Film - Martha

Susan Omand gets to the roots of a genealogy mystery and watches the five minute short film, Martha...

“Sometimes the most heart wrenching stories come from our own past.”

I’ve spent a lot of time watching short short films recently, as you know, and have come to really like them as an art form, both visually and narratively, as I can appreciate how much power can be packed into just a few minutes. So I wasn’t surprised or concerned to see that Martha, the film by Adam J Morgan, was only five minutes long as I settled in to watch.

Based on true events that Adam uncovered while researching his own family tree, Martha tells a story of negligence and remorse.

When Jane Dash (Marianne Constans) leaves her daughter at home whilst she collects water, little does she suspect the horrific consequences of her actions.

The choice of filming in black and white really worked for this film because it wasn’t done just to be “arthouse” and really gave it a sense of time and place, as did the choice of location, in Chipping Sodbury, which lent a charming backdrop to the events. The concept of taking such a fascinating event from his own history and translating it to the screen using only the inquest documentation as narration rather than character dialogue gave a superb observational dynamic to the film that I really enjoyed. However, this lack of speech meant that the actors had a difficult job with making their characters engaging on an emotional level and as a result the acting felt like they were trying too hard to get the story across despite, rather than in concert with, the narration. I didn’t feel a connection with the characters, empathy for them or that there was a natural chemistry between them on screen, which may be because I can’t relate directly to the events, the family connection or that parental bond. But, that  said, I must also mention the music. The mix of that haunting tune and the cool, level narration of the inquest document - what a beautiful and evocative soundtrack! Any emotional connection missing from on screen is delivered in spades with the audio and it could quite easily stand on its own merit. This is five minutes well spent and, as a historical snapshot of the past, a piece of investigative research and a personal connection to the past for the film-maker, Martha absolutely hit the mark.

I watched this short film after only reading a press release about it so I was interested to read more about the background to it and the film maker himself in this Q & A, shared with Adam's kind permission.

Adam Morgan

Hi Adam, what drew you to sharing this desperately sad story?

This story is a true story from my family tree, and I wanted to share it with everyone. It's an event that happened in 1870 and was just tragic. I guess more than anything I didn't want this story forgotten. It's been buried in an archive for over 140 years, definitely more than time to share this story.

‘Martha’ runs for around 5 minutes, which is very short even by Short Film standards. As a film maker what are the factors that influence a decision around running times?

I wanted to tell a story that could be understood even by someone with no hearing. It's a visual film that touches on a tragic event that I believe is very powerful indeed. I felt this could be told in the most basic form, we actually let the film run as long as it would take to read the inquest papers from the event, and that happened to be 5 minutes.

A film focusing on the sudden death of a child is going to be uncomfortable for some viewers, but also the circumstances surrounding Martha's death. Jane seems to have made a tragic mistake with leaving such a young child on her own.

It certainly will be tough for some people to watch, especially for parents of young children. The truth of it is, this could have happened any time or place, accidents can and will happen. This film by no means holds back on the graphic reality of losing a child in such an awful way. I believe that Jane lived with the guilt for the rest of her life. We as humans do tend to make mistakes, it's unfortunately human nature.

Using the original inquest as the narrative for the film is a bold decision, how important was this to the film?

I wanted the film to be told in the most honest way possible, and what more honest way than using the original source Material. Think of it this way, the words we hear in ‘Martha’ are words that were recorded in 1870 and then filed away never to be heard again, until I decided to make this film.

There are so many interesting short films available for audiences to view, what do you believe makes ‘Martha’ stand out from the crowd?

I think this film will stand out for many reasons, first being the fact that it's a true story. Secondly it's filmed with no dialogue and just the original inquest narrative word for word. People spoke in a very different manner back in 1870, so it was lovely to hear these words and expressions. Also we think that people will really feel for Jane Dash, she's a mother smothered in guilt.

You mention that you are developing a number of short films focusing on family stories what triggered your desire to research your own families past?

I have to be honest, until about 5 years ago I had no interest in looking at my family tree, but as I got older I felt i would take a look, mainly out of curiosity really. I soon discovered all sorts of tragic stories, and also inspiring characters from the past.

Have you any plans for future projects once you have finished researching your own family tree?

I have many projects to develop. Mental health is also something I am very passionate about, and so I am looking at developing a film that covers both mental health and my family tree.

What would you say to anyone interested in looking into their own family history?

Tread carefully, it's something that can be both beautiful and tragic. I do feel that once you start it's very difficult to draw a line and find a conclusion. The family tree has many branches, try and stick to the path, it's very easy to stray into different family members paths. I tried my best to focus on my blood line, but soon started getting curious about people marrying into the family.

Here’s the film Martha, all five minutes of it, so you can watch it for yourself.

Images - courtesy of Adam J Morgan
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