I was invited to speak at Hay Literary Festival in 2017 about my many films on writers, mainly made for the BBC arts series, Imagine.
I talked about and showed clips from:
- Nawal El Saadawi: She Spoke the Unspeakable
- Salman Rushdie: The Fatwa Years
- Diana Athill: Growing Old Disgracefully
- Judith Kerr: Hitler, the Tiger and Me
- Toni Morrison Remembers
- Doris Lessing: The Hostess and the Alien
I was interviewed on stage by BBC Head of Arts, Jonty Claypole. These are my notes made in advance, on which I of course expanded, and from which I deviated according to Jonty’s questions. There were great questions from the audience as well.
People say it’s hard to make films about writers because they don’t DO anything, therefore there are no images, unlike of course with painters, who make visual images that you can use. So you have to film them writing, which is boring – which indeed it is. I did use one shot of Nawal El Saadawi writing, but that was handwriting in Arabic so not boring at all. And I also filmed her quietly working at her computer in her office in her flat high up above Cairo because it was beautiful, with the wind fluttering the thin red curtains, and she with her white hair peering intently at the screen.
But you don’t HAVE to film writers writing, because like visual artists, they make images – which you can draw on for the film. I read their work and build up a kind of image bank that I find IN their work, an image bank that THEY draw on – and use that as the bed for my film. I also draw out themes of theirs which I want to bring to life / illustrate. And I try to get a feel of their books and their life, and recreate that feeling on film.
You can take them back to places where key things have happened in their lives and their books. And of course what most writers have in common is that they tell stories – when Salman Rushdie wrote a memoir about his fatwa years, it was the perfect springboard for a film. And in his case, he was himself the story – the story of ten years on the run. I took him back to the house where he first went into hiding, not far from here in Hay.
Salman visiting the house near the Welsh border where Deborah Rogers, his agent whom he had just dumped, had graciously offered him shelter, saying ‘They know we have fallen out – they would never think to look for you here’.
Creating atmosphere, the feel of a thriller. Racing across the countryside, alone, in hiding, showing windows, doors.
Another significant place for Salman Rushdie was Cambridge – he first heard the story of the Satanic Verses when he was studying history at Kings College Cambridge. I took him back to Kings and used shots of him wandering round there as a way of showing that story – when speaking of the Kaaba at Mecca, we showed the huge fountain in the centre of the first courtyard at Kings, statues there echoing the icons that Mohammed rejected at the gates of Mecca.
I also took Salman to meet the historian who had told him the story of the Satanic Verses, by then retired and very elderly. It was a genuinely touching moment and made people who sometimes dismiss Salman as a bit cynical or smug, like him much better!
I try to keep it personal, observational, go for feel of something really happening on screen, real encounters – not all set up and formal. And find evocative images – from their lives, and from their writing .
With Diana Athill, strong images that recur in her work stem from the rather grand country house where she spent much of her childhood. I took her to the peach garden there that she loved in her childhood, and also to the boarding school she went to on the North Norfolk coast.
And I filmed her doing things she does today – at a life drawing class in Highgate, and talking with friends at the old people’s home where she is unusually happy to live. These images can weave through a film, taking on more meaning as it grows. It is not straight biography. I try to make it not just ‘and then and then’ but to go for meaning and emotion. Diana was jilted by a boyfriend during the war and never really recovered – that rejection surfaces often in her work. She was very canny about metaphors. When I had the jilting story read in the film, I used black and white archive of two swans diverging on the Norfolk Broads. She loved her film – her only criticism was ‘too many swans’!
I nearly always go back to childhood as often – always? – it’s the root of the work.
Judith looking through her own childhood drawings, which she had done in Berlin before the family had to flee in 1933.
I knew that the film with Judith Kerr would work when I filmed that scene – it was the very first time that I met her – her rare ability to BE in her childhood – not just to remember it but to relive it. She could remember those drawings so well – every detail of what she was trying to do, and where she had failed.
When we took Judith to the back garden of the house where she was brought up in Berlin, she remembered challenging God to prove he existed, as though she were doing it right then, on film.
She sort of zoned into the past – as though it were NOW, not 80 years ago.
Doris Lessing too had this ability to go back in time – when she recalled her father’s voice telling her, a Nobel Prize winner, not to have ideas above her station, it was as though he were saying it to her right now, and she was cowering before him again.
I was lucky with Judith because she was very well physically & could go places. It is harder of course to make a first person, present tense drama if the subjects can’t DO things for the film – for example Doris and also Toni Morrison: neither was any longer very fit (and both hugely successful novelists and Nobel Prize winners, neither was at all in need of having a film made about themselves, so had no reason to put themselves out!). It’s a challenge when the subject is less mobile. Basically, you have sit-down interviews. I always make sure I have two, for a start, on different days. With luck they will get to like you and relax a bit. And the film will have more texture, more variety.
The intro to ‘Toni Morrison Remembers’
As action-in-the-world with Toni Morrison, I filmed her giving a speech to a huge crowd in New York – she was full of life and humour, so dramatic, hugely loved and admired. Apart from that, I had to make the most of the meetings at her flat and at her writing retreat, and to use archive and my own specially-shot footage – for example, to evoke her childhood. I filmed the lake where she was forbidden to swim as a black child, to accompany a reading about that from The Bluest Eye. I filmed at a school, which is now named after her, in her home town of Ohio, and filmed the river across which slaves like Beloved escaped from South to North. Used photos and context archive.
Trying to make the film move when the subject doesn’t very much. Same issue with Doris
From ’Doris Lessing: The Hostess and the Alien’ – handheld, chatting in her kitchen and showing old family photographs
My main aim was to make it intimate and for it to feel as if something is happening on screen.
I had seen Doris Lessing in previous films looking like the Queen Mother giving an audience from on high – very formal. So I chose to film her handheld in her kitchen so we could move around her and see her ‘natural habitat’, which luckily was cluttered and messy – very expressive. I asked Alan Yentob, presenter and series editor of imagine, to make tea for her while they chatted. They got on very well, which made the scene very relaxed.
With Doris, to inject movement where there might have been none, one thing I did was to film her family photographs handheld across her and Alan’s shoulders so that there was movement there too (making sure I also got jpegs to hold onscreen for longer). In the edit I spiralled off the conversation in the kitchen and these old photos from what was then Rhodesia into readings, archive etc so that the viewers got a really good sense of Doris’s personality through her domestic surroundings, giving it a documentary feel not just a ‘talking head’ show. We followed the cat out into the garden – Alan and Doris stood watching on the balcony – that cat in the North London garden led us in the film to the wild animals that Doris used to see in the veldt as a child. Likewise, when filming Alan on a train going to a reading group in Liverpool to meet a woman whose life had been changed by reading Doris’s work, I had him gaze out of the window to see …..footage I had recently shot for a Christian Aid-funded film in southern Africa – drought – poverty – women – children – the struggle for survival – some of the main themes in Doris’s work.
One theme often becomes obviously very important in a film –with Nawal El Saadawi, FGM was crucial in her life – and in her writing. It wasn’t just a horrible thing that happened but it shaped her life, her anger, her determination, her feminism, her art.
Leyla Hussein reading a passage from Nawal’s memoirs about FGM
In Nawal’s film, I asked the interviewees to do the readings – and I chose interviewees who had a strong personal link to Nawal’s ideas. Three were younger women inspired in their activism and feminism by her example (Deeyah Khan, Mona Eltahawy and Leyla Hussein) – the other was Margaret Atwood. I rarely interview literary critics or historians who don’t have some connection to the writer and their ideas. Personally I find long readings from books in films boring & hard to follow. I do use readings but I try to integrate them into the image bank of the film – for example, with Nawal, I spent a long time doing shots in Cairo and in her home village, which I knew would work with readings from her books – a scrawny horse being beaten in the street, a little girl playing with Coke tins in the sand in the street. Stand-ins for her and for other Egyptian women and girls.
We took Nawal back to her village – where she was subjected to FGM, where she played by the Nile, where she has helped build a library – it was so vivid to her. I drew parallels with children there now, but she had such a direct, child-like quality herself too – rather like Judith and Doris. I try to bring out what matters about their work so that viewers want to read them.
I generally choose subjects I admire and want viewers to know more about. The films are somewhat biographical but I try not to be A, B and then C, they were born and studied and wrote and then they died or got old or stopped writing. I only bring in biographical detail that has a point, that is part of a whole, that resonates.