My Childhood, My Country – Awards News

Where to start? What a last few days it has been. And indeed what a year we have all had since I last wrote a blog. Are we out of Covid yet? It certainly doesn’t feel like it. Mask on, mask off. 1 in 50 Brits have it – including two of my own colleagues. But if there is one thing you can rely on it’s that Seventh Art keep on doing what we do which, no matter what, is to make and distribute documentaries. We have navigated the choppy waters of the Coronavirus well enough, and have made some super films nevertheless – such as RAPHAEL REVEALED, FRIDA KAHLO, SUNFLOWERS, and, most recently, THE DANISH COLLECTOR.  But, without question, our biggest achievement is that we finished a film that I genuinely thought at various times was impossible: MY CHILDHOOD, MY COUNTRY – 20 YEARS IN AFGHANISTAN.

What a wonderful stamp of approval. These are two excellent festivals, very much respected. The competition to get in is fierce and to actually win is simply fabulous.

It was also such a treat to actually watch the films with an audience. They loved it – indeed in Valladolid, they gave it a long standing ovation which left me rather embarrassed. Of course it not me that is moving people – it is Mir and his life story. My co-director Shoaib Sharifi and I certainly have had a very tough journey making this film – and there are others I have to point out in a moment who were absolutely essential – but it is Mir who has lived and struggled, persisted and laughed his way through two decades in that extraordinary, and extraordinarily tough, country.

I can think of various moments 2 or 3 years ago when I thought we simply had to cancel the whole thing. Barely any funding, difficulties in filming, and various other issues. A few deep breaths, a few last gasp attempts, and an extraordinary Head of Production in my wife Amanda who somehow just kept the whole thing moving steadily forwards.

Let me though point out a few others who were critical to this production. Without Amanda, as I mentioned, there would not have been the first film never mind the second nor third. Without Clive, the editor, I don’t know what we would have but it wouldn’t be this – or we’d have simply stopped. If anyone wins an individual award for this film, it should be him.  Working with snatches of footage that would arrive from Kabul (and needed transcribing, translating, subtitling before he could even start with it) was such a task. But it was the ability to hold multiple stories in his hands, moving them steadily along with a cinematic feel, an emotional cloak and an intellectual drive, lightly delivered so our audience would not be overwhelmed or confused; that ability is what makes Clive a great editor.

Then I have to thank the one commissioning editor who had faith in this film. Jutta Krug from WDR Germany. I couldn’t get a UK broadcaster, nor (still) a US one. Even reliable friends from the past would not commit up-front when I needed them most. Now, of course, they are all showing it. That’s great but we needed your support 5 years ago…  Jutta, though, was there from the start and never wavered – even when we went quiet and she had other film-makers banging on her door, including those with other Afghan ideas. But she always said: I trust Phil and his is the only Afghan film I am backing. I can’t tell you how much that meant and means. More than that, though, she was never content until the film was as good as she thought it could be. She watched every cut carefully and gave her notes with care and authority – even when it meant more hard work on our part. Jutta, without you, this film would never have won these two prizes this week and, more importantly, would not be bringing Mir’s life, his family’s life, and a unique inside look at Afghans and Afghanistan to a worldwide audience. I would also like to thank an ex-colleague of hers, Sabine Rollberg, who was also always a staunch defender of our work and I doubt this film would exist were it not for her steely moral core that motivated her to help us, against all sorts of obstacles. Broadcasters need to find such commissioning editors and support them through thick and thin. I would suggest it has become less true than it was 20 years ago. It’s a great shame because TV remains so hugely important in moulding the society we live in.

Mel Bradley has been such a brilliant colleague – always enthusiastic and insightful, and a wonderful help finding archive and asking the right questions. Angela and everyone at Seventh Art are simply top class – and time and again prove themselves with modesty and calm. Then the team at The Edit who oversaw the complicated post production, and Asa who did the score, and many others on this long journey who have helped. But, above all, I want to express profound thanks to one person: my co-director Shoaib Sharifi.

How he and I met is a remarkable story.

Little did I know that when I was first filming in Bamiyan, there was also a young Afghan filmmaker and journalist in town. Our paths never crossed, though I did once (by accident) film a car he was travelling in (a shot that is actually in the final film). It wasn’t until I hosted a screening in 2004 of the first film, ‘The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan’, at the superb Frontline Club in London that I met him. He stood up at the end of the film and said” ‘I know that family too’.  And indeed he did.  Some coincidence. I got talking to him and quickly saw in him something special. I am always questioning myself, and sometimes lack a bit of confidence in my own abilities, but I do sometimes make great choices in who I work with. This was one such moment: Shoaib has over the past 15 years proved himself again and again a wonderful film-maker, a wonderful friend and a wonderful human being. Without him there is no film. Simultaneously he rose to presenting and producing other films – including 2 BBC Panaromas about Afghanistan.  More than that, he became first, the voice of BBC Persia (and thus recognised by just about every Afghan) and then the Kabul station chief for the BBC with hundreds working for him. He remains in Kabul with no intention of leaving the country he loves so dearly. It was such a shame he could not be in Cologne or Valladolid but there are no commercial flights out at the moment but I hope there will be other occasions for him to attend and receive the applause he deserves.

So, what does one do next? Well, my number one objective is to get a channel in the USA to show it. So maybe these awards will help. Let’s see.

As for Mir, well, he is staying calm in Kabul and adapting as best he can to the changed circumstances. Every day, little snippets of news emerge from Afghanistan and it is hard to form a complete picture just yet.

For more information about the film visit: www.mychildhoodmycountry.com




The other day, while recording my upcoming podcast series with my pal Laura, she mentioned a painting in the Louvre which I had no recollection of. She pointed out that it is in the same room as the Mona Lisa and that it is absolutely massive. I’m not one to feel embarrassed at not remembering a painting and I told her I had to look this one up.  And I’ll be honest: even when I saw it in some of my reference books, it didn’t resonate. I simply had never come across it before.

The artist Veronese (1528 – 1588) sits with Titian and Tintoretto as one of the three great Venetian artists of the 16th century. He is known for his large-scale paintings – often for walls and ceilings. The Wedding Feast at Cana is one such painting. It was commissioned by the Benedictine monks at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore who wanted to decorate their refectory wall with a painting of the sumptuous feast that Christ is reported to have attended at Cana. It is there that, famously, Christ turned water into wine. A miracle that many have wished they could replicate in the centuries thereafter…

The Benedictine monks lived on the island opposite Saint Mark’s, and this was at a time when Venice was an extremely wealthy empire. Hence the commissioning of great artworks. It was an empire based on its sea-faring expertise and its trading acumen. That vast income helped to build what is still today one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

In the painting, Galilee has become an Italian Renaissance townscape at the heart of which we see a very active and crowded wedding feast under way. Christ naturally sits at the centre alongside his mother and his disciples. Nearby sit Benedictine monks and local nobility. Many are no doubt portraits of actual people. The choice of depicting this miracle may owe something to Venice’s own experiences with wine and water. Throughout history water has been known to cause illness and people have chosen to drink beer or wine instead. Venice, as a small flat island with only sea-water canals, had a particular problem accessing fresh water and relied on collecting rainwater. Food, at the same time, again as throughout history, was a demonstration of wealth. The vast percentage of the world’s population were focused on the cultivation and preparation of food – and to have a lavish feast showed the world you were rich beyond most people’s dreams. Thus, the monks might have been trying to communicate the luxury that would come in Christ’s brotherhood. Veronese, I suspect, was also communicating the wealth of his native state.

Look again at the position and role of Christ. He seems almost incidental. Veronese seems almost more preoccupied with reflecting Venetian life and demonstrating what he and his studio were capable of. Look at the costumes carefully, the food, the perspectives, the faces. It is beautifully crafted. Look at the hustle and bustle of the servants he has clearly depicted in the background. Some of these servants – and maybe other spectators – look down from balconies, staircases and galleries in awe and excitement. There’s an energy to this painting which the monks may not have asked for, but Veronese couldn’t resist adding.  These monks were expected to live much of their lives in silent contemplation, but look also at how Veronese has added musicians to the scene. As we showed in our film Vermeer and Music artists knew that just depicting instruments gave spectators a sub-conscious soundtrack to a painting. Again, it all adds to the energy of the work.

This was a Venice that considered itself one of the great empires, but like all empires it faced an inevitable decline. The wealth that it had accumulated through a virtual monopoly on spices was coming to an end. A long decline was now setting in. The final act were the military campaigns of Napoleon at the end of the 1700s. When Napoleon conquered, he brought behind him a huge train to not only support his military ambitions but his civilian ones too. That included art collectors – or, perhaps more accurately, thieves. They stole whatever they could. This painting – having been painted on a canvas (indeed at 10 x 7 metres it is one of the largest works ever painted on a canvas) was one of those that was packaged up and shipped back to France where it has graced the Louvre ever since.

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Back in 2005, the BBC’s Radio 4 Today show organised a poll to discover ‘Britain’s favourite painting’. Or, let’s be fair, those Britons who listen to the Today show and could be bothered to vote. 118,000 people did indeed do so and the results were thus:

1st: The Fighting Temeraire – Joseph Mallord Turner with 31892 votes (which was 27.00% of the accepted votes)

2nd: The Hay Wain – Constable with 21711 votes (18.38%)

3rd: A Bar at the Follies Bergere – Manet with 13218 votes (11.19%)

4th: The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck with 11298 votes ( 9.57%)

5th: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – Hockney with 8890 votes (7.53%)

6th: Sunflowers – Van Gogh with 8603 votes (7.28%)

7th: Rev Walker Skating – Raeburn with 8189 votes (6.93%)

8th place: The Last of England – Madox Brown with 5283 votes (4.47%)

9th place: The Baptism of Christ – Piero della Francesca with 5028 votes (4.26%)

10th place: Rake’s Progress – Hogarth with 3999 votes (3.39%)

Personally, I see some red flags there: where is Millais’ Ophelia? That painting once topped a similar poll. Nothing by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and yet a Piero della Francesca in the top 10? Is he that popular? And forgive my ignorance perhaps but I have never heard of The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown. Nevertheless it is fascinating that Turner’s painting is in this (albeit flawed) poll: the number one choice. So let’s see if we can understand why.

Personally I love Turner’s works and this is no exception. We’ve yet to make a Turner Exhibition on Screen film, but the possibility has been floating around for a while, and I am still exceptionally proud of our episode of Great Artists based on his artwork. Turner’s narratives tap into my interest of English/British history. His scale and ambition are so frequently breath-taking. His technique is impressive and multi-layered, his use of colour peerless, his exploration of light powerful and moving.

I’ve worked on two films about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar in our Great Commanders collection. I simply could not read enough about life in those “wooden worlds” – those fighting ships. I was brought up knowing about key battles in our history like Trafalgar and the more I researched it, the more incredible it became. The Temeraire was a key ship that day and now here it is being towed down the Thames to be taken to bits. It is the end of an era – the industrial revolution is well & truly under way. This is the steam age: the age of wind has passed. So there is plenty to peer at, plenty to place you in the late 1830s when history seemed to move so fast.

So the narrative is clear (which helps) and taps into our sense of ‘when Britain ruled the waves’. But the storytelling alone is not enough to explain why it is so popular. Look carefully at how Turner controls your eye. He makes sure you look first on the left at The Temeraire and then through brilliant use of diagonal lines and spots and streaks of white your eye follows a clear path across the painting until finally you are left looking at the fine detail of the building in the hazy distance. Do you see the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower (‘Big Ben’)? Turner was hugely influential on the impressionist painters that saw his work but what is interesting here is this mix of detail. Look again at The Temeraire itself – grand, ethereal, carefully rendered – and the sea and sky which is a sublime ‘impressionistic’ mix of colours and brushstrokes. This all makes it a beautiful and powerful painting that offers all sorts of visceral pleasures. Like a good film, it is a gripping story allied with high craft.

Whisper it quietly, but this surely can be called a masterpiece. Is it ‘the nation’s favourite’? Who knows. But is it one of the greats of British art? Yes. Turner loved it enough to never sell it so he rated it highly. There are dozens and dozens of contenders for favourite paintings awaiting a lunchtime pop-in to the London’s National Gallery (for those fortunate enough to stop by once their doors reopen shortly) but I suspect this piece will make a fair few visitor’s top 10 list.

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