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“I Generally Film Solo”: Duncan Cowles’ Multicam First-Person ‘Silent Men: The Awkward Art of Expressing Emotion’

By Carol Nahra

A white man glances away while holding a video camera.

Silent Men. Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest

In the space of a twelve-year career forging his way as an independent filmmaker, Duncan Cowles has developed a distinctive style of personal filmmaking characterized by his deadpan voiceover, in soothing Scottish tones, which is halting, funny, and self-effacing. He’s also constantly tinkering with the multiple cameras he brings to any shoot, to the bemusement of those he’s interviewing. More often than not his contributors are his own family members, such as the charming Directed by Tweedie (2014), about his crotchety maternal grandfather, or the meta Outlets (2023), where Cowles explores sixteen different film ideas to try to move on from the death of his granny (“I told myself I wasn’t going to make a film about my granny but here we are”). , His shorts output has garnered an impressive number of awards, including a BAFTA.  

It’s an approach reminiscent of the American grand masters of autobiographical doc, Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner—the latter is a story consultant on Cowles’ first feature doc, Silent Men: The Awkward Art of Expressing Emotion. The film has Cowles probing, over the course of some years, the fact that he and many other men have much difficulty sharing feelings and expressing emotions. It’s a film with many surprises, where Cowles seldom lets the audience forget about the filmmaking process itself.  At one point he interrupts a heavy interview to ask the audience to take deep breaths, advising them that they are nearly halfway through. 

Silent Men recently had a world premiere at Sheffield DocFest, earning a special mention nod from the First Feature Competition jury. Documentary spoke to him via Zoom in the wake of the Sheffield premiere. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


DOCUMENTARY: What was your initial inspiration for this idea in this film?

DUNCAN COWLES: I made a graduation film called Radio Silence about my dad. And I looked at our struggles of talking, and my grandpa who died when I was younger, and tried to figure out why talking and opening up was a little bit difficult in the family. A few years later in 2016, as I was thinking about feature-length ideas, that still felt like something that was kind of unresolved in my life. I had this feeling that I was finding it harder and harder to open up to people in my life, particularly loved ones. And I thought, “Well, that’s something that’s going to be hard to do. So I should make a film about that and make a film about something difficult as a way to sort of force myself to do it.”

There were a lot of headlines and press back around that time to do with male mental health, statistics to do with men and how suicides are the biggest killer of men under the age of 50. Those sorts of statistics also brought this kind of frightening reality of what happens if you’re unable to connect and open up emotionally. It seems to be linked to all these really quite horrible outcomes. So it scared me into approaching this topic and making a film about it as a way to therapeutically, I suppose, solve my own problems.

D: It was quite a few years in the making. Talk me through the major stages and how you found contributors.

DC: Probably the first year or so, the process was just me thinking about it and talking to people about it and developing it into a plan that we then used to pitch. Not a lot of filming happened until maybe the start of 2017. And I got a little bit of development money from Screen Scotland that was combined with an award that I was given by a short film festival. And I literally just went out to the park and to the hills and to pubs and just spoke to men and filmed them—not with great success all the time, but I tried. And that was the start of the journey. 

Then things kind of went up and down for a few years. I had a lot of energy at the start of the film, that initial burst. It started to fall apart as I realized that just filming blokes wasn’t really necessarily going to solve my own issues.  So I started avoiding the film, started doing other projects because it was quite difficult. That avoidance is sort of built into the film.

D: Can you describe the setup and how you film with multiple cameras?
DC: I generally film solo. I do that because I find it gives a greater intimacy with contributors. I don’t like having lots of crew members there or big sounds. I like to keep it quite intimate. I decided to film myself, but then also set up other cameras for second angles. So at the beginning of the film, that was just me plus a GoPro that I would shove in the corner. But then as the film developed, it began to feel like, okay, I need to be on screen a bit more to make this work. So I got a second camera, a sort of stills camera, and then had that on a tripod filming the filming. And then by the end of the film, I’ve got another GoPro. Five cameras is probably the most that I hit, but with just me manning them allas well as working with the contributor. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

D: Alan Berliner is a story consultant on this film. Can you remember anything specifically in terms of Alan Berliner’s notes?

DC: I think he was skeptical of filming all of these blokes and that not being particularly relevant. He’s like “No, no, just sit your family down.” I was like, “Okay but the film’s over pretty quick if I do that!” So I held off, but I did take note. He’d suggested filming people like my brother, which I wasn’t planning on doing. He said, “I don’t get why you’re not filming your brother? You’re doing a film about blokes. You’ve got a brother who’s a bloke. Why would you not? Why would you not sit down?” So I thought “Yeah, he’s probably right.” So I went and went and filmed with my brother, which ended up being probably the scene that got one of the better reactions in the cinema. 

D:  There are some really refreshing moments of transparency about the filmmaking process, such as when you break into the interview for deep breaths, telling the audience they’re nearly halfway through. At what point did you come up with this?

DC: I suppose they come from some of my short film work, which I hadn’t made when I started the film. So they came a lot later in the process. I was aware it was quite an interview-heavy film, and audiences can find that a little tiring sometimes. It was a way to add another layer of something into the film and for me to speak a bit more directly to the audience in a playful way. It splits the crowd, I think. Some people loved it. Some people were like, “’you can’t do that.” If we’'re splitting the crowd, that’s kind of exciting. So let’s do that.

D: In a sense this is a film about difficult topics without a real lived trauma at its core. You come from a clearly loving and happy family. You had a happy childhood, although you obviously suffered from social anxiety. So why was it important to tell this story?

DC: Like you say, I kind of come from a nice background. I’ve got a family that cares. But you don’t necessarily need to have some kind of deep-rooted heavy trauma for you to have difficulties, things that you want to change in your life, and things that are making you sad. If you’re experiencing a lot of pain in your life, because you’re unable to move past something, it doesn’t matter if you’ve not got some kind of bigger trauma.

What gave me encouragement was a guy came out of the cinema after the second screening and he had his phone in his hand and tears in his eyes and he was like, “I’ve never told my dad that I love him, but I’m just going to go and phone him just now and do it.” He came back in with this big smile on his face. And that kind of moment just made me think, yeah, there’s lots of people like this.

D: What was it like showing your film in Sheffield?

DC: I remember feeling like it was the most awkward 90 minutes of my life in the first screening. Because we hadn’t done any test screenings; we hadn’t done any live screenings at all. So I was pretty terrified, but there was a lot of relief afterward after people reacted in the right places. People laughed at the bits they were meant to laugh at and were quiet in the bits they were meant to be quiet. To get a special mention as well, it was a lot of encouragement to me to have faith in the film and get it out there. Because you do, you know, you doubt yourself all the way up to the end. You’re like, “This is going to be a disaster.”

Carol Nahra is a documentary journalist and lecturer. She teaches documentary and digital journalism at Syracuse University London, Royal Holloway, and the London College of Communications. She also works as a programmer and producer and is the lead trainer for the Grierson DocLab.