Telling stories about the life experiences of immigrants and the refugee crisis is absolutely crucial and we on the curation team watch a number of them. Many of these shorts are documentaries following those making their way out of danger and seeking asylum, or share mere glimpses into what life is like once they’ve completed their journey from home to a place that will never quite feel like home. What is rare, though, is coming upon a narrative drama that gets inside the head of a person who shares a neighborhood with a refugee or immigrant family.
Winner of the 2016 Crystal Bear for Best Short at Berlinale, “Balcony” is the story of Tina, a troubled teen who befriends an elusive young Muslim woman. Intrigued by the obvious cultural distance between them, Tina takes it upon herself to fill in the gaps with her own personal biases and stereotypes. Without giving too many details of this captivating modern thriller away, Tina’s actions while drunk on her own assumptions leads to dangerous consequences.
We asked filmmaker Toby Fell-Holden some questions about the inspiration and cultural context behind today’s award-winning Staff Pick Premiere. His meaningful answers along with the strong message of “Balcony” hold the key to a greater understanding and acceptance around immigration and the refugee crisis, and we’re very proud to share his work with you today!
Vimeo: Where did the idea for “Balcony” come from?
Toby Fell-Holden: It was a mix of influences, the story draws from growing up on a London estate during the 1980s as a mixed race kid seeking a sense of safety and identity. And I had become more interested in storytelling that warps our sense of reality. The narrative form was also inspired by a David Michod short called “Crossbow,” which leads the viewer through a voiceover down the garden path then rips the rug out from under them. It stayed with me and guided the approach to “Balcony.”
Vimeo: How did the idea grow from an idea into a short film?
Toby Fell-Holden: It started with a voiceover by a world-weary and manipulative teenage narrator. From there, the character of Tina and the environment took shape; the way she sees the world and interacts with those close to her. It gradually became about a girl who projects her own trauma outwardly onto the “other,” and struggles to contain the loneliness and violence inside her within a racially charged community.
Vimeo: Could you fill readers in on the social climate and stereotypes around immigrants/refugees in the UK to provide a better understanding of the hostility between characters in this short?
Toby Fell-Holden: The short originally pulled from personal experiences and things I saw, but became more relevant in the wake of Brexit, and the increasing nationalism sweeping across the EU. I think people thought we’d moved forward but Brexit brought up an ugly side to the dialogue around immigration, and there’s been an increase in Islamophobic incidents in the country since. The film plays with those stereotypes of what people think goes on behind closed doors to a tragic degree.
Vimeo: There are excellent performances in this film all around, but Charlotte Beaumont (who plays Tina) in particular manages to balance internal angst and tender empathy so beautifully in her portrayal of Tina. What was the process of casting this character like? Did she play the character in the way that you had imagined her on paper?
Toby Fell-Holden: It was thanks to my producers that we found Charlotte as they’d seen her in tv shows like Broadchurch and Waterloo Road. Charlotte’s one of those great actors who listens to her instincts and tells you when something doesn’t feel right. She made several scenes stronger through suggestions and conversations we had about what would be true to the psychology of the character -- she brought out Tina’s vulnerability right down to the final moments, which anchored the film so much more. We were lucky!
Vimeo: Were there any challenges that you ran into while creating and/or filming this story?
Toby Fell-Holden: The film was built from scratch - with about 100 crew/actors, none of whom I had worked with prior - so we really had to hit the ground running and it took time to find a rhythm. It certainly stretched everyone! The edit was a narrative challenge - there was the concern that we had too much story to cover in too short an amount of time so we had to find the right balance of visual hints and reinterpretations of lines. It took a while to work out the right amount of information to include in the montage such that as the viewer comprehends what’s occurred. They are in a space of feeling rather than thinking together the final moments. I was lucky to get some great suggestions from my editor, Matteo Bini, on how to transition into the heightened imagery and make visual associations.
Vimeo: How have audiences reacted to this piece? Do you know if “Balcony” has been specifically shared with any communities that are judgmental of immigrant communities?
Toby Fell-Holden: Balcony was generally received very well, we played at over a hundred festivals, won some meaningful awards, and were embraced at many LGBTQ events. It opened up dialogues with people after screenings who were affected by the issues depicted. It also occasionally stirred controversy in how it depicted England and there were some discussions over who should tell such a story. It definitely left me with much to contemplate in terms of what my role is as a storyteller and the issues I feel compelled to depict. In North America, it screened in regions where the politics of the film may have been confronting to audiences, and perhaps some people unexpectedly stumbled across it on their inflight entertainment! It played in a few nations where the politics of the country is not sympathetic to LGBT rights too. I’m hoping the Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere release will allow more people to see Balcony who might not otherwise have such a viewpoint come their way.
Vimeo: What do you hope audiences take away from “Balcony” ?
Toby Fell-Holden: The film tries to shock the audience into reevaluating their attitudes towards what they’ve just seen. The hope is to increase empathy towards the communities and characters depicted, and increase the questioning of what you’re told about minority groups. Tina’s an aggressor who does something terrible, but she’s also a victim burdened with trauma which helps us understand how it affects her perception and forces us to confront our own prejudices.
Vimeo: What are you working on now, and what can we expect to see from you next?
Toby Fell-Holden: We are working on a feature version of Balcony in the UK, and I have a few other feature projects both in the UK and US which explore similar themes around perception, power, and race, that I hope will be in production soon.
p>Check out more of Vimeo’s Staff Pick Premieres here.