An award-winning cinematographer and director based in Kendal, Dom Bush's work largely revolves around engaging character-led films and connection. We've been drawn to one of his latest short films 'Blackthorn', which follows poet and dry stone waller Sam Robinson.
How did Blackthorn come about, and what motivated you to follow the story through?
Like many of my films, Blackthorn had been tumbling around in my head for years, just without a clear narrative or shape to it. When film funds or commissioning opportunities come along they give me the incentive I need to refine and develop my ideas and create some kind of narrative that fits the form of the brief. It's a process I really love, though the opportunities for creative documentaries like this can be few and far between. This development always happens in collaboration with other people, I couldn’t do it on my own.
I was lucky enough to be granted the commission by Doc Society, who support documentaries with funding from the British Film Institute and National Lottery. It was a challenging application, and you really need to know what you’re trying to say, and why, but we got through and were given the budget we needed to produce the film.
Blackthorn came from years of sitting around fires listening to friends singing songs, being out in the woods, swimming in the rivers and generally enjoying the fabric, culture and landscape here in Cumbria. I grew up in Cumbria and now live in Kendal, on the Southern edge of the Lake District. It’s incredibly rich in culture but is generally overlooked by the hill baggers and tourists heading past and into the Lakes - which is no bad thing. Sam and I have been friends for a number of years, and I’ve always been intrigued by his gift with words and the intricacies of his character. Essentially, he can describe this place in a way that I can’t. So through slightly gritted teeth, he let me point a camera at him!
'Blackthorn came from years of sitting around fires listening to friends singing songs, being out in the woods, swimming in the rivers and generally enjoying the fabric, culture and landscape here in Cumbria.'
A small section of the film focuses on ‘smell’, a hugely connecting sense of ours to emotion and memories. Do you deliberately consider any of our ‘senses’ in your creative process?
Great question! The film really is about connection, as is much of my work. Connection to ourselves and to the natural world. It’s difficult not to be connected to the natural world when you’ve chosen to live in a place like this. It underpins many of our lives in a way that I’m sure is different in an urban environment. For me personally, being connected means walking barefoot, getting wet and cold, swimming in the rivers, being on a mountaintop alone or with close friends as it gets dark, and documenting what I see, hear and feel about this place. So yeh, our senses link our inner world to our outer world and create a connection.
I know that Sam’s connection comes, in part, from building walls. Touching the stone, working in the soil - ‘getting in amongst it’. We both have kids, and I know that’s what we try to foster in them too. We want it to continue. I think Sam and I both share the view that people’s obsession with technology takes us further away from ourselves and our environment, thus further breaking our connection. We all know where that break is taking us as a race. This film serves as some kind of protest against that. For me, Sam’s dog Eli was a perfect representation of an unbroken primal connection, and that’s why he ended up being a big part of the film.
During the filming and in the context of the next generation(s), did you feel a hope that our connectedness is going in the right direction, or was it more despair that we’re on the journey to a slow death re: connectedness and modernity with all its challenges?
That’s a difficult one to answer. Connection to the digital world seems, more often than not, to be prioritised over connection to the natural world. There is always hope, and we can see it in the projects that take place worldwide to protect the environment and the oceans, but I can’t pretend I’m not deeply worried about the future for my children. Human beings are profoundly flawed, and can be too easily waylaid by greed and the temptation to exploit, and evidence suggests that that’s not changing anytime soon. But we’re also capable of profound care and incredible innovation. Which way will we go? Gulp. I’m probably not the right person to ask…
'For me personally, being connected means walking barefoot, getting wet and cold, swimming in the rivers, being on a mountaintop alone or with close friends as it gets dark, and documenting what I see, hear and feel about this place.'
From your experience over the last couple of years, do you have any day-to-day tips on how we can reclaim our connection and primal instincts (like the dog and the deer, but without the need to chop heads off!)
Chopping heads off wouldn’t be what I recommend no. I suppose everyone’s idea of connection differs based on their life experiences. For some, I suspect the concept is much more difficult to access and we should be supporting people as much as we can to understand it. I certainly believe it’s possible to have and maintain connection in a city, but it’s important to prioritise spending time in nature. Time that’s just about you.
‘Connection’ is something we’re constantly sold, by companies, through our phones, through news and social media. And it takes some time to understand what's real and what is simply a marketing strategy we are buying into. The idea that we share everything at all times is pretty unnatural and can be a huge barrier to connecting with our surroundings. So I try to leave my phone in the car when I’m out, and dedicate time for myself that doesn’t involve anything digital. I get sucked into social media like many others!
I don’t tend to swim in winter, I’m too much of a wimp. But I’ll go out of my way to swim every day if the weather is warm. It is complete immersion in the natural world. It’s a strong indication of our ongoing disconnection when people feel it’s strange or novel to go swimming in a river.
In recent years I’ve been turning to analogue processes in my work when I can. I found an old Pentax camera and two lenses in a charity shop before lockdown. I paid £15 for it, then started the process of re-learning analogue photography and black and white developing at home. Most of my work is digital, but mechanical and chemical processes help me to feel more connected to the subjects I’m documenting.
Where exactly did the filming take place? And what time of year?
Everything that made the cut in Blackthorn was captured within about 10 miles of my home in Kendal, and we shot through early autumn and summer. Believe it or not, we actually went as far as London, but it became a very different film in the edit. We were working with some very meaty topics and the film was twice the length, but it wasn’t working. After a lot of challenges, my editor Simon and I decided to distil the narrative down to its purest form and remove almost everything! Every word and shot in the film now has earned its place. It was a difficult process but so valuable, and I love what we’ve come out with. It feels to me like a folk song - kinda mysterious and poetic, but hard to put your finger on.
Most importantly of all, it’s completely grounded in this place. I feel very privileged to call Cumbria my home. I'd like to thank my committed collaborators - my partner and producer on the film Helen Lawrie, and editor and collaborator Simon Sylvester.
Can we find out more about the poetry in the film, is there a link?
As far as I know, Sam doesn’t have any of his poetry online, he tends to stay under the radar like that. But he released an album of his folk songs on record recently, and there are some digital tracks on his band camp here: https://samrobinson.bandcamp.com
The film itself is closely connected to Sam’s song Blackthorn, which he performs here with Hannah Flynn: www.youtube.com/watch?v=95uTD98T-M8
As a personal project I’ve been filming many of the musicians around me over the years, and you can see the videos on this channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UCPlr2gXWNT8fxPLJOVfpr4g/videos