Peter von Bagh 1943-1914

Peter

Regular readers will be familiar with the reports from Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. Peter was for many years the Artistic Director for Il Cinemas Ritrovato and he was a familiar and friendly face at Pordenone. So the tribute circulated by the Cineteca di Bologna, together with one posted on Le Giornate WebPages, was sad news and well deserved.

It is with great sorrow that we announce the passing of our friend Peter von Bagh, artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato since 2001.

Peter was an enlightened intellectual and cinéphile, former director of the Helsinki Cinémathèque, he first discovered Aki Kaurismäki and was himself a filmmaker: his documentaries are permeated by a deeply human voice and a clever vision.

Peter gave a lot to the Cineteca and to the city of Bologna, contributing in a decisive way to Il Cinema Ritrovato and its international stature.

He had a wealth of unique talents: he had an intimate and voracious relationship with cinema – he had seen virtually every film in existence – which he had learned to understand and know with an unparalleled depth. He was an uncommonly cultivated man, admired by many filmmakers and carried himself with a simplicity and a playful sense of humour that naturally lead him to support many right – therefore often impossible – causes.

His departure is a huge loss for the international community of film lovers. Cineteca di Bologna lost a precious friend, his personal and human presence will stay with us as well as the rich patrimony of studies and films which is bound to acquire more and more relevance in the future.

Peter left us on a high note: a presentation at Bologna this year of his Socialismi. The film uses montage and an impressive assemblage of axioms to trace the developments in the primary progressive movement of the last two centuries. The film is not available at present but hopefully it will become so – a fitting tribute to a great and committed cinéaste.

Socialismi (Finland 2014)

The Paris Commune, 1871.

The Paris Commune, 1871.

This is a montage film by Peter Von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:

“Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.”

In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.

The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.

The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London.

Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid.

The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).

This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one shot was presented three times. Right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.

The original, longer review is on Third Cinema Blog.

Jim Hillier 1941-2014

The film scholar and film educationalist Jim Hillier has died after a long illness. He was the first film teacher I met and my experience of a week of seminars studying the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie at the BFI Summer School in Stirling in 1974 was the start of my formal engagement with film. At that time Jim was the Deputy Head of the ‘Educational Advisory Service’ of the British Film Institute at their old offices in Dean Street and in a key position to help kickstart film education in schools and colleges in the UK. What struck me then was how open and welcoming he was towards young teachers and what a difference his approach represented compared to some of the university teachers I had encountered a few years previously. Jim’s enthusiasm for film was infectious and I remember his stories about cycling across London to visit obscure suburban cinemas, soon to shut down, in the hope of seeing films by important directors which he had missed first time around.

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In 1975 Jim Hillier was one of a group scholars and teachers responsible for the revival of the journal Movie which had first been published in 1962 but had suffered two interruptions since then. The others involved comprised Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, Michael Walker and Ian Cameron and the first new volume carried articles by Doug Pye and Charles Barr. Movie didn’t survive in its third incarnation for very long but it provided a different take on the emerging field of film studies to that coming from Screen in the mid-1970s, providing examples of close reading of texts and leading the UK analysis of American cinema in particular. Jim Hillier was also on the boards of Screen and Screen Education at this point and also already a published author, having written Studies in Documentary with his colleague Alan Lovell for the Cinema One series in 1972. As a film scholar, Jim had many interests as demonstrated by some of the other titles in his impressive list of publications. The two volumes of selected translations of articles from Cahiers du Cinéma that he edited over many years and which emerged in 1985-6 and New Hollywood (1993 Studio Vista) represent essential resources for any film student. Later he co-authored The Film Studies Dictionary (Arnold 2001) with Steve Blandford and Barry Keith Grant and three of the BFI’s ‘100 Films’ Series with Alistair Phillips (Film Noirs, 2009), Barry Keith Grant (Documentaries, 2009) and Doug Pye (Film Musicals, 2011). Somehow he also found time to edit the BFI collection Howard Hawks: American Artist with Peter Wollen (1997)  and the Sight and Sound Reader on American Independent Cinema in 2008.

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That first book on Studies in Documentary in 1972 arose from Jim’s experience of the BFI/London University Extra-Mural Film Studies courses, the training ground for many later film teachers (and which eventually became the basis for Birkbeck College’s film and media degree programme). In 1979 I was invited to teach an Extra-Mural class with Jim. From him I learned the pleasures and great strengths of team teaching and I was also introduced to several of his less well-known film interests such as the avant-garde films of Jon Jost and both popular Hindi cinema in the form of Guru Dutt and the parallel cinema of Kumar Shahani. I taught again with him in 1987 and it was noticeable that despite his writing activities he still had the enthusiasm to offer the introductory courses in the programme. Working for the ILEA (Inner Education Authority) I was also aware of Jim’s part in the development of the ILEA Sixth Form Film Project, one of the first attempts to put film education into practice on a large scale across Inner London schools. Jim was involved in the development of the first GCE O Level in film in the early 1970s and then later the A Level in Film Studies in the 1990s. When Jim took up a post at Bulmershe College in Reading (which eventually became part of Reading University) he became a greatly respected and much-loved university teacher. The tributes on this blog with contributions from Doug Pye and other colleagues and students attest to the impact he had as tutor and scholar. It seems fitting that at the time of his death, Jim Hillier was still listed as a guest at the Midnight Film Festival in Finland, June 2014. Finnish Cinema was another of his interests and he had first written on New Cinema in Finland in 1972. Jim’s combination of inspirational teacher and scholar across so many different forms of cinema is rare and deserves to be long remembered.

Report on the BFI Triennial Review

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After promising ‘soon’ for several months the Department for Culture, Media & Sport has finally posted the above on its Web Pages. But the BFI WebPages have not even noted this yet!

The BFI Governors [and managers] saw a preliminary report back in April. Now 122 pages are there for Joe Public to read. The report is thorough, though not always easy reading. It does supply an awful amount of information, including interesting details about the BFI and its work and background information.

My main concern in recent posts has been about the membership and the accountability of the Board of Governors. A summary reads:

5.10 The Review Team therefore concluded that the Royal Charter should be amended to give the Secretary of State power of appointment of the Chair and the non-executive Board members. The Review Team also noted that under Article 14 of the Royal Charter Members, Associate Members and Student Members have the right to put forward a list of individuals in order of preference which the Governing Body shall consider for appointment as a Governor, in a manner as determined by the Governing Body. No changes are proposed to this provision.

At different points in the document the references are either to ‘post’ or ‘post/s; Given that the Board of Governors will ‘determine’ this process, it sounds like there is going to be little change. Giving the Secretary of State the power to select and appoint Governors is likely to be a change for worse. Meanwhile there is also the recommendation that will increase ‘commercial’ interests, ‘diversity’ and regional representation. The latter two could be positive but the overriding concern is summed up:

One of the key recommendations made in this Review is the development of a Business Development Strategy, focused on establishing a new commercial model which will optimise the value of the BFI’s various assets, and identify new ways to increase income from private sources. Once established, this Strategy should help reduce dependency on Grant-in-Aid Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

The Review also recommends that the BFI conducts a cost benefit analysis of the BFI London Film Festival, setting out options for increasing sponsorship levels and for a new commercial model of delivery building on international best practice. Such a ‘commercial’ emphasis in unsurprising but does not bode well for the future.

There is detail about people who took the time to comment. The largest group were stakeholders – I had a moment of frisson as I imagined a sequence from an old Hammer movie. There were quite a number who completed the online comment form. No mention is made of the problems that people reported in either accessing or completing this.

There were four letters sent by the traditional Royal Mail, [one was mine]. All made comments in support of the Member Governors, but, judging by the report, without any effect.

There were two problematic omissions. The Report frequently mentions ‘regions’, which include Scotland and Wales [separate nations] and northern Ireland [occupied territory]. But there is no sign of any investigation into how effectively BFI resources are spread right across the British State. Something that I believe would demonstrate sizeable anomalies.

And the Report also referred to different media – film, television, video, online products – but again there does not seem to have been any investigation into the effectiveness of these areas. There is certainly no sign of any discussion of the different virtues of these.

I think it is a fairly typical product of the UK state systems. I certainly do not think there is going to be any improvement in the way that the BFI is accountable to ordinary film viewers who both contribute to its funding and use [as far as possible] its provision.