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Spotlight: Kyla Simone Bruce

Mixed Media
Bruce’s debut film, Undocument, was co-written and co-directed with Iranian filmmaker Amin Bakhshian.
Credit: Ben Cohen

It’s not easy getting hold of Kyla Simone Bruce. Countless calls to the agency handling the publicity for her film left me wondering if this interview would ever happen. At just 34 years of age, and with a long list of awards from film festivals all over the world, Kyla is in hot demand. So, when we eventually meet, in a tiny café in a shabby part of north London, I am pleasantly surprised at how ‘normal’ she is.

‘I’m really excited about this,’ she fizzes, extending her hand. ‘I’m a huge fan of New Internationalist. I can’t believe I’m going to be in the same publication as Euzhan Palcy and Noam Chomsky!’

Bruce’s debut film, Undocument, was co-written and co-directed with Iranian filmmaker Amin Bakhshian. It deals with the complex theme of illegal immigration and the struggles faced by undocumented migrants travelling from Iran, through Europe to Britain.

At its core, it is a film about identity and belonging – something Bruce has struggled with all her life. Born to a German mother and a Scottish father (the late Jack Bruce, singer and bass player with rock band Cream), she never felt she ‘fitted in’ anywhere.

‘I was born in Germany but grew up in the middle of nowhere in the English countryside. The kids at school would chant “two World Wars and one World Cup, Heil Hitler!” at me – which I didn’t really understand, but which definitely made me feel that I didn’t belong.’

She describes a turbulent childhood, but one filled with music, art and travel. ‘My dad loved music, but hated being famous. Essentially, he was a recluse, which is why we lived so remotely, and although we were definitely considered odd by the other villagers, I did get to experience many other cultures early on. Dad had strong political views, and a sense of right and wrong on a global and class level. I still don’t really feel like I fit in, but I use that as a positive influence in the films I make. Identity and displacement are recurring themes in my work.’

The kids at school would chant “two World Wars and one World Cup, Heil Hitler!” at me – which I didn’t really understand, but which definitely made me feel that I didn’t belong

The filming of Undocument in Iran, Turkey and the UK, took two years to complete. Though the characters are fictional, the stories are real.

‘It was really important to me to stay honest and true to reality – I spent three months in an immigration courtroom in London, watching heartbreaking cases and meeting the people involved. I also worked closely with migrant centres. Amin went to shoot one section in the snowy Ararat mountains [in the Iran-Turkish border area] whilst I shot in London.

Even though we each had responsibility for separate sections of the filming, I don’t feel my sections are particularly “girly”. I’m a filmmaker telling a story, same as Amin.’

I suggest that all too often, both migrants and refugees are spoken of as a nameless, faceless mass – and this dehumanization makes it so much easier for the world to look away. Undocument forces the viewer to acknowledge the human beings behind the headlines. How does Bruce feel about the reaction her film has had from the audiences at private views, film festivals and press shows, ahead of its upcoming general release?

‘If hardened journalists can be reduced to tears at the heartbreak and horror experienced by migrants trying to make a better life for themselves, I feel hopeful that wider society can be more humane. At the same time, I also feel angry. In doing my research, I uncovered horrific stories of how people are treated in detention centres.

Stories of rape, abuse, suicide and families being separated. The disgusting thing is that the companies running these detention centres are making profit by detaining people. It’s a grim money-making business.’

Light relief, then, that Bruce’s next project, The Cockatoo Inn, is a comedy road movie about female friendship. It’s based on Mercury, her award-winning short film about a young woman driving her pregnant best friend to hospital to have a baby. After a successful international festival tour, winning seven awards and being nominated for nine more, it is being developed into a feature. I ask whether this film could have been written and directed by a man.

‘This is definitely a woman’s story. Yes, it could be told by a man, but he would be looking at the action through a different lens, based on his own experiences. Women should be encouraged and empowered to tell their own stories – it’s undeniable that there are fewer opportunities for women in the film industry.

Directors UK recently reported that women make up just 13.6 per cent of working film directors, but that is changing, however slowly. Largely because of the MeToo movement, women can now safely call out dangerous behaviour and have the support network to be properly heard. People are being forced to think before they act and contemplate the repercussions. And it’s about bloody time!’

New Internationalist issue 524 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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