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Directed by... North Merchiston: an interview with Duncan Cowles

As part of the Luminate 2016 Outreach programme documentary filmmaker Duncan Cowles has worked at North Merchiston Care Home to create a collection of short films directed by residents. In this interview with Creative Scotland Duncan tells us a bit more about the project. The article was originally shared on the Creative Scotland website and is shared here with their kind permission. 

Can you tell us a bit about Directed by North Merchiston?

Directed by North Merchiston is a project that was inspired by one of my previous films Directed by Tweedie, where I attempted to get my Granddad to make a film, and I helped him to do it. With this new project I wanted to try and take that idea into a care home and work with the residents on making some short films.

One of the biggest issues for older generations today is loneliness. I wanted to give the residents of North Merchiston Care Home a voice, and ultimately provide them with both an audience and platform so that they could say whatever they wanted and create memories for their families. So instead of me coming in with my camera and making films about the people living there, I wanted the residents to think of themselves as the filmmakers and what story they’d personally like to tell.

The result is a series of five short films, all made in collaboration with the residents of the home. There have been certain limitations in what we could and couldn’t do. In my head initially I had all sorts of ideas, but reality forced me to rein it in a little. For example one of the films has been made with a 102 year old resident called Charlie. Understandably it was harder to get him to understand the concept itself, but we’ve definitely made something worthwhile, and he’s certainly enjoyed himself.

How have the residents at the care home found the experience of filmmaking?

I’ve worked with a total of five residents, and I think each one of them has really enjoyed the process. Some were slightly reluctant initially, but once we got started admitted that they were having a laugh, and were glad they’d agreed to take part.

Some of them have spoken about how they’ve appreciated me simply coming in and spending time with them, and taking an interest in their lives. I think this will ultimately be one of the most valuable outcome of the project; the enjoyment that they’ve all had taking part. Hopefully that comes across in the films.

Any favorite moments from the project?

Watching the footage back with the participants, and asking them about what bits they liked the most, and the things they would like to be focused on in their films, was really touching for me. For example; Edith who’s 90 years old, talked about how her Grandmother used to say to her when she was a wee girl, that the best thing in life was that: “It was nice to be needed”, particularly as an older person. Then deciding with Edith that the film could focus on that and be a little tribute to her Grandmother, I could see meant a lot.

Definitely on a personal level, having the honour to get to know these people as they’re in their later years, has been amazing. As a 26 year old I, like many others, still have a lot to learn about life and all of its ups and downs. These people have experienced it, they’ve been through so much, and listening to them talk about it, how they’ve coped and what they think and feel looking back over it all, is just staggering. It’s an education going into a care home, and it really makes you reflect a lot upon your own life, circumstances and future.

What does it mean to be part of Luminate: Scotland’s creative ageing festival?

It’s great to be part of a unique festival like this. I think with an ageing population, organisations such as Luminate are hugely important, and will be increasingly so over time to come. I had the pleasure of touring my film Directed by Tweedie with the festival last year round cinemas and the responses from audiences were great (it even got my granny recognised in the street), so when I was able to work with them again this year I was over the moon. I’d encourage anyone to go along to one of the events and see what’s going on. There really are some amazing things within the programme.

Why are creative outreach projects like Directed by North Merchiston important?

Everyone is creative, whatever our ages, and the chance for care home residents to take part in a project like this can offer all sorts of benefits. I’ve been going in and out of the care home for the past two months and seeing a positive change happen immediately in front of my eyes. Something like this isn’t necessarily a very public facing activity, but is equally as important as it’s making a difference to people directly.

With Directed by North Merchiston, initially we’re doing a really small screening of the films for friends and family in the care home. The films will then take on a life of their own, and I hope there will be public screenings later. It’s really important that older people’s voices are heard by other generations, and often that doesn’t happen.

What do you have planned following Luminate?

Firstly, the films will be launched to a wider audience at Scottish Care’s annual conference in Glasgow in November. Then I’d like to find ways for them to have a life, either at film festivals or online. So I’ll be working out a distribution plan and doing my best to make that happen.

I’m then also working on two other film projects. One, a short experimental documentary film about a man who struggles to feel emotion, which I hope to have finished very soon, and also my first feature-length documentary which I’ve began developing. The feature film is in very early stages, but will look at how a lot of men, including myself find it difficult to show emotion to those closest to them. It has had some early support from the BFI through their RAW Award, and I’m currently looking for other funders to help the film through its development phase and into production.

You can find out more about Duncan, and his future plans, on Twitter @DuncanCowles or via his website You can also learn more about Scottish Care - who supported this comission - at and @scottishcare.

Image: Charlie Dolan by Duncan Cowles

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