Usually the start of a New Year heralds the best intentions but rather than sabotage myself and disappoint others, my only resolution for 2017 – to complete “Voyageuse” – is fulfilled. Readers of this blog will know this is the culmination of years of soul searching, writing and production and a rare, if not unique example of a feature-length film made entirely by one person.
As I write, I’m aware that every corner of my house contains fragments of the film: photo albums, folders of letters, diaries and personal objects: Bob Eisner’s army cap badges, a framed etching of Fishguard and Erica’s broken wristwatch, minus strap. Given how I began this blog with the story of a house clearance, the irony’s not lost on me but the question – what shall I do with all this stuff? – is one I’ve been avoiding.
The more pressing question – will “Voyageuse” ever reach an audience? – I can’t dismiss so easily. Like most consumables, films don’t have an infinite shelf-life, not that I need fret about release dates. Having no distributor or sales agent my immediate plan is to host a private screening in London to try to promote it to those who may be able to influence others. If this fails, I may attempt to persuade independent arthouse cinemas to programme it. There’s also the option to upload to a VOD platform on a pay-per-view basis that would at least cover the cost of hosting. Or I can simply put the DCP and my drives in a drawer knowing there was never an imperative to show or sell the film, only the desire to make it.
On social media and countless websites there’s much talk of how to distribute a film. Every week 10-15 films are released across 300 screens in the UK, largely dominated by Hollywood output. Independent films compete for fewer slots and only those with substantial P&A and PR behind them tend to secure a release. Recently I’ve noticed the rise of third party companies who may (or may not) support a small indie film, a route that might make sense for “Voyageuse” if the terms are mutually agreeable.
What matters most right now is to gauge audience reaction so recently I invited a friend, Jennie Macfie, to watch the film. Not an easy favour to ask of anyone because it’s fraught with potential embarrassment for all concerned but short of staging a test screening with a focus group there’s no other way to find out if “Voyageuse” plays. I’m sure the industry wisdom would regard Jennie as the ideal target audience – an intelligent, mature, independent-minded female with a wide interest in the arts, although I’m sure Jennie would be quick to deny such lazy pigeonholing.
Fact is, I haven’t seen Jennie for over two years but when I sat her down in my edit suite to this most private of screenings I sensed I wouldn’t get a free pass nor the usual polite dissembling when it comes to showing one’s work. Rather, my hope was for some honest and impartial criticism. That, and – subject to a positive reaction, of course – a couple of supportive tweets.
At the end of the screening Jennie emerged, clearly moved but also brimming with curiosity and comment. Remarking on the archive film and photos, she pointed out something that had never occurred to me – just how exactly did the Eisner family manage to bring all their possessions when they fled Hungary in 1938? Unlike contemporary news reports of refugees showing the displaced with little more than the clothes on their backs, Bob and Vera Eisner somehow imported an entire suite of furniture, including a large Afghani carpet, Erica’s cot, a batterie de cuisine (which I still own) and not least, a large metal box containing reels of 16mm film that my husband passed to the BFI Film and Television Archive for restoration, a process taking over two years to complete.
Shortly after I showed Jennie the film came a direct message via Twitter containing a link to a review she had written, unprompted. I won’t reproduce it in its entirety but here’s an extract:
“Thomas finds her own sparsely beautiful visual language to tell the story, a dramatic tale that needs no extra drama. Scientific experiments. Vivisection. Euthanasia. Military secrets. Medical secrets. Lies. Deceptions. The Cold War. Espionage. The film obliquely layers multiple tissue-thin slices of Erica’s life one on top of another until one cannot be sure what is or was real – but her (you now realise) extraordinary life now seems as real as your own.
‘Keeping up appearances’ is the essence of femininity, and also the groundbed of successful espionage. “When did I stop using lipstick…”, Erica wrote on a scrap of card found with four – unused – Yardley lipsticks and used on the film’s poster. By the time the line is voiced aloud, it brims over with resonances, due in no small way to Sian Phillips, whose emotionally intelligent reading of Thomas’ script gives the film even richer layers of meaning and deserves its own Oscar.”
Had she lived, Erica would have been 84 this month. It’s poignant to reflect on the events that led her, as the script says, ‘to become English.’ Had she been denied entry to the UK in 1938, what fate might she have met? Among Erica’s possessions I found a telegram from the Magyar (Hungarian) Red Cross stating that her maternal grandparents were ‘safe and well’. Captured by the Nazis, they were imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen but miraculously released. They later travelled to the Unites States, settling in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Seen from a broader perspective as a film “Voyageuse” may be inconsequential but at a time of political uncertainties, post-truth and alternative facts its themes are more prescient than ever when the lessons of war, political expedience, class division and population control seem destined to be forgotten. A few days ago, alone at the Glasgow Film Theatre watching my film, I mourned the fact I’ll never see it in the same way as a first-time viewer. Still, there are sublime moments where I lose myself so surely that’s enough consolation.
Later the projectionist remarked how it looked ‘pretty good’. Leaving the building, as I stepped into a rainswept Sauchiehall Street I wondered to myself if this was the only time I’ll see the film on a big screen. I also recalled a quote by the late Carrie Fisher, delivered by Meryl Streep during her Lifetime Achievement award speech at the Golden Globes.
“Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”
The above image is a frame grab of a hand-painted title taken from Bob Eisner’s 16mm films and restored by the BFI Film and Television Archive.