Saturday, 25 February 2012

A Tale of Two Barnets - A film you really must see

Every so often, someone tells you about an idea they've had or a project they are working on, which catches your imagination. Charles Honderick is an independent film maker born in Florida. He made a pop video for me a year or so ago and plays in a great band called the Hamptons. A few months ago, I asked him what he was up to on the film making front. "I really fancy doing something different. I am thinking of making a documentary about Barnet". I was rather surprised and enquired why. "Well, 2012 is the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Dickens birth and he set based his famous workhouse scene on life at the Barnet workhouse". He continued "Also in 2012, the eyes of the world will be on London, I think it would be fascinating to see what is going on in one part of London and what the concerns and interests of ordinary people are". I asked what format the film was likely to take "We all talk about reality TV, but what we see isn't really reality at all. Often so called reality TV shows are all about changing individuals situations, rather than chronicling them. People are selected because they look good for television, rather than because they have an interesting story to tell".

So having heard Charles explain his idea, I offered to help him put it together in any way I could. There were two ways in which I explained I could help him. First, as I run a studio, I offered him the use of all facilities we have and any technical backup I could provide. Secondly, through writing a blog and the charity work I do, I have a large list of contacts. I offered to try and introduce Charles to as many people as I could, who I felt had a story to tell. So I introduced Charles to a few people and off he went. Now as Charles is also an extremely nice guy, he took the list of people I gave him, interviewed them and then came back to me and said "Hey Roger, that guy who you suggested I should interview, well he gave me such and such's number and he's introduced me to such an such and you really should have a chat with them about your blog" - which is how I ended up with a whole new team of guest bloggers such as John Sullivan of CADDS, who I'd never met.

After interviewing a couple of dozen people, Charles turned up at the studio one day to show me the footage. I thought it was fantastic. He replied that he was really unhappy with it. Why? "Well there are some really great stories in there, but there is no balance and we get no feel for what sort of a place Barnet really is." Of course, if I was making the film, I'd be more than happy with this, but Charles said "Do you know anyone who could add some context, explain why the Council are doing what they are doing, explain what sort of a community we have?". So I gave it some thought. I have a pretty good relationship with Commander Neil Seabridge, who is the acting chief of Police in Barnet. I asked if he could say a few words about what sort of place Barnet is and what are the hot issues in 2012. Neil kindly agreed. Then I happened to be at a Barnet Council business breakfast, with the Leader of the Council, Richard Cornelius and CEO Nick Walkley. I though, "hell, why not ask them if they will appear in the film". So I did and to my amazement and their credit, they agreed. So Charles emailed them and went along and interviewed them. I was intrigued, how did the interviews go? "Really well, Richard Cornelius is a really nice chap. He was very friendly and we had a bit of a laugh about a few things". What about Nick Walkley "He was very businesslike". Charles showed me the footage. If it was me, I'd have put both interviews in their entirity on the web. They provide a fascinating insight into exactly what the people running the council think. Charles however was making a film and he wanted to make it work.

He explained about the footage he was using of Richard Cornelius "Too often, these films show politicians as purely two dimensional characters, purely using clips to show them talking about policies. I think it's interesting to see what amuses them, what worries them and how they perceive what they are doing". And the CEO? "He was a bit harder to bring to life as he was very focused on his job and he didn't really let out any insight into Nick Walkley the person." When I saw the cut and how the footage blended with the other cuts, I realised that Charles had got the balance right.

I suggested that Charles might like to interview Brian Coleman. Although I am not a fan, he invariably makes a good subject for anyone who points a camera at him. I suggested to Charles that as he's a Camden resident, he may like to approach him directly. Sadly Brian Coleman didn't get back to him at all. I think it is a shame. I suggested that he might also like to interview Andrew Dismore, who is running against Coleman. Charles replied "If Brian Coleman had agreed to appear, then I might have interviewed his rival, but without him to put his point, it wouldn't really be terribly relevant". Charles explained that the subject of Brian Coleman came up time and time again in interviews. He could have made the whole film about Brian Coleman if he'd wanted to, but as Coleman chose not to appear, Charles chose not to mention him at all. He said "It might be interesting to make a film about him if you could get all the people who like him to appear as well". He then made a good point "The film is really about the stories of the people in it, not about their opinion of someone who they perceive as the bogeyman".

Last night, I watched the near final cut of the film. Charles has spent about two weeks, locked away in his flat, editing the film, working on the soundtrack and trying to make it look as good as possible. I'd previously seen a very roughly chopped version, without the narration, titles etc. It is approx 25 minutes long. He has spliced in plenty of footage shot around Barnet. As Charles is a pennyless filmmaker, I spent a couple of days driving him around Barnet, filming all sorts of things, from signs displaying parking charges, to local landmarks such as the statue of "La Deliverance" at Henleys Corner (which Charles has used as the iconic image of the film), St Josephs College in Mill Hill, estates such as Beaufort Park. I also gave Charles the use of my video library of footage I've shot at council meetings, etc. Strangely much of what he chose to use to illustrate the story wasn't shot by me, but by my daughter Elizabeth for her various art projects. There are some lovely sequences she filmed as we drove around Mill Hill.

When Charles first explained how the film would start in the conversation that lead to our collaboration, he said "I want to start it with some scenes around Barnet, accompanied by the narrator reading the opening lines to "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens. In the final cut, the film actually starts with Richard Cornelius talking about La Deliverance. I asked Charles about this. He explained "There is no really universal image or landmark that people instantly associate with Barnet, such as Big Ben in London. It is a beautiful statue and films really well in the light as the sun goes down. There isn't much humour in the film or the subject matter, so it was the best place to put it in. Start on a humourous note. I hope we can really put the statue on the map".

One of the people Charles interviewed, knows iconic British Film director, Ken Loach. They mentioned Charles project to Ken and he expressed an interest in saying a few words about the film. As he is an extremely busy man, he could only be interviewed on a particular day. I got a worried call from Charles, he was in Florida visiting his parents at the time. I arranged for another filmmaker friend of mine, Joe Grahame to film the interview. Ken was very excited about the project and his interview is on the film website. This introduction will precede the film. As Chales couldn't be there and I wasn't 100% sure of what the film would be, Ken is really talking about the early rushes and my thoughts of what I hoped the film would be.

The select few who have seen the (nearly completed) version of the film have been highly impressed with what they've seen. It isn't Hollywood, it isn't even Elstree. What it is though, is an extremely powerful film about real people in Barnet. I think Charles has succeeded beyond my  greatest expectations (pardon the pun) in showing that you don't need to be an oil painting, if you have a story to tell, to make a good cinematic subject.The film also shows that you don't need a huge budget to tell a story. I think that the film is a template that every community should copy. Under Mike Freer's leadership, Barnet Council commissioned a film company to "interview local residents" to show what sort of a place Barnet is. You can see the fruits of their efforts here - - although I think it is a good idea for Councils to use this medium to get information across, I despair at the sterile stilted tone of the videos produced. When you see the film Charles has made, you will see a film made by someone with a passion for movie making. I long argued that the money the council has wasted making these films would have been far better spent, by giving it to local schools to encourage film making. Give the kids a camera, editing software and unrestricted access to Councillors and council premises and I believe we'd get fantastic films which are actually watchable.

Which brings us to the Premier of the film. This will be on the 19th March at the Iconic Phoenix Cinema in Finchley at 6pm. The Phoenix is one of the finest cinemas in London, if not the world. It is only fitting that the film be shown here. We are hoping that as many people as possible will come to see the film.

Charles has made a film that anyone who is interested in life, people and communities will find fascinating. Whilst I believe the appeal of the film will be go far beyond the boundaries of the Borough,  if you live in the London Borough of Barnet, are at all interested in the place and the people who live here, you really shouldn't miss it, because this is your town.

You can find out more about the film at the official film website. Please pass this on and tell all of your friends about it. The website will be added to constantly as more information, footage, stills, trailers and clips are added.

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