Art, Culture, Entertainment

Manchester Indian Film Festival: Creating TV Drama Series collaboration brings together the city’s creatives

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Featured image: Juan Pablo Cifuentes

The ‘Creating TV Drama Series’ networking event brought together writers and industry professionals as part of the Manchester Indian Film Festival’s collaboration with Manchester Met.

Hosted by the Manchester Writing School, it brought together staff and students from the School of Digital Arts (SODA) and Manchester School of Theatre (MST) and celebrated the ongoing interdisciplinary project with BA Acting, MA Filmmaking, and BA Creative Writing students who have been working together to create the pilot for a TV drama series.

The project was led by scriptwriter and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Writing School Anjum Malik, Senior Lecturer Filmmaking Mark Thomas, and performer and Lecturer in Acting Emma Bonnici.

It offered an opportunity for exchange between students, staff, and industry professionals, with the students’ film premiered as part of the event, followed by a panel which included expert industry guests.

Anjum said: “This is the first time we’ve had this collaboration between these three departments, the first time we’ve worked with MST and SODA together. We’ve organised this independently, gotten our students together and created this film.”

She added, “It’s been a lot of work but really exciting, we’re really proud that we got to this place!”

Anjum explained this was a valuable new experience for her students: “For most of them it was their first time working in a writers room situation. I’ve been getting some incredible feedback, some of our students found it hard but they still absolutely loved it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I started at the university.”

Emma, who runs Singing as Life Practice, shared how the project came about: “Like all good things, it started with a cup of tea.”

Emma shared her objectives for the acting students: “I believed that it could serve the needs of our acting students by boosting their prospects and giving them more exposure. I wanted them to be able to go into a film set of a drama series and know ‘How can I appropriately contribute as an active member of this project?’

“In order to know how to contribute, you need to understand how this story is being created, what the process is, and what’s happening in terms of the collaboration? It’s about understanding the medium, and how to have conversations.”

She added: “What was interesting from an acting perspective, is that they could learn from writers and camera people what they are looking for, and that would inform them on how to offer themselves as actors.

“I thought ‘I want to find a way to embolden the actors in the room’, to find out how they could be the actor who can make an offering at the right time. To do that, you need to know how stories work, in this specific medium.”

It became clear that how stories work in the specific medium of a TV drama series, the art of storytelling, was the theme which connected these different disciplines under a shared passion, and became a prominent theme of the event.

Mark Thomas, Creative Director of Soup Collective, shared the importance of collaboration between disciplines: “We’ve got these different schools doing amazing things, but it’s actually rare that they cross over. We thought it’d be nice to jump in, do a pilot project, and get to grips with how it could work moving forwards.”

Mark outlined the creative process for the project, which involved bringing together acting students, writing students and filmmaking students, to create a ten-minute pilot. They built in sessions around thematics, deciding on food as the final theme.

After a pitching process with the writers, a call and response, the student filmmakers pitched treatments based on the scripts they wanted to develop. Then a panel (composed of staff and students from the three schools) then chose one to take forward as a group project.

Mark said: “What was incredible was the level of pitches that the writers brought – unbelievable. Students learned a lot through the pitching process.

“Agency was a big thing – we were keen that there was space and agency for all disciplines to have input and be involved on a creative level, it was a good exercise in creative collaboration.”

Anjum added that there is a need for creating a space like the industry: “We had the writers’ room, pitching with the production team, then the actors coming to meet the writers, to give them an idea of what it’s like working in a professional setting. A drama series is not just about the script but the performance at the end as well.”

After a drinks reception for guests, the event opened with introductions by Anjum, Mark and Emma, followed by a speech from the organisers of Manchester Indian Film Festival, who sponsored the event.

Kanchana Jai, Head of the Manchester Indian Film Festival, shared her excitement about the upcoming festival: “We are running from 26th June to 5th July and it’s a lot of really interesting independent Indian and South Asian programming, including a lot of regional films. “We want to encourage young filmmakers and creatives to participate and engage with the festival.”

The film was then screened – written, directed, produced and featuring students from these three schools. The film takes place primarily in a takeaway in which three young people work. The funny, charming, loveable protagonist is creating a documentary, much to the annoyance of his two colleagues – yet there is a subtle affection towards him from both women.

Despite each characters’ contrasting nature, they somehow fit together in this world that is emerging. The cinematography is playful and self aware, switching between hectic handheld, and high quality, crisp shots, creating some comic yet poetic images which capture minute moments. The conversational dialogue layers on top of the images, and the film leaves us with an air of suspenseful mystery.

The film’s director is Anandu Vinod who is from India and studying on the MA Filmmaking course. Anandu said: “This was a big opportunity for me. I see this project as a base for me as a filmmaker. It was challenging, because this is my first time working on someone else’s script. There was support from everyone, from all departments – art direction, cinematography, sound, animation.”

Awh Boyd, a part-time MA Filmmaking student, shared his experiences as producer: “Working between three faculties of the university created some obstacles to overcome, but we got there in the end. After lots of timetabling and scheduling we managed to get it done in just two days of shooting! I’m really pleased that we get to show the film in its current state tonight.”

The film screening was followed by a panel of industry experts in the fields of writing, acting, filmmaking and directing, all experienced in TV drama series, the subject of the discussion. Panelists included TV, film, theatre and radio performer and director Mina Anwar, screenwriter and playwright Ishy Din, actor Gurjeet Singh, and actor and MST graduate George Bukhari.

Mina, who is known for her roles in The Thin Blue Line and The Sarah Jane Adventures, commanded the theatre, generously sharing her experiences and anecdotes.

She was joined by Ishy, who is currently writing for Phoenix Park (CBBC) and Hollyoaks (C4). Ishy shared practical advice to the aspiring writers in the audience, sharing his own process while encouraging everyone to find their own way.

Ishy commented on the need for this event and how valuable networking is: “It’s an incredible event – much needed. So much of TV and film works on networks, and insight into the industry, how industry works – it’s such an important tool to have, particularly for young people just setting off on their careers.”

He shared advice to young writers: “Be rigorous. Work hard. Be resilient – that comes first and foremost.”

They were joined by Gurjeet Singh, an actor from Manchester best known for playing in Ackley Bridge, The Forge, and Mrs Sidhu Investigates, who shared useful and relatable advice to the young actors.

George Bukhari, an actor and MST graduate who has worked on Ridley, The A Word, Years and Years, also shared raw and real advice, with a side serving of cheeky but charming wittiness.

The panel opened with the theme that became central to this conversation: storytelling. The panelists discussed what is special about telling a story through the medium of a TV drama series.

According to Mina, it starts with good writing: “It’s about creating human experience.” She added: “The death of an artist is not thinking for yourself.” 

George explained he sees being an actor as being a storyteller and a collaborator: “It’s the story that’s paramount.” While film and TV scripts are different, it’s about asking, “What’s the story?” Gurjeet, addressing the actors in the room, added: “You have a say in who this character is – it’s a collaboration.”

Gurjeet uses the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle: “It’s not about you, you’re a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, creating this big image together.” Less interested in the differences between specific techniques, he claims that it’s about constantly learning, doing and being open.

Ishy shared his priorities as a writer in this process: “What’s the story I am trying to tell? What big universal issues are at play here?” His advice is to “be pragmatic, develop your own process”.

Ishy touched upon his own process in writing a drama series, giving some tips, but ultimately, he likens it to a chef – of course there are key ingredients (create a world, end with a cliffhanger etc.) but ultimately you have to taste the food. You have to know how your writing has been translated into the direction, the acting, the cinematography.

Hearing from these varying perspectives, each connected to this topic from different angles, opened up the idea of storytelling – the individual parts and the bigger picture. What stands out is the importance of having your own process, developing your own practice and having agency.

The conversation flowed naturally, with each panel member (having previously worked together) bouncing off one another, giving each other impulses, bringing about a familiar feeling despite being expert industry guests.

Another key theme was communication in collaboration. Mina insisted that the director needs to understand what everyone does – from the DOP to the camera operator – and how to communicate with each other. Gurjeet added that everyone has their own way, and that it’s vital to be open to having conversations with everyone involved.

On the other hand, Ishy emphasised the importance of focusing on your individual craft; “We’re artists also craftspeople. You’ve got to learn the craft, the better you are at the craft, the further you will go.”

The debate sparked some interesting questions from the audience including: ‘How do you know if an idea or story is worth sharing?’ ‘What are your thoughts on the rise in short form content for the future of film and television?’

Gurjeet concluded the event comprehensively: “It’s a step-by-step process – it’s about having patience”. He stressed the importance of collaboration, openness, and knowing how to communicate with everyone involved – three principles that, thanks to the hard work of those involved, also capture the essence of this project.

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Tara Morony

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