All that jazz on a shoestring: Benjamin Smith talks to a young film maker who, with only a 5,500 pounds grant, managed to produce an eye- and ear-catching documentary

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The Independent Online
NOBODY told Neil Rawles that half-hour television documentaries usually cost between pounds 30,000 and pounds 50,000 to make. It is probably just as well - if he had known, he may not have tried it with a pounds 5,500 grant from his regional arts board. 'It seemed like a lot of money at the time,' he chuckles. 'I thought, 'Blimey, I could have a cruise on this and make a film]' ' He may laugh at his navety now, but the finished programme - about the influence of jazz greats on contemporary musicians - stands as proof that with resourcefulness and determination it can be done on a shoestring.

'When Eastern Arts gave the the grant, they said: 'There's no way you're going to make this with pounds 5,500,' but I wasn't thinking too far ahead,' says Mr Rawles, a 23-year-old video production graduate from Essex whose only previous film-making experience was as a student in Bournemouth. Twelve months of sporadic filming and pounds 6,000 later, the documentary, Here and Now - Sampled, is finally finished.

'It's about the way young British artists have taken on board black American ideas and translated them into something new, either through sampling or through listening to records and re-creating those Sixties and Seventies sounds,' he says.

The idea was born at a Jazz FM festival where young, up-and- coming bands such as Galliano, the Brand New Heavies and Working Week appeared alongside some of their idols - legendary names such as Roy Ayers and Pharoah Sanders. 'It was very much a coming together of the generations,' Mr Rawles says. 'I saw an opportunity to show the influence of musicians whom the majority of young people aren't even aware of.'

He was pleasantly surprised by the co-operation he received, both from artists and venues. 'I'd either just turn up at the gigs unannounced or contact the management and explain loosely what I was doing. There was almost always willingness to let me come along and film and everyone was very receptive to the programme,' he says.

Mr Rawles made good use of the experience he had gained while experimenting with music videos at college to capture the energy of the jazz clubs, where most of the footage was shot on Super 8 cine film. The result is dramatic - grainy, fast-moving images are coupled with frantic, choppy editing and multitrack sound techniques to give a fresh, vibrant quality that looks set to become a Rawles trademark.

'I think it's important to present jazz to young people in a way that shows it's still an exciting, youthful, relevant music rather than something that belongs in a museum,' he says. 'I tried to reflect that energy in the editing and had in mind the photographic styles of the famous Blue Note and Impulse record sleeves, which are visually very strong and stylised.

'With cine film you get a slightly unreal quality you don't with video, which helps to create the right feel.'

The same approach was used to good effect in Sweet Revolutions (described by Mr Rawles as a 'music video documentary'), a four-minute graduation project about the Essex jazz-dance scene that won third prize at the 1990 Piccadilly Film Festival in London. 'It was a buzz because I felt it was very unpolished. It was made for pounds 150 and was in competition with British Film Institute productions costing pounds 10,000 or pounds 15,000.'

However, at a time of unprecedented belt-tightening, this modest success did not help Mr Rawles find a job in the industry. He spent the year it took to make Here and Now - Sampled on an Enterprise Allowance scheme. Now he works three days a week as a projectionist at his local multiplex cinema in West Thurrock. 'At least I'm working with film,' he jokes.

But his determination seems to have paid off. Anglia Television is showing a five-minute version of the film as part of First Take, a series of seven half-hour programmes showcasing new talent that starts on 30 October. The series producer, Sally-Anne Lomas, was attracted to Mr Rawles's programme because 'he takes risks with the editing and his use of music and his unique director's style is so distinctive you can look at his other work and say, 'that's Neil Rawles'. As soon as I saw the programme, it made me want to go to those clubs,' she says.

The British Council has entered the programme in a documentary film festival in Rome and there is interest from MTV and Channel 4, although, unsurprisingly, there is no money available at the moment. In the meantime, Mr Rawles is navigating the commissioning 'minefield', anticipating 'more boredom and closed doors' before his big opportunity arises. Until then he will make the programmes anyway and worry about selling them afterwards. Is that wise, considering the degree of uncertainty involved? 'Probably not,' he says, 'but what choice do I have? It's what I want to do.'

(Photograph omitted)