Spotlight On: Ben Sharrock

Scottish Director Ben Sharrock talks to us about his filmmaking journey, the experiences that have shaped his career and developing his latest Cannes ‘Official Selection’ film– Limbo.

Photo by Leire Unzueta 

When did your interest in filmmaking start and what were you doing before you became a filmmaker?

My interest in filmmaking really came from a passion for storytelling and performance. Growing up, the arts were really important for my Mum and Dad and that included film. We would go to the Alphabet Video store in Marchmont for family film night and come away with strange films that I couldn’t talk to my friends about because no other 10 year old I knew was watching that stuff!

Aside from that, I grew up doing youth theatre at the Lyceum from a very young age. At the time we took ourselves really seriously but I think we were encouraged to do so. We devised a lot of plays, worked with young playwrights and even went on a mini tour to America. I was convinced I would be an actor and I didn’t even complete my final year at school because I had the grades needed for my drama school application. During this time I had friends who were really into filmmaking and I would get involved on-screen as an actor (I’ve burnt all the evidence now though!).

When it came to the decision to go to drama school and pursue acting, I actually just chickened out. I think deep down I knew I wasn’t good enough so I took a total u-turn and went to study Arabic and Politics at Edinburgh University – with the idea that I could return to acting afterwards if I was still passionate about it. During my third year at uni, I lived in Syria. I did a little bit of theatre work there with a friend who was an amateur actor (he was also the former Syrian boxing champ). He asked me to help with an audition he was preparing and I realised that while my desire to tell stories and be around storytellers still existed, my passion for acting had gone but I really enjoyed working with him to improve his performance. Around this time, I also started to get my own ideas for stories and I would see them as films, not as theatre. The scenes would play out in their entirety with all the cuts and camera angles in my head.

I returned to Edinburgh for my final year and took a module on Middle Eastern Cinema. This was the major turning point for me. I delved into the world of Iranian and Arabic Cinema: e.g Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, The Yacoubian Building, Salam Cinema. I had never experienced cinema like this before and I fell in love. I was probably pretty late to the film game but somehow, academically I excelled in this module. I could watch these films and read the cinematic language, I could just see all the layers. I started to run Middle Eastern film nights at the university with friends and discovered and learnt so much. I made the decision to apply to film school but didn’t tell anyone because I had never made a film before and wasn’t sure how it would go. I finished my final university exam on a Friday and on the Sunday I shot my first film in my parents house because I needed a film to apply to to film school. I was a one man band behind an old DV cam borrowed from a friend and I roped my Mum and Dad in to act.

Your first short film, Patata Tortilla, was shot in Spain. Were there reasons other than story for starting your filmmaking career outside the UK? What differences have you observed about the British film industry compared to Europe and the rest of the world?

Irune Gurtubai (my producer) and I were doing the MFA at Screen Academy Scotland and we actually ended up in Spain shooting Patata Tortilla, and later making Pikadero, after a project we had set in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Southern Algeria was cancelled due to the university being unable to insure us. Going back to my studies and prior travels, I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and languages. I’ve always had a desire to explore the world. It was very natural for me to make this film in Spain with my producer, Irune, as an ambitious creative partner. I became deeply passionate about everything Basque (including Irune, we are now married ha!) and I found myself creatively invigorated by positioning myself as an outsider looking in. I remain deeply inspired by the Basque Country and have every intention of making another film there.

“For me, the really special films are those that have a voice behind them, films that are singular and feel as though no one could or would make it in that way apart from the auteur in question.”

I don’t feel I can comment so much on the differences between the British film industry and Spain/Europe because we made Pikadero with no financiers, execs or money, so it was a very different process due to that. However, one of the things that is clear to me is that even though great efforts are being made to change things and the UK and Scotland have fantastic infrastructures for talent development (such as Short Circuit), sadly the film industry, like a lot in the UK, suffers from systematic elitism. Even for us in Scotland, sometimes London can feel far. We didn’t have any contacts or a prestigious (expensive) film school that might help opens doors or any money to get into the mixer in the industry hub of London. We didn’t know anyone outside of our bubble of European and international students in Edinburgh. We had to try and do something entirely different to make us stand out, so we chose to ignore the system and make a low budget feature film in Basque.

What was the greatest hurdle you encountered when transitioning from short filmmaking to your first feature, Pikadero?

We had a similar amount of money as most formally funded shorts but the difference was we needed a sixteen day shoot. We had to find the right people that were willing to take this journey with us. It came down to inspiring and motivating people with the vision for the film and enticing talented filmmakers who wanted to take that step from shorts to a feature with us. We had a great response from the screenplay and I think people were intrigued by this Scottish director teaming up with a Basque producer and making a film in the Basque language.

At some point in life you have to take a leap of faith and that’s what we did with Pikadero. I have to say, I didn’t really experience a hurdle. I felt like I was ready to make a feature film and we had to take ourselves really seriously and pretend to ourselves that we were professionals. If you don’t take yourself seriously, no one will. Irune and I spent all of our savings and we bet on ourselves. We had a few resources, a small but extremely talented group of highly motivated people, an amazing group of actors and I had an absurd amount of self belief for having only just graduated from film school. We were lucky that he had such a brilliant team – this is essential. Everything went really well except that we crashed a car that a friend of a friend had lent us. In any case, maybe the greatest hurdle is just to believe that you can do it.

Your latest feature, Limbo, is based on real-life experiences of asylum seekers in Europe. How easy was it to develop the idea for a film covering such sensitive subject matter?

It was very difficult. It took me a year and a half to write including finding the right angle to approach this subject matter. I had a lot of false starts because I had a massive list of things that I wanted to avoid – the tropes and cliches of a film about refugees – but when you’re struggling it is very easy to lean on the familiar. At times, I had to fight really hard to keep going but I knew that I wanted to make something about this topic. I mentioned we had a film set in the refugee camps in Southern Algeria cancelled 4 years earlier. Irune and I had spent some time staying with a family in the camps there and we worked with an NGO on a project about the identity of refugees. When the “refugee crisis” flooded the news, I felt impacted by the representation of refugees due to the fact that these people were either being demonised or pitied. Both of these outcomes are dehumanising. I felt like the friends I had made in Syria or in the camps in Algeria were not being fairly represented.

As a result, one of the main challenges in developing this idea was making a fiction film that would be worth the space. There are lots of documentaries that depict different facets of the “refugee crisis” and in many ways it is the medium that is most naturally suited to the subject. I had to think about what fiction can do for this topic that documentary can’t. I find it can be useful to move away from reality and even move away from the subject at hand. This is where absurdism and allegory come in. This connective tissue is routed in my study of Iranian cinema where filmmakers found ways around censorship by distancing themselves from the topic. They could make politically powerful films as long as it didn’t look like that’s what they were doing.

It took a lot of time to research the subject, speak to people who had been through the asylum system and people who work with refugees and asylum seekers day in day out but, eventually, I needed to distance myself from all of this. I needed to put myself inside the soul of these characters just as humans like me. At some point, I realised I’m not making a film about the “refugee crisis”. I’m not trying to find the answers to these complex problems going on in the world. I’m just making a film about humans. I needed to stop chasing the perception of reality and focus on finding the emotional truth of the film.

Limbo is part of the Cannes Official Selection 2020. Last year’s Cannes Competition featured a strong selection of critically-acclaimed titles, from winner Parasite to Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In your opinion, what makes a film powerful, evocative, and truly unforgettable?

This is a difficult question…I think every filmmaker aspires to this in one way or another but I always try to remember that a film can be so many things for so many different people. I think we stand the best chance of making something that encapsulates these kind of adjectives by being true to yourself as the filmmaker.

For me, the really special films are those that have a voice behind them, films that are singular and feel as though no one could or would make it in that way apart from the auteur in question. This is the most vital cinema out there. Be generous to your audience but not too generous. Challenge and provoke. Ask for more than just passive consumption. Don’t cut when the audience expect you to.

What or who are your biggest influences and how have they informed the work you’ve made so far?

I’m going to name three specific films instead of filmmakers. The first two are The Time That Remains by Elia Sulieman and The Band’s Visit by Eran Kolirin.

With Elia Sulieman, I had never seen anything like it. The imagery, the mis-en-scene, the uncompromising pace and the observational set pieces blew me away. However, what stayed with me was how he used humour to talk about the political situation between Palestine and Israel. With The Band’s Visit it was a similar situation where the film was uniquely funny but layered with socio-political commentary, but this time round the film had so much heart. The film is laconic and the characters are emotionally closed but I felt compelled to work harder to access them. There is nothing hugely dramatic about this film but the direction and performances create a deep emotional investment in the characters with very few words. I think I’m really interested in people who don’t give too much away because I find myself wondering what they’re thinking about. This might be because I’m the opposite to this…I give far too much away.

The last film I want to mention is Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke. I was lucky enough to catch the film at Edinburgh Film Festival some years ago before making Pikadero. This was at a point where I was insecure about my “way” of making films. I was questioning whether I should go down a more conventional path. I chose this film from the programme by chance and I felt so excited by it that I wanted to run out of the cinema, pick up a camera and make my first feature film. It is a small story about the relationship between a mother and her early teens son set in a small Mexican resort. Nothing much happens but it is beautifully human. It isn’t about plot, it is about the characters.

What piece of advice would you give to someone based in Scotland who wanted to make a living out of being a filmmaker?

Try and shape your life in a way that will help give you the space and time you need to achieve your goal. Bet on yourself.

Feature photo taken by Saskia Coulson courtesy of Caravan Cinema.