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Q&A with Stuart Gatt, writer and director of The Dead Sea - LSFF2017

Saturday 14 January 2017, by Anne-Sophie Marie

The Dead Sea, which screened on Thursday evening as part of LSFF’s Global Movements night at the Hackney Picturehouse, follows Emanuel and Olu who, after almost reaching Europe by boat, are returned to Libya and incarcerated in one of its infamous migrant detention centers.

Unable to meet up at the event, writer/director Stuart Gatt and I chatted online after the event. Here’s our Q&A below.

Mydylarama: What is your background and how does it relate to The Dead Sea?

Stuart Gatt: I’m a Londoner and was raised by my Indian Mother, who was an immigrant, so have always felt a deep connection to issues of immigration due to the fact my existence is so intrinsically linked to the phenomena. But with the specific issues depicted in the The Dead Sea of refugees fleeing Libya, I was writing as a European (my Father is white). The current state Libya finds itself in is directly linked to our invasion in 2011 to overthrow the Gaddafi government and we are now funding detention centres (to prevent refugees coming to Europe) that are responsible for the human rights abuses detailed in the film.

M: What’s inspired you to make the film? Since it’s based on true events, how did you hear about them? How did you then adapt them for film?

SG: The inspiration was definitely the demonisation of refugees in the corporate media. As a filmmaker, I feel that my art can be utilised to affect society enough to spark a debate or act as a countervailing force to mass media. The plight of Libyan Refugees and Migrant Detention Centres were virtually absent from the media narrative and I felt we could shine a light on them. The colonial mindset is still so deep-rooted that we are almost indifferent to the idea of invading another country that I felt it was only right that we see the brutal reality of what our actions have created.

We reached out to Medecins Sans Frontieres who really got behind the project and pushed our Kickstarter campaign out to their supporters. MSF also helped provide reports that detailed testimonies from those that have survived these camps. They are still some of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever read and I tried to be as true to their experiences as possible by not imposing my artistic licence. It was also a collaboration with the actors, by making as many resources as possible available to them, they were able to inhabit the characters in an authentic and honest way.

M: Where did you shoot?

SG: The film is set in Libya but was actually shot in Brixton! We had an amazing Production Designer in Lily Faith Knight who’s done an incredible amount of research into the look of the detention centres and meticulously recreated them. Creating an authentic environment was essential to evoke the right performances in the actors as well as sell it to an audience. Unfortunately our budget didn’t allow for a shoot outside of the UK.

M: Filming in closed spaces is often quite challenging. What was your process (and your DoP’s) to do this successfully?

SG: In general that is certainly a truism and even more so when using anamorphic lens, as we did for this film, although in this case it wasn’t such an issue as myself and DP Yann Maritaud discussed framing the actors intimately to add to the sense of claustrophobia. We also planned for minimal practical lighting, so even a flicker of light that picked up some detail on our actors skins was enough to sell their emotion.

M: There is one scene involving sexual assault which is incredibly effective, with very few words and no gruesome images. How did you conceive it?

SG: One disturbingly common theme among the testimonies of those incarcerated in the detention centres was the sexual abuse of women. Women had become objects to be used by their captors either for pleasure or as leverage to extort money, as in the scene in question. It’s not an easy decision as a filmmaker to include a scene like that but once you do, you’re totally committed to it and to ensure sure you can parlay as much of the emotion from the characters into the audience.

An audience’s imagination is far more powerful than any image I can muster. As a filmmaker you’re constantly trying to keep your audience engaged, the moment your film removes the ability for them to guess, think and feel, you’ve lost them. So I felt keeping the camera on the man who’s watching the guards rape his wife was more horrific than covering the act itself. I think it’s the main reason why that scene affects people the way that it does.

Again, full credit goes to Sope Dirisu, Yasen Atour and Joan Iyiola for their performances in that scene as they were nothing short of incredible.

M: Following up on question #5, your film made me wonder how a human being can show such brutality onto another. Have you thought of this, making The Dead Sea?

SG: It’s a very scary reality and one that is deep rooted in the human psyche. It seems that we are literally capable of anything if operating under some doctrine and that is particularly frightening as we are a heavily propagandised society. If we look at cases in history, a false sense of superiority over another people, coupled with a supposed righteous cause seem to be responsible for history’s worst acts. The European destruction and colonisation of Africa, Asia and the Americas fit perfectly within those parameters.

In the case of the guards in the film, I wanted to explore what creates this callous disregard for human suffering and not portray them as mindless torturers. I decided to write in the ‘Ahmed’ character, played by Harman Singh, who is new to the centre and struggling with the acts that are being asked of him. Everyone of the older guards has, at one point, been Ahmed and relied on various mechanisms to tolerate their continued heinous acts.

M: What’s next for The Dead Sea?

SG: The film will continue to screen at festivals and it will soon be released online. Keep up to date at www.6thif.com or follow us on twitter @6thif

M: What’s next for you?

SG: My next project will be a feature film based on a script I’ve written about a couple that are on the run in West Texas. That will shoot this year with a 2018 release date likely.

Any message or comments?

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