It’s never felt quite as isolating to live on these Great British Isles as it does in the wake of last June’s EU referendum. That feeling of isolation to which I refer to isn’t defined by our unknown relationship to Europe, but rather by an insidious isolationism which has seen the diverse communities of the UK withdraw into themselves with definitions clearly drawn between ‘them’ and ‘us’. All too cognisant of the tumultuous mood of the country, Thomas Ralph decided to canvas the largely unheard views of the generation who had no say in the vote, yet will undoubtedly be the most affected, in his forthright documentary Darkest Hour. DN caught up with Thomas to find out how he captured these candid thoughts about what makes this kingdom of ours united and why that unity is being rapidly eroded.
What prompted you to make this reflective film about Britishness in the wake of the Brexit vote?
The film is part of the Homespun Yarns competition run by Homespun Editing and Wave Studios. It’s the third year they’ve run this competition; funding four young directors to a set brief. The whole idea is to both champion young talent but also build relationships between directors, editors and sound designers from different companies. It’s a great and unique initiative that’s growing by the year. This year’s brief was titled The Track; in short we had to interpret Lyves’ song Darkest Hour in anyway we deemed fit. This could be though a music video, lyrical inspiration, documentary, whatever we pleased. Out of over 100 pitched they choose 4 finalists.
We found that ‘Brexit’ as a word, a topic and as a situation bore an immediate stigma.
My thinking was influenced by the EU referendum vote; I found myself both shocked about the exposing of the clear social chasm that’s divides this country but also the ignorance of the media to ignore and literally not talk to the youth of this country. The ones who had no political say, but yet had to live the most with the consequences whether for better or worse. We thought it would be an interesting project to go find, portray, speak and most importantly listen to their thoughts about Brexit, being British and their greater future in general. Exploring the country we found that, much like the vote itself, opinion was equally divided and that the notion of ones ‘Darkest Hour’ may not necessarily be looming on the horizon, it may have been the hour that just passed.
How did you select the participants for the film and was there a conscious effort to include a cross section of views? What questions did you ask to sparked those open responses?
As we recce’d and found our kids and families we found that ‘Brexit’ as a word, a topic and as a situation bore an immediate stigma. Therefore we felt we needed another initial angle to then seed in our political theme. Before shooting I’d seen an old Martin Parr documentary where he literally travelled the country and asked one simple question, “What does being British mean to you?”. I was drawn to its simplicity and openness so we used that as our starting point, growing into ideas of describing oneself, their home, their hopes, their fears, etc. It was only when we were there that current social issues came to the fore. In many cases it happened naturally. Oh, and yes! We were constantly thinking about demographics and opinions but the sheer make-up of Britain today meant it wasn’t really a problem.
Through those discussions were you able to ascertain common roots of their strongly held beliefs for either side of the Brexit argument?
I think there’s an interesting angle here for another project about the kids’ parents. It became clear very quickly that the experience of one’s parents defined the youths’ opinions. That’s not to say we didn’t meet outgoing and individual characters, but there was definitely a huge stamp of influence by one’s lineage. The uncertainty of the future was the other uniting theme; in many ways the notion of ‘naivety of youth’ wasn’t actually that naïve. Most of the kids were uncertain about what lay ahead and they were the first to admit it.
What was your approach to filming this visually rich mix of portraiture and action? Did you deviate much from what was laid out in the initial competition entry?
In my pitch I stated very little about what exactly we’d film, it was more of a tonal thing. Thankfully Homespun were very brave in taking that risk and letting us free to film whatever. That freedom allowed for us to evolve the piece as we shot. Overall the film took two months to make. We shot over two long weekends in various places around the UK. It was pretty hardcore but even though we had little to no budget everyone involved – like myself – was young and hungry to make something meaningful. I think that enthusiasm of everyone involved shines through in the final film.
In terms of mixing up the action and the portraiture that was always in the game plan. I actually wanted a more smooth ‘journey’ like nature to the footage but budget restrictions meant Joseph Alexander Guy (the DOP) had to shoot hand-held (we shot Amira) so we tried to create a sense of person within their chosen action. Following their practice in the most cinematic way and then finding abstractions of themselves – these transpired as portraits.
This type of footage lends itself to a very fluid edit with segments easily slipping into new positions. How did you first select what to use (from the mammoth 26 hours of rushes!) and then lock down the structure and emotional journey of the final film?
Well firstly I was really lucky to work with an editor of the calibre of Paul O’Reilly at Homespun; he really stamped his experience on it and actually went through all 26 hours himself! 26 hours became 7 hours and I went through that. This left us with 2 hours of final selects (still a tonne!). The first thing we did was make the sound score; splitting the track up and building the stems, selecting and placing our interviews down. Paul already knew this, but I found the key was to be ruthless…and we were. That ruthlessness built the emotional arc before we had any clips down. Then after we just went with our gut; finding clips that just fitted certain sounds of the track. By doing so things started to flow and a visual narrative built itself. All we planned was the beginning and the end. It sounds simple and it kind of was, we were just very assertive about what would work and what didn’t. I have so many cool, epic shots and characters that just got dropped as they didn’t emote the same as something far simpler.
The film seems to resonated with a lot of people.
On the night of the screening the live audience voted for their favourite and I’m pleased so say our film came out on top. Since then we’ve been surprised by it’s online success and incredibly humbled by the response of the kids and families involved.
Making something where the subject becomes the discussion point over the technique has been a first for me.
While Darkest Hour doesn’t take a view for or against Brexit, is there anything in particular you want the film to impart to its audience and is that desired audience more akin to the participants or those who decided on their behalf?
I guess the aim was to reflect and comment on the social and political divide that we’ve been bitterly debating for the last year and portray it through the ignored, the ones who just don’t have a voice and who have to live with the consequences the most. Naturally – as everyone is divided – the unbiased nature flung through, and I’m really proud of that. In an ideal world I’d like this to be seen by the older generations, the decision makers and the establishment. It’s been both refreshing and sad to see that the youngest of our country are equally as confused and divided as the ones in control.
What’s coming up for you next?
I’m pitching on quite a few music videos but I’m keen to get back into the world of documentary…making something where the subject becomes the discussion point over the technique has been a first for me. That’s been an exciting and rewarding eye opener.