Qumra Master Michael Winterbottom is a critically acclaimed British filmmaker renowned for unconventional narratives and hard-hitting social commentary. In fact, what Winterbottom does counts as much in real life as it does on the big screen.
Nothing the wiry, cool, fast talking filmmaker does is ordinary and in fact, his masterclass moderated by Richard Peña went backwards from the typical format -- touching on his latest work Eleven Days in May (2022) which he co-directed with Gaza-based Palestinian filmmaker Mohammed Sawwaf, to some of his earliest films.
In Eleven Days in May the filmmakers document the memories shared by the families of over 60 Palestinian children killed by an Israeli bombing of Gaza over 11 days in 2021.
Giving full credit to his co-director Sawwaf, Winterbottom admitted this “is more his film than mine. It is almost a memorial for those children, their thoughts, their dreams. We wanted some memory of these children, to not be forgotten.”
“These are not just sad stories,” said Winterbottom, on why he chose the film’s repetitive structure. “By the end of the film, there is a cumulative impact, knowing about the many hopes and dreams that were destroyed. And this is not one isolated event that happened in Gaza. It repeats itself through history. It has happened before and may happen again, showing the repetitive nature of tragedies created by humans.”
Other segments of films screened included In This World (2022), which won a BAFTA and the Berlinale Golden Bear Award; also his Silver Berlin Bear winner The Road to Guantanamo (2006) which introduced the audience to the wonder that is Riz Ahmed, along with Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and the feature, A Mighty Heart (2007), starring and produced by Angelina Jolie -- about the search for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, based on the eponymous memoir by his wife Mariane Pearl.
While research for different projects vary according to their subject, Winterbottom said, “the key is to meet people and try to understand who they are, and why and how they behave in various situations. Try to get as many details as possible and your narrative will evolve organically.” Always mixing a documentary style with narrative fiction elements, Winterbottom sees the people he has documented as “real heroes who undertook incredible journeys.”
Recounting his early life, Winterbottom talked about watching TV all day as a kid, but also being inspired by the New German Cinema. He confessed that “the editing room is the most enjoyable place in filmmaking,” adding that he felt his own film best school was when he had the opportunity to make a documentary on the legendary Ingmar Bergman. “That is when I realized that I had only watched about 12 of his films, while he had made more than 50, one to two films every summer," Winterbottom said, adding, "it is his way of working, discipline, shooting on low-budgets, and the focus on content and what happens in front of the camera, which were my film school lessons.”
Winterbottom is a man whose kindness equals his talent, and a voice that needs to be listened to -- particularly when he urges indie cinema organizations to help fund the films of seasoned filmmakers and not simply the work of newcomers.
"Obviously, funders have a limited amount of resources, they are always going to be turning down a lot of people, but I do think if you want to have a healthy film culture, you want directors who are making lots of films, directors who have had success," Winterbottom admitted during our one-on-one interview, following his masterclass.
He mentioned Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century, the book which was published in the fall of 2021 and which Winterbottom curated and wrote, featuring his in-depth interviews with leading contemporary filmmakers including Lynne Ramsay (another 2023 Qumra Master), Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Asif Kapadia and Joanna Hogg. "The people I was talking to, interviewing a few years ago for the book, they are all directors who've had success, these are people who have made lots of films and had a lot of success, and still are only making a few films," he admitted, then concluded that it "is bad for film," this idea to only support the ones who are starting out, since a director's "oeuvre" is one of the signs of a healthy industry.
"Anytime you go somewhere, for example here at Qumra, it's about first and second time directors, or you go to the BBC and it's a fund for first time directors, the BFI has, I'm sure, a fund for first timers -- and more than half of the films being made now are by first time directors." All that means, Winterbottom explained further, "is that inevitably most people end up making only one or two films. That's crazy, people making their fifth film, you should be getting a benefit, instead of feeling like, 'OK you've made two or three and now you need to make a studio film, or television' -- because it's not like they don't make anything anymore," he explained, but are simply turned away from making films in their own countries, as independent filmmakers.
We agreed together that the word 'Auteur' should not be a bad word and Winterbottom added, "they," meaning seasoned filmmakers, "need a safe space."
"If you want to have a healthy film culture, you want directors who are making lots of films, directors who have had success" -- Michael Winterbottom
This idea easily brought us to my next question, for the prolific British auteur is a filmmaker activist, in my opinion. Is he comfortable with that label? "When I make a film, I don't have a particular aim in mind in the political sense -- I want to achieve this or we want to change the laws on refugees, or immigration." He continued, "for me, I'm trying to make the film as honest as possible, to try and show people's experiences, which depends on the sort of film it is, to make it as engaging as possible." Winterbottom conceded that "obviously, you hope it might make people think and the films I really enjoy making are where really I try to give, in an hour and a half, an experience of what it might be like to be in this place -- someone trying to cross from Pakistan to the UK, or what it might be like to be on a tour bus with a band," as in one of my fave Winterbottom films On The Road, where we the audience, along with the filmmaker, get to follow indie rock band Wolf Alice, as they prepare for their Brighton gig.
"You're trying to capture that and condense it down, but then it's up to each person watching it what to feel, what they do and what political party they want to join, or what they feel about it emotionally -- I like films better when you watch it, and maybe your version of what you're watching is different from that of the person next to you," in other words, "films that you think about afterwards."
I hadn't realized, until I rewatched a scene from Winterbottom's 2006 Road to Guantanamo during his masterclass in Doha, that the filmmaker featured Riz Ahmed for the first time on the big screen in the film. I asked him about it and he admitted "that was Riz's first thing, I don't think he had acted before but he was doing his music already, and I think he had an agent by that point -- so yeah, I discovered Riz, I'm happy for that!" Winterbottom featured Ahmed once again in his 2011 film Trishna, opposite Freida Pinto, a story set in modern India based on Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Winterbottom's latest project is Promised Land, now renamed Shoshana as was announced in Screen. Filmed in Puglia, Italy, he said, because of the architecture, "we didn't want 1930's architecture because that looks quite old, and everything in the story has to be quite new." Shoshana is a thriller set during the lead up to the 1948 partition of Palestine and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel and Winterbottom wanted what he called "that style," meaning Tel Aviv in the late 30's which he found at a seaside resort in southern Italy that was quite similar in style to the look. of the city, or what it must have been like then. The production in Italy, for the mostly British crew was affected by Brexit, Winterbottom admitted, as "actors and crew had to get permits and I couldn't get all of the crew across." It would prove fascinating, I think, to sit down for a leisurely chat with Wintebottom and get all his insight on his home country, Brexit and the state of the kingdom now.
As an aside, while we waited in the queue for lunch, in the magnificent courtyard of the Museum of Islamic Art,, Winterbottom stood behind us -- two journalists with empty plates in front of a cinematic icon. Yet, instead of cutting ahead of us, when we offered our place to a man whose interviews with our colleagues were going to take place any moment, and with a certain urgency, he politely and gently declined. We had to really insist and once Winterbottom finally agreed to step in front of us, he added, "that's so kind, thank you so much." Now, that's style.
For more information about Qumra and the Doha Film Institute, check out their website.
Photo by © Getty Images, courtesy of the DFI, used with permission.