Siôn Marshall-Waters is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in South Wales. Siôn’s current project Thieves Again, Sketches from the Black Mountains is an ongoing research and development project exploring ways of evoking the lived experiences and perspectives of the region. The project addresses various aspects of community and belonging in contemporary Welsh rural life.
We met with Siôn at the remote and beautiful little Church of St Issui in Partrishow ‒ a tiny scattered community of a few hill farms north of Abergavenny ‒ to find out more about his current research project.
Tell us about your latest project ‘Thieves Again, Sketches from the Black Mountains’. How did it come about and what have you learnt about the people and place as a result?
The project started about a year ago. I wanted to explore various issues around identity and place in the Black Mountains near where I grew up. The hills themselves form quite an extraordinary landscape which have drawn many artists and writers over the years; Turner, John Piper and Allen Ginsberg to name a few.
For this project however, I wanted to focus on those working and living in the hills all year round and in a sense explore the mundane and peculiar as much as the poetic aspects to life in the region. As Bridget, a farmer working in Forest Coal Pit recently said to me, “lots of people visit here and talk about how beautiful it is, but no one photographs a dying lamb or the rain coming in horizontally through the letterbox”. In short, the project brings together film, photography and sound recordings to playfully explore varying themes and perspectives of rural living. The projects title is related to a graffitied shed on the side of the road in the Grwyne Fawr valley which drew my curiosity.
I initially started the project by attending the Sunday service at the Church of St Issui, Partrishow, as a way of meeting people outside my usual social sphere and quickly became attached to many members of the congregation there. I’ve since been working closely with people in Forest Coal Pit, Capel Y Ffin and Waun Fach.
I’ve learned a lot about particular ways of life that are quite different to mine on a day to day level, how people interact with the land in different ways and how this shapes their perception of it. Perhaps a unifying factor however is people’s commitment to the land ‒ there seems to be a common devotion, whether it be in walking or farming, the land feeds our dispositions, although responses to this can be different. I think in this sense it almost becomes an active character that forms an everyday dialogue with those living in it.
I’ve been surprised by the community’s openness to the project too, although it has taken some time for me to develop a particular pathway, people have understood the project throughout and really warmed to its ideas. I’ve also picked up a few practical farming skills, but I won’t be looking to purchase livestock anytime soon.
During this project you’ve been mentored by filmmaker Andrew Kötting. Can you say something about the mentoring relationship with Andrew and what you’ve gained from it? How has mentoring developed your practice?
I’ve known Andrew for the best part of a year and we’ve met around three times. I first came across his work when studying my MA in Manchester where a friend introduced me to his film Gallivant. The film had a particular resonance with me ‒ as a psychogeographic odyssey through place and time cultivating a peculiarity in the everyday that has helped frame this project.
I think mentoring works in different ways for different people and projects. With Andrew it’s been an ongoing dialogue rather than anything specific. This has created a sense of self validation in my practice, but also draws in particular questions both regarding focus and the bigger picture, which help shape my thinking more generally.
Andrew visited the Black Mountains in November and I introduced him to some of the people I’ve been working with. It was interesting to see how he connected with them and quickly built relationships. He also has a fantastic knowledge of experimental documentary filmmaking which is great source of inspiration.
You studied at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. How has this experience informed your approach to filmmaking?
I entered the MA in visual anthropology without any direct experience of filmmaking or documentary photography. I’d previously studied Politics and Sociology as an undergraduate, so my way in related to social theory and methodological practices rather than anything technical. I’ve not always been interested in photography, it was something I picked up over time and eventually became intrigued by its use in the social sciences.
The course then gave me a deeper understanding of how the two could merge, but also an appreciation for a very particular type of cinema and approach. I’m generally interested in non-narrative, slow or observational film that is often grounded in a playful evocation of place or particular life worlds. Filmmakers like Ben Rivers, Gideon Koppel and Jonas Mekas have all been inspiration for this project.
Anthropology as a subject is also very reflexive and asks questions about how and why we do ethnography. In practice this can result in long term projects grounded in close relationships with those involved, rather than something story-driven which is more synonymous with journalism. The subject is still positioned as something still quite colonial however, which I wanted to actively avoid and challenge. In this sense it brought me home ‒ to explore the unique aspects of the culture where I grew up in and perhaps know the most, rather than going somewhere far away and know nothing about.
You’re currently based in Abergavenny and Cardiff. How do you connect with other filmmakers and photographers and is there something unique about working in this medium in Wales?
I think the arts and film communities in Wales are very accessible and open. One of the advantages to working here is that things happen quite organically and people are naturally drawn to each other at all levels. I think this is partly due to the smaller and tighter community here but also Wales being a devolved nation, which has its own identity (politically, culturally, socially).
On a personal level, Peak’s role in integrating me has been quite invaluable. It represents a real focal point that’s given my work a lift but also a network base where I’ve met and worked with some great artists in the region from all disciplines including Anna Falcini, Edwin Burdis and Stefhan Caddick.
In terms of photography, I think the influence of the Documentary Photography Course in what was Newport College of Art, Ffotogallery and the collection at National Museum Cardiff are evident in South Wales, while The Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol has recently been linking up with Wales based photographers which is great. All represent hubs of sorts that contribute to the development of the discipline here, which is very inspiring.
I've also recently become part of the South Wales Project with photographers Dan Wood, Jon Pountney, Rebecca Thomas and Anna Jones, which is again something that has developed quite organically. The group formed in response to the Valleys Project that started in 1984, with the aim of resurfacing a movement to create a new and expansive body of work documenting the region. We’ll be looking to draw in more photographers and artists in time, and while its early doors, I think there’s a lot to come.
I’d say I’m still finding my way somewhat but I feel there’s a good support base here which bodes well for the future.
What are your future plans and how do you want to develop your creative career?
I’d like to continue working with communities in the Black Mountains. Through this project I’ve established a good platform to build upon and explore things in greater depth. The exhibitions at Llangenny and Cardiff will be good benchmarks for this project and help inform its future development.
There are also other themes and subject matters I’d like to investigate looking into the region’s history and folklore, as well as its future, so we’ll see where this goes. The South Wales Project will also be developing project ideas in the coming months so there’s a lot to look forward to here.
‘Onwards and up-weirds’ — Andrew Kötting
This phase of Siôn’s research will culminate in film screenings in the Black Mountains and Cardiff.
Saturday 27 April – Llangenny Village Hall, Llangenny, Monmouthshire, NP8 1HA
Saturday 4 May – Sull, Capitol Shopping Centre, Queen Street, Cardiff, CF10 2HQ
The project is in collaboration with Peak and supported by the Arts Council of Wales.
To view more of Siôn’s work visit www.sionmarshallwaters.com
Peak is an arts organisation based in the Black Mountains that works creatively with professional artists and communities responding to the rural environment. www.peak.cymru
Interview by Rebecca Spooner
Photography by Together & Sunspell