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Asif Kapadia and Mike Leigh are just two of five directors also including Lynne Ramsay and duo Max & Dania who have shot four short films as part of the London 2012 Film Festival, in collaboration with Film4 and BBC Films. Here, Film4.com editor Catherine Bray spoke to Kapadia and Leigh to hear their thoughts on developing short films on an Olympic theme as part of the 2012 cultural Olympiad.
As part of the London 2012 Festival – the largest festival the UK has ever seen – Film4 and BBC Films have teamed up to bring you four new short films. Each short is very different, as you’d expect from four very different filmmaking teams. One of the first shorts to wrap was Mike Leigh’s A Running Jump, starring Eddie Marsan as a dodgy second-hand car salesman. So what should audiences expect from Leigh’s contribution? “I hope it makes people laugh, I just wanted to make an entertaining contribution to the cultural Olympiad,” he says. “It’s great that Film4 was first off the blocks to back it, and then the remarkable thing is the BBC comes in to back it too, in a partnership.”
Leigh is keen that his contribution not be overanalysed, pointing out, “You can see from the film that’s it a rather informal collection of sporting themes that are loosely related. It’s just a bundle of gags really; I can’t talk very profoundly about it, that would be a bit like doing a PhD thesis on a joke; it’s a humourous short. It’s a reflection on sport, but that’s to overstate it really – it’s essentially a humourous anecdote.”
One of the last shorts in the collection to wrap, Kapadia’s documentary The Odyssey was shot in a tight timeframe. Kapadia explains that this informed the choice of subject matter and format, but equally that he was inspired by creating a contrast to the other three films: ”I don’t know when everybody else started but I’m fairly sure I was the last on board; I think Mike Leigh delivered his a while ago. Initially I didn’t think I was going to have time to do it, but then something else that I was going to do didn’t work out, so I started this in February and had to deliver it by May! It was a very tight situation. Part of the idea therefore was to do something that could be achieved quickly, but part of it was doing something different to the others. I didn’t think I had time to write a fiction screenplay so I thought I’d do a doc.”
The Odyssey isn’t a documentary full of talking heads. It features mainly aerial photography of London, overlaid with commentary detailing London’s various flashpoints from 2005 up until the present day, interspersed with archive footage of Olympics past. “The starting point for me was that memory of when London won the games, that happy moment – and then the very next day the bombs went off,” Kapadia remembers. “The happiness didn’t last long. As a Londoner – I’ve lived here all my life – making this short, I thought, how can I look at London in a different way? So I thought that perhaps aerial photography might be a way to do that. It became clear it has been a really tough period, from the bombs in 2005 to the rioting last summer. So I wondered how to counterbalance that and thought I’d love to show some sport and classic moments from the Olympics, showing the poetry and the highlights that can save us from all the crap that happens in life.”
Perhaps surprisingly for two such different films, Leigh also ends on an aerial note, zooming out to reveal a London cityscape – Leigh explains he thought “it would be an interesting way of ending the film; it puts it in its London context and in the end it’s rather a sexy and nice thing to do, a helicopter shot. You’ve got this guy who’s been flogged this completely useless banger, and it somehow pulls out into something epic.” Leigh also shares something of Kapadia’s views on the humane nature of sports in general: “I don’t know if I have views on the Olympics but I think all human celebration of these things is healthy. I suppose we might reflect on the expense but on the other hand it’s an international event and a human celebration.”
Given the documentary nature of The Odyssey, you might expect Kapadia to air more explicit views on the political aspects of the Olympics, and you wouldn’t be disappointed, though he is careful to maintain a balance: “I wanted The Odyssey to be political, to deal with certain things that have happened and are going on still and the fact that it’s a huge amount of money, which seems to trouble everyone. If you stop people in the street and talk to them about the Olympics, most of them were not particularly positive – they’re worried about money, though of course this may change now. But I love sport, so I didn’t want to do anything too negative. I’m pro the Olympics and pro sport, but it’s about how you find a balance in the cost when people don’t have any money.”
Asif Kapadia’s The Odyssey will screen on Channel 4 at 11.40pm on Monday 16 July. Mike Leigh’s A Running Jump will screen on Channel 4 at 11.05pm on Monday 23 July. Please follow Film4 on Twitter for updates on when the other Olympic shorts will screen on television and other platforms.