As a new decade begins the term ‘The Roaring 20s’ rings hollow in the cold, sober dawn of a Tory government, climate catastrophe and ongoing Brexit chaos. To write about film, any film seems trivial when compared with the privations visited on so many, like choosing curtains for a condemned house.
In this, my 50th post, I’m closing the book on “Voyageuse”. In October 2014 I began this blog to document my progress on what was a purely speculative project not knowing if I would make a film let alone get it shown. In the passing years and in my better moments I’ve experienced joy in my task, knowing that to make a film is more rewarding than spending years patching together small pieces of finance, struggling to hang on to a cast and crew and still not get it made. That I made it almost single-handedly is beyond most people’s comprehension.
Last year I described what – or rather, what didn’t – happen after the film won the BIFA Discovery Award in 2018. At the time I wrote how I hoped V. might be selected for Screenplay, the Shetland Film Festival. It wasn’t. I wrote too of other possibilities, of getting V. shown in cinemas, on the VOD platform, MUBI and on BBC Scotland, all of which came to nothing. After a year of being stonewalled – standard operating procedure in this game – I simply lost the will to chase anyone who could help make V. visible.
Where some might see this as disappointing, I don’t. In fact, I couldn’t be more pleased with the response from the people who took the time to watch and comment on it. Or those who helped me along the way. Indeed, what would have been disappointing would be a movie made at great expense with high expectations heaped on it but which was widely ridiculed and did zero business to boot. Go ask the nine producers of the reputed $95m budget stiff, “Cats.”
Had “Voyageuse” been picked up for festivals, a theatrical release or a streaming platform, things would not have been much different. Each film has its natural span; screenings, Q&As and other promotional work can last from a week or two to a couple of years. VOD can attract attention for a limited time but in truth most films lie buried in the listings. What it doesn’t do is reward the makers. I witnessed the CEO of a well-known platform telling a group of hopefuls how $800-1000 was a typical fee although it very much depends on the filmmaker’s profile. In the longer term, however, and with the right type of archiving it’s reassuring to know that films can sit happily on a shelf until they’re ‘discovered’.
An accident last July (see my Elemental blog) has afforded me the luxury of time to take stock. Among my thoughts: while making “Voyageuse” did I discard something that should have been included? The first draft screenplay was so dense that to edit it to a manageable length (i.e. in half) was painful but necessary.
There’s one obvious episode of Erica’s story I skimmed over; her Hungarian Jewish family’s departure from Romania to England. While clearing her house, among her possessions I found a document – a telegram addressed to her mother, Vera from the Magyar Red Cross. It concerned her parents, sister and nephew – the Goldschmieds – who were taken from their village in Sarvar to Bergen Belsen via Budapest. Many decades later, Belsen is a place name that people of a certain age still find chilling, having been raised on films and TV documentaries about the Holocaust.
Fortunately the Goldschmieds were liberated in 1944. They travelled first to Zurich and later sailed to Bridgeport, Connecticut in the United States. Legend has it that after his wife died, for years Jozef Goldschmied lived in New York City at Essex House, overlooking Central Park. How they obtained the money to resettle in some measure of comfort remains the subject of rumour, involving the illicit movement of funds and secret stocks and shares.
In early drafts I decided “Voyageuse” was not a Holocaust survival story because Erica was largely unaffected. To suggest she was a victim would have been disingenuous. Indeed, not only did her family, the Eisners arrive in England, they brought with them a full suite of furnishings, a huge Afghani rug and a batterie de cuisine that sits in my kitchen cupboard to this day. Like the Goldschmieds’, their story went unexplained, how Bob and Vera arrived with more money than the law allowed.
During the 1930s England was hardly the land of milk and honey but nor was it as hellish as George Orwell depicted in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ (1937), published a year or so after his dyspeptic novel, ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ (1936). For the sake of good, tabloid copy – who knows? – the author amped up the filth and dereliction of his environment, swapping clean and perfectly serviceable rooms in Wigan for more squalid digs, perhaps to impress his publisher, Victor Gollancz, a man of German/Polish Jewish descent who gave Eric Blair the name Orwell in order to mask the shame of an embittered Old Etonian on his uppers.
Elsewhere, in Ripiceni, in rural Romania, another man of Jewish descent albeit Austrian, Erica’s father, Bob had his work permit revoked and consequently was no longer the manager of a sugar refinery. But Bob was no slouch. Highly intelligent, he was self-made, well-travelled and entirely cognisant of what was about to occur in Mitteleuropa. Among the documents in my possession is a letter and CV written by him in perfect English in which he apologises for his less-than-perfect English. It is addressed to Fletcher’s, a Derby-based engineering firm.
Sailing from Danzig to Hull in 1938, no sooner did Bob Eisner disembark than he took up his employment at Fletcher’s and, unlike Orwell, bought a newly-built suburban villa and a car. The Eisners also had a telephone installed, a rarity at that time. By comparison it took my late father – also an engineer by profession – until the 21st century to buy his heavily-discounted council flat and, having never owned a car, relied on public transport his entire life.
One other omission in “Voyageuse” is – ironically – Erica’s travels, captured in thousands of photographs retrieved from her Edinburgh home. From these I identified that during the late 1940s and early 1950s as a student she travelled to Switzerland, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Around this time she also made a lengthy voyage to British Guiana to visit her parents and spent a long vacation teaching local schoolchildren before sailing to several Caribbean islands.
Following her marriage to Gwynne in 1960 and their honeymoon in Torremolinos, only rarely did Erica travel abroad. I know of only three occasions: in 1964 to New Jersey, US, in the 1970s to Holland and in 1993 when her sons, Owen (my husband) and Daniel toured around Spain to mark her 60th birthday. Clearly work and family curtailed her desire as did the spells of depression that undoubtedly prevented her from travelling. This was in contrast to her mother who made frequent journeys throughout her life, including trips to India and China.
Having written of Erica’s experience of motherhood, it pained me to cut a scene about her and her husband, Gwynne’s relationship with his university colleague, the physicist and (eventual) Nobel-winning Peter Higgs and his wife, Jody.
It takes place in the early 1970s in a middle-class kitchen: stripped pine floors, earthenware crockery and macramé plant holders. Here two women – one American, the other ‘English’, both educated and equally traduced by motherhood, swap small talk while in another room their menfolk talk of theoretical physics and the politics of academia. Without disclosing too much, the film ends not long after this incident, at a time I felt was significant in Erica’s life.
It feels strange to write this on the day after the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony, marking the end of the cinema awards season. With the world in flux, there’s a demand for glamourous distraction or vicarious escapism in the same way the most popular movies during the Wall Street Crash of 1929 were musicals and comedies. Or that during WW2, in 1944 the Best Picture Oscar went to a low-budget, studio-bound romance, “Casablanca”.
With the Korean movie, “Parasite” taking both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Oscars this year, I watch from afar, from a small nation on the periphery of Europe that – to its shame – makes virtually no indigenous films. While I wish it were different, I also know after decades of trying to make films under a model wholly dependent on institutions outside my native country there’s no point in lamenting the loss of what never existed. All that’s left is to tell myself – ‘May, keep the faith and make the next one’.
Thank you for reading. If you wish to keep up with my work please visit my main website.
The above image is of my subject, Erika Eisner, who became Erica Thomas after marriage. The photograph shows her sitting in a fountain at a neighbour’s estate in British Guiana in the early 1950s. It is one of the few photos of her not wearing spectacles and, absurd as it is, I find it moving because rarely did Erica look so happy and carefree as she did in that fleeting moment, unaware of what was to come. It’s a reminder that often life is about how one sees things and not how they are.