I was recently set a challenge by a close family friend: to make a short film using my mobile phone. All she wanted was a few minutes of footage - recording something typical in my life, an everyday activity - to show her Spanish school-friends what life is like in England. Everyday, typical, mundane... what could be better than filming my commute to work?
I thought it would be simple, I thought it would be uncomplicated, I thought people would be fine with me sticking an iPhone in their faces at 8am on their way to work. I was wrong.
It started off okay... if by okay, I mean waking up at 7:15, semi-conscious, frowsy-headed, bleary-eyed, and then deciding that that was the perfect time to stick a phone in my own face and commence filming. It wasn’t pretty. Safe to say, I didn’t record anything further than a wide-mouthed frog yawn and a ‘Good morning’. No footage of ablutions, showering or teeth cleaning. None of getting dressed, putting on make-up or eating breakfast - this was a simple record of my commute to work, not an in-depth anthropological study of a single middle-aged white female.
I filmed myself outside my front door and recorded the time. I then filmed outside Balham tube station and on the escalator down to the platform. A few people gave me filthy looks but you get used to that living in London so it didn’t put me off. I then boarded a southbound train. I know I know, this sounds oddly silly for those people that know I need to go north, into central London, for work. Why go south instead of north? There is a perfectly good explanation for this strange detour. It is simply to get a seat. My journey duration is approximately one hour, door to door, and if I have to stand with my nose in someone’s armpit for that length of time, the remainder of my sanity would be in serious jeopardy. Over the last ten years, Balham has gone from being a vaguely cheap suburb south of the river, with a high street populated with betting shops, charity shops, greasy-spoon’s and a supermarket, to a yummy-mummy yoga destination with restaurants, pubs, clothes and gift shops, independent butchers and coffee houses. It is a very popular area and has inevitably become overcrowded. A decade ago, I would board the tube and have an empty carriage before me. Now, there are ten people waiting at each tube door, battling it out for one seat. The odds are stacked against you for a comfortable ride, unless of course you are pregnant, old or disabled (but even those aren’t a guarantee of a seat!) Therefore, I get on the tube heading south for two stops, get off and cross over to the northbound platform and board that train, procuring an empty seat. Whose silly now?
Once seated comfortably, I tried to secretly film other commuters in my vicinity. I balanced the phone on my handbag atop my knees and pretended I was watching something quite fascinating on my screen as I recorded the carriage. My neighbour, however, was very aware of what I was doing and coughed very loudly, regarding me with a look that said, “I see what you’re doing, I don’t know why you’re doing it but it looks suspicious. You don’t look like a typical deviant but you may be, so why don’t you just put the phone down and stop what you’re doing before I report you, all right?” I reddened and coughed a reply that meant, “I totally understand what this looks like but it’s not what you think, but I will stop now just to make you happy OK?” And I put the phone down. Footage obtained in ten seconds? One set of knees and the back of a newspaper. I then tried to film getting off the train as a 20-deep scrum of impatient bodies exited simultaneously through a 2-foot wide door. I got a sharp elbow in my face, a briefcase up my bum and my foot trodden on, so decided moving in any capacity whilst filming was actually very difficult, and waited until I was on the escalator and motionless. Again, this didn’t really go to plan. As I held the phone at waist height, the only thing I seemed to catch were excruciating close-ups of mens’ bottoms and unfortunate up-skirts of women in front of me. When I watched this particular clip back later, I realised it could easily have been submitted as evidence to the police, had someone caught me.
This was proving much more difficult than I had originally thought so I continued my journey filming inanimate objects like staircases and platforms and trains. People were the subtext. Much less interesting but much less likely to get me into trouble. I was just getting into the swing of it and was filming the exit barriers at Farringdon station when into shot, came a big burly man. He approached closer and closer and suddenly a large fleshy hand covered my screen and a voice said, “You know it’s illegal to film in tube stations... for security reasons obviously!” I put the phone down apologising profusely and explained what I was doing. I said it was for a student project and smiled and shrugged innocently but he was having none of it. “I don’t care if you’re filming for the Queen of England, you can’t do it. You could be a terrorist for all I know, screening the joint!” And he gave a dark laugh. Blimey I hadn’t thought of that. I apologised again and asked if it was OK to film once I was outside the barriers. “S’pose”, he said gruffly. So I shakily filmed my exit and then the tube map on the wall, tracing a finger along my route from Balham to Farringdon, explaining my journey. Scintillating!! I carried on filming as I crossed Clerkenwell road, narrowly missing an angry cyclist (undeserving ire, I hasten to add, as it was he that had over-run the red light, not me... ooh, don’t get me started!) and a bus, who honked loudly as I was giving the cyclist a dirty look. The conclusion to this award-winning documentary was me standing in front of my place of work, saying a cheery “Adios” to the students I imagined would be watching the finished film. My God, it was sooooo boring. I emailed all the clips to my friend in Spain, regretfully acknowledging the lack of footage, lack of people, lack of dialogue, lack of... everything really. But amazingly, she loved it. Maybe what we find hum drum and routine, others find fascinating... who knows. Maybe she is a whizz with editing, that sounds more like it.
In the same vein, I was recently asked by friends in Australia to send them a copy of a film I had made of their wedding, ten years previously. I had been asked by the groom to be his ‘best girl’, so as well as giving a speech at the wedding in Oz, I was also asked to film it. I didn’t realise at the time, that my footage would be the only one in existence, so I just hoped that my memory of the fabulous day was as good as the reality. I dug the DVD out of a box in my loft and watched the film back with great excitement, seeing the happy couple, all my old friends, a beautiful setting on the beach.... but I was slightly dismayed. Not at the the subject matter, of course, but at my filming technique. Amateur is the only word I can use to describe it. No tripod meant lots of shaking; bright sun meant lots of shadows; over-emotional me meant an endless stream of embarrassing sentimental voice-overs; and nosey me, meant lots of in-your-face interrogations of other wedding guests. I apologise now for what you guys think your wedding video may look like... it’s in the post, I can do no more now.
What I also hadn’t realised was that as well as having 40 minutes of wedding footage on the DVD, I also had 80-minutes of my following travels around Costa Rica on the disc. I had no quick way of editing out the Costa Rica trip so I sent off the DVD with that on it as well!!! I emailed my friend and explained that the wedding DVD was in the post but to ignore the rest of the footage, after the wedding. My friend wrote back saying that she and the family would love to see footage of Auntie Jules in Costa Rica and would definitely be watching it. Oh dear. As I watched it myself, later that night, I was mortified. There was quite a bit of swearing, a lot of talking to camera, ridiculous stories of Costa Rican men, and never-ending descriptions of beaches.
The beach footage goes something like this. I’m either standing on a beach, sitting on a beach, or looking at a beach, flicking my hair back and pouting a lot, saying: “So here I am on yet another beautiful beach. A-NUTH-ER beautiful beach. Gosh, it’s so beautiful isn’t it?” I then pan around the beach for about 5 minutes, focusing on sand, sea, palm trees, driftwood, more sand, waves, my feet, continuing with... “And there are no people here. Where are all the people? Looks like I’m here on my own. Hmmm, I wonder if it’s safe? I think I’m safe. Yup I’m sure I’m safe...” A long pause, more panning. “No I’m fine, there are some hoof prints up there so I know horses have been here. So I must be OK. Gosh, it is really really hot though and it’s only, um, 9 in the morning. Wow, it is hot and it’s so early. My God, it’s hot. The sand is really really hot too. Wow, ouch, scorching. Wonder if I’ve got enough water? Might go in the shade a bit.” Very wobbly camera as I take shade under some trees. “But I’m here on my own, and so… Oh. My. God. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. MONKEYS! Ooh look at the monkeys, loooooook!!” I then try and use the zoom button to find a monkey in the distance. Instead I zoom in on an empty branch. “Ah, look at all the monkeys… oh dear, they’ve spotted me, um, might just walk over here a bit. Ah that’s better. My God it’s hot. Hot but beautiful, and there’s no one about... completely deserted... and... um…” Arghhhhhhhh, shoot me now! 80 minutes of that!!!
Note to my friends in Australia: Settle in with a good bottle, or three, of wine when you watch this, and maybe a good book. You will need it!
Note to self: Speaking to camera for hours on end is not that interesting, even to yourself. Stop it!