Who let the wolves out?

    British director Rupert Russell’s debut doc probes the worldwide crisis in democracy.

    Freedom for the Wolf is the debut feature from British director and academic, Rupert Russell. An epic endeavour shot over three years, the film examines the worldwide crisis in democracy. The director contends that a new generation of elected leaders (Trump prominent among them) is undermining human rights.

    Russell comes from filmmaking stock. His father is legendary British director Ken Russell, whose credits included Women in Love, The Devils and Altered States. However, his route into the business has been circuitous. His background was in academia. He has a first-class degree in the Social and Political Sciences from Jesus College, Cambridge, and a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University, where he was a Research Fellow.

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    Having lived in the US for a decade, Russell returned to the UK last year and took a job as an assistant to author, comedian and actor Griff Rhys Jones (“I showed him the film and he loved it”). Rhys Jones invited various friends to his home to watch the documentary, among them former BBC Storyville boss, Nick Fraser. “He understood the challenges of how hard it is to make documentaries about ideas and democracy and was really into what we had done with it,” Russell says of Fraser, who came on board as the project’s executive producer.

    The young director had begun the film working with his PHD advisor from Harvard, Professor Orlando Patterson, a historical and cultural sociologist best known for his books on the history of slavery.

    Russell and his producer, Patrick Hamm, first began filming in Japan and Hong Kong. “The reason we started with those two case studies is that, in discussions around freedom, there is very big scepticism about whether freedom can take hold in East Asia. East Asian societies – China, Singapore and so forth – are very adamant that freedom is a Western idea. We wanted to go out East to start our investigation, and see whether or not this was true.”

    When they arrived in Hong Kong, protests were under way. In Japan – a conformist society – they were exploring freedom as “a cultural, rather than as a political, idea.” The next stop (in 2014) was Tunisia, cradle of the ‘Arab Spring’. Also included on their tour was India.

    Differing Concepts of Democracy

    “We realised what we were looking at is illiberal democracy,” the director says. “I actually think there is a high level of narcissism here on the West’s behalf. We like to look at other cultures and see them adopt our ideas, but we don’t want to look at those countries and see how democracy is practiced in real life.”

    The finishing point was the US, where the filmmakers followed two stories – the militarisation of the police and the very murky world of political campaign finance. Then, Trump won the election and the filmmakers had to modify their arguments.

    Did Ken Russell’s work have any influence on his son’s documentary? “I was always given a camera by mum and dad and told to go off and take pictures. I did the lion’s share of the cinematography on the film and I am very proud of that work,” Russell says. “One thing dad did a lot in his films was to use dream sequences. In this film, I ended up doing a similar kind of thing, with animated breaks.”

    Having used animation in Freedom for the Wolf (sold by Cinephil), Russell is now working with Nick Fraser at Yaddo on a series of five short films, How the World Went Mad, on the vexed subject of madness and Donald Trump. These films, combining animation and archive footage, are due for release later this year.