Podcast with Sarah Gavron
Sarah Gavron talks to our film and media correspondent, Khalid Ali, about her passion in telling stories about marginalised women from diverse backgrounds in her films. She reflects on the creative process in adapting ‘Between two eternities: Saul’s Story’ book written by Rosemary Kay into ‘This Little Life’ film. Sarah’s film journey in the world of women from different ethnic and cultural origins continued by portraying a Bangladeshi woman in ‘Brick Lane’, and an Afro-Caribbean girl in ‘Rocks’. Sarah is fascinated by the universality of ‘women’s lived experience’ where the story of ‘Nazneen’ the Bangladeshi woman in ‘Brick Lane’ resonates with a woman who lived all her life in Spain. Camaraderie, sisterhood and resilience are key strengths employed by women in Gavron’s films.
(Transcript below links)
Sarah Gavron is an award-wining British film maker. In her early career, after completing an English degree, Sarah worked on documentaries for the BBC and Channel Four. Sarah’s feature documentary THE VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD 2013 was nominated for The Grierson Award and won the Margaret Mead Award. While training at the NFTS and after Sarah made many short films which have screened internationally. Sarah’s first full length drama, the Dennis Potter Award winning, THIS LITTLE LIFE for BBC TV, won her the TV BAFTA for Best New Director and both the Royal Television Society and Women in Film and TV Award, for Best Newcomer. Sarah’s feature debut was BRICK LANE, which earned her a BAFTA nomination and The Alfred Dunhill Talent Award at the London Film Festival. In 2015 SUFFRAGETTE, directed by Sarah was released, followed by ‘ROCKS’ in 2019 working in a close collaboration with the Associate Director, Anu Henriques and the creative team and cast.
Sarah Gavron links
- This Little life, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Little_Life
- Brick Lane, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane_(2007_film)
- Suffragette, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragette_(film)
- Rocks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocks_(film)
YouTube film links
- Brick Lane, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hbd7m00oW6c
- Suffragette, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=056FI2Pq9RY
- Rocks, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NULP0s2FhPE
KHALID ALI: Hello, and welcome to this new edition of the Medical Humanities Podcast series. This is Khalid Ali, the film and media correspondent at Medical Humanities Journal. It’s a great pleasure and honor to have with us today Sarah Gavron, an eminent British film director, award-winning of short films and feature films. Sarah, it’s great to have you here with us today. I would like you first to give us a bit of background about yourself, about your films, and the motivation behind you telling stories about women from diverse backgrounds: British women, Asian, African, and Afro-Caribbean women across different age ranges. Sarah, welcome to this podcast.
SARAH GAVRON: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here. So, yeah, I began making films quite a while ago now. I first went into documentaries and worked for the BBC as a researcher and then an assistant director. And eventually, I realized through that period that I was really, really fascinated by fiction, and that’s where I wanted to head. So, I trained at the National Film and Television School for three years and made a number of short films. And it was really only my graduation film that broke through and went to lots of festivals and started winning some prizes and getting noticed. And that allowed me to go into rooms to talk to commissioners about longer-form films.
And the first feature length film I made was a film called This Little Life, which is the story of a woman who loses her premature baby. And it’s all set in a hospital based and on a true story of a woman called Rosemary Kay, who wrote a book first, and we adapted into a screenplay. After that, I went on to make Brick Lane, based on the Monica Ali book that deals with immigrant communities, as you said, from Bangladesh in that film. And then after that, I actually made a documentary.
I had some children, young children, and I felt like I needed to do something that had more flexibility. And I wanted to return to the documentary form. And my husband is Danish and always been fascinated by Greenland. So, we went off to Greenland with our small children and went to a village of Inuit, a community right in the north of Greenland and spent sort of on and off over a year and a half working with them and documenting the life in a village. It was kind of on the edge for various reasons: globalization, climate change. And after that, I worked on Suffragette, which is another story with women at the center. And now finally, I’ve made Rocks in a creative collaboration with a whole team of young women who worked on it right from the outset with us to build the story. So, that brings me up to date.
ALI: Fantastic. Thank you very much for this comprehensive journey through your educational and film career, filmmaking career. Women have been, yes, as you said, if it’s documentary or feature films or short films, at the center of your storytelling journey. Can you tell us a bit more about This Little Life? I believe it was made in 2003 as a TV made, film made for TV, but then it broke into feature film festival circuits and so forth. I’d like you to tell us a bit about the process of adapting the book Between Two Eternities: Saul’s Story from Rosemary Kay, adapting this particular book with the traumatic experience and actually the positive, the rewarding aspects of the experience as well for both parents, the mum and the husband of this premature child in an Intensive Care Unit for babies.
GAVRON: Yeah, no. It was an extraordinary journey. So, Rosemary Kay, who had this young baby that tragically died after living for almost five months in Intensive Care and was born prematurely at 24 weeks. So, she had written a book, as you said, Between Two Eternities, that was such an imaginative work of work because it documented the whole experience from the perspective of the baby. And it was so unique and so affecting and moving. And you saw the world through the eyes, and you realize that sort of what the parents were going through on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute often, basis. And so, when we came to adapting that with Rosemary as the screenwriter now, so she had this kind of dual role as someone who’d been through the experience, but also someone who was adapting it into a script from her own book, we realized how difficult it was to render that on film in terms of the perspective.
So, what we did was we worked with a brilliant script consultant called Howard Schuman, who worked very closely with us and Rosemary, and he suggested that we take the perspective of the mother, at least mostly. We still had the baby there, and the baby was very much a focus. And you occasionally heard the baby speak, which was, you know either for real or a figment of her imagination, as you interpret it. And she saw the fantasy figure of the boy as she imagined he would grow up into through the corridors of the hospital. So, that was our kind of way in that unlocked that story for us.
ALI: But along with that, again, you captured very sensitively and realistically the world, the intense pressure under which the pediatric doctors, the nursing staff on the pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Tell me again a bit about the interaction with, how did the characters come to life and screen, obviously based on Rosemary’s, Rosemary Kay, narrative and experience? But how did you get that aspect of the professional side so poignantly?
GAVRON: Well, yeah. So, she had, you know, she was a great observer, and she had really logged every little interaction and every moment in that unit and all the nurses and all their different approaches and the doctors and the language they use, the medical language, and what medicine they’re administering and what they’re monitoring, oxygen and heartbeats. And she was really across it all. So, it was very sort of precise in that respect. When it came to filming it, we did have medical consultants with us all the time on set who were saying, “Oh, well, if I was in, this is the way I’d do it.” And we had to, in terms of the babies, filming the babies, that was a real challenge because we created an animatronic model baby. And when we had puppeteers underneath it, making it move and cry and behave like a baby, because, of course, we didn’t want to film in a set with a real baby, although usually we did. Then we went into a unit that very generously allowed us to film some real living babies in units. So, we intercut that footage. But it was really about listening to Rosemary, listening to the book, and listening to the medical consultants.
And I went into a lot of hospitals. I went to the Royal Free and stood there for a day watching the way the nurses work. And the actors, Kate Ashfield and David Morrissey, who played the parents came in, and Peter Mullan, who paid the consultant, all came into the Royal Free and visited the unit there, the premature baby unit, so that they could observe what went on.
ALI: Fantastic. And there was a sense of, yes, a collaborative nature, but there was an important dimension to the story of the two mothers bonding and supporting each other. They both have premature babies in the Intensive Care Unit. That was a very, again, sensitive portrayal of peer support, if we can say that.
GAVRON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was vital, that peer support. So, there was another mother there. She was an Asian mother who had a young little baby, and the baby actually died early on, well, midway through the story, which was, of course, a terrible tragedy and seen through the eyes of our character, Sadie, who was the mother of Saul in the story. So, and those mothers had bonded over the minutiae of their ups and downs and how each day there was hope, and then there was the hope was dashed, and minute by minute, things could change. And so, yes, it was very important to represent that, as you say, peer relationship.
ALI: Peer support. And you said at the beginning that This Little Life opened doors for you to make your second feature film, Brick Lane, adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel about this particular Bangladeshi woman living in London. I’d like to ask you about the challenging aspects of telling a very personal Bangladeshi woman’s story, living in London, dreaming of going back home, and how you addressed the cultural and communication barriers while preparing the film and while filming.
GAVRON: Yeah, as you say, there are all those hurdles and challenges to making that film. And I mean, I’m a Londoner, and I’ve grown up around those communities. But I’m absolutely not a part of those communities, so I was very reliant on a number of things. One was on the source material, which Monica Ali’s fantastic book, which was a best seller at the time. It was very popular, Brick Lane. And then also, I worked with two associate directors who had a foot in those communities. I mean, Ruhul Amin, who is an East London filmmaker himself, who was of Bangladeshi descent, and an awesome woman called Sangeeta Datta, who is British-based Indian but from Bengal and knew that Bangladeshi community very well. So, they were advising me on when it came to language, when it came to nuance, when it came to the set build, and all sorts of things. And I was going to visit people in the community, and we had some great team members from that community, too.
So, I think it’s very important as a director, you know, you’re a storyteller, but you’re not, I wasn’t authoring that story. It was very much Monica Ali’s. She was authoring it. So, I was coming in as someone who was kind of building up the world, but consulting heavily.
ALI: But it’s obvious it’s a women’s world in essence.
ALI: Yes! [laughs] And so, I’d ask about women supporting each other behind the camera, in developing the film, voicing those stories, and in front of the camera. But your focus particularly on under-represented, marginalized women communities in Brick Lane and Rocks later and maybe suffragette historical narrative back in the early 1900s of British women in London. So, the women supported in the process and in the making of films.
GAVRON: Yes, I’m always fascinated by stories of people that we haven’t seen on our screens before. And historically, there’s a lot of women who we haven’t seen. They haven’t been the center of [inaudible] often. So, I’ve been very drawn to those stories. When it came, after Brick Lane, yes, as you say, I moved on to Suffragette. And what was fascinating was reading the testimonies of the working women. Abby Morgan, the screenwriter, and I both went into libraries, and there were these handwritten testimonies of women who were force fed and women who were imprisoned. And a lot of them were working-class women who had come from factories, and they had a lot at stake. They would lose their jobs, and it was very, very tough. There were also middle- and upper-class women involved in that struggle. So, it really crossed class boundaries. But we wanted to focus on what we call the ordinary women doing the extraordinary things.
ALI: I’m fascinated by some of the details that are not common knowledge or widely known about the force feeding for women who went on hunger strike in prison at that time. And that was an eye-opener to me, and it links into the broader aspects of human rights and social justice.
GAVRON: Yes, it was, for me, it was enormously shocking, actually, to realize the extent of it. I mean, lots of women were force fed, and not only force fed once or twice, but really repeatedly in the most painful manner. And lungs were punctured, and they suffered a lot of injuries that were ongoing for years afterwards. And it was a sort of, well, it’s been recognized as a form of torture now, of course. So, and also to understand the police brutality as well, that was another shocking thing: that there were instances almost kind of Bloody Sunday-like where they were attacked by the police outside Parliament. And so, it was really a revelation finding out all that.
ALI: Absolutely, and it shows. And I’m, again, intrigued by the fact that Suffragette, Brick Lane, although they’re telling very particular stories of women in London, other British women or coming from Bangladeshi or other of Afro-Caribbean origins, but they really connected with a world audience and universal audience across the festivals and across. So, tell us about the reception of those very personal stories, but in a different context or from different people, from different backgrounds, particularly women.
GAVRON: I always find that the most surprising thing, that you’ll make a film that’s very particular and specific to a community in the world. And then as you find when you go to international festivals and you interact with your audiences, you see that it’s translating and it’s speaking. I remember with Brick Lane in Spain, I went to San Sebastian. There was some elderly women came up to me and said it was their lives, you know.
GAVRON: And you think that so nice that they can connect with it. And we heard the same with Rocks. We went to Toronto, and we did an afternoon screening of a mostly elderly, white viewer audience, but they really to Rocks, a story about teenage girls in East London. So, I think the particular, in a way, is the key that somehow makes it universal and speak to people. And you just have to sort of stick to your guns and stay true to the world, and then it will speak.
ALI: Absolutely. And I think the connection and the bonding with those characters, the young girl in Rocks who became a mother for her younger brothers when her mother disappears following her mental illnesses. So, it’s a heartbreaking story at the core of it. But alongside the story of rocks, the central character, the young girl trying to look after her brother and avoid being sent into social care and into foster care, they were a collection or a group of young women, her friends who supported her, who bullied her, who abused her as well. What would you change? If you had the chance to do something different with Rocks, would you be tempted to tell the story of another one of Rocks’ friend, her mum, for example, or the social worker? Or have you done that part of London, East London, and the socioeconomic background and the interaction of that on their lives?
GAVRON: What was really striking working with those girls, as you say, was you could’ve told so many stories. We were in the workshop. There was Kosar Ali who plays Sumaya, her British-Somali best friend, and there was a girl who identifies as Polish Gypsy, who had a very rich background and so many stories coming out of her family and culture. And a Bangladeshi girl. You could’ve told any of those stories.
GAVRON: And I think you could start with a Rocks 2, Rocks 3, Rocks 4, you know?
ALI: Why not?
GAVRON: Yeah! And I hope that, well, one thing we really wanted, our ambition making the film, was that young people watching it would say, “Oh, I can now tell my,” well, feel that it was worth and that they should tell their own stories. Because I hope that it’s not just a blip and that it’s one story that comes out of that those communities. I hope that it inspires lots of stories to come out because it’s rich territory, and we’ll have a richer industry if we have more stories like that.
ALI: Indeed. All the characters, including, we call the young boy, Rocks’ brother, there’s such rich characters. And I think that they’re ready for a TV series to follow them, to follow their journey. It ends on a very poignant, maybe sad but hopeful ending as well. So, I do recommend the listeners to go and watch all your films and Rocks in particular.
Sarah, what’s next for you? What issues, or perhaps stories, that you’re committed to do next?
GAVRON: Hmm! Good question there, Khalid! I find it’s really, really hard to leave one baby behind and move on to another one.
ALI: Of course, of course.
GAVRON: And, you know, [inaudible] Rocks many, many years, and I’m still very committed to its journey into the world and the young people. Having said that, I’m exploring ideas around people, more around women, more around underrepresented communities. And early development, but I will let you know when there’s something to talk about in a more fully-formed way. [chuckles]
ALI: Thank you so much. And we can’t wait for your next creative project being that a film or a TV series or documentary. The richness of your film characters and the stories you tell focusing on women, as we said, it’s universal. And it’s been a great pleasure, Sarah, to talk to you today. And we look forward to more films, a lot of them, that we watch and enjoy and stimulate us to engage in discussion and reflection on those. So, thank you ever so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and hearing more about your work.
GAVRON: Thank you so much. Really enjoyable to talk to you, too, and to do it from a different perspective from the film industry perspective. So, thank you for this.
ALI: Thank you very much, Sarah. All the best for your next project and projects. Thank you.
GAVRON: Thank you.