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Peter Kennard and Leah Borromeo on the Making of The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold

The Royal College of Art’s Peter Kennard, Senior Research Reader in Photography, Art and the Public Domain, is working with documentary journalist, Leah Borromeo, on her upcoming film The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold. Launching next summer, the film will trace the unprecedented wave of cotton farmer suicides in India back to clothing supply chains, exposing an unacknowledged part of the fashion industry.

Kennard, known for his striking political photomontage work such as @earth, is one of a number of members of the RCA community to support Borromeo’s film including graphic design alumni Jonathan Barnbrook, who has created the film's title graphics. Here, Kennard and Borromeo discuss their work together, the creative process and how the making the film has been possible through collective working.

You’ve worked together on a number of projects. How did it start?

PK  Leah came to the College a few years ago to interview me for a book, Beyond the Street, and it really spiralled from there. After that, we worked together on a couple of short films on Syria for Amnesty. These involved stills – actual images I’d made of people tearing things – taking them on demonstrations and using them as part of the films.

LB  It was the height of Syria getting attacked from Assad and there were lots of demonstrations every week outside the Syrian embassy. There was a considerable amount of anger but very little focus on the need for human rights and a civil society. The idea for the films was to show the torture that was going on – a whole community and the oppression of things. The image of the clawing hands was to ‘tear behind the headlines’ to get to the truth.

PK  I’ve always been involved in different groups like Amnesty or Stop the War – using art to make the visual side of a movement. It’s important to try to capture people’s attention, especially young people’s. They’re not going to sit and read a book by Chomsky, but an image might make them think about the subject. So, it seemed like a good idea to work with Leah’s film in that way.

Tell us about how you found the documentary topic.

LB  It was after I'd left Sky. I’d written a piece on pesticides and fashion, which got picked up by someone who invited me to India to look at the supply chain. I had only intended to write, but ended up filming. When I was there, I found out about farmer suicides and the connection with the fashion industry. It was at that point I realised there was a much deeper story than what another written article could provide. That was back in 2009. Peter was there from the start, egging me on, re-assuring me that it was worth filming. Sometimes you go through a phase when you think no one will be interested. I began to find out more things, and got deeper and deeper into it.

PK  This is so relevant to young designers. They’re the ones who will be creating the items that are made through these supply chains. They need to know how they’re made. This film is really hitting home the connections between product, supply chain and industry.

The film will have a hard-hitting political and economic message for the fashion industry. How are you going to avoid it turning into a rant?

LB  It’s about creating a really interesting story. It’s always stronger when you come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, did you hear about this?’ Or, ‘Hey, someone told me about X, Y and Z’, rather than dictating ‘We should do this’, or ‘We should do that’. They begin to ask, ‘Why is that?’ And then you start explaining, unpicking and discovering.

PK  The idea of a rant – that’s what we get from our politicians. They’re ranting because they’re making it up as they go along with self-interest. They rant because most of them are ministers in areas they haven’t a clue about. That’s a rant, rather than people who are passionate about what they’re doing – doing something about what they believe in. But the sort of work that I make, I don’t call it a ‘rant’ – it’s a formal means of getting the world across as it is. It’s what is going on in the world.

What was the process in making the film images?

PK  The main image is the one with the cotton and the map. We were trying to find an image that would directly communicate what the film was about. It went through lots of stages, like it does when you create an image – putting pictures of this and that in, and discarding them. Then, we found this giant cotton reel – red cotton. It felt like it was the blood of the people that were actually picking and growing the stuff, so we laid it on to a map to show where the suicides are going on. It’s a matter of paring down images all the time. It’s about making something that will have instant impact.

LB  The focus was on making the image shocking – not blood and gore – but shocking through colour. We also used this high-resolution scanner to bring out all the individual threads.

You’ve raised funding for the film through the crowdsourcing site, Sponsume. How else have you garnered support along the way?

LB  It’s taken a while to garner support for the film along the way – you do feel isolated now and again, until someone suggests you should see something or puts you in touch with someone else. Then, of course, there’s the power of the internet and it snowballs. People start to find out about what you’re doing.

PK  It’s been a collective process. There are all these things that are working on the periphery but one is very much working collectively – one doesn’t have economic power, working with tiny bits of money. The colleagues and friends who believe in the subject get involved and you work collectively. That’s really important.

I always say that to students. As an art student, you don’t just look at the art world and say, ‘I want to get into the Gagosian’. That’s just one aspect of the art world for extremely rich collectors buying baubles. There are more and more networks of artists thinking about the meaning of their work in relation to what’s going on in the world.

LB  That’s how we got Jonathan Barnbrook involved. We both know Noel Douglas, who’s an RCA Design Products graduate. He got in touch with Jonathan, who agreed to create the film graphics for us. This is the guy that designed David Bowie’s album cover. More ideas have stemmed from that – the route we chose was the one with all these crosshatches that kept going on and had hidden messages within them. 

One of the ideas for the film is to show parts of it through those hatches. We also want to use the hatches as part of a website. People with an interest in an area like sustainability, or GMOs, for example, can explore these through the hatches but come out with a bigger picture. We want to use the hatches to show how the cotton farming connects to fashion, or how design connects to genetically modified products. It’s about putting subjects together so you come up with one very striking message.

PK  Barnbrook is an example of someone who has got a big practice but has continued to make radical work that he really believes in. And, he’s got a real belief in changing the world. 

The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold will launch in May 2014. Click here for further details.