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Filmmaker Focus: Hugh Clegg

Hugh Clegg is a London-based documentary and fiction filmmaker. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, he’s already directed several shorts, including It Feels Personal. In this comic odyssey, Clegg goes in search of the person who appropriated an earlier work of his without permission, turning it into a viral meme on TikTok. After playing at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in 2021, it has screened at the Tribeca Festival and can now be viewed as part of The New Yorker Documentary Series.

ASFF: It Feels Personal played at ASFF 2021. How was that experience?

HC It was my first short film that I made at the National Film and Television School and ASFF 2021 was the first film festival that I’d ever been to with a project. Apart from Aesthetica just being a brilliant film festival for personal development, it was a massive deal for me because I heard five sets of audiences laugh at my work and interact with my short film. This, I’d never had before. It was such a real and unforgettable moment and I said to myself: “I want to do this again!” It was exactly where I wanted to be – to be able experience this interaction between audience and filmmaker. I also took part in a filmmaking panel, which I’d never done before either. That was also a hugely helpful thing.

ASFF: It Feels Personal is now being screened as The New Yorker’s documentary series. How did that come about?

HC: Someone from The New Yorker was at Tribeca and saw it. They just emailed me afterwards and said that they’d love to acquire it for two years. That was fantastic and the film did well. Apparently, it got a million views on their site. That was cool! But I think the American audience was a little bit confused about the humour, because it’s quite dry!

ASFF: Was comedy always the way you were going to approach this subject?

HC: It was always going to be through humour. It is a comedy, but it’s not an out-and-out comedy, which I’d never done before. I had no idea if it was funny or not, because my amazing editor Osian Pearson, is a Welshman who’s not laughing at anything! And I was like: “Am I just making this self-indulgent online video that no-one is gonna laugh at?” And then luckily, people liked my sense of humour. It was always my plan to experiment with comedy, because I’d only done serious documentaries before this.

ASFF: The film sees you grapple with issues of copyright, as you hunt for this meme thief. How much is truth and how much is fiction?

HC: To be honest, it was a film school project, and I didn’t expect it to go out of film school. The ethics around how I was playing with facts and fiction have upset a few people. It was a real situation, but it was very much a fictional narrative. I knew that I had to have this problem at the beginning of the film. And I had to go through three acts. Then I went through this realisation that I brought joy to people via this short that inspired lots of memes. It was very much at a time when I was being taught about storytelling and narrative, which I was really trying to exercise. I think some of the documentary people from the industry are a bit miffed! But I’ve come to realize that this is my style of filmmaking.

ASFF: What are you working on now?

HC: I’m shooting a comedy. Ten short, five minute episodes for BBC Comedy. I’m doing it this week and the next, and then it’s done. It’s been good, great fun but knackering as well. It’s my first directing gig with the BBC. At the same time, I’m also writing a nine episode drama with a company in America. Which is quite far from comedy at all. But I want to keep going down the comedy route.


Words: James Mottram