The Movie Waffler Interview - DIVISION 19 Director Suzie Halewood | The Movie Waffler

Interview - DIVISION 19 Director Suzie Halewood

suzie halewood
We spoke with director Suzie Halewood about her dystopian sci-fi thriller.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

division 19 poster

Hi Suzie! I’ve just written up my review for Division 19. It has certainly given me lots to think about! To me it’s clear that the film has a guiding intelligence behind it: in the sense that the plot/themes are inquisitive about the modern world and, at times, quite combative, too. I wonder if you’d like to elaborate on the ideas within Division 19?

At the time of writing Division 19, when Tony Blair was in power (and he still thinks he is), the UK was the third most watched country on earth after Russia and China. Civil liberties were about to be eroded further with the introduction of bio-passports and a dubious company was offering RFID chips for your school kids under the auspices that this way, all kids would appear equal (financially) as credits for school dinners would be via RFID chip and no keep would need to pay with vouchers. While the film looks at surveillance, state control and the ever-present class divide, the underlying rage is about personal responsibility - or lack thereof. You only have to look at current day Hong Kong to see what can be achieved - not with a silent march, but with an angry outpouring - en masse. The minute you blame someone else for everything that’s wrong with your life (and I’m not talking about people who have suffered imaginable injustices) you’ve lost control. We are the architects of our own future. That can’t be taken lightly.

Division 19 depicts a dystopian future where popular entertainment has reached a sordid nadir not seen the Romans put the Christians on the same bill as the lions. Prisoners, men at their last ebb, are paraded for mass audiences. The lowest of society, arguably some of its most vulnerable, are manipulated as if they were little more than flesh and blood mannequins, made to dance by the spectators at home, their strings pulled about by the grasping, unseen hands of the viewing populace. It really is an all-time low for reality TV. But, be honest, would you watch Panopticon TV if it was on your telly? I reckon I would.

Well it would certainly be more interesting than watching a TV show where the contestants know they’re being filmed. Yes, we’re all voyeurs. I love to sit in a cafรฉ watching people walk by. I suppose the question is how far are we prepared to go for entertainment? There’s a great short story called 'Saturday Night at the Roxy' where two cinemas in the same town go all out in competition. First the films get darker, then more violent. Then one cinema introduces bubonic plague into an ice cream, while the other counters with a rapist who will attack a random member of the audience. I suppose the point is there’s always a victim. The thing that amazes me is people are willing to trade their most intimate moments (and data) for 15 minutes of fame. But be careful. You may have no intention of ever committing a crime. But you might - one day - wish to take on the State.

What really struck me about Division 19 was the genuine ambition of it all. I mean this in terms of the scope of its ideas but also in the visual extravagance of the film. It looks gorgeous. I shouldn’t like to assume, but I would guess that with Division 19’s budget you’re colouring within some pretty rigid lines. Could you talk a little bit about how you achieved such striking light and shade within such strict frameworks, and how you created the ensuing look of the film?

Thanks for saying it looks good. I had a fabulous cinematographer (Ben Moulden, who also shot the first film Bigga Than Ben) and designer (John Collins). Ben has a very ambitious eye (he comes from a stills background) and films a lot of high-end commercials. That ambition remains - even with a very limited budget. We shot on Alexa Studio with anamorphic lenses from Panavision (Cooke Xtal Express 32, 40, 50, 75, 100) and always, early morning or late evening for exteriors. We shot out of the Masonic Temple in Detroit, which has over 1300 rooms randomly filled with anything from pianos to toilets. Utopia for a designer. The city needed to look over-polluted, existing under a dirty nicotine coloured haze, like something was rotting in the basement. The streets were empty because of the air’s toxicity (Detroit is pretty empty so no cgi needed there). After filming we went to Ben’s go-to grader Simone Grattarola at Time Based Arts. He is a very patient and talented individual. And he loves clocks.

Like most people, I am a casual reader of The Prison Journal, the peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes papers in the field of Criminology (quarterly by SAGE Publications). I was at the garage the other day and flicked through a dog-eared article by Oritz and Jackey as I waited in the reception. It suggested that (paraphrased as quoting from memory), ‘traditional criminological studies point to high recidivism rates in the United States as proof that U.S. re-entry fails to rehabilitate offenders. The Prisoner Re-Entry Industry purports to rehabilitate offenders, yet it operates using mechanisms including parole conditions and fee-based re-entry services that ensure the formerly incarcerated remain trapped in a cycle of failure. Hence, the PRI is not a broken system. Rather, it is an intentional form of structural violence perpetuated by the state to ensure the continued oppression of the most marginalized groups in our society’. Those words echoed through my mind as I watched Division 19. How far do you agree with Oritz and Jackey’s (perhaps cynical) position? Does it relate to Division 19?

Totally agree. And yes, it relates. I filmed gang members in LA over a number of years with the aim to make a kind of 7-Up for gangs. They die quite often though. I got interested in the whole gang culture in LA (and anywhere) after an article in the New York Times described how gang members were repatriated to prisons in El Salvador and Honduras, which subsequently burned down, killing the inmates (many were also found to have been stabbed and shot). Subsequent investigations showed the doors were barricaded shut - from the outside. As Tom Hayden (who I interviewed for the doc) said, "America's policy on gangs - ship out the trash and burn it." That was 2004. I later found out the reason they were deported (mainly Maras) was because they’d been approached by the US military to fight on the front line in Iraq in return for citizenship. The Maras apparently told the US military where they could shove their citizenship. So they got deported. They also told me they tried to avoid hospitals (difficult when you’re a gang member) because some had been known to come back with an organ missing. Hence the organ episode (easy to miss) when Hardin is in the bar.

Over to you! I was impressed by Division 19 and said as much in my review. In your own words, why should The Movie Waffler readers give Division 19 a go?

I made Division 19 because I think these themes are resonant, important and not going away. Yes, the state vs. the individual has been covered in 'Brave New World', '1984' and Metropolis to mention a few - but the reason people keep making these films with these same themes is because they’re not going away, because nothing changes. Do I think someone who goes to see this film will stop watching Gogglebox or swap their iPhone for one that’s environmentally friendly? Of course not. But we have a huge opportunity - a maybe one-time moment in history - where the Tower of Babel can fall and for one reason - encryption. We are the workers, the taxpayers and therefore the ones in charge. And we need to make that count. Otherwise we’ll end up with more of the same - and no-one’s happy with that.

Division 19 is in UK cinemas June 21st.