A World Apart, A Dialogue in Three Parts: Chris Menges

by Liza Béar


Chris Menges: director.

June 13, 1988. A World Apart, which came back from Cannes with two awards, is due to premiere in New York on the 16th. Chris Menges, the director of the film, won the Special Jury Prize for a first feature. We sit at a black shiny table in the interview suite of a midtown Lexington Avenue hotel with a glass of water. It’s early in the morning. Chris Menges is gentle and soft-spoken.

Chris Menges I’ve sort of gone backwards and forwards from documentaries to cinema films.

Liza Béar You mean, fiction feature films?

CM Yes.

LB You call them cinema films?

CM As opposed to television documentaries, I suppose. I’ve sort of gone backwards and forwards.

LB Starting about when?

CM I started as a trainee in 1958 with an American filmmaker who was living in Britain called Alan Forbes. We did a series of documentaries for the cinema and television.

LB About anything in particular?

CM One was about street entertainers in London, one was about the second march to Aldermaston….

LB Oh, I went on that.

CM It was called No Place to Hide. What else did we do? We did a film in Naples about street urchins. And a little fiction story set in the City of London in an area that had been badly blitzed during the war.

LB Was this a two-man crew type of situation?

CM I was the trainee. Sometimes I did the sound. He shot, or employed a cameraman. It was just a question of my being taught by Alan. So that’s where it started.

LB Best way to learn, right.

CM I think so.

LB On the job. (pause) You eventually became a lighting cameraman on big budget feature films.

CM I’ve only done two, three big budget films, if you call them big: The Killing Fields, The Mission, and Local Hero. And then lots of films with Stephen Frears…

LB Oh, really. Which ones?

CM Not recent ones. Bloody Kids was the last one I did with him. And Gumshoe, Walter, Last Summer…About six films I did with Stephen. And then I did about six or seven films with Ken Loach starting with Kes in 1970. That was my first job as a cameraman though I was operator on his first feature, Poor Cow

LB Do you feel all this experience really prepared you well to become a…to direct your first feature?

CM Well, I think Ken Loach is probably a terribly good teacher. And lots of Ken’s films have got kids in them. He always wants the technical aspect to be played down and the most thought given to the actors. Or, in Ken’s case, usually the non-professional actors. He won’t dub anything, so the sound’s always got to be good. It’s got to be real sound. And you’ve got to very much what I call wing it, catch it. Also, in around 1965, I worked for a Canadian company called R.N. King Associates. And they made what I called wobblyscope documentaries for…

LB Wobblyscope?

CM Hand-held documentaries for CBC and PBS and companies in Canada and in the States, which were reportages. They were always with a handheld camera and tape recorder, we were always chasing stories. And that also teaches you great disciplines—like it’s not always necessary to film the people who are talking but it might also be interesting to film the people who are listening. Silly things like that that are terribly obvious, but probably in the mainstream of being a technician you don’t get taught those things, you’re not that lucky…I think your teachers are terribly important in shaping your own sensibility.

LB So did you…I mean, your three lead actresses won an award at Cannes, not that awards necessarily…

CM Awards don’t really mean anything.

LB Well, they do. They’re good for getting people to see the movie.

CM Yes. Yes. From that point of view I suppose.

LB It seemed to me that you were very comfortable with the actors and actresses.

CM Every once in a while I’ve gone off to do a documentary film because serving the director as the cameraman all the time is…In a sense, you need after a while to make your own mistakes because when you’re shooting for somebody else you have to be terribly aware of the needs of the actors, the needs of the story, the needs of the director…And you know how you can structure and stricture and STOP…

LB …You can not catch it by structuring it too much.

CM Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I’ve always had to sneak off and do documentaries. And in sense I suppose A World Apart was one of those little journeys off into doing…Time to do my own thing.

LB What drew you to the script?

CM Well, the first job I’d ever done, after I worked with Alan Forbes, was in 1963. I was sent to South Africa as a camera assistant by A World in Action, which is a current affairs program in Britain. I was assistant but I actually got made up to cameraman on that. My job at 22 was to try to catch apartheid in action. Those early jobs always leave an incredible…You could not go to South Africa without feeling great anger, and I felt great anger. And that anger never went away.

LB Had you been shown other scripts?

CM I’m always reading scripts. And when the script for A World Apart turned up about two years ago. I knew it didn’t have a director or a producer. I was asked whether I’d like to shoot it. And I said, oh no, this is much too good for me just to be a cameraman… (laughter) I want to own this, I want to be possessive about this story…I suppose partly because I come from a large family of kids and I’ve got a lot of kids myself. And because I think I know…I do know…I do understand…The tension within that family. Because it’s a very international story. It’s not actually a story that’s specific to South Africa.

LB It’s not just the children of activist parents, but of working parents…

CM I think the children of working parents can be put through enormous pressures and there are enormous contradictions that the parents have to go through. And often it’s quite an enriching experience. It doesn’t have to be looked at in negatives. One has to learn to be quite philosophical about it.

LB Basically it’s the pacing that’s difficult, isn’t it.

CM Exactly.

LB Switching from their pace to your pace. That’s a world apart too…Shawn told me that the script changed a lot when you came on board. How did it change?

CM We worked on the script together. Shawn was trying to say a lot of things that never even happened to the family—for instance, the scene where Molly says, “You never even told me where Daddy was.” This never happened. So there were several things going on at once. Shawn was telling her story as it happened and things that she wished had happened that never did happen…All of which was very intriguing. So there was a lot of discussion and a lot of changes. But also, although it’s Shawn’s story, I don’t think Shawn recognizes herself in the story, which is fair enough.

LB She’s fictionalized it beyond the particulars of her situation.

CM Exactly. When you read a script, you obviously do visualize what you think the script’s about, and then you try and gently cajole the writer into…

LB …Shaping it in that direction.

CM Right. For me it was very important that the politics didn’t somehow get lost, and I thought it would be very easy for the politics to get lost.

LB Really. But aren’t the politics the source of the dramatic tension?

CM They are. But I think many people could have let the politics slide away, and I think most people would have.

LB But you made sure right from the very first scene…

CM Yes, the politics were built up.

LB …When Molly’s father is saying goodbye, he makes that gesture for silencing Molly’s questions—"I can’t talk about it"—which immediately sets the tone for a climate of fear.

CM If you’re taking on a story to tell, the most important thing is you must visualize it, you cannot leave anything to chance. Shawn’s script, the original script that I read, is a superb script. There were things that both Shawn and I, in working together, wanted to direct the film towards.

LB Like?

CM Well, the politics. But also the image of the child, the child with her mother, the child with her sister.

LB Her world.

CM Mmmm…It has to be based on what you as the director feel is the image and the imagination and the magic…It’s no good just saying, this reads very well and it’s very exciting, if you can’t personally take it on into your world. It’s like you’d be working in a vacuum.

LB So did you do that on paper or after you’d started to find locations?

CM Both.

LB Was Zimbabwe an obvious choice for the locations?

CM On the way out from that shoot for A World in Action in 1963—which incidentally is the year Shawn’s story is set, it’s really bizarre—we went up to Bulawayo which was then in Rhodesia…It was World in Action‘s first year, we were buzzing around, having a great time. So I just knew from that trip that for historical reasons Bulawayo was a backwater because all the principal energy was in Harare [it’s not now]. Also it’s very very near South Africa and because of that there are many refugees, both black and white living in Bulawayo.

LB From South Africa.

CM Mmm, ‘cause it’s right near the border. You’ve got a city that hasn’t really changed a lot (because of the warring factions, ZANU and ZAPU), since Zimbabwe’s independence. So when the film came up I said to Sarah Radclyffe, our very eminent producer—eminent because she did not mess with the script, and so many producers do mess…She was very very supportive, very helpful, terrific—I said, it’s got to be Bulawayo before we even went. We went and looked and it was. But I also knew, first film, be sensible about this. Choose one small city…

LB …That you know…

CM …And make sure that all the locations are within ten minutes of the hotel.

LB Really! That’s quite a feat in itself.

CM Yep. I said to myself, “Be smart about it.” But also, coming from Ken Loach, try to get the accent right, so people aren’t worrying about it, try and have people who’ve actually been involved in the politics, know what it’s like to be interned, know what it’s like to be beaten up.

LB Right. Because it’s too big a jump for actors to make otherwise.

CM It’s too big a jump for anyone to make because on a film set you have to create the total conditions of the reality. For instance, for the police force we needed, we went to the local rugger teams and told them what we were doing. We got an ex-South African police officer to teach the others…The planning of the minutest details has to be perfect. Once you’ve done that, you’re standing on concrete. Then you can go off and create the story. For instance, the actor who played Solomon, he’s been interned. Our technical adviser had been 18 months in prison. The list goes on endlessly. When you’re dealing with non-professional actors, and most of them were non-professional, except for some hardcore that we brought over from Britain, they have to be able to call on real experience. With professional actors there are different problems. Professional actors like to rehearse. And every time they rehearse you see them mentally ticking away, well I did that bit. But of course if you rehearse non-professional actors they only get more confused.

LB So how did you deal with that one?

CM I didn’t allow any rehearsal! As little as possible. Because even with the professionals, the mistakes are more interesting.

LB Did you have any fights on the set?

CM Only with Barbara. (laughter)

LB Who was involved in the selection of the leads?

CM Well, I’d worked with Andre Konchalovsky on Shy People. I could see that Andre and Barbara were shouting at each other a lot and it’s quite clear that Barbara is quite an opinionated woman. And she had that steely quality that I was trying to base the character of Diana on from my own experience. It wasn’t really a reflection of Shawn’s mother. She was my first choice. Then I went off and saw lots and lots of people. I was looking for colonials. I was quite happy to have Americans because in a way they are colonials, you know what I mean? (laughter) They come from Europe and they live here. I was looking for Australians, anybody who had a colonial history. I wasn’t looking for Britons, because Britons don’t know anything about living away. So really Barbara was the first and last choice. And she’s terribly good.

LB How about Molly? She must have been difficult to cast. The film hangs on her.

CM It was difficult. All the kids are non-professionals. They’re all Zimbabwean, because the accent’s important. I think I lost my balls a bit when it came to the part of Molly, and I ended up picking a kid out of a school in North London, Jodhi May…

LB Camden High School, right.

CM Yes. A kid with all the problems, which meant that when she came to Zimbabwe, she didn’t know the accent, she had to stay in the hotel with the crew. Her mother came. But of course, what I’d much rather have done is [have her be] like the other kids, who were all Zimbabwean so they sounded South African and who all went home every night. Because this whole pressure of being an actor is a big number. But Jodhi did very well. Clever kid.

LB That was a really great performance. You didn’t need a lot of takes, right? It looked like Jodhi was totally into the part, she got it right away.

CM No, no, she got it very quickly. The hardest thing of all, particularly when you’re dealing with non-professionals, because you don’t have any film to see of them, is choosing people you believe, and then once you’ve chosen them, knowing when to keep your mouth shut. D’you know what I mean?

LB Yes!

CM Because sometimes too many words is confusing. So it’s just a question of getting the balance right.

LB Shawn was with you on the set.

CM I wanted her with us all the time. Lots of reasons. One is, traditionally writers are given a bum steer. I’ve worked with eminent directors who’ve made sure that writers are not around. If you want to change things, you should be able to change them with the writer there. And in my arrogance I was going to sort this one out. But also Shawn was coming to terms with her past through the film, and being there was a part of that. And quite often actors or actresses would say, well that would never happen, and I’d say, “Right Shawn, sort it out.” It was a question of making it as fluid as possible. It made it difficult too.

LB Were you ever up against time pressures?

CM We had nine weeks which is a long time. And we had 2.6 million pounds, which is a lot of money. Our biggest mistake was that the script was too long. And we wasted time shooting things that we couldn’t use. If your film’s too long and you have to cut scenes out, it’s a bit like taking bricks out of a wall. Before long the wall tends to fall down. So that was our biggest problem.

LB Were the riot scenes hard to stage? Or had all those people been involved in riots?

CM You have to remember that in Zimbabwe there was a revolution kicking the Rhodies out, and before that kicking the Brits out. And they got their independence in 1980. So in 1987 most of the people had firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to have a war because they were fighting the Rhodesians. You could talk to the militant youth and they’d know what the hell you were talking about. Also I made sure we had an enormous amount of library footage. I made everybody watch that and participate in what they were doing…Everyone had to have a point of focus.

LB Like what?

CM Well, if you were in a mob scene, what exactly were you doing there? What was your work, what were you carrying, who were your mates. So that people weren’t just aimlessly walking down the street. Nothing new, but just important. You can forget so much.

LB Especially on the set.

CM It all comes down to planning.

LB You said earlier you tried very hard to keep the politics central in the film. I think that you succeeded, but are some people saying, it’s a mother-daughter story and there’s not enough political information?

CM First of all, this is Shawn’s story, and it’s her beautiful script, and it is about her life. And I as the director had to respect that. It was important to keep the politics as strong as possible. But this is a film about a white kid. And a lot of people have criticized that it’s not a film by a black filmmaker about the struggle in Soweto, it’s not a black story. And of course, it isn’t. Many black stories have got to come forward and the sooner the better. This is only a part of what’s happening, it’s not the total. I want to read you something. (pulls out newspaper clipping and reads quote from Mandela)

“I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It’s an idea which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it’s an idea for which I am prepared to die.”

What people don’t understand, even in Britain, and they should perhaps understand more clearly than in the United States, because it’s part of their history, is that basically since 1912, the ANC, for nearly 50 years, was going along the peaceful road towards democracy and it got absolutely nowhere. It was only after the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC that the armed struggle started. You wonder how the United States got its freedom. It got its freedom by taking up armed struggle against the British. Then you get ministers from the Republic of South Africa on the radio saying that the ANC are terrorists. And you wonder how these ministers have the audacity to say this when there are no democratic rights if you’re black. First, bring democracy. That’s what it’s all about. Because of white people needing to protect their wealth, they’ve oppressed everything that the black people ask for in fighting for their rights. When people in the United States actually have an opinion about this, things will change. And if this film in any way helps people have an opinion about what’s happening in South Africa, then it’ll have done something. One is affected by everything, by reading books, by reading the newspaper, by going to the theater, by just talking, by listening to music…I think little seeds are planted, and from that things grow.

 

Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007; 336pps), a collection of Liza Béar’s interviews with 55 filmmakers from 23 countries, is available from select bookstores or online at www.amazon.com. For more information go to http://lizabearmakingbook.blogspot.com.

Tags:
Social Movements
Racism
Apartheid
BOMB 25
Fall 1988
The cover of BOMB 25
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