Dartmouth Park director on making her BAFTA nominated film

Rocks a film by Sarah Gavron

Rocks a film by Sarah Gavron - Credit: Archant

Sarah Gavron's film Rocks won best film at the British Independent film awards and has been nominated for eight BAFTAs including best director, best original screenplay and best actress.

Ahead of the April 11 awards ceremony, the Brick Lane and Suffragette director was the latest speaker at the Dartmouth Park Talks which Farhana Yamin, who co-organises with Maya de Souza, says "bring communities together in a small trusted setting to debate the big issues featuring our neighbours and friends who work and live here."

Friends, neighbours, and Gavron's mum London Assembly Member Nicky joined the Zoom as she explained how it was a "big ask" of BFI/Film 4 to back a movie with inexperienced teen actors. "They had to trust us but they were supportive."

Associate director Anu Henriques explained they wanted to "tell the story of what it means to be a teenage girl in London centring on young women going through that life experience and for their voices to be a central part of the creative process." 

Gavron adds: "We had seen boys and Hollywood high schools, but we hadn't grown up seeing the teenage girls on our buses and in our schools being the centre of a film."

In a highly unusual process, Gavron and Henriques spent 12 months "going into schools and sitting in the back of classrooms so they forgot we were there." They then invited girls to workshops to talk about their lives and passions, and improvise scenes.

"They said adults don't listen to them but we listened, not in a judgmental way, about what was most important to them."

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They first met lead actress Bukky Bakray being chucked out of her drama class because she was late. But Gavron praises her "incredible imagination and curious mind."

"She kept coming to the workshops and kept growing. We didn't have character descriptions, they became the story tellers and the story was formed around them by the writers."

Screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson came up with a script which was shot in East London by a 75percent female crew.

"I am used to going to the women's toilet on sets and finding them empty, but on this the women's toilet was full of our crew," said Gavron.

The tale of Bukky's character Rocks trying to keep younger brother Emmanuel out of care when their mother abandons them was a "love letter" to Ikoko's own sister who took on a caring role in her life.

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Hackney actress Bukky Bakray has been nominated for a BAFTA. - Credit: Tom Dymond

Working with first time actors, Gavron ran long takes, often starting before they entered the room "to give breathing space for them to warm up into the scene". With no calls of 'action' and several cameras running, they had the freedom to play with scenes and improvise dialogue  - shooting chronologically to "keep the flow".

"It was like live theatre," says Gavron adding: "Having worked with established actors I seek feedback about what works and listen to them and respect their views. I did the same with these first time actors who had an acute sense of what they thought was truthful."

She was vitally aware that with her age and background "I was the furthest away from their lives".

"It was a case of having a set without hierarchies, I had to collaborate and listen."

Ikoko brought her own life experience. "She said we forget how much joy there is, how much she laughed, how her sister looked after her in this incredible way. We kept that joy of female friendship and solidarity."

Post filming they stayed in touch with their cast and are helping them bridge their first and second jobs with advice on auditions, careers and producing their own work.

"We met them at 13, they are now 17. We have watched them go on that journey from child to woman, one moment so grown up and wise, the next giggly and childish. Rocks is a coming of age film but it's also about having to be adult before your time and there's a realisation at the end that she needs to be a child."

Rocks a film by Sarah Gavron

Rocks a film by Sarah Gavron - Credit: Archant

Gavron acknowledges that she is "standing on the shoulders" of women directors" such as Gurinder Chadha who "paved the way for me to go into rooms and say I want to make a film about women."

Now she is concerned about "the exclusion by the industry by certain kinds of storytellers" . Stories about Britain's diverse communities she says, should be told with their "ownership and authorship".

Henriques hopes the success of Rocks proves "stories about young black and brown girls are viable and lets people see it's possible to tell their own stories."