Deborah Aston on directing Music Documentary, Made in Birmingham


MACE supplied a wide range of material to Deborah Aston for her documentary of the beginnings of Reggae, Punk and Bhangra music in Birmingham in the 70s and 80s.

Here Deborah talks about her experiences of making the film and her influences.

(originally posted on Screen West Midlands blog pages)

The nature of this documentary was very much dictated by its origins as a project established by Jez Collins at the Birmingham Popular Music Archive and Screen WM to repurpose archive material reflecting themes of Home, Identity and Citizenship.
Even though I had to work creatively within such thematic constraints, I wanted to make an energetic film that reflected a city that has more to offer than just its industrial past and heavy metal.  For me this film is really about the city’s people, their attitude and giving unsung heros some long overdue credit.

While doing research for the film it took my mind back to times I had spent at The Mermaid, The Powerhouse and other Birmingham music venues that drew in the colourful crowd from  the alternative scene and I wanted to share that experience with people who may have missed it.  I always put my creativity and determination down to my own days as a punk, that true working class grit and do-it-yourself ethos – after all, that’s how my early films came about !

‘Made In Birmingham’ took me back to my earlier ambitions of documentary filmmaking, but I never quite found a subject that really excited me enough to do the research; and this is now the first of what I hope will be many projects like this.

There has been the re emergence of the music documentary in recent years, especially from one of my all time favourite directors, Martin Scorsese,  whose film ‘No Direction Home’ was about Bob Dylan and his impact on American popular music and culture of the 20th century. Scorsese also directed ‘Shine a Light’, The Rolling Stones concert, and is currently in post with his latest film about The Beatle, George Harrison,  and it also  looks as though he will make a biopic of the late great Frank Sinatra.

A couple of documentaries that stood out for me and really got me excited by the music documentary genre were ‘End Of The Century – The Story of The Ramones’  which features one of the last Joe Strummer interviews and ‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’ –  both very powerful and engaging films.

In many ways ‘Made In Birmingham’ is more akin to Julien Temple’s ‘Oil City Confidential’ – about the ’70’s pub rockers Dr Feelgood and their Canvey Island origins –  in its exploration of period, music and place, as well as the social and political conditions of the time.

Using new material juxtaposed with archive footage, the film examines how music has played its part in creating communities, helping to build identities, and how certain spaces and areas all played their part and crucially how it all started.

Using the archives was a great chance to see footage that has been locked away and forgotten, now repurposed for a new audience to enjoy all over again.  Gaining access to some rare footage really did feel like a privilege, and again I can see why there is growing interest in the creative use of such material. Terence Davies did this to imaginative effect in his ‘Of Time and The City’, telling his story of his city mostly via archive. Another director doing the same is John Akomfrah in his new film installation, ‘Mnemosyne.’

You can also  draw on the parallels between Davies’ film and ‘Made in Birmingham’,  as the film tells a story of a city via some of its music, and also the archives associated with that music.

Recently at the Cannes Film Festival I heard john Battsek talking about ‘The Stones In Exile’ documentary, that was 2 years in the making and how they had a team of researchers to realise that film.  Needless to say we had neither the time nor the budget yet I am immensely proud of what was achieved.  We had about 6 weeks and a small budget, but all the money is on the screen and used creatively to full effect thanks to the support of the likes of MACE, the regional media archive.  We made the best use of a very small team and local facilities to keep the ethos of community and that DIY attitude to achieve an intimate uncompromising and unsentimental film.

Everyone in this film has been very influential in his or her own unique and engaging style and that was a story that needed to be told. I am so happy that I got to tell at least a small part of it.  This documentary has only really scratched the surface of some of the amazing stories that were unearthed.

Deborah Aston, Director of the new music documentary film, ‘Made in Birmingham – Reggae Punk Bhangra.’

‘Made in Birmingham’ is a production by swish films for Birmingham Popular Music Archive and Screen WM.Executive Producers, Jez Collins and Roger Shannon

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One thought on “Deborah Aston on directing Music Documentary, Made in Birmingham

  1. Pingback: Emma’s Review of 2010 – 3 – Exhibitions « MACELive

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