Dom Pates is keeping alive the “I’m- mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” tradition. Like the fictional TV anchor Howard Beale in Network (1976), Pates uses the video diary format to fight for the little guy against the big guys. In his 15-minute personal documentary— “Journeys By #SouthernFail”—Pates is battling government, corporate, and union forces that have nearly destroyed a vital commuter service south of London. His weapon: a smartphone.
There are differences, of course between Beale and Pates. Beale, portrayed famously by Peter Finch, was a celebrated TV network newsman; Pates began his campaign as an unknown Educational Technologist. Beale had access to a large studio crew and a vast network; Pates is a one-man show who has had to build an outlet, mainly via Twitter and YouTube. And perhaps most important, while Beale’s activism was confined to the studio floor (although he did open a window and shout out his message), Pates’s stage is the real world: his video takes us on the trains that have become a curse to thousands of patrons.
While fighting to change a commuter service that he himself relies on, Pates is simultaneously demonstrating the value of the video diary–a kind of extended selfie–as a social-political tool. In the interview that follows, he explains how he got to where he is and gives tips the rest of us can use if problems arise in our own communities, If? Let’s make that when.
MMM: How would you characterize “Journeys by #SouthernFail.” Do you see it as a documentary, a polemic, citizen journalism, or something else?
Pates: When I was promoting it on Twitter, I used the hashtag #phonedoc. It made sense to characterise it as a smartphone-made documentary it is all made on a phone. Emphasizing the phone made sense because the subject matter was about ‘being mobile’. There were no other films findable on a search of that hashtag (mostly just people with broken screens looking for a ‘phone doctor’). That my film was the only one with that hashtag looked like an opportunity to make a mark while a field was still open. I’ve always been interested in pushing boundaries where possible and the art I admire tends to be the boundary pushing stuff too (Bowie, Miles Davis, etc). It’s rarely easy to be the first to push a door open, but it can make for a more satisfying creative experience to do so, and makes it easier for others to walk through once the door’s already open.
MMM: You’ve also used the label “video diary.”
Pates: Yes, because the film “reads” as a semi-autobiographical picture of passenger life on the Southern Rail network. I didn’t really want it to look too polemical as that largely means taking a side. I’m more interested in capturing the situational stalemate than pointing a finger in one specific direction. However, the idea did originally come as a suggestion from a friend, in response to my ever-rising anger on Twitter over the situation!
MMM: How did you develop your approach to the material?
Pates: One of the great things about using a phone for filming is that it’s discreet. When a film crew is using standard equipment, it’s obvious to anyone that there’s a film being made. When you pass someone using their phone on the street, you don’t know if they’re on a Skype call with a friend, if they’re taking pictures, or if they’re just using it as a mirror. In the case of making this film, this made it easier to shoot. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder on trains or platforms for staff keen not to get media coverage of the train problems. As I was also making this video by grabbing moments in between work and home rather than setting dedicated film-making time aside, I’d make use of the walks between the stations and home or office. Both of these factors were critical to the ‘video diary’ approach taken. Also important, this seemed to be the best way to tell the story so that a viewer could see through the commuter’s eyes as if they too were running for a last train.
MMM: Could you say something about incorporating tweets in the film?
Pates: The #SouthernFail hashtag had become a rallying cry, an organising principle, and a discoursal feature for Southern’s long-suffering passengers. It was also how I solicited contributions from other commuters as well as representing their voices more generally. It was logical, therefore, to make screenshots of other people’s tweets part of the imagery. Of course, screenshots are easy to take on a phone.
MMM: Why did you include the hashtag in the title?
Pates: It was intended as a piece of ‘SEO juice’, to make the film more discoverable to people searching for content related to the UK rail crisis.
MMM: Could you tell us how you got into filmmaking?
Pates: In 1991, I joined some lunchtime video production classes as part of a Media Studies A Level class I was taking (A Level grades are the expected route into university in the UK). Given access to proper cameras, an edit suite and a TV studio at the college as well as having tutors that had a lot of experience at the BBC, I got a really lucky start. I had another ‘square peg’ friend who took the class, and we came up with all sorts of adventurous projects.
MMM: For example?
Pates: In one, we made a short documentary about the college cafeteria, interviewing food and vending machines. In another, we played around with the convention of continuity within an interview set up. When the camera cut to the interviewer, he was always in the same place, but when it cut to the interviewee, he was always in a different place: behind his chair, on the toilet, up a tree. I followed that phase with a 60 minute documentary for my undergrad degree, which had not been done in that course before. The first camera I actually owned was a Super-8, inherited from my grandfather when he passed away, which I only tinkered with a little. As the tools for filmmaking were still not that easily accessible to most people in the 1990s, I didn’t do that much.
MMM: So when did you resume your film work?
Pates: In 2003, I moved to Japan and bought my first digital camera. When I finally bought a Mac a few years later—iMovie was baked in—and with enough scraps of footage to work with, I started experimenting with digital film production. This roughly coincided with the rise of YouTube, which brought distribution into the mix. “Journeys by #SouthernFail” is my first production where everything was done on the phone.
MMM: Do you work alone?
Pates: Usually. But the few times that I have collaborated, my own knowledge has increased and it’s generally resulted in a far better piece than I could have produced solo! One example of this is “New Learning Spaces at City” produced with the most excellent Steve McCombe. The video generated international interest across the university sector.
MMM: Could you tell us about the gear you used in making “Journeys By #SouthernFail”?
Pates: I used an iPhone 6s and intentionally no other equipment. It can be creatively satisfying to set limitations and see what’s possible within them. A small budget is one example, as is graphic designing just with a single font. In this case, I wanted to see what I could produce working with just what I had in my pocket. That meant things like using iMovie for iOS for the editing, including the music contained within. It also meant making use of the environment around me as I was physically mobile. In filming the time lapse bus journey sequence, for example, I made it stable by holding my phone in place on the frame of the bus window. I’d write a little narration on the train, then stand in a doorway I was passing on the way into the office with my Apple headphones to record the voiceover, rather than set up a proper voiceover recording with a pro mic.
MMM: When making the movie, did you encounter any problems?
Pates: One challenge related to the wonderful ‘The Ballad of Southern Rail’ by Nathaniel Tapley I found on Twitter (naturally via the #SouthernFail hashtag stream). I asked Nathaniel if I could use the poem to close the film. He was happy for me to do so. However, I couldn’t download it or capture streamed audio via the phone, so I had to record it at home on my PC and transfer that to my phone.
MMM: Was there a reason for making the run-time almost exactly 15 minutes?
Pates: Actually, I wanted the film to be a little longer, but the YouTube upload limit for my account is 15 minutes. This meant having to cut 25%. Having to do things like shave seconds off transitions was a challenge on the phone’s small screen. I’ve come across quite a few film festivals for phone-shot or produced movies, and the accepted length seems to be about 10 minutes in most cases. I’m going to need to produce a shorter version of the film to be able to submit it.
MMM: Did you find it difficult to shoot yourself as in the opening section where you look into the camera?
Pates: My first step was to write a short script, which I memorized. There was no easy way of covering that with an autocue (teleprompter) app on another device without losing the effect of addressing the viewer directly. I didn’t want to be hanging around on a railway bridge with other peoplenoticing me. After a few takes, I still wasn’t happy with the result, but justified it as part of the aesthetic of making a film on a phone.
MMM: What kind of script did you write?
Pates: The original aim for this film was to take three random weeks and give a brief video diary flavour of the commuting experience during that time. I mostly improvised as I went along, capturing footage that I thought would be good to include when I saw it. For a few elements that were planned, I mostly wrote the voiceover narratives in advance. It was a different way of creating, as I usually prefer to work to a script for film projects. I guess there’s no reason why improvisation shouldn’t be a technique in film production as it is in other art forms though.
MMM: What do you like best about the production?
Pates: I learned that it’s possible to create a short film that is of a good enough quality and has generated the response like this one has using just the phone in your pocket and the simplest tools on it. I’m inherently a bit shy, so I wasn’t completely sure about putting myself forward as the subject. It probably wouldn’t have worked the same any other way though. Some of the effects, like time-lapse or sped-up footage, might be fairly standard these days, but they do lend themselves rather nicely towards conveying motion when travelling. I was delighted to be able to include ‘The Ballad of Southern Rail’ at the end as well.
MMM: Was there anything else that disappointed you?
Pates: I really wanted to be able to do was to get some other passengers to do a direct-to-camera piece themselves about their experiences. This would mean that it wasn’t just my voice. I developed a process for people to get something they’d recorded on their phones to me via Dropbox and then import into iMovie. However, despite extensive pushing of this on Twitter, no one took up the bait. Of the two that contributed, they ended up typing their stories and sending to me as screenshots. Of course thinking about it, would you record a video selfie on a packed train or platform and send it to a stranger you’d only met on Twitter? Probably not. I doubt I would either!
MMM: How have you distributed the movie?
Pates: It’s currently hosted on YouTube. I’ve mainly been promoting it through Twitter which has resulted in wider traditional media coverage. The ongoing rail crisis in South East England is national news and has been having an increasingly wider impact in the UK as the stalemate deepens. That has led to my being interviewed by local press and radio about the film.
MMM: How has the public reacted to your video diary?
Pates: It got a pretty good reaction on Twitter. I’ve had comments like “I’ll never complain of my commute again.” A tweet directed at the train company read: “…suggest you take a look at this film by @dompates as I don’t believe you really know what the experience you provide is like…” Another tweet aimed at the government minister responsible for the railways said: “Watch this… This is what it’s actually like.” While it’s nice that people appreciated my work, it’s more gratifying that it has been used as evidence to educate the parties responsible for the crisis. Twitter was where the buzz started, and this then led to interviews on local radio and press. This in turn raised the viewpoint for the film, so it’s now the most widely viewed original work on my YouTube channel. A local radio station has come back to me more than once, asking me to comment on other aspects of the situation. I’ve become a local go-to commuter voice.
MMM: What advice do you have for other people who would like to engage in activist filmmaking?
Pates: I have three tips.
- If you’re new to filmmaking, experiment, practice, and be prepared to show people that early work and get feedback. Much like playing a musical instrument where you need to play badly before you can play well, you most likely need to make a few films that you’re not really happy with before you start making some that click. Don’t be afraid to work within the limitations you have, such as just your phone or the apps on it. You’re packing incredible computational power in your pocket, and even just a few years ago it was much more difficult to produce something worth watching with those same limitations.
- Make use of the form and do something new with it. If you are physically mobile, allow that to be reflected in your work and take advantage of it.
- Don’t think that a film needs to be long. Mine was probably already too long. There’s a lot that can be done even in just five minutes
MMM: How can people learn more about your work?
Pates: Twitter’s probably the best option:@. I sometimes write a greater length on Medium, and release the occasional new film on my YouTube channel globalismfilms. You can check out some of my other work at Pates Online.
Some rights reserved: Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license by Dom Pates and MobileMovieMaking Magazine.