On set for WITH LOVE FROM CALAIS; Annemarie Lean-Vercoe on camera, Manjinder directing her daughter, Lyla.
Director Manjinder Virk shares her experience of making her latest film, 23 DAYS, entirely in lockdown with her all-female team, how they collectively made creative decisions while balancing childcare and home schooling and how sometimes making films can be a family affair.
Over to Manjinder and her team…
It feels like now is a really important time for us to start a more open, inclusive and honest conversation on how to support families/carers… as we ease back into work.
Manjinder Virk (Director)
I’m sat in A&E with my 6-year-old son who has a high fever. I’m wearing gloves and a face mask, he is sat curled up on my lap with his face mask pulled off. I feel sick with worry while waiting for a Doctor to check him. I’m days away from finishing a short film about a friend of mine, Sohail Anjum, who is recovering from Covid-19. And as I sit here – I wish I hadn’t started it. It feels too close to home.
Thankfully – this time – after three hours in hospital, my son’s temperature goes down and we are discharged and told to self-isolate for 14 days. That night, Friday 22 May 2020, I tell my editor and friend, Louise MacGregor that I would take the night off and start again tomorrow. I couldn’t face opening the project we had been working on for the last five weeks.
As I write this in June 2020, lockdown has eased; some businesses and schools have reopened. By the time Raising Films publishes this piece, more changes will probably be announced but one thing will remain – the amount of lives lost to Covid-19 and the amount of lives still being lost to it in the UK.
This may be an odd way to start a piece about being creative in lockdown but what has come to the forefront is – how tough it is for parents and carers to continue to work and find a family balance. The lockdown has revealed to the world the effort it takes to juggle work while raising kids and be a carer. But even before lockdown, for some, it wasn’t much easier.
My partner, Neil Biswas (also a writer/director) and I share the responsibility of looking after our children as we both snatch a few hours a day to work. We have two children, a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Louise, my editor, has two daughters – one aged 10 and the other 6 years old. My cinematographer, also a friend, Annemarie Lean-Vercoe is a mother of two boys, aged 8 and 5.
This is my third collaboration with Louise, the first, OUT OF DARKNESS, went on to win best film at Aesthetica film festival and, WITH LOVE FROM CALAIS, which documented life in the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp. Annemarie and I went to Calais to shoot the film, not knowing what we would encounter. The film is part documentary and part drama. When we shot the dramatic scenes, our children were with us on set. My daughter plays my daughter, my son is my son and for a scene with children playing in the park – our friends brought their kids for the day. We found a way to work around our children’s schedule and our paid work, which usually meant late nights and weekends. I say paid work because these films have been self funded – OUT OF DARKNESS made some money from awards so I invested that back into WITH LOVE FROM CALAIS. The films have been made out of a passion to explore creative ideas together, to study the world we live in and a need to tell stories. Our children have watched the films and understand this is what we do together; we make films.
Perhaps the most important working relationship has been with my editor, Louise, without her I could not have made these films. Especially our new film, 23 DAYS, made entirely in lockdown. It’s because we’ve made two films before that I knew we could do this and she would embrace it.
I first found out about Sohail, the subject of 23 DAYS, getting Covid-19 after reading his post on Facebook. I couldn’t get his experience out of my head. I asked him if I could document it in a film. He agreed and we had a long chat on zoom. It became clear to me that this conversation had to be the body of the film. I didn’t want to hide the fact that this was lockdown, my son briefly appears in the film, the reality of working from home for many parents AKA zoom calls gate-crashed by our children!
I sent the recorded conversation to Louise and we started to edit. Our first cut was 26 minutes long but I wanted the film to be no longer than 12 minutes. I transcribed his words and approached it as a script, looking at how best to tell his story, which was put into three acts. I started to collect images of Sohail to break up the zoom footage. I made a call out to friends on Facebook for photos of NHS staff. I had an idea for the ending that meant reaching out to friends who had lost someone to the illness. We wanted to make a film about the people behind the statistics, but also something poetic to remember those we have lost.
At this point I got Annemarie involved. I asked her to shoot close-up shots of nature. For some, the natural world has come into focus more than it ever has before. The shots would be of time passing, the continuation of life even when there is loss. We tried many different versions of what images might work. I wanted to use colour and black and white too. What is memory and what is the present. We cut each section, sending it back and forth via WeTransfer or WhatsApp videos.
There was no real structure to how we made the film. Usually, once our children were in bed, we would get on our laptops and talk over loudspeaker while cutting, often working through notes late into the night. I sent daily notes on trying bigger ideas and tiny tweaks. At one point I enrolled four actors to read some dialogue and record his hospital discharge letter – all of that was tried and dismissed. Sohail’s voice was enough.
Another element was the music. I had worked with composer and friend, Nainita Desai on my previous short and she had also scored Neil’s feature film, DARKNESS VISIBLE. She agreed to offer her music, we talked a couple of times about how it would be used but knowing how busy she was, I was thankful she could contribute at all.
In the opening of the film, Sohail is being clapped by NHS workers as he is wheeled by a nurse out of the hospital. As soon as the music score was added we started to feel confident that maybe a film in lockdown could work.
The BAME report into the high deaths from Covid-19 in ethnic minorities came out on Tuesday 2 June 2020. This was only after pressure was put on the government to publish it and even then not the whole report was published. We finished the film on the same day. I sent it to Sohail to watch. It was emotional for him but he was happy for it to reach an audience.
We released the film on Vimeo the following day for anyone to watch.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far. If I take anything away from this, it is that even in the most difficult circumstances, art can be a way of connecting people, gaining empathy and challenging preconceptions.
It also feels like now is a really important time for us to start a more open, inclusive and honest conversation on how to support families/carers working, in this case, particularly in the TV and film world – as we ease back into work.
Louise MacGregor (Editor)
When Manjinder first told me about the film I immediately wanted to be involved, it was a touching and scary story for the times we are living in and also I knew Manjinder would transform it into a touching and sensitive film.
Logistically the film was quite straightforward thanks to great internet access and the ability to edit at home, Manjinder could email videos and stills easily as the film evolved and we were really lucky to have Annemarie, the cinematographer involved who could also shoot and email rushes to me.
Although I wasn’t working on other projects there were still frustrations over juggling with homeschooling and finding peaceful moments to concentrate on the film, which usually meant late night conversations with Manjinder. The trickiest moment was fine cutting which is much easier if the Director is in the room with you, so Manjinder came to my house for a socially-distanced fine cut.
Annemarie Lean-Vercoe (Cinematographer)
I was really honoured to be asked to collaborate with Manjinder on 23 DAYS. Manjinder recounted Sohail’s story to me, and mentioned that she needed some shots of nature to cut away to for the edit. I live in semi rural East Sussex, and own a Panasonic GH5 DLSR, so this was something that was very achievable for me to do in complete lockdown. Manjinder described some quite specific ideas of nature shots that she wanted, including signs of decay within nature, and ants scurrying around. On my first attempt shooting I couldn’t find ants, and as it was May the fields were lush with new life rather than decay; so I decided to see what else might catch my eye instead. I was very drawn to the dandelion clocks in the fields nearby fields, and thought that they offered up a good metaphor for one of the underlying themes of the film; time – and how the wind is so instrumental in carrying the seeds away, leaving the stalk heads in different stages of bloom and decay. This idea felt like it would fit. Stinging nettles were another good focus to lean on metaphorically, especially as they are so lush and vibrant in the spring, and beautiful when filmed against the light with their distinctive silhouette. I also went to the coast and was drawn to clumps of clover clinging onto the chalky cliffs with very little topsoil in the wind. Manjinder ended up going for the subtler version of this idea using instead grasses being buffeted by the wind also filmed near the cliff tops. It was a very interesting way of working together, and because of our limitations I knew that I needed to offer up something, even if it wasn’t a straight translation of Manjinder’s initial idea.
I was very pleased that we had collaborated together before on several projects, including WITH LOVE FROM CALAIS, and know each other well, so it made it much easier to go with the flow and also be open about the challenges of filming in lockdown with two children to home-school. I did manage to rope the kids into helping me with a set up (that wasn’t used in the final cut) of curtains blowing in the window. I set them to work as curtain wafters, I think my 8 year old now realises how much attention to detail filming requires and wasn’t ready for the minutiae of how to perfect his curtain wafting!
Nainita Desai (Composer)
Sohail’s story is incredibly poignant and challenging to tell through music. The task was to represent a single human story that in turn represented the effect the pandemic has had on so many people. Manjinder laid my music at various moments in the film and we discussed the emotional impact of where to have and not have music; a case of trial and error. The music had to be respectful, emotive and sensitive without being cliched or detracting from the story.
If I take anything away from this, it is that even in the most difficult circumstances, art can be a way of connecting people, gaining empathy and challenging preconceptions.
About the 23 DAYS team
Manjinder Virk is an actress/ filmmaker. She is currently on the BAFTA elevate programme and developing her first feature film, THINGS WE NEVER SAID with Ivana MacKinnon/Emily Leo (Wild Swim) and BFI. Manjinder is one of BAFTA’s Elevate 2019 participants.
Louise MacGregor is an award-winning Editor specialising in commercials and content, she works closely with a wide variety of production companies, advertising agencies and directors.
Annemarie Lean-Vercoe an experienced DOP having worked in British film and television for nearly 15 years. She has shot award winning feature films, documentaries and TV for all the major broadcasters in the UK, BBC, ITV, SKY, CHANEL 4 and internationally for NETFLIX. Most recently she has shot BAFTA winning SUFFRAGETTES with Lucy Worsley (BBC1).
Nainita Desai’s most recent feature releases include OSCAR 2020 nominated and BAFTA, Cannes, BIFA and SXSW winning feature doc FOR SAMA which was also nominated for Best Music at the BIFAs in 2019. Other recent projects include UNTAMED ROMANIA, the most successful Romanian non-fiction film of 2018, World War II period drama ENEMY WITHIN, psychological horror DARKNESS VISIBLE (BFI), and interactive game / video game TELLING LIES, one of 2019’s critically acclaimed releases by Annapurna Interactive, awards include Scala Radio’s Top 5 Video Game Scores of the Year and Music+Sound Award for Title Track.
WITH LOVE FROM CALAIS
OUT OF DARKNESS
DARKNESS VISIBLE (trailer)
Government Report on COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes (published 2 June 2020)
The Guardian: Labour accuses government of cover-up over BAME Covid-19 report (published 6 June 2020)