Writer Roger Williams and director Mared Swain discuss Welsh-language filmmaking, the barriers they face and the motivation to keep going
Roger Williams is an acclaimed Welsh writer, whose Welsh-language horror feature Gwledd (The Feast) is due to be released in 2021. Distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment it will be Lee Haven Jones’ directorial debut. With a background in theatre, Mared Swain recently completed her first short film Baich, and is in development for her first feature with Severn Screen and Ffilm Cymru Wales, Llwyn Cadno.
Here, they talk all things film and Welsh language – joiwch!
Roger: It’s a problem that so few Welsh language films have been produced. I can think of the obvious ones such as Hedd Wyn, Solomon a Gaenor, Yr Ymadawiad and they feel like very rare things. And then when they do happen, the films get a lot of attention from those showing an interest in the “things” and our culture, the Welsh language culture.
I remember going as a child to see my first Welsh language film in the Lyric Cinema in Carmarthen: a film called Rhosyn a Rhith, directed by Stephen Bayly and starring Iola Gregory. I was amazed that such a thing existed. There were Welsh programmes on television of course, but that was the first time for me to have a cinematic experience.
And when I think of that film now, the experience was definitely important in terms of developing the idea that I was going to write scripts and write for the screen. But also it was an important film because it had won all these awards around the world, and also you could see roots, or the potential for the film to be some sort of Brassed Off or Pride. It was a film that said something about modern society but did so with likeable characters and humour. It’s a pity we do not have more examples of that sort of film, because the cinema enables people to be more experimental than when writing for television. It enables people to develop their own voices.
Mared: My experiences are different; I’ve seen lots of Welsh films on television. Perhaps that is something which is quite problematic, because you want to watch films in the cinema. The biggest film in Welsh, perhaps the only one in Welsh I’ve watched in the cinema is Yr Ymadawiad. So, I was watching everything on television or video or on S4C really.
Films like Hedd Wyn have gained attention, but the ones that leave an impression are the ones you can identify with – when you see a story or something similar to your life on the screen. You then have the confidence to think, "Oh, I’ve got a voice too." So, it’s interesting that S4C, although it’s a cultural hub, it’s also very television focused. People don’t need to leave their front rooms to go to experience films because they’ll be on S4C.
Roger: It’s interesting having this conversation during a period when cinemas have not been open. I’ve discovered films on services such as Curzon and BFI Player which I wouldn’t otherwise have watched if I hadn’t been bored shitless in the house. The problem is that we don’t have enough Welsh language films being produced so that we can build an audience for Welsh language cinema films.
And also, the habit of going to the cinema to see a film. The theatre scene in Wales over the last 5 years has become very good at building a loyal audience for the theatre, especially in cities like Cardiff, where it is now possible to stage a Welsh language drama in the Sherman Theatre and ensure that the main theatre is full for the performance. Unless we can ensure that Welsh language films come to our cinemas quite regularly, we're going to have a problem in building the same kind of scene here in Wales because we're talking here about cinematic films, and they should be seen in cinemas.
Mared: Yes. Then you’ve got the bigger battle as regards the business side. How do we improve attitudes towards minority languages in Britain? Only by creating more content can we improve the way it is accepted within Britain, outside Wales too. We’re at the bottom of the hill looking up. I’m not quite sure how you change that.
Roger: It’s possible that part of changing people’s attitudes is by ensuring that there are several projects, that there’s a scene like you’ve seen with pop music – that Cool Cymru period, when the Furrys, and Catatonia, and the Stereophonics, and all those bands were arriving during the same time. It changed people’s attitudes – people outside Wales – towards Welsh music.
Something similar has happened I think after Y Gwyll, and Craith, Bang, Un Bore Mercher and so forth. There were several projects in a comparatively short period that had been termed with the branding of Cymru Noir or whatever it was. Those projects had quite a lot of attention and changed people’s attitudes towards Welsh language television. Because for a time, that was one of the things I was hearing from people was that you won’t be able to sell a Welsh language project internationally on television.
Gradually, there’s been a shift. I’m quite confident, during the next few years that we're going to see Welsh language projects – Welsh language projects only – reaching channels outside Wales. The attitude has changed.
Mared: Yes, possibly.
Roger: During the same period, Dan y Wenallt (Under Milk Wood) was available in cinemas. I remember feeling so sad as I was the only person in the cinema in Port Talbot, watching it. I was glad that at last there are Welsh films available for people in places like this, but the support and the promotion and everything else – these large companies that distribute the films that do so well – it was just like it wasn’t there. There weren’t even any posters outside the cinema to say that the film was on.
We always need good content – good films by directors, unique writers. But then, we also have to ensure that they have the best opportunity in the market and that people know that these films are on. As a nation, there is a need for us to better understand how the industry works. The film world is so different to the world of television. For years our focus has been, in terms of Welsh language work, on television, and there are obvious reasons for doing so, because of S4C. Yes, it is S4C’s job to create television programmes and run a television service and the same focus has therefore not been on film. There are hardly any film producers in Wales who want to produce Welsh language films. And that’s a problem and a strategy is needed regarding how to get over that.
There’s Hannah and Ed in Severn Screen producing a film. I’ve just produced a cinema film. Catryn Ramasut has proved herself as a film producer. But then I get stuck in terms of thinking, who actually is out there wanting to create Welsh language films? If you’re trying to make your first film, a short film in the Welsh language, who is available to support that journey and to say, "This is what a sales agent is. This is what a distributor is. This is what you need to do to get a meeting with these people."
Mared: I believe that has then led to, "Why choose to create a film in the Welsh language?" Because we have a choice as bilingual people. It’s a statement that you’re trying to do something culturally if you choose to work in the Welsh language. This is obviously important to people like us, because you’ve been working through the medium of Welsh for many years.
But I’m sure there are people who don’t try using Welsh as a language because they're thinking about their careers, or thinking about how this piece of work is going to be seen by as many people as possible. The way to do that is by choosing English, which is the logical choice. But I’m thinking about the filmmakers coming through. Are they going to think, "Oh, am I going to make a Welsh language film or not?" And I believe that’s to do with the industry, but it’s also to do with the individual and the intentions they have.
Roger: You definitely need that motivation to create something in Welsh. When I’ve been working on television projects, broadcasters and producers often say: "Does this have to be in Welsh?" and "Does this have to be located in Wales?" I’ve been writing for the screen for over 20 years now and this is the first time for me to produce a cinema film – my first cinema film. It was important to me that this film was in Welsh, and I was going into the project knowing that could possibly make it more difficult to put on the market.
I needed to think, not just "What is this film? What’s the story? What are the themes?" I needed to have an idea of what the film’s journey would be after I finished it. How was the film going to be marketed? I prepared a document, before writing one word of the script, which included images, which included the names of the ‘comparables’ – the films which possibly are similar to the film I was hoping to create – doing all that thinking work so that the product I was going to write and direct would get the best chance in the market. I wanted to create something that was going to be available in our cinemas and, also, in quite commercial cinemas.
My dream is for us to be able to go to the Vue in Swansea and that the film is on and people have a choice to go to see our film or the new big blockbuster. But there was a need, before rushing into the project, to say, "Right, it’s in Welsh. This is possibly going to be an obstacle." Or, I think by now, it’s helped the film. It’s given it the USP. It’s a horror film in Welsh.
Mared: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror film in Welsh.
Roger: No, well there is a film now.
Mared: I don’t know why. But that's the thing, isn’t it? It’s 2020 and I’ve never seen a horror film in Welsh. So, thank you. I’m looking forward to it!
Read part two of the conversation between Roger Williams and Mared Swain here.