The past, according to LP Hartley, is a foreign country. LP was, of course, being metaphorical, but for filmmaker Bethan Highgate-Betts in her film Pink that’s exactly what it is. And in addition to time-travel-country-hopping she also aims to cross cultural divides, bridge age division and open up our eyes to the people around us.
That’s some pretty heavy lifting for a short film that lasts under three minutes.
And during those three minutes (2 minutes 40 seconds, to be exact) she moves from present day UK to 1940s Iran, and all on a budget of just £500.
Bethan won a Raw Film Commission from the Exeter Phoenix, which ‘is aimed at Devon’s most promising young filmmaking talent’. For that, the filmmakers are supported with £500, equipment hire, advice and mentoring plus lighting, writing and other workshops along the way. And there’s an expectation that filmmakers are ‘committed, creative and passionate about transforming ideas in to big screen stories’. Plus they should have ‘ideas [that] will speak to a cinema audience and will be innovative and unique enough to sit before the Studio 74 Cinema programme’.
All of this should come naturally to Bethan who has a history of creative endeavours, including but not exclusive to, filmmaking.
‘A lot of my work is looking at how we look at people and we assume things about them that aren’t necessarily true. Or equally we don’t see them at all,’ says Bethan.
In Pink, Bethan is exploring the way older people are viewed.
‘I think a lot of people forget that they’ve had lives and we don’t think about the lives that they’ve had. We just see them how we see them. And I was thinking how some people are left in carehomes and have had these lives we don’t think about.
‘In the story the family assume that she would hate her grandson’s hair colour -it’s pink -and actually she doesn’t.’
The story starts in a care home in the present day UK. We see an Iranian grandmother and her family.
‘There’s a lot of Muslims at the moment in England who are facing the issue of whether to put their older relatives in care homes, because their culture is to have them in the home, but obviously in this economic climate it’s not always possible,’ says Bethan.
The family initially ignore the grandmother because they’re embarrassed that she has to be there, and they have a stilted conversation about being embarrassed. And then we flash back to 1940s Iran, we see her at a party. There’s a kiss -a gay kiss -and then she talks to another woman about having to move to England, when the marriage to her fiance is going to happen.
When the film returns to the present day she looks her grandson in the eyes and smiles at him. And he doesn’t know why she’s smiling, but he smiles back and they have this moment of connection, even though it’s not fully formed.
The trigger for this is the grandson’s hair, which is pink and it reminds the grandmother of a pink hijab in her past.
Pink picks up on the themes assumption and judgment that run through Bethan’s work.
‘I recently made an astronaut film that was the same thing. The person in the film is dressed in an astronaut suit so you have a lot of assumptions about that -but you just have to look at the actions.’
But how do you create 1940s Iran on a tight budget?
‘Bristol City Council very kindly let us use the Edwardian Cloak Room,’ says Beth. ‘It’s a beautiful old public toilet that they have in Bristol, with incredibly tiled floors. And ornately tiled walls. It’s really nice. So we closed those up for the day.’
Casting was a bit of an issue for Bethan.
‘I’m sure there must be Middle Eastern actors in Devon but we just couldn’t find them,’ says Beth. The two women they cast for the flashbacks were found in London, and they were incredible actors. It was the first time Beth had directed actors she didn’t know.
If the search for cast initially proved fruitless, it did provide the film with its composer.
After Bethan had made some internet enquiries about cast, Tom Berge got in touch and offered to do the soundtrack. And music was a key element to the film’s journey. The soundtrack to life in the UK is dull, drab carehome-type noises -think the sound of a Hoover down the hall.
‘When her memory is sparked it’s the music that takes you back,’ says Bethan. ‘You hear it before you see Iran.’
Colour, too, is key to that journey. The present day is again dull and drab, while the flashback is colourful, although Bethan insists it’s not a dream sequence (there is a confetti canon, so you decide when you see the flick).
Bethan was surrounded a great team (‘everybody that helped out was amazing’) including cinematographer James McColl.
A testament to how well everything worked was the turn quick turn around: it took around six months from first winning the bursary to handing the film in in preparation for the Two Short Nights film festival.
And what are Bethan’s hopes for the film after its initial screening?
‘We’ll see how it goes,’ she says. For filmmakers with something to say, the future is an unexplored country.