Strange as it may sound I’d say the essence of the We Are Cardiff documentary is best captured in the work of a Scottish author. Alasdair Gray acutely expresses the role of ‘art’ in echoing the life of a city, with this passage from Lanark, a leviathan work from 1981:
“‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris,
London, New York.
“Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films.
“But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”
And it’s true. These works of fantasy warp our perception of a place which goes beyond the concrete reality of office blocks and shopping centres. Just look at James’ Joyce’s epic ode to Dublin…
“Ulysses defines the city as an aggregate of parts. Many individuals collaborate in the creation of urban life and are joined together through this common enterprise. But metropolitan man, is often unable to apprehend the world of which he is part.”
That’s not to say writers haven’t tried to capture Cardiff’s unique character. John Williams went to pains to paint a gritty eulogy to the city he calls home. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Cardiff Dead doesn’t quite measure up to Ulysses or even Annie Hall.
The truth of the matter is that whatever romantic hold the Welsh capital has on the imagination is built not on dusty books but on the shoulders of experience – it is a great place to live and I’m more than happy to sings its praises.
The only problem is, given most peoples obliviousness of the city’s day to day shuffle, there is a danger that the image of the city can be filtered through a negative lens – maybe because of cymrophobia or simply because it makes good copy.
“When you look at the media there’s a real lack of stuff about Wales in general,” says Helia Phoenix, one of the brains behind the documentary. “The only things that ever seem to get in are stories like ‘world’s biggest hen found in Abergavenny’ or ‘look at these people drunk in Cardiff and fighting again’.
“The film was set up with one aim and goal to be an antidote to all the stuff you see in the national news.”
But there has to be a reason for the gaudy cliches which fill the newspapers. Not to mention the dreadful dramality shows – Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex – which are increasingly clog the distressed arteries of TV programming.
I’d say these exaggerated images are a way of boiling down the chaotic diversity of a modern city into something which we can all understand and maybe even (if you’re labouring under the effects of a heavy dose of antidepressants) enjoy.
Cardiff is no exception. It is a place where Britain’s personality crisis – the whole idea of traditional communities being absorbed into a remorseless and unstoppable global dictatorship of the bland – is brought into sharp relief by the Welsh identity.
Or as Helia would say: “You have a real division of people, there are old school Cardiff people who have lived in cardiff all their lives. Then you’ve got the eighth generation Sri Lankans, who are every bit as Welsh as anyone else. And that’s not even counting all the English people who live here.
“You have this really weird internal conflict between these people but that is what gives Cardiff it’s particular flavour.”
The writer and journalist draws on Butetown, the area of Cardiff where she lives, as an example of the juxtapositions which can be thrown up by this kind phenomena.
“It’s insane you have Cardiff bay, where there’s seat of Welsh power and all this money and all these highly educated people. But just the other side of the trainline there is Louden square where they tore all those buildings down.
“And you have this community who are in uproar because initially all their houses were knocked down because the council decided they needed ‘somewhere nice’ and everybody was displaced.
“Then they built these disgusting tower blocks which represent something so awful to the people and now they’re knocking it all down again. I don’t think you can live and work in Cardiff and not be mindful of how you have all this weird mad stuff next to each other.”
So in an attempt to capture the dizzying range of people living in the city Helia, along with cocreator Adam Chard, hit upon the idea of collecting people’s stories, gathering their accounts of what they city means to them.
The idea – influenced in part by Oral History and Digital Story Telling – grew from a blog into a movie, the latter attempting to capture a year in the life of the Welsh Capital, Starting with a Wassail – a warding off of evil spirits – at Riverside Community Gardens.
The crew are planning on filming a ukelele group that plays around cardiff, something about cardiff dogs home, and some footage of the Tiger Bay Brawlers roller derby team.
“There’s a traditional documentary style where you start with the old stuff and then you talk about now and then you talk about the future. But it doesn’t really work for what we want to do.
“We Are Cardiff is going to be a mish mash of very current stuff, like Swn festival or the Naked Bike Ride. But then in between all that some of the history of different places around the city.
“It’s going to be one big package of Cardiff, and if it looks like some insane patchwork quilt made by someone who is blind then so be it.
”When it’s done I’m sure they’ll be lots of people who say ‘why didn’t you cover this’ and ‘why didn’t you cover that’. But I already know my answer, ‘if you want that then make your own movie’.”
This kind of project would be pretty hard to get off the ground without the internet – the web has undoubtedly made it much easier for small time stalkers like myself to pry on other people. And, without wanting to sound like some SOPA stooge, it has totally changed the role of the producer and the audience.
One of the most obvious ways this plays out in relation to We Are Cardiff is the decision to finance the film through crowd funding – in short appealing to people online to put a bit of cash behind the movie.
Helia says: “$10 is not much in the grand scheme of things but it means a lot that people think an idea is good enough to put some money towards it. It’s great to have have people who have given their money want to see this thing go through to the end.
“I’ve got a responsibility to all those people. which is a lot of pressure but I vastly prefer this situation to pitching the idea to someone like the BBC or S4C. That’s why crowd sourcing is such a great way for people to make art because it gets rid of some of the barriers which put people off trying to tell a story.”
The film makers are also taking a similar approach to content using Twitter to ask people for pictures and videos – sure they may only get pictures of peoples new Nikes or the Nandos they are about to eat – but you can’t fault in the idea.
Oh wait, you can fault the idea and many people have already hit Helia with the accuasation that ‘this isn’t really cardiff this is just a few people who are online a lot and who live in the city centre’.
But thankfully Helia and her team have made the conscious decision to leave the safety of their computer dens, and go blinking into the harsh daylight to communicate with people in more than 140 characters and try talk to people who don’t have Skype.
“We want it to be a site for all the people in Cardiff,” Helia says. “And that’s one of the points of the internet, it is democratising information for everyone. But the real world doesn’t work like that.
“There are real pockets of poverty and deprivation in certain parts of Cardiff and people who are very disengaged with society and culture. Be that because they’re ethnic minorities or because they’re poor or because of class or whatever.
“But one thing we always said is that we would really like to get into those communities and tell stories from those different points of view. I am fully expecting to be told things when we are in the poorer areas that are going to make me cry.
“But I think people are amazing and people do amazing things. Thats one of the reasons you get into journalism, you either want to expose things which are bad or help people who are under represented and have bad things happen to them.”
In bringing together so many different voices Helia’s role is totally different from the author of a book. Where Jimmy Joyce and Woody Allen had complete control over their cityscapes she’s letting a jumbled skyline fall from their words.
Its more like making a mixtape than writing a novel. Instead of being patronising enough to presume you can speak for other people Helia is using their strange poetry to express something about the way we live today.
She says: “I don’t want any ownership of it, in a project like this where you make something and so many people have contributed I can’t imagine how you would keep any control over it. In a sense its my vision but I’m more like a story administrator than anything else, it’s other people who are doing all the creative stuff.
“There are so many people who are giving stuff to the film that to try and make money from it would be completely against the ethos of it. I want people to see it i don’t want to stop people seeing it. I dont want people to buy a DVD I want people to watch it. We’re not going to license it to people we want to give it away for free because we want people to have it
“I’m not envisioning for a second that this film is going to be particularly popular. But I’ll just be happy if we manage to make it and everyone who sees it feel like it is a vaguely accurate representation of their city.”