Whilst it’s arguable that we’ve become more cognizant of the horrors of the world since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and social media’s continuous feeds, how often do we think about the delicate considerations which go into creating the films needed to raise awareness for the dark issues most of us would prefer not to contemplate? After being approached by global foundation Education Above All and creative agency Across The Pond to create an unflinching campaign film, director Nathan Long was faced with a difficult question: How do you craft images which convey the brutal reality for children who, when not in education, are often somewhere unimaginably vile that spur viewer action but avoid being gratuitous? It’s a question answered in his meticulously considered 90-second film Calling Attendance, which is a stark snapshot of the situations faced by more than 75 million 3-18-year-olds living in crisis-affected countries. DN is proud to have the opportunity to delve into the creation of this vitally important film with Long and learn how he met the challenges of drawing attention to such weighty subject matter.
What are the origins of this powerful project?
I was initially put forward for this partly because of my previous work in conflict zones similar to those featured in the film, and specifically a short documentary on Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. When I was first talked through the initial script, I was really impressed by the simplicity of the idea, the importance of the story behind it, but also that the charity and agency Across The Pond wanted to make something unflinching and real. I was very interested in how, while still shooting in England with actors, we could give these scenes and characters the emotional weight and believability they would need to make a film like this effective. I was lucky to be able to pull on my experience of some of these places to try and make them as true to reality as possible, in environment but also performance and mood.
In my treatment, I only used photojournalism for visual references – mainly medium format shots from photographers like Tim Hetherington, which had this quality of feeling beautifully composed, while also naturalistic and real. I loved how each image would very efficiently tell a story and communicate information about the location, scenario, and mainly the emotion of the subject. I felt this was a good approach for the scenes in our film, to try and almost tell each story in one composed shot. The aesthetic of the finished film – its lighting, colour, performances, and the 4:3 aspect ratio – are all drawing from that type of photojournalism. Our DOP, Oliver Ford, really understood the approach and brought so much to the film in the visual ideas and techniques he put forward.
Who did the initial script come from and did you have to change anything?
The initial script was written by Maggi Machado at the agency – Across The Pond, and then the creative team there, Jim De Zoete and Nick Alden, worked with me to build on that idea and flesh out a few scenes. I loved the script when I first read it – I thought it was a rare example of a really simple metaphor that communicates a complex narrative in 90 seconds, leaving everything to visual storytelling, without any need for exposition. The main things we changed were based on conversations with the charity about the reality of these situations, using their experience to make each scene as authentic as possible.
We were really conscious of the delicate line between it being too subtle to tell the story, and it being gratuitous and unwatchable.
There’s a scene which needed to imply sexual assault in school, which is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to work out how to film. We were really conscious of the delicate line between it being too subtle to tell the story, and it being gratuitous and unwatchable. From the initial script, we worked on finding details we could add to the scene that would hit that balance. We placed it in a school bathroom and added this looming male shadow invading that safe space, which hopefully makes the implication clear.
Have you found inspiration in photojournalism before as a director and what appeals to you about drawing on references outside of film?
I’ve been trying to always pull references from other art forms or mediums. I think it’s very easy to only reference commercials and music videos, and end up with everything out there looking the same – I’ve definitely fallen into that trap before. My first thought when I read this script was that it would only work if it felt authentic, so it seemed logical to only use real references as a starting point. Also, I was trying to find what it was about these images that got an emotional response from me, without any information about the subject – that helped inform everything, from performance to set design. I’ve used photojournalism as a reference before, but mainly on documentary projects.
How did you end up working with your specific team?
I thought with this it was important to get a team together who would connect with the subject matter. I’ve worked with most of them on different projects over the last few years – and Matt Mager, the producer, and I approached them with the script and treatment.
I’ve been looking for the right project to work on with Phil Currie, our editor, for ages. I had a great experience working with him a few years ago, and I just think he’s the best at heartfelt narrative storytelling – he finds things in the performances and pacing that add so much to the film. Luis Issermann – the composer and sound designer, was one of the first people we got on board. We’ve collaborated for years, and he scored the documentary I made about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where I was blown away by how well he understood the tone of each scene, and what it needed in music and sound. The DOP, Ollie Ford, is someone who I know will always add so much to every aspect of a film. I think he has a unique eye, and an understanding of how each shot and detail will play into the wider story, that always make his work something special.
Can you talk us through some of the more technical aspects of the filming.
We shot on Alexa Mini, varying our style between each scene to make them feel distinct, using a slider for smooth tracks on the more composed shots, cut against more naturalistic handheld to keep the realism and energy. A probe lens gave us this point-of-view intimacy on the kidnapping shot, with the camera turned on its side to feel we were matching the perspective of the child, while the world around her was in chaos. By shooting every scene with only one or two shots, we were able to carefully plan, light and rehearse – and I storyboarded everything to get each story beat right.
The process was all pretty fast, and we put a lot of weight on getting casting and location right, in the few weeks we had to prep. Working with child actors on such difficult scenarios was a challenging part of the concept. We were very conscious of how to approach getting the right performances while also creating a good environment for the shoot, talking to their parents at length and making an individual plan for each actor on how to brief and direct them. We shot everything over two days at Royal Gunpowder Mills, a derelict weapons-manufacturing site, which had enough of a mix of amazing locations to cover all six scenes, with production design by Jakob Gierse – making Essex double for locations from the Middle East to West Africa.
Working with child actors on such difficult scenarios was a challenging part of the concept.
I spent a week editing with Philip Currie at Stitch, but he pretty much cut the film in the first day. Luis Issermann wrote the bare bones of the music based on the storyboards and stills from the shoot and then put the sound design together at the same time as we were editing. He referenced the score for Moonlight, and specifically this very textural cello, which he recorded with a microphone close to the instrument, to give this intimacy and unease to the tone. The film was graded by Karol Cybulski at Cheat, working with Oliver Ford to both match the photojournalistic style, and also use colour to help make each location more believable, like shifting the tone of foliage in the refugee scene, to match a country with a warmer climate. It was a fairly fast project, the whole production, from starting the job to the film being screened at the UN, was just over a month.
How was the reception at the UN screening and what are your hopes for the film?
From what I’ve heard, the film has been well received. Unfortunately the issue the charity works on – attacks on education – have been increasing around the world, so I hope that the campaign can help shine a light on it and communicate to a wider audience what the charity does.
What are you working on next?
I’m starting the process of seeking funding for a short film, which I’ve been writing this year, around similar subject matter to this film. I’m also working with my new creative studio _of3, on a series of music videos in the next couple of months. Hopefully more projects as interesting to work on as this one.
Education Above All – Calling Attendance is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.