Sheffield Doc/Fest: Bank of human kindness

Sheffield Doc/Fest: Bank of human kindness

In Carol Salter’s short film Breadline, which world-premieres at Sheffield, we meet the heroic Dave, who dedicates much of his time to helping the poor in a food bank in Fleetwood, in the North-West of England.


Filmed in 2019 just as the UK was lurching towards Brexit (and coronavirus was a concept way beyond our imagining), Breadline reminds us of the absurd socio-economic disparity within Britain, the enormous gulf between rich and poor rendered even greater by ten years of austerity economics. 


It is a disparity underlined in stark terms within the film’s book-end sequences. As we look at a wide expanse of grey sea, indistinguishable from the grey sky above, we hear a radio news item about how, the previous month, one million emergency food packages were distributed to the poor of the UK – 17,000 of these in the county of Lancashire. At the end of the film (same sea, same sky), a jubilant Chancellor of the Exchequer boasts to Parliament about a vibrant UK economy “which has confounded commentators at home and abroad with its strength and its resilience.”


Nobody, one suspects, has bothered to tell the disadvantaged people of Fleetwood (who throughout the week turn to the food bank both for sustenance and support) just how lucky they are. 


Nevertheless they are lucky to have avuncular Dave, who calmly and gently runs the local Mustard Seed food bank and administers the supply of food stuffs, advises on what is tasty, lends an ear, gives words of encouragement and now and again pops an extra custard tart into a customer’s bag free of charge. 


Yes, Breadline is a political film, but it is about much more besides.


“My starting point was a film about kindness really, or about humanity,” says director Carol Salter. “Certainly last year with all of this Brexit angst and anger.”


“I try to make all my films with an underlying kindness, but usually wrapped up with social justice,” she adds, further stressing how she both likes and admires her subjects, and wants her audience to like them too. “Usually my hero or heroine is somebody who is very quietly doing something against all the odds.”


The 10-minute film was one of two that Salter made while participating in an arts residency programme in Fleetwood. The other film is Left Coast, a title suggested by the name of the programme, and made for the ‘Uncertain Kingdom’ series of 20 short films about contemporary Britain.


“I’ve never done that before. It feels environmentally really good to make two films but I actually believe both films [which cover the same topic] have different audiences and different purposes,” she says. 


In Breadline she follows Dave as he goes about his business, measuring out portions of coffee, sorting out the eggs (which come once a week) and his lists of supplies and customers. He is never fazed by anything (not even Salter’s camera which is perennially in close proximity).


“It was pretty much the first day [in Fleetwood] that I volunteered at a soup kitchen, and within minutes I was washing up with Dave who works so hard…I couldn’t keep up with him. I just really liked him,” says the director of their first meeting. “He said that he worked at the food bank, so I went there the next day.” She didn’t start shooting immediately, given the “delicate’ nature of the work. “It took me a while to feel like I had licence to get the camera out.”


Dave is kind, vigilant and attentive, with a soft Lancashire accent (‘bye love,’ he says to departing shoppers) and far from your regular arthouse doc subject. He is eminently watchable, and after Left Coast he even has his own fan club, Salter points out.


The film is eminently watchable too. Salter hesitates to describe it as ‘cinematic’ (she prefers ‘filmic’) as all the cinemas are currently closed, and so much viewing is done on the small screen anyway, she says. Her camera is held low but remains personal, and the mise-en-scène within the food bank is busy, cosy and intimate, which contrasts with the bleak and expansive beginning/end sequences that define the film’s core dilemma.  


“I want the films that I make to be visually immersive in a sense, or atmospheric, so that you can feel things, because I don’t really want to make films that tell you things,” Salter comments. “And so it’s [about] finding a way, my challenge was how to make a film about food banks that are filmic.”


She adds: “I am always looking to make a film that is timeless and universal, so I wanted in a way not to [tell] exactly where we were. It could be any place or any time. Even though the Mustard Seed food bank looks kind of set in the 1950s, the film could be set as much in the future as in the past.”