You’ve been working with film for over thirty years – what first drove you to become a filmmaker?
I was managing a band who weren’t very interesting on stage, so I decided that what they needed was some lighting and projections. I realised I liked the filmmaking aspect, so I made some films and showed them at gigs in between bands. That led to me getting interest from a record company to make a promo, which then led to me running a production company in Northampton, making music videos for MTV. I had always wanted to study film at university, so I submitted my professional work and did a masters in screenwriting.
Where did the idea for Threshold Studios come from?
I got a script optioned, so I had some money in the bank and some spare time. It started out as a networking base for Northamptonshire-based filmmakers to share resources and get projects off the ground. But in that first year we got commissioned to make a film for Central Television, and we began working on art installations all over Europe.
We also started to build a reputation, particularly for moving image art – that’s one of my specialisms. So here we are, eighteen years down the line, we’ve had stuff on TV – Sky, BBC, Channel 4 – and we’ve made international contacts.
Eighteen years. It must be an enjoyable job...
When I helped set it up, I thought it would be something that I volunteered at one day a week for a year or so. But within a year, we had so much success my business partner and I decided we would make it a company rather than just a drop-in centre for volunteers. So we started focusing on helping people to raise budgets for short films and working with artists to make moving-image films.
We were fulfilling things we’d always wanted to do through Threshold – I thought it would be a sideline thing, but it actually became the main thing. One of the founding members has just secured a residency in London and we’re talking about commissioning him for new work. His story has gone full circle – from being a beginner, he’s now an established artist with an international reputation. Watching those journeys is important to us.
How did Threshold Studios first get involved with the communities in Cuba?
I was working with the British Council alongside a company called First Light in England to train young people to become the next generation of filmmakers. We were asked if we would be interested in taking that work to a community in Cuba so we began working with them and a sister organisation in Bath.
We had a system of training third-year film students at university to support the community leaders, and teach them how to train young people in filmmaking. So in 2013, we set up six production hubs across Cuba, leaving equipment they may need – sound equipment, cameras, editing equipment – plus our support network. In 2014 we went back to give them masterclasses in editing and collect some of the work they had made.
We’re now working together to create an exhibition at the New Art Exchange. Some of the guys that have supplied films to us live in the mountains in Cuba and barely have electricity. A lot of them are gifted amateurs, not professional filmmakers, but now they’re making films about their way of life and they want to share their stories with us. And we want to give people in Nottingham the chance to send something back.
And you have some special guests visiting Nottingham soon…
We’ve got two filmmakers coming over from Cuba for the exhibition and to work with communities here and take some films back. Two we’re working with – Yadi and Lily – are graduate film students from the university in Havana who now work in television. They will be leading the workshops and they’ll make films about life in Nottingham and then go home to show them to those six different communities we worked with.
We’ve got our governments talking to each other, we’ve got businesses talking to each other, but this project allows people to talk to each other without all the mechanisms of the state being involved.
Is that the reason you believe this exhibition will help amplify the voices of Cuban artists?
Yes. When we first went there, Yadi told me that she wanted to make documentaries. I said “When you come to Europe, let us know and we’ll put you in touch with people.” She laughed, and said “Oh, that could never happen, that would be impossible.” It’s building that bridge and making impossible happen.
We’re seeing massive social change happening in Cuba, the barriers have come down and the trade embargos have stopped. It’s all going to change for them and we want to be with them on that journey. We don’t want to see the official government films about Cuba, we want to hear directly from the Cuban people and learn what’s important for them.
What can we expect from their work when it arrives in Nottingham?
We’ve already collected quite a lot of their material. Yadi and Lily are currently making a film about young people in Havana. And then there are our own observations, the films and photographs we have collected that we feel help to explain the different stories coming out of their culture. Identity is a big thing in this first instalment of our exhibition.
There’s the pre-revolutionary and the revolutionary socialist narrative, but also the young people who are worried about the future of Cuba, when the internet opens up the world to them, and how they will maintain their sense of self in the face of the cultural influence which will come flooding in. We aim to stay in this journey with the Cuban people for the next ten years so we can see how that identity evolves as the digital revolution reaches them.
What have your experiences in Cuba been like with this project?
It’s a land of incredible contrasts. The main thing that comes across is how friendly people are and how safe it is for tourists. It’s one of the few countries in Latin America which doesn’t have a drug problem and with very little crime. The problems you see are mostly caused by the trade embargo.
In central Havana, there are beautiful old buildings which are falling apart because they can’t bring in the building materials to repair them. But the last time I went, just a couple of months ago, they were shooting Fast and Furious 8 on the streets of Havana. Suddenly there is tourism and business money flooding into the city and you are seeing the rebuilding work starting to happen.
They’re currently ripping up the streets of Havana to lay broadband cables. For the guys up in the mountains, it’s going to be like another world. Up there we found the most passionate filmmakers. They were so desperate to record their traditional way of life because they don’t want their identity to be washed away with the tide of history.
Why should people go to see By Our Own Efforts at the New Art Exchange?
The biggest impact on me from when I first went to Cuba was the realisation that although we are currently going through a time of austerity, Cuba have been dealing with austerity for sixty years. Seeing how inventive they are and how they build their own equipment to solve the problems they’ve got can give us great ideas. It’s all about communities working together to solve a common problem with limited recourses, and I’m very excited about that message – we in the West have a lot to learn from Cubans about how to cope with austerity.
By Our Own Efforts, New Art Exchange, Saturday 17 September - Sunday 6 November, free