The essence of Hackney, both charming and sinister, pulses through every scene of Break My Fall. Director Kanchi Wichmann’s feature film debut is as inextricably rooted in the area as it is possible to be.
Whilst the plot is an intensely personal one, chronicling the final days of a couple’s painful breakup, the film is also saturated with local colour, from the music to the locations, with some of the actors being Hackney residents.
Set over a difficult three days, Break My Fall follows its young stars Liza and Sally through the final death throes of what is essentially a doomed relationship.
Against a backdrop of grimy studio band rehearsals, fry-ups in local cafes and bike rides down Ridley Road, the pair endure a painful and at times violent struggle to come to terms with the inevitability of letting each other go.
Circling around them is a cluster of intriguing and refreshingly atypical secondary characters. Vin, despite being a rent boy by trade, finds himself falling in love with Sally, much to Liza’s disgust. Also part of the group is Jamie, a hip queer American itching to break out of the unhealthiness of his friends’ lives and settle down into an altogether more domestic existence.
Other characters drift briefly in and out of the film, reminders of the world outside and the danger of being sucked into their own insular world indefinitely.
“There’s a whole other world of people who go to bed at night and get up in the morning,” remarks Jamie as dawn breaks on the first day.
He and the others, meanwhile, are intensely nocturnal creatures. Certainly, the film takes place predominantly after dark, featuring characters that seem to live entirely outside the nine to five norm. Daytime scenes, where they appear are almost always dripping with the sense of a hangover or comedown from the night before.
And yet Break My Fall shuns the temptation to glamourise the young East London lifestyle. The film is not a homage to the Shoreditch clubbing scene or an OC-esque teen drama. Instead, we see a slice of life that is altogether less palatable and far harder to watch. No trendy Hoxton night clubs here. Instead, the young protagonists end up in a dingy warehouse party, with resolutely unromantic dark-corner hookups and vomiting fellow clubbers.
Hackney’s charm is nevertheless allowed to filter through as much as its darker side. Shots of giddy bike rides, loved-up vinyl browsing and even a trip to Hoxton’s Shh Emporium show the lovers in their happier moments, in sequences suffused with affection for the area.
For the director Wichmann, there was an added dimension to making Break My Fall – a sense of documenting a part of the area’s personality that seems to be fading: “I think the area is going to change and in a way this is showing a particular phase of life in Hackney before it disappears forever,” she points out. “With the Olympics and the regeneration it’s really changing quite quickly. [The film] represents what I feel is now being lost.”
The Hackney scene remains a backdrop, however, on which Liza and Sally’s story is played out. “For me it’s about ‘behind the scenes’ of the scene,” says Wichmann. “You don’t really see the scene they’re involved in.”
The alternately endearing and claustrophobic intimacy of the film lays bare the intricacies of the couple’s relationship. “It’s like you’ve put a camera into a window of two people’s lives,” points out Sophie Anderson (who plays Sally). “It’s true life, it’s not glamourised at all.”
Wichmann adds that the film sprang from a desire to explore the emotion of not being able to make something work but not being able to let it go. “That was the initial genesis,” she says, “really wanting to go in and magnify that feeling and create a story out of it.”
Make no mistake, this is not always a comfortable film to watch. Wichmann doesn’t make it easy on her audience, instead stripping away layers of sound and fancy filming gimmicks to make Break My Fall as realistic as possible. Entire sequences trickle by with complete silence, as characters wander aimlessly in and out of shot in the privacy of their flat. A recurring bass guitar riff seeps in and out of scenes, adding to the melancholy.
“We’re in a culture where that’s quite an unusual technique, to have almost complete silence in some of the scenes,” she admits. “People are not trained to consume a film like that. It’s uncomfortable for people but I wanted it to be like that.”
The way the film is shot gives you a powerful ‘fly on the wall’ sensation, be it observing the moments of a heated argument or watching someone stumble to the kitchen for left over take away, the morning after the night before.
It seems inevitable that Break My Fall will be categorised as a gay film, because of the centrality of Liza and Sally’s relationship within the plot. Yet to do so would be to entirely miss the point. “It’s about a relationship break up and the effect on the people’s lives and their friendships,” explains Wichmann. “I think it’s sad when a film gets labelled as a gay film or a women’s film. There’s so much more to it than sexuality.”
If anything, Break My Fall is about generation, rather than sexuality. The intensity and confusion of one’s early twenties is brought to the screen honestly and without melodrama. The gender of the protagonists seems all but irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, the film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous, for which Wichmann makes no apologies. “In real life things don’t tie up in three days,” she says. “I’m not an easy formulaic story writer.”
Far from alienating the audience, this strategy renders Break My Fall all the more intriguing, raising unanswered questions in the viewers mind about their own lives. This is an uncompromising and unflinching piece of cinema, which doesn’t patronise its audience by tying up loose ends or shying away from the gritty reality of human relationships. It might not always be easy to watch, but it’s also impossible to walk away from.
Break My Fall will be on general cinema release from 22 July.