Hot Docs Interview with Liz Mermin, director of Horses

I have to be completely honest and say first of all I’m a huge fan of Liz Mermin’s films, especially The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Office Tigers and Team Qatar, the last of which is one of the best competition-style documentaries I’ve seen. Before writing this I looked up Liz’s bio and couldn’t help but be a little intimidated, with a BA from Harvard and a Masters from New York University, never mind numerous fellowships and articles in published journals (the list goes on). Liz has made 6 feature documentaries since 2001, all of which are incredibly different from the last and each thought provoking and fascinating, not only in their content but, by the interesting ways in which she chooses to tell stories. Horses is her latest film and is showing at this year’s Hot Docs and Liz was kind enough to give us the interview below. Details of the screening times and a scene from the film are at the bottom.

Horses is very different subject matter from your previous films. How did the story come about and was it a conscious choice to tackle something different?

I didn’t exactly chose to make a film on horses — the producer of “Shot in Bombay” decided that horses in Ireland might be fundable (because the Irish like horses a lot), & he’d been tipped off that I used to ride horses, so he sent me off to Ireland to find a story with horses in it.  I was skeptical, to be honest – my horse-riding past was something I’d tried to keep secret, for all the obvious reasons (the social implications of being a “horse person”), but in fact I was a very serious rider for 9 years (and if the bottom falls out of the doc industry I may run off to the countryside to become a horse trainer), & that was the problem: I usually make films about things I know nothing about, & my own process of discovery helps me shape the narrative.  So in this case, I didn’t know what I’d learn that I didn’t already know, or what I could possibly express about horses in a film.  I guess that’s what I started to focus on: what kind of a film can you make with horses? Could you make it the same way you’d make a film with people? Could you make them into characters, with distinct personalities that non-horse people could read? Could you get beyond the cute factor & get people to really care about them, understand them, or identify in some way?  Taking on that kind of challenge, as ridiculous as it seemed while I was doing it, was the only way I could become interested in the film — thinking about what character means more broadly, and how we represent it.  I try to push myself in new directions with each film – I’m drawn to topics as much by what I’ll learn as a filmmaker as by the interest/significance I see in the story – and here I wanted to see if I could make a film engaging enough that even inveterate horse skeptics (like most of my friends, who teased me endlessly about making this film) would be drawn in.

There is a strong sense of the horses as main characters in the film, and often shots are from the horses perspective. This can’t have been an easy thing to do, how did you try and capture reactions from the horses that would translate onto the screen?

It wasn’t easy, no….. basically, I forced my crew (& sometimes did it myself) to stay in one place and film what seemed like horses doing nothing for hours & hours.  The different horses had different ways of reacting to and interacting with the camera, and I wanted to stick around long enough to see that evolve, because that’s part of what reveals their personalities.  Just like people, the were either uncomfortable, or wary, or curious at first, and then eventually got used to all the weird equipment and ignored us.  We also had a lot of time to experiment, since we had a long shoot schedule, and we played with different ways of filming around the stable, on the gallops, while the horses were working and resting and playing – some experiments worked better than others, but it was only playing with all this footage in the edit that we figured out what worked & what didn’t. I kept describing the process to my crew as collecting material for the palette that I’d be using in the edit room to make a film.

It’s a wonderfully unconventional way to tell this story, and often very subtle. It seems to be one of the things people respond to best, but was it hard to get made due to this?

Thank you, and actually, it wasn’t that hard – but that’s partly because I am not at all precious about versioning.   The Irish Film Board put up the most money for the film, and they loved the weirdness of it and were a pleasure to work with.  I think Storyville was intrigued – to be honest, I was surprised they went for it, but that’s the beauty of Storyville – they are willing to consider all sorts of crazy things if there’s a core they believe in (what that core was, I’m not sure, but I’m very glad they saw one).  There was a point in the edit where there was some concern about how on earth this was going to play to TV audiences, & I did tighten it up a bit (by about 10 mins) for the BBC version, allowing for the faster pace that the smaller screen demands.  And apparently it turned out to be a record-breaker in terms of ratings.  Which goes to show that no one really knows what people will watch.

RTE (Irish television) I expected I’d have to do something radically different for – in fact, we’d contracted to give them 2×40 instead of a feature, & I promised I’d make it more content-driven & less experimental.  But when they saw the BBC version they loved it, and to our amazement & gratitude decided to run it as a single documentary feature in a 90 min slot.  The only thing I had to do for RTE was replace the text cards with a voiceover (my amazing producer Aisling Ahmed, managed to get us John Hurt, an idea I’d thrown out almost as a joke; & much as I hate narration, it’s kind of wonderful).  But if I hadn’t  been willing to compromise and promise I’d meet their needs from the beginning, they’d never have commissioned it – I’m just grateful that in the end they appreciated it for what it was.

The film doesn’t make any judgments about the industry. I heard that you’ve had some screenings with quite a large amount of animals rights groups in the audience, what has the reaction been?

I like this rumour a lot, but actually, we only had two protesters, at Sheffield, and they didn’t come into the cinema.  (If there were animal rights activists at other screenings they kept quiet, which is quite unlike animal rights activists, so I suspect there weren’t.)  We were prepared for some sort of engagement on this issue in the press around the theatrical release in London or the broadcast, but no one brought it up in the press – in fact, many reviews commented on the genuine affection the trainers & staff show towards the horses, as if they’re surprised by it.  A few people want to talk to me after the film about what happens to the horses when they get injured, or if they don’t run well (questions I answer honestly, of course – I’m not in the business of candy-coating the industry), and some people say they feel sorry for the horses when they watch the film.  But, as with all my films, I don’t see my task as casting judgement or making polemics.  If people come away with different views about the relative cruelty or kindness of the industry, all the better – so long as they’re engaged with the story, I’m happy.

Horses is showing at HotDocs on Wed, May 05 9:15 pm and Sat, May 08 11:30 am

A scene from the film is below the jump.