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The making of Kevin A Life?

Richard Curry discusses his award-winning movie.

Portrait of Richard Curry, FACI.

Richard Curry was visibly moved at the positive, sympathetic reaction to the screening of Kevin - A Life? at the Movie 2002 Festival, where it won an International Medallion and £100 worth of CDs donated by Sonoton. Here he writes about the making of the film.

My most successful films have been about people, or more accurately people with a dilemma. The shoemaker in Leather to Last reluctantly retiring after working alone for 40 years, the clay pipe maker in My Pipe Dream - 70 years old and desperate to retire yet see his unique business continue, and now Kevin - a life?

In each case the first and most difficult hurdle was to get their agreement to make a film about them. None of them thought their situation would be of interest to anyone else !!

Background to the subject

I met Kevin at the local swimming baths - he was a Tuesday afternoon regular like me. As we sat in the rest area we chatted about this and that and over the weeks I found out quite a bit about him. Why could he go to the baths when most people his age were at work on Tuesdays afternoons ?  When he told me he had been unemployed for 10 years, was single and free to do what he wanted with his time I became interested in how this apparently healthy man had remained without a job for so long. He was articulate, friendly and intelligent. I was curious as to how he spent his time and how he managed on the money he got from the State.

Kevin exercising on treadmill at the gym.

He struck me as being quite lonely.  He mentioned that when he could afford it he went to a local pub. I knew this was a gay bar and it was then that his sexuality became apparent. Then he told me that he was HIV+ and had been for many years - it all fell into place. He was unemployed because of his status. This triple aspect of Kevin's life, being unemployed, gay and HIV+ fascinated me as a topic for a film.

When Kevin announced that he was thinking of selling his home and moving to London I knew that time was of the essence if I was to persuade him to let me make a film about him. In the event he took little persuading ! It would be something different from his daily routine and as he was moving away he was not worried about any local impact the film might have.

Getting his agreement

Kevin walking through the streets of Nelson.

I explained to him that I was an amateur film maker and that the films I made were for the amateur circuit. I reassured him that copyright would be shared and that I would seek his permission to use the film for any purpose beyond my immediate home use and that he would have a copy of the finished work, of course. My IAC card was of particular use here because it confirmed my amateur status and gave the necessary reassurances.

The treatment

From the outset I decided that the three aspects of Kevin's life gave the opportunity to make three separate films. I even contemplated doing this. However they were inextricably linked by Kevin's HIV status and so a single film had to be the answer.

It struck me, however, from an impact point of view I could use the three-film approach to present the audience with three 'whammies' and thereby achieve a cumulative effect to the sympathy/empathy that the audience might feel for him. At the same time, as the film unfolded some of the questions in the minds of the audience would be answered.

I had no problems choosing the title - because it says everything !

The dilemma of how far to go

Kevin dressed in his 'gay' leathers.

I was always conscious of the subject matter and how after years of watching and judging amateur films I had never seen a film that dealt with a person's lifestyle to the extent that this film would.

Kevin was disaffected in society as a result of his (possibly self induced situation) - but that in my mind was not the issue.  Here was a man who was not being supported by his fellow human beings and that was an issue for us all. I became quite passionate that the film must be seen by general audiences but at the same time cover its subject in a frank and open manner. I was concerned as to how it would be received by the IAC ,should I decide to enter it into the Annual Festival.

The shooting script

There wasn't one!  It was all in my head. Kevin had given me a lot of verbal information about himself and his experiences - all I needed was pictures to cover the time it took to impart this information.

After visiting Kevin at his home (a small but cosy terraced property in Nelson, Lancashire) I saw that in his situation his home was his castle but was it was also his prison.  He spent most of his time there alone!  I decided almost immediately that all the shots of him at home would be in black and white to emphasise this.

Kevin studies his photograph album. Kevin by waterside in Nelson.

Nelson is an industrial town with a landscape which, to me, is very photogenic. Mills, canals, derelict buildings and rows of stone terraces overlooked by Pendle Hill( once witch country). I just had to include some of this! This gave me the opportunity to use colour and to change the pace of the film.

I wanted the film to be a very personal account and persuaded Kevin that the voice over could only be done by himself.

The film was shot over three or four sessions.

The soundtrack

I invited Kevin to my home - stuck him in front of my Sennheiser mic and trusty reel to reel tape recorder and briefed him on how I proposed to approach the voice over. We agreed that the recording session would be in three parts. I would ask him questions about being unemployed, being gay and being HIV+. I briefed him never to answer yes or no but to repeat part of my question as an introduction to his answer. This would enable me to edit the soundtrack more easily.

The recording session turned out to be the most harrowing part. I was probing Kevin to discuss things he had not talked about before. He found it emotional to refer to the friends he had lost to Aids and became quite dry mouthed recounting the hospital visit when he found out he was HIV+. Nevertheless we pressed on until each subject was covered to a depth which I thought was acceptable to a general audience.

Listening to the material later I realised how the voice over would, to a large extent, dictate the length of the film.

The visuals

The essence of the film is about Kevin's body and his efforts to keep healthy.

Kevin at the bathroom basin.

The images would, therefore, strongly reflect this. Nudity might be an issue.  If handled right it would be apparent but acceptable. During the 'unemployed' sequence we see him lying in bed -he has no reason to get up - eventually he saunters naked to the bathroom and then the kitchen.

In the 'gay' sequence he sits in a chair smoking, looking at nothing in particular as time passes him by. In the 'HIV' sequence we see his body in big close up, the texture of his skin, the veins in his hands - this is the body which is infected with the HIV virus!!

Some say I have been too self indulgent with these shots - perhaps so - but I wanted the audience to get as close as possible to what would be probably be their first close encounter with a gay HIV+ man. That he looks no different to anyone else was the very point I wanted to make!!

Pacing the film

Inevitably - given the subject matter of the film - the voice over would  tend to dictate the pace of the film. I was very conscious that to keep the audience's attention I would need to change pace. I looked to have a pace change in each of the three sequences.

I knew that the move to colour would help that change but also looked to cutting and the use of music to vary the pace.

Kevin posing in his leather gear. Kevin packing his car to move to London.

Reactions

  1. Kevin - was amazed at the final result - "Is that really me??" He was amazed how all the pictures and sound had come together to make to make what thought was as good as many films he had see on Channel 4 !!

  2. Auckland (NZ) Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 2001. "Thank you for your film - the only entry from the UK. We will be honoured to screen it on TV as part of the Festival."

  3. Gerald Mee "The IAC is not ready for this."

  4. Val Ellis, President of IAC - tears at the Festival screening.

  5. Michael Slowe "a very fine piece."

Finally - the comments of the judging panel led by Ray Johnson FACI:

"This is a very impressive documentary - an insight into the life of an unemployed gay man who had contracted and been living with HIV for 15 years. This is his own comment on his life at present, structured into a compelling yet unsensational film which communicates so much of such importance.

The style of filming -with internal shots in black and white and the outside world in colour is engaging and excellently accomplished. Some monochrome shots echo the intensity of what is being intimated to us in being achieved in big close up, and almost macro at times. As a running theme is the importance of maintaining a sound body, the body as object in the filming is entirely relevant - and comes under constant and close inspection.

The camerawork, sound recording and editing are impeccable. There is good underscoring of music - nothing intrusive, but complementing the other elements admirably. The structure of the film is intelligent and effective. The repeating of Kevin introducing himself - first that he is unemployed, then that he is unemployed and gay, then that he is unemployed, gay and HIV positive - really consolidates his situation at this stage in his life. It's efficient. It's effective - and it makes us want to know more - we care about him.

In terms of the inclusion of some history of his relationships - there does seem to be a whole chapter missing after his first encounter. But the information contained in the film - that keeping physically fit is important - is positive and helpful information. The documentary isn't just observing, it had a message to give in this and other ways.

For its length, it does remain a little one paced - dictated by the pace of Kevin's voice basically- and some variations could have been sought. There is a colour montage of him in leather garb but it could be slicker, over quicker and not so repetitive. Other "textures" could have been explored in the making of the film.

This is a solid, well-made and useful documentary. It deals with sensitive issues which are not easy for some audiences to take, but it does so in an honest and unsensational way.  It is an important film.

Footnote

Portrait of Kevin.

Many people have asked me what has happened to Kevin. I am still in touch with him and he has said how pleased he is that the film was well received at Chesterfield. He is still healthy and living in London but still without a job or partner. He recently passed an Open University Computing course.

As a long term HIV survivor St. Mary's hospital London has taken an interest in him. St Mary's was the first major hospital to have a dedicated HIV unit and is the hospital which Kevin was diagnosed at. His Consultant has told him that he was one of the first 600 diagnosed at St Mary's and that only five of them are alive today. Of the five Kevin is the only one on NO medication. In June Kevin will commence his 19th year knowing of his condition - the next person never to have had any illness and not to have taken medication has known only 14 years.

- words and images by Richard Curry FACI
(Email: richard.curry1@ntlworld.com)


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Page updated on 09 October 2011
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