Nottingham-based filmmaker Sharon Walia uses her camera to tell important stories, having already tackled the poor treatment of refugees through The Movement and spotlighted the powerful tales of the UK’s first Windrush generation through Parallel Histories. Now, the documentarian turns her attention to animal rights, in the form of The Keepers of the Pigs - a poignant exploration of an unlikely subject, guinea pigs - heading across the globe to witness their unique cultural impact, and meet those trying to protect one of man’s closest friends…
In your own words, where did the inspiration come from for this project? Why guinea pigs?
The idea was actually born right here in Nottingham! A few years ago, I was sent by Notts TV to cover a story about a guinea pig sanctuary in Notts, which was overrun with neglected and unwanted pets. I filmed the report with the rescue owner, Shaz Kelly, and she told me how she had been inundated with piggies for many months.
The news report went out that day and we mentioned it on social media - the next day, when I came into the newsroom, my editor said the report had gone viral. People were viewing the online version internationally, in countries like India and the Philippines! I knew right there and then that there was so much more to uncover about these fascinating creatures.
I am also a guinea pig enthusiast, and have kept them most of my life. After a bit of research, I saw that there hadn't been a major documentary on the guinea pig and their devoted keepers, so I wanted to make this my next feature documentary.
You're a vegan and an animal lover. How did you make sure your passion didn't interfere with the filmmaking process, especially in difficult moments - like when you're filming things you may not agree with?
It’s important for a documentary maker to be as neutral as possible and capture events from an observational and educational perspective. I learned this from making my first documentary, The Movement, where I filmed refugees out at sea and the coastguard effectively disregarding us. Even though it was tough, I also had to interview border control for their view and for balance. A lot of this is putting your personal feelings aside.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t show the viewer how difficult some of the filming process was, especially capturing guinea pigs on the dinner plate in Peru - in fact, I explain this in a voice-over.
However, I had to appreciate and comprehend that guinea pigs are an ancestral food in Peru, and mean so much to indigenous people. I also feature a section with the Blue Cross charity, which rescued a large number of piggies from a hoarder home. The guinea pigs were kept in a very bad state, but the charity explained that hoarding is also a mental illness - so, again, a level of understanding and compassion was implemented during filming.
The film also covers the breeding and rescue worlds, which are often at loggerheads with each other. For me, it was about capturing the unique stories and showing audiences how pets can change people’s lives.
I hope the film will help audiences appreciate how much work goes into saving animals from cruelty and neglect - and that no matter how small a pet is, they should all be treated with kindness
Is there one particular moment from the shoot that stands out most in your memory?
A lot of Peru was a standout, as it was a total culture shock. Filming the guinea pig song contest was truly once in a lifetime - so much so that some of the Inca songs feature in the film (the winning song is chosen to represent the festival). It was also surprising to deal with the fact that guinea pigs are loved and celebrated in Peru, but are also a centrepiece on the dinner table.
Filming in France was also extremely memorable - I went to a very remote village called Tremont, near Nantes, where the largest guinea pig show occurs. Tremont has a tiny population, but people travelled from all over France to attend the festival and exhibit their pigs! The audience will also meet France’s biggest guinea pig breeder.
How do you want audiences to feel when they watch the film? What messages are you trying to deliver with the piece?
During the three-plus years I spent filming, I Iearned that, overall, guinea pigs mean so much to people, and I really want the viewers to see this. It is quite hard to put into words just how life-changing these lovely creatures can be to people.
For example, one of the judges at the festival, Jme Edlington, spoke candidly about how guinea pigs got him through his divorce - and that without them, he wouldn't have coped. I also met another judge, Janet, who sadly lost her mother and husband weeks apart earlier in the year. Janet explained how guinea pigs were her rock through the lowest of times. It's these stories that make the film so special.
I also hope the film will help audiences appreciate how much work goes into saving animals from cruelty and neglect - and that no matter how small a pet is, they should all be treated with kindness.
Lastly, the documentary showcases the hidden history of guinea pigs, where viewers will hear from Peruvian archaeologists, as well as Inca business women supporting their families from producing guinea pigs. I really think these parts will be eye-opening.
The film received the backing of Showcase Cinemas - how did that come about?
Showcase and their event cinema team has been extremely supportive. It’s immensely difficult to get broadcasters to view your work - luckily National Amusements, which owns Showcase, has its HQ in Nottingham. This, above all, made it accessible, especially for a regional filmmaker like me - as I’m so used to everything being so London-centric.
Showcase supported my first documentary, which then went on to an independent cinema tour - so getting that early exposure was crucial. The team loved the trailer for The Keepers of the Pigs and commented on its originality. Showcase is dedicated to supporting fledgling filmmakers, and especially during the strikes, the cinema can cease the opportunity to be more diverse with its programming. I’m very excited to be working with Showcase again.
What's your plan for the film going forward?
Much like with my other film, The Movement, my goal is to focus on hybrid distribution. So, once the theatrical screenings are over, we intend to get the film placed on television and then VOD. I’m working with an amazing distributor called Limonero Films, which is currently pitching the film to broadcasters worldwide. As an independent filmmaker, I want the doc to be accessible and reach as many people as possible. We are also submitting to a small number of film festivals.
You can catch The Keepers of the Pigs in Showcase cinemas from 9 November - book your tickets via showcasecinemas.co.uk
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