It’s been quite the year for filmmaker Ross Bolidai. Graduating from the National Film and Television School with a masters in Documentary Directing, winning the Wildcard Jury Award at Melbourne Documentary Festival for his film Coalville Gold and scooping a £100,000 commission from Channel 4’s First Cut Pitch are just a few of the achievements that Ross has tucked under his belt in past months. We catch up with him to discuss his latest film and today’s documentary-making climate through the eyes of one of its most exciting young filmmakers…
What was going through your head when you won this year’s Channel 4 First Cut Pitch for the brief ‘The Journey’? (watch the full short here)
It felt rather surreal actually, it still hasn’t kicked in. I think as a young filmmaker you spend so long knocking on the doors of production companies, begging to pour coffee or do anything that gets your foot in the door. After the commission, being able to shop around different production companies and select the right exec is an amazingly surreal feeling, especially for someone so fresh in the industry. Channel 4 have been really supportive and my commissioner Rita Daniels has been wonderfully supportive. It’s a really fortunate position to be in.
Channel 4 gave everyone who applied the theme of ‘The Journey’ and each filmmaker had to interpret it in their own way, what was your concept?
My film is about an 85 year old man learning to come to terms with his sexuality after joining the London Gay Men’s Choir. Suddenly this guy’s like “Hey, I didn’t realise it was totally fine to be gay, I’ve always known it, I’ve just never admitted it”. He got to come out to his sister, who is five years older than him, and she didn’t even bat an eyelid. The film is about the state of loneliness and what this man decides to do about it. In a sense it’s the longest journey there is, and it answers the brief purely metaphorically.
How did you find your character?
Rather serendipitously actually. I like to explore masculinity and initially the whole film was about coming of age. I think one of the only things we do nowadays that transitions us from boys to men is becoming a father, and I was going to film a group of men watching their partners give birth. I was up North and everything was going well, and then suddenly the girlfriend of the couple that I was living with came up to me and said “I don’t think I want to do this as much as my partner does.” What can you tell a very heavily pregnant woman who’s about to give birth at any moment? I just had to be incredibly polite and go with it. I got home five days before the deadline and thought “What am I going to do?”. Then I met this 85 year old Jewish gent and suddenly he starts telling me about finally plucking up the courage to come out a month or so previously, after joining the London Gay Men’s Chorus. I thought here we go, there’s my film. Where’s this choir and when are we going to go and see them?
How has joining the London Gay Men’s Choir impacted his life?
It’s amazing that he’s finally found this support group. What I thought was really beautiful was that he turned into a young boy when he arrived there, youthful in his actions, with this glint of delight across his face. This guy who could barely walk down the stairs was suddenly running around the room with all the other men. It gave him a sense of purpose, a sense of unity with others, this sense of acceptance that I think he was so desperately craving. So it was just shocking to think of this duality of life, this tragic sociopolitical paradox that he lived through when he was my age. He couldn’t be himself until now and I think for me that’s the biggest tragedy. The choir loved the film, we had this big emotional screening and they were all in tears.
Had he ever been married or was masquerading as straight?
He’d never been married but he’d never told anyone. When I told him it was fine to be openly gay he said “well I didn’t realise that, if someone had told me 20 years ago I might have been able to find a partner!” For him it was a taboo, a flaw within him, a mental imperfection, something that he thought very few people would be able to understand, and a fact he just accepted. Then suddenly before his 85th birthday he got this incredible surprise, and in a sense the stars aligned for him and he realised he could finally be proud of being who he really is.
Do you know where you’re going to go with your Channel 4 commission?
I’m still keeping my cards in my pocket. I’ve got a few ideas that are quite loose. I’d like to make something in the similar style to my other films: very access driven, self-shot and observational, but at the same time I’ve got to embrace the fact that this is for television, which is all very new to me. Little things like knowing that there are going to be four breaks in the film will affect your narrative arc hugely. At the same time it’s also a very unique position to be in, to get funding without an approved treatment. It’s terrifying and very empowering at the same time. At the moment I’m going to wait until I’m with the right production company to do this film, and then figure what exactly we’re going to create.
Your last film Coalville Gold (watch the trailer here) on English bare-knuckle boxer Stevie Gold, won the Wild Card Jury Award at Melbourne Film Festival. In your own words, what’s the film about?
Its a film about a bare-knuckle boxer, but its not really about boxing at all. Its about a young boy making his way in the world, making mistakes, learning from them and figuring out the importance of family and those close to you. It’s a coming-of-age story, a story about forgiveness and accepting life as it comes.
Was that another chanced-upon story?
I knew that I wanted to tell a story about these Northern, ex-coal mining towns where kids couldn’t follow their father’s professions. I could see that Britain was divided, and now that’s become more apparent with Brexit – these kids are part of the disillusioned youth that wound up voting for Brexit in the first place. So the next step was to find an elegant keyhole to look through. One evening I found myself in this bare-knuckle boxing gym of all places, just outside of Leicester, and I started filming this guy (main character Stevie Gold). He asked me not to film him and we had a bit of a laugh. I went to see him a few times- I think he thought I either fancied him or that I was a bit of a creep. Eventually I said to him that it would be great to make a film about him. He said, “Oh wait me? You don’t want to make a film about me, I’m really boring.” but the conflict was definitely there, there was a film to be made. One thing led to another and we became very close friends and he started giving me more and more access, and started to understand what I needed to make my film.
How did Stevie find being filmed?
He found it very awkward in the beginning. He’d say “why do you want this conversation between me and girlfriend? That’s between us.” I pitched it to him as a film about him being a boxer and I kind of played to his ego a bit, because you can’t tell people right away that you need a shot of them in the shower (which didn’t make it in to the film but which we did definitely get) and various odd, intimate shots. I find that your character tends to warm up over time, in the same way as you wouldn’t ask a stranger if you could film a conversation between themselves and their mum for instance. We shot it over a year so it gave us the time to build up that intimacy, and I think that’s what really makes the film what it is. At the end of the day it’s a film about intimacy more then anything else.
Is there one pivotal moment that happened during filming that you’ll always remember?
One of them was a scene in Coalville Gold and quite an uncomfortable moment actually. It was the final fight in the film and I’m standing at the side of the ring. Stevie takes a pretty heavy duty punch to the face. I’m right on the turnbuckle and he just drops. I’ve never seen so much blood. I was wearing a white t-shirt, covered in blood, looking at him over the lens shaking my head, and he just gave me a little wink and stood back up. I’m thinking is he doing this because I’m filming him? Am I the reason that he’s about to get completely battered? It was a question I had to ask him afterwards. He told me the presence of the camera definitely had a massive impact, but that at the end of the day he’s not a quitter and camera or not he would have gone the length of the fight.
You studied documentary directing at the National Film and Television School in London. Is there anything in particular that you took away from the NFTS that you think has developed your particular style?
The biggest piece of advice that I picked up from the NFTS was that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. Another thing is being critical of your own work and being able to understand and talk about films critically. The 8 NFTS documentary students make 40 films between them every two years and you’re constantly reviewing and speaking about films. You get very used to standing in front of your film and defending it, which at times can be very brutal. But it’s a good thing, you’ll stand up and someone will ask “well why should people watch your film?” It’s a question that you ought to ask yourself every time you make a film. Why am I making this? Why do I feel that it is my film to make? I think that is crucial.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for filmmakers in today’s industry?
I think the trouble with being a filmmaker and working in London- arguably the global hub for documentary filmmaking- is the fact that you have to compete with the city. You have to be able to afford to live in London, and at the same time have enough time develop stories. A lot of the time you decide not to pay yourself as much – or anything – because you want to follow a story, but at the same time you’ve got to eat. I think the most important thing is trying to find a way to cut your rent right down, which saves you days of doing the things that you’re not too interested in doing, things that won’t further your career, so that you can actually afford more time to make films. For example with this First Cut commission, I could make it in 3 months or I could make it in a year. If I make it over the longer period of time I know that it could well be a better film, but at the end of the day I’ll get paid exactly the same. It’s a conscious decision that you’re making in documentary, and you know that it’s never going to be lucrative and that you’re never really going to make any proper money, but at the end of the day you never really have to go to work either. That works both ways though, I feel like I’m constantly at work, there is no down time. I really don’t know why we do we do this to ourselves.
What drives you then to make these sacrifices for your films?
Telling these stories. In this day and age we’re not reading history books, our press is more and more slanted and I think documentaries are the only thing that actually allow us to empathise. As a society we need this empathy in order to understand that we’re not so different at all. By humanising different viewpoints were able to connect to people with whom we ordinarily wouldn’t.
For information on all upcoming screenings of Ross’s work you can visit his website at http://rossbolidai.com
Interview by Megan O’Hara and Robbie Pyburn