30th June 2016
Article by Terence Sawyers
This month’s featured artist is documentary filmmaker Adam Barnett.
I meet Adam at the Out of the Blue café based at the Drill Hall. He offers to buy me a cuppa and then asks me a couple of questions, and then a couple more. Next thing I know I’ve told him all about myself, my wife and even what route I took to get to the Drill Hall that morning. It’s in this brief exchange that I get a glimpse of Adam’s skill as an interviewer, unobtrusive and a bit quiet even, he pitches his questions just right and then gives me space to prattle on. Who is interviewing who anyhow?
Adam achieved an MFA in Film Making from Edinburgh College of Art and has been an active filmmaker ever since. Although he has done some work in commercial filmmaking his real passion lies with documentary. As a filmmaker he has naturally experimented with different forms of representation and storytelling; documentary is the one that is the best fit for his disposition.
This disposition, as already mentioned, is that of a quietly inquisitive filmmaker who is keen to give people space to tell their own stories. Suspicious of intrusive interview techniques or manipulative editing, he lets me know that he really struggles to watch a documentary that uses narrative hooks or faux suspense to grab the viewer.
He mentions some fellow documentarians that he feels do a good job. They include Hubert Sauper, Marc Isaacs and Kim Longinotto and it is no surprise that they belong to the same observational and interactive style of documentary filmmaking that Adam practises. This is an intimate style that avoids using a big films crew and gives his interviewees more opportunity to talk “from the heart”. It is these rare moments, when someone is able to offer personal epiphanies and tell their story, that Adam counts among his greatest achievements.
Something that struck me about Adam’s films is their moral complexity. In an age of polemical documentary his films do not stakeout a fixed position from which to judge the subject but instead map out a wide terrain while leaving his own position somewhat muted. He tells me that, things generally aren’t “black and white” and that he prefers to examine things from multiple angles and then let the viewer make their own mind up.
A great example of this is Adam’s current film project, Carbuncle Town. About the town of Denny, winner of the Carbuncle Award. It is awarded annually by an architecture magazine for the most ‘dismal’ town in Scotland. Adam avoids cheap shots or theatrics that would turn this documentary into a provocation. Instead, he opts to simply spend time with the community, exposing the viewer to the complexity of the situation.
So far, Carbuncle Town has been well received with a showing at the London Architecture Festival and the Spanish Film Festival, Festival Internacional De Cine Y Arquitecture, which has resulted in Adam writing Spanish subtitles for the film. A special showing was arranged for the people of Denny and the current plan is to have a showing at the Drill Hall in the autumn, for Edinburgh documentary fans at one of the Freeze Frame Nights.
Through his body of work Adam has consistently focussed on human rights and environmental issues. As part of his back-catalogue is the impressive Argentina in Therapy (2009). Starting from the fact that Buenos Aires has twice as many working psychoanalysts as New York despite being half the size, Adam explores the confluence of cultural tides at play in contemporary Argentina.
I’ve only mentioned two of Adam’s films and already covered quite a bit of territory in terms of topic. When asked how he settles on an idea Adam let me know that he has three different elements that work in concert to help him decide what to work on. First, the things he experiences for himself or hears about from other people. Second, topics he comes across when reading, especially those that promise some depth to them. Third, the available opportunities for funding. When all three of these elements line up they point to his next project.
Adam has used the OOTB office for 4 years now, he previously worked from home but was keen to more neatly separate home and work. He lets me know that it’s a fantastic place to work in, being full of sociable people and with lots of creative things going on there is always a great buzz. He uses his office mostly for editing and, either he had just had the cleaner in or, he likes to keep things really neat.
You can keep up to date with Adam’s work on his website and the Carbuncle Town Facebook page.
Carbuncle Town trailer – https://vimeo.com/156975766