On Wednesday 31st of October 2018, MALCOLM IS A LITTLE UNWELL premiered at the 38th Cambridge Film Festival. The documentary follows the alarming illness and breakdown suffered by journalist Malcolm Brabant and his family, after he received a routine yellow fever vaccine required for an assignment in Africa. The footage includes video diaries recorded by Brabant’s wife and co-director Trine Villemann, who spoke to Take One student writer Ben Woodard after the Festival screening, along with their son Lucas who also appears in the film.
Ben Woodard: What was your reasoning for putting all this footage into one 78 minute film and not instead making a short form television series?
Trine Villemann: Because, when you see the film, you can see it is a multi-layered story. It’s not a love story, it’s not a vaccine investigation, it’s not only a story about mental health. There are several layers within the film, and we want to be able to include all these layers and have them in context together. We thought that a documentary was the right form to use for it. I don’t think we ever really considered doing it in any other way because we thought the material we had really lends itself to being in a documentary and not a lot else because it can’t stand alone, it needs context.
Malcolm Brabant: We knew that we had some really good material, because it happened really early on in this process. The only real sort of issue there has been for us is whether we include other people in this, if we included other victims of the vaccines and vaccinations. We decided not to because we thought it’s much easier to tell it through my story, and also, you know journalistically, it’s much easier because we know the genuine nature of my case. I wrote a book about it, about what happened and we had lots of people that came forward. But this film was made with absolutely no money and we didn’t have the resources to go and investigate all these cases. We know, as far as I’m aware, that my case is rock solid, because we know my medical history. We wouldn’t be able to do that with somebody else. Also, because of our journalistic experience we know that telling the story through concentrating on one person, you can tell more of a story. So that’s the reason why we did it. If you were to do a documentary properly, you would have to go to Africa, and there is no way we are risking going to Africa because I would have to have other vaccines. I’m better now and don’t necessarily want to risk my health by going there.
BW: Editing all the footage you had filmed must have been a surreal experience. Was it tough for you to revisit this time in your life?
TV: I think this is one for Lucas.
Lucas Brabant: Yeah, because this is all happened at a very young age for me, I was 11 or 12 and at the time I didn’t realise what was going on. As I grew up I got a better grasp of it, and that’s had prolonging effects on me being a 19 year old now. Going back and looking at it, and especially editing it and coming back to this whole thing and releasing it, it’s definitely bringing up some old wounds. It is rather tough to look through- the change in who I was back then to who I am now, and you can definitely see that growth or sort of deterioration throughout the film.
MB: It’s not a deterioration. (they chuckle) The thing is you know, for Lucas, he had to walk out when the shouting and screaming takes place because it’s really painful. It’s painful for Trine to watch. But for me, I’ve gotten better and actually this whole process is easier for me- because I know I’ve gotten better. The thing about the mental illness is that there’s a lasting legacy for other people. So it wasn’t too difficult for me, I had to sit there and edit it, that’s my job when I’m working as a reporter- a one man band- I do it and so it’s just not difficult, it’s just professional.
TV: For Lucas and me, it’s not professional- we lived it. Reliving it, that was painful for me, I still had trouble watching some of the scenes, especially the scenes where Lucas is present and Malcolm has a big psychotic episode. I cannot watch it without getting upset, and Lucas cannot watch it too. Some of it is still very very raw for us, not for Malcolm but he’s just a marvel.
BW: Malcolm, you mentioned that you edit your own videos, and that must have helped you edit the film itself, especially in parts where it does feel very much like we are watching a news report. Were you hoping for this to appear like a news report or a straight forward documentary?
MB: It isn’t a conventional documentary. A conventional documentary is somebody who is being interviewed by a third party. We had the opportunity, if that’s the word, for other people to come in and do the story and we rejected those people because nobody can tell my story better than I can. It may not be a conventional documentary but what it is is it’s unique, in that you won’t get many people to tell you what it is like to be mad. For the “purists” it may not be a “pure” documentary, but this is an unusual film for the reason that there is nobody else who could have done this.
BW: Everything about this documentary is very frank and very open, its very personal. Had you always wanted to show yourself exactly as you were during these episodes and not hide behind the camera?
MB: Do you think I’ve hidden? (laughs)
BW: I don’t think you were hiding at all, no.
MB: I have hidden. I’ve hidden little things. For example, I covered a few things which humiliated me and I thought ‘I’ve shown enough of myself so I don’t need to show the whole story.
TV: That’s very little.
MB: For example, when I talk about drinking my own urine and when I shot that piece on camera, what happened to me also was I had these voices in my head saying I should clean my teeth with a toilet brush, which is what I did. But then I look at the shot and I look at my teeth and people think maybe he doesn’t clean his teeth with the toilet brush, so I decided not to show it.
TV: But we’re journalists, we have been doing this for decades- reporting the truth, reporting the facts- every day of our working lives we ask people to open up to us, to bare their hearts and their souls. So it would be disrespectful of us if we did not do the same thing. Yes, for some people it might be too much, it might be too much honesty but it was the only way that we could do it. It’s what we ask of other people, so we have an obligation to do the same thing. And okay, the fact my husband does not mention the size of his penis I think is good, people don’t need to know that. Otherwise, it is as close to what happened – to my husband and to us – as you can possibly get.
BW: How did it feel, as journalists, being on the other side of the journalistic lens?
TV: Not particularly strange, the minute we kind of decided we were going to do this- and I did not start filming my husband with the intention of doing a documentary, I did that because I’m a journalist and I thought ‘I need to document this, what is going on here?’ back then there was no thought of doing a documentary at all – but you soon get around to the idea. You think, this is a documentary, there is no distinction of what side of the camera you are on, which chair you sit in in the editing suite, you just think, ‘this is just doing a job’.