In Conversation With… Owain Astles

In Conversation With... Owain Astles

Meet Owain Astles the film-maker, visual artist and photographer from Bristol who has a story to tell. Well several actually.

Originally beginning his career on the other side of the lens by being an actor, that and growing up in theatre, he then turned his attention to the other side of the lens and has remained there ever since.

Whilst on the other side of the lens Owain discovered his passion in telling stories from his surroundings, and for photography. However, there is another reason for his interest in making films as it seen as a way of helping to create change, talk about issues that affect others.

He wouldn’t be wrong there cos as the old saying goes; a picture tells a 1000 words. When he’s not creating visual works of art, he’s helping raise the issue of homelessness in his home region of Bristol.

Keep your eye on this guy, he’s got a camera and isn’t afraid to use it!

“I like to make films that have the potential to make a change. For me, film is one of the greatest tools we have to create empathy and raise awareness, so that’s really my mission”

Filmmaker, visual artist and photographer, how did you get into all of that?

Man, that’s a long f*****g answer (can I say f*****g?), but I guess to make it short… I grew up in the theatre and started working as an actor when I left school. As I started to act in short films and TV, I grew to love the environment and became obsessed with filmmaking. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, creating an artistic piece and using it to spread a message, so filmmaking came naturally, and photography and visual art grew out of that. Bam.

Bearing in mind all three of the formats involve visual representation do you find it interesting to showcase various subject?

I like to make films that have the potential to make a change. For me, film is one of the greatest tools we have to create empathy and raise awareness, so that’s really my mission. I also think it’s important to look outside of my own personal experiences to find what stories I want to tell; in this way, engaging with different communities and environments is really important. I think that if you want to tell a story about a certain issue, then you have to work with people that have experienced that issue. If you’re making a film about homelessness; work with homeless people. If you’re making a film about prison; work with prisoners. If you’re making a film about space exploration; work with astronauts. Only that way can the work be truly genuine, and that’s what’s at the heart of my art. 

The Image is such a powerful thing. Images have been able to topple governments, start protest movements and end wars through creating empathy.

All three formats can also be used to help tell a story ranging from an individual’s own to a group to an entire community. What is it about the visual aspect that you enjoy?

The Image is such a powerful thing. Images have been able to topple governments, start protest movements and end wars through creating empathy. Just look at the photo of Alan Kurdi taken by Nilüfer Demir in 2015, or the film Cathy Come Home by Ken Loach, way back in 1966. These images – with their contexts and the stories they’re attached to – managed to sway public opinion so much as to create long-lasting social change.

The author Nicholas Mirzoeff, a fellow visual activist, says that we’re now living in a “global digital visual culture”. And he ain’t wrong. Just look at the statistics; over 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute, and there are 1 trillion photos taken every year. We now live in a world run by images, far more than ever before, and if we can harness that for positive social causes, to tell stories about humanity and explore our artistry and creativity, it can only be a good thing.

So, do you see yourself as a storyteller then?

100%. In a world like today’s, when arguments are often reduced to 280 characters and it seems like understanding and respect are dead, I find stories are the best way to offer a perspective on the world that is nuanced, truthful and can build genuine dialogue.

In regards to other working professionals that are also in the industry whose work did you get inspiration from?

Oh man, that’s impossible… There are so many people, from filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Andrea Arnold, Reinaldo Marcus Green and Drake Doremus to photographers like Khalik Allah, Steve McCurry and Elliott Erwitt. I’m inspired by the work of social impact artists and organisations like Anthony Luvera, Cardboard Citizens, Akala, all the way to people that are nearer my own circles, people like Lawrence Hoo, Elle Ginter and Ollie Buckle. Honestly, I’m inspired by people every day, whether it’s the art they create, the way they go about their practice or just how they interact.

You’re from Bristol, what’s the industry like down there?

I think there’s two answers to this question; one is more the ‘industry’ side, where I’ll say it’s a growing industry, Channel4 recently set up an HQ down here for example, and more and more TV and film production is moving down here… But I think the more interesting answer is the one that’s more subjective, and more my personal experience;

Bristol’s an incredible city. It’s really the city where I found my home, and that’s because of the electric creativity and vibrant youth that the city is and represents. I feel like in Bristol, there’s more of an opportunity to make mistakes and experiment; we’re less bound by industry rules and guidelines, and it strikes the perfect balance between being accessible and being intense. I feel like Bristol’s artistry is more in touch with the local community, and there’s such incredible artistic work across film and visual arts coming out of Bristol. We have CARGO, an immersive exhibition exploring the transatlantic slave trade, we have the TV show Skins, we have Banksy.

Bristol has one of the highest youth populations in the country, and I think it shows in the city’s mad energy and creative alive-ness. I won’t necessarily stay here forever, but I think Bristol is one of the most incredible cities in the world for culture, youth power and creating genuinely innovative art.

And in regard to its representation of all the various communities would you say that it’s doing quite well, or would you say there’s more work to be done in terms of that?

Both. Historically, Bristol has a shameful past of profiteering from the slave trade, extremely high levels of homelessness, and a particular white, middle-class image. At the same time, it has an incredible history of resistance and progressive politics, from the Bristol Bus Boycott (which led to the UK’s Race Relations Act, a massive moment in the country’s civil rights history), to being the first city in the UK to declare a climate emergency, to being the first city in all of Western Europe to democratically elect a Black mayor.

Bristol is a city of contradictions. It’s a city that is consistently voted as one of the best in Europe to live in but is also the most racially segregated city in the UK. It’s a city with vast economic divides. It’s also a city where anyone experiencing homelessness will tell you it’s impossible to go hungry.

In terms of representation (which I realise is what the original question was about) … I think Bristol is doing ‘meh’. On the one hand, it’s treading a path for other cities to follow, and there are countless Bristol-based organisations and movements improving representation and diversity in the arts. On the other hand, just taking a glance at the makeup of the city’s most powerful cultural and political institutions will tell you that there is a crazy long way to go, and a lot of people to be held to account.

Now, you’re one of the people involved in the Bristol Homeless Action Week, tell us about it

Yeah! So. Bristol Homeless Action Week (BHAW) is a week-long celebration of Bristol’s homelessness community that happens every year, recognising the incredible work done by homelessness organisations, volunteers and activists as well as aiming to raise awareness around the issue and inspire more people to be involved. The format changes each year (especially this year, around COVID-19!), but usually there are art exhibitions, talks, performances and film screenings from people with lived experience of homelessness. I have to shout out to Richard Drake, who’s been the rock at the core of it for several years (way before I was even involved), and Alex Mills who spear led the effort this year in such difficult times. BHAW is an intersection of arts, community organising and activism, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.

You also give talks on the subject something you’ve been doing for the past two year since 2018, including visual activism. How’s that been going?

Not bad. What I like about delivering talks and workshops is that it gives me time to be a bit more introspective; take a look back at the work I’ve done, what thought went into it, and what impact it had. Through delivering my TEDx talk, for example, which was about homelessness and creating compassion, I came to think a lot about my own experiences of homelessness and how they’d affected me. I recently gave an online talk for the Watershed Cinema’s Pervasive Media Studio, and it gave me the opportunity to put on paper (and then on screen) a lot of the thoughts I’d had, around representation, empowerment through participation and the Image.

Naturally, I look back at my earlier talks (including the TEDx one) and think what the hell was I chatting about??, but that’s natural; as you grow and learn, your perspective becomes more mature and well-rounded. It’s the same thing as being an artist; you look back at your earlier films, or photos, and think what the fuck was that, but that’s just because you’re developing as an artist and a person.

Do you feel that it’s helping to get to message into other wider communities?

I hope so. To tell you the truth, I can’t judge that. It’s difficult to tell when the work you do has any real long-term impact on wider communities. The best thing I find, is to look local; what changes have you affected in the communities that you know, how have you seen the people you know be educated? I think that’s the best way to find inspiration, but it’s not for me to say whether the work I do has any real impact. Hopefully it’s just something I’ll be able to look back on in a few decades.

At the moment you’re currently working on a project piece called To My Younger Self with BBC Arts, how did that come about and what’s it all about?

To My Younger Self is a short creative documentary about solitary confinement in Young Offenders Institutions. It’s a story I’d been wanting to tell for a while; the treatment of children that get put into, essentially, youth prisons, is something very important to me and I think it’s something that is so far away from public consciousness in the UK. In the United States, they have a brutally racist and unjust criminal justice system (as we’ve seen with people such as Kalief Browder and the Exonerated 5), but so does the United Kingdom. The difference is that in the US they’re actually aware of it. I think in the UK there’s a wilful ignorance (or at least has been in the past), around certain issues, such as solitary confinement, and that’s reflected in our media; in our films, TV and writing.

Anyway, so I wanted to tell this story about solitary confinement of children in Young Offenders Institutions. I successfully applied for a programme called New Creatives, which is commissioned by BBC Arts and run by local arts organisations (Calling The Shots in Bristol), and is a programme dedicated to the work of young filmmakers, artists and content creators. It’s a sick programme and anyone under 30 should definitely check it out and apply.

The film is a true story, and is about a young man who, after leaving prison, has to deal with the trauma that the system – and particularly being thrown in solitary confinement – caused him. At its heart though, the film is about looking out for your ‘younger self’; making sure that the youngers growing up now, grow into a world where they are loved, respected and valued.

At the moment we’re in the final stages of post for the film, with a festival run on the way and publishing on BBC platforms hopefully sometime in the next year.

Since March we’ve been in lock-down, has that made you change the way you work?

Totally. On a practical level, loads of the work I’ve done has embraced the virtual space and found new ways of filmmaking. For example, I’ve created a project called Homeless Lockdown Diaries, which is a participatory documentary project, working with people experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories of lockdown and document their own lives, through filming on their phones. I’ve been delivering workshops to the participants via video calls, and most outreach has had to be online.

I think I’m also working slower during lockdown, although not in a bad way. It’s a total cliché, but I do think that it’s made me approach projects in a less frantic, urgent way, and has also allowed me the time to consider the work more carefully.

It hasn’t been helped by the government though; as I’ve been registered freelance for under a year, I’ve fallen through the cracks of government support, as have so many artists and creatives, something that still hasn’t been rectified by this government.

Owain Astles
Owain Astles

And as of 4th July 2020, as the restrictions began easing will it be a gradual return to normal for you or are you staying with what you’re doing now in regards to techniques and processes adapted in lock-down?

To be honest, I don’t f*****g remember what normal even is. I heard that it takes two months to fully change your habits, and we’ve now been in lockdown for over 3 months. I literally don’t fully remember what it was like before lockdown, and I’m OK with that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m dying to go back to working with people in person, actually having physical conversations and just hugging people again. I can’t wait to get back on a full film set, sit in my favourite cinema and do some networking over coffee. However, it’s gonna be such a long time before film, theatre and TV industries go back to anywhere near what they were before, and I don’t think that the world will ever fully go back to normal.

But again, that ain’t a bad thing. We’ve all gone through something, particularly those of us that are surviving on lower incomes and unstable work, and that’s gonna inform how we go about our work and our lives from now on. It might mean taking things more slowly and considerately. It might mean embracing the potential of the online space even more. It might just mean that we’re more present, because we know that at any time a pandemic could come along and fuck everything up.

Finally, what else can we expect from you both later this year and 2021?

Not gonna lie, I’ve had a load of stuff come together during this time so we got a few things coming…

First off, like you mentioned, To My Younger Self is almost finished, so that will be broadcast sometime in the next year.

Homeless Lockdown Diaries we’re also hoping to publish in the next couple of months, allowing people to see what’s really gone on for people experiencing homelessness during lockdown.

One of the earlier films I made, Sleeping Rough, a docudrama about street homelessness, is looking to be published online towards the end of 2020, so defo keep an eye out for that.

Finally, I’m currently developing two projects around ‘hidden homelessness’; people that are homeless, but not on the streets. The first is a short drama I’m developing with the BFI Network Writers Lab called RIZE, about two young brothers living in temporary accommodation, navigating their uncertain world. The second is a participatory documentary in collaboration with Shelter, working with single mothers experiencing homelessness to tell their stories of raising a family.