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Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

An Exclusive Interview with Romany Filmmaker Caleb Botton

1980: In the early morning hours on a gravel road in Southern Alberta, Canada a young boy, just 15 and already ensconced in a man’s body, sat confidently behind the wheel of a used tool laden pick-up. He followed his father’s lead and pulled off to the side of the sun-baked road behind his elders own work truck. There he waited, wondering if there was a change in the construction schedule for the day. His father climbed out of the cab and walked back to his son, counting the stones as he kicked them out of his way. He approached the rolled down window and leaned in, the burley forearms of an undefeated bare-knuckle fighter resting on the door. “You been with me all these years. If you don’t know anything now, you never will.” With that he pulled away. Forever. Caleb Botton spit the dust out of his mouth, back to where it came from, and rolled up the window. It was going to be a long day.

In December of 2008 I was extended the opportunity to read a feature length script, ‘The Polwick Inheritance’, written in 1998 by British filmmaker Caleb Botton. It was a heady endeavor for him at the time, one that required going to the very edges of his own sanity. Midway through the script, I shivered at the dance of madness found within it. There is only one fear perhaps greater than the fear of death and it is the fear of a free-fall into madness, in lieu of death. One question and one question alone danced across the stage in my mind: Who is Caleb Botton and why have we not heard of him? Therein lies a story. I found out that he, after mysteriously disappearing from the London film scene five years before, was entering into post production on a feature length documentary to be premiered globally for the first time in the states. A long anticipated return. Sensing a writer’s holy grail, rediscovered genius, I decided to track him down. The trail started in London, wandered through South Korea and seemed to end in Amsterdam. I booked a flight and bid Detroit adieu.

Walking the ice laden canals of the port city on a chilly winters afternoon, often breaking into a jog to keep up with the mysterious and elusive Caleb Botton, one senses the presence of a certain kind of sovereignty only found in the recesses of an artistic mind. Tall, dark, decidedly imposing and only hours off the plane from South Korea, he moved through the streets as if he had walked them for a thousand years. Oncoming pedestrians sensed his innate resolve. The women’ who dared to snag a peek into the piercing mink colored eyes, quickly diverted their glance back to shop windows, no match for an alpha male in full stride.

Fresh out of University, armed with several nominated shorts to his credit, Botton had emerged loudly onto the London film scene in 1998 with a screening of his first feature entitled ‘Media Darlings’, a controversial and scathing contemporary look at the corruption and hypocrisy in the British film industry. A foreshadow of things to come, he promptly bit the hand before it could feed him. In short order, Botton had earned a reputation for possessing integrity to a fault, if there can be such a thing. Born a Gypsy, raised in the private, ancient culture of the Romany, Botton had spent his life observing those outside of his own culture. He had been raised to keep to himself, not to mix with those not of Gypsy blood.

‘Caleb Botton’    ©2010 Lee Gumienny

Fiercely independent and relentless in his mandate to expose truth in all forms, Botton had also earned a reputation not only as a brilliant young filmmaker but as a non-team player, a bold and cunning strategy for an outsider at the time. Those in the halls of power (read Oxford – Cambridge) in England, and there were many, recognized his genius and refusal to sell out in order to get in. They encouraged him to leave the small incestuous world of British film and head straight to the states, a ticket called talent firmly in his hand.  But he would have none of it then. While his local peers, the likes of Guy Ritchie and others, were feasting from the outstretched hands and delivering the type of gangster films the patrons demanded, Botton was looking to the far horizon, with the idea of socially relevant films in his mind, keenly positioning himself for what was to come.

Sipping tar posing as coffee at a small café across from several canal-bound houseboats, threads of smoke wafting from their petite chimneys, Botton insisted on remaining outdoors so he could smoke an endless string of Marlboros, never quite finishing a single one. Between sips and lighter malfunctions, through a harmonic trans-Atlantic accent, he began. The story of a learning disabled genius with a dream, an outcast in the vertical class system of British film society, unfolded.

NK  Lets start with what you are doing now and work our way back. Tell us about ‘KorEnglish’

CB  ‘KorEnglish’ is a documentary that I shot over the past three years in South Korea. I followed Westerners, mostly just out of university, who had left their own countries, disillusioned and wanting to find new lives, pay off debts, etc. They land in South Korea to teach English to Korean kids who leave home at 6 a.m. and return at 11 p.m. These westerners land in an alien culture: alien food, alien alphabet, basically no anchors at all…and they slowly go mad. Drinking, sleeping with each other, loosing all boundaries, etc. I went undercover, became a teacher myself in order to shoot the film from inside the subject matter. It’s a wild film, rock and roll, very heavy at times but dealing with issues the entire world is facing at this moment.

NK  You are known for your radical approach to filmmaking…what can we expect to see in KorEnglish that is different from other documentaries?

CB  It will be unlike anything anyone has ever seen in a documentary: special effects, new music, everything you never see in a documentary.

‘Caleb Botton’    © 2010 Lee Gumienny

It’s a contemporary film dealing with some very serious subject matter but really entertaining. It’s a roller coaster, an assault on your senses, the special effects and the graphics…I shot it mostly at night so things were neon, you know moths-to-a-flame and its, ah , a lot of that in special effects. It’s a hybrid, part asian film, part MTV, part BBC classic documentary…it’s very very cool.

NK  What makes KorEnglish relevant now?

CB  KorEnglish is about a cultural collision, East / West. And its also about….you grow up in a façade, you grow up in America, in an MTV culture where everything is computer games and your killing people on them which is a façade, your watching soap operas which is a façade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer which is a façade and you go to a world (South Korea) which is like one big computer game where you can interact but its not interaction. Kind of like an unvirtual Facebook where you can interact with people but have no emotional ties. THAT is the story of these days and that’s what the documentary is about. Its kind of scary, we live in that age and that is the age we can thrive in: unsocial social activeness.

NK  KorEnglish is in post… what is coming next-what are you working on?

CB  I can’t really talk much about it. It’s called ‘Poets, Priests and Politicians’. It’s based in Latin America. It’s a feature length documentary and it’s, I can’t talk too much about it because it would endanger people’s lives, simple as that. And endanger my life. But, a very poignant documentary about what is going on today as well as yesterday. Kind of the American story of things in Latin America and the war between Latin America and the Catholic Church and European powers, Russia.

NK  Poets, Priests and Politicians is your first full swing at what you define as a ‘Social Film’?

CB  It is a film about liberation. I think all of my films have been social films. This is the most overt political film I will have made, this new one, really you know dealing with real peoples lives. What I want to do with this film is break down the audience have them really involved, people who are featured in the documentary, if people want to help them, we are going to set up a web site that you can actually give money straight to these people, bypass everybody else and help these people.

NK  Do you consider Poets, Priests and Politicians an American film?

CB  I don’t think America will be to pleased with it, it’s a film about America certainly, and it’s a film about the America’s. I’m not sure. It will be in Spanish and English, there will be two versions. America will be interested in it.

NK  You’ve been nominated (Caleb interrupts me, obviously annoyed at the accolade)

CB  Yea, when my first film come out, they kind of blacklisted it, Media Darlings, that was in 1998. At the same time I made a short piece called ‘Perceptions of the Myth’ while I was at university. It was about Gypsies and racism and it was about a cousin of mine. I just went one day, took my Director of Photography and we shot this stuff and then I edited it, a lot of racism questions were going on at the time and they wouldn’t broadcast it. There were a lot of things being broadcast…

NK  Who were ‘they’?

CB  The BBC, Channel 4, the British media establishment wouldn’t broadcast it. I got really upset, Media Darlings was kind of banned and then… this. So a couple of years later, I just put them in a film festival.

NK  Which Film Festival?

CB  The London Independent Film Festival. They came back to me and said: “oh, both your films have been nominated Best Director, Best Film, Best Producer…” I said oh that’s fantastic that’s really good. Then they said…’But it looks like we’re playing nepotism so we can only do one and not the other…’

NK  Being Romany, did you suspect racism?
CB No, just stupidity. I don’t want to think there is some big conspiracy theory against me. I just think its life, stuff happens. They had told me my work was the best and I was upset, so I left.

NK  You withdrew from the Festival?

CB  No, I withdrew my cooperation in the whole festival. I left and went to Thailand.

NK  Tell me about your world as a Gypsy in Britain.

CB  Gypsy? It’s blood. It’s a race of people. We are originally from India…and thrown out of India by the Muslims. They came and because we wouldn’t worship Allah, we worshiped fire and shiny things and would not capitulate, they murdered us. So we migrated and we’ve been migrating for years. We have our own language, Romany. There are three tribes: the Calderash, the Sinti and the Manush. You can tell who we are by our looks and our last names. There were more of us, proportionately, exterminated by the Germans during the war than Jews.

NK  But this type of racism, this persecution, is a thing of the past is it not?

CB  Gypsies still do not have any rights. You can go into England today, 2009, and you will see signs in bars saying ‘No Gypsies’. Not ‘No Blacks’ or ‘No Jews’ or No Pakistanis’, just ‘No Gypsies’. Today, 2009.

NK  You battled this in London in the late 1990’s…

CB  I’m kind of a fighter…a man’s man…I come from a people who are a little bit wild and we can’t be ruled. I am not anybody’s pet, I was serious about my films and I was serious about the work I wanted to do, the things I wanted to say. I wanted to make films. I needed to get an education. I knew what I wanted to do but in order to write I needed to go back and learn about literature… I passed my University exams then got into the University of choice.  I went to Queen Mary of Westfield and Central School of Speech and Drama.

I was educated by some of the finest people in the world but they (patrons of the British film scene) didn’t like my attitude and I did not want to be part of their agenda. How do you be a filmmaker? You become a film Director. How do you do it? I just made them, raised the money and made them. I didn’t know how so, the only way to do it, you know, Francis Truffaut: get a camera, make a movie. So that’s what I did. Got a crew together, got some professionals, got some actors, wrote a script and made a movie. This REALLY upset people!

NK  A young man in Romany culture is expected to stay and support the family. You chose to break this tradition…

CB  Yea, my role was to be the head of the family, and support the family and run the family business and look after them and I was quite good at it however I wanted to be a filmmaker, which freaked them out.

NK  Your family had a construction business that spanned two continents. You had to make what I sense was a very difficult decision: leave your own family, as well as your own culture in order to pursue your dream.

CB  Yeah it was a really hard decision. My father was sick and there was no one to head the family. So do I stay and look after them or pursue my art? I tried to do both for a long time and it became clear that I couldn’t. If I pursued it in that environment I’d be destroyed, spiritually and mentally. I think I was given this gift from God so I pleaded, I became poor to go to University and just starved for 4-5 years to live my dream, to do it.  My family suffered from the consequences which was awful for me.  They’re fine now, its been a number of years.

NK  You suffer from profound Dyslexia. How did you make it through University? How does it influence your work as a Director?

CB  Because of my severe dyslexia I didn’t learn to read until I was ‘bout ten years old. But I had been writing things in my head for years before.  I was taken out to work when I was nine, and out of school working full time when I was twelve. My schooling was effectively two years.

Most people see a concept of something in two dimensions. When I see something I see it like I am walking into a room, I see things in my head. What happens in my head, it’s three dimensional…I see everything. But, because of the dyslexia, it comes out not that way. What comes out is different, in my words, my writing. But, in film, I can articulate.

NK  Would you like to talk about your faith at all?

CB  Well, just that I’m a practicing Catholic and it’s a major part of my life.

NK  Just one question: you are Catholic, it’s a major part of your life…Faith based film is one of thee fastest growing genres in the US…(again, agitated by the question, Botton interrupts)

CB  YOU CANNOT MAKE MONEY OUT OF GOD. And I don’t want to particularly. I have a script that deals with certain elements of it, a very good script that I’ll make one day. Because I’m Catholic I should imagine that it permeates in all aspects of my work. I make films for everybody. I’m a filmmaker because of a gift from God, God’s grace. My films are for everybody so I don’t make…it’s a difficult kind of question…I don’t want to be defined as a Christian filmmaker or a Catholic filmmaker. I am a filmmaker. I don’t want to be defined as a Gypsy filmmaker. I am a filmmaker. I don’t want to race color it. They have influenced me however…I would never go against my faith because I would never go against Truth…so it, this Truth, is what has defined my film. I am a filmmaker, period.

NK  You traveled the world, sacred sites, as you explored your own faith, your Catholicism more deeply. And eventually, you landed in the jungles of Central America working with the poor.

CB  Yes, what happened, I, well, we are talking about my faith. I wrote this script, which was probably the best script that had been written in England in a long time, it still is.

NK  You’re referring to ‘The Polwick Inheritance’?

CB  Yes. I had a year to write and I knew the scripts that were around and…it was kind of a Gypsy film. I knew the scripts that were around at the time and it was so far ahead of everybody’s, the script is fantastic. In order to make the money to produce it, I had to make something for everybody to see. So I shot a rather clever documentary called ‘Searching for Bobby Satva’. The premise explored an aspect of culture. It was a mockumentary about a famous DJ who instigated house music, pop culture, who got so disenfranchised by how things worked that he ran away…just as he achieved fame…it was a big ‘hush’ a big conspiracy theory.

NK  You were heavily involved in the club scene at the time in London…

CB  I was heavily involved in the warehouse thing, you know, come from Detroit, Chicago. It changed everything in London, there was a revolution in England, a social revolution which you can kind of see in the music today. But like all revolutions, the main powers-that-be got a hold of it, homogenized it and ruined it. Drugs, payments, gangsters…ruined the original thing of it.

So I had this vehicle to talk about that, again, kind of political, a comment on culture but done in such a clever way, a clever premise, that I am not going to get into because it has not been released. It will be released on the 25th anniversary.

NK  Why did you stop? Why was it not released in order to push the Polwick script?

CB  Ah again, I was about 4 months away from releasing it, 95% had been shot, it had cost a lot of money…and then…something happened to me. I withdrew, and I left. I kind of became Bobby Satva. It was bizarre, I lived it and I never told anybody the ending, I just left.

I had had a massive Conversion. Something happened to me and I followed that. The calling was too great and when you have the calling you must follow it. I followed it into the jungle. Just like Bobby Satva, I walked away from fame. You know, that thing that you want so much, that thing that was in my hand that I wanted for so long. I walked away from it, like Bobby Satva.

NK  You experienced this massive Conversion, which was a critical turning point in your life personally, and it basically launched you ‘inside’ of one of your own films. This journey took you geographically where? Without of course giving away the ending of Bobby Satva!

CB  Oh, all over…I wanted to search for the truth, what was happening to me…you know, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I thought maybe I would become a Catholic Priest. I explored that, so I kind of went traveling and praying at monasteries around the world and thought about it and talked to people about it and people would say: ‘oh what an incredible story this thing is…you should talk and go public about it…’ I thought, again, to make money out of that was very, very wrong. I kept coming back…my Mom said “you’re a filmmaker. Perhaps that’s your role.” So I thought about it. For a year, two years, I did various things, I found myself in the jungle.

‘Caleb Botton’ ©2010 Caleb Botton
I found myself paralleling my life to this character Bobby Satva; it was not lost on me. It was the happiest time of my life. Nothing to buy and nothing to do but work on the documentary. I worked in the schools and I worked in the missions.  You know its funny, walking away from it: I’ve been working on things that I really like, being really productive. I’ve been away from England, making films all over the world on really interesting subjects, making art things. I’m kind of… people say to me ‘Why don’t you promote them more?’ I just want the works to speak for themselves.

NK  Which Documentary were you working on while in the jungle?

CB  ‘7 Days in Carmel’ and ‘Children of Carmel’ It was so fulfilling. The happiest time in my life, really happy.

NK  You were in Central America, Belize?

CB  Yes, just seeing these people who had nothing, they lived in stick houses with dirt floors, with smiles on their faces all the time and the only thing that was wrong with them was the impact of the western culture. You know, MTV, Rap stars with Bentleys, naked girls and things like that. Now, where I was there was no McDonalds, no fast food outlet. Just people in stick houses that got all this bombardment from America, this media, designer clothes and things. Bizarre because they were already happy with nothing.

The things that were running the country, the IMF, influence from the West imposing their culture. I was working in the missions with the poor watching all this political upheaval for 2 years. It made me quite…it educated me a lot. I was already educated about it. My work had been media, the power of it to not do any good and I thought perhaps it could do some good…perhaps infect some social change to educate, emancipate. I started thinking about this, started working with aid agencies, uncovered a lot of corruption.

NK  Talk to me more about your sense of responsibility as a filmmaker.

CB   Left to my own devices I invested in my own equipment. Didn’t have to run around, kiss peoples asses and compromise. I wanted to be a filmmaker. You have a responsibility to educate and entertain and you cannot lie to the public. I wanted to make truthful films and let people decide. No matter what my ideology is, I wanted to present truthful things to them and let them decide. Cause debate about it.

When I was a teenager, I read a lot about the Greek satirist, like Aristophanes. And I read Shakespeare and Marlow. The best writers, Gore Vidal, are always satirists. They have a responsibility to look at society, look at politics and see how things are run, not lampoon it, but make comments about it in a way because its so disturbing and so weird and so absurd. To make comments about it that are holding a mirror in reverse up to it, that is the truth and where kind of my thinking as a filmmaker came from, the things I want to talk about. My first feature film was a satire to become clearer, to make comments cleverly, or try to, the responsibility of a filmmaker I think, to reflect society. As a Director you have a responsibility to, it’s always been in my head to educate, illuminate and entertain. When I’m working on a project I get educated, illuminated and entertained. I also give blood, sweat and tears for it.

When you approach a project they take a couple of years to make. It has to be of interest to me. They’re out there for a long time so it has to be interesting for everybody else. I don’t want to do films that degrade women, make them take their clothes off. That seems really stupid. I want to do really good stories. If I make a film and let people think, if I make a documentary, I want to push the limits of film as art, but always to entertain. Push the limits; make the audience strive for that much more. I don’t like passive audiences. I want audiences to engage. So it is a responsibility, it’s a social responsibility.

NK  You did a beautiful piece on Derek Jarman in 2005. It was difficult for you particularly because of the content following your Conversion. Tell us about this piece and how you reconciled the subject matter with your faith.

CB  In 2003 I packed up and left England. A lot of things were happening. I was just too jaded. The film industry in London at that time was really lots of coke, thugs. It was dirty, and I was getting filthy.  I had the Conversion and was given a second chance. I left. I tried to hold on to my life as much as possible. It wasn’t a good idea, so I left. I left for about 1 1/2 years. I was working, made some really interesting projects, some social projects that were really interesting. Again, evolving as a writer and a filmmaker. I came back to England and there was this Derek Jarman piece by this really good classical musician by the name of Donna McKevitt.

NK  For those who may not know, who was Derek Jarman?

CB  Derek Jarman was a filmmaker, very famous filmmaker in England during the 1980’s. Made a film called Jubilee, he was a punk rock filmmaker, and then he made Caravaggio. He was a practicing homosexual. Died of Aids, wrote this book of poems and died of aids. It got banned by Christians, the music, the song cycle, because there were some really racy lyrics. They sensationalized it and it was pulled. After the 10th anniversary of his death the person who owned the material brought it back and had it re-released. Of course ten years had passed and nobody really cared how racy it was. But it was still a really stunning piece of contemporary classical music.

So I mixed in these highbrow circles and I, funny enough, a devout Catholic, was offered to make this material and it was kind of difficult because Derek Jarman was a really famous filmmaker, really famous for his sexual orientation and I was the last person anybody would have thought of. I had problems with it but, as a filmmaker, it was art, the music was really good somebody dying and having all that bitterness toward things was fascinating. I was drawn to the subject matter.

It was performed at the Tate Gallery in London and by that time my work had evolved into art. I was looking at a lot of performance art pieces and installations and I thought what I was trying to say, my film work, was moving toward art. It was art, so I took the job. It was some of the most beautiful work I had ever done. I started to work heavily with light and you couldn’t use light there because it was the Tate. The backdrop was William Turner who was one of the first artists of the 18th century to influence all the modern artist like Monet, Van Gogh, etc. He was the first person to use light in a modern way. So he’s the father of Modern Art. Just to have that as the backdrop, I started to really think about art and the way it moved. I cut the pieces like paintbrush. No cuts, just dissolves. I think I made one of the most stunning pieces there was. Everybody said, ‘oh- this is going to make you so famous, your film work is better than Derek Jarman’s and better than the music that you’re making it about.’

I got on a plane and went to the jungle. They thought it was a bit weird that I left. I didn’t want to stay and run after the fame. I just wanted to do the work.

NK  You went to the jungle…and took your camera with you?

CB  I went to make a movie so I took everything with me. I had been filming for about a year and a half…I had been filming and making things and I’d been all around the world trying to find answers to difficult questions. I think I went 1.2 million miles in 18 months. My camera was with me all the time. I developed a certain style. Before that I was a film Director who never touched the camera. I was the Director and I had people to touch everything for me. During that year, (2003) I started to pick up the camera really, myself.

NK  What was it like climbing behind the camera?

CB  It was a part of my body, a part of me, a natural thing. I don’t know how it works but it became me, it was me. Another part of me…it was the thing I was missing and when I shoot you know I don’t know how it happens I don’t read instruction books. The camera becomes a part of me, an appendage. I can work it and do everything I want to do. Stuff that I have in my head I can get, I can make it happen within the camera. That year the relationship with me, and the camera started to happen. So by the time I’d made Translucence cycle, you can see what was in my head…me and the camera were one.

NK  Every filmmakers dream is to work in America. Am I right?

CB  I think every filmmakers dream is to work! There are interesting things happening in America at the moment. I had a conversation last year with someone and we were discussing my future and this person, one of the biggest powers in English film, said ‘Why are you in England? And I said to see my family.  I said I’m thinking about getting an agent in England and they said ‘Why? We have no film industry and you’re a movie Director. To get an agent over here you’re taking a big step backwards, you need to get representation.  You need to go to Hollywood. Its your time.’

So everybody defines success as Hollywood. There are European filmmakers that are doing incredible work in Europe, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan; a healthy film biz is in Mexico, Latin America, and Australia. I guess to get the money, the actors, you need to be in Hollywood, in America. I just want to make films that a lot of people will see. I worked, I filmed a little bit in America, but never made an American movie. That will certainly be in the next five years.

NK  Will you seek to resurrect some of the screenplays that you have written? Will we ever see those?

CB  I don’t know. I might sell those screenplays. Essentially, I disappeared for 5 years. I’ve made three movies but I left, exploring my art, exploring things I really wanted to do. As an artist its been really, really good. Now, I’ve made this film, KorEnglish and I want people to see it. Its for 20, 30 yr olds, its an important film and I want people to see it…so I’ve had to come back.

NK  What is your thought on coming to America to work?

CB  I’ve got a special place in my heart as much as everybody lambastes America. When I am abroad most of my friends are American. The people I most respect in the world are American. I think America is one of the last bastions on earth where people still have integrity. A lot of people disagree with me, especially my friends in England. I actually see it and I think they do. It’s been the world leader for the last 100 years. Certainly for the last 60 years, in terms of media, its number one and we live in a media generation. America is a very important part of my life. I will eventually have a base in America. I am coming to America.

~

© Copyright 2015 by Nancy Kotting   All rights reserved   Reproduction by permission only

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4 comments on “An Exclusive Interview with Romany Filmmaker Caleb Botton

  1. Pingback: Is Tyson Fury Poised To Become The Muhammad Ali Of Our Era? | Watapama

  2. Sean Mansfield
    December 6, 2015

    I was on the missions with Caleb in Belize, Central America. One of my funniest memories of Caleb was when we nearly got into a fight because he did not feel I was praying the Rosary with love. The next day we were sitting eating breakfast with the seminarians and Caleb had related the story of how we nearly fought over a rosary. The seminarians were rather shocked. Caleb, turned and looked at them and said, “We are English, We fight.”

  3. Sean Mansfield
    December 6, 2015

    I wanted to add that Caleb is a good man. He has suffered a lot in his life. But he steadfastly places his trust in the Lord especially through the hands of Mary. He is a true and loyal friend. May the Lord be with him.

  4. NK
    December 6, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more Sean. Since this interview he has become family to me. His devotion to his faith has been an inspiration to me and he has never failed to give me advice and spiritual direction whenever I turn to him in need. A good man indeed. -N.K.

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