Shooting Magpies Review
Starting tonight Amber are subject to week-long season of screenings on More4. ‘Shooting Magpies’ is amongst these screenings and will be televised on Tuesday 9th December. For more details please visit the Amber website – a link is provided at the end of this review.
One of the most remarkable things about the Amber collective is that, 40 years on, they’re still going. Perhaps not as strong given that those years since 1968 have seen their ups and downs – the arguable highpoint being their successful working relationship with Channel 4 from the early eighties to the mid-nineties – yet they’ve maintained their filmmaking and photographic base, and more importantly they’ve maintained their independence. One of the results is that DVDs such as this one are being released solely through Amber themselves (their first, incidentally, issuing the 1989 classic In Fading Light was my DVD of 2005), another is that the features and documentaries have become harder to see. Shooting Magpies is gaining its UK television premiere courtesy of a week-long season of Amber screenings on More4, partly to celebrate the 40th anniversary, partly in memory of the late Murray Martin, one of the collective’s founders. But their other work since the collapse of the Channel 4 franchise scheme has been more difficult for a wide audience to track down; to speak personally, I was only able to locate The Scar (1997) and Like Father (2001) amongst the mid-week late night BBC schedules simply because I was previously aware of them – otherwise they’d have passed me by too.
Finally catching up with Shooting Pictures thanks to this double-disc release, the first thing that strikes is the fact that Amber, even without the input from Channel 4 or the BBC (as was the case with both The Scar and Like Father), are still producing the goods. Budgetary reasons may have resulted in this being their first DV feature, but otherwise the film is as true to their spirit as Seacoal (1986), say, or Dream On. Born primarily out of the collective’s involvement with local communities, in this case East Durham (an ongoing involvement following a previous ‘residency’ in North Shields), Shooting Magpies draws specifically on some of Amber’s smaller projects during this time. An education video documentary on teenage pregnancy designed for schools showings, We Did It Together (2004), introduced them to Emma Dowson, who would play the lead here and use her own experiences to fuel the narrative. Meanwhile Barry Gough, another of the central actors, had previously featured in Coalfield Stories, a photographic project (reproduced amongst the extras), and the short documentary It’s the Pits, utilising his presence as an ex-youth worker and detailing how East Durham’s teenagers cope now that pit closures have ceased its one-time primary source of labour. Furthermore, they are backed by a familiar band of Amber players, themselves non-professionals: Darren Bell returns having played a key roll in the collective’s Eden Valley (1994), and such distinctive faces as Brian Hogg – moustache still intact – occupy smaller roles.
The link to the actors’ previous experiences allows Shooting Magpies to take such hard-edged subject matter as teenage disaffection and suicide, single parenting, homelessness and drug dependency. Yet owing to Amber’s integration within the community, and the close links they’ve formed with those involved, there’s no sense of exploitation or sensationalism. The grounding in those previous documentaries, as well as the collective’s standard practice of improvisation and workshopping in the pre-production phase, irons out any potential schematics or melodrama. Of course, these subjects are made arguably more palatable to an audience, this being a piece of fiction as opposed to a more direct documentary approach, but it’s the reality with shines through. And more to point, it’s an unromanticised, matter-of-fact reality, all the more affecting simply because you know it’s been drawn, so vividly, from real life and will never resort to happy endings or easy resolutions. We’re simply show how ostensibly decent people are shaped, destroyed or made tough by their situation.
It would be tempting to say that the digital technology enhances the rawness on display, yet this has always been a part of the Amber aesthetic. In Fading Light, to take their most well-known and widely-praised work as an example, may have looked stunningly beautiful at times but never to the detriment of the intimacy at hand. Indeed, the DV nature doesn’t prompt any new tricks, it’s merely a substitute medium and no doubt the usual 16mm gauge would have been employed has resources been such. If there is one side-effect then it’s perhaps that Shooting Magpies feels colder and harsher than previous projects, though this too suits the mood entirely. You sense the loneliness a little more, whether it be Emma’s in the face of getting his partner Darren off heroin, or Darren himself as he struggles to accept (and counteract) this dependency. Their scenes together bristle with the tension between them both needing and being better off without each other whatever the results, positive or otherwise.
Yet to focus squarely on such elements would be to ignore the warmth found elsewhere. Amber don’t make their films objectively, as it were, and Shooting Magpies isn’t a mere ‘case study’ to be pored over. It’s a genuine portrait and with that comes the whole range of humanity: yes, the emotion and the heartbreak, but also the good humour, the character, those tiny moments of joy. Certainly, you could argue that such elements only serve to make its developments even tougher, but so be it, that’s life. And that’s Shooting Magpies, an utterly convincing slice of life. Even after 40 years Amber still have it, they’ve lost none of their power.
Amber’s debut DVD effort, In Fading Light, demonstrated the collective’s overall command of the production process, all the more remarkable given how it was a first attempt. Excellent presentation and superbly programmed extras went hand-in-hand to produce a wonderfully put-together disc. More importantly, Shooting Magpies continues the process with an superb main feature being only the centrepoint of an all-round excellent package. Given that this release is an in-house production it has been issued onto two DVD-Rs - common practice amongst the Amber releases now as they look to issuing their entire back catalogue on disc at minimal cost. The film itself looks wonderful, retaining the original 1.55:1 aspect ratio (non-anamorphically presented, though with such ratios I’m not entirely convinced that these things matter) and blemish free. Clearly Shooting Magpies looks as good on disc as it would projected in a cinema, the crisp palette retained and demonstrating that certain chill. Similarly the soundtrack presents the original stereo to fine affect, in this case utilising the PCM format for additional clarity. And in a nice touch both English and French subtitles are available as an option, thus enhancing the disc’s international appeal. (It should also be stated that it’s coded Region 0 and comes in the PAL format.)
Each of the extras is fully deserving of its inclusion, the main attraction being the 62-minute ‘making of’ which takes us right through the production process. Especially interesting is the discussion of how the project came to be, drawing on those earlier documentaries and photography exhibitions listed above and detailing how the improvisations were shown to those who have lived lives akin to the characters onscreen in order to gain as much realism as possible. There’s even a quite charming little story emerging from the whole thing, namely how it brought together Bell and Dowson, eventually leading to marriage. In conjunction we also find three shorter featurettes, each focussing on three of the actors, and telling their own stories, both previous to Shooting Magpies and during its production. Barry Gough’s is particularly interesting courtesy of some old archive footage from a Tyne Tees documentary, hosted by Willie Rushton, in which we see Gough as a young old lad out ferreting near his home town. Throughout the ‘making of’ and these smaller pieces we’re also able to see plenty of footage from the earlier We Did It Together and It’s the Pits documentaries, though neither is present in its entirety. Whilst both would undoubtedly have been welcome, it’s also possible to understand their exclusion. Seen solely in the light of Shooting Magpies, and how both informed its narrative and characters, would perhaps have meant audiences ignored their original intentions; and, of course, neither was produced with the idea of them being simply DVD add-ons.
The package is rounded off with a photo gallery taking us through the Coalfield Stories exhibition and the ‘Amber: A History’ booklet that also accompanied In Fading Light. If you’ve yet to sample that disc then this is well worth the read: totalling 32 pages, it guides us through the collective’s productive 40-year history. And if you can’t wait to get your hands on it, then please have a browse of their website, which takes us right up to the present day and offers plenty of information and notes on all sides of their work. It’s also the only place to buy this DVD and the others they’ve released both since and previous.
This disc is solely available through www.amber-online.com.