The appropriate shot. Whether it be eye-level shots providing the human connection of Ken Loach films, or the always moving edgy shots that compose blockbusters such as The Hurt Locker or Greenzone. The appropriate shot is Barry Ackroyd' - BAFTA winner, Oscar Nominee, all round don – description of his approach to film.
On a drab Sunday morning during the BFI London Film Festival I caught Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut – Coriolanus. An adapted Shakespeare play, it depicts the troubles of an army general and his relationship to the people. A film which Barry Ackroyd photographed.
The opening scene, in which there is a standoff between those trained in force and a public desperate for food, reminded me of another Barry Ackroyd film depicting the struggle of people against the state - Battle in Seattle. A film that never got a cinematic release (you can find it online!) despite a two-year struggle by the makers. Set in Seattle during the 1994 protests against the World Trade Organisations Ministerial Meeting, it traces the efforts of a group of demonstrators and documents the escalation from a peaceful protest to the Mayor of Seattle declaring a State of Emergency. Why didn't it get a release? “Imagine if they released a film like this? Everyone would be watching it in Greece”.
So, fuel to the fire. But, with such political films in his portfolio, along side twenty-odd - far from hollywood - Ken loach' films, dealing with social issues, what are the ideas that sit within the man, behind the lens?
Barry Ackroyd talked to BNTL about all things film and politics.
DOCUMENTARY - EVERYTHING HAD A POINT OF VIEW
Growing up in the 1960s Barry was part of the disillusioned post WWII generation that wanted to challenge the status quo and change his surroundings. He attended art school, studying sculpture but was 'drawn to cinema, through films, such as Ken Loach's Kes, and the cinematography of Chris Menges. British Free Cinema and French New Wave inspired me - they were films made about people that I could relate to.'
The clichéd aspiring artist, Barry developed his style surviving off social security working with influential documentary film maker Chris Menges as well as Nick Broomfield. Their aim was to make a new type of documentary which embraced the subjectivity of film-making. Documentary became a means to examine and respond to society, a process to develop a standpoint, and a platform from which to reflect and discuss their views with the audience.
'I have always thought of documentary as film-making, never as a lesser version of narrative film. Everything had a point of view but there was no pretence that it didn’t. The point was always to have an openness, and not to draw conclusions before you got there. Films were constructed by chance encounters and unforeseen events. We allowed the people, the place and contingent experiences to mould and construct the story. We made films from the subjects we discovered rather than a film that someone wrote down six months ago, in a production office in London.'
After his first job, going to Belfast in the middle of the troubles in the 1970s when no one working for the BBC would risk it, he gained a reputation working freelance on a number of projects that took him around the globe everywhere from China to the Middle East.
STYLE – LESS IS MORE
It was this work in documentary cinema that got the attention of the social realism director Ken Loach. This encounter established a partnership which led to over a dozen films being made over the next two decades. Including Raining Stones, My Name is Joe and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and most recently Looking for Eric.
In doing this he began his path of taking a realistic documentary style, created through low budget hand held equipment and a “British style” of standing back and quietly listening while remaining close to the face and inside of the subject, and applying it to feature length fictional narrative cinema.
'Ken would say “Do what you do best”. Have a signature, but then apply it to other things, so you find a way of doing that. Chris [Menges] said don't chase the action, let it come to you. So you apply those things and you have a style, you have a history, and you have a principle to stand by.
When the shit hits the fan, or you have to shoot something outside of your comfort zone, or you think “how can I do that?”, you can go back to your past experiences.
The style I work in, is very much part of the documentary tradition. It is probably the easiest way to make a film, if you pick up a camera for the first time. You don’t need to have access to cranes that need twelve people to operate, and costs 15,000 quid a week. The basic equipment is that which you can carry in your hand, the rest are technical extras.
Less is more. It's a hard thing to do sometimes. It’s about being responsive to your surroundings, giving space to the actors, and shooting with the minimum equipment; simplifying it all. If you can create a natural setting, through a series of reductions, it is possible to get closer to reality. Ken would always remark on additional lighting affecting the actors, so I developed techniques to build light into the set, putting kino-flo tubes in cut-out drainpipes. Creating a balance between the performance and the craft makes for a good film.
I've always embraced the limitations of my equipment. The first requirement to work as a freelance documentary cinematographer was to own a 16mm film camera, a 10 to 1 zoom lens, and a set of four prime lenses: 9.5mm, 12mm, 16mm, and 25mm. I didn’t have enough money for the full kit, so I bought a second-hand AATON camera, and three stills-camera lenses, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. This contributed to me creating a different look. Without the standard required kit of wide-angle lenses, I had lenses that were more varied. I hand held the long lenses, creating a more dynamic kinetic that provided more choice for the editor and director. It was this more dangerous approach that helped me form my distinct style, and led to my understanding that the best visual effects are focus, exposure and choice of lens.
Your hands are the best piece of equipment you have. The right hand is to support the camera and your left hand does focus and zoom. You don’t have a tripod, you have your hand, your eyes and then what the lens can do. Zoom, choice of exposure, and depth of field. You can use your hands to look for shadows, see how the light is changing, the proportions of hands mimic that of frames.
I always operate my own camera. I think it is fundamentally important, it means that I am there to capture welcomed surprises, and can maintain a consistency within the process. I worked out early on that there are only three factors to cinematography: the light, the subject, and the camera. It is by moving the camera that you can make the strongest images and feel the human connection with the subject.
I think it is important to make that connection between your own physicality and the camera, I like to keep those two things connected. If you are making films like I do about people, you develop a human connection. Where you stand in relation to another person is hugely important. If you stand close up in some one’s face you will get a certain reaction, if you stand back you will get a different response. The way you look at the world is a decision, it becomes your signature.'
FILM & POLITICS – WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Barry and Ken’s shared feelings on film aesthetics mirrored the similarities the pair held in their political views. Both were actively aware of the gross inequalities in society; they both heavily felt the need for change.
'There has to be change, things never stay the same. Marx said that capitalism has its inbuilt problems. It is killing itself because it is too greedy. When someone starts to be benevolent to stop this direction, someone else swallows them up. So, if you have a company that starts to be benevolent to their workers it would just be taken up by a company that could not be bothered with that, a company that was just about making profit. If you don’t produce the maximum profit then your death nail has been sounded. Capitalism has an inbuilt catastrophe, we are just part of it. This is what we need to get clear, students can demonstrate, people in the Arab world can demonstrate, women demonstrate and get certain rights, but what we are missing is the unity, the internationalism of everyone.
Who is suffering in this country? The older people in this country. The next generation. My generation who are expecting pensions and an easier life we are not going to have, those who can not find jobs, or those who had jobs but have been made unemployed, families who are desperate, kids who have been rioting on the streets, the children growing up with a lack of facilities. We are going to see is the break up of the national health system.
So, basically everyone is being effected, so workers of the world unite, you have nothing to loose but your chains and a world to gain, its so simple.
Ken Loach made a film entitled, 'Which side are you on?' (1985) That's what we need to make clear, which side do you stand on, we have the mass and we have this tiny minority of people who hold power, it is incredibly small. We are hoodwinked into thinking that we have no control or have no force, but we do.
You only need a few cogs and wheels to make a watch turn around, but if that is the only way of telling time then it looks like an immaculate product. So capitalism does look immaculate from the outside, its just we know from our experience, that it is completely knackered. It is a rusty old thing. If the watch winds down, then it will rust and collapse, but it won’t wind down on its own, we will have to stop it. There is a lot of realisation that this system is collapsing, that we are in the end of capitalism.'
HOLLYWOOD - MY ROLE IS TO SUBVERT EVERYTHING
After making many films with Ken, such as Riff Raff staring Robert Carlyle, that dealt with many of the issues in society they felt important to discuss, Barry's signature style attracted the attention of directors from America, working in Hollywood, that wanted him to bring that thing he does to their pictures.
'Paul Greengrass approached me [to work on United '93] after seeing Dominic Savage's Out of Control (2002), a film about young offenders set partly in Thamesmead.
Savage researches his films as if they were a documentary, he then populates them with actors and non-actors, to fashion a series of scenes that reflect actual events and scenarios, creating a part-film, part-documentary, a method I really like. This approach parallels the method of Greengrass, who also works from primary sources of recent significant events, such as Bloody Sunday, 9/11, or the Iraq war. The hand-held aesthetic was necessary to the documentary feel Greengrass set out to evoke.'
'Out of the blue' Kathryn Bigelow called asking him to photograph her new project - The Hurtlocker (2008). '[we had] this long conversation and I could see that what Kathryn wanted was something that appealed to me. I had to question whether it would be a film that would be pro-war that I did not want to do. My role is to subvert everything, so how people think the film should be made, you can have influence in the process. The way I can subvert things is through the camera, through the lens. You can portray the shot in many different ways, you gather emotion through the lens, so like in documentaries where you stand in relation to the action is important. I aim to provide a more humanistic view of the world, and so I apply that to the film.
'When we made the film about Ter Blanche [The leader, The Driver and The Driver’s Wife’ Nick Broomfield (1991)], we used wider lenses and stood back, because we did not want to present a humanistic portrayal of those people. The camera can show sympathy by the lens and its positioning. If you stand eye to eye, you can create a feeling of humanity. The struggle to keep people in focus can be humanising because it relates to the way the human eye works - I wanted to humanise the people involved in war, the people on both sides. I think my style of shooting allows for this personal element to come through.
I learnt all these things as I went along. Just general observations which I am still learning. I am still trying to be revolutionary and progressive.'
OUTLOOK - ALL CHANGE COMES FROM SOME SORT OF UPHEAVAL
In much the same way Barry is still revolutionary in his beliefs.
'Martin Luther King said, “the riot is the voice of the unheard”. So if you don’t listen to anyone then eventually they will go out on the street. I think all change comes from some sort of upheaval. Look at the Arab world, there is no-one backing off saying here take the reigns, I was wrong. That’s why you have armies, and the police force, the force. It is a force against something, and as a police force it is a domestic thing, it is against the people. That’s its aim, it defends the principles of the state. When did it come about? Under Capitalism. Why? To protect capitalism and property and those who own property.
Yet it's the rich that are the criminals, they have done everything they can to bankrupt us and steal from us, they have their hands in our pockets as you are lying in bed, they are creeping into your pockets and getting money from us, from everybody, even children on the streets, school kids. They are stealing of all of us, every minute of the day, but they never get punished.
What has happened over the last thirty or forty years is that there is no political dialogue, no political thought, there are no political parties, all there is are the parties of the rich, and they are free to do whatever they want because they have killed thought.'
TECHNOLOGY – THE EQUIPMENT IS NOT GUILTY
'Throughout my career, I have always used film. At Portsmouth Polytechnic we had Eclair NPR cameras which were the foreunners to the AATON 16mm camera, hand held, French New Wave cameras. We were using this revolutionary equipment, that was not common, so we were right at the cutting edge of all that.
Bigelow was unafraid to use Super 16 and to visit real locations. The 16mm cameras, I feel are the freest means of making a film, allowing the use of long zooms, makes for interaction, necessary for such an energetic narrative. However, for the slow motion shots, we used the high-speed digital Phantom. The use of the high speed mixed with life action, worked to give the film another element.
I am not afraid to use new technologies and embrace digital. I don’t agree with this idea that digital technology is leading to a culture of mediocrity. It is a social, political attitude to the world that we have all developed. The equipment is not guilty. Those who are guilty of this mediocrity is those who develop trite television programmes and carry more of the lies that are being told to us, and continue to pull the blankets over our heads.
We are hooded all the time. I know the judges have just said that it is illegal to hood someone when they are arrested, but we are hooded electronically, metaphorically, ideologically. You know, we are all indebted, stuck, feeding the system. Everyone is so tied up in paying for the future that they have no time to be creative. I have always been very conscious of the fact that I had a political agenda in my head and I had a humanist agenda through the lens, and I combined that and it turned into a visual trait, a visualisation of the world.'
FILM – THE GREATEST ART FORM
'Film is a beautiful art and a beautiful collaboration between people; that is what I love about it. Film-making is about everyone coming together, and getting inspiration off everybody. Importantly you need a group of people who you can sit with and talk film, because nearly everybody I have worked with in the film industry, works in the industry for one reason, and that’s a passion for film.
I believe film to be the greatest art form. It's a rewarding process of creatively stimulating your imagination, to produce this beautiful physical thing. While I believe that no one art form can change the world, you should always try to do that with every film. Maybe the answer to toppling the current political regime, is just to make one great film.'
Barry Ackroyd personifies the important belief that art should encourage thought and action in its audience and challenge the established values which are constantly pushed upon us.
An inspiration to young film makers, he demonstrates how it is possible to find your own way in an exclusive industry, moulding his own aesthetic and taking cinema back-to-basics by humanising it.
He doesn’t vote as it doesn't fit into his belief system and when asked what he is currently working on, he replies, 'I am unemployed.'
Interview conducted by Ella Ackroyd, and edited by Gwilym Lewis-Brooke and Jayden Ali.