

What is your background in film?

I graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, then worked as a professional actor for a number of years across film, television and theatre, in productions for the BBC, ITV & SMG.

Following my passion for filmmaking, I formed Midlands based film production company Hawkwood Productions, working alongside my sister Emma, and together as the Westwood Sisters we produced our debut short film Whoever You Are… The film won several awards on its festival run, including wins for Best Short, Best Indie Film and Best Inspirational Film at UK & International Film Festivals. The film went on to receive worldwide distribution with American entertainment company IndieFlix, through its global streaming service.

What are your hopes for this short?

I hope, as well being a compelling drama, this film invites opportunity for conversation, greater understanding and change in perception around parental substance misuse and drug addiction.

The sad reality is that in the UK a child is taken into care every 16 minutes, with two thirds of cases linked to parental substance misuse. Research shows that there are clear links between an individual’s own experience of abuse and trauma and drugs and alcohol addiction.

The context of the the Covid-19 pandemic during shooting further highlighted the importance of shining a light on the issues the film explores. The global pandemic greatly contributed to a well-documented rise in addiction issues, and specifically for Trevi’s services, they were running at capacity throughout this time.

Any highlights from the festival circuit?

We were honoured for This Little Girl to have its World Premiere in March at BAFTA Qualifying Underwire Festival 2022, which saw the film nominated in the Best Producing category. Another recent highlight was the film screening at BAFTA Qualifying Flatpack Festival 2022, as part of the BFI NETWORK Talent Camp in BFI NETWORK short films programme.

We are also thrilled that This Little Girl has been officially selected for the inaugural Kingston International Film Festival supported by Patrons BAFTA award-winning director Mike Newell & Academy award-winning actress Dame Vanessa Redgrave with the festival taking place in a few days’ time.

What are your plans for the near future?

Having participated in BFI NETWORK Treatment Lab, being one of the writers to take part, gaining an oversight of the development process of writing a feature film treatment, and having participated in the BFI NETWORK Film Hub Midlands Directors Series, I’m working towards progressing from the short film format to make a feature.

You can find out more about the film on its official website and by checking out @LittleGirlFilm on Twitter.

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