Rob Brown is British screenwriter and film director whose short film work has screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and been broadcast on BBC TV. Sixteen, his first feature film, premiered at BFI London and Karlovy Vary and won Best Film from the Royal Television Society, UK.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Rob Brown discusses the West's emotional distance from Africa, responsible representations of violence in cinema and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Sixteen traces the story of Jumah, a young Congolese boy living in London, whose painful memories are triggered one night when he bears witness to a random act of violence. What motivated you to tackle the story of ex-child-soldiers?
ROB BROWN: I'm always drawn to unusual characters whose lives are often unrepresented in film. Previously in my short films I have written scripts about a female sex trafficker, an autistic kite-flying enthusiast and a homeless father. With Sixteen I was more drawn to the character, a former child soldier learning to trust again, than I was about the issue itself.
I was interested in exploring whether the past is more than just a place we can leave behind. If an African former child soldier moved to London, would he leave his problems behind or would they travel with him? This is where my interest in the issue began and answering this question has driven my efforts over the past four years to make this film.
Western audiences are desensitized to Africa's problems today because terrible stories in the news are so prevalent that they no longer have the same impact they once did. I think it's far more difficult for an audience to keep their emotional distance with the horrific nature of Jumah's past because the story takes place in London, a place they all recognize. If I set the film in Kinshasa, the audience would be able to think "oh well, this is something that happens far away."
FLMTQ: What was your process of researching and developing the story? What do you believe to be the distinct psychological traumas this lost generation of African youth faces, and how do those traumas pose obstacles when they try to assimilate in Western society?
RB: The film isn't based on one particular former child soldier's story; I did lots of research into the subject. I read all of the former child soldiers' memoirs, spoke to Human Rights Watch researchers who work in the field, other NGOs, charities and directly to some former child soldiers for my research. I don't feel qualified to speak for the lost generation of African youth but made sure, through careful research, that the film was as authentic as possible due to its sensitive subject matter.
The writing process was difficult. It took three years and continued in the edit, because it was my first feature script and I had picked a difficult subject to explore. I had completely ignored the principle about writing from your own life for your first feature film because I wanted to get an insight into something that was completely outside of my own experience of life. I am glad that I did this now but this is why it took so long.
One thing that really helped the development process of Sixteen was being selected from 400 entries for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum at Edinburgh Film Festival 2011. The opening 10 pages of Sixteen were performed by professional actors in front of an industry audience and the hosts of the event were Nicola Shindler (Red Productions) and Matt Greenhalgh (writer of Control and Nowhere Boy). I got some invaluable feedback from this process and couldn't have written a script worth making without the insight and advice offered by the hosts and the industry audience.
FLMTQ: The film's protagonist is played with astounding emotional restraint by Roger Nsengiyumva, himself having survived the Rwandan genocide. How did you approach the material with Roger given his history?
RB: I didn't directly request that Roger use his own experiences and history in his portrayal of Jumah. To force someone to use their own trauma when portraying a fictional character felt unethical to me. I am sure that it informed his performance on some level but we didn't focus on this in our collaboration.
Many interviewers have quizzed Roger about the connection between his own history with the Rwandan genocide and his portrayal of Jumah which I feel does not give Roger credit for the months of research he put into playing a fictional character. Roger knows Emmanuel Jal (actor and author of acclaimed memoir War Child) from when they both acted alongside each other on Africa United. So Roger was then able to speak to Emmanuel about his experiences as a child soldier to help him research the character. In addition to this, Roger and Rachael (who played Laura) lived together for one month to ensure their onscreen bond was convincing. We workshopped the script together many times.
FLMTQ: Experiences of violence have come to define the realities of many teenagers worldwide, yet as a topic violence is often sensationalized or exploited for entertainment by mainstream films. What responsibility do you believe filmmakers have when depicting or representing violence onscreen?
RB: You won't find many depictions of violence in my short films as I never allow myself to show this unless I am convinced that I am able to show the human impact and consequences involved. My short film Echoes shows violence towards trafficked women, but this was integral to the story and depicted sensitively and responsibly. The depiction of violence and the themes explored in Sixteen put huge responsibility on my shoulders and this is why I spent three years researching the script.
FLMTQ: Sixteen is your first feature film after having achieved notable success with your short films. What in particular did you find more challenging, and riveting, about directing a feature film versus a short?
RB: The biggest challenge and reward with directing a feature was being able to direct a longer shoot with real character arcs. Short films are limited in terms of how much you can really show a character change and grow. There are some actors who don't do short films, only feature films, so this opened up new possibilities for us.
I was very lucky that I was able to work with casting director Chloe Emmerson and also with United Agents. Between us we were able to assemble a great cast that we would normally only get if we had more than ten times the budget. We were able to cast Roger Jean Nsengiyumva (Africa United) as our lead and attach Rachael Stirling (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Rosie Day (The Seasoning House), Sam Spruell (Defiance) and Fady Elsayed (My Brother the Devil) to the project, which was great as they added so much to the film. Without such a strong cast it wouldn't have been possible to make this film on such a tiny budget.
The main challenge was that 18 days is definitely not long enough to shoot a feature film! Luckily we managed to get a great film in the can, but this was due to the extraordinary luck of having just the right cast and crew who were wholeheartedly committed to making the film happen in difficult circumstances. We were mostly filming in a derelict block of flats in Dagenham during the coldest Spring since records began! But the cast and crew just got on with the job and proved their talent with the end results.
However, shooting on such a tight schedule (and tiny £40k budget) wouldn't usually result in such a great film. The shortest micro budget feature film shoot I have heard of amongst my peers recently is 24 days and that is still a ridiculously tight schedule. I feel really proud of what we achieved in 18 days.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
RB: We are currently developing a number of feature projects including a female led Western called Under a Savage Sun as well as a hybrid drama-documentary Reflections about how a woman's refusal to accept her bipolar diagnosis impacts those closest to her.
Interview by Ursula Grisham Head Curator, Filmatique