A Discussion on Filming Family & Friends

15 August 2023

Written by

Open City Documentary Festival

Dorothy Allen-Pickard won Best UK Short Award at Open City Documentary Festival 2018 for her film The Mess.

Here, she describes the process of adapting her subject’s lived experience into the language of cinema.

The Sweetshop

Quite often I’ve found myself drawn to making films about my friends and family, both in documentaries and fictional works. I want to tell stories about subjects I know and understand well, so it makes sense to start with the people I know. A lot of their experiences are really powerful when seen on screen. Whether this is in the experience of bipolar disorder, undergoing religious conversion, or living with a physical disability, these are issues that are relatable for a wider audience, yet they’re often absent from our screens. And there’s a trust and an openness that has come from years of friendship, which makes for a more complex and interesting film.

What particularly interested me when making The Mess was the challenge of finding a visual language that explores the specificities of bipolar disorder as something that’s distinct from depression and other mental illnesses. There’s great potential to use the filmic medium to explore mental illness, because you can create visual metaphors and layer dialogue over music, which helps to create a sense of someone’s mental state. Ellice Stevens and I spoke about finding a narrative form that could accommodate a multifaceted conversation about all the different aspects of her experience of bipolar, which is how we came up with the idea of having three different strands and a combination of scripted and spontaneous dialogue. We felt it was really important that on the day of the shoot there was space for her to speak in an open, intuitive way about her experience, so that it wasn’t only the composed, rehearsed narrative of bipolar that she’d discuss.

Unsurprisingly, the unscripted parts were the moments that were the most emotionally raw.