Award-winning artist Mairéad McClean is preoccupied with memory, the fragmentary, unreliable way we reconstruct events, so it makes sense that her instrument of choice is the camera. The lens and microphone’s ability to mimic reality as though holding a mirror up to the truth, but filtered through our own perspective, akin to our own memories, plays tricks on us. A series of Mairéad’s short films are being shown at Sea Change, a film festival on Tiree that celebrates women behind the camera. She’ll also be running a workshop on 16mm film-making, and in true student-guide spirit has shared some tips with us on how to get started.
So I hear you’re working on a new film, The Nick of Time. Will that be shown at Sea Change film festival, or are you still working on it?
I’m still working on it, and I might show a preview. Because I was shooting on 16mm just two weeks ago and shooting again on Sunday, I’m just [in the process] of building it. The way that I work is: I have an idea, I write the idea up, and then when it comes to filming, I film something else [laughs]. Then I have to piece the film together with this other stuff that I started while I’m editing it.
In all of your films, though there are lots of disparate elements, there are moments it all comes together, so it makes sense that the process is instinctive/impulsive.
Yeah, it’s that fragmentary way of working. The camera, of course, is the closest thing to reality. You’re working with an art form, and you’re going ‘Oh, I can make that look exactly like it is.’ But then when you realise that the camera can actually lie, it’s very hard to get the truth through just representation of a thing as it looks. So then what you have to do – what I feel I have to do – is start breaking it down and opening it up. I shoot silent on 16mm and add all the sound afterwards, so that really is where the interrogation of it all happens.
It’s interesting what you’re saying about cameras appearing to mimic reality, because you often deal with memory in your work, and how we think of memory is the same. We consider recollections as representations of fact, but there’s actually nothing truthful about memory.
Exactly. Hilary Mantel said that your memories are not objects, they’re flowing like a stream, and we have to interrupt that stream to take a look at them. Then, depending on where you are in your life, that memory will have changed; it’ll have moved along the stream, and it’ll have shapeshifted into something else. I suppose that struck me.
I’m one of 12 children. What was funny was, because a bunch of us are very close together in age, when somebody says, ‘I remember this’, we’d go, ‘That’s not your memory, that’s mine!’, and they’d go, ‘No it’s not!’ [laughs].
Exactly! We so often use pictures to reconstruct memory too. I find that, as I’m getting older, I’ll only remember the things that have actually been documented.
That was the other thing. When I started film-making, I was looking at old photographs. And again, growing up in the area where I grew up in the 60s and 70s, there weren’t a lot of photographs of children and there certainly was no moving image. That was until I found some moving image that was shot by an American film crew, of our family in 1971, and I only found that in 2016. So it was the first time we saw ourselves as children, moving! It’s funny: moving image is totally different from photographs. So when you see yourself as a moving image, you’re stepping totally outside of yourself, and I don’t think you can do that with just a still.
Sea Change as a festival is dedicated to female artists, so I was wondering what about your take on having specifically targeted film festivals. Should there be more like it?
I think it’s super interesting because there’ll be a different kind of emphasis when you’re there. I’ve participated in so many film festivals over the years, and everybody is there and I’ve always enjoyed that. But there’s something specifically about looking more closely at how women work that I think is fascinating, because I do think there’s something different.
And in particular, if you look at early cinema, you will see an awful lot of the women were editors. Because again, initially, they sort of were likening the editing of film on those big Steenbeck machines [to ‘women’s work’]. You’d sit with strips of film and you had to join them up, so it was almost like using sewing machines to knit or weave the film together.
I also think the conversation may be slightly different when there are only women in the room [laughs]. I am one of six girls and there are six boys in our family. So, as the years go on, the six girls have a WhatsApp chat group where we talk an awful lot more about different things that I know my brothers wouldn’t be remotely interested in. They just would go ‘Stop! There’s too much talking here! We just need to know the facts!’ [laughs]
Which is actually such a beautiful thing, because women have this shared experience. Obviously, there are other factors that come into play, like sexuality, but the ‘female’ experience is pretty similar no matter where you are.
It is, completely. And age, life experience, all those things will make us different. At the festival, we’ll be showing one of the first films I made on 16mm, called Movements Recollected. That was very much an odyssey of me starting off the journey with the means of production in my trolley; there’s this self-sufficiency. As an artist, as a female artist, you can carry your camera, you can find ways of making a film that doesn’t require a big crew, a set, all these things you normally associate with film. That started with me going ‘Okay, I will do everything; everywhere I film will be involving the trolley and where it takes me.’ It all unfolds from that decision, to show that I’m making this film. With The Nick of Time I’m ending up showing how the film’s produced even more, trying to let the audience know how my brain works.
Movements Recollected also draws on the politics of the gaze, and there’s been a lot of chat about the ‘female gaze’ in cinema in the past few years. I don’t think it’s necessarily so simply defined as being in opposition to the male gaze. What are your thoughts on this?
I suppose I don’t really have an answer at all to that, because as a maker I don’t fully know myself when I’m doing it. Whatever comes out at the other end can be seen, [through the lens of] whoever is looking at it. But it just felt to me that I needed to do it. I was aware of where I come from in Northern Ireland, and where I shot the first part of the film; nobody has ever filmed that little village in that way. No one has ever looked at those trees in that way. I just wanted to show that I’m looking at it. It’s like I’m validating myself, more than thinking about how others perceive me. It just came down to me trying to understand myself, my life, what’s impacted me and how that might help others to investigate or get interested in themselves, and give themselves a voice.
At that time. living through the Troubles, you could see that across the board, regardless of your religion, there were people who were struggling, people who you never heard their voice. There were marginalised people who had loads of attention and media because they were making the biggest noise or the biggest trouble for everybody, and then the smaller, quieter people literally just had to get on with their lives and somehow get nothing. That really made an impact on me, and I wanted to say that everybody has a value, everybody is worth listening to, and everybody has a story, whatever way you want to express it. This is the way that I found to express it.
What are your suggestions for those who want to get into working with 16mm film but don’t know where to start?
With students, first of all, does your university or college have any facilities? There will be something there, or at least cameras that you can borrow. And then work out just exactly how and why you want to use 16mm. Recently I saw a piece of work where the artist had filmed what she wanted on her phone, then filmed from her phone onto 16mm, like an animation technique. You shoot one frame at a time from your phone. So it’s a really cool way to get a 16mm aesthetic cheaply. Then, if you’re making a short film, you’d only have to use a 100ft roll of film. There are lots of interesting hybrid kind of ways of working today, using the tools that you already have.
In the masterclasses, I’ll talk through what kind of film you’re wanting to make, the suitability of 16mm for certain kinds of work, and how you can use the camera you already have on your phone. Because when you’re first starting out, if you show something you’ve already shot, you can show [funding bodies] what you can do and apply for more money to work further on 16mm.
If you apply for a grant, you’d be more likely to get that money, because you’ve shown them what you can do. So the workshop will focus on making the means of production available by having things you can do at no cost, and then the decisions you can make afterwards to see how you can introduce 16mm.
Sea Change Festival is held on Tiree from 22nd till 24th September. More information here.