British photographer Andy Taylor Smith was at the SilverDocs fest this June for the world premiere of his first film, the short “This Chair is Not Me.” By the end of popular documentary event held annually in Silver Springs, Maryland, “Chair” won the Sterling Award for Best Short Film. Smith’s first foray into filmmaking was a natural progression, citing his work in photography projects, which he feels, often took on narrative elements. The film itself centers around a pivotal moment in the life of Alan Martin, a dancer with cerebral palsy who gives workshops and performances, played by newcomer Andre Mahjouri. Smith tells his story re-enacting a script written by Martin and voiced by Martin’s voice aid, interspersed with beautiful slow-motion portraits of everyday movements, like a dripping faucet and a butterfly flapping its wings. After SilverDocs, the film went onto win in the Amateur category of the BCS Digital Revolutions competition at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
In a conversation with indieWIRE, Smith explained, “I came to this project because I was commissioned to do a film about dance. I pitched an idea to the UK Film Council, to document a definitive moment of dance. They liked the idea.” Eventually, Smith came to the perfect subject for his film. “I found out about Alan, that he was a guy with severe CP who did dance workshops with disabled and able-bodied people. I asked him if he would mind if I did a lot of research with him – about seven months. I was originally going to do a documentary about his dance workshops.”
As Smith got to know Martin better, he was fascinated by the dancer’s biography, but doing research was a slow process, as Martin was working during much of their time together, and it was only convenient for Martin to speak in pre-programmed phrases in person with Smith. “We communicated over email. Where he’d come from, what his background was. Initially he was reluctant to tell me; he was suspicious of a filmmaker. There were so many interesting moments: there is one particular moment of him escaping to London, and that was the catalyst for the change in his life. He allowed others to realize how unhappy he was.”
At a certain point, Smith realized the film was really about Martin’s biography and convinced Martin to trust him to make that film. “I wanted to involve Alan as much as possible [and] I sounded out all of my ideas with him throughout the process. The casting process was tricky, because we were both really adamant that it had to be a disabled actor…I had to have an actor with a passing resemblance to Alan – living up to Alan’s character. The cost, however, of bringing an actor with a disability to the set was three times the budget. As a result, the actor didn’t end up having a disability, which is what I had to do.. But, after seeing the film, [Alan Martin] thought that Andre did such a good job of capturing his character.”
As for the future, Smith is working on two short films that both have the possibility of becoming feature projects: a short documentary about WWII re-enactors in the UK he will finish in the spring of 2011 as well as a narrative short he’s writing now. A shortened version of “This Chair is Not Me,” the film’s three-minute submission to the BCS Digital Revolutions competition is available, here. To see Smith’s photographic work, visit his website here.