With digital sound and fury continuously vying for our attention on a daily basis, flashy spectacle can no longer guarantee our engagement. Our hearts must be engaged as well in order for an online video to prevent us from hitting the “skip” button. Not only has British filmmaker Martin Stirling succeeded at evoking empathy from viewers around the world, he has often knocked the wind out of their lungs in the process. His ad for the Save the Children Fund, dubbed “Most Shocking Second a Day Video,” is one of the most extraordinarily impactful short films I’ve ever seen. Clocking in at a minute and 33 seconds, the ad envisions what would happen if the current crisis in Syria were unfolding on the streets of Britain. Stirling enables us to view the escalating chaos through the eyes of a young girl (brilliantly played by Lily-Rose Aslandogdu, soon to be featured in in J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls”), as a year in her life flashes before our eyes to shattering effect.
This film provides merely one example of Stirling’s gift for galvanizing audiences. His videos have raised awareness about numerous vital issues, including oil drilling (illustrated in LEGO form), texting while driving (in his latest ad for the Road Safety Authority) and the inhume treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (famously endured here by Mos Def). Stirling spoke with Indie Outlook about two-day production schedules, gut instincts and the ability of cinema to make the world a better place.
What initially drew you to the art of visual storytelling?
My first conscious memory was a nightmare about floating in a void-like space surrounded by metallic balls that poked and pulled at me. I tried to explain to my parents why I was crying but at a mere 18 months, the capacity for language was well beyond my grasp. In many ways that still feels like the case. I find images a more reliable and honest language.
Were there particular filmmakers you’ve admired and may have served as influences on your work?
The people I’m most influenced by have little to do with film but they are some of the greatest storytellers—people like Oliver Sacks, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Thor Heyerdahl, people who filled the world with mystery, awe and magic. They dared to question the status quo, they were the rebels who reshaped the way we think about the world and ourselves.
Did you attend film school or were you self-taught? Would you recommend either educational approach to aspiring filmmakers?
I went to three film schools and was disappointed by all of them. The fact is, whether you’re at film school or not, you are ultimately self-taught. Currently it’s easier, cheaper and quicker to make a feature than it is to get a degree—so just do it! Everyone has a different path but whatever you choose, just make movies. I mean actually make movies—there’s a lot of talk in this industry.
To what extent can socially committed advertising potentially reshape our understanding of the world?
I believe that advertising should be about doing something, and whatever that is, it should make the world a better place to live in. I think the key to doing this is through empathy. By definition it forces us to understand other people and places. The Most Shocking video is a perfect example; it creates a familiarity, a frame of reference for the Syrian conflict, which is an extremely complex and dynamic narrative.
How were you first approached with the “Most Shocking Second a Day” project, and how was it pitched to you?
The agency came to me with the idea of a “one second a day” video that needed to raise funds for the children in Syria. There was hardly any budget or time and I think nobody really expected the film that came out the other end. I loved the idea, I could see how the “one second” device spoke the language of a YouTube audience and I love the challenge of finding new ways to tell a story. I immediately had a very vivid image of what it should look and feel like.
What was the nature of your collaboration with writers Richard Beer and Joe Wade?
Richard and I sat down and wrote the beats of the script the afternoon it was pitched. I went away and read a ton of case studies from Syrian refugees and incorporated some of their tales into the vignettes, which became more developed onset. I grabbed a bunch of friends who worked on favors and poured their hearts into this little film. From greenlight to delivery, it was two weeks. Richard and Joe gave us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make without meddling—that’s so rare and refreshing to feel that trust.
The film is an astonishing feat of direction, especially considering the mere two days of shooting. How were you able to create a lived-in feeling for each set-up before moving on to the next scene?
Thank you. I’m used to working fast—in the past I’d won a couple of 24 and 48-hour film challenges and those were a great training for this. It’s all about thinking fast, using your gut instincts and seeing the potential in everything. We did a lot of scouting for locations—the budget was so tiny, we had to find places that looked almost like the final thing that could be augmented with a bit of set dressing and design. The house was really a family home so it was genuinely lived-in and all the street stuff was East London, which looks like a war zone (especially after the weekend!). The main challenge was finding these locations in close proximity to one another. All those days and nights of searching and preparation paid off.
How fleshed-out was each individual moment, and was it only through the process of editing that you decided on which fragment of each scene to use?
As a director I know exactly what I’m looking for and how to create the conditions to achieve that. For some scenes, we rolled for 5 seconds if it involved a simple action or line, but for more emotionally demanding or complex scenes, we rolled for a minute or two purely for the performer to get into the right zone—but I knew exactly which one-second moment we were going to cut with. The edit was one of the quickest I’ve ever done and we only did one cut. It was so tightly boarded and designed there, it was all very straight-forward.
Were there particular details that you felt were crucial to the film’s overall impact? I was struck by the subtle use of dialogue in foreshadowing impending disaster.
I love the incidental elements that sneak in the background but I found those that were sequential a little on the nose. The TV and radio broadcasts are more disturbing in my opinion because we’re so used to that language and delivery when we’re talking about a conflict somewhere else…when it’s brought home, it’s much more unsettling.
In all honesty, I think the impact is a combination of things. The “one second” technique in this context is utterly overwhelming. It’s like a runaway train that you can’t alight. It puts you in the little girl’s shoes where all these things are going on around you but you’re struggling to take everything in or understand what’s going on before it’s too late. The technique is disorientating and mirrors the psychological displacement one feels in a war.
What was the experience like of directing actress Lily-Rose Aslandogdu? The arc of her emotional journey feels entirely authentic from moment to moment.
She’s a little superstar and one of the most professional actors I’ve had the pleasure of directing. She was an absolute trooper and totally understood where the character needed to be on an emotional plane at any given point—a brilliant feat considering the shoot wasn’t chronological and the scenes were so compacted together. It’s also worth mentioning how supportive and great her family were—when you work with kids, the family are the unsung heroes and they really make a difference to what you can capture.
What was your reaction to the film’s reception at Cannes, where it won the Gold Lion prize?
I was disappointed. I thought it was pretty vulgar when you see a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the film drinking Champagne and taking Lion selfies on the beach hashtagging #savesyriaschildren.
I recently interviewed Asif Kapadia about his wonderful film, “Amy,” so I must ask you about the experience of working with him and Mos Def on that incredibly powerful video illustrating the brutality of Guantanamo Bay.
It was great to work with Asif. He’s such a brilliant filmmaker and I’m certain his involvement had such a great deal to do with reaching as wide an audience as it did. I had pitched the idea in a gatecrash meeting and suddenly it was happening—Mos Def was only in town for a couple of days so it was a bit of a frenzy. Asif came in at the last minute and made it his own. He’s a class act.
The late critic, Roger Ebert, strongly believed in the ability of cinema to generate empathy. Would you consider that belief an essential part of your work as an artist?
Abso-bloody-lutely! I get accused of banging on about this point way too much so obviously I couldn’t agree more.
What projects are you currently working on? According to your bio on IMDb, you have a feature film in development.
I’ve just scripted my first feature which is set in the beautiful city of Detroit. I’ve also created and penned a TV series which is currently looking for a home. Any takers?
For more info on Martin, visit his official site.