On the Lightness of Air

An essay on the topic of clarity in communication, written in Nov. 2013.

By Matthew Curlewis

“What are you passionate about?” a woman asked me over a glass of wine at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. I thought for a moment and replied, “I’m passionate about making communication as clear as possible.” She frowned a little. Guess I wasn’t being clear. “I work with writers,” I said, “who want to communicate with readers. I work with advertisers who are trying to reach customers. And I create my own works of writing that go through numerous rounds of ‘clarity rewrites’. I’m passionate about helping words get read and heard as intended by their authors.”

Now the woman smiled. She had an open face and inquiring eyes that reminded me of someone… the beautiful actress in ‘Wings of Desire’. Her English had a slight accent to it. German it turned out, from Frankfurt. “Tell me more,” she invited.

“A few years ago I was one of three story consultants taken to Azerbaijan to work with a group of Russian and Azeri screenwriters on their stories. I’ve travelled a lot, but this was a new, very foreign experience for me. Few of the writers wrote or spoke English, so the majority of our communications passed back and forth through interpreters. My particular interpreter was a young, enthusiastic Russian-Azeri writer-director who cheerfully confessed, during his first patchy attempt at interpreting, to be suffering from ADD. I fastened my seatbelt for the bumpy days and nights ahead.

But all was fine and we got into our groove of giving seminars, watching films and conducting story sessions. All this spread over three days didn’t give us a whole lot of time to spend on each project, but nonetheless we made progress, and I was pleased to observe my writers’ stories become clearer the more we worked on them. Everything lead towards the last afternoon when the best candidates would get to pitch to a room of invited local producers and executives. Four from my group of ten made it through to this final round.

When the afternoon arrived we had a packed house in the Azerbaijani Film Workers Union – a lot of anticipation and excitement in the room. It’s very difficult to be a filmmaker in such a country. Azerbaijan then had only two cinemas for nine million people, and number two had only just opened the month before. In USSR days they’d had a thriving film industry, but now 20 years into being a ‘former-Soviet’ republic, their movie making industry was in a shambles – rigidly conservative and nationalistic, and for the most part very corrupt. For our young storytellers, this chance to pitch their projects offered hope in real, tangible terms.

So the pitches got going, all being whispered into my ear by my charming interpreter, who by now had completely won me over. But the writer of my favourite story was nowhere to be seen. Hand signals were waved, and questions mouthed to assistants on mobile phones – the word came back that he was hopelessly stuck in one of Baku’s notorious traffic snarls. He wouldn’t make it in time. I was crestfallen. This guy had such a beautiful story, and so deserved a chance. But then again, life doesn’t always go the way you want it.”

My friendly German writer companion clinked a rueful “Cheers to that,” with me, with our just-refilled glasses of red. “And then?” her eyes inquired.

“So the last pitch finished, and the entire room broke for a polystyrene-cup instant coffee break in an adjoining room. I mingled and congratulated various writers on their pitches. But only a few minutes into the break there was a rallying cry from the organiser, and waved gestures clear in any language. “We have one more pitch!”

Dutifully everyone filed back in – and there was my guy. I should mention here that he bore a striking resemblance to Jesus, and the following day was Easter. Not that either thing mattered, but for his story these details sure didn’t hurt either. The room fell into an expectant hush. I caught his eye to assure him he would do just fine, and got a small smile flashed in return. He stepped up to the podium with his lanky frame and salt and pepper hair, looking calm and self-assured. He took a moment, really took a moment for himself to gaze at everyone in the room, inhaled, and launched into his short film story about a man’s struggles to help a friend die of cancer with dignity.

The story, called ‘Lighter than Air’, was based on the author’s own experiences when Baku’s hospital system was so crooked you had to pay huge amounts of hard cash just for simple things like tanks of oxygen. Unable to watch a friend literally choke to death of cancer (while being unable to afford oxygen), the film’s protagonist sets off on an apparently doomed mission – to find enough balloons in the city to fill with oxygen to ease his friend’s suffering. But by a combination of ingenious tactics, bullish determination, and street-smart knowledge he actually does succeed, and makes it back to the hospital in time to nurse his friend through a series of colourful balloons, all the way to one peaceful, very last breath.

And that was the end of my guy’s pitch. The room stayed in a kind of stunned stillness – you could feel the story just sinking in. And then very quietly, a hand was raised at the back of the room. It was a prominent local producer who stated to the writer, “I will produce your film.”

And tears sprang into my eyes. As a story consultant helping writers, this is the most dreamed of, successful outcome you could hope for. The story is gorgeous and belongs entirely to this writer, but I had helped him make it as clear as possible for a specific intention, of landing a producer. And the strategy had worked.”

Vera, as my new German friend was called, took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Matthew, this is a beautiful story. You have to share it.” I made various excuses for why I didn’t think I should, all of which she dismissed with a wave of her hand. To Vera and Shamil, thank you, this one is for you. And for all you other storytellers out there hoping to be heard one day, write down your stories. Tell them. Please share them with the world so we all might benefit from them.

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