Romantic Destruction in London’s East End
Break My Fall, the feature film debut from Kanchi Wichmann, explores the underbelly of a group of twenty-somethings in East London.
Films exploring the drug-riddled, gritty lifestyles of urban twenty-somethings are nothing new. From Kids to Spun, Human Traffic to Thirteen, directors have focused on groups of young adults, floating nocturnally from one dead-end hangout to the next, their loves, hates, trips and trysts exposed in an age-old formula.
Break My Fall, the feature film debut from Kanchi Wichmann, continues the genre in the atmospheric, ramshackle backstreets, warehouses and cafes of contemporary Hackney, to examine the lifestyle, and romantic destruction, of two lesbian protagonists, and their clique of outsider friends. Character-led, Break My Fall focuses on Liza and Sally, who are struggling to maintain their doomed relationship amidst a down-and-out lifestyle in Hackney. Liza, a student, continually doubts the fidelity of her girlfriend and is driven to wild rages of jealousy when Sally receives a letter from her ex-girlfriend. The pair fluctuate between caring devotion, silent resentment and violent hysterics and the destruction is clearly apparent to all those around them. Regularly visiting their dingy student flat, the girls’ friends, Jamie and Vin, provide two alternatives for lost existence. Vin is working as a rent boy and, along with Sally, he resolutely maintains a cheery demeanour and feigns ignorance to the anarchy around him. He’s also falling in love with Sally, and the two optimists seek solace in their friendship from the frequent anger and wrath of Liza’s drink and drug-taking. Completing the quartet is Jamie, an urbane, laid-back American who longs for some domesticity outside of his crazy existence working in a gay cabaret bar and taking home a different man each night. Muttering that “there’s a whole other world of people who go to bed at night and get up in the morning,” Jamie poignantly represents the escape route of normalcy to which the others seem oblivious.
Taking place over three days culminating in Liza’s disastrous 25th birthday party, the camera follows the foursome from Sally and Liza’s flat, to their dead-end jobs, band rehearsals, drinking binges, record shopping and to an ill-fated warehouse rave. The girls’ relationship self-destructs at an alarming rate, with domestic abuse, infidelity, distrust and terrifying emotional control all rife, until the inevitable estrangement.
Having previously created shorts including I Don’t Exist, Forty-One Gorgeous Blocks and Travelling Light, Wichmann has taken the bold step of funding this, her first feature film with the help of her crew: “It was very low-budget and a lot of the crew were friends or friends of friends.” This close-knit vibe created a relaxed, almost family-oriented set: “I’d say the process was mostly really good fun, it’s funny, when you see the film it’s quite emotional, but a lot of the time on set we were just buzzing with excitement (or nervous fatigue maybe). I had an amazing cast and crew, they just gave themselves to the project and really worked to make it happen.” Furthering this easy familiarity is the fact that “the locations were all places we know” and Hackney becomes a big part of the film – its Victorian terraces, local music stores and greasy spoons symptomatic of the changes that both the area and the characters are undergoing.
This area of East London, on the precipice of the Olympics, represents a dying microcosm of an underworld scene of lost, creative souls, something that Wichmann, as a Hackney-dweller since the age of 17, wanted to capture while it remained. “East London has that classic thing that happens in big cities, where the poor so-called ghetto areas get inhabited by artists and outsiders looking for cheap rent and a reason for their alienation from the mainstream and that creates a whole new subculture, but it’s changing fast – if you look at Dalston today, I remember when you would think twice using a cash machine there at night and now it’s just wall to wall trendy bars and clubs, so who can say how it will all end up?” It’s often beneficial, if not tantamount to a work’s success to write about and portray what you know and for Wichmann this depiction of Hackney was an important aspect of the film and its production. Asked if Break My Fall could have been situated elsewhere she is firm that, with her at the helm, it could not – “for me at this time no, because this is the world I know,” but goes on to discuss that “actually the story could have been set anywhere because the core of the story – Sally and Liza’s relationship and Liza’s decision to change – is essentially a universal story.”
Another important atmospheric element of Wichmann’s direction is the use of music throughout the film. Liza and Sally’s band Blanket contribute in a sense to Liza’s turmoil because, in spite of Liza’s college course and Sally’s part-time takeaway job, the music is where their passions lie. Still seizing on her hopes for a creative career, Liza is determined to continue rehearsals in the face of their crumbling relationship, but Sally’s fragile emotional state makes any kind of productivity impossible. Towards the end, Blanket is the only common goal that the girls can maintain, and in a way it seems like Sally sabotages its success through her continued nonchalance precisely because she recognises how important it is to Liza.
Emerging independent acts including Plug, Micachu, Wet Dog, Peggy Sue, Sam Amant, Alan MX, the Raincoats, Scout Niblett and Numbers, create an eclectic soundtrack of the UK’s freshest talent, due to a careful selection process by Wichmann. “Most of the bands I used are UK female-orientated, often lesbian and also in their 20s,” and it adds a further layer of authenticity to the work. Moving through the film the evolution of Liza and Sally’s relationship is played out in the soundtrack; the songs are all fairly indie, emotionally intense, occasionally riot grrrl tunes that immerse the viewer in the characters’ own experiences. “The music situates Liza and Sally against a backdrop without actually having to show the music scene within the film[… it] also supports the emotion of the film. [If] you listen to the songs on their own in the order they appear in the film this would reflect the journey of the narrative.” Interestingly the work of Blanket in the film adds a layer of Wichmann’s biography to the narrative, as the songs of the fictional band were penned by Wichmann and left aside until necessity brought them to light: “The Blanket music is some music I made, which I had not particularly intended to make public, but it was difficult to get a band who would give their songs to be the band songs … so the sound designer and I made the decision to use my songs.”
Alongside this use of an integrated soundtrack is the repetition of drawn-out, almost voyeuristic silences. We witness the characters lurching about their flat, hung-over, angry and withdrawn, and Wichmann allows the direction to go minutes at a time with no dialogue or direct action for the camera. In doing this Break My Fall aligns its methodology to the preoccupied, uncertain lives of its protagonists. Similarly the cinematography employs jolting camera-work, half-transferred typographical credits and blurring scenes to reflect the state of mind of the characters. For Wichmann this was a natural progression: “It supports the emotion and the world of the film and me and Dawid [Pietkiewicz, Director of Photography] planned that through very carefully. In terms of the titles and titles sequence, they reflect the world that Liza and Sally belong to; they don’t live in a glossy focussed world so for me there was no question of using HD or whatever to film it and having a shiny sharply focussed title sequence because then we would have just been watching them from the outside from a safe vantage point rather than being in their world with them.”
Having debuted at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Break My Fall will inevitably be classed as a gay film, and openly lesbian herself, Wichmann admits that it has an element of the autobiographical, but she stops short of attributing specific situations to her own experience. She explains: “The way I work is that I start from a point, usually an emotion or a situation, something very specific to me that I then grow into a story and characters that are not me.” Essentially as director, Wichmann returns to her familiar world, as with directing Blanket to perform her own compositions and situating the action in Hackney, of which she says: “The squat raves, the music scene, the drug scene etc. Yes it’s a world that I know, but not one that I frequent so regularly anymore!” The film is clearly a very personal project.
But Wichmann, however, sees the project as emblematic of the transitions that many people, both gay and straight, go through in early adulthood and repeatedly emphasises the universality of the central relationship, and the spectacular way in which it implodes over the course of a few days. “For me it’s a film about that point in your life … where the status quo just becomes untenable and something’s got to give, the point where you start to make choices rather than just reacting to things that happen to you.”
Break My Fall is symbolic of a transition that many people undergo at certain points in their lives. And as Wichmann argues, their worlds can be as gritty, drug-addled and party-oriented as those of the characters in the film. But equally these things can happen on a much more discreet level, and Break My Fall risks falling into clichés in creating such a cut-and-paste world of creative angst, particularly for the gay community. Wichmann defends these decisions by arguing: “I didn’t set out to make a ‘party-hard angst driven narrative,’ that’s just what the characters do, the backdrop to the story not the story itself – that is how people live and the story is not in the drugs and the late nights, when you live like that it’s normal to you, in the same way that getting up and going to work is normal to other people.” In creating such a narrative, and in making the experiences of her characters so explicit and raw, Wichmann achieves a sense of the universal in the script, even through the use of situations which, contrary to her argument, are extreme for many.
At times, Break My Fall navigates itself too easily into clichés of twenty-something lost souls, but conversely Wichmann consciously tried to avoid some of the clichés of lesbian relationships, recognising them as “moving in on the first date, getting a cat, merging into one person, co-dependency” and on the other hand she controversially acknowledges the domestic violence about which many have remained silent: “I wasn’t aware of there being a stereotype of lesbians being violent. I actually think it’s quite a taboo to acknowledge that there is violence in lesbian relationships too.” When asked if this emotional intensity is another lesbian cliché, Wichmann again emphasises the universality of the plot to a particular point in our lives: “I think the emotional intensity of their relationship is more to do with their age and their lifestyle – than to do with them being lesbians.”
Break My Fall is a difficult watch. While Sally, Vin and Jamie are all sympathetically portrayed, the protagonist Liza is difficult to relate to. Overly emotional, co-dependent and distracted beyond reason by (initially) unfounded jealousy, she drags her friends and the audience into a story of which they have no desire to be a part. The plight of Jamie becomes, in a way, representative of that of the viewer – you want to escape, to enjoy companionship and simplicity, but you are constantly drawn into a dark underworld of mind games, overindulgence and violence.
Wichmann’s film attempts a lot, and it aims to be an emotionally intense experience that eschews cinematic traditions, but at times plays up to its stereotyping too readily. The interesting thing is the rawness of the characters at the hands of the, at times, deeply unpleasant central character; and it would be interesting to see how Wichmann’s career would continue away from stumbling across the clichés of an East London indie film.