Generations have been sheep farming on the edge of Taw Torridge Estuary. Jo Ryan has been exploring how connected a farming family is to the land and the way for life in her For Down On The Farm, for North Devon Moving Image. We caught up with her for ask about her experience of making the documentary
D&CFilm: How did you get involved with the Down on the Farm project and what attracted you to it?
Jo Ryan: When I started filmmaking a few years ago, Mandi McCormack of NDMI kindly mentored me through making two films. This summer, I got back in touch with Mandi to see if she knew anyone who might be able to offer me work experience. She put me in touch with Linda, one of the DotF filmmakers and I spent a couple of days with her. Mandi then contacted me to say one of the other filmmakers had dropped out of the project and asked if I was interested in taking their place – I jumped at the chance because it was a new challenge and a step up from previous projects.
D&CFilm: You’re following sheep farmer Ronald Griffey. What can you tell us about his story and the direction of the documentary?
Jo Ryan: Ronald has been grazing sheep on Northam Burrows for over 40 years and his father and grandfather also grazed sheep there. Now Ronald’s sons Robert and James help Ronald and graze their own sheep there. Ronald is strongly connected to the Burrows landscape, having lived in the area all his life, apart from a few years spent in Australia. Grazing sheep on the Burrows brings rewards and challenges which are explored in the film.
D&CFilm: You’ve been filming in the Northam Burrow Country Park – an area of common land made up of grassland, salt marsh and sand dunes on the edge of the Taw Torridge Estuary. Can you describe what’s the allure of this ‘unusual, beautiful’ area?
Jo Ryan: To me, its allure is the open landscape, long sandy beach, the wind which blows off the sea and the wildlife.
D&CFilm: There seems an ageless quality to the area and the farmer’s connection to it – how have you been able to you tap into that?
Jo Ryan: Ronald talks about his family having grazed sheep there for generations, and how his sons are helping him now and hope to continue it into the future. This shows how connected they are to the landscape and way of life, that it’s not fleeting but something of long standing.
D&CFilm: What’s your background in film, and are there themes that you explore?
Jo Ryan: I’ve been filmmaking for 3-4 years, and am largely self taught. I tend to work independently, or with 1-2 others where the project allows it. I am passionate about using filmmaking to help make a positive – however small – change in the world by supporting small local enterprises and making short documentaries telling stories with a social or environmental purpose.
D&CFilm: What’s the role of the artist/ filmmaker in society?
Jo Ryan: I think this might depend on the type of art/films an individual is involved with, but for me, it is to tell truthful stories that engage people and lead to change. I think film in particular has the power to key into a viewer’s emotions, which is essential to bringing about change.
D&CFilm: Weather was a bit of a challenge during your filming, but what was unexpectedly joyful or fun during the process?
Jo Ryan: I spent one morning running across the Burrows – camera and mic in hand – following Ronald as he herded the sheep towards his pens for weaning. It was hard work and I had to hope my camera didn’t end up in the mud or flood water, but it was also great fun and I felt lucky to be out there.
D&CFilm: With your Down on the Farm film coming to an end, what other films have you got planned, and where can we keep up with your work?
Jo Ryan: My current project is a documentary about a choir in a township in Cape Town, South Africa. The choir are talented and inspirational, and talking to them about their lives is very humbling. I hope my film can do them justice and help them gain support, sponsorship and the recognition they deserve.
Top image: Ronald Griffey and his herd on Northam Burrows