The Perfect Frame by Rob Petit

I’m obsessed with this image. 

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I shot it, but I didn’t know I’d shot it. Let me explain... It was June 2012… the wettest one on record, ever, and we were right in the middle of filming the Olympic Torch relay. 70 days. 70 films and a metric-shit-tonne of footage from around the British Isles. But not on this day: whatever day it was, wherever it was, it was raining harder than I’ve ever seen it rain before. I was soaked to the core and, for perhaps the first time on the job, actually feeling a bit fed up. 

So I chose not to shoot anything outside that morning, I thought we’d be able to get enough later that day when it as due to brighten up. Instead I ramped up the frame rate and the shutter speed on the camera, stuck it out of the back window and asked my colleague to speed through the towns on the route. I had no idea what I was filming, or whether it would turn out but when it came to the evening edit I found an unexpected delight: a perfect, bizarre, slow moving, frozen-in-time snapshot transect of a whole belt of Midland Britain and amidst it all… this frame. This... perfect frame.

Fibonacci Perfect...

Impressionist Perfect...

Britpop Perfect...

Breakthrough-Indie-Act-Of-The-Year-Perfect...

I don’t know where it was. I don’t know who they are. But it captures the exact moment before the two blokes on the right processed the fact that they were being filmed. It depicts that nanosecond between them seeing the camera and deciding how to react, what mask to wear. It is, in short, the most truthful moment that could possibly be obtained… before the performance: the light - or terror - in their eyes. It’s what Carl Bohem’s character was searching for in Peeping Tom: that moment of truth that he thought you only glimpsed seconds before someone’s imminent death. Well Carl, it turns out you don't need to strap an enormous spike to your camera and go around murdering people to find it; you just need to stick it out the back window of a Skoda and speed through the streets on a rainy day. 

But it's not ONLY their expressions, it's everything else: the man obscuring his face with an iPad works as a perfect metaphor for how technology has replaced our identity, the dominant St. George's cross relegates the discarded Union Jack in a prophetic nod to the impending referendum on Scottish independence (I mean, the DETAIL). Oh and the rest: the sad, damp wig, the carefully-chosen stances (the umbrella man in Hitchcock profile), the red brick, the rain, the INDIVIDUAL DROPS of rain… I could go on. But I won't, I'll just redesign the English flag instead...

But looking at it again, after nearly four years, my eye is drawn to the iPad and I’m struck with a strange afterthought...

Somewhere, on some hard drive, in some house near some B-road through some redbrick town in the middle of England is a digital photograph of a soggy, grumpy director leaning out of a car window, totally unaware that he is, at that exact moment, filming the most perfect thing that has ever been filmed. And he can take absolutely no credit for it at all. 

The First Thing by Rob Petit

Notes from Chad. Part 1 of 3.

As I sit patiently, in a sweltering room on the outskirts of N’djamena, watching a suited official forensically examine my papers, my eyes wander to the small window behind him, or more precisely to the blizzard beyond. Straining my eyes as I try to work out how it could be snowing in a place this hot, I realise the raging storm is actually a swarming mass of midges, mosquitoes and hard-shelled beetles. There are many things I am about to learn about this strange country but the first is this: Chad is a country where the bugs have won. 

It is on the orders of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser that we are here. Sheikah Mozah, the second wife of the now former Emir of Qatar, chairs the Qatar Foundation, a charitable trust that has taken on the seemingly insurmountable task of getting 20% of the world's out-of-school children back into education. Geraint, our companion and Her Highness' right hand man (an ex-Clinton Administration diplomat who looks like he's stepped straight off the set of The West Wing), has just told me a story about how she once asked him to estimate the number of children in the world not attending school. He posited a figure of figure 60 million, causing her to slide her blank cheque book across the table and tell him that she wanted half of them back in school within 10 years. ‘You should have seen her face, Rob, when I told her that I couldn’t do it… I couldn’t end wars with her cheque book.’ So he convinced her to run a pilot scheme instead and opt for a mere 20% target as opposed to 50. Easy peasy. And so, with another film crew following Her Highness around the war-torn Gaza strip, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast, we are here in Chad appended to a delegation trying to broker a deal with the government to allow this massive influx of funds to UNICEF, the chosen beneficiary and my job is to make a film about the children who will benefit from the work that UNICEF will do. 

But it’s not quite as simple as that. The problem is, it wasn’t until yesterday that Sheikhah Mozah decided that Chad would be a suitable recipient of the aid, so no agreement is in place with the government to allow the funds into the country: that’s up to Geraint to persuade the Minister of Education, who he is to meet with tomorrow. And with the government feeling snubbed by the Qataris (why shouldn’t they be in charge of the funds they might wonder?) it’s quite possible that the Minister will demand such stringent terms that there will be no agreement. The fact that my brief is to make a film about a story that may not happen doesn’t escape the discerning official. ‘I’m hoping for the best’ I tell him. He smiles and continues to look through my paperwork. 

So here I am, sitting silently in a small interrogation room, barely 24 hours after I found out I was coming here, and knowing almost nothing about where ‘here’ is at all. Perhaps that’s of little surprise however: there is little-to-no international presence in Chad… no media, no embassies, barely any multi-national companies and very few foreign aid agencies. A quick scan of the guidebook on the plane told me that this is a country bigger than South Africa but with little more than 300 miles of paved road, no railway and only 14,000 fixed phone lines among a population of 10 million. Couple that with the fact that Chad hosts more than 70 languages and dialects across its five hundred thousand square miles and it's easy to wonder what basis there is for a nation-state at all. Like most of the sub-Saharan African countries, the borders were drawn up by the administrative colonial powers with no consideration for local ethnic or historical realities on the ground. Chad is a former French colony but it seems they weren't interested in building a state. It gave them a rich supply of slaves and cotton but wasn't deemed good for much else. By the 1950s it was for the French, as it is for much of the international community now, of no interest at all. 

So as I sit in the small room, still transfixed the biblical swarm of insects outside, the official (after much deliberation) gives a small grunt and decisively stamps his approval on my letter from the Minister, hands it back to me with a smile and wishes me good luck, even asking if I would like ‘un petit café’ before I hit the road. How strange. 

But stepping out into the blizzard, a free man, I get the distinct feeling that the strangeness has just begun...

En Haiti! by Rob Petit

The place is like a pressure cooker. Jungle music rhythm to everything: the traffic, the way people move, the way they talk - en Haiti! en Haiti!! en Haiti!!! blares out of every available speaker on repeat. Touching down on the tarmac the Haitian man behind me bursts into tears: I’m home! he punches the air. 

The streets. Wow the streets. Haven’t seen a single traffic light. Old New York school buses (shipped over here after having outlived their use in the States) have been pimped to the max. Every car has a cracked window, and those that don’t have a cracked window sticker, presumably because if someone had a car that wasn’t beaten up it would be a target. I’ve never seen such colour. Everywhere. On the people, the cars, the buildings. The streets are packed with wall-to-wall businesses selling the same kind of stuff… mostly second hand clothes. There’s a double economy here: Digicel calling cards (the telecoms company set up by the Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien) are used as trade just like dollars. In fact it’s Digicel who seem to be building this place… they’re the ones who have made the street signs, and subsidise the roads and the schools. They’re stronger than the government: more active and more respected. 

There’s some sign of devastation from the Earthquake four years before, that killed nearly a quarter of a million people. But the whole place feels like a construction site - ‘When a Haitian falls, they pick themselves up again’ - This is a place where everyone is very noisily just getting on with it. 

East Coast Mainline by Rob Petit

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Sitting on the Eastcoast Mainline with the following blaring out of the loudspeaker on repeat. My annotations beneath.

The announcement: "Good morning this is your customer service manager (1) Motash (2). I'd like to welcome you to the zero-eight hundred (3) East Coast mainline service from Kings Cross (4) to Edinburgh. The service is calling at Darlington, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh, due to arrive in Edinburgh at 12.51 (5). There will shortly be a full ticket inspection, please assist me by having your tickets, seat reservations AND railcards ready. Please also ensure all baggage is stowed away safely and securely (6), and is not causing obstruction to the aisles (7). For your safety and security, CCTV is in operation throughout the train (8). There will also be a full refreshment service (9) on board today. My colleague Farla (10), the catering crew leader, (11) will shortly make an announcement (12). In the meantime please relax (13) and be sure to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns (14). The next station-stop (15) is Darlington." 

My analysis: l1 Ridiculous job title. l 2 Ridiculous name. l 3 We're not in the army. l 4 The common urge felt by ‘The Many’ to express the abundantly obvious. We're at King's Cross now, if you didn't realise that, then you’ve got a long day ahead. l 5 I'll be impressed if it does but no harm in trying I suppose. l 6 Hard pressed to see the difference between 'safely and securely', or rather it's pretty hard to be one not the other (Me: "Excuse me Motash, I've secured my bag safely but not securely, can you help please?" Motash: "Why my dear man that's impossible!" Me: "My point exactly") l 7 (Aisles plural) there's technically only one aisle, it's a train, granted it's a long aisle but there is only one. Though maybe I'm being pedantic here. l 8 Difficult not to make the obvious Orwellian comparisons because the terrifying thing is that this phrase is drummed into us through sledgehammer repetition to the point where it becomes almost impossible to say 'CCTV' without triggering the auto-response follow up phrase 'it's for my safety and security don't you know?'. It's not though, it's not. l 9 It's a canteen, call it a canteen. l 10 Ridiculous name. l 11 Ridiculous job title. l 12 Please don't. l 13 How can I relax with this incessant babble? l 14 I think it's best, for the both of us that we don't meet. l 15 When did stations become 'station-stops'? I reckon you can trace the beginning of the end to that very point in time.