Words: Sophie Kindreich
In the 90s Barbara Orton (now a BAFTA-winning documentary producer) made films with the venerable Easterhouse activist Cathy McCormack. In War Without Bullets (a term McCormack coined describing the war capitalism wages on the working-class) McCormack highlights the links between housing, health, and wealth inequalities. McCormack’s ideas took her to Nicaragua and South Africa, with the latter trip documented in At the Sharp End of the Knife. Both of these films will be shown as part of ‘Hang on a wee minute…’, an afternoon at Easterhouse’s Platform venue celebrating McCormack’s memory. SNACK caught up with Barbara ahead of the event to discuss her work with McCormack, her background in community arts, and introducing Bruce Forsyth to Willi Ninja.
Have these films been shown much in public in recent years? What about them resonates with modern audiences?
The success of War Without Bullets has been absolutely phenomenal! Cathy had this brilliant concept of a war without bullets, fought with briefcases instead of guns, and we went on to develop that idea. One of her famous lines is: ‘I asked my doctor for a prescription for a warm, dry home, but he offered me anti-depressants. I refused his kind of medicine and I joined my community’s fight for justice instead.’ She always made that link between ill health and poverty. War Without Bullets’ message is short, simple, and clear. It’s been used at conferences, by popular education people, by academics, and lately by a whole new generation of young activists that have found it. It speaks to them because Cathy speaks to them. She had a way of communicating that connected with people, she was a person you wanted to watch and listen to. I’ve been talking about this film for 20 years but it’s still relevant.
At the Sharp End of the Knife was more complicated. Although Cathy’s brilliant in it, it’s full of problems and it’s not something you want to watch all the time. We talked to too many people and there were too many characters in it. But for an activist audience, it’ll be really interesting.
How did you first meet Cathy and end up working together?
I was a community development worker and a youth worker before that, so I was always involved in using arts as a tool for social change. I brought that idea with me to Glasgow when I was employed as a community arts officer during the 1990 City of Culture. I wanted there to be a community arts legacy, rather than just pulling off lots of stunts and performances. Cathy came to see me because she was part of a drama group in Easthall that was making a play about damp busters. I was dying to give projects like that money, and as we were having a discussion Cathy twigged that I was an open door. We struck up a rapport after that meeting, we kind of became partners in crime.
With War Without Bullets Cathy had something to say and I had some tools, video equipment, and the experience. I chummed up with another colleague of mine and we made that film on the hoof, in one day! We didn’t know what we were doing but we were following our gut, letting Cathy speak to the camera and trying to get a few visual effects. We had no money, but sometimes the raw idea comes through and you have to improvise. It was so DIY.
In 2012 the Commonwealth Games regeneration antagonised working-class communities like Margaret Jaconelli’s [who was evicted because of the games] in Dalmarnock, so I’m curious about the local response to the 1990 City of Culture campaign. The council was splashing out to put Glasgow on the European stage meanwhile communities like Cathy’s were campaigning for them to provide a decent standard of housing. Were you aware of any tension?
That’s why they appointed a community arts officer, to get the local voice in. I left 1990 when I could see the writing on the wall that they wouldn’t be continuing some of the projects. But there is a legacy and a lot of the activity was carried on by community groups. Even though the community side was well-publicised, there was still criticism from oppositional leftists.
But that wasn’t Cathy’s philosophy. She got the money to do the damp busters play which was an innovative way to make her community heard. At the same time, she could criticise it, and she did! There are interviews of her saying: ‘Excuse me, the council are spending all that money and can move on that, but they can’t move on this’.
The history of our social movements risks being lost over time. Before her death, McCormack donated archival material to Glasgow Women’s Library, and documentarians like yourself also play an important role in recording social histories. What do you see as your purpose as a documentarian?
My purpose is to document the voice of the voiceless, which even applies to a film I made with Bruce Forsyth about the roots of popular dances. You might think Dancing? Bruce Forsyth?! But I was looking at social history and cultural movements through dancing, exploring the jazz roots of hip hop and the Latin roots of current ballroom dances – the raunchy, sexy roots! There’s real stories there. For example, we looked at how Irish immigrants in New York and African-Americans who moved up from the South met in Hell’s Kitchen and produced tap dancing. Bruce met the Nicholas Brothers, famous Hollywood tap dancers who weren’t allowed to progress because they were Black. Hollywood only let them be in tap dance scenes that were cut out when the film showed in the South. Fayard Nicholas told Bruce Forsyth about that on a primetime BBC One documentary.
We also looked at how jazz steps changed over the years as the music changed, which led us to breakdancing and voguing in New York. We took Bruce to see a hero of the gay balls called Willi Ninja, who was famous from that cult documentary Paris is Burning. Like Cathy, he was a big personality, and he gave us this wonderful interview about being the godfather of voguing. People say it was Madonna that invented it, but Willi Ninja got to say otherwise in my film! Television has its constraints but I see it as my job to work within them to get these stories across.
Even as your work has moved away from grassroots community stories they’ve maintained a countercultural edge. You’ve developed this trojan horse approach, using flashy or human interest threads to get radical stories commissioned. Is this approach still necessary when pitching or has the landscape changed?
I think a many-pronged approach is important, there’s no one way. You recognise your skills and your interests, and you speak to the audience you want to. It’s fine if people want to continue making activist films, but for television you can’t just shout at people. We learned that making At the Sharp End of the Knife. We weren’t shouting, but there was a bit of telling people and with television, the rule is show, don’t tell. Lots of activist films are analytical or issue-based, but what gets across is character. And [Orton’s BAFTA-winning documentary] In Cuba They’re Still Dancing was a real example of that. What was it about? The role of culture in the revolution, and how cultural expression can give people strength and power. But what was the story of In Cuba They’re Still Dancing? It was about a woman from Glasgow who goes to Cuba to discover the roots of the rumba. She discovers that dancing brings people together and gives expression to who you are. It’s why the Cubans are so strong. They know who they are, they’re proud of who they are, and they’re not going to have other people’s values imposed on them. There are politics and issues on top of that, but that’s the bottom of the Cuban revolution, the deep layer of it.
Things have had to change in television and there’s a real push for diversity now. The industry is taking diverse voices seriously and it’s not just about gender or race, it’s socioeconomic as well. You’ve got to have 20 percent diversity if you sign a contract with the BBC, in front of and behind the camera. So now is the time. If you’ve got something to say and you’ve got an engaging film, they will fall over themselves to help you get it on television.
What project have you been most proud of over the years?
In Cuba They’re Still Dancing is still my favourite. I was just following my heart but it was really successful and toured festivals internationally. The Leipzig festival was the old prestigious socialist festival and it won the audience prize there, which was a joy to me. I wanted to show Cuba in a different light than ‘Fidel Castro’s a communist, they don’t let people do this and they don’t let people do that’. Of course, there are constraints because they have to defend their revolution, and I made it during the Special Period when Cuba was really struggling because of the US embargo. What made it work was Agnes and her wonderful way of expressing herself. It wasn’t telling anybody what to do or how to think and it wasn’t opinion, opinion, opinion all the time. If you want to make a film that engages beyond your activist community, you have to make something that people can connect with. Agnes is brilliant to be with, I can watch it again and again because it’s so entertaining.
‘Hang on a wee minute…’ is showing 3rd June at Platform, Easterhouse