“It’s not until you see a film that the penny drops”: In conversation with Anna Hall

Time is a funny thing during lockdown. An hour can both stretch into infinity and be over in a heartbeat. The first ‘stay at home’ announcement feels like an eternity ago, while at the same time feeling like it was just yesterday. Sometimes, time appears to move backwards, before (perhaps after a brief nap) you find yourself hurtling towards the next millennium.

Life in the days of coronavirus is a strange beast, but something we’re bound to share in a totally unique way. It’s that rollercoaster of highs and lows – that resolutely British sense of humour in the face of hardship – that the recent Channel 4 documentary A Day in the Life of Coronavirus Britain captures so brilliantly.

The programme – which aired on April 6th – comprises a mix of user-generated and professional footage, all captured around the UK on April 3rd. It’s the brainchild of multi-award-winning director, Anna Hall, who answers my call from her car on one of the sun-drenched May mornings we’ve had so many of in lockdown. I don’t ask where she’s going, but by the sound of her packed schedule, it’ll be somewhere important. We chat as she drives. How is she finding this new reality?

“It’s been pretty relentless,” she says, telling me about balancing various work projects with family life – her three grown-up children having moved home to see out the virus. “It’s like living in a student house at the moment! The challenge is how to keep going through the next few months. That’s going to be the same for every small production company in the country.”

It’s news to no one that the creative industry has taken a hard blow from the pandemic – and that’s exactly the challenge people like Anna are encountering right now, trying to stay busy, stay afloat and keep offering as much work as they can to the communities of talented freelancers left wondering what’s next.

It seems a happy twist, then, that as well as capturing the raw spirit of coronavirus Britain in a truthful, poignant way, the documentary served the simultaneous purpose of fuelling Leeds’ film scene with work – even if it was only for one (fairly intense) weekend. So how did the idea begin?

“We were interested in trying to reflect Britain,” says Anna, telling me how she and Executive Producer, Brian Woods, took inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Life in a Day to come up with the documentary’s concept.

Channel 4 was quick to commission the programme – but not before a little haggling over their initial request to edit the film in a single day. “I was like, ‘no, we definitely can’t do that, but we could do it over a weekend’”, says Anna, telling me how a 46-strong team came together to work on the film.

Anna was focused on the need to express all of Britain – “not just a bit of the north or a bit around M25”. To do that, she employed eight producer directors around the country and built a ‘shopping list’ of the content to shoot. On that list were the daily experiences of milkmen and farmers, supermarket cashiers and NHS workers – as well as moments from families and people cohabiting across the nation.

One particularly moving clip from the film features funeral director, Skye Knight, talking honestly about her experience of the pandemic. “Once I knew we’d got a funeral director, I was able to start planning, in a very sensitive way, how we could reflect, the fact that people were dying,” says Anna, telling me that the biggest challenge was maintaining a coherent and respectful narrative throughout such a diverse array of footage.

About a week before the designated day, an appeal for material went out to the general public. “By the end of the day, we had 3,185 clips,” says Anna, remembering the mammoth challenge of editing all that content in a single weekend. 

“We took over a production house in Leeds, and had an army of editors working in rotation,” she tells me, emphasising how the hard work of her team mirrored that of the British public in providing the clips. “We weren’t expecting so much funny material,” she says, telling me how the clips of children added a lighter perspective to the whole programme. “One of my favourite clips was a little girl making emergency buttons for her toys. She’d cut out these buttons that she’d drawn, and her toys had to press them if they weren’t feeling very well.”

The film has had an overwhelmingly positive response, with thousands of viewers moved to tears by the intelligent encapsulation of what this strange moment in time feels like.

In more normal times, Anna is no stranger to evoking strong emotional reactions with her films. As Creative Director of Candour TV (previously True Vision Yorkshire), she’s built on years of freelance work to develop a reputation for making hard-hitting films.

“We run the Catching a Killer brand for Channel 4, and I’ve done a lot of work on domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation,” she tells me. “I’ve never really shied away from all that difficult stuff. I was one of the first journalists to expose the pattern of gang grooming happening in Bradford,” which she did with a powerful trilogy of films back in 2004.

“Telly is an amazing medium,” she says. “We can all see a leaflet saying, ‘forced marriage is illegal’, but sometimes it’s not until you see a film that the penny drops.”

Anna’s impressive CV stretches from recent BBC3 series School of Hard Tricks (in which six disenfranchised young people from Bradford learn magic) to harrowing BBC1 domestic violence film Behind Closed Doors, and restorative justice documentary, Family Secret, which follows a case of intra-familial sex abuse.

She tells me how some of her toughest films have presented themselves to her organically, and that the response is what makes it worth it. “It’s not like I’m flicking through the Daily Mail wondering what to do next – sometimes these films just land. For me, it’s about breaking the taboo and starting the conversation. If one person sees that film and it helps them or changes their mind about something, we’ve done our job. That’s what we do it for.”

As our call draws to a close – Anna’s hectic schedule calling her to another meeting, and my battery running dangerously low (another inherent problem of constant virtual conversations in lockdown), I’m struck by a feeling that Anna has many more incredible stories to tell; stories that will doubtless emerge in the films she goes on to make, and in the many viewers yet to see the poignant issues captured in the ones she’s made already. 

It’s inspiring to see such talent resisting the pull of the capital and making it work in this northern city. Now, with Channel 4’s roots firmly laid, with the council taking steps to fuel young creativity, and with universities adapting their offers to what the industry really needs, it feels like an exciting time for the future of film.

Photograph provided by Anna Hall.

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