Vernacular Films

Vernacular Films

Vernacular Films is a practice based research project that investigates independent filmmaking as a community-based activity, exploring how high production values can be derived from low budgets, to tell stories that are often overlooked by commercially driven cinema. 

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Project details

Project lead Paul Mulraney
Start date 2022
End date Ongoing

Vernacular filmmakers find their subjects in real people, places and communities, their stories within rumour and ritual, happening and happenstance, the personal and the political. Taking cues from linguistic and architectural definitions of the vernacular, filmmakers working in this tradition find a unique voice in the hidden corners and neglected edges of their own locale. 

Because ‘film miles’ are low, budgets are small or non-existent, allowing for an exploration of the strange, the slow, the marginalised and the peripheral, unhindered by a commercial imperative. This sustainable approach to filmcraft foregrounds independence, authenticity, serendipity and improvisation, drawing the holy grail of ‘production value’ not from purchasing power, but from something more elusive that we might call ‘fit’. 

Student filmmakers grapple with the same challenge as independent filmmakers: contemporary audiences are accustomed to expensive production value – the cinematic - in every aspect of a film’s craft. So, how do we make films that give value to the modern viewer, without the price tag?  

Working within the same restrictions as our students, this collaborative research project models approaches to filmmaking within both ‘real’ (documentary) and ‘imagined’ (narrative) contexts, muddying the waters of film form by the cross-application of technique - historical and cultural research, interviewing, screenwriting, using found or archival footage, existing or constructed production design, score and sound design - in the pursuit of the cinematic story. 

Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects charts the history of vernacular building technique across the globe, providing a model for creating art with strength, authenticity and fit. This in turn informed filmmaker and theorist Clarke Mackay’s Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Culture in the 21st Century. 

The Vernacular Films project applies Mackay’s thinking to filmmaking, finding kinship in the work of contemporary documentarians and fellow Sound/Image Cinema Lab affiliated filmmakers Tim Plester and Rob Curry (Way of the Morris, The Ballad of Shirley Collins) and Christopher Morris (A Year in a Field, Fog of Sex: Stories from the Frontline of Student Sex Work).  

The project applies its techniques through practice, the quality of the filmic output is the ultimate test of the rationale. Beginning with three local stories directed by project lead Paul Mulraney - a trio of documentary shorts found in local communities on the edge of the ocean and the land – the research feeds directly into the School of Film and Television documentary pathway, while informing approaches to narrative filmmaking throughout the Film BA (Hons), with students and project staff learning to take a pragmatic, heuristic approach to story development and production methodology. 

Project team

Paul Mulraney

Project lead - Paul Mulraney

Paul is a lecturer in the School of Film and Television, teaching general film practice across all levels, with specialisms in production design, screenwriting and documentary. 

His research interests lie in vernacular filmmaking – the use of existent people and places in the writing and production of independent, low budget cinema that spans the divide between narrative and documentary forms. This practical research is related to a thematic interest in the examination of inequality through storytelling, in the telling of stories about peripheral places and the people who live there.

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Additional team members

Falmouth staff:

Other staff:

  • Dr David Kerr 
    Research Fellow, University of Johannesburg, AfOx 

  • Thomas Axon, Seamonster Media 
    Cinematographer, marine co-ordinator, From the River 


Across our range of documentary shorts Vernacular Films have partnered with: 

  • AfOx (The Africa Oxford Initiative) 
  • Alive Studios 
  • The BBC 
  • Sailor’s Creek CIC 
  • Seamonster Media 
  • Sound/Image Cinema Lab 
  • The University of Johannesburg 



Within the rationale of the project budgets are kept to a minimum, however funding to finance the work of external companies has been raised to ensure the delivery of projects, including: 

  • £1000 FEAST grant, financed by the Arts Council and Cornwall Council  
  • £2000 Crowdfunder financing raised for From the River 

Outputs & outcomes

From the River: 

Documentary short, live action film charting the contentious redevelopment of a local creek. 

From the Culch: 

Documentary short, BBC archival footage is reassembled to give a personal account of a lost era. 

Redfish: In production 

Documentary short, 10 hours of amateur VHS tapes shot aboard a Russian factory trawler take us below decks of this rapacious industry. 

Hip-hop Dar es Salaam: In production 

Documentary short, the history of Tanzanian hip-hop is tracked by a crew of rappers and producers who were central to the scene. 

Local productions that achieve international distribution via film festivals, conferences and online spaces. From the River reached festival audiences in the US, Ireland, France, Italy and across the UK, placing in the best 5 documentaries at the This is England film festival, 2023. From the Culch featured in the BFI Southbank’s Dig/Deconstruct/Display conference, while captivating audiences at packed community and local screenings. 

Impact & recognition

From the River foregrounded the challenges of community regeneration projects against a backdrop of failed policy, environmental decline and housing crisis, sparking debate in audience Q&As on the international stage, driving signups and interest in the project for the CIC at the heart of the story.  

From the Culch has had a wonderful effect on the local community, the project salvaged a visual record of the Fal Oyster Fishery that was thought lost for 50 years. The film caught the attention of the BBC whose archive team searched for and found the original documentary, restoring a piece of history of rich cultural and community interest.