This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 07/05/2018.
How Croydon filmmaker Sheila Marshall achieved international success
In January 2018, a film made in Croydon won the Lift Off Festival’s global award for best feature documentary. Croydonian Sheila Marshall is its director and co-producer, in collaboration with neuroscientist Kris de Meyer of King’s College London.
First of all – many congratulations, and please tell us about the award!
“The Lift Off Global Network is a series of ten festivals held in major world cities including Sydney, Los Angeles and London. We submitted our documentary, Right Between Your Ears, to Los Angeles Lift-Off in 2017. We then played at Sydney Lift-Off and were delighted when it won Best Feature Documentary there. Then we were nominated in London for the 2017 season award for Best Feature Documentary – and on 12th January 2018, at the awards ceremony held at Pinewood Studios, we won!”
How did you decide that you wanted to make films in the first place?
“I studied political economy and originally planned to be a civil servant or journalist. But I always loved film and later I applied for a vocational scheme supported by the film and TV industry, which was called FT2. Mike Leigh was its patron and it was great training. I became a script supervisor for film and television. Later, I also worked in documentary and comedy production for BBC and C4 shows. I also worked in development on a UK Film Council and Film 4 scheme and in comedy.”
Right Between Your Ears is a story about people who have an extreme or unusual belief – in this case, they believe a prediction that the world is about to end – who commit their lives to it, then learn that they are wrong. Whose idea was it to make a film about this?
“Kris de Meyer came across the prediction in the news in the spring of 2011. We’d been friends for years and had been discussing how to bring interesting insights from science to a wider audience. Meanwhile, Kris had been interested in how people become more polarised around important subjects. So when we heard about a radio station called Family Radio in Oakland, California, foretelling the end of the world on a specific date – 21st May 2011 – it seemed a perfect opportunity to collaborate and look into how people believe.”
So the film was shot in LA in April and May 2011, as Doomsday supposedly approached?
“Yes – we had to make a decision and move quickly. We approached bodies which we hoped might support us, but no-one really picked it up as they thought the story would just die on 22nd May 2011 when the world didn’t end. In fact, the psychology of conviction has become more and more topical since then, as gulfs have opened up between groups such as Trump supporters and opponents in the US, and Brexiteers and Remainers in the UK. That’s kept our material extra-relevant: I’d say that interest has grown.
But at the time, it was certainly a risk. We were on a tight budget, so we stayed in Airbnb-type accommodation in LA and lived frugally. Then while we were out there, we heard that the Wellcome Trust had awarded us a production development grant, so we were able to extend our stay.”
The film is ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style and you were witnessing extraordinary events as people lived through what they thought were their last days on Earth. What was it like shooting it?
“First of all, we weren’t the only ones interested. There were quite a few crews around. But we did have a different angle. A lot of the others focused on the man who had made the prediction, Harold Camping, CEO of Family Radio (he died in 2013). But because the other filmmakers often asked what his followers believed, they tended to get similar, often religious, answers. We were looking at the experience of believing, what was happening to those who accepted the 21st May prediction, and how they had come to this point.”
Watching the film, I got scared for the believers as 21st May approached, and thought they might be severely emotionally affected. Did you worry about this too?
“Yes. The followers were regular, nice people. It was hard to tell how dangerous their beliefs were to them. We actually asked Elliot Aronson, the social psychologist who is interviewed in the film, if he thought they were at risk, and he reassured us. These believers were still living normal lives in the community and had friends and family members who didn’t accept that the end of the world was coming. Some of them did quit their jobs, but one was told by her boss that she could come back if Doomsday didn’t work out, for example.
That’s the whole point of the film – to examine how a conviction can actually take hold of us once we go along with believing. In the end, there was a period of discomfort, even distress, for them – which we filmed as 21st May came and went and they had to accept that they were mistaken.”
So you came back to the UK with a lot of work to do…
“We ended up with over a hundred hours of footage and our finished film is sixty-two minutes long. It could have been longer, but we chose to focus tightly on what psychology and neuroscience can teach us about belief, yet not aim the film at scientists.”
…and that work was done in Croydon, a lot of it in 3Space, the start-up workspace, which at that time was in Southern House near East Croydon (it closed in 2016)…
“We were very fortunate to be able to base ourselves there. 3Space was a networking space and it was valuable to get the support of other start-up companies and people who were also prepared to take risks in their working lives. We went along to Croydon Tech City events, made contacts and learned more about business. I attended a start-up finance course run by CTC. In the mornings we would meet at the Smoothbean coffee shop. Then because we were promoting the film all around the world, we had to work late, so we headed for Matthews Yard and [BRGR&BEER] and we met Bobski too – now we love Bobski’s blondies!”
Then when the film was ready, you had to take it out and market it. How difficult was that?
“It’s been a tricky sell – but gradually it gathered momentum. We submitted it to festivals, used our contacts, got it to the British Science Festival and invited people from the media to screenings. It’s been shown on Cathay Pacific Airlines, broadcast in Brazil and shown at universities in Britain, Ghana and Norway and at festivals in California and Belgium. There was a particularly intriguing response at the Astra Film Festival in Romania, where it was followed by the longest Q&A the festival has ever had, and the next showing was packed as well. Then it was selected as one of the festival’s six best films and taken on tour around the country. So something about this film clearly resonates in Romania! It’s been hard graft for both of us, though.
To return to an earlier point, I do think the subject has become more relevant as time has gone on, and we couldn’t have predicted that. For example, Kris has been interviewed on the BBC about the issue of fake news.”
What happens next?
“We’re taking the film into more schools and we’re really excited about a screening at the Royal Institute in London on Tuesday 15th May.”
Do you think the fact that this film was made in Croydon is part of its success?
“Definitely. One of the best experiences that I’ve had has been sharing our success with people in Croydon who supported us before the film had achieved anything. We found so much help and a beautiful sense of community here. We will both be forever grateful.”