This Film Celebrates the Raw and Refreshing Work of David Robilliard

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Baby Lies Truthfully David Robilliard Russell Tovey
Baby Lies Truthfully

Baby Lies Truthfully is a new film which revisits poetry by the late artist David Robilliard, voiced by actor Russell Tovey. Here, filmmaker Joseph Ingham shares the story behind the film

When the artist and poet David Robilliard died at the age of 36 in 1988, he left behind a celebrated, enduring oeuvre, including painting and collections of poetry. A vital artistic force whose work was just gaining wider recognition when he was diagnosed HIV positive in 1987, Robilliard spent just over a decade in the London art scene. “Fast forward 33 years and the world is in the midst of another pandemic. It was in lockdown I began to revisit David’s work and developed an idea of combining his words with unseen archive,” says filmmaker Joseph Ingham, whose new film Baby Lies Truthfully is a tribute to Robilliard’s life and work. “His work is raw as it is refreshing. It’s coarse but laceratingly clever exploring everything from dating and sex to depression and loss.”

The short film features actor Russell Tovey reading a poem comprised of words from Robilliard’s collections Baby Lies Truthfully, The Cat’s Pyjamas and Swallowing Helmets, heard as a selection of archival footage and imagery plays on screen alongside music by Helen Noir of the Theo Adams Company. “I wanted to select works which would showcase David’s range: he could make you laugh, and he could make you cry in the space of a few lines. It’s an ability few poets or writers possess,” explains Ingham, who first encountered Robilliard’s work “a few years ago rooting around the bargain bucket in the ICA – a favourite hobby of mine. I came across a book called The Cat’s Pyjamas and I was hooked. I’m not big on poetry but these poems took me by the jugular. They were arresting and raw. I couldn’t believe that the book had been published in 1991, 30 years ago.”

Ingham also worked with Gilbert & George on Baby Lies Truthfully; Robilliard worked closely with the legendary London art duo for almost ten years and they helped him publish his poetry and develop his art. The pair have described him as “the sweetest, kindest, most infuriating, artistic, foul-mouthed, witty, sexy, charming, handsome, thoughtful, unhappy, loving and friendly person we ever met … His truthfulness, sadness, desperation and love of people gave his work a brilliance and beauty that stands out a mile.” The film’s poster image is by Gilbert & George, taken from a photograph they’d taken of Robilliard. Gilbert & George’s input also allowed Ingham “to understand David in a much deeper way”: “They brought a dirty sense of humour. I adore them,” he says. “David was a part of their lives for around a decade or so and he made a huge impact on them. He still does.”

The footage in Baby Lies Truthfully varies in provenance, “from an old porn studio in American to photos taken by Therese Frare and footage which was remixed and reworked courtesy of Jim Hubbard”, according to Ingham. As Tovey reads Robilliard’s witty, warm and often melancholy words, the images that play equally address the realities of being queer in London when the artist was working, and how the effects of Aids was rippling through the community. “There’s a whole generation of artists and creatives who were lost to Aids which have been forgotten and David is among them,” says Ingham. “Lots of us grew up alone and without a sense of connection across generations and because of that people like David have been left behind. I recall Daniel Nardicio stating: ‘We lost them, and we’ve paid the price by slipping from the creative class to the consumer class. We went from radical to basic.’”

For Ingham, it is not only Robilliard’s artistic output that is worth revisiting and sharing, but the way he lived his life. “David was brutally honest,” he says. “Having been diagnosed with the virus, David began to introduce himself (at a time when many who were ill were desperately trying to hide their diagnosis) as ‘David Robilli-Aids’ to people. I love that – he was never afraid to indulge in black comedy to shock and expose the truth of a situation. And that isn’t to say he didn’t care – he did care, he cared deeply but less about keeping up appearances and more about the truth. I think we need that today. Cut past the filters and the slogans and just get to the point.”