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Sharmill Films

My Ruthless Streak – Mike Fahrenheit

I was about 7 years of age and living in Belfast when I first became aware of film editing. It occurred to me that in westerns we never got to see anyone actually being hung. We’d see the noose put around some varmint’s neck while he was sitting on his horse and we’d see the rope being tied to the branch of a tree but just when it was getting really interesting, they’d cut away to onlookers as someone would slap the horse or fire a gun to spook it. The onlookers might flinch – I remember a woman fainting in one film – but we never saw the varmint actually die. My seven-year-old self was very put out about this.

I discussed the matter with my mother who explained that the actors were only playing a role so it wouldn’t be right to kill them. Although this made a certain kind of sense, I still wasn’t happy. Editing, I realised, was the enemy of reality. Clearly in those days I was a fan of long takes, single shot scenes and a stickler for absolute truth in the cinema.

After thinking about the situation for a time I came up with my first solution to a cinematic problem. I went back to my mother with the suggestion that the filmmakers could go to prisons and get people who were going to be executed anyway. If these guys played the varmints then we’d be able to see them strung up and there’d be no need to cut away from the moment that a certain bloodthirsty young film buff had so far been denied.

I don’t recall my mother’s reaction but I’m pretty sure she didn’t write to Hollywood to pass on my suggestion. She did tell me about the time she was in the kitchen preparing dinner when she heard the boy next door shouting, “Go on, Michael, jump!” Not liking the sound of this, my mother went out into the back yard to investigate and found me standing on the rubbish bin. Tied around my neck was a rope which had been thrown over the fence and then secured to our neighbour’s downpipe. Had she not come out when she did, there might have been a different ending to this story.

I was reminded of all this when speaking with a friend recently about the excellent documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), which follows two African-American high school students in Chicago as they face numerous obstacles in the pursuit of their dream of becoming professional basketball players. There’s a scene in one of the boy’s homes where the electricity is suddenly turned off because they’ve been unable to pay their bill. While watching the film, I recall thinking that as a filmmaker in that situation I would have insisted on paying it for them. Even if it meant altering the reality of the situation – and lessening the power of the film to portray the poverty that so many families are going through – I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself. I realised that I mightn’t have the killer instinct to churn out an award winning documentary but at least I’d still be able to live with myself. That ruthless streak I used to be so proud of seems to be now just a memory.

I’ve been pleased to discover that although it’s not shown on screen, the filmmaker did pay the electricity bill for the struggling family, so in fact it’s true: one can hang on to one’s humanity and still churn out a magnificent, award winning film, which takes a clear-eyed look at issues of race, class and the unequal distribution of wealth. Ruthlessness really is overrated!