'There are times when you can't tell if the boys are telling the truth' ; THE BIG INTERVIEW Jeanie FinlayA new documentary by a Nottingham filmmaker tells the story of young Scottish rappers who couldn't make it until they convinced the world they were from California. Erik Petersen learned about The Great Hip Hop Hoax
IT started with a couple young guys who wanted to make it in rap.
They made some calls, sent out some demos, even went down to an audition in London. And everywhere they went, the result they got ranged from quick dismissal to outright laughter at their broad Scottish accents (the London record label guy's joke about them being the rapping Proclaimers - that hurt).
They got a little mad. And, for a lark, one of them called up a music company again. Only this time, he did his best approximation of a Californian accent, said they were in Britain for a bit and, hey, wanna hear our stuff ? They sniggered a bit as they did it, but they stopped laughing when the person on the other end of the line asked them to send over their demos. So begins the tale outlined in The Great Hip Hop Hoax.
Nottingham filmmaker Jeanie Finlay's documentary is the story of two Scottish lads who, a decade ago, briefly fooled the music industry, partied like rock stars and lived as their new alter-egos 24 hours a day before the inevitable unraveling. Jeanie first heard about Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain - or Silibil and Brains, to use their rap names - when the entire story first came out a few years ago.
I think it's interesting when I meet young people through my work and their ambition is to be famous in itself, she says.
And yet, there was general agreement that Silibil and Brains were actually quite good; in many ways, their initial rejection by the music industry said more about the music industry than them.
This was no clear-cut story. And parts of it sounded remarkable.
I just read it and immediately thought there were some intriguing details, and I wanted to make a film about it, Jeanie says.
In particular, she was fascinated by Gavin's statement that they created characters they hated.
That seemed crazy to me. If you could be anyone at all, why would you create someone you didn't like? If people are acting, they get to be themselves when they get home. That kind of transformation was interesting to me.
She decided to get in touch. I contacted Gavin, who told his story on MySpace, which kind of tells you how long ago it was.
Three days later, Jeanie found herself talking to him in a London Patisserie Valerie. By this point, all sorts of people were talking to him. She also flew to Scotland to meet Billy, whose calm and measured tone was different from manic Gavin. By this point, the former friends had fallen out and weren't in contact at all.
There were delays - one of the guys had hooked up with a possible fictional film that to date hasn't happened, but that locked up all film rights to the story for a bit. Jeanie went off and made another film. Then, the story became available again. It was time to try and figure out what the heck had actually happened with Silibil 'n' Brains. They're really open in the film, Jeanie says. Sometimes it's easier to be open to a stranger than to somebody you know and hear about.
All interviews are about chemistry. I really, really enjoy interviewing people. I do really long interviews - hopefully we go to places they haven't discussed before so they're not just trotting out the same story. There's something magical about people rediscovering the story as they're telling it.
Even now, elements of their stories don't always quite match up. Gavin in particular is given over to mythologising, and this tale takes on elements of myth.
Obviously the story's about truth and lies, Jeanie says. It's interesting to see where the inconsistencies lay.
Before today's wide release, Jeanie took the film to Edinburgh for screenings. Afterwards, she got e-mails from people asking if the film was also a hoax.
I said 'I can guarantee that it's all real, but there are times when you can't tell if the boys are telling the truth.' For Jeanie, making the film wasn't simply a matter of turning a camera on her subjects and interviewing them. She researched, did some journalistic legwork and tried to confirm what she could about their stories.
It's like being an archaeologist, she says. Especially because it's been commissioned by the BBC, I have to show something that's real. It's non-fiction.
Jeanie liked her subjects, but she felt challenged by them.
I would be lying if I said it wasn't tricky, she says. But sometimes tricky people make the best contributors. They're incredibly compelling on camera.
Jeanie gets a laugh out of what happened next. The film, she says, is about fame's dark consequences - but one consequence of making it is that Silibil and Brains have got back together.
They were completely estranged (during the film); everything was done apart. I toyed with the idea of bringing them back together on film, but I thought it would be like a bad episode of Trisha.
Since then, though, Silibil and Brains have recorded a new album. When Jeanie heard what was happening, she wondered what sort of monster she'd helped create. I thought 'Oh my god, they're back together.' They may get their shot at fame a second time around now.
They're still Silibil and Brains, but they're openly Scottish now. And they're getting attention.
They were in The Sun last week - a two-page story about their new album, Jeanie says.
I never thought I would make a film that would be in the tabloids. That's just insane to me.
That won't necessarily hurt the film, either. But for Jeanie, that's secondary to telling a good, conflicted story. It's a tale of a couple young guys who showed up a complacent music industry, and its also a tale of self-mythologising scam artists.
Hopefully, Jeanie says, you'll feel different about them at the end of the film that you did at the beginning.
The Great Hip Hop Hoax is out today. It's screening at the Broadway Cinema; visit broadway.org.uk or call 0115 952 6611.
The dreams of Jeanie NOTTINGHAM fingerprints are all over The Great Hip Hop Hoax.
Jeanie Finlay is based at the Broadway Cinema - which, in addition to showing films, also houses a number of the top people in the city's growing film and media scene.
They've been so supportive of me for years and years and years, Jeanie says of the Broadway. This is very much a made-at-Broadway film.
Roger Knott-Fayle, a man with somewhat legendary status among Notts filmmakers, many of whom he taught - was director of photography. Other Notts people and organisations also played a role.
The film looks set to become the biggest yet for someone gaining a reputation as a top documentary maker. Jeanie's last film, 2011's Sound It Out, told the story of Teesside's last independent music shop and gained wide acclaim. Other films include Goth Cruise (2008), a stereotype-breaking look at goth culture in the US and the UK.
She wants to fly the flag for women in filmmaking, but she has no interest in being pigeonholed. The directors fraternity remains largely just that - a fraternity.
Seven per cent of filmmakers and directors are women, she notes.
I don't make women's films, I make films I'm interested in.
I just try to make something that will make people amused or laugh or cry - elicit a reaction.
Erik Petersen Go online at www.nottinghampost.com to watch our video
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