Doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence

In Kevin Macdon­ald’s films, it’s not easy to tell fact from fiction, says Miles Fielder

The Herald - Arts - - Cinema -

Film­maker Kevin Macdon­ald is try­ing to con­vince me that James McAvoy, fel­low Scot and star of his new film The Last King of Scot­land, is a prima donna. “He was re­ally lazy. Ev­ery­thing was a big ef­fort for him,” Macdon­ald says. And then his face cracks into a grin and he gives up on the joke. “Oh, okay. James is great. For some­one who’s rel­a­tively young he has so much pro­fes­sion­al­ism. He was a joy to work with.”

The Last King of Scot­land, which opened the pres­ti­gious 50th edi­tion of the Lon­don film fes­ti­val in Oc­to­ber, has been adapted fromGiles Fo­den’s well-re­ceived novel of the same name by vet­eran Bri­tish screen­writ­ers Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown) and Peter Morgan (TheQueen). It tells the story of a young doc­tor, Ni­cholas Gar­ri­gan (McAvoy) who goes to work in Uganda dur­ing the reign of Idi Amin (For­est Whi­taker). Gar­ri­gan’s naivety and ar­ro­gance al­low him to be se­duced by the charis­matic African tyrant ( who at one point de­clared him­self a suit­able can­di­date for the throne of Scot­land), and he be­comes his per­sonal physi­cian and trusted ad­vi­sor. It’s a flashy yet gritty film that ini­tially plays like an ad­ven­ture­movie be­fore mor­ph­ing into a po­lit­i­cal thriller, and it freely mixes fact with fiction (Gar­ri­gan is a fic­tional cre­ation). Ap­pro­pri­ately, The Last King of Scot­land is the fiction film de­but of Macdon­ald, who is best known for his 1999 Os­car-win­ning fea­ture length doc­u­men­tary about the hostage cri­sis at the 1972 Mu­nich Olympics, One Day in Septem­ber.

“The main chal­lenge for me,” he says, “was get­ting inside of the char­ac­ters’ heads so that we can see what they’re think­ing. Ac­tors think in a dif­fer­ent kind of way. Their re­ac­tion to the script is a dif­fer­ent one from mine, an emo­tional one. So I had to try to un­der­stand their not en­tirely ra­tio­nal re­ac­tions.”

Macdon­ald, who was born in 1962 in Gar­tocharn on Loch Lomond, was never par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in fiction film­mak­ing. In fact, he har­boured no great burn­ing am­bi­tion to make films of any kind at all. “I had an idea I wanted to be a jour­nal­ist,” he says, “and so I wrote a few ar­ti­cles that were pub­lished here and there. But I left univer­sity at a bad time, dur­ing the re­ces­sion when there were no jobs. So I went to Spain for a year and learned Span­ish.” When Macdon­ald re­turned to the UK he con­tin­ued to write for the na­tional news­pa­pers, and that led to a book, Emeric Press­burger: The Life and Death of a Screen­writer, which Faber pub­lished in 1994. To­gether with di­rec­tor Michael Pow­ell, Press­burger was re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing big screen clas­sics in­clud­ing Black Nar­cis­sus, A Mat­ter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and 49th Par­al­lel, for which Press­burger won an Os­car. Press­burger, who died in 1988, was also Macdon­ald’s grand­fa­ther.

A year af­ter writ­ing the book Macdon­ald made a doc­u­men­tary, The Mak­ing of an English­man, which was a jour­ney through Europe, trac­ing his grand­fa­ther’s ori­gins from his home in Hun­gary to Ber­lin and Paris and then, flee­ing the Nazis, to Lon­don where he met Pow­ell. Com­mis­sioned by Chan­nel 4, the doc­u­men­tary was Macdon­ald’s first pro­fes­sional film­mak­ing as­sign­ment, one which he un­der­took with his younger brother Andrew, who pro­duced it be­tween two fiction films that would make him one of the best-known names in Scot­tish cin­ema, Shal­low Grave and Trainspot­ting.

The Mak­ing of an English­man proved to be the mak­ing of a Scots­man. Macdon­ald fol­lowed the film with a se­ries of shorts and television doc­u­men­taries, among them Chap­lin’s Go­liath (about the Scots ac­tor Eric Camp­bell, who played pan­tomime vil­lain to Char­lie’s Tramp), Howard Hawks: Amer­i­can Artist, and Don­ald Cam­mell: The Ul­ti­mate Per­for­mance, but felt sti­fled by the lim­its television im­posed on his film­mak­ing.

“It may be ar­ro­gance,” Macdon­ald said at the time, “but I’d rather have 1000 peo­ple watch­ing my film in a cin­ema, con­cen­trat­ing on it and then be­ing able to talk about what they felt, rather than have it go out on TV.”

With for­mer Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Mark Cousins, Macdon­ald co-wrote Imag­in­ing Re­al­ity: The Faber Book of Doc­u­men­tary, which ar­gued that doc­u­men­taries need not fol­low the pu­ri­tan­i­cal approach pi­o­neered by John Gri­er­son (who won Scot­land’s first Os­car for his doc about Clyde ship­build­ing Seaward the Great Ships). In­stead, ar­gued Macdon­ald and Cousins, doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers should, as their book’s ti­tle sug­gests, em­brace a more am­bigu­ous re­la­tion­ship be­tween fac­tual and fic­tional film­mak­ing. “In the end,” Macdon­ald main­tains, “you’re try­ing to present a set of in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters in a par­tic­u­lar story, whether it’s doc­u­men­tary or fiction.”

An­other year on, Macdon­ald put those ideas into prac­tice when he made One Day in Septem­ber. Crit­i­cised for play­ing fast and loose with the truth, the film nev­er­the­less beat the hotly tipped Buena Vista So­cial Club to pick up a Best Doc­u­men­tary Film Os­car. One Day in Septem­ber, along with Macdon­ald’s fol­low-up, the BAFTA-win­ning Touch­ing the Void, paved the way for the kind of highly cin­e­matic doc­u­men­taries that are now reg­u­larly to be seen in mul­ti­plexes. That may be Macdon­ald’s great achieve­ment, but he’s brought the tricks of the doc­u­men­tary trade to his fiction de­but. The Last King of Scot­land might fall into the lat­ter cat­e­gory, but for Macdon­ald it’s not that black and white.

“I wanted to shoot the film in the real place,” Macdon­ald says of his de­ci­sion to film in Uganda. “I guess com­ing from doc­u­men­taries that’s only nat­u­ral. I wanted to have that tex­ture of re­al­ity. The thing is you’ve got very few choices in terms of what you say at the front of the movie. You can ei­ther say noth­ing, which is ba­si­cally say­ing, this is fiction. Or you say this is a true story, or it’s in­spired by real peo­ple. What you re­ally want to say is some of the peo­ple are real, some of them aren’t, this bit is real and that isn’t.

“I like mess­ing with peo­ple’s heads a bit,” says Macdon­ald. “I like tread­ing that ter­rain.” The Last King of Scot­land is re­leased on Jan 12. Giles Fo­den writes about the big screen’s re­la­tion­ship with­Africa in next week’s ABC.

Tak­ing a view: Kevin Macdon­ald at the cam­era Pic­ture: Neil David­son

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