Hamlet on the battlefield. Conversation with Olly Lambert, a documentary filmmaker.
Grzegorz Brzozowski:Your interest in conflict seems to be motif in many of your movies – not only international militant conflict, like in documentaries depicting Gaza, Iraq or newest movie on Syria, but also conflicts within a family or the private realm, like in case of „Mum and Dad are splitting up”.
Olly Lambert: I am glad you said that. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that the main question I am asked is about the „drama” and „excitement” of filming the war zones. And actually it’s got quite annoying, because it reveals that the questioner is far more interested in conflict than I am.
That’s all that everybody wants to talk about. I keep trying to say to people that only 1/3rd of the films I have made have been in areas of conflict. And in those films, the film is not about the conflict itself, it is about people, and about how people cope with conflict.
The interesting thing for me about conflict, whether it takes places in a war zone or a domestic environment, is that it often brings up the essence of people, and I am interested in the essence of people. Often the situation that reveals that essence is not interesting in and of itself, like „war”. So I am very glad you’ve made that observation, because frankly I find war to be very boring, not very pleasant. I don’t like it any more than anyone else does. I suppose I like the insight that it give me into a personal, domestic or political situation.
This focus on conflict can take many forms. In a film about Syria, for example, that was very much about going there and witnessing people in extremis, and this extreme environment offers an insight into how people function. But a very different scenario, like my film about divorce, that was done in a very controlled, produced environment, shot in only 4 or 5 days, totally to my timetable, with a large crew, sitting down with people for 3 or 4 hours and interrogating them in a gentle but honest way, by asking them difficult questions, and respecting their answers. The scenarios are very different, but the goal is ultimately the same
Do you have any particular sources of inspiration in documentary filmmaking?
I watch a lot of films and I suppose I draw on a lot of films from different areas. My background is literature, I studied and love literature, but what I hope that gives me is a sensitivity to language and a sense of good storytelling. And I love poetry, I’ve memorized a lot of it, so I am very aware of the power of language, what a beautiful thing it can be. But in terms of filmmaking, I just love seeing a story well told. I mean Werner Herzog is a genius for that, or Nick Broomfield, you feel they are asking questions with a genuine sense of inquiry. And what is so wrong with a lot of British television documentaries, is that I feel the film is asking a question that the director already knows the answer to. Or worse, that he or she thinks they know the answer, and thus the film is not really interested in whether that answer is right or wrong.
Often people want to know how a film will end before it has been made, but for me, I’d hate to know the ending.. I just want to feel sure that the journey is going to be interesting, and that it will go in a revealing direction.
On the other hand you keep working on your documentaries within the TV framework, so I wonder what is the formal tradeoff that you are usually encountering while trying to go on with your own style but within this particular way of producing movies?
I think about this a lot, and it is not a perfect way of working. But there are positives and negatives, definitely. The main thing is that I do need to earn a living, and as a filmmaker working within a television framework, I will be given a full budget to make the whole film, which means I can pay an editor, a researcher, a cameraman if I need one, I can hire the right equipment and I can afford the right amount of time to make the film properly. And as well as that, I am paid for my time, often quite well. So the bonuses are enormous, both professionally and personally.
Now the negatives are that often you have to adjust the style and sometimes the content to fit within the brief of television producer and the channel. And I don’t fight that, but I am trying to work within that framework. I don’t subscribe to this idea that the director can take a channel’s money and then expect to do absolutely everything that they want regardless of the views of the channel. The channel is basically paying you to provide it with something that is going to work, not for them but for their audience, and I respect that.
I don’t quite see the magnetic appeal of screening documentaries in cinemas. Some people are very driven by this, but I can’t say the idea excites me very much. I worry that sometimes showing your film in cinema or on a festival has more to do with the ego of the director rather than serving the audience or serving the public or contributing to the conversation nationally or internationally. What is the big deal with having 200 people sitting in a big room together to watch a film? What is that about? Is it so that the director can witness this acclaim, to experience the audience? I would much rather watch my film go on 9 o’clock on bbc 2 and feel that it is being seen by 3 million people, simply because as a director obviously I want my films to be seen, regardless of whether I am present to witness it being seen or not.
You mentioned your compromises, what was your personal greatest victory in defending your own personal style in tv against the producers?
For example I made this film about a heroin addict called Ben Rogers who died leaving behind 2 years’ worth of video diaries and footage that he filmed himself. I turned that into a full length documentary for Sky1, a very popular mainstream channel, and I wanted to end this film in the most truthful way which was to confront the audience with the very last video diary Ben recorded in which he says ‚I know I am dying’, and switches the camera off. It is quite simply one of the most shocking, most depressing and bleakest pieces of footage I have ever seen, and once my editor had the idea of just playing this and ending the film there and then, we really thought we would have to fight for it. We just wanted to end the film right there, and cut to a caption saying that Ben died two days later, and then run the credits. It is the sort of ending that could destroy the schedule of an evening on a channel, because it is so bleak, people would just want to switch off the TV and go to bed. But the fact was that when the commissioner saw it, I think he knew immediately that there was no other way to truthfully end this film. It was a brave bit of filmmaking, but an even braver bit of commissioning and scheduling.
On the other hand it still feels like the production process that you described you put in a militant language. It is your kind of your personal battle?
Yeah, I look at it quite tactically, I will use any tool at my disposal to make the film that I want to make, so I could be confrontational, I could be argumentative or I could be very sly.
But you know the thing is as a documentary filmmaker, you are constantly having to persuade and encourage and fight to get the footage that you need to make the documentary. But that instinct, that determination to make the film that you want to make, does not stop when you start editing. I carry that kind of ambition and determination into the edit, naturally.
When you start making movie about conflict you probably need to maintain some idea of impartiality. How do you achieve it – while going to a new place, where you see escalating conflict. How are you sure that you give voices to all the parts that need to be given voice to create the full image? Do you have a method for it?
No film is impartial or „objective”. This is impossible. Every decision I make is rejecting hundreds of other possible decisions. I don’t think that I or anyone else can claim that a documentary can give a „whole picture” of anything. But what I do try to do is give a truthful picture, and the most important thing for me is to avoid judgement. It is death for me if a film is coming from a judgmental or pre-existing point of view. Any film that is trying to tell the audience what to think is making a grave mistake. All I can do is listen carefully to the people I am filming and try my very best to tell their story truthfully, and from there, an audience can make up its own mind.
Of course I have opinions. If you were to ask me about my personal view of the situation in Syria, and to what extent that was carried in the film, well, it was self-evident to me that one side of that conflict is far more brutally punished than the other. But I also feel that both the regime loyalists and the opposition are being exploited by the regime itself, and these things are not black and white. People often ask me: do you think that one side is good? which side is good? They want me to have the answer, but there is never black and white, all that is the shades of grey.
There is a brilliant line from Hamlet, I always have it in my head when filming weirdly, but Hamlet himself says: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Right? Meaning, things are not perfectly bad or wrong, but our brains want to interpret them in these simplistic ways. You know, I have a mantra, a poem that I know by heart, it is called Entirely by Louis MacNeice, I really recommend it. But the last verse says: .
And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.
I recommend you read the whole poem, because then this verse would make sense. The whole poem is about that this idea that nothing can be perfectly right or perfectly wrong or entire in some way, this would be a construct, a fabrication. And as a result, life is much richer and more complex than these black and white positions that we are prone to adopt. And that is what I am trying to do in my work, in a small way, : Resist the idea of being on one side or another, because that can never be truthful. .
I am particularly struck with the ”Syria: across the Lines” documentary and you trying to transgress the border frontline of the conflict, Your method was to build the parallel narrative for both sides, Is it one of the methods that you thing is accurate to show us as complex image as possible?
The important thing about the Syria film was not so much that that it showed both sides, but that it showed you a different side to the both sides. And I suppose I always have a desire to do that. The film I made in Gaza was consciously about ordinary people and not the men with balaclavas and guns. It was not about Hamas but people who live under Hamas.
I have to say I am quietly proud that I got to the specific two sides in that Syrian valley, to live in both villages that are enemies but which are so close to each other. Because actually it is quite likely I interviewed a man who was trying to kill me a few weeks earlier. And when I met him, I realized that despite the bad actions he may have committed, he was not a bad man. He believes in something that may not be true, and he may be misguided, but he is not evil. That is one thing that I enjoy about the Syria film: The first 8 or 12 minutes are focused on one side only, the side of the valley that is home to Sunni rebels. And as a viewer, you form an idea that when you cross the other side of the valley, the people who are living there will be bloodthirsty maniacs. And of course you get there, and nothing is what you expect – there is nothing either good or bad, but your thinking had made it so. I remember when I first met Ali-Ghazi, the commander of the Syrian army checkpoint, and he was one of the most gentle, warm-hearted, hopeful young men I met in the whole trip. And it is not to say he was not doing some bad things, just as many of the rebels I met were also doing bad things, but to see and feel first hand that life is more complex and less binary than our simple brains encourage us to think
When you try to get immersed in the reality of conflict zone, are you trying to put yourself somehow above it? Did you develop some kind of routine that makes you insensitive to some level of brutality of the reality you depict, which you do by the way in a very daring way. I remember the scene of graphic depiction of surgeries in “The Battle Hospital”or dead bodies in the documentary about Syria .
When I made „Battle hospital” 10 years ago, the popular discussion of Iraq at that time was that the war was kind of over, that a dictator had been brought down, and many people saw the benefit of this, that it justified the war in some way. And I suppose I wanted to contradict that there may have been a kind of resolution to this conflict but the reality is that little kids are having their legs blown off. I wanted it to be visually and mentally confrontational, and unflinching in its gaze, to challenge people to turn over, to dare them to switch off. I like the fact that people often walk out of that film as it is visually so horrendous. And I think they are not walking out of a film, they are walking out of reality of what war is.
Showing dead bodies… I don’t do it for fun, I don’t do it for the shock value in itself, but death and dying are in the nature of conflict and it is the reality for people there. If there were people dying but they were not being seen by the population I might be less inclined to show it, but the fact is that death and dying are for many day-to-day reality. You go and buy bread, someone will get killed, you go home and have lunch, it just is part of the rhythm of life, so the film had to reflect that rhythm of life if it was going to be honest. So I feel comfortable with the brutal reality of some of these scenes. I use graphic imagery with a lot of care and for reason. There are lots of moments when I would not show that stuff, but I do show it if it is honest. In terms of my own feeling about it, before I went to Syria or Iraq, I knew that for film to be honest it had to reflect what role horrendous scenes or horror was playing, and in a way when horrible things happen, often my first response is to be horrified, but my second response is well, that is what I came to witness, so I am glad to be present at this event, I am glad to be present here, so that I can make a more truthful film. When there is an attack, when dead bodies are pulled out of a hospital, although it is horrendous for me and it is a very unpleasant experience, it is almost an honour to be able to witness and document these things if this is what is happening.
I wonder about the personal impact of being exposed to such situations. I mean, did you notice any consequences of it on your personal sensitivity?
Firstly, I monitor my mental state very, very carefully. I am very sensitive to my own states of mind, so I think about it a lot and I monitor it a lot, in the same way that if I came back with a physical injury I would monitor that physical injury and would try to discern what the pain was, where it was, whether it was getting better or worse. I do exactly the same with my mental state. When I got back from the first trip to Syria, I did notice (and my girlfriend pointed this out) I was incredibly angry. . I found that she and I would get into arguments very quickly, I would have a temper, an anger that I had not noticed before, and once she had pointed it out to me, it was a very useful thing, and I realized ok, I said out loud, „this is how it affected me, I am really angr”. And I was very angry, I had seen things that have made me angry, and just vocalizing it and giving it a name was very very useful and it was helpful.
In 2006 I filmed a British soldier die in a back of a helicopter in Afghanistan, and that was the most traumatic thing I have ever experienced. And I came back in quite bad state. And the BBC very kindly offered to send me to a counsellor. I saw her 4 or 5 times, and at the end of these sessions this woman said something very simple and profound. She said: „If you had filmed a man dying and returned home completely normal, that would be worrying, that would be bad. What she meant was that I was having a normal reaction to an abnormal event, and that was a brilliant statement, and it released me from the difficulty of what I had seen and done.
When I came back from Syria and I was very angry, made sense of it by saying to myself: „look, if you filmed dozens of people being killed, of course you are going to be angry, it is the most normal reaction in the world – what is abnormal is the thing that you have seen.”, So that is the way i think about it. I am not addicted to these events, but I don’t mind that my film was in some way privileged enough to be able to witness them.
In one article about your work on „Mum and Dad are Splitting Up” you said that you bring a lot of personal sensitivity into your documentaries. Is it also one of the elements of your method trying to find in every new topic something that is directly touching your personal story?
That is what my partner has told me, she is an artist and a filmmaker and she says that I should always use my work to explore not just the subject but also myself, there is a dialogue between the film that you make and your own sensibility. And I find that really rewarding. So the divorce film was very, very personal. My parents divorced, and their marriage and the divorce were both very painful, so it enabled me to talk to the people in the film with a lot more honesty, and I talked very personally with them about my own experience. And so although the film is not about me, I think the film is very much informed by my experience, and similarly I think that although the Syria film is not remotely about me, I lived that experience very, very keenly and of course I wanted to feel moved by it. I sort of split my mind in two, on the one hand I am very thick skinned, and on the other hand I am very thin skinned.
How does it go with the relation to the characters? Do you sometimes like going out of position of the witness and trying to go further?
I stay in touch with lots of people from the films. It is very intense relationship that you have, and you have it very quickly. With that comes a lot of responsibility not to just „drop” people. It does come with some difficulties, I’ve made 30 films, and that is a lot of people with whom to have a very intense, brief relationship with. And it is frankly impossible to maintain this level of intimacy with people after the event.
But I also say to people: look, that is not the way it works and I am very honest about what I can and cannot do. I often go back, I have been to Gaza a few times to see the tea boy, I’ve often sent him money, I do what I can. But it is very important to have boundaries about instances of how much you involve yourself in peoples’s lives. People often want the same intense experience as being filmed, and I say I cannot do that. It is like the end of love affair, but you can still be friends.
Whole movie „Syria: Across the lines” available: HERE
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