top of page
  • Writer's picturefergusfcooper


Welcome to My Filmmakers' Blog

How I got started in making documentaries

I came to documentary filmmaking late in life after a career in the 3rd sector. At one time I was Director of Headliners, the youth journalism organisation, in Northern Ireland. One month into the job I invited the young people to set me 3 strategic goals to deliver for them over the next 3 years. The young journalists organised a consultation session with their peers one Saturday morning, coming up with lots of ideas, before settling on their final selection. These were: the opportunity to experience broadcast radio; the opportunity to travel and do exchanges with other likeminded youth projects and the chance to shoot documentary films.

A poster for the documentary: The Quiet Shuffling of Feet
The Quiet Shuffling of Feet

The Wish List

It was quite a wish list but nevertheless I set about delivering on their ambitions. Radio was relatively easy to deliver on. I opened a new project in Derry and employed a radio journalist. Within a year the young people had recorded 19 radio packages broadcast on a variety of stations from Radio Foyle, to Radio Ulster and Highland Radio. In Belfast the young people got to present their own show for a week on two community radio stations. They also trained and made short pieces for local radio.

The foreign travel and exchanges saw young people have the chance to take part in an exchange trip with a youth journalism project in Japan. They fundraised for almost 6 months to cover the airfare to Japan and were supported with a grant from the British Council. Those who took part enjoyed the trip of a lifetime. We also hosted the return visit of the Tokyo young people. Two young journalists from Belfast had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for a month, where they were production assistants on a weekly Saturday morning magazine show on Bush Radio, a children's radio station in Durban.

The documentary filming proved a tougher nut to crack mainly because of the cost of acquiring the equipment in the first instance and then obtaining a qualified trainer to support its development. Nevertheless, having secured funding from the National Lottery, and with guidance from board member Stephen Douds, a senior producer in BBC NI, we purchased a suitable digital video camera, computer and editing software. As luck would have it I was talking with Mervyn Jones, graphic designer and artist, and mentioned that we were planning to add documentary filmmaking as a strand in our youth journalism for older members but didn't know where to go to find a filmmaker to train staff and children. Mervyn mentioned that his son Ben had finished college in video production but couldn't find work and was working as a waiter in Stranmillis. Mervyn put us in touch and Ben proved to be a very able trainer. He has since gone on to be a first class documentary filmmaker in his own right, with documentaries made for BBC NI and RTE. However, when I saw what our youth journalists were able to shoot and edit as mini-documentaries I was amazed, proud of them and at the same time a little jealous.

A leap of faith

I went on to lead a number of charities in Northern Ireland, including Save the Children. In 2016, after 6 years with Save the Children, I took a leap of faith and decided to go freelance and try to make documentaries. I received help from Down Business Centre to develop my business plan. In 2017 I was able to access an EU grant covering 50% of the cost of purchasing the filming equipment. I applied to the Northern Ireland Film and Television School in SERC, Bangor to do a HNC part-time but despite getting an interview was turned down. At this time I was contacted by David Bolton, former Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma & Transformation, who was about to publish an academic book: Conflict, Peace & Mental Health - Manchester University Press. David knew me from my time as Head of Country of Save the Children when I had been able facilitate contacts with our International colleagues and he obtained financing to develop an app to support workers in conflict zones. David explained that the publisher had asked him to contact 10 peers and to invite them to read the book and then to offer a short review. He said the publisher would decide which, if any, of the reviews to quote on the back of the book as part of its promotion. As chance would have it my review ended up as one of the blurbs on the book sleeve. When David phoned me to thank me I asked if he would be interested in returning the favour and I pitched my idea of shooting a feature documentary about his life's work in treating conflict related trauma.

When he said YES!

David didn't immediately agree to my proposal. Initially, he agreed that we should meet and discuss. Several meetings later, reluctantly (he is a a shy and modest man) he said yes and I set about researching and developing the Treatment for the documentary. When it came to filming I contacted my godson's older brother, Sam Ainsworth who had recently graduated with an MA from film school in London. He brought in his film school buddy Joe Partridge from Birmingham and together with me Producing and Directing we had our crew. We began filming the summer of 2018 with a one week shoot mainly on location in Enniskillen and Omagh. Looking at the rushes I felt that David, while telling the story of his involvement in developing the post-trauma responses to the Enniskillen and Omagh bombings, was holding back in terms of revealing his own emotions and responses to those traumatic incidents. We discussed progress and I indicated that I needed to do pick-up shots and to record some supplementary interview questions and responses. I arranged two further filming opportunities one on location in Enniskillen around the anniversary of the bombing and one in Belfast and Co Down.

After 7 months, three separate filmmaking sessions and a total of 10 days filming, I knew we had enough footage for a feature length documentary. The next challenge was the edit, how to tell a story that focused less on the violence and more on the recovery journey while engaging the audience throughout. The pacing of the film was a challenge. Joe and I worked on the edit and he was very patient with me as I moved things around, changed my mind or argued vigorously for something to stay in which he thought could be cut out. The final cut is: The Quiet Shuffling of Feet, a 55 minute long documentary that tells the story of conflict trauma and recovery through the eyes of a second responder, David Bolton. It's also a film about a personal journey as David reflects on how trauma, and dealing with other people's trauma, has impacted on his own life.

Premiere October 2019

In 2019 I reapplied to the NIFTS in Bangor to be admitted to film school to do a HNC. This time the interview went well as I was able to show my tutors a short excerpt from the film and discuss how I had developed the project. I am glad to report my application was successful and that two years later I emerged with a HND and a distinction. More importantly, we premiered the film in the Ardhowen theatre, Enniskillen, in October 2019 before a full-house that included a number of the survivors from the Enniskillen bombing. The screening was part of that year's Fermanagh Live Arts Festival and there was significant advance publicity given the subject of the film and its timing. We sold out the theatre and had arranged for David and I to do a Q&A afterwards for the audience.

Watching the film from the body of the audience I was terrified as to how it would be received. When the lights went up we received a standing ovation. As I was called from my seat to go down to the front for the Q&A I broke down and wept. When I looked down and tried to compose myself a lady seated beside me grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me down to whisper in my ear: "It will be alright Fergus." When I looked into her face I saw that it was Joan Wilson, who had lost her daughter Marie, a nurse, in the Enniskillen bombing. A gracious lady who I was lucky to meet, and it has been alright since.

Fergus Cooper

97 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page