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The Plague - An interview with Greg Hall



Interview by: Veronica Blake

THE Raindance East Film Festival, which runs from April 21 - 28, 2005, is a showcase of the very best of independent film, animation, shorts and documentaries.

Greg Hall, 23, is the talented young director being hailed by Variety as the next Shane Meadows.

Greg’s film, The Plague, has won ciritcal acclaim at film festivals around the world. It centres on 24 hours in the life of four mixed race friends.

Greg’s debut feature was made on a budget of just £3,000 on MiniDV. He took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to IndieLondon.

Q. Which directors do you admire?
A.
I remember seeing Steven Spielberg’s Duel on TV when I was just four-years-old. It made quite an impact. That’s my earliest memory of a film which made such an impact. I decided I wanted to make films and tell stories. I remember dictating a story to my mother, who wrote it down and I acted it out.
At 14 I joined Wimbledon Theatre and started to make short films and documentaries when I was 15, and it’s grown from there. I went to art school for three years.
The Surrey Inst. Of Art and Design. It was in my final year that I wrote the script for The Plague. The idea had been growing in my head for five years. Everything in it, the core story, is based on my life experience and people I knew and grew up with.
When I was growing up, I thought that there’s nothing in cinema which reflects the way we live or what we want to see. That’s where it grew from.
Your first film is always your most personal because there are no constraints from producers or studios. You’re just venting your angst.
I shot it on Mini DV, the XM2. The whole budget was £3,500 which amounts to the catering budget of most films.
I work in a collective, called Collective Vision, set up by 10 art school graduates. There’s no manifesto. Just a loose network of people who offer support to whoever needs it.
Over time, we’ve built up our own editing and sound design and music equipment. When we shot the film none of the actors got paid. Not the actors or crew, everyone was so dedicated to working on it. The shoot lasted three weeks, it was really intense, but it was a labour of love.
Money wasn't an issue. DV is becoming more popular. 24 Hour Party People was shot in a similar format. Even the Dogma films, The Idiots and Festen, they were shot on the PCH, which is mini DV, and they’re really raw.
The more films which use different formats make it more acceptable for audiences, they’re becoming more receptive to that style of cinema. Which is why The Plague is being shown at Raindance and the London and Sarajevo Film Festivals.

Q. How did you feel when Variety described you as the ‘new Shane Meadows’?
A.
I’ve never seen a Shane Meadows film, so I’m not too sure.
My cinematographer, Leo, doesn't like Shane Meadows so when he heard that, he joked about it.
Though it’s a real honour just to be in Variety. It’s just amazing to be compared to directors like him and just to be in Variety.
We shot it for just over £3,000 based on people I grew up with, and didn't expect anything to come from it.
Obviously, in the back of your mind, you do think ‘wouldn't it be great if this happened, or that happened’, but the reality often sinks in.
It’s just been an amazing experience to get this response and to be recognised within what’s considered the mainstream film industry. I just wanted to create a new style of cinema. So it is amazing.
It’s based on five years in our lives. From hanging out in our friend’s squat, and some of the boys who’d visit were crackheads. Just little things like that.
Our friend was put into hospital by racist National Front thugs who broke his head open with a pole. The film is actually set just over one weekend in the characters' lives. But it’s based on elements of life experience from the age of 15.

Q. By addressing issues of racism and violence, would you like your film to be a catalyst for change?
A.
Completely. To be honest, I have a slight issue with the word Racism.
In the past, racism was a very important word in learning about our history and the way we developed in societies. Now the word hatred is more important than racism.
Even in the film, there’s an Asian character who says ‘don’t want any more blacks or whites involved’.
There’s a black character who says, ‘I’m the nigger’. He’s playing up that role, he can be this. I think England and London, especially, represents a multi-cultural society.
We’re starting to break down a lot of the racial stereotypes. But there is still hatred and that’s what we have to tackle.
Bullet Boy deals with gun crime. To be honest, putting a young black man with a gun is often a stereotype which is very easy to put on a screen.
Instead of using these stereotypes, we should look further. It goes further than just being about gun crime.
It’s about hatred. It doesn't matter what gun you have in your hand. In your head, if you hate someone, that’s a very powerful thing.
Within The Plague, it’s doesn't seem like I’m settting up any stereotypes.
I’ve contextualised it with the society which we’re living in now. At the start, we see an image of Tony Blair and as he’s about to talk, we hear about the war in Iraq.
Even the Rastafarian character relates it to the Biblical Babylon city. He says you have to look round you, it’s everywhere, it’s Palestine, it’s McDonalds. It’s the arms trade.
I think that’s very important when dealing with hatred, racism and prejudice. When you deal with it on a local level, it is about how we treat each other as human beings.
When we look on it on a global level based on how we live, we can see that hatred is everywhere.
When we see how much money is spent on arms each year. When we go to war with Iraq, we turn on the TV and there’s the flag waving and the drum of war being beaten by the politicians to stir us up.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy within society in the way it’s set up. That’s what the word Plague means. It’s the vicious circle of hatred. Often, working class young black man with a gun is a very easy stereotype to attack.
At the end of the day, in poor working class areas, they don’t make guns, they don’t have the planes to fly in cocaine.
It’s the bigger issues. Sometimes the smaller elements are used to being picked upon. Mainstream society doesn't want us to turn round and actually contest why there’s so much hatred and why there’s this established conquering and dominating others.
That’s really what I wanted the film to contest. By looking at a street story of young guys growing up, I just felt it would be accessible to young guys growing up to see it and think this is a story which related to us.
They can look at the world around them and start to think for themselves.

Q. What were your formulative influences growing up? What were you reading?
A.
I’m a big Chomski fan. My middle name is Leon. Dad names me after Leon Trotsky. But I’m not a Marxist. I’ve always read politics, I try and read as much as possible.
I’ve just finished reading the Koran. I’ve read the Bible. I’m always reading books on philosophy. From childhood, I’ve never been attracted to one religion or one ideology.
As human beings, we should pick and choose what elements we find which are good to triumph and use all of them together to try and create a nicer world.
My next film is called Strangers in a Strange Land. It's a modern day love story. The main character is a nice middle class English woman who works 9-5, who meets an asylum seeker from Iran, who is a journalist.
He comes from a religious background based on the Ayatollah. It’s about these two different individuals coming together, finding their souls and their spirits amongst these backgrounds of religion and politics.
It’s set two years in the future, where there’s been a terrorist attack in King’s Cross. The Government has become even more right wing and brought in ID cards.
So it’s a projection of the future. And it has elements of Jesus walking the earth, a hippy from the Sixties who’s a librarian, who gets the kids to realise that instead of fighting each other on the estate, they should realise that they’re the ones actually being exploited.
By the end of the film all these elements come together and show resistense against the state, because they disagree with how right wing it’s becoming. It’s very much a projection of the future.
All filmmaking is biased. You manipulate footage. You are creating meaning. I’m very happy to acknowledge that, and I’ll openly say that my meaning is trying to contest a lot of the mainstream.
Hollywood cinema, which we’re often force-fed, is passive consumption.
People ask why do I have to be so serious. I go to the cinema because I like to escape reality. I turn round and say, ‘what does that say about reality’?
One of my favourite quotes is by George Orwell ,who when he was asked about Animal Farm, a journalist asked, ‘Do you think art and politics should always be together, or shouldn't you sometimes separate them'?
Orwell replied: "To even think that art and politics should be separate is itself a political thought."
And that’s always been my belief. And The Plague deals with certain themes but it does have a political context.

Q. Where do you see yourself in five years. Will you remain independent?
A.
At the moment I’m funding my second film with some money from the Katherine Clarkson Fellowship.
Ideally, I would like to have more money. At the moment, I have no money and I have the next few months to try and raise it. Benjamin Zephaniah has just commissioned me to do two videos for him after seeing The Plague.
I’ve also been commissioned for a project in 2007 for a musical festival which has been set up. The English National Opera has commissioned me with an opera composer, Steve Martland. I’ll work on that after my next film.
That’s how I see the next couple of years. I’m just trying to survive really. I’ve made no money from The Plague.
I used to teach media at South Thames College. I learned as much from the students as they did from me, that’s always been my philosophy on life.
None of us have the answer and we all learn from each other. It was a great experience but the workload was becoming too much so I left a month ago in order to fully commit to film-making. I can’t say where I’ll be.
I want my films to make an impact on people. A lot of the time culture is passed down to us by the advertisers, and the big corporations.
We’re given these very typical representations. What does it mean to a woman, a man? What does it mean to be black, white? All these images are passed down to us and often the reason behing them is to make money. I feel it’s important to contest that. To produce culture from the bottom up.
That’s something I’ve always believed in back to the stone age times when they would draw paintings on walls.
Culture and expression has always been the most vital thing. That’s why I’m very much about producing culture. Everyday culture reflecting life around me.
I always feel that culture can be so influential that we must be very careful about what we’re trying to say, why we’re trying to say it and what impact it will have as well.

Greg Hall’s The Plague will be screened on Friday, April 22 at the Rio Cinema Dalston.

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