Thursday, 18 October 2012
I'm no stranger to mountain life (having spent two winter seasons in Chamonix), but I am unacquainted with the mountainous regions of Southern France, without that familiar dusting of snow.
Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I set off for Nice on a Sleazy Jet flight - destination: an apartment in La Brigue, a charmingly rustic village, close to the Italian boarder, north of the city.
As I've experienced many times in the past: reaching the mountains is no mean feat - that's why they're never densely populated. Life is hard beyond 1,000 ft.
Nothing gets the heart pumping more fervently when you're just clicking into holiday-mode and a seemingly minor faux pas quite significantly threatens your plans. In retrospect taking the laissez faire attitude on day one was a mistake: especially when you've only got one train service option that day, and the ticket office has a queue that would rival one at any UK Post Office during the week leading up to Xmas!
Jolted out of holiday-haziness by this distressing sight, I jumped on a much smaller queue for a ticket machine close by and nervously navigated the menus knowing that one wrong move could make the difference between shelling out for a hotel room in the city or claiming our pre-paid apartment in the mountains.
With a minute to spare we raced to the furthest away platform and claimed some seats literally as the departure whistle screeched out.
With two hours to regain our composure, we sank into comfortable train upholstery and bathed in the glorious scenery beyond the glass: interlocking mountain ranges, ravines and topsy-turvy dwellings clinging to rocks like sandy-coloured barnacles.
La Brigue proved to be a well-positioned base that presented us with the opportunity for many adventures, and a trainline that offered access to the varying terrains of an Italian ski resort (Lemone), the cote d'azure coast line and a menagerie of ancient French towns/cities. I say well-connected - but actually when the train is your only route out of the village (north and south) - you have to be astute to it's sensitive disposition and live by the timetable like a geeky university fresher.
Our apartment had two balconies - one of which opened onto the village square: the hub of the place, where dogs and drinkers and market stalls popped up at peak times during the week. There were four restaurant options (only one of which we were successful in sampling as the others either gave us 'no room at the inn' gestures or appeared to be open only on very special occasions), which was initially frustrating (for city dwellers far too used to having everything on tap within a half-mile radius), but encouraged us to become dependable on the local produce and cook our own takes on authentic cuisine. (Dauphinoise Potatoes, garlic chicken and lashings of cheese smeared veg).
A wood burner provided us with evening entertainment... to fall asleep watching the flames licking at the glass was a delightful alternative to a flatscreen TV. La Brigue was as quiet as quiet can be - though the day the fountain outside our apartment wasn't flowing really indicated a new level of noise-redundancy. It was a welcome retreat, but again, took a bit of time to adjust to after spells of manic work life in Bristol and London over the last six months.
We quickly got to grips with our surroundings - trekking around the hinterland, collecting wild-growing herbs, chestnuts and kindling on our rambles. On one of our walks up the valley, a group of old farmers were gathering apples from an orchard and one garçon kindly gave us a couple of handfuls - saying they were strictly only for cooking with. I baked them later that night, their waxy texture complimenting a locally-sourced honey, oozy, melty creme fraiche and a dusting of nutmeg. A simple delight tasting all the more sweet for the good-natured gesture behind their appearance on our table.
On another ramble back from Tende (ten minutes on the train, two hours or so by foot!), during the descent to La Brigue lingering tentatively around 1,500 ft, we very surprisingly met two people on ponies - the sound of their hooves scraping the rocky terrain reached us long before their physical form appeared. A salt-of-the-earth man (sans helmet), led confidently - (though the ponies' laboured breathing and foaming flanks signaled a turbulent mood), followed by a slightly nervous-looking young lady - also sans protection.
We joked somewhat tentatively about them being very brave for attempting this climb when we were tentatively planning our every step and we only had two feet to coordinate. Several minutes later we heard the clatter of hooves again, which I thought signaled more ponies coming up. I was quite wrong. What we saw was a rider-less pony wildly jolting and jerking down the mountain - nostrils flared and drenched in sweat. On approaching us, it whinnied loudly and tried to pass.
Flummoxed and worried, I tried to grab the mangled reins, but the pony kept prancing around. There was a ruin of a shack close to us, with the walls still intact, so I thought that maybe we should coax the pony in there until we could reunite it with the owner. Several tentative moments passed during which my boyfriend successfully grabbed the reins, and got flung around as the pony began to settle and we tried to calm it.
I waited around the corner to see if I could see the owner or hear any sign of distress. Shortly after, the man who'd been leading earlier came charging down on his pony, shouting in indistinguishable French. I admit that my basic knowledge of the French language has waned, and faltered even more in this stressful situation. He leveled with us, shouted more, gestured for us to give him the reins, jumped off the pony, grabbed both ponies and continued to run down the mountain with the ponies tumbling clumsily close to him.
We were rather shocked and felt perplexed as to how we could help the situation. I presumed that the man was going down to raise an alarm for the poor girl who presumably had fallen off the pony, and to tether the loose ponies somewhere in the village. We carried on our descent, and were surprised to see the man talking to someone on the road - the loose horse still roaming the grassy area close to the footpath. He was gesticulating - I guess to raise the alarm, then disappeared up the mountainside again on his pony.
It was a strange situation - we don't know what happened to the girl or the loose pony. I suppose the ponies are used to the mountain terrain, but they're also wild creatures, and why wouldn't you wear protection when embarking on such a precarious activity?
After a few days of challenging hiking and mountain biking - we treated ourselves to some city/beach leisure time - closer to civilization and simple luxuries such as supermarkets and bars that give you complimentary bread sticks and chips with your order. Villefranche-sur-Mer was my firm favourite beach town, reminding me of a scaled-down Barcelona with a much more idyllic and clean beachfront. The mid-october sunshine was warm enough to tempt us into the sea several times - definitely warranting an ice cream of the nutty variety as a reward.
Another sparky idea was hiring the marvelous 'Velo-bleu' bikes dotted around Nice, a scheme very similar to Boris's Bikes in London. The purchasing of a membership card was comically over-complicated, but once the account was set up in the transport centre, we couldn't help but maximize the service to whizz around the city - including the beach promenade (dodging bladers, runners and doddery tourists) all the way along to the airport and the seaport busting with bling yachts at the opposite end. We probably got a bit too carried away, as the bikes' rather ruddy three-gears certainly couldn't cope with the hills beyond the port, but we covered a lot of ground regardless and were pleased with the accessible and plentiful drop-off points for our weary steeds.
My other stand-out destination was a sleepy village called Saorge, perched, nay clutching onto the side of a south-facing mountainside that glistened gold when viewed in the early morning light the first time we were alerted to the existence of the village by an excited local on one of our numerous train journeys down the valley. I only wished we'd discovered Saorge a day earlier. Wednesdays seem to be a ghost-town day. Reading the tourist board on entry to the village we got excited by the prospect of a honey producer, butcher, plentiful dining options, a few bars and a cafe. Bingo!
However, after a diligent search through the narrow streets - the only establishments actually open were a small cafe and its adjoining gift shop. Having not eaten anything since breakfast (it was now 3.30pm, and we'd also failed at finding food in the village across the other side of the railway line), the cafe looked like mecca and there was a menu board outside that suggested that they sold sandwiches. Actual sandwiches, with about four fillings to choose from!
We confidently ordered a pan bagnet and a fromage et gambon in French, along with coffee and tea. The ethereally elegant lady who took our order said it simply was not possible to order sandwiches - why hadn't we phoned to make an order? There was nothing on the menu to signal the transaction she so fervently insisted was 'de rigueur'. We were flummoxed. Maybe the tea would come with a complimentary biscuit that would keep our appetites under control till dinner?
We waited with baited breath. The lady popped her head round the door frame and said something like, 'I've managed to order your sandwiches... they will arrive soon... though you should have phoned first.' Where were the sandwiches being made? Would they arrive before we needed to get the last train back up the valley?
In the meantime out beverages arrived. What a delicious sight: gorgeous china wear from a bygone era, tea in a massive pot complete with one of those contraptions that stops the leaves escaping into the water. Our cups were large, and perched on the side of my coffee cup was a petite homemade biscuit, and next to my boyfriend's teacup nestled a rather generous slice of honey cake (probably sourced from the honey shop just opposite - where we purchased a jar of chestnut-infused nectar and some hazelnut praline about half an hour previously).
The spread on our table looked so magnificent I had to take some photos. Saorge felt magical: verging on the edge of humanity - and this otherness was also reflected in the sublime-tasting produce. Our sandwiches were soon delivered by a local man, who then stopped in for some tea. Definitely the best sandwich I'd tasted all holiday: a fishy, crusty ensemble oozing with oil, herbs and juicy tomatoes. Such a shame we had to make a dash for the train and that the bar next door was closed - we both agreed that had it been open, we'd stay for some drinks and sample the enticing array of tarts listed on their specials board.
On our last day we woke late to a rather cloudy skyline - the first during our holiday. Determined to make the most of it, we got on the train to Limone - a ski resort just two stops (through a very long tunnel) from La Brigue. A picturesque town only tainted by the fact that it was also a ghost town (inter season), and that the ski lifts were closed, but as the cloud wasn't lifting - we weren't too miffed.
We soon found a trendy cafe bar in the centre and I sank a few espressos laced with Amaretto to give me the energy to hike. The rather forlorn man in the tourist info centre (I suppose he had every right to be forlorn - being posted there to give info to people during the quietest time of the year) gave us a map and suggested a fairly short walk we could do that gives a good view of the resort at higher altitude. We set off and snaked through a wooded pathway that sadly illustrated a disturbing imbalance between abandoned chalet construction and natural beauty.
We reached the top following a rather quaint sequence of wooden signs with lemons depicting our chosen route, and settled with a bottle of cider - making sandwiches from our various scraps of cheeses, hams and pate. We hadn't passed a single soul. After our picnic we took the same route down and tried to find the ski lift station, to see if it might be worth making a return trip once the winter snow had made an appearance.
There were some good accommodation and ski pass combo offers in a brochure we picked up, but it's so hard to tell if the resort would be worth coming to if the place doesn't have that seasonal buzz about it when you're actually there.
Slaves to the train timetable, we waited for our final locomotive to arrive at La Brigue, 6:30am the following day. Uh oh, it's late. Not late enough to warrant panic, but enough to know we had to be on-guard during our change at Ventimiglia. That was fine, and we had enough time to grab a quick takeaway Italian style coffee, to go with our honey-covered croissants.
On arrival at Nice train station, I was desperate to find a toilet, so as my boyfriend went to join the queue for the airport transfer, I ran onto the platform to find the facilities. As I ran along, I saw some familiar faces. Not familiar faces from real life - but faces from the movies. And they were making a movie right at that exact moment. It was Jude Law and Richard E Grant, and the scene was one of the first for a movie coming out next year called Dom Hemingway. I didn't know that at the time - I only really realised it was a movie set as I clocked the director and started noticing people beyond with ear-pieces as well as a white Rolls Royce parked round the side, which I'm presuming was for the characters' getaway.
It was such a surreal encounter - I really hope I didn't interrupt the scene with my scruffy, end-of-holiday attire and manically contorting 'busting-for-the-loo' face. There was nothing holding the general public back, so I guess they didn't want to call attention to the production by cordoning off the platform.
I was so tempted to stick around, talk to one of the loitering techies/runners and find out more about the production - but we had a plane to catch. Emerging from the toilets I tried to walk past again - as nonchalantly as possible this time. I came out of the station grinning like a lunatic, bursting to tell my boyfriend about my first proper 'movie set' experience.
I know there's loads of waiting around and epic ego-clashing intrinsically linked with drama production, but that fateful day I walked into two A list actors' bubble for a fleeting moment, and I liked it very much.
Thursday, 17 May 2012
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Monday, 27 February 2012
Sunday, 5 February 2012
Saturday, 4 February 2012
Monday, 23 January 2012
I've just watched the final version of a fantastic short documentary I worked on a few months ago, Brave Face, centring on a diverse group of young people affected by the summer riots in Edmonton and Tottenham. Watch the film here: http://www.mypockets.co.uk/braveface.htm
The film was funded by First Light, produced by Somerset Film (who I've freelanced for many times over the last few years) and directed by award-winning writer/director, Pete Snelling (who mentored a training scheme I attended at Somerset Film a couple of years ago).
I'd heard that Somerset Film had been awarded funding to make a film about young offenders, thought it sounded like a fantastic project and wondered how I might get involved. A month or so later, I happened to bump into Pete Snelling at Somerset Film - where I was doing a bit of freelance admin, and I inquired about the First Light film project. A week later, Pete called me to ask if I was free to production assist on the project, which was now going to be two films - one about young offenders in Bridgwater and another about the affects of the summer riots in Edmonton, North London.
I wholeheartedly agreed to both, not knowing quite what to expect, but cherishing the chance to work with such a prolific director and on such topical subject matter. The first week's shoot was in Bridgwater, predominantly working with a small group of young offenders living in a residential centre. The teenagers here had very damaged lives, and many were in the persistent cycle of reoffending and dodging meeting with their case workers in favour of escaping from themselves in drink, stealing and taking drugs.
The aim of First Light films is to interact with kids, making them the subject and production crew of the films, so that they learn new media techniques and tell their stories to a wider audience. It's a very interesting concept, as you really get to know the participants and it's quite a reflective/thearaputic process for them - to be talking about these major incidents that have shapes their young lives. I honestly warmed to them, they dropped their guards easily and got into the production process with great enthusiam. An opportunity for them to be creative and kept busy - temporarily kept away from the daemons that so often encroached.
The groups stories were exceedingly harrowing - damage done at a young age carrying through and often building into their adolescent lives. We recorded their voices only, as a lot of the stories involved evidence of current offences which might get them into trouble with court hearings and such. So, Pete came up with the novel idea to film the group from everywhich angle except for head-on visually. We used a 'Toddy-cam' (wooden 'a' frame structure on which the camera is mounted at one end and then the participant holds the other end, so that you get a fluid movement and a feeling of being a part of them without any juddering) to film them getting on with everyday things like rolling a cigarette and walking to the shops.
Although the kids were completely receptive to us, letting us in to their lives and engaging so well with the project; there was a sense of doom - that not many of them were ready to attempt to give up their vices - though a lot of it was circumstantial. There was only one boy who genuinely seemed repentant for what he'd done, and had quit the drink, drugs, and thieving. He was in the midst of reconnecting with the family he'd lost for many years, and getting back into horse racing - a passion he grew up with. The others either didn't seem to care, or were simply too damaged or failed by their caseworkers/families to want to change.
I truly believe that no one is born bad, and I wanted to believe that this group of kids would all come through in the end - but with such a mixture of pressures baring down on them, it's easy to see how these cycles of offending reoccur. This week was a challenging time for us, harrowing and heartwrenching but hopefully the film will show not just the negative things that they've done, but focus on why they have got to this dark place and how they can get out with the right kind of support.
I don't think that staying in a residential centre like that (living with a mixture of offenders and non-offenders) is totally productive, but when they have been ousted by their families (or its simply too dangerous for them to live at home), where else is it safe for them to live? One of the centre's managers came across as a beacon of hope, a very positive influence on the residents, though he despaired of their behaviour sometimes, he's one of our society's unsung heroes - just being so accommodating to us - realising that these kids need a voice, from the ground, to make the people with their heads in the clouds hear these voices and make changes for all sorts of social issues. With all the cuts to public services... if people like him are stretched even further beyond their means... they'll loose even more of the valuable time that they put in with these kids, and then who will guide them?
It was quite a different story at the youth centre in Edmonton, near Tottenham, where we shot the second film. With the same intentions, and same set up, we engaged with a massive group of kids (ranging this time from the ages of 7 to 17) who were all keen to tell their stories and although the subject matter (the summer riots) could have been much more contentious - their outlook was positive and inspirational. This group were part of a youth club run predominantly by young volunteers determined to keep their community off the streets and away from the threatening reaches of the local gangs. Such passion and proudness was evident here that it was initially hard to believe that their lives were marred by death and violence at a very immediate level. It's places like this youth centre that are the advocates of the social system - will they ever get the recognition they deserve, or will the government cuts stunt their progress?
Many of the kids that attend this centre three nights a week are damaged by a plethora of conflicting social and personal daemons, but at least they are safe when they join together and use their time productively - they will literally do anything to stay away from the gang-related crimes that are so prevalent in that area.
It was such an eye-opening experience to hear a bunch of under-ten's talk about a friend getting stabbed and killed just a street away from where most of them live, and to witness first-hand the turmoil they face if they're seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. I literally couldn't believe that kids that age are afraid to cross over the street in case they're caught up in a gang-related fray. I had such an idyllic childhood - it put a lot in perspective for me to hear these stories - the youngest ones are old beyond their years as they've had to grow up so quickly in order to avoid the troubles that surround them. Who knows if they'll survive to pursue their dreams (most of the boys want to be footballers). It would be interesting to go back in a year or so and see what has changed.
There was a feeling of hope in Edmonton which contradicted the general reputation of the area. Such a close-knit community revolving around the youth centre - it felt like an extended family - an extension of a living room, complete with table tennis, a Wii, massive TV and walls plastered with photos of activities and fun days out. There's even a music studio, which was in constant use the entire time we were shooting there, and where the soundtrack to the film was produced. Such a hotbed of talent waiting to be acknowledged.
None of the youngsters we worked with were directly involved with the riots but their lives have been inadvertently shaped by the reporting and invasion of the press eager to put faces to crimes committed during the summer. We could have found people more directly affected, or involved but we realised it was more important to focus on the positive aspects.
These kids are escaping difficult home/street lives and the youth centre provides them with a safe haven, a place where they can be children and enjoy the company of others from a multitude of ethnicities and ages. The staff (mostly unpaid) are loyal to their people - most also grew up in the area and strongly believe they are making a difference but also show their concern for the centre's future.
Both film projects tackle issues at the forefront of our society's consciousness, I sincerely hope the films get carried far and wide, and spark debates on a higher level. The young people we worked with have had a profound effect on me, I hope they can grow to be what they want to be in safety and happiness.
Everyone deserves a chance, but circumstance is a heavy burden.
Please watch here now: http://www.mypockets.co.uk/braveface.htm