In the award-winning short film The Last English Poacher (the first independent doc to come from Coldhouse), Brian roams his surrounding fields and woods illegally hunting for game on private estates belonging to the big land-owners - Earls, Lords, Duchesses and farmers, an almost ethereal existence that clings to the age-old conflict between common and forest Law.
The film (screening this month in our LMFF Club) is an elegy to England's changing rural communities, and our diminishing connection to the land.
What can we learn from an outcast? This unconventional way of life is slipping away, and with it an intimate knowledge and perspective on a wilder way of living - a way of living perhaps, that deep down we all in some way miss.
We spoke to director and producer Emma Crome about the film - interview below.
Q: Where did the idea for the film come from and how did you persuade a poacher to give you access?
I found Brian when I was researching for a long form documentary I've been trying to make for five years now, about the state of nature in the UK and our human connection to the land in 21st century Britain. I was looking for lesser-known stories and diverse perspectives, and read the book 'The Last English Poachers' by John F MacDonald, about Brian and his late father Bob. I thought Brian's life was compelling as it is intrinsically linked to our rural history, but actually at odds with what you mostly hear about in the media - the opposite of Downton Abbey or Beatrix Potter, but equally valid. I think Brian was intrigued by me randomly showing up on his doorstep, and equally happy to share his knowledge and insight with an engaged and enthusiastic crew.
Q: Did the film crew break any laws in making the film and how did you debate that?
We consulted Brian on what could technically get him into trouble, and made sure there was nothing entirely incriminating in the film itself. I don't want to give away too much as you never know these days, but none of it was staged, we were very careful not to cause any disturbance to private property (apart from the pheasant)! and we made sure everyone was comfortable being involved in the process. There were moments that made us feel uncomfortable - particularly the rabbit snares - but we wanted to tell an honest story. For me that's the most important aspect of documentary film.
Q: Were your own views on poaching or trespass changed by the film?
I didn't really know anything about poaching before making this film - not in the old English context. The poaching wars of Britain and the reasons for poaching in our country seem to have almost been lost to the mists of time. I've always supported the Right to Roam movement, but making this film revealed to me the full context of private landownership and how we have become a nation of landless people. Poaching was born out of necessity in the 11th century, when forest law was introduced and huge areas of land were reserved for hunting for the aristocracy. Poorer people could no longer access the sustenance they needed and so they would have to sneak on to the land to take game to feed themselves. The new law created the crime. Poaching has been compounded over the centuries by things like the Enclosures Acts, the Highland Clearances, the Industrial Revolution, agri business, so when it comes to the countryside now, most of us are strangers in our own land. Britain has one of the highest concentrations of private land ownership anywhere in the world. So Brians story may seem contrary but it actually has a lot of ties to our social and rural history, our relationship with the land and where our food comes from, even biodiversity loss.
Q: Did you expect the film to deliver such profound observations on societal change?
We always wanted this film to pull on the threads of our relationship with nature, that was the main purpose. Spending time with Brian was unexpectedly emotional, it felt like we were experiencing a living history, following a ghost and capturing a wildness and self-sufficiency that is slipping away from our consciousness. It was hard to edit the film because some of the themes are quite subtle and Brian is simply doing what he loves and what he has always done, so he didn't articulate too much about his political or social views. But in the end I guess that made it easier to just tell his story, without trying to tell people what to think. That's the main strength of the film and something a lot of people have commented on. It provokes questions, rather than offers answers.
Q: As people continue to reconnect with our landscape and seek a more natural lifestyle could poaching make a comeback?
Poaching in its truest form is almost gone, I can't see it coming back. There are a lot of people Brian would describe as 'cowboys' who class themselves as poachers running around the countryside taking pot shots at deer. Brian is as much against that as the rest of us. His way of poaching - tracking animals, understanding their behaviours, trapping them in the most humane way possible, using every part for sustenance, enjoying and knowing the nature around him - whether you agree with it or not, it's an art form, a skill, born from knowledge acquired over a lifetime of experience.
I think poaching now manifests itself in the modern Right to Roam movement. We need to reconnect with our land but to do that we need more access. Poaching was born from access to the countryside being taken away from us, so to take it back could offer more opportunities for people to grow their own food, rear their own meat, care for the soil and perhaps engage with nature in a more holistic way than just recreation, or just holidays. Understanding what is and isn't on our own doorstep and why, and acting in a responsible, appropriate way, that's a good place to start.
Q: The tone is set by the photography - how difficult was that to get right?
I wanted the visuals to provoke thoughts on what our rural communities have become - all the 'old' signs we saw around the village became quite pertinent - the old school house, the old barn, the old bakery. It felt like a symbolic representation of how we have replaced community with convenience, and how Brian has become anonymous in a village where he used to get chased by the local police officer and the game keeper! No one knows or cares about what he is doing anymore. We're all racing to and fro to work, shopping in a retail park or supermarket and inside our cosy warm houses at night watching Strictly or Love Island. The shots of him wandering through the fields and woods at night by torchlight, they are my favourite, because they are ethereal and disquieting.