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Richard Billingham • Director of Ray & Liz

“I see this film a little bit as a love story”


- Cineuropa talked to Turner Prize-nominated artist Richard Billingham about his feature Ray & Liz, crowned Best European Debut at the 24th Vilnius Film Festival

Richard Billingham  • Director of Ray & Liz

Named Best European Debut at the 24th Vilnius Film Festival for its “vivid, powerful and human depiction of a family, place and time, filmed with precision and dark, unsettling humour”, Richard Billingham’s autobiographical drama Ray & Liz [+see also:
film review
interview: Richard Billingham
film profile
sees him talk about his late parents once again after his acclaimed series of photographs Ray’s a Laugh. The film is an honest depiction of their struggles with alcoholism and poverty, but also offers rare snippets of light.

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Cineuropa: This “dark, unsettling humour” that the jury referred to in Vilnius might not be so obvious to some viewers. Would you say it’s something that people notice?
Richard Billingham: Well, I didn’t intend to put humour in. I think it’s embedded there because I tried to make the film more authentic, and poor, disenfranchised communities often have this very developed, very evolved sense of humour. It’s their way of trying to cope. I have been photographing homeless people recently, and whenever anything bad happens, they make a joke about it. If they weren’t able to find this sort of meaning in their everyday life, they would just get depressed.

That explains why your 1996 series of photographs was called Ray’s a Laugh. You also made a documentary about your parents a few years later [Fishtank]. Do you think you are done with this topic?
I think so. There are other ideas that I want to pursue and explore, although my younger brother Jason, who is in the film, wants me to write more material [laughs]. I see it a little bit as a love story. My parents had so many obstacles to overcome, and I think they tried their best. My dad was about my age when he lost his job. He was a machinist in a factory and didn’t have much of an education. He probably couldn’t even read or write all that much. He was convinced he would be doing the same thing until he was 65 years old. But when the government changed and Thatcher came in, she closed so many factories, and all these working-class men were laid off. My father didn’t know what to do; he couldn’t cope.

When watching your film, people might wonder whether they would be able to recreate every detail of their childhood home quite so thoroughly. It seems unlikely.
I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember the placement of the furniture and the spatial dynamic of these rooms, with their different textures and colours. Do you know the photographer Jeff Wall? All of his photographs are staged, but they look like documentary images. I became fascinated by his work – there is a lot of verisimilitude when you look at them, and I like this tension. Sometimes, one photograph can take six months to set up! It’s almost as if the objects had a backstory to their placement. I think studying all of that really helped me to think about the shots in the film because we tried to shoot on location where a lot of events took place, and also, I had a lot of photographs to look at. In terms of dialogue, I had this tape recorder that you can also see in the movie. I still have these tapes that I made of my friends and family, and I was able to play them for the actors. Sometimes, there would be conversations, and people didn’t know they were being taped; at other times they were singing or dancing. I would ask them to talk about some event or other, or all sorts of things that I was curious about as a child.

Whenever we are inside, it’s just so claustrophobic. It seems like it’s only getting out of this house that makes the boys, or should I say you and your brother, happy.
The spaces were small, but that’s how it was. I show some animals in the cages in the film, and maybe there is some kind of symmetry with the characters – they can’t really see outside of their own environment either. As a small child, I had a lot of happy memories, but when we were moved into the tower block, we were miserable. You seemed to be living in the sky – completely cut off from the people on the ground. There were no other families, no other children to play with, and we were just so isolated. You would walk out the door and into the corridor, and the walls were covered in racist graffiti, there was shit and piss in the lifts, and all the windows were smashed. Once you were in the flat, it actually wasn’t that bad. It was the journey to the outside world that was tough.

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