Award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Millard is a self-confessed Charlie tragic. Five years ago a chance remark about a Chaplin impersonator working in Japan in 1917 set her on a quest to understand the curiously widespread appeal of
this silent film star, with his baggy pants, tight waistcoat and twirling bamboo cane. She found his ghosts and reincarnations in sophisticated cities, back street slums and theatres in countries as widely disparate as Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Australia and India.
Q. WHAT IS IT ABOUT CHARLIE?
I was fascinated to discover that people from all over the world find something in his movies that speaks directly to them. I wanted to find out why; and I think it is that Charlie is the outsider, the immigrant, the underdog, the clown, the wise fool. We can all see a bit of ourselves in him. He thumbs his nose at authority, deflates puffed-up officialdom and triumphs over adversity. What’s not to like?
No matter how down on his luck, Charlie can always see hope. Landing on his bum in the gutter, he’s soon cheerfully looking for cigarette butts. He has that quality we now call resilience, in spades.
The Tramp is a mentor, guardian angel or confidante for many people. He has a special appeal for migrants. As people around the world have poured into cities, lured by the promise of employment, Charlie’s star has shone ever more brightly.
Q. WHAT DREW YOU TO THE CHARLIE CIRCLE OF ADIPUR?
I thought there was an interesting story in the different cultural appropriations of Charlie and was planning to make a film about all the various impersonators, from Mexico to Japan. Then I discovered Adipur’s Charlie Circle and they just stood out as being a fantastic story in themselves. I put the film project aside so that I could do them justice.
They are a bit like a cross between a local Rotary Club and a film society. The members are dedicated both to Charlie Chaplin and the philosophy of life depicted in his films. The Circle members are very active in their community. They see Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp as a reminder of our responsibility to others. An invitation to join the Charlie Circle is considered a great honour, so as you can imagine, I was delighted when they made me an honorary member!
Kishore, an Adipur conductor, told me that he saw Charlie’s characters on his bus every day. The poor man spending his last few rupees to take a small amount of grain to the mill. The lazy official sleeping off lunch. The courting couple, snatching a few minutes privacy… How could he not love Charlie’s films?
Q. WHAT WAS IT LIKE FILMING IN ADIPUR?
The Charlie fever in Adipur was so all encompassing that sometimes I felt like we had been captured by a cult. Day after day, on and off camera, I kept asking people “What is the Charlie philosophy? What is his significance to the people of Adipur?” It was completely absorbing. My world started to shrink. There was only Charlie.
I had the same experience in London at a Charlie Chaplin conference put on by the British Film Institute. The conference attendees were just as passionate and obsessive as the Adipur Circle, spending hours discussing every aspect of Charlie, his comedy and his influence in their lives.
Q. THE STAR OF THE FILM IS UNDOUBTEDLY DR ASWANI.
Dr. Aswani is perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s most devoted follower. An insightful and compassionate man, he looks after his patients, keeps a lookout for anyone else in town who may need a helping hand and organises Charlie’s birthday party – undoubtedly the highlight of his year. Doctor Aswani has a generosity of spirit – a charming mix of playfulness and reverence. One of my favourite scenes is when Dr Aswani takes out his prescription pad to write a prescription for a patient. “Please see Circus film.” As an Ayurvedic doctor he believes Charlie can heal all sorts of conditions that stem from an unhappy state of mind.
Q. YOU HAVE USED SOMETHING OF AN ESSAY STYLE IN THE BOOT CAKE.
I felt that I had to acknowledge that I had become caught up in this story , too – I was not simply a filmmaker recording these events. The film needed a more personal voice, at times. I needed to move beyond the classic authoritative style of documentary into something that allowed me to open up the story in a more inclusive way. The essay form foregrounds that. I had so much information and different styles of footage that to present it in one style would have been limiting. I like visual texture and chose fragments of silent film, home movies, contemporary digital animations, rear projections, observational footage, performance sequences and interviews. The film incorporates inter-titles, which are both a reference to silent cinema and to contemporary non-fiction films organised around chapter headings. Mirror images, doubles, silhouettes and shadows are some of the film’s key visual motifs.
Centring the narrative around the journey to Adipur allowed me to explore some of the bigger questions about Charlie, his magic, his philosophies as well as the role of the double or doppelganger in all cultures.
Q. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM MAKING THIS FILM?
Like most film-makers I have to jump through hoops to get funding and a lot of momentum and energy can be lost. Then this came up and I just had to do it. Being on a small budget with just the barest of crew was liberating and reintroduced the notion of “aliveness”. It meant I had to be much more spontaneous, solving problems as I went, relying more on collaboration. Interestingly, a working method not unlike those used in early cinema.
Even Chaplin was something of a guerrilla filmmaker early in his career. His character The Tramp made his first screen outing in “Kid’s Auto Races at Venice”. Charlie, his director and cameraman just turned up at the go-kart races and improvised their film in front of the crowd. The Tramp became one of icons of cinema, as Chaplin developed the character over the next thirty years or more.
I immersed myself in silent film – not just comedies, but dramas and animations. Early filmmakers used the medium in such inventive ways. They were working before the rules of the medium were all made up and fixed. They often made a virtue of necessity. You can see that energy and audacity in their films. “The Boot Cake” reignited my passion for cinema and its possibilities. I also learned, as I say at the end of the film, that personal quests, like saints and gurus, can come in unlikely shapes and forms.