by matt crowder
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been like that… because I wouldn’t have filmed it.”
the ballad of vicki and jake begins, as we are informed by the opening title, in July. Birds are singing and we hear the sound of children playing in the distance. The image fades in from black. A young man’s face is framed awkwardly on the edge of the screen, while in the near distance a thin woman dressed in black with bleached blonde hair walks through a park filled with lush green grass. The man – director Ian Thomas Ash – mutters under his breath to his cameraman Ken Kwek: “How am I going to do this?” He sighs.
‘This’ is to persuade the woman – Vicki – to sign the agreement that will allow the film to be made. As for the ‘how’, well, I shouldn’t spoil it.
At the heart of the ballad of vicki and jake lies a human story: the often difficult relationship between parent and child. Around this simple drama other closely-woven narrative strands emerge. Perhaps the most significant to devotees of documentary film is the strand that recounts the effort involved in the making of this film.
CINEMA AT THE EDGES
The film could be categorised in several ways: an ‘issue’ documentary, a home video, a fly-on-the-wall drama, or a student film. But if we are looking to label vicki and jake then I think we could call it, without embarrassment, a punk documentary. It is about life on the margins of society: raw and exposed. The awkward camera movement, bad white balance and jump cuts gel perfectly with the drugs, the shouting and swearing, and the material deprivation depicted. The punk movement was about non-conformity, uncensored emotion, shocking people and perhaps most significantly ‘doing it yourself’.
This is exactly what Ian and Ken did; made during film school using equipment ‘borrowed’ from the faculty, they set about making the film on their own. The formal qualities of the film are dictated by the necessity of a two man crew operating in one of the most underprivileged areas in Britain. Their philosophy became ‘film everything’ and the uncompromising images prove this many times over. But this isn’t sensationalism; it records drug-taking with a matter-of-fact gaze because this was normality. Ian and Ken were welcomed into Vicki’s group of friends and the film demonstrates this privileged access. Whether it’s watching Class-A drug use or joining in Jake’s twelfth birthday party, their dictum ‘film everything’ was followed to the letter.
Make no mistake though, this is no imitation of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore. It probably has more in common with Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966). There are no sly asides to the audience, sarcastic commentary or faux-naif interview technique. This is no vanity exercise; vicki and jake is a 101 in how not to make a documentary. Ian and Ken threw themselves into this with the enthusiasm of people who had never made a feature documentary before. It shouldn’t have worked. Except it has.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
the ballad of vicki and jake documents nine months in the life of Vicki, a homeless mother, and her son, Jake. The film was conceived as a record of Vicki’s road to recovery, documenting the security that would come with the council house she would live in with Jake. What emerges from the hours of footage is a raw film honestly depicting the omissions, manipulations and compromises demanded by filmmaking.
The rawness is the result of two factors. The first is the visuals themselves which, improvisatory and at times crude, communicate the stuff of life. The second factor is that it becomes difficult to see this film as images and sounds, because it documents someone’s life falling down around them. The film is especially hard to separate from the narrative because the making of the film itself becomes part of the story.
The key reason the film moves the audience so powerfully is because of the relationships between Vicki, Ian and Ken. Most important in this triangle is Ken; as cameraman he is an absent presence throughout. Although he is directly spoken to by Ian and Vicki from time to time, he remains largely silent. But it is through his active camerawork that we engage with the action. As Vicki walks through the streets talking to Ian she is kept in frame; they run to catch up with her and the camera is tossed from side to side; when Jake is given his present he hugs Ken and the camera tips upwards to accommodate the boy’s embrace.
The audience is consistently placed as an observer. Ian conducts the interviews skilfully, and Ken rarely interjects during the more casual day-to-day filming. But Ken is included, normally via direct-to-camera address. Ian talks to Ken ‘through’ the camera as he describes his search for Vicki, but we feel that he is telling us. When Vicki turns up to an interview late and flustered she turns to Ken, “Dear camera… look at me…” as if she is asking for our understanding. In an argument between Ian and Vicki, we sit opposite them, gazing impotently. Ken’s dynamic visuals suture us into the action, and Vicki and Ian’s direct relationship with the camera welcome us in. We are invited into the action, if only as passive and frustrated spectators.
It was a struggle to make this film in many ways; it needs commitment and energy to keep a tempestuous relationship alive, to love someone who consistently disappoints you and to fight for a life-affirming story as mistakes are made and then repeated. We are treated as confidantes to things Ian and Vicki might have wanted kept secret but which have been dramatically realised by editor Lizzie Minnion. Praise must be given for the editing, which distils months of video into a balanced progression of Vicki’s personal story and the drama of the film project itself. We are treated to an edit that refuses to sacrifice honesty and clarity for an easy ride.
A CINEMA OF VERITY
With all its clear-eyed honesty, this is not a film guided by empiricism and a philosophy of objectivity. Cinema verité saw the camera as a scientific tool, revealing truth in the gaze of the lens. We don’t suffer under those illusions any more. Watching vicki and jake is a two hour long demonstration of the Uncertainty Principal: as you look at something you change it. When Ian asks Vicki about her feelings after the distressing conclusion to Jake’s birthday, she protests that “…it wouldn’t have been like that… because I wouldn’t have filmed it.”
We could be terribly post-modern and say that filming the party changed nothing but that without a camera there would be no record, and thus it may as well not have happened. We could be more literal and say that the very presence of the camera provoked the abortive birthday celebration. Both these interpretations point to a responsibility for filmmakers that cannot be avoided; the camera either prevents the possibility of forgetting tragedy or contributes to the event itself by its presence.
Ian and Ken experienced this first hand. In one interview Vicki tells Ian that she is discussing a particularly painful memory for the very first time. She recalls them aloud for the first, and perhaps last, time, and it is captured on tape. Those memories cannot be forgotten. Furthermore it is that interview, conducted on the day of Jake’s birthday, that distracted Vicki from planning her son’s party. While she could have been blowing up balloons Ian was asking her questions.
It would be wrong to focus on negativity in a film that is also full of life and energy. Ian and Ken’s presence lifts Vicki, giving her the opportunity to be heard. Despite the poverty around him Jake shines through as a normal child who meets his friends before school and has a weekend job. Vicki is an articulate woman with a love of reading and a passion for art. The film captures the closeness between mother and son. By the conclusion it is obvious that Vicki is not the subject of a film, she is a loved and respected friend.
For Vicki is never demonised or mocked. The film may show Vicki’s flaws, and Ian and Ken’s too, but she is treated with dignity and respect. Her presence on the screen communicates so much life. the ballad of vicki and jake is ultimately a quietly political film, a voice for all the people that should to be treated with respect but aren’t. It is a humanising film, proclaiming the power of honesty, whilst also documenting its often painful consequences.
Matt has a BA in Film and Literature from the University of Warwick and an MA in Filmmaking from the University of Bristol. He joined the crew during post-production as a production assistant and sounding board. He is currently producing two short documentaries in Europe
© 2005 matt crowder