Forty Shades of Grey – Simon Stiel interviews Director Nicky Larkin

(C) Nicky Larkin

Simon Stiel spoke to director Nicky Larkin about his documentary Forty Shades of Grey which deals with Israel and Palestine in a “non-narrative” approach.

Millions of people across the world are emotionally invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Films about the issue can earn millions at the box office. Documentaries too can attract a lot of attention and long discussions are held about whether they’re pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. Irish film-maker Nicky Larkin sought to explore the conflict in a different way in his film Forty Shades of Grey.

“I think the problem with most documentaries on this particular conflict, is that the makers already have quite a solid agenda either way, before they even pick up the camera,” Larkin said. “It’s easy to go somewhere for a week, talk only to the people you’re told to, go where you’re brought, and have all your beliefs in a cause or situation affirmed.  It’s not propaganda, it’s done in good faith, but it’s usually very one sided.”

Larkin’s approach was shaped during his studies of Fine Art at Galway-Mayo IT and  Chelsea College, London.  “I originally studied painting, then towards the last year or two of college I began to experiment with video – just playing around with little camcorders and editing and stuff like that,” he explained.  “I was also interested in sound, and began to experiment simultaneously with that too; recording sounds and making loops and layers and then juxtaposing these with images.  Gradually it became more refined, and I developed a style of making work.  I don’t think a piece of art has to be conceptual; the things I make films about are very real issues, but it doesn’t mean they have to be approached in a way that documentary has traditionally become.” Larkin’s first short film was about Pripyat near Chernobyl and he explored the Moycross and Southill estates in Limerick in Beyond the Roundabout?

The Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2009 sparked Larkin’s interest. “In the Irish media this was painted as a complete massacre; a genocide.  It really stirred up a lot of emotion. I applied for funding from the Irish Arts Council to go to the Middle East.  I wanted to see if it was as one-sided as we were told, and as I had believed it was.  I basically wanted to see it for myself, and see if I was right.”

Eight weeks were spent in Israel and Palestine and Larkin was accompanied by Gary Hoctor as the producer and sound-recordist. Through narration or by having the camera follow them on as they explore the territory, other directors have made their presence felt in film. In contrast, Larkin doesn’t appear. “I prefer to allow the subjects to do the talking,” he said.

(C) Nicky Larkin

A musical soundtrack was not recorded. In place of music, the sounds of the scene were used to link the viewer to the action on screen.

“I manipulate sounds recorded on location, loop them, layer them, so there is sometimes detached sounds going  on. With the combination of the image it creates a sort of meditative atmosphere,” Larkin said.  “It’s not to everybody’s tastes; in parts it’s designed to irritate or make the viewer feel uncomfortable – to mirror the feeling of being in some of these situations on screen.  It’s not too comfortable to be getting tear-gassed or fired upon! “

Another form of viewer interaction was through facebook. Persuading Israelis to talk to the camera was a challenge. “We understood why; we were Irish, a known hostile country and we had a camera.  I think most people thought we were there to do a hatchet-job.  So we set up the facebook page for the project and each day after we did an interview, we posted a little segment of the interview on the page.  We allowed for comment and interaction, and the page soon built up a following.  Issues we discussed and it became something of a forum.  This added legitimacy to the project in a strange way, and people trusted us a bit more.”

That trust led to discussions not just about the conflict with the Palestinians, but about the treatment of sub-Saharan African refugees and the disagreements Jewish Israelis have about Israel’s current constitutional arrangements.

“One thing that struck me while interviewing virtually all of the Israelis was how bitter they were about the situation where the Ultra Orthodox don’t serve in the army,” Larkin explained.  “There was a lot of anger on that issue, I felt it had to be included in the film because it kept coming up in every single interview.  The general consensus was that it wasn’t fair that this section of society didn’t contribute, whether that be through army service or taxes.”

When interviewing Palestinians, Larkin also recorded a discussion about domestic violence in the Balata refugee camp and the effects the separation wall in the West Bank is having on the environment.

As well as meeting Israeli and Palestinian members of the public, Larkin also met with Ultra Orthodox families who believe they have a biblical entitlement to East Jerusalem. He was also shocked by what Hind Khoury, the former Palestinian ambassador to France said about suicide bombings: “I was personally quite shocked by this woman who first went to great lengths to tell us what a westernised and modern woman she was, then refuse to condemn the suicide bombers actions as criminal.  Not only that but to label them martyrs!”

The original cut ran for seven hours and it was reduced to 83 minutes. After screenings in Dublin, London, Krakow, Ottawa, Montreal and Ontario, it is hoped to be released to more film festivals this autumn. Canamedia is responsible for the DVD release.

It’s an observation by journalists or documentary makers that if you’re attacked from both sides, you’re doing a good job. Larkin talked about the audience reactions during the Canadian tour: “I had a lot of walk-outs, mainly from elderly Jews.  They seemed to have come expecting some kind of pro-Israel propaganda piece, and were disappointed that the Arabs got their airtime too. There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy between the Jewish diaspora and the actual Israeli citizens themselves.  But what interested me was that in Ireland Forty Shades of Grey was branded as Zionist propaganda, then in Canada some of the Jews thought it was pro-Palestine propaganda!  But I must be doing something right if I piss off both sides!  At least the Jews and the Arabs can agree on something – they all hate Forty Shades of Grey!!!”

Reactions aside, Larkin wrote in the Irish Independent that he went on a “new intellectual” journey while making the film. “I think it makes for more interesting viewing.  Nobody wants to watch a propaganda piece.  Well maybe some people do!  It all goes back to what I said earlier; you can find a hundred videos on youtube that back up whatever it is you want to believe in.  But it’s more interesting and ultimately more worthwhile to challenge your prejudices; to go out and experience, see for yourself, instead of just swallowing up what’s presented to you and shitting it out for the next goon to consume and regurgitate. I think it’s ultimately more powerful for a viewer to form his/her own opinion on an issue, as opposed to being hit over the head with a sledgehammer and told what to think!  I present the information and let the viewer take it all in and come to their own conclusions.”

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