Images & text by Alex Schuchmann
“I was born in London, 1944, my father was a native American, a Blackford Indian. I spent the first eleven years of my life in London. It was my city. Got married at 18, crazy, crazy, so young. Lived on the countryside, but that marriage ended up on a boat for the last six years, that was good life. When the marriage came to an end, I travelled, went to the Sinai, lived on the beach for a year, did a shamanic path workshop and smoked Hash for the first time in my life - and never looked back.”
That's Laurence Burton, a by-now 79 years old Londoner who currently resides in a self-constructed tent-like house in the Tabernas desert. The temperatures here easily reach 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months, and when Laurence is not busy building up a dome structure to collect water from the air, he likes to smoke pot inside his cabin, make music, and read.
In 2019 when shooting a music video called „Ossessione“ for Claudio Donzelli we first encountered Laurence. In search of a location as remote as possible, we randomly pointed to a spot on Google Maps, where it looked vast and empty. As we drove there we saw that little sign saying „Desert Stars“. We stopped next to a dirt road and found a path down to a property with several tents and some cars. We wanted to ask for permission to shoot anywhere here, so my friend Femke and I went down there to ask someone and that’s how we met Laurence. A dog was barking until a tall skinny man with Indian American looks came out of the tent. "Sure, you can shoot anywhere“ he saids and told us a bit about himself, e.g. that they bought this place here 15 years ago. We thanked him, exchanged email addresses, and came back a day later to film our dance scene there.
A few months passed and we found ourselves in lockdown, bored, and thinking about stuff to shoot. We remembered Laurence and his odd life out there in the Spanish desert. At that time we just started this magazine as well, so it would make perfect sense to go back there, document that crazy guy there, and return with a story for our magazine. We would basically send ourselves on assignment for a shoot, hell yeah. Laurence was ready, we were ready, we just had to wait for European borders to open again and take a flight down to Malaga. Mhhhhh.
We want to be honest, this is not the film we intended to make. Sometimes things don’t work out, the way you think. That's OK, I just think we could have done it better. Our vision of this project was misled by what was around us at that time. By an idea of a film, but not of the film. We came to document, with nearly no preparation at all. But of course, there was a story, a quite interesting one. Laurence’s life until now was full of crazy things, he lived on the beach for a year, did a shamanic path workshop, was in the movies, and organized film festivals. But we came too late for all of this, he was 76 in 2020 and what we had to work with was his presence and nothing else. A well aged, audacious man in the middle of the dry, Spanish desert. „And if my day is over at half past nine, that’s alright. I'll call it a day.“ That was it.
Also limiting ourselves by using just four 16mm rolls of film stock for a documentary project, was the worst idea ever. And then also having Eric open one half-exposed magazine, after a sleepless night, didn’t make things easier while shooting. The heat was intense, we got into bad moods, and ideas were met by a guy eager to build his tent or nothing at all. We didn’t sleep well, and felt super weird all the time. Nothing was going well. However, we had an amazing time. At least we were presented with a unique way of living and only for that, the trip was worth it, next to the lovely company Laurence and his friends offered.
Back home we tried to piece things together, a documentary about Laurence building this dome which you also see in the music video now. But it never was enough. This would never be finished. We even tried animating scenes, which we didn't manage to shoot, so we hired an illustration artist from Taiwan, but he just made replica of our reference footage with Laurence in it. This had to end, we put the project aside for a while and forgot about it.
Another year later I stumbled across the song „Bella Mar“ by a friend called Martim Seabra from Portugal. I made an edit, and it matched! It felt perfect like we shot the film for his lighthearted song, so I asked Martim if he needed a music video for this song. He said he just shot one and he honestly doesn’t think it's very suitable for the lyrics of his song. “Damn”, we thought. This project will end up in our hard drive memorial, again. But maybe that’s how it is. We will learn from it.
We spent around five thousand Euros on flights, a small rental car, camera gear, 16mm film stock, development, scan, and dozens of COVID tests, but that money was gone. We've left it in Desert Stars. Is there insurance for bad movie-making? I wish!
We didn’t listen to what this film needed and what we wanted to stand for as authors of this film. It was hot there, and not much happened, It was an old guy who liked to read, smoke, cook, and live a calm life, but we wanted it to be much more than this. Desert Stars is about living your life to the fullest. About the ridiculously short period between birth and death. The approaching heat, the universal, far-distant, white light ball. Our first edits were naive, forced films merging voicer over bits together until we felt like that was a digestible story about tent making. But it never came to a point where it delivered a feeling. As I said, this is not the film we intended to make. But the version you see here is the best we can do. But it's a teacher for us and maybe for some others, it can be a teacher too.
In the end, the song „Heaven’s Doorway“ by our friends Club Valley from Johannesburg, delivered the soundtrack for Laurence’s story. After hearing it for the first time a few weeks ago I thought “This symbol of a „doorway“, a „gate“, „something to go through“, that's the kind of vibe our film needs.” The grungy guitar perfectly symbolizes the heat for me. The contrast between what we hear and what we see is another factor why it resonates so much I think. Hearing Nigel from Club Valley sing “Maybe one day, I'm gonna be someone” and seeing Laurence taking a swim in the ocean, tells quite nicely where many of us are at. We all want to be happy and live as fulfilled and healthy human beings, but we are full of thought, fear, and shame. Always thinking that one day, one day we will be free from all of that. One day I will arrive. Doing the thing we are destined to do and being appreciated for that. But nothing will come if you don't act now. And Laurence told us, we just did not listen.