In the eye of the storm | Toby Amies

British director Toby Amies speaks to us about 'The Man Whose Mind Exploded', his documentary about Brighton counter-culture fixture Drako Oho Zarhazar, who apart from having served as a model for the likes of Salvador Dali and a drug dealer to the likes of The Rolling Stones, also suffers from a peculiar condition – the inability to retain any memories of a long period of time.

Toby Amies
Toby Amies

Drako is of course an immensely compelling subject for a documentary from the word go. Could you tell us a bit about how you managed to ‘track’ him down, and get him to agree to do the film (as much as his compromised memory would allow him to retain the memory of such an agreement…)?

A friend of mine had some funding to make a short silent film that his band Oddfellows Casino would provide the live soundtrack for, and he said, “We have to use Drako!” Drako was something of a legend in Brighton by that stage anyway. So we went to pick Drako up from his flat and when I saw inside it I decided I wanted to work more with Drako and find out what made him tick.

So I started to visit and take photographs of him and from there I made a radio documentary about him. During this process I met the people closest to him, so whilst Drako would agree to almost anything because of his philosophy of, “Trust: absolute, unconditional” I thought it was important that the people who care about him know what I was doing, and that they give me their full consent.

How did you negotiate the peculiarities of his condition while making the film? Did you feel compelled to constantly remind him that he was being filmed, for example? Did you expect his condition to become one of the most important strands of the film’s narrative, or did that become more and more evident as the filming progressed?

Mostly I suppose I just learnt from Drako himself, so when I went to visit him I was in his space and in his moment. When there were major difficulties, I’d contact his nephew Marc. When I was discussing the film and the process of making it with an ethicist recently, I said that even though I knew Drako had an acute mental impairment I didn’t see why that should make his point of view and opinion any less valid than anyone else’s, especially mine.

In the beginning I thought that the film was going to a concentrate on Drako’s exotic biography – his work with Dali, Derek Jarman and so on. But while I was filming with him it became clear that the most appropriate thing was to be in the moment with him, as that was his reality.

Personally, I don’t like documentaries which are too static, I like films where I feel that I am part of it all, as it is happening on the spot. I’m not that enthusiastic about listening to something that happened in the past. When we were editing the film it was crucial to retain that sense of immediacy and intimacy.

What do you think Drako’s condition – particularly as it is depicted and negotiated in the film – says about not just the way we process memories, but the idea of film itself, particularly documentary film? Would you say you’ve gained some insight into the way memory tends to function – or doesn’t function – by making the film?

I think one thing that was interesting was realising that memory is not our own entirely. A lot of the memories we think are ours are shaped and mediated by and through other people. So I suppose you could look at the film as a form of collective memory, and I certainly felt a sense of duty to record our experience together, as Drako was not able to record it in his mind. It’s also interesting to recognise that documentary films and human memory are very, very subjective, and not nearly as reliable as we like to think.

In making the film – and especially editing it – I wanted to give the audience as much room to make up their mind about Drako’s condition as possible, so maybe that’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a huge amount of science in it, though we did consult with a very talented cognitive psychologist by the name of Prof. Martin Conway.

Do you think it’s poignant that a figure like Drako is suffering from such a condition, given that in many ways his memories are a repository of so much counter-cultural history?

Yes, it’s poignant, but at the same time – to continue from the points made earlier – it’s good that we can use film to add to the communal nature of memory and through that medium share Drako’s memories, celebrate, preserve and disseminate counter cultural history.

The Kinemastik Film Festival will take place at the Herbert Ganado Gardens until July 27. Turn to page 37 to read an interview with Charlie Philips, the organiser of Sheffield Docs – a UK-based documentary festival who will be screening a series of short documentaries at Kinemastik.

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