Interview: director Kanchi Wichmann

Kanchi Wichmann, director of 'Break My Fall'. Photo: Kerry Simmons

(First published by So So Gay Magazine)

July sees the release in UK cinemas of director Kanchi Wichmann’s debut feature film. Break My Fall is a four-day glimpse into the disintegrating relationship of two lesbians, Liza (Kat Redstone) and Sally (Sophie Anderson),whose East London lives have become a head-pounding blur of dead-end jobs, raves and girl-bands. It’s an exciting time for the filmmaker, who I meet in a carelessly chic cafe near her home in Hackney Wick. But when I ask her to elaborate on why she feels that Break My Fall has had a positive reaction from straight and gay male audiences during its festival previews but a more mixed reception from some lesbians, a shadow of frustration crosses her face.

‘I think straight audiences and gay men are better able to watch it just as a film about two people who are in a relationship that they can’t make work,’ she says, after a pause. ‘Although it has some funny moments, it’s a sad film. But for some reason, none of the gay festivals will promote it like that. To get bums on seats, they’re marketing it as this cool, hipster film about the East London lesbian scene. But there are only two lesbians and their best friends are boys!’

‘My whole point was to write about two women isolated from the scene, who don’t feel that they fit in or belong to it. Maybe if they did, they wouldn’t have gotten into the mess they find themselves in. So I sort of regret the way that the film’s been promoted sometimes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had a fantastic response from a lot of women, who love the film, but it’s bringing some people for the wrong reasons.’

This isn’t because Wichmann fights shy of the ‘queer film’ label. An open lesbian, she’s happy for Break My Fall to be categorised as a gay flick because ‘it’s such a tiny landscape, the world of gay cinema,’ that it would ‘feel like a big betrayal if I made a film that had no gay storyline whatsoever.’ What she’s found difficult is the pressure brought by such pre-publicity to be responsible for more than just the story she wants to tell. To illustrate this, she tells me about a woman who came up to her after the film’s screening at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (LLGFF) and angrily informed her that she’d been expecting ‘lesbians being really cool’ instead of something that reminded her of her last break-up.

‘In the end, once I’d explained that I didn’t write the brochure and that this was the film I’d wanted to make, it was fine. We had a good chat. But it is a source of frustration. All these women are really angry with me!’ Wichmann laughs despairingly.

But the fact that Break My Fall touched such a raw nerve is testament to Wichmann’s commitment to making a film that would strike a realistic note. ‘One of my actors, Sophie Anderson, described it in an interview as though someone just got a camera and stuck it through someone else’s window for three days’, she tells me, evidently pleased. Her mantra of ‘one person, one vision’ goes hand in hand with a fierce belief in emotionally-honest storytelling and an aversion to clichés – to such an extent that she even mocks herself, as a filmmaker, for sitting in a trendy cafe and ordering a bowl of granola and a decaf coffee while I scoff down a huge sandwich.

Wichmann originally conceived of Break My Fall as a short film about two girls who have a massive row one afternoon while their friends do nothing to help. This scenario struck her as true to life. ‘I kept thinking about this idea of a relationship where things go really wrong and no one says anything. Because I find, often, in films or TV, everyone gets involved, don’t they? But in reality, my experience is that when people are having a crisis other people don’t really step in.’

Although Wichmann had written the film as a short, ‘it always felt more like a feature that was compressed’. She found herself wanting to spend more time with the characters and their lives. ‘I wanted to explore the emotional experience of loving someone and not being able to make it work, but not being able to let go. That was the core, I guess. What happens with all that energy when you can’t walk away?’

Once she’d settled the thorny issue of money – she and her crew dug deep to fund the film themselves – Wichmann turned her attention to the crucial issue of casting. In the event, serendipity played the biggest role. ‘I met Kat, who plays Liza, at a yard sale. I went over to her and said, “Hey, can you act?” and amazingly she’d just done an acting course and was in a band in real life. Sophie had also done an acting course.’

‘I hate the word “organic” but everything fitted together so naturally. We never thought, “Ooh, let’s make this grungy and get someone from Skins.” There were all these funny connections and layers. Everyone brought with them a story that fitted the world we were trying to create.’

This blurring of off- and on-screen life, of rooting a narrative in a particular time and place, is extremely important to Wichmann, who has ‘always written stuff set in a world I know.’ It manifests itself in everything from her choice of predominantly London-based bands for the film and its soundtrack – ‘I went to people I knew or friends of friends’ – to the clothes that the girls wear. And, as Wichmann explains, it’s there in the East End streets that form Break My Fall’s backdrop.

‘I set it in Hackney because that’s where I live, that’s my world. I also think it’s quite a cinematic neighbourhood. Maybe it’s because it’s my area and I know it, but I haven’t walked around Hampstead or Camden and felt the same desire to get out a camera and film things. The location is almost like another character in the story, I guess. It has its own mood and atmosphere; its own visual language. There’s also a certain kind of underground scene depicted in the film that I don’t think is going to exist there for much longer. I think my film style is quite artistic documentary in that sense.’

‘Documentary’ and ‘DIY’ are words that crop up a lot when Wichmann talks about her approach to filmmaking. For her, the techniques she used to make Break My Fall were as essential as anything else in creating a truthful piece of cinema. ‘I don’t just get a camera and make some stuff happen in front it. Everything about the way I work should inform the end product. The story’s about two girls in a band, with no money, living in a shabby flat. So we shot on film rather than video. I wanted a DIY, lo-fi and retro process rather than just putting “gritty” people in front of a camera.’

Wichmann’s desire to produce something unique also meant ditching the screenwriting rule-book. ‘Break My Fall isn’t structured like a conventional feature, where in the first ten minutes you’re supposed to set up a conflict to be resolved,’ she tells me. ‘I loved Beautiful Thing when it came out, but I re-watched it recently and it’s so traditional, isn’t it? It’s really sweet, but it literally follows every rule I’ve ever been taught, to the letter. I guess that making it like a fairytale was their point, but if you replaced one of those boys with a girl there’d be nothing unusual about that film.

‘So I broke almost every rule with Break My Fall, which maybe makes it less comfortable to watch because your expectations aren’t being met; but the payoff, I think, is that it’s more believable and realistic. It has a very different atmosphere to a lot of other films.’

However, Wichmann reveals, breaking with convention did have its challenges. ‘We had to work really hard, me and the two girls. I took them to a club and we acted out the first night their characters met. We went crazy and created this whole life-story. Because, the thing is, when you first meet them, it’s already gone wrong. It’s fucked up. And the film only takes place over three to four days. So we had to work really hard at making the idea that they’d had this beautiful love believable.’ When I suggest that other films would probably have done this with a flashback, she laughs. ‘Yeah, maybe that would have been the way to go. What we did worked really well, though. We enjoyed it.’

After Break My Fall has been sent into the big wide world, Wichmann will devote her time to another feature that she’s written. ‘It’s called Normal Love and we’re putting together a package to get funding for it. We’ve already met with a few production companies and producers and had some positive responses’, she tells me. ‘It’s a crazy mother-daughter story set in a seaside town. It’s funny, because while Break My Fall is quite sad and heavy, Normal Lovehas this manic, silly, dark comedy energy. So I feel a bit schizophrenic at the moment.’

By this point, I’ve pretty much licked my plate clean and Wichmann has eaten as much granola as she can stomach. The afternoon is advancing and it’s time to wrap up the interview. What, I ask, does she hope that audiences uninfluenced by press releases and festival blurbs will get out of Break My Fall? She sits back in her seat and considers the question. After a minute, she replies thoughtfully: ‘The best feedback I’ve had is from people who’ve felt that there’s an emotional authenticity to the film; that you’re seeing women you don’t ordinarily see in British cinema.’

‘So I hope that people will appreciate the art and naturalism of it, feel an emotional connection with it and not expect it to be some queer-punk version of the L Word.’

Break My Fall will be featured at Outfest 2011 on 10 July and is on general release in UK cinemas from 22 July. It is distributed by Peccadillo Pictures UK.