An Interview With Documentarian Emily James

Earlier this year Whickers World Foundation put out a survey with the aim of learning more about the cost of making a documentary in todays market. We wanted to get an up-to-date feel for what our top funding prize of £80,000 actually buys and where the pinch points are in the budget. An overwhelming conclusion emerged; 9 out of 10 of our 191 hearteningly frank respondents said that in order to get their films over the finish line they were either earning a pittance or nothing at all. The report based on the survey can be found here.

One of our respondents was the brilliant Emily James, an award winning documentary filmmaker who came to prominence 14 years ago with her genre busting documentary The Luckiest Nut in the World.

She told us: Orson Welles said that he wasted most of his life raising money to make films, and I feel like I definitely share that – if nothing else – with him. I feel that I could have made so many more really beautiful, amazing films if I hadn’t have spent 80 percent of my energy chasing the money to make them.

After reading through her insightful answers to our survey, we were keen to learn more and invited Emily James to meet us for a chat over lunch at the BFI cafe. She was energetically articulate about funding, juggling career and parenting and how young aspiring filmmakers might flourish in the industry despite the immense challenge.

Originally from the States, she read history and philosophical science at Cambridge University before going on to learn documentary film directing at the National Film and Television School. Emily James graduated from the NFTS in 2000.

After that working as a runner or bar staff was not an option. Her VISA status meant it was imperative she worked directing her own films or face deportation.

When I graduated from film school the only way I could work legally in the UK was to get a commission for a film that I had initiated and was the director on. I didnt have a visa that would allow me to do anything else. So I left film school with a very high goal – I had to get a commission. That was really big reach, but there were strands like Channel 4s Alt TV. It made me work really hard. I remember saying to people I don’t have a plan B

Fortunately no Plan B was needed. Channel 4 commissioned The Luckiest Nut in the World (2002) for Alt TV despite her being at odds with the format .

Alt TV had been on for quite a few years, and they had fallen into this pattern of showing authored films, which for them was the filmmaker on film telling personal stories about their family or something elsebut I didnt want to be in my films, I wanted to make a film about international trade liberalisation! You can imagine the open arm reception that I got,” James roars with laughter, But I just felt that was a very important thing that just wasnt being talked about.  Ironically, by flouting the format James unwittingly sparked a new one. Within a year of transmission Alt TV were awash with Luckiest Nut look-a-like proposals.

The Luckiest Nut in the World
The Luckiest Nut in the World

The Luckiest Nut in the World used humorous pastiche, music and animation to show how so called free tradecan trigger a downward poverty spiral in developing economies who depend on nut production. Cue depressed cashews, worried groundnuts and beleaguered brazils. Their stories are contrasted with the jolly peanut riding high in a stetson and spurs. He is happy because he knows America is protecting his profitability with trade tariffs  and subsidies. After seeing the film the Guardian described James as a genius. She admits she was completely blown away by the reception to the film, which came about when she heard Tony Blair say something that made her curious.

Tony Blair was prime minister at the time, and he kept making these speeches where he would say: the only way to save Africa is to liberalise trade and I would go: I don’t think thats true?

I mentioned it to a friend who worked at CAFOD and he said that hed just been in Mozambique and theyre having to shut down their cashew nut shelling plants as the World Trade Organisation was forcing them to take down the tariff systems. It was really clear that the people of Mozambique were suffering from these rules. I set out making that film with one goal in mind: that after watching it people would have learned enough about the situation to put question marks around certain assumptions.

From a creative point of view, the kind of thing that you hope to do as a filmmaker is to put something out into the world that then changes what people think is even possible with the form.

Despite its runaway success, her next commission did not drop into her lap. Far from it.

I graduated from film school in 2000, so thats 16 years, and the amount of time where Ive been in production, fully-funded and not in need of any more money for what Im working on would probably add up to five years.

In order to fund a feature documentary and pay everybody that works on it a proper wage youre already into millions of pounds,she says. The amount of time that it takes and the sort of people that you need to do that; the camera people, the editors, the sound people and the production support, it very very quickly adds up to a huge amount of money.

“I think we then auto-exploit ourselves when were in production. There are fixed costs that you cant really do that much about, but the thing that you can do something about is how much you pay yourself.

“Frequently I run into filmmakers who tell me that they pay their cameramen proper wages, they pay their editors proper wages and then I ask them how much they paid themselves.They will have paid themselves less than working in a pub. They paid themselves absolute subsistence wages.”

The financial blow is even greater for films that dont end up being made, James says, “For every one film that does, 20 or 30 where filmmakers have speculatively put in time and money to get a film to the stage where it may be able to gain funding, do not. If a film doesn’t go into production, there is no recoup on the time and money spent during the development stage.  So documentary makers actually spend very little time in production, they spend most of their time and effort seeking film funding.”

Emily James -centre- with Jane Ray -left- and Megan O'Hara -right- of the Whicker's World Foundation
Emily James -centre- with Jane Ray -left- and Megan O’Hara -right- of the Whicker’s World Foundation

As well as funding hurdles, James has also faced challenges as a working parent. She says shes “been fortunate” but that in general women are not given enough support as mothers and that this is a taboo subject in the industry.

The pressure is systemic, its societal, James explains. When we have children, we drift into different responsibilities and have to make different choices, and we don’t support women in the way that we should as parents and as mothers. I did it despite all of those barriers. I was taking development jobs that I never would have taken, but because it meant that it was 9-5, get- home-on-time-to-pick-him-up type jobs. I did work that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, some of which I didn’t enjoy.

In this way James has been able to to scrape enough of a wage to launch projects she is truly passionate about but it is still a struggle.

I shot a film about environmental direct action (Just Do It. A tale of Modern Day Outlaws: 2011) and 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, James explains. How she organised and protected her life whilst filming Just Do Itundercover became the undercurrent of a massively popular Ted Talk. In it she does not talk directly about her child but he is there in the subtext.

And yet despite striving to be 50/50,it didnt end up that way, in part because of the general assumption that a mother is always a childs primary carer.

For example, she explains, The school only calls me… they don’t call his dad when something goes wrong.  The doctors office calls me. Im the point of contact and its assumed that Im the primary carer. With that I think its incredibly difficult to balance being a mother with the needs of being a filmmaker.

The hypocrisy she meets is not from the school and surgery. Industry colleagues have exasperated her too. When her son was seven months old, James had planned to fly to Uganda for a 10 day shoot on a film.

I had everything arranged, she says.His 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 Emilys 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 hes 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 AP that was coming on the shoot with me had 4 children, one of whom was the same age as my baby, and nobody said to him Dont you have a small child?No comments, nothing. As a woman, even if its just those little things where I feel I have to justify myself, I am being made to feel like Im being a bad mother because Im leaving my child for 10 days.

The kind of societal pressures she faces disadvantages fathers too she says: I think that its something that men need to become more actively involved in changing rather than it continuing to be something that women exclusively have to shout about. Men are losing out in the whole equation as wellWhen co-parenting is a thing, everybody benefits from it; the children benefit, the men benefit and the women benefit. That is something that as a society, is something that we need to be pushing much harder for.

Photo courtesy of Emily James
Photo courtesy of Emily James

So how does she do it?

Tenacity and single-bloody-mindedness. I am very grateful that I am an incredibly stubborn person, not necessarily in the moment, but over the long haul. Once I decide that Im really going to set myself to do something, I just don’t give up. Its probably a character flaw as well as a benefit.

One of my mantras is this idea that the most sure-fire way to fail is to quit, because in the moment that youve quit, youve failed, by definition. As long as youve not quit yet, youve not failed!

The latest project she is busy not failingwith is about the online dark marketplace for illegal drugs called Silk Road. She had nearly finished when the money has run and whilst she is trying every avenue to plug the gap she says Im moving into doing this podcast, and then Im developing new ideas, everything Im doing is just filling the time in-between

It would be easy to assume from this that the last thing James wants to do is encourage others to join her at the water hole, but this is not the case at all. However she does advise prospective documentarians wait and mature a while.

Dont study film straight away,she says. Go and learn about the world, have some life experience and gain your confidence as a human being. Enrich yourself and then start figuring out what you want to talk about, then everything will come from there.

She also passed on some very practical financial advice given to her by one of her NFTS tutors.

One of the tutors said to me, Emily, you live a very frugal life right now as a student, and my recommendation is don’t change that. Don’t go out and get a job and then let your standard of living or cost of living to expand to meet whatever you can earn, because then youll be caught in this trap of needing to earn that much all the time.I listened to that advice and have continued through my life not to overspend and to live within my means as much as I possibly can. I design my life in a way that is in relatively low overhead in order to give myself the freedom to spend a lot of my time on my projects.

We had promised her a lunch in return for her pearls of wisdom. Helping us to live by her own low cost mantra Emily James chose the simplest salad on the menu and sipped tap water. Lettuce leaf poised thoughtfully she said she had thought long and hard about agreeing to go public about the pressures shes under but once she decided to give her time, she gave it generously because One of the things that documentaries does amazingly well is give people a window into a world that they couldn’t see for themselves. Documentary can deliver that to people, educate them, stretch them, and change them.

As she was about to leave she swung round and gave a massive hug. Thats when we realised. Shes tiny. Her verve, commitment and sparkling intellect fill a room, but physically shes as small and smart as a nut. And the world is luckier for her.

Emily Jamesfilmography

As director
Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-day Outlaws (2011)
Battle for Broadway Market (2007)
Dallas in Wonderland (2007)
Dont Worry (2004)
The Luckiest Nut in the World (2002)
A Brief History of Cuba in D Minor (2000)
Wag the Dogma (1999)

As producer
The Age of Stupid (2009)
The Great Relativity Show (2006)
What Would Jesus Drive? (2004)

Words by Jane Ray