Ben S. Hyland talks to us about the making of his emotional short film Safe Space, the importance of support domestic abuse charities during this period of isolation, attending Exit 6 with the film in 2018 and then returning a year later as a Best Film nominee.
Hello Ben, thanks for talking to us. This week sees the online release of your short film Safe Space, which is very different from the comedy work you’re more known for. Can you tell us about the film and how it came about?
Sure. I made a short filmed called Padlock a few years ago. It explored the subject matter of domestic abuse against men. One of my actors was Rebecca Grant and she approached me afterwards and said she wanted to make a film about trafficked women. I didn’t know anything about it so I threw myself into the research and that was my starting point.
Can you tell us about the research that went in to capturing not just the life of a care worker in a women’s refuge, but also the varying circumstances that bring so many women to them?
Well the thanks have to go to Unseen. They’re the leading UK charity that aims to abolish slavery, domestic servitude and human trafficking. Their CEO, Andrew Wallis, was very generous with his time and he put me in touch with Key Workers in safe houses.
When I started the research I didn’t have an idea for the film so it was these initial conversations that shaped everything and allowed me to really focus in on the story I wanted to tell or at least the one that interested me the most.
You chose a very distinct style of storytelling to show the audience what it can be like to work as a carer in such a refuge. Can you tell us about your choice here?
When having conversations it was immediately apparent that Key Workers carry a great deal of emotional burden in their line of work. None of them said that directly. But they way they told stories of victims of abuse it was clear they had such a strong emotional connection to their ‘clients’. I realised that the lead was going to be a Key Worker.
The decision to keep the camera placed in the same position was because I wanted to explore exploitation and trafficking through the Key Worker. I didn’t want to give the opportunity for respite for the audience. It’s a tough subject matter and I had that visual style in mind very early in the process.
I also wondered how an audience might feel sympathy for a character that they never actually see on screen. It was possibly also a choice I made without duly knowing what the outcome was going to be.
Such is the style that it requires a strong central performance from Sarah, the main character, to hold the whole thing together. Rebecca Grant does a wonderful job of doing just that. Can you tell us about how she got involved with Safe Space and working together? Rebecca came to me initially so she was very much involved from the start. I knew she was talented and I didn’t have any issues basing everything on her performance. It may have been a slight gamble. There are no edit points to cut away from her. Those kind of decisions become easy when you have talented people.
Domestic abuse is something that has risen sharply during this period of lockdown. Knowing what you know about the safe houses available to the victims, how important is it to support charities working in this area at this time?
It’s vital. Having spoken to Unseen over the last few weeks I know they are struggling. They struggle with funding at the best of times. They have dedicated helplines and the run multiple safe houses. All of these cost money. Like most charities donations have dropped off so it really is a desperate time for them.
What advice would you give a new filmmaker looking to tackle a serious, true-to-life issue such as this?
My advice would be to put a huge amount of time into the research. Charity websites are great as a starting point but that’s all they are. You need to speak to people. Charity workers, victims, survivors. Compelling and emotionally engaging stories are about people not statistics. You owe it to those involved to get it right.
The film has now completed its festival run, picking up a lot of laurels along the way. What was the response to the film from the various audiences you’ve been able to watch with?
I think issue led films are often conversation starters. They raise questions and spark debate. Largely they bring forward issues that audiences are not aware of which can only be a good thing.
The film was selected for Exit 6 Film Festival in 2018, and you then returned to us a year later with the comedy Quiet Carriage, which was selected for the Judge’s 6. How different an experience is it to attend a festival with wildly differing genres?
That’s quite a tough question. I think it’s not a case of feeling different because they’re wildly different genres. I think like most filmmakers you’ve got one eye on the audience. Are they laughing? Are they crying? Have they appreciated that microscopic beat that you’re proud of that, frankly, no one else is going to notice?
You create something and this is the point you let it go. So I’d say the experience is very similar. I sit quietly, nervously, drowning in self doubt waiting for someone to tickle my belly and tell me I’ve done good.
You’ve clearly got the ability to switch up the genres you direct. Do you have one genre you lean towards and what can we expect to see from you next?
At the moment my focus is comedy. I look back at a period of my filmmaking where I made predominantly issue led films and I’m immensely proud of that body of work. But if you’re asking me if I’d rather make people laugh or cry then the answer is easy. I’d make them laugh to the point of tears! I currently have a comedy called Talk Radio that will be submitted to festivals within the next few weeks.
You can follow Ben on Twitter: @Ben_S_Hyland