Paul Sng’s latest documentary Tish recounts the life and times of British photographer Tish Murtha with compassion and authenticity.
Who gets to tell our stories? Photographer Tish Murtha reckoned with this question all her life. Her authentic, affectionate images of working-class communities were a challenge not only to the politics of late-20th century Britain, but to the bourgeois artistic community that so often failed to depict their consequences truthfully. Made with the same love and credibility that gave Murtha’s work its potency, British-Chinese director Paul Sng’s latest documentary continues her legacy, asking urgent questions of Britain’s political and cultural establishments, while telling a deeply personal tale of a remarkable human being.
Born and raised in post-war Tyneside, Murtha documented the lives of the impoverished communities with which she shared a kinship, from the 1970s to her sudden death from a brain aneurysm in 2013. As radical in her craft as in her politics – I doubt she saw a distinction between the two – she depicted street life, pub culture, jazz bands and the sex work industry. The eclectic nature of her oeuvre stands in stark contrast to the patronising, one-dimensional depictions of working-class life in Britain that persist in the arts to this day. Murtha’s talent was undeniable, but she was both a witness to and victim of the socio-political issues of her time; poverty haunted her life right up until her death.
As Tish demonstrates, Sng is a dab hand at depicting working-class artists tackling the social issues of their times. Having made his feature film debut with Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain in 2015, the filmmaker has carved out a niche for himself as a documenter of the uneasy relationship between culture and politics in conservative Britain. What makes Tish so devastating is the focus not only on Murtha’s art but also on her fight to exist within a broken system; as we watch her daughter, Ella, excavate the photographer’s life through observing her photographs and conversing with the people who knew her, we become acquainted with a woman whose life as both an artist and a mother was constantly threatened by the spectre of destitution.
Ella’s presence in the film – mainly as interviewer but later, in an incredibly moving scene, interviewee – is a refreshingly intimate take on the traditional talking heads format, and feels consistent with Murtha’s own philosophy. Sng knows that we cannot understand the art without knowing the artist, and we cannot know the artist without meeting the person. While we don’t get to hear from the photographer directly, she speaks to us through her photographs and through the anecdotes shared by those who knew her, and it is remarkable how the film evokes her vivacious personality.
Murtha was also a prolific writer and in various scenes we see the places of her life reconstructed, to the sound of her letters spoken in character by Maxine Peake. If there is any criticism to be made, it’s that some of these sequences feel a little conventional and artificial, out of kilter with Murtha’s radicalism and the documentary’s own commitment to authenticity. Peake’s accent wavers at times, her own unmistakeable Bolton inflections occasionally seeping through her take on Murtha’s acerbic northeastern tones. Considering the otherwise palpable stress on genuineness in how the film was brought together, would it have hurt to have given a bona fide Tyneside lass a go?
But these scenes make up a fraction of the film’s hour-and-a-half runtime, and hardly cast a large shadow. For the most part, Tish is a beautifully raw depiction of an artist and a community with so much to say and an establishment that wouldn’t listen. Funded through a kick-starter campaign and directed by a self-made working-class filmmaker, it’s a fitting tribute to Murtha’s own indomitable spirit.
As Tish draws to a close and we hear Ella recount the indignity suffered by her mother in her final years, devastated by the financial crash and forced to sign on for universal credit, one can’t help but wonder how many other artists are still being forced to compromise, how many more we are losing to a cruel system that refuses to value their work. It’s hardly an optimistic note to end on, but the film’s very existence is proof that people care enough to listen to these stories, especially when they’re this well told. In the opinion of this humble critic, that is reason enough to hold out hope.