“Most people I suspect just see it as a bunch of middle-aged men doing something they should have given up when they were 11. But that’s life. I could say the same about other people’s hobbies.”
So says one of the wargame enthusiasts in Jessica Bishopp’s intriguing film about table-top gamers and the elaborate battles they wage. Her unusual and ambitious short documentary features one of the UK’s longest-running wargames groups and questions our attitudes to conflict, combat and companionship.
At its heart is a juxtaposition between the cheerful but competitive wargame enthusiasts and the brutal psychology of war, represented through an interview with Edgar Jones, a professor in the history of medicine and psychiatry.
“I wanted to explore our fascination and obsession with combat and war,” she explains. “In wargaming there is a skill, an art, a nostalgia, a passion for detail and craft. But I was also curious about the wargamers themselves and whether they consider the reality of the battles they are playing."
Jessica's film focuses on a staged battle between the Romans and the Celts. These charming scenes of men (and it’s only men) immersing themselves in the make-believe are intercut with Professor Jones’ insights into what it takes to go into battle.
“The psychologist’s narration parallels the battle's progression, discussing the mentality of war before, during and after the battle and the consequences for the soldiers,” Jessica says.
“I was hoping to create a gap, a juxtaposition and some distance between the friendship of a community group and the mentality of war, to allow the audience to contemplate those two opposing ideas and atmospheres.”
A designer by training, Jessica’s filmic inspirations come from Adam Curtis and Molly Dineen . Those influences can be seen in the way she uses narrative – less of a driving force in her film than a poetic montage of thoughts and scenes.
She first became interested in the wargame world after learning a family friend (Brian in the film) was an obsessive player. He took her along to his society’s meetings in the local village hall where she was able to meet the other members and build up a rapport before cameras started rolling.
Most were happy to appear in the piece and were clearly proud of the interest Jessica took in their pastime.
“I completely underestimated the amount of time, strategy, dedication, craft, art and history that goes into one of their games,” she admits. “At the same time, I had this nagging feeling and question – why war? Why not models and games of something else?”
With funding from Film London and the BFI Network, Jessica assembled a mainly female crew for the shoot. “I did my research and the crew was flexible, supportive and creative," she says.
“The fact that it's predominantly women telling the story of a group of men should be secondary to how the film is received. There are a few debates at the moment about what the female gaze is, or if there even is one. The main problem is the current historical default is the male gaze.”
Rather than any skewed gender dynamics, the biggest challenge was to bring together the different parts of the story in a coherent and creative way. “The film is clearly made of two parts that juxtapose and jar but I wanted them to flow and be woven together,” she says.
That meant long hours with editor Adelina Bichis as they crafted the different parts of the story into something that made sense. And it also meant cutting whole sections shot on location in the wargamers’ houses.
“All of the members have a room wholly dedicated to their hobby – a basement, an attic, and one person recently built an extension for his collection. We shot all of these locations, but we couldn’t include them in the final cut as it upset the balance.”