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27 November 2014

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You are in: Tyne > Entertainment > Hollywood On Tyne > Features > Documenting the North

Entrance to Amber offices in Newcastle

Amber is based on the Side

Documenting the North

Newcastle-based Amber film and photography collective have been documenting life in the region since the late 1960s.

Over the years, film-makers from across the world have descended on the North East with their own casts and crews to make use of the region's fine locations.

But for Newcastle-based Amber Films it is local people and local communities who are the real stars of the show.

Old photo of Amber team. Image: Amber Films

Amber team in earlier days

Amber Films is part of the Amber film and photography collective, which also includes the Side Gallery, Cinema and Café.

Dream On

For four decades the collective has been producing work that reflects the lives of working-class and marginalised communities in the North East.

With an eye for the everyday, they have documented the lives of miners, shipbuilders, fishermen, glass workers and many others.

There have been photographic exhibitions and films focusing on urban estates, such as Byker and Meadow Well, and others looking at more rural communities in Northumberland and County Durham.

Poignant and powerful, Seacoal, The Scar, Eden Valley and Dream On are just a few of the award-winning films they have made.

"The big trick that Amber has pulled off is survival."

Graeme Rigby

"If you look at the work that's been done over the last 40 years it's extraordinary," says Graeme Rigby, who has been part of the group since the 1990s.

"There are about 100 bodies of photographic work that have been generated documenting North Eastern communities and landscapes and there have been over 40 films made."

Family feeling

The Amber collective grew out of a meeting of film students in London in 1968 and moved to Newcastle a year later.

Its membership has constantly evolved and in 2007 founder member and friend Murray Martin passed away.

But despite changing faces and changing times the collective ethos has remained firm since the early days, when members pooled their earnings from commercial work and then paid themselves an equal wage.

Crew filming Dream On. Image: Amber Films

Crew filming Dream On

"Decisions are taken collectively," explains Graeme.

"Although there is also a sort of dictum which is 'whoever paints the wall chooses the colour'. So if you're not going to be in there painting the wall you're not going to have a say.

"It's not that everyone agrees about everything it's just that you have to argue your corner. And it's good to have to argue your corner - it makes things better."

It sounds a bit like a family.

"That's a very important aspect of Amber," Graeme agrees. "It's always tried to be about people who like working together and there's a kind of family feeling to it."

The Amber team in 2007 (Graeme front right)

The Amber team in 2007

"Both about liking being together and having arguments probably," he adds with a smile.

And, like a family, Amber have lots of little stories they like to tell about their history.

Like the fact they once spent two days discussing possible names. Or that interest from Amber has sometimes been described - tongue in cheek - as a curse, because they have so often turned their spotlight on dying industries.

Graeme says: "It's one of those stories that Amber tells about itself that if Amber's making a documentary [on something] it's kind of bad news because you know it's going to close!"

Real to reel

In today's culture of instant gratification and reality TV, Amber has remained committed to working long-term with communities.

They often spend several years in a community getting to know people so that they can accurately capture the reality of their lives, hopes and dreams.

Entrance to Amber offices in Newcastle

Amber collective was formed in 1968

In the past they have even bought premises in the areas where they have worked to help them do this - from a caravan to a pub and even a boat for one project.

"[Ambers' work] is rooted in a relationship with the community," Graeme says.

"There is a responsibility and if you do work within a community they must be able to trust you.

"They must know where you are and be able to come back at you and say 'no that's wrong' and you've got to be able to respond to that honestly."

While Amber has had "huge ups and downs" over the past 40 years Graeme says things "look more hopeful now than they have in a while" with lots of young people showing interest in their work.

"The big trick that Amber has pulled off is survival," he says.

"It's the major achievement to be able to survive and to keep producing, to keep building the body of work."

To find out more about Amber's current projects and exhibitions at the Side Gallery visit their website:

last updated: 23/06/2008 at 11:22
created: 06/06/2008

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