The unknown future of a community of Benedictine nuns is at the core of the documentary Horarium by Jamie Hughes. We got in touch to ask about why he decided to make the film and what drives him as a filmmaker
D&CFilm: Tell us about Horarium. What’s the story and why did you decide to make it?
Jamie Hughes: Horarium is a short documentary about a small community of Benedictine nuns, dealing with themes of companionship, religion, ageing, death, and the unknown future.
I’m not religious myself, but my Aunty is a nun so I’d been visiting the abbey featured in the film for some years, and always felt it was an incredible place both visually and atmospherically. At one point I was thinking about fictional stories which could be set there, as I’m not generally drawn to documentary filmmaking, but then I realised there were more than enough stories to explore from the nuns themselves.
The main theme I was interested in was the fact that community numbers have been in decline for a long time and don’t look to be improving. The youngest nun is in her 60s, so there is a very real possibility that the community will no longer exist in the not too distant future. I wanted to know how the nuns felt about this and how it felt to possibly be the last of a succession of nuns spanning back many hundreds of years.
Having suggested the idea of making a film about the abbey and the nuns, it took some time for the nuns to think it over, get to know me and understand what my intentions were. Understandably they were concerned not just about how they would be portrayed in the film, but also about how a film crew would interfere with their lifestyle and routines, which are at the core of what they do.
In the end we agreed on a crew of just two; me and a cinematographer. Although we could have made a very traditional documentary about the history of the abbey with filmed interviews with the nuns (and me), I wanted to do something more artistic and immersive, so that the film really portrayed the atmosphere and pace of life at the abbey. So we didn’t film any interviews, we only recorded the audio of the nuns speaking, and then edited out my questions, so the film is completely narrated by the nuns themselves.
D&CFilm: What attracts you to make a film and what’s your preferred filmmaking style?
Jamie Hughes: Films have always been my favourite art form, even though I actually earn my living as a musician. Me and my cousin used to play around with our Grandad’s camcorder as kids, even coming up with a whole murder mystery plot with our family playing various characters. We didn’t realise you needed a script first, so most of the scenes consisted of improvising and lots of stifled giggles.
Although I’d love to get into filmmaking full time, there is a plus side to it not being my main job; not relying on it financially means when I do make a film I can do whatever I like – I don’t have to churn out corporate training videos or anything like that to pay the bills.
My favourite style of filmmaking tends to be quite poised with considered shot composition and long takes. I’d reference directors like Haneke and Kubrick as influences visually. I also like early David Cronenberg and David Lynch films. I love the scriptwriting process, so I’m always working on a script or planning out a story in some way. I like a well developed plot, but it’s crucial to me to find a particular emotional theme to focus on too – in my case that usually ends up being to do with family or human connection and relationships in some way.
D&CFilm: Severed body parts feature in two of your short films – without giving anything away about Horarium, what attracts you to body parts?
Jamie Hughes: Yes, severed body parts did make it into a couple of my previous films! But I can assure you there are none in Horarium. I do like some 80s body-horror films like The Fly and The Thing. But what I admire is when a film can mix both the thrills of gore and relatable human emotion simultaneously.
The Fly, for example, mixes the perverse curiosity of witnessing somebody pulling off their fingernails and ears, with the heartbreak of a loving couple dealing with the main character’s physical deterioration and decline towards death. Horarium deals with ageing, death and the possibility of needing to leave your home and family to go into care – but that’s it; nothing weird!
D&CFilm: How important is the emotional drive of your films, and as a director how do you try to facilitate that, either in your relationship with performers or other filmmaking tactics?
Jamie Hughes: As I’ve said, having an emotional core which drives the story and/or characters is crucial to me as a writer and director, and that applies whatever the genre. Ensuring a film set is relaxed, positive and sensitive to the actors, or in this case; the nuns, is a huge part of the director’s job in my opinion.
Amongst the many aspects that go into filmmaking, surely capturing an actor’s emotional performance, or for example a nun praying alone, is the most important part. I’m sure many actors are capable of performing well despite unnecessary distractions, but why take the risk?!
But I’m still relatively new to filmmaking and have many ideas I want to get on screen. For example, despite having made a number of short films now, I have never filmed two people having a conversation! So that’s my next goal; to make a character driven drama where people actually talk to each other. I have no idea how good I’ll be at directing actors speaking dialogue, but I can’t wait to do it.
D&CFilm: How have you developed as a filmmaker and how is that shown in Horarium?
Jamie Hughes: From a technical point of view, Horarium will always be the film where I learnt how to use editing software. As a filmmaker with next to no budget, paying a professional editor and other crew is impossible. So you either wait for professionals who like your project enough to fit your film in around paid work, or you learn how to do as much as you can yourself. Luckily, these days it’s more possible to do that.
Visually Horarium consists entirely of static shots, often very wide, while we watch the nuns at work, or a service take place, or even just an empty room or hallway. I love this style and can’t wait to use some of that in my next project, even if the genre is completely different.
I’ve realised how important it is to keep making films, even with no budget or resources; even if the film doesn’t become much of a success, you still learn from it, and it gives you a talking point too… If you happen to meet a millionaire producer looking for a new director to fund and they ask you what you’ve been up to, the last thing you want to say is “nothing”!
D&CFilm: What is the role of the filmmaker / artist in society?
Jamie Hughes: I think the concept of responsibility is an interesting one with regard to filmmakers (or any artist). The ‘Me Too’ movement and the accusations of ‘white washing’ at the Oscars, for example, have highlighted some of the many problems there are in the film industry, and they rightly need addressing. Films frequently get accused of sexism or gender / racial stereotyping, often with good reason. But does a filmmaker have a responsibility to cast a certain amount of ethnic minority and/or female characters and portray those characters in a particular way (or not in a particular way)? Should I feel a responsibility to tell stories about a particular unrepresented section of society, even if I have no experience of that world? It’s something I think about. Or does that level of responsibility only apply to much more influential and famous directors? If so, how famous? Undoubtably there are issues of fairness, opportunity and equality within the film industry, the question is where does the buck stop? I certainly don’t know the answer. And whatever I feel is my role as a filmmaker in society now is likely to change in the future. And I hope it does!
D&CFilm: Where can we keep up to date with all your filmmaking antics?
Jamie Hughes: All of my films end up on my Vimeo page once they’ve finished their festival runs, which is vimeo.com/jamiehughes. And if anyone wants to add to my tiny number of Twitter followers, it’s twitter.com/jamierhyshughes. Maybe some more followers would actually get me tweeting from time to time!
D&CFilm: Thanks Jamie!
Horarium by Jamie Huges is at the English Riviera Film Festival on
Saturday, October 12 as part of the Finalist Screening.
For times and tickets, go to the ERFF site.