Filmmaker Mahalia Belo proves that a film about survival can still be intimate, touching and feel very real with The End We Start From, starring Jodie Comer.
Adapted from Megan Hunter's novel, the movie, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), begins as a catastrophic flood has overtaken London. It's under those circumstance that we meet Comer's character, just called Woman, right as she gives birth to her child with her husband, played by Joel Fry.
While trying to navigate the early stage of parenthood, the couple can't go back to their countryside home, due to the flooding, but the city is getting increasingly more dangerous to be in as well. This family gets torn apart, which leaves Woman on her own to find safety for herself and her child.
For Belo, the opportunity to tell a story with a parallel narrative of motherhood and a natural disaster was exciting for the filmmaker.
"You have to sort of shift very suddenly, no one can really explain it to you but when you have a kid, it's like everything changes overnight, and that's like the flood," Belo told Yahoo Canada. "To be able to do that visually was really exciting for me."
"I really wanted to talk about the light and dark of surviving, of having to grow through survival. ... I really wanted to make sure we could do something that looked at both sides of that, that kind of the joy and the pain."
Moving away from a 'jokey' or 'voyeuristic' gaze of a woman giving birth
While the terms "disaster movie" and "survival film" may make many expect that The End We Start From is really going to lean into terrifying, dramatic visuals of floods, Belo does the exact opposite. She really focuses the story on Comer's character and her personal journey.
"For me, it was important that when we did see [the flood], it was entirely in tune with Woman's particular state of mind," Belo explained. "This is not what the film is, but for me I would sing in my head, 'Woman is the flood.' ... That's how I dealt with it, visually."
"We see a hint of [it] when there's a traffic jam ... and she's quietly in the world and taking stock for a second of where they are."
Another moment where we see a significant flood visual is when Woman is actually giving birth, setting up that these two elements are very much connected as one.
"I have seen births or birthing experiences depicted quite traditionally and have this kind of gaze of a woman as jokey, almost, then I'd seen one that was sort of voyeuristic," Belo said. "I wanted it to feel subjective."
"For me it was kind of great because I had this amazing life event of the flood to be able to kind of intertwine with her experience."
Jodie Comer presents a different perspective on survival
As Belo describes, her work with Comer was a true collaboration all the way through the film. But what's incredibly attractive about Comer's performance is how she can present so much to the audience emotionally, even with just one look, or even a small gesture.
"It's Jodie's power that, it's like a superpower. Very subtly say so much" Belo said. "The one thing I wanted to give her was the experience of becoming a mum, growing with your baby, because that's what happens."
"We did birthing class, ... then brought in the baby, and it was great because she went into it very fresh. ... She went from literally shaking at the beginning, ... later she got completely comfortable. ... She found her mothering through that."
Something that will also stand out for the audience, particularly mothers, is how The End We Start From doesn't shy away from showing the reality and the difficulty of breastfeeding.
"It's actually the hardest thing to do," Belo stressed. "I was really pleased, even just one shot really of that, [Jodie Comer] really wanted to get that right. Both of us did."
While Belo's previous work, including the series Requiem, has had an element of characters being in survival mode and having to "submit to a circumstance," Belo highlighted that there is something interesting about that setup for a filmmaker.
For The End We Start From, she also wanted to ensure everything was grounded in truth.
"I really wanted to root it in a real truth," Belo said. "I wanted to talk about the reality of being a hero, as opposed to kind of guns blazing, I'm going to survive this."
"It was really important that Jodie's character was a bit imperfect and was human, and had to just flow. I think it makes it a different sort of survival."