Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have been a collaborative artistic duo for 25 years, perhaps best known recently for their first foray into feature film, 20,000 Days on Earth, a documentary drama featuring and co-written by Nick Cave, depicting a fictitious day in the esteemed musician’s life. As well as a wide range of short films, they have also written and directed for the series Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories.

For this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, which runs from 7 to 12 June across the city, Forsyth and Pollard are setting up an immersive video installation inside two shipping containers at the Doc/Fest Exchange on Tudor Square, presenting visitors with a choice between two doors marked ‘HOPE’ and ‘HATE’. Exploring mental health, as well as contradiction, binaries and ‘grey areas’, DOUBLETHINK is free to enter throughout Doc/Fest. They told me more.

Tell us about DOUBLETHINK and how it came into being.

We were invited to make a new piece specially for Sheffield Doc/Fest. We’ve been researching and thinking a lot about opposites. The idea of heaven and hell, both in the dramatic sense of storytelling, but also in more social and political contexts. Do we define our environment or does it define us? So that was the sort of stuff we were thinking about as we developed this idea.

How did the departure points of ‘HOPE or HATE’ come about?

We often come back to the famous Milton quote from Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We’re intrigued by how much they rely on each other. Right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, awe and terror, angels and demons. The poet William Blake wrote, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.”

We’re drawn to this idea that contrary states aren’t a binary choice. Doctrines and ideologies that force people to one side of the argument or the other invariably filter out all the beautiful shades of grey in between. So that’s really what this piece is about – it’s asking us to embrace the grey area.

How does the input from mental health researchers, and mental health as a theme, inform the work?

Through the support of [project funders] Wellcome, we’ve been able to access an incredible range of scientists and their research work has informed many of the decisions we’ve made developing and making the work. So for example, Robb Rutledge’s lab at UCL researches factors that determine happiness and how emotional states influence decision making. Susanne Schweizer’s research concerns cognitive control and emotion regulation in depression and PTSD, and Emily Holme’s research group in the department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet includes a focus on mental imagery and the treatment of psychological trauma among refugees.

A lot of your past work explores reality and re-enactment. How does this feed in to DOUBLETHINK?

We’re less interested in reality than we are in ideas of truth. That’s what makes the context of a documentary film festival exciting to be working within. Our work has often tried to find different ways to access different truths. Our last film, 20,000 Days on Earth, looks closely at that idea, the difference between objective truth and emotional truth. Re-enactment is often used to reconsider the past.

We’ve never really been interested in that historical context. When we first started working together in the mid-90s, we found re-enactment was a useful part of our toolkit that enabled us to consider the past refracted through a present moment, a way to find out more about the world right here, right now.

How were Stuart Evers and George MacKay involved in DOUBLETHINK?

Stuart is a novelist and author of short stories. We’ve worked together in the past on a project commissioned by the Moog Sound Lab. We’re fans of his writing and asked him to get involved in this project to help write the monologues that you hear in the piece. On camera, it’s George that delivers the monologues. He’s an actor we’re incredibly excited by, smart and intuitive. We love working with him. We’ve worked with George before too. He was the lead in one of the episodes of Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories we directed.

We’re also delighted that the music for this piece has been created by someone else we’ve worked with in the past, Warren Ellis from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. A project like this always feels a little bit like ‘getting the band back together’.

How does DOUBLETHINK compare or diverge from other video work you’ve done in the past?

There’s similarities and also hopefully some progression too. You build on ideas that have interested you over the years and try to look at them in a new way. One thing that’s important to us is to find ways to make video art that isn’t apologetic about not being a ‘film’. We want to use the medium to develop and explore ideas in a way that’s different to drama and documentary, a route to discover new truths.

After working together for so long, do you find it hard to really challenge yourselves through your work, or does your collaboration push you both beyond what you could each achieve on your own?

Collaboration has always been at the heart of what we do. We discovered very early on that together we could be more than the sum of individual parts. You encourage and push each other into new areas. It becomes almost like a dare – ‘I will if you will’. That’s what keeps us excited and moving forward.

Our collaboration also extends beyond ourselves. With this piece, there’s not just George and Stuart and Warren, there’s also the scientists, the team we work with to design the sets, filming, lighting, costume – so many things going on in the background and they all grow out of conversation and collaboration. That’s important to us.

After Doc/Fest, what’s next for you?

We’ve got a couple of film and TV projects in development. We’re also just about to embark on a new series of photographic works, which we’ll be making in our new studio at Somerset House in London. We moved in recently, and as well as more space to work, it’s given us more space to think. So there’s lots of stuff we’re dying to get our teeth into.

The DOUBLETHINK video installation is free throughout Doc/Fest, 7-12 June, at the Doc/Fest Exchange on Tudor Square. DOUBLETHINK is commissioned by Sheffield Doc/Fest with support from Wellcome.

sheffdocfest.com
iainandjane.com

Sam Walby