Very few people know but in December 2011 I was offered the job of Filmmaker to the 2014 Commonwealth Games. During the protracted interview process – four meetings over two months – it became apparent that the job demanded a high level of multi-tasking: director, scriptwriter, editor, producer, production coordinator, camera operator, sound recordist, researcher, interviewer, on-camera presenter, prop master, driver and tutor to a group of volunteers.
The salary on offer wasn’t great but that was never my motivation. As a native of the host city I saw myself as an ambassador, a kind of benign Leni Riefenstahl. After beating out 264 other applicants I took the congratulatory phone call only to learn the terms of employment had been altered without consultation and that I would be put on trial for a year and not the full 2012-2014 term as advertised. Needless to say I declined – possibly my last shot at a ‘normal’ job – with no regrets.
I mention this episode only because on “Voyageuse” I’ve adopted as many, indeed more roles than those demanded by the Commonwealth Games. Not that I endorse multi-tasking. Anyone who has sat through the end credits of a film knows that for each name there’s a job attached, a job requiring skill and experience, be it a focus puller, foley artist or any of the other occult roles that go with the territory.
That this film exists at all is a measure of my own pragmatism. Two years ago I realised that if I didn’t make “Voyageuse” no one else would. I faced a choice: to seek endorsement and raise finance in a conventional way or seize the moment and use only what was available. Knowing the odds, I opted for the latter and not for the first time. In 2000, on my first feature, “One Life Stand” I took on four key roles – writer, director, cinematographer and editor. The film was both a critical success and a festival darling, winning numerous awards. Three features and sixteen years later, I realise I’m not much of a careerist but to repeat the exercise on V. was hardly a stretch.
So when my husband recently remarked – ‘you’re an amateur’ – I did not reach for the frying pan nor file for divorce; I knew exactly what he meant. He qualified his statement by adding how during the 19th century, scientists – those ‘gentlemen amateurs’ of independent means – pursued theories and made discoveries with little regard to career. But where science is now firmly professionalised, filmmaking remains a precarious choice of employment. Judging by the stubbornly low level of film production in the UK, attempts to create a viable industry through academia or formal training have failed in the face of an inconvenient fact: that to become a successful filmmaker takes the same skills as those required during the silent movie era: talent, timing, chutzpah – and the will to succeed, however you define it. Failing that, an independent income comes in handy.
Now I’m at an age when many contemplate retirement I’m wary of the pigeonholing that prevents me and others from working, a depressing prospect when most film initiatives – ‘opportunities’ designed to make filmmakers sit up and beg – tend to exclude the majority. I’m not young, BAME, disabled or gay yet most of the film schemes I see are aimed explicitly at those groups, with little enquiry into their actual filmmaking chops. What I don’t see are opportunities aimed at middle-aged white working-class women. Or the poor. Or the elderly. Or the exceptionally short/tall/fat/skinny. Nor should I. To invoke positive discrimination is a category error because identity is not a reliable indicator of talent. The notion that anyone’s career should be validated based on age, ethnicity, sexuality or physical ability is bogus; the criteria for what constitutes talent is subjective and absent from the discourse lest it cause offence.
The one exception (in my case) is gender. While there’s a lot of light on the issue and the yawning discrepancy in the numbers of female directors, according to Stephen Follows in his report, “Cut Out of The Picture” there’s no evidence of a conscious bias within the industry against women. Rather, I believe there’s a reticence among writers, directors and producers – male and female – stalled in mid-career, their prospects dwindling, yet who fail to lobby for better.
Sitting at my kitchen table, as I write this, “Voyageuse” is almost complete. The remaining tasks – the final choice of music cues, the sound mix and colour grade – will be resolved in a matter of weeks. Contrary to filmmaking wisdom – ‘never, ever show your film until you are absolutely ready’ – a few weeks ago I screened a couple of reels at the insistence of three visitors from London and New York. That they knew little about the film meant they provided a fairly neutral sample audience. During the first reel I tried to gauge their reaction. No one shifted in their seat. Twenty-five minutes later a voice piped up, ‘Can we see the next part’?
As responses go, it was encouraging but I wasn’t prepared to show the entire film. Later I found a note – ‘Please invite me to the screening’ – with the contact details of someone whom I met for the first time only an hour before. A week later came a text from an acquaintance who through the grapevine heard my film was ‘amazing.’ Maybe so, maybe not, but the question now is: will I ever get to screen it?
Screening one’s film can be a stressful experience. In cinemas I’ve been known to hide in projection booths, pace the foyer and drown myself in coffee. To witness a walk-out is a stab in the heart, healed only when the errant audience member returns after a toilet break. I know not everyone will ‘get’ or enjoy or admire my film but I can’t put up a disclaimer or a pre-emptive statement declaring a lack of funds or plead for mercy because I took on virtually every role in order to make it. Frankly the audience doesn’t care as long as they engage with what’s on screen.
I should worry. At present the prospect of a public theatrical screening for “Voyageuse” is zero-to-nil. My best hope, to secure a slot on the festival circuit, is hostage to the weight of numbers (e.g. 4000 US self-financed films produced annually) and the funding needed to bankroll the endeavour. Generally, as for many indie films with no distributor, sales company, producer’s rep, PMD or PR machine, it’s hard for one’s film to be noticed, let alone selected, doubly so at A-list festivals. There’s also the politics of the premiere to consider because major fests reject films that have screened elsewhere. Even the B-list fests get sniffy if they can’t boast national or continental premiere status.
As for streaming, it’s too early to know. To upload “Voyageuse” at the wrong time would guarantee the death of its festival prospects. Possibly I’m not the best person to promote my own work but after a quick perusal of websites offering DIY distribution advice – e.g. ‘Do you have an investment-grade asset’? (i.e. a film) – I’m glad I know my limits. Que sera sera.
The above image is of the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games, staged at Wembley Stadium, London. The photograph was taken by Erica Thomas, the subject of my film.