Yearning for a quieter, wider Brexit debate | Timothy George Kelly

Just a year after the historic event that shocked Europe comes ‘Brexitannia’ – a documentary on that ground-shaking referendum directed by Timothy George Kelly, who speaks to Teodor Reljic as the intimate, expansive black-and-white film makes its way to the Valletta Film Festival programme 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
20 June 2017, 7:30am
Timothy George Kelly: “It’s a modern documentary but it already feels like history. And it is”
Timothy George Kelly: “It’s a modern documentary but it already feels like history. And it is”
Apart from perhaps Donald Trump winning the presidential election, Brexit was probably the most talked-about event in the Western world in 2016. How did you chip away such a ‘loud’ and so heavily commented-upon event enough to allow you to make your own documentary, while making sure that your own vision and intention remains intact all the way through?

Yes, the film is about Brexit but Brexit as something to vote for quickly becomes about other things, nation, identity, class, race, dignity. I used Brexit as a tool to talk to these people about these issues, to make a portrait of a time and a country going through one of it’s most historic moments in 50 years. I think it’s also important to recognise the diversity of the people in the film and the fact they are all normal, regular, members of society. There was Shakespearean battles happening within Westminster. Brexitannia isn’t about the inner political elites, it’s about the mass anger of the crowd outside. It was my job to make a portrait of this.

Was it difficult to overcome any of your own biases on the subject while making the film? How did you go about establishing the adequate ‘distance’ to allow you to craft something that can reach as wide an audience as possible?

Brexitannia juxtaposes interviews with people from all walks of (British) life in an attempt to depict a wide-ranging and honest portrayal of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath
Brexitannia juxtaposes interviews with people from all walks of (British) life in an attempt to depict a wide-ranging and honest portrayal of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath
The UK is very tense right now. There is also sections of the population on all sides of the political spectrum who appear to be professionally outraged at anything that isn’t how they see the world. And I automatically think of these people as ones who will find some outrageous bias wherever they want to. You cannot escape bias, from the position of the camera to how much many frames longer you make a cut, all these things subtly imply something to anyone or everyone. The way Brexitannia plays with bias is by constantly going to new people or new arguments that contradict what has come before, what results is a film that looks like society, in all it’s imbalances and conflicts and different people thinking different things.   

The film I think actually is reaching a wide audience because even though it is very distinctively about the UK, it’s been seen by audiences in Russia and Germany who also see their own nations and ideologies inside the film.

The discussion surrounding Brexit was also quite often polarised into strict boundaries – migrants vs nationalists, young vs old, ‘metropolitan elites’ vs everyone else, etc. Was it a challenge to cut through these perceptions in particular when crafting your film, or did you choose to face them head-on?

The idea of the film was to take this polarised society and place them all next to each other to see what it looks like, because let’s be honest – an ex-banker standing in front of his Rolls Royce is never going to really stand next to an unemployed drug dealer from a de-industrialized mining town. But they can be cut together in a film, and these kind of differences are constantly played with to make the image of the UK in this new political moment.

Do you view the long-form documentary format as being perhaps a quieter, more meditative way of approaching such a topic, which we’ve nowadays grown to process in the dizzying arena of the 24-hour news cycle and social media? And is this perhaps part of the reason why you opted to shoot in black and white?

Brexitannia juxtaposes interviews with people from all walks of (British) life in an attempt to depict a wide-ranging and honest portrayal of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath
Brexitannia juxtaposes interviews with people from all walks of (British) life in an attempt to depict a wide-ranging and honest portrayal of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath
Definitely. One of the best compliments the film has been receiving in the UK is it’s ability to enlighten people’s understanding more of the whole topic, maybe because the film is so different to a new cycle whose priority is to have constant content… Brexitannia is a much more complex and elusive response, it’s more based in reality than in simplicities. I originally filmed in black and white to play with these ideas of binaries, to Leave or to Remain, rich and poor, country and city, the old and the young. It’s also beautiful as an aesthetic and strangely concretises the form – it’s a modern documentary but it already feels like history. And it is. 

Are you looking forward to the film being presented at the Valletta Film Festival? What kind of impact do you hope that a film that deals with an ostensibly ‘national’ subject like Brexit will have on the international stage in general, and Malta in particular? 

Lynton Crosby, who is an Australian mastermind strategist for UK Conservatives and elsewhere in the world, has Malta as his registered address so he isn’t paying any tax in the UK. I’d like for him to come and I’d tie his shoelaces together whilst he’s distracted watching the film. Jokes aside, I’m really looking forward to it. Can’t wait to go for a swim. And cannot wait to learn about the Maltese through their reactions to the film and the comparisons they will make with themselves – as has happened with all screenings so far.

Brexitannia will be screened one final time as part of the Valletta Film Festival tomorrow at 17:00, at the cinema at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, Valletta. For booking and other information, log on to: http://www.vallettafilmfestival.com/film/brexitannia/ 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...