WFTV Interview with Beeban Kidron

I spoke to InRealLife director Beeban Kidron for WFTV. As well as having a film and TV career spanning 30 years, she is the co-founder of Film Club.

Can you tell me, what was your inspiration for making the film?
As well as being a filmmaker, I’m also a mum of teenage children and I suppose I just became really, really aware that all the teenagers around me, in their scores, were always attached to some sort of electronic device of some sort or another, and I just started to question, you know, why are they all together, in the kitchen, with these things and nobody’s really talking to each other? What does this mean? And it wasn’t really a sort of ‘this is so terrible, I must go and find out,’ moment it was more of a ‘what does this mean?’ moment. It’s this game-changing moment where the internet went from a box on the shelf to being all around you, and then we became immersed in it rather than it being something we watched and I did just recognise that it’s part of a very different childhood to the one I’d had and I wanted to know what it was about.

Obviously with your background in Film Club, film as a tool for education is something that’s very important to you, is that the intended purpose for this film?
Well the first purpose was to answer my own questions and I have to say that as I’ve made the film, the world’s been gradually catching up with me; I honestly could have refinanced the film if I had a quid for every time I met a parent who said ‘I can’t wait to see your film, I’m worried about this or that’, and also for every kid who said, ‘I feel a bit overwhelmed by my relationship to the internet but I don’t know how to stop.’ So really it goes from being a question that you’re going to answer to a question that other people want to debate, they want to have some sort of deeper knowledge, and I think that film has that function, particularly documentary has that function of being a static point in a moving world, it’s a shared experience, and I do talk about that in relation to Film Club, but this time it’s a shared experience for families, so people with teenagers can go and see the film together and talk about it with each other, and I do know that there are a lot of policy makers out there who feel out of their depth in this area and they do sort of feel a monster lurking, so it’s really a very broad group of people for whom the film might mean something but I don’t know that I made it specifically for them, it’s just sort of emerges out the other side.

The film is quite shocking on that the young people in the film speak so frankly about issues such as pornography, to the point where they are quite literally showing you the things they watch on the internet, how did you get them to do that?
It’s a really funny question and I’m always mildly embarrassed when I’m asked it! I was asked it when I made a film about temple prostitutes, and also love at first sight, and I keep on being asked this question, people are always asking how I did it. I think there are two really interesting points about this, if you look around, I actually think that people are not very well witnessed in their own lives and they’re not really heard, and if you think about people’s willingness to put up pictures and use chat and so on on Facebook and things, there is obviously an impulse to want to be seen and so my experience is that if you sit opposite someone and ask them questions and they believe that you are interested, and you really actually are interested not worrying about the next question, or the next interview, but you really actually want to listen, then they just relax in to your question and actually start to figure out something about themselves, and many people who I’ve had the privilege of talking to in these situations have said to me afterwards that they felt better or different, or more informed, by having told their truth, so I think it actually is just something that people enjoy, it’s a really odd thing but they do enjoy it. And I think the other thing is, that I’m not sitting judging these guys, there is no one in that film, no kid that I do not have immense respect for and feeling for and empathy for and I think that we do not give enough credence to young voices- if you think about it, where do you hear the teenagers?

The film isn’t just about the teenagers relationship with technology, it’s also about the way that the technology affects their relationships with each other….
I think so, and I think this is the thing that you really begin to understand, and that actually, if we mediate our relationships by using technology, then there is a price. And in certain ways, in certain places it’s a totally appropriate thing, so if I want to tell some of my friends that I have a film coming out and I want them to go and see it, I may draw up a list of about 40 names and send them and emailing inviting them. Now that’s not a very intimate message, but it is a very useful tool, but on the other hand if I’m having a passionate row or a passionate love affair or whatever, it would be very bizarre if I started putting all of those messages out there in public, but what’s happening in this ‘teen world’ is that people are really being taught not to recognise the value of relationships and it all gets rather muddled and homogenised and it really affects your ability to have intimacy. So on one hand you have Ryan ( a 16 year old boy from East London) who says that he’s got so many images of porn in his brain that he can’t actually have a relationship with a real girl, and on the other hand you have a girl who doesn’t care who’s in her phone so long as it’s buzzing and the price that she pays for that phone is so extraordinary that her addiction to the phone is totally palpable, it’s her externalised heartbeat, and on the third hand you have these two boys who have fallen in love online and perhaps needed to fall in love with a boy in a different part of the country in order to come to terms with his sexuality, and then to feel confident that it is love and it can be physical, but really, it wasn’t real until they met in real life, and it’s awkward and it’s difficult, and it materialises in a much richer relationship. So the point is not good and bad, the point is appropriateness, and where the film gets its strength from is saying ‘what is inappropriate is to make people addicted to the technology for the purposes of gathering data, for selling it on and for making money, and that is inappropriate. What is inappropriate is that because of this addiction to technology, people are making very bad personal choices, because they’re not quite in control of their technology, and if this was a group of adults, then all the libertarians can say ‘you’re all individual, you’re all making up your own mind,’ and that’s fine, but we as a society have decided that we have a duty of care to the young, and this is not operating, and all I’m suggesting is that this is not a healthy environment for kids to grow up, without any consciousness that it’s not a level playing field.

Did you feel that you learnt quite a lot yourself during filming? There were a lot of scenes with heavy technological elements concerning the way that the internet actually works.
Well yes, who knew what a cloud actually was? And the idea that it’s cables and memory bars, and it’s not a place that you own when you buy a cloud, it’s in servers everywhere, there are 10,000 versions of you, spelling something wrong all over the world! And the visceral nature of that does make you think again about your own usage, and it makes you think ‘If everything I do is recorded all over the world, and kept for later, what does that mean about what I do?’ And I think that’s a big thing that we had to look at as community and as a society, and we’ve got this deal with free data, but actually it’s problematic; where’s the button that says ‘I don’t want you to take my data, I’ll pay for the service.’

You managed to get a lot of people, including Julian Assange, who was interviewed for the film but the big corporates like Facebook, Twitter etc didn’t want to be interviewed…
Well no, they are people who have persistently said, ‘we are just a technology, we don’t do content, we’re not responsible for what other people deliver’ and they have persistently said that, and we have bought that idea, now why we’ve bought that idea I will never know. The truth is that we’ve allowed them to say that they don’t take any responsibility and therefore they have nothing to answer. Now what’s interesting is that there is a bit of consumer power in this, because in relation to Twitter and the rape threats (Caroline Criado Perez and other prominent feminists were subject to a torrent of abuse by trolls on the social networking site) it took an outrage like this to bring Twitter to its knees, and you do think, if people understood more, and took their sort of terms and conditions a bit more seriously , perhaps we would get a bit more outrage here, and they would be held to a little bit more social and corporate responsibility, and there are things that we can do, but they’re not easy and that’s not attractive to people.

As a mother, since making the film, do you feel frightened for your children? Has it affected your relationship with them in any way?
No not at all, I feel empowered, and I would say that to people, I think it’s really empowering to understand because actually half of it is understanding, because if you understand what’s happening technologically, and I don’t mean how to use a box or worrying about whether you type with one finger, but if you actually understand the forces behind it then you are clear about what’s valuable and what’s a little bit worrying. And I also actually learnt that you don’t need your phone to tell the time, you can wear a watch so that you’re not temped to check your messages. I do think that this is a bigger cultural issue. It is OK to say to the person in front of you in the cinema ‘please stop using your phone, it is annoying’, and it is ok when people come to your house to say ‘just as we don’t smoke at the table, please don’t use your phone’. On the other hand I’ve also met some amazing poets, bloggers, YouTube artists, and they’re all out there doing brilliant things on the net and that is fantastic, but I think we just have to recognise that 90% of children are using spaces that are really uncreative and it’s not all their fault.

So what is next for you?
I’m not entirely sure, films always take a lot longer than you think, and this has been a year and a bit and it’s been invited to so many countries all over the world, it really is extraordinary. So once I’m done with this, I’m going to take some time to really think about it.

All of your films have extremely strong, prominent female characters; are you happy with the representation of women in film and TV at the moment?
Listen, until we work out who’s going to look after the children, there’s never going to be enough women either in the treads or even directors, because what happens is they’re all brilliant when they’re young and then they have kids and then it’s difficult, it really it difficult. The hours are terrible, the uncertainty is terrible and the fight to get your film made is terrible and it really is a very difficult arena in which to be a mother as well as a filmmaker and a creative person, and I think there is a social problem about that. However it’s a very, very different landscape from when I first started, there were literally no women around when I started, and there are loads of women, far more talented, absolutely brilliant, in the mainstream, in indies and in docs making wonderful films now, and now every time someone asks me now who my favourite female director is, I can’t even remember them all, they go off my fingers and toes, it’s so fantastic going from a woman who can only say ‘well I like Clare Peploe’; that was the only answer 30 years ago when I started- and now you couldn’t finish the list. It’s a real pleasure to me that there are so many women now, and the problem with society and women is quite different and it’s nice to celebrate the fact that we’ve seen so many fabulous filmmakers, particularly over the last 5 or 10 years.

InRealLife is out in cinemas Friday 20 September 2013
Check the Dogwoof website for details of all screenings including the satellite panel discussion taking place in various screens over London, chaired by John Snow on Sunday 22 September.

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