MusicFilmWeb: Interview With ESCAPE FROM LUANDA Director Phil Grabsky

     |    Monday December 19th, 2011


This next post from MusicFilmWeb is Andy Markowitz’s interview with Phil Grabsky, director of BOY WHO PLAYS ON THE BUDDHAS OF BAMIYAN and many music-themed docs and TV series, including ESCAPE FROM LUANDA, which portrays an Angolan music school. First published on December 1, 2008, the interview offers still timely insights into life in Angola as well as into Grabsky’s other projects.

A veteran of numerous popular British TV documentary films and series, Phil Grabsky moved into features in the early 2000s with portraits of Pele and Muhammad Ali. After winning international recognition for 2003’s The Boy Who Played on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a multi-award-winning account of an 8-year-old boy and his family in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Grabsky spent three years criss-crossing Europe compiling In Search of Mozart, a definitive celebration/demythologization of Wolfgang Amadeus featuring a host of renowned musicians, ensembles, and historians. He is now in post-production with the similarly themed In Search of Beethoven, due out in 2009; in between he produced ESCAPE FROM LUANDA, an intimate examination of the lives of three students at Angola’s only music school.

MFW: How did you learn about [Luanda’s] National Music School, and what led you to make a film there?

Phil Grabsky: By and large I think there’s two approaches to films, and obviously music films. Most music films I’ve seen, people have an idea, and in a sense you can almost write the script before you start filming. And in a a way I’d just done one of those, In Search of Mozart. The narrative is there. And that was three years of finding the bits of jigsaw and making them fit. And as I was finishing Mozart I thought, what I want to do is go to a country that I don’t know and place myself in an environment where I don’t know what’s going to happen, where I don’t know who the characters are going to be and what’s going to happen to them. Which is exciting and risky. I was very fortunate – I went to Channel 4 in England and they said yes, we’d like you to make a film for us, and it was one of those very rare occasions where I more or less
had carte blanche.

The thing about looking at a country like Angola is that people will have preconceptions about it. There’s no question that the biggest stories are AIDS, or corruption, or poverty. But you also have to work in the real world, which is, people aren’t necessarily going to turn on to watch those films. So I like to do films where you draw people in and then you give them something extra, something meatier. Having just done Mozart I thought to myself – maybe it’s my own prejudice, but I thought, I can’t imagine being an opera singer in Angola, or a classical pianist. So I headed off, and I remember, you get the flight in from London, it arrives at 5, 6am, and by midday we’d already found out there was one music school in Angola. As soon as I’d gone in I thought, this is like Fame but without the ankle-warmers. Immediately all these preconceptions, all these gaps in your knowledge start falling away. There’s a hundred kids there, they look like kids from London, or Brighton, where I live, or New York. At the same time, immediately you know that the institution is very poor. Pretty quickly I decided that I would focus on that location, and try to look at Angola through the institution of a music school. And whilst I believe you make your own luck, I also was lucky, because those three characters all gave something different, a different slice of Luandan and therefore Angolan life.

MFW: They also seem extraordinarily open to the idea of exposing themselves and their lives to a foreign filmmaker. Did it take a long time and a lot of vetting to come up with Alfredo, Joana, and Domingas?

Grabsky: I’m always amazed. It happened in Afghanistan as well. You kind of come in and you feel like an alien, and you’ve got this camera, and you plunk yourself down – in Afghanistan it was in a cave, in Luanda in this music school – and you think it’s gonna take a while for people to get used to me, and it’s gonna be quite a lot of time spent just talking, chatting, explaining myself. But you know what? It was immediate. Some of them I wondered, “Do you realize I’m here, the filmmaker? Did you even notice?”

Alfredo says at one point in the film that if you talk too much in Angola it’s a ticket to the coffin. Did you find any difficulties or hindrances dealing with officialdom? Did they question what the hell you were doing there?

It’s a very powerful comment Alfredo makes there, because it comes out the blue, and I understood immediately when he said it. It connects to the fact that the political adversaries of the government there are not “others,” but are people like Alfredo and Joana. Joana as a woman also deals with this. Women are not really expected to go on stage, in fact one women student from the school had been killed [for] being at the school, and as we see in the film, both the partners of the two women in the film had left them because they’d gone to the school.

The difficulties for us were real and imaginary, if you like. The imaginary was that Angola has a reputation of being one the most dangerous countries in the world, Luanda is [reputedly] one of the most dangerous, violent cities in the world. I don’t think either are true, but you don’t really know that until you go there. So we exercised caution. I think that the fact that we were filming in the music school wasn’t terribly threatening.

MFW To go from Mozart to Angola, and you made a film at Chernobyl in between – that seems like a pretty hard swerve.

Grabsky: What drives me is just interesting projects. These days, though, I have to be much more pragmatic about it – where’s the money coming from, how can we distribute it.

MFW: I imagine Mozart and Beethoven are a better sell for fund-raisers, and better DVD bait.

Grabsky: They are. It’s an easier thing for us to invest our time and money in, because we know the DVD will do well.

MFW: In Search of Mozart seems at least in part to function as a kind of a riposte to Amadeus. Was it intentional? Did you set out to reclaim the historical figure from the Tom Hulce character?

Grabsky: Only once in my life have I ever gone to the film distributor and asked for the poster. I did this when I was 20, I guess it was ‘83. I’d seen Amadeus. I loved it so much I went to Wardour Street in London, to the distributors, and I begged. And I got one straight away. I had it on my bedroom wall for a long time. It’s a fantastic film. But when I sat in Glyndebourne [a popular English opera festival] after finishing my Afghan film, wondering what to do next, my wife took me to this opera, and I suddenly thought to myself, I wonder who he really was? He’s not gonna be like the Tom Hulce character, his wife’s not gonna be like Constanze is portrayed, etc. It’s a Hollywood film. To be honest Amadeus isn’t even about Mozart, it’s about Salieri and, as he calls it, the burden of mediocrity. It took me about a year, year and a half to get Tom Hulce out of my head – so that when I was reading about Mozart I wasn’t seeing Tom Hulce. And eventually what emerged was, not surprisingly, a very different character. I still think there’s a lot to be said for Amadeus, but it’s full of inaccuracy. And ultimately that’s good for [In Search of Mozart] because it’s a tagline everyone could use. All I had to do was say to people, “You know, he didn’t die a pauper, it wasn’t a pauper’s grave, Salieri didn’t poison him.”

MFW: One more question, not related to any of this but which I feel I must ask because you’re from Brighton: mod or rocker?

Grabsky: [Laughs] I probably would’ve been a rocker at that time. Although it was certainly cooler to be a mod.

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