Leeds School of Arts

Student documentary exploring female sexuality selected for Harrogate Film Festival

BA (Hons) Filmmaking student Lily tells us about her project ‘Bianca Shagger’ that was recently selected for the Harrogate Film Festival, and shares some of the highlights of her course and studying film in Leeds.

Laptop in carpet open with picture on it in front of person sat

I am currently in my second year of studying filmmaking at Leeds Beckett University’s Northern Film School. ‘Bianca Shagger’ is a documentary that I directed in my first year for a group project. What set out to be a documentary about an individual’s experiment with adult content production turned into more of a character portrait of a young woman finding her place in the world and discussing various elements of female sexuality. 

A few days before we had to choose what idea to develop and pitch for our documentary filmmaking module, the idea to work with Bianca Shagger came to me. “Bianca Shagger” is an online alias of a writer, blogger and content creator who focusses on themes of sexuality, something I was keen to look at in my film. We had been mutual followers on Instagram for two or three years, she had even bought some of my art in the past, so although we had never met, she felt like a familiar and approachable subject.

Bianca a young woman with shaved hair, in her underwear with 'Bianca Shagger' written across her chest, sat in front of a graffitied wall

My initial thoughts were to focus the documentary on her experience of working with the adult-based content subscription service OnlyFans. At the time, there had been a fairly recent surge in people using it, so I wanted to get a young woman’s first-hand insight into the platform. However, after meeting her and discussing several ideas, I realised that broadening the range of topics covered might make for a more interesting film. When shooting the documentary, the interview questions covered a number of themes, including OnlyFans, views on sex and relationships, her mission to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and her general views on gender, sexuality, and society. My main mission with the film was to let her lead the narrative with her answers. I felt that other documentaries of a similar subject matter often used their subjects to push the director’s view through the way they constructed the narrative - which is something I wanted to avoid. As the director, I inevitably shaped it in terms of choosing what questions to ask and which answers were kept in the edit. However I was careful to do so in a way that was led by her as the subject. The documentary was about Bianca and her experiences, not about me and my views. As a result, the narrative largely emerged in the edit, as we tried to elevate Bianca’s voice in a way that was concise and engaging.

We consciously wanted to make sure the documentary stood out, which in turn puts it in good stead for festivals and competitions. I was determined not to just make a documentary that was a mix of talking head interviews and actuality footage (footage of her doing things). Instead, amongst other footage we featured extracts of voiceovers from critic and painter John Berger, as well as projections of classical oil paintings over Bianca’s body. This was a way of creating a subtext to the documentary, stimulating a dialogue between where Bianca places herself in contemporary society and the way the female nude is viewed across art history.

Bianca, a young woman with a shaved head of hair, with a renaissance painting projected across her

Our editor, Marie, chose to enter the film into Harrogate Film Festival (HFF) for a number of reasons, including that it was free to enter which made it very accessible to student filmmakers like us. Shortly after hearing that ‘Bianca Shagger’ had been selected I found out that my experimental film ‘Head Shape’ was also going to be shown at the festival as part of the Northern Film School Student Showcase! That was a very pleasant surprise. Film festivals and competitions are so important as they are a way to get your films out there into the world and introduce them to a more global audience. They even offer the opportunity to showcase your work to production companies and other important individuals within the industry, which can potentially open lots of doors for you after university.

The documentary filmmaking module on my course prepared us well for creating something we could enter into festivals. We were exposed to many examples of documentaries, varying in style and content from other student work to  larger scale productions. I took inspiration from the ones I engaged with the most, as well as understanding the approaches, styles and techniques that I wanted to avoid. Before coming to university, I had somewhat discounted documentary filmmaking. However, after learning more about the documentary-making process I realised it is just as creative and engaging as creating dramas.

The ongoing support from our tutor, Kim Hopkins, was a key factor in our development of the film. She was genuinely interested and cared about our work, which is so important. Up to this point, ‘Bianca Shagger’ is still one of my favourite pieces of work from my course.

Due to COVID-19, time spent on campus in my first year was cut short and my second year has so far been based online, so I haven’t quite yet fully immersed myself in the filmmaking scene in Leeds. However, even during peak lockdown, there seemed to be a thriving network of young creatives, so this means I am hopeful for the possibilities of work and collaborations once life is a little more back to ‘normal’. Leeds is a great city to study film  as there is always so much going on. Being surrounded by different people, landscapes and even graffiti provides endless inspiration and opportunity. Plus, most student houses have a basement which are GREAT to make a crazy experimental film in, like I did!

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