Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Digging for victory

Leiston Community Allotment Day.
A joint project between Leiston Town Council, Suffolk Coastal Distr

Leiston Community Allotment Day. A joint project between Leiston Town Council, Suffolk Coastal District Council and Eastfeast. Mary Pendered, Trish Belsham

THE DVD which arrives in my morning post turns out to be a pre-release of a documentary film, Digging For Victory. The film’s subject is the build-up to Capel St Mary’s annual villlage show.

Darius G. Laws and Nick Woolgar, the filmmakers, are both completing degree courses in media and film production at their respective universities. I am amused by the fact that these young optimists sent their film to me, a man who, in a recent fit of despair, replaced his old TV with a bigger flat screen job (23 inches with a DVD) and then didn’t bother tuning it in - just shoved the severed aerial wire behind the piano and notified the licensing people that I was leaving the field of play.

I don’t even watch catch-up services now, only films. I recommend that you all do likewise. This action may send out a message to programmers that a sizeable minority of us can no longer accept the televisual donkey derby which us currently being run in place of interesting programmes. In short, the boys picked a good time to send me their film.

Although Darius G. Laws has been a Colchester resident for the past five years, both he and his fellow director Nick Woolgar grew up just over the border in Capel St Mary. Indeed it was Capel to which they returned to make their 55 minute-long documentary film, Digging for Victory.

The first thing which struck me as I watched it, was how lucid and beautifully clear the footage was. The film’s makers describe their work as a ‘labour of love’. It is all of that.

Like many complex and difficult things, Digging for Victory appears simple, almost effortless. In it various members of Capel’s Allotment Society speak unselfconsciously to the camera and to each other. They do this in a soft Suffolk accent, very similar to our own rapidly-vanishing north Essex one.

You become aware that you are watching something secret, almost a lost tribe of English people. For these are the courteous folk whom the media don’t usually bother consulting. They are Orwell’s ‘good-natured English market crowd with their mild knobby faces’ and gentle chatter. You won’t probably won’t meet them in a Sushi Bar, or straining and grunting at a Bannatyne’s. They have rather better things to do.

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Self-deprecating and yet, quietly confident about their horticultural abilities, they preoccupy themselves with a superior type of allotment shed. No trackside shanty of rusty corrugated iron nailed to old cinema doors could ever pass muster at Capel St Mary.

Indeed, one of the allotmenteers is quite emphatic when talking about the type of shed which members must erect. Failure to adhere to these high standards may lead to action being taken. I wasn’t sure exactly as to what type of action. Perhaps a drive-by ticking-off administered from a moving wheelbarrow? Maybe a persistently errant member will be cashiered; his long-reach weeding fork broken over the chairman’s knee, whilst he does the walk-of-shame down a tightly-edged border path, to the sound of other society members drumming solemnly on their water-butts.

Young British filmmakers, considering how talented many of them are, are not generally awash in money. Many of our future Danny Boyles spend their time making self-financed short films with which they can enter competitions and and festivals in the hope of winning money from countries which hold the art of film-making in rather higher regard than we ourselves do. Other filmakers end up hiring their ingenuity to advertisers – if they’re lucky.

Our two filmakers here, with no budget, no commission and only themselves for crew, worked all summer on Digging for Victory. There’s only one piece of music to top and tail it and the film is without commentary. The allotment society members themselves, along with their activities and their surroundings seem to suffice as their own narrative.

The end result is adventurous and strangely defiant, since it flies in the face of modern notions of film-making. There are no car-chases, jump-cuts, or fights. Nor is it arch, politically-engaged or earnestly artistic. It’s not a disturbing portrait for instance of wild bears being teased with pointed sticks by men riding yaks.

Even the editing of Digging for Victory seems to be in real time, a kind of filmic equivalent of ‘slow food’. This infuses the end product with a certain amount of depth. Sure, you’ll want to see it again, but as with a Sunday dinner you may need to let it get down first, whilst you savour what it is that you’ve just been watching. Those BBC commissioners could possibly benefit from seeing it, too. It’s an intimate, affectionate look at everyday country-folk – with none of the sneering prurience or condescension which often arises whenever Johnny Metropolitan deigns to get his wellies on and come east of Chelmsford.

Darius G. Laws and Nick Woolgar’s documentary Digging for Victory had its Suffolk premiere in Ipswich in December. We in Essex will get a chance to see a free lunchtime screening of film on Sunday March 17 at Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery. It’s a film about an allotment society in rural Suffolk. Doesn’t sound much does it? It’s actually quite captivating.

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