Film and TV are great tools to allow people to emotionally connect with stories. So on a smaller level I think we can continue to hold the powerful to account and show some of the struggles that regular people face and hope that inspires people who do have the influence to help affect change on a major level.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Matt Kay.
Matt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in London. He founded Walks Of Life Films in 2011 after making his first feature documentary OVER THE WALL about a British football team’s journey to play in Palestine and has continued making socially conscious, character led documentaries. In the past eight years, he’s directed and shot a variety of projects for broadcast, festivals and online including Netflix, BBC, Channel 4, SKY, The Guardian and over fifty film festivals. He has filmed in over ten countries; Egypt during the Arab Spring, a Brazilian favela during the World Cup and Japan for his latest project LITTLE MISS SUMO which premiered at London Film Festival, won several film festival awards and had its American premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019. It is a Netflix Original, available in 190 countries and in 30 languages worldwide. He is currently expanding his award-winning short into a feature documentary about female sumo wrestlers who are fighting to lift the ban that forbids them from entering professional rings in Japan and making another feature documentary for US broadcast about a pioneering music band and their legacy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in a feminist lesbian household with four women. The house was a creative and political hub for women of color and was always full of people coming over for dinner parties or crashing for a few days. My Mom was a writer and her partner Louise was a social worker. One of the other housemates ran a Black Women’s publishers and the other was a full-time Buddhist called Amargita. Some of my earliest memories were playing in my Mom’s study as she wrote, then going to Amargita’s room to meditate with her. I used to put my pacifier on her shrine for safekeeping while we meditated so I didn’t make any noise! I was always surrounded by very creative people and so saw this lifestyle as the norm growing up.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My friends were going on a football (soccer) tour in the Middle East after we graduated from university and asked me to come along to film. I was studying to become a writer/director of fiction film at the time. It was during the Arab Spring and sounded like a great trip, so I agreed to do it — but more for the experience as opposed to ‘a way in’ to documentary. I remember shooting in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution and thinking how tricky this would be to recreate as a fiction film. The number of extras, props, costume, pyrotechnics, catering, permission to block off the area, etc not to mention all the crew you would need!
I discovered how creative documentaries can be and the freedom and flexibility you can have through filming reality. I’d previously felt that documentary was rigid, yet being able to get firsthand accounts from Egyptians on the revolution and see the protests through the eyes of locals and foreign footballers seemed so liberating. People wanted to interact and tell their stories. I saw the power the camera can have and the places it can get you. I was energized by the process; contributing to pertinent issues, following character arcs and amplifying perspectives. It was then that I decided to properly focus on socially conscious character-based documentaries and haven’t looked back.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The camera has taken me to fascinating places from illegal detention centers in the desert to self-governed favelas, and so I’ve been lucky enough to experience lots of interesting things as a result. I always find it enlightening and inspiring to see how other people live. On my first filming trip, I was in a refugee camp in Palestine when the Israeli army began raiding the camp looking for militants. They discovered that we had been filming in a barbershop and that we were still in the camp so the search changed from looking for militants to looking for foreigners!
The people we were staying with were scared of what would happen to us (and them) if the army found us. They thought that they would confiscate the camera, delete all our footage and take our passports until they had undergone an investigation as to why we were there. And so we spent all evening in darkness, creeping around. This was common practice for many who lived in the camp, to avoid attracting attention. And so the atmosphere turned from very relaxed to extremely tense and the players became more nervous as the night went on. Hardly anyone slept that night but we made it undetected till the morning.
This set a precedent for me and meant that I have always seen capturing potentially sensitive stories, not as an obstacle but a privilege. It reminds me not to shy away from challenges as a filmmaker and has encouraged me to tell stories that showcase the difficulties others face. From this first trip, I became acutely aware of how influential stories can be and motivated me to contribute to shifting and changing narratives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was filming at Tottori Sand Dunes, Japan on Christmas Day for my Netflix short Little Miss Sumo. It was a beautiful and inspiring location but had the strongest winds I’ve ever felt! I had to brace myself and the camera to stop us both toppling over. The sand was blowing into the camera body and jammed the fan, which meant it kept on cutting out. The sand was also whipping against my subject’s exposed legs and so it was a time-pressured shoot and we had to be quick.
It was very frustrating because the camera kept switching off mid-shot. I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew that the sand had caused the problem. My mind was jumping to conclusions and I assumed that Cam A would need to be sent away to be fixed, so I was kicking myself for filming on the sand with it. Luckily I had a small DSLR (my B Cam) and so I scrapped Cam A and continue filming on the B.
When I got back in the hotel room, still frustrated, I discovered that it was overheating because the fan wasn’t working. After lots of vacuuming, DIY cleaning with a toothbrush and some TLC it began to work again! So this was both the happiest and most stressful Christmas day that I’ve ever had.
I wouldn’t change anything though, we managed to capture some beautiful footage and this beach scene became the opening to the whole film. I always chuckle when I watch it back, as the scene seems calm and serene which is the exact opposite of the shooting experience. Definitely an ‘oh-the-magic-of-cinema’ moment. So the lesson is — when in the midst of something that hasn’t worked out quite as planned — mistakes usually turn out to be all right in the end!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am expanding Little Miss Sumo into a feature documentary about the women campaigning to lift the ban on female sumo wrestling. Things snowballed as I was filming Little Miss Sumo with the #MeToo movement gaining attention and people in Japan linked this with the ban of women in sumo rings. After making a short, which meant I had to keep the narrative relatively simple, it is a joy to develop this feature where I can concentrate not only on the founders and supporters but also on the people who believe the tradition is best upheld. We are halfway through filming and hope to have the feature film finished before the end of this year.
I’m also making another feature film about a pioneering music band and their legacy. We have just been greenlit and fully funded and so are going into development. This is with a major US network but I can’t divulge any further at this stage sorry!
Finally, I’m developing a cinematic art installation addressing Scotland’s ambivalent relationship to the transatlantic slave trade and the continuing legacies. This is involving other great collaborators from prominent writers to opera singers and is an exciting project to lead.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity needs to be represented everywhere. Whatever the sector or industry is. For Film and TV, it is particularly crucial so that content can reflect society. We need to be vocal about the need for change so that we keep things adapting with the times. I think a lack of diversity creates stagnation and it becomes the same group of people telling the same stories, sapping the magic and freshness out of the medium. It is also extremely important for younger people to be able to see creative’s that look like them, both in front and behind the camera, to remind them of what is achievable. There is a tendency to absorb Film and TV in a passive manner, inadvertently accepting apparent status quos. This makes it especially important to include diversity. If we don’t have diverse role models in positions of power how will the next generation ever know it is possible?
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Plan like a scientist, improvise like a saxophonist. (I just thought of that now, and I’m quite happy with that saying!) So if you use it in the future make sure you quote me! But yes, embrace spontaneity — I often feel some of the best moments come from mistakes or changes of plan. It is important to prepare but equally as important to be prepared to ditch the original plan when needed and go where the jazz takes you!
Filmmaking is 10% doing what you love and 90% organizing for that 10%. You have to love and embrace the complete process not just the glamorous or glitzy side. If you don’t you will never achieve those ‘10%’ moments anyway.
Celebrate the wins and don’t get overly disheartened about the losses. This industry can be an eventful rollercoaster full of ups and downs. It is easy to focus solely on the future and end up not enjoying the present. Or people often see the ‘losses’ as much bigger than equivalent ‘wins’ and get disheartened. There’s always more on the horizon but it is important to acknowledge and enjoy the wins as much (or ideally more!) than fixating over the losses. And if there hasn’t been a ‘win’ for a while, don’t lose energy or focus, it’s inevitable to have hard moments full with lots of ‘no’s’ but have faith that the right ‘yes’ will come and it will be an extra big one when it does.
Open minds open doors — I always try to have this go-getter mindset. Even if on the surface a particular opportunity doesn’t seem like the best fit, through meeting the people or going to a particular place new opportunities and ideas are always born.
Be original. What people will find interesting is you being you not you trying to mold yourself into what you think they want. Everyone is unique and original if being true to themselves and that is the core of what makes things interesting
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Stay hydrated and healthy! You’re often on your feet constantly and there’s always lots of sugar and coffee on set; I like to opt for the green tea and nuts instead though. There are enough ups and downs on set without spiking your caffeine and sugar levels!
Try and work smart. There are lots of social facets of the industry and things can be energy draining. It is always good to prioritize things and pace yourself. Sometimes its best to get an early night and make the talk as opposed to stay up late and go to the party.
Have a few projects on the go at the same time. I feel you can apply more energy into a project once you have had a ‘creative’ break from it. So counter intuitively working on multiply things can act as a refresh and boost creativity. Variety is the spice of life after all!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to get big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes! But I’m not sure my influence is quite that ‘enormous’ to inspire tax reform just yet… But I do think wealth redistribution is needed in a major way.
Film and TV are great tools to allow people to emotionally connect with stories so on a smaller level I think we can continue to tell hold the powerful to account and show some of the struggles that regular people face and hope that inspires people who do have the influence to help affect change on a major level.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m going to cheat slightly and give a shout out to everyone at the Tribeca Film Institute. I won a funding grant for my short Little Miss Sumo. I’m so grateful to the team at TFI who went above and beyond the funding remit by having endless enthusiasm for the project, helping advise on the life of the film after we finished (film festivals, distribution deals, etc), and introducing me to collaborators. They introduced me to Roger Ross Williams who was my mentor for the project and I am now about to start directing a feature doc for his company that he is Executive Producing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, and the foolish build dams. ~ Nigerian proverb
I see filmmaking as always fluctuating in a small space between crisis and brilliance. There are inevitably going to be challenges but I feel it is how you react to these challenges that are important. Instead of trying to block or force something it is better to acknowledge and react. The best solution doesn’t just paper over the problem but adapts around it. I also think that it is important to build strong connections and be open to advise and offer help to others both in life and (especially!) in filmmaking.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Steve McQueen — I love the variety of his work and the different issues he chooses to focus on. He doesn’t shy away from difficulty and shows lots of bravery in his projects. Even though his work spans across a variety of mediums and many different time periods they still somehow manage to inform one another and connect. Nina Simone said that “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times” and I feel that he definitely does this; bringing attention to important issues and sparking discussion and action in the most visual of ways.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Instagram and Twitter as @mattkaymk
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!