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Emily James: a life in film

4.am at Stansted airport - a bitter April night back in 2008. The runway is deserted but for a group of activists who expertly cut through the perimeter wire and spill out onto a runway. Acclaimed filmmaker, Emily James, is amongst them, recruited to film activist organisation Plane Stupid’s takeover of Stansted airport runway. Her footage is breaking news for 24 hours and then replaced by the next story, camera reels consigned to history.

 

But Emily wanted something more. “I was so impressed by what the people that I met were doing. And I was also very aware that their story wasn’t being documented in any kind of comprehensive way.  So I went back to them and said ‘look if we filmed the planning around an action like this then I could make  a much longer film and that would have a longer shelf-life and reach a wider audience’.”

The answer was a resounding ‘no.’ “These guys are incredibly secretive about what they do - the idea that I could waltz in with a camera was… Emily trails off, shaking her head. “But I’m pretty stubborn so I kept at it.” It took months of negotiation.  She promised none of the footage would see the light of day until court cases were finished. That she would hide the footage somewhere only she knew and would not reveal the location even if injuncted. It worked. “It meant that my neck was on the line with theirs,” says Emily. “They came to trust me.”

Filming took place during the build up to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference: a summit commonly billed as the last chance saloon for halting the damage to the planet. Emily followed activists from groups including Climate Camp and Plane Stupid in the build up to the conference, documenting the clandestine planning and execution of public demonstrations - but had to compromise on her desire to focus on individuals. “I needed to balance the desire to have a strong storyline with the desire of those involved to not single anyone out. It was difficult - a film needs characters.”

Filming must have been incredibly gruelling? She nods: “I couldn’t ever go through what I went through on this film again. There were a number of times when it became difficult for me, personally and professionally, but I would look at [the activists] and what they were giving up. I felt that someone had to tell the stories of the people who get involved in environmental activism.”

The film, Just Do It,  was released in 2011 - two years after world delegates failed to reach a binding agreement at Copenhagen. Five years on, and Emily reflects on the impact that the failed conference had on the campaigners. “It’s been a rocky road for climate change activists. I think that the movement went through a dark period because Copenhagen was billed as the last chance to save humanity and it didn’t happen - we didn’t save humanity.” Do the activists she encounters believe their actions can make a difference? Emily hesitates...then concedes, “They understand that they are not going to change this momentous issue by putting their bodies in the way.”

In the male-dominated industry of film direction and production, Emily’s work becomes even more prominent. What does she think of recent statistics showing that just 9% of directors from the top 250 domestic grossing films in the US were female? To put it into context, that’s the same percentage as in 1998 - a statistic that comes as no surprise to Emily, who sadly notes  “We think we live in a post-feminism space but unfortunately the glass ceiling is very much in place.”

Emily has previously spoken about the difficulties of balancing motherhood with the demands of film-making. In an interview with Whicker’s World Foundation, in June 2016, she discussed the prejudice she faced for flying to Uganda on a 10 day film shoot: “I had everything arranged, [my son’s] grandmother was in town and my sister flew in to look after him. I was at a script reading for another project that I was exec-ing the day before I was leaving. I had to leave early and the producer said ‘Emily’s got to go, she’s going to Uganda on a shoot.’ And one of the writers piped up and said, “Don’t you have a small child? Don’t you have a baby?” And I said yes, but he’s seven months old, he’s fully weaned and his grandmother is looking after him, but I felt like I had to justify myself.”

“The male assistant producer that was coming on the shoot with me had four children, one of whom was the same age as my baby, and nobody said to him, “Don’t you have a small child?” No comments, nothing. As a woman, even if it’s just those little things where I feel I have to justify myself, I am being made to feel like I’m being a bad mother because I’m leaving my child for 10 days.”

Emily clearly feels critics question her ability to be both a mother and film maker. In the same interview she discussed the challenges of filming Just Do It, explaining, “I would go away for days at a time and live with the outlaws. I was shooting with them for a year, my son was around two and a half when I started, three and a half when I finished, which made it very difficult. I was lucky to have a partner who agreed with me that children should not affect my career any more than it should affect his.”

In light of the demands filming placed on Emily (and her private life), what does inspire her to uncover the grittiest, most demanding topics such as environmental activism? The answer, when she gives it, is simple and unapologetically driven: “I need to give some oxygen to their stories.”

 

Emily’s film Just Do It was screened at the #LushCreativeShowcase 2016. Find out more about the film here: http://justdoitfilm.com/

Read Emily’s full interview with Whicker’s World Foundation below:

https://whickersworldfoundation.com/2016/06/an-interview-with-documentarian-emily-james/

 

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