Rupert James

Talented British filmmaker Rupert James, currently working out of the Thai capital, writes and directs sometimes curious, oftentimes dark, always powerfully-charged documentaries and commercials that somehow hint at hope amongst the despair. I spoke to him last week.
Rupert James
Do you as a director have a vision?
Darkness – both visually and thematically – features a lot in my work, largely, though paradoxically, because of its illuminating power. Visually, darkness helps to underscore details, to place focus on elements of significance in the frame; while thematically it's through darkness that I see the extent of the nature and truth of the human condition and in this torment and desperation perhaps at least to some degree hope – even if it's distant or only conspicuous by its absence.

In fact, darkness is, undeniably our starting point. Just as a painter starts with a blank canvas, I believe that as a filmmaker one starts similarly with a canvas of sorts, though of course itʼs black rather than white – traditionally, unexposed celluloid film, nowadays an empty flash card and editing timeline. The theatre itself, too, the near-pitch dark in which the audience watches the film, is an extension of that empty frame. And thatʼs further cause for the auteur being circumspect with the ‘marksʼ s/he makes as itʼs between the darkness and the intermittent beams of projected light, sometimes bright sometimes dim, that the filmmaker touches the audience emotionally.

Can you give some examples of this process?
The first marks I tend to make on the ʻcanvasʼ are often in fact not visual but actually audio –
largely because I believe itʼs through sound specifically that we leave a vital, visceral impression on an audience. Audio sets the tone; everything else serves the audio. Indeed, the publicity surrounding the arrival of cinema in the 1920s often described the form as being ʻradio with picturesʼ. And that still holds true. My editor in LA takes it one step further: “Picture is possibly even tertiary, ideas not images being secondary to audio.”

With Mourning Glory the first element laid down was early morning birdsong – although the sound isnʼt apparent until the instrumental passage end of the title sequence over a minute into the
piece – struck I was by the hint of the very celebration of the existence of life in a space that was so devoid of humanity.

And how many days was the Mourning Glory shoot?
After shooting political demonstrations and soldiers for nearly two months I decided to use footage from just the last two days, as after witnessing the aftermath of what was essentially civil war everything else Iʼd witnessed seemed irrelevant and had to hit the cutting room floor. It can be a tough decision but often the best decision if you want your message to be singleminded is to, as they say, ʻkill your babiesʼ. (There are, interestingly enough, possibly several other films to be made from the dailies I have from the project.)


What motivates you?
Iʼm moved by inequalities, by the struggle of the underdog, by the many grave miscarriages of justice of our world. I strive to show not poverty porn, but the extremity of circumstances, the human condition, all its anguish and sorrow, with an occasional glimpse of hope. Truth is important to me, but not fly-on-the-wall truth as is found with Direct Cinema, as itʼs often deceptive. A vérité approach with specific framing or even a recreation of the truth, I believe often presents a more authentic account of an event as opposed to just rolling camera. Whatever approach you take, there are significant decisions that will be made that will effect the final viewed content: when you turn the camera on, when you turn the camera off, where you place the camera – these are all editorial calls – not to mention actual cuts, shot sequencing, choice of music and the like. There is no such thing as a purely candid film – not one that anyone would watch. I believe even though itʼs typified by coverage of actual, real events, documentary must still be fashioned within the realm of drama. And if drama is uncertainty combined with anticipation, one must take this license to retell the story – if only to serve or honour the truth.

What about your style?
I donʼt care much for style; whatʼs paramount to my work is tone. What I strive to reproduce is an honest, coherent statement that is tonally poignant. In talking about Kubrick, Scorsese points out the beauty of his work is in his achievement of sentiment without being sentimental. That sums it up for me. I attempt to charge my work with emotional power, whilst not overcranking the thing so it becomes twee or trite.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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