Peter Doherty, Katia deVidas In Conversation

“I chose the best moments, the most precious moments, the most vulnerable moments...”

Over 200 hours of never-before-seen footage tell a curiously familiar story. 20 years of tabloid snarling, headlines and heartache, speculation and scandal has played out in the public eye: almost Peter Doherty’s entire adulthood, from a fresh-faced, fateful, charmingly astute assessment of Liam and Noel Gallagher as he waited outside a record shop for the release of ‘Be Here Now’, to many of his darkest moments which were yet to come, has been well-documented. However, for the first time, we get to see a portrait – depicting all the same things, mind you – that feels resolutely unbiased.

Katia deVidas, the director of Peter Doherty: Stranger In My Own Skin, had a seemingly difficult task ahead: how to retell a story that many parties interested may have already heard many times, from many sources, with wildly varying levels of empathy and sensitivity? The answer, as always, is the most simple one: “I’m French,” deVidas explains, “and Peter is obviously English, and tabloids, music magazines, they’re very much part of England[‘s culture]. The approach I took was that I simply didn’t know myself that people already knew – we’ve been doing promo in Spain and it really is much more unfamiliar territory. I really took it from a pure stance, and a pure vision to start with, and told my story, that I’ve seen. It wasn’t tinted.” 

Doherty’s view on his place in the public eye is more roundabout, and humbly optimistic considering what he’s been put through by the British media. “England has many, many faults particularly with tabloid culture,” he says, “but I think it has many strengths as well. It’s particularly historically strong in the field of cultural criticism and music journalism. Time will tell, but from the early 70s onwards, especially, British music journalists and critics are up there with the best of the American ones.” 

Speaking more specifically on whether there’s anything he was hoping to share through the film that hasn’t been seen or heard over the past years, Doherty gives a thoughtful, perhaps reticent “everything and nothing”. 

Considering the content of the film, it’s understandable that Doherty is wary to reflect on what he does and doesn’t want people to take in, because it’s a very unflinching look at some hard moments. He is shown at his most vulnerable, both taking heroin and talking extensively about it, talking extensively about desperately wanting to get better after a behind-the-camera deVidas promises she’s stopped filming, making the decision to auction off precious personal artefacts in order to fund an extended stay in rehab which we then see him put off attending numerous times for reasons that seem to convince not even himself. But unlike the ways in which we’ve heard this story told before, there’s not a moment that feels voyeuristic or salacious (“thank you”, deVidas smiles genuinely when I say this; it may be the film’s greatest achievement considering its subject matter). If things come across as difficult and painful, it’s because they are difficult and painful. And it was deVidas who Doherty trusted with the story, no power of veto or retrospective secrets.

“I chose the best moments, the most precious moments, the most vulnerable moments,” she says, of trimming down 20 years worth of archival footage, and 10 years of her own filming, into a mere hour and a half portrait. “I wanted to show the creativity, show the music. Show what people don’t see. But all the stuff that when I was filming, I thought ‘this is precious, this is a really good moment’, I then had to [put into] an hour and a half – so you’ve got to kill your darlings… it was instinct.” 

Some of the film’s moments are hard to revisit. There are no doubts about it – but some of the film’s moments are beautiful, saturated with creativity and passion and genius. One such striking sequence is a cut-together series of performances of Babyshambles’ ‘Back From The Dead’ which comes at an especially pregnant turning point in the film, showing tens of Dohertys performing the same song with equal quivering, charged energy. While deVidas cut her years of footage down to an hour and a half, she laboured over the editing process to ensure her outcome; the Back From The Dead sequence alone, no more than five minutes, taking two years to perfect with sound editors, and turning out one of the most evocative portrayals of Doherty in the film’s runtime. 

Some of the film’s moments of beauty are, as life is, intertwined with some of its most challenging. But Doherty’s relationship with those moments is unchanged by the film presenting them, once again, for public consumption. “As for offering them up, I didn’t really give that a second thought. I just trust Katia. But personally,  it was quite difficult to watch,” Doherty recalls. 

“I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of moments where I didn’t really know what to do, so I just ended up standing up and walking around in circles. That was when we watched it together in a private screening. Then when I watched it in public in Zurich, I was like ‘I’ve got to go out and have a cigarette!’ and [Katia] was squeezing my leg like, ‘no, there’s only 52 minutes!’… It wasn’t, you know… I mean, I like a good comedy. There are some funny moments… I prefer a good Ealing comedy or film noir. It was kind of a mix of Ealing comedy and film noir!” 

“A tragicomedy,” deVidas adds. “It was always going to be hard for him to watch. But the reason is, I wanted him to watch it was, I wanted him to trust me that there’s a point to all that. I wanted him to see it once.” 

Trust is the foundation that Stranger In My Skin is built on. It is the reason that the film feels, above all, faithful. 

Stranger In My Skin is out now.

Words: Ims Taylor

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