Nick and Alex Bourne are siblings whose relationship is close. However, Alex’s Down’s Syndrome means their particular sibling relationship is one rarely seen in society and media, and so the two set out on a mini-odyssey to find others in their situation. This trip, upon which documentary Handsome hangs, takes them to Cornwall, New York, Mumbai and Hanoi, revealing differences and commonalities in how disability is perceived and treated within family and community.
Handsome excels when it gets personal. Whilst Nick and Alex appear outgoing, enjoying their travels and beer, the four pairs they meet express different attitudes towards privacy, social activity, and even frustration about why Down’s Syndrome allows your brother to hog the TV. Although the spoken contributions from the siblings with Down’s can be infrequent, especially in India and Vietnam, interesting emotions relating to independence and care arise throughout.
If there is a weakness here, it is when the film flips to investigative reporting, a fate caused by its young filmmakers lack of media heft. A centre in Vietnam essentially tells Nick to go away, leaving our would be Louis Theroux, and the film, at a five minute loose end. The conclusion is that two follow-up financed projects would be interesting to see: one examining more case studies, and another solely on muscular investigation. However, for relative newbies opening up an under-reported area, Handsome brings an authentic heart and voice.
Nick Bourne, 29, lives in Surrey and previously worked with filmmaking friends Luke and Ed White on Blood Money (2016). They combined again to make Handsome. Alex Bourne, 25, currently lives in Woking.
What was your ambition for making Handsome?
Nick: The number one thing was that there was nothing like it. There was nothing about siblings, and it is such an important relationship. I just felt that there was nothing that I could relate to, and that other people in our position could relate to. Honesty and the authenticity was very important to me, so I thought if there is nothing out there, why don’t we just try and pursue it ourselves.
Why is it called Handsome?
Nick: I call Alex handsome. There were names coming round like ‘Holding Hands’, ‘Brothers’. But Alex is handsome, aren’t you mate?
Nick: Actually I think Molly says ‘hi handsome’ when we first meet. Maybe something came into our subconscious when she said that. But it’s a nice strong title.
The temptation is to presume this is Nick’s story, but obviously Alex has to be there all the way through. How much input did you have, Alex, and how much was split?
Nick: Alex, what was your input into the documentary?
Nick: He just wanted lots of dancing, so any opportunity he was like ‘I’m going to dance’. From my perspective, Alex and I didn’t have any input into the editing. Ed and Luke didn’t even let us watch it, because you can just be critical about yourself when you need to step away.
From an audience perspective it is important to see the nitty gritty, what is real. Apart from the dancing, what else? Did you like the beers?
What were the technicalities of filming on the road?
Nick: All credit to Ed [ Ed White, cinematographer] because we didn’t have a plan, necessarily. We wanted to go with the flow, so Ed would film 12 or 13 hours a day, a crazy amount. I felt for him, especially in India where it was just so hot. In that respect, the technicalities were just get the footage and edit it. But we lived together six months prior to even starting because Ed and Luke are a part of the documentary as much as Alex and I. It was important that they were there.
Were you consciously aware that this was going to be a Down’s Syndrome film?
Nick: First and foremost we wanted to make it a sibling journey. The Down’s Syndrome aspect was secondary, although it is hugely important. We wanted it to be about brothers and sisters, but obviously had to talk about the issues that arose. When we met Molly and Charlie, and Molly’s perspective of not mentioning the D word, I felt then that there is actually more here about what we think about Down’s Syndrome.
Molly brings up a contradiction when she says she wants people to treat Charlie as normal, but admits she doesn’t treat him normally because he’s not allowed to do things. Would you like the audience of Handsome to look at Down’s Syndrome as normal, or as a special case?
Nick: That is a super question. It’s a really good question and I haven’t thought about that. There is no denying that Down’s Syndrome is a thing, and very different from you and I, for example. So I suppose my answer is no, it is not like we pretend it is normal. It is more about giving more awareness to people with Down’s Syndrome in everyday life, and saying ‘yes, you have Down’s Syndrome, but that is not who you are. It does not define you’. It is normalising Down’s Syndrome, if that make sense.
In New York you have a conversation with Amber about protection and independence, and different attitudes towards Down’s Syndrome across generations. Did your mentality towards Alex change while you were on the road?
Nick: On the road, definitely. When we were travelling I was very protective. One time in India, we got in two tuk-tuks – one was with Ed and Luke, the other me and Alex – and when we got off I didn’t see Alex. All I saw was a tuk-tuk driving off into the distance, and I was like ‘this is it’. But I turned around and he was there. So I became a sort of fatherly figure during the documentary, and I think that is why towards the end I had to take a step back.
My role is not his father, and I am not his carer. I need to move on with my own life. But during the course of it I was very protective.
Amber’s brother Armond is ‘crushingly shy’. Was there any problem in trying to get people to open up on camera?
Nick: All the time. We had to make sure we spent as much time as possible with them, on and off the camera. Not just Armond, but Sachit in India. Charlie was probably the most talkative. But the more we gave, they gave.
Were there any points you thought ‘this is good stuff; let’s have more of this.’
Nick: I think it changed when we got to the latter end of India. It was the first centre that I felt they aren’t treating people right, and that is why Vietnam was the way it was, thinking that this is a bigger story than just me and Alex. It almost felt like it was Panorama. I felt more like a journalist than a brother at some points.
I trained as an actor – documentary making is not my thing – but since doing this I have felt compelled to tell these stories.
How has the sibling dynamic changed from this experience?
Nick: We are super close, but I suppose I learnt more from the experience than Alex, or maybe I have grown more than Alex in terms of my aspirations. I got married this year and have moved in with my wife, and Alex is unfortunately still at home with mum and dad.
Covid has put his progression back: his day centre is closed, and he has been at home for 10 or 11 months now, which is really detrimental to someone like Alex. But we hope that the success of the documentary, and doing things like this, will be great.
[To Alex] Do you want to say anything?
Nick: Apart from the dancing.
What has the rest of your family made of this project?
Nick: I was super scared to show my parents because it is very raw, and sometimes I don’t speak highly. I hope I am able to justify why I did the things I did, because it is not easy from their perspective. We watched it together and they were in tears. They say they like it – I hope it is OK.
There is a point in America where I say I thought it would be down to me when my parents go. But since then James, my older brother, has made great strides in reaching out more. We are more connected. That is an amazing thing that has happened.
Finally, what comes next for you both?
Nick: Do you want to answer that? What do you want to do next?
Nick: What film do you want to make?
Nick: You want to work with Luke again?
What do you want to do with Luke?
Nick: You want to be in charge of the microphone?
Nick: Sometimes when Alex was not on the camera he used to hold the mic. For me, I would love to do more. I don’t want to put Alex in a position that is maybe too dangerous, so if we did go back to somewhere like Vietnam, or Russia, would it be without Alex? I don’t know. But I would love to do more documentaries. I think it is the best form of storytelling.
UK release via Republic Film Distribution, date TBC