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What I learnt watching telly for @sandfordawards

For 2016 the Sandford St Martin Awards have benefitted from the expertise and enthusiasm of a particularly distinguished group of judges and short-listers.  Bryony Taylor, the author of ‘More TV Vicar‘ (a book that gets under the dog-collar of some of the best known religious characters on television) and a curate in Durham is one of them.  Such is her dedication to duty that she not only cheerfully watched each and every TV programme entered for an award this year but she agreed, in the run up to the Awards ceremony on 8th June, to share with us (and you) some of her highlights.  Our deepest thanks to her and her fellow adjudicators.  This blog first appeared on her own website where you can find out more about Bryony and her work.

 

This year I was invited to help shortlist for the Sandford St Martin Awards – an awards scheme for excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion, ethics or spirituality. The shortlisting process involved watching a lot of television (obviously) that covered themes as wide ranging as Joan of Arc, Muslim Drag Queens and Srebrenica.

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I think broadcasting that covers themes of religion, ethics and spirituality is only going to become more important in our current times. You have only to see some views espoused on social media or down the pub about religion and belief to realise how ill-informed most people are (and I include myself in that). Despite the decline of print media and even the decline in live television viewing – most of us still consume a lot of television – we simply do this via catch-up now or streaming services or saving up for a box set. Levels of religious literacy in particular are at an all time low, we don’t even understand our own religious background (which floats around like a ghost in the back of our mind with a refrain of ‘he who would valiant be’ from Primary School) – let alone understand what makes a Muslim tick. Most people wouldn’t get the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ joke from the Life of Brian any more – or at least wouldn’t be able to say where the joke comes from in the Bible. So we need good religious broadcasting. We need to understand the ‘other’ better in our world of angry tweets and incendiary Facebook posts.

Fascinatingly, a lot of the programmes I watched for the shortlisting were about extremism – either Islamic extremism or forms of fascism and white supremacy. Whilst I found these quite interesting, they didn’t teach me anything new, but perhaps even hardened my view on extremism.

The programmes I found most affecting were those in which we saw ordinary people trying to live out their faith. I particularly enjoyed the Irish documentary series ‘Baz the Lost Muslim‘ about a man who had grown up in Catholic Ireland with a Catholic mother but Egyptian Muslim father who decided to explore the faith of his father for the first time at the age of 40 – he had some profound moments along the way – particularly the first time he prayed.

Another wonderful programme was a short film about Muslim style vlogger Nabiilabee meeting with ex-Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – they were sent on a mission to buy each other an outfit that worked with their own preferences – of course with modesty for the Muslim woman. This is a lovely programme which you can watch here – I particularly loved hearing Nabiilabee talking about ‘bad hijab days’! This was a really honest conversation about clothes and religious beliefs.

Another programme which showed the levels of diversity within a big religion like Islam was Muslim Drag Queens. Initially the provocative name put me off but this was a very moving documentary. The most striking part for me was when one more seasoned drag queen was teaching a new lad some moves in a night club (during the day). It came to prayer time and the younger lad was going to take his prayer mat into the corner to say his prayers. The older drag queen was horrified that his friend was happy to pray in such a place. It was fascinating – the discussion was not about their sexuality or the fact that they were drag queens but about their faith and how they live it out in Western Society. This was such a refreshing surprise – I’d love to see more programming like this. You can watch the programme on All 4 here – don’t let the title put you off!

My favourite programme which sadly wasn’t shortlisted ultimately (but got top marks from me!) was You, Me and the Apocalypse. This was a drama shown earlier in the year on Sky1. It is the most innovative drama I have seen in a long time. It benefits from having very high American drama production values and a very witty British script with a mixture of British and American actors. I think the reason it wasn’t shortlisted was that we shortlisted individual episodes, not whole series, and this is a series that really needs to be seen in its entirety and not one episode in isolation as the plot is complicated. The series is by turns hilarious, profound and moving and generates plenty of questions in the viewer. In my view it would be a great programme to watch over a few weeks as a small group from church or even as an adult confirmation course! The premise of the programme is that there is a meteor coming that will destroy the planet in 30 days and it tracks the response of a variety of characters in the UK and USA and other places whose stories begin to connect as the series progresses. I really recommend it and I was disappointed it didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak so I will sing its praises here!

I have only written here about a few of the programmes I watched. I thought it was a sad indictment of our times that so many were focused on the negative things to come out of religion or extremist beliefs. I hope that programme makers might look a bit more in the future at the more human stories of people working out what it means to live out their faith in the modern world as it is these stories we need to hear more. We all know what happens when religion goes wrong – we have the news for that – but drama and documentary makers have the opportunity to report on the real lives of believers and the complexities of being a person of faith – that is far more engaging and interesting!

If you want to know more about “More TV Vicar? Christians on Telly, the Good, the Bad and the Quirky”  you can listen to an interview with Bryony here.

One Million (and one) Dubliners

Aoife Kelleher - team

The winner of the 2015 Sandford St Martin TV Award was RTÉ’s beautifully shot, very moving film “One Million Dubliners” directed by Aoife Kelleher and produced by Rachel Lysaght of Underground Films.  Being about a cemetery, the film inevitably deals with death but ultimately it’s a film about so much more:  it’s about life, how to live, community, history and how individuals reconcile (or don’t) the past with their present.   In those respects and many more, One Million Dubliners was a more than worthy winner of the Sandford St Martin prize and we’re pleased we were able to celebrate it for its achievement.  But even better: it was an honour to be able to share in the lives of the people featured in the film as a member of its audience.  

Aoife Kelleher writes:

When I first told people that I was making a documentary film about Glasnevin Cemetery, opinions were divided. Some agreed that cemeteries were beautiful, peaceful and fascinating places – the backdrop to stories of love, faith, passion and heroism – and would be an ideal setting for a documentary. Others found the idea a little too dark and sombre. And of course, in any film about a graveyard, darker subjects – such as death, separation, loss and despair – have to be explored. But in making One Million Dubliners, my aim was always to retain a sense of light, hope and humour; to convey the experiences of those that work in and visit the cemetery and the events and emotions that have brought them there. Ultimately, I hoped that the film would illustrate that, as James Joyce put it in Ulysses: “in the midst of death, we are in life.”

For producers and directors who have never worked in the area, the idea of religious programming might also seem a bit forbidding. There might be a sense that one would be confined to a particular set of issues; limited to a tone of weighty gravitas and that the only suitable contributors would be people of profound faith. In fact, I have found the experience of making One Million Dubliners, which was commissioned and supported by RTÉ Religious, hugely liberating. In making a film about a graveyard that was founded by Daniel O’Connell for those “of all religions and none”, I was permitted to ask a wonderful variety of participants the big questions about life, death and devotion. Whether or not we have faith, a sense of spirituality or a strong religious belief, we are all grappling to understand our place in the universe, the meaning of it all. I believe that every individual has a unique attitude to life and death, which is what makes the subject so intimate, so sensitive and so compelling. In One Million Dubliners, the customs, expressions and even the beliefs of the bereaved vary entirely from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. By exploring such a wide variety of attitudes in the film, we created a space for our audience to think about their own opinions and rituals, to question them, to affirm them or to doubt them. The ability to create such a space, though not unique to religious programmes, is certainly one of its great possibilities.

We were delighted to be shortlisted for the Sandford St. Martin Trust Awards and absolutely stunned to have won the Television Award. It is particularly exciting to think that we are part of a community of programme makers across Ireland and the UK, who are addressing these essential themes, while also coming up with new ways to engage with them. We very much look forward to discovering this year’s nominees and their work.

You can watch a clip of One Million Dubliners here.

Read more about the team who made One Million Dubliners here or about Underground Films here.