Strokes of Genius

James Erskine is a British documentary filmmaker whose work includes The Battle of the Sexes, One Night in Turin and From the Ashes. He returns with two films, The End of the Storm, which chronicles the 2019/20 campaign for Liverpool Football Club, and Billie, an investigative study of the singer Billie Holiday.

ASFF: How did The End of the Storm start?
JE: I mean, it really started because I made a series for Amazon last year called This Is Football. And the lead story was a film called Redemption, which was about the Rwandan genocide and how football was used to overcome the Rwandan genocide. And it told that story through the lens of three Liverpool fans in Kigali. A very emotional film. It’s all about the kinship that one can find to a football club in the worst possible situation. And that had been seen by various members of the club hierarchy, including Mike Gordon and Jurgen Klopp. And so they had invited us to come back in and discuss about making a film about this season, should it go well.

ASFF: You don’t feature cameras in the dressing room. Was that deliberate?
JE: Well, I mean, Klopp has been very clear. He doesn’t want cameras inside the dressing room.  He said that on the record. It wasn’t what we were intending to do, because we wanted to make something different to that. And those things while they’re good, they’re a cliché in themselves.

ASFF: You’ve made several sporting docs, including The Battle of the Sexes, One Night in Turin and From the Ashes. What is it about sport that gets you so excited?
JE: Maybe it’s becoming less so now, but sport was always treated as low culture, and yet it’s a really inclusive culture. It’s one of the few forms of culture where an eight year-old and an eighty year-old can bond. It is a way of telling stories about our lives and the makeup of our lives, which all culture is about. Ultimately, it creates staging posts that everybody remembers – definable moments where you are. So I’m really interested in that. And I’m interested in the emotional connectivity that sport probably uniquely gives us now. At least in the West, religion doesn’t unify us and so I think it’s a great ground for films where you’re trying to explore the emotional value of sport. And I would also say that at the heart of it, I’m interested in genius. If you look at those films, and there’s an element of genius in all of them.

ASFF: You’ve also made Billie, a film about singer Billie Holiday. You frame Holiday’s story with Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who interviewed her and mysteriously died. Why take this route?
JE: You can never really know the truth about anybody and somebody like Billie Holiday, who’s a jazz artist who lives her life on the road free-forming the whole style…[I wanted to explore] her through the lens of somebody else, who’d also try to get to the truth and never really got there. I thought that was an interesting fabric to have for a film.

ASFF: Did you come to any conclusions on Linda’s death?
JE: The truth is, we’ll never know. She didn’t have an FBI file. We went through that whole process with the family. We went through whether there was police reports with the freedom of information [act], we had police officers scooping around in warehouses. The fact is that we never know exactly what happened to her, it was recorded as suicide. At that time, Washington DC had a pretty high body count; the coroner’s office was struggling to cope with a number of bodies going through it…they just had to take police reports at face value. So we tried to dig into it as much as we could.

The End of the Storm is on demand and DVD from 30 November. Billie is available now. For more details click here and here.

James Mottram