Primetime Presents at BAFTA-qualifying at Aesthetica Short Film Festival
PRIMETIME PRESENTS: AN ASFF MASTERCLASS WITH SARAH GAVRON ft. SPECIAL GUEST ANU HENRIQUESCo-hosted with The British Blacklist
Victoria: Hello and welcome to tonight’s event, Primetime Presents: A Masterclass with Sarah Gavron and featuring our very special guest Anu Henriques, Associate Director on Rocks. My name is Victoria Emslie - I am an Actor and Founder of Primetime, the vetted platform for all the women working above and below the line behind the camera, making it as easy as possible for productions to find and hire women in every department. Joining me is my wonderful co-chair Akua Gyamfi, Producer, Entertainment Correspondent and Founder of The British Blacklist, a platform showcasing and giving home to the best of British Black talent across Film, TV, Theatre, Arts, Literature and much more.
Rocks has been hailed as the coming-of-age film you need to see, and is currently available to watch on Netflix. Joining BAFTA-winning Director Sarah Gavron is Anu Henriques, Associate Director of Rocks - and we couldn’t be more thrilled to spend this time with them both, firstly exploring Sarah’s career, then moving onto Rocks and the need for equality within our Industry. We will have 50 minutes of discussion and then open the floor for 10 minutes of audience Q&As so if you would like to ask something to one of our guests then type it into the chat box and the questions will be pre-selected for us by the team.
Let’s kick things off and I’ll pass over to my wonderful co-host Akua to get the questions rolling talking about moving from short films to features:
Akua: Thank you Victoria, good evening everyone, I’m so excited to be here. Let’s start at the beginning - Sarah, can you please tell us a little bit about how you started - what or who sparked your desire to become a Director?
Sarah: Yes, thanks! Good to be here with all of you guys. So I didn’t have the route in that some Directors had of going to Arthouse Cinema and seeing amazing films, or using Super8 cameras or video cameras in their childhood, I was really really unaware of what it was to be a filmmaker or even Film to be honest, through my teens and was interested in Drama at school, interested in Art and Politics, and that only really sythesized into an interest in Filmmaking in my very late teens, maybe early twenties, when I saw a few films by Female Directors and a few films about Britain and I suddenly thought, oh gosh, there’s a vision behind that: you could tell a story, and how exciting that is! You can bring together sound, music and image in intriguing, such powerfully moving ways. So I then started actively watching films. I did an English degree, and then I did a year’s Filmmaking course in Edinburgh College of Art where I made a few shorts and that really whetted my appetite. But then I went and became a runner, and a researcher in Documentaries for about 5 years; I worked in Documentaries, working my way up. But all that time, as much as I like Documentaries I was having thoughts of “I want to go back to Fiction”. So I applied to the National Film and Television School, and went there for 3 years to direct Fiction and that opened the door to directing Fiction from then on.
Victoria: You mentioned just now that you began making shorts as a lot of filmmakers do, how does this prepare directors for the transition from shorts to features. What were some of the things you learnt from your shorts that you bring into your work today?
Sarah: I think Shorts are a brilliant way to start. I mean there is no set route into Directing and people can do it in so many different ways, but I found Shorts really really useful because it’s lower stakes, you can try things out. You can, now, make them in much cheaper ways from when I was doing them as you can shoots them on your phone, edit with apps on your phone and try things out with your friends, which genres you like, what suits you, what works and make lots of mistakes, because the minute you get into the Features world or professional TV world, it’s much harder to make mistakes; and you learn from your mistakes. So I made 9 short films over my time, some independently with friends, and some in a Film School environment, and I definitely learnt so much from doing them.
Brick Lane Trailer:
Akua: Choice of projects is so often influenced by seeking continuation of or contrast with what has come before. You have worked in Documentary Film, short, and both Film & TV Drama. Can you tell us how your project choices have evolved through the context of what came. What makes you decide which direction to go into for your next project?
Sarah: Yes, it’s always a really tricky choice working out where to go next. I mean if you’re given the opportunity to make a film, it’s never easy to get the go ahead and get the funding on a film, so it’s partly a game of what will be made as well as what do I want to make. But, as you say it has often been a response to the last thing I’ve made and a response to where I’ve been in my life, what’s going on in the world, what I’m feeling and responding to, as I’m one of those Directors who has to be very emotionally involved in whatever subject I’m making. I don’t feel like I can be a Director-for-hire, brought on to any project and find my way into it somehow, I have to connect with it and feel like it’s a story I can tell and want to tell, or know how to tell in some way. So it is very varied, I just follow my intuition and go with what feels right; it’s the only guide in a way.
Victoria: You have said that you always start projects with a strong vision but you then allow that to be dismantled through the collaborative effort of the team. Can you talk about how important it is to be fluid in your vision, especially for women directors who might feel it is even more important for them to strongly maintain their individual voice in such a male-dominated industry?
Sarah: Yes, I think that there are many different ways of making films, and it is essentially a collaboration. You are working with a team always, and sometimes the Director holds the vision more and sometimes the team holds the vision more, it just depends. You get Writer-Directors who sometimes even edit their own work. I’ve always worked with Writers and have always really enjoyed the collaborative element of it and that has what attracts me to filmmaking, the way you build ideas and can’t anticipate the direction they will go. Sometimes you look at a scene on screen and you think, that’s the product of twenty people’s input, or maybe more even, sixty people’s input. Someone comes in within an idea for set design, someone for the script, and the performance and somehow it all builds into something beyond what you could imagine. I love that process, I love responding to that and listening to people, and having a conversation with my collaborators and working really tightly with them, like on Rocks, with a very un-hierachiacal structure, which I for me felt very creatively energising and appropriate for that project.
Akua: So in saying that it was a very un-hierachical project, as we know, the Industry rarely works in a linear way and projects can take a while to come to fruition. This next question is from Laura who asks: Your first feature was the critically acclaimed, BAFTA-nominated Brick Lane in 2007. It was 8 years before your 2nd drama feature Suffragette came out - to people outside the industry there’s probably a misconception that you make a film and then you just make another the next year, can you talk about the development you were doing between those films? Were there projects that looked like they may have come to fruition but didn’t? Did anything positive come out of projects that didn’t work out?
Village At The End Of The World Trailer:
Sarah: Yes so, between those two films I had a second child, which took me away from filmmaking for a period of time, and I also made a Documentary Feature for cinema called “Village At The End Of The World”, which I was a project I worked on with my partner and it was a project we could take our kids out to by then, during the making of it, which is never easy but with Fiction films it is such an intense process, and you’re on set and there are so many of you that is it hard to combine it with anything else at all. Which is why that worked. But yes, I have certainly gone through the experience of developing things that haven’t happened, working on ideas. I think you always benefit from that process no matter what and they feed into something else or you return to them. Lots of people in this Industry will have worked on things that haven’t happened for one reason or other and so you have to go with that. But I’ve certainly been told that I take things slowly, and that is because of personal, family reasons. There was a project that in some respects I look back on and think is was like me trying to do Rocks many years ago which was about unaccompanied refugee children, and I got quite far with it. But it just wasn’t the right time for one reason or another for me to make that film but you know I took a lot of the thinking around collaboration and working with young people into Rocks, and when we formed the team, I was bringing a lot of the ideas I’d thought about from then in terms of finding the young people first and building it around those young people. So, I think everything feeds into everything.
Victoria: When you find a project you love, who do you go to first, who is the person or group who you bounce ideas around with - has that changed over the years and what is your opinion on long-term collaborators compared with widening our inner circles to ensure the inclusion of new voices which we desperately need within the Industry?
Sarah: Yes, as you say that’s a really important point actually, because there is so much to be gained from that, and I learnt that so much on Rocks, we benefitted from these new voices, from people who it was their first time in filmmaking, they brought so much to it and I was really in the position of learning more than they were often. But I have had people I have surrounded myself with, who I’ve been lucky to work with, who have supported me and hopefully I’ve supported them. One of them is Faye Ward, our Producer, who was on Brick Lane, on Suffragette and on Rocks, and now has a company called Fable Pictures, where Anu works, which is where I met Anu. We have a great relationship where we can exchange ideas, and I feel like she is a safe place where I can take any idea. I think also as a woman filmmaker, especially in the early days, I was often the only woman around on the set or rooms I went into, so it felt really important to me to have another woman to bounce off and Faye became that woman. There have been others, of course, execs, great execs along the way, Tessa Ross and Rose Garnett at Film 4, and recently Julia Rowe and at the BFI, there are some brilliant women there, and women in higher positions who really supported me in the early days.
Akua: Can you talk to us about your rehearsal process - has it changed over the years and have you ever cast an actor who has delivered a performance which is far from what you imagined for the character but has ended up defining that role for you?
Sarah: I mean, I love working with actors, and my thought about it is you have to respond to who they are and what they respond to best. Rather than coming in with a pre-conceived notion of how to rehearse, I always talk to them and see what works for them; some actors love rehearsing or love talking about the role and researching the role and building the character through that research process. Costume can be very important or visiting the place they inhabit, or building the relationships that they have with their families in the film, or anyone in the film, spending time with each other and spending time with the team, and so I like adapting to what feels like it’s appropriate for any given particular project. For Rocks it was a very specific process because we were casting and researching through the rehearsal in a way, and we were working with people who hadn’t acted before so it was a growing process of trust and getting to know one another which was very specific to that project.
Victoria: I guess on that note of adapting, we are currently in a very unusual situation being in the middle of a global pandemic, alongside the usual struggle of the industry, a lot of filmmakers out there will be feeling disheartened. What advice do you have for standing out from the crowd, and getting projects made that you feel strongly about at this really difficult time.
Sarah: Yes it is really difficult and I think we have to acknowledge that we are in a really difficult moment and know that everyone’s in a difficult moment, so it’s just one of those things were you have to survive, you have to survive financially, but also in terms of projects, it’s a good moment if you can, if you are in the position to, to develop ideas. For me, it’s a good time to be quiet and think, ok, explore and watch and read, explore new material, talk to people over Zoom, because it’s a difficult time to be out there Directing. But of course, not everybody is in the position to be able to do that. In terms of what you pursue, I think it’s really important to, one: I’ve always had the philosophy of taking opportunities when they come to me and pursuing lots of things even if they don’t turn out to be the right thing, so if someone rings me up and wants to have a chat about something, I’ll always ring them back and I’ll pursue ideas and listen to people even if it doesn’t instinctively feel right initially, I’ll go on a bit of a journey because sometimes they prove to be interesting and people challenge your ideas in intriguing ways. Then it’s about what feels right to you, that you feel comfortable in that environment and that feels true to you and that you can contribute to. So following your heart and also not being put off when people say no and rejection because you just need to learn that it’s part of the course and that it feels very personal and feels terrible, but it’s just what happens. I am not surrounded by a lot of established Directors who are now friends and it happens to them too even at this stage in their careers; it’s just something to get used to in this particular career.
Victoria: It is a time for connecting in a different way isn’t it and to find people who share the same sensibilities as you do who share your vision, in the hopes of something blossoming from there. And this is the perfect time to welcome Anu Henriques into our conversation, to talk to us about the huge success that is Rocks. Anu works across Development and Production at Fables Pictures, the Production Company behind Rocks and was the Associate Director on Rocks. Anu welcome! We will take a quick look at the trailer and then dive into some questions.
Akua: I mean, I’ve watched Rocks 3 times, and I want to say thank you, you guys made me cry a lot and that’s because of the authenticity and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I watched it with my daughter and we could connect and recognise ourselves in this portrayal of the young girls; I can’t find the words to say how important this film is to me and to many people who watched it. I think everyone agrees that your portrayal of school life in London is one of the most accurate portrayals we’ve seen on the big screen. Anu - How did the team go about creating the nuanced level of authenticity not only from a script point of view but also from actors for whom this was their first job.
Anu: I think Sarah’s touched on it a little bit, but from the beginning of the process there was a decision that Sarah made and that Faye made as well as the Producers, about the importance of building a story with and alongside the girls who you see at the centre of the film, and doing that from the very beginning of the process. The casting team led by Lucy Pardee and Jess Draker, met over one thousand three hundred young women from north and East London over a period of about a year. Then we worked very closely with the core cast of young women, and each other, for another period of six to nine months before we started filming. So I think, because of that process, there was an ownership taken on by the girls at the centre and they were part of the development and script development process in particular, so they were part of a workshops with the writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, along with the creative team to pull apart this narrative, and put it back together again together, so by the time we came to shoot I think that there was a level of comfort that they had with their characters’ journeys but also with each other. And that definitely comes through with the level of comfortability and authenticity which comes through and you see onscreen. Then there was a level of creating an environment on set which spoke to the authenticity and honestly which Sarah had mentioned before, both between the creative team and the cast and part of that I think came from the fact that we crewed up with 75% female crew so that when you looked behind the camera you saw people who looked like you in all sorts of roles. I think that was about creating an environment which felt safe to the girls, because I think when you feel safe, you feel confident and that confidence comes through onscreen. We also did some practical things on set, like we didn’t call “Action”, we didn’t call “Cut”, we let takes run; I think one of our longest takes was forty-five minutes which is quite rare, but it meant that we had three cameras rolling for some scenes, two cameras for most, one camera for a few. We had one hundred and fifty hours of footage plus all the phone footage that you see. It meant that the girls had freedom within each take to not do the same thing and to tell a slightly different story with each take which I guess was a massive challenge for Maya Maffioli, the Editor, but it also gives that level of complexity and nuance to every character that you see.
Victoria: Yes they really are completely electrifying performances to watch and you see these nuances in a way in which we haven’t seen before. Sarah, my question to you would be how important is it to go out there and connect with talent which might not necessarily have been discovered before, and how to you play that off against getting finance onboard which is so often dependent on getting high profile actors. How did you navigate that process on Rocks?
Sarah: Well in making a film about young people, and girls, which we wanted to, the place to go to wasn’t necessarily Drama Schools, there are some good young people working in Drama Schools but you find them in Schools and we wanted the kind of girls who we see around on our streets, in our schools, everywhere, and who we don’t see on our screens. We all taken about how, when growing up, we had never seen girls like these on our screens and why hadn’t we? So it was very much about going out there and seeing who was out there and who wanted to come on this journey with us and Anu said, Lucy Pardee and Jessica Straker did a lot of leg work on that and found some wonderful wonderful women who wanted to come on that journey with us. We really only wanted to build it with people who were up for it who committed to it because they would have to contribute so much, you know, it was such a big ask and they were so bold. In terms of financing a film which doesn’t have A-Listers, it certainly means you are working at a certain budget level, and it's a harder job for the producers to raise the finance. We did it in lots of different ways, we had supportive financiers in the BFI and Film 4 who were very interested in making films which break with a conventional way of making it, nevertheless, they had to be convinced of what we were doing so we did different ideas, we filmed a lot of our workshops, we cut together sequences from those workshops to show to the financiers so that they could see the kind of girls we were working with and the kind of ways we were working. So we took them on that journey with us in a way, and the finance was built over months you know we’d have a little bit of finance to so the research period, the a piece of finance to do the first casting and the first workshops and we built it up that way.
Akua: Anu, so what was it about Bukky, Kosar and the rest of the girls that really stood out to you guys in the casting process? Did the film take on a life you didn’t expect because of the girls you found?
Anu: I think that was what was so interesting about the project and one of the many reasons I wanted to work on it because we didn’t have any particular type of girl or particular narrative or path at the beginning of the process that we wanted to go down. All we knew was that we wanted it to be able what it meant to be a teenage girl living in London today and the only way to do that was to build it with them. So in some ways they brought absolutely everything of themselves to the project, and that’s why we wanted to go on this journey with them. But particularly with the cast that we seen on screen, Bukky and Kosar, all the other young women and D’angelou, who plays Emmanuel, Rock’s little brother, they had a particular level of professionalism and commitment to a journey that was constantly changing, constantly evolving and nothing was certain. They had a real level of respect for the story and for their characters which I think, it’s not like I didn’t necessarily expect it but, it was a really joyful thing to watch and grow over the process. They also brought a hell of a lot of the detail that you see in the film and the nuances that you see in the characters came directly from them. So there were some character details, like with Anastasia who plays Sabina in the film, at the time she was really into dance and DJ-ing and creating mixes, she also had a very particular dress sense and had hobbies around football and so those character traits were woven into the film and into her character. Similarly, with D’angelou, his love of dinosaurs and ability to take people on guided meditations was completely him. A lot of the improvised dialogue came from them obviously, so Affi, who plays. Yawa in the film when she gets to Hastings she refers to Hastings as the sunken place. That’s all her. Also in the set design: Kosar and her family, she’s Somalian, her family sat with the Art Department and the Producers and worked really closely with them on conceptualising what their family home was going to look like and so there were so many different levels that they brought to it which were joy. I think there was also a centering of joy as well, so we had talked a lot about the development process and the importance of centering joy, especially when you are telling a story about young Black and Brown women. Of course there’s struggle and there’s difficulty in Rocks’ life but we wanted people to leave the cinema feeling a real sense of hope for her future. I think you can have that in the back of your mind, but what comes through on screen is down to the girls and the magic they bought every single day of the project. I could go on and on about the things that they bought, but that’s just some of them!
Victoria: I think you’ve just summed it up - it was so magical to see and I wonder if Sarah you could talk to us about your Rehearsal process, from pre-production to production and then afterwards, the care of duty towards these young actors. What was it like being on set with them and was it a different process to your previous projects and is it something you would take forward for future projects?
Sarah: So the Creative team, Anu, and Theresa and Claire the co-writers, and the Producers and the Casting Directors, were all in and out a lot, mostly in, during that rehearsal process, which was not a formal rehearsal process but workshops. What the workshops would were doing well was us all getting to know one another, of them trying out performing in front of us, of them trying out different scene improvisations around ideas that Theresa and Claire were coming up with so it was a way of familiarising them, a way of training them up as well as them letting us know what worked for them and what didn’t. That process was unique to this project as on other films I’ve had a very limited amount of time with the actors, often because they are very busy, and it’s very focused and different. But this we were dipping in, week-in, week-out. It was an opportunity to see whether the young people wanted to do it more than anything else and whether they wanted to commit to us. But it was hugely rewarding and I’d love to do it again, I really would. I think it’s a really rewarding way of working. If I can, I’ll do it again.
Akua: I mean, I really think you should because there was magic made. I’ve spoken to Bukky and Kosar and Theresa actually and I think this magic created behind the scenes through this different way of working isn’t often afforded to the usual on set process. Anu, have you worked with the girls post Rocks and are you supporting them and letting them understand that actually this is not how it is and that the Industry is perhaps a little bit harsher than the good time you had on Rocks and so is there a process, even for all of you, the come down from “oh wow, wasn’t this amazing,” even in terms of all the women working on it and being in such a safe environment, what’s that process like?
Anu: One of the key things I think is when we started the project we had talked about the short term and long term support, particularly for these young people, whose first experience it was in the Industry, especially in the context of what you a speaking about how often the systems and practices in the Industry have historically failed so many, particularly young people whose first experience it is. So following the shoot, some of the women from the crew: Lucy Pardee, Jessica Straker, Claire Wilson, Theresa Ikoko, Axa Hynes, Warda Mohamad and myself, set up an organisation called Bridge, which has the aim of “bridging the gap” between your first experience and the highs of that and then whatever your next experience is. We’ve provided things such as free theatre tickets, youth training opportunities, to workshops and career talks, helping to find representation if that’s what the girls want, well-being sessions, on set support and advocacy work. Over the lockdown period we started, and Sarah was included in this too, we started a film club with them so we could all keep engaged with film, both behind the scenes and on-screen. We had desk sessions with film critics such as Simran Hans and Claire Wilson ran a writers’ session about The Wire. At beginning of the session we were running the workshops but by the end, it was the girls taking on leading things. I’m really glad we have set up Bridge as we like to do the work to build an organisation that introduces, sustains and sources new and emerging talent in the Industry, especially for those who don’t have access to further career development or opportunities or training. The Rocks cast have been the first cohort of this but we want Bridge to have a long life and to impact and transform the Industry in some way so it doesn’t feel like they have falling off the edge once they have had their first experience, to ensure the safeguarding and legacy of those girls and other young people who we work with behind and front of the camera. It’s a big thing, but I think that Bridge is the thing that keeps us all going.
Victoria: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. We all want to see this change happen in the Industry and yes we are taking steps to make sure that it happens but what needs to happen is sustainability. If we have change, it has to be sustainable. My question to Sarah would be, with all this change that is happening, what have been the take away experiences from Rocks, working in a different way with the Writers and Actors, are there things which you will take away from this process and absolutely apply to your next projects?
Sarah: It was a very conscious decision when we set out to work with a predominantly female team. To think about the crew in relation to the story telling and say let’s make it, often there’s a disconnect on a film set and you look behind the camera and you see a lot of men, white men and often older white men, and you might be making a story about young people and it was a kind of revelation to me in a way, “of course this crew need to connect with this story!” It’s going to work for the cast and work for the crew. So let’s find a young crew, a predominantly female team and let’s find women whenever we can from different backgrounds. You have to put in the work because you’ll go to agents and say “Can we meet camera people?” and they’ll come up with some really great people but they’ll often just be men. And so we had to go back and say, “No, we only want to meet women here.” That was really exciting to me as I’d never worked with a female DP before and I met with a lot of fantastic DPs and we said to them let’s have a team behind you, focus pullers, camera assistants, grips, who are women and we found those. Let’s find a Costume Designer who can connect with the girls and we found Rilkje Johnson who is a Black woman and very much connected with the team. And in a way it was a kind of epiphany for me, I don’t know why it’s taken so long to realise that, but it makes a lot of sense that things join up and be coherent. And the sustainability point, the team who have set up Bridge and so many other women on the shoot who have kept in contact with the girls has been so impressive to me, it’s almost been like this younger generation were forging a new way of working saying the way that everybody’s work isn’t good enough and isn’t right, moral, ethical or sustainable, so let’s look at it again. That’s been refreshing and really great.
Akua: Sarah you have talked about that there was space and room to breathe, long takes and space for improvisation helping the girls work out and develop their characters. Was there anything for you that was a little frustrating in this process, not around allowing the time because that was necessary, but something that forced you to really go, “ok, this is something I’m not used to, I’m being challenged in the way I know how to make a film? And just to add in quickly, being a white woman on set, was there anything that made you look at the young girls in a different way, something you learnt about the culture, about young Black girls in London and not to project pre-conceived conceptions but just an understanding that, it’s that thing with familiarity and knowing that we’re not that different, or that our differences bring something else to our evolution in life?
Sarah: Having Anu beside me and as we have been talking about, being two halves of the same brain in a way was massively fundamental to that because I had to recognise a lot of the time that I just didn’t know what felt right and what was appropriate and Anu did. She was much more connected to those young people, much more connected, as a woman of colour, to their experiences and that was really valuable. The other way was that I needed to listen to them. I needed to really open my mind and if they challenged me I really needed to take on that challenge instead of thinking I know best, because they knew best. I had to recognise my difference, and recognise my privilege and distance from them. So I couldn’t have made this film in any other way. I couldn’t have made it if it hadn’t have been this incredibly tight, unhierachical collaboration where everyone had a voice and people’s input was having a huge input on the product. Every decision was being negotiated and decided amongst the group of people because I was so far away from the experience. That was a challenge.
Victoria: I think that because you had this incredibly collaborative process and people had their own voice, there is a sense of joy that we feel throughout Rocks. One thing that stood out to me was, it is a coming-of-age film, but it’s a coming-of-age film about young women where the story is not centred around their experience of coming of age in relation to young men; they are the stars of their own journey. So refreshing! Do you feel that it’s important to tell stories that go against the tropes and the stereotypes that we see portrayed in media and what does this tell the young women out there, and also I guess, the women and other people already within our Industry who are part of this journey we are all on working towards more inclusivity?
Sarah: Anu do you want to start that one!
Anu: I have a couple of thoughts. I think that Rocks is just one of thousands of stories which could have been told, and it’s been really pleasurable since screening the film to have conversations with audiences and particularly with young people about what their “Rocks story” would be. Every time we ask that questions we get endless answers. So I hope that when people go and see this film they go away feeling like their story is valued and valuable. For filmmakers and for story tellers who are seeing this, that they understand that they don’t need to make a story that is authentic to every Black British experience, because you’re never going to be able to do that, but to make something that feel true to your perspective and experience of the world. And I think particularly with Rocks, for example Claire Wilson one of the writers talk about it being a kind of call to arms for young women and I feel like we want people to go away with questions rather that answers and be actively invested and involved in what happens next to Rocks and therefore for our young people. I think that, for me, that is why Rocks is important because it is a version of a story that could be told but hopefully young women in particular can go away and be like, “I can tell my version of my story and it is valued and important and going to be seen by other people.”
Victoria: Sarah, do you have any thoughts on that?
Sarah: Yes, I think that’s right. And in terms of the tropes, we talked a lot, Theresa, Claire, Anu, the Producers, other members of the team and myself about how often films about young women particularly revolve or hinge around men and their relationships with men. Often women are the sidekicks, but even if they are centre-screen, it’s often about men. There’s so much more to the experience of growing up: female friendship is really central to the experiences of teenagers and we wanted to be able to focus on that. We were in Girl’s Schools deliberately, and their worlds weren’t revolving yet, or at all, around men; there were boys around but their worlds weren’t revolving around them. We often strayed into the territory during development of going, “It could be a story around a boy…” and then going “No no no, it doesn’t have to be a story around a boy!” And that was quite liberating and so we wanted to do that. As Anu said, we counted, and there are so many stories out there and Theresa Ikoko has often said that she has millions of stories from her growing up around that area of London in the ways that these girls did, and so we really do hope that [Rocks] gives birth to all those other stories, from other story tellers who we haven’t heard from yet.
Akua: I hope so too! And that leads us nicely onto our last section before the audience Q&As. So let’s talk about Equality in the Industry, and we’ll start with a question for you both. Sarah, have you noticed a shift since you first started working and Anu, what have been the changes that you’ve seen since your journey into the Industry.
Sarah: Yes, since I started, I came out of Film School in 2000 and I remember that year a conversation around the lack of female Directors and women on crews; I think that year 3% films were Directed by women, and the next year it was 6% and everyone was very excited, and then the next year it was 2%, then it went up to 4% - you know it kept on hovering, and I realised this isn’t changing. That carried on being a conversation point every film I made, about why are there so few women, and that continues. I feel, and I know you always have to be cautious about thinking that things are changing but in terms of gender representation, the #MeToo movement - we are so grateful to all of those women who spoke out and set up Time’s Up - all of that has really prompted a change of attitude and I can feel it when you go into meetings and you feel it in terms of subject matter of films and things that I don’t think would have ever been made 10 years ago. In terms of representation of Black and Brown people in film, there is a long way to go and it’s interesting and exciting to see Steve McQueen’s work this year. There have been some other brilliant stories, Blue Story, Real, from great filmmakers out there but there is a long way to go.
Akua: And Anu, what have you seen in regards to change?
Anu: What have I seen! I think I was a little bit spoilt and blessed in many ways as the first company I’ve worked for in the Industry has been Faye Ward’s company Fable Pictures. It’s a woman-led company that champion untold stories and work in a different way to, from what I know from working with Sarah, her experiences have been on other films. So I think in some ways I’ve been pretty lucky but like Sarah said, as soon as you become complacent about any changes that are occurring, nothing is done. I think there is a hell of a lot more work to be done in supporting group who don’t have access to the Industry; we can talk about some of the barriers but communities that don’t have access to the Industry and who have been systematically excluded from these spaces. I think a lot of work needs to be done on in challenging who gets to be a storyteller and who’s voice is in the centre. I think there have been changes that I have seen but there are hopefully more that I will see during the next steps in my career.
Victoria: I think Rocks is such a flagship for being such an amazing production that hired 75% women crew. Sarah, why was it important for you to find women to work with on this project. Was it something that was really hard or that you encountered a lot of resistance for and have there been any specific departments which you found it harder to find women in?
Sarah: Yes, I think there are specific departments and as Anu said, it’s a real chicken and egg, and access issue, that goes back and needs to be looked right across the board, from people who are decision makers to education on all levels and there’s also a big socio-economic barrier because it’s difficult to get into film and sustain a career as a freelancer. And financially it’s hard to keep going. There are so many barriers and you do notice, I remember talking to our Make Up Designers, she is a Black woman, and we were talking about why there were so few Make Up Artists from her background. She said, well you’re expected to have a car, there are so few role models for one, so few mentors, you’re expected to have a make up kit when you start, there are so many things that are stopping people. We did have departments which is was really difficult to find people but you can find people, you persist. You need to support people because sometimes they are stepping up into roles they haven’t had the opportunity before, but they are very capable of doing it. I think it’s important to recognise how much we need to support people in film, and provide the mechanisms and budgets to support people to come through. The outcome will be that we have a much richer, much more interesting and valuable film Industry, but we need to put in the work.
Akua: Yes I think we’re all working hard in our own ways to make sure that this changes once and for all, continuously and forever. We talked about that there was a lot of joy in Rocks, that it shines a spotlight onto some of the harsh realities that young people face, specifically myself watching it as a woman of colour, I said I was in floods of tears and I remember having a conversation afterwards as someone mentioned that there is still that pain felt amongst that joy, the thing about Black pain and Black trauma onscreen is that it is more displayed and more visible onscreen instead of our joyful moments but I think that Rocks did a good job of combining the two as you need the Drama. However, what message are you hoping this sends not only to young audiences but also to Industry and financiers to invest in projects that are more representative and not just to put out that one-sided trope of Black film means “street life”, poverty, working class, deprivation, that there are joyful moments that could be had. I’m waiting to make my film: a Sisterhood Of Travelling Pants of young Black girls - you know, just simple and fun - but it’s that message to the financiers to get onboard that these things can be successful with a diverse cast.
Anu: I’m totally here for that film by the way! You said it, you need to stop pressuring Black and Brown storytellers to tell the stories that are expected of them because it’s the only thing that has been given room for in the Industry and to recognise that our stories are complex, different and no one story is the same: we can centre joy as much as we can centre difficulty and struggle. I think for people in the Industry and for financiers who ever come close to doubting that these stories are viable or using words like “risky” or other nonsense language they choose to use, Rocks and other stories that have come before that are literal proof that it’s bullshit. We have known that, as storytellers, for the longest time. I think if you want to see that are complex and nuanced and true to the world we live in and the experiences that we have, the financiers and the Industry need to do the work to redistribute resources that we know exist, we know that they are there, so that the storytellers and filmmakers like the young women you see in Rocks can just do the work that they need to do, and not have to face the additional barriers trying to convince others that their stories are valuable and viable.
Victoria: I think one really exciting thing about our Industry is that women hire more women, people of colour hire more people of colour. It’s also a fact that female-led projects tend to do better at the Box Office, especially with budgets of over £20m. You will see that projects will say that their projects are inclusive, but what you usually find is that it is those entry level positions which are filled by women or people of colour and as we know from the statistics, as you increase the seniority, as you go into those Executive and C-Suite positions, we do not see women, we do not see women of colour. So my question to you both is -
Enter David Katznelson [Sarah’s partner] carrying a mug.
Victoria continues: I look at the IMDb Pro for Rocks and I’m filled with so much joy seeing all your HODs and - yes to tea right now!
Sarah: A man giving me tea!
Victoria: Just as it should be! - I look at your IMDb Pro and see all these women and people of colour filling your HOD roles, was that a conscious decision and -
Fireworks go off in the background.
Victoria continues: Fireworks! And what do we do to increase the number of women and people of colour in these roles. I know Sarah you touched on this before -
Fireworks explode with increasing energy.
Victoria continues: Is it party time in London? Sarah - you mentioned that stepping up and giving people those opportunities is one of the ways to allow people to have those HOD roles? I’m going to now mute myself!
correct caption: *places
Sarah: I think you know in a way it is a responsibility to people who are there who are in positions to do it, to create those opportunities and to nurture people and to support people. As I said before there are some fantastic people out there and it’s interesting what we are saying about having different stories and it’s something we thought about a lot: what kind of stories should we tell. But I think if you get enough storytellers, and everybody realises how rich those stories are, then you’re going to have the story about the road trip with women and all sorts of things that reflect the whole life we live. You know I sometimes turn on my TV and think isn’t it bizarre! You turn on TV and in films you see this really narrow segment of the world that doesn’t reflect all the world we live in and it’s very strange that it’s gone on for so long. It’s time to change it. I hope there’s a real appetite. We just have to keep believing that you can challenge what’s come before and that you can convince people. I quite often in meetings, when people say, “Well, has there been a film like that?” And that’s the reason there should be this film because there hasn’t been one like it before. That’s what’s exciting about it, we’re doing something that’s different and I think that that’s really key to keep pushing the envelope and trying things out and expanding the stories we see, and as Anu said, the storytellers.
Akua: I think we’re almost running out of time, but to quickly ask, in this revolutionary way of working, do you have any tips for filmmakers who aspire to work in the same way: collaborative, representative and no sexism, racism, any of the -isms on the end, on set, but just a really nice, inclusive way of working?
Anu: Sarah kinda touched on it earlier, about going back a step further. So productions and financiers asking questions about access to roles and spaces within the Industry. Talking about financial barriers, caring responsibilities, trust, language barriers, experiences that people have had in the past, physical access, wellbeing, all of that! That needs to happen first. If you’re thinking about building an inclusive and representative set, those questions need to be asked from the get-go. Because, if you start with that, then you’re unpacking the root of an issue instead of addressing a symptom of it almost when it’s too late. Then there’s something I think we’ve talked about quite recently, in creating a mission statement or vision statement when you start a project that you can refer back to at various points in the process and you can share with every other person that you’re hiring and working with. It can be a living, breathing document that you’re creating and sharing with your team; it’s practical but also speaks to a certain type of culture you want to create through your work and through your set. I think it’s a way to hold yourself to account, your team to account, and especially when you are under increasing amounts of pressure you can refer back to so you know you’re not straying too much from that original vision, because I think that any conversations and practical things around inclusivity need to be built into the foundations of a project instead of being included as an after thought. I also think that people should be building Bridge into any budget they are creating as we are building the model hopefully that is based on our collective experience within the Industry but also allows for this long term change and sustained work and I think that there are different versions of that which should be built into every budget so it’s not something that is considered, you’re not considering legacy down the line, but it’s considered as non-negotiable at the beginning. So if you can build it into your budget, if you can start thinking about it as part of a long term change to your production or project rather than these short term “plaster-fixing solutions”.
Victoria: I think what you’re saying is so true and the nice thing about change is that everybody has the ability to make a change within the process that they are doing and with a couple of minutes left we will open the floor to our audience Q&A’s - I saw one earlier from Georgia asks - you know we were talking about bottlenecks in the Industry - do you both see changes to the accessibility to our Industry; it’s very word of mouth, it’s quite insular, are things starting to change for people who don’t have access to Film Schools, who don’t have access to equipment, and do you have any tips for aspiring Filmmakers out there who want to be part of this rich Industry we are all working towards?
Sarah: There’s no denying that it’s a difficult industry to access and that as we said, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But there are some really good initiatives. I’m almost getting to the point where I feel like we need to compile a list of initiatives for young people - maybe there is this website somewhere - but that really encompasses everything that there is out there. The BFI are doing some great schemes for young people, trying to open access, trying to find people not just from London but from different parts and different backgrounds within England and in the UK. There’s interfilm which is working with schools, there’s now the LSA, the London Screen Academy, which is free and for 16-18 year olds who want to train. But I can see that if you’re from a background where you don’t have a network or role models, it still takes a lot of help to find and get into these things. Mentoring schemes are always very good, Women In Film And Television do a wonderful mentoring scheme, and BAFTA does mentoring schemes, so I would encourage anyone looking to get into films to keep an eye out for all those schemes and apply for them and not be put off if you don’t get into them first time because they can really help with access.
Akua: I think we’ve been told to wrap!
Fireworks still firing in the background.
Victoria: Yes, and we have a firework display to send us off into the evening! So I will wrap things up and say a huge -
Loud bangs continue.
Victoria concludes: Huge thank you to Akua for being an amazing co-chair. So much drama, I love it! Follow her work at thebritishblacklist.co.uk and across all social media. Thank you so much to Sarah Gavron for spending this time with us and to our special guest, Anu Henriques, please tune in and watch Rocks on Netflix right now. And if you are a woman working in Film, TV or Commercials, please do check out Primetime at www.primetime.network and join our international community of women across 50 countries. Big thanks to Aesthetica Short Film Festival for having us. I hope everyone has a wonderful evening, stay safe and hope to see you again soon.