Director Bouha Kazmi recounts the creative decisions and gruelling production efforts that went into the new film for the French band’s track ‘Station 13’
The music video for French band Indochine’s track ‘Station 13’ is one of those films that leaves its mark on you. It’s the sort of film that provokes an emotional response just remembering it days later. Directed by London-based filmmaker Bouha Kazmi, it offers up a series of disturbing images of what at first appear to be ordinary men as they are persecuted by police and society, only to offer up a magical-realist twist later on.
Shot in South Africa and released on the week of what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, the film inevitably evokes the atrocities committed during the country’s Apartheid era. But it’s more far-reaching than that. With influences ranging from Renaissance paintings to the American civil rights movement, the film has a disturbingly timeless quality to it.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Bouha to find out exactly what it took to make this brutal portrait of intolerance.
LBB> Where did the idea come from? Is racism and intolerance something you've been wanting to address in your films for a while? Or was it a spur-of-the-moment decision?
BK> The subject matter was something that I’ve been wanting to address and just didn’t have the right opportunity to do so. It’s not often that you get to make films on such hard-hitting topics. I always knew that I wanted to come at it from another angle, taking a more metaphorical approach.
The band had approached me with an open brief. They expressed that they wanted to make a film rather than a music video, and that was as much input as they had in terms of guidance. I’d originally written them a 15-minute sci-fi concept that dealt with the same societal topics and themes. Both the band and the label were keen, but we eventually had to change course due to budget and scheduling issues. So, I came back to them with this concept, and it felt right, it felt more compelling, more emotionally resonant and relatable.
I had some key images in my mind of angels being forcefully restrained by humans - scenes that depicted mankind’s ignorance and fear of things they didn’t understand, taking something transcendent and forcefully bringing it down to their level and devastating it.
I had total freedom, and we were very much trusted to just get on with it – the label and band wished us luck before flying out and no one on client side attended the shoot. They embraced not seeing anything at all until the edit stage, which was remarkably rare and pretty amazing.
Nicola Sirkis (the singer) and I spoke about what the song meant to him; it was his response to seeing his musical peers and friends dying around him - amongst them David Bowie – and feeling as though he was the only person left in a world that no longer understood him, like ruins of memories and fallen loved ones.
My initial interpretation of the lyrics unearthed a scream of desperation and salvation for humanity. An inaudible cry for help. The feeling of racial and cultural isolation framed within a global and societal context. Considering the plight of groups of people banished from where they call home, stripped of their human dignity, treated like outcasts of society and excluded from any civilised form of existing. It’s a vicious cyclical story that resurfaces over different periods of mankind’s history - the characters and the regions may differ over time, but the story remains a constant. Adding symbolic magical realism to what was already something very empathetic helped to elevate the story into something more metaphorical, and strangely enough, perhaps even more digestible.
LBB> Why was now the right time for this video?
BK> In this current climate, the world needs to salvage its moral compass and surmount the deep racial and political conflicts that are emerging as a result of prejudiced and isolationist views. Alienating pockets of society and subjecting them to hatred and violence because of where they come from, or how they look, is a recipe for cultural chaos. These historical and cyclical events raise unsettling questions about where we’re headed, and there desperately needs to be a turning point.
LBB> Is the video meant to be set in any specific time or place? Of course, there's the supernatural aspect but it feels almost timeless. Was that a conscious decision?
BK> Blurring the lines between the past, present and future was a conscious decision that I made before developing the story. I wanted to show the chilling parallels between what mankind had experienced fifty years ago and the likeness that we are witnessing today. Similarly, with location, we eventually shot in the historically and politically significant South Africa, but that shouldn’t change the fact that the story is one that could have taken place anywhere, on any continent.
LBB> The film takes influences from the civil rights movements of the 20th century as well as Renaissance painters. What was the rationale behind combining those aesthetics?
BK> I was particularly interested in allegorical paintings and symbolism that could be interpreted to expose moral meanings – especially ones relating to justice. I did a lot of research covering Renaissance paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries – some included works by Peter Paul Rubens, such as Massacre of the Innocents and The Fall of the Damned, along with others by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, and Caravaggio – and despite the huge jump in time to the present day, there were very obvious parallels between some of the theatrical representations from that period, and photographs from events relating to the civil rights movement of the 1960s – as well as those that have taken place over the last three years.
Although the religious paintings emphasize a sense of the dramatically divine, there is also a discernible realism in them that grips your attention, and in comparison, I could see similarities between the philosophically accepted savagery of these works of art and the brutality observed in modern reportage photography. In both cases, there’s a very evident struggle of the opposites, as well as a noticeable involvement on the spectators’ part, which further pushes the realism of the scenes.
LBB> On a practical filmmaking level, how did you do the wings? You have a strong VFX pedigree in your body of work. Was there much of that involved?
BK> There’s actually very little post production involved in this project, with the exception of the shot of the sky during the intro, the spurting blood elements towards the end, and a handful of minimal clean-up shots.
We explored the CGI route for the wings, but were presented with a number of problems. Knowing that we would have a very tight shoot schedule, we made a conscious decision to only work with natural light, which consequently meant we had no control over its constantly changing quality. When considering that each feather would have had to react differently depending on the availability and movement of light, together with the angles and positions associated with each shot’s physical action, it would have been a monumental nightmare to recreate a realistic depiction of all the subtle characteristics. More importantly, all the post houses we approached were unwilling to the take the project on anyway… which was really a blessing in disguise, since I wanted both the characters and the wings to feel genuinely present and tangible, and there was a worry that CGI would distance the audience by stripping away texture and realism.
What followed were extensive conversations with Cape Town-based SFX designer Chad Waller, who had previously worked with practical wings on television shows such as Dominion. I had a very specific brief in mind, and after several rounds of R&D, we decided on a bespoke design that would feature a 1.91m length on either side of the body, fitted with an articulated skeletal frame. Each feather was custom-sculpted, textured and painted by hand. The wings were malleable at different joint points along each side to give as natural a movement as possible. This was to be coupled with a prosthetic chest piece that would hide the wing straps used to carry the 15kg load.
We held a short rehearsal with the cast to get them used to handling and puppeteering the wings, and on each take the support straps kept snapping off the mechanism. Producer Sarah Tognazzi then came up with the brilliant idea of having the cast hold the wings against the principal’s body, creating a contrasting push and pull force that would essentially float the wings without the need for the prosthetic chest, or any support structure, which in turn meant we had no need for any post-production clean-up – everything was all shot practically in-camera.
LBB> Indochine have a really strong heritage in their music videos. Did you take any of their back catalogue into consideration?
BK> During my first meeting with Nicola, he casually asked whether I was aware that most of their videos had been made by Oscar and Cannes award-winning directors. At the time, I couldn’t quite tell if he was trying to put the pressure on, or whether he was simply breaking the ice. He’s one of the loveliest people that I’ve come across, and in hindsight, it was definitely the latter. The band members are unashamedly outspoken when it comes to activism, so their videos have historically been socially loaded. There was a small sense of intimidation at first, but that daunting feeling quickly wore off once the journey was underway.
LBB> There are some very brutal, unflinching sequences in the video. Was it hard to get those performances? It must have been quite emotionally draining!
BK> At times it felt like unwillingly having to stoke a fire. One has to remember that it’s only been thirty years since the end of apartheid, and a fair number of our cast had lived through that period of racial oppression and violence. Some of them had even spent time as soldiers on the frontlines – just trying to imagine what they might have inflicted upon people on a daily basis is terrifying. There were a number of tense moments on set, but mostly emanating from behind camera, and solely by virtue of the awareness that we were broaching hypersensitive ground that most people wouldn't even dare to tread.
The cast we were working with were all non-actors, and they couldn’t have been more professional, truthful and generous with their performances. I would spend time with them before each scene, talk them through what we were shooting, finding ways of breaking the ice between them both mentally and physically, reassuring them that we were creating a safe and honest environment in which they could conscientiously express themselves. Once they were given the permission and freedom to drop their guard, the emotions would come racing, bleeding out to the surface, and it was very poignant and special experiencing that as a spectator. I had to temper my own emotions on a number of occasions!
LBB> Were there any parts that were particularly challenging to shoot?
BK> The most complicated scene to shoot was actually the one of the winged angel being restrained to the ground by the officers. There were so many moving parts to that sequence that needed to be performed so fluently that it almost felt orchestral. We had seven non-actors in two layers of heavy costume, outdoors in 30-degree heat, who firstly needed to deliver emotionally compelling performances, whilst constantly reacting to one another’s physical actions, at the same time as synchronising their puppeteering in order to authentically give the wings the right level of articulation. Imagine how many times we had to run that sequence in order to get everything in sync. Just when you thought you had it in the can, there was always one individual who dropped the ball. Even the slightest millisecond delay in manipulating a wing joint would render a pass unusable. Sweat poured. Tempers were frayed. I told them to get used to the discomfort as we would keep repeating the scene all day until they collectively got it right.
After an eternity of takes, the cast started turning on each other with frustration and anger, whoever made a mistake would instantly get it in the neck from someone in the group: “FFS… that was a perfect take if it wasn’t for you fucking it up! GET YOUR FUCKING SHIT TOGETHER, WE’RE DYING HERE! I CAN’T BREATHE ANYMORE!” What you see on screen is 100% genuine.
LBB> With the release around the time of Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday, it's quite a poignant time to be focusing on racial inequality. Was that planned? How do you think it frames how people view the film?
BK> The release date was purely coincidental. Some members of the public had made the connection, and what followed were messages of remembrance linking the video to Mandela’s values and struggle for freedom. Each viewer will undoubtedly experience the film in a different way. It can only be a benefit if it serves as a link back through history - helping us understand people, society, the influences of the time, the hows and whys of the past shaping the present, and how they might consequently shape the future. Some moral contemplation.
LBB> The video was screened in French cinemas before all screenings of Steven Soderbergh's new film 'Unsane' for a week - how did that come about?
BK> That was a complete surprise. We have never heard of a music video being programmed in cinemas as an officially scheduled precursor to an internationally released film. My producer, Sarah Tognazzi, had contacted the label for confirmation of a general release date, and they responded with the welcome news of the cinema distribution. What was even more surreal was seeing cinemagoers’ social media reactions during screenings.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
BK> Public discourse and shining a light on the circumstances that are taking place around the world is a prelude to addressing some of these topics. The video for ‘Station 13’ is filled with urgent social commentary and subtext, and hopefully serves in adding another layer of depth, thought and intrigue to the conversation.
Bouha is represented by London Alley for music videos – and London Alley also produced the promo. He is represented by Independent and Indy8 for commercials.