Circle/Line Filmmaker’s Diary #3

Beg Steal Borrow News, Circle/Line, New projects

Day 9: Wednesday 10 June (Mansion House and Cannon Street)

Cameraman Tom Maine and I were apprehensive as we reached Mansion House. Our experience at Moorgate, also a Circle Line station that sits in the City, had been so poor (and dispiriting) that we feared more of the same.

However, that fear was not wholly necessary, for, despite some rejections (always disheartening), we did manage to convince a few people to talk to us. Brian, the first person with whom we spoke, seemed to enjoy the interview and took my number, since he works at an advertising firm and thinks that he might need interviewers for a show that he is producing in which people discuss what it is like to be thrown out of an aeroplane.

I have no idea whether to believe Brian, and the way he spoke to me led me to believe that he thinks me younger than I am, but either way it was nice of him to offer potentially to offer. Who knows? Maybe my interviewing skills will transfer to a new project before too long.

AJ, Ves, Prash and Kerry all followed, with Kerry perhaps being the most vocal. ‘No,’ she insisted straight away, she is not happy. And she laughed. ‘Why,’ I asked? ‘Money,’ she responded with a smile. ‘I have expensive tastes and I need lots of it.’

Over from New York and studying in London for a year, Kerry said that she is enjoying her time here, and is most happy when walking around London. I find it odd that Kerry, fun as she was to talk with, wants money for happiness, and yet is most happy when she is doing something, walking, that is free. Perhaps I should challenge people more with regard to their definitions of happiness.

Tom finally featured me in some wider shots of the interviews today – mainly with Brian and AJ at Mansion House. This made me think of my friend Jonathan Taylor, who has directed episodes of such high-profile BBC documentaries as Great Ormond Street and Protecting Our Parents.

In late 2014, Jonathan gave a masterclass on making observation documentaries at the university where I work. I remember him saying that more or less the first key lesson he learned about making obs docs – from a figure as influential as Roger Graef, no less, Graef being one of the giants of British documentary – was that while the film wants to give the impression that you, the filmmaker, are invisible, in fact you have to be absolutely visible and fully participating (after a fashion) in the events that you are seeking to portray.

The logic is that if you are invisible, or say nothing, then people will not open up to you. It is only by being fully present that your subjects can trust you, Jonathan explained. And given that so many of our interviewees have a propensity to speak for as long as possible in abstract terms or in generalisations, without ever being specific about things that interest them, what makes them happy, then getting them to open up becomes important.

Therefore, even though Circle/Line is not an observational documentary, I believe that this idea of needing to make yourself present is equally true with Circle/Line. The more I put into these conversations, the more I get from people in terms of them opening up and moving beyond those generalisations – even if the film will not reflect my participation as it emphasises the people whom we have met rather than me. In effect, while based increasingly on conversations rather than on monologues from the participants, it is through a two-way conversation that the most interesting things that people say can come out.

This evening a few people did the usual ‘walking away as soon as they see us coming’ routine. This is fair enough and one learns not to take offence, even though we (or at least I) believe that everyone with whom we have spoken for this film has had a few minutes of interesting fun with us. Maybe this is not true in the eyes of others, but thinking that you are offering people something that in fact is, or might be, quite pleasant, makes the out of hand rejection quite disappointing.

Thinking about these rejections, Tom and I discussed whether one of the reasons why various people seem unwilling to talk to us, and many completely unwilling to open up to us if they do, is because we live in a society that is much more media savvy than it used to be. It is safer to give nothing away, even about one’s own happiness, except to speak in vague generalisations, and rarely if ever with specific examples about personal experiences. (Maybe I am a bad interviewer.)

As I have perhaps mentioned before, Circle/Line takes its inspiration from Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer, a 1961 film shot in 1960, and which itself is a movie comprised of vox pops of people in Paris – with Circle/Line also featuring a touch of Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le joli mai (1963) thrown in for good measure

In the Rouch and Morin film, from what I recall, people seem so willing to talk to the camera. Of course, we don’t know how many people said no, nor how long interviews lasted in order to get to what we see in the film. Nor, indeed, how prepped people were (I refuse to tell my interviewees the first question – ‘are you happy?’ – explaining to them that if they know it in advance, then it will spoil the response).

Nonetheless, in Chronicle of a Summer, it strikes me that when someone turns up with a camera in the street, people wander curiously over and want to know more. Nowadays, however, the camera is treated with suspicion, people are wary, tech savvy, and while some people are curious about what we are doing, most are not.

As Tom and I hang outside Cannon Street, I tell Tom about how it is apparently possible to run from Cannon Street to Mansion House in the time it takes for a Circle Line train to get from one station to the other, meaning that one can get off a train at Cannon Street and get on the same train at Mansion House. I shall have to check where that story comes from and whether it is true or not.

Tom and I continue to be concerned that older people are harder for us to persuade to take part in the film and that, oddly, we have not convinced a family to talk to us all at once so far. Still things to work on…

Day 10: Friday 12 June (Blackfriars)

A pleasant evening and people seemed willing to talk. If only all stations were like Blackfriars (especially because the station has a pub, the Black Friar, right opposite – meaning that finding people with whom to talk is, so Tom says, like shooting fish in a barrel).

We discuss amateur dramatics with Luke, the systemic shortcomings of capitalism with Omar, what it is like being away from one’s family with Julien (he has a brother and a sister in Mexico, with the majority of his family in his native France), and the joys (or, as I believe, the horrors) of shopping on Oxford Street and in the Westfield with Anisha.

I even questioned Anisha about several things, mainly because she is contagiously happy, and I am not sure why. Firstly, Anisha, like Kerry, feels that walking makes her happy. Secondly, Anisha suggested that poor people can and are happy and that in fact rich people are often unhappy. I asked her if she plans on giving away her money in order to be happier. She said that she will not.

I am not sure how much I should ‘challenge’ my subjects, but like Kerry who believes that she wants to be rich and yet is happiest doing something for free, Anisha seemed to say that happiness is inversely proportional to money, while also being unable to give up money for happiness.

This is not to single out Anisha; I feel this myself, and assume many people do (not that poor people are happier, but that one might well be happier if one sacrificed more money, while being unable to sacrifice that money). But it does raise the issue that our happiness, particularly if it is linked to money (as the overwhelming majority of responses would seem to suggest so far), is in fact illusory. As Julien says, perhaps we are all in the Matrix.

A final thought: a few people in these last few days – AJ, Ves, Prash, Anisha – all seem to believe that if you truly want it, then you can bring about happiness in your life. I hesitate to agree with this, mainly because to believe that we are the authors of our own destiny suggests a belief somehow that we are not quite in, or with, the world, but rather that we are separate from it, somewhat. For, we can do what we want, and the rest of the world does not constrain us, since it does not really touch us.

I am delighted that so many people tell us that they are happy. But I am always intrigued when people say both that unhappiness exists, that the unhappiness of others brings them down, but that they don’t let the unhappiness of others affect them too much. For me, this speaks of a lack of being touched by the world; happiness thus today becomes something not to be shared, but something more like a wall, or a womb (a matrix, indeed) that we construct around ourselves in order not to be touched by the rest of the world.

And yet, while it heartens me to know that so many people are happy, with exceptions like Kerry unhappy not because of loss but because she has not yet reached the point in life where she wants to be, I am concerned about the lack of touch, as well as the resort to insular as opposed to common happiness. Is constructing a common happiness what I am really wanting to ask people about here? I do ask questions along these lines. Indeed, Omar this evening suggested pessimism about the possibility for common happiness. Maybe I am making the film in search of how we can achieve it.

As Tom and I head home, we work out whether the Cannon Street to Mansion House dash is feasible. I reckon it is. Tom is a little bit more sceptical. Perhaps we should try it when Circle/Line wraps.