A word or two about this whole film thing, while it’s still a hot topic. (Warning — this post may contain ranting.)
It was never my idea to video my bike trips. Andy gets full credit (blame?) for that. I was seriously unconvinced that it was worth the bother and stubbornly ignored his attempts to get me enthused. I was far more interested in photography and writing. Besides, I’d never used a video camera before.
(This was early 2007 — four-and-a-half years ago now, which is enough time to leave sixth form and get a Masters’ degree, or to see your newborn child well into primary school, or to spend 216 working weeks at a desk.)
Skip to six months on the road. Andy and I have produced a hundred hours of footage. We think it’s the dog’s bollocks. It’s actually just plain bollocks. Our mates back home have tried to make a video podcast. It flops because our footage is bollocks, and their production company hits a brick wall.
Meanwhile, Andy and I go our separate ways and neither of us have the foggiest idea what we’re filming for at all because the podcast has flopped. I watch my footage back and realise that the last half-year been an expensive, time-consuming exercise in discovering what not to do with a video camera.
Fast-forward another two and a half years. By this point, I’ve been stoically plugging away at the filming, despite having lost all hope that any of it will ever be seen by anyone other than my Mum. At least it’s a hobby I can pursue on the road, and an enjoyable and satisfying one at that.
I’ve watched every relevant documentary under the sun for style and camerawork guidance, because nobody else is giving me a shred of feedback. And I’ve produced another hundred hours or so of footage on my handheld video camera, which I’ve been posting back from all over the Middle East to what might as well be a letterbox positioned over a bottomless pit. It’s been three years since I left home and my tapes are gathering dust on a bookshelf in Kent. I hardly care any more because filming myself whinging and cycling has become as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth, which I occasionally film myself doing too.
Eventually and in a very roundabout way I arrive in England three-and-a-half years after riding off, have a cup of tea, and post a last couple of tapes off to Kent. I might as well finish the job and move on, I figure. Good learning experience and all that.
Then something happens. James, the guy on whose bookshelf my footage has been collecting dust, emails me and tells me he’s going to take a month off work to watch every tape he’s been sent by myself and Andy since day one — about three hundred hours of material — and decide for once and for all if there’s a film in there worth making. If not, no hard feelings — at least we get a nice memento and our Mums get to watch us being all heroic, shaky-handycam-style.
When the phone rings a month later and James says he’s a) found a film he wants to make and b) has decided it revolves around my relationship with Tenny, I make all the right noises and put the phone down having already decided that whatever James makes is going to be a hideous load of poorly-filmed semi-adventurous lovey-dovey guff with a voiceover that I am going to hate, but I signed the rights over to him four years ago so what can I do? And I bugger off to Scandinavia to forget about it and think about the book I’ve been waiting to write ever since I came back to Armenia from Africa in 2009.
When it comes to communicating my adventures, I am my own worst enemy. I’m the most pedantic sod on the face of this earth when it comes to accuracy, honesty and avoiding misrepresentation as far as humanly possible. I loathe superlatives and fabricated motivations and stupid big numbers and media-fuelling spin and all the rest of it, which also makes me an occasional hypocrite for employing some or all of the above when it suited me, but at least a recovering occasional hypocrite.
I’m entirely aware of and open about the fact that none of my bike trips have been the biggest, longest, hardest, most daring, most remote, most interesting, most intellectual or any other qualifier you wish to name in any field (except possibly ‘most unpredictable and confused’). I never talk about my experiences with anyone unless they ask, persistently and enthusiastically. Because of those things I have a very modest online following, no media presence whatsoever, no prospective career as a ‘professional adventurer’, and I generally pass for a fairly normal bloke (O.K. that’s stretching things a bit, but you get the point).
And I’m acutely aware, from personal experience, how hard (impossible) it is to meaningfully share any experience which involves such a deeply fundamental change of direction and a mountain of hard lessons with anyone except those alongside you, no matter how skilled a storyteller, writer, photographer or filmmaker you might be — even less attempt to do so without it becoming the overzealous preaching of the newly-enlightened. The best you can hope for is imparting a choice nugget or two to fuel the imagination, or nudge curiosity in a certain direction.
You’ve hopefully gathered by this point in this rant (if you’re still reading) that the bar for James’ film was so high as to be insurmountable. No way on this earth could any assemblage of shots do justice to and represent the truth of what I’d been through in that time. No fricken’ way. Especially considering how much complete crap he had to work with. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be very interesting to anyone except me and my Mum.
And if the film picked up on any of the obvious, cheap, easy, wow-factors we can all think of in order to sell itself to a spectacle-seeking public (“oh my God it’s so hot / oh my God I’m so tired / oh my God it’s so steep / oh my God this dog’s teeth are so sharp / but I’ve just gotta keep going, now here’s a picture of a Muslim praying”), or if it boiled down four years of uncomfortably-personal life story into a little pot of lukewarm cheese, I would distance myself from it as far as I possibly could.
This is exactly what I was expecting to happen as I finally arrived to stay in England four months ago. My view would be fairly objective after this amount of time, especially now I’d relived and digested everything so thoroughly whilst writing the book. If it was bad, if it clanged (which it definitely would)… well, I’d know about it.
When I watched the rough-cut film for the first time, I was at a loss for words.
I was so wrong.
What that James has made, in my humble opinion, does in fact do justice to the story it aims to tell, as far as any film ever could. This defies belief.
I got excited. Really, really excited, because of the creativity and magic that was happening in that studio among empty mugs and takeaway detritus. Any doubts were forgotten; I put myself fully behind the project, and started blogging enthusiastically about the work in progress. In doing so I probably began to produce what sound like the ramblings of a narcissist, incessantly banging on about how great the film about myself was looking. I apologise, because it’s the art and the passion and the talent of the creative minds at work on the project that has prompted the enthusiasm: the idea of being on screen for public scrutiny is one I find quite hideous.
But it’s done and submitted to a major film festival, where it will compete with 10,000 other submissions for one of the hundred or so slots available.
So this is where I’d better stop, because I might realise when the reply comes back that we’ve all lost perspective and that I’ve talked up another hour or so of complete and utter bollocks.