I didn’t know what my second career was going to look like after twenty years flying assault helicopters in the British Royal Air Force. That episode of my life took in multiple tours of duty including Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland. It was exhilarating and rewarding in so many ways but I knew there was another calling. And little did I know at the time, that the multitasking skill sets of flying helicopters in formations of up to five, low level, at night, in a high threat environment, onto high-value terrorist targets, at a specified time and location – would translate into what I do now.
I can’t even begin to express how much I love filmmaking and articulating complex issues on camera, to produce documentary-style films that have the power to impact society for the better. To take an idea, an issue, usually complicated, then figure out how to piece it together in a framework that allows you to film efficiently, the interviews, the connective tissue – commonly know as ‘b-roll’ or ‘General Visuals (GVs), and then write an engaging story arc, and finally, to bring all the hard work together by editing a compelling piece of TV – it’s a magical feeling.
My Autistic Big Brother and Me was my first long-form documentary and was first broadcast on the BBC in the based on the life of Spencer – my severely autistic brother, who also happens to replicate the fitness and resilience of a mountain goat when letting loose on the mountains of Snowdonia, in North Wales. Truth be known, it is also Spencer’s medicine, his therapy if you like, and has been the critical component to his mental health since he learned how to walk.
Spencer wasn’t the only character; the story was also about the selflessness of our mum, Nicola, who was ferocious in her care and responsibility for my brother, and who tragically died at the young age of 56 from cervical cancer. Mum’s tenacious care for Spencer had not translated to herself, and the long absence of an HPV ‘smear’ test, over twenty years actually, had resulted in a Stage 3C tumour on her cervix. On the morning of September 4th, 2009, having washed Spencer’s sheets and bathed him, as she had every day of his life due to his incontinence, she passed away at home, in Charlotte’s arms.
Charlotte is our sister and has picked up from where mum has left off. This time though we have ensured Spencer has a care team and a little place to call his own. The journey from Mum passing, to where we are now, was inspirational, unique, tragic, and at times bloody hilarious. And so over four years, I used the making of this very personal documentary to refine my techniques of shooting, editing, storytelling. And with the help of wonderful friends in the business: Wil Surratt was a massive source of genius when it came to helping me tighten and make sense of the complex bits; Clare Jones and Eric Harwood were responsible for helping me get the film to the big screen; and other friends like Subrata De who was always on hand to offer loving advice when I had a block – My Autistic Big Brother and Me will now live forever as a loving dedication to my mum, brother, and sister.
As for me, my passion for telling stories just grows. It has not been easy. In fact, it’s been a mighty struggle. No one wanted to touch an enthusiastic veteran with little-to-no experience in the documentary business. I have never been knocked down so many times in my life. And in the media business, unlike the military, you don’t get told why your idea wasn’t commissioned, or why you were not picked to report on a certain news story you are one of the most qualified to tell – the media business judges you with silence, and it is brutal.
But many of us veterans know what tenacity means, we know what hustle is, we also know what decency is, and integrity, and the ability to think on our feet, we are adept at acting effectively and instinctively in high-pressure situations, we know how to make a robust plan and 99.99% of the time, we deliver, and if we don’t, we’ll own it. Never underestimate the ability of veterans to learn on the spot.
And that is what I have chosen to do. Take a 360-degree approach to production – become effective at shooting on all cameras including drone, doing the sound, producing, directing, story writing, and editing – and doing it in some of the most risk-on and austere places on the planet. But also growing the relationships and becoming a go-to for low footprint filmmaking, a one-man operator that can deliver a high-quality product on time – and in the era of COVID-19, the skill set is now becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.
My hope is to keep making important documentaries about subjects I am passionate about, like autism, societal stigmas, conflict, global warming, and holding truth to power. Recently, I had someone knock on my door about an exciting project – and I’ll let you know in due course how it goes. Till then, you can find out more about what I am up to on my social media channels: @mikeykaynyc on Twitter and Instagram, MikeyKayTV on Facebook, and you can get in touch through my website – MikeyKay.com.
Rudyard Kipling once said: ‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much, if you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more, you’ll be a man my son.’ My mum used to read this incredible poem to me when life wasn’t going great. And boy, has it stood the test of time.
Mikey Kay is a correspondent and filmmaker