Interview with Uk film director Si Wall-Part Two

Here’s the second part of the interview I did with Si Wall, here he talks about Drinking Chocolate, his film about two homeless people the middle-aged Johnny and teenage runaway Lola and the unlikely friendship they form. He also talks about developing the Caitlin McCarthy scripted Resistance, a period drama about Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, his love of the films of Suzanne Bier and the state of the British film industry.

You’re currently developing Resistance, how’s that coming along?

It’s my passion project really, I know you should be equally passionate about everything. But I mean I’ve written my Oscar acceptance speech [laughs]. But at the time that I got it I was getting about 3 or 4 scripts a week and some were quite good but not for me, some were going to be heavily reliant n some special effects and that’s not what I’m about. And this actually sat in my inbox for quite a while it was called ‘Vera’ at the time and it just didn’t inspire me to read it, it’s  a little old ladies’ name you know. And after a while I opened it and printed it out and read it and I physically, I know everyone says it, but I physically couldn’t put it down and right at the end it just made me cry and then I put it down had a cup of coffee and read it again straight away. I was really inspired by the script but then you realise that it’s fact based, it’s not just a piece of drama. What I’m reading about is actually the early part of someone’s life  and it’d be really easy to say it’s a World War II drama which it is. But it’s actually a story about this woman’s [Vera Laska] courage and her refusal to die, she refused to be a statistic, she refused to be just another number in Auschwitz, and at that age 15-21. She  survived World War II through her strength of character it’s not through circumstance because a high percentage of people who went to Auschwitz didn’t come out. She just refused to accept that. It goes back to her character and she sums that up because in the rest of her life she’s dedicated to teaching others, to writing books and to fighting for human rights. She was a strong human being and my only regret is that I’ll never get to meet her because she died in 2005 and I just want this story we’re going to do to do her justice, because it’s this woman’s life.

Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, the subject of Resistance.

How did you get Caitlin McCarthy’s script?

I got a script in my inbox called Free Skate and I liked it but it wasn’t for me and out of politeness I asked for another script, because she’s written some of the best stuff I’ve read in the last 18 months and everything she’s written wins awards it’s that simple. That’s when I got Vera as it was then called. I’ve got so much respect for the woman because I know how hard it is and it’s ever since reading Caitlin’s work that I don’t call myself a writer now because Caitlin is a great script writer and I write stuff now and again, that’s the difference. As a screenwriter she’s destined for great things so I’m really lucky to be associated with her on Resistance.

What do you think are the challenges of directing a period piece?

I have to go back to Suzanne Biers, in Denmark they have the Dogme school of thinking where they do away with lighting, make-up and wardrobe and it’s all very stripped down and as real as you can get. And her key word is accuracy and I think to do a period piece you have to put your mind into 1939 Czechoslovakia and male it accurate that’s the only way it works. Because for me we could make the most beautiful film in the world and if I hear someone coming out of the theatre and saying ‘oh what a great film, but the buttons on the uniform are wrong’ that would just cripple me, it really would. Because it’s a detail that could’ve been accurate.

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Interview with Andrew Thompson, co-director of award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African

Andrew Thompson with his partner and co-director Lucy Bailey

Andrew Thompson is co-director alongside partner Lucy Bailey of Mugabe and The White African, the only documentary made inside Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe passed a total press ban (which is only now starting to be lifted). The documentary, nominated for a BAFTA and winner of the British Independent Film Awards, was filmed covertly on and off for 12 months under dangerous conditions. It tells the story of one white farmer Mike Campbell and his family’s attempts to legally challenge Mugabe’s racist land reforms, which aim to take away land from the white farmers and re-distribute it to poor black people, but which actually give the land to Mugabe’s supporters. Here Andrew Thompson talks about the challenges of filming in Zimbabwe, the absurdity of Mugabe’s land reforms, the importance of the film in raising awareness, the determination of the Campbell family and why he loves documentaries amongst other things.  

What brought you to make a film in Zimbabwe and were the issues there something you were always fully aware of?   

We were aware of the situation in Zimbabwe obviously from press reports and things we’d seen in the news and Lucy Bailey had spent a lot of time filming in Africa. And we were actually filming in Beitbridge in South Africa, which is the main land bridge between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and we saw hundreds and hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees trying to get over the border to South Africa. It was really at that point that we thought there is surely a story to be told somewhere about the catastrophe happening inside Zimbabwe. So we were aware of the story, but as filmmakers you’re looking for a way in, you’re looking for a way of telling that story. And it was in talking to friends in South Africa that we heard about the extraordinary case of one white farmer, Mike Campbell, challenging Robert Mugabe in an international court. So Lucy and I looked at one another and said ‘that’s our story, that’s it, that’s the way we’ll be able to tell the much wider story of what’s going on in Zimbabwe.’ It’s a  very raw, very intimate, very personal story of one man challenging the President in an international court. So ourselves, we’re not South African, we’re not Zimbabwean and we have no connections in those countries. It’s just an interesting story and an important story to tell as well.  

Do you think the story is something that people are generally unaware about or only know small details about ?  

Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean I think, certainly around election time, Zimbabwe gets a lot of press. But I think as a filmmaker who wants to make a theatrical film you need a lot more than just shots of destitute black farm workers or white farmers having their farm disputed. You need a story and what was great about the court case is that it gave us a natural backbone through which to tell the story. Lucy and I very much come from a background of Comic Relief appeal films and in those films you’re often telling quite difficult complex stories. Films about child prostitution  or malaria or infant mortality, you’re telling really quite heavy stories and you’ve only got three minutes to tell them. Our challenge as filmmakers was can we sustain the emotional intensity of a three minute appeal film over a 90 minute feature film. And we do that in Comic Relief by getting an audience to identify with one or two characters and really care about those individuals. That’s the way we like to tell our stories. So in a Comic Relief film through one or two characters they get to learn about the wider issues and that’s the way we approached this film. Through Mike Campbell you get to learn a much wider story, the complexities of the land reform issue and what’s going on inside Zimbabwe.  

I think with news reports it’s also easy to distance yourself from the issues so it’s more interesting to have someone to relate to in your film.  

I think so, I think an audience watches the film an identifies with the film at a  very human level. It’s the emotions which go through an audience with the family. Now if you’re watching  a news report  there’s not enough time to get to know the characters  or to understand what drives those characters. I think what our film does is it engages an audience that perhaps doesn’t even know where Zimbabwe is on a map and doesn’t know anything about the political situation. It’s a film that’s been very successful in bringing a much wider audience to the situation inside Zimbabwe.  

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