We live in the future. We’re forever fiddling with gadgets, gizmos, and apps. Yet, try as we might the past just keeps on catching up with us. Jaywick Escapes is an idiosyncratic look at a community that is particularly haunted by the consequences of yesterday. We caught up with the filmmakers to ask them about their film.
Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope first met at the Edinburgh College of Art and started their creative partnership in 1995 after finishing MAs in London. Since then they have gone on to work in a variety of media including online, installation work, and more recently, documentaries. These films take a quirky look at eccentric – and nostalgic – English communities.
If nostalgia sounds a little abstract, the reality makes for lively subject matter, especially as the pair like to feature in them. In their first, Bata-Ville: We’re not afraid of the future, Guthrie and Pope dressed as air stewardesses to take a coach load of former employees of two British shoe factories to the Czech Republic headquarters of the company they used to work for, with wryly amusing results. Heading into more deeply odd territory, Living with the Tudors (2007) was a record of their time participating in costumed historical re-enactments staged at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. This involved dressing up as Tudor folk and even learning how to ‘speak Tudor’ each July for four years.
In Jaywick Escapes, Guthrie and Pope turn their attention to the small seaside town of Jaywick in Essex. This might sound a lot less unusual than historical re-enactment and even a pan-European magical mystery tour for pensioners, but the town is a very unusual place. According to the government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick is the most deprived part of the UK.
The pair were originally employed as consultants at the Jaywick Martello Tower, a fortress originally built to keep out Napoleon, that is now home to an arts venue. They both had strong personal reactions to the place when they first visited, but what exactly this would amount to took time to coalesce.
For Karen Guthrie, the town reminded her of where she grew up on the West Coast of Scotland: “It’s very different to Jaywick, but I related to that ennui that those places have, there is this spirit they have that is happy, but also deeply sad. You know that there’s transient people and unhappiness, but there is also an optimism as it’s also related to holidays.”
Perhaps the most obvious response to Jaywick would be political, but this is not the route favoured by Pope and Guthrie. “There are an awful lot of documentary filmmakers who are mouthpieces for causes they they don’t really have the legitimate position to be in,” says Guthrie. “There’s an awful lot of good work being done and campaigning documentaries being made, but we’re not really part of that movement. I would have felt very uncomfortable trying to be the voice of that kind of place.”
“Plus,” says Pope, “it’s complicated.” It is true, she feels, that Jaywick seems to have become such a big problem that it has been abandoned by the powers that be, but there is more to the situation than that. “I think Nick [one of the characters in the film] sums it up when he says ‘You can’t blame Jaywick’. So, for me, it asks the viewer to ask questions about where that line between personal responsibility and responsibility is caused by a bigger situation, and how those two intersect.”
Rather than straight-up political documentaries, Pope and Guthrie prefer to think of their work as in the Gonzo tradition. “Some filmmakers would find their agenda for the film and create the film to underpin that agenda,” says Guthrie. “But we genuinely submerge ourselves.” This act of immersing themselves in an environment happens before they decide what approach they take to the material. “Perhaps it’s because we come from a fine art background, where genuine experimental thinking at the beginning of a project is a given. And we’re not journalists, so we come at a project thinking ‘what kind of response do we want to make to this?'”
Influences include: Contemporary British documentarian Marc Isaacs (who also gave them some advice on this film), Werner Herzog, and Mike Leigh as an example of the “tragi-comic element of British filmmaking”. They describe their themes as addressing escapism, as well as the way people look at the past through the prism of the present. When considering Jaywick, Guthrie explains, it was a search for the unexpected that took them in the direction of the unsettled – and much less visible – lives of Nick the Hat, John, and Sara, rather than the more ordered existences of the large number of retired people who live in the town.
“When you go to a sea side town like that, in a way it is a given that a majority of elderly people are probably fairly comfortably off and don’t really want much hassle in their lives. The story we don’t know is all those people that everyone is slagging off, who are running around nicking things and causing trouble. We know they’re there, but do we know anything about them? As a film maker you have to try and find the unexpected.”
Asked how they found their slightly unusual cast of subjects, Guthrie explains “Just, like most filmmakers, you hang around… and look for someone who is open.” This is made easier in Jaywick as there is only one café and the Martello Tower to hang around in.
“It’s also an advantage of being a woman filmmaker,” she goes on. “Although you are often advised, probably quite justifiably, not to go to somewhere like Jaywick with your big fat camera without protection. Actually, in a place like that you are quite safe, it’s a quite old fashioned place. Once you’ve assured them that you’re not working for the BBC and doing an exposé, which they’re quite sceptical about, people have the time to talk to you.”
Their next project, The Closer We Get, didn’t require any hanging about looking for interesting looking people. The film focusses on Guthrie’s own “extraordinarily ordinary” family – particularly her mother, who had a severe stroke after one day of filming, and her inscrutable father – and a dark family secret.
The film is already in post-production, and they are raising money on IndieGoGo. “There’s a bit of seaside ennui,” Guthrie quips, “a bit of old people, but basically it’s about me coming to terms with my parents and their old age.” So, more curious tales of extraordinary ordinary people looking backwards as they go forwards.
Jaywick Escapes is out on Monday 16th December, 2013, read our review here.