Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Tale of Two Roads

A Northeast Coast Town. That's what they called Hull during the Second World War when they reported the heavy damage it suffered under the Blitz. They didn't want to name it directly, in case the enemy was listening. Few people in Britain outside of Hull knew what they were referring to.

But it stayed standing. It didn't surrender or lay down and die. Today, the city routinely comes bottom of the list: worst schools in the UK, worst quality of life and prospects, highest unemployment. It was once a town rich on fishing and whaling money.

But Hull surprises me. People don't look at me with suspicion. That's what I expected. That was my own prejudice, I'm ashamed to say. Two minutes of conversation and they have all the time in the world for me, two more minutes and they're telling me their life stories.

Malcolm now works at a school for pregnant teenage girls. It was once the School for Fishermen, teaching boys how to work on trawlers in the North Sea. Malcolm, too, used to work in the fishing industry as a carpenter, repairing the ice boxes in deep-sea trawlers, but when the industry collapsed in 1974, he was made redundant. It was only coincidence that he found a job as a caretaker for what used to be the School for Fishermen.

I ask if he misses working on the docks. "Strange as it sounds, yes. I even took a pay cut to keep working there. It was hard work but it kept you fit." Today there's almost no fishing out of the West Hull docks, just a few fish packing warehouses. The docks have been filled in and converted into megastores and shopping centres.

In Purdy's fish warehouse, Dave is filleting the day's catch. He tells me he started working on the docks when he was only 15, and he's been working with fish ever since. I ask if he ever worked on a trawler, "No, it's a different breed of person who can work on a trawler." Out to sea for weeks, sailing as far as Iceland. Ash laughs when I tell him I'm going to East Hull next. "When you go to the East, all you'll be photographing is rats!"

I think of Tarfiyyah, where I photographed fishermen on the border of Western Sahara in 2003. And Newlyn, where I shot a short film about the imminent demise of the largest fishing port in the UK, and I wonder what it is that keeps drawing me back to fishing towns. There is something romantic (naive, I admit) about that close connection to the sea. And the fishermen, risking their lives every time they go to work. There's something inherently dramatic about their stories, something that shakes me out of the safety of my every day life.

Sarah and I visit a working man's club. We stare at a group of around ten men, watching horse racing on the television, drinking pints and exchanging jokes with each other. We don't know how to approach them, what do you say? "Can I photograph you, please? Can you tell me about the East/Wet divide in your city?" How do you start to approach someone like that, someone you have nothing in common with? How do you ask them without reducing them to representations and stereotypes?

But minutes after our awkward introductions and they are as intrigued as we are. They exchange banter with us, one man invites Sarah to sit on his knee. They each have their own stories and memories. One man, who must be in his late eighties, tells me about fighting in World War II. "Are you Sheikh Mohammad?" he jokes, pointing to my beard. "You'd have a lot of money if you were." The man sitting across from him leans over and says to me "You'll have to speak louder, he's nearly as old as god!" And he repeats the joke several times throughout the conversation. "He's nearly as old as god!"

And, of course, everyone talks about sports. The competing rugby teams from East and West Hull. They say when Hull FC played at Wembley in the Challenge Cup Final in 2008, the city was emptied as everyone made their way to London to watch the match. And when Hull's football team was promoted to the Premiership, it genuinely boosted the confidence of a city that had been dragged through the mud and humiliated for decades. I've always thought of football and Rugby as childish distractions. I have little time for England's obsession with the sports. But here, in Hull, it means something else. It's a chance for a city - a city that once had great pride and strength - to say "look, I'm worth something. Don't forget it." You have one chance to restore your own sense of self-worth. That's something I have respect for. Old women cried when Hull went to Wembley, and everyone swore it was a day they would never forget.


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The First Two And A Half Kilometres

I just returned from my first run in a long time. My first run to fulfill my pledge to start running again, as part of the development of The Runner. I need to understand how the subject, Salah, feels. I need to understand what it does to your body, your lungs, your throat, your mind as you compete in long distances. I decided to start with a modest 2.5km, a short distance, something I could complete without much training.

I'm wearing the same running clothes I've been wearing for years. My shoes are still filled with sand from filming in the Algerian Sahara with Salah, in February. Fine, red sand, smooth, not scratchy. I still haven't been able to get it all out of my shoes, it fills the fine mesh on top made for air circulation. There are patches of light red sand on my bedroom floor now, but at least it provides some continuity to this endeavor. It links my run today with the Algerian Sahara where this all began.

As I'm running, I try to concentrate on the pavement, the three steps in front of me. I concentrate on the rhythm of my breathing more than anything else. You can train your legs quite easily, I find, but training your lungs is the real challenge. My legs aren't so bad, I suppose riding my bike everywhere helps keep them in shape. But my lungs haven't had to make this much effort in a long time. I think the last time I ran was around 5 months ago, and even that was only 2km. That was the distance from my front door, up Green Lanes and around the corner from my old house. Now, if I'm going for endurance, a 2km training run is useless.

My legs can take the repetition, but my throat is starting to burn and my lungs are straining, even over this short distance. My sweat pants are far too thick for this hot weather, but I stopped wearing my running shorts years ago when I decided they were really too short. Dom made fun of them once, years ago, when I told him I was going for a run. "In the 1960's?" he asked. Then I decided the shorts were too short, and now I only run in my sweat pants. But I think I need to buy a new pair of (longer) shorts.

I want to know what it feels like to win, again. I fenced competitively for years, and I was good enough to win, but my last bout was around 2004 (was it really so long ago?) I'd like to know that feeling again, the stress, drama and adrenaline of competition. The thrill of winning. The pain of losing. My ideal is to develop my running well enough to do a few races seriously, at least feel that competition again. But it all depends on how well my knee can handle the training.

As I'm running, the warm sun on my face, I remember training in Morocco in 2003. I was training for the Marrakesh marathon. I asked a friend to bring me proper running gear and a pedometer when she came to visit Morocco, and I was taking it seriously. I asked two of my clients, tourists who I had taken on a tour, to draw up a training regime for me. They had completed many marathons and talked me through it. At one point I was up to a maximum daily run of 15km. One morning in Essaouirra (I had to train while I was still leading tours, so I was in a different city every day), I was up to 12km when my knee suddenly gave way. I had to take a taxi back to my hotel. I could barely walk for six days. Weeks later I received an email saying I was registered for the Marrakesh marathon, but I had already quit. I still couldn't walk without feeling pain. I nearly cried with disappointment reading the email. I was angry at my body for letting me down, and mad at myself for not training properly and more carefully.  More than seven years later, and my knee is still not back to normal. 



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Sunday, 25 July 2010

StoryDoc - slices of interior monologue & exterior dialogue

Salah is a national hero. He is a reluctant symbol. Symbol. "That's what we call our martyrs," he says.

In my development team is Panagiotis, a Greek animator, and Mohammad, a filmmaker and television journalist from Gaza. Mohammad tells the heartbreaking story of his sister getting married, alone. She had only her husband there, no members of her family could get permission to attend her wedding in Jenin. "She was crying the whole time," he says. In his film, Waiting For You, he will try to bring them all together in the same frame, even if he has to use special effects.

How can you reduce the entirety of your film to one sentence, like a news headline? ("One man running to retrieve his country," Peter suggests) Retrieve? It sounds like someone has lost their country, forgotten it in a cafe or lost it down the back of the sofa. Now they have to retrieve it.

The tutors react well to the character of Salah. They like to look into his eyes. They remark on the intensity there.

He has nowhere to be, so he has to keep running. What is he running from? What is he running to?

I have to be secure about the content, about what kind of film this is. I feel I'm still shooting this like a news documentary, but it isn't a news documentary. (Back in London, weeks later, James says the same thing. "What's your personal style? I don't see it here...")

Is he denying his own life for the sake of the cause? What drives him, is it faith or certainty? These are two ends of the spectrum (faith is the will to believe even if it's impossible)

"Tell his story as a reflection of the history of Western Sahara"

Inside my head: What is the one thing? What is the big idea? Is there one big idea, or is it not that kind of film? But, whatever I decide, everyone asks for the one big thing...

(on the way in the elevator to the beach, I think of two things. 1) how bizarre that I'm taking an elevator down to a beach, and 2) how Nico said to me, in the same elevator and without hesitation, "that's why Tarkovsy could never have been Greek." No mysticism, he says. "But I knew if I discussed it with you, you would understand," he says.

Irena refers to Salah as a "Lone Ranger." Eva refers to him as a saint. Is he either of these? I think of him only as a reluctant hero. Irena suggests perhaps he is running to prove his country exists. I'm not sure I enjoy psychoanalysing Salah without him present. (Forgive me, Salah, if we overdo it. This is what the people want...) Irena also remarks "this project requires a lot of energy and patience." Yes, I agree. Like long-distance running. I expect making this film to be as exhausting, as demanding, as trying on my patience and stamina. Later, Panagiotis and Costas, both competitive long-distance runners themselves, say I don't know enough about the sport. Emma agrees. I need to become absorbed in that world. I need to make that mindset my own. I never considered this. A runner is a runner, I thought. But no, Panagiotis explains the "dead zone", about three quarters of the way through a race, when your body is telling you "enough! You must stop! I cannot go on! I was not made for this!" But your mind disagrees. It says "No. Keep going. You must win..." How can I understand the dead zone if I don't understand running?

Then it becomes clear to me. I must start running again. I must understand the stamina and perseverance required.

Iike, in his talk, declares "we are prisoners of the fiction film in documentary," and I cannot disagree. Every time I type his name, I'm struck by the fact that it looks simply as though I've typed "like", as in "to appreciate, admire, have a liking for." But it is, in fact, I (capital "I") i (lowercase "i") k - e. This must frustrate him when he types his own name."We lack a conceptual approach to documentary," he goes on "even though we are immersed in documentary subculture." It is as I've often observed: most filmmakers are more interested in the industry than in the craft of storytelling. Go to any networking event, and the conversation is dominated not by talk of film, but of who now works for which broadcaster, which commissioning editor now heads which strand, which funds are now easy or difficult to get. Spinning the wheels without achieving distance.

"The mysticism of filmmaking is gone" Iike says. He means we no longer gaze in wonder at the camera because we all know how it works. I would also say, the mysticism is gone because filmmakers see it as a formula. Add a number of factors, like camera technology, location, character, sound, money, and after the equals sign, you have a film. But where is the "something else". Where is the unquantifiable factor, that is, the filmmaker herself? Weeks later, I tell my students "The directors that influence you, that you admire, they are not good filmmakers because they know how to use a camera, or how to light a scene, or how to direct an actor. They are good directors because of who they are, because they dedicate their lives to understanding this craft."  In all this talk of technology, story, and narrative drive, we forget about the craft.

More wisdom from Iike:  "Respect the story. The person in the film is a subject, respect their story. The story is their heart."

And finally, most prescient, "What is worth living for when the life described by the media has no space for me?"

Ghada tells me she wants to hear the sound of Salah running in the opening scenes to my teaser. At the moment, the scenes have no ambient sound. He is running silently. Running without sound is distancing, alienating, she says. Do I want the audience to feel distant? At this point, maybe...

Mikael identifies the heart of the story like this: "Salah took a decision with irreversible consequences, the narrative has to come out of this." I agree. And George sees further. "What is the existential question in the film?" he asks. Later, he uses a word that I will steal from him, "What is Salah's hesitation? At what point does he ask himself if he has done the right thing? At what point does he question himself? At what point does he doubt?" I wonder the same thing. I will ask Salah, "what are your doubts? Where is your hesitation?"

Why the need for a country? The Sahrawi were, after all, nomads...
Sacrifice? Faith? Heroism? Risk? It is a cycle, the more famous and successful Salah becomes, the more he is putting himself and his family at risk.












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Saturday, 24 July 2010

It's Enough To Make You Believe in Conspiracies

Doing preliminary research for an investigation in Israel, I was sitting in the Wellcome Trust Cafe with two other colleagues. We are looking through our notes, discussing the structure this film will take, comparing ideas, characters, concepts, leads. A man walks directly to our table, it looks like he's just walked into the cafe, and stares intently at our notes. He's craning his neck so obviously that two of us laugh at how blatant he is. He makes no attempt to hide his staring. He then sits at the table right next to us, opens his lap top and starts a loud conversation on his phone.

"I was in a Palestinian refugee camp a year ago," he's saying into the phone. "My friend is a doctor, he was there delivering a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his skin back!" He starts repeating the same line over and over again. It begins to seem like he's having this conversation for our benefit, but we're trying to ignore him, carrying on with our work.

He has the conversation again. Louder.
"I was in a Palestinian refugee camp a year ago. My friend is a doctor, he was there delivering a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his skin back!"

The same conversation. Maybe he's not getting the response he wants from us. After a few minutes of this, he leans over to our table and yells,
"What about the British government, investing £7million in Darfur, where up to a million women have been raped! Why aren't you doing anything about that?"

I can't tell if it's a rhetorical question, or if he actually expects an answer. Often, when I'm working on a film, people yell ideas at me. "Why don't you do a film about this!" But they usually mean it as a passionate suggestion, rather than an accusation. This was starting to sound like an accusation.

The man is starting to sound unstable. He's not having a normal conversation, but he's stuck repeating the same story.

"I'm Jewish, a Jewish friend of mine - a doctor - went into a Palestinian refugee camps a year ago to deliver a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his burned skin back!"

"I'm sorry to hear that," I reply.

"No you're not."

Now I know he's not just giving us a suggestion for another film.
He goes on:

"There have been 15 UN resolutions, 14 of them against Israel! Why are you only concentrating on Israel! What about everything going on in Darfur, you people are doing nothing about it!"

Earlier, I was calm. It was slightly amusing. Now I'm starting to lose my temper. Empty accusations. Questioning my morality. It's not something I take lightly. I ask what makes him think he has any business listening to our conversation and getting involved. I ask who he thinks he is morally judging us without knowing anything about us.

"You know nothing about me, or where I'm coming from or what I'm doing." I tell him.
"I don't care. You're an anti-Semite! You're all anti-Semites!" he points to my colleagues at the table with me.

I have to roll my eyes back and look up to heaven in disbelief that he would make the anti-Semite comment less than one minute into our argument. He is revealing himself as a lunatic. We're both yelling loud enough now to get the attention of other people in the cafe.

"I'd be more than happy to have this conversation once you've seen my film" I offer "but at this point you have no idea who I am to start calling me an anti-Semite."

"You're either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew." He replies. "I'm a liberal Jew and I'm also a filmmaker and me and my friend went into a Palestinian refugee camp one year ago and my friend was burned to death," he starts telling the story again.

Security arrives. The man at the nest table starts to get nervous. Security asks what's going on. I tell him the man - out of nowhere - is accusing me of racism. Security asks us both to calm down. The man now starts to get nervous, saying "It's ok. It's ok," but I'm too angry at this point to let it go.

"It's not ok," I reply. "You're accusing me of being an anti-Semite and you know nothing about me. I'm not ok with that." Security gets in between now, urging us again to be calm and pointing out that other people in the cafe are getting nervous.

The man tells his story again, about his friend the doctor getting burned alive.

I can feel, welling up inside me, real anger. The only way I can calm myself down is to end the conversation now. As we move to another table, he says again "anti-Semite". He strokes his gray beard, adjusts his glasses. I know the best thing to do is move to another table, it's the only way to diffuse the rage inside me.

Security comes to our new table, and says thank you for being more reasonable than the other man. There's obviously something wrong with him, he says, and you guys seem to be the more responsible party. My job is to make sure everyone in the cafe feels safe.

But there are still some unanswered questions. I have to wonder how he knew, as soon as he walked in, that we were talking about Palestine and Israel. Why did he decide to sit right beside our table and have what now seems to have been a fake phone conversation, several times over, about his friend the doctor? Why would he accuse us of anti-Semitism immediately? Who was he? Does he know what we're working on? It's enough to make you believe in conspiracies...

Monday, 12 July 2010

Flight to Corfu - (what is the film about...)

In Greece for the StoryDoc documentary development workshop. I need an answer to this question - what is the film about? Other simple questions that have no answers. What happens in the film? Why should we care? What's new about it? Is it not enough to care about the life of one man?

The Runner is about resilience. The relentless pursuit of a dream, a goal, a height of achievement despite the circumstances so strongly against you. It is about this dream as a cure for the perpetual emptiness of statelessness. I approach my own statelessness through film - this can define my personal narrative and the identity that even I don't fully know. Salah approaches his statelessness through running. For that brief moment, when crowds cheer for him, when they wave the flag, he is a national hero. The hero of nation that doesn't exist. But this doesn't erase the pain of statelessness, so he must keep running. 

Myth. Is myth the same as legend? Perhaps the word in Arabic, stura, means both.

The film is not a political story, or the suffering of a victim. These are only elements, vocabulary of the film. It is about this man's relationship to the land around him, his status as someone in exile. With no state, no citizenship. What better way to chase what is missing than by endlessly running? What better way to defy the borders of the occupier? Defiance. Saying I will represent myself as I choose, not as you want me to be. But he's not running away. He's not running towards. He's just running.

(My notes from Edinburgh: The pitch needs more character. It was too dry, too official, too precise. This film is emotional. Intuitive. Personal)

I need to spend some time with him, now, to create that connection and overcome any lasting rhetoric. I don't want rhetoric. We no longer have any need for the rhetorical. I need to stick my neck out more, this time.


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