Hope Dickson Leach completed her MFA in filmmaking at Columbia University, where she made three short films that played at festivals worldwide. Screen International made her a Star of Tomorrow and Filmmaker magazine named her one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” Her debut feature, The Levelling, just premiered at TIFF and played in competition the London Film Festival, where she won the inaugural IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI. She is currently developing several features and is a co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign to make the film industry more parent-friendly. She lives in Scotland with her husband and two sons.
In the 1800s, baby pictures were as popular as they are now. But the technology wasn’t so friendly, so babies had to be coaxed to sit still for minutes at a time while the images were formed. To encourage them to behave, their mothers often disguised themselves as chairs on which the babies were placed. They literally draped themselves with fabric and crouched so that they would not be seen in the photographs. The resulting photos are spooky and bizarre, but what stands out to me is the presence of the hidden mother. In the face of the thing we have created, we are suddenly invisible.
When I became a mother, I disappeared. From my friends, from my work, from myself. Motherhood was such an intense, all-encompassing experience that I didn’t even know I was lost in it. I continued to focus on being a filmmaker, tried to drive projects forward, determined not to let something I had wanted for so long ruin the other thing I had worked so hard for. But something had to give. In the end, it was me.
As a new parent, you are operating both on the macro and the micro. You need to make sure this nappy is not going to fall off, and that this meal is the most nutritious it can be; you are hyper-conscious of how every tiny decision is contributing to make up a person who you want to be the best version of themselves. As you fail a hundred times a day, you start to realize that not only do you know nothing, but that no one else does either. As I stumbled through trying to raise a baby for the first time, ever the existential drama queen, I started to lose my faith in knowledge, in certainty, in my ability to make a decision that I could stick to. How, then, was I ever going to make films again? To be present in my work required me to be present in my life, and I was starting to feel like the invisible mother.
In the film industry, presence is vital. At festivals, training labs and panel discussions. As a new parent, appearances at such events fall away as quickly as personal grooming, and you start to disappear. In the already lonely world of the writer-director, where most of your time is spent developing projects on your own, suddenly the rare spaces to be visible are gone. And if you ever want to work again, you need to earn more money than you have previously survived upon, as the considerable cost of childcare suddenly becomes a factor in your life.
There are some writer-directors who are mothers, but their stories haven’t been told. When the internet became my doctor, supermarket and social life, I was frustrated when I found it couldn’t also give me the inspirational stories I needed so badly. But luckily I had some friends who could. I started talking to a group of women who wanted to talk about making films and being parents, and suddenly I felt present again. Raising Films, a website about parents who are also making movies, was born (the simplest childbirth I had), and it continues to grow every day. It features interviews, testimonials, case studies of how parents and carers make it possible to be an active filmmaker. In addition to this community, we also have a campaign to make the film industry more inclusive to parents, so that it represents more of the population and tells stories that are richer and more diverse.
Baby steps back into the world of filmmaking brought me, finally, to make my first feature, The Levelling. But despite my new community, I was no longer the person I had been when I thought I was going to make a feature before my sons were born. I couldn’t stand up and deliver the perfect pitch about why this was the film I had to make, or why I was the best person to tell this story. I just knew that I had to, and was going to. Action had started to take over intention. Just as when, as a mother, I breastfed before understanding or articulating why I needed to, I knew I had to make a film before I could say why it was important.
My process was different now. I didn’t want to imprint myself on this story, I wanted to discover it. I wanted it to be the product of a process, of a collaboration. Where before I stormed into a shoot knowing what I wanted to achieve and went about trying to pull it off, this time I was almost running from that certainty. I wanted to be open to allowing other people to make suggestions, to listen to my own instincts and impulses and respond to accidents. I know many filmmakers work like this naturally, but it was new for me.
And it wasn’t an entirely happy decision to work like that. I felt I had lost a lot of confidence and I wasn’t sure I was ready to captain a ship. In many ways, I wanted the film to make itself, and for me to just stand by and deliver it. Andy Warhol had a desire to remove every trace of himself from his art by creating work that was always one step removed from his touch (inkblot drawings, screen prints, multiples); for myself, I became more obsessed with what process I should employ than with a specific outcome. What if I just created a space and filled it with the right people, and let them do their best work? Would I need to be present at all?
Of course, I had to be present. I had to not just make the decisions, but own them. I had to be the director, after all, and when it comes down to it, that role belongs to someone who stands up and is counted. Ultimately, and happily, the very act of making The Levelling has made me visible, and present, once more. Just as the hard (invisible) work of giving birth to and shaping the lives of my two sons made me a mother, the process of directing a film has transformed me into a filmmaker. I made a film, and the film, in turn, made me.
Making a film is a very personal endeavor. It has to be, if you want to create work that is meaningful to an audience. Directors are required to not just commit entirely to the process, but also to give of ourselves. We do this because have things to say, because we want to share our worldview, to communicate. But when profound things happen to us, it can take time to figure out who we are. And the challenge of those situations should be embraced. It is in the spaces between certainties that we find the most authentically human moments, and those are the ones we need to fight to put on the screen.