by Matt James Smith
Still/Breathing is a 5 minute film made up of direct-to-camera interviews with people who experience conditions of breathlessness. The contributors discuss their experiences candidly, giving the viewer insights into how breathlessness can impact daily life. The film was commissioned by the Life of Breath research project to be displayed in-gallery as part of a reel of films screened within the Catch Your Breath exhibition at Palace Green Library (Durham) and on tour.
The aim of this specially-commissioned film was to represent Life of Breath research in a way that complemented the rest of the exhibition, so ideas about what direction the film should take evolved as the exhibition came together. In the early stages, we discussed making a colourful, kinetic and strikingly visual piece to ensure that the exhibition represented ideas of “breathing” in many forms. However, as the exhibition came together we realised that the other artefacts and films in the exhibition adequately covered these concepts. Through talking with the Life of Breath team and Palace Green Library exhibitions team, it became clear that properly representing voices of people experiencing conditions of breathlessness was a priority.
Every film I make is, for me at least, a journey of one sort or another. Making the film Still/Breathing for the Catch Your Breath exhibition was a genuine journey of discovery for me – and despite the emotional and sometimes difficult stories I heard while making it, an extremely rewarding one.
Making the invisible visible
As I talked to the Life of Breath team about the research project – and later to the film’s contributors who experience breathing issues on a regular basis – one word came up again and again: invisibility. What I heard was that the invisibility of breathlessness takes several forms.
On an individual level, breathlessness can be invisible because people who are not familiar with its often debilitating nature don’t recognise when someone is struggling. Prior to embarking on this project, I for one, was quite ignorant of the majority of experiences the contributors share in the film. On a societal level, breathlessness is also invisible for a number of reasons. We don’t talk about it enough, perhaps in part because a sense of shame accompanies many forms of breathlessness – for example, smokers are blamed for bringing it on themselves, while those with TB are shunned out of fear. We also lack widespread cultural reference points on breathlessness, and we don’t invest sufficient healthcare resources in it. Finally, the demographic groups it affects most (namely, the elderly working-class in now de-industrialised regions of the country) are dramatically underrepresented in the mainstream media and positions of influence.
With the above in mind, it seemed that this video project offered an opportunity to “make visible” experiences of breathlessness and perhaps, however small, contribute a “cultural reference point” that may enable future conversations on the topic.
As I saw it, there were two basic approaches to “making visible” experiences of breathlessness: one – to attempt to illustrate the inner workings of the body (perhaps though animated visualisations of the physical breathing mechanism of the body, or by simply filming people suffering with breathlessness as they went about their daily tasks); or two – to offer a platform to those with first-hand experience of breathlessness and let them speak as directly and openly about it as they felt able to.
I was concerned that the first approach could lead to impersonal scientific illustration (sensibly, the Life of Breath team had very early in the project forbidden use of images of disembodied lungs!). Even worse, an “illustrative” approach risked the dignity of the contributors – asking them to “perform” their symptoms on camera would potentially reinforce a sense of difference and otherness in those suffering from breathlessness. This was not the desired goal of the piece – it was essential that viewers were able to relate directly with the contributors – our approach had to provoke empathy and it needed to open up a space in which talking about breathlessness was easier. The aim of this film was explicitly to connect on a human level. At the risk of making a visually simplistic piece, it seemed obvious that at least the foundations of the film should be direct-to-camera testimony.
As is often the case, one of the most challenging aspects of this project was identifying and involving appropriate contributors. We looked first to local Breathe Easy groups (a network of community support groups for people with breathing issues, under the umbrella of the British Lung Foundation). I had some difficulties making initial contact, finding able and willing participants and scheduling shoot days. These support groups are largely run by volunteers who experience serious breath-related health issues themselves, so their resources, time and energy is often limited. However, through a variety of channels (including direct introductions from the Life of Breath research team) I established relationships with a number of extremely generous and undaunted individuals who very much wanted to contribute to any attempt to broaden the conversation around breathlessness.
I had a series of very eye-opening and rewarding conversations with the people you see in the finished film. These long interviews (about 8 hours-worth were recorded in total) were conducted via my own take on renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s ‘Interrotron’. Basically, an Interrotron (yes, the name is tongue-in-cheek) is a piece of equipment that allows the interviewer – through use of a TelePrompter and video relay system mounted to the camera lens – to make eye contact with the interviewee while they stare back directly into the lens.
“Teleprompters are used to project an image on a two-way mirror. Politicians and newscasters use them so that they can read text and look into the lens of the camera at the same time. What interests me is that nobody thought of using them for anything other than to display text: read a speech or read the news and look into the lens of the camera. I changed that. I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person.”Errol Morris
There are a few benefits to this approach – firstly, viewers of the resulting recording are, as it appears, addressed directly by the contributor. Furthermore, during the interview, rather than having the lifeless, reflective black ‘eye’ of a camera lens staring back at them, contributors are addressing a human face (the video image of the interviewer – in this case, myself). Almost every contributor remarked how much easier it made the sometimes daunting process of having a large technical object pointed at them. Rather than becoming subject to the camera, this system allows contributors to assume a more direct and active relationship with the recording process and, eventually, the audience. The film’s eventual viewer becomes not so much voyeur in this schema, but rather direct addressee.
The people who allowed themselves to become vulnerable in front of the camera came from a variety of backgrounds – from ex-nurses and social workers, to retired policemen and PE teachers. As well as the main film, which combines excerpts from all of the interviews, I made a series of short “stand-alone” videos, each of which gives a bit more time to the contributors individually. If you would like to learn more about each person’s experiences of breathlessness, it’s worth taking the time to watch these individual interviews and hear in a little more depth each contributors’ personal story.
Though the simplicity of the to-camera format was established by the time editing began, I did experiment with some more elaborate visual ideas that were in the end left on the cutting-room floor. The most successful was the “grid” format, which we trialed in the gallery but eventually decided against, in favour of the simple and direct format (you can view the rejected ‘grid’ version below). In the end, it was felt that the content of the interviews and the directness of the to-camera interview format was engaging enough to carry the piece and that in the busy context of the gallery space it benefitted from the simpler format.
This was a collaborative project from start to finish. During production, collaboration with the on-screen contributors ensured that their various experiences were faithfully represented. During pre- and post-production, excellent communication with – and continuous feedback from – David Wright of Palace Green Library, as well as Sarah McLusky and Jade Westerman from the Life of Breath project, meant that I was able to deliver a project that met the goals of the commission and stayed true to the concerns of the research project and exhibition.
As well as the main film, which was screened within the exhibition, and the stand-alone interviews, which were added to the Catch Your Breath website, I also created social media-ready clips using outtakes from the main film. I created a 1 minute version of the film that could be used on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with a ‘call to action’ URL to view the entire film on the Catch Your Breath website or YouTube channel. I also created a number of short (10-15 second) ‘vertical’ clips formatted to 9:16 for Instagram Stories and/or Snapchat. The composition of the original 16:9 widescreen portraits, which uniformly kept the contributor’s head in centre of frame, lent itself well to this format.
The response to the finished film has been very positive. I have heard both first- and second-hand accounts of viewers being moved by the testimony of the piece’s contributors. Even some partners and close relatives of those suffering from conditions of breathlessness confessed that they hadn’t quite appreciated certain aspects of the impact it can have on daily life. I have also heard from contributors how taking part in the project has (no pun intended) breathed new life into their support group and that being given a platform to talk about experiences of breathlessness has offered a certain sense of empowerment.
Perhaps the most rewarding experience for me was being invited to my local Breathe Easy group to screen the film and talk about the process of making it. As I have mentioned previously, my hope is that the film may contribute in some way to opening up a space for people to reflect upon and discuss issues of breathlessness. The honesty and openness of the film’s contributors provoked a meaningful discussion after it was screened at the Breathe Easy session I attended, with insights on both personal and social issues covered in the film raised by most members of the group.
What this project led me to understand, perhaps better than any I’d undertaken before it, is that the most rewarding and impactful films don’t live only on a screen, confined to their runtime. They have a life that begins in the collaborative nature of their creation, which can be empowering and enriching for the contributors, and continues once the film finds an audience, provoking discussion, emboldening people to speak within the context of the work and offering a cultural reference point through which a conversation may begin.
Matt James Smith is a freelance filmmaker based in North East England. He holds a practice-led PhD in lens-based media from Newcastle University (AHRC funded), which explored notions of truth in the documentary image. Much of Matt’s client work now involves translating academic research into accessible, authentic and impactful visual storytelling. He lives in County Durham with his wife and their two young children. You can see more of his work at https://mattjamessmith.com
Format: Single-channel video projection
Producers: Matt James Smith and the Life of Breath project team
Director: Matt James Smith