Recognising Independent Cinema: A Conversation With Kyla Simone Bruce For UNDOCUMENT
UNDOCUMENT is an episodic feature, following four stories of longing & love, immigration & identity. The vision of an Iranian and a European director, dealing with the complex theme of illegal immigration, or ‘undocumented migrants.’ Each story is set at a different stage of the migrants’ journey, in three different countries: Iran, Greece and England.
Featuring a cast of unknown and trained actors, telling four stories to challenge our notion of a migrant’s journeys to a better life, UNDOCUMENT has won widespread acclaim on the festival circuit.
In our interview, The Fan Carpet’s Marc Jason Ali had the pleasure of speaking to Kyla ahead of the release of UNDOCUMENT, Kyla tells us about why she set the film uo the way she and Amin did, what she’s hoping audiences will take away from the film and the importance of recognising Independent Cinema…
Congratulations on the film. What was the initial impetus for the film, for you to actually put it together?
So basically I co-directed it with Amin Bakshian whose an Iranian Director and we went to film school together, which is where we met, and when we started making films together it was actually at a time when, sort of, the immigration crisis wasn’t such a big deal in the media, like people didn’t really know about it. So he told me a lot a lot of stories, you know, second hand from people he knew quite closely and stories that they kind of went through, and I was like just really shocked by it all and thought we need to make a film about it to create awareness.
But over the time that we made it, obviously, the political landscape really changed and now it’s such a big subject that everyone has a viewpoint on and very polarised and it’s really huge in the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
So it’s been interesting to see how it’s now reconnecting in a different way since we finished the film, and it was really like a big learning process for me basically which is why I wanted to do it, to educate myself more about it, that’s how it all started.
Okay. And obviously you’ve got a background in short films, so this is technically your feature film debut. Was setting it as these four stories, did you feel your background in short films helped with that approach?
Yeah I think so, and I think it was also important to us because it’s such a complex issue and it was really important that, because it’s a lot of true stories that we selected, I wanted to reflect the complexity of it. So it’s supposed to kind of pick up on certain kinds of aspects, but it can’t sort of all be summarised into one film or one story line, which is why the four stories are kind of disconnected and that’s way.
But yeah definitely I think a background in shorts probably helped us to come up with that as a concept, and also to be able to collaborate with Amin because I don’t think it would have worked with both kind of directed in , you know, both kind of directed it in the same room, I’m not sure how that would have worked, but we basically split it up and he directed the parts that are set in Iran and I directed the parts that are set here. So it was kind of important to have that collaboration that is two different experiences, you know, a Middle Eastern experience and a European experience kind of collaborating together so that it’s not one kind of singular viewpoint, so that also made sense to have it in episodes.
Absolutely. It is quite a hard hitting subject matter and, obviously as you said, quite widespread in the media at the moment. was there anything that you learnt, before going into this, from your research into this to make the film? Was there anything that you picked up on that you hadn’t known before?
Yeah there was load. So basically it was really important to me was that it was authentic and truthful, because if you’re going to criticise a system or something, it was important to me that it was factual and, even though it’s very dramatic, it’s all based on truth. So I spent a long time doing a lot of research because I didn’t want to be this white European woman kind of assuming I know what is happening.
So I spent three months in an immigration court in London, just sitting in and watching cases basically of people trying to get bailed from detention centres and basically working on getting refugee status. And yeah I’d learnt so much from watching first hand those people stories unfold, there’s just like a lot of shocking stuff, families being separated, you know, people having to sit in court and having your fate decided when there aren’t the resources to have an interpreter that day or they might need to leave half way through a case, and these people deciding your fate and you can’t even communicate properly.
Or like the technology that they use because they can’t afford to bring people from the detention centres into the court room, they do it all via video link, so it’s literally like a face on a screen and everybody in the room is trying to figure out what can be done and sometimes there would be technical issues and the link would just cut out and you might have been waiting for that to be heard for months, and then there might be some technical hiccup and then they can’t see you again for another few months and you’re literally living in a detention centre.
So it was really eye opening for me, there’s so much stuff, I tried to get into the detention centres, but that was near impossible. But the research I did was really shocking, the way people are treated in those places is really as though they’re criminals, but obviously everyone is an individual and you get good and bad people, but it doesn’t make you a criminal because you’ve got the wrong paperwork or you’re in the wrong place doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person. But, yeah really just treated really awfully and really high suicide rate. I spoke to one man who had been in a detention centre for five years and he said it was worse than prison because you don’t have a release date, so at least if you committed a crime and you’ve gone to prison you know how long a sentence is, but it’s this kind of unknowing of even when you’re going to be released or not has had a massive impact on your mental health.
And just finding out things like that those detention centres are run by private companies that are making a profit, so they’re actually corporations making money out of detaining people which I found really shocking.
But yeah I think the main thing is just how complex it all is, you know, it’s always the question of “why are people leaving their countries?” do we really not see there is war and all these different things, how much money people pay to make the journey and I think that they think it’s going to be a very different journey than what it actually is, you know, people always ask “why would you put yourself through that?” and I think there is a lot of… I don’t think people are signing up for it and knowing that they’re going to go through such a horrific journey. So yeah, it’s such a complex thing, I was learning a lot all the time from hearing these stories.
So the authenticity, is that why you chose to have a mix of established actors as well as non-actors?
Yeah definitely. I think for us it was just finding the right person for the part who kind of just got it and whether that was someone who had not done any acting or had, you know, it was more of just kind of seeing the individual for that part. But also, I mean obviously you get amazing actors who can turn into completely different people, but I do think that if you have a preconception of an actor and seeing them play something then there’s that initial barrier to get over and because we just wanted it be as true as possible, you know, kind of documentary like it made more sense to have a lot of unknowns.
And it was just the process as well, I mean I worked with a lot of of improvisation, doing really long takes and, kind of, getting material that isn’t necessarily being acted that is more sort of natural and honest portrayal of performances, and it just seemed like (for this story?) that this was the best method, that everything just felt as authentic as possible.
Great, awesome. Obviously we’ve got a release coming up for Undocument, what are you hoping the audience will take away from the film when they see it?
I think it’s like now because illegal immigration will become such a big topic, with all the dehumanising numbers and really shocking images and just hearing “this many people died at sea” and you can’t really empathise with it because it seems so unreal. So we just hope that the film will kind of connect with people on a human level and just inspire some empathy, you know, literally laws changing or suddenly you’re illegal because the law has changed and it could be you’ve lived here for 20 years, have kids here and they’ve never even been to the country where you came from originally and it’s such a complex issue, but hopefully it’s relatable as well, that this….it happens to a lot of people that you know, it’s not just these other people that we can’t relate to. And yeah just to inspire a bit of empathy and a bit of humanity really and not just see it as a these dehumanising facts and figures.
Absolutely. So within your own career, is feature film making where you want to stay or are you going to go back to shorts or like flip between the two?
Definitely feature films, I’d like to do TV Dramas as well. But I’ve basically made another short since Undocument called Mercury which is just kind of finishing its festival run but it won several awards and was nominated for like 9 more, so that was really great. And we’re basically developing a feature film of that short with the same actresses and Cockatoo In so I’m hoping that will be my next one.
Brilliant. I’ll look out for that. Is there anything you want to say about that film while you can?
Yeah. So it’s about two young women, best friends, and it’s about female friendship and dealing with trauma, and I think there’s just not enough stories about young women. And it’s a drama but it also has a lot of comedy in it, so it’s a little bit of a different direction from Undocument but it’s also based on a friendship that I had, so it will still have that kind of rawness, honest film-making about it. But yeah, I try and keep everything up to date on my website, so the trailer for Mercury is on there and for more information about the Cocaktoo my website is just my name Kylasimonebruce.com, so if anybody is interested then that’s a good place to go.
Great. I’ll make sure there is a link to that in the article.
That would be amazing. That would be great. And I think the other thing is with the screening of Undocument, we’re going to make a page on the Undocument website about where the screenings will be, which I think will be quite useful for people, with an independent film like this, like if they’re interested they can go the website and see when there’s a screening. I think that’s probably the best way to do it.
Definitely. Just before I let you go; with independent films, I was just at the British Independent Film Awards last night… (Kyla interrupts)
Oh I was there last night as well. My short film actually got long-listed for Best British Short. That was amazing…
Awesome. So, obviously with awards shows like, with events like that, and you got Raindance and various other things, what do you think is the importance of things like that to get the word out there about independent productions?
I think they’re really important, the fact that they’re becoming so successful in showing how much audiences want variety and different kind of film-making, they don’t just want the mainstream, and I think all these different platforms are amazing, and the diversity of film is becoming more and more and actually the industry is kind of waking up to the fact there is money to be made in making films for everybody, you know, and there needs to be as many different kind of people making films and actually there can be a lot of success there. You know, it’s like people are suddenly surprised, “oh women making films” (laughs) can actually do a lot for the industry financially, obviously because 50% of audiences are female and maybe if females are making films they’re going to make something that can connect to more.
But, you know, I think every individual film-maker is going to make something that somebody different can connect to, that’s why it’s so important to have film-makers from all different backgrounds. I think, yeah, that why all the independent platforms are becoming more and more successful because there is space, there’s definitely space for that, and I think more and more audiences are preferring to see more authentic stuff than just your mainstream Hollywood film that you’ve seen hundreds of times before.
Absolutely. And off the back of that, do you think streaming services like Netflix and, well, Disney+ and Amazon and stuff like that, open the door when it comes to independent productions?
Yeah I think so. I think, like, with the development of technology it just means that more people have access to and also it’s putting more power into the hands of the audience and seeing what they want directly, whereas, before it was the industry almost dictated everything, what people should watch.
So I think it’s a really exciting time, even though I hope people still keep going to the cinema because watching a film on a big screen with a good sound system is magic, and I don’t think think it will ever disappear, but I think it’s important to go out and buy a cinema ticket if you can (laughs) if you want to support your independent film, because it would be a shame if everyone is just watching it on their laptop instead of in the cinema.
But it is a really exciting time because it means all these different kind of films are getting made and seen.
Absolutely. Well it’s been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. Good luck with everything and we’ll keep an eye out for Mercury.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
UNDOCUMENT IS OUT NOW IN SELECT UK CINEMAS