From working with prison inmates to spotlighting the homeless, Owain Astles can testify to the power of participatory filmmaking. Although he went to university, he didn’t study film, instead fostering community in his hometown of Bristol. Having absorbed the ideas of revolutionaries such as Andrea Arnold, Sarah Gavron, James Baldwin and Angela Davis, the filmmaker laments mainstream arts’ tendency to “co-opt the narratives of marginalised people.” And with the belief that you should let passion be your guide, Owain speaks to us about finding balance between making money and art, the making of his film Sleeping Rough and reminding himself of his North Star.
BBC, Shelter, TEDx Talks
Place of Study
BA Theatre and Spanish, University of Bristol, (2015-2019)
How would you describe what you do? I’m a participatory director. I work with communities to co-create films about their experiences, whether that’s working with a group of young lads in prison, people experiencing homelessness or boxers with mental health issues. I always aim for my films to be made through collaboration, with the potential for social impact.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects to date? At the moment, I’m working on a commercial for a charity called Dallaglio RugbyWorks that I’m really enjoying. The charity works with young people that have been excluded from school and are in PRUs [Pupil Referral Units] or alternative education, struggling with home life and other issues. So even though rugby ain’t really my sport, it’s definitely personal to me. It’s been organised through an organisation called Media Trust, that pairs up charities with directors, so it’s done on a volunteer basis.
Although it’s a commercial, I really appreciate the approach I’m being allowed to take on it. It’s very participatory – I’m coming along to sessions to get involved, chat to some of the young people, kick a ball with them and get them involved in the process of developing the commercial. Some of the young people will even be filming some of it themselves and they’ll get shadowing positions on-set. I feel proud of the approach we’re taking to this and grateful to the charity for putting young people first.
Teaser clip taken from Owain’s early docudrama ‘Sleeping Rough’
My favourite project to date is an early docudrama I did called Sleeping Rough. It was a two-year process very early on in my career – the first film where I really began to get a sense of my ‘voice’ as a filmmaker. It was the first film in which I started to properly work in a participatory way, getting actors with lived experience and involving people that were experiencing homelessness at all stages of the process. I made some friends for life on that film, with many collaborators I’m still working with and many I’m sure I’ll return to in future.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work? Honestly, for me, it’s real life. It’s the stories and experiences of people I work with and people I’m close with; mates, family or colleagues. This is particularly important when I’m working around topics of social justice, as everything is rooted in reality. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily ‘realism’, because I love to play with genre and elements of fantasy realism, but the stories always come from truth.
“Real life inspires me. It’s the stories and experiences of people I work with and people I’m close with; mates, family or colleagues.”
I’m constantly inspired by a great deal of filmmakers, from the established British guard like Andrea Arnold and Sarah Gavron, to boundary-pushing American artists like Drake Doremus and Barry Jenkins, and those dominating the short film space, like Aneil Karia and Charlotte Regan. I like those who are able to take on serious issues and questions within their work, but approach it in a way that is original and doesn’t conform to the established ‘gritty, social realism’ drama.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do? Absolutely not. What you need, above all else, is passion. Then kindness. Then grind. Then talent. And at the bottom of the list, formal training.
I did go to uni, but I didn’t study film – I studied theatre and Spanish. The course helped me in some ways, I’m sure, but what helped me most was just being part of a creative community of interesting people I’d never met before. Being part of that community, moving in that space – that’s what helped me more than anything else and opened me up to new perspectives, new experiences, new possibilities.
What’s most important is just to read a lot (whether books or blogs or film magazines), watch a lot (films, TV, tutorials, BTS [behind-the-scenes] videos) and talk to people. Talk about filmmaking, life and others’ experiences. You must have an interest in other people to make films and if you do, a lot of filmmaking ‘skills’, I believe, will come naturally to you.
“What you need in filmmaking, above all, is passion. Then kindness. Then grind. Then talent. And at the bottom of the list, formal training.”
If you could describe your role with a gif, what would it be and why? (Below) because I'm always writing. Whether it’s a script, a funding application, emails or a treatment, I feel like I’m stuck to my keyboard. It is really important to remember to take breaks from this, to read, to look up and see what’s going on around me, but I do love what I do, so every bit of it is a privilege.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly? I wanted to be an actor for a while and that didn’t work out, but that’s where I discovered my love for collaborating and telling a story. I started to write my own stuff and saved up while working in bar jobs and other bits to buy my own camera and sound recorder. Then I was able to experiment and just go out and start making small films and documentaries. Off the back of that, I was able to start getting small commissions – people started to ask me to make videos for gigs and events.
That’s just my way though, and there are 1,001 ways into the industry. I do think finding any way possible to put the power into your own hands is helpful – whether that’s by saving to buy a camera, setting up your own production company (it just costs £12 to register a company!) or starting your own [YouTube] channel. No one cares as much about your projects as you do, and at the beginning it can be hard to get people to notice or invest in you. That’s why it’s so important to create things yourself, to begin to get yourself out there as an artist. If you build it, [an audience] will come.
“Nobody will care about your projects as much as you do – that’s why it’s important to create things to get yourself out there. If you build it, [an audience] will come.”
Cardboard Citizen’s ‘Cardboard Camps’ telling the story of homelessness in Bristol
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why? ScreenSkills. An essential website for anyone starting out in the film industry in the UK. The amount of opportunities, training, funding and resources they have is second to none.
Cardboard Citizens. A theatre company that works with actors who have lived experience of homelessness. Aside from connecting with people that share some of my own experiences, Cardboard City are the people that helped me develop my own practice of participatory art right at the beginning. So much of what I do is inspired by their teachings and methods.
The Kusp. They’re an awesome community of underrepresented artists across film, art and fashion, and they’re really on it with the opportunities they provide for their members. It was really difficult for me when I moved from my hometown Bristol to London, and The Kusp played such a massive part in supporting me on that journey.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way? Probably one that’s yet to come… there’s definitely been a lot. Self-doubt is pretty crippling, and can knock me out for anything from a day to several months. A lack of connections is definitely another. I’ve got a lot of privilege in life but I don’t come from a very wealthy or well-connected background and there are a lot of gatekeepers in film, so a lack of connections has been a barrier.
Money is another one. Not to be cynical, but having to hustle to earn money – taking stuff that doesn’t necessarily ignite your flame or making funding application after funding application – can grind you down.
Ultimately though, I think the biggest challenge is just reminding myself why I do this: for the art, and for the people I work with. It’s very easy to get distracted in this business – whether that’s by the money, a new project, Instagram, or the business itself. If it’s not the art or the people, it’s not what really matters for me. Keeping that focus and reminding myself what my North Star is, is the most challenging thing, but it’s worth it.
“If it’s not the art or the people, it doesn’t matter to me. Reminding myself what my North Star is has been challenging, but it’s worth it.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? This is a difficult one. Social media and self-promotion are really important. But don’t forget social media is a trap. Whether you’re scrolling TikTok or waiting for likes on Instagram, don’t get sucked in. The art must always come first.
Like a lot of people, I got sucked in to a point where I was almost creating work for social media. I thought, “this [film] still will look sick on Insta!”, without spending time thinking about the story. That’s really unhealthy, so it’s important to create a bit of a distance with social media. I only follow my closest friends, and I always unfollow accounts I find myself getting sucked into, getting jealous of or are harming my mental health.
Social media can be a really powerful way to get yourself out there, get recognised and connect with like-minded people. But like I said, it’s a trap, designed by billionaire tech moguls to keep you addicted and damage your mental health. Use it, but don’t let it use you.
Owain’s short Docudrama ‘The Hardest Fight of My Life’, about a boxer’s struggle with mental health
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative? I’m very lucky now to be at a point where I support myself fully through filmmaking. It took me a long time to get here, and it’s been a process – from making films and videos as a hobby, to it being a side hustle, to it being my main source of income.
There’s no shame in Universal Credit. I’ve been on it, Jobseeker’s [Allowance] and Housing Benefits a bunch of times and it’s really difficult. The way people look at you, how you get treated by the system, let alone finding a landlord that’ll take you in... it’s difficult, but it’s sometimes necessary.
Otherwise, I think it’s important to balance your passion with making enough income to support yourself, without getting sucked into either. If you focus too much on the jobs coming through that are making you money, you’ll lose your passion and risk staying still for the rest of your career. On the other hand, if you just focus on the art, you can end up broke. So it’s a balancing act – make sure you’ve got both sides burning.
“If you focus too much on jobs that make you money, you’ll lose passion. But if you just focus on your passion, you can end up broke. So keep both sides burning.”
How did you go about landing your first project? My first paid job was just a music night, and I think I got paid £100 to shoot and edit the whole night. That came from saving up and buying a camera so I could make my own things. At some point, a mate of a mate was organising a music night and I got asked to film it. I started to build up a portfolio with it, and went from there.
A film poster for Sleeping Rough
Can you tell us more about your work as a participatory filmmaker and its impact on communities? Participatory filmmaking is basically making a film with a community rather than to a community. It means that whoever you’re working with is an author of their own story. It’s a bit of a challenge to the tradition of filmmakers, journalists or artists (usually from privileged backgrounds) coming into a marginalised community and co-opting or imposing their own narrative, leading to further marginalisation, stereotyping and ultimately, inauthentic portrayals.
In one of my earliest films, Sleeping Rough, the narrative was 100% taken from interviews we’d done with people experiencing homelessness. Not ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’, but actually directly translated to the script, with every event in the film having happened in real life. I didn’t script any of the dialogue; that was entirely improvised by our actors, who themselves had experienced or were experiencing homelessness. This ensured that, as well as everything portrayed in the film being authentic, people with lived experience shared ownership of the film.
“Participatory filmmaking challenges the tradition of (usually privileged) filmmakers, journalists and artists co-opting marginalised narratives.”
More recently, I’ve been working on a participatory film project with men in London prisons. We explore narratives around mental health and wellbeing with the guys we work with and then develop these stories together, with the men writing and acting in the films. Alongside this, we run training for our participants in all elements of film production – from scriptwriting, lighting, camera and sound operation, through to editing, with the films ultimately being screened on prison TV.
As well as developing critical thinking around wellbeing in a prison context, this is also an opportunity to communicate some of the issues that are experienced in prison to decision makers within the prison.
I care deeply about this kind of work; for too long, there’s been a tendency within the film and media industry to tell stories looking down on certain communities. By empowering communities and individuals to tell their own stories, I believe that we push for a more equal and understanding society.
A preview of Owain’s video for Create Open Health, a health programme run by Creative England that searches for new tech solutions to support young people's mental health
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received? “If you love it, don’t give up.” It might seem simple, but I really believe in it. Filmmaking – particularly social impact filmmaking – is hard. If you don’t love it and you’re not passionate about it, what’s the point? If you’re passionate about it, however, then don’t let anything get in your way, and don’t get sidetracked.
When I started this prison project, I had to get up before 6am every day to commute across London. This really started to get at me, particularly during winter when you’re arriving at work in the dark, and you’re leaving work in the dark. I started to really lose energy, and I’d be tired and demotivated all day. What helped me was writing down three reasons why I’m doing this job. I read it once before I go to bed and once on the tube to work and whenever else I felt myself losing motivation.
Another good one, I got from a poster: “Work Hard and Be Nice to People”. A simple one, but you’d be surprised how important it is in the film industry. As long as you graft, and make sure to be nice to those around you, you can always hold your head up high.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career? Watch things. And not just cinema releases or what’s coming out of Hollywood, but things made by the people around you, in your community, or working in the same arena as you.
Also, find your own path. Don’t worry about what everyone around you is doing, or what you think you should do. Just find what you enjoy, find what fulfils you creatively and follow that path.