“It was fresh air that kept us sane” said Kathy, reflecting on growing up in the 1940s. Kathy was part of ‘Making Waves’, three days of FM community radio shows created by Bridgwater Senior Citizens’ Forum in 2012. Broadcasting from an empty High Street shop, the Forum’s sometimes provocative but always warm-hearted shows were well received across the district, one listener claiming to have picked up the signal as far away as Windwhistle Ridge, 20 miles or so to the south west! The project was funded through the Big Lottery and facilitated by Somerset Film.
Harnessing technology to enable creativity has been one of Somerset Film’s core purposes since its inception in the early 90s. Phil Shepherd, Facilitator from 1995-2020, recalls how it began.
“We asked ourselves what difference £5,000 of South West Arts money could make to the way film and video was understood and produced in the county. We sought out filmmakers and anyone we could find with a passion for film, to see how best to make things happen. We organized open screenings and training sessions in village halls and back rooms of pubs, bringing people together, seasoned professionals and school students alike. All sorts of new connections were made. For example, a trainee set designer living in the middle of Exmoor discovered that a TV producer she’d never met lived just half a mile away in the nearby village. New bonds were made, and collaborations forged.
People didn’t have access to the kit in those days, and video production was far from user-friendly. We depended on local council arts officers’ support, frequently borrowing their facilities, not to mention their desks and phones. They were brilliant. At one point we had an edit suite in the Environmental Health office in Chard!”
Somerset Film Ltd was established in 1997, later registering as a charity, with trustees from education, regeneration, film and business. Storytelling was at its heart then as now, with many of the early productions giving voice to marginalised communities, as well as offering work experience and informal training to the volunteer crews.
The growing body of work came to the notice of HTV, the regional broadcaster, prompting a series of one-hour Somerset Film commissions over several years. The first film aired was Screening Somerset, which explored how traditional film culture was being challenged by young filmmakers embracing the exponential growth of digital technology. The TV exposure generated profile and momentum, and in 1999 Somerset Film produced Catching the Light, in which 70 local residents of Glastonbury and Bridgwater were enabled to produce their own one-minute films.
“From vibrant music videos, to tales of memory and loss in migrant communities, Catching the Light really raised the bar for us in terms of production values and audience reach,” says Phil. “It was time to think
longer-term, to set up a base of operation. Bridgwater seemed like the best bet, with good transport links, not to mention a rebel spirit that we warmed to!”
And so in 2003 the Engine Room community media centre was opened, through a fortuitous amalgam of available funding (notably from UK Online) a sympathetic landlord (Sedgemoor District Council) and a suitable High Street building – one-time site of the town’s police and fire stations – and later a Robin Reliant showroom. “Film director Julien Temple lived nearby and asked his friend Joe Strummer to play a benefit for us. We were off to a great start”.
The Engine Room provided facilities previously unheard of in a small rural town, quickly becoming a firm fixture in the county’s cultural landscape, and offering uniquely accessible and often free access to the tools, facilities and expertise necessary for creative media production. It provided the foundation to deliver on the organisation’s core purposes of encouraging creativity, building media literacy, and fostering debate and critical thinking.
The Engine Room went on to become the seed bed for literally hundreds of county-wide projects large and small since 2003, some community based, some education and skills-led, some rooted in health and well-being. Projects have involved people from all ethnicities and backgrounds, all levels of experience and expertise. These include the award-winning ‘Family Connections’ programme, the JUMPcuts films made with people with learning disabilities, the BFI Film Academy, the Capture Highbridge archive and work with the annual ‘Bridgwater Together’ celebrations, described by Community Engagement worker and Somerset Film trustee Michal Puzynski as “great opportunities for diverse communities to learn new skills and to create something amazing together.”
Since 2013, Somerset Film has received Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio funding to deliver the Ignite programme, dedicated to passing on digital skills to artists across all art forms, and helping communities across the county benefit from creative technology. In 2019 Somerset Film co-ordinated a successful consortium bid to ACE for £1.1m to set up the ‘Seed’ arts programme, (now led by Homes in Sedgemoor), which is building new partnerships for widening engagement.
In the same year Somerset Film declared a climate emergency “to reduce our carbon footprint … to use our strengths in storytelling and community engagement to enable others to explore this issue.” Though climate change will affect both rich and poor, its impact will not be felt equally, and the same can be said of Covid-19. When the future looks uncertain for so many, not least for arts organisations, what’s next for Somerset Film?
“In the short term we’re about to expand the Engine Room again, opening another floor of space to host an archive room and additional training resources, and in the longer term our vision is for a digital gallery and more production space to support local talent”, says recently appointed Creative Director Deb Richardson.
“The expansion has been in the planning for over a decade but it’s not just about the fabric of a building. We’re aiming to introduce new resources to support communities where they are, with programmes to develop skills for employment, and to address health issues alongside the all-important education, engagement and talent development programme already in place. As an organisation we’ve always tried to involve different voices in the conversation, to listen carefully and respond to what our communities need. To seek out those people with a seed of an idea, to help them plant it and find the resources to ensure it grows.”