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Lithium Filmmaker Bertie Gilbert on performative suffering and “Please Care!”

Jul. 27, 2021

“My whole journey has been really unusual,” says Bertie Gilbert, impeccably framed and perfectly color-blocked in his Zoom window. After initially garnering YouTube fame as a vlogger, Bertie directed his first short film in 2013, and has since made a name for himself as an independent filmmaker. Now 23 years old, he boasts an impressive filmography that includes a short film that premiered at the London Independent Film Festival, music videos for dodie and Will Joseph Cook, and an experimental film for Channel 4.

He’s also maintained a strong YouTube presence, inviting over 440,000 subscribers into the recesses of his mind through personal vlogs and commentary videos. Beneath the vibrant color grading and deadpan humor, Bertie’s YouTube channel is a public journal documenting his troubles and woes, from creative ruts to anxieties about the future.

“It’s something that I evaluate a bit more as I get older,” Bertie admits. “And I think, ‘Is that really healthy? Should my first port of call really be thousands of strangers?’ Perhaps not.”

These reflections inspired his upcoming short film Please Care!, which is set to release this year. The film follows a drama teacher who writes and directs a play about a recent tragedy in his life for his students to perform. It is produced by Oscar-winning studio Slick Films, and stars Hugh Skinner (FleabagMamma Mia! Here We Go Again). 

In the midst of pre-production, Bertie spoke to Lithium about growing up in front of an audience, how death informs his work, and the cathartic experience of filmmaking.Lithium Magazine: At what point did you realize that filmmaking was more than just a hobby?

Bertie Gilbert: It was definitely when I made my first film, Stray Dog, when I was 16. The process was so much fun, and the collaborative side of filmmaking was a revelation. And the quality of the response—seeing people recognize the work that went into the film, and engage with it in such a thoughtful way. Everything about that experience was so electrifying and creatively nourishing that I decided, “Right, this is what I’m going to do.”

Lithium: You had already gained attention on YouTube for your vlogs before you started making short films. While most filmmakers learn the process and find their style on their own, you did so in front of an audience. How did this shape your approach to filmmaking?

Bertie: In the beginning, I was a lot more conscious of toeing the line between “YouTuber” and “filmmaker.” I starred in my first couple of films because I didn’t have total confidence that people would engage with them if I wasn’t physically present. And over time, I started acting in my films less. People adjusted to it, like, “Okay, Bertie’s presence is felt in this. He made this and that’s enough.”

It’s amazing to have an audience from such a young age that’s so encouraging. My supporters are always the first people that pop into my mind; I always want to do them proud. But at the same time, it can be a bit of an echo chamber. Growth comes about through challenging yourself, so as I’ve gotten older, I’ve made more of an effort to branch out of that comfort zone. 

Lithium: Which themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work?

Bertie: Death was always a theme from the beginning. Time and nostalgia as well. And communication. There are many characters who struggle to talk to one another, or have drifted apart. I think you can sum them all up as loss—whether it’s the loss of a relationship, loss of life, or loss of youth. I think that’s present in many of my films because I’m someone who struggles to say goodbye, and I’m not good at letting go of things. I try to come to terms with that through my work.

Lithium: Your films often deal with topics like grief and tragedy beneath a colorful, whimsical appearance. Why does this juxtaposition appeal to you?

Bertie: I think it’s more impactful if you foster a vibe of whimsicality and humor and fantasy, then double down on the character drama, subject matter, and performances. The audience isn’t expecting it. It’s more shocking and disarming, therefore more impactful. I think that juxtaposition is really cool. My two favorite films are The Iron Giant and The Exorcist—maybe that says something about me.Lithium: Let’s talk about your upcoming short film, Please Care!. Could you tell me about the plot and why you wanted to tell this story?

Bertie: It’s about a drama teacher who, having suffered a recent tragedy, turns that story into a play for his students to perform. Instead of seeking help or processing this grief in a healthy way, he externalizes it in a desperate attempt to make everyone care. The film deals with toxic masculinity, and speaks to a general conversation about some people being very ill-equipped to deal with their emotions. It’s called Please Care! because the character desperately wants people to care, but also because we could always do with a bit more empathy.

Lithium: You’re no stranger to being vulnerable in your art. How did your own experiences inform this film?

Bertie: There’s a certain parallel between me and the main character because I’m someone who, having grown up in front of all these people online, feels a weird inclination to document my woes and troubles for all to see. So this “performative suffering” is definitely something me and the character share. I’m not nearly as bad as him, but he’s an extreme version of something within me that I wanted to explore.

Lithium: Is filmmaking a cathartic experience for you? 

Bertie: It can be so cathartic to tell a story and make a film, and it’s so important to exercise emotions through your art. But sometimes it can be a pretty toxic thing where you lock your feelings away in some kind of artistic creation. Is that necessarily the best way to process emotions? I don’t know. 

Lithium: You co-wrote Please Care! with your friend Dean Dobbs, who also came up on YouTube. What was the process like?

Bertie: I got Dean involved because he’s very funny. All the funniest moments in the film are entirely his doing. I also think Dean encompasses “laughing through the pain,” which is a defining pillar of this film. He’s always been very good at making jokes about his woes and his troubles. That’s why I thought he would be especially good for it. But also, both of us having come up on YouTube—being exposed and vulnerable in a way for years because of all these eyes on us—that’s definitely in this film. I think we were processing all of that in a similar way. 

Lithium: How did it feel to crowdfund this project?

Bertie: I don’t like asking anything of anyone generally, so it went against a lot of my instincts to go on Instagram every other day and be like, “Okay, time to ask people for their money again.” But now that it’s done, I’m just thrilled that we’re able to make the film. It’s incredible that so many people would part with their money and tangibly invest in this film. That support makes me feel more galvanized and more determined to do it right, because there are all these people who’ve got skin in the game. 

Lithium: And you guys are planning to turn Please Care! into a series?

Bertie: Yeah, it was originally a series when I first came up with it. The whole world of how we process pain is so huge, and everyone’s so different in how they deal with that stuff. If we’re able to turn it into a series, I would love for each character to have their own story centered on “how are we supposed to process all the things we’re feeling?” This short film, I hope, can be just a taste. Fingers crossed.

Lithium: Are there any other projects we should look out for?

Bertie: I wrote a feature film called He Lives! in the first lockdown. We spoke about how many of my films tackle similar subject matter and themes. A lot of that stems, I think, from my dad who passed away when I was seven. This screenplay definitely feels like a culmination of what I’ve been trying to get off my chest—reckoning with the impact his death has had on me, and how much of a defining pillar of my being that is. I think I’ve managed to make sense of all of it. So, I’d like to make that at some point, but who knows when I’ll be able to do that? 

Keep up with Bertie on YouTubeTwitter, and Instagram. For updates on Please Care!, visit the film’s Indiegogo page.