Writer/director Gareth Jones, talks about Delight, the second in his D-trilogy. Delight won Best Film at the Moscow International Film Festival 2013, and will be screened at the Exeter Phoenix. Take it away Gareth…
Delight is a war film without violence, about war scars hardening on the inside. A study of the psychological damage that war inflicts on its survivors.
The story coalesced around several preoccupations.
First of these was the way in which violence scars our lives, both literally in the war zones across the globe and second hand in its endless representation on screen.
I’ve long had a personal desire to explore the psychological effect of exposure to war violence on those who broker the stories. Naturally we praise the correspondents and photographers who bring us evidence of distant conflicts. My father, BBC Correspondent Ivor Jones, was one of them. But we rarely ask what it costs them and will continue to cost them all their days. The journalist as hero -or antihero â€“ is a familiar trope of our times, we think of the titanic Don McCullin whose heroic visual testimony was also an inspiration and is rightly the subject of a current documentary. The film has acquired a terrible poignancy through the recent loss of journalists’ lives in the proliferating ‘theatres of war’ across the world, be it Libya, Syria or Afghanistan: Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik amongst the finest.
In response I wanted to create an interior, more expressionist approach to the price of bearing witness, allowing us perhaps to question its meaning for an audience steeped in visual consumption, for whom suffering can easily become unconscious entertainment.
A second thread was my recent doctoral study into the representation of holocaust in film with reference to Freudian trauma theory. Two personal stories also connect here: Echo’s situation was partly inspired by the experience of my father’s retirement to the peaceful Welsh village where our production was based but for whom inner peace was always elusive. He never spoke about what he’d seen out in the field. But he was invalided out and effectively went to ground as far from civilization as he could possibly get, with no phone, no TV, no guests, just his classical music and a fishing rod for company. My maternal grandfather lost his entire company in the First World War and chose to re-enlist in the Second, only to take his own life a few months later. His courage was not in doubt, but I am convinced it was the renewed outbreak of war that triggered his dormant trauma, brought his earlier loss unbearably close and made any repetition of violence intolerable.
Echo’s predicament tells a story of war trauma resurfacing many years later in someone who was thought she was merely an observer, a former war photographer who has since moved on to have kids and a civilian career, only to find herself a prey to what she has seen, and maybe done, or left undone. The question of her survival, both psychological and physical, provides the suspense underlining the film.
Getting inside the psyches of these battle-scarred correspondents was the business of a fascinating series of conversations and meetings held over the two years preceding the film. Through my own experience of working in Paris, I am familiar with the international milieu of war correspondents and photographers based there, including my friend Alfred Yagobzadeh, documenter of countless middle-East conflicts, the masterful Stanley Greene, and many other sources who understandably wish to remain unidentified. Though Echo is swept from this world into her youthful odyssey, this milieu is very much hers, and her story reflects the experience of many who shared theirs with me.
I was fortunate to work on the portrayal of Echo with the great French actress Jeanne Balibar. Jeanne’s long career effortlessly spans theatre and film from the ComÃ©die FranÃ§aise to an array of screen work with such directors as Jacques Rivette, Christophe HonorÃ© and Olivier Assayas. Her ability and willingness to experience from inside the emerging trauma and gradual disintegration of her character, and to render us these luminous moments, has been a journey of discovery, often painful, always compelling.
She was supported in this challenging role by an extraordinary young actor, RADA graduate Gavin Fowler, here taking on his first feature film, whose fearless grasp of the physical and emotional moment underpins much of the on-screen frisson.
A third preoccupation for me was the price of truth-telling, the subject of much recent soul-searching among press and politicians alike. The tricky intimacy between those that give out the news and those who govern, formed a natural third angle to the story. Without this, Delight could perhaps have remained a rather interiorized psychodrama, yet it was impossible to ignore the socio-political background from which Echo is a fugitive. Having been rapidly absorbed into the hectic world of British political journalism, an Ã©migrÃ© like so many others (the Spanish wife of our current Deputy Prime Minister springs to mind) the enigmatic Echo turns out to be someone rather more than she admits, married to ‘a very important man’, a former journalist now government spokesman, embroiled in the political maelstrom familiar to us through the Leveson Enquiry, wonderfully fleshed out by Tim Dutton. Except in this case the spin doctor is the victim of his own tactics, the tabloids are on his back, about to expose his own marital scandal and the apparent involvement of his wife in war crimes about to go to the Hague.
These thematic concerns are brought into focus through a complex, unreliable protagonist, whose somewhat incestuous love affair forms the central story. At one level, it is the story of a mid-life crisis, a strong woman embarking on a final fling in defiance of a controlling husband, a charismatic woman still capable of succumbing to a violent physical passion. But Echo is too inflected to enjoy the fruits of her amour fou in peace, she is tormented, not by guilt at betraying her husband, but at betraying her lover’s father, the man she walked away from and left to his fate, the witnessing of a crime which he arguably perpetrated just by being there. It is this betrayal that underlies her own breakdown, and for which her new relationship becomes a kind of atonement.
The business of observing and recording, the creation of memory through photography is at the heart of this film. Does the viewing eye perceive what it sees, or merely transmit? Or does it do either? Is the camera just an echo? -as our protagonist disparagingly comments in giving herself that name -or does it create truths that might not otherwise have existed, provoking conflict even by recording it?
Stylistically, the film was conceived to match the layers of complexity in the story, combining a ground-breaking use of subjective stills camera, archive footage and an introspective framing device. I decided with cinematographer Alex Ryle to shoot the main body of the narrative on Red Scarlet, a lightweight version of the Epic which would enable us to penetrate the remoter, otherwise inaccessible areas of the poetic mid-Wales landscape that I wanted to capture. As a camera, it also enabled us manoeuvrability and speed of turnaround at our main location, the dilapidated farm which forms the heart of the piece. Alongside this Echo shoots wild on the Canon 5D ii, a compulsive stills narrative of her fall from grace, a prying into her dead lover’s space which becomes ever more blurred and fragmented as her inner disintegration proceeds. Digital archive film from various war zones is pieced together by Echo as she edits together the evidence that Jo has left behind, and faces up to her ghosts. These ghosts are very real to her, lost spirits from her various war-zones, she glimpses them in the shadows at night when Zac is asleep next to her.
The location work has also been integral to the stylistic power of the film. Production designer Rupert Allan set to work on what was admittedly fantastic raw material, but the imagination and intuition, not to mention the labour of love which he and his team devoted to bringing alive the world which Jo bequeathes his maverick son Zac, was nothing short of magical.
Alongside these elements, an intense sound picture is already under construction, layering realistic effects of played-back archive war footage with the scared, heavy breathing of its traumatized viewer, the impressionistic cries of the off-screen victims and the ghostly whispers, musique concrete and yearning instrumental lines of the unifying music score.
Delight is a stylistically adventurous film, transgressive even, but balanced by a recognizable three-act structure and an accessible love story. We’re striving to break new ground without overstepping the bounds of commercially viable cinema. Delight is above all a love story rising from the lament for a fallen comrade.
Delight is at the Exeter Phoenix on Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 7.30pm.