Barney Platts Mills– From Whitechapel to CasablancaWritten by Paolo Sedazzari
The dialogue is rich with wonderful lines like – ‘get your hands off me nuts – ponce’. The dialogue may be mumbled, but it’s authentic mumbling – giving us a true feel for what life was like for these kids.
In the interim years the film’s director Barney Platts-Mills has been busy working on audio-visual related projects - but not necessarily feature films. However his filmography has just increased by one - with the imminent release of Zohra : Moroccan Fairy Tale. We are sat in a pub down the Brick Lane just a few days away from Zohra’s world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival. But there’s a problem – Barney is trying to sort out a Visa for the film’s star Said Bekkeurie. With Said being North African there is an excessive amount of security and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. So in between harassed and harassing phone calls, Barney answered a few of my questions.
ZANI - So is your new film Zohra: A Moroccan Fairy Tale done Bronco style? As in using non-actors playing characters similar to themselves?
Barney Platts Mills - That’s right. Zohra is acted by people from the village using a story I made up, based on what was told to me by these people. It was done in Bronco style, only more so, because the Bronco kids had some acting training but with Zohra it was all raw. There were five different languages on the set which made things interesting.
ZANI - How is Zorah a fairy-tale?
Barney Platts Mills - The story is quite simple - she's told she's going to marry an older man, then she meets a boy who is in hiding waiting for a small boat to Spain but it is stormy weather and they romance about running away for a few days. So you have the romance of running away for two days. She represents the land and the landscape, and he’s a water spirit and they meet by the well. So it’s fairy tale on that level. It’s realistic as it’s based on real people but it’s a complete fairy tale in another way – as they sometimes talk in a way that people don’t talk.
ZANI - What brought you to Morocco?
Barney Platts Mills - I was brought there from working with the Moroccan kids around the Portobello Road. This brought me to the village where I made the film – and this is where I live now.
ZANI - I hear Morrocco’s spectacular, but can you get a drink there?
Barney Platts Mills - You can drink there – we’re alright in Morocco.
ZANI - After Bronco you worked with ‘real’ actors like Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon in Private Road. What’s easier?
Barney Platts Mills - I found working with non-actors easier, because a real actor brings too much of his own self-consciousness. It’s very unfortunate the film industry works the way it does, because the cameraman has to draw attention to himself, and the actor has to draw attention to himself – and the director has to draw attention to himself. It’s stupid because the last thing of any of those people should do is to draw attention to themselves. If you notice an actor, or notice the camera work, it defeats the film.
Look at that film Precious – the acting was beautiful - then suddenly pop music, camera angles and we had him being a director. He felt he had to put this in so he would get noticed as a director, so the agents would notice. It’s a shame because the rest of the film was so good.
ZANI - Did the idea of working with non-actors playing themselves come from Roberto Rosselini?
Barney Platts Mills - It wasn’t from Rosselini. It was my own experience – it was from when I started out working for Dateline films, and my first experience of 16mm films. Before that I was working in Studios. I got involved in a youth club in Paddington and working with the inspirational theatre director Joan Littlewood.
ZANI - There must have been some difficulties working with those Bronco Bullfrog kids.
Barney Platts Mills - Not at all - the Bronco kids were wonderful. It was easier for me doing Bronco than Private Road because they were so dedicated and workman like. They were very well behaved.
ZANI - How did you come to find the cast for Bronco Bullfrog?
Barney Platts Mills - Most of the kids from Bronco were working at the old factory next to Joan Littlewood’s theatre. She opened it up to them to stop them from harassing the theatre. They did drama classes – and the short film I made Everyone’s An Actor gives you an idea of what they were doing. (This film can be found as a DVD extra on Bronco Bullfrog).
To film Bronco we got them 6 weeks off work – because they all had apprentices – got them holidays and gave them twice their normal pay. So they were well looked after.
But the kids had no aspirations to be an actor. The whole thing was an end in itself – very little consciousness of going anywhere with it, which I can’t help feeling would not be the case today. There was no Eastenders then or indeed very little other opportunities for young actors.
ZANI - So after Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road which were both made within a year of each other your next film was not until a decade later with Hero. Why did it take so long?
Barney Platts Mills - I didn’t really want to make a film after Bronco and Private Road because I was so cross about the state of independent film. Hero is a very curios film, not just because it was all in Gallic. The idea behind Hero was to re-introduce Gallic to the highlands. It was more to do with social work than anything else. I don’t speak Gallic which of course made things a little difficult. Unfortunate, because the script was very nice.
ZANI - And in 1990 you did Dispatches for Channel 4.
Barney Platts Mills - It was about an East End Mosque and the attempt to bring Salmon Rushdie into court for blasphemy. This wasn’t the extreme faction that wanted him killed. My father was a lawyer and he helped them. That ghastly woman Mary Whitehehouse woman had brought Gay News for court for blasphemy with a private prosecution, so you could argue quite reasonably that if the blasphemy law applies to Christianity why can’t they apply to Islam? But the truth is there shouldn’t be any blasphemy laws.
ZANI - When you did Bronco in the late sixties we had what seemed to be a blossoming movement of excellent true-to-life drama in film and television in Britain. Out of this came out Ken Loach and Mike Leigh – and in the seventies we saw a good amount of observational drama with the Play For Today etc. So what happened in the 80s?
Barney Platts Mills - In the late 60s we were forced to be creative because we didn’t have much money, but at least there was some outlet for what we were doing. But my struggle has been more individual - it’s never been easy to make that kind of film.
In the 80s corporate interests took over. The growing corporate influence over media is very alarming, very disturbing and should be stopped. What you have now is film-makers having to take on lots of people’s opinions in order to get their film made. What is that? It’s certainly not art. It’s Calculated art – and I can’t work within it.
ZANI - What about the situation today with digital film-making?
Barney Platts Mills - Despite the net it’s actually more difficult now for independent film-makers to get their film seen properly. It’s easier to make films now and so there’s a lot more of them, but because of that hardly any real openings. It’s such a shame because in recent months I’ve seen six fantastic independent films with very little chance of any of them being screened.
Look at the way Neds has been treated in the press – one review said ‘another directorial effort by Peter Mullan’ how dare they talk about one of our best directors like that? So disgraceful.
ZANI - I understand you are firm believer in seeing a film on the big screen.
Barney Platts Mills - The whole joy of film is on a big screen in front of lots of people. There’s nothing like it. We’ve recently had lovely screenings of Bronco and Private Road at the NFT – it looked so good on the big screen. These multiplex cinemas are often giving you a screen that’s barely bigger than a big screen TV – they are really robbing you.
That’s why I launched the Pop-Up Cinema, which using home cinema technology on a big scale. It’s cheap to access and cheap to set-up. Run it off a Blu-Ray onto a 30 foot screen. Giving you the real cinema experience at an affordable price. Pop-up cinemas is my hope. Real action for people to take control of their lives. The government should be supporting it. Giving grants to people, to relieve the British cinema of the stranglehold that Hollywood has over it.
We need a physical network of independent cinemas, cheaply run cheaply accessed, not the web. I hope the government will come to their senses and abolish all existing methods of supporting film and help set up an alternative independent network. You can’t sell the films without it, because it can’t get the audience. Only then will we have real film-making going on.
ZANI - So after Zohra - what’s next?
Barney Platts Mills - My experience of making Zohra was very hard work, I enjoyed it in the sense it was absorbing, but the post-production was a total nightmare – so I’m not thinking ‘Gosh I really want to do that again.’
I am actually playing the piano most of the time. But in the near future we do have a plan to make a film based on Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby which we are going to re-do for contemporary Morocco. We may use professional actors this time – but there aren’t many actors in Morocco.
ZANI - Lastly - are you still in touch with any of the kids from Bronco?
Barney Platts Mills - I still see Sam Shephered (who played Bronco) from time to time. Del is a granddad on the Isle of Wight. I get the occasional email – ‘have you got any money for me?’ I wish.
Presently Barney’s phone rings. Jubilation fills the air - Said’s visa has been approved. A celebration is called for - a trip down the Wimpy.
© Words Paolo Sedazzari/ ZANI Media