Recently Oscar nominated for Best Documentary Short, “Black Sheep” tells a powerful true story about racism and identity in the United Kingdom. Its subject is a young black man named Cornelius Walker, who recalls his traumatic childhood experiences with violent racism after moving from London to a predominantly white housing estate in Essex. Deftly mixing interviews and reenactment, “Black Sheep” is one of the impressive contenders in its Oscar category. In speaking with director Ed Perkins, however, he revealed that the idea for the film arose unintentionally from a casual conversation. Read below for an edited version of our discussion.
Shane Slater: What was the genesis of this film?
Ed Perkins:I met Cornelius through a friend of a friend. Cornelius at the time was looking to get into the film industry and he wanted to talk to someone who was in the industry for a bit of advice. So I met him, had coffee and we chatted and talked a little bit about documentary filmmaking. And then I asked him a little bit about him and how he wanted to start getting into film. With all the charisma and bravery and courage you see in the film, he then started to tell me his story and I was just totally blown away by it. We were just sitting in the coffee shop and he poured his heart out about this extraordinary, complicated tale.
We stayed in contact and became friends and I asked him whether he would consider allowing us to try to work together to bring this story to the screen as a documentary film. And thankfully, he said yes. It’s always a bit of a mystery as to where we as documentary filmmakers find our stories. They often come from the most unexpected places. I just feel very fortunate to have gotten the chance to meet Cornelius and build a relationship with him. He’s an extraordinary young man and I just feel very indebted to him and very proud that we’ve been able to help bring his story to the screen.
SS: At what point did you decide on your mixed interview/reenactment approach?
EP: Well, he’s a very beautiful person and looks fantastic on camera. And he speaks so wonderfully. So it always felt to me, that shooting that master interview was going to be the foundation of the film. So we shot that interview over a period of two days in a little studio. It was just me, Cornelius and the director of photography. We shot it very close up and we set up the camera in a way that he’s looking right down the barrel of the lens and engaging right with the audience. And he gave such extraordinary testimony.
I then went away and edited that interview and just on its own, that interview felt incredibly powerful and it felt authentic and honest. The plan was then to find what else we could shoot to help bring this story to life in a way that wasn’t getting in the way of the extraordinary testimony Cornelius has already given us. We could have animated his journey. There were a lot of different approaches we could have taken. But we decided to bring it to life through a slightly more ambiguous, complex drama.
So what we ended up doing was, Cornelius and I went back to the actual town where the events happened in his life all those years ago. And we found the exact places where those events happened and we decided to recreate certain moments from his life in the exact places where they really happened and then film Cornelius’ response to those recreations. So the field where he gets into a fight is the exact field where it actually happened. We found the house he used to live in and painted the bedroom the same color it used to be. We tried to bring to life these very painful, haunting episodes from his past, with his permission.
And it felt like doing that allowed us to access his story in an interesting, complicated way. None of the people you see on screen, other than a really wonderful young actor who plays young Cornelius, are professional actors. They’re just young men and women who live in that town. We felt it was a really interesting way of bringing the story to life and I’m hoping it allows the story to resonate in a way which just the interview on its own may not.
SS: Did it take a while to come to the right tonal balance for the film? Cornelius doesn’t immediately strike you as someone dealing with trauma.
EP: It’s always really difficult. We filmed the interview over two days and there was definitely a sense to which the most painful things he talks about were inevitably and understandably the hardest for him to access. A lot of those happened on day two of the shoot. So we took stuff after day one and sat down and there were a couple of weeks between the two days. We took stock of what we got and talked about what parts of the story we felt we still wanted to explore more. And Cornelius was willing to go there.
As a result, in the second half of the film the tone does change. What you see is a real willingness on Cornelius’ part to be vulnerable. The things he’s gone through are so harrowing and his story is complicated. And some of the decisions he makes in that story are complex. He didn’t want to shy away from that. He wanted to try to explain his thought process each stage of the way and try to put the audience in his shoes, as complicated as it was for him. And I think what he’s done and the bravery he’s shown in talking about really complicated issues and decisions is really remarkable.
The tone is always difficult to find but I wanted it to feel very much like it’s his story and his life that he’s lived. A lot of the job for me and the filmmaking crew was to get out of the way and allow Cornelius to talk as directly as possible to the audience.
SS: Was there ever any consideration given to making this a full-length narrative feature? Cornelius’ parents are particularly fascinating characters to explore.
EP: I think Cornelius is definitely interested in trying to find a way to bring it to life as a feature length film. For my part, my background is in documentary and I felt that for this film we wanted to focus on this specific part of his bigger life story. It felt like a short was the best format to do that in.
This is a complicated film. It’s not a film that ties up all the loose ends. It purposefully leaves audiences with an unsettled feeling. We didn’t want audiences to walk out of the cinema and feel like they’ve been provided with all the answers to the story. This is a complex tale and we wanted it to linger and stay with audiences. And this format is very powerful for that. It’s only 27 minutes long and our hope is that it stays much longer than 27 minutes in people’s minds and hearts.