I was in London the other day doing research for my next film. Research for me means speaking to people, listening to their stories and digesting what they are going through and also, critically, imagining. I’m doing some preliminary work on a new film project with the working title of Flight. Flight is a feature length fiction film poetically integrating traditional approaches to fiction and documentary genres. Set amongst the Ghanaian migrant community in the UK, and in the home community of the rural Eastern Region of Ghana, the film tells the story of a young migrant and how his experience of separation from Africa, in the midst of contemporary Britain from which he is also separated, changes the very nature of being African in terms of cultural and spiritual values.
As I did with Heart of Gold, so I am doing with this project. Listening to the stories of a range of people and eventually incorporating the very people who tell me these stories, their real life situations and their locations into a story I create with my imagination. People play themselves and will take part in actions and events they themselves have experienced or witnessed, but which I have shaped into a new narrative.
What has struck me ever since the experience of making One Day Tafo in Ghana back in 1990, is how close my imagination is to reality and fact. I generally close my eyes and the film starts to take shape in my imagination and as I then start to journey into the practicalities of real people, real lives, real events, I find that what I imagined is often uncannily close to what people then tell me about their real life experiences.
Sometimes, too, imagery I imagined also materialises. The first time I experienced this was when shooting a scene in Ghana, West Africa, at a petrol station for One Day Tafo. I imagined a scene in which a car pulls up for petrol in a dilapidated petrol station with my main character running across the petrol station pushing a car tyre, but I wanted to contrast this with a woman carrying firewood. Initially I thought that I might have to compromise and just have the petrol station and my tyre boy, Daniel Opong Amoah, running across the empty forecourt. However, in the midst of a rather chaotic situation of preparing to shoot, which involved my production assistant having to deal with a gathering crowd and an armed policeman who had doubts about our permission to film, I saw through the corner of my eye three young women carrying firewood on their heads, just about to enter the petrol station in a beautiful diagonal line. At the same time, a taxi was pulling in to fill up with petrol. Apart from that, the petrol station was completely empty. I asked my camera person, Simon Wilkie, to disregard everything going on around us, including the agitated policeman, and start shooting, and sent my tyre boy running across the scene. There was no time for explanations, or time for directing or intervening with the scene. Indeed, no time to think. I was seeing in the reality of the situation unfolding before my eyes, something I had vaguely imagined at one point, slowly coming alive before my real eyes. It was sublime. To this day, this remains one of my favourite shots in all the films I have made.
This sort of thing happens consistently when I start work on a project. It happened, for example, in Signs of Life, where the experiences of my character, Sarah, were completely imagined, yet verified by subsequent things I learned about persistent vegetative states and locked in syndromes; and in Sea of Madness, by way of another example, where I imagined a number of things about how identical twins would behave which were then verified and wholeheartedly embraced by the real life identical twins, Amy Fallon and Kate Fallon, playing the lead roles in the film; or, indeed in The Silent Accomplice, by way of a final example, where the mother, Joanne Mawdsley, at the end of the film dabs holy water on her son, William Mawdsley’s, forehead.
And as I start work on this new project, Flight, likewise when talking with people, I find a strangely powerful correlation between the imagery and events of my imagination and the factual events and imagery I hear from those people I subsequently go to speak with. Likewise, their factual experiences also help feed my imagination and what I like is to work in that space where there is no difference between fact and imagination or dream and reality; they are all part of an emerging story that somehow already exists. Research for me is not about establishing facts, or authenticating reality, or about seating my film in a paradigm of empirical truth. For me, research is about exploring that very interesting territory of experience where there is no separation of imagination and fact, where a story needs to emerge and finds its way through the people involved in the creation, no matter in what form. When my imagination is at its most vivid, I now know that it will also be very close to reality. I imagine the facts and reality takes shape in my mind as well as in the physical reality of the actions that unfold before my camera.