Camrex House: a city-centre hostel with a notorious reputation
“CAMREX is based in Sunderland –a city that has a rich industrial history and was formerly a major shipbuilding hub in North East, England. Camrex House was the site of a long-closed paint factory. The project began when I was casting a feature film drama and the project involved extensive work with non-actors and lots of street casting. As part of this process I met up with an ex-drug-dealer in a pool hall in Teesside and he mentioned that after leaving prison he lived at Camrex House: a city-centre hostel with a notorious reputation. He discussed the hostel with a special kind of loathing. Apparently, he lasted about a fortnight at the hostel before he was offered sanctuary in the form of a friend’s sofa. The contempt he expressed as he talked about the hostel stayed with me and after production on the feature was completed, I visited Camrex eager to explore the characters and stories as a photography project.”
Interview by – Jonathan Tomlinson Photography by – Mark Chapman

What’s the relationship like between the men within the house? 

Entering the hostel felt like stepping back 40-50 years. The decaying atmosphere of the place was immediately apparent. It was populated by people with varying and complex needs living side by side and without boundaries. The poor conditions, constant threat of violence and lack of control over their environment all impacted the residents’ mental health. It was a wet hostel -meaning cheap alcohol could be purchased on the premises- so some of the residents never left the building. Many of the residents had been trying to find proper, independent housing for years.

You shot half of the project on Polaroid film. What was the reason behind this? 

In the beginning, my intention was to create a photographic project that could exist on its own terms. My method of working began by using an old Polaroid SX-70 to explore the subject, reveal the location and build relationships with residents. The often-unstable Impossible Project/Polaroid format filmstock, which frequently created the unpredictable chemical patterns you see in the images (and frustratingly took around 45 minutes to fully process), felt appropriate to explore characters who lived their lives from moment to moment.

The involvement of the hostel residents remained fleeting during this stage, but the process allowed me to meet and photograph numerous residents and to build an overview of the hostel. Their initial interaction with the camera also allowed me to evaluate their suitability for a more protracted collaboration. Later on, I decided that there were certain atmospheres, characters and stories that would be compelling when rendered as a film narrative. It had also become clear that there were significant technical limitations with the Polaroid stock: that it was limiting my access to the stories I wanted to tell. The hostel had distinctive cinematic possibilities, but required a different treatment to the still images. I thought that if I could capture the intimacy of the Polaroids, I’d have an engaging film.

This article is the first time the stills and the film have been shown side-by-side and that’s very exciting.

Could you describe the relationship you had to build with these people before even thinking about starting a project that involves their very personal lives? 

As an outsider I was initially viewed with some suspicion, but I kept going back to spend time in the environment; weeks and weeks of taking photographs, talking with residents, and watching shit daytime TV in the communal room. Aside from a few dodgy moments, everyone was very open and eager to discuss their lives and it was a privilege to listen to them. Once familiar with the residents and environment, I then introduced a video camera. Obviously, with the switch in medium comes a new set of logistical and creative challenges, but by that point the residents were used to my presence. I had developed a good working knowledge of the hostel and felt I knew how to shoot the film.

Shortly after introducing the video camera the story of Derek stabbing a seagull to death emerged and I knew that that strange, violent image was my access point with which to communicate the atmosphere of the environment.

Everyone who you’ve filmed is really honest and the stories you’ve captured are very personal and intimate. Do you think the camera was a chance for them to open up and talk about topics that they normally couldn’t? 

Absolutely. However, that sense of intimacy only really develops as you spend more time with your characters. They also need to feel sure of your intentions in order to open up, and by investing the time this can be repeatedly demonstrated.

I always felt that the project existed in the space between the sedate everyday routine of the hostel and the fierce, barely suppressed emotions felt by the residents. This guiding conceptual idea informed my work on the film throughout. I filmed for around ten days spread across a few months. This allowed time for the two main contributors, cast via the photographic project, to invest deeply in the filmmaking process. That kind of investment is always important, but particularly so here due to the performative nature of the scenes we were shooting. They are essentially actors in their own stories and we did as many takes as was necessary. Neither of them had been in front of a camera before.

When constructing a film out of reality, there’s an ethical dimension to every decision you make and those tensions persist throughout each stage of production. This is most keenly felt in your relationship with the people you are portraying onscreen. You have to cast really well because this method requires significant commitment from the contributors. It’s exciting to see them investing in the project, but during the filming it was often quite intense. For example, before we were to shoot Matthew’s exercise scene, he told me that he had just returned from the hospital after overdosing the day before. According to his neighbour, the paramedics were seconds away from pronouncing him dead when he suddenly revived. The carpet in his room was still soaked with the water that had been poured on him. I suggested we postpone, but he wanted to shoot the scene. So we did.

I couldn’t take a lot of crew into the small hostel rooms as it would compromise the intimacy of the interaction and the creative space we had developed. That was the primary thing for me. Throughout production the only other member of crew was a sound recordist, who had to be robust enough to deal with the environment because it is as oppressive as you see on the screen. I ended up burning through about five different sound recordists.

You mention that you didn’t want the project to “just be an unrelentingly grim piece about desperate people in a desperate place.” I think your choice in doing this is a really important. Was this something you had to direct the men from talking about throughout the filming process and did they understand the reasoning behind this? 

My intention was to foreground personal stories rather than using a more ‘social issues-based’ approach. Though I did not want to shy away from the difficulties of the environment, I didn’t want to merely present the residents as victims – there needed to be a different kind of energy and attitude evident in the images and stories. In both the photographs and the film it was important to focus on their strength: it was about the residents’ resilience, the minor acts of rebellion within the walls of a difficult, unrelenting environment. They understood this at every stage, but there was certainly no need to have lengthy conceptual discussions with them.

The characters are actively fighting against their situation. They are not passive observers in their own story and I’m not using the work to affirm a pre-planned thesis. This allows an audience to access and walk close to the characters throughout the film. Derek’s needle is every bit as much an act of rebellion as Matt’s rifle, and every bit as destructive.

The men were never actually filmed talking directly to the camera throughout the film. Did you find the men spoke more openly when the camera wasn’t on them or was there any specific reasoning behind this? 

The film is almost entirely constructed. As with my previous work, the filming process was a confluence of elements that constantly evolved throughout production: first I recorded a series interviews with the contributors and then constructed scenes in response. These scripted scenes also incorporated off-camera discussions with the residents and my own observations and ideas. Through this method, the film’s grammar developed alongside the revealing of the characters’ relationship to each other and the hostel.

With CAMREX I wanted to create a visually-led narrative and I knew I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the kinds of images I wanted through straight observation. This meant attempting to move beyond mere observable behaviour and actually meaningfully interpret their words through an expressive cinematic rendering.

Some filmmakers use talking heads extremely skilfully to tell their stories, but I knew I didn’t want to use that visual approach. I usually think of them as a wasted visual opportunity, that is, I ask myself: is this really the most interesting image I can use to tell this story? In the case of CAMREX, I wanted the words to feel like a whisper from the interior monologue of my characters. During editing, I stripped the voice-over down to its essential elements. This gives both the words and the pauses real impact, and allows an audience the time to engage with the characters in a deeper way.

My intention was to use an expressive approach to image and sound to explore the interior life of my characters: the intimate, subjective and sensory. This is something that is easy to do in straight drama, but rare in non-fiction. When people think of documentary, they tend to think of films that are observational and educational. I hope we’re starting to move on from that.

How did you eventually show the film to the men involved and what was their reaction?

Although several people in the cast sadly passed away shortly after I completed the film, I’m still in contact with a number of them despite the fact that Camrex House has now been closed down. Although the film is a difficult watch, their reaction has been extremely positive. Shortly after screening the film to the lead character, Derek, he went out and acquired a DVD player so that he could watch it again in his own time, which is probably the best review I’ve ever received.  

“CAMREX is based in Sunderland –a city that has a rich industrial history and was formerly a major shipbuilding hub in North East, England. Camrex House was the site of a long-closed paint factory. The project began when I was casting a feature film drama and the project involved extensive work with non-actors and lots of street casting. As part of this process I met up with an ex-drug-dealer in a pool hall in Teesside and he mentioned that after leaving prison he lived at Camrex House: a city-centre hostel with a notorious reputation. He discussed the hostel with a special kind of loathing. Apparently, he lasted about a fortnight at the hostel before he was offered sanctuary in the form of a friend’s sofa. The contempt he expressed as he talked about the hostel stayed with me and after production on the feature was completed, I visited Camrex eager to explore the characters and stories as a photography project.”