At the time of writing this, we’d like to celebrate the release of Landline on the app and what better way to do that then to speak to the man and documentary filmmaker himself; Matt Houghton.
The film opens our eyes to a UK helpline for gay farmers set up in 2010. When you consider the high suicide rates among men in the UK, coupled with being closeted with no support system - the necessity of the helpline seems obvious. But the farming community is a gated and traditional one, so we can be forgiven for not being privy to this marginalised group.
Released in early 2019, Matt Houghton’s documentary was selected by several reputable festivals up and down the country last year, such as: Aesthetica Film Festival, London Short Film Festival, BFI Flare and Sheffield Doc Fest - to name a few. As well as receiving international attention and being viewed close to half a million times as part of the British Council’s FiveFilms4Freedom campaign.
What’s probably most satisfying about this being Matt’s most successful film to date is much like Hands Up, Chin Down (his first short film to feature on the app), it’s an engaging audio sensory experience throughout. Built around real life phone conversations and visual reenactments on screen. Informative but in the language of film. A real cinematic experience.
We got a bit nosey and asked Matt about the whole thing. See what he had to say below.
Q: Can you tell us how you came to do research and direct Landline? As a documentary filmmaker, did you seek out this particular story or did the story find you?
MH: I do sometimes sit at a computer and go hunting for stories but the truth is it never really works. The idea at the centre of Landline - like everything else I’ve ever made - kind of found me. A good friend of mine Rupert Williams and I were having a conversation one evening about what it was like for him growing up as a gay man in a farming family and the project grew from there. With a little distance now, I can see that the very personal way that it started had a huge impact on how the film turned out.
Q: What can you tell us about shooting this film and explaining the vision to your crew? As it mixes a lot of visual reenactment and real life phone conversations as a mode of storytelling.
MH: For me, the process of making a film like this broadly happens in two stages - the development bit and the actual making of it. In my experience, the clearer you are at the moment when development transitions into making, the better it’ll all turn out. It’s a long-winded way of saying, I reckon preparation is everything.
I like to develop a clear language for every film I make so it’s pretty common for me to come out of the development process with very clear parameters for visual language, story structure, tone, etc. That initial part tends to be quite a solo process but once we start making the thing, it’s all defined by collaboration. People work in very different ways but I tend to think more about creating something with a team rather than simply having an idea and executing it.
Q: Similar to Hands Up, Chin Down - the use of audio here is particularly interesting and plays a key part in informing the viewer and telling story. How did you go about deciding which recordings to use and did they all come from the helpline?
MH: Sound is really important to me and both Landline and Hands Up, Chin Down began with audio recordings. For obvious reasons, the calls to the helpline are not recorded so what you’re hearing in the film are telephone interviews that I did with people who had called the helpline in the past. There were certain themes and ideas that cropped up a lot during our calls. A lot of it was about finding the stories that had the combination of being intimate but also speaking to the broader themes that we’d encountered. The way that people told their stories also had a huge impact. That’s something that feels less intellectually-driven and much more instinctive. It’s about hearing a story, feeling connected with it and trusting that the audience will too.
“There is no universal experience of being LGBTQ and in the farming community…Landline is a film that presents the audience with a series of personal stories and then asks them to make their own judgement.”
Q: Landline was selected and has since been seen many times over throughout the festival season in 2018; winning prestigious awards in the process, before making its online debut in March and eventually becoming a Vimeo Staff Pick. How has the visibility affected the helpline, have you spoken with the organisation much about this?
MH: We’re still in contact with Keith who runs the helpline and last year we set up a Crowdfunder that raised enough money for the helpline to keep going for another three years. We’ve had an incredible response from not only local communities in the UK but also in rural areas all over the world. The film ran as part of the British Council and BFI Flair’s #FiveFilms4Freedom campaign last year, which made it available to watch in every country in the world, including those where LGBTQ+ rights are extremely restricted or where it’s illegal. It was seen almost half a million times in twelve days and we had some amazing responses from people in places that we never would have dreamed would get to see the film.
Q: The double hurdle of being LGBTQ+ and not having an outlet in the traditional British farming community is felt throughout. How do you think this double rejection has a profound impact on a person’s psyche?
MH: The film’s about a helpline so of course the stories lean towards the negative – these are people who are calling because they’re looking for help in one way or another – but we also wanted to depict the nuances of the experiences. There is no universal experience of being LGBTQ and in the farming community so it’s a tough question to answer but for me, Landline is a film that presents the audience with a series of personal stories and then asks them to make their own judgement. To me, it is defined by its intimacy but in depicting the very personal, my hope is that it poses questions about much broader ideas surrounding community, family, masculinity and sexuality. I wanted to make something that took the very personal and made it universally relevant.
Q: What do you hope people receive from this film? And what’s an unexpected thing that has been taken from it so far?
MH: I always find that question a tricky one because I wouldn’t want to second-guess what someone might take away from any film. What I can say is that with Landline, probably more than any other film I’ve made, I really tried to leave space for people to take away what they wanted from the film. My hope above all is that the audience is moved to feel something.
Q: Since 2010 the helpline: https://www.gayfarmer.co.uk/ continue to do the work and provide a safe space for gay farmers. How has it felt to be able to contribute in what would otherwise be a marginalised cause? Did you do what you set out to do with the film?
MH: We always said that we wanted to make a film about people and not about an issue, but I think we all also felt the weight of responsibility very keenly. We’re telling stories that are highly personal and often involve profound moments in the lives of our contributors, and as much as the ’success’ of the film has been amazing it was always really important to us that in its very small way it did something positive. I hope we’ve achieved that.
Q: What have you got lined up next that we can look out for?
MH: I’m currently developing a feature project and a short that are both set in New York and one of which involves a bank robbery.
Q: Do you have any genre or type of film which you’d like to make in the future?
MH: I mean, a film about a bank robbery’s very much one for the bucket list for me so hopefully we can get the money to get it made…
Q: A budding filmmaker wants to shoot their first documentary straight out of university - what advice would you give them starting out?
MH: I was standing on an escalator the other day and someone in front of me had two badges pinned onto their bag. They said ‘Be honest’, ‘Be brave’. The combination of those two things really makes sense to me especially when it comes to documentary.
Q: And lastly Matt, what do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a filmmaker?
MH: I really don’t know. Probably trying really hard to become a filmmaker…