Brexitannia, a documentary covering the wide variety of perspectives on Brexit across the UK, is an impressive feat of filmmaking, managing to remain balanced in the face of a hugely divisive issue, and offering a revealing look at a changed, uncertain Britain. A year on from its release, I talk to Timothy George Kelly about the production of the film, and the reception and reaction it has provoked.
With the subject of Brexit encompassing many different facets, what were your main aims when you set out to make Brexitannia?
My main aim was an experiment. To see if it was possible to take a picture of a national identity in all its complexity and contridictions. I had no idea if it was going to work when I started.
“out of nowhere, like almost every other millennial that lives in London, I was blindsided with surprise about the Brexit result. Five days later I was in Clacton-by-Sea filming”
How did you begin to develop the documentary and get it off the ground?
I was working on a film about people on zero-hour contracts in London. It was beginning to form into something preachy, uncinematic and predictable – all the things I hate in political documentary. At the time it was only me and another producer involved, and I think through my depression around it and the difficulty she found in sourcing people who actually wanted to talk about shit work contracts on camera, we could feel the project falling apart. Then, out of nowhere, like almost every other millennial that lives in London, I was blindsided with surprise about the Brexit result. Five days later I was in Clacton-by-Sea filming.
One of the main standout features of the film is the diverse array of talking heads. How did you go about organising and selecting your interviewees, finding a balance of speakers?
We tried to follow voting, race, gender and class demographics. At least tried, it’s very difficult to stick to them exactly and if you do so you start to feel a bit more like an accountant rather than a filmmaker. It also resulted in the last month of shooting with me repeatedly saying, “No white men. No white men” to the fixers… as they’re always the first to put up their hand to offer their two cents.
Were there any moments during the production of the film that particularly surprised you or altered your perspective on certain topics?
I was filming the six months that followed the referendum and I couldn’t believe at that point it felt like Northern Ireland was still being ignored (as it definitely was in London press before the referendum). Filming Brexitannia was my first time in NI and it’s made a lasting impression on me – in regards to the density of history there and the short-sightedness of mainland politics.
Another surprising thing is also of course a lot of evangelicals voting out, as a single currency shared between multiple nation states is meant to be a signifyer of the beginning of the end of days. Satan is meant to come from there. This wasn’t a one off thing, I heard this from a variety of people, either believers or their family over the shooting time.
What was the editing process like? Presumably there was a lot more footage than what was shown on screen – how did you go about deciding what quotes went into the film, and how they complimented each other?
We edited initially from transcripts, and we edited whilst shooting so I could get in the car and find what the narrative was missing. But this is also a very difficult question to answer, editing is an emotive process, you feel a film as you cut it until it feels right. It’s very difficult to explain, but it’s quite like making music.
What were the main contrasts you found when making ‘The People’ section and ‘The Experts’ Section?
The Expert section is needed in one way to be a frame to the 52 minutes that we’ve just seen before in the The People section – but it’s also a false ending. The real ending is impossible for now, the montage that separates the two should end and we shouldn’t see Noam Chomsky – it should instead say “Twenty Years Later”. That’s where the real movie is, in that collapsing of time. So, let’s talk more about it in 18 years.
That being said though, for this moment, politically – what those experts are saying is enormously important. It’s also the only time the film becomes one of directly articulated activist doc, and it’s needed to comment on the multifaceted nature of a film as “big” in themes as Brexitannia is.
“Editing is an emotive process, you feel a film as you cut it until it feels right. It’s very difficult to explain, but it’s quite like making music”
There’s a rather beautiful montage of contemporary Britain that connects the two sections of the film together, showing a country divided by the vote, but linked in so many other ways by everyday life. How important was it for you to have this connecting thread between the two?
For a lot of people, especially some Brits, the first part of my film is quite an emotive experience. The montage for me that ends the first part is mostly there for people to be able to take a breath.
What do you hope people will take from watching Brexitannia?
The diversity of opinions in the film becomes a litmus test of sorts for the audience. The film has garnered praise and anger from both left and right wing people. I make films that hopefully give people an emotional response and here, maybe, I hope the film makes people think about themselves as a collective part of an enormous group of people, a nation, a planet, to think about the state of things, the suicidal nature of our economic and foreign policy – and what that is doing to us individually. It’s depressing, but you can push past depression if you really work on it. But if you ignore it, it’ll kill you eventually.
Thank you to Timothy George Kelly for talking to us – Brexitannia is available to download now on iTunes.bookmark me