Rob Lemkin always does a lot of reading in preparation for his films. As an Oxford-based filmmaker, perhaps it’s par for the course. In the years he spent making the award winning Enemies of the People, as well as his earlier 1990s BBC films about colonialism in Southeast Asia, he came to realise that there were very few films that really query colonialism. “So I kind of gravitated towards thinking about readings that I had done and thinking about how Heart of Darkness has been a universal text that still stands, notwithstanding all of the criticisms that are made of Conrad’s racism, language and so on and so forth.”
In the course of further research into Heart of Darkness, Lemkin discovered the story of a rogue French army commander, Paul Voulet, who was slaughtering his way through Niger in 1898 at the same time that Conrad was writing his book. Lemkin persuaded the BFI to fund him to go to Niger to see what he could find out about Voulet.
During his recce trip he found that the Voulet story was still incredibly present, not least because Voulet’s terrible path of murderous destruction led to the highway that runs through the country. “The idea that that his journey still existed now as a road just felt to me like wow this was a way of really connecting Colonialism to a universal present,” Lemkin says.
After his recce trip, Lemkin was wondering how to approach the film when his partner came across Femi Nylander performing in a pub down the road from their home. “He was performing songs including one about the Congo, which obviously is where Conrad’s book is set. She came back and she said ‘maybe you should look at him’”. Nylander is a British-Nigerian poet-activist who had recently been active in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Soon Lemkin and Nylander decided to make the film together.
In African Apocalypse, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Nylander follows the path of Voulet’s destruction, with the help of two local guides. On top of scenes of their journey, and various encounters with the locals, we hear Nylander’s thoughts as he reads the diaries of Voulet. In the verité footage, however, when interacting with descendants of his victims – who are clearly still traumatised – Nylander often seems impassive.
Extraordinarily, in the middle of the film, the two guides confront him about his lack of emotion. “I think it’s a testament to him and to his courage that he was happy to have that scene included, because it was a bit of a forceful personality critique,” says Lemkin. “He is a young guy for whom colonialism is an enormous issue amongst the student population. In the environment of the student hothouse, world colonialism is an issue, a subject, a topic for discussion, a thing. You don’t actually breathe it, touch it and feel it; you read it, you watch about it, you talk about it.”
Lemkin says that whilst Nylander is very effective at being forceful in television discussions, he found it much more difficult on the road with limited language and various pressures. “I realised that Femi would need a lot of orientation because suddenly were not in the Oxford Union or in some student hub. And it’s raw but it’s also random and there’s a lot of different kinds of things that are going on– present tense issues and awareness of historical issues.”
Lemkin says Femi found it quite hard to be constantly under the scrutiny of the camera. “It’s a difficult pressure to be on for anyone,” he says. “When he was going into the real community he still had the feeling that he was a consumer of testimonies. One of the things that we were able to deploy as a mechanism is trying to ask: How does a young black person coming from a formerly colonised country deal with this kind of history?”
This question works as a motif that threads through the narrative, Lemkin says. “Although at the time when we shot that scene, I wasn’t really thinking about it in such a motif and narrative kind of way. I was just thinking more about the fact that in reality both of the guides and myself were feeling a sense of frustration about the fact that he did not seem to be able to or want to connect in a totally full throttle human way with the groups of people that we were meeting.”
Lemkin says that although Nylander had learned rudimentary Hausa and French for the trip, the rushes reveal that the people really couldn’t understand him. “It’s kind of google translate hausa and they’re not getting it. And the people that we are speaking to are not necessarily literate people, so there’s quite a gap. But I think they also feel a sense of feeling like they can educate Femi with what they say to him in a way that responding to me as a white person there is a different power dynamic.”
By interweaving Nylander’s voiceover with the verité footage, and existing archive, the final film is an engrossing narrative with many layers which succeeds, as Lemkin intended in querying colonialism and bringing its often terrible legacy into the here and now.
Lemkin’s aesthetic approach to filming was to treat the shoot like a road movie. “We wanted to really capture the sense that we were going from encounter to encounter, and it was actually going into places where Femi was meeting people for the first time. This was really critical for me. Even Claude (Garnier, the DoP) was saying ‘do we really have to film them going in?’ and I said ‘yes we really have to film them going in’. And we use that a lot of the time just because I think it gives you a feeling of the freshness and unpredictability of the encounter”.
The meetings that we see Nylander have are the result of Lemkin’s two previous trips to Niger, where he spent a lot of time scouting the right people to talk to. “What appears to be a spontaneous journey isn’t,” he admits. “It was very important to have actual community meetings very well established so we could put in archive and make it feel it was something that you are mentally flipping to and from across time all the way through.”
Such personal connections are necessary for the viewer to then be able to connect with the archive, Lemkin says. “Otherwise you could just end up feeling that the whole thing was theoretical and abstract and academic. Not like I don’t like academic, but I think it’s important that it’s rooted in human experience.”
The Painter and the Thief not only tells a remarkable story but it does so in a remarkable way. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and heroin addict Karl-Bertil Nordland – a friendship which develops after Nordland is jailed for the brazen theft of two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery. Norwegian Director Benjamin Ree follows his two protagonists for three and a half years, as Nordland becomes a new muse for Kysilkova, even as he indulges in increasingly self-destructive behaviour. But what really sets this film apart is its approach to storytelling – Ree has viewers inhabit the perspectives of both Nordland and Kysilkova, going back to replay scenes with different narrative overlays. It’s an exciting film which keeps you guessing, and in my books makes Ree (who is 31 and also made the excellent Magnus) a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him via zoom while the film had its BFI London Film Festival run, where it won Best Documentary. The following interview contains spoilers and has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: At what stage was their relationship when you started filming them?
Benjamin Ree: I started filming them the fourth time they met. I read about the story in the newspapers in Norway and it always takes a bit of time to get access – in this case getting access to a thief who didn’t know anything about me! I was really fortunate because a friend of mine had documented Barbora’s life a lot – taking photos of her paintings being made, filming her exhibition – we even had surveillance footage! Barbora had brought with her an audio recording recorder to the trial because she doesn’t understand the region so she recorded the whole trial and also during the break when she approached Karl-Bertil. So there was so much footage there from the very beginning. It was just pure luck to have such great footage before I came along.
CN: I have read that you’re inspired by observational documentary filmmakers like Steve James. But was there any point in time when you thought that you might become part of the story? Because clearly you must have interacted with them all the time during the shoot.
BR: During filming we did a lot of interviews and and we hear my questions and of course we could have chosen another approach to this where I am more visible. But I do believe that I am very there in the film as well. What I do with those interviews is I convert that to cinematic language. The film is very self reflective in a way but it but it is self reflective in a way that I haven’t seen before in a verité documentary film. I am very present in the whole film because we force the audience to think about the filmmaking process, having overlapping scenes. And some people become a bit uncomfortable with that, some love it, but I think it’s fun to try something new in a verité documentary.
CN: Absolutely and I am in the category of loving it and I really enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and the fact that it always kept you guessing. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that you were going to be doing this in the edit?
BR: It was kind of two choices that made the structure happen. For me dramaturgy is not only an artistic choice in documentary, it is also an ethical choice. And that’s very important to keep in mind. So during filming we really wanted to portray Karl‑Bertil in a complex way to show how funny he is, how intelligent, how self-destructive and sad he is. And the only way to really get to know Karl-Bertil was to show the world from his point of view. And in the editing room we found the way to do it: that we wanted overlapping scenes. And the reason that we do that is because the themes of the film is what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. We would explore the film’s themes in a playful, fun and complex way to see the scenes over again so we had both of the subjects’ points of view of each other. And I think that was really relevant for this film. But it was in the editing room we found out how to do it.
CN: How did you get involved with Morgan Neville and what role did he play?
Ben: Morgan Neville saw the film at Sundance, so he came into it after the film. He loved the film and wanted to support it. I asked him if he wanted to become an ambassador. But in film words we don’t call it an ambassador, we call it executive producer!
CN: In the film Karl-Bertil has a bad accident. How soon did you talk to Karl-Bertil before he had it, and what was that like for you?
BR: It was not right before he had his accident. There was a period when he almost died several times and it was almost pure luck that he survived that accident. And Karl-Bertil and I had several conversations, and I said to him and he agreed both of us thought that he was going to die during filming. And I told him ‘if you die we’re not gonna make this film’ and Karl-Bertil responded by saying ‘if I die you have to promise to me to make this film’. So those are some of the conversations that we had. I was nervous all the time. I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about him. There were of course long periods of time when I couldn’t reach him at all.
CN: When he sees the portrait and cries in that very moving scene, was he using at the time? He seemed quite out of it.
BR: For me that is a great scene filmed by Kristoffer Kumar. Karl-Bertil explains that this is maybe the first time he has been seen in his life, and that’s why he behaved that way. But the first half of the film yes he’s on drugs all the time.
CN: Is he doing okay now?
BR: He’s doing great today. He’s not single anymore. Bad guys like that don’t stay single for long! He has finished his second year at a school of sport science and he has got a new job. He’s not counting months anymore of being sober, he is counting years. I’m extremely proud of him and I think that the journey he goes through from the lowest point in the film, almost dying and being addicted to heroin, to where he is today is the most impressive thing I have experienced ever in my life.
One Man and His Shoes, a new feature length doc from South London filmmaker Yemi Bamiro, tells the often astonishing story of the rise of the Air Jordan brand, the first mega superstar endorsement that remains a cultural phenomenon. Thanks in large part to a series of iconic ads made with director Spike Lee, the shoes became a highly coveted status symbol which has endured for decades, and taken some dark turns, not least the murder of teenagers for the trainers.
Made independently over seven years, Bamiro interweaves a number of themes, from America’s love affair with consumerism to the mass-market 1980s breakthrough of African Americans such as Jordan, Eddie Murphy and Prince. In the wake of its screening at the BFI London Film Festival, I spoke with Bamiro via Zoom about the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra (CN): I enjoyed the film and as an American of a certain age this is my era. But how did you, a much younger Brit, come to be telling the story?
Yemi Bamiro (YB): I guess I started thinking about the story in 2012-2013 when I was thinking up ideas for longer form films. I had always been interested in trainers. The first iteration of this film was going to be about Air Jordan collectors because I felt that I had never seen anything like that before – I was interested in the culture and their enthusiasm and their obsessiveness over this one brand. So I started to make that film, and some of the collectors that I profiled are actually made the cut for the feature film. But I realised maybe after a year that I needed more to sustain a feature length narrative arc. So then I started thinking about the origin story of the Air Jordan. I started to seriously think about Michael Jordan in terms of marketing and how much that has given the world, given that that was the first foray into superstar endorsement deals. And that’s pretty much how the story came about. I knew that it was an idea that I wouldn’t get bored of after a couple of years, that it would be something that I would be able to stick with. And I thought that was important given the fact that I realised it was going to be take a long time to make this film independently.
CN: How easy was it to get access to your interviewees? What was that like as an outsider?
YB: The access was pretty straightforward but I only say that because we had the luxury of time. Everyone that you asked to put in your documentary is not necessarily going to say yes straight away. They want to know who else is in your films. I think if someone had given us a pot of money in 2013 and said deliver this film in 2015 I think you know we might not necessarily have had the contributors that we ended up having in the film. Because when you ask somebody to be in your documentary they might say no and you have to persevere and keep knocking and gently knocking until they say yes. I am not really a person who goes away easily given I was so invested in this project.
CN: Did you try to get Michael Jordan or Spike Lee?
YB: I never entertained the idea of getting Michael Jordan because it would’ve completely changed what the film is. The film is about Michael Jordan in part, but it’s essentially about his sneakers; it’s about marketing; it’s about all of those interesting facets centred around this phenomenon. You couldn’t have Michael Jordan in your film as a talking head: he would have to be beginning middle and end. We did definitely try to get to Spike Lee but he is an Oscar winning director and he’s got lots of things on. So we didn’t get him.
CN: You made this independently. Where did you get money from?
YB: We self-funded it for many years. After about two years I met this guy, James Ramkoleea, who is now really good friend of mine in my NCT classes. And he lives locally and is an Arsenal supporter and we just started speaking about our lives and I told him about this film. He said ‘I’ve always wanted to invest in film’. I kind of laughed at him and then over the next six months he kept prodding me about getting involved in this film. Then he gave us a chunk of money and invested in the film! And his contribution and him coming on board as an exec producer was the thing that allowed us to get the film across the line. We got in to SXSW and that pretty much changed everything for us.
We met Christo in like 2016 when we got into MeetMarket at Sheffield Docfest. And I think we basically felt a little bit fatigued because we had met everybody, but we only met a few people who were really champions of the film, that really got it. And Christo was one of them. We made the decision in 2017 to go back to all the people who have just championed this film. Christo was one of the people that believed in the idea and bought into it so I think we formalised everything in terms of him coming on board with Dartmouth in 2018.
CN: At what point did you become aware of The Last Dance series? You must’ve both been moving ahead at the same time.
YB: I knew that ESPN and Netflix were making this mammoth 10 hour special on Michael Jordan. I think I became aware of it maybe two years ago. I didn’t think anything of it because I always hoped that our film would be out in the world and we would be quite clear down the road before that mammoth came along, you know? But then the global pandemic happened and SXSW got cancelled and ESPN obviously pushed it forward because they had huge programming slots in their schedule because of no live sport.
It was like the number one trending topic on Twitter every week that they dropped an episode. It was too close to home for me – I couldn’t engage with it because I was thinking what’s the point of us even putting this film out when this thing has stolen all of our thunder? But thankfully the Last Dance team had a different objective. Their objective was about Michael Jordan and his last season with the Bulls and our film was completely different. So we are able to co-exist.
We then very much existed in the slipstream of The Last Dance because I think it showed that there was an appetite for all things Michael Jordan, nostalgia, 1990s NBA basketball. And we just happened to have a film that dealt with all of those things at a time when everybody was at home and wanting content so I think we got really lucky. That’s how we sold our US TV rights to Vice – they saw the reception that The Last Dance got.
One Man and His Shoes is playing in UK cinemas from 23 October, and on demand from 26 October.
The last time I interviewed Paddy Wivell, he was just putting the finishing touches on the first series of Prison. The three part series, filmed in Durham Prison, was a revelatory look at a system in crisis. It took a themed approach, with an episode each focused on mental health, drugs and violence. It won both the Grierson and Royal Television Society awards for Best Documentary Series.
Now Paddy has turned his attention to women prisoners, filming for months in HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire. I caught up with him over the telephone to find out more about Prison: Series 2.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about the approach to this series?
Paddy Wivell: It felt like a natural progression after the Durham series to then look at the women’s estate. There are 80,000 male prisoners (in England and Wales) and something like 4,000 female. So I knew I would be encountering something quite different. I wanted to take a sort of present tense approach – looking at the culture within the environment. But actually what I did find was the women’s backgrounds became seemingly more relevant as I started to pick up on some of the main themes. You just couldn’t look away from the effects of trauma played out in the lives of the women in terms of sexual and domestic abuse. It felt really important to then spend some of the time with the women looking back at what brought them into prison.
Each film again has a theme. The first film is really looking at short sentences. Something like 75% of women in prison spend less than 12 months in prison. And within that to be able to look at issues like drugs, relationships, trauma within a setting where women are coming in and out routinely. And ultimately sort of questioning the validity of a system that doesn’t seem to rehabilitate or help women with the kind of difficulties that they come into prison with. Because the prison has a very short window, you’re not doing anything to rectify or help with the problems. So that’s one of the films.
And then another film looks at the issue of trauma in more detail through a prisoner led therapeutic course called Healing Trauma. So that’s a map of the three films. Although the approach was similar to the first series, the content feels very very different.
CN: So much of the series is dependent on your interactions with your contributors. I’m wondering if your interactions were different than with the men and how you were received?
PW: To be honest with you it was much more gratifying. Women handle incarceration very differently to men and the fact is that they do it through relationships with each other. So in terms of filmmaking in many ways it was far richer than the first series. Because women want to communicate.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t quite difficult at first just gaining the trust of the prison as a whole. Obviously a lot of women in there have had very difficult experiences with men. So when somebody like me comes in it takes a long time to build a sense of trust, and a feeling that they’re going to be safe with us wandering around. So that took some time. But once I found the contributors who could speak to these wider themes it was immensely gratifying because the conversations were richer and more detailed. So I think what it might lack in the sense of a system in crisis it absolutely points to a sort of richness of humanity.
CN: Did you get a sense that there was a way that the men could be learning from the women?
PW: Definitely. I think there is a certain sort of narrative that is applied to women in prison that isn’t necessarily applied around men. There is a public recognition that for most of the women in prison that they’ve had worse crimes visited upon them than they have actually perpetrated. And trauma has a huge effect and there is a sense that a lot of women are going to prison and being punished when they’ve already been punished throughout their lives. Because these narratives aren’t as prevalent with a male population it doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist. I would say obviously huge numbers of men have had the same issues.
But one of the other really shocking things is what happens when women are released. There are only six hostels nationally with 100 places a huge amount of women are being released homeless. So there is a real problem in sending people back outside without proper accommodation or support. There is a big push that hasn’t really materialised as much as it should do where women carry out their sentences in the community instead. And get support for issues that are common to them, like substance misuse debt or homelessness
CN: I know that it was tricky in the first series getting your third episode to broadcast because of people getting caught up in the legal system. Have you had any issues with this series?
PW: Anybody that’s released can pick up a charge at any time so it’s always quite anxiety inducing. We have to do a check a week before the TX, and the first program can go out. We will keep our fingers crossed for the next two!
The first episode of the second series of Prison goes out on Channel 4, 9pm Monday, 17 February.
A few months ago I joined the team at Bertha Dochouse, helping to programme their amazing array of international documentaries which screen in their dedicated cinema in Bloomsbury, London. It’s a wonderful complement to my university teaching. It’s a privilege to be able to watch so many documentaries from around the world – and connect with the filmmakers who made them.
Here’s a good example of those films: Turtle Rock. Stunningly shot in black and white, this slow cinema voyage takes viewers to Turtle Rock, a remote, mountainous village in China. Filmmaker Xiao Xiao grew up here, and for this sumptuous film he returns to follow the village’s seven families through four seasons.
It’s a simple, physical existence for these Bhuddist bamboo farmers – everything needs to be carried, made, cooked with the simplest of tools. In Turtle Rock, the cinematography is the star: each frame is beautifully composed and a pleasure to see on the big screen.
We sent through some questions for Filmmaker Xiao Xiao, about how he made the film:
1. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you came to make this film?
This documentary derives from my own nostalgia. After I was born, my grandmother and uncle raised me in this village till I was six, of school age. After I went back home with my parents, I returned to the village every year and stayed for a while. Turtle Rock is my hometown spiritually. As time goes by, a lot of changes have taken place there, with more and more modern buildings and facilities, and less and less residence. I strongly felt like preserving some of the images as well as my memories of this place. From 2015, with such motivation, I frequently went back alone to the village and stayed with my uncle’s family for more than two years, filming and recording their lives.
2. Filming in black and white is very striking. Can you discuss your aesthetic approach? Did you have any self-imposed rules while shooting?
This documentary was filmed by the format of black and white, instead of post effect. I have several reasons for shooting it in black and white. There are a lot of similar villages in China. Like this one, along with the process of modernisation and urbanisation, they quickly lost vitality and character – generations of young people have migrated to the cities while agricultural society became grotesque under the “modern constructions”. Secondly, I view the images without colours to be far from the real world, and near to the spiritual reality. Especially among the secular mundane images, I believe black and white represents purer spirituality. And I also hoped that the audience could experience their lives like memories.
3. What kind of equipment did you use to film this?
I used a mini SONY SLR camera because I wanted to minimize the disturbance I brought to my filming objects. I also used a stabilizer to obtain smoother and slower effects.
4. Will you continue to make films about your village, Turtle Rock?
I went back to the village time by time without preplanned schedules or presuppositions. Filming this place has become a “return” to myself, not only in terms of affection, but also a process of tracing the sources of artistic production.
5. This has been described as “slow cinema”. Is that how you would describe it? Was that what you had in mind while you were editing it?
I had in mind a relatively slow cinema before shooting: slow story-telling, and slow moving images. It is because the lives there are “spontaneous” in terms of natural rhythms – people follow the seasons in farming activities and they go by the sun in their daily schedule. It is a slow lifestyle of cycles. Compared to the pace of time and work there, this documentary of
less than two hours is very fast and abridged. Of course when I myself review the work, I find some places could have been “faster”, but I do not intend to revise it. I am rather content with my simple and immature thoughts of my first work without any intention of marketing or commercial gain.
6. What do you hope that audiences in the UK might gain from watching this?
It is a documentary of a lifestyle without targeting any regional audience – I believe it is comprehensible for all, but with very different angles. I remember that during a screening in Sheffield, a British man with a long beard said to me, “It is the same everywhere in the world, people are fond of talking nonsense”.
Turtle Rock is screening at Bertha Dochouse on Sunday, January 26th and Tuesday, 4th February. Check out their Instagram feed here.
Fifteen years ago Morgan Spurlock burst into cinemas with the ultimate adventure in immersive documentary: he spent a month eating McDonald’s. The resulting film, Super Size Me, made him an enduring household name – to this day, my twenty year old students know who he is.
While in the intervening years he has directed and overseen a raft of nonfiction programming, Spurlock hasn’t returned to the world of fast food until recently. In Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken he investigates the dishonesty behind the massive chicken fast food industry. By becoming a chicken shop owner himself, Spurlock shines a light on the endemic cruelties in mass chicken rearing, the shocking way farmers are treated, and how the fast food industry has employed an enormous bag of tricks to fool people into thinking that chicken is a healthy choice.
Not long after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, Spurlock outed himself in a blog as guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour and part of the #MeToo problem. The resulting furore led to the pulling of the film from the Sundance lineup and the shutting down of his 65-strong production company Warrior Poets.
Two years on, Super Size Me 2 has been picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Spurlock is back in the public gaze. I spoke to him via FaceTime about the journey he’s been on.
As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: I can’t really think of someone who is so well known based off of one film, in terms of Supersize Me making you into such a household name. Is that both a blessing and a curse? What was it like for you going into this project as Morgan Spurlock?
Morgan Spurlock: The minute you call up, certain people know who you are. Or the minute you make the second phone call they’ll know who you are and will have questions about it. It’s a blessing because it opens a lot of doors; it’s a curse because it closes a lot of doors (laughs). You have to lean into the upside of the doors that are actually opened. I think that I’ve always been able to do what I do because I’m blessed with great field producers who are able to go out and be the boots on the ground and it doesn’t have to be me all the time.
CN: Am wondering at what point this became Super Size Me 2?
MS: We were always going to call this Super Size Me 2. But the whole time we were doing it we just called ourselves Chicken just so that it was never tied to me or the other film in an overt way. But it was always going to be Super Size Me 2.
CN: Why was that? You have done a fair number of films in between. Why this one – obviously it’s the same terrain in terms of fast food but it’s not otherwise at all similar in structure to Super Size Me. So what was your thinking there?
MS: I think cause it is so very much a look into the fast food industry and the impact that’s had on how we eat and how we live. Especially because the door got opened by me getting a letter from Hardees wanting me to come be in their commercial, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing ever.
CN: Did you at any point think “I’m going to spend a month eating chicken”?
MS: I knew I was going to eat a lot of chicken but I knew I didn’t want to do that same type of thing. I knew that just going into a place and just eating the food wasn’t the story. Especially once we got into the greenwashing of it, and understanding the journey was going to show where most meat on the planet comes from. We eat 50 billion chickens a year – how do they get from the egg to your plate? And telling that journey.
I was like a lot of people – I thought if you’re still a farmer in the United States that you are doing something to really survive and do well. You’re somehow working the system in a way that is enabling you to thrive. And I hadn’t really understood the level of indentured servitude these guys are going through.
CN: Looking back at the years since the original film came out, how do you think the appetite for nonfiction storytelling has changed?
MS: Oh my gosh, well Americans finally woke up and realised it was a great way to watch movies and tell stories! It was fantastic. American audiences finally caught up with European audiences and suddenly you could see them on primetime television, thanks to HBO, Netflix and Showtime. There has been this great kind of normalisation and commodification of nonfiction which has been awesome. And I think that people finally saw that these can be as compelling, as entertaining, as rich a tapestry as a scripted project. And that’s been fantastic for filmmakers, period. No matter where you are around the world it’s been fantastic for nonfiction filmmakers. And I think that it continues to grow. We’re in this amazing time for television now where I don’t think there has been better television being made. I don’t think there has been a time where there has been better nonfiction being made. So it is a golden age across the board I feel now.
CN: What are your plans for Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken? I understand the gap that you’ve had and why you’ve had this gap. Are you able to pick up the momentum of where you left off in your plans to tackle the chicken industry?
MS: Well, luckily on the heels of the film opening up we did a pop up of the Holy chicken restaurant in NYC. We had an investor group who came on who wanted to get behind the restaurant and turn them into permanent locations. So the goal is to continue to use the momentum of the film and the momentum of the story to start to open these locations which continue to tell a conversation to folks. The film does a great job of opening the door. These people getting to actually sit in a restaurant and actually meet their chicken farmer and eat a sandwich and understanding in a deeper level where that food is coming from is transformative. So the more that I can slowly roll these out around the country will be amazing. And I think we can still do that.
CN: And what would be your best outcome for this in terms of the chicken industry?
MS: The goal from the beginning and the goal moving forward is if I can create more independent chicken farmers – right now one percent of the chicken we buy in the United States comes from independent chicken farmers – 99 percent comes from these giant mega chicken corporations. So, if I can create one percent more independent chicken farmers; so they are not under the thumb of Tyson, Purdue, Cook Food, Sanderson, then that’s a pretty great accomplishment. So, for me it’s how can I empower more of those guys to not feel stuck in these situations where they are not making a living, not making any money, living hundreds sometimes millions of dollars in debt, then I think we’ll be on the right track.
CN: Finally I wanted to ask you a little bit about what it’s like for you now not having the big production company. What’s it like for you moving now more freely, whether or not you would have liked the circumstances behind which it came about?
MS: Yeah well it’s another one of those things where it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because suddenly, as you said, to not have all that infrastructure and have to deal with the support to make payroll for 65 people every two weeks – that’s a stressful, stressful burden. For that suddenly to be gone is awesome. But at the same time to kind of lose that support system of development, of production, of editorial, so suddenly it goes back to being a one man band…I’m literally back to my roots, what do I want to do, what stories do I want to tell? It’s great but to go from a place where I can chase so many different things at once, it’s hard to kind of go back to thinking I can now only chase one or two things at a time.
CN: Because you are a personal documentary maker, have you thought about doing any kind of personal film around the #MeToo movement?
MS: I’ve been asked by a few different folks about doing that, and it’s something that…you know, I’ve been approached but nothing has made me want to tell that story right now. There are other things I’d rather talk about.
SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released on iTunes and On Demand from 9th December 2019
I have learned over the years to be sure to watch anything that London-based producer Simon Chinn works on. From Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, both of which won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, to the Imposter and Project Nim, he has been instrumental in transforming the feature doc landscape. With his company Lightbox, formed in 2014 with his LA-based cousin Jonathan Chinn, he makes quality docs for a wide range of broadcasters and platforms. Recent projects includes the fascinating series Diagnosis, based on the NYT column, the Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable, and the gripping Netflix documentary Tell Me Who I Am. Some weeks ago, I spoke to him on the telephone about what it’s like serving so many masters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Tell me about your recent projects.
Simon Chinn: Our Weinstein doc was a BBC Two commission that we then enlarged with other investment. We got private investment from someone who is actively getting into the film and television business. That was an interesting hybrid project, which so many of these feature docs can be, where it’s literally trying to sort of make what is very traditional television money work alongside more film money, which is based on theatrical sales projections and presales. It’s a challenging thing to do, for sure….The budget on the Weinstein doc was in excess of a million pounds – the BBC put a third in. They are getting something they couldn’t get if we didn’t broker in that way.
CN: Is it safe to say that for the quality and the ambition of the nonfiction slate that you are developing, a BBC commission is never going to cover the whole budget?
SC: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. There are projects that we could do with the BBC fully funding. I wouldn’t discount that. But not the feature docs, not the really premium documentaries that we do. But we are exploring other kinds of ideas – probably more series ideas. That model has worked well for plenty of companies. Look at someone like The Garden, those rig shows that they make, absolutely great and they make them essentially on a UK terrestrial license fee. They might not make anything on production but they do very very well on the back end. I think that is a model that we would certainly not discount and are actually exploring.
CN: How do you find that the BBC presents itself as different from Netflix?
SC: The BBC looks at places like Netflix and Amazon and sees – like many of us consumers see – receptacles of content libraries. We see how much content they are making. And to some extent how uncurated it can sometimes feel. And I suppose the broadcasters that are much more in the business of curation, that are steeped in that ethos and developing projects carefully with producers, shaping them for their audiences and all of that, it does feel like a different offering to what you often imagine is going on in the sort of big, slightly impersonal places where they are just acquiring and financing huge amount of content. I suppose the problem with that rhetoric is that it doesn’t quite check out based on experience. We work a lot with the premium documentary group at Netflix, run by Lisa Nishimura and executives like Kate Townsend; these guys are actually very smart filmmakers in their own right. My experience on the last two projects we have done with them is that they have absolutely been vital creatively. They have been incredibly hands on in a positive way. I am honestly saying that. There are many broadcaster experiences I have had where I sort of think the executives can sometimes make the films or the programmes worse, but I have not had that experience with Netflix. Netflix is many things; that’s the point. Much like there are many different parts of the BBC. Some of them are tiny bit more cookie cutter or doing things in so much volume that they haven’t got the bandwidth to actually shape anything. But that hasn’t been my experience.
The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them?
CN: Where does public service fit in?
SC: The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them? They do have a tradition of working closely with programme makers and filmmakers to shape their content. And that’s great – and I think there are some very smart executives at the BBC. I actually think that the offering that they should be making to producers is arguably more of a commercial offering. Because the truth of the matter is that because of the terms of trade and because of their ability to co-produce, their involvement from a commercial point of view in the Weinstein project was great. They put up a third of the budget; they took a small piece of the back end – the terms of trade legislate against them doing anything different. And it was very helpful. They put up a very good chunk of the license fee, and their branding is all over it and they felt that they had significant editorial input, which was not unhelpful. So all good then. The point is that generally the terms of trade make British broadcasters very attractive as co producing partners.
CN: Isn’t the Weinstein model how Storyville has been acting for years?
SC: Yes, the difference is that for the Weinstein model, the BBC put up a third of a million pound budget – that’s not to be sniffed at (and is more than Storyville budgets). The BBC linear offering has things going for it that Netflix doesn’t. Stuff can really hit on Netflix but also stuff can get lost. Not to say that that isn’t true of the BBC. But if they want to make noise about something they can do so in a way that perhaps Netflix finds sometimes difficult.
CN: What is your ideal kind of production deal these days?
SC: There is no ideal; it’s all different. There are advantages and disadvantages to every model. My ideal production is one where we have enough funds to do what we want to do where we can also make our margins, and we are completely creatively aligned with the buyers. Certainly there are places I can think of where that’s the case. Certainly Nat Geo is a great example of a buyer we have loved working with for all these reasons.
Beautifully shot and multilayered, the new documentary Mother centres on a care home in Thailand, which provides intensive one-on-one 24 hour care for 14 Western dementia patients. At the heart of the film is Pomm, who we see lovingly doting on Alzehimer’s sufferer Elisabeth. But Pomm’s reality is that at the same time she looks after her patient, she is always thinking of her three children, who live many hours away. I recently spoke over the phone with the film’s director Kirstof Bilsen, about the themes of the film, and how he came to make a film set so far from his native Belgium.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me a bit about its origins?
Kristof Bilsen: I am always looking for stories that are micro but work on a macro level too. So far I focus on people stuck in a certain reality. In Elephant’s Dream it was people in a post colonial situation, and public sectors workers stuck in a job which didn’t exist. With this film it was to do with my mother; it was very personal. She was suffering a combination of dementia, though not literally Alzheimer’s, for quite a lot of time. We lost her this spring. She was going downhill for many years. Eventually we felt there was a point of no return coming: what would be the best for Mom? Would it be informal care at home? An old-people’s home, care centre? If so what would then be the consequences?
So yes, I threw myself into researching various approaches to elderly care and one of them was thinking “beyond” borders. In my research I found out about this place in Northern Thailand, where only 14 patients get 24/7 care by means of 3 caregivers per patient who do a rota. We initially went there for a two week research trip, where I made a seven minute short, which was really a portrait of place. But while researching and shooting that short I found and fell in love with Pomm. I mainly fell in love with her and Elisabeth because I mainly saw a grandmother and a child rather than a Thai woman and a patient, or a ‘guest’ as they call them. That for me was revelatory as I thought ‘that could be a story’. She could be a character. Without really knowing her back story, it was just the dynamic and bond that struck me as a good way into the story.
CN: Did you know going in that you would focus so much on Pomm and what’s it like to be a mother away from her children?
KB: What I prefer most in making documentary is to trust the process. A story leads you where you need to be. In the case of Pomm that was really key to the film. Pomm quite soon started talking about her children, started talking about what she had to cope with as a single mother. And sort of almost gently diverted me to this is actually the story that we are telling. To really be humble to the process.
CN: We also follow the story of Maya, who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s, and is being moved by her family to Thailand. How did you begin to incorporate Maya’s storyline?
The Alzheimer’s patients are at a certain stage quite down the line. You are limited to what you can film..How much can you empathise? The urge for me was to ideally follow a patient coming from Europe or specifically from Switzerland. It was serendipity because we were gently warned ‘well if want to film a patient, just be aware that it is a very stressful time’. It’s very problematic for a family to allow someone to film like that. They are stigmatised, get a lot of judgements from people in the West, you could say the Christian guilt thing – how do you dare to outsource someone all the way out to Thailand? And then suddenly there was this email coming from the man running the centre, who said ‘well actually you might be lucky, there is this family who will have their wife/mother – Maya – going there. And they are happy to meet you in theory’. So I went to Zurich and met them. Fortunately I had the 7 minute short I could show them, so they at least had a flavour of what I was up to. Plus I was very upfront about my own messy situation – we have our mother, and we are struggling and it’s huge taboo when it’s no longer home care. It was just being very up front and honest with them, and they were like let’s go on the journey together.
CN: How do you go about getting access to patients with dementia who can’t give informed consent?
KB: Well it was quite straightforward, being very transparent and common sense. That is my responsibility as a filmmaker in terms of representation. But then also for the organisation themselves, they had in the past a bit of media attention, specifically in Germany and Switzerland, and some radio pieces here and there, so they know what media can and cannot do. They were themselves quite confident in terms of the situation. But in terms of the patients it was always just a matter of being very clear to the family members – we are filming your beloved mother for example, in the case of Elisabeth – are you okay with us filming – and they would write informed consent.
CN: Did Maya notice your presence at all?
She did. But it was always a mystery how much. It’s interesting because what filming does and what editing does is you really empathise with them – with Maya in the film. Sometimes I feel that it might make them seem more conscious than they are, in the film, on the filmic frame, than in reality.
CN: Do you mean it makes it look like there is more cognitively going on than there is?
Yes, yes. Just because we do the drama shots – you see them leaving and the reactions of Maya. It’s all true but there is at the same time the deep mystery of how conscious are Alzheimer’s patients. How aware are they of the dynamics? I don’t mind that it adds to the empathy. We would also partake in giving care, that was part of the filming process.
CN: How long did it take you to film this?
KB: For me it’s really important that I take my time, that it’s a mixture of poetical and observational but also that the characters get the agency they deserve…So I think I really needed time to tell the story properly – you can’t do it in half a year. Filming technically started in fall 2016 and ended spring 2018. And then there was an editing process of four months. In total we did three trips. It’s not like there’s an incredibly amount of rushes – it felt quite sane. We shot about 50-60 hours, which allowed us to really be with them and be with Pomm, and be with her.
CN: What is your ideal care scenario?
KB: Ideally there really would be a world where there is space and time to give care. So if you give home care you would be supported by nurses that you know and that are affordable and you can really be a team. And you still keep a certain sense of privacy of your family, but you are also are a community. That is an ideal scenario – not an exhaustion route for the beloved partner or children to give care and not be able to talk about it.
CN: What are you hoping people will take away from the film?
KB: I would say a sense of empathy, open to discussion, to see that it’s not something that you need to hide away from – it’s just the continuum of life. We’re also expecting a little one, a little daughter in February. We are going to childcare places and I’m seeing children and toddlers. And the image of someone being so dependent is an image very familiar to me when I see people with dementia or Alzheimers, or more specfically my mother in the weeks before she passed away, that I still had the honour to feed her. For a lot of people that is unimaginable – feeding your parents? Now for me that taboo is gone – I am familiar with that concept. I would like for people to be much more open and kind to the continuum of life.
Mother is playing this week at Bertha Dochouse and JW3 Finchley in October. See Mother website for trailer and full list of screenings.
Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer?
I have been making films for about 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families).
The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices.
Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in.
How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples?
I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.
I would say that I’m a director’s producer – I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out.
For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well.
How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed?
I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work.
The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier.
I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?
Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today.
What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?
There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you.
My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why?
I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world.
A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent.
How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?
Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end?
At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.
On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.
How do you think the industry will change in the next few years?
I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table.
I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy.
I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing?
I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone.
Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today.
I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.
I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed.That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.
You can learn more about Elhum’s work on www.hakawati.co.uk. Shubbak’s film programme runs 3-7th July at Barbican – for more info about the line up, and the whole festival, see https://shubbak.co.uk
Filmmaker and single mum Victoria Mapplebeck was nearing completion of her BAFTA-winning film Missed Call, when a routine mammogram revealed she had breast cancer. Naturally, she began filming, using her smartphone to chronicle life after the diagnosis, as she undergoes chemo and months of uncertainty, living alongside her teenage son Jim. Her short film The Waiting Room has just launched on the Guardian website. A VR project with the same title will premier in the autumn. Together they lay bare the reality of living through a cancer diagnosis and treatment in sometimes shockingly intimate detail.
My interview with Victoria has been condensed for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: How did you have the wherewhithal to start filming so early on in your diagnosis?
Victoria Mapplebeck: It helped that I had done two smartphone shorts (Missed Call, and its predecessor 160 Characters). I had been filming with Missed Call relatively recently, so I was in the habit of continually filming with my iPhone X; I would have found it a much bigger leap if I hadn’t made a film for a few years. I think I also knew from Missed Call that there’s something about scrutinizing the hell out of difficult stuff that I find helps. It maybe doesn’t help everybody but it helps me. It’s almost like it brings emotional dramas into closeup and puts it at a distance at the same time.
CN: You seemed to cope well with difficult news. Is one part of your mind always being the director even when a doctor is telling you it has spread to your lymph nodes?
VM: Yes, I remember coming out of that session with my oncologist and it being difficult to hear – because when it becomes lymph positive it means you are in the firing line for chemo, particularly since mine was a grade III. I knew as he was telling me this. I was hearing this at one level – in the VR piece you can hear my anxiety. So you have almost this dual experience – feeling it as a patient as he is telling me, but also knowing that it is film gold in the language he is using. This is a classic filmmaker moment: feeling the personal and very real impact of a cancer diagnosis , but also knowing that the way it has been delivered to you, will make for a really strong sequence. I remember coming out from that appointment and realising that I couldn’t find the audio recording. I had done it on one of those voice memo apps and it wasn’t showing up. And it was one of those things where it had gone into the cloud and had taken a while to show in the phone app. And I sat in the waiting room weeping because I thought I had lost the audio. Rather than weeping because, bloody hell, it was bad news and I was going to have to do chemo (laughing). You know you are a filmmaker when you’re more upset by losing the material than hearing that you have to do chemo!
CN: You looked very alone. You talk to people on the phone but we don’t see anyone other than your son Jim. Were you as alone as you appear to be?
VM: I decided I was going to do all of the consultations on my own. My mum and friends would happily have come with me. But I think it’s quite hard to have somebody there with you. Having support from friends and family can really help at times but dealing with their worries and emotions can also add to the stress of the experience. And the funny thing was – it sounds sentimental to say the camera was a companion – but the distraction of filming seemed to help. If I had people with me I don’t think I would have filmed as much.
I sat in the waiting room weeping because I thought I had lost the audio…You know you are a filmmaker when you’re more upset by losing the material than hearing that you have to do chemotherapy.
I remember people saying ‘oh you’re so brave to film it’. But I knew if I was really low, I didn’t have the energy to film and I would feel worse. I think people are also often surprised by how much a gallows sense of humour helps you get through some of the toughest parts of treatment. I remember the first day – because I really did suffer with the sickness. It’s like dealing with your worst hangover times 100. You sort of feel it coming on and then I was vomiting for hours. I texted my closest friend Glen – who you hear in the film on various voicemails – he was really supportive throughout. I texted him ‘oh it’s started, I’ve started vomiting’ . He texted back, ‘are you filming it?’ and I said ‘yes of course!’
CN: Can you describe your different ambitions for the film vs the VR project?
VM: The film is much more about the fallout of cancer in the domestic space in terms of myself and Jim and family life. Particularly the kind of impact it had in terms of my relationship with Jim and what it must have been like as a young person dealing with that. The VR piece touches on that a bit – I use the audio conversations with Jim for that as well – but the VR piece is a lot more about cancer in the clinical setting. The conversation with the consultants feature more. I use the medical imaging in both films but I don’t think they work anything like as powerfully in 2D as 3D.
CN: What’s it like seeing yourself having a mammogram?
VM: I did actually go with the shot which gave me slightly more privacy because it was one from behind! Trust me there was one that just left nothing to be imagined. I think I thought to myself you know, pretty much all women are having these post 50. Everybody complains about them and hates them. Menopause is affecting 50% of the population and yet we don’t feel able to talk about it. And that’s something that hits breast cancer women. If they’re not menopausal – which I wasn’t – you get this chemically induced menopause which is much more severe. If I make a longer version of the film I think I definitely want to include the challenges women living with breast cancer face once they’ve completed their first stage of treatment and attempt to get back to normal. Health-wise you never are really what you were before you were diagnosed. And I think there’s an expectation that you will be, and that you will just go through all these big treatments and get through it and then everything will be as it was. And it isn’t really like that, life is never quite as it was before. Breast cancer hugely changes your identity, but I don’t want to be completely defined by it. Scrutinising my experience of cancer in such forensic detail has been liberating in some ways but I’m now ready to move on to new challenges. I don’t feel like a ‘cancer survivor’ or a ‘warrior’ or very brave … I’m just very glad to be on the other side of it when so many people don’t make it that far. We will all encounter illness and death at some point in our lives, and yet we struggle to find the language to deal with it. My film begins with a very personal journey but as cancer affects one in two of us over the course of a lifetime, I really hope that it might be useful for anyone whose lives have been touched by cancer.