Following its UK Premiere at Doc/Fest in June, Brexitannia is having a UK cinema tour with Picturehouses and is now available to watch online via iTunes. Our Head of Marketplace & Talent, Patrick Hurley, caught up with Brexitannia director Timothy George Kelly to talk about responsive, DIY filmmaking.
Patrick Hurley: Brexitannia is the first feature-length documentary about the watershed moment when the people of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. Less than 12 months had passed since the referendum took place when your film had its UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June. That's an incredibly quick turn-around for a feature doc, especially considering that you did over 100 interviews all around the country. How did you get started on this film and how did you manage to have it completed so promptly?
Timothy George Kelly: I was working on a film about people on zero-hour contracts in London. It was beginning to form into something preachy, uncinematic and predictable – all the things I hate in political documentary. At the time it was only me and another producer involved and I think through my depression around it and the difficulty she found in sourcing people who actually wanted to talk about precarious work contracts on camera, we could feel the project falling apart. Then out of nowhere – like almost every other millennial that lives in London – I was blindsided by the Brexit result. It was then, as a filmmaker existing in the biggest political moment of my life, that I had to start thinking about what I could do to make something that would be different from all the things that were going to be made from that point. We were in a time of huge scapegoating of different demographics, we had only just started to talk about fake news so openly, people started deeply resenting each other, simple binaries were being presented as truths and in those people could express their hate. And I know these things aren’t true, we are given binaries, leave or remain, left-wing or right-wing and how we act inside those codes is enormously complex but we can’t see that. So I made a film that just simply spoke to people and gave them the time and respect they needed to express themselves and that’s what the film is, it’s somehow a portrait of a nation, and how people squirm within the confines of the binaries of representative politics. It’s a strange beautiful mess. In one of the strangest times in a very long time.
Five days after the referendum I was in Clacton-by-Sea which at that time was the only UKIP held seat. This was before I engaged with any fixers and I just wandered this broken town for three days trying to interview people. That weekend made me realise I needed locals to help me find people. The film ended up having nine fixers from different parts of the UK and that’s how I ended up interviewing 106 people over the whole shoot.
I only 100% made the decision on the single camera wide shot on the very first interview there. I could have shot with a second camera for close-ups – I had one and another tripod ready but my stomach had made up its mind. All the interviews were to be these big wide shots with the person in the centre. It's quite ironic that I care and hate so much of what's happening with flexible labour practices around the globe, but the fact that my employment itself is so precarious was exactly how I was able to react so quickly to Brexit happening and go about making the film.
The whole production took just under eight months. It was really important for me to have something out quickly, to concretise history as it was still happening around us. To capture that headspinning feeling so many were feeling as 2017 opened up to this new world we've so obviously entered. And to be honest, I knew the sooner the film came out the more interested festivals would be.
PH: We really dig DIY and responsive filmmaking at Doc/Fest. Despite the speed of your production, the film feels very considered and artful. Tell us about the challenges you faced making Brexitannia. No doubt you had to wear several hats in addition to directing.
TGK: Of course, I had very little money. The film was basically self-shot with me also doing sound over a hugely intense shooting period of me driving uninsured rental cars around the UK and constantly filming. Sleeping on couches from couchsurfing.com. I feel a bit precocious about saying it, but my number one challenge out there is always my mental health - the stress, the exhaustion, the constant search for humans and then attempting to capture something from them with your camera and your words and all the ethical implications you’re balancing the whole time. Your own constant second-guessing. And if you’re self-shooting you’re doing it alone. And it’s an intense experience to navigate by yourself. This is what I found most challenging. Those dark roads late at night. Feeling more alive than ever but knowing if you stop the film dies, and you carry that responsibility until the day it is done.
Intense lonely filmmaker guy rant aside, self-shooting was done out of financial necessity but after the experience I’d probably prefer to do it again when I make other Brexitannia-style films in different places, which I want to do. On a film like this which is basically a study of human behaviour, it’s much less intimidating for the interviewees to be filmed by one person with minimal gear. It’s good for people to think you’re a student who doesn’t really know what they’re doing.
I know we’re entering this time of increasing micro-budget films and the self-shooting doc maker is the all guns-blazing, content-making hero in that story. But I don’t know if it is worth celebrating so much. Hooray camera prices are decreasing faster than wages! Get out there, tiger! You can make a film! But you learn from collaborating and working with differently talented people and you need money so they can pay their rent. There is of course this DIY ethos that I see in many doc makers that I find very exciting but we’d be wrong to assume they wouldn’t want to work with larger budgets if they were available to them. The conflict here of course, though, is who else gets to have a say in your movie when they’ve put some money into it and how much are going to want to make the film ‘safe' – and how this culture of market conformity then ends up pervading all culture and influencing all creative people’s decisions. The self-shooter is in a unique position to negate this type of mediocrity though. It is a pretty punk thing. If you're confident enough in your own idea, you can make pieces of cinema that are completely yours. You just need to figure out how to get eyes on it.
It also needs to be said that inevitably I did get a small bit of funding. My friend from Moscow, Pavel Karykhalin, found out through a friend that I was making Brexitannia three months into the shoot and ended up giving me some money to keep fuel in the car and food in my stomach from his company Stereotactic, for which I directed a Boiler Room doc in 2015. This money allowed me to pay Steven Carver full time to edit and then got me the greatest sound mix and colour grade I could have ever dreamed of in Moscow. I know it’s a pain with visas and everything but there are some really talented people in Moscow who offer the same quality as in the UK, but much more affordably. Stereotactic started ten years ago as a snowboard and skateboard video company and now they’re making airline and Pepsi commercials. They support their friends’ projects because they can and that’s what happened to me with Brexitannia. The office feels more like a skate shop than a production company to me and I love them. I still would have finished this film without that money, just probably not as quickly.
Photo: Brexitannia meme promoting a screening at Central Scotland Documentary Festival
PH: In addition to directing the film, your fingerprints are all over the social media marketing for Brexitannia’s various festival screenings. When did you think of creating meme-style graphics for your film?
TGK: I don't think we understand and celebrate memes enough, I remember being a teenage cynic looking nostalgically to past art and music and thinking nothing new or great happened anymore. Then we invented memes. A whole new hieroglyphic language and it's a democratic and inclusive conversational form and we made it. It's beautiful. Most promotional stuff for films I find so boring. Basically everyone just writes facebook announcements and a still with a venue and a date and we’re meant to pretend this is fine. The film world is pretty stale in a lot of ways. I just wanted to do something that I wish I would see and engage people differently and have some fun. Sylvain L'Espérance is this crazy Quebecois filmmaker who made a 5-hour documentary about austerity in Greece that sometimes plays without intermissions. After he saw Brexitannia and my preceding Q&A he said I was a very serious man with a very big sense of humour. I guess this comes out in the memes which are really fun compared to my film which offers a plethora of emotional responses. Every post on Facebook is just an opportunity to take the piss, I guess. I live in Britain. Without humour this place is just rain and replacement bus services.
A woman at a Q&A in Poland said she felt like the narrative structure of the film was like being locked in a Facebook feed and everyone's thoughts were just like tweets. It could also be seen as this portrait of the hive mind, our huge public narrative that we all participate in now.
I'll only make memes if there's something to announce. When there is, I probably spend an hour or so messing around with an idea. Brexitannia has surprisingly made we way better at photoshop.
Photo: Brexitannia memes promoting screenings at the National History Museum (USA), Sheffield Doc/Fest, and in Moscow, Russia.
PH: As someone who’s now made two features, what’s your advice for aspiring doc makers?
TGK: My advice for anyone who wants to make something that does not yet exist, is to allow yourself the time to think. To read without rushing. To look at a wall. To stare out a window. To walk with no destination. To do nothing at all. And see which thoughts stick. If you're also lucky enough to have friends with the same artistic sensibility as you, take care of each other, challenge each other, talk about your work and your possibilities without fear of sounding stupid. If you find someone who is critically honest about your work hold them tight, these people are rare and invaluable. And help each other always, with love, with food, with time, with conversation, because in the end you're probably only making films for your friends or the friends you’ll never meet.
Due to the structures of film production I feel like too many filmmakers are waiting for permission from someone or something to make their first feature. Class may also be at play here because it is a very middle-class art form and maybe some people from more privileged backgrounds are just more intuitively able to play the game and they know they must wait. I don’t like this. I think filmmakers should act a bit more like dirt bag musicians and just go out and do it. Think less about “why not?” and more about what will make the film the best with what I have. The gear is cheap enough. It’s just fearlessness and time that’s in scarcity. Fail again. Fail better, etc.
Timothy George Kelly also spoke at Doc/Fest 2017 on the panel session What Does Brexit Look Like?. Click here to watch the whole session on our YouTube.
To view the Brexitannia trailer, click here.
Brexitannia is currently touring select Picturehouse cinemas. Click here to visit the Facebook page for screening locations (& memes!).
Doc/Fest's Director or Film Programming, Luke Moody, will be hosting the Q&A with Timothy at the East Dulwich Picturehouse on Wednesday 1 November. To book a ticket, click here.
The film is also available to stream on iTunes. Click here to purchase (£5.49).
Doc/Comment is a new home for thoughts, interviews, things we love and want to share with our community.