Interview with Cheap Cuts Judge Matthew Kay: ‘I just like to humanise people that have become stereo

Matthew Kay’s first interest was fiction film, but before he could attend film school a friend drags him along the ‘Football Beyond Borders’ tour and transported him right in the middle of the Egyptian spring in 2011. Filming football teams in Palestine, Matthew’s dedication to documenting social struggles started to stir and his love for film shifted towards documentary.

Cheap Cuts: What made you go on this trip?

Matthew: To be honest, at first it sounded a bit like free holidays for me. Documentary was something that I had always linked more to facts, so I thought the process was more restrained because it has something to do with real life, while fiction always represented total freedom of imagination and being creative. It was the year of the Arab spring and we went to Egypt and then travelled all the way to Palestine where the team were the first English players to play. They try to use football as something to cross borders and connect through the love for football. So some of these English players had never been outside Europe and suddenly they are in the middle of Tahrir Square.

How was this experience for you as a filmmaker? How did you go about filming these events?

It was a really exceptional and intense experience for me deciding who to film among those masses of people and which strands to focus on. We also filmed with any type of camera that we could get our hands on for free, because the climate was so tense nobody would lend us good cameras.

So we just got those old cameras, which still used those mini DV tapes. Egypt would not let any footage out shot on Tahrir Square and Israel would not let anything go out about Palestine. When we were trying to get the footage over the borders, we had to smuggle the tapes through the player’s football socks. There was a lot of emotional investment that went into it. During that process, I just realised how amazing I found documenting the journey of these footballers. I looked at their physical experience as footballers and also their inner lives as many of them became really politicised through the events. We also went to refugee camps. It was this emotional journey and the events linked to them. I realised that I could be creative within the genre and that pushed me to go into documentary filmmaking.

What came after that?

When I came back, I just thought I would on to do a little travelogue for the guys and for their memories. But a lot of the footage we captured was very powerful and really deserved a proper editing. So we turned it into a documentary, which became Over the Wall (2012). This ended up to be broadcasted quite a lot through different TV channels and got distributed in 6 or 7 countries, and film festivals as well. That was the first documentary I did.

What did you get up to after Over The Wall?

After Over The Wall, I took part in a BFI scheme ‘Doc Next Lab’. Here I paired up with a mentor and had a budget to produce a couple of short documentaries. In this scheme I did two short docs.

What were they about?

The first one was On Site (2013), which was a bit more experimental and got screened at Cannes. This was shot on a building site in one continuous shot on a crane and in the voice over you hear builders talking about their aspirations and dreams and their thoughts on London and life in general.

The second one, Hair and Now (2013), got picked up by BBCFresh and was shown on BBC3. That one was shot in a barber shop in Hackney where I just asked young black kids about their opinions on different issues. I was particularly interested in the way this crowd felt about the changes in Hackney and gentrification. Lots of people that had been living there for decades are now pushed out of their neighbourhood. It is about these kids and what they thought about these changes. I was also interested in hearing what they had to say about government policies, the Queen or the police. Both are quite similar in the way that I want to look at people’s perspectives.

What made you change from more reportage style of filming in Over The Wall to switch to an experimental style?

I guess that was my background in fiction film. I always loved those continuous tracking shots in films like Cuba or Goodfellas. I also just wanted to explore new ways of documenting reality and challenge myself as well.

Do you see a big difference between fiction and documentary?

I do not like to generalise too much. But when it comes to documentary I just love how this element of truth lies at the very core of it. That is why I tend more towards it, but I also very much welcome the beauty of cinema coming into the way documentary is shot, which is something that really came up in the past years.

What truth are you looking for in your documentaries?

I just like to humanise people that have become stereotypes. Like for Hair and Now, I wanted to give a different image of young black males after the riots in 2011. Following the riots in London, young black males had a bad reputation and belonging to that community myself, I felt like challenging the stereotype that had been created around these kids. I wanted to give those guys a platform to be able to speak and to say what concerned them instead of other people projecting things on them. Within all documentaries, I think it is important to allow people to speak for themselves and empower themselves through that process. I think it is also interesting to look at the complex and various layers that shape identity and the importance of that. Documentary can help a lot with that by educating on people’s different opinions and identities.

How do you see specific in the process in doing a short documentary as opposed to a feature doc?

I think the challenge in doing a short documentary, especially nowadays, is that everyone has a very short attention span and so it is important to create an interesting and grasping narrative from the very first second. With feature documentaries, people are already sort committed to watching a full story. They already made the decision to know more about a subject. In short docs, you have to convince your audience more. Apparently, in the first 3 seconds the drop off rate is at 80 per cent. You need to know how to keep the attention. Also, the pacing is trickier on a shorter project.

What came after that for you?

I made a film for The Guardian, which is called Summoned to the Desert (2014) about African migrants in a detention centre for illegal migrants in Israel. They were in the desert in this open facility, so you were free to go but you had to sign in every couple of minute. Every time you wanted to go somewhere, you had to go through the desert and by the time you would have actually reached something, you had to sign in again with the centre. They are kind of left in this limbo situation. I also did the short documentaryRight to Run (2014) about the marathon in Palestine and another one about the Favela World Cup in Brazil, which documented the tournament in the favelas that happened alongside the actual World Cup for people that did not have the means to access the actual one.

I also have been working with charities like Justice where I shot little videos explaining the UK legal system and the Back Project, which uses the excess resource of bicycles in this country, fixes them and gives them to migrants as a mode of transport.

How did you feel about being a judge with Cheap Cuts?

I have never been a judge. I loved the experience and I love watching them. It was hard to decide which ones worked. I think the story is key to keep you engage and they way that it is shot and edited is important to me too.

What attracted you about Cheap Cuts Film Festival?

Nowadays it is getting harder to make a documentary. The equipment is available but budgets are getting smaller. I admire filmmakers that can make films on a tight budget and with little equipment and that is a type of filmmaking that should be celebrated. It is currently not given the limelight it deserves.

How did you like the festival?

I loved the festival. There was a great mix of films and events and the venue was buzzing. It was a really sunny day on Saturday and we thought that it might make fewer people turn up. I should never have doubted the power of short documentary – it’s pleasing to see there is a real appetite for it and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. It restores the faith that not only are there wonderful festivals out there like Cheap Cuts screening amazing low budget docs but people will even sacrifice rare sunny days in April to see them!

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