Charlene Jones We chat to the director and Polaris Award winner
The Henceforth director discusses making the most out of limitations, autobiography in film and moving into narrative drama.
“There’s a face in that painting.” When we meet Charlene Jones – director of award-winning short film Henceforth – she’s sat in the Cinema Bar at HOME, Manchester. On the wall opposite is a series of semi-abstract live performance paintings by Amang Mardokhy and, sure enough, Jones is right. Nestled among the mingled strokes, bold colours and mixed textures of Mardokhy’s work is the faint form of a face. You could walk past without ever seeing it.
It’s an astute observation, and a telling one. In conversation, Jones is frank and open; in her work, she seeks out human stories among the mess of life's more fraught moments. In Henceforth, the trauma is close to home and Jones responds by tackling it head on. “It came out of a university brief to create a personal film informed by things like artists’ moving image – something that was not necessarily narrative drama, something non-linear. The point was that you put yourself into the brief and really opened up. My dad had passed away about four to six months before and that process motivated me to make Henceforth. I find that people aren’t very vulnerable with each other, and since my mum died when I was about 16 I’ve got more open about my life history and my childhood. My childhood was a bit unusual, but some have similar stories and it frustrated me that people didn’t talk about those sort of things.”
The film is deceptively simple, playing out as a sort of slideshow. Old family photographs, some of them cut up or edited – Jones admits to a “really embarrassing history of manipulating photographs” when she was younger – follow one another in sequence. Faces, like in Mardokhy’s painting, emerge from and then disappear into a tangle of other forms. On the soundtrack, we hear edits from phone conversations between Jones and her brothers. It’s a sparse, minimalist approach – characterised as much by what the siblings struggle to articulate as what the film can possible show or tell us. “A lot of the aesthetic choices I made were, more than anything else, limitations that I had to work around. Some people have commented on the lack of sound design, but there’s no sound design because it’s just about me and my brothers speaking. That was a limitation, but it adds to the emptiness of the film. I could have easily put music in there, or some form of sound design, to enhance it. But, to me, it was already enough. Those gaps where I stop speaking and my brother stops speaking, and I’m trying to compose myself, they’re equally important. And they wouldn’t have had the same impact if there was music.”
In terms of imagery, I didn’t have archive video footage from when I was a child. And, after a certain point, we stopped taking photographs as well – so that’s why they’re primarily from early on in our childhoods. At the end, there’s a picture of my dad that I took in the last year of his life – I wanted to include that even though it doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the film. It emphasises that there is such a gap between the period when we took pictures and when we didn’t. I think a lot of people have their childhood photos and then they just kind of cut off. That’s a weird concept to me considering we’ve moved into an era of so many digital images.
Jones not only works around limitations in Henceforth, but in some ways enforces them. She is not with her brothers at the time of recording; there’s a material difference in the sounds of their voices, separated by the otherworldly distance of a phoneline, as they discuss their shared story and their differing understandings of what happened. “That was a choice. I see my brothers quite often, but not all the time. That distance is a natural part of our lives and our family relationship that I wanted to explore. My relationship with my brothers is interesting. We’re all very different, we’ve got different perspectives on this shared story. My eldest brother is more reserved; my middle brother is more empathetic; and I’m kind of in the middle ground, and I wanted to examine that. I asked them to ask me questions as well. It’s not just my story, it’s theirs too. The film is exploring a shared experience, so it was important to include points where my brothers differ from me, to show how they make sense of it.”
The result is a raw portrait of individual and collective grief – a mature examination of loss that is attuned to the contradictory reality that death is something for the living to face. Henceforth breaks down taboos around talking about death and rejects any notion that grief is a uniform experience or a simple trajectory. The film sat online for about a year and Jones, unsure of how such a personal piece would connect with audiences, acknowledges “I didn’t really do anything with it.” But, after some encouragement, she submitted it to the BFI Future Film Festival where it won Best UK Short Film (19-25 category). Jones reflects: “That took it to another level: more people had heard about it, they shared it around and that really helped. It was beneficial for me; as soon as you’ve got something behind you to say you’re an OK filmmaker, it’s a lot easier to get opportunities.” Spots at other festivals followed, as did a slot accompanying screenings of Bill Buckhurst’s coming of age drama, Pond Life at HOME. And, in November 2019, Henceforth picked up Film Hub North’s Polaris Award at Aesthetica Short Film Festival.
Jones will be back at HOME on 25 January 2020 to see Henceforth screen alongside the rest of the Polaris Award shortlist as part of PUSH Festival, and her next film, Late Nights is currently on the festival circuit. Jones describes her first attempt at narrative drama as “very much a scrapbook film to me. In some ways it is very rushed, it was almost made off the cuff. I don’t think I would have been able to make that same kind of film if I hadn’t been at university.” The film’s focus on casual relationships and confusion over levels of commitment is again (semi) autobiographical and Jones remains unafraid of examining how she is implicated in her own narratives. “That’s something that I’ve experienced and I wanted to assess my role and other people’s roles in those relationships to try and figure out that dynamic.”
For her next project, the process of self-reflection and self-assessment returns, but now Jones wants to take her time. “I really want to give my next film breathing space, really refine it and work on it. I’m looking for a producer for it right now. I want to ensure it’s a really solid short film. It’s going to explore the relationship that I had with my mum when I was going through puberty. She was bipolar, schizophrenic and an alcoholic – so I think I had quite a lot of shame around becoming a woman. I’m really trying to hone in on the relationship that I had with her; I want to figure out how I felt about it at the time and what I was experiencing. Relationships are going to be the key point of any film I’ll make. Psychology is interesting and I want to explore how people change and react to change.”
Henceforth screens at PUSH Festival as part of a Polaris Award Showcase on 25 January. Find out more via HOME, Manchester.