Filmwire Spotlight: Dorothy Towers
Born in Birmingham, artist Sean Burns has spent significant time delving into the social history of his home city. His latest project – Dorothy Towers – is a 16mm film about the city’s Clydesdale and Cleveland residential tower blocks, which have long been the home of a large LGBTQ+ community.
Premiering this month at Vivid Projects, we talked to Sean about the genesis of the project and his long dialogue with the Birmingham communities that form the film’s backbone.
So how did the Dorothy Towers project initially come about?
My relationship with Dorothy Towers started a few years ago with a project I did with Grand Union. I was researching the social history of Birmingham from an LGBTQ+ perspective. In the Library of Birmingham, we found every back issue of a magazine called In The Pink, an activist newspaper produced between 1986 and 1991. In 2018, I decided to bring the publication back for one issue and commissioned all new content about Birmingham. It was noticeable how often the people I spoke to mentioned the tower blocks. The central interview was between artist Elly Clarke and a nightlife performer I’d known since I was a teenager, a complete Birmingham legend called Twiggy, who has lived in the towers since the ’90s. So I knew that something was fascinating there, and it led me to look at doing something more in-depth about the buildings.
The film is informed by the stories of many different people from the city. How many did you talk to in the end?
I talked to innumerable amounts of people – residents, community members and friends. It’s incredible how many people know these buildings and tell me they’ve been inside. And it’s people from all different sections of society, not just queer people. For example, we visited my mum’s friend in Hastings, and she said, ‘Oh, my ex-boyfriend used to live there’, and then proceeded to produce a fabulous photo of herself in the building in the ’70s!
Beyond the documentary aspect, Dorothy Towers also considers the symbolism of the towers. What do they represent to you?
I wanted to evoke the idea that the buildings are silent protagonists in the city. You might not think about them much until you become aware of them, and then they’re all you can see on the skyline. They’re omnipresent, like witnesses. Birmingham would have been a market in its early life, and the towers are on the edge of what would have been the western gate of the city. So you can see them as gates, or as resident Billy Gibson said to me, ‘guardians of the western frontier’. There’s just so much symbolism there, all these ideas of twinning and pairing and dichotomies.
Why is it that these two towers became a location for so many gay men to live?
The towers’ history is also a story of urbanisation. It’s a slight oversimplification, but families didn’t necessarily want to live in the city centre in the 1970s. Most would rather live in the suburbs, and many of the flats are one or two bedrooms. It was ideal for gay men and proximate to the scene where they went out. Some people say the council deliberately put queer people there, but I’ve not found any evidence of that beyond the anecdotal.
During the early years of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, a number of men who lived there died from the disease. Does the film touch on that legacy?
Oh yeah, totally. Much of my research is about the legacy of AIDS and HIV – how that period lives in the collective memory and behaviour of queer people today. It isn’t the only thing I look at, but it’s certainly a part of the story I paint in the film. And again, there’s a dichotomy there. On the one hand, right-wing activists and the media targeted the towers. On the other, there was a queer community, a support network. Queer people wanted to live amongst other queer people. So there are traumatic histories in the film as well as joyful ones. Part of the film is about memorialising the people who died. It’s important we remember that this happened.
What were you influenced by whilst making the film?
The film’s length is 40 minutes, which is intentional. It derives from one-off TV films from the 1980s and ’90s. The BBC had a series called 40 Minutes, and one of the films that inspired me came from that series - Lol: A Bona Queen of Fabularity, about a drag queen called Laurie Lee. Another influence is a TV film from 1986 called Andy the Furniture Maker. It tells the story of a beautiful guy who moves from rural Suffolk to London and falls in with all the queer club kids of that time, as well as people like Derek Jarman and Norman Rosenthal. I mean, those are two examples, but I’m also inspired by the films of John Akomfrah and Luke Fowler, as well as Barney Bubbles’s 1981 music video for The Specials’ masterpiece Ghost Town.
You shot the film in 16mm. Did that bring a number of challenges in the digital age?
Yes, all of it was hard! (laughs) But there are two reasons why I wanted to shoot the film in this way: it fits with the period and because 16mm forces you into a dialogue with the material. Film has demands and needs, and I like the tension that brings. It’s a fundamental component of the film, and I’m so happy we did it. There’s a lot of footage from a moving car in the film, too. The car is essential to the story of Birmingham. When Herbert Manzoni redeveloped the city after WWII, he felt the vehicle was vitally important. The car in the film functions sometimes like a first-person view.
As a Birmingham born artist who lives in London, do you feel that working on the film has changed your relationship with your home city?
I love Birmingham, with all of its idiosyncrasies. My mum’s family are working-class people from Aston and Great Barr, and my grandparents lived on Barton Street and used to drink in The Barton’s Arms. To me, Birmingham has a fascinating national profile. It doesn’t have the affluence of a southern city or the pride of a northern city, and it struggled to develop a post-industrial identity. It can be a brutal place in many ways, and that’s affirmed by the architecture and how it’s so unsentimental about its history. That said, the residents have been incredible in giving me their time; some are excellent storytellers. So if anything, I think making the film has integrated me more into those communities I’ve been part of since I was a teenager.
Dorothy Towers screens at Vivid Projects in Birmingham on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 September, with all ticket proceeds going to Birmingham AIDS and HIV Memorial. Sean Burns will be in conversation with artist and writer Cathy Wade on Sunday 25. To book, head to www.vividprojects.org.uk/programme/dorothy-towers/
This interview featured in the latest edition of Filmwire. Sign up for the Filmwire newsletter to stay in the loop on all the latest Midlands film happenings.