Archive This article is from our archive and might not display correctly. Download PDF
Talented young film-maker and University of York English graduate, Laura Stratford, has released a documentary film giving an insight into the life of Stephanie Feeney, a brain injury victim whose love of the lute has been aiding her on-going recovery for 24 years. The mid-length film, Lady Lovely Lute premiered on 8 September and was in aid of Headway East London, a local charity supporting people affected by brain injury.
Laura has always been passionate about film, and knew before she started university that she wanted to work in film or theatre, choosing to study English to form "a solid foundation" for her endeavours. She explains: "Before uni I was very much looking to join the film society and that was it, because I like films. And then I got to York and I met people on my floor and they started talking about the Pantomime Society, about Radio Society, Drama Society... I remember Freshers' Fair really vividly and thinking, wow, I could do all of these things. So I just made the most of it really."
Indeed, Lady Lovely Lute all started with our very own Drama Barn. Laura was just finishing her first year at York when a project about a French photographer fell through. She had just been given a slot at the Drama Barn, around the time that they had first introduced the concept of the ODN: original drama created and performed by students. Laura expresses how surprised she was to have been given a slot, "I wasn't applying to do a play, I was applying to do a screening, and amazingly they gave me the slot." She goes on to explain, "So you can imagine, during the summer holiday, when the French film project fell through, I didn't know what I was going to do, I didn't have anything to show for it. So that's when I got in touch with Stephanie. It kind of just spiralled from there. I wasn't really expecting her to reply, but she did, thank God, and the project just took off."
Laura is keen to point out that, "Had it not been for that multi-faceted experience at York, I possibly wouldn't have had the tenacity and audacity to pursue this project, to apply for that slot at the ODN." Apologising for the cliche, she discloses, "I genuinely feel like I blossomed at York. And that's all down to the societies; it's all thanks to York. I wouldn't be here without it."
So Lady Lovely Lute came into being almost by chance, and Laura's discovery of Stephanie the year before was no different. Laura describes how she first met Stephanie at an event organised by a friend, "a sort of London equivalent to the Edinburgh Fringe." She details how, "one day my friend was bit wacky film a trailer doing something a and wanted to Charlie Chaplin and had a bunch of Charlie Chaplins on the South Bank in London. Stephanie was one of them." Later that evening, Laura had dropped by at the Phoenix Arts Club where they had a live radio event. Exhausted from a day of reviewing shows, she had headed over to the bar. Incidentally, Stephanie and her lute had been one of the live radio performances. Laura says, "She came up to me randomly, with a very quick introduction, very smiley, very chirpy, and I remember thinking, 'this is really forward!' I was really taken aback by how warm she was, and how quickly she wanted to tell me her story and let me in." Laura and Stephanie exchanged contact details, and a year later, Lady Lovely Lute began to take shape.
Through making the film, Laura was able to build a strong relationship with Stephanie, but stronger still was the relationship Stephanie had with her lute. As an instrument, the lute is not all too common in modern society. It is an instrument with roots in Shakespeare's day, and it's rather anachronistically received by radio and the modern streets of London where Stephanie can be seen to perform in Laura's film. But as Laura explains, "Stephanie is one of those anachronistic sorts of people. I don't think she'll ever feel like she fits in with modern society." Laura continues, "She'd often spoken about how, prior to the accident, she was really into Shakespeare and the medieval period. So I think when the accident happened, as with most brain injury accidents, everything got amplified." After the accident, Stephanie wasn't able to reintegrate back into the young adolescent world. Laura thinks that this "definitely had an effect on her interests, and given that she was always interested in Shakespeare's era anyway, she felt like that was her only outlet. It was a way to be different, a way to stand out, a way to connect with a community of people that she really understood."
Laura's film gives some insight into the different coping mechanisms of both brain injury sufferers and their families. As well as focussing on Stephanie and her lute, it also looks at Stephanie's mother, Annette, and fellow sufferer, Adrian Davies. In the film, we get the impression that Stephanie and Adrian refuse to fear and ignore the past, and rather embrace it and allow it to foster their present. Conversely, there are suggestions from Stephanie that her mother tries to distance herself from it more. Laura comments on these different coping mechanisms: "I think it's all to do with how you deal with the reality that it's an ongoing recovery. One of the first things I learnt from Stephanie was that it's like an emotional yoyo experience. As Adrian says, they will have their highs and their lows." Laura describes Adrian as a "supremely positive and optimistic individual", a "chirpy chappy", but adds that, "the reality is, for other sufferers, they're not as optimistic all the time. It's different in everyone's case." Adrian's astounding positivity could be slightly puzzling for some people, given his life-changing situation, but Stephanie's reaction was different. "Stephanie loved it, she loved the fact that Adrian was so positive about his experience after the accident because it showed her that she had something to fight for too, that she didn't have to give up." Laura concludes, "It's like a double-edged sword. Stephanie definitely has her moments when she's not got such a great outlook on her situation, but I think interacting with people like Adrian helps her."
Laura admits that there was a "lot of emotional weight" that went with the film's production, especially when it came to giving the family viewings. Laura reveals how tough it was "putting them through the whole trauma of it again when we did viewings for them." Laura had to show them "things that they didn't want to forget necessarily but things they didn't foresee having to be reminded of in such an intimate and direct way."
Upon further enquiry into the kinds of problems Laura faced while making the film, she revealed that Lady Lovely Lute ended up taking six years, completely unforeseen by Laura. She says that, "it was just because of life, admin, and some legal hoops that I had to hop through." For example, Laura tried to negotiate with Disney over using a piece of home video footage of Stephanie dueting with the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. "In the original cut it was a really lovely moment," Laura recalls, "It was a climactic point of the film. There was a nine month exchange over email with Disney," she says, "but unfortunately, it wasn't to be."
Laura explained that in documentary films, there are an abundance of little things like this that can prolong the process. Nevertheless, she describes her film as having been an "ongoing labour of love". She remarks, "Documentaries are very different to fiction because you're dealing with real people. You form relationships with people, and you have to, because you're being let into their lives, and you want to tell their stories as truthfully as possible." She continues, "There was a negative and positive side to the process; I think any documentary filmmaker will tell you that despite the fact that it can be very frustrating being held back by these processes, if you are the only one filming, producing and editing like I was, the long expanse of time allows you to have a fresh pair of eyes on your project. So in some ways, I think it was meant to be that it took this long."
Of the clips that did make it to the final cut, there was one scene in particular that Laura described as, "always sending a shiver down my spine". Having recently gained the family's approval on using their home videos in the film, Laura was filming Stephanie and Annette in their kitchen: "I just left the camera rolling at one point, I didn't really think I would end up using it, but I left it anyway, and serendipity was working at its creepiest." Laura looked at the footage from her rolling camera of Stephanie and Annette in their kitchen, and she looked at the home video footage from the first Christmas since Stephanie had experienced brain injury, and she "could see those two reacting in the kitchen, and frankly not much had changed." Laura went on to say, "I just thought that was a really spine-chilling moment. Stuff like that is very coincidental, it's very typical of documentary making, but I guess I hadn't foreseen having that experience myself. So for me that was definitely the most touching moment."
Perhaps the most poignant phrase uttered in the film, is the one that Stephanie's lute repairer always says to her: "I can fix your lute, but I can't fix your life." The line appears as a title slide in an arresting moment towards the end of the film. Laura divulges, "I was very tentative about doing that in the edit at first. I remember doing that title slide, wondering if it would be too morose. But then I thought, no, it sums up Stephanie's situation. I just thought it was a nice testament to the fact that it's an on-going recovery when it comes to brain injury." Laura continues, "It's something that Stephanie's motherland I spoke about at length because she really wanted that to come across in the film. She always said to me, 'Laura, I admire what you're doing, and I trust the result will be a beautiful insight into Stephanie's life, but please, whatever you do, try and convey the message that brain injury is tough'. So that's why I edited it in that way, and it's a line that doesn't quite fade out."
Lady Lovely Lute truly captures that sentiment, that brain damage is more life-changing than many people may realise. Laura comments that, "Understandably, from watching a film or talking to a brain injury sufferer, many people assume that their life goes back to normal, but that wasn't the case for Stephanie, and it isn't for many sufferers. Stephanie felt like a new person, because her brain had completely changed."
However, since the time of Stephanie's accident in 1994, Laura thinks there have been positive developments in the discourse surrounding brain injury. She comments, "People talk about it more now. Definitely, around the time that I met Stephanie, it was still a bit of an unknown subject. When I met her, I remember thinking, actually, have I met anyone with a brain injury before? It's actually quite rare to meet someone with a brain injury, despite how common these injuries are. That's the bizarre thing about it. But I think over the past few years, more and more celebrities have been affected by brain injuries, and I think that has started to engender more of a dialogue, more of a discussion. Think about people like Richard Hammond, James Cracknell, Michael Schumacher, Natasha Richardson. I think that this increased coverage has changed the way we perceive brain injury and the way we talk about it. So in the past few years it's changed quite a bit for the better."
After being unsuccessful in getting exposure for her film via festivals, largely due to the difficulty of programming a mid-length film into a festival, Laura resolved to do the screening outside of this environment. She reveals, "That's when I got in touch with Headway, a brain injury charity, and it was really lovely that we were able to collaborate. We were advertising the film screening as well as the charity itself and it felt great to showcase what they were doing and raise money. I thought that would be a nice way to bring this film's journey to an end. There will be further screenings of course, but this was obviously an apex moment of the process. It was great to have people from Headway as well as Stephanie's family come along. It was tough for some of the audience to watch the film because it brought back memories for them, but that was my ultimate aim really, for people to come away having a different perspective on it, but also coming away feeling touched and inspired or moved. So I think we did well."
So, what are the next steps for Laura Stratford? Her main focus at the moment is advertising the special screening of her film for the Lute Society in May. Not only a major part of the film, The Lute Society also produced the majority of donors for Laura's post-production costs fundraising campaign in 2015. Laura says, "It was always at the back of my mind that I should do a screening for them. So early this year I decided that we should have a slot booked - three o'clock on 11 May at The Dutch Church, 7 Austin Friars, City of London, EC2N 2HA. It will be free admission, and we will have a charity bucket to raise funds for Headway. It should be a really nice opportunity to say thank you to the Lute Society and all of their kind donors."
Alongside her upcoming screening, Laura is working for the BFI for the London Film Festival in October. She sighs, "After that's done I should feel more revived, and ready to take on the next challenge. But at the moment I'm all 'lute, lute, lute!'"