Making the Grade – Ken Wardrop
Director Ken Wardrop already has quite a back catalogue of quirky and gentle documentaries. For those that haven’t checked out the early short films they show his promise. The film ‘Undressing my Mother’ is quite remarkable. Made in 2004 while Wardrop was still in college it features his mother talking about her body and inadvertently her life. You can find an interview about the film here.
Some of the other short films are available online such as the story of a rubbish farm animal; Useless Dog (2005). There’s a tale of late life circumcision with Ouch, an unusual tale of kissing with Scoring among many others. There is even a non documentary hidden amongst the bunch with Tongue Tied. Herd was made in 2008 directly before His & Hers. It’s the story of a young deer with an identity crisis. Return to Roscoff from 2010 is about a woman dealing with brain injury.
After the series of shorts, his break through release was the 2009 ‘His & Hers’ which featured a series of interviews with women talking about the men in their lives. The women did not know what the subject matter of the documentary was, so it was pieced together from the unselfconscious moments where they mentioned their husbands, sons or partners. For its small budget it was a success and allowed him to make Mom and Me in 2015, which was a similar style of film in which men talked about their mothers in Oklahoma in the USA.
Making the Grade is his new release and has moved away from the familial relationship theme to something quite similar, the relationship between a piano teacher and their students. The most impressive thing about the film are the characters the film makers have found. In his recent interview with Nadine O’Regan after the premiere of the film, Wardrop talked about the search for the teachers and students. To help with the task, they contacted the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin along with simply googling terms such as ‘Piano Teacher Carlow’. One of the aims of the film was to get a wide geographical spread of people around Ireland, so that there would be a variety of accents and lifestyles, with students and teachers from all over the country.
“Firstly I gave myself the rule that I must engage with the character. You just like to be around these people.” said Ken Wardrop in the Irish Times. “…I am looking for humanity, but I am also looking for the everyday. I am not looking for big stakes. I want universal moments. I have a narrative thread. They have this task. Films like Spellbound tend to be about geniuses. There’s chaos. There’s something big at the end. This was better for me because there was no great risk. There’s no danger of them failing badly.”
Strangely, Wardrop has never taken a piano lessons himself! He was an outsider to the experience and this allowed him to see things that others would have missed or viewed as banal. The documentary moves through the 8 grades, starting with the beginners and ending with those attempting the highest grade possible. Along the way we get to meet hopeless beginners, child prodigies and many worlds in between. Some of the most interesting characters are the older people who are learning for their own reasons, like one woman who is dealing with a trauma in her life through music. There are many qualities that Wardrop manages to capture with his films, but the main thing is a warmth for the people involved. You leave the cinema feeling you know the various characters you have ‘met’ which is one of the biggest compliments you can give a documentary. It is a humorous and compassionate portrait of those who love music for a variety of reasons.