LEMN SISSAY, MBE, talks to co-director ANDREA LUKA ZIMMERMAN, and protagonist ERROL MCGLASHAN about their film HERE FOR LIFE. WITH CONTRIBUTIONS FROM BIRD’S EYE VIEW DIRECTOR, MIA BAYS
HERE FOR LIFE
Directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Adrian Jackson
A feature documentary that hovers between fiction and fact, attention and act.
Released via Modern Films
Produced by Artangel
Ten Londoners and a dog. An uncommon story on common ground. Here for Life is a feature film marking the culmination of a long collaboration between filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman and theatre-maker Adrian Jackson, a group of Londoners, and a dog.
It was previewed outdoors 11–20 June 2019 at Nomadic Community Gardens where much of the footage was shot; it was awarded a Special Mention from the Concorso Cineasti del presente jury during its premiere at the Locarno Film festival, Switzerland 15 August 2019.
Prior to its UK and Ireland general release, 22 November 2019, it was shortlisted for the Raindance Discovery Award at the annual British Independent Film Awards (BIFA)
“Not to be missed”.
“The film challenges us to become spectators and to engage with and interrogate the stories we are told”.
Sight and Sound
“A remarkably nimble meditation on performance and vulnerability”.
Little White Lies
LEMN SISSAY MBE is a BAFTA nominated International prize-winning writer. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by The Queen of England, The Pen Pinter Prize and a Points of Light Award from The Prime Minister. Google “Lemn Sissay” and all the hits will be about him. There’s only one person in the world called Lemn Sissay. ANDREA LUKA ZIMMERMAN is an artist, filmmaker and cultural activist. Zimmerman is most known for her engaged practice demanding a profound re-imagining of the relationship between people, place and ecology. ERROL MCGLASHAN (or Uncle Errol) as he is popularly known is a live wire multiple slam- winning Spoken Word Artist, has been ripping up stages across London since 2011 with his rhythmical poetic verses. He has dabbled in acting on stage, screen and community theatre settings.
Mia Bays: So, what we’ll be doing is largely focusing on a conversation between Lemn Sissay, filmmaker Andrea Zimmerman, and with Errol McGlashan one of the key members of the cast. So, I think we should start by asking everyone to introduce themselves, so Andrea, let’s start with you and a welcome from everyone please. Andrea: Thank you Mia for inviting me to do this, I’m grateful I can do this with you because I really love your work. To be able to have this conversation with you and to be able to work with you again it’s such a privilege, always. I’m the co-director of this film with Adrian Jackson, and we co-devised the film with Therese Henningsen … Mia: The focal point of this is to focus on the intentions behind making a film and having a deep conversation between filmmakers and someone who has nothing to do with film, which is the case with Lemn, who is a very wise onlooker who has a lot to do with the themes of the film, but you had nothing to do with the making of the film…so that’s why we felt that you’re a perfect partner in terms of having a deep conversation around it because there’s such a relationship between the things you hold space for and this film does too. So, Lemn Sissay, welcome! MBE, 2012 poet of the London Olympics, anything you would like to add? Lemn Sissay: I think I should introduce to people, Errol, one of the stars of the film – he’s just incredible in it and he performs poetry in it and there were poems that he wrote that I wish I had written. There was one he wrote about…I wrote the line down: ”This is the me that’s decided to be and is demanding expression, this is the me that is required to be”, and he reads a whole beautiful poem in the middle of the film and I just wish that I had written that and I wish that I was there to have seen it live but I didn’t need to because it’s in the film. It’s only 35 seconds of this film and that part that he performed was the result of a lot of work by the divisors and the entire team and that was 30 seconds of film that’s crammed packed with high art. There’s a beautiful line of a man who speaks about his father being shot, he says: “I walked out of the pub and a man passed me”, and he said: “If I’d have tripped him he’d have still been stumbling now”, and it was such a great line that linked the past that meant so much to him and the present day. There are so many moments of beauty which is explained and shown to us by the central characters of this film in a way which they own – they know what they’re doing because of the relationship they have with Andrea. I feel like I’ve underexplained the documentary, but I would ask Andrea, how did you get to have the relationship with the central players of this documentary, that they would be so emotionally honest with you and so expressive? from Errol being in tears – one of my favourite parts of the film is when Errol is in tears when he’s having his neck massaged, the power of touch. But how did they trust you with a camera in that moment? And how did you get to that massaging moment as well? Andrea: I think that… Well, there’s so many different strands in the film, the one which is the very personal strand there were lots of one-on-ones. It was spending a lot of time with actors and just talking and playing and exploring what representation is and how peoples’ lives are usually seen, and what is important to one’s own life, and, for me, this is important because I also come from that place, that background. (I had) an alcoholic, bipolar mum, growing up on a council estate, I had no touch, no love. It was very violent. I’m drawn to people who have survived an extreme childhood in a way and to try and understand together how me make life… you know you said this, maybe in your Superkids film [Channel 4 documentary, ‘Superkids: Breaking Away from Care’] but, you don’t just want to survive, you want to live. It’s a real claim – a claim that comes through art and poetry, a different kind of poetry, cinematic poetry. There’s a lot of attention that is given, and when people give attention to each other, everything is possible, I believe that to be so in all my films. It is important to give space and not rush and bring preconceived notions of what a person is, but to actually encounter each other in a space properly and to be challenged by other people. Not just like a bubble where one has reinforcement of what one’s already believing. For example, Richard’s ‘one dollar a day’ came out like this. He is acutely aware what poverty is – not just for himself, but others and on an international scale – how do people survive? So, one dollar a day is the mark of poverty. There’s a real deep politics in an understanding of the experiences of others who are even less privileged than him in this society. I get drawn to work with people in this way, therefore. And then, like with Errol and with Jono, that strand throughout the film was more involved, with all of us working together, and really playful. Errol and Jono became really good mates and there was a friendship – when a friendship already exists it’s also about watching it unfold, just being there – when that massage happened, we were filming the scene with both of them and the kid learning to cycle. Errol and Jono took a break when we saw this unfolding. But, instead of going really close to the face (when Errol cries), it’s about keeping a distance – and in the edit, it is an animal, Ella, who looks at him throughout, it’s about being witnessed when you’re alone, that kind of stuff. Lemn: I just want to lay out the film because the film is a series of people who don’t have money, they could be homeless, you never say whether they’re homeless or not, but the people are ignored in society, on the street, when they walk past you, when they cycle past you, whether they’re homeless or not. That includes addictions, drugs, alcohol addiction to money even, theft at times, no more addicted than a banker who is addicted to taking money, no more addicted than a young person who wants to go buy new clothes every week. Its just an addiction that is obvious on the streets and somehow those addictions unite society to not see or hear those people. This series of people then come together in some way to put pieces of art together, it could be song, it could be poetry, it could be dance, contemporary dance, it could be opera! What you do is follow them through a devising process as they start to understand what it is they can bring out of themselves…it’s all there…and as they understand that you are just as much a part of this process, and the process is just as much a part of it as the final performance. So, what happens is you weave in through the devising and through the narration, the stories that they will share with you and they exhibit themselves like gods. Like spirits. And you are a layer within their world, you are invited in, when they are who they are. And the woman breaks into song, just at that moment, you get a rush of goosepimples. The camera intimate mingling with them as they dance in couples, it is beautiful. When Errol explains the beating it is beautiful, I notice that the camera doesn’t go to the woman he’s speaking to, it stays with him because that narrative is his. He has to own it and he does you know – his relationship is about masculinity, all the issues are here. And males in society – you can tell me more about the bankers through his relationship with his friend, he elevates himself and gives us an example of how to be. But it is not explicitly said “now the players will be rehearsing”, you weave in between them to allow their spirits to breathe, and this leads to us as an audience, a lot of documentary making, we are fed a narrative about people. “those are the poor ones, it’s not us, they don’t have anything to teach us. We will teach them to work, we will teach them to speak” so I just wanted to share the vastness of this beautiful piece of work with people. Andrea: thank you for your words. I think what is also really important in terms of the shape and the way in which spaces are opened up for people, to take those spaces, is that… I want to just iterate that, in the film industry there is a certain understanding that things have to be done in a certain way, that there have to be certain hierarchies (rightly so, against industrial exploitation)… but makers like me, who often work outside these kinds of financial support structures, had to learn to be versed in many different roles and work differently. The people I collaborate with across films, there’s a lot of sharing skills and multi-tasking not compartmentalisation, there’s no catering vans on my sets. Film funding, less industry focused, is very hard to come by, it cannot understand these less formalised, or delineated, relationships. Lemn: You mean the film industry? Andrea: There’s an excess, an industrial making. We might not have the best equipment, whatever that means, but there’s a different sense of making cinema. When you start thinking about how films often are required to speak a certain language of ‘this is what a character has to go through, a journey’ or they have to have ‘redemption’… I don’t believe in this, yes, I believe in the power of story, but stories can and need to be told in many different ways. Lemn: The nature of stories is that it can be told in many different ways. The nature of media is that it should be told in ‘this’ way. I noticed for example when I watched it is that I could take any one of those stories and make a whole film about it. The bicycle theft when the police came. From him taking his own bicycle. He was showing how people steal bicycles and the police came and took him away. The man with the horse whose father was shot, those things make whole documentaries themselves. It is as interesting what you have not done…because the things you’ve not done have given rise to what you have done and that was worth….it far outweighs what you’ve not done. Errol: We all come from backgrounds of either homelessness ex homeless, at risk of homelessness, so many of us had been used to telling our stories. We ran workshops with Adrian and Andrea for months and months before we were filming. On narrative, I’ve learnt a lot from being on this film but also watching this film. I’m used to Hollywood stories: beginning, middle, end, something gets resolved. Your typical storytelling. From watching this film I’ve learnt there’s many ways of telling stories. This film is like a poem rather than a narrative story, as such. Andrea: Before anywhere else, we first brought the film back to the Nomadic Gardens on a large outdoor screen for 10 (cold) days in June. Most of the people in the film were there every day. We never thought we’d all watch the film 10 days in a row all the way through, but we did. Most of the Q&As in London, everybody’s invited, people come in different formations. The internet bad for many of us and lots of people don’t have good enough internet to join us today. Lemn: I really enjoyed the soundscape of the documentary and the accordion: beautiful moments of the accordion! And the nature sounds as well. How did the sound come about and what artistic decisions did you make and why? Andrea: Marie Tueje is an amazing sound designer. Sometimes we had 50 different layers of sound. She did the foley on everything – on breath, cigarette pull, insects. She started with most of the sounds from scratch. She’s a beautiful artist in her own right and it was a pleasure to work with her. For me sound is really important: natural sound is like music to me. I don’t like music over a film unless it comes from within a film. The songs in the film come mainly from Richard Honeyghan, who is an incredible singer/songwriter and everybody we discovered could sing or perform in some way. Ben Smithies who performs the folk song, or Mwiinga Twyman, who is the most formidable singer. I always ask people to sing in their auditions, because I also like it when people ‘can’t sing’, too. Patrick Onione’s cockney rhyming is like a song. We treated everything like it was a song. My work with Marie was like a musical even though it’s not. Lemn: If you look at straight documentary, in this piece, this art film, you catch the moment a father helps his daughter ride a bike for the first time. That’s just the most beautiful thing. Just the fact you caught that precious moment forever in digital pixels is reason for the entire film itself. Mia: Andrea, on that front, there is quite an important touchstone, which is another film with bicycle in the title. So, can you talk about that and the relationship between the films? Andrea: It also had to be a film that would speak to an audience who had no recourse to us as people – we were dissecting Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves which was made in 1948. What was important was that it didn’t show the devastation of World War 2 at all, it was a moral tale. It’s always hailed as this neorealist masterpiece, and it is an incredible film but what I’m saying is that it evokes the question ‘who is allowed to dream? What are the gender relationships? At what cost is someone allowed to dream and others are not’? In that way the film for me is complicated. We tried to understand the core themes of the film: greed, pain, transgression. A lot of these became the core themes of our film. We were looking at another object to start this discussion. For example, when have we ever hurt somebody? Antonio, in Bicycle Thieves, slaps his kid, so we ask when have we done such a thing? It becomes an object of entry. It’s not about asking somebody to tell them directly about their life, but it’s about going from a story to another story. A story that belongs to us and belongs to others because they’re now living with it, too. Some of the stories in the film seem very personal but are also worked through already to become another story. It’s not just about capturing something that already exists at that moment. The play is another echo of all of these stories. Nothing exists without the other, in a way, that the sort of tension in the dreamscape. Lemn: There is a language that you have in the entire film of spaces and of space. The space is crossed at one point when a guy in the film pretends to take a drink from a poster which is on a wall, which makes him look like he’s in a room, but the poster on the wall is of the buildings that are being built due to gentrification. It was instinctive for him to do it. There is a man in this film who tells a story about counterfeit money that he’d given to a friend. The friend says: “I’ll be back in a minute”, then disappears. This man then had to go and get a gun to get his £25,000 of counterfeit money back. The point about that is money is only worth something if you believe its worth something. Our entire society is built on that premise. He gives us an analogy of how our society is. All wars are based on money. Things that only have value because we decide it has. So many points of recognition where the moment transcends time and space. What didn’t you include in the film that you wanted to? Andrea: We wanted to capture the closing of the Nomadic Gardens but that happened after we finished editing. In the heart of the city there was this amazing space which was open to anyone, no police, self-organised, queer people, everybody was there. It became a character for us in the film. Lemn: That place is magical, it’s like the fetishization of a space like that is in Mad Max. But you showed the people in it in all their beauty and all their glory. Andrea: Also, the temporary freedom when there’s a space you can be and not have to explain yourself, you can take a breath. These spaces have conflict, but we can’t shy away from it, that’s how to make a world that holds all of us together. Mia: Andrea, could you explain what has happened to Nomadic Gardens? What do you think we lose when we lose spaces like that? Andrea: Errol took a video of it recently showing it completely flattened. The hope is not in the places surviving forever but they exist again and again. That gives me hope. We can make these things together; they can’t be destroyed fully and their memory will live on. Lemn: There’s so many great lines in the film: “For what good is love left unshared?” “‘Loneliness is a mechanical repeating of days with the same shape.” “Awake butterfly, it’s late”. This is great stuff. I would kill for a line like that! Andrea: “Awake butterfly, it’s late”, it’s from a haiku, but we changed it. Errol and Jonno’s friendship was such an important friendship in the film: two men really supporting each other. Lemn: The only tearful moment in the film was the woman who was crying when she spoke about her child. Everything is in this film without it being flagged up: it’s part of the story of these incredible people. Those stories are not just from people in the situation you’ve found, those stories are in all of our lives somewhere of other. We all have loss, re-joining, but who we look to represent us are often false prophets. The manufactured story. Tell us what we already think we want to know. What this film does is it exalts people – they exalt themselves. The wisdom is in their words. Our views are usually shaped through a tilted, distorted lens. Mia: Can I draw attention to one of your mission statements of the film Andrea: “Sometimes we simply need our stories told by someone else.” Can you just explain that a bit more? Andrea: There are two reasons for that. One is, even me hearing Lemn talk about never having touch as a child, neither did I. It’s really hard to explain, to be able to own it and understand that it’s an experience that shaped you. I had to hear other people say certain things and see them live and claim life instead of just surviving. The other is that idea of forum theatre. An activating and deeply political practice of radical empathy. Not empathy of erasure, as in mainstream media, but the other way. I recognise myself within you therefore I can really give this space to listen to you and learn from that experience (about you, or about me, or even that there is a space for not knowing, but that this is also where we meet). That was the challenge: how to bring this into a filmic space. We did this with story swapping, a technique of acting training. Ultimately, it’s a film, not therapy so there has to also be a space that is conscious. It shouldn’t be as radical as it is, but we still don’t have multiplicity: we train people up to use the same language rather than properly embracing difference. Mia: It has been such a privilege to hear you all speak. This has been very special and a wonderful moment of connection in these disconnected times in which we are living (this event took place in the midst of the first UK Covid-19 lockdown).
WHERE TO WATCH HERE FOR LIFE
Here for Life is available for EST and VOD in the UK across the majority of platforms including Sky, Amazon, Apple, iTunes, Google Play, Curzon and BFI Player. Buy / Stream Here for Life here
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