Contemplating change

Cécile Embleton and Alys Tomlinson on filmmaking and life choices in Mother Vera

by Amber Wilkinson

Cécile Embleton: 'It was really exciting to be able to move from this incredible image that Alys had taken of Vera that captured her essence and unpack that and go deeper into one story'
Cécile Embleton: 'It was really exciting to be able to move from this incredible image that Alys had taken of Vera that captured her essence and unpack that and go deeper into one story'
Contemplative documentary Mother Vera follows several years in the life of an Orthodox nun, first as she goes about her monastic duties in Belarus and later as she makes a life-changing decision. Cécile Embleton and Alys Tomlinson’s patient film gradually reveals Vera’s backstory as she considers a different future. The film has already received plaudits as a work in progress, picking up a £42,000 Creativity Media First Look Award in Locarno to cover completion costs for films in post-production.

We caught up with the filmmakers ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Visions du Réel documentary film festival next week to talk about the unexpected journey they went on with it and the striking visuals they have used to capture Vera’s life. If you’re particularly spoiler sensitive, you may wish to wait until you have seen the film before reading, as we do discuss some of the documentary’s later developments.

Mother Vera stemmed from a still image taken by photographer Tomlinson as part of her Ex-Voto project - a large format black and white series of pictures taken at pilgrimage sites (read more about that on Tomlinson’s website). Among the photos was one of Mother Vera, which became the start of a filmic conversation with the nun which would last more than five years. Embleton, whose background is in filmmaking, was working with Tomlinson on the project.

Cécile Embleton, top, and Alys Tomlinson. 'We're both drawn to contemplation'
Cécile Embleton, top, and Alys Tomlinson. 'We're both drawn to contemplation'
Alys explains: “During one of our trips to Grabarka, on the eastern border of Poland with Belarus. We were taking photographs of pilgrims at this kind of sacred site and we spotted Vera and straightaway knew that we wanted to photograph her. She had this extremely captivating and kind of enigmatic, striking presence. And she was dressed in her Orthodox robes so she was this very dramatic presence in this very striking landscape.

“We approached her for a portrait, and she agreed and kind of did a quite dramatic swish of her cloak and we went into the woods and took this portrait of her with trees behind and dappled light. That photograph became the main photograph from the series.

“She then invited us to the convent in Belarus. And we were able to go initially to make a short film with a grant that I received from Sony. So that allowed us to go and initially spend a week in 2018 with Vera in the convent, and as part of that community. We were keen to carry the style of that photograph into the aesthetics of the film. But it was Cécile who was fundamental in pushing the film to be a feature film. She saw great potential for telling a much bigger story about this woman's incredible life. So it started as a photograph, but then grew in kind of completely different directions.”

The pair were able to draw on the relationship they’d built through the photographic project in order to begin to make the documentary.

Cécile says: “What was really exciting about this collaboration was that Alys and I had obviously worked together in these kinds of spiritual communities for five years. So we'd established a way of working together where we could navigate those communities. We knew how it worked. And that took a while to do which we did in Ex-Voto. And our styles are actually very similar, we have a very kind of similar approach to framing and composition. Even though Alys hadn’t worked in film before, we have a similar kind of approach to the sense of pacing and stillness and we're both drawn to contemplation, obviously, having worked in these kinds of spaces. So I think what really worked in this collaboration is that we were aligned on the visual aesthetic and the form. So it was really exciting to be able to move from this incredible image that Alys had taken of Vera that captured her essence and unpack that and go deeper into one story. Having spent five years photographing many people, it was an opportunity to explore together one person's world, one person's perspective, their inner world and how they relate to it.”

The portion of the film shot in the Belarussian monastery is captured in striking monochrome, the black of Vera’s Orthodox robes in stark contrast to the snowy landscapes that we frequently see her galloping across on one of the horses that become a vital continuing thread for the nun through the course of the film.

Vera’s life has been marked by change, from the life she led before turning to her faith - a traumatic backstory that is gradually revealed through the course of the film - to another step she takes towards the end of Mother Vera, which sees the black and white camerawork give way to colour as she leaves the monastic life behind. It was, says Embleton, this final move that also led Vera - now living with under name Olga - to reveal more about herself but it came as a shock to the filmmakers.

“In the beginning, she kind of drip fed us little bits of her past,” she says. “But it was never really the complete picture and you could feel that she was holding back something. But she did talk very confidently about her faith and presented as being happy in that life there. But there was something behind it. And, and so then when she left, it was a bit of a rocky road. We went to Belarus and she wasn't there, she was actually in Crimea, doing another job. And then luckily, she came back. But it was a very delicate situation where she had gone through this huge life change that was obviously extremely emotional, and a really vulnerable place to be in. And she didn't really want to film. It was too delicate.

“Eventually, we plucked up the courage to have a meeting with her and Alys, amazingly, found the right words to ask her and explain, ‘We've dedicated all this time, we're really interested in you, we'd like to continue filming with you’. And she just said, ‘Well, you know, I can't put those robes on again’. And Alys said, ‘Well, no, we're interested in you, you know, not in the robes’. And I think that was quite a big moment for the film and for Vera/Olga, because I think she was quite moved by that. She realised that we were interested in her as a person. But she then was happy to continue and that was huge for us.

“It was really in France, when she'd had more time, she was in a new experience, that she was able to then fully open up and share her full story. It's such a delicate balance, you know, and your intuition guides you on what's what somebody needs and what somebody is ready to offer.

Mother Vera. Cécile Embleton: 'To meet somebody like that, who is willing to share their soul, really, to make a piece of cinema is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity'
Mother Vera. Cécile Embleton: 'To meet somebody like that, who is willing to share their soul, really, to make a piece of cinema is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity'

“Vera is a very, very generous protagonist. She knows storytelling, she enjoys storytelling and she is really open hearted. What she shared with us in the end is really quite courageous. I think that it really helped being a team of two directors, I can be quite flighty and Alys is really grounded and thinks things through. And that combination of being a bit more reserved and being quite bold really helped us navigate with Vera and this community.”

It’s a mark of the filmmakers’ different approaches and willingness to discuss them that the decision to switch to colour film towards the end of the film was a matter that was initially up for debate.

“I was really reluctant to switch,” admits Tomlinson. “I wasn't sure that was really what the film needed and I wasn't sure it would really work. There were a lot of discussions around that and the producer was keen on that switch, and felt that it represented a kind of new reality. I was definitely more cynical about that as a kind of device. In terms of filmmaking, it's also not something I don’t tend to do with my photography projects. I do colour work but I tend to keep them separate. I kind of think in a monochromatic way, in some ways, and that was how I always envisaged the film. So it was quite difficult for me to accept that this was important to the film, I suppose, because I've never seen it like that. But there were ways to kind of justify the change to colour, which now I understand more fully.

“We had a much longer edit that wasn't really working. So it felt like it needed something because otherwise it was quite laden with heaviness at that point so it was quite a difficult watch. So the colour was one way of experimenting with changing the pace, entering a different world and giving a new perspective on the landscape and on her life.”

Embleton adds: “It was a bit of a process. For me, when I was filming in Camargue, it felt like, ‘Oh, this needs to be colour’. It's full of nature and the image spoke in colour, it didn't make sense for it to be in black and white. I kind of felt that organically. Originally the edit was quite violent, the change to colour and it's a huge rupture in her life so it was kind of reflecting that and gradually. It took a long time to edit Camargue. It was quite difficult. And as we worked on Camargue, we ended up creating something that's much more oneiric in transition. And that also speaks to the way that Vera/Olga speaks about her life and her different lives that she has lived. We chose to use the sleeping shot as the first shot where you see her and you kind of connect with her, which I think also creates this feeling of you know, was everything that happened before a dream or is she in a dream now?

Alys Tomlinson’s original photo of Vera for Ex-Voto: 'She had this extremely captivating and kind of enigmatic, striking presence'
Alys Tomlinson’s original photo of Vera for Ex-Voto: 'She had this extremely captivating and kind of enigmatic, striking presence' Photo: Alys Tomlinson
“The colour, for me, represents a newness. She's now alone and it was the visceral quality of that of that landscape, which is so alive, it's buzzing with insects and mosquitoes. There's loads of possibility, everything is open and it's like coming out from underground, where you've been in this black and white labyrinth, you know, in the dark night of the soul trying to work out what the answer is. And she chose this new path but then of course, with that, comes a completely different set of circumstances. And I think the colour brings you closer to her, it brings a kind of humanity. And she's revealed in a more vulnerable way and I think we feel her fragility. It was on an 85 lens, most of Camargue, to be close to what she experienced.”

It’s been a long journey for the film and Tomlinson also pays tribute to Vera and her willingness to go on that journey with them.

“I think she really kind of trusted us as artists and filmmakers, and she's well versed in the arts, she's really interested in a lot of Eastern European filmmakers, she reads a lot of literature,” she says “She loves painting, she understands this world. And as a result, she allowed us very much to get on with the filmmaking. I don't think once in six years did she say, ‘Can I see some of that footage?’ Or, ‘How did I look in that moment?’ She allowed us to create the film we wanted and she trusted us with that, which was a big thing. So we didn't feel any pressure throughout the process, but of course, having this finished product it feels like we have a personal responsibility to her. She's entrusted us with her innermost thoughts, or most difficult times. She's confessed things to us that she has never confessed. But to know that these are now going to be shared publicly is obviously enormous. So we did show her the final lock maybe a few months ago, and that was the first time she'd seen the edited version of the film.

“I think she wasn't quite sure really what to make of it. I think she was in, not exactly shock, but it's very odd seeing your life so intimately described by cinema. So I think she was fairly emotional. But she also said that she felt that now her life in the convent felt like a different person. And she's always had these kinds of different roles that she's played, even within the convent and before she joined the convent. But she's very kind of generous with us and says, ‘It's been one of the greatest experiences of my life’. So I think there's a lot of positive aspects to it as well. It's very brave and very courageous of her to allow us into her life in that way and I think we're very aware of that. It was a long process, and we were completely committed to it and she really trusted us.”

Embleton adds: “You realise how extraordinarily lucky it was that we met her on that day. To meet somebody like that, who is willing to share their soul, really, to make a piece of cinema is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Mother Vera has its world premiere at Visions Du Réel on Monday, April 15 at 6.15pm. Read more about the festival

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