Director Interview: Mahalia Belo on THE END WE START FROM

THE END WE START FROM, which made its world premiere in the Gala Presentations section of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), stars Jodie Comer as a new mother at a time when London has been submerged by catastrophic floods and families torn apart. The film also stars Joel Fry, Katherine Waterston, Gina McKee, Nina Sosanya, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. It is based on a 2017 novel of the same name by Megan Hunter and adapted for the screen by Alice Birch (NORMAL PEOPLE, LADY MACBETH). The film is Mahalia Belo’s debut feature as a director. We sat down with her during TIFF to talk about the film’s focus on motherhood and ecological crisis.

Science & Film: One thing I was really struck by sort of from the start of the film had to do with the sound design and how at times it's very clear what's going on and others the outside world falls into the background. Can you speak about that choice and the way you approached the story?

Mahalia Belo: Because of the lens that we were telling the story through, it was quite important that most of the information is in the background. What's happening in the world is outside, over there. It's not present, it's not at their doorstep, which I thought was an interesting thing to talk about, because I think that's very real. So, in terms of sound, we were talking about the rainfall and the feeling of that, and how it's kind of connected with the emotional element of what was happening for Jodie's character—how much pressure we're putting on her or how much we're alleviating. Sometimes, the rain is depicting something lighter; it feels like a kind of cleansing, and sometimes it feels like it's going to wash everything away.

Sound was really important, because it was a way to pepper in the reality, even though it's kind of an invented reality based on some things we know from experiences. It allowed us to give that pressure on the woman's character, on Jodie.

S&F: Yeah, what you said made me think of the scene when she's giving birth, and you see the water rushing, and there were moments where I wasn't sure if that was what was actually happening, or if that was a metaphor.

MB: For me that was pretty intentional, and I think there's a big debate about whether that should be intentional or not. I felt like woman is the flood in some way. It can also be read as it's a woman's experience from having that great event of the birth to finding this new version of herself. And then there's a real sense of if it is a flood, having to deal with that. And I liked the idea of both of these things running in parallel to each other, because that's what made it [the story] connect so deeply with me.

It's a woman's navigation of motherhood, which is a wild thing in its own right. I felt like we had to keep the film very true to that. And how she's feeling, how she's subjectively dealing with everything. So when memory and the world feel heightened it’s very much her internalization pushing out and these strands coming together.

S&F: How did you approach the setting? It’s not clear exactly when this is taking place—present or future.

MB: I felt like for it to meet us right now it needed to feel like any time. Not right now, because if it's almost like too present, you're like, well… it needed to feel like it could happen like this in some way now, but it also could happen in ten years. Maybe twenty. It has that mythological kind of quality as well that I wanted to layer in. I wanted it to root into us a little bit more than making it too concrete. By doing that, I think we would lose some of the power of it. It was easy to distract from that core feeling, this weird neurological and bodily changes of motherhood.

S&F: The title and parts of the film made me think a lot about some of the debates that I think people of my generation and in general are having around having kids in this time of ecological crisis. How much of that was something you were grappling with in the story?

MB: I think that’s true; I think it does hit on that a bit. I can completely understand why people might be like, you know what, maybe not. But then also think, there's tomorrow. There is still time for tomorrow, and who knows as well. I think this is an interesting question. We ask ourselves these things. It's about care and protection, isn't it? We want to be able to care and protect and love. There's a fear of being able to do that when so much is at stake. That relates to family members, relates to everything. When we're attached to something, someone, so completely, it's very vulnerable and the film talks about that as well. It makes us very vulnerable being in love. But I think that's a beautiful thing and I think that's where hope resides. That sounds so cheesy. But I am a bit cheesy, so I do think that…

It's rare to look at vulnerability in a movie properly. Male vulnerability, female, and how we connect with those fears. I often think those fears are born out of care.

S&F: When Jodie’s character becomes close to the other woman in the shelter, I thought that was a really beautiful example of this expansive idea of family.

MB: It comes in a lot of different forms. My upbringing was with women in my life, and I think you make a family quite a lot of the time.

S&F: How long were you in development with this film?

MB: I’m not sure. I'm not great with time. We shot last year. I think it's probably two years. It was quick. Two years, three years in total, something like that. The thing was, Alice is such an amazing writer. So, once we were connected, going was quite amazing. She was really receptive to me, as well. It was a joy. She kind of found what I wanted to do, and she found her way in it as well. Collaborating was really cool. And then we were making the film. And then I’m here! How did that happen?

I mean, the thing is, I've been in development on various things for a long time, so it does feel like such an achievement for all of us. Getting this hard one done, we’re kind of like, wow.

S&F: How has this process made you think about what kinds of films you want to make in the future?

MB: I am interested in human connection at the moment. I like seeing how people gravitate towards each other. But I'm not sure exactly what that will be, I'm working on a few things. But with this [film], I kind of felt it, and when it clicks it vibrates in the imagination.

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