In his latest short film, filmmaker Bas Berkhout explores the impact of family on Oliver Jeffers’s artwork. Now living in Brooklyn, Jeffers is an illustrator and artist who grew up in Northern Ireland. Oliver Jeffers, the newest instalment of Berkhout’s Like Knows Like project, follows the film series’s form by exploring the influences and personal stories behind Jeffers’s artwork.
Jeffers has a playful artistic style, which is well-suited to the several children’s books he’s created. Berkhout’s Oliver Jeffers film coincides with the release of the illustrator’s latest publication. Titled Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, the book was inspired by Jeffers’s efforts to explain the basic facts of the world to his young son.
“It started off as a book about the realization that new life is a blank slate (trying to explain what a door is, and what a kitchen is for), and the strangeness of being a new parent,” Jeffers says. Eventually, the book morphed into a wider meditation on life and a reminder that “we are all in this together.”
The importance of family comes across as a focus in Jeffers’s art. Although the Belfast of his childhood was “a politically divided and violent city,” as Jeffers says in the film, his upbringing was “very happy.” This is also despite the fact that his mother was ill with MS for his whole life, and died when Jeffers was just out of his teens. In Berkhout’s film, this difficult history comes across as a motivation behind Jeffers’s work.
Berkhout initially approached Jeffers years ago to make a film about his art. “His reply was basically, ‘Yes, but I don’t want to talk about personal stuff,’” Berkhout says, so the film didn’t happen. But over time, they kept running into each other in Brooklyn.
“Last year, out of the blue, he asked, ‘Is your film offer still on?’” Both men had just become fathers. “We had more in common then I initially anticipated,” Berkhout says. The filmmaker traveled to Belfast to shoot Jeffers in his hometown, and the film really took shape there. “In Belfast, I came to the conclusion that it should be more or less just about fatherhood.” In addition to exploring the themes in Jeffers’s artwork and his creative process, the real focus of the film is how fatherhood has inspired his practice.