Danielle Sellwood, filmmaker and promoter of women in elite sports, spoke to Bronwyn Harvey and Christina Baldwin, (Adventure Uncovered Film Festival New Talent winners), about their 7-year in the making film project ‘Undercurrents’.
‘Engage Your Senses: Georgia Pilkington’, by Danielle Sellwood, screened at our 2018 film festival. ‘Undercurrents’, by Bronwyn Harvey and Christina Baldwin, screened at our Brighton festival earlier this year.
We invited the three filmmakers behind these films to join our Conversations series. They covered a lot of ground; filmmaking, surfing, flow, women in sport and Blue Crush (the original!). It’s a good’un.
Danielle: How exciting to chat with you both!
In most of my films, the characters have got a high level of ability in the sport in question, but actually, that's not really what we focus on. We’re more interested in the women’s experience of sport rather than their achievements. How did you choose the characters in Undercurrents?
Bronwyn: Well, they found us didn’t they?
Bronwyn: We were talking about this the other day. A lot of the film has revolved around serendipity really. When we first started discussing the film a friend said, ‘Hey, I know a champion surfer, she lives on Jersey in the Channel Islands, I can get in touch with her if you like?’ Then Arlene sent us an email saying she'd love to talk to us more about it.
So, we picked up some gear and we went to Jersey. Arlene had gathered together five or six other girls and we just interviewed them there and then!
Our film started off very differently to how it is now. It was five surfers of different ages and we were going to tell the story of how it doesn’t matter what age we are when it comes to surfing, but because the film took so long to make, some of those characters couldn't stay in for the long run. So then we were left with Arlene and Natalie which made it really interesting because they’re so different! Arlene comes from a competitive background and Natalie is very much a free surfer and yogi. But they both have that pure love of the sport.
Danielle: You know, I’ve surfed since I was a teenager, not to any level, but I enjoy going surfing. I guess I'm a similar age to Alene, so I was really touched by a lot of the cultural aspects she references and even the graphics and the style and everything. It was just so familiar to me!
I also related to that sense of how women really weren't necessarily that welcome in some of the places we surfed. I remember going out surfing and all the boys really taking the mickey out of me or whatever. I could really feel sympathy for her [Arlene] and could feel some of her frustrations.
So I really loved that element to the film. I also really loved the environmental aspect that you brought through, you know the Sea Shepherd connection and all of that? There are just so many different themes in the film, how do you focus in on them?
Christina: That’s been one of the hardest things. All of the women in the film have shared such amazing and interesting insights. Obviously there's real challenges and issues around inequality with women and surfing, and especially competitive surfing.
It was really important for us to not dictate the women's stories and to be respectful of what they were saying. You know, we had our ideas of where we wanted to go but, but they created the arc of the stories. So it was quite challenging to do but amazing.
Bronwyn: The film was only meant to last 10 minutes. We were learning how to surf at the same time and really getting into it. The more we were learning about the connection of being out in the water, the more we were learning about having to be patient with yourself and how important playfulness is.
So the film just kept growing really. When Lizzi [one of the characters in the film] came on board and started talking about blue mind and blue health we just kept it in, and this allowed it to grow more.
Trying to weave all these things together was actually quite tricky.
Christina: That’s right. We had a break and didn’t start properly again until 2016/17 when you came to visit me in Costa Rica, where I was living at the time. We had this amazing surf trip. I’d probably surfed the best I’d ever surfed (Bron’s really good already and way better at taking the drop). We had this really cool holiday and started talking again, about how it would be such a shame not to finish the film.
Bronwyn: Yeah, it becomes a lot clearer when you give things a break doesn’t it?
Danielle: For sure. I love how it’s always very involved when making a film.
I wanted to touch back on your point about letting the women tell their stories themselves. That’s obviously something that we try and do too, we try not to put words into people's mouths, even though you've obviously got your own ideas of how you kind of want the film to flow!
This really came across in Undercurrents. It was their voices telling their stories and although there were several themes going on, it all flowed really nicely. Because things aren't that simple really are they?!
Bronwyn: No way! We had like 100 post-it notes on the wall behind us.
Christina: We had to be like ‘oh, but that's a bit similar to that one and oh..’
Bronwyn: Yeah, and the problem is that it's like pulling a thread as well! As soon as you put a scene in, the scene afterwards doesn't quite make sense, doesn't go visually with the scene before or whatever, so you have to add that too.
Danielle: The thing about surfing is that there's been so much put out there of just girls in bikinis sitting on the beach. You know some really major brands are producing some really disappointing advertising. There’s a real interest in surfing and lots of women want to get into surfing, but somehow they’ve all felt that they have to fit a certain style-narrative-type-of-woman, do you know what I mean?
What’s even stranger is that obviously in this country it's very rarely like that anyway? You’re very rarely in your bikini in the UK, so if you surf in the UK or in Jersey, you've got to really, really love it. It’s about the action of going surfing.
There’s not really any men in the film which is interesting, was that deliberate?
Bronwyn: We wanted it to feel quite feminine because the sea feels quite feminine. So it all revolved around the feeling that we wanted to convey.
Christina: When we were thinking about doing the film, I thought back to when I was starting to surf. I couldn’t recall many female-focused surf films. There was an adrenaline-focused-fueled vibe in all the surf films. I was trying to find something that would really inspire me. Whilst there are some amazing films about male surfers, I wanted to watch some which were about women!
Danielle: It’s true actually. I’ve watched lots of surf films over the years. There’s such a culture of buying surf videos and DVDs and stuff! There are a few with strong female characters but not loads... I mean, I personally was drawn to longboarding because it had a less aggressive, more chilled, more feminine feel to it.
'There’s a real interest in surfing and lots of women want to get into surfing, but somehow they’ve all felt that they have to fit a certain style-narrative-type-of-woman.'
Christina: So Danielle, what attracts you to the different characters in your films?
Danielle: On a personal level I’m probably slightly more drawn to adventure sports and recreational sports. I’ve spent my whole career promoting women in elite sport, so there’s a huge range in my work.
If I’m being honest, what I love is people doing sports that don’t often get lots of coverage. So I'm generally less interested in an Olympic gold medalist for example, only because they get so much attention anyway.
I think my biggest problem is that I can get enthusiastic about pretty much anyone. My biggest challenge is narrowing it down to who I’m going to do something with. There’s just so many stories I’d like to tell!
Ultimately, a lot of my own personal films stem from people I have a strong personal relationship with; if they’re authentic, if they have something they want to talk about, if they have a purpose. I do get people getting in touch saying ‘could you make a film about me I’m doing this?’ But if you’re doing a race from A to B, well that’s not enough. There has to be more to it!
For example, the Georgia Pilkington film was particularly interesting because of the disabilities she has, and the different relationship she has with sport and climbing.
Interestingly, people sometimes don’t realise that they’ve got something they want to say until they start talking.
When you explain that it’s so important for other women to see these films, they really open up. It’s the classic ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. There’s just so much work to be done and the women I work with tend to really realise that during the process of filming.
'Ultimately, a lot of my own personal films stem from people I have a strong personal relationship with; if they’re authentic, if they have something they want to talk about, if they have a purpose.'
Bronwyn: How did you find your flow with Georgia? Did you choose the location? Did you know before what you wanted to film? How did it work?
Danielle: I’ve interviewed all different athletes over the years as a journalist, but making a film is different because they’re right there, you’re capturing how they’re speaking at that moment rather than just letting them speak and then writing it down.
I start by getting to know the athletes before I actually film them. At the very least I go and meet them once, if not lots of times. It’s so important to build a relationship with them so they feel comfortable. I don’t even take a camera, I just go and have a cup of tea and chat. It helps me understand them and come up with themes, but more importantly it helps them trust me and know that I don’t have my own agenda.
Georgia actually chose the location. I know that area pretty well, but I hadn’t been to that specific place.
Christina: So Engage Your Senses was sponsored by Ellis Brigham? Did you approach brands for sponsorship or did they approach you? What’s it like working with a brand and still creating the type of stories you want to create?
Danielle: The Engage Your Senses films were very much a collaboration. I presented the themes of what we wanted to achieve and they [Ellis Brigham] supported us. Brilliantly, there was no compromise on the style of film at all, or how we did it.
Some of the films I make are paid for by the actual person that's being featured. The film you mentioned about masters athletes has a charity partner, called Independent Age, which works to enable people to achieve fulfilling lives at all ages. We got really lucky.
We all know how hard it is to get funding for films. But it’s not just about the money, it’s also the relationship you have with that partner and what you both want to achieve. Independent Age have been fantastic, we talk a lot about what they need from the project and of course we will deliver that, but ultimately they trust us to make the film we want to make.
Christina: I watched the pole vaulting film you made, which I loved! Who knew that 65-year-olds pole vaulting?
Danielle: Oh yeah! That’s the pilot for the film we’re working on at the moment. We’re following 5-6 ‘masters athletes’, athletes in their 40s 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. All are still competing!
They’re incredible athletes and it’s really inspiring to see them competing. The most amazing thing is the community and the friendships between them. Yes, it’s about staying physically active but really it’s about friendship, camaraderie and companionship.
I’m working with a photographer who’s been documenting them for years, Alex Rotas, who is herself 70. She’s really built up a really strong relationship with them all. She’s telling their stories visually through her stills photography and then we’re collaborating on the film to really bring them to a new audience.
They’re so inspiring. Not just on a sporting level but on an age level. And in terms of what we perceive we can still do at all stages of our life. Some of them haven’t taken to these sports until their 60s or even 70s!