Birmingham’s recent embracing of independent film making, which has been dubbed B Movies, has notched up further successes with world premieres of two homegrown movies taking place at the prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival.
104 Films, a city-based company run by Justin Edgar and Alex Usborne, showcased We Are The Freaks, written and directed by Edgar, and I Am Breathing, directed by Morag McKinnon and Emma Davie, at the annual event.
Named after Edgar’s Birmingham bus route home, 104 Films is also celebrating 10 years of active service as the country’s leading initiative for giving disabled and disadvantaged talent some of the best opportunities in the film industry.
Shot in Birmingham and set in 1990, We Are The Freaks is a very funny “anti-teen” movie – The Inbetweeners’ meets Trainspotting – which anarchically depicts three misfits having the night of their lives. The film competed for the Michael Powell Award at Edinburgh and will be seen in UK cinemas shortly.
An ensemble of talented young actors – Michael Smiley, Jamie Blackley, Sean Teale, Mike Bailey and Rosamund Hanson from This is England, Skins and Fresh Meat – reboot the UK coming-of-age genre with a comically vernacular script aided by a soundtrack of New Order, Happy Mondays and The Cramps. The film satirically comments on the end of Thatcher’s 1980’s, as the lives of the three friends are changed forever on the cusp of a new decade.
I Am Breathing follows the final days of Neil Platt who, at 34, died after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Determined to raise awareness, he enlisted two filmmaker friends, McKinnon and Davie, to make the documentary.
104 Films also ran two training schemes for disabled talent at the Edinburgh Film Festival – one focused on business and marketing for outstanding disabled producers, and a workshop for 30 emerging Scottish disabled filmmakers.
Handsworth-born Edgar, who is deaf in one ear, collected a first-class honours degree for his university film studies from Portsmouth University before becoming the youngest director to helm a major UK feature film at the age of 26.
His movie Large, made for Film 4 in 2001, was shot in Birmingham and established both Edgar’s cinematic relationship with his home city and the signature, youth culture themes that resonate powerfully in his work.
In 2004 he formed 104 Films with Sheffield-based independent producer Usborne and this pairing of two regionally partisan filmmakers has specialised in the representation of disabled and disadvantaged talent in front of, and behind, the camera.
“The idea was always to not only make films about disability subjects, but also to get disabled people making films,” says Edgar. “Disabled people have a unique perspective on the world and can say things that are incredibly interesting.
“If you look at recent big awards, you had films like Untouchable, The King’s Speech, and The Sessions competing for the honours.
“Disability is a subject matter that people like because it’s about the extremes of human experience.
“We want to see disabled training on every film. We have a database of about 600 disabled film talent, so it is completely possible to have a disabled trainee on every film.”
Edgar and Usborne met in 1998 at the Birmingham Film Festival, when Edgar’s film, Dirty Phone Calls, won the best film award. They began working together, initially on Large.
Edgar recalls meeting directors like Jack Gold and Mike Figgis at the festival, which was a real inspiration.
“Birmingham was not a city known for its cinema, and the festival brought the filmmaking world to Birmingham. It’s a shame that it’s gone,” Edgar adds.
Feature films in their repertoire since Large have included Special People and the Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll starring Andy Serkis. The success at the Edinburgh Film Festival for 104 Films augurs well for this robustly regional film company. And Edgar’s comments for the future of regional filmmaking in an era of social media resonate powerfully.
“Its increasingly easier to connect with your audience these days. For example, we had 6,000 hits on the We Are The Freaks trailer on YouTube in the first five days. We may be moving over from a supply-led market to a demand-led one and that is interesting, especially for 104 Films’ disability work as disabled people are a huge online user group.”
Meanwhile, another of 104 Films’ projects, No Fixed Abode, which was directed by Birmingham filmmaker Steve Rainbow and made in collaboration with homeless people, has been picked up for UK distribution by Ballpark and will be released later this year.
Looking ahead, Edgar’s next project is a neo noir film, They’re Not Gonna Get Us, which again is set in Birmingham with a focus on the sex trade and grooming gangs. A departure from the comedies, this new film is in the gritty tradition of British thrillers like London to Brighton, Mona Lisa and Get Carter.
Justin’s ambitious cinematic description certainly captures the imagination. “I want to mythologise the city in the way Raymond Chandler did for ‘40’s LA. We’re casting now for the lead and I’m planning to shoot in the first quarter of next year in Birmingham city centre,” he adds.
* Roger Shannon is a producer and professor at Edge Hill University.