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Emerging: Jonell Rowe & The Power of Persistence

The unassuming and affable young man that confronts you when you meet writer/director Jonell Rowe betrays nothing of the unyieldingly ambitious force of nature at the heart of Lionstooth Films. Despite being a fledgling organisation, Lionstooth Films have established a steady output of work since their founding in 2012, with eight films released to date and an established video services programme. These films range from self-funded experimental student pieces right through to grant-funded films on the international film festival circuit.

Founded by Rowe, longtime production partner and friend Moses Ssebandeke, TJ Schooling, Matthew Connelly and Sophia Lee, Lionstooth Films seeks to provide opportunities to young filmmakers and artists to hone their craft in a supportive network that allows them to flourish.  But rather than regarding this mission statement as a task or challenge, Jonell instead embraces this as an opportunity. “We’ve been able to work with different independent artists…in order to make products that have actually benefitted them in the long run,” he explains. “That was kind of the main idea when developing Lionstooth Films. It was to create new and unique content and opportunities.”

Writer, director and producer Jonell Rowe

This is a mission that appears to have been tackled with conviction, with Rowe’s 2015 short film E.D.D. (Every Day Dies) being selected for the Cannes Short Film Corner and latest offering Number 13 scoring official selections at the London City Film Awards and the UK Monthly Film Festival. In addition, Number 13 was launched with a charity screening event at the Co-Op convenience store in East Putney where the film was shot; an arrangement that proved to be the beginning of an atypical partnership. “For all gen 2 stores, we’re organising a deal where Number 13 is going to be showcased on their projector screens on the shop floors,” Rowe explains. As a long time employee of the chain, Rowe has developed a history of organising charity events, spearheaded by Co-Op, raising money for charities that have partnered with the chain. As a result, when it came time to organise similar publicity and support for Number 13, he knew exactly who to call and how to make it worth everybody’s while.

The film at the centre of this sprawling project follows Adrian, an aspiring actor on his way to a potentially life changing audition. While making a purchase at a local convenience store, he encounters a self-service machine that appears to be self-aware. Adrian then becomes embroiled in a plan to save the machine before it is deactivated permanently.

“The concept was borne from my own experiences working in a supermarket, where I had witnessed a lot of customers having a preference for self-service machines and having my colleagues have a fear that they’re going to be replaced by these machines due to the idea that they’re more efficient when it comes to customer service, and then going outside to other retail sources, where I’ve … seen people feel comfortable with regular jobs only for them to be replaced by ticket machines or other self service machines … and how it’s affected them financially.”

Rowe gives us very little time for that very real world concept to sink in before continuing. “It’s almost kind of a thing where it’s led to an identity crisis for the working class environment, where they feel they have no purpose.”

Sci-fi elements are added to highlight this concept but the motivation alone is enough to provide food for thought. Are we staring a societal crisis in the face by constantly pursuing evermore-convenient ways to live our daily lives?

While Number 13 is big in concept, it is wisely small in scale, taking place almost entirely inside the convenience store. Rowe uses the enclosed space to build tension, with Adrian having to outsmart the antagonist of the piece pretty much under his nose. This is fruit borne from hard experience as Rowe freely admits to having occasionally aimed too high with too little. “When I first started out … I had such high ambitions when it came to making my shorts that when I did have financial backing there, I stretched out the quality and focused more on scale as opposed to narrative progression. To the point where it’s like I’m putting…feature films into…short film” He goes on to say that “Visually it looks great, but then it gets lost in [terms of] the substance and what you’re looking to convey ... and the themes you’re looking to highlight.”

The candid manner in which he addresses these past issues is particularly striking as his voice is awash with 100% awareness and 0% regret. “Over time it’s just been a case of re-evaluating what has worked, what hasn’t worked, what I can do going forward in order to improve.”

Jonell reviews a take on the set of 'Number 13'.

A big factor in the successful production of Number 13 lies in the successful application for financial support from the Roundhouse Online Film Fund. For those not in the know, this is an annual funding and support programme under the Film Roundhouse banner, backed by the Ex Animo Foundation. The fund provides a £400 production budget and use of equipment and resources available at Roundhouse. They also provide production support from the Digital Productions Team, a mentor who has chosen to support your specific film, inclusion on the Roundhouse YouTube channel, a screening event for your film at the Roundhouse and much more. You can find out more about Film Roundhouse here.

“I had written a treatment by the time my friend and producer for the film Moses Ssebandeke told me about the Roundhouse Film Fund. In Terms of the script…the first draft was developed. They said that a script wasn’t necessary but…it was great that I did have it to show…and how developed the idea was. And also in terms of cast and locations, that was all there, so when it came to my interview…everything was just kind of, how we’re looking to execute the film…and when we’re looking to shoot before it gets uploaded onto their channel.”

Searching for the right avenues for exhibition of short films is an ever-changing landscape. Only a few years ago, a short film would have to be confined to the festival circuit, with no way of finding it online so as to preserve that all-important premiere status. Now, with shifting attitudes towards online platforms being the primary source of enjoying long and short form entertainment, more and more festivals are starting to relax their rules as to whether or not a film can be online while being screened at their event.

With momentum picking up on this change, Rowe found himself with far more opportunities to increase his online audience while acquiring festival recognition. “[Number 13] actually has been online for quite a while, since the summer of 2017 on the Roundhouse YouTube channel.” He goes on to discuss potentially new metrics for success on the festival circuit. “It’s definitely evolved,” he says. “I think festivals have opened up with the idea that in order to generate momentum for short film, especially when it comes to targeting…a certain audience, it’s beneficial to have your film streamed online before you think about doing the festival circuit. Especially when you’re uploading it to FilmFreeway and Without-a-box. It’s for festival-goers to kind of get an idea of how successful [the film currently is] through it’s own independence…and what it would be like if it was put onto a platform such as a film festival, where your target audience is seeing the film…on a bigger screen.”

The response to Number 13 has been largely positive, sparking debates about automation in the screenings that Rowe has been able to attend. He may even be starting to win over customers who previously preferred using self-service machines, recalling that, “I’ve had customers come up to self service machines after they’ve watched the film and they’ve been like ‘whoa! I don’t wanna use that anymore!” he remembers with a chuckle.  “I wanna see you keep a job now!”

If there is any one attribute that defines Jonell Rowe as a filmmaker, it is dogged and indefatigable persistence. Last year alone saw the Rowe release both Number 13 and crime/dark comedy short When Dom Met Tony. This was in amongst event organising for the Co-Op screenings, holding down a full time job and getting accepted into Bristol University. Add to that the small matter of Lionstooth Films having hosted a screening at BAFTA in London on 2nd June, which included Number 13 and new short film from co-founder Moses Ssebandeke Mary’s Room, and a picture emerges of a man with unshakable focus and a commitment to artistic self-improvement. Together with his partners in Lionstooth Films, Jonell Rowe has charted a course of consistent project generation. While Rowe has learned to be more measured in his filmmaking methods, there is no indication that his driving ambition is doing anything but picking up speed. As lovers of short film, we cannot wait to see where that ambition leads. You can watch Number 13 below.

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