If They Come is a short film combining realism and abstraction to tell the human story behind immigration headlines

The film attempts to convey the the feelings of alienation and paranoia associated with stowaways and human trafficking.

7 May 2021


Clever creative work often embeds a concept within a narrative and also a medium. This is exactly what If They Come, a short film by Richard Dixon Wheatley, does. Coming in at just over three minutes long, the film tackles the subject of illegal immigration and while its length is short and dialogue minimal, it says a surprising amount through the use of camera angles and thermal imaging technology.

Richard was raised in the northeast of England, in a town called County Durham and initially pursued fine art. During his degree, he began making video art which steered towards filmmaking and he eventually enrolled at the Northern Film School “to learn more about the craft of filmmaking and meet other filmmakers who had the same ambition”.

Like many, when Richard left film school, he was still somewhat baffled as to how he could turn his passion and what he knew into a career. He was lucky enough to work on a few “small” budget films though, like A Field in England, a Civil War film set in the 17th Century where Richard spent his time digging trenches. “It totally blew my mind and stripped away the illusion of the film industry,” he recalls. “When you realise it’s just plain old hard work it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to try and do it yourself. So I didn't give up and carried on finding work, trying to position myself to learn as much as possible from the people I admire as filmmakers.”

Today he’s based in London where he works on creative development within short-form filmmaking, working alongside other creatives within live-action and VFX. “It’s an extremely inspiring job because research and development is a large part of it, you can go down rabbit holes researching creative approaches and build up a wealth of references to pull from,” he tells us, explaining that everything he learns on these large scale jobs then gets funnelled into personal side projects such as If They Come.

GalleryRichard Dixon Wheatley: If They Come (Copyright © Richard Dixon Wheatley, 2021)

The short features all the elements that Richard relishes when it comes to films. “The films I love take a very much grounded realism and twists it a little bit. So the universe feels familiar, but something is off,” he adds. He uses Under The Skin as a good example; “it’s shot in Scotland, and looks and feels real. The filmmaker Jonathan Glazer made a conscious effort to cast authentic characters and base the film in familiar British settings and, as the film develops, reality begins to slip and it's extremely effective.”

In If They Come, this break from reality happens when the film switches from colour to thermal imaging technology. The idea, Richard continues, is to “make sure everything feels ‘authentic’ and create a sense of familiarity and then undermine it, so you can shift the viewer’s perception of a subject.”

The film follows a stowaway, Viktor, as he attempts to cross a border in search of a new life and is concerned with the feelings of alienation and paranoia that come with a journey like that. The switch in medium therefore, also has a conceptual hook – it mimics the sense of disassociation that Viktor is feeling and is also a technology used by border police to detect stowaways.

Richard tells us more about his intentions with the piece: “Hard borders are a harsh reality for the United Kingdom, restraints on immigration and emigration will cause more people to cross the border illegally. With more and more headlines in the media, this is a subject that is met with mixed emotion and misunderstanding. There are many reasons why people choose to risk life and limb to cross illegally by land and sea. And these people are often treated as a faceless horde. Without being on the nose, this film alludes to the human endeavours within this common journey and focuses on the humanity within the headlines.”

Admitting that this is a “big concept”, the director also explains why he chose to hone in “on the singularity of one character” and stick with him. We begin as Viktor enters the back of a lorry and ends in a field as he reaches his destination. “We embraced a contained filming approach and focused on the character and his performance, the approach was borne out of both conceptual and practical reasons,” Richard adds. To further this immersion into one person’s experience, the team created a soundscape “with a cascade of sensory sounds which add a layer of abstraction to the film”.

GalleryRichard Dixon Wheatley: If They Come (Copyright © Richard Dixon Wheatley, 2021)

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Richard Dixon Wheatley: If They Come (Copyright © Richard Dixon Wheatley, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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