Clare Sturges is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the founder and Creative Director of Brightest Films, based in Cardiff Wales. Clare's recent documentary Sexwork, Love & Mr Right – about an Amsterdam red-light district sexworker who falls in love with a customer – earned her a BAFTA Cymru Breakthrough Award in 2015, the first female Director to win this category.
How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
I started out in filmmaking as an advertising scriptwriter, then quickly realised I love the teamwork and hands-on creativity of directing, especially documentaries. My first opportunity to make a longform film came through a Dutch production company I’d met at the Berlin Film Festival Berlinale 2012. They had finance from a private investor and wanted to make a longform documentary about Amsterdam’s red-light district for sale through international markets. They asked me to develop the initial idea and direct the film. I had full editorial control.
The film, Sexwork & Me: Red Light Conversations went on to win Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and an Award of Excellence at the Women’s Independent Film Festival Los Angeles 2012, and sold to ABC Australia – the country’s public service broadcaster – at the Cannes Film Festival Marché de Film. It’s now available on a compilation DVD along with the follow-up film Sexwork, Love & Mr Right.
Tell us where your love of documentary film first came from
I love all kinds of filmmaking – from adverts, music videos and promos, to indie shorts, documentaries and blockbuster features. I think that all these forms give you the opportunity to develop creative techniques and gain experience of the production process. I’m inspired by well-considered, beautiful, meaningful cinematography, visual and aural storytelling, and high production values across online, in cinemas, at home, on TV… literature, art, radio.
My first interest in documentary came through photography, in particular the photojournalism of Sebastaio Salgado (about whom Wim Wenders has recently made a film called The Salt of the Earth). A war photographer friend of mine took me to an exhibition of his work at CaixaForum when I was living in Barcelona in the early Noughties – I was absolutely transfixed by Salgado’s depiction of migrant peoples across the world and the way he seemed to capture ‘decisive moments’ that revealed so much humanity. It triggered something profound in me, a kind of recognition that life is precious and fragile.
It’s taken me over 15 years to realise that into something I can sustain as a profession, for which I feel very lucky and am willing to work hard for.
What particularly interests you in the human story?
I think that in Western culture we have an unhealthy obsession with fame, youth, wealth and status, and it can lead to a crisis of identity. Stars and celebrities don’t really have much to do with most people’s real experiences, but we compare ourselves with their glittering lives so that ours come up lacking. I see my job as looking around us and spotting the people and the stories that will inspire emotion; reveal the intimate detail of lives that are unfamiliar; encourage people to think differently and question stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions. I’m not interested in celebrities for celebrity’s sake or reality stars.
I believe that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell and that life’s true stars are among us – our next door neighbour, our cousin, our friend – people leading apparently unremarkable lives doing remarkable things. They are our everyday heroes and they are people I think audiences will relate to and want to get to know.
How difficult was it changing careers and going into the film industry?
Before I got into film at the age of 30, I studied the humanities (literature and philosophy), taught English as a foreign language in Spain and Italy, worked as an editor in consumer magazine publishing for five years, then retrained as a marketer before going freelance as a copywriter in advertising agencies (that’s a whole other story).
Being a freelance allowed me to explore film opportunities as they came up, and manage things around my paid work. For example, I was invited to a screenwriting workshop in Copenhagen by Brendan Foley – a director I met through the National Union of Journalists (I was a member for five years). And I’ve attended Cannes Film Festival, Berlinale, Edinburgh, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Foyle Film Festival Ireland and a women’s festival in Burbank, Los Angeles.
What advice would you give others who might want to do what you do?
Have a second income and keep it coming in. Do things that are completely unrelated to making films – good stories come from life and getting out there, not watching movies, consuming online media and TV. Get as much training as you can – in writing, story, production, promotion etc. Present yourself well with a good website and social media presence. Be clear and compelling when you describe what you can do. Never undersell your skills, experience and attitude.
But be super sure that the way you come across in person matches up with everything you say you are online, and you really can deliver what you promise people – on time, within budget, without compromising quality. This is especially important if you’re commissioned to do some work, or you’re giving a talk in public, speaking on a panel, pitching, in a meeting or in a networking situation.
Join professional membership bodies and go to their socials. I’m a member of BAFTA in Wales, the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the British Humanist Association – all of which represent different parts of my skillset, personal ethos and approach to my professional life. I started out at Chapter Moviemaker, which is run by the excellent Tom Betts in Cardiff once a month, in association with Shooting People.
You’ll need life experience and maturity to manage the relationships and situations you find yourself in as a serious documentary-maker, so don’t neglect this stuff. Building a career as a filmmaker is a long-term endeavour. For me, if I could make good films and sustain this career for the rest of my life, I would look back from my deathbed and feel my life was well spent.
Oh, and don’t drink too much at film festivals.
Where would you like to be in five years time?
My aim is to make visually beautiful, thought-provoking films that challenge us to think differently about the world we live in and our changing social reality. In five years time I’d like to be making culturally significant, independent feature-length documentaries for the international market that have my unique fingerprint as a director – I want people to know what to expect from a Clare Sturges film, and to look forward to it when I have a new film coming out.
I’d like to be working with really excellent, top-flight producers, cinematographers, editors, publicity people and distributors around the world, supported by the best broadcasters (like BBC, Ch4, PBS America, NRK Norway, SVT Sweden, YLE Finland, DR Denmark and ABC Australia) and funded by a mix of film agency, film fund, third sector, private patronage and crowdfunding finance. I already have a statement of interest from distributor Journeyman Pictures, an excellent crowdfunding partner Spaceboy UK and the support of some leading people, so it’s a start!
Tell us a bit about your latest project My Brief Eternity?
The My Brief Eternity project is a powerful and poignant way of sharing the inspiring legacy of Wales’s much-loved late artist Osi Rhys Osmond – an important public intellectual whose work and practice has value for everyone.
It came about when I was introduced to Osi by a mutual friend at a still life art exhibition. One of the first things he said to me was that he was having chemo for cancer and that, “…it’s hell, but better off than being dead.” I was completely taken with his candour, his speaking style – he was there to launch the exhibition – and the way he made very complex things accessible and understandable.
I immediately approached the cancer charity Maggie’s to collaborate on the project, and Osi’s faculty at University of Wales Trinity Saint David. It took six months of work to get the funding in place, during which time Osi was fading, but we made it just in time and filmed with him at his beautiful home in Llansteffan in the last month of his life.
The film documents Osi's artistic process as a metaphor for life, following him as he creates his last artwork. As Osi pieces together the people, places, memories and experiences that matter to him in a fascinating 'psychogeopgraphy' – and the painting takes shape – he reflects on how we come to terms with mortality, entreating us all to value our lives, no matter how ordinary they may seem.
This is an important aspect of existence for us all to consider, even though it's hard to talk about and something we often avoid. Osi was so open, candid and clear – he leads by example. I hope the film will help people living with cancer and their families, and the wider public, to reflect on Osi's approach, opening up new conversations about our relationship with life and death.
One of the most rewarding things for me about this project was that Osi and his wife accepted me into their lives at a time when he was most vulnerable. They allowed me and my excellent crew (Director of Photography Ryan Owen Eddleston and sound recordist Nick Davies) to capture intimate moments that turned out to be some of Osi’s last.
The confidence Osi showed in me, the way he welcomed us into their home and worked with us as a part of the team – it confirmed my purpose with the film and bolstered my commitment to producing a work of quality that would honour the man with integrity, creativity and sensitivity. It’s a shame Osi didn’t live to see the film.
Maggie's talks to Director Clare Sturges about My Brief Eternity:https://vimeo.com/129786524
I’m in early-stage talks with cancer charity Maggie’s about doing another shortform project with them. I’m also developing a TV documentary called The Soul Midwives, which is about these extraordinary people who help someone who is dying to have a good death – they’re like heroes of the dying.
I’m also developing a feature documentary about global end of life care – it’s a tough sell, but I’d really like to document the ways different peoples, communities and societies deal with this most tragic, often painful yet universal aspect of the human condition. I’d like to raise some tricky questions about why cheap pain relief medicine isn’t widely available worldwide, and explore what makes a good death.
More than anything, I hope that winning the BAFTA Cymru Breakthrough Award brings me new opportunities to work in Wales, nationally and internationally. So I’m open to new commissions from broadcasters, production houses, charities or causes, creative agencies and independent producers.
Note: My Brief Eternity is a collaboration between Brightest Films and Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, supported by University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
o My Brief Eternity is screening in a pop-up cinema at Brompton Cemetery, London, as part of Maggie's Culture Crawl in association with Open House London on Friday 18th September.
o My Brief Eternity can be seen at a retrospective exhibition of Osi Rhys Osmond's work. The film will launch the exhibition at UWTSD Alexandra Building, Swansea, screening in The Reading Room, plus filmmaker Q&A in November 2015.
o Clare Sturges is the first female filmmaker to win the BAFTA Cymru Breakthrough Award.
Buy Redlight Conversations the Series - Sexwork & Me, Sexwork Love and Mr Right: https://shop.abc.net.au/products/redlight-conversations-dvd
Creative Director, Brightest Films