ASFF Interview: David Fairhead, Long Journey Home

The Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) is opening in just over one month, Aesthetica takes the time to interview the filmmakers screening films at ASFF this year. David Fairhead is the man behind The Long Journey Home.

A: Please explain the basic premise behind your film, The Long Journey Home.
The basic premise of Long Journey Home is a tale of love found and lost. It’s a true story of two people, on either side of the divide, who fall in love just as Europe falls apart. At it’s heart, it’s about life’s unexpected turn of events and how people and families deal with them. In 1938, Betty Adams, a young English woman leaves the family home, against her father’s advice, and marries Rudolf Jebens, her German sweetheart. She moves to Germany just before the Second World War. However, Rudolf is conscripted into the army and in June 1941 is sent to the Russian front. In the meantime, Betty’s brother joins the RAF and takes part in bombing raids over Germany until he is shot down and killed in 1942. Rudolf too dies, and she struggles on, raising her two children until at the war’s end she escapes the advancing Red Army and, as Germany collapses, makes her way back home to her parents in Surrey.

A: What was it that drew you to this story?
DF: It’s not every film that is inspired by the house you live in, but that’s what happened with this story! It all started with a simple question: “I wonder who used to live here?” It was something I asked when my family moved into “Four”, Sandy Lane in September 2002. It’s a small estate worker’s cottage built in the 1920s and the people we bought the house from had clearly not been there long, as they had not even bothered to unpack. However, it was clear that someone had lived there for a long time, previous to them. Over a period of years, through chatting with neighbours, I was able to piece together fragments of Betty Jebens’ intriguing story and became hooked. Eventually, one of the neighbours put me in touch with Betty’s daughter Jutta, who had returned with her from Germany and grown up in the house after the war. She came back to the house for an emotional visit, and she told me the whole, extraordinary story. But it was the family photos that she had brought with her that really fleshed things out, and allowed me to realise just what an epic tale this was. One photograph in particular, from the 1920’s, seemed to capture the spirit of the whole thing. It shows the three Adams children sitting atop a rock, on a hill at the back of the house. It became the inspiration for the opening sequence of the film.

A: This film was a documentary, is this a genre you particularly like to work with?
DF: Long Journey Home is a dramatised documentary, rather than pure documentary – if such a thing actually exists, that is – all films, in my opinion, are an artifice! In my day job, I’m a film editor on docs for TV and cinema, cutting such things as the BBC’s Horizon, Channel 4’s The Churchills (with David Starkey) and Sundance winning docs like In the Shadow of the Moon. So I am rather steeped in the documentary tradition. Although my initial idea for Long Journey Home was to dramatise the story, in speaking to Jutta, I realised that she had some really interesting things to say about what had happened. The family photos also had a story to tell and could play a role in the film too – so I revised my approach. TV drama-doc, with its budget re-enactments, has rather sullied the waters for the genre. I wanted to try something different, where the drama and the doc could not just awkwardly co-exist but instead could work together, handing the story over from one element to another. I hope that I’ve been successful in this approach!

A: Which film directors and films have particularly inspired you?
DF: My inspiration has always come from many different sources, not just the movies. I have to confess to not watching much television, mainly because I’m involved in it, but it’s from my work, the editing side, that I’ve learnt the love and craft of story. In terms of cinema, I tend to draw more inspiration from what might be termed “vintage” film makers – in particular, the 1940’s films of Powell & Pressburger. I love the sense that they had for a landscape and a place, and their amazingly warm characterisation – particularly of strong female characters. Inspiration also comes from music. As a “temp” track for the film, I had used a piece from Ralph Vaughan Williams music Six Studies in English Folk Song. Somehow I wanted to replicate the feel of this, and so, on searching the web I found an old Surrey folk song called The Trees They Grow so Tall. I approached my friend and colleague, composer Philip Sheppard who adapted it, and this became the main theme for the film. He wrote a complete score and we then recorded it with the local orchestra. For me, this helps root the story in its time and place. Inspiration comes too from technology – in particular the Canon 5D Mk2 camera. My friend, photographer Iain Philpott, was keen to see what he could do with the Canon, and came on board the project at the very start. I think the results speak for themselves. My final inspiration comes from all those people – mostly local – who volunteered to help on this film, for no money and some horribly early mornings. Without them, the film could not have been made.

A: Are there any documentaries you’d like to make, or future films you have planned?
This film started out with the idea of producing a short trailer, and instead it turned into a 22’ short film. However, my intention is still to try and produce this as a theatrical feature. I have just finished writing the second draft of the complete script, and am in the process of reworking it again. I have had discussions with a major UK production company about making the film as a full-length feature documentary, but I am still very keen (especially having written the script!) to pursue the original idea of drama and documentary. One of the challenges has been to weave together all the elements – characters, events, time and circumstance, and attempt to make a narrative from it. Almost everything is based on fact and real life incidents, which I have taken from conversations with Jutta and her brother Dieter; from letters and books; from photographs and official records. I’ve also researched the history of the era and accurately located my characters in time and place – for instance, I could work out from Rudolf’s letters where he was on the Eastern Front, when he was there and what unit he was with. But there were times where I did have to make things up. I hope those bits don’t stand out!

The Long Journey Home will be screening at ASFF from 9 – 11 November across the City of York.

1. The Long Journey Home, David Fairhead, ASSF 2012
2. On Stony Jump, Dorothy, Betty, James, ASFF 2012