Jez Lewis, first time director of the emotionally bruising, excellent new documentary Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, this week held a special preview screening at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall. A selection of family, friends, esteemed filmmakers, theatre bigwigs and paying guests attended the evening with fine British actress Diana Quick chairing a Q&A session after. Having already seen the film, I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to Jez during the screening to begin to deconstruct this intensely personal film of which the director has so clearly invested so much of himself.
The film centres around Jez’s mission to save his childhood friends in the idyllic Yorkshire mill town Hebden Bridge from a disproportionate and almost sinister cycle of suicide, drugs and alcohol related deaths. Having had several other careers in areas such as science and technology policy and criminal law, Jez emerges as an astonishingly natural documentary maker, free of many of the pretensions that come with a classical film education. And with the invaluable mentorship of documentary giant, Nick Broomfield backing him up, I feel proud to introduce this exciting new talent to the to Pure Movies readers, a name to remember: Jez Lewis.
When did you first decide to make this film?
Jez Lewis: I never did! Previously when I told people about my past, they said well that’s your first film, especially Nick Broomfield said that. I’ve always said, no I’m not doing that, it’s too much of a can of worms, it’s too painful. And then my very good childhood friend, Emma, died of a heroin overdose – I hadn’t seen her for years and years, and it was the kind of relationship where we felt like cousins – I always considered her my cousin, and I always assumed she would be around and that there wasn’t an urgency to see her because she’d always be there, and she died, and she was the sixth person off my street to have died, and the twentieth person from Hebden Bridge I knew to have died. I just thought, what’s going on? So I did a bit of research into whether my experience was just a little bit unlucky or whether it was wildly wrong, and it was wildly wrong; you shouldn’t know that many people who have died by suicide, drugs and whatever, really. And I thought, well I’ve got to do this, no one has joined in the dots, so I was just going to do a fifteen minute short saying this is a beautiful town, a fantastic place, it’s got all this groovy stuff and love and energy, but it’s also got these problems, and I tried asking people what they think is going on; I asked people who had been closely touched by the deaths, people like the MP there, teachers, anyway, quite quickly I found that the people I wanted to speak to on the traditional side of the town – the school teachers – either just refused me, when I asked them about these more difficult things would say, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And then I was in the park one day with a load of the lads just hanging around, and I said, are you alright with me filming? and one of them said, yeah, course we are. Anyone who comes here filming normally asks us to get out of the way. A lot people go with cameras to Hebden, big photography clubs, bus loads, and several films have been made there, and I thought, from then on, this camera’s for you, this is going to be your voice. So that set the ball rolling. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but when Sam Jones died – he died in the street – and I met his brother who was in the park in a state of distress, and he said, you’ve got to make this film, you’ve got to film this because they’re showing documentaries about birds – this is real life. And so that really set the ball rolling which then snowballed as more people died. You only see three people die in the film but actually eleven did. So the film grew from quite a different intention really.
So it was quite an organic process, you didn’t really know what form it would take?
Well I was walking through the park with the camera and a girl of about fifteen said, what you doing, what you filming? I said I was making a documentary about Hebden, and she said, what about Hebden? And I said, I really don’t know yet! And she said, oh! you’ll be able to cobble summat together, won’t you? And I really thought, what am I doing? I wasn’t sure quite what I was doing for quite some time, and it very largely took its shape in the edit.
A lot of these conversations you have with your friends are incredibly personal; do you ever feel uncomfortable having these really intimate chats, but not quite being face to face, having a camera pointed at them?
I was face to face, always, and that’s why you’ve got the difficulty with the camera work, and the sound and so on.
So you always have eye contact?
Absolutely, I had the camera away from my face, on my shoulder, they wouldn’t wear radio mics or anything and I kind of accepted that in a way, even though I don’t like that sound, I knew that as soon as I started mic-ing them up, they’d become self-conscious. I think if they were looking at the camera, I wouldn’t have got those very personal, almost professional moments. So I had the camera at the side, accept that I might have a bit of a jaunty angle on it, or not great focus, but at least they’re looking at me, talking to me, and that enabled that kind of intimacy to take place, really.
With the highly personal nature of some of these conversations, did you ever think, should I be sharing this with so many other people, or accept that that was what you had to do?
Well it’s not a live transmission so I knew there’d always be a choice for me to make in the edit, and also that I would show them a rough cut and make it as comfortable for them as I could, and not make it a film my commission or permission, but to make sure that what they see is acceptable to them, even if it’s difficult to gauge that. But in the event, nobody objected to anybody.
Were any of the guys involved in the editing process?
No they weren’t but when I had the rough cut I took it to Hebden Bridge and showed it to everybody involved – Liam never saw it at all – but the others all saw a rough cut. A lot of them found it uncomfortable but said, that’s the truth, Jez.
What did they think of the final cut?
Much the same. They find it uncomfortable but they realise it needs to be seen. Either that, or they think this is me, this is how I am, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.
Do you think it’s had a positive effect on any of them? Has staring themselves in a mirror made them realise how bad it is?
I don’t know, I mean Cass – in many ways with Cass it was a case of putting him in a car and driving him somewhere that had more of an effect than him reflecting on this idea that this was his life. But with Silly, I had a text this morning from Silly saying I’ve been clean and sober for two months, which kind of came out of the blue. That means, within days of seeing the film in Hebden Bridge in March, he’d deteriorated from the point you see in the film, and that must’ve meant that within days, he stopped drinking. Perhaps it’s a coincidence but perhaps seeing that amid his friends and community – he is big on community, Silly – perhaps that tipped the balance a bit, I don’t know. We did a sponsored walk, too, that was named after the film and made some money some local outreach programmes.
So essentially as well as a film being a personal mission to help your friends, having the camera there helps bring awareness and build a support web for what’s going on to the community there. Do you think it will last?
I don’t know, it’s very hard to say. I mean obviously I hope as much as possible that it can help. I mean it’s almost like a cautionary tale. If it were only to be shown in one place I would like it to be shown in my old secondary school, so people can see it from the age of eleven. If it can convey a message not to get into drugs and get to this sort of state of desperation, who knows, maybe it can be cautionary.
I had a look at the Facebook group for the film; it’s really lovely to see a grass-roots support basis for a film like this, not many films made today have that sort of intimate communication between filmmaker and viewer. How did you react to this response on the internet?
Well there’s the Facebook page, but there’s also the HebWeb community page and there there’s been a rather different response, and really the response is not to the film but really to the newspaper articles that have been written in connection with the film, or not directly in connection but still about Hebden Bridge, and there’s a very defensive and sensitive denial, I mean absolute denial, from the people that write into those forums. But actually there’s only ever two dozen people or a dozen people and anyone who has seen the film, even some of those who originally made comments like that, have written to me or said to me, right, we got rather the wrong impression from some of the hype around the film, but having seen the film, well done.
So most of these people objecting to the film hadn’t seen the film?
Oh they said they hadn’t. Their comments: I haven’t seen the film, but I think blah blah blah!
It’s stupefying! And this will be like a reverend, someone with real influence in the community. When people do sit down to see it the response is usually, oh, this isn’t what I’d imagined. So you have that camp, and you have the Facebook camp; in the former maybe a couple of dozen and in the latter, fourteen hundred fans. From what I can tell, twelve hundred of them are Hebden people, so that’s one in eight people in Hebden, and they all thank me for making this film, it’s exactly what we need. And I love the Facebook page. I’d never been on Facebook until someone put the trailer on it and I thought I must respond to what people are saying; that engagement is fantastic. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to say; sometimes I’d stare at something for days thinking I really ought to write a response, but I just don’t know what to say.
It certainly is a great local forum for expressing and addressing the problems that exist in Hebden. Did anything like this exist before?
Yeah, that’s right. A lot of the time I was filming, people would say, why, what you bothered about, Jez, it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? And it is the same in lots of places – or similar in lots of places, but I would say that I had a mate who didn’t know a single person who had committed suicide or who’d died through drugs and alcohol, and my mates from Hebden would say, I know about thirty, including members of his own family, and sure enough a few months later, his nephew hanged himself, so there’s a sense of normalisation in Hebden, and so in some ways, this film is about saying, this isn’t alright, it’s not normal.
I mentioned in my review that you really are the only person who could have made this film and had it been made by someone else – an outsider – it could have fallen victim to a sort of prurient, exaggerative expose. This group that we see, this is like many groups of people we might see in any town or village in the country and easily dismiss or ignore, but through your film, I feel like a really know them, that they’re not just caricatures; you can see that they’re really lovely people
Oh they are.
One of the most touching things is how tender the relationships between them are, how they care about each other, the embraces they share, and it makes it that bit harder to know that soon one of them won’t be there next month.
Yeah it is, and they know it as well, and that’s the horror of the line that Silly says at Sam’s funeral; he says, we’re having a lottery to see who’s next. And then literally within a few weeks of that, the next person to die was Nicola, which was a complete side-sweep; it was like a lottery, because she wasn’t down in the park or taking drugs or whatever. It really did come side-long and made it seem very much like a lottery. There’s a bit not in the film where Cass says, it just seems that round here you either kill yourself or you die anyway, and a lot of the people I’ve know who have died have died in accidents; many more that people my age. Rachel, my partner, knows one or two, I know a dozen or so, all from Hebden.
Just accidents, not drink or drug related?
Just accidents. Motorcycle accidents, car accidents. A woman fell into the river and died – she just fell out of her garden and died during the filming period – she wasn’t even one of the eleven – the eleven were people who killed themselves. And all of these people know each other, it’s almost like a warzone, you always know someone who’s died, you just hope it’s not yourself and not someone close to you.
Do you feel like you’ve had a lucky escape?
Well yeah, it’s important also to keep in mind – I’ve got a friend here tonight, Simian, who’s a lawyer, I grew up with him, he was one of my friends all the way through secondary school, and we have to remember that if five people off my street committed suicide that means twenty five didn’t. It’s still many more who didn’t than did, so it’s not an all consuming thing, it’s just a sort of undercurrent that exists within people’s experience, really.
When you were growing up in a place where drink and drugs were very prevalent, did you ever get embroiled in that sort of thing?
There were drugs around me since the age of about five – I only arrived in Hebden when I was five – we were kind of like refugees really, we arrived skint. We arrived with nothing; my mum had run away from my dad, so we arrived literally with nothing, no vehicle, no toys, belongings, clothes, not only cuddly toys for kids which we were, five of us, so that was very difficult and we were put up by some hippies and they smoked dope, some of them took acid but not really in front of us, but the dope smoking was quite soon apparent and I was just terrified of it. Not because they looked like casualties – they didn’t – I was just terrified of drugs. I wasn’t terrified of alcohol. So I never touched drugs, but people around me did; some did some didn’t, it was kind of a choice: you either do or you don’t, and some people like Cass just ploughed in and was like, whatever you’ve got I’ll have it. I got into karate as well, when I was seventeen, by which time I’d already had to spend a few years having to explain why I didn’t do drugs and when I got into karate, it made it easier, partly because I was doing karate as often as I could – I joined two clubs, so it kept me off the streets. It made it easier because people would say, aren’t you drinking, aren’t you taking drugs, and I’d say no I’m training or whatever, to simplify things.
Nick Broomfield was the Executive Producer, were you influenced by his style of filmmaking?
What I was influenced by the most with Nick is his energy, determination and courage. I worked with him for a few years, on Ghosts, and His Big White Self, and the first year of that was just me and Nick so it really was me alongside him the entire time and just his energy, and as I say his courage was really influential on me. When you see him walk into the prison yard in Biggie And Tupac, and you think, Christ, this guy’s got some guts. But also, you’ll see him talking in these most perilous of moments to Eileen Waurnos, and it’s a different kind of courage. So when people were dying in Hebden I had to go and speak to families, and for me, that was when I had to go and be brave and talk about things, and that was very much inspired by Nick.
How involved was he in the making of the film? Did you call him up a lot and ask for advice?
Yeah, we had a twelve minute teaser, and in editing that – which was a two week edit – I went and showed it to Nick and he gave me some really important advice. With Nick, he doesn’t give you a do this, do this, do this list, it’s more like, why don’t you try this, and tell you one or two things, but those are really big things, even if you haven’t noticed them. The other thing was, at certain stages I would be seeking advice from other people that would conflict or was inconsistent, and then I’d go to Nick and say what do you think, and I would always think, I trust Nick. It’s not just about deploying the advice, it’s also about reducing the confusion in your own head, boosting your confidence.
You co-wrote and co-produced Nick Broomfield’s drama based on the drowned Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004, a very powerful film; what was it like writing for people who had died?
It was almost wholly research based; it was more or less all based on real events. Xiao Yun Pa, a journalist who’d gone under cover shortly after the Morecambe Bay tragedy who’d spent two or three weeks posing as an illegal, undocumented Chinese worker and he wrote these very compelling pieces, but also these very accurate pieces and they formed in many ways the backbone of the script. We met up and went to Liverpool, went to other places, to all of these different people whether they were legal or illegal and heard their stories and really the story we had with Ai Qin in the film – she was one of the people we met, it was her story that we used. And we cast for a long time, and in the end we actually cast Ai Qin because she had such a similar story and she was able immediately to identify with the story. So it didn’t feel like a script, it was almost just stage directions.
Ghosts and Shed Your Tears are both, it must be said, very much about death; do you have any plans for further projects, and do you think they’ll follow in the same vein?
I think I need a break from that kind of difficult subject, it took its toll and not just on me. With Ghosts, ironically, when we went to Fujian Province I found it quite comfortable because it reminded me of hanging with my friends in Yorkshire in a weird sort of way. But it still wasn’t so immediate. With Shed Your Tears, even though its filmed in Hebden, I’ve got my own history there, which makes it difficult, because of my own experiences there, so Hebden is a much more personal place. When I was coming home to Rachel and my little kids, sometimes stressed and having to de-brief, as it were, and readjust and that was difficult, so from now on, I only want to do rom-coms.
Do you have any films in the pipeline?
Yeah, I’ve got another doc, it’d be a much more controlled doc, where I would have drama reconstructions, but its so early that I haven’t got things in place and I don’t really feel comfortable saying much because it might never happen.
What is it about documentary that attracts you as a form to tell a story?
I think it’s probably natural to me, and I’m not sure whether that’s to do with my upbringing, but I think one of the things that people identify with in Shed Your Tears is that people are very honest, open and candid and think that’s valuable and beautiful, and I really value that; that for me, is what documentary is all about – honesty and truth. I understand that in some ways you can get closer to the truth by writing something as we did with Ghosts, as you have more control. As far as goes that sort of film – drama – the more realistic ones – Ken Loach – are the ones that really affect me. I absolutely love the raw authenticity of the form.
Shed Your Tears and Walk Away is now on at the ICA in London and other regional independent cinemas.