My Artist of the Moment : Jonty Herman

Jonty Herman / Artist of the Moment

Jonty is a very gifted storyteller who tells many stories through motion picture. Take five…this is a very good read…

So, Jonty, for those of us who’ve not had the pleasure of meeting you before, please introduce yourself…

I tell stories- I think they’re the most powerful force in the world.

I was about 6 years old when I went to the doctors, at a very memorable moment in my life. The GP announced his prescription; I flung myself to the floor half in protest, half in panic… ‘Not again!’ came the scream out of me like a vomit.

As I peered up through the tears I could just make out the doctor shifting awkwardly towards the tannoy microphone on his desk and flick a switch. He turned to my Mum pale faced and apologising profusely.

The entire waiting room had overheard, and it felt like one of the most shameful and lonely moments of my life.

The humiliation I felt was as if I’d wet myself on stage during a monologue of an awkwardly bad one man theatre show. And my solo ‘performances’ were set to continue…

I’d been made to take steroids for my asthma before. They made me go hyper beyond my own control. My wiry 6 year old frame would be seized by the energy of someone 5 times my size, along with a lifetime of emotions all at once.

I can’t remember exactly how many of my friends I hit, kicked or screamed at during that course of the medication, or why the intense feelings of rejection and injustice continued to possess me and make me throw chairs at my classmates and want to destroy things.

Inside, I knew I was a good boy, so I couldn’t understand why these things happened. In my teachers’ eyes I was a child with ‘issues’ and nothing I could do or say would change that. It was as if my legitimacy and my voice had been confiscated and felt like anything good I did would be met with suspicion of my motives.

So I shut down emotionally, I was put on report at school, I shut down more, I was bullied, I slowly gave in to the character of the hapless, hopeless, shameful weirdo.

For much of my childhood the stories told about me didn’t have good endings, and the character I was given was the disruptive trouble child. 25 years on, most of the stories now have happy endings. Something changed…

Why do you do what you do?

Superman was my favourite TV program growing up.

I once worked out that if I could learn to jump half a metre further each year (a realistic target considering that I was growing at a rate of about half a foot a year at the time) for the next 20-30 years I could probably end up being able to fly. This is no joke. I also happened to gain an alter-ego at around the same time called Super Boz. He had a green velvet cape and sometimes wore Mum’s leather boots.

Super Boz was the kind of super hero to be taken seriously. He obviously had, like every super hero, special powers, but you had to have faith in him to see them. Unfortunately nobody ever displayed much faith.

My credentials for being a superhero, if not my superpowers, were that I had a lot in common with Clark Kent. Clark’s no great journalist so nobody really respects him. More fool them! …and more fool them who doubted me! I too was a world saver- I had faith in myself that I was good and powerful even if nobody else could see it.

Clark and Superman helped me to understand my situation- why my outside world didn’t reflect my inside world; that it was ok to go unnoticed and struggle with two identities; that everyone has their kryptonite and there’s no shame in that. The BBC Narnia series had a similar effect and confirmed my suspicions that what we see isn’t all there is to the world- there’s a far greater magic just behind it all.

Another story was also taught to me growing up, but it took a while to sink in. It was about someone called ‘God’ who made the world and who wanted to hang out with me even though nobody else did. My parents were good at telling me this story because they showed me that it could be true, since they also wanted to be with me in my pain and confusion.

All of these stories transformed my life and gave me a different view on my own story that I was living. No longer did my story end in difficulty and failure- wrestling with shame and rejection, was just a part of the battle for freedom. I began to become an overcomer rather than a victim.

I believe that everyone can have a good ending to their story, and everyone has to go through struggles. But too often people give up on other people and stop helping them to see the prize at the end of the race. There are many under-represented groups in the world who are treated unjustly and/or violently, who’s voices are confiscated and who are betrayed in broadcast media. So I now help people to tell better stories about themselves and live more positive lives; and I help groups to listen to and champion each other instead of fighting each other.

Of all that you have done in creating film and story, what moment(s) has/have stuck with you?

Seeing the stories I’ve told open peoples eyes to something greater than what they were seeing before.

Someone who’d seen a wedding film I’d shot saying to me ‘your film helped me to believe in true love again’.

When someone I was coaching through an interview told me ‘you’ve helped me to see what it looks like to be more positive.’

When an organisation I was consulting for on their outreach strategy and producing a film for reached an audience of 1 billion people with their campaign which shared positive, truthful news about the state of peace in the world.

When I showed a group of South Sudanese a series of footage I’d shot from different parts of the country and they laughed with tears in their eyes as they realised how beautiful their land is for the first time.

What has been your biggest challenge to date in your pursuit of telling story through motion picture?

There are so many potential challenges with each project, especially when you’re seeking to represent the truth (whatever that means) about under-represented or oppressed groups (and all of the politics associated) with a unique angle that appeals to your audience. Any one of those four aspects has the potential to disrupt the others. But one of the hardest things is actually trying to be a selfless servant to the story that I’m telling. One of the key battles in this is trusting my own legitimacy and ability as a film maker.

Comparison has all the ability to rob me of my authenticity as a storyteller and my enjoyment of my craft, as it tempts me to serve my own needs to feel legitimate instead of serving truth and beauty.

A good example of this is ‘Moonlight’. I think the power of that film to draw the audience into the lives of the characters is its purity in its storytelling. The guys making the film appeared to have no agenda other than to represent the story they were telling without judgment, without saying ‘this is how it should be, should end, or what an Oscar winning film should include to satisfy the audience’.

Who has inspired you on your journey?

Radiohead taught me that pain can sound beautiful and that I shouldn’t try to edit my life. Seeing The Pyramid Song coming out of Thom Yorke on Top of The Pops at the age of 14 changed the way I saw my life.

As a Director, Michel Gondry has impacted me in the way that he tells quite normal stories with unbounded imagination and manages to pack a real punch to the emotions.

As a friend and Director, Andrew Hinton, who recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Short Documentary, has shown me the importance of integrity and character, and the art of listening as a film maker.

Another friend and NPPA Best Photojournalist of the Year 2011, Hazel Thompson, is one of the bravest people I know. She selflessly gives herself to serve people whose voices have been taken from them. She’ll go to some incredibly risky places to be with these people. Her life in itself writes an incredible hero’s story that has the power to give meaning and life to those she cares for.

You are a freelancer, how is that?

Being a freelancer, you have a lot of control over your own time. It would be seriously easy to create a very convenient world for myself where I only spent time with people who were similar to me and didn’t challenge me. That would be death for a storyteller.

This is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to join a co-working community and to live in a community (of sorts) with 25 other people. As a church-goer, I think church community is the magic, because it’s one of the only places you’ll get young, old, rich and poor mixing together.

What has been your most satisfying project to date?

Satisfaction is a rare, fleeting and priceless commodity. There are few moments in life when eternity seems to invade the present and hold time down by its neck. They seem to involve unmediated moments with other humans, or nature: Unreasonably friendly shopkeepers, humble, heartful hospitality in a refugee camp, kind strangers, camping in a pine forest, having dinner with true friends, summer swimming in the sea at night under the stars.

It’s an art and a spiritual discipline to make films that can carry something of that power.

Looking ahead, let’s say 10 or so years time, what would you like to have done and be in the middle of doing?

Telling stories has the power to change peoples’ paths in life. They can help people: to find a greater identity; be released from shame; see the humanity in their enemy; find hope for their situation; make sense of their struggle.

Imagine a series of films that listen to people groups who are most unheard during US Presidential elections- what their day to day struggles are; what they’re proud of; and their hopes for the future. If they were then heard by their elected leaders and the rest of the country, if their stories and their struggles were honoured and they felt released from shame.

Imagine if a film was shown before each Presidential debate that goes deep into the stories of the candidates- experiences they’ve had that have shaped their vision for their country; struggles they’ve overcome; and their hopes for the future. Imagine if each of the candidates then told their adversaries what they value about them.

Imagine if before each peace summit, whether it’s Israel and Palestine, different factions in Syria, or anywhere in the world, every leader had a chance to tell their story through a film, and everyone was listened to and honoured for their truth and their experience before negotiations commenced.

Imagine if, alongside each of the problems posed on BBC News each day, there was a film that showed a solution.

Imagine if groups who feel that their only way of being heard is to take up arms, found a different option through film, and if the film director could help them to express their grievances and honoured them for their struggle; if their shame from feeling overlooked all of the time could be dealt with, and their concerns could be raised to those with power to change their situation.

These are the things I want to be doing in 10 years time.



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This inspires me: kind people