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Just Doing It: an interview with Emily James

© Mini Mouse


By Deirdre O’Neill.

Emily James is an independent documentary filmmaker and producer who has worked in both television and film and whose work deals with contemporary political issues. Her latest film Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws (released in the UK in July 2011) is both an intervention in, and an important contribution to, the climate change debate. The film follows a group of climate change activists as they go about their business over the course of a year. James had unprecedented access to the activists and consequently the film deals with political activism not on an abstract level but very much in relation to the people who feel passionate enough about these issues to devote most of their lives to trying to bring about change.

The definition of documentary is a rather difficult one and there has been much written on the subject, but as a (very) broad definition (one that acknowledges the difficulty in defining such a diverse genre) we could claim documentary deals with real people in real situations.

The form and approach of the documentary film has been influenced by many different factors through the years, for instance changes in technology – the introduction of the 16 mm lightweight camera and portable sound recording made the observational approach of the Cinéma Vérité films of the 1960s possible. The institutional constraints of funding and censorship had profound effects on the films produced under the auspices of the documentary movement founded by John Grierson in the 1930s, and, perhaps most significantly the political and ideological conditions of the society in which the documentary filmmaker works will affect the kind of films that are produced. The Third Cinema documentaries that came out of South America in the 1960s and 70s were made as a direct result of the oppression and violence of the dictators who, with US backing, were making life intolerable for many people on the continent.

Documentary has flourished for many years in countries with a public service television tradition. This tradition has been eroded in deregulated media markets to be replaced with reality TV shows. It is possible to argue that one of the consequences of this is that the feature length documentary made to be shown on cinema screens has increased in popularity as it fulfils a need television is no longer in a position to fulfil.

The activist documentary has become very popular over the last 15 years or so with films like Michael Moore’s Oscar winning Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart (2005), Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004) and Food Inc. (Robert Kenner 2008). But in what way does a conceptualisation of the activist documentary differ from our understanding of the documentary film in general? Documentary films have always had the potential to sway public opinion and their relationship to the real means they have often played a social and political role, but activist documentaries have a broader agenda then an examination of the social or the presentation of the political. The activist documentary differs from earlier forms of documentary film in the way in which it becomes part of an already existing framework of platforms that exist to address the problem it addresses.

Consequently the activist documentary is not simply a matter of content but also one of engagement, response and reverberation. Activist films do not exist as self-enclosed entities or encourage the passive consumption of mediated knowledge. They are part of larger social and political debates linked to grassroots activism. The advent of the Internet means that it is easier to disseminate material across a range of groups, activists, spectators and organisers, bypassing the geo spatial and economic limitations of more traditional documentaries and the usual established means of exhibition and distribution.

The filmmaker is often part of the movement or is ideologically aligned with it. There is no pretence at neutrality or impartiality; rather the filmmakers consciously position their films as part of a wider political debate existing to inform and influence public opinion and shape policymaking. This active role in the public sphere is perhaps the most significant development in the activist documentary.

At the present moment there is an enormous amount of disillusion with, suspicion of, and outright hostility to formal politics and ‘the democratic process’. This is aligned to a parallel distrust and hostility towards a corporate media concentrated in fewer and fewer hands who offer a highly mediated form of reporting closely aligned to dominant considerations and which ‘construct political knowledge’. Films such as Just Do It position themselves between the rhetoric of the dominant discourse and the actuality of capitalism.

The close alignment with the subject and with the people being filmed raises many ethical questions around the issues of editorial control and consideration for those being filmed, something James is aware of and attempts to deal with as her response to the question below illustrates.

Films such as Just Do It attempt to address and galvanise those disenfranchised by mainstream politics not only by informing them but also by challenging them to become part of a movement or a process.

In the interview with Emily James below there is a perfect example of the way in which this can happen when she describes how people have watched Just Do It and gone straight from the screening to protest.

In this sense activist documentary becomes part of a wider strategy of cultural intervention, which obviously includes screening the film but also the post-screening discussion that invites collaboration with other activist groups, academics and the general public in an ongoing dialogue around the film. This process raises questions not just about the issues in the film but the role the activist documentary can play in this process. The impact of the film becomes much more than an individual one, it becomes a collective one and one that questions the role of film itself in political struggle.

This interview was made in a busy cafe near the Just Do It office in London on September 26, 2011.

Film International (FI): Why did you make this film?

© Amelia Gregory

Emily James (EJ): I made a film for Plane Stupid in 2008. I was asked to film Plane Stupid shutting down Stansted Airport in order to get a tape for the news of the actual act of them coming into the airport and then running onto the runway. My experience of that showed me that there was this amazing story of people doing extraordinary things against all the odds in a way that I think was very unique. Because of the dire situation they are in and because there was a huge amount of secrecy around what they were doing, which was quite necessary, and has proven even more necessary since the recent uncovering of the undercover police officers who have been infiltrating the movement, it’s quite clear they took security very seriously. But as a consequence of that, combined with a general anti-mainstream media sentiment within the direct action movement it just basically meant their story was not being captured for posterity really, and I thought that was a really important thing, I thought it was really important that their story be captured and be told. There were obviously lots of really good positive reasons why I thought that should happen, and I could see that no one else was doing it. It was like a void that needed to be filled.

FI: Was it easy to build up a relationship with the activists?

EJ: Maybe some more than others – easy is not necessarily a word that I would use in that context – it was really difficult. Even people I know reasonably well and who trusted me as an individual did not necessarily trust the process of a film being made about them and I had to develop a relatively thick skin about that and not take it personally and not be offended by people not wanting to participate in it and to understand that was their prerogative and that they were being cautious for their own security and safety and privacy, but it was difficult, definitely. People sit quite rigid when you point the camera at them, they don’t want to be filmed and they get defensive and they can be quite rude and they can be quite mean and lacking in generosity of spirit about what it is you are trying to achieve and what your motives are. You can get people suggesting that your motives are not pure in what you are doing and that’s a bit hard especially when you are working really hard to do something that you think others will benefit by.

FI: How was the film funded?

EJ: We funded the film through a combination of donations and grants – donations from the general public in small amounts and a couple of reasonably large donations from individuals who have deeper pockets, and two thirds of it was grants and grant making bodies. We did crowd funding on our web site and we were really lucky to get some match funding from Lush where they gave us a pound for every pound people donated on the site – that was really useful and it really helped encourage people to give, and it worked really well.

FI: Did all this raise enough money to make the film?

EJ: We ended up with raising less than a third of what we originally thought we needed but we still made it. Obviously it was a lot more work, but once you begin on something you just have to see it through, so you figure out ways to do it. But it has left us all in quite a bad financial state.

FI: Is the film making any money now it has been released?

EJ: No, documentaries don’t really make that much money. We are not talking about Hollywood type figures here. The economics of documentaries like this in general don’t really add up that well. It’s not a very good business to go into if you want to be flush with cash. They don’t really make much money, with a few exceptions – you know Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, they are the only people who have ever made any money off a documentary and even in the case of Morgan Spurlock he did not make much off of Supersize Me. It was the things he went on to do after that.

We got funding from the [UK] Film Council to help support our release in the cinema and that was amazing because if we had not got that money from them we literally could not have done half the things we have done – making sure there were people at Q and A’s after the screenings, the travel, the teams in the office behind the scenes pushing all of the screenings, the press releases and all of that – we just would not have had the capacity to do that without their money. We have spent £20-30,000 getting the film out there and the entire box office was £15,000 gross and our portion of that is £5,000. It costs far more to release the film than you ever make back at the box office.

FI: So it is really important that we have organisations like the Film Council?

EJ: It’s really important, absolutely, otherwise films like ours just won’t get made and won’t get seen. There is no strong, economically viable model for it. Maybe, and it’s a long haul, after the DVD sales and this licence and that licence, then maybe you scrape back what it cost and you might break even, and if you are lucky enough to get grants and various other funding that do not need to be paid back… But normally its just the filmmaker left holding that debt and they go into this stage of the project with a massive amount of debt – then they are desperately trying to recoup it all the time – then other people are getting annoyed because we want to charge £200 to screen the film at their thing – of course we need to charge that money because it costs a lot of money to make and release the film but people don’t really appreciate that.

FI: It’s interesting because feature length documentaries have really increased in popularity over the last 10 years or so.

EJ: Yeah, but they don’t want to pay for it and the funding just isn’t there. It’s not as sexy to fund a documentary as it is a fiction film. The government pours money into the fiction industry – probably not as much as there should be, but there is a lot more public financing for fiction than there is for documentary.

FI: Obviously you feel that film has a role to play in political activism, how do you think that film can contribute?

© Kristian Buus

EJ: It was not the primary reason I made the film. I did not make the film to inspire people to take direct action. I made the film for much more conservative reasons. I just wanted to make sure that their story got captured, that it was there to be told for the future, but of course I hope it is a story that will inspire people, obviously not inspire them to go out and immediately super glue themselves to something, but inspire them to understand that these people should be treated as heroes and not vilified and that we should not allow the casual dismissal of them in the way, socially, they are marginalised in most mainstream conversation, let alone the media. The way people might talk about them if the subject comes up in the pub, it’s quite dismissive and I thought that was more to do with a lack of understanding, people were not really understanding where they were coming from and what it was they were doing, they were just buying into stereotypes about activists. So I hope that watching the film will help to reposition environmental activism and activism in general and the role of people who participate in direct action in the wider civil society.

FI: Yes but the film is political.

EJ: Filmmakers like me tend to focus on things they are passionate about and I am a political animal and I do like to understand and where appropriate influence politics. For me being a filmmaker is part of a wider cultural dialogue that is going on all around us and contributing to that dialogue – for me the areas I tend to be interested in do touch on politics.

Making films like this is a lot of hard work, you have to have… I have to have… a motivation beyond career advancement, earning money, or my kind of personal hubris to get out of bed on those really dark mornings when I really don’t want to bother. I need to feel this has a greater purpose, I need to feel like there is something beyond me, and a kind of thing that is valuable to other people and that can be helpful, otherwise I would lack sufficient motivation.

FI: What do you think of the idea that the documentary filmmaker can remain impartial? Do you think, given the subject matter of a film like Just Do It, that it is possible?

EJ: It’s important to understand obviously, that all filmmaking is subjective. The idea that you can be completely objective or impartial, I think it’s a bit of a red herring. I just don’t think that that is really possible, but at the same time I do think within their own subjectivity, within your own personal perspective as a story teller of any sort, whether it be an article, a non fiction book, a novel, a film or what ever, whenever you are telling a story and particularly when you are claiming it has factual elements to it, its important to look at the situation and say ‘what do I really think is the case?’ How can I express honestly or with truth something that bears some relation to the reality of the real world and then try to make a portrait? What I think that I have done is to try and make a portrait that is an accurate reflection of this community of people – but its maybe more like an oil painting than a photograph.

FI: You have already said a little about it, but could you say some more about how are you going about distributing the film?

EJ: As I said the UK Film Council gave us the funding to support the cinema release and we are distributing in UK cinemas independently and that’s gone really well. I think we have had about 80 screenings so far across the country in 60 cinemas in 40 cities quite good audience attendance. That’s been quite fulfilling and nice. Going to particular neighbourhoods and getting to meet people who are seeing it is great. We wanted to give people quite a high value experience when they came down to see it in the cinema because obviously those people will go on to be our marketing team – we have not got a marketing budget, so the people who have seen it in the cinemas that’s the word of mouth, that’s how news of the film is going to get out. We want to make it a memorable event for people, we have even had three actions right after screenings. Marina (one of the activists in the film) has done two actions right after screenings, taking people, right there and then, to actions. After the Soho screening she took 20 people from the screening to NIKE Town and held a picnic on the showroom floor – tea and everything, that was great – and some of those people had never done anything like that before. And then we had a screening down in Brighton and afterwards a group of people protesting about car pollution organised themselves and stopped traffic at this big intersection outside the cinema for ten minutes.

FI: Following on from that how important do you think community screenings in places like the Cinema Museum are?

EJ: The Cinema Museum is an interesting example because they have great projection and sound. As a filmmaker one wants one’s film to be watched with good quality projection and good sound. You want people to be able to see and hear the whole film. In that regard being in cinemas has been fantastic because you get a proper viewing experience – opening it out into community screenings is incredibly important because that’s where you get groups of people, in some cases that are being organised by a campaign locally. In that case you are more likely to get people who can look at each other after the film and say ‘hey lets go and do this… we now as a collective have been inspired and are going to do things differently’ – but you also lose control over the viewing quality experience because you have to use whatever equipment is to hand which might not be great. You have to give up a bit of your control freakery.

We want to give free screenings under the Creative Commons licence so that people who would not or who cannot necessarily pay to see the film will be able to see it for free [the filmmakers organised a day of university and school screenings across the country where anyone could go and see the film for free] and as far as we are aware no film has ever been distributed in this way before.

FI: Have you had much press interest in the film?

EJ: We have had a fair amount of press coverage both national and local, quite a lot of interest in Nottingham because of the Mark Kennedy police officer affair. With the Film Council money we were able to hire some people to do some PR for the film. Marina and I were on BBC Breakfast, I wrote a piece in the Guardian.

FI: As a filmmaker did you feel responsible for the life the film can take on after you have finished filming?

© Mini Mouse

EJ: Yes definitely, I think that was one of the things that really got driven home to me with this film. Towards the end of the edit, there were some things that one of the characters was not that happy with in one of the scenes and we ended up cutting it quite a lot in response to that. We went through a period of [discussions about] how much do you respond? We needed to have editorial control over the film to make sure it was good and watchable and all of those things. It also really made me think about the aspects of morality of being a filmmaker around these subjects, because the people who are in the film, they have to go on and lead the rest of their lives and almost for all their social group, their friends, their activist circle – that activist world – this is a life long passion for them. Five years from now one of these people might sit down at a meeting for a new campaign that they might want to get involved in and everyone in that room will probably know them – but they might not know them, there won’t be a reciprocity and people will assume that they know all about them because they have seen the film. With Sally [one of the activists in the film] in particular, her politics changed quite a lot by the time we had got to the end of the film and there is a version of her at a very early stage of political development and that was really hard for her to see that. Of course she is now locked and frozen in time in people’s minds as that person and already she has moved on and her life has changed. So films can have repercussions on a very personal level, they can have very intangible repercussions. I think the way that I dealt with that was I felt it was very important that the people who were in the film go hand in hand with me in that regard. It was very important that they did not feel resentful about the way that they were portrayed because they have to live with this portrayal for the rest of their lives. This is not going to go away for them. I might move on and I might make another film, but this film will stay with them forever and really affect the way people feel about them. So there was a huge moral responsibility to portray them in a way that was fair and accurate, but also in a way that they did not feel I misrepresented them in any way. You have to do it with care and with honesty.

Just Do It will be showing at the Cinema Museum on November 4.

There will be a post screening discussion with Emily James, Joe Smith of the Open University and Elaine Graham Smith of Counterfire.

Deirdre O’Neill is PhD student at the University of Ulster. Her 12-year-old son volunteers as an usher at The Cinema Museum.

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