I met up with a university friend recently whom I hadn’t seen, except in passing, for a couple of years, and she told me about a documentary she had made not long ago, and the consequences of which she felt partly responsible for. Now Mina was the girl at college always known as the pretty one, and who worked hard but never even attempted to deny that part of her ability to get things done lay in her physical appeal as much as her creative determination. While she would occasionally get annoyed when someone insinuated that she had managed because of her beauty access to people, to equipment, to extended hours in the editing suite, more often she would smile and say that wasn’t her beauty, like her intelligence, a gift she should utilise. She would say it with irony but how could there really have been an ironic dimension when she was both pretty and smart? I remember wondering back then at what age might Mina no longer be young and attractive enough to make such a remark, but I would have expected it to have happened much later than it did, and wouldn’t have thought the irony would have come through an ethical crisis rather than the progression of time.
As she came towards me as I sat waiting for her in a cafe on Mid-Meadow Walk here in Edinburgh, so I noticed how people would glance in her direction. She was freshly tanned, neatly attired in a summer dress that was willing the weather to be several degrees warmer than it was, and wearing her light brown hair up all the better perhaps to let it down and play with it when the moment demanded. I always liked Mina, but I was never bewitched by her, and while I enjoyed the pleasure of her company, and the envious glances sometimes thrown in my direction, as if the person was trying to escape from the dazzle of looking at Mina, so my instinct for self-preservation, as Mina had one for getting her own way, protected me. I never wished to get to know her well, and remained aloof. I have sometimes thought there are those with killer instincts, others who are self-destructive, and people like me who are simply self-preserving. I could never easily exploit someone, but I’m not easily exploited either. Mina I always felt had the potential for this killer instinct, but I wouldn’t have believed it could have turned literal.
As we talked about what she had been working on in the last couple of years, she mentioned a project she had recently finished, but had felt very ambivalent about releasing, yet nevertheless allowed it to be shown on TV and accepted by a couple of film festivals.
The project was about someone here in Edinburgh who a few years ago had been woken up at dawn and dragged out of his house, into a police car and off to be questioned. He was returned not long afterwards when it was clear he was neither an illegal immigrant nor a burgeoning terrorist, and yet during the tussle, his three year old daughter, who was holding his leg as he was being pulled away, tripped on the doorstep and banged her head. There was no blood, and nothing serious was suspected, but a few days later they discovered a blood clot and they could not save her. Though the police were at fault for pulling an innocent man out of his house, they were not to be blamed for the daughter’s fall, and perhaps if culpability were placed anywhere it might be on the heads of the parents who didn’t have their daughter seen to until it was too late.
Mina had heard of the event through a friend, and wanted to follow up on the story, feeling that even if the police were not directly to blame, then if they hadn’t erroneously suspected the man of being an illegal immigrant or terrorist then the child would still be alive. She knew that Tofik was a carpenter, and, having recently bought a flat with help from her parents, thought since she was looking for joinery work to be done, she might as well hire him and find out more about the incident. She could also perhaps persuade him to make a documentary about it. He arrived and was around six feet tall with an erect posture and a chest made broad probably more by inherited genes than hard work, but his forearms seemed all his own. They looked like they had sawed many a piece of wood, and hammered in millions of nails. I recalled that Mina had a habit of describing people with little formulas that summed them up well, and one reason why she was seen as a skilled filmmaker was that she would also do this in visual form.
Over the next couple of weeks Tofik did various jobs around her flat: he put up shelves and mended floorboards, replaced doors and also painted the entire apartment. He was a joiner by trade but a handyman by nature, he said, always feeling that he liked to do as much as he could to make a home a home. During this time she talked to him intermittently. After about a week he told her about his daughter’s death, and the circumstances in which she had died. Mina didn’t pretend not to know; she admitted that she read about the raid in the newspapers, and of his daughter’s death, but she didn’t add that she asked him to do work in her place for that very reason. During the second week she asked if he would consider making a documentary about his experiences, and initially he said it would be impossible. He could talk about it with her in the flat, but not to a camera. He said he hadn’t even talked to his wife about what had happened. However, as Tofik said this, Mina sensed that he would like to make a film about it, that he was angry with the police, and maybe even with his wife for accepting it, as he said, as God’s will, rather than as a great injustice done to them. Over the next few days Mina gently proposed why the documentary would be a good idea, and by the end of the week he said he would try and find a way of talking to his wife about the loss of their daughter.
The following Monday he came back to her flat and finished off the work, and said that his wife appreciated that someone would have liked to make a film about their tragedy, but the pain would be too great. Tofik explained that his wife was a very religious woman, that she thought that to talk about such things on TV would be against God’s wishes and will, and that she didn’t even watch television, let alone want to appear in front of a camera. Mina asked Tofik if he had the same resistance. He replied that he respected his wife’s wishes, but Mina saw that he didn’t agree with his wife’s perspective, and that he couldn’t quite believe the act was God’s will. She felt that Tofik could be persuaded to make this documentary, but that she would have to wait.
As I looked at her as she said this I saw on her face a look that was close to distraught, and yet I expected to see instead a small smirk that indicated an expectant triumph: that she would soon be getting her own way. That smirk I didn’t see that afternoon was one I would see quite often during the course, as she would frequently say that all good things come to those who wait, and I added that was only so when the person has attributes and qualities that made the waiting hopeful rather than hopeless. How often had she got her way by biding her time prettily, by insisting to a teacher who said, after she asked if she could use the editing suite in the evening, that she would have to wait and see, and later would be told everything was fine, as if the teacher wanted a brief moment of power over a young woman who could easily have had it over him.
Perhaps I exaggerate Mina’s charms; after all haven’t I acknowledged that I was never so attracted? But there might have been a reason why I was the exception in this instance proving a rule, and that was because my own brush with beauty left me scoured raw. I’d spent the summer before college improving my French and damaging my heart working as a donut seller on the beach in the south of France. The woman in the nearby village I became infatuated by acquiesced to my advances but never quite surrendered her feelings, and by the end of my stay Francesca was with someone else, happily walking through the town hand in hand, arm in arm, where she had always wrestled free from my attempts to make us look like a couple. It was with this memory in mind I started the course and met Mina. She would have had to unwrap me emotionally from someone’s else’s finger to wrap me round her own.
However, this hurt I was feeling over the girl in the south of France maybe made me especially observant of Mina’s ways, and I watched her behaviour with an entomological pain: I could observe her so well because I felt the hurt so badly. I don’t want to claim my heart was so devastated, but it was pained enough to watch how a woman can do such damage. Mina was not the tease that I had experienced, however, just someone with the insouciant ability of making people feel special in giving her what she wanted, but I was of course wary that she might have been capable of the same ability to administer pain.
It was a point she more or less admitted to me as we sat there that afternoon, saying that she didn’t mind always getting her own way as long as in getting it she hadn’t got in the way of anybody else. It was what I saw as the difference between Mina and Francesca: that Mina gained no pleasure from hurting anyone, and when she got what she wanted others seemed to benefit without anyone losing out. When she would ask to use the editing suite in the evening it meant only that she would have to lock up herself and slip out of the building. She merely asked the tutors to bend a few rules. she never demanded that anybody else be put out by her actions, and on numerous occasions it helped people too. She was happy to contribute to other people’s work, and a few students would work late in the editing suite also, with Mina helping them with their films, saying it was good practise for her own work. Over the next few years she believed this was how she would behave, and though she wasn’t religiously inclined, she couldn’t escape the feeling that her good fortune demanded a sense that she should always treat others well so that nobody was worse off as a consequence of her success. She reminded me of a moment in college where she wanted to finish off her film one evening, but at the same time there was someone in the year above us who had fallen behind on their final year project and wanted to use the suite too. Mina had booked it, but accepted that the other girl needed it more than she did. Mina had plenty time to edit her film; the person a year above was working to a much stricter deadline, and Mina acquiesced. Mina admitted that people might have envied her at college, but she felt that she never did anything that could be construed as unjust, and maybe she thought that one of the unmentioned side effects of being pretty and charming was that your conscience could also be cleaner.
It was a troublesome statement to make in several ways, but she made it without any claims towards aggrandizement. Aren’t some of the ugliest people in literature also the most manipulative, she offered, Iago or Richard III? I said that there were plenty examples in literature of people who were beautiful and no less manipulative and examples of the honourably ugly, from the Beauty and the Beast to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps, she said, but for whatever reason she had always managed to get what she wanted through charm or persuasion, but without, she always thought, manipulation. Tofik she manipulated, or perhaps this is what she felt because of the consequences of her actions; maybe her manipulations in the past always had innocuous results.
I could have told Mina then that her success at college contributed to the failure of others, and if I were given to excuses I could have partly blamed Mina for my lack of success as a filmmaker since leaving there. At the end of our final year there was a competition between the four colleges where people studied film, and four films from each college were nominated, and the sixteen films shown at an arthouse in the city. Mine was a study of four eccentrics in Edinburgh, with the film initially interviewing and following each of them before ending on a dinner party where they were all together. They each dressed flamboyantly, and as I moved from one character to another I would try and match cut the bright purple of one to the bright purple of another, and also in each instance tried to find a cinematic style that would match their way of being in the world. For one, who was quite flighty and had a lot nervous energy, I used a handheld camera, for another who was serene and aloof I used tracking shots, for the person who seemed to live in his own world I used a telephoto, and for the fourth I adopted a steadicam to show his smooth movements through space. I won the prize, but for the first year they had a Special Mention award which Mina received. It should have been very much a secondary one, but Mina’s personality, her willingness to talk to the press about her documentary, and that the film was about four of Edinburgh’s better known writers, Ian Rankin, J. K. Rowling, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith, meant that she was asked to expand her twenty four minute film into four TV length episodes.
Mina’s film was conventionally made and had no discernible problem she was addressing. Mine at least tried to find a film form to delineate the distinct characters. It also had a question at its centre: what contribution to the world does an eccentric make? One was an artist, another a poet, a third an actor, and the fourth a human statue. None of them was famous, but all of them were distinctive; as if finding singularity not in the cult of celebrity but of individuality: the point of the film I suppose was to indicate that celebrity isn’t the high point of individuality but often its homogenisation. These relatively failed figures in the arts retained their sense of themselves, and none of them expected, or even seemed to be seeking, fame.
It was perhaps entirely appropriate then that my film won the award but has received no recognition since, while Mina’s was shown a couple of months later at the book festival, and then shown as separate episodes on TV a few months after that, after she edited four shows from her extensive footage. Yet it was her ability after the awards ceremony to act as if she had won the main prize that was so interesting to me. That she was ambitious I didn’t doubt, had never doubted, but what she did was not push her way ahead of me, giving the impression that my prize was of no importance next to hers. No, it was much more that she occupied the place that I was not willing to fill. When afterwards one of the tutors came over to Mina and I and said there were a couple of members of the press interested in talking to one of us, Mina didn’t immediately jump in and say she would love to, she briefly looked at me and saw my reluctance or indifference and said that she would be happy to do so. Even her access to the four well-known writers did not consist of Mina thrusting herself upon them: her mother went to the same school as Rankin, and her father was a student of McCall’s, who was for years a law professor at the university. She got access to the other two through her access to McCall and Rankin.
For my film I had put an advert in the paper and on a couple of online sites asking for eccentrics to appear in a graduate student film. I interviewed thirty five people and chose the four based on my own definition of eccentricity, and also a book by a couple of academics. Most of the people I initially interviewed were exhibitionists more than eccentrics, and some had what I suppose would be called mental health problems. I wanted in the film neither sentimentality nor awkward humour, and chose people that I thought would force upon the audience certain questions about social behaviour, success, dress codes, creativity and so on. If the writer D. H. Lawrence said somewhere that he was interested in an aristocracy of the mind; maybe my little film wanted to address the notion of an aristocracy of behaviour. This had nothing to do with wealth, fame or blood, but of style, and thus, perhaps, tried to find a form to match it. Mina’s film seemed as I’ve proposed to have no underlying question, yet it wasn’t opportunistic either. She simply did what she often did: she took advantage of an opportunity, just as she took advantage of the fact that I was reluctant to step forward and be interviewed by a couple of journalists after winning the prize.
As Mina told me about her crisis, I wasn’t so sure if her keenness to take advantage of opportunities wasn’t linked to her failure to see that she was exploiting Tofik. When she accepted the interview that day of the prize, she did so reactively. It wasn’t opportunistic, but it was a reaction to my reluctance. Yet my reluctance was not at all I feel insecurity, procrastination, or fear, but instead lay in the need for time. I needed time to decide whether it would have been a good idea to talk to the papers or not; and in that space people like Mina enter, and they do so not only or even because they are selfish, greedy or especially ambitious, but because they feel they do not need the same amount of time in which to make a decision. Yet I think the consequence of this is that I would never have acted as Mina did with Tofik and his family.
What she did was ask Tofik back to the flat several times to do minor repairs over the next three or four months, and during this time eroded his insistent claim that he would not make a film with her because it would be too painful for his wife. At first Mina would have wanted Tofik’s wife to be in the film as well, but though she had never met the woman she could see that this would be impossible, while to make a film about Tofik would merely be difficult and demand much persuasion. Each time he came round she would talk to him a little more about what happened that morning when the police raided his house, and each time would play on his anger and explain to him why she felt he was entitled to this indignation. Perhaps his wife should have taken their child to the hospital straight away, but how many kids fall over: wouldn’t hospitals be overburdened if each time a child fell the hospital had to test the kid to find out if they were alright? The culpability lay not with Tofik’s wife, but with the police, who wrongly arrested him that early morning.
On one visit to Mina’s flat where Tofik fixed a leaky pipe, he said to her while he was doing it, and with no prompting from Mina, what difference would the documentary make. She noticed he used the definite article, and though his English was far from perfect, she felt sure he used the definite article because he thought about it as a possibility, as a project he could see himself appearing in. She said it would make people know that these things are going on, and much more vividly than people would find in a news report.
As she looked at me and said that he accepted, so the face that at the time would have been victorious appeared now devastated. She filmed him over four afternoons in her apartment, each interview lasting for two hours, and then she edited it into a fifty minute film that she sent to the TV channel that showed the earlier four episodes with the writers, before also editing a longer eighty minute cut that she sent out to film festivals. The TV channel accepted it, and a couple of festivals included it, but she felt that they did so partly because it was obvious the figure interviewed felt uncomfortable with the process and was coerced into speaking. One festival director talked to her of the onscreen suspense of watching a man who looked like he would rather be anywhere than in front of the camera, while the TV channel liked that she had included a couple of moments where Tofik had broken down. While making the film, and even after its initial TV airing and those two festival screenings, she felt that the ends justified the means: that, whatever pain it might cause Tofik, it would be of greater benefit to society generally. Didn’t people need to know about dawn raids, about the police who happened to be responsible for the death of children? As she said this I could see the question wasn’t offered to me rhetorically but ironically, as if she was disgusted with the idea that she could have ever believed it.
Tofik, she then said, now didn’t only no longer have a child; he didn’t have a wife either. She killed herself a couple of weeks ago, Mina, said. His wife heard that Tofik had appeared in a film about the incident. She said she wanted to see it even though Tofik thought it best that she shouldn’t: even he hadn’t watched it. But friends of theirs had recorded it when it was on television and one of them said that they planned to watch it one evening, and so Tofik and his wife sat down with them to watch the programme. Everyone seemed to think it was well-made, as it showed Tofik’s family as innocents wronged, and the police, if not responsible for Tofik’s daughter’s death, too aggressive in their methods nevertheless. Yet that evening after Tofik and his wife went to bed, he heard her, in the early hours of the morning and at perhaps the same time as that dawn raid many months earlier, weeping. He lay next to her and didn’t know what to say. The next night it was the same: he awoke and there she was sobbing quietly. Again he did not know what to say. She would not look at him at all when she got up, and he could not find the words that would assuage her. He knew that watching the film was very difficult, and suspected that the moment which was most painful was when he talked about their daughter’s death, the moment when he said that no they didn’t take her to hospital, that they thought she would be okay, and that they didn’t want to involve again the authorities, as if, Mina had thought while editing the film, the police’s presence has scared them off British institutions. What Mina saw as self-justification in the film, Tofik’s wife took as accusation, she surmised, and it was less than a week after watching it that Tofik found her in the bath, heavily sedated and with her wrists slit.
I asked Mina how she knew this in such detail, and she said that Tofik had come to her a few days earlier, distraught and angry, hysterically yet understandably accusing her of killing his wife. The police killed his daughter, and now she was a murderer too, he said, and then told her what she had just told me. Mina, sitting in the cafe terrace, then started to cry, tears perhaps reminiscent of those Tofik’s wife offered to the pillow in the nights before taking her life. I held Mina’s hand as she sobbed, and then went off the bathroom inside the cafe to get some tissue paper. I wondered as I did so why she had chosen to talk to me about what had happened. Perhaps she was trying to talk it out, and I was but one of many people in the last few days she had spoken to, but I suspected this wasn’t so, and thought it might be an aspect of my career failure that she now suddenly saw as another kind of success: an ethical victory of the uncompromised.
When I returned she was recomposed and took the tissue, blew her nose and said she was feeling better and thanked me for listening. However, she had emailed me more because she wanted to talk to me, not just for me to listen to her. She said that she maybe hadn’t thought enough about it at college, but that I always seemed somebody who would take his time, who would never rush a project not because I wanted it to be perfect (I remember saying to her a couple of times I wasn’t much of a perfectionist), but because I wanted it to be good: good as a moral as much as an aesthetic category. It was a sense of harmony that was part of the work but that went beyond the work also. I was surprised she remembered this, but maybe it was more re-remembering; that if I had asked her about it a few months earlier she wouldn’t have recalled what I said: that it happened to be recent events that brought it to her mind again.
She wanted to know where I got this instinct for knowing what was good, what was fair. She thought she possessed this fairness at college when she would never stand in someone’s way, never steal their place in the editing suite or try and get better equipment that had been reserved for others. I told her I didn’t know if I managed to make films that were good in the way that she defined it, but I suppose I tried, and gave her a brief example. The previous year I had made a twenty five minute film about my mother who was showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and filmed it in a manner consistent with her disease. I tried to find an editing schema that would reflect not only how she would have been feeling but also how we in the audience felt too as the images were constructed so that it was hard to remember the order of events. I wanted it to be a film easy enough for the viewer to follow, but impossible for them to assemble chronologically. I didn’t want a single moment in the film where the audience felt complacent enough for pity: the viewer would be too busy grounding themselves in what they were watching. I then mentioned the idea of people who have killer instincts, others with self-preserving ones, others with those for self-destruction. I suppose I wanted to make films that contained my own need for self-preservation whilst finding the self-preserving in others. I thought the documentary on my mother was respectful because it was about her struggle with memory, and I wanted to create in the viewer this struggle as well. Is it good or not? I don’t know. It was shown at a couple of experimental film festivals, but that was all.
She asked me more about what I meant by people with killer instincts, and I said to her it wasn’t just someone who was selfish and nasty; it could also incorporate those who would think they were acting with the best of intentions, but who perhaps have not given those intentions enough thought; their desire for success, their willingness to please, their need for pleasure, means that some aspect of them has made the decision too quickly. Maybe it has to do with egotism, just as self-destruction often concerns immediate stimulation to the detriment of other possibilities. Mina wondered about self-preservation. I said I wasn’t quite sure, but perhaps it was as if every decision we make can seem justifiable from whatever angle we look at it. If there is the moral idea that we ought to make our actions universally applicable, maybe that is less useful than making all our actions seem fair from which ever place we happen to look. I said that when I made the Alzheimer’s film I had to make it from the position of aesthetics, my mother, the illness. She said that if only she had done that with the film about Tofik: if only she had worked through all the permutations of why she was making it. She wanted to make a film about human rights, but didn’t she sacrifice Tofik’s family to that ideal? From what I was saying the end can never justify the means. I said I didn’t know, all I could say was that while we might never know why we act and understand all the motives behind these actions, then if we at least create the space for an action’s possible implications, maybe we have looked at it from as many angles as we can, even if we don’t actively think through these different perspectives.
I knew that Mina was not someone who thought only of herself, and that she wasn’t at all someone who got pleasure from other people’s misfortune, but she was pragmatic when it came to people and art. She could only see what was in front of her and not what was sitting inside a problem. As I’ve said, I believed it would be age not as maturity but as faded beauty that would make her see more clearly what the world was made of, and yet it was instead through somebody’s death that she felt partly responsible for. I don’t want to claim that I am that much wiser than Mina, though I went to college as a mature student and I’m five years older than she is, more that I would see into a problem more than I would seek a solution for it. This of course makes me slow and cumbersome in life, and partly why I have made very little work, arrived at education late, and still can’t make a living as a documentary filmmaker. I see it as no great loss to the world that I can’t, but I do feel it as a broader loss that people like Mina do, and that is what I managed to express to her as we sat at the cafe in the sunshine that afternoon. I think she knew that she was not really responsible for the death of Tofik’s wife’s, just as the police were not really responsible for the daughter’s , no matter their stupidity and brutality, and the paranoia of the government that wanted to find terrorists wherever they looked. But she had committed an error that contributed to someone’s demise, and that was to look at a problem as capable of a ready solution. She believed that to make a film about Tofik would be to right a few wrongs, when the problem far outstripped her capacity for a solution. As I more or less said this to her she asked me how I would have filmed it. I was wary of providing an answer, not only because of the condescension involved in telling someone how I would have succeeded where she had failed, nor even because of the guilt she was feeling, but more especially because I might answer the question too quickly. As I replied, I said that my answer was provisional, that she worked on the film for months, and I would be talking about a hypothetical project, but yes I would have made the film differently, if I would have made the film in the first place.
I said that I would have assumed I wasn’t making a film at all, but more a visual diary. I would try and take the filmic rhythm from Tofik, aware that at any moment the project could be cancelled and that my diary abandoned. I would try and make sure at all times that I wasn’t making a documentary, but simply recording images as I might take photos or converse with friends. I would assume that all that I was doing was destined for oblivion, but with the possibility it was not. I remember reading somewhere that a film was finished when the money ran out. They were talking of fiction films, and it reminded me of a well-known comment about a book never being finished but abandoned. Maybe as documentarists, though, when our subjects are not professional actors, nor characters created on the page, but people in their own lives, we are constantly wondering whether we should even start the film, whether we can find the ethical wherewithal to make it. I’ve always thought creativity doesn’t reside in making something, but having the possibility not to make it at all. Anything I’ve made needs to have within it the idea that it might not have been.
Mina looked at me and said if we would have had this conversation a few months earlier she probably wouldn’t have known what I was talking about, and that maybe her problem was that she couldn’t really understand anything without experiencing it. I looked at her face and saw in it for the first time a beauty that I could call my own, a beauty that owed nothing to the admiring glances I saw her receive as she arrived at the cafe an hour and a half earlier, and the opposite of the beauty my brief summer fling flaunted before me when I was twenty three, and that made me cautious, even contemptuous, of a certain type of attractiveness. I looked up at the trees and watched as the sun came through a cloud before disappearing behind another, and looked across at Mina and said maybe even I was partly responsible for the woman’s death. She looked back at me with an inexplicable look and I said that I wasn’t sure if I could quite explain it, but maybe I could have, just not to her at that moment on that day. I suppose what I meant was that I didn’t take Mina very seriously, couldn’t see that she might be a little different from the flirt in the south, and that maybe I should have befriended Mina at least enough for her to have felt comfortable during our studies to have talked to me about what we were doing and why we were doing it. Maybe we could have had this conversation about the ethics of documentary long before, and maybe she might have listened enough for her to have seen that there was more than a career to making non-fiction films.
But of course this makes me out to be a sage, when whatever interest I possess in creating ethical images might be down to the procrastination I practise in so many areas of my life. Perhaps if I had taken Mina a bit more seriously I might have learnt from her the skills required to get films out there, and she could have learnt from me which films oughtn’t to be made, or made very tentatively. I remember when we parted that day what seemed odd was that it was as though we had known each other for years – which of course we had – but that most of this feeling came from just one conversation. It also came from the sense, at least on my part, of lost opportunities, but even more of lost lives, and of Mina’s own existence maybe deservedly damaged. As I saw her walk away there was hesitancy and fragility in the walk that I hadn’t seen a couple of hours earlier when she arrived, though it must have surely been there. I also thought of Tofik, and how heavy his walk must now be.