“Dignity, always dignity.” So goes the zinger delivered by Gene Kelly in ‘Singing in the Rain’ (Stanley Donen, 1952). It’s also a line used by my husband whenever I complain about the task of filmmaking. At times I need to be reminded of why I strive to make films so it was affirming to read a recent article by Richard Brody writing in ‘The New Yorker’ in which he states:
“Independence isn’t a matter of financing but of urgency. An independent film is one that’s made within the arm’s reach of the filmmakers, that’s experiential — that the filmmakers make in order to see not just the world at large but also their own place in it”.
Brody’s correct about the idea of urgency and the experiential. In my experience there’s no other way to make a film, certainly not in Scotland nor, I suspect, elsewhere, when the conventional route to production is so protracted. At the bottom of my entry in Wikipedia is a quote, ‘Life’s too short not to make movies’. I’ve heard many stories from producers who’ve spent five, seven and in one case, thirteen years in ‘development’ on modestly budgeted films, films that are expected to prep and shoot on the tightest of schedules.
Any competent production manager might question my scheduling skills but unlike a conventional drama, i.e. one with a set of characters placed in specific locations and shot within a given timeframe, “Voyageuse” doesn’t conform to the tyranny of the call sheet. In fact the film doesn’t obey many rules. For instance, the last time I shot in London was in August 2015 and although I captured some useful material, in the edit it became clear that I needed to shoot at a few additional locations not directly connected to Erica. But how best to express the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War? Or the occult practices surrounding the treatment of mental illness? Or the signifiers of a declining British Empire?
“Voyageuse” isn’t a documentary. Although the film features archive material belonging to my late mother-in-law, Erica Thomas (Eisner) and her family, it’s an imagined first-person narrative where time is fractured. In later life Erica became so conditioned by her past or more precisely, her perception of the past that she no longer lived in any useful sense. For her, just to get out of bed was an act of endurance because the slow passage of time was psychologically tortuous.
Shortly after her death in 2004 I was disturbed to find a set of diaries written by Erica where at 15 minute intervals she noted the minutiae of her daily tasks; her drug intake and physical state – “mouth dry” was a common entry – and, more alarmingly, her distress at her futile existence, acknowledging her poor mental state but unable to change it. By this act it was as if she had imposed on herself something akin to a suicide watch in which her need to commit words to paper was perhaps the only thing keeping her alive.
Dwelling on these journals, I’ve come to realise that the task of making this film is at best exhilarating but at times feels oddly desperate and despairing. Perhaps it’s a consequence of immersing myself in Erica’s mindset to conjure the empathy necessary to write in her ‘voice’ or maybe it’s the isolation of making films by this method but in the edit suite I’ve experienced moments of anguish brought about by the harbingering ghosts surrounding me.
Is “Voyageuse” a subliminal form of therapy, I wonder? Judging by the unseemly number of artists and celebrities who have passed away (not to mention the many victims of poverty, war and mass killings) 2016 is proving quite a year for death. Lately I’ve realised that making this film induces a kind of magical thinking, a way of coping with my own depression and sense of loss, a loss made more acute by the deaths, not only Erica’s, but those of my brother, sister and father who died in indecently quick succession over the last few years, leaving me with no family apart from an estranged brother.
With fewer people around to create and share memories with, I seek solace in filmmaking because it’s within my gift, gives me purpose and is a balm for my isolation. As Brody remarks – to see the world at large and my own place in it – distracts me from the crushing grief I struggle to process on a daily basis.
Urgency matters too because if “Voyageuse” has any chance of visibility by being selected for film festivals in 2017 I need to complete it by September. That means a deadline. For the past month or so my main task has been the curious job of sound design. That, and a couple of shoots. The first of these, in central London, took advantage of a free train ride courtesy of Virgin Trains after my last trip in December to rehearse and record with Siân Phillips was delayed/cancelled when winter storms brought down signalling on the West Coast main line.
Over two days I shot in multiple locations where twice I was stopped by police officers at Hyde Park Corner and at Whitehall but thankfully our exchange was genial and I was able to work without disruption. I also met a group of young Muslim girls who posed for me in front of a war monument, stock still, mimicking the heroic poses of the statues behind them – a shot so jarring and freighted that it probably won’t make the cut. Outside the Bank of England, I found a large and chaotic Bollywood film crew but successfully worked around them. Later that day, in the garden of a quiet square I observed two Japanese women sitting beside a tree planted in memory of Hiroshima. What, I wonder, were they thinking?
A week later, back in Glasgow and after several attempts, finally I secured a location that seemed impossibly elusive: an empty ward at a decommissioned hospital. Thanks to a chance contact and the kind cooperation of Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley NHS I was granted access to the old Victoria Infirmary.
In a Nightingale ward stripped of its furniture, as I stood my camera, I thought there can’t be many places more melancholy or haunted than an old vacant hospital. Then it suddenly struck me that the last time I entered this building was on the day my sister died of cancer, aged 56. Unable to secure a bed at a hospice, she was confined in a private room in the Coronary Care Unit where she died surrounded by her family. Musing on this, I’m reminded of the American poet and undertaker, Thomas Lynch who once stated ‘the dead don’t care’. That much is true, but what of the living?
With only three hours to get my shots I had to work quickly. In silence, with sunlight streaming through a row of tall windows, I recalled a clipping from the Daily Record I had retrieved from the Mitchell Library years ago that contained a report of how a 5-year-old girl was admitted to this same hospital after an accident and, according to her mother, “never cried.” The girl in question was me. I had burned my throat by drinking boiling water from a geyser in our cold water room-and-kitchen and as a result was kept at the Infirmary overnight for observation. Fortunately I recovered. People do. Overwhelmed by a deluge of sad memories, I wept until I was interrupted by John, one of the hospital’s porters, who kindly helped to carry my kit. ‘Dignity’, I told myself as I regained my composure. ‘Always dignity.’ If John noticed my tears he had the grace not to mention it.
At the end of the allotted time, saying my thanks yous and goodbyes, I stepped outside to a beautiful summer’s afternoon, feeling fortunate not only to have acquired the shots I needed but just to be able to walk out the door.
The above image is a frame grab from my shoot at the Infirmary. Currently the site is up for sale and is likely to become a housing development.