My Exploding House, a documentary from Liberty Smith, is full of meticulous surprises.
The blurb calls it an ‘absurd quest’. In a way, it is. The film follows Liberty’s attempts to track down a less-than half-remembered film that may (or may not) have included the explosion of a house she once lived in as a child.
But through that quest, Liberty opens up a world of memory, social resistance, and questions the notion of verity and artifice. It is deeply personal and massively communal. And the nature of the deep-dive detective work for My Exploding House made it incredibly unpredictable to make. The final pieces were put together just days before the premiere at the Two Short Nights Film Festival in Exeter
“I wasn’t sweating at all,” joked Liberty. The denouement of the film relied on Liberty’s friends and former colleagues’ schedules away from one this year’s forthcoming blockbusters.
Liberty might not have been sweating, but there could well have been some jitters. This is a new direction.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever made a personal project,” says Liberty. “A personal story from my past that I wanted to explore. It was a quest to find this piece of footage.
A filmmaker searching for a film for their own next film is a film-watcher’s wonderfully meta rabbit hole. Plus My Exploding House takes place in a time of protest – one of the biggest and longest road protests in Europe. A time when campaigners looked to protect communities against demolition.
And it was something she hadn’t spoken to her mother about, either.
“We hadn’t had those conversations about what happened back then, and what that meant for the rest of other houses, and moving a lot, living in short-term housing,” she says.
Liberty was spurred on by bedtime stories with her own young child, thinking about storytelling and memory-making as a child. It was the start of the pandemic in 2020, a time ripe with the sense of home and family.
“I was pregnant, and then my dad got ill with dementia. There was a strange time of one generation losing memories and a new generation making memories. I think it was just the right time to explore it. And then I got the very kind commission at Exeter Phoenix.”
It was just the push Liberty needed to give her the confidence to move from producing other people’s stories to telling her own.
“Every film is personal, even if it’s not about you. You put so much into it as a filmmaker: your perspective; the way you interview; the way you create the edit. But this one is very directly about me. It’s a strange process to hear your voice and find yourself the content as well as the filmmaker. It’s an entirely different thing, and I grew in confidence.”
And it changed Liberty’s relationship with her mum.
“We found that we really enjoyed each other’s company,” says Liberty. It was that focus on time together working on the film. “We didn’t have jobs to do, we didn’t have grandkids to look after. We just talked and spent time around the subject, and that is something we had never done.”
Every filmmaking experience gives new scope to what comes next, says Liberty.
“I feel there’s a part of my creative self that’s opened a door. My background is in TV development. I looked through newspapers to build scrapbooks of ideas, ideas, ideas, and I never looked at myself. I’m quite excited at the idea that there’s a new realm of where the stories can come from. I’ve been so keen to tell other people’s stories well and make sure their personality comes across and their truth, somehow I didn’t consider myself.”
In terms of filmmaking style, Liberty is drawn to the archive, doing research and becoming a detective to delve into subjects.
“I like the robust rigour of factual,” says Liberty.
“It’s very easy in TV to be put in a box of a female producer, very organised. very rigorous, very good. To stay in work, to make life work, you often have to just do the next job. To take a sidestep out of that and focus on directing and not being in that box, this commission has been a true opportunity, with commissioners that were entirely understanding of the challenges that were involved and willing to just go with the flow of this film.”
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