In February the London Screenwriters’ Festival ran an inspiring online event that gave screenwriters and filmmakers a much-needed boost. The early part of the year is traditionally a low-point. This year, in the midst of lockdown number three and after the hardest-ever year for the arts (despite the clamour for content), the mood was particularly dark.
Among those lightening the gloom was Remain’s favourite documentary filmmaker, David Nicholas Wilkinson. In a session with acclaimed editor John Walker, with whom David has worked on his last few films, attendees were given the skinny on making documentaries. Later, I caught up with David for an even more in-depth discussion of how he got into documentaries and his plans for the future.
This is the first of two articles from those events: this one focuses on how David became a documentary filmmaker himself; the second contains David’s advice to those just starting out, or contemplating, a career as a documentary filmmaker.
A meandering career that led to documentaries
David has decades of experience in the film business in various capacities. He started as a professional actor aged 14, then moved into production in his twenties when he realised his entire career as an actor relied “on somebody else giving you a job”. He became the first independent producer to work with the BBC, which he did for ten years, until he faced the hard truth that he wasn’t earning a living he could survive on. Meanwhile, his friends were earning a decent wage making documentaries.
“I could do this too,” he thought. “It could become real right away.”
David was confident he could handle the three main stages of a documentary film: concept and production; post-production; and sales and distribution. He decided to give it a go, but soon learned that the only way to guarantee the success of his films was to become their distributor. And so began another thread of his career. As a distributor, he specialised in British and Irish films, particularly those that other distributors considered difficult to market or uncommercial. It was only in 2015 that David turned his hand to directing films too.
His first documentary as a director, aptly entitled, The First Film, was about Louis le Prince, the first person to ever make a film, which le Prince did in David’s home town of Leeds in 1888. It taught him that you don’t need to have all the money in place up front: “Nobody wants to be the first to invest.” He attracted money along the way. It helped having footage to show. The film, which was controversial at the time because it went against received wisdom as to who had shot the first film, was made over a two-year period with lots of time off.
Postcards from the 48% was David’s third film. It was harder to raise money for this documentary, given he was crowdfunding during the 2017 general election and competing with the likes of Gina Miller, who tended to hoover up Remain financing capability. However, from a distribution perspective, it was a successful venture. It opened only a month after he finished it, which is highly unusual in the film industry —6-18 months is more typical for a well-known director. Thanks to his extensive network as a distributor, he was able to show the film to cinema bookers as soon as he had a final cut. The film, which is a love letter to the EU to assure them that not all Brits are rabid Brexiters, was shown in cinemas in the UK, at festivals around the world and on TV in some EU countries.
David’s current film is Getting Away with Murder(s) about the 99 per cent of war crimes’ perpetrators in World War 2 who were never prosecuted. By ‘murders’, he means deliberate criminal acts, rather than casualties of war.
Making Getting Away with Murder(s)
Filming started in the Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. After that David and his director of photography, Don McVey, moved on to Lithuania and Latvia to cover mass killings that took place in small villages, and finally on to the Czech Republic to film details of non-Jewish murders. (While the Holocaust is most closely associated with Jewish people, of whom the Nazis killed approximately six million, they murdered around eleven million people in total, including Roma and Sinti, disabled and LGBT people, among others.) David and his team were desperate to get the filming done while the UK was still in the EU. It would be a lot more difficult to make the film now that Brexit has curtailed freedom movement for UK citizens.
The genesis of the film, which David has been making for the past three years, occurred 18 years ago while he was releasing a film called Taking Sides by Sir Ronald Harwood. Hollywood actor Harvey Keitel was fronting the interviews, but was unavailable to do promotion in the UK, so Harwood became the UK frontman. They spent a lot of time together. Harwood covered the Holocaust in most of his plays and screenplays: “The Holocaust informed him.”
One day they got to chatting about why Nazi murder cases pop up decades later. Harwood thought it was a good idea for David to pursue. David meant to make it before Postcards from the 48%, but put it on hold due to the political situation. He had not raised money for it and was becoming angry at rising anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, which he believed was just as bad in the Tory Party.
During filming, the thing that shocked David most was that the house Hitler grew up in is still standing, and is lived in now. He feels it should have been bulldozed. Hitler continues to provide inspiration to the far right and white supremacists today. Former US president Donald Trump admitted he had a book of Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table, for example. Fabricating the narrative that the election would be stolen long before it even took place was a typically Hitleresque thing to do. In the UK, erstwhile special advisor Dominic Cummings appeared to swot up on Goebbels’ communication techniques, built them into the Tory communications’ playbook and encouraged their use on the unsuspecting British public.
It is timely that the film is coming out now, as 2021 is the75th anniversary of the end of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, which Churchill was heavily involved in bringing to fruition. After that first trial, the Russians, French and British pulled out, while the US went on to do 12 more trials. There were over 400 suspected Nazi criminals living in the UK at the time, but only one was ever prosecuted — 53 years after arriving here He was charged with killing 18 Jewish people, even though he killed many more. That makes him a more prolific murderer than both the Rippers. One of those 400 suspects is still alive …
This was not a situation unique to the UK. It is estimated that there were 2,000 suspected war criminals in Canada, hundreds in the USA, 60 in Australia and that they were all over South America. Of the almost one million people who carried out the murders, Professor Mary Fulbrook, a leading expert on the causes and aftermath of the Holocaust, estimates that only 7,000 were ever prosecuted.
“It goes against all the precepts of being part of a so-called civilised society,” David says. “Abandoning the quest for justice for those innumerable innocent men, women and children goes against everything British justice is meant to stand for.”
The myth of untold wealth
Only one in ten films in the UK is profitable, and it is rare for a filmmaker, particularly the director, to make very much money. Recently, Hinterland and Poldark star Richard Harrington stunned the public when he admitted that he had taken to driving a van for Asda to put food on the table for his family. It’s only a tiny minority who make millions in TV and movies. Each series paid Harrington perhaps about £100,000, which would shrink to £50,000 after agent and legal fees had been deducted and tax paid.
David says that when he was raising funds for Postcards from the 48%, he was constantly being asked, “But you’re a filmmaker. You must be rich. Why don’t you make the film using your own funds?” David isn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, and he has put his life savings into making his last three films, including Postcards.
A proper budget for a film of that scale would be in the region of £350,000 to £450,000, but a broadcaster would not fund Postcards because it would violate their interpretation of the principle of ‘balance’. Postcards did well on iTunes, but he never saw a penny, as the overseas distributors, Kew Media, went bankrupt owing him thousands.
David is often reproached for not making the film before the 2016 referendum. Back then Brexiters raised £104,000 from a crowdfunder to make a film, full of disinformation. Seen by millions, David himself has met people who voted Leave because of it. At the time, however, the lies in the film seemed obvious and the idea of making a documentary about Brexit did not occur to him, as he never thought the country would vote to leave …
After the referendum, with all the competing crowdfunders for legal cases and so on, it was difficult enough to raise money for the film using the crowdfunding route, but Theresa May’s general election announcement scuppered it. Meanwhile, those involved in the Brexit film said Postcards was a failure and attempted to use the difficulty that David had in attracting funds against him, to tarnish his reputation. All of which illustrates that the film business is full of sharks.
What’s next for David Nicholas Wilkinson?
Undaunted, David carries on making beautiful, brilliant and provocative films – funds permitting. He currently has two projects on the go. The first one, Marbles, is about returning the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home in Athens. Known in the UK as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, they are currently housed in the British Museum. It’s another one of those films he has been thinking about for decades. He started to make it in 2009–10, but a mole in very senior political circles told him that, as long as the UK was one of the three senior countries in the EU, it would never come up – it would be buried. However, if we were ever to leave the EU …
The second film is in pre-production – a sequel to Postcards, with a working title of A Disaster Foretold? The idea is to do a balanced comparison of the results of Brexit to what was promised: what are the benefits? What isn’t quite as bad as imagined? What has gone wrong? It is still in the research phase. Sadly, he thinks it may take 40 years to rejoin. “Focus on the young!” he says.
Reflecting on what ties together the films A Disaster Foretold?, Postcards from the 48% and Getting Away with Murder(s) is the sense that, for those who have nothing, it is very powerful to vote for change. It is easier, in those circumstances, to feel that “Everything that’s wrong in your life, is the fault of Jews, immigrants, the EU, etc”.
That’s why we must hold our leaders to account in every way we can, including through documentary films.