Vienna 2018

Vienna 2018 --

Last week I travelled to Vienna for a short break, my first-ever trip to the city. After years of not taking holidays it felt strange to be a tourist, to not arouse the suspicions of airport security staff nor explain why I'm carrying a camera kit plainly too sophisticated for the average traveller.

In my hotel room I stood before the floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out at the great roof of the Stephansdom. Here I recalled the connection, of how Erica's father, Bob Eisner had studied at the Technische Universität Wein at some point between the end of WW1 and his employment at the sárvári cukorgyár (sugar factory in Sárvár, Hungary) where he met and married the boss's daughter, Vera - my husband's grandmother.

Among the archive of films and photographs in 'Voyageuse' is an unused clip of the Stephansdom shot by Bob in the 1930s, before a fire destroyed its roof when looters torched the nearby shops after the Soviet Army entered the city in 1945. Sitting in my shed earlier, I leafed through a book once belonging to Vera, 'Der Weiner Stephansdom', written by a family friend, Anton Macku in 1948, alongside a book of charming line drawings of animals made by him for Erica. How quickly everything passes into memory, I thought.

To add to the strangeness of my trip, on my first night in Vienna, I was – frankly – gobsmacked to read a 4-star review of 'Voyageuse' written by Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's film critic. While any filmmaker would be thrilled by such a positive write-up, for me – as those following this blog know – it's especially welcome, particularly in a week when the LFF is in full swing. It's not as if there's a shortage of films to write about.

Last year I pursued film festivals but without success since the film has no pedigree and is limited only to English language fests given the extent of its spoken word. So it was fortuitous that it was invited to screen at the Glasgow Film Festival, otherwise it wouldn't have been eligible for this year's BAFTA Scotland Awards, which recently announced that Siân Phillips has been nominated in the Best Actress (Film) category. Considering she doesn't appear in the film is an accolade in itself. Had I the wherewithal I would hire every great, older actress in each of the major foreign language territories to perform my screenplay, but sadly I don't. Still, it's been fun thinking about it.

After the recent London screening which, if I'm honest, could have been better attended, I've had to reconsider the value of cinema outings. Previously I thought – as most filmmakers still do – that theatrical screenings are the holy grail but valuable as they are, especially for the pleasure of meeting audiences, the effort and expense involved is hard to justify.

Of course for films with distribution, usually the cost is borne by the distributor or subsidised by national and regional funders. Having no such support places 'Voyageuse' in a precarious position because with no marketing or PR machine to attract an audience, the margins are simply too low to make sense. Though I never intended to fill my boots with V. I never expected to empty them either.

In an overcrowded arena reviews are hard to come by. In advance of the recent London screening, I did something uncharacteristic - at a friend's behest, (they supplied a contact) - I wrote to a well-known female film critic whose non-reply seems standard operating procedure. Yet often the only thing that can elevate a small arthouse film are positive comments/reviews. The bind however is how critics too are beleaguered, on one hand having to write about the latest Hollywood blockbuster and on the other - in certain publications - the most obscure work of World Cinema.

Some years ago my first feature attracted a comment from a random punter on IMDB who felt it wasn't 'funny' enough. I couldn't summon the will to inform my detractor that I hadn't made a comedy. I expect critics to be more thoughtful and discerning. Or witty, as in Walter Kerr's much-plagarised 'Me no Leica' review of the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 'I am a Camera.'

It's not acknowledged enough how critics too have their own audience and reputation to consider. Personally I can't retreat behind a disclaimer, how I had no money, time, cast, crew or PR to make a 'better' film. Neither can credible critics. I expect my work to be judged, if not exactly on a par with that of a $200m franchise movie with a $150m marketing spend but within reasonable parameters based on whether or not they believe my film fulfills its own intentions or at the very least, sustains itself in an interesting way. In an increasingly narrow marketplace, the best critics provide a bulwark against homogeneity. Not everyone will like my film, I know, but the strike rate on V. has been pretty good thus far and I'm grateful to Peter Bradshaw for taking the time to watch and to comment.

In his review, Bradshaw describes V. as one of the most enjoyable documentaries of the year and yet again I wonder - why does this label persist? Frustrating as it is, I'm aware how those watching it are so convinced of Erica's account that they believe the 'writing' belongs to her when in fact it took me over two years and some deep soul searching to find her voice and write the screenplay. Only a few letters and diary extracts are truly Erica's. I guess I ought to take this perceived veracity as a compliment.

I should worry. Earlier today the critic and great supporter of my work, Siobhan Synnot kindly tweeted about V's upcoming screening at 6.00pm on Tuesday 23rd at the Light House, Dublin as part of a showcase of New Scottish Cinema hosted by the Virgin Media Dublin Film Festival. In it she added how Voyageuse was made on a fraction of the cost of 'Outlaw King', David Mackenzie's new feature, reportedly the most expensive indigenous film ever produced in Scotland. She's not kidding. At a rough calculation I estimated that V. cost less than 1/2000th of OK's budget or, as I replied to her – 'I squandered the housekeeping money.'

As I once said in relation to my first feature, it's not what a film costs, it's what it's worth. If V. turns out to be a succès d'estime rather than a money-spinner then my work here is done.

The above image is a view of the Stephansdom taken from my hotel room last week. The roof was replaced and the cathedral reopened in 1948.

Comments ---


It is a complement that they cannot distinguish between your writing and a quote from a woman who was clearly very intelligent (however, it might be an idea to make the title “Written by May Miles Thomas” bigger!).

Bradshaw explains further that the mention of a letter and photo archive has led him to the label ‘documentary’.

In a way, it’s neither a documentary, nor a straight drama. Like some of Peter Greenaway’s films, it toys with the idea of what fiction is. Haneke also does this. If I write a false narrative about my own life, it’s called autobiography, even though it’s fictional. And if you write something about me which is more truthful than anything I was able to articulate in my life, it’s ‘fiction’. It’s like the lipstick smile that Erica reluctantly paints on: Is it expression of intent, or manipulation of the viewer?

That’s why I found V comparable to an artistic documentary, such as ‘The Decent One’, even though I was aware that the poetry of the prose was too considered just to be a random letter. Sîan Phillips’ delivery is so deadpan and precise, that it comes across as if Philips was an old friend of Erica’s, reading highlights from letters which have been left for her specifically. Like she’s actually stung by the words. It’s chilling occasionally.

Voyageuse really messes with the viewer’s mind if they’re paying attention (in a good way). The effect is so convincing that I think if the right executive came across it, they might commission a series of them for different non-fiction/historical characters, ‘Traces of Life’. I’m not sure if you would want that, but it would certainly work. I see the minimalist approach akin to an artistic choice rather than just a budget constraint.

Most critics are a little too concerned with ‘finding’ an audience (in the sense that marketeers ‘find’ a sale) rather than allowing an audience to find them. The big magazines that I read as a kid are now more worthless and derivative than the average blogger. David Simon has written a lot about this as he was both a very good journalist and is now an excellent realist drama writer.


Thanks Ross,

Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply to your comment. I’ve been caught up with so many things lately, including work on my latest film which I’m shooting this year and writing a proposal for a very ambitious work, an offshoot of Voyageuse based on the life of Tom Polgar who is referred to several times in the script which I plan to shoot in the US.

You may be aware that Peter Bradshaw listed V. among his top films of 2018 under documentaries. I take it as a compliment that he feels the film possesses such veracity that the words somehow fell out of Sian’s mouth unwritten and unrehearsed. In fact I’m grateful to him because it’s the first time my work’s been reviewed in a national newspaper. Any positive comment is to be welcomed because without the machine behind me, it’s nigh on impossible to get any visibility. Certainly it’s changed the perception of the film, as did the BIFA Discovery Award.

That said, I doubt anything will result from the recent attention, having no representation and being based in Glasgow. While it would be wonderful to earn some kind of living from my films, I accept that my future work is unlikely to attract funding. Since I’m ineligble for public funding in Scotland (I don’t meet their criteria) I’m resigned to making films for their own sake, on my own dime and within my gift. The way I work now offers great freedoms and gives me greater satisfaction than pursuing a career in TV, say, or chasing relatively low levels of finance over many years to make over-managerialised dramas.

Of course, I’d love for my films to find a larger audience. In 2019, there’s a chance that Voyageuse will appear on the big screen again and on one of the main streaming platforms. Time will tell.

In the meantime you can read about my new project on my main company website. I wish you a Happy New Year and all the best for your own projects. Please keep in touch.



Thanks May,
This is a very strange coincidence – you’ve chosen to do a study of Thomas Polger next. For years I was obsessed with Operation Gladio, after coming across the old BBC2 Documentary when I was a student. It has always seemed to me that this was one of the key developments in manufacturing a veneer of consent, which allows the underlying structures of western politics to remain largely unchanged despite repeated public opposition to certain NATO policies and wars. The name Gladio is rarely mentioned in news coverage, yet history seems to be repeating itself with the outbreak of fake ‘populist’ i.e. quasi-fascist political parties across the EU. The justification is essentially the same now as it was then for a ‘defense’ of European borders. The ideological labels have changed of course, although an occasional dose of Russo-phobia never hurts the cause.

I’m looking forward to what you make of the subject. Perhaps you’ll become Scotland’s answer to Adam Curtis, or better. And please don’t resign yourself to a small viewership. Certain popular global streaming services have now created quite a large market for so called ‘niche’ documentaries and docu-dramas. ( Werner Herzog has even signed up and he’s hardly a conformist. This same company has funded at least two major productions in the Glasgow area in the last year, without any need for a national studio. So who knows? The old funding structures are decrepit and some of the crowd funding that happens is just downright cheeky and vain. Perhaps you’re on the right path. Gradually building momentum and confidence.

It seems to me that your blending of fact and prose is in fact perfectly timed for an age when a net-savvy population is seeking out new modes of expression and interpretations of the past. Hopefully Bradshaw will continue to support your work (and you can argue about competition categories later).