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"Arts funding in the UK has been decimated, no-one is going to do it for you: this is where were at."


Writer / Director

March 15, 2024  

Femme Flicks 2024- Zoe Hunter Gordon.webp

When Ruth finds her chronically ill sister Kitty living a new life by the seaside, she realises she doesn't know her sister - or her illness - at all... A short fiction film about sibling relationships and ableism.

BETTER is screening with The Girls’ Room by Tracey Lopes, Does Your Condom Make you Fat by Sophie King & written by Danielle Papamichael, Fifty Four Days by Cat White, and Period Drama by Evie Fehilly as part of Girls in Film & Kusini Productions FEMME FLICKS at Genesis Cinema Friday 15th March, 2024.

Hi Zoe, thanks for talking to us about your film Better, are you excited for this Friday’s screening at Genesis Cinema?

Yes! I love the Genesis, it’s where Underwire Festival used to be held which was a really important festival for me – I love it there.

What does it mean to you to be part of Femme Flicks and screening your short with such an amazing selection of short films?

Aw it means a lot, Evie Fehilly has done such a great job of organising and rallying us together as a group of filmmakers and I’m a big admirer of all the creatives. I’m currently working with Siona Davis on another project and was funded on the same BFI slate as Tracey Lopez – so it feels like  a screening among friends really. It’s lovely. 


Any nerves ahead of the screening?

The film has been doing the festival rounds since September now so I’m not hugely nervous, but it’s always different seeing an audience respond – I’m really looking forward to what the brilliant GIF audience make of the piece and any questions they might have.


How did Better come about, what inspired your screenplay?

How long do you have? BETTER is first and foremost a film born out of a close collaboration between myself and Celestine Fraser (my producer and associate writer on the project). Celestine is disabled, I am not, and our collaboration began with our award winning documentary ILL, ACTUALLY (BBC Arts & BFI 2019, available on BFI Archives) which explored disability/chronic illness and the internet. We spoke to many, many young people with different disabilities and chronic illnesses during the research of the film and they all sent a similar message: being disabled is hard, yes, but what’s harder is the way that non-disabled people react to you. Especially when those people think they know what’s best – or worse, believe one day your condition might disappear.

As a non-disabled person myself what I was particularly interested in was this desire that many non-disabled people have to believe that illness might be magicked away. And this desire can be strongest in people who are closest to the disabled person. If your sister is sick, you really, really really want to believe that one day she’ll “get well”: but sometimes this desire is not only naive – it’s also standing in the way of your sister’s agency. As a filmmaker interested in nuance and complicated emotional relationships – I knew I wanted to explore this.

Then ILL, ACTUALLY did really well and Celestine and I knew we wanted to take it all further in a fiction piece.

BETTER is our expression of that: a coming out film - for disability. 14% of young people in the UK live with a chronic health condition - a condition that they might initially hope will “go away” but over time must incorporate into their identity. This moment, where a chronically ill person decides to reconcile their identity with their illness is a huge shift. And as I’ve said it’s a shift that the people closest to them, their family, can struggle with. BETTER is a film about this struggle. For Celestine (as she says in the press pack I’ve attached to this email), it’s also the first fiction film in which she’s seen herself represented.

Both Celestine and I knew that we wanted to ensure different voices were included in the film, and so we also ran a writers room with different writers who had differing experiences of disability, care and chronic illness. Those writers are Kyla Harris, Jennifer Martin and Gem Carmella and our conversations with them (as well as the documentary testimonial from ILL, ACTUALLY) really informed the development of the treatments and the scripts.


How different was your approach to this film compared to your previous shorts?

BETTER is my fifth short film, I’ve made two documentaries and two low/no budget fiction shorts. The step up into funded fiction was a big one for me – working with a much bigger crew, with more resources than I had previously. So from a craft perspective the approach had to be different: the prep required for a fiction shoot of some scale is different to that of a small two hander fiction piece or a documentary. That said, we shot in mainly natural light and the ability to be open to spontaneity and prioritise performance is something I think I get from documentary sets. For me, directing means being incredibly prepared and planning every decision in advance – whilst also having the ability to throw those plans away if you need to, and have confidence that you know the film in your bones and it’ll find a way through despite last minute changes. In terms of approach, that’s always been my approach – prepare a perfect plan and emotionally prepare to lose that plan, and it was the same on BETTER. I also really prioritise rehearsal, something perhaps I’ve learnt from my theatre background and also from building relationships with contributors on documentary projects – so that was another approach, we had a day of rehearsal prior to the shoot and I think it really helped.

What more can be done to platform women’s voices and experiences within the film industry?

Bleugh. This question is a really difficult one for me to answer, I think I read an interview with someone (it might’ve been Justine Triet?) who said that asking female film directors why there aren’t more of us is like asking shipwreck survivors why they’ve survived the wreck... But I guess what I mean is, I don’t know: I’m not the one with the actual power. The power to amplify and elevate women's voices lies with those with money – the commissioner's, the producers, the key acting talent who secure finance... Women have been making films forever – it’s the access to those films that’s limited. For me at least it feels like there are loads of female directors making brilliant debuts right now (Charlotte Wells, Molly Manning Walker, Rose Glass, Savannah Leaf...) probably more than the men, if I’m honest – but when you look above them and look at the industry as a whole it’s dismal. So (like many walks of life) I don’t know how much it is about encouraging women to make films as opposed to giving them the infrastructure to keep making films – making sure if Charlotte Wells makes a s**t second feature she still gets money to make a third. I don’t know how to make sure that happens – that’s one for the commissioners.

I guess as audiences – WATCH CINEMA AND PAY FOR IT. GO TO THE CINEMA. If you want brilliant cinema you need to actually pay for it. If you want women to make art buy a ticket and pay for their art. It’s kind of simple. It’s boring, but simple. Challenge yourself to buy 10 cinema tickets a year to watch films directed by a woman? If everyone did that – that’d help.  


Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

I’ve always written scripts. I wrote crap musicals in notebooks as a kid and wrote plays through my secondary school: really, really bad plays. I went to a school and grew up in a family where that passion for writing scripts was treated like a hobby rather than something that could ever financially support me (which, to be honest, is fair. The creative industries don’t really pay you very well.) We didn’t have Drama GSCE at my school. I didn’t really know it was a thing. So I studied a real degree – Physics. To get a real job. Then at university I met lots of brilliant people who were also obsessed with scripts. I graduated, wrote a lot of theatre, made some fringe theatre – but theatre doesn’t pay your rent. So then I worked in television, making science documentaries at the BBC, and learnt how to use a camera. That felt like writing but just with images – and I loved it. I then made the leap to going freelance when ILL, ACTUALLY got commissioned. 


I don’t know where the passion comes from. Perhaps it’s easiest to say that there will usually be something bugging me that I need to figure out, emotionally or intellectually or both, and the way I figure it out is by dramatising it. But that doesn’t sound right either – that’s somehow too simplistic. I don’t know. All I know is that if I don’t make things – if I don’t write plays, films, dramatic stories – I get weird. So, that’s that really for me. 

And what one piece of advice would you offer someone wanting to get into filmmaking?

It’s really expensive to make a film and no-one talks about money transparently in the UK. Everyone in film has a million side hustles or comes from a really, really wealthy family or has parents in the industry so can get favours for free. Unlike prose, or even theatre (which costs less) you need money to make a film. So: my piece of advice is this, think carefully about how you’re going to support yourself and make time for your art – and how you’ll do that over a period of years. Making films really is a time + money equation, and it’ll be different for everyone, but if you want to be a filmmaker right now in the current funding climate in the UK think carefully about your time, and money and make sure your first films are cheap and potentially scripts you can self fund. I wish it were different but it’s not – we’re a country that pretends it’s got the arts infrastructure of France but it’s actually as cut-throat as America here right now. Arts funding in the UK has been decimated, no-one is going to do it for you: this is where we’re at. Luckily you’ve got a smartphone which can film and edit video so hey: make a short with that first. Focus on making something really cheap that’s really good, that’s really short – under 5 minutes, made on a smart phone – festivals are into that kind of thing if it’s got an emotional truth at it’s heart. Trust yourself and keep going.


Finally, what would you like your audiences to take away from Better?


We want to ask - how can non-disabled people support people with disabilities on their own terms?

BETTER is a film about how hard it is to accept that the people we love might be chronically ill forever, and that we cannot control how they react to that fact. We hope it will encourage conversation around the importance of listening to disabled and chronically ill people and meeting them where they are - as opposed to where non-disabled people might want them to be.

Aka – ask people what they want and need, don’t assume you know it. If you’re not disabled, shut up and listen. Actually listen to what people with disabilities and chronic illness have to say: even if it’s hard. Even if you love them. If you love them and don’t like what they’re saying – listen harder. 

"We hope it will encourage conversation around the importance of listening to disabled and chronically ill people and meeting them where they are - as opposed to where non-disabled people might want them to be."

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