1.01 Starting Out

Joya Berrow

How I found my reluctant 'star' in the remote scottish wilderness.

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Joya Berrow is a documentary filmmaker and photographer working continuously in factual mediums, specifically observational / experimental ethnography and investigative journalism. Her topics of interest include politics, human welfare and the environment. She has worked on independent projects in London, Scotland and South America and graduated from LCC in Producing and Directing Documentary in 2016.

Here, she recounts her experiences since leaving university, particularly in making her 2016 film Away With The Land, a lyrical meditation that takes the audience to the Outer Hebrides, immersing them in the sphere of a local “crofter” and the culture that envelops this agricultural worker.

In 2015 I was researching a host of subjects, including self-sufficient communities, nomadic cultures, pilgrimages, new age gypsies and indigenous traditional practices within Europe. I became obsessed with a book called The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, a poetic diary written by a farmer over four seasons, pivoting on upholding tradition and man’s relationship with the land. I also watched films such as Sleep Furiously by Gideon Koppel, which – as the press release promises – “leads us on a poetic and profound journey into a world of endings and beginnings in a farming community in mid Wales”. Another was (Be) Longing by João Pedro Plácido, an observation of a very rural mountainous village in Northern Portugal. In both cases the filmmakers grew up in these communities. I am from Dorset; however, there was nothing willing me to go home to make a film during this time.

Instead of Dorset, I looked to Scotland and began to research the Outer Hebrides – the Gaelic language, local culture and an agricultural tradition known as crofting. Crofting has existed since the 19th Century, it is a small-scale agricultural practice founded on communities working together, and sharing common farming land.

I realised that if I wanted to find a crofter with the magnetism to carry this short film, I would have to go there myself.

I began to take my first practical steps towards making a film about crofting, spending a few days contacting different regulatory and governmental organisations, such as The Crofting Commission, Scottish Crofting Federation, The Crofting Register and The Land Workers’ Alliance. I wanted to understand the structure and system of the practice, and to get statistics on population density and diversity. Thankfully, I found an online map showing that some of the largest populations of crofters were on the Hebridean Isles of Lewis and Harris. In terms of reaching out to them, a potential option was to find a registry list, which crofters must sign up to in order to receive EU subsidies. However, I decided that while a registry could provide me with a crofter’s name, location and contact number, it would lack the information I was looking for. I realised that I wanted to extensively research the topic in person and that in order to create a portrait of a single crofter – one who would have the magnetism and idiosyncrasy to carry this short film – I would have to go there myself.

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I booked an overnight train from London Euston to Inverness for the next day, taking buses and ferries until I reached Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Once there I rented a car and drove around for two weeks, playing games with myself such as “right, left, or straight on?”, taking every road to make sure I had not missed a trick. I took it slow, absorbing the superhuman energy of the landscape and photographing my findings along the way. Through an extreme stroke of fate, my sister, who was in Sri Lanka, had been drinking gin and tonics for breakfast with two men from the Isle of Lewis. Both were very easygoing and fantastically eccentric, and they introduced me to the isles and the way things worked around there.

I studied the ever-changing landscapes, which varied from luscious green and fertile in the lowlands to positively extraterrestrial. Caribbean-white sand beaches peered up at jagged, dramatic cliff faces; the raging ocean pounded the island’s sides. The land was divided into crofts by invisible lines and sometimes the odd stone wall, which marked the beginning and end of the crofts. People stood in the fields cutting and laying out peat to dry and burn on the fire as coal. For hours I sat with strangers in their houses, drinking endless cups of strong black tea with plates of savoury and sweet biscuits, talking about traditions from the past to the present. It was amazing to be alone in this land, and have the time to share with these unique people.

It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen
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A 14 km stretch of road in North Harris runs along the perimeter of the sea, the mountains rise up to your right as you weave to the end, reaching an enclosed bay of white sand. Here in the side of the cliff face are flanks; a place where crofters meet to share responsibilities and carry out farming tasks as a community. Within the flanks were sheep darting around, it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. People were hesitant to exchange conversation with me as I stood poised and fascinated. I soon worked out these men were incredibly busy fulfilling their duties as crofters on top of their full-time jobs. Many crofters can’t support themselves or their families from crofting alone, so they tend to croft before and after their work. This is not an easy feat.

As I returned, I saw a man for the second time. I stopped and we chatted extensively, discussing his life and the reason why I was here. His name was Donald John, he had the most enchanting rhythm in his voice, something that comes from the Gaelic language – you never want him to stop talking. DJ was born on Harris and has been a full-time crofter for 30 years. He has a gentle humility and intelligence that is hard to come by. I set off knowing that this chance encounter was important.

In the following days I spent time with Donald John and his animals in the barn. It was magical. One day we sat in his truck whispering away while a cow gave birth in the barn, the first and maybe the last time I will see that in my life.

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He had the most enchanting rhythm in his voice, something that comes from the Gaelic language.

We kept in touch even when I was back in London, and I continued to read about the island in a book called Seasons on Harris: A Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The book never failed to transport me there from London, the writing – about different lights, clouds, weather patterns and island ways of life – was very evocative. It was very useful for me when it came to thinking about how we can use imagery to personify landscapes, and affirm the connection between this practice and lives spent so closely with nature. The weather patterns on Harris are as forgiving as they are relentlessly harsh.

It wasn't until many months later that I found the courage to call Donald John to ask him directly if he would like to be the subject of this short film. He agreed, but only because I was “such a nice lass”. I am not sure I agree with this, but coming from someone so humble, I was flattered.

Three of us returned to Harris as a small crew in November 2015 and March the following year, for two weeks at a time. The money was raised via private investors and a Kickstarter campaign.

We filmed a lot in an observational manner, following Donald John around on his adventures. DJ wakes up with the sun and goes home at sun down, often returning late at night to check on the barn. Crofting is a time-consuming practice, and we were very aware of how much of DJ’s time we had taken. So in the second phase of the shoot we decided to be his farming minions and shovel shit from the barn floor for what felt like days. We were so happy to help – we would have done anything to show our gratitude.

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DJ wasn't so keen on sitting down for interviews, so we gave him a mic and interviewed him constantly as we went, turning every moment into a long story or conversation. His lyrical voice stops you in your tracks as you forget that anything elsewhere exists.

It was very important in the edit to maintain positivity. The ranks of crofters are rapidly depleting, and there is a graveness to the situation that has to be recognised. But more importantly there are many characters, such as DJ, who love every moment of what they do and wouldn't do anything else. Despite the lack of financial reward or constant gratification, he hopes that one of his grandsons might follow in his footsteps.

We finished the film in its theatrical format for our graduation. It then went to the Hebrides International Film Festival (2016), the London Short Film Festival (2017), Glasgow International Film Festival (2017) and Take One Action Film Festival (2017). Recently I realised that at 13 minutes, the film was too long and slow – it worked in a cinema setting, but not online. So I cut it to five minutes. It has premiered now on two online sites – Nowness and the National Geographic. We had conversations about broadcasting it on the local BBC Alba Gaelic channel, however, DJ strongly advised us against this; he did not want to be seen as a “star”.

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