By Yun-hua Chen.

The idea from the beginning was that we wanted to be very simple, as a sort of a memorial for those children that died, and focus on their families, the mothers, brothers and sisters who loved the children, and focus on what they miss about the them and the positive things about their life, their love for them.”

Co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mohammad Sawaf, Eleven Days in May is a documentary that focuses on the aftermath of 11 days of bombing of Palestinian territory of Gaza in May 2021 through portraits of children victims. With Michael Winterbottom’s original idea, the Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad Sawaf painstakingly conducted on-site research, visited, and interviewed 28 families that lost their loved ones during the bombardment. In these interviews, family members recounted stories of the perished children and shared joyous memories of their previous life. Michael Winterbottom then edited the footage, included the voice-over of Kate Winslet – the only outsider voice that is there to provide information about the death of each child – and added the soundtrack created by Max Richter.

Ordered chronologically according to when the children were killed, Eleven Days in May has a rigid structure and shifts focus from one family to another systematically. As the interviewees, admirably dignified and composed, shared their photos and video clips filmed by smartphones, their first-hand footage recording life before the bombardment is juxtaposed with the filmmakers’ account of the aftermath in a cinematic format. Staying at eye level with the children victims’ families and foregrounding their narratives throughout, the film refuses to provide any commentary or explanation of anyone else.

At the 28th Sarajevo Film Festival, where Eleven Days in May was showcased in “Dealing with the Past”, a program dedicated to films about real events and individuals whose lives have been marked by trauma, Michael Winterbottom talked with Film International about the inception and the making of this film.

How did you start to get involved in the project of Eleven Days in May and co-direct it with Mohammad Sawaf?

Michael Winterbottom: 'This is a film we made for people in Gaza' | Arts  and Culture News | Al Jazeera

After the bombing in Gaze in 2021, we contacted UNICEF and OXFAM, the people who were working in Gaza, we said that we were thinking about a very simple film just to record the children who lost their lives. They thought that was a good idea and put us in touch with two or three directors to co-direct the film. We talked to them and chose Mohammad Sawaf. The idea from the beginning was that we wanted to be very simple, as a sort of a memorial for those children that died, and focus on their families, the mothers, brothers and sisters who loved the children, and focus on what they miss about the children and the positive things about their life, their love for them. After that, Mohammad Sawaf and his team met all those families, talked to them about the idea, and worked with everyone who wanted to be involved with the film. They did research and we then looked at the research. It was very powerful, very simple. Simple memories of things they miss, small objects, things that might remind them of the children. So, we said, you film that, just try to film the same thing again. They did all the filming, so it was very much made by Mohammad and his team there. They did all the difficult work because they had to deal with all the families. It must be difficult to go and talk to them about the children like that. Then we edited in a week.

How involved were you in terms of film production?

We decided that we think the structure of the film should be like this. It should be quite formal, straight to the camera, get them to prepare something, to get all the photographs. When they did research, we picked and said that these are the things. When they filmed, we were having a dialogue, but it was definitely Mohammad’s team that was making it.

What were your thoughts when you decided to make a film that is truly tragic in such an undramatic way?

Most of the things that were done, based on real stories, including fiction or drama about these stories, are not necessarily close to documentaries. In this case it just seemed that the simplest way of doing it would be the best. In the UK, we have Remembrance Day, remembering those that were killed. It’s that sort of film. Remember the children. Remember that the children died. Remember their names. Remember their photographs. Let the family say about things that they want to say. It just seems to me that the simplest way of doing it would be the best. I quite like repetition. I quite like repetitive things. I quite like minimalist music where you just have the same phrase over and over and then gradually it gets more powerful. My idea was that although it is repetitive, for me, the more times you hear it, the more it accumulates.

How do you feel about using smartphone images and videos that are traditionally considered very uncinematic?

It’s difficult. We asked Mohammad’s team to find anything that the families wanted to show, so we really used what the families showed us. Obviously, these days photos were taken on smartphones. You are right, it’s not cinematic. It feels almost like a family photographs’ album, with the pages of the child. It is very simple, but because of their love for their children, for me it is very powerful.

We are all overwhelmed and de-sensitized by violence and bloodshed of news footage about wars and conflicts everywhere. What is your take on how cinema can counteract and re-sensitize us?

That’s a good question. For people in the UK, we were told that we shouldn’t really show dead child on screen. We got an 18-Certificate because of that. As you said, I think in a way when you watch the film, it is shocking to see a child being killed and it should be shocking, but I think it is the structure of the film that makes it seem shocking. It seems so pointless and wrong that they were killed. If we are de-sensitized, I am not sure it’s the fault of the TV images. I think it is difficult. If we don’t show the consequences of bombing, it’s like you are hiding it and you would imagine that it is not that terrible. If you do show it, you would be accused of de-sensitizing people. It’s difficult, and in a way, you have to judge each case on its merits. Each case of this film feels more important when these families have given these pictures and want us to show the pictures.

I was wondering about your decision of using the music of Max Richter when you wanted to make a film in a simple way as possible…

We got a lot of phone images, as you said. There is a certain type of art film that has nothing on, but I think it is very hard. You either sort of end up building a fake soundtrack for it, which seems to me pointless, or music. I really like Max Richter’s music, and in a sense, it is like a repetition. He is not totally minimalistic but has an element of minimalism where repetition phrases become hypnotic. I thought that it is in keeping with the structure of the film.

Did you organize a lot of voice coaching for Kate Winslet’s voice-over?

Hashim Alsaraf helped a lot; he is one of the producers of this film. He is from Iraq. We also had to check with Mohammad about particular words. There is a difference between Iraqi pronunciation and the pronunciation in Gaza.

Do you feel that the film is reaching the audience that you had in mind?

I don’t know. We just showed it in the UK. I think it is difficult. It is a difficult subject. To be honest it felt to me that I wanted to make it anyway. It’s important to make it. I think it was good that Mohammad made it. I think that it was a good thing to do. Obviously there was lots of coverage of the situation, but for me, seeing those houses of people and hearing them talk about their children and how they love their children, it sort of felt for me quite refreshing.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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