Penny Woolcock on Exodus

By Penny Woolcock

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Exodus, felt like being in a dream

While writing the screenplay the story and the characters crawled so inside me that I’d stir in the early hours with a feeling of dread and excitement, thinking I was Moses and had ordered a suicide bomber to kill the Firstborn. Generally on film shoots I continue working all night long, directing and editing my dreams until I wake up exhausted. During Exodus I’d dream these extraordinary faces and wake with them imprinted on my eyelids like paintings. They were magnificent extras we found in hidden corners; people from tough housing estates, street drinkers off park benches, individuals with special needs, asylum seekers and Chinese restaurant workers. Initially the AD (Assistant Director) department were horrified that I expected them to work with people who were not professionals, some of whom drank or took drugs. On the day of our big beach battle a group got high by sniffing butane gas from the heaters in the loos. Miraculously nobody struck a match.

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This Pharaoh is a politician rather than the king of Egypt. “I used to believe in the rainbow society. Sincerely, I did. But I was wrong...’ He proposes throwing all those he considers surplus to requirements into Dreamland, the site of a disused funfair. It took me months to write his hideous speech. We shot it in the town centre as part of an advertised live event and thousands of people turned up from all over the country and abroad. The following week people pitched up at our headquarters and requested forms to join Pharaoh’s People’s Party. It’s a fascist party.

Asylum seekers are known locally as ‘Kosovans’ because they were the first wave of refugees. ‘Kosovans’ these days travel from West Africa and the Middle East and are temporarily housed in a modest hotel on the seafront. There are tales of generosity and welcome but refugees are also resented by other oppressed people. An African friend says that shopkeepers make her place her money on the counter to avoid touching her hand. A Nigerian arrives for his audition straight from the beach, shaking with grief and rage. A woman swimming far out in the sea spotted his family and stomped across the sands to inform his small children that she hates black people. I need to identify the Jews of the 21st century and refugees are the obvious candidates but I am afraid of encouraging marginalized and resentful people to pick on those who are already vulnerable.

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I decided to make today’s Jews both the most dispossessed people of Margate and the asylum seekers. They will all be thrown into the Dreamland and they will always fight on the same side. It’s a risky strategy but amazingly it works. We shoot for seven weeks and there is no racism.

Early in the shoot the Unwanted were queuing up before being driven into the Dreamland when a Black South African Muslim recognized the two white boys behind him. They’d been shouting abuse and throwing things at him. They were stuck together for a while so they had a big talk and the boys apologized. ‘Next time we see you we’ll say hello.’ A few days later when we stage our big battle it rains a lot. Every time these white boys catch my eye they are sharing an umbrella and joking around with the young black guys. Dreamers unite.

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What is the transformative power of art?

Sometimes I believe in it totally, I know it saves my life. Other times the question doesn’t even make sense. We are part of the world, everything is connected, that’s all I know.

The whole Exodus period – eight weeks prep followed by seven weeks filming – the smack and crack dealers complained that business was suffering. The day after we left town the addicts immediately returned to their old work. This makes me sad because nothing stuck. But it also makes me hopeful because if people have interesting things to do they don’t throw themselves away on shit drugs.

I hope that the links people made will survive but I don’t even know that.

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Maybe it’s wrong to raise people’s hopes if they don’t live in a place where they can be fulfilled. Delroy Moore a former printer pulled off an African accent and a wonderfully warm performance, The Drunken Priest (Gary Stanley) works in a petrol station. The Loony Preacher (Justin Smithers) and Yardman (Michael Tulloch) are both school teachers. Antony Johnson, a charismatic Aaron, puts up signs for a building society. There were many others, all fantastic who beat out actors for their parts but will they get a chance to do it again? They’re good enough that’s for sure.

Matthew Smith played Dada, an isolated, glue-sniffing street child. He’s from a poor background, small and thin for his age with a unique talent. Then his mother, his sister and one of his brothers appeared as extras and they were all instinctive and natural actors. Intrigued, I asked his Mum whether she had any idea why. She told me her Granny had been an actress in some old films she had never seen. Her name was Margaret Rutherford.

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Exodus hits most of the narrative points of the original story. Baby Moses is given away to the Pharaoh’s wife and as an adult he discovers that he is one of them rather not one of us. The Burning Bush becomes a 25 metre sculpture by Antony Gormley, a giant man built out of urban detritus and burnt to the ground. It’s a gesture of defiance from the Unwanted to the people of the Promised Land, warning of terrible violence unless poverty and injustice are addressed. When Pharaoh refuses to let his people go Moses turns to terrorism. Like the Old Testament God he dishes out indiscriminate violence in pursuit of a political purpose. And like everyone who believes God is speaking to him, he’s very dangerous.

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The body of Jethro, the Dreamland teacher is burnt in the fire. The next day a stray dog scavenges a charred rib, Moses chases the dog but a raven swoops down, picks up the bone and flies off with it to the Pharaoh’s garden where it begins to speak. It takes with it stories which refugee children have told Jethro and carries them inside the Pharaoh’s head. “The people who killed my father, they will kill me. That is what an enemy is.”

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Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa reminded me of photographs of modern day refugees clinging to rickety craft. It was the last scene we filmed and it was hellish. The wind machine made a ghastly racket and spewed out headache inducing fumes, Baby Moses completely freaked when he was swept into the water, the Raft Boys got cold, wet and fractious and Moses had to slog underwater in big boots and a waterlogged coat despite his dread of drowning. In a way it was a good thing because the rest of the shoot had been such a joy I wasn’t ready for it to end. And then I was.

All photos by Thierry Bal