Camden New Journal Review

Date 19th Aug 2005

Spanner in the works
Franny Armstrong documented the longest running trial in British legal history. She gives Kim Janssen some tips on how to be a renegade filmmaker

A scene from McLibel

Franny Armstrong

Dave Morris and Helen Steel – The McLibel Two
WHEN Franny Armstrong’s dad told her, in 1994, that a case starting that week at the High Court might make an interesting subject for a film, she had no idea it would end up being the longest trial in British history.
More than a decade later, McLibel, her film about burger giant McDonald’s disastrous attempt to sue Helen Steel and Dave Morris when they handed out leaflets criticising the multi-national’s business practices, has been broadcast by more than 50 million people throughout the world.
As an advert for a new generation of do-it-yourself punk ethic zero-budget film-makers, her story, like that of the McLibel two, could hardly be more inspiring. Find a subject, buy a cheap consumer camcorder, start shooting and you could end up on the BBC was the message any would-be Armstrongs could take from her remarkable success.
Everyone’s got a book in them, they used to say – could it be that everyone now has a film?
It’s not nearly as simple as that, of course.
If owning a pencil does not make you a poet, then possession of a video camera does not make you an award-winning director, either.
As Franny’s co-conspirator at Spanner Films, Lizzie Gillett, points out: “We go to a lot of film festivals and there’s a lot of crap out there.”
But with thousands of home movie cameras gathering dust in cupboards across Camden, it’s a reasonable assumption that among the countless media studies graduates, wedding photographers and holiday snappers there are a few frustrated filmmakers just waiting to be discovered.
Youth worker Paul Perkins has already shown that a powerful film can be made about a parochial Camden subject with Tower Blocked, his take on the Chalcot Estate PFI scandal, which caused severe embarrassment at Camden Town Hall earlier this summer.
There’s certainly a plethora of outlets for completed low-budget films tackling subjects the mainstream media won’t, including FourDocs, Channel 4’s new digital channel for four-minute documentaries, and even media giants are taking an interest in leftfield subjects now, after a string of independent anti-capitalist hits by the likes of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar.
And that’s the thinking behind Swots, or Spanner’s Weekend of Tips and Secrets, Gillett and Armstrong’s aim to distil 10 year’s experience into an intensive two-day-course and get new British talent on its way.
Armstrong, sipping on coffee at Twins, her local café in Camden Road, Camden Town, (a location so important to her it gets a credit in her films) has an almost religious zeal for hard work and forbearance. She explains: “Making a film is 99 per cent dealing with bullshit. Filling out forms and dealing with tax problems before they stop your shoot.
“You don’t need a lot of money – I saw a film that cost £42.50 the other week – but you probably will end up in debt, and you shouldn’t get into it expecting to make any money.
“You definitely need a thick skin and to be completely committed because it’s not something you can do part-time and you will be told, over and over again, that you are wasting your time or that your idea is no good.
“People, your parents in particular, will say: ‘Why don’t you get a proper job?’
“Most people give up within six months of starting but our aim is to explain to people what they can expect, so that they are prepared when things go wrong, as they almost certainly will.”
What their course will not do, she insists, is land students in £30,000 worth of film-school debt, or teach them how to endlessly chase TV commissions.
She said: “A lot of people who come to us are people who already work in the industry and are sick of making other people’s films, but there’s also people who haven’t got a clue about making films and have never picked up a camera.”
Of those who have already taken the course, several have gone on to make their own films or secure jobs in the industry. What unites those who do succeed, it seems, is a desire to make films which change people; the commitment of the activist to see through rough times for the promise of a better future is the essence of the McLibel story.
Armstrong explains: “We’re lucky. Most people don’t get to work every day on something they believe in, or get to help change the world for the better, which I honestly believe we are doing.
“If you are engaged in the struggle then you also don’t have time to be scared about all of the problems in the world that everyone else is worried about; you are part of the solution.”
If, like most revolutionaries, Armstrong appears at times to overestimate the will or ability of an apathetic public to get involved, it is because she sees conscience as a choice anyone can make, rather than something she has a particular talent or privilege for.
She says: “Not everyone can be a filmmaker, but everyone can act out of conscience, absolutely; it’s a much more fulfilling way to live.”

• To enrol on the course, which runs on September 3 and 4, call 0207 681 0394, or log on to