March 13th, 2015

Susan Benn on Matt Hulse’s Dummy Jim

Before flying to India a few months ago, I put a DVD of Matt Hulse’s second feature film, Dummy Jim, into my suitcase as a present for my hosts in Ahmedabad. The film is based on the true story of profoundly deaf cyclist James Duthie, who over 60 years ago pedaled on a 6000 mile round-trip from his home in a Scottish fishing village to the Arctic Circle – and beyond.

Three generations of my Indian family, ranging from five- to ninety-nine-years-old, watched Hulse’s beautiful film with delight and wonder.

To create the sense of journey, the filmmaker weaves elements of fiction, documentary, animation and archive footage set to a lyrical score and visceral soundtrack. Duthie’s present-day fishing village is revealed through the eyes of local school children and the craft of the stonemason whose headstone stands in tribute to Dummy Jim’s previously unmarked grave.

The film, made for both the deaf and hearing of all ages, deserves a much wider international audience.

Dummy Jim by Matt Hulse

Matt and I first met in Arbroath on the East Coast of Scotland in 2008 at PAL’s Artist as Leader Lab. Severe blizzards howled as five Scottish artists, five Scottish cultural policy makers and five distinguished ‘provocateurs’ worked together for the first time over a week at Hospitalfields, the oldest art school in Scotland. Warmed by heated debates, blazing fires, intense days and late nights we interrogated the notion of ‘cultural leadership through artistic practice’.

See the Artist Leader’s Lab page to find out more about who was there and read the lab report here.

The artists brought projects to explore within the wider context of existing Scottish cultural policies. Choosing not to work from a predetermined script, Matt’s work had been struggling to attract existing mainstream funding or fit the few narrow grant-aided schemes on offer to independent filmmakers.

Passionate discussions at the Lab encouraged Matt to evolve his unorthodox, eco-minded, resourceful and ethical approach to film. “Harnessing and working within a creative ‘green’ framework will help – not hinder – production,” Hulse said, then memorably remarked, “If the film turns out to be awful at least I won’t have helped ruin the environment in the process”.

The unorthodox eco-inspired vision made the film (even) harder to finance. Undeterred, Hulse – with support from New Media Scotland – started afresh with a new website. He used it as a means to raise finance through pre-sales of the DVD and bespoke merchandise to potential audience and like-minded souls. Now commonly known as ‘crowd-funding’, Hulse’s initiative in fact preceded Kickstarter, and through it he managed to raise over half of the film’s total budget.

Matt’s self-confessed ‘contrary’ nature and resistance to the conventions of the film industry left a vivid impression on me. In 2013, 13 years after he first began Dummy Jim, I was thrilled to find it had made it to the screen, nominated for a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Michael Powell Award at Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Since then the film has been on a 12-date tour of independent film theatres and community arts venues across Scotland, a 16-date tour of Colombia, and has screened at festivals in Yerevan (Armenia), Cork, Stockholm, Geneva and Montreal.

Critical response has made for interesting reading:
Very beautiful and utterly bonkers (The List ****)
A totally unique mixture of documentary, fiction and playful visual poetry (EIFF 2013)
Incredible, beautiful, humane – very moving (Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival)
A committedly visual hymn of praise for the minute and grandiose marvels of Earth (Sound on Sight)

It surprises me however that there has been little interest in Dummy Jim stateside, with no successful festival entries or screenings to date. Perhaps this eccentric, slow-burning tale with its challenging structure and ‘politically incorrect’ title is just too way off-beam. Describing his own experience during recent travels to the USA (North Carolina, Brooklyn and L.A) as ‘unexpectedly toxic’ one must wonder if the fabled ‘division by common language’ is deeper than ever. The ironic outcome of this misadventure, however, is a newly acquired Green Card, granted in recognition of Matt’s professional merits. Happily, mention of high level peer review at the Artist as Leader Lab was helpful in granting him the privilege of becoming – as the US immigration service would have it – an ‘alien of extraordinary ability’.

Shuttling between Newcastle and Beijing, Matt is currently developing his next feature film about the pre-teen punk band he was in with his siblings (‘The Hippies: Punk Rocked My Cradle’) and cultural engagement projects with North Korea.

Click here to buy a Limited Edition DVD with a full director’s commentary, deleted scenes and extras. The price includes a year’s subscription to innovative new UK distribution label Jukebox Kino.

Watch the trailer for Dummy Jim below.