Prosaic Cinema

Peter Mackie Burns’ directorial feature debut Daphne tells the story of a woman whose fast-paced life and sharp wit distracts her from much needed self-reflection. But when she witnesses a violent altercation, she is forced to confront a need for change. The film screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this year in the Best of British category, where lead actress Emily Beecham was awarded Best Performance in a British Film. Daphne reunites the director and actress, who previously collaborated together on the 2014 dark comedy short film Happy Birthday to Me, about a 30-year-old woman who finds herself lost on her way home after an existential professional and personal series of disasters. Burns discusses the role of questions as influence and narrative form, the importance of sound over sight, and the limitations of film as a medium.

ASFF: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Why filmmaking? I suppose it is a medium with a wide reach, and I’m trying to remember when I said I wanted to be a filmmaker. I think it was because I wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, with the work I wanted to make. Like everyone else, I suppose I had always enjoyed cinema growing up, and then one day I was in the cinema and I saw Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I thought: “Ah, you can do this in the cinema, I want to give this a go.” I suppose that is the most prosaic version of wanting to be a filmmaker or choosing the medium.

ASFF: How has the process of making short films, documentaries and now a feature film influenced your impression of cinema, and how did your expectations compare to the realities of directing your feature debut?
I’m not sure what I thought it would be. I was a big fan of independent cinema from a fairly young age, and I was influenced by the American and the French New Wave because those movies were shown on BBC 2 when I was a kid. So, in my head I always knew there were different types of filmmaking and different audiences. When I came to make films, I was interested in trying to make works that would speak to specific audiences, and I don’t think that has changed enormously.

For want of a better phrase, the heavy lifting of filmmaking for me is the generation and the execution of the idea. The stuff where you are on the set is exhausting at times, yet it is a more enjoyable process in moments than creating the concept of the film. From short films through to feature dramas, the process is pretty similar, and my influences are always the same – it’s always questions for me. I come from the school of thought that film is about asking questions rather than looking for answers. So, I suppose it is generating the right kind of questions and asking them the right way that is the through-line of all the work for me.

ASFF: This approach of asking questions integrates the audience into an active rather than a passive participation.
Every piece of work is about a question, isn’t it? I suppose I enjoy the interaction with works that make me question the relationship of the work with my own life, prompted by the questions and the thoughts, or the mediation of the work. So, I love cinema where you have to think a little about what the filmmakers are doing, what questions they are asking. In every piece of work, I enjoy, whether it’s music or literature, it’s the questions that I always find the most interesting.

ASFF: Film is often described as a visual medium, but in truth it is a hybrid art form that merges the visual with sound and verbal language. What are the advantages of the hybrid art form and how as a practitioner do you harness these advantages?
I like Godard’s notion about film being a visual medium. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said: “Never trust your eyes. Your eyes can be seduced too easily, but always trust your ears.” I adhere to that idea very much. If I don’t look at the action but listen to it, then it often results in a different take, say if you’re looking for truth in the moment of a performance, and so I like to often listen rather than to watch a retake.

Filmmaking is a place where a lot of people end up who are interested in more than one form of expression or medium, and I’ll sometimes say to students that I’ve had a go at lots of things. I had a go at photography, writing and directing in the theatre. I had a little go at set design, and if you like collaborating, which I do very much, then film is a great home or umbrella for all of these practices. So, for me, I find it to be a natural home.

ASFF: Thinking about film as a collaborative and hybrid art form, could we contextualise it as an optimistic force, a beacon of unity in a world rife with division?
It is a big ask of any medium to be a beacon. I like popular culture and I remember Nina Simone’s quote about the artists duties being to reflect the times. Film reacts very slowly to social change, far less quickly than pop music for example. It is still effectively a conservative art form, both commercial and independent cinema. So, because it reacts slowly to social change, I would probably not describe it as a beacon. There are other art forms that can respond to social ideas and change much more quickly. Whether they have as wide a reach I’m not so sure, but film as I understand it and enjoy it asks a mixture of universal and contemporary questions.

I don’t know if it’s a beacon; I don’t think so. I don’t think film can take that kind of a loaded statement, but then it can be because the films that we all like, we find ourselves. They speak to each individual, each audience, and I am obsessed with certain filmmakers and their work, whether they are contemporaneous or not.

Paul Risker

Daphne is released theatrically in the UK on 29 September. For more information:

1. Still from Daphne. Courtesy of Altitude Films.