Directors' cuts

Afternoon tea with Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Jeanne Labrune.

3.40pm: I emerge from Green Park tube station clutching my interview notes and walk down Stratton Street to the May Fair Hotel. I know the way after last week's "Film-maker Afternoon Teas", which I attended hoping to talk to Chadian director Mahamad-Saleh Haroun about his new film A Screaming Man -- one of the highlights at this year's BFI London Film Festival. He never turned up. But I seem to have better luck this time round: having taken the precaution of booking more than one set of interviews, I'm about to get two interviewees for the price of one, not once but twice.

3.50pm: I nibble at a scone and sip pearl-jasmine tea, while waiting for my interview slot in the plush interior of May Fair bar. "This is how they lure them here," a woman sitting next to me says. Last week, she interviewed the Irish director Tom Hall who had just stepped off a plane and was surprised to find cameramen and journalists when he'd only been asked to tea.

4.10pm: The film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are ready to see me at last. They've barely tucked into their tea. It's not often that two people have a hand in writing and directing a film; beyond telling me they like to bounce ideas off each other, Epstein and Friedman are at pains to explain how their double act works in practice. They have jointly researched and written Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem of that title gained notoriety through the obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1955. Epstein and Friedman admit that the nature of poetic inspiration -- a subject that the Cannes winner Lee Changdong turns to in Poetry, also featured at the BFI festival -- interests them less than the poem's social and political charge. One of them claims he doesn't even like poetry.

4.20pm: There's time for one final question as the interview draws to a close. Howl strikes me as a hybrid, generically speaking: its interweaving of colour with black-and-white sequences, of filmed footage with animation, gives the film an experimental edge. To my mind, Howl shares this quality with a number of features shown at the BFI festival this year, notably Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, Errol Morris's Tabloid, and Clio Barnard's award-winning The Arbor (reviewed by the NS's Ryan Gilbey here). Do documentaries lend themselves to experimentation more than other, more straightforwardly narrative films? Epstein and Friedman, though they come to film from a background in documentary film-making, see this distinction as spurious.

4.30pm: I hardly have time to collect my thoughts when someone motions me to another table, where French writer-director Jeanne Labrune is sitting with her interpreter. Tea for two once again gives way to a triangular scenario. We start by musing on the film's English title, Special Treatment, which doesn't carry the sexual allusions of the French original, Sans queue ni tête. But much besides the title may be lost on its new, non-French audience. Special Treatment, somewhat surprisingly billed as a comedy, draws parallels between the professional realms of psychoanalysis and prostitution. The film's basic premise, as well as its reliance on linguistic puns, may strike English-speaking viewers as somewhat heavy-handed, despite wonderful performances by Isabelle Huppert and the Belgian actor Xavier Demestre.

4.45pm: I compare notes with another interviewer who spoke to Jeanne Labrune before me. The idea for the film apparently first came to Labrune by chance when she picked up a book that fell off the shelf and stumbled on the word "la passe" (meaning "trick") used in a psychoanalytical context.

5.10pm: Fortified with more tea, I leave the May Fair bar and drift towards Piccadilly.

5.25pm: My wanderings take me to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard, where Christian Marclay's The Clock is currently displayed. There's no getting away from films, it would seem. Marclay's clever montage of cinematic moments, featuring clocks, watches and the passage of time more generally, is synchronised to show exactly what time it is from the moment you arrive until you leave. Watching countless clock faces makes for nerve-racking, if strangely hypnotic, viewing. Increasingly aware that I should be on my way, seven minutes into a film that goes on for 24 hours, round the clock, I reluctantly pull myself away.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis