Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Watch more films to make a change in the films you want to see - gender & diversity balance in film & TV

This week I have paraphrased the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote be the change you want to see in the world.

Having recently been asked about the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum approach to diversity, I answered that the Rocliffe part of the partnership is run by an Irish-Libyan. I expanded by stating that our selection process rests purely with the voice of the writing. When we select scripts the panel have no idea of the writer's gender, or what their experience is, age, race if they write alone or part of a team. Their selection is based purely on the panel member’s connection to the work. Interestingly, we’ve seen a balance shift from mostly male to an equal gender footing. As a result in 2013 all our TV writers were female, the comedy writers were predominantly female (5 female and 3 male), and the film writers were all male. The work was selected purely on the strength of the writing – gender or race did not (and could not) play a role in the selection process.

I’d like to think that the jobs I’ve got to date were down to my ability to do the job, rather than my race or gender. Besides, I’ve yet to see a diversity form with the option of Irish-Libyan, and I rarely see a tick box for Arab, MENA (Middle Eastern North Africa) or North African. We come under OTHER.  I do believe that when Andrea Arnold, Aisling Walsh, Amma Assante, Clio Barnard and Kirsten Sheridan wrote and then directed their films, they did so as storytellers just like every other filmmaker. Getting a film made is hard, no one doubts that, but I'm sure they want us to choose to see their work to be entertained, not because they are women making films.  

That said, there is a justifiable debate underway about gender and a strong argument about increasing the low percentage of female directors and writer-directors and whether that boils down to women not being given the opportunity to direct. A lack of opportunity creates a lack of visibility that in turn causes a lack of demand. We can laud and applaud people and we can lament the lack of prominence and breaks, but the question I ask myself is how do I make a change in the system?  The only way I know how is by watching their films and encouraging others to do so too. Draw your own conclusions about their voices – become a fan (or not), engage with their work (or not), support them (or not), but by acknowledging women’s contribution to this industry, by watching their work and creating a demand, we can begin to tackle this dearth of women. This requires familiarising ourselves with their body of work, and, if we think it is good, recommending others to watch it too.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with the owner of the flower stall beside Angel tube station comparing the films at the Vue Islington and the Screen on the Green. He felt that the Screen was like supporting local business. I asked him which films he had seen there that he had liked. He told me that was where he had first seen Andrea Arnold’s work and now he watches all her films. He felt her characters were real, and clicked with them.

For my part I’m using this blog to spotlight, the feature debuts by first time writer-directors, I’ve really loved, both female and male. This is my utterly subjective list of first films. I selected some because they have moved me, because I saw their shorts and have followed their careers, because I feel a personal attachment to the films and some purely for the film themselves. So if you feel there’s someone to flag up – go shout it out… make your own lists - word of mouth is a powerful tool.


This story is set in the 'in-between' time of a girl's life, when she is no longer a child and not yet a woman. We open on our heroine, Maeve, putting on her new snow-white bra and stepping out into the world as a young woman. Her world revolves around her three best friends who despair of her ever getting a boyfriend. But what no one expected, least of all Maeve, was that she would snare the local 16-year-old heartthrob.

Timothy (Hill Harper), a man struggling to raise his young daughter Maya (newcomer Troi Zee) in the midst of his wife Shenae’s (Sharon Leal) growing drug habit. 

Samira is a modern schoolteacher in Sarajevo who takes a job in a small country village just as the war is beginning to ramp up. When Serbian soldiers overrun the village, shoot the men and keep the women as labourers (the older ones) and sex objects (the younger ones), Samira is subjected to the basest form of treatment imaginable.

A family holiday brings to a head the destructive love triangle between Eamon, a little boy with behavioural problems, his selfish mother Grace and his sexually frustrated father Daniel.

Free-spirited 16-year-old Nasrine is arrested by the Iranian police – for riding on the back of a boy's motorcycle – and sexually assaulted in prison. She flees to the UK with her older brother Ali and moves into a Newcastle council estate that's a far cry from their comfortable middle-class existence in Tehran.

Two teenage brothers must face their own prejudices head on if they are to survive the perils of being British Arabs growing up on the streets of gangland London.

An urban thriller about an African former child soldier called Jumah was brought to London by Laura, an aid worker who he now lives with. Jumah is about to turn 16 in two days and wants to leave his violent past behind him. Things seem to have taken a turn for the better with Jumah now; he has a sweet but tentative romance blossoming with a girl at school. But then Jumah witnesses a stabbing and the people involved want to make sure that he says nothing to the police about what he saw that night. Pressure mounts as violence forces it's way back into Jumah's life.

A sleepwalker. A body. A family. A small community. Arlene is like a ghost in her life. She lives in a small town in the midlands – surrounded by field after field, woodlands and laneways to disappear down and never come back… One morning Arlene wakes in the woods beside the body of a young woman. Someone watches from the trees. The body is soon discovered and suspicion spreads through the community. Increasingly drawn to the girl’s family – her grieving sister and accused boyfriend, Arlene barricades herself in at night, afraid to sleep. Haunted by grief buried and delayed, Arlene’s sleeping and waking realities soon blur. And all this time someone is watching her.

A young Englishman recently released from prison recruits his three best friends and to rob the local drug kingpin who is responsible for his incarceration. Can he get revenge and win back his fed-up girlfriend?

A married couple move back to his childhood village to start a family but a surprise visit from the husband's brother ignites sibling rivalry and exposes the lies embedded in the couple's relationship.

And I can't wait to see what they do next. 

Watch out for the the forthcoming films from directors, whose work I can't wait to see, Paul King, Amma Assante, Ron Scalpello, Susan Jacobson, Niall Heery, Sarah Gavron, Lisa Barros D’Sa, Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne as well as the feature debuts of Nick Ryan, David Leon and Claire Wilson.

My quote:
Today's news was published by word of mouth in the streets of ancient Athens. ~ Anonymous
Keep writing!

Thursday, 23 January 2014


Writing a storyline is great fun. You are creating characters that you make do whatever you want. Hanging out with pretend people, in a pretend world is or should be like child's play, but sometimes it is not. There are a few basic rules to it. When writing an episode for TV, you have to think about the length. An hour on screen has to fill the time with something that drives it, sustains our interest and not just the long story narrative. Storylines need to be threaded through, and you need to know what structure that will take.

William Goldman said in Adventures in the Screen Trade 'the essential opening labour a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing.' This, he believes, is 'the single most important lesson to be learned about writing'. He continues to hammer home the point by stating 'nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure, it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.'  

Structure is all about planning. With TV episodes there is no opportunity to over/under-run, so you need to plan it out carefully. The first thing to understand is that an hour-long episode on most channels will be around 50 minutes for drama and 20-25 minutes for SitCom. A full TV Drama script will be somewhere between 46-50 pages and SitCom betewen 20-25 pages. It is worth noting that some channels have longer ad-breaks and these will dictate the exact length of the script, and you will also need to allow for credits. That's a lot of pages if you are writing a six episode series. Each episode needs its own structure and story to drive it forward. You need to show you know what those stories or story lines will be, and this is where the guides come in. The treatment is an overview but the guides give us snippets of insight into how it will work and entertain. 

  1. These are written in the third person, present tense.  No dialogue should appear at any point.  I would suggest 50-100 words per episode - less can be more if you can entice us with the story progression. Check Rocliffe's Terms & Conditions as word counts may vary depending on each particular script call. 
  2. Each episode must have vital moments, so describe the essential moments in each episode. Stay true to your story. Be dynamic - in drama significant things as a consequence of, and not merely after, what has happened before. Too often we see superfluous scenes – everything should be part of the bigger story or driving the story forward. When writing episode guides or storylines you are describing the dramatic moments within the script.
  3. When you have a series arc, which is apparent in a long running story of a mini-series, remember this is the backbone of the series and we should see progression of this in each guide.  The overall structure of the beginning, middle and end is in the treatment.  The episodes must match the treatment. 
  4. Remember that each episode has to draw the audience in, keep them coming back the following week whilst revealing enough of the main story and still telling single story strands within the episode. There is a complexity to this but it should be clear if you are clear what your main story arc is.
  5. When creating a storyline that is contained within a single episode ensure that it has some closure, even if you continue other storylines into future episodes. Remember it is by engaging with these characters that draws an audience in and makes them come back for more.
  6. Show the characters history, backstory and interrelationships/interactions with the other characters. A great example of this was the series Cold Feet, which ran for 6 series, 32 episodes from 1998 – 2003.  The bind was the ups-and-downs of 3 ordinary couples in Manchester. Good times and bad times were followed through the 32 hours, which were finally tied up in the last episode of the sixth series when all the history of the previous years’ came together.
  7. Whilst we all follow the maxim of all scripts ‘show not tell’ even in guides and storylines that doesn’t mean you replace loads of dialogue with lengthy emotional description and action. Replace it with one line.
  8. A good writer is a good reader.  Watch and read shows.  Assess how they end and finish stories that are interspersed within the main series narrative. This will give you a greater understanding of the structure of the show as well as a greater appreciation of what your story can be.
  9. Work out your ending of each episode, right at the start, it makes it easier to know where you are driving the series rather than rambling along.  You can’t wing it.
  10. Stay true to your story. Don’t self-sensor at the first draft or second-guess at the spec script stage what our panel or a commissioner will be looking for. Ensure that your characters are believable and by that I mean behave the way real people actually do today. It is crucial to reflect characters how they are.  Go out and observe the world.  Spend time in the world you are creating if you are reflecting a world you don’t know.

I've always thought everything William Goldman says is very clever. So my writing quote for this blog is a whole lot of William Goldman saying lots of things and explaining exactly what he meant by NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Spend the time watching this amazing youtube interview!

Research, reflect and be adventurous, who says you can’t be big, bold and challenging! Keep writing...

Monday, 13 January 2014


It’s hard to write about yourself or know what to write. The first time, I was asked for a biography, I was flummoxed. It's odd to think that writers can struggle to write about themselves, but it's true. I can turnaround a CV, pretty quickly, because it just details every job I’ve done with the dates thrown in. A bio, however, is completely different. 

My first came with a word count - I had to sum up my life in 25 words. So I googled my heroes - reckoning if they could do it, so could I! Many had one-line bios, I with much less achievements under my belt, replicated what they did. I began with my name and added my profession - writer, producer, founder of Rocliffe and elaborated accordingly. Since, I have adapted that same bio for the end reader - film proposals, newspaper by-lines, festivals and once for a meeting at the UN (that’s another story for a different kind of biography).  

The main thing to remember, when writing bios, is not to let your ego (or lack of) get in the way of telling the reader a little bit about you. Don't start by assuming the mindset there is nothing to say about you! Take a different approach. Think of a bio as a fun way to present yourself to someone who doesn't know you, as a writer. Some of these tips are more relevant to BAFTA Rocliffe submissions, but overall, they should relate to most short biographies. 

My Ten Rocliffe Tips:
  1. Start with your name. At this point, no one knows who you are! I can't tell you how many biographies I've seen with no identifying details. On a BAFTA Rocliffe application include your application number and contact details, and submit it as a single page.
  2. Write in the third person and present tense i.e. Farah Abushwesha is an Irish-Libyan writer and filmmaker. It states who I am, what I do and where I am from. I wear my dual nationality as a badge of honour and it explains my Irish accent. I used to find it funny when Irish newspapers referred to me as 'Dubliner Farah Abushwesha' but let's face it, it's not typically Irish.
  3. Remember if you are uninspired reading it, so will the reader be. Don't be too dry, be a bit lively. That said, it's always advisable to maintain a certain level of professionalism and don't be over-familiar.  
  4. Don't be ashamed of being new. New talent is the lifeblood of the industry. Whilst we are looking for people with potential to maintain a career, we get very excited when we find a complete newbie! If this is your first script, then say so! At Rocliffe, we have featured the work of many first time writers who have gone on to forge careers and give them their break.
  5. Generally, make your bio relate to the receiver, adapt it accordingly. When asked for an industry-related bio, do not give an autobiographical account of your life or how your parents met. Tell about your writing achievements include items like whether you have a blog? Has someone famous retweeted a tweet of yours especially if it is funny? Have you written for radio, theatre or short films? Has your work been shown at a festival? Is your work being optioned? Do you have any virals and include links? Do you write video games? The video game writers, I know, are particularly good at writing visual imagery and action films. Relate it back to writing, or similarly with directing or producing. 
  6. If you have written more than one script, don’t be generic IE ‘I’ve written a wide range of writing projects’. Brilliant that you are committed to writing, but what are they? What genre are they? Tell us a bit about your other projects. Are they for a particular medium? A bio can also show us if you are you drawn to a particular genre. We often get approached by people asking if we know writers who have written a particular genre, we look back through the bio, and hook them up. 
  7. List screenwriting courses you attended any courses or any awards or competition have you been shortlisted for or won. 
  8. Keep it positive. Include the things that make you standout in a good way. Don’t berate a former collaborator/producer. I’ve seen a bio where a writer described being ‘shafted' by someone. Another who referred to the producers he was working with as sharks. Whatever the background to the stories, valid or otherwise, it makes you standout in all the wrong ways.
  9. Don’t tell porky pies or embellish. A few years ago a literary agent, in the US, contacted me to find out what I thought of a writer they were considering representing. I had no idea who the writer was. It turned out they had claimed to have won the BAFTA Rocliffe award. No such award exists. The writer had never been selected to be showcased. It's so easy to fact-check, we keep a record of all our entrants.
  10. Final points, show your personality, allow us to begin to like you on paper. This can be done in very subtle ways with turn of phrase and wit. What really resonates is when a writer makes it personal to them. Please don’t use exclamation marks and proof read and spell check your work. Always!
Whilst Rocliffe sees all writer biographies, our selection panels are never told, until after the final three are selected. This way we ensure that only the voice of the work is the deciding factor and not the age, race, gender and experience of the writer.

My quote of the week: 
“Great geniuses have the shortest biographies” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Write, rewrite and keep writing because without screenwriters we would not have TV shows and films to make!