Stories from the Margins – Penny Woolcock
(Some of this will be rather repetitive if you have read about some of the individual films but there are a couple of ideas in it about how I have been informed by social anthropology. I specially like Evans Pritchard’s account of interviewing a Nuer tribesman. It makes me laugh in its hopeless circularity. When I was researching 1 Day I had many conversations like this:
“I am making a film about life in the hood. I am researching in order to write a script about it and then I will come back and film it here. Can you tell me about your life? ”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well I need to know what I am writing about before writing the script.”
“ Why do you want to know about my life?”
“So I can write the script. Do you want to be part of the movie?”
“Yeah. But why are you asking questions?”
“Because I need to write the script?”
“Why are you writing this script?”
“I want to write a fiction but based on proper research.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well in order to write the script ….” And so on and on.
We tell stories about ourselves and our work and our place in the world to each other all the time. But this is a story I’m telling for the first time.
When Paul Henley asked me to give this lecture, it made perfect sense, because although I have mostly made films on housing estates about people punching each other’s lights out, I’ve been secretly very influenced by anthropology. So I’m sorry if anyone came tonight hoping that for once they could escape all mention of it.
When I was in my early twenties I read voraciously and in a completely undisciplined way, the way a lot of young people do, trying to find out what I needed to know. My life was chaotic at that time; I grew up in the very conservative Anglo-Argentine community and found it completely stifling emotionally and intellectually. I rebelled, ran away from home and after a series of adventures ended up having a baby in Barcelona when I was nineteen. Having been brought up to become a respectable wife and mother I eventually found myself in the United Kingdom, surviving on social security and living a very peripatetic and precarious existence on the margins, a place I only visit as a tourist now. I lived in this way for over fifteen years until I discovered film making.
Among the books I stumbled on and read avidly were two anthropological texts, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift and The Nuer by Evans Pritchard. Of course I read other things too but these are the ones I want to remember today. (I remember for example staying up all night to finish Mrs Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ – but it occurs to me now that there were many parallels, both personally and anthropologically since it is about a middle class girl who is forced to leave her protected life and travel North to the slums of Manchester. There she comes truly to life by engaging with a community of impoverished factory workers, light years away from the Anglican vicarage of her childhood.)
THE GIFT by Marcel Mauss taught me that something which appeared to be utterly familiar – the giving of presents – could be concealing layers of meaning. This book shook me to the core. I knew as we all know, that giving presents is a generous, voluntary act. That receiving gifts, especially things you need or desire is a source of unalloyed pleasure. But I also absolutely knew that my experience of these things was not quite that simple and that receiving presents could sometimes make me resentful. When I was very poor and in my early twenties a kind wealthy woman often gave me her cast off clothes, clothes I hated. The giving of gifts is a kind of contract and it draws you into a relationship with another person which you may relish or want to wriggle out of. The debt it engenders can link you to others in a satisfying way but it can also be a way of establishing power relations by establishing debts which cannot be repaid. Mauss even suggested that something as intimate as a man giving a present of jewellery to his wife was a concealed payment for her sexual services.
Now all this can read very mechanistically, as if Mauss is simply denying that there is any such thing as a free lunch. Any Hollywood agent could tell you that. But he’s telling us something much more complex and beautiful. Gifts are a way in which we bind ourselves to each other. ‘In short, this represents an intermingling. Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together, and this is how, among persons and things so intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together. This is precisely what contract and exchange are.’
So what I got from this book is that it’s worth looking twice at things you think you know very well and I still try and do that.
Another influence which has lasted the course was THE NUER by Evans Pritchard, a monograph about a semi-nomadic, cattle herding tribe in the Sudan. Pritchard lived with and wrote about a group of people who appeared to be completely unknowable and exotic – naked, living with their cattle, drinking their blood and believing they could communicate with the spirit of lineages through their oxen. Different. Other. Unknowable. Somehow what he did in that book was to render the Nuer ordinary.
Although Nuer language had no vocabulary for speaking about the lives we live, it had, for example, several hundred words about the colour permutations of a cow. I can’t tell you how revolutionary this simple observation was for me. It’s about respecting other people’s wisdom, acknowledging that they can have a subtle and vast knowledge about different things. They know about things which are important to them. I suppose I felt rather lost and at sea in the world and this book suggested to me that however bewildering it might appear, the world was a place you could try and understand.
Leni Reifenstal who directed the great fascist propaganda ‘Triumph of the Will’, took up photography when she was unable to secure funding for her films after her Nazi patrons were defeated. She turned her camera on the Nuba in the Sudan. Her photographs are beautiful, pictures of magnificent Noble Savages, beautiful well oiled young men wrestling with each other. They inhabit a different universe, unsoiled by western decadence and totally beyond our ken. We can worship, we can mourn their passing but we cannot hope to understand. It’s a thoroughly reactionary project.
Rereading The Nuer for this lecture I was struck by how dated much of it was, how unlovely and uninspired, even boring but it pulled off the tremendous feat of levelling the Nuer and by implication ourselves too.
I’m sure that academics could easily pull it apart. Even on the grounds of gender alone – Pritchard only glimpses the girls and women milking every now and then for example - but there is something inspiring about his earnest quest. I was impressed by the whole notion of fieldwork. The idea of leaving home and setting off to find a small microcosm, trying to figure out how it works and using this knowledge to cast light back onto the more complex metropolis in which we live. In an unfamiliar place you have a fresher eye, things which appear mundane or random in the everyday begin to form patterns and offer explanations. Victorian and Edwardian anthropologists generally travelled to far away places and studied pre-industrial societies while I normally just head off down the road but I do try and keep certain formal things in mind.
THE WET HOUSE. I’ve always lived on the edge of middle class areas, in places where one kind of area crosses over into somewhere else. On the margins if you like. And somehow these fluid neighbourhoods – I now live on the Holloway Road in London - have always attracted congregations of street drinkers. For years I’d been curious about what lies behind those crumpled, bashed about faces. In a sense both The Nuer and the Gift came into play here. Street drinkers look totally alien, even frightening, they shout incomprehensibly, they throw punches and anyone who lives in a city steps over or crosses the road to avoid them every day. They are both totally familiar and totally other.
Initially I started researching close to home but this didn’t seem very sensible and I heard about a wet hostel in the East End and decided to go there in order to get to know the street drinking scene in that area. A wet house is a hostel where residents are permitted to continue drinking. Residents are people who cannot or will not stop drinking and are quickly excluded from other dry hostels. Many of them are elderly; in street terms this means anyone over forty since the rates of attrition on the streets are devastating and they are simply too frail to survive outside.
My assistant Rachel Das and myself walked in on the first day. A man we later knew and loved as Willy the Wig dropped his pants and collapsed in the doorway to the common room. We stepped over his naked body and into a big bleak space where lots of scary men seemed to be shouting and hitting each other with blue cans of Tennants Super. A man with almost no face, burnt, claw like hands and snot pouring down his face came and held my hand. I was shocked.
Something like this...this is dinnertime at the Wet House.
(At this point in the lecture there was a four minute excerpt from The Wet House. Geordie Tom makes a fuss about his dinner and is punched to the floor by Peter the Painter. Chaos ensues as everyone else gets involved and there’s a lot of yelling and incompetent throwing of punches, including Belfast Tommy threatening to ‘rip your fucking head clean off’. Denis’s dinner is smashed onto the floor and Willy the Wig sings a little refrain before two members of staff eventually restore calm.)
This is only one scene in the film which does have different textures and many calmer more reflective moments. It shows something apparently chaotic and lacking in order. As a result of spending time there, we understood things differently – apart from anything else, all the shouting and threats cleverly disguise the fact that virtually no real violence ever takes place and what there is, is ineffectual.
There were of course ethical considerations. How to gain meaningful permissions from people who were always paralitically drunk was my main concern. There were various legal hoops we needed to jump with Providence Row, the charity which runs the hostel, but I was more concerned about the residents. We went to a meeting early on where residents had gathered to hear what we had to say. I had prepared quite a long speech but realised it was completely unrealistic and ended up blurting out: ‘I’d like to make a film about you. Would it be ok if Rachel and I came and talked to you for a month or two so we can all get to know each other and decide whether this would be a good idea?’ There was a lot of affirmative yelling. I think people liked the idea of women coming to chat with them. The staff member asked if there were any questions and Rab marched to the front of the group and announced. ‘Yes. I want you to know I like the cunt and not the arse!’ We had no idea whether anyone had understood a word I’d said.
Well after this Rachel and I went almost every day for two or three months. We got to know people and they got to realise that we would be making a film which would show them as they were on national television. After a while we didn’t see the snot and the blood and the terrible disfigurements. We got used to sitting on urine soaked chairs and gradually feeling our trousers get wetter and wetter – and after eight hours of this and spit (when your front teeth have been knocked out by falls you spit a lot) and cheap cigarettes, Rachel and I were so rank we could easily clear a tube carriage during rush hour. We realised we had crossed an invisible barrier one day when we were sitting in our usual splendid isolation and I informed Rachel rather smugly that she smelt particularly bad. ‘So do you’, she replied. ‘And what’s more you have a green slimy stripe all down the back of your black fleece.’ ‘Oh that’s just where Willy the Wig licked my back’, I replied airily. We thought we were probably losing the plot.
We loved them and were interested in their lives. The men loved to talk to us too, I lost count of the many times they said ‘it’s nice to talk to someone who doesn’t think I’m an animal’. This made it more important that they understood what they were letting themselves in for. We explained that it was possible that children or siblings they had lost touch with might see them as they are now – and nobody had any illusions about being a tramp. They knew exactly what they were. We asked people to sign release forms and then tore Jock’s up in front of everyone when he got worried about his sister. And continued talking to him so everyone could see there was no punishment for making that decision.
What we discovered was that in this apparently chaotic little microcosm there was of course a perfectly functional social order. When you pass the same small group of drunks on a park bench day after day, what you are seeing is a drinking school. Each member of a school takes turns to buy the drink on the day they cash their giro – in effect it’s an informal banking system. Each one on their own would drink the lot in a day and suffer from the DT’s the rest of the week, together they make sure they are covered. These systems rely on trust and many of them had been imported from the street into the Wet House. Rab, Car Park George and Uncle Tony worked one of these systems in the wet house, just as they had done on the street for many years. Car Park George and Belfast Tommy also had another overlapping school which included Big Sean.
There was also a hierarchy and people were very carefully ranked within it. Everyone understood their place. There were men who had authority – like Belfast Tommy. And others with low status like John Macdonald. Talking to us was prized so if I wanted to talk to John then Rachel immediately had to slip over to entertain Tommy otherwise he would hit John. John’s low status pertained outside the Wet House. He would get ‘taxed’ by homeless people on the way back from cashing his social security. And this taxing system works among homeless street people too. When you walk past people selling the Big Issue or begging by cash machines, each of those spots are ranked in order of how lucrative they are and there will be a Taxman – probably a crack or smackhead – who does his rounds, demands his cut and deals out retribution if it’s not forthcoming. So death and taxes are inevitable whether you’re homeless or not.
I keep talking about men. There were two women in the hostel but this was unusual and one of them was a gluesniffer rather than a drinker. I had expected to find ‘there for the grace of God go I’ stories, terrible things which would have propelled any of us out of the safety of civil society and onto the streets. But actually many of the stories were surprisingly low key, the death of a parent, the breakdown of a relationship. Things which happen to all of us and which most of us manage survive. Some people can’t manage the dramas and traumas of everyday life and I don’t know why.
Jock had left the hard drinking culture of the army where everything was provided, food, accommodation, things to do. He continued drinking, his wife left, he stayed with a friend, then with the friend of a friend and then one day he couldn’t find his way back and he was on the street. A mournful little tragedy, not an epic one but true. Many of the men were ex-soldiers. (There is a statistic that a third of people on the street are ex-army and another a third have been in care. Apparently quite a proportion of young men in care go into the army so perhaps the ‘care’ proportion is even higher than it appears.) There was Michael Chandler who had been a Lieutenant in the Irish Army and had killed a man in the Congo in self defence while being part of the UN peacekeeping forces. Instead of maps and rules of engagement in the man’s pockets he had found photographs of his wife and children. Michael had never allowed himself to get over this. He was a good man.
Many of the drinkers were from Scotland and Ireland and some of them were old soldiers from the paramilitary organisations – the UDA and the IRA. They had all washed up together in the Wet House and they no longer cared about politics. Belfast Tommy would shake and shout about the terrible things he had done when in the UDA but his best friend was the Big One. Sean, a Republican. They just didn’t care any more. They were all casualties of war.
A huge revelation was that far from being a threat to us, to the innocent passers-by, street people are in fact hugely at risk from us. Every single person there had been attacked. In the East End apparently an initiation rite for new members in some gangs is to kill someone and a homeless drunk is an easy target. But it seems that other ‘normal’ people beat them up for fun without fear of retribution. Everyone talked about posh City men in suits dishing out a kicking as well as young men after closing time. Michael Chandler had petrol poured over him and was set on fire as he tried to sleep in an abandoned building. Ugly stories.
My friend Leo watched the film. The following day he was on the tube when a street drinker got on. He said that normally he would have felt threatened and moved away. But after watching the film he thought, ‘oh ok’, smiled a greeting at the man and stayed where he was. And that’s enough for me.
The Wet House was a conventional documentary, a mix of actuality and interviews. But I’ve always been interested in different ways of telling stories.
TINA GOES SHOPPING.
One of my other obsessions has been with the culture on housing estates. These are communities with their own morality and economy which thrive largely outside civil society. They were built to provide workers for heavy industries, the industries have vanished leaving these communities behind, often in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. But the lack of jobs hasn’t left a vacuum, something else, something vibrant, a black economy has replaced it and I spent years trying to figure out how to make a film about it.
My first film, ‘When the Dog Bites’ was about Consett outside Newcastle - a little community on top of a hill surrounded by a wasteland where the steelworks used to be. Then I made ‘Shakespeare on the Estate’ on the Ladywood Estate in Birmingham, ‘Mad Passionate Dreams’ in Penrhys in the former coalmining Rhondda valley, ‘Macbeth on the Estate’ in Birmingham again and finally ‘Tina Goes Shopping’ and ‘Tina Takes a Break’ in Leeds. And that’s where I finally found a way of telling the story I wanted to tell. (I am currently embarking on ‘Mischief Night’ which will be the third in the Tina trilogy.)
I wanted to see if I could make a film which could say some of the things the Daily Mail says about an essentially criminal subculture but from the inside out. Where the Mail is judgmental about ‘scroungers’, I am fascinated. I wanted to make a film without a bleeding heart, that wasn’t bleating about defeated folk longing for the old days and waiting around for someone to give them a job. I wanted to do with the respect and love I felt for the energy and imagination with which people invent themselves into survival. The left has tended to present a sentimental picture of the disenfranchised and dispossessed which I find untrue and even patronising. People don’t like being pitied and seen as victims.
It was difficult to make this as a conventional documentary without betraying the people I had befriended. After all I wasn’t making a judgment on how people were getting by, I was wanting to understand it. After many attempts which skirted around the illegalities I thought of another way in which I might translate this lived experience into film. Peter Dale became head of documentaries at Channel 4 after being a terrific film maker himself so he really understood the difficulties and had liked my work. (This was lucky for me. And you need to work hard but you do need luck as well.) I told him I wanted to make my film as a fiction with all the parts played by people who were living that life. I didn’t know if I could pull it off but Peter knew that I would give it my all and he was prepared to take a genuine risk. And a risk is not a risk unless there is a genuine risk of failure.
Gaining access to these very closed worlds is not easy. They’re not on the way to anywhere, so outsiders generally only parachute in on punitive missions, to take people’s children away, accuse them of fiddling the Social or arrest them. Initially you are foisting yourself on people who just want you to piss off. You are shunned. It’s lonely and awful.
I came across this in The Nuer: ‘When I entered a cattle camp it was not only as a stranger but as an enemy, and they seldom tried to conceal their disgust at my presence, refusing to answer my greetings and even turning away when I addressed them’.
I have experienced this many times. As a rather shy person I would generally rather die than push myself into places where I am not welcome, but in a work context I can somehow go against my nature, keep the faith and persevere.
And so with Evans Pritchard. Everything goes terribly wrong with all his arrangements, remember this is 1930’s, his servants flee, he has no food and the Nuer insist that he live with them as an equal. Here’s a conversation he reports:
‘Questions about customs were blocked by a technique I can commend to natives who are inconvenienced by the curiosity of ethnologists:
I. Who are you?
Cuol: A man.
I. What is your name?
Cuol: You want to know my name?
Cuol: You want to know my name?
I. : Yes, you have come to visit me in my tent and I would like to know who you are.
Cuol: All right. I am Cuol. What is your name?
I: My name is Pritchard.
Cuol: What is your father’s name?
I: My father’s name is also Pritchard.
Cuol: No, that cannot be true. You cannot have the same name as your father.
I: It is the name of my lineage. What is the name of your lineage?
Cuol: Do you want to know the name of my lineage?
Cuol: What will you do with it if I tell you? Will you take it to your country?
I: I don’t want to do anything with it. I just want to know it since I am living at your camp.
Cuol: Oh well, we are Lou.
I: I did not ask you the name of your tribe. I know that. I am asking you the name of your lineage.
Cuol: Why do you want to know the name of my lineage?
I: I don’t want to know it.
Cuol: Then why do you ask me for it? Give me some tobacco.
There’s not really any mystery about how to do it. It’s just a slog. The technique is to immediately make yourself known in any public place you can find – because you can be sure that from the minute you set foot in the place you’re being watched and everyone is wondering who you are. So you go to the pub and tell the landlord what you’re doing. You go to the shop. You go to the community centre and tell them your story. ‘I’m from Channel 4 bla blab la.’ In this way at least your version of the story is circulating along with the alternative versions about you being ‘a slip’. I don’t change the way I speak or dress, I’m a terrible liar and anyway I hope that a middle class and middle aged woman doesn’t really look like an undercover policewoman. And being a woman is an advantage – at least the question of whether or not anyone can beat you up is disposed of without having to investigate the matter any further.
And there’s no master plan either. I found the location for Tina Goes Shopping by taking off up the MI with Nicholas White who had helped me on Shakespeare on the Estate. We turned off at the signpost to Leeds on a whim, got lost in Holbeck, went to the pub, asked about estates in Leeds and were told ‘whatever you do don’t go to Halton Moor’. Nick groaned because I knew I’d want to go straight there.
It was probably the most difficult place I have ever worked in. People were very suspicious and it took me a long time to break the ice. Nick abandoned me (we’re still friends) after asking me why I wanted to tell this story. ‘Because it’s true.’
‘In whose interest is it that you tell the truth?’
This was a good question and I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. His fear was that I would be exposing all the illegal shenanigans and playing into the hands of the tabloid right wing. Then another researcher didn’t feel well. The third had a panic attack. It was awful. We arrived and found the big long pub full and very lively. Everything went quiet and we walked up the bar being stared at by people who wouldn’t catch our eye. It was a long, long walk. The bar man didn’t want to serve us and I eventually foisted myself on a group of people who clearly didn’t want us to speak to them. There was a period of false bonhomie and then my researcher asked an indiscreet question about where he could buy cheap tobacco. Perhaps other people work differently but I would never initiate the very first conversation about illegal things, I’d wait for it to be introduced. I’d signal that I was open to talking about anything by throwing out general fishing line statements like ‘I want to make something which really tells the truth about what goes on’. Anyway, this inquiry didn’t go down well, people turned their backs on us and the atmosphere became threatening and icy. The researcher became more and more anxious and then exploded accusing everyone in the pub of spiking his drink. Somehow we managed to make a very undistinguished getaway and ended up at the Accident and Emergency. His heart rate was off the scale but the doctors confirmed that no spiking had taken place.
I ended up doing the research on my own and apart from some minor damage to my car which meant the passenger door never opened again, and an incident when four men in balaclavas stole my dv camera it was uneventful and lonely. There were lengthy periods where I wondered what the hell I thought I was doing lying awake reading PG Wodehouse in a horrible cheap hotel with no telephone or windows, no side light by the bed, dirty sheets and huge dogs prowling around the corridors at night. Eventually I met Gwen, a woman I liked and who liked me. (And although film relationships are odd they are no less real for that and we are still friends.) She introduced me to her friends and things got much better. I saw things go down and didn’t report them and then people let me in a bit more. I suppose you have to decide for yourself where you draw the line and what you would report to the cops and I guess I drew it quite far away – at rape and murder. I’m not entirely sure about murder either. I can’t defend this, it just happens to be true. There was a night when I was with some heavy guys and everyone was steaming on cocaine and power drinking and being very indiscreet. It crossed my mind that there would be big questions the following day about who I really was and what I was really doing and I hastily shovelled some very good cocaine up my nose in front of everyone so they would have something on me too. But generally I wouldn’t join in, it seems dishonest. I am working and everyone needs to understand that. It’s a fine line.
On a housing estate ‘everyone you know knows everyone else you know’. I think it was Orlando Patterson who pointed out that this is one of the strongest indices of lack of social mobility. It means that you are locked into your social and economic universe. But for me it also meant that once I got to know a couple of people I quickly got to know a lot more. I would lay everything I possess on a bet that this would not be true of a single person in this room. That even joined at the hip couples who have been married for decades will have circles of friends and acquaintances which spin off on their own.
Just as in the Wet House there was a hierarchy among the drinkers so this social universe has its own rules and stratification. In order to work you have to befriend the don/ the big man/ the godfather and get them to protect you or at least tolerate your presence. (And the term ‘don’ is used up and down the country and comes from Don Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather.) If you’re not connected you’re vulnerable. In Penrhys in the Rhondda Valley I met Larny in the Co-op on my second day. We had both experienced recent bereavements and were feeling raw about it and somehow ended up in tears together. This happened because it was me and her. It then turned out she was the mother of the Godfather and after that we could have left our equipment overnight in the middle of the road and nobody would have touched it.
I met Larny on the second day. On our first day someone had smashed a small window on our hire car and stolen two rubber ducks worth 50p and a second hand suit my Assistant Producer John Sergeant had bought for £2.50. I mentioned this to the Godfather in passing. Two weeks later he took me to one side. ‘I’m afraid I couldn’t retrieve the rubber ducks and the suit.’ ‘Honestly, I’d forgotten about them.’
‘But the man who did it has no teeth left.’ I was completely horrified and remonstrated with Sammy. He wasn’t having any of it.
‘I didn’t just do it for you, it’s disrespectful to me. Everyone knows you’re under my protection.’
‘But we didn’t know you then.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
The dealers are at the top of the pile – they’re the rich guys, like the entrepreneurs in the city or whatever – they have money, nice cars, gold jewellery, pretty women – and everyone wants to be like them. At schools across the country in estate catchment areas boys will candidly reply they want to be ‘gangsters’ or ‘drug dealers’ when you ask what they want to do when they grow up. It’s the way it is. They don’t want a dead end job for minimum wage.
In the middle there’s a lot of juggling. People who fiddle a little, buy from the shoplifters and get by somehow. On one estate there’s a great racket recovering lost golf balls. As J.J. said in Halton Moor. ‘On this estate everyone has a grand, has just lost a grand or is about to get one. Apart from the working class.’ When I asked who they were he replied ‘Mugs with jobs’. People on three quid an hour.
One day half way through the Shakespeare on the Estate shoot outside the pub with the lads I had a conversation with Marko. He told me that they had put the word out so no one would steal our gear. I thanked him.
‘You really like your job don’t you Penny?’
‘I love it. I feel really lucky to have a job I love. I’m sorry that you don’t.’
‘Oh I love my job too.’
I was puzzled. ‘I thought you didn’t have one.’
‘I’m a thief.’
Marko explained that he was a professional shoplifter and that if I wanted anything I should pick out what I wanted in a shop, tell him exactly what it was and he nick it and only charge me half price. Ladywood was unusual in that the shoplifters were men but from there on, shoplifting services were something which interested me. On one estate people would go to the bookies to put in their orders but it was more commonly ‘the lasses’ in the pub and recently more likely to be ‘smackhead lasses’ who were driving the prices down for everyone else.
Then you have the toerags. At around 11 boys stop going to school and get into other things like twocking and robbing. They all have the haircut and the expensive trainers and the Berghaus jackets and they have a wonderful time. I always feel intensely irritated when people say that these boys get into trouble out of boredom and if only there were more ping pong tables everything would be all right. There is nothing boring about pinching any car you want, driving it around like a maniac and torching it. Boring is doing your homework and watching telly with your middle class parents. Once someone has experience that kind of buzz it’s hard to seduce them back into civil society. Of course long term prospects aren’t necessarily that great. Some of these boys will be in and out of prison for the rest of their lives. Some will get fed up and settle down. The cleverest will get what they want and become the dealers.
At the very bottom you have the smackheads and the rockstars who commit a lot of petty crime in order to pay for the gear. The dealers are very contemptuous of them mugging old ladies and that kind of thing. ‘These smackheads they’re too lazy to do a decent robbery.’
By the time I did my research in Leeds I had a fund of anecdotes and some understanding of how everything worked but I hung out some more and listened in a different way. I then wrote a script. It had a beginning, a middle and an end and was broken down into scenes. I wrote what people would talk about but didn’t write specific dialogue. (Some people were semi literate and anyway I didn’t want to watch them trying to remember lines. In any case they are much wittier than I am anyway. ) I also didn’t show anyone the script because I was afraid of them thinking about it too much and starting to ‘act’. I wrote parts for particular people within their emotional range. It’s hard to pin down what makes a good actor. Some people can do it and some can’t – personally like most people I become very self conscious and would find it impossible to even walk across a room normally if I knew I was being filmed. In some cases people were re-enacting scenes they had lived, in others it was just the context which was familiar. For example Kelli Hollis has never been a shoplifter but she has lived on an estate all her life and bought from shoplifters as a matter of course. I did tell everyone involved that there would be scenes of drug taking, a dead cow, children stealing cars etc so that nobody would feel they had been hoodwinked when they saw the film.
We did not rehearse, we’d turn up, Graham Smith the cameraman would change a lightbulb for a more powerful one if he couldn’t get a stop and we’d shoot. Everyone in the scene knew they had to get from A to B but they were free to do it in their own way and using their own words. The crew didn’t know what was going to happen either so this gave a feeling of things ‘really happening’ but it was a lie, just a technique. There was not a single documentary frame in the entire film. Then we would shoot the scene again about seven times, using different shot sizes, staying with different people so I could get enough coverage for editing later. When scenes are improvised they are always too long and you have to have the cover to shape the dialogue in the cutting room.
(A six minute series of excerpts from Tina Goes Shopping.
1. Queenie is berating her young son Simon for stealing a car when Tina arrives to take orders for her shoplifting expedition. Queenie orders things like Pampers. Tina leaves and the Washerman – one of Quennie’s debt collectors turns up. Queenie and her large family hide from him. Tina explains that seeing her auntie Queenie scraping and hiding from bills is what inspired her to start her own business...
2. The Toerags pester Moon until she gives them a few coins and they go to buy weed from the Don. He’s not impressed that they only have a fiver and gives them enough for a bong. He explains that he loves his job, he doesn’t want to be a bricklayer getting up when it’s freezing cold. He doesn’t want to be a concorde pilot either, ‘it’s a ball ache breaking the sound barrier after the fiftieth time. Normal jobs are for plebs.’...
3. Much later Tina arrives home with a wedding dress she has nicked, dreaming of marrying her boyfriend Aaron. But Aaron has done a spot of cow rustling and there are huge lumps of meat and blood all over her kitchen and a cows head in her sink. They argue.)
I heard many stories about cow rustling, pig rustling, sheep rustling. Gwen who played Queenie told me she often used to come home and find a dead animal in the bath. Essentially this film is about not having a fiver – Gwen had told me about a leg of lamb she had bought off the back of a lorry and sold on for a fiver. The lamb had travelled half way around the estate for a fiver and she had eventually bought it back and cooked it. I turned the lamb into a piece of the cow Aaron had rustled and various women who were short of a fiver kept passing it on. This is really a tiny amount of money but I hope I managed to suggest that it was hard to come by without falling into the maudlin trap. On the other hand because it was funny I know some people didn’t get the more serious point at all but that’s a risk I was prepared to take.
The film was a success and seen as ground breaking and all that. It changed things for me as a film maker in that I didn’t have to work so hard to persuade people to let me do what I wanted. But crucially the people in it and other people on various estates took ownership of it and recognised themselves. ‘That’s us. That’s what we’re like.’ We screened the film for those who had taken part in a pub in Leeds in a neutral neighbourhood opposite Elland Road. Although Halton Moor had been at the centre of my research there were people from different estates in the film and the geography was imaginary too with shots from different areas. Most screenings are rather polite affairs, everyone sits quietly and claps reverently and at the end. This was different. Whenever anyone saw themselves or anyone they knew they cheered and hooted. Whenever other people were on screen they bought drinks and wandered off to the toilet. Then about half way through, some lads became enraged because they felt their Mum wasn’t being cheered loudly enough and chairs and tables went flying and it was like being in a brawl in a canteen in the Wild West. Several police cars arrived and I was hard pushed to persuade them that this was a film showing ant that everything was under control while surrounded by lads bellowing at the landlord: ‘We’re going to firebomb your pub and stab you, you fat fucker.’ But at least the brawl was about appropriating the film and it still circulates widely.
If Tina Goes Shopping was really about the black economy, the second film, Tina Takes a Break was about how children are brought up to survive in this world. I remember Gwen and Julie telling me. ‘If your kid comes in crying saying someone bullied them, you have to push them out the door and tell them to sort it out. It’s hard and it breaks your heart but if that kid becomes a victim they are dead in the water.’ I had heard a story about some little kids running away with an older lad with a big bag of money and having a wonderful time in Blackpool and I hung a harder story on this fairy tale.
Of course there is sadness but what fascinates me is the carnivalesque, roller coaster quality of life on the edge. Where people flout the rules, cock a snoot and laugh like drains.
Up to now I have been presenting all this adventure and exploration as a rather noble quest for knowledge. But of course there is another way of looking at it too. That it’s not a quest not for knowledge at all but for voyeuristic pleasure, masquerading as something noble. And that at least Big Brother and its many progeny are honest about that.
In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Stallybrass and White writing about the Victorian obsession with rescuing fallen women and the libidinous morals of the poor suggest, that it ‘encoded their own fascinated preoccupation with the carnival of the night, a landscape of darkness, drunkenness, noise and obscenity’. And perhaps the suburban upbringing I fled accounts for my greedy fascination with the lives of those who live in a less careful way.
People who don’t hold onto things and take care of them. They challenge the values of my very suburban, conservative upbringing in a deep way. And there is definitely a voyeuristic element to my fascination with those who flaunt the rules. Maybe I’m too scared to do it in my life any more and get a vicarious pleasure out of other people taking those risks but I find something liberating about being around people who don’t respect the same rules.
So I definitely have an unhealthy curiosity about lives that are not mine. But what is the alternative? To be interested in nothing but oneself and people like oneself? Because when this is what artists and writers and film makers are doing it has consequences. The loneliness of going out there and putting yourself at risk is of course avoided by those who make reality television shows which advertise for show-offs who want their fifteen minutes. So you make shows about how they react to being in a show and hope they shag each other and then you have another show with the failed contestants of the first one and then a show where the winner makes a pop single and then, obviously, a show where the winner gets to stand as an M.P. You can’t make this stuff up. And it will rot your soul. And we all watch them, but it is totally meaningless shit and too much of it is not a good thing.
And more seriously a culture which has no interest in anything other than consuming itself makes people who are different to us into the enemy. We only see them in the grotesqueries of daytime tv chat shows or on the news in moments of public fury or hysterical grief on the streets of Gaza or Bagdad. They’re not quite human. Not like us at all. They’re all suicide bombers or fat people anyway. And we avert our eye as we did when someone poured petrol and set an old street drinker alight.
The Death of Klinghoffer is the last film I want to talk to you about. This is an opera written by John Adams the American composer with a libretto by Alice Goodman. It’s about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner by four Palestinians. In the course of the hijack a disabled American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer was shot dead and thrown overboard. The opera attempts not to excuse but to understand this pointless savage act from all sides. It starts with the chorus of the Exiled Palestinians: ‘My father’s house was razed/ In 1948 when the Israelis/ Passed over our street’.’ The Palestinians end with a howl of rage: ‘’We’ll take your stones/And break your teeth.’ This chorus is immediately followed by the Chorus of the Exiled Jews, a beautiful elegiac lament from a people who are coming to rest in a place of safety after the horrors of the holocaust. And there you have it. Two completely understandable and irreconcilable claims to the same small piece of land.
And the connection between this and the Wet House may seem tenuous but to me the same impulse lies at the heart of them. The urge to understand, to go in close and look at things that don’t make any sense. There are days when I can’t bear to read or watch anything about the world we live in and others when I can’t do anything else.
It’s very difficult to choose excerpts from films one has slaved over to craft. This was the hardest, the music made it feel even more like butchery. I have chosen three pieces from different parts of the film from the Palestinian story because it is less familiar. But you’ll have to trust me that the Jewish story is told too. (Decca have released a DVD of The Death of Klinghoffer so you can see the whole thing if you want to.)
(There followed a six minute excerpt from The Death of Klinghoffer.
1. The beginning of the Palestinian chorus which shows Palestinians being forcibly ejected from a village in 1948. This was specially shot black and white footage because there is no archive material of the emptying of over 600 villages.
2. Mamoud the most thoughtful of the hijackers spends the night on the bridge with the Captain of the Achille Lauro. He sings about his mother being driven away from her home and later being massacred with his brother in the camps at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. This is accompanied by some archive of the massacre.
3. The deadline for the killing of a passenger arrives and Molqi the leader runs across the ship and brutally shoots Leon Klinghoffer dead.
What has really interested me in my film-making life is to try and tell stories from the margins in a truthful and humane way. It’s not The Truth of course. Just the best truth I can tell. This is a great place to give this lecture because you’re running a course which encourages students to do this.
And I hope that the film makers here will carry on going out there in that lonely way, putting yourselves on the line to look at whatever really interests you. And of course it is more difficult than advertising for people to be in your films – ‘You want to know my name?’ But the rewards are thrilling. And when you’re out there wondering, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Just remember that other people have been in that unenviable place before and that eventually people will tell you everything you want to know in the most generous way you can imagine. You know, you have to fight to do these films. Nobody will ever come up to you and pat you on the head and say ‘you look like a nice person why don’t you let me pay you to go off and do what you want’. You just have to go out there do it and if you pull it off the door keeps opening a little more easily.
And if there are people here who have to deliver ratings. I hope you’ll keep the faith – The Wet House was slung out at 11.30 pm on a Sunday night with no preview tapes, no press, no reviews no nothing. And it got 2 million viewers all from the gold dust 16-35 year olds. The schedulers were convinced nobody would watch it because it had no attractive young people taking their clothes off. So nobody knows anything.
There’s always a danger at these occasions to be full of doom and gloom but why? I feel really optimistic – there are still some great things on television, the whole BBC4 thing has sneaked up on the outside, there’s been an exciting resurgence of political theatre since the Iraq war and documentaries are having a massive success at the cinema. And we have to carry on finding ways of telling stories about the world we live in. Thank you.