17th British Shorts, Berlin
"I had always fantasised about making animation with fabric but it seemed too complicated. I ended up studying Religion, Philosophy & Ethics as my undergraduate and slightly detoured from art, mostly working with embroidery and textiles in my early 20’s."
January 16, 2024
MADE FOR DUTY
Made For Duty Overseas is a noir-ish tale centred around a packet of menthol vogue cigarettes, moving between Sri Lanka and the UK. Intrigued by the allure of this woman’s identity, our narrator finds herself enticed into an addiction. Made For Duty Overseas explores the allure of aesthetic distractions.
Hi Katie, thank you for talking to TNC. Congratulations on Made For Duty Overseas being selected for the 17th British Shorts in Berlin, how does it feel to have your film be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?
Thank you! It feels incredibly validating especially since the culture of the festival really sits with the culture of ‘Britishness’ that I grew up in and come from - field raves and punk rock. The curation brings together a very solid group of independent filmmakers and perspectives. Attending will be a great opportunity to take in their creativity but also to challenge my own and find some inspiration.
Made For Duty Overseas has already had a pretty good festival run, getting an Honourable Mention at the Los Angeles Animation Festival. With this also being your RCA graduation film, what has it mean to you to see your animation get such an amazing response?
So rewarding. Made For Duty Overseas is a new style for me that I developed over the year of its making. It took a lot of trial and error, testing with lighting, fabric applications and compositions and what I found in the end is a style that I am enjoying experimenting with, so the positive reaction affirms that it is worth continuing to explore.
My world premiere was at Pöf in Estonia and it was such an amazing first film festival to attend. I met so many interesting film makers and short film supporters, it really highlighted the magic of connection that film festivals provide.
How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films?
Festivals are a great resource for me as a filmmaker, looking for films which chime with certain tastes that I have. Also in the obvious sense that they enable filmmakers to connect with other filmmakers. This is my first time putting a short into festivals and I’ve made new friends who I can ask questions to about their processes and journeys. Also, the exhibition and music events at British Shorts validate the meaning behind film, to speak to truth and foster meaningful cultural engagement.
What more can be done on a local/national level in the UK to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
I understand that experimental animation used to be played before the main feature started in the cinema… now we have adverts… well made adverts I am sure but they often read as clinical compared to the rawer content of short films made by directors with stories and extreme passion that are found at festivals. At local level, I think more funding should be given to film festivals to be able to promote their programmes as wide as possible. Increasing engagement from the local communities in the host cities means a more diverse audience of non-filmmakers or industry specialists. Also so that more understand that there are places outside of mainstream cinemas and streaming platforms to watch moving image.
At national level, I would like to see more streaming platforms offering short film sections. There is a company from the US called Popflicks that filmmakers can submit their short films to which offers some kind of royalties. It’s for US audiences only but it’s a great idea and I wish we had something similar for European audiences.
Did you have any apprehensions at all about making a film that fully utilised painted fabric and embroidered material?
Exclusively using textiles was my main parameter of working from the beginning, however I had certain preoccupations. I was inspired by an essay written by the artist George Griffin where he said that ‘animation is more than the sum of its parts’. Because I work with the physical material of textiles, I wanted the film and its ‘parts’ to be able to be read independently of each other, as well as together as a main work. I.e. that the textiles could be readily repurposed into another physical piece. It was an over-worry about the waste that can be involved in filmmaking.
This meant at the start my focus was too wide when in the end, after finishing the film, I naturally found ways to repurpose the textiles into other works. Either as artworks in their own right (they were included in a show in London in Nov 2023) but also as additional materials for people to use in an embroidery workshop I run. It was also a journey to embrace and lean into texture. At the beginning, I did not want it to be overly obvious that the film was made exclusively from fibre art in case it was seen as ‘too female’ or ‘crafty’. However, after seeing the art show Within + Without at Unit Gallery in London, I rethought my attitude toward texture understanding that it’s part of the wider great feminist agenda of emphasising touch. In the end, my focus was how to make sure the camera caught the fibres.
Working with textiles has expanded my view of what can be animated. First of all, it’s incredibly easy to work with entirely waste fabrics because the quantity I’m working with is much less than if a designer would. Designers and other companies have offcuts going to waste. Waste textiles are unfortunately everywhere; from the specialists who work with it, to charity shops that have items that can’t be sold for whatever reason and fabric factories also have areas where they keep fabric that is waste which you can ask for nicely.
"It’s a commentary on how a population can be distracted, how we may be medicating with distractions. The character in the film is is presented with serious facts."
Can you tell me how Made For Duty Overseas came about, what was the inspiration behind your film?
I was travelling in Sri Lanka and met a very interesting woman, who was committing some form of political espionage in her country. It is a serious matter so I have to be vague. I found her story so interesting. How would I act, if, say, the UK were committing war on another country and as a citizen I had a limited ability to speak out? Would I have a burner phone? Or would I be leaving for another island with better weather and ignoring the situation?
I came back to the UK and still fascinated by this woman, I made an animation test on the multi-plane of our conversation by the pool, which of course, centred around a shared packet of cigarettes. When I got home from the studio, I found the very same brand of cigarettes, outside my flat door. Was it a calling card? Was I being followed? No. It was me who dropped the packet. But the vain insistence that this
is about me, is rather the heart of the film.
‘Britain is one of the biggest spenders on weapons in the world, it promotes itself as a major military power while its public services suffer.’ It’s a commentary on how a population can be distracted, how we may be medicating with distractions. The character in the film is is presented with serious facts. Yet, like as is often in film noir, the central character follows the clues but in some random meandering and the serious politic is quickly pushed to the back and a vainer chase becomes the focus (a love affair etc).
Brands make war sexy, think Lucky Stripe cigarettes and its association with the Second World War. James Bond has his brands and he is still a sanctioned murderer.
At the same time I was also supposed to be quitting cigarettes and this film was my home to Italo Svevo’s ‘Fumo analysis’ in Zeno’s Conscience. Making the film was a way to give up by exploring my love of cigarettes and how they connect you to people and instigate conversations you would never imagine. I also liked the irony that people say smokers have bad teeth but my character’s teeth got a lot better and straighter. She dropped the English bad teeth and embraced this other woman’s life.
You co-wrote the screenplay with by Sorcha O'Sullivan and co-animated it with Karina Ho with additional animation support from Alem Ami. As a director how essential is the creative collaboration with your team when working on a film like Made For Duty Overseas?
It’s so great to collaborate because each person working toward the project comes with their own experience, references and notices things that I did not. The film evolved through the hands that worked on it and the many conversations which took place at RCA between myself, the tutors and my peers. It would not be the film it is without any of those conversations or passing comments happening. I am especially grateful to the tutor’s support, particularly Carla MacKinnon who took the time to bounce this story with me and whose references gave it the nourishment it needed as the story developed. Likewise, working with Karina wasa dream. She is an expert at compositing and her help with the stop motion meant that the movement in her scenes flowed so well.
The troubleshooting with the textiles could only have happened with the input from Huan Wang as well as RCA technical staff like Debbie Stack and Eleanor Thompson. The water in the pool is two layers of polyester fabric which produced the pattern, it was Wang’s idea who I met through a call out. It’s so obvious when you think about it but it was genius.
Sorcha is a brilliant writer and the dialogue would not be what it is without her. That said, one of my favourite lines in the film was ad-libbed by the voice-over actress Arabella Tait Lindsay who took an original line in the script: ’I was supposed to be quitting’ and said she could not say that, instead she said ‘I hate menthol’. Arabella is like me, possibly a die-hard smoker and it really made the film complete. I hate menthol too and it’s the reason why I had even fixated on this packet in the first place.
At what stage in the production did you start thinking about the music, and what was it about Oran Johnson’s original score that connected with your story/film so much?
The conversation about music began early on. Declan Molloy who produced the music came to RCA to meet a group of us, from Royal Academy of Music. He presented a similar amount of composers interested in writing music for film and asked if we would like to collaborate. I heard about Oran’s experimental approach to writing in this meeting (he has one piece where he wrote the score, ripped it up, then pieced it back together) and I thought instantly wow this guy sounds so cool I hope we work together.
From the start I felt that the film was a film noir, but the exact story needed time to unfold as I leaned into each scene. I think I said to Oran: it needs to be film noir, it needs to be sexy and it needs to be cool. Oran did exactly this, he had his own ideas and they transformed the film. The score was recorded with a 16 piece chamber orchestra. Watching a live recording of a chamber orchestra for your own film feels like a bucket list event.
Now you can be reflective what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making Made For Duty Overseas?
Trust in the process, follow the gantt chart and enjoy all the emotions that come with it.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I used to make video performance art called Triangle Girl which I put on YouTube. One of the videos from this series I worked on with Sorcha O’Sullivan (over ten years ago now). Likewise I had always fantasised about making animation with fabric but it seemed too complicated. I ended up studying Religion, Philosophy & Ethics as my undergraduate and slightly detoured from art, mostly working with embroidery and textiles in my early 20’s. However, after my degree, I worked on the Russian avant-garde film project DAU. This was majorly formative. Through this experience, I really understood that film is a visual philosophy and here I am now.
How much has your approach to your filmmaking and writing evolved since your debut short?
I feel now that anything is possibly possible and it’s just worth trying. I recently visited a community of ikat weavers in Indonesia where I was able to make some small animation tests with their ikat patterns. This has been an idea in my head for the last couple of years. I thought it would take some kind of grant or special permission from some other authority, but I realise, all you need to do is ask. I’m also working on another project with Sorcha O’Sullivan where we are writing the story from scratch. Again it will be a film based in real experience and drawing seemingly fictional elements from those experiences. It’s a difficult, possibly quite provocative topic. We have already discussed why we are good people to write this piece and I think establishing that is a healthy approach to the task.
I also appreciate this truism I recently received from Tariq Godard the publisher of Repeater Books who was giving a talk on the value of fiction writing in the left wing sphere at the Anarchist Book Fair - that writing is a powerful gift that not everyone is able to do and it’s a way to address life and do justice to life. That is how my writing has evolved since, in that, I understand that the point now is to address life and do justice to life.
What does this film say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell?
I am interested in the way women expand themselves within their space. I read Saba Mahmoud’s Politics of Piety at university; she researched a group of women who with limited freedoms within the mosque they were part of. They exemplified their work within the space they were granted and with that were granted increasing space within the mosque. In every case, my stories are generally centred around this, the trial and tribulations of women taking up space within certain situations they live in.
And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from Made For Duty Overseas
That I hate menthol.