Social Realism Films

In UK-based filmmaker Jon Rosling’s 2013 debut feature film Five Pillars, ex-soldier Darren returns from the war in Afghanistan to find himself disenfranchised by a society struggling to find its identity. Several critics commented that the societal values theme is nothing new. I asked what impact Rosling hoped to make with his film.

Examining Themes About Life in England

filmmaker Jon Rosling
Filmmaker Jon Rosling

“Social realism films are not new in the UK, or any film market, to be honest,” says Rosling. “Some UK ones have made quite a few waves, Shane Meadows’ This Is England being probably the most recent notable one. What I think is unique about Five Pillars – aside from the way we actually made the film – is that in examining a wide range of themes about life in England it also illustrates how each of those themes – liberty, tolerance, community, identity and class – are interlinked and how they shape and, in many respects, underpin the values we have as a people and a country.

“In the same way that Islam- a faith under a great deal of scrutiny in the UK and world over – is supported by Five Pillars of belief, I want to contend as a filmmaker that our life, our country can also be supported by core principles.

“And each of these,” he says, “like each of us, is in someway symbiotic. What happens to one will affect the others, maybe many, many years later.”

Financing Model

Rosling says he met the Canadian writer/director Ingrid Veninger at the Bradford Film Festival in 2012. “She explained how she’d made one of her features with a small cast and crew and with everyone on a flat rate expenses fee plus a percentage of the profit of the film. I was looking round for financing options for another script of mine at the time and thought this model was great but would better suit the Five PIllars story I had in my head. So I started work on that as a feature.

“Originally our intention was to make five ‘talking head’ short films, each on a different theme but each featuring a character experiencing some aspect of life in the UK. These characters would then be workshopped into a feature about life in England. Rather than make the shorts I just skipped straight to the feature story.”

Getting People Talking

“A lot of social realist films (not necessarily the ones I refer to here) make a good case for how life is at a particular moment in the UK. They put it on the screen and say ‘Here it is, this is what’s it like.’ I wanted to do something that was open-ended but capable of doing more than that. I want it to get people talking, not just about what they’ve seen, but about how they can relate to it in their recent experience throughout the recession and austerity. Is this the kind of country we want, the kind of society we want? If not, how should it be? What should the Five Pillars of belief that underpin our lives be?”

Giving the Familiar a New Shape

Film: Five Pillars
Five Pillars

Rosling has said elsewhere that he looks for material rich in character and setting as well as story. Recognizing a powerful story is key. “You have to start with what you know,” he says, “and what moves you in your everyday experience and build from that. You know what moves you as an individual and that’s the only starting point any of us can have. I’m looking for stories that reach out and touch something in people, that connect with some experience of their own or of people they know. It’s finding the familiar and giving it a new shape, a new environment.

“Of course, you can overdo it – in fact more often than not that is the case. But good redrafting and rewriting will strip what you do down to something that is accessible and recognisable to audiences while at the same time retaining that sense of emotive power.”

Casting Your Film

When it comes to casting, Rosling says, “It’s such an obvious thing to say but whatever level you’re working at as a director, you need people who can act. Not just people who can read lines or pull an expression or ‘do’ an accent, or people with a StarNow profile or profile page on some subscription web site.

“I tend to look more for people with formal training now than I used to when casting some of the short films I’ve done before. The depth of the performances are limited to a large extent when you’re working in short film form – there’s never really a chance to develop some of the intricacies of character. So you can get decent performances from people who have experience with stage or theatre groups, or maybe a little in front of camera experience.”

Understanding the Themes at Play

Jon Rosling on set
Jon Rosling on set

“But now I’m working on things where there’s many more layers of depth and I need (to cast) people who can understand that, who can pick a character apart not just from the notes I give them but from reading in between the lines in a script, from understanding the themes at play, from noticing event the metre and the language chosen. I’m looking for the kind of acting talent that can spot all of that and then build on it, adding their own layers and extending beyond what I’ve written but yet keeping faithful to it.

“Mhairi Calvey is an actress who I’ve worked with repeatedly and I’m full of admiration for the way in which she does this. It’s something incredible to watch her develop a character and then watch the character reside quite comfortably in her when she comes to perform.

“Ryan Quarmby is another young actor I’m working with on my next film and he has this ability to understand his character in the same way. His audition tapes for the film are just incredible. I’m really excited to be working with him actually. I think he’s going to become an acting talent of considerable note in years to come.”

Youth and Hope

Rosling spent the early years of his career in education. That shows in some of his films, such as Georgia’s Angel and The Play. I asked if there was a place in his heart for stories of the young. “This is something I’ve given quite a bit of thought to over the years,” he says. “To some extent my career in education has led me to working on stories featuring young people but I think it’s fair to say I’ve made the (maybe subconscious) choice as well. Perhaps I’m just re-examining my own youth and the values and memories I’ve had from then.

“As time rolls by and the level at which I work develops I spot something more subtle at work though. I’m telling stories about hope and hope is often a youthful outlook. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s in telling a story about hope that you reflect the hopes and aspirations you had when you were younger. But I’m also realising that it doesn’t have to be stories of the young. I still live with hope in my forties,” concludes Rosling. “It really is the only way to live, I suppose. What would be the point otherwise?”

See Jon Rosling’s site and IMDb page.