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'Eli' writer and director talks immigration, short films, and identities

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The National Student spoke to writer and director Colin Gerrard about his latest production Eli. He is currently touring the short film festival circuit to promote his film, which has been entered into 70 festivals including Portland, Rotterdam, Santa Barbara and Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festivals. It’s also set to be entered into Cannes, London and Venice Festivals, in hopes of qualifying for both BAFTA and Oscar recognition next year.  

Eli follows an elderly man (David Gant), who has survived harrowing events, and his encounters with a group of disillusioned strangers. A terrorist attack raises uncomfortable questions about immigration, identity and morality.

This is an important story to be told now, maintains Gerrard, “…particularly in America… and what I find so fascinating is countries founded by immigrants are complaining about immigrants. All these countries are great because they’re built on immigration and yet people, especially the old fat white guy, are complaining. It’s all about how you contribute to society.”

“I grew up in North London and my neighbourhood was very culturally diverse, and I loved it, because I think that’s what makes Britain so great for music, and film, and television. It’s because we are a diverse country. But the fact that people have a problem with that is the fact they have a problem with the human race, that they have the problem with the colour of somebody’s skin or their religion.”

Eli’s story aims to address this societal issue by showing audiences that “everyone does have a story”. “Because the thing about society today is that we are still labelling everybody, instead of practicing inclusion,” the director asserts.

The short film is set in the waiting room of a medical practice. One of the characters in the story is a woman fed up with waiting behind people she deems as ‘other’ and as less deserving than she is, provides most of the friction and anger in Eli.

Her character reflects how “society today has become so selfish and it has to have this immediate gratification… and I think that was the biggest part of the story that hit me was that you do these things sometimes without thinking about the consequences of what you do or how you affect other people.”

In the end, she is moved by Eli’s story enough to let him pass ahead of her when her name is called. Though the story was originally written by Ran Appleberg, Gerrard adapted the script and added poignancy through interviews with a Holocaust survivor, Danny Wollner.

This man had been to Auschwitz, Dachau and Birkenau, and his story inspired the recurring visual motif of the train tracks. “Danny told me it took three days from Hungary to make it to Auschwitz by train. And he said that he constantly has nightmares. But sometimes he goes by train, and every time he’d come across tracks he’d get flashbacks and memories of this journey he had to take. By 1944 many people knew this was a one-way journey,” so the symbolism of the tracks is a powerful one.

“People might say ‘Well okay, well we know about the Holocaust’ or ‘Well okay, it’s another Holocaust story’, but the fact is that it still resonates today. Things like that are happening in Syria and in the Middle East right now. Human beings are amazing, we seem to never learn from history, we seem just to repeat it.”

Rather than a simple retelling of history, the themes which are communicated in the Eli’s tale can also strongly resonate with our contemporary socio-political climate, Gerrard explains. If discrimination is rooted in ignorance, then this film encourages the opening of a dialogue; a communication between individuals.

Short film is the perfect medium for this, likely more so than feature films: “I think they have much more of an impact sometimes about getting a message across, and I think that we need to get a bit more of a push into letting people understand that short films are great, and sometimes you get a lot more out of ten or twenty minutes in a short film than you do out of two hours.”

The time constraints placed on the short film genre ensure the director has to fit more meaning into every image, and has to be more deliberate with every sentence, than would be the case in a feature film. This works to Eli’s advantage, ensuring huge themes of immigration, humanity and morality are effectively packed into just ten minutes.

“I would love to see a little more emphasis on short films in the media, to really get people a bit more engaged. I think they just don’t get as much attention because they don’t tend to have big budgets or big celebrities.”

Regardless of short films’ current standing in public esteem, Gerrard hopes Eli will have an impact on its audience, and will encourage individuals to view others in a new light and to question their ingrained assumptions, to counter prejudice with conversation.

“It’s about time people started being judged by the content of their character, the quality of their work, the quality of their attitude, and not because their religion happens to get in the way, or the colour of their skin, or where they grew up. It’s just something that’s got to change. And again, it’s changing bit by bit but there’s still this old guard of old farts looking to hold on to their money or their status and still keep people down.”

“I’m hoping through things like short films there’ll be a change in people’s attitudes, but the exposure of those types of things has to be as broad as possible so that generations growing up now have a much better chance of understanding people are people.”

Eli is distributed by 7 Colli Productions.

'ELI' TRAILER from 7 Colli Productions on Vimeo.

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