FLY AWAY LUCY COHEN ON HOW SHE DOCUMENTED THREE YEARS IN THE LIFE OF ONE FAMILY I didn’t set out to make a feature documentary. I’d had a good experience working in television documentaries, with support from Channel 4 and the BBC as a producer and director. There had inevitably been some frustrating times when I would have loved more freedom but at the same time you are commissioned to make a particular programme, so the process is different. In making my first feature, the encouragement to really push my vision has felt new and really wonderful. I was introduced to the family through the production company, Raw Cut, who asked if I would head up to the Midlands to meet them. I knew that there were seven siblings and that a number were on the autistic spectrum. I was also broadly aware of their history. I met the family and did some filming with them, principally with a view to it being a project for BBC Three, focussed on autism. Ultimately, it didn’t turn out to be right for the channel but by that time I was already so drawn to the family that it didn’t feel right to let it go. It’s a wonderful household to enter. All seven siblings are very different in terms of their personalities. You wouldn’t describe any of them with the same adjective. It’s quite chaotic. There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of tears – a lot of extremes. There’s a desperate and beautiful want for happiness at times. And they’re very warm and loving. But there’s sadness there too. In terms of their autism, they are highly functioning on the autistic spectrum. When I first met them, the siblings were aged between 12 and 22-years-old. The days of extreme tantrums and very volatile behaviour had largely passed. They now have lots of coping strategies. That said, I soon learned autism isn’t physical and their struggles aren’t always visible or articulated. The months working on the project alone let the film evolve naturally. But it couldn’t go on forever. That’s where Pulse Films came in. I had previously worked with them on the non-fiction drama about Edwin Collins, The Possibilities Are Endless. I had a strong relationship with Lucas Ochoa, the Head of Film, and we would often meet up and talk about projects we were working on. I then put together a taster tape of the family that was shown at MeetMarket during the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest. Julia Nottingham, Head of Documentaries at Pulse saw it and we had a conversation about them coming on board and about the potential for this to be a feature documentary. I was delighted as it would enable the film to continue following an organic process. It might sound odd not to know quite what it was I was filming, but I thought the family had an inspiring story to tell. I just didn’t quite know how best to tell it at that point. It has now been a three-year journey and Pulse have been really supportive in shaping the vision for the film and have always had great belief in what the film could be. I have also had fantastic support from Chicken and Egg. They were one of the first to come on board, along with Creative England and the BFI. What’s been lovely with them is their mentorship. It can be lonely making a film and they’re very supportive, allowing you to articulate your biggest fears. Sometimes going to one of their meetings is like a therapy session. But they do it knowing that when you explore what draws you to a subject it can bring you closer to your project. They also encourage you to look to your next film too and help you with outreach. Once Pulse were on board, the process of making the film remained pretty much the same. The cinematographer Charlie Goodger came in to film more specific atmospheric content. As much of the filming happens inside the family home, it was important for the house to have its own character and ecosystem. Charlie worked on this as well as more abstract visuals that relate to key ideas within the film. The story itself is told through present day actuality. As I had always done this alone, bringing too many other people in at this point didn’t make much sense. Filming someone is just like any other relationship in that after a while people get very used to you and become relaxed. I think if you also relax in an environment and are yourself, people soon don’t look to you for approval. You’re ignored. It’s funny, but some of the siblings actually started to feel bad about ignoring me all the time. But I’d say, “it’s fine, please ignore me.” I wondered if my behaviour seemed rude at first. They’d make a joke that was funny and I wouldn’t laugh. Or say something sad and I wouldn’t cry. But it’s all about neutralising your presence. I wanted to laugh or cry, but the family couldn’t be worrying about me or anticipating a reaction. Of course, there is always the knowledge that a certain moment is being witnessed, which changes reality to a degree, but you try not to have any more of a presence than that. It takes time to get to know people. Beyond the seven siblings, their mother and the memory of their father, there’s an over overriding character: the family. They are each a vital part of this complex jigsaw puzzle that, nine years ago, was completely shattered when their father took his own life. They had to re-configure and re-gel, and they really use each other as a support; they’re a kaleidoscope of different personalities and colours, each adding a different ingredient that together keeps them all together. They have every reason to be broken, but I think that the love and support they have, despite the chaos and sadness around them, is greater than many families will ever experience. At its heart, the film is simply about a family moving forward. The process of healing began six years before I arrived and will continue long after I leave. This film is very different to one that may have been made in the aftermath of an event. When I first met them, the youngest daughter was just about to become a teenager and the oldest was on the verge of moving out. It felt very special to be there over the three years. They are still at such formative ages but remain very much together, asking questions about the world and who they are going to be in life. In my first interviews with the family, they all talked about their childhood and their father. There were lots of tender and conflicting memories. One would speak with great happiness, while another would speak with feelings that they didn’t really have a childhood, or just had so many varying emotions. There was a lot going on there and at this stage I didn’t really know what the film would become. What I think has evolved is a film about memory and the nature of memory in moving forward. How do you move forward when you don’t want to forget anything? And the family talk about memories all the time – the good ones, the bad ones. “Is that a good thing? Is it bad?” What I think they’ve found, as I’ve witnessed them over three years, is how memories themselves have enabled them to heal. Even the bad ones are now used in positive ways. I also think their autism gives them many strengths and helps them. They are incredibly honest with each other and don’t shy away from difficult conversations. And if their feelings to them can be confusing, they work so hard to figure them out. As a result, they express so much emotional understanding and empathy. This is really striking, especially with some commonlyheld assumptions about autism. The family have a lot of archive footage – childhood home movies. It has been quite tricky to weave this into the film, as you don’t want it to feel like a retrospective story or use it as a sort of reconstruction. It’s far less about what happened in the past than the process of remembering what happened, which has an extra psychological layer to it and which changes with time. You don’t always choose the obvious thing. It’s been more a case of using archive as a texture of memory – giving it its own emotional impact, which often works when it’s juxtaposed with the present. Sometimes, when it’s more fragmented, it can emulate the workings of the mind. The film’s editor Michael Aaglund has done a brilliant job at weaving the archive footage into the film. Knowing when to finish filming is always a challenge. The youngest sibling in the family was 12 when I met her. We had a chat recently and she said that if she could speak with her 12-year-old self three years ago she would say, ‘Brace yourself, because shit is going to go down and you’re not going to like it’. She’s grateful for getting help, all too aware that her dad found it difficult to. But it’s a long road. She’s 15-years-old, very young with a lot to deal with, but her family and friends are behind her. I hope that her wonderful openness and honesty in dealing with what is going on will help her as well. That meeting felt like an ending for me – a sense that there is hope there. That said, this isn’t a story that ends for the family. It’s about their lives and you want to resist a temptation to tie it up with a little bow that’s completely unrealistic. At the same time, it can’t be unsatisfying to watch. When I first met the family, some of them felt stuck in some ways, looking to the future for happiness but feeling that there was something stopping them. It now seems like they are really good with the way things are in the here and now. One of the siblings said recently that they are “doers more than dreamers” now. I can see that.
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