Kevin McDonald - How I Live Now at Dartmouth Park Film Club

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Kevin McDonald - How I Live Now at Dartmouth Park Film Club


Fri, 06/11/2015 - 11:01


Kevin ­Macdonald
05 November, 2015

HE was flying out to meet a man who was responsible for one of the most shocking terrorist atrocities of the 20th century and in film director Kevin Macdonald’s bag was a fake moustache, a wig and a large sum of cash.

Kevin was working on his film One Day In September, which told the story of how 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. His film, which would win an Oscar for best documentary in 2000, included an interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, the last remaining survivor of the gang behind the attack.

This week the film director will be speaking at the newly formed Dartmouth Park Film Club about his work at a screening of How I Live Now, his 2013 feature film adapted from Meg Rosoff’s book about teenage love and World War Three.

“It wasn’t through any long-running detective work,” he admits when he looks back at how he persuaded the notorious gunman to go on camera. “It was more like six degrees of separation.

“I met a German documentary-maker who knew a Palestinian journalist. He in turn was the brother of someone who was Yasser Arafat’s number two in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and had in turn gone to school as a child with Jamal in a refugee camp in the 1960s.

“I made contact and we negotiated over a few months. At first, we were going to do an interview on screen with his family. The political situation then, in 1998, was good. Israel was looking at entering negotiations, Arafat had come back and it looked like there may be a settlement. People felt optimistic, and there was a genuine hope for peace. But then it collapsed and by the time it we started filming things had gone very wrong. 

“The PLO told Jamal they did not want him to do this.”

It became, as Kevin says, a “long and complicated journey”.

“I eventually flew to Lebanon. I had a wig and fake moustache in my bag and a bundle of money for him. I felt very out my depth.”

Eventually, Al-Gashey was filmed with his voice changed, in disguise and his face blurred.

Kevin’s camera lens has ranged from the Munich Olympics atrocity to a quest to climb an unconquerable mountain in the Andes in Touching The Void. He has created the seminal life story of Bob Marley, trawled through 4,500 hours uploaded by 80,000 people in his groundbreaking Life In A Day movie that involved amateur film-makers telling the world about their daily lives. And his fictional films are just as successful: The Last King Of Scotland, which told a story of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s doctor, won Forest Whitaker an Oscar.

He first came to film-making when he made a documentary about his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger. With Michael Powell, Pressburger made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, but when Kevin – who grew up in Glasgow – was a child his grandfather’s work was not celebrated.

“He lived in a small cottage in Suffolk,” recalls Kevin. “He had a strong Hungarian accent and would tell stories of life as a tramp in Germany. 

“I had watched some of his films aged about 10, but I didn’t think much of them. Then I saw Colonel Blimp at a university film society screening. I thought – oh my God: he was brilliant!”

After graduating, Kevin wrote a biography of Pressburger and was financed by Channel Four to travel to Hungary to research his life for a documentary. It coincided with an upsurge of interest in Pressburger’s life. 

“He had lived in difficult circumstances for a long time, and then, in his early 80s, people rediscovered him – you had the likes of Scorsese saying what an influence he had been. He was taken to Cannes, to Venice. It was lovely.”

Kevin went on to make a film about the Camden Town documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings, whose work with the GPO film unit is considered to herald the birth of British documentary-making. 

“He edited things brilliantly and his use of sound was incredible,” says Kevin. “He is one of my heroes.”

Uniquely, Kevin has as strong a reputation as a features director as he has as a documentary maker.

“There are good and bad things about making fiction,” he says. “You know exactly where the story is, but you can cock up the telling of it. With documentaries, you often do not really know what the story is until you are shooting. That is the risk – but it is invigorating.” 

And it was partly the success of Touching The Void that prompted him to approach fiction. He had used actors for parts of the film and its success meant offers came in.

The Last King Of Scotland was a good halfway house,” he adds. “It was a fictional story but we shot it in Uganda, using real places where Amin had been. As a documentary-maker, I found an element of security in that.”

• How I Live Now will be screened at the Dartmouth Park Film Club on Tuesday, November 10, at the Highgate Library and Civic Centre, Croftdown Road, NW5. Entry is free – donate what you think it was worth at the end of the film. Doors at 7pm.

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