“Spiritual Human” Interview with Antony Thomas
“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.
Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.
In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.
His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…”
Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.
Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?
Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question. “How do you know that God exists?” “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films.
What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.
Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.
Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama. In the case of the latter, one is following a script. It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming.
I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan. The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.
After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.
Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9)
Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.
As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?
Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.
Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”
Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?
Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma. What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system. I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.
The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago: “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.”
Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.
Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.
Antony Thomas:Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make. There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us. I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.
Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.
“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: https://spiritualhuman.co.uk/2011/03/14/from-interreligious-dialogue-to-spiritual-humanism/
“It was Brumana consultation in 1972 inBeirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 )
Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?
Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.
See also on this blog “Spiritual Human interview with Jeff Widener“ who took the iconic photo of “The Tank Man”