we took our film - now in its practically complete state - to safiental in switzerland where we shot just over half of it, and showed it to the people there as a special preview, so they could get a first glimpse of what we'd actually been doing there, a bit over a year ago, in october 2010. this also, of course, gave us the opportunity to test screen the film in front of a real live audience and catch any problems prior to an official premiere.
now, before i tell you how this went, let me tell you a bit about safiental.
it’s a valley, about 30 kilometers long, that branches off the bigger vorderrhein (anterior rhine) valley in the swiss canton of graubünden. it’s about as remote a place in switzerland as i know of: for most of its length, the road leading from the already tiny village of versam (which does, however, have a stop on the rhetian railway, the regional narrow-gauge railway network of this part of switzerland) up to turrahus (a guesthouse where most of our crew stayed during the shoot and where the road ends) is a country lane on which two cars can’t pass each other with anything resembling ease. it winds itself through a forest on the edge of the dramatically perpendicular rhine ravine up to just above tree level at 1700m, through three or four settlements, dotted along the distance. the main village is called safien platz, and it consists of a tiny church (of course), a tiny café (with about four tables), a guest house, a school, a school library, a number of farms (one of which home to llamas, yaks, highland cattle and two double-humped camels, seriously) and a spanking new and pretty much up-to-scratch multi-purpose hall, which is where our film screening is to take place.
from here, you drive another forty minutes or so to the end of the road at turrahus, and from there another ten minutes on a field track to our location. there, you are at the end of the valley. beyond the alp where we shot our film, there’s one more alp with a couple of huts on it, called z’hinderscht, which means ‘at the farthest end’. then the valley slopes upwards towards a mountain range which you can hike across, if you’re fairly good on foot and of a fit overall disposition...
the valley itself has a population of about 400 people and they are really what makes this place what it is. it’s the kind of place where, even though you couldn’t be further from the realities of your own home, you feel at home because you’re made to feel welcome, and with minimum fuss.
i get off the train at versam together with half of my family, because they’ve all decided to come along and spend new year’s eve in safiental too. although the valley is remote and its facilities sparse, at this time of year the postauto bus fills up, because there are only about six a day, and in winter, whether or not they go all the way up to turrahus is dependent on how much snow there is. these last couple of days it’s been snowing heavily and it continues to do so as we arrive, but at the moment, the buses are still good to go all the way, just.
while his bus is filling up and he’s busy organising the luggage hold, the bus driver immediately recognises me from last year and says: ‘oh hello! i’m coming tonight! i’m getting off my shift early, so i won’t miss it!’ he’s not actually swiss, he’s german and of course i remember him too, we’d been chatting a few times when he was having his break at turrahus, not so much even during the shoot (we were mostly on location then) but on my two recces before then, during the summer.
because of the snow and the uncharacteristically large number of people on the bus, he’s running a bit late, but that doesn’t dent his spirit, and on the way up he slows down and cheerfully points out the hair-raising ravine to our left. later, he chuckles at the horn of his bus because one tone of its famous three-part too-taa-toh call keeps hissing air instead of sounding the note, and he bursts out laughing when he has a group of unseasonal mountain bikers nearly bumping into him on their way down through the snow.
my family get off the bus at safien platz, where they’re staying at the guesthouse, and i get off here too, even though i’m staying at a farm five miles up the road: i have to check in at the venue and test the technology for tonight. i notice that my suitcase has moved right to the back of the hold, so i ask the bus driver if he wouldn’t mind taking the suitcase out for me at the end of the line at turrahus. he wants to know if that’s where i’m staying. no, i’m staying at gasslihof. ‘oh, no problem, he says: i’ll drop it off for you there!’ gasslihof is not a stop, it’s just a farm en route. later i hear that he carried my suitcase all the way into the farmhouse right up the stairs to the door of my room.
(and he’s not the only friendly bus driver in safiental: the next day when i take a bus down from my farm back to the village, a different chap is driving. he whistles all the way as he bounces his bus down the snow-covered track at a perky old pace, with snow chains and all. rather than slowing down all too much when approaching a bend, he gets on his feet and leans over to the side to get a further-ahead peek of what’s around the corner: he looks like boy in a toy. suddenly he brakes because somebody on the way up has got stuck. this car is wedged right across the road, skidding badly. the car’s driver is a nervous wreck: in switzerland, you always give way to the postauto bus. but he can’t move up or down and he’s panicking, so he’s accelerating far too hard, making his wheels spin pointlessly on the snow. the only passengers on this bus are an elderly lady and i. the bus driver turns around to me and says: let’s go and push him a little, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere. so we both get out and try to push this fairly hefty family/people carrier, luckily with no family in it, but the man in the car is too nervous to follow the bus driver’s calm instructions and instead of moving forward he just skids backwards, with his tail end now aiming for the flimsy wooden barrier. as the car pivots by default, the man realises he can probably turn it around this way and so he opts for heading down instead of up, at least until the bus can pass safely, and we’re back on track, as it were...)
i get to the venue and we test the technology. after a couple of initial near-hiccups, which we had already mostly sorted over the phone, everything now works fine, and adrian, the man from the local firm that set up the projector and PA, goes out to get a couple of bits he’s missing and i head off to hook up with my family again briefly before going back to the venue for 6pm to talk through the ‘programme’, as it were, with philipp, the initiator and organiser of the event, and to run a final check.
philipp arrives and tells me that a woman from the local press will be coming and would i mind giving her a brief interview. obviously i don't mind. the journalist is called dagmar and she’s really friendly too and asks me how i found safiental. after i tell her the story - which i’ll later also be telling the audience - and rave a little about how perfect this location was for our shoot and how easy everybody had made our time for us here and how the valley itself had become, through its presence, in a way a character in the film, she asks me if i think that safiental is a kraftort. i’d never heard the expression before, so i ask her what that is, and before she finishes explaining, i get what she means: a place that has a power to it, a strength, or a force. a positive force, what you might call a good energy. i don’t know if this is necessarily a spiritual or metaphysical thing or not, and i don't want to go out on a limb that i may not be able to climb down or take off from, but i had thought before that safiental certainly is the kind of place that has good people in it. and so maybe it attracts good people who click into the ‘vibe’ that’s already there. certainly, i feel energised by it. exceptionally nervous, too, but although it is with some trepidation, i do now look forward to the screening, now that i know that the technology is working, that we have vision and sound and we may have, it seems increasingly likely, an audience too.
dagmar, the friendly journalist, gives me a lift to the guesthouse where my family is staying and where meanwhile also our production assistant on the swiss shoot, livia, and virginia macnaughton, who has contributed two of her songs, played in the background of two scenes at the troubadour coffee house in london, have parked themselves with a drink.
livia didn’t tell anyone she was coming, but i’m not surprised to see her, only delighted. she had intended to put on her snow shoes and take a five and a half hour hike across the mountain from the neighbouring valley to get here, but had been deterred not by the snow, or the mountain, or the five and half hour hike, but by the acute risk of avalanches. so she’d got here on the same bus as virginia who’d come all the way from lincolnshire, because she felt this would be a bit of an adventure. livia hadn’t organised any accommodation for herself, but this time of year the valley is full (there are only the two guest houses and one B&B), but livia is unperturbed and has her drink before worrying about where she’ll spend the night. ‘i have my sleeping bag, i can sleep on some hay.’ within an hour, she has spoken to the lady who runs the village grocery store and who recognises her from the shoot fifteen months ago and says to her, of course you can stay here, i have a room for you upstairs, no problem.
i am starving but my appetite has all but gone. luckily virginia hasn’t eaten her salad so i just eat half of hers. dagmar gives us all a lift back up to the venue and as we get there, just after eight for an eight fifteen start, there are cars jostling for parking spaces and people queueing up to get in and by the time we get into the hall, virtually all the seats are taken. the audience ranges from about five years of age to about the mid-eighties, and the caretaker of the hall reckons there are about a hundred and twenty people or so, maybe two thirds locals and about one third visitors. i like the fact that he doesn’t call them tourists, because here nothing has the feel of tourism about it, really. there are farmers, local lads and lasses, my friendly bus driver, there are people who have come here to the valley to retire, people who have moved here because they wanted to get away from the rat race, people who have grown up here and hardly ever set foot outside the valley. there are people who are involved with the cultural society and there are film-lovers who know their indie repertoire inside out, and there are people who have never seen a film with subtitles before. i estimate that around a third or maybe even half the audience speak little or no english, or have a very basic school-english grasp of the language at best, so they’ll be relying on the subtitles.
the caretaker also, incidentally, reckons that if it weren’t snowing so hard, there would be quite a few more people, a view shared later by marco, my host who owns and runs the gasslihof, where he rears organic cattle. he is, by coincidence, the only local who appears in the film, together with his beautiful dog timo. they are seen, from quite a distance, through a grainy, misty haze, walking up the path going by the hut, and then walking down it again a few seconds later.
as a warm-up, we screen a short animation i’d made a few years ago of a popular swiss song. it’s gentle and a little amusing rather than laugh-out loud funny, and the audience take it in very much in that vein.
i introduce the film and i tell the people of safiental how grateful i am to have been able to shoot this film here, and i explain a little the concept of having a broken-up timeline in the first half and of mixing black and white with colour. i also tell them that this is a big moment for the film and for me because this is the first time that anyone who has not had anything to do with it - with the exception of one or two close friends - gets to see any of it. and i tell them there will be an interval. this had been requested by the organisers, and while i don’t generally like the idea of interrupting the flow of a film, i felt in this case this would probably be a good idea, because the film is quite demanding, especially if you have to read subtitles for so long.
we start the film and now i begin, for the first time in about a week, to relax. i’m not being melodramatic about this: for the last few days my anxiety levels had risen to the point where i found it really implausible that i would emerge from this event without some sort of calamity having befallen me, if at all, but now, within minutes, i lean back and i - yes, i actually - enjoy watching our film.
the audience is completely silent. i sit behind most of them, close by the projector, and while i can’t see their faces, i also can’t see or notice any kind of movement. there is no rustling and no fidgeting. no restlessness. for just over an hour, they sit and watch, making hardly any sound at all. two or three lines get a laugh, and you sense an easing of the concentration, but no letting up, when theo arrives at the end of the safiental, where he meets george.
i’ve placed the interval at a small ‘cliffhanger’ moment, where theo suggests to george that he, george, thinks that his, theo’s, dad killed himself over george. george responds by saying that he doesn’t think so, he ‘knows’ this to be the case (he later acknowledges that he's wrong).
i wonder what will happen during the interval: i half expect some people, maybe some of the lads and lasses, or maybe some of the older generation, or maybe some of the farmers, to possibly take this as their opportunity to sneak off, not least because it’s still snowing, just more heavily now. i go outside to smoke, and indeed, i overhear one of the lads saying to one of the lasses that he nearly dozed off during the first black and white bit. but then he reasons that it’s hard when you’ve been outside all day, working, to then sit down in a warm, dark room, and keep your concentration. i like both the candour and the reasoning. nobody leaves. when i go back in, i ask adrian, the technician from the local firm, if he could put the volume up a bit, because i’d felt it was just a tad too low, and he does so.
we start the second half. the interval turns out to have been a good move. people are clearly refreshed and as, towards the second half of the second half, the colour - and with the colour, as per concept, the life of our characters - returns, so does that of the audience. they still don’t let up in concentration, but now they laugh when something funny happens. marco and timo get a cheer. when theo takes off george’s beard, you sense the relief and wonder that george and theo feel, felt by the audience.
the film comes to an end and the credits roll. marco and timo get another small cheer and finally it is over. there is a short silence, and then there is a long, sustained applause.
i know now that our film works. from now on in, i am a happy man. because it’s already clear that no matter what every individual member of the audience will have made of it, as an audience together, they went with it. from start to finish. i do not think for one moment that all of them liked all of it. but that is not the point or the aim. the point and the aim is to take everybody on a journey and get everybody to experience that journey, together with the characters. and that’s exactly what’s happened.
the people who come up to me afterwards are those who loved it. of course. the ones who didn’t make much of it won’t be so likely to come up to me afterwards, in fact they most likely won’t do so at all. but those who loved it, they really loved it. and what is for me so intensely rewarding is that they loved it for precisely the right reasons. they loved the space it gave them to think and the slow pacing, the rhythm of it. they loved the fact that for a while it doesn’t quite make sense, but then it all comes together. they loved it for being subtle and intricate. one man, elderly, comes up to me together with his wife and tells me: ‘this film has in it the stuff of ten ordinary films.’ he tells me that this is the best film he’s ever seen. i know it isn’t, but the fact that he feels it is makes me beyond reason happy, because if nothing else it means that he gets our film. ‘the honesty’, he tells me, looking me in the eyes: ‘there’s nothing fake about these characters, they’re not easy but they are real.’ i love him for saying this to me and i thank him for it. his wife seconds his motion. several people tell me they didn’t realise it was me playing george. some not until the beard came off, some just weren’t sure, one didn’t click until the credits. i find that hard to believe, but nevertheless flattering. one of the lads wants to know when he can watch it online...
consensus quickly emerges on three points. 1) sam fordham as theo is excellent. i know i can agree with this without seeming conceited: he just is, he’s wonderful. 2) as is pepe belmonte. people love the figure of the singer. and they love his songs. a young woman asks me: where can i get the CD. i tell her, on pepe’s website. and i’m thinking we should, perhaps, pursue this thought of ours of putting together a soundtrack CD. 3) and people love the photography. gregor brändli’s camera work, they recognise, is outstanding. and all of this reassures me too. because i’d felt, from the moment i first looked through our footage and started putting it together, that there are three pillars that to me are absolutely solid, no matter what you make of anything else: sam as theo, pepe and his music, and gregor’s photography.
and this is why i am such a happy man today. this wasn’t a premiere. it wasn’t a breakthrough, it wasn’t an award. but it was this: a first, and truly significant, test. because it was a first and meaningful exposure. and from it i learn that the film can and will find its audience. because there is, already, an audience who can and will relate to it. who wants to relate to it. and who understands it. in some cases, every nuance of it. there will be many people who won’t and there will be, i know, many people who will tell me in time what they hate about the film, among them perhaps reviewers, among them maybe friends and people whose work i really respect and who i'd rather they appreciated it than that they didn't. but the fact that this audience was able to take it in, to connect with it and the fact that there are people who don’t just like it a bit or in parts but who categorically love it, means the film can stand up now on its own and be sent out into the big wide world and find - and be found by - these people, the people who relate to it.
and that means i no longer need to worry about it now: i can now let it go, knowing it will find love.
(and it cheers me no end that this happens right at the end of an old and at the beginning of a new year. yes, i reckon safiental may be a kraftort...)