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Amber Films

Acclaimed film collective dedicated to documenting life in the North East

Main image of Amber Films

The Amber Film Collective was founded in the North-East of England in 1969 with a self-proclaimed ambition to record working-class life in its region. Over the past three decades, Amber has drawn upon a tradition of independent filmmaking and of social realism that not only dates from the British documentary movement of the 1930s, but that also has clear links with post-war European neo-realism. Part-art cinema, part-documentary, Amber's evolving humanist aesthetic has produced a body of work that in its integrity, honesty and commitment, remains one of the great unsung achievements of British cinema.

Following Amber's first film, Maybe (1969), Launch (1974) documented the construction and launch of a tanker at the Wallsend shipyards. Produced with a budget of only £400, Launch typifies Amber's approach to aesthetics, politics and working practices - working with the local community to produce a film that enables the life and voice of that community to emerge largely in its own terms.

With funding from Channel 4 under the terms of the ACTT Workshop Declaration, Amber produced its first feature film, Seacoal, in 1985. The result of two years living and working with the seacoalers, the film incorporates elements of straight documentary, improvised sketches and fully dramatised reconstructions. Contrary to the charge of romanticism that is sometimes levelled against Amber, and to which they seem sometimes too ready to plead guilty, films such as Seacoal strive for an honest depiction of the frequently harsh realities of working-class life on the margins, one which certainly pays tribute to its dignity but which is far from romantic. Furthermore, the films also stand as important social documents as these different ways of life are steadily eradicated.

However, Amber's work does not simply blend these various traditions. It consistently engages with this heritage, and has not been afraid to experiment. T Dan Smith (1987), for example, is a documentary that puts on display the making of the documentary itself, together with archive footage, interviews with Smith and others, and a dramatised version of the late 1960s/early 1970s Poulson scandal (concerning political corruption in awarding building contracts). Although different in style, T Dan Smith still shares with Amber's other work a respect for its audience and a political stance that is questioning without preaching. That said, it is disappointing that films such as Like Father (2001), unlike mainstream productions such as Billy Elliott (d. Stephen Daldry, 2000), can only obtain a very limited theatrical release. Like Father, Amber's most accomplished film to date, demonstrates their characteristic working practices (two years building the film in the community with a largely amateur cast, including the three main leads), their aesthetics and understated politics, in a narrative that interweaves the personal and the political with genuine social authenticity and considerable emotional force.

Over the past 33 years, Amber have not merely survived but thrived. Of course, more could and should be done to provide a more secure financial context for independent, regional and workshop production. More importantly, more could and should be done to ensure the effective and accessible distribution and exhibition of this work. Nevertheless, for Amber, the work is there, and the work goes on.

Martin Hunt

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Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Byker (1983)Byker (1983)

Portrait of a working-class community undergoing transformation

Thumbnail image of High Row (1974)High Row (1974)

Amber documentary about a worker-run drift mine in Cumbria

Thumbnail image of In Fading Light (1989)In Fading Light (1989)

A young woman throws a small fishing community into turmoil

Thumbnail image of Jellyfish, The (1974)Jellyfish, The (1974)

Experimental animation that radiates Cold War anxieties

Thumbnail image of Launch (1974)Launch (1974)

Impressionistic doc following the launch of a new ship at Wallsend.

Thumbnail image of Laurie (1978)Laurie (1978)

Unpretentious portrait of Laurie Wheatley, plasterer-turned-sculptor

Thumbnail image of Like Father (2000)Like Father (2000)

Drama about an ex-miner's turbulent relationships with his father and son

Thumbnail image of Scar, The (1997)Scar, The (1997)

Powerful tale of love & loyalty in a town reeling from the 1990s pit closures

Thumbnail image of Seacoal (1985)Seacoal (1985)

Poetic and unsentimental story of the death of a way of life

Thumbnail image of T Dan Smith (1987)T Dan Smith (1987)

Innovative semi-documentary about the notorious ex-Newcastle councillor

Thumbnail image of We Did it Together (2003)We Did it Together (2003)

Challenging educational film about teenage pregnancy.

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Thumbnail image of Amber Collective (1969-)Amber Collective (1969-)

Film collective