There has been a spate of documentaries over the last couple of years whose subjects were reportedly less than happy with the way they were portrayed. Filmmakers often find little room for grey areas, it seems, when it comes to telling salacious tales of pantomime villain benefit recipients or impossibly ‘naughty’ children.
Ian Nesbitt takes a different approach. The Sheffield-based founder of experimental production company Out/Side/Film seeks out members of society whose stories haven’t had an outlet before, and gives them a voice. Not just one that slots neatly into his pre-imagined narrative, but a genuine voice that allows subjects – from former Irish motorway workers to members of a colliery brass band – to appear as they want to be seen.
“You hear documentary filmmakers talking about the subject all the time, and objectifying the story. It’s not about the people, it’s just about the story,” he tells me. “That’s what’s saleable. They need stuff to happen. They need there to be a conclusion. And I’m not interested in pushing that kind of thing.”
Softly spoken, with an unkempt beard that gives him more than a whiff of the artist, Nesbitt makes films collaboratively with, rather than about, the people in them. He often goes to what he delicately describes as “long-winded” lengths to ensure that everyone involved gets a say in what appears on screen. “I let people know that I’m working with them,” he says, “that I’m not just going to take the footage away and do what I want with it.”
It’s a process that shines through in the relaxed candour of Nesbitt’s finished films, and an approach that he developed while working at a homeless shelter to fund his way through a fine art degree at the University of Nottingham. He made “Outspeak”, his first collaborative documentary, about the shelter’s residents.
“I’d be taking it back and showing people in the shelter what I’d done, and they’d say, ‘What about that bit? When I said that?’” he explains. The amount of to-ing and fro-ing from subjects to cutting room would have sent many directors barmy, but not Nesbitt. “I’d just be saying things like, ‘Oh, the camera was shaking’ or ‘it didn’t sound great’ and they’d say, ‘I want it in anyway’.”
The participants in his latest offering, “Settlers In England”, also seem beguilingly genuine. The film tells the story of the Oxcroft Estate in north-east Derbyshire, a series of smallholdings set up by the Land Settlement Association in the 1930s to re-house unemployed workers and their families.
The accounts of the interviewees – many of whom lived on the estate until it was largely sold off by Thatcher’s government – are remarkably warm, gently humorous and quietly nostalgic. I wonder if their extraordinary ease has anything to do with Nesbitt. “People have said I’ve got a way of making people talk without making them talk,” he says, shrugging. It’s at this point I realise we’ve been chatting for almost two hours. “But I wouldn’t know about that.”
Watch Ian Nesbitt’s film “Settlers in England” below.