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Q&A with Zillah Bowes, director of STAYING - EFN AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER

Thursday 10 June 2021, by Abla Kandalaft

Zillah Bowes is a Welsh/English writer, director and photographer. She trained at the NFTS and has made films as a director and cinematographer, which have been shown worldwide. She won a John Brabourne Award from the Film and TV Charity in 2020. Her debut SMALL PROTESTS was nominated for a Grierson Award and won the Current Short Cuts Vimeo Award and Best Short Documentary at the London Independent Film Festival. As a cinematographer, her feature films include ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. Zillah won the Audience Award at the Spring edition of Emerging Filmmakers Night for her film Staying (Aros Mae).

1. Where did the idea for STAYING (AROS MAE) come from? Could you shed some light on your choice of title?

Just before I wrote STAYING, I was artist-in-residence in a remote area of Mid Wales near Rhayader. I’d begun to know my neighbours, a community of hill farmers whose lives were changing due to Brexit, economic uncertainty and climate crisis. Some had encouraged me to photograph them, which I’d started to do, extending my time there. I set STAYING in this community as a fictional story, aiming to represent them as faithfully as possible.

A few years before, I’d seen a video by a farmer selling his dog – it brought me to the moment he’d taken it, his breath misting in the valley. Since then, I’d wanted to use this image. So it became the starting point: a city woman sees a video of a dog for sale and travels on a whim to find it, fleeing pain in her life. ’The title comes from the song in the film by Welsh folk band Ffynnon, ‘Aros Mae’, translated as ‘Staying’, a 19th century poem. In the poem, mountains stay as people come and go but it also describes our connection to the land, which Ruth re-discovers, not wanting to leave it as well as the farmer Huw.’

2. You’re both the writer and director of the film. Would you like to reproduce the experience or would you like to focus on one of these roles in the future?

I’m not sure exactly what the future will bring but for now writing and directing works for me. For this project, based with real people in a real community, it helped to be the writer and the director as I could be flexible with action and dialogue. I’m also open to future collaborations with writers and other filmmakers.

3. Can you tell us a bit more about the casting process?

As I was based in the community, I cast supporting actors early on. Steve Lewis, a hill farmer skilled with dogs, committed from the start and we filmed on his farm with his animals including our star sheepdog Mick, as well as shepherds from neighbouring farms. I cast a local farmer and his wife, Stella and Kerena Pugh, as Huw and Megan, along with members of the wider community. Only the main character Ruth was played by an actor, Lisa Jên Brown, who was very supportive. I wanted to create naturalness in the performances, aided by the cast being familiar with the world and the flexibility of cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

4. How did Sixteen Films get on board as producers?

I’d applied for development funding and was lucky to be awarded it. I then approached producer Jack Thomas-O’Brien at Sixteen Films, as I wanted to work with a company experienced in portraying real-life communities sensitively in fiction. Jack had worked on Ken Loach’s films and really understood what I was trying to do. As well as the script, I shared images from my photography project, and he connected with the story, community and place. Then together we received production funding from the same funders: Ffilm Cymru Wales/BFI NETWORK Wales and BBC Cymru Wales.

5. The film has had a pretty impressive festival journey. How was your experience of the circuit? Did you work with a distributor?

Everything has been online so far, which has been a good experience as festivals have made it accessible for audiences. But I haven’t seen the film in a cinema with a public audience yet, so the journey feels incomplete in a way. I also haven’t done a Q&A in real life! We’ll have our first live cinema audience at Palm Springs which is great, although I won’t be there. It was fun giving my acceptance speech at Premiers Plans from my lounge, where we shot some of the film! We haven’t worked with a distributor, so I’ve learnt a lot about the current landscape.

6. Could you tell us a bit more about your background as a filmmaker and what drove you to write and direct films?

I studied cinematography at the NFTS and worked for several years as a cinematographer on fiction and docs, and ended up directing as well as shooting docs, which I loved. I studied doc directing on a course at the NFTS and made my short SMALL PROTESTS. I’d always been drawn to writing and directing fiction, and was most interested in working with mood, tone and emotion in images, as well as my own imagination. So I started to explore screenwriting and acting when I wasn’t making docs, which I now see contributed a lot to my development. I’m happy to have been on this journey to becoming a writer/director, as so much is really useful.

7. What are your main cinematic influences?

I watch a lot of different things but there are filmmakers who inspired me early on, whose work I come back to. Lynne Ramsay and Thomas Vintenberg made a big impact. Masters like Bresson, Tarkovsky and Fellini. Pawel Pawlikowski has always inspired me, including his early docs. Lots of female filmmakers: Jane Campion, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Andea Arnold. The colour and imagery of Wong Kar Wai. I also love Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s work, which he often shoots and directs.

8. How has the last year impacted your work, given the recurrent lockdowns?

Some things have been tricky – I’ve been delayed researching my fiction feature, which I’m planning to start soon. I was lucky we’d finished most of STAYING and have been able to screen at festivals online. We had to cancel a mobile cinema we’d organised to screen to the community in the film but are aiming to do so when we can. In other ways I’ve been quite productive: I’ve spent a bit more time on my photography and also made a lockdown film!

9. Could you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I’ve a new short coming out soon – my lockdown film ALLOWED. It’s already been selected to show at some great festivals that I can’t announce yet! I made it using my 35mm photo series, which won some awards. It’s an animated film about wild urban growth - weeds basically! Sort of a poetic eco short. I’ve just found out it’s been shortlisted for a visual art prize, which is exciting.

10. What would be your top 5 recommendations of films to watch from the past year?

I loved Ammonite by Francis Lee, Nomadland by Chloe Zhao, The 40-Year-Old Version by Radha Blank, Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman and Saint Maud by Rose Glass. There are many more I’m waiting to see in the cinema soon!

STAYING (AROS MAE) won the Grand Jury Prize at Premiers Plans Angers Film Festival and the Audience Favourite Award at EFN Film Festival Spring Edition. Its festival run includes the upcoming Palm Springs International ShortFest, where it is showing in competition, and Cork International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Prix International Short.

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