Nick Gifford ~ Filmmaker

“His work has to do with precision of understanding and portrayal, humour in both, and fellowship as an ideal.” Peter Sainsbury




The poise and dignity of the Ismael family from Eritrea have haunted film-maker Nick Gifford since he filmed their arrival at Wadsharifi refugee camp in the Sudan three years ago. (1990)

"Seeing them by chance, sick and bemused after fleeing for six nights from the war and drought in neighbouring Eritrea," he recalls, "I wondered what camp life would do to a man and his family."

His film follows this refugee family from their arrival in camp to their return to Eritrea three years later.

Press Comment and Reviews

" Television has a simple way of reporting the problem of refugees. Point a camera at a group of tragically displaced people and shoot.'

BITTER THORNS', tonight's 'FINE CUT' film by Nick Gifford, does a rare thing; it turns a group of Eritrean refugees into human beings by the fiendishly simple process of  focusing the camera on one family and digging a little deeper.

Gifford – best known for ‘SID’s CHILDREN’, part of his trilogy on British West Indians – first came across Ibrahim Ismaiel , his wife, his four children, his niece and mother-in- law three years ago when he was filming Eritreans caught up in the civil war for Central TV. They were part of the 35,000 itinerants arriving in the refugee camp of  Wadsharifi in the Sudan. ‘We found the camp, but they found us,’ says Gifford.  ‘We were setting up and they just appeared.’

The film tells a universal story by concentrating on this tight knit group. As they go through the process of readjustment, Ibrahim and his clan piece together their life again. Even in adversity the children play football, the father gets some casual work and a semblance of normality returns. Gifford, who lived in a nearby brothel during filming, even saw parallels between this and his own life. ‘About 18 months ago, life in England became too much to cope with and I moved with my family to France.’ The circumstances were obviously different, but Gifford could identify with the Ismaiels’ overwhelming sense of bemusement. ‘Ibrahim had been a relatively comfortable farmer, but now he has to start all over again with nothing.’

Gifford had a particular type of film in mind when he set out to make BITTER THORNS.’ It is not a Dimbleby–type of film, not about how aid agencies function, but a general film about the plight of refugees everywhere.’ He literally allows the refugees to speak for themselves, with an interpreter on hand instead of subtitles, ‘and I didn’t add a commentary, which tends to make films more anthropological.’ Instead the only accompaniment is the eerie classical music soundtrack, with Paganini  emphasising  the sheer scale of the predicament. ‘I wanted to capture the wind, the 40-degree heat, the sheer vastness of the desert.’

The result is a long, maybe too long for some, evocative film, which is more about the personal than the polemical.’


Click on the frame below to view the full length film on Vimeo.  (Playing time 90 minutes)

Bitter Thorns

I was asked by Laurence Moore – whom I’d worked with quite a bit years before – and the now much missed Roger James (then Head of Documentaries at Central TV) to film refugees in Sudan. I said I was most interested in concentrating on one family. Bruno Sorrentino would go out before me and recce.

After a pretty odd journey across Sudan – which included being stopped by terrified illiterate boy-soldiers in the night, holding our permissions upside down and then waving us on – we arrived at the Wadsharifi Refugee Camp of thirty-five thousand people. A biblical landscape. Exciting but hard , filming. Windy, sandy, very hot, you must keep the equipment somehow protected as you film. The light and dust are beautiful, whilst in the distance odd pebble shaped mountains rise out of the desert. You are always surrounded by a surprisingly cheerful humanity.

Then things moved fast. By chance, the Ishmael family arrived out of the desert and we started filming. They were very easy with us, and I felt at once we had found our subject. This became a sequence in a Central TV film.

From my days at Allan King Associates, I had known Richard Key. Years later, at a chance meeting at the BBC, he said I must see Andre Singer, then producer of FINE CUT. Andre said he’d be delighted to give me a film.

Making a joint Central/BBC film, Roger James found me the Location Producer Ragnhild Ek, who had filmed in the region. She verified that the family were still in the camp and found the superb interpreter, Yemal Ali, who somehow at once understood my unpushy way of filming with the family. He was a huge help.

My family and I had ourselves recently moved to northern France in difficult circumstances, and at times I felt as rootless as a refugee.

On these next two shoots, I asked Roger Divito - who had often assisted me on camera- to do sound. I wanted someone who would really listen for the sounds of the camp and do plenty of atmospheric tracks. He got what I wanted, catching the strong evening winds flapping the torn tent sides as if you are at sea, the mega babble of the camp school, the dusty emptiness.

Our third shoot was structured around the family’s return to a recently liberated Eritrea. I had never filmed in such an easy country. No demands for papers/permissions, a hugely welcoming population, but a country which was twenty years later to turn into one of the most dangerous countries in the world for its citizens..In our time there, it was a marvellous experience.

Andre Singer the Producer, then with the BBC, had a very good assistant. I was startled when she said she had cried throughout the film at the family’s poverty. She was right.

I felt we had got the film with some days to spare, so we returned to the capital Asmara early. It was very Italianate – bell towers, swallows swooping, men with their polished shoe resting on a chair, jackets draped over shoulders outside a coffee shop or barber. But they were Eritrean. We did meet Italians in our hotel, descendants trying to claim their land back from Mussolini times.

For the first time in my career, I drew out as a storyboard what we had filmed and how it would go in the final half hour of the film. Trevor Williamson, the editor, agreed. He made it a very fluid edit.

I met Jean Rouch ,the eighty year old French anthropologist filmmaker at a Fine Cut gathering, and imagined I’d go on working to the end like him.

But life and marmalade got in the way.