Thursday 19 January 2017 sees the start of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which will feature the British production Dear Mr Shakespeare.
Dear Mr Shakespeare was commissioned by British Council and the GREAT campaign as part of its Shakespeare Lives programme. The films were released monthly on British Council YouTube site and on Guardian online. They can still be seen here.
Written by Phoebe Boswell, directed by Shola Amoo, and produced by Rienkje Attoh under AMI Production, the film explores issues of racism, ‘otherness’ and asks if Shakespeare was a visionary or villain. According to IndieWire the film ‘will change forever the way you think of Othello’, tipping the film as one of its top 10 must-see short films at Sundance. Audiences around the world have already responded to its thought-provoking request to consider ‘who can, who does, and who should fit in’.
11 short films were commissioned from a range of artists, film-makers and musicians who were invited to take one of Shakespeare’s plays as a jumping-off point. This might mean using a character, a theme, or a scene from a Shakespeare play as inspiration. The resulting films have included a dystopian Julius Caesar shot in the Foreign Office, the darkly comedic Prince of Denmark, in which Hamlet has a very bleak pub lunch, and Miranda's Letter, which uses the idea of the ‘missing mothers’ in Shakespeare to create a poignant film about love and loss.
They have had a very strong response from audiences at home and internationally; bionic pop artist Viktoria Modesta’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, to date, has had over half a million views on YouTube alone.
Many of the films have had an active festival life too, with screenings at Raindance and at London Short Film Festival. Prior to Sundance, Dear Mr Shakespeare was one of five short films selected by IFC Center New York where it will be shown before the main features (13-19 January).
Phoebe Boswell is mostly known in the UK as a visual artist; she was one of the two inaugural winners of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship and has recently been shortlisted for the globally lauded Future Generation Art Prize. With Dear Mr Shakespeare, she was both writer and on-screen performer, as well as appearing in a more expected role in a studio setting drawing actor Ashley Thomas/Othello. So how did the film come about?
“Like so many, I studied Shakespeare at school. I fell in love with his wordplay and his characters, and explored so many aspects of the human psyche through his own explorations. It is intriguing to me how resolutely his narratives have endured time and traversed place. The British Council's proposition offered the opportunity to enter into honest dialogue with his work, to celebrate it, challenge it, subvert it, learn from it, in order to offer a new reading of Shakespeare that matters to our contemporary moment. We live in troubled times. As a brown female navigating both the systemic racial inequalities of the real world and the predominantly white space of the art world, Shakespeare's rendering of the character of Othello offered so much to examine. So I wrote a letter to Shakespeare, asking him why he used the dark charcoal, what he was trying to say about race and difference, and why that matters now.
“I wrote it and I didn’t know exactly what would happen with it, exactly how it would become a film. When I read it to Shola Amoo and he agreed to come onboard to direct it, I knew it was in the right hands. The themes of otherness, blackness, and immigration I was exploring resonated directly with his own concerns, and he was able to create a layered, distinctive visual world which solidified my words; the collaboration instilled my questions with an added validity, and placed them more resolutely in the context of Black Britain. It was great to be given the freedom and platform to ask difficult, necessary questions that, while celebrating the enduring legacy of Shakespeare, more importantly challenge the enduring legacy of inequality, fear of difference, and exclusion in Britain today.”
Dear Mr Shakespeare was filmed on location in Peckham, around Brick Lane and for its closing scenes, at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Anne Beresford, Series Producer, Shakespeare Shorts
Anne is an independent film and television producer www.anneberesford.com