Interview: Phil Harrison, director of ‘The Good Man’

| February 15, 2013 | Comments (0)

 

This article first appeared in Film Ireland 143 Winter 2012.

The Good Man is screening as part of the 11th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on Saturday, 16th February 2013 at Cineworld at 4pm.

Phil Harrison will attend the screening.

Book tickets here or drop into the Festival Hub in Filmbase in Temple Bar.

 

Steven Galvin caught up with filmmaker Phil Harrison to find out more about his thought-provoking debut feature.

Michael is a young Irish banker, whose life begins to unravel after causing a stranger’s death in an accident. Sifiso is a teenager living in a shack in a Cape Town township, dreaming of escape. When their stories unexpectedly collide, their impact on one another’s lives is far greater, and more surprising, than either could have imagined.

Shot both in Belfast and South Africa, The Good Man stars Aidan Gillen and is written and directed by Phil Harrison.

To start off I’ve got to ask you how as a writer you came up with the idea of interweaving two so seemingly distant stories. It’s quite a risky concept.

In my early twenties I did what a lot of white westerners do, and volunteered in an orphanage in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, just outside the city of Pietermaritzburg. I was struck, even at the time, by the problematic nature of ‘charitable’ involvement by westerners like myself, engaging with the ‘problems of Africa’–oversimplification, naïveté (on my part), a fundamental failure to engage with or even understand the political nature of people’s lives and struggles.

 

I was subsequently involved in various community development projects back in Ireland, and became increasingly interested in the role of creativity in protest and struggle: how people use photography, poetry, film, music to articulate ideas of identity which move away from and subvert those foisted on them – this is certainly true where I grew up, in Belfast, and I began, after doing a Master’s degree in postcolonial literature and theology, to explore this in an African context. I spent a bit of time traveling in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 – Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Ghana – just meeting artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers. I was also reading the histories of the likes of Seydou Keita, Djibril Diop Mambety, Lewis Nkosi, Frantz Fanon, all artists who are subtly, and occasionally not so subtly, playing with notions of identity and authority, and helping critically dismantle social patterns and languages of oppression. The idea for the film came very simply – to creatively bring together the two post-conflict societies I was most familiar with and interested in and see what would come out of the engagement.

 

You crowd-funded this particular film. Can you tell us how this worked out for you?

I wanted to try something a little different. It’s a fascinating time for independent film and independent arts in general. We built a model to raise $100,000 (400 shares at $250 each). This allowed us to build a model for returns in which everyone involved in the project owns part of it: 40% of any return on the film now goes back to the investors, 30% to the various production companies, 20% to the cast & crew and 10% back into the township in which we filmed in South Africa. It’s just about the most holistic model I’ve found in terms of financially structuring a project like this, and I’m delighted we were able to pull it off. I think people who invested were buying into the model and approach as well as the film itself. We had a deliberate policy in South Africa, for example, to give significant opportunities and positions of responsibility to young crew from the townships. It’s been a properly collaborative engagement.

 

Once we’d raised our target, both NI Screen and the IFB came on board with some additional support, which helped push the budget a little further – in total we made the film for around £100,000.

What tips can you share with budding filmmakers looking to use crowd-funding to produce their film?

Having a very clear and well structured model for potential returns is crucial. So is having a story that’s a bit different, good previous work (it doesn’t have to be a lot – I only had Even Gods) and an approach that goes beyond just filmmaking. We were committed to building a community around the project, especially in South Africa – working to give opportunities within the townships, etc. This approach, of course, is just what worked for us – I don’t think there’s a blueprint, and it will be interesting and exciting over the coming years to see how independent films creatively build platforms to bring themselves into existence!

Returning to the film – it deals with an Africa that has achieved political freedom without economic liberation.

Yes – this is a crucial theme, and one which I was determined not to see simplistically. There is a lot of misrepresentation and misperception of ‘Africa’ in the West, and it is very easy to be reductionist. Africa is diverse and varied, over fifty countries with differing histories and cultures. But there are similarities with regards to the aftermath (perhaps, the ‘ongoing’ aftermath) of colonialism, and Frantz Fanon has been one of the key critics in this regard. His withering critiques both of the failure of the new African leadership and of the ongoing exploitation by the former colonial powers – and the new ones – are still pertinent fifty years after his book The Wretched of the Earth was published in 1961.

 

While the film certainly engages these themes I didn’t want to be simplistically prescriptive. I’ll not give away too much of what happens in the film, but there certainly is no easy solution offered to the profound tragedy or tragedies that takes place. In some ways I feel the film is a critique of previous western films about Africa, like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener, who portray the major ‘problem’ as being rogue capitalists. If only these capitalists would behave properly, these films seem to say, things would be okay. I’m not convinced, and The Good Man attempts to engage with why.

Could you tell us a little bit about your time shooting in South Africa and the team you worked with there – obviously it was important to capture a realistic portrayal of the modern tensions that exists there.

Our budget meant we had to shoot very quickly; we had 6 days to film there  and the whole film was shot in 14 days. We worked with a local production company called Jet Black, who had plenty of experience filming in the townships and who were keen on our upskilling and community approach; and we built a crew and a cast as much as possible from the township in which we were filming (Gugulethu, just on the edge of Cape Town). South African townships are notoriously dangerous; we were not naïve about the dangers or difficulties but we ultimately found people extremely welcoming and generous. I spent a lot of time in South Africa over the past few years and built relationships there; especially with the Anti-Eviction Campaign, a grassroots organisation that exists to support people under extreme pressure with regards to housing, electricity and water, etc. The problems in South Africa post-apartheid are huge in this regard; there are over 400,000 people on waiting lists for houses in the Western Cape alone, and houses are being built at a rate of maybe 15,000 a year.

 

The tensions have been growing significantly over the past few years and indeed the decision to tell this story grew out of watching this happen and watching the way in which people who protested government inaction on this front were often treated as criminals.

I have to admit that the presence of Irish construction in South Africa and the impact it has on communities there was something I wasn’t aware of myself and this ignorance is quite fundamental to the film itself.

The left hand knows not what the right hand does. In a sense that is our contemporary dilemma; I would even argue that is our psychological dilemma.

 

The film has a great central performance from Aidan Gillen, who displays Michael’s emotions and internal conflict with tremendous skill.

Yes. I was delighted to have Aidan on board. We managed to get the script to him and he was intrigued by it, and generous enough to work within the limitations of a smaller-scale, independent project. I felt from the outset he would be perfect for the role. In a sense his character in the film unravels slowly without huge events to ‘act’ this out. He had to carry that in his body, a sense of energy increasingly tightening and unsettling. I think he does that incredibly well in all his roles; it’s a kind of nervous, contained energy one cannot help watching.

 

Michael naturally engages in self-blame which batters his self-esteem because he knows he should’ve acted differently – he should’ve been ‘the good man’. Then, trying to make amends, he strives to be ‘the good man’. But the notion of good proves problematic.

That’s the crux of the film in a nutshell. It was crucial to avoid being didactic, I wanted just to tell two personal stories. But in a world where connections exist in such real but fragmented ways, what can ‘goodness’ really mean? It’s a question that admits no easy answer. Perhaps posing the question in an unusual way can be both creatively and socially engaging. That at least is the gamble the film takes.

 

Steven Galvin

This article first appeared in Film Ireland 143 Winter 2012.

The Good Man is screening as part of the 11th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on Saturday, 16th February 2013 at Cineworld at 4pm.

Phil Harrison will attend the screening.

Book tickets here or drop into the Festival Hub in Filmbase in Temple Bar.

 

 

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Category: Exclusives, Featured, Festivals, Interviews

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