A Relationship in One Hundred Texts

Love is complicated. Our phones, and texting, make it easier, and, ironically, also much more difficult. Conveying the nuances of one’s emotions, or the true meaning behind a sentence, is an issue that — even with our exponential advances in technology — sometimes feel insurmountable.

In 160 Characters, the complexities of a relationship, or lack-thereof, are revealed in a text-based conversation between Victoria Mapplebeck and an ex-lover. On one end, the story begins with “I had a great time last night,” and finishes with “Have you got the results yet?” From the other side, “Loved meeting u” spirals down to “Yes, I got the results, I’m moving to Spain.”

Mapplebeck’s bravery in revealing such a personal tale is greatly felt in this award-winning short film. We spoke with her to find out more about how it came about.

(Watch the full film below.)

NGP: A major turning point in your life began in the archived texts of an old cell phone. How does this story start?

VM: Over a decade ago, I relegated an old Nokia to the back of my kitchen drawer, an elephant’s graveyard where old mobiles went to die. As I was scrolling through the inbox before I laid it to rest, I realized I’d unwittingly archived a three-year message thread between myself and my son’s father: a relationship that unfolded in just 100 texts and told the story of how we met, dated for just a few months, broke up, and subsequently dealt with an unplanned pregnancy. Our son is thirteen now. He hasn’t seen his father since he was two.

I decided to write a short story that explored each key message sent between 2003 and 2006, and that evolved into 160 Characters, a 50,000 word illustrated memoir. My story begins with me at 38, single, pregnant and broke. It ends with me in middle age, reflecting back on the life I’ve lead, on the highs and lows of parenting, career and relationships. My own dad left in the early 70’s; absent fathers go back two generations in my family. I’m glad that the term ‘broken family’ is now just a relic of the 70’s divorce boom. The family is no longer nuclear, but that doesn’t mean it’s broken. Ours is a family that has known loss, but one that has also known great joy.

NGP: How did it evolve from page to screen?

VM: In 2013, the story was accepted by Curtis Brown, a literary agent in London. I was delighted, but two years later, disappointed that they still hadn’t found a publisher. My agent concluded that, unless you’re a celebrity, for first time writers, memoirs are a harder sell than fiction. So in 2015, it was a huge relief when I received a small award from Film London to adapt my story into a short film.

I’m a writer and a film director, and I love both mediums. One of the advantages of writing is that you don’t need a budget or a large crew to tell your story. As I began filming for the Film London short, I decided to use my iPhone as a tool to explore the present as well as the past. Shooting on a smartphone taught me that films no longer need a huge budget and crew. Before I had my son, I’d written and directed several multi platform documentary series with large budgets. My Film London budget was just £2,000. The challenge I faced was in producing a short film on the kind of budget I’d once had for catering!

The old Nokia phone in Victoria’s drawer

NGP: The minimalism and simplicity of your shots really compound the heart wrenching, seemingly-unfair nature of the film’s unfolding of events. Little is said; a lot is told. Tell us more.

VM: Well, there was a real turning point during pre-production when I attended a development lab in Germany. At that stage, I’d been developing the project as an animated documentary. One of the workshop leaders challenged the idea of an animated version of my son’s father. She liked the storyboard we’d created but argued that this was a film about loss, that his absence was the subtext of the whole film. She was right. I decided to ditch the idea of an animated version of either one of us, and instead use archival photos and video of my son and me.

There were no photos or video of my ex-partner. Even if I’d had them, I didn’t want to identity him, so the challenge I faced was how to provide a sense of his presence in the film, whilst making his absence a starting point. What did our digital footprint say about who we were during that time?

I’m fascinated by the ways in which social interaction and digital identity have transformed over the last decade — how a journey that began with the loved-up texts of the first few dates ended with the staccato one liners about finance, access, and paternity testing. Over the three years we were in touch, conversation was increasingly replaced by text. There were times when it felt like a digital hit and run. I began this project with a personal story but perhaps it also explores a more universal story, one in which we increasingly expect more from technology, and less from each other.

NGP: How’d you decide to keep certain things in and take others out, given how close you are to the material?

VM: On what to keep and what to lose, writing the voice over was my biggest challenge. I’m not a big fan of commentary in documentary, but the film really needed it. Lisa Forest, my editor, was calm and discerning throughout and was a great sounding board for the mood of the final film. I neither wanted to come across as a victim nor cast my ex partner as a pantomime villain. The situation we found ourselves in was complex. I’m sad about it, and sometimes I’m angry. Over the years, I’ve seen the emotional fall out for my son of his father’s decision not to be part of his life. It’s been hard at times, but I didn’t want the film to be overwhelmed by those emotions. I have no desire to ‘name and shame’ my son’s father, so within the film his texts are anonymized and the description of his dating profile in the opening of the film is fictional. The only person who could ever work out his identity is him.

I felt it was important to create space for viewers to come to their own conclusions about the issues I explore. It was interesting working with both Film and TV commissioners during production. At the same time as making the short for Film London, I was developing the story as a feature length documentary for ARTE and the BBC. The Film London commissioners liked how sparse 160 Characters was. They thought that its minimalism was a strength, not a weakness. But several of the TV commissioners thought the short was lacking emotion. One BBC commissioner found the tone of my commentary too neutral. He said there was no sense of how I felt about my son’s father and the legacy of his actions. He’s a great commissioner and I really respect his feedback, so his comments made me think again. I added one section of commentary which charted my sadness about not having a photograph of my son’s father. I had to download a photograph of him that I found online, a difficult truth that I hid from my son for many years. Initially , I had my reservations about that commentary, but it’s the only point in the film that my frustration is palpable, and I think the film is better for it.

NGP: You’ve created something beautiful from a mélange of tools and artifacts — a testament to the fact that one doesn’t need an expensive camera to make a powerful film.

VM: Mobile phones track, trace and archive our lives. Scrolling through my current iPhone 7, I have 17,000 photos and 2,000 videos. Add to that thousands of emails and text threads, many that go back over a decade. Our mobile phones has become like a time machine: they connect us with our present, our future, and our past.

I wanted to capture the way in which our digital footprint creates a portrait of who we are, and look at the interface between emotion and technology: we have a love for our technology, and it fails us in so many ways.

In the 2000s, people texted less, texting was more expensive, there was a message limit: 160 characters, hence the title of my film and book. I wanted to capture a digital vernacular which, in contrast to the smartphones that dominate the market, now seems archaic. When the film launched online, several viewers commented on the ways in which the look and feel of the texts, evoked a previous era of SMS interface. “Haven’t seen typing shortcuts in years,” one wrote.

All the contemporary sequences were shot on my iPhone 6. Making this film was a real learning curve. Here are some things I took away from the experience:

1. Shooting on a Smartphone will change how you think about film.

It’s great for access: I could film on buses, on trains and in hospitals without spending months applying for permissions that may well have been turned down. This meant I was finally able to follow Werner Herzog’s advice to documentary filmmakers: ‘Ask for Forgiveness, not permission.’

2. Small is beautiful.

I spent several years developing this project as a multi-platform documentary series for ARTE. With a feature documentary and an interactive website, the total budget was nearly £300,000. Early last year we finally got £70,000 approved at the ARTE board in Strasbourg but were left with only a three month window to raise the rest of the funds we needed. We couldn’t manage it in that time frame, so sadly the ‘yes’ became a ‘no.’ After two years on that funding roller coaster, I was left with nothing to show for all that work but a well worked proposal and a web demo. I was gutted.

The antidote came when 160 Characters, launched on Short of the Week in November 2016, and then received a Vimeo Staff pick. From there it was picked up by Slate, where it was seen by George Takei who shared it on his Facebook page. With over 10 million followers, it received nearly 4,000 FB shares from his page alone. Since it launched online in November 2016, it’s received over 166,000 hits, 300 comments, 4,500 likes and 6,000 Facebook Shares…. not bad for a film made with £2,000.

3. Within our digital age, there’s a power in forgetting.

Andy Warhol once said, ‘Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can ever happen to you, because someone’s got to take care of all your details’. In the 60s, your details were hidden in the embarrassing and messy stuff lurking in your bottom drawer or the shoebox under your bed. Now that archive is digital. As our archives grow, how can we collect, curate, and share stories from our digital past? How can we use the mobile phones we hold so close, to remember but also to forget? 160 Characters had the ability to bring to life a hidden story, and also lay it to rest.

NGP: While watching, the viewer feels enraged and frustrated, on your behalf, But in the end, we feel happy. It turned out ok, and for the best, it looks like. Did making this change the way you see your past?

VM: Telling a story so personal was a real challenge at times. Sometimes it was cathartic, sometimes it was just painful! One of my favorite art exhibitions was an installation by Mike Landy in which he destroyed everything he ever owned. He catalogued every item from his toothbrush to his mobile phone before destroying it all in giant shredder. By the end of the show he owned nothing. Telling my story was a chance to let go, to turn a wound into a scar, to question whether the medium was right for the message.

I wanted to end 160 Characters with a sequence that captured the essence of the final page of the book. It concludes with this paragraph, an ending I found particularly cathartic to write.

Fourteen years after meeting J, all that’s left of him are the digital traces he left behind. Pixels and coding that sit in my hard drive and in the message box of a discarded Nokia. Quite an archive. J didn’t just leave behind digital footprints. There’s part of him that will never be lost in the digital ether, a part that’s real and living, that’s created by nature not technology, the part of J that is Jim. A living, and brilliant trace of him. A legacy, not of data, but of flesh and blood.

NGP: And how is Jim? He seems like the happiest child in the world. And, has he seen it?

VM: Jim is great, and when I manage to get him away from YouTube and Instagram, he’s great company. He’s funny and smart. We went shopping together recently and he told me the trainers I was looking at were for people born in this century … Unlike his mum, he likes being in front of a camera rather than behind it . The image of him skipping down the hill in the final sequence of the film is pretty emblematic of who he is.

Jim has seen the film. I did a lot of soul searching about at what point he should see it. How long it took to get made really helped. He was twelve by the time it was finished. It’s his story too, so I knew I wouldn’t ever put the film online until he’d seen it and was happy for me to do that. The film contains some painful truths about his past that I hadn’t until that point discussed with him. Jim watching the film became a really useful way of having those conversations, conversations he now says he wishes we’d had when he was younger. There isn’t any kind of manual for how you talk to a child about an absent parent. I think I spent too long not discussing important details of his past to protect him from the rejection at the heart of the story. Making the film taught me that what you don’t tell your kids can be as damaging as what you do tell them. It’s a work in progress…

One really heartening thing about making the film was that Jim was a huge part of the production, as well as the story. He was with me for a lot of the smartphone shooting, filmed over an unusually warm London summer. He’d never seen me filming before that point. My film career went on hold for a long time when he was younger. Watching me shoot and edit all through that summer, Jim was really struck by how much pleasure filmmaking gives me. He’s also very proud of the fact that he composed the music for the end credit sequence. When my composer dropped out, he picked up his iPhone, downloaded garage band and in just 15 minutes composed a brilliant track we used in the final cut. And even better…he gave me the rights for the price of a new pair of trainers!

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