Film is a time machine. A lot of film makers forget this ability. Making Arena has reminded me of this in so many ways.
‘Arena’ is a dual narrative, flicking back and forth between 1943 and 2017 to visually link both stories as one. It’s amazing how audiences can quickly, automatically and unconsciously switch to follow dual narratives especially ones that are as visually different as ‘Arena’. We’ve built up this narrative ability over the century of film making as a visual language. Without it, Arena just wouldn’t work. So much of that visual language we all use every day, staring at our smartphones. It’s the same language understood by anyone in the UK as it is to a shepherd on the hills in Azerbaijan watching on his or her phone.
Location scouting, I was also drawn to the fact that a lot of our proposed camera set ups feature reflections in shop windows. When I was an art student, one of my visual fascinations were the same reflections. I would fill up sketch books of images double reflected in shop windows. Thirty years later, here I am doing the same thing. It’s that time machine again.
‘Arena’ is full of reflections carried through time, bouncing off one another like a laser in a tube until they become one focused beam of light. I think they call that ‘cinema’.
Tomorrow, the 27th January 2019 is Holocaust Memorial Day.
Events that happen decades ago in history can seem remote, especially to young people. Many of us in the older generation can connect because our parents may have lived through the second world war, have had grandparents who served and our media from that time was at the tail end of the studio war movies we now refer to as classic cinema. Even as kids we played in bombed out spaces from the second world war. So it’s hard for young millennials to understand that over six million people, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, died at the hands of an extremist regime. I cannot blame them. Our cities have recovered. Life goes on.
During my career I was lucky and privileged enough to be asked to record survivors testimony. I would drive up to an unassuming house, sometimes a remote drive away. Set up my broadcast camera, microphone and lights which must have seemed alien to the person I was pointing all this equipment at. After being offered tea and biscuits and some chit chat, they would sit down in their favourite chair and start talking. I would get through on average a whole box of ten half hour tapes. The time seemed to fly by as their compelling testimony poured out. The small details of how they escaped or survived. The people who helped them. The loved ones they were forced to say goodbye to.
It was hard to stay focused on the job. To get the technicals right. Even so I would remember details such as how escapees would use cut tennis balls to throw family heirlooms across the river before they were captured. Desperate stuff. It leaves a deep impression.
Our film ‘Arena’ connects the present with the past, to open a door for younger people, connecting history with the terrible events of May 22th 2017 at the Manchester Arena. The extremism and horror they experienced that night has been lurking in society for a long time and at this moment is more prevalent. Only through education, understanding and remembrance can we combat extremism.
Take a moment on this day to remember the Holocaust.
If you want to learn more, here’s the Holocaust Remembrance link, The Shoah Foundation and The Peace Foundation set up after the IRA Warrington Bombing and of course the Manchester Emergency Fund set up after the Arena bombing.
I came across the story of Erna Petri whilst researching my feature film ‘The Victors’. ‘The Victors’ is a story concerned with the truth of becoming a soldier and going to war. By that I mean it’s anti nostalgic, less triumphant and honest about what happens when you accept that path. There is nothing wrong with becoming a soldier or serving your country. I do take issue with what the men and women we send off to fight are told about the realities. I’m also concerned with how this is represented in film. Time and again we see war films that glorify a kind of toxic masculinity without intelligence, relying on the visceral to carry its audience with little story depth. They’re also filmed through the veil of nostalgia. Full of daring do. War is far darker, more human and tragic than that. We deserve better films.
And so I was reading some background when I came across the story of Erna Petri, a housewife who committed murder to prove herself to her husband and their shared ideology, right wing fascism aka Nazism. It left a startling impression that a housewife would do this but then she’d been submerged in nazi ideology, allowing her terrible actions to feel easy for her. Almost required. Easy to carry out when you dehumanise other human beings.
Two weeks later the Manchester Arena bombing occurred. Like many in my home town, I was glued to the TV as the horror unfolded seven miles away. Days after, I was struck by the similarities between the Arena bomber Salman Abedi and Erna Petri. Two people of around the same age. Radicalised so far they will commit murder for the sake of a warped ideology. These people aren’t soldiers. They were ordinary people manipulated by others.
I wanted to make Erna’s story stand alone to make a point about extremism. Making films is an odd adventure. Finding the story can take time and rely on revelation to arrive at the final piece. Making Erna’s story would have been impossible and a tough watch for the audience to connect with. We’ve seen so many World War Two holocaust stories before and I wanted a modern audience to connect. Mid way through 2018 I realised that I was avoiding including Abedi and the reason I wanted to make the film in the first place, as a response to a terrible event that happened to my home town. I was being overly sensitive. Sometimes being a film maker you need to be brave. Like a cameraperson looking at a terrible news event, you have to kind of emotionally shut off and keep filming or no one else will ever see the very event you’re witnessing. I had to face reality and tell this story not to mention that it was driving me a bit crazy. Stories do this. Usually its the best ones that never leave you alone in your thoughts. Those are the ones to pursue. I read an article about creativity, that sometimes you have to let go of the thing you fear most to be creative.