With submissions now open for our 2021 festival, Ellie Mackay, filmmaker and science communicator, spoke to Dan Raven-Ellison, director of 'The UK in 100 Seconds', about his work, the Adventure Uncovered Film Festival and his upcoming projects.
Both the film and Dan’s Q&A blew our festival audience away and we’ve shown it at all tour locations since. So, to kick off our new Conversations series, we thought we'd ask our festival host Ellie Mackay to find out more.
Ellie: Dan, I'm so excited to have this time outside of the festival.
I’ve watched ‘The UK in 100 Seconds’ I don't even know how many times and every time I watch it I get something different. It's really powerful, really amazing. But first, let's talk about the festival.
How did you find it and what kind of success have you seen?
Dan: It’s brilliant. Compared to a lot of film festivals there's a really strong sense of community and drive. It [Adventure Uncovered Film Festival] stands out as something that’s striving to make a better world in which we have more environmental and social justice.
Also, it's great to be at a film festival where you actually get to see different people sharing their work. At the London launch, there was a woman that really stuck with me [Amy Walker from Wild Swim] who did a film about her swimming in some cold area in the north of Britain. When you’ve watched like 20 or 30 films on a night it's interesting which ones stay with you, which ones you remember and which ones go?
In terms of the film itself, there is a real simplicity to it, but the beauty was evident. And what I really took away from her [Amy Walker’s] Q&A afterwards was that being selected in this film festival, something she never thought would happen, gave her the confidence to show her film to her colleagues at work because she saw that the film was worthy.
The fact that the imprint and the reach of the festival then goes beyond the people in the room is extraordinarily powerful… I think it's really strong stuff. I was really pleased to be asked to be involved.
Ellie: That’s exactly how we feel too!
So let’s talk about your film. It is such a novel concept, how did this idea come about?
Dan: A few years ago, back in 2008, for the first time in the history of the planet more people started living in urban places than rural places. I was a teacher at the time and I was really fascinated at how the young people I was working with had a very distorted sense of what our cities look like. I decided to do a project where I would try and challenge that distortion.
So I started walking across entire cities; Mexico City, London, Mumbai and taking a photograph every 8 seconds. I would measure the size of the urban area to decide how long the walk should be. I would also choose my route [through the city] in a way that represented the distribution of deprivation within it. So for example, if the poorest fifth of the people in the city occupy just 2% of space then only 2% of my walk would go through those kinds of areas.
I was really interested in using photography to think about how we could represent cities in a way that removes some of the bias in our misconceptions. So often we have twisted imaginations and understanding of places and that twisting and distorting can shift our opinion.. often in unhealthy ways.
So ‘The UK in 100 Seconds’ really comes 10 years after I did that very first project. It’s about land on a bigger scale and with far better photographic techniques.
Ellie: Why not just take that data, those proportions and put them in a pie chart? What specifically drew you to photography and then film do you think?
Dan: It’s about making it personable, and relatable. In both ‘The UK in 100 seconds’ and the sister film ‘The Netherlands in 100 seconds’, I'm walking centre frame and so to some degree, even though you don't necessarily know who I am, you can relate to me, as a person, walking through that landscape. There’s no reason why you couldn't be that person too because there's nothing within those adventures that’s really exceptional.
Ellie: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.
Ellie: Do you see it as a first-person narrative or a third-person narrative?
Dan: It’s definitely a third-person narrative. Not only because of the angle of the camera but also the voiceover. I intentionally wanted to have a voice that wasn't necessarily my voice, a voice that could give a different perspective on the landscape. So collaborating with Benjamin Zephaniah, the poet, a black guy from Birmingham, who lives in Lincolnshire, was brilliant. Just hearing his voice and his narrative adds an additional layer to the story which is so important. It touches on the complexity of what the British landscape means. Right?
Ellie: You've done such a good job of getting that balance between those incredible overview effect shots and personal storytelling. It’s very difficult to bring a character on a journey where you can't actually see their face.
Dan: Thanks! I think that in the story, I don't matter, it's not about me. So not seeing my face is quite important because it's not one personality, it's about the issue. And the more you can imagine that you could be that person, the more powerful it is.
Ellie: Yeah. And that allows me to go on that journey because I feel like I'm walking at the same pace as you. I feel like I'm there with you.
So in terms of the specifics of filming, how did you find the places? Did you just scour Google Earth or were these places that you already knew?
Dan: You know, we intentionally haven't told anyone where anything was filmed because the actual locations don't matter. The anonymity of the geography is important.
Even when we’d worked out the type of land we needed to film, some places are actually really hard to find! So peat bogs are not very hard to find for example, especially when you're up in Scotland. But getting permission to go and film in a dump is not necessarily straightforward.
So it was really an expedition as well! With logistics and planning and the discovery as you went along. I like it because it ties in with the themes here at Adventure Uncovered.
'a lot of the rhetoric over the last few years has basically been along the lines of ‘there’s no room' for refugees, migrants, nature, or affordable housing... maybe, if we had a little bit less milk and cheese.. we could go a long way towards solving some of these interrelated problems'
Ellie: Were you surprised when you sat down and looked at these maps and the data, of the proportion of land used for the different things in the UK?
Dan: Yeah! I was certainly surprised by how little of Britain is taken up by houses and gardens, but [I was] really flabbergasted and shocked and maybe even ashamed at the sheer amount of space we give over to cows and sheep.
You know, a lot of the rhetoric over the last few years in the US and the UK has basically been along the lines of ‘there’s no room for refugees’, ‘there’s no ‘room for migrants’, ‘there’s no space for nature’, or ‘for affordable housing’. These are geographic ideas that are ultimately not correct. It comes down to politics and how we use space in the UK. Yet we’re in an environmental and social crisis right now.
Actually, maybe, if we had a little bit less milk and cheese, and a few more trees, and hedgerows and places for people to play, we could go a long way towards solving some of these interrelated problems which for me come down to spatial justice.
The film is about showing this [spatial injustice] to people in a way which isn’t too ‘worthy’ or ‘judgy’. It’s more just ‘look at this, quite clearly we can do this better’.
Ellie: That's the power of presenting data in engaging ways. You don't need to put a spin or an editorial on it. You can just present it and say, ‘look at this’, and the data should be powerful enough.