By GABBI BRONDANI
London-based director Ed Perkins is screening his debut feature documentary, Garnet’s Gold, to a South African audience at the Jozi Film Festival 2015.
I chatted to Perkins about the film, which is produced by Simon Chinn, two-time Academy Award winner for Searching For Sugarman and Man On Wire.
For anyone who is hearing about Garnet’s Gold for the first time, can you get them up to speed on what it is all about?
EP: Garnet’s Gold is a feature documentary that follows one extraordinary man’s quixotic adventure in search of hidden treasure, in a belated rite of passage to rediscover the meaning of his life. Twenty years ago Garnet Frost escaped London and headed into the desolate Scottish wilderness. Setting off without a map, disaster struck. Garnet found himself trapped between a mountain and the mysterious Loch Arkaig. Lost, cold and alone, he resigned himself to die.
But Garnet didn’t die. By sheer chance, he was saved by a lone fisherman. For the past two decades, Garnet has been haunted by a memento from his doomed trip. He believes an unusual wooden staff he found while waiting to die is actually a marker for one of history’s most famous lost treasures – a spectacular fortune once owned by Bonnie Prince Charlie and lost since 1746. Now, two decades after the trip which almost killed him, Garnet is ready to return to the mysterious loch in his quest to find the gold.
What Garnet finds up there, amid the towering landscape, changes his life forever. Garnet’s Gold is more than a fascinating historical insight into a lost treasure. This is a journey into the mind of a man searching for meaning. A search with which we can all empathise. This is a film about dreams, inspiration and the resonating power of hope.
How did you find the main character, Garnet?
EP: Like many things that happen in sunny England, this all started in the pub. A colleague of mine came in to work one day saying that he had met an extraordinary man in his local pub who was, in between singing and dancing, regaling his friends with stories of lost gold and a plan he had hatched to go and find it. So I went to meet him.
Armed with a bundle of maps, an infectious enthusiasm and a disarming eccentricity, he immediately drew me into his world. Over the course of the next year I spent a lot of time with Garnet, his extraordinary mother and his wonderful friends. I spent countless hours absorbed by his plans to travel up to Scotland in search of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lost gold, his new theories for where exactly it might be hidden, his elaborate plans to build flying machines. For much of that time I was still grappling to understand the deeper meaning of Garnet’s journey, but I always suspected that it might lead to somewhere more emotional – more human – than a literal pot of gold.
I am immensely indebted to Garnet for his startling honesty and openness throughout the filmmaking process. I have enormous respect for him and the journey he has undertaken. It has been a true privilege to get to know this extraordinary and brave man.
How would describe your cinematic style?
EP: When approaching how I would bring Garnet’s story to the screen, I challenged myself to try and tell it with all the lyricism and poetry found in the books and artwork that fill every room of his house.
There is no reason why a documentary film cannot be every bit as cinematic and stylistically ambitious as the very best narrative feature. On the contrary, many of my favorite documentaries achieve exactly this. Man On Wire, Bombay Beach, One Day In September, Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond, The Imposter. All extraordinary films that are as visually striking and emotionally compelling as any non-fiction drama. And so while Garnet’s Gold is very much a non-fiction film, it is consciously not filmed like a traditional verite documentary. For example, it became increasingly obvious that while the narrative spine of the film was Garnet’s physical journey deep into the Scottish Highlands in search of lost gold, the more interesting and important journey of the film was actually an emotional one. It was a journey that happens almost entirely inside Garnet’s head. I needed to find a way of translating this emotional journey onto the screen, and I knew that I didn’t want to make the kind of documentary that turned to Garnet at poignant moments and asked “How do you feel?” I didn’t want the audience to know exactly how he felt. I wanted to maintain a degree of ambiguity, and leave the audience to come to their own conclusions. And so the storytelling happens as much through allegorical imagery, music and sound design as it does through dialogue and verite scenes.
I always wanted this film to be an immersive experience for audiences, and music was to be a key part of that. It has been amazing to collaborate with Academy Award-nominated J Ralph, who has written a stunning original score for the film. Moreover, we shared a strong belief that for a story like this, less really is more. And this became the defining concept as the film moved into the edit. Influence by films such as Le Quattro Volte, I wanted to see how much we could pair back our story. Could we, for example, play out the final act of the film with almost no dialogue? What impact would that have on the audience?
And so when we began editing Garnet’s Gold with Paul Carlin, we first put together a very long, three-hour rough cut. This contained everything. Every step of the journey was signposted. Every bit of historical research was spelt out. Every character was formally introduced. And then we just started to remove things. We removed all the narrative signposts, all the character introductions, all the exposition. We stripped the film back and back until the point at which if you took anything else out, the whole thing fell apart. And then we stopped.
How do you think documentaries will change and develop going forward – your film is innovative in this regard.
EP: I think this is a really exciting time for documentaries. The availability of high quality, low cost cameras has completely democratised the filmmaking process. No longer do you need a big budget and huge film crew in order to bring stories to the screen. With an affordable camera, a lot of patience and dedication, and most importantly a great story, filmmakers really can make films which even a decade ago would have been impossible to realize. And Garnet’s Gold is certainly one of those. This was documentary filmmaking stripped back to its most basic. There was no crew. No second camera. No lights. It was just me, my camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, and Garnet.
However, one of the biggest lessons I have learned throughout this process is that in order to turn raw footage into a cohesive film, you also need – and this is perhaps the hardest thing because it requires a hefty dose of luck – to try to surround yourself with people who are far more experienced and far more talented than you are! I was immensely fortunate to work with an amazing team who have allowed me to follow through with my original vision for the film, have been instrumental in shaping the tone and feel of the film, and have rescued me from the many mistakes and wrong turns that I took along the way. To collaborate with such established and successful filmmakers has been an enormous privilege. There wouldn’t be a film at all without them.
Your film has screened at Tribeca and Edinburgh festivals. What feedback did it receive?
EP: Being chosen to screen at Tribeca and Edinburgh was an incredible honour. The film was nominated for Bet Documentary Feature at both festivals and I was so pleased that we were able to bring Garnet with us to the world premiere in New York. Having not been on an airplane for 20 years, flying to New York to see himself on the big screen was a somewhat surreal experience, but it was an enormous privilege for me to see Garnet in the spotlight after all these years, regaling audiences with his tales of treasure hunting and orchestrating his own standing ovations! Countless people came up to Garnet after screenings wanting to talk to him, to thank him for his honesty, to empathise with his journey, or sometimes just to give him a hug.
In addition to getting a really positive response from audiences at Tribeca, we also picked up some great reviews from critics. Paste Magazine called the film “A masterpiece…beautifully shot, flawlessly edited, and altogether exceptional. The best documentary of the festival, and of the year so far.” Screen International said of the film: “A fascinating portrait of a gentle and thoughtful man…Beautifully shot and edited with an easy confidence.” Galo wrote that the film was the “nugget of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival”.
It took the better part of four years to bring Garnet’s story to the screen, so having people to respond to the film in this way is very humbling.
As a filmmaker, why is screening at festivals, either in your hometown, or globally, something of value?
EP: Screening documentary films at festivals is a truly unique experience for a filmmaker. Not only do I get to share our film with audiences in a really intimate way, but I also get to meet and learn from other filmmakers far more talented and experienced than myself. It is also very special to feel part of a larger documentary/film community, full of engaging, creative people with a shared love of the documentary form.
Have you ever had any of your films screened in South Africa, or is the Jozi Film Festival your first?
EP. I haven’t ever had a film of mine screened in South Africa before, so I’m extremely excited – and proud – to be screening at the Jozi Film Festival 2015. Both of my younger brothers went to university in South Africa (University of Cape Town) and I visited them several times over the years so I feel a strong affinity to the country. It is going to be a real privilege to share the film with South African audiences.