Seeing through his eyes

Iggy London on leading with emotion in Area Boy

by Jennie Kermode

Joshua Cameron in Area Boy
Joshua Cameron in Area Boy

Every now and again, as a critic, one sees a film which is very good but really difficult to break down for the purposes of review or discussion. Area Boy, one of the most hotly-tipped shorts to emerge so far this season, is a film made up of quiet observations and glances, a film which impacts the viewer emotionally before any narrative begins to emerge. It centres on Eli, played by the remarkable Joshua Cameron, a teenager who is just coming to terms with his identity and who finds himself under tremendous pressure as he attempts to reconcile it with his religion. As his baptism approaches, he is drawn to a group of local boys who, to others, might look like trouble, but who offer him the space to be himself and might just be his salvation.

The film was written and directed by Iggy London, whose shorts have garnered significant critical attention in the past and whose distinctive voice makes his work hard to forget. He immediately understood where I was coming from when I said that it was a difficult film to address in normal terms.

“For me, this is a writing style I've always had, a way of telling stories,” he says. “I didn’t actually study film, I studied law, so I have a different sort of sensibility. And when I was thinking and approaching this story, the first thing, as you said, was this idea of emotion. It’s gut wrenching in an important way, but I also understand that there has to be some space for mundanity and nothingness. A difficult thing that I experienced was the fact that in so many films that we make, everything's very external. External dialogue. External actions. Things that are done to the character, or the character is doing stuff.

“With Area Boy, ultimately, Eli is static. He is very much a very shy, reclusive type of person. We see things that are going on in his life through other people, and through the way other people impose them on him. And so he has to finally make the decision as to what type of person he wants to be.

“The idea was always to make a very methodical, internal, conflicting dialogue of a story. And that was through that performance, not necessarily always having to speak, but always having this internal dialogue. You can feel that in the actual experience and you can feel that in the character as well.”

It seems a very appropriate way to approach telling a story about a teenager, given the additional intensity that emotions tend to have at that age.

“Yeah. One hundred percent. I think that it's a portrait of being young. It's a portrait of not knowing what you are, and trying to fit in so badly. Because you feel as though you have to connect to someone or something. And then realising you won't get that because you are in direct conflict with that thing that people are subscribing to. So ultimately, it is a coming of age story. It's this pivotal sort of time of being a kid and figuring out who you are and not knowing what that means, so not having the words to express it. It's quite powerful because I think it's something that a lot of people do connect with and people can relate to this idea of experimenting.”

It is an extraordinary performance, I say.

“Yeah, Joshua Cameron. He's an amazing creative talent and actor. He studied theatre and then went on to do Lion King and these amazing, beautiful productions. but from my understanding, he never really had a chance to do his own leading role in a story. We did loads of different castings. We went to so many different places. We did street casting, and then we interviewed some well known actors, and we really just stumbled on him after a couple of rounds of castings.

“We had said that we wouldn't continue unless we found our Eli. We’d already found our Kevin in Malcolm Kamulete, so we really wanted to find that character that was supposed to be the glue to the whole film. And he came in very shy, very quiet, and he delivered his lines and was perfect. It was so strange. I don't think he knew that he was so good.

“We made him try and change his performance, and he was able to understand instruction really well, so I knew instantly he was definitely the one for the role. It was just that, you know, we wanted to be sure. We tried. We auditioned other people, but no one was as good at being able to affect such a powerful, innocent, complex sort of performance in just the expression. He does it so well. So, yeah, I loved working with him. He's a brilliant actor. I can't wait to see what he does next.”

Is he hoping this will get Joshua noticed?

“Yeah, I hope so. He's already doing something like Netflix at the moment, so he's definitely going to come up, and I can't wait. I just want more and more people to know what he’s doing. And I think, as many filmmakers do, you tend to use the same actors and stuff like that, so I definitely would love to work with him again and explore that relationship in a longer format as well.”

The camera spends a lot of time just resting on Joshua’s face.

“I'm a massive fan of Barry Jenkins’ work,” he says. “One time I was watching one of his interviews, he basically said that breaking the fourth wall and establishing a sort of relationship between the audience and the characters and the story is really important. So I took that, in a way, to really be able to establish his honesty in the expression in his eyes. I trying to convey this feeling of true honesty by literally lingering in that way, by literally just holding the camera and seeing his internal dialogue visually. That was really important to me. And also I thought there's an element of intimacy in those characters, in those shots.

“There are a lot of shots which are quite close up in the film. It really is to be able to remove the viewers from their own subject position into Eli's subject position and understand him as a character. And again, it's through that performance. I really wanted to make sure I shot that and included it in the film.”

We talk about the film’s themes of community.

“The title comes from area boys in Nigeria,” he says. “It's a Nigerian term to identify these group of these – not necessarily mischievous – but people in the community who don't really have a home. They almost feel like they're gangs, but I wanted to use it in a different way here to describe a boy who's not necessarily connected to one home or connected to one source or having a sense of community. He just flits from one place to another. It's indicative of this idea of being this outsider person, desperately trying to come home, trying to find meaning in a world which seems so stoic and so far away from his own way.”

In the end, Eli finds that vital human connection in a place where viewers might not expect it.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think that ultimately, it was really interesting to get a story whereby at the beginning of the film, Eli and Kevin are very much characters who don't connect with each other, but through this exploration, they can actually be honest. So by the end of the film, they show that brother sort of dynamic, or that father and son dynamic, this connection where Eli deeply respects him. They're more similar than different, even though they have different viewpoints.”

We talk about the different styles with which Iggy explores the film’s locations.

“Eli’s home is a neutral place, and then the church is a very stoic place. So the camera is very locked up, and that's where we get to see what's going on. The actual world building comes from the church, but then you have this very neutral place, which is the home. And then when Eli is with the area boys, it's very chaotic, because that's the most volatile place that Eli is trying to fit in. So I wanted it to be really in and amongst the community, and we just decided to play around with that. In the church we had very long, very steady camera movements mixed with something which felt very fluid and moving. And then comes something very neutral and honest in his home.

“We shot on film. I think it gave that extra element of texture, being able to play with this prettiness of film. There was a level of nostalgia, there was a level of reality that I think was important specifically for when we were looking at surrealism and looking at all these other things that are quite unconventional. I wanted to utilise something which felt very nostalgic to bind those stories together and bring those different vignettes and different moments together.

“It was a brilliant collaboration. Christian Huck, our DoP, was really able to bring it to life. I hadn't really blocked a lot previously. I'm very instinctual as a filmmaker. It was really brilliant to work with him because he had a different sort of perspective. I was able to explore with this and really block out scenes.”

The film has already made quite an impression.

“Area Boy premiered at Venice Film Festival, went on to London Film Festival, and then won Best Short. We want it to be seen as many people as possible so I’m looking forward to continuing the process of submitting to get it across different places. And then eventually, we'll find a home on an online platform that people can watch for free, because I really want people to see it.”

Going forward, he says, he’s keen to explore different genres.

“I'm thinking about exploring genres in this coming of age story, but building something which goes a little bit more psychological with my use of visual storytelling. I’m a massive fan of Barry Jenkins and Denis Villeneuve. I watched Enemy for the first time and I’m really obsessed with it. So I really want to make a psychological thriller. I'm looking forward to that.”

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