The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union 1929

Posted by nicklacey on 8 August 2014

Eye-eye

Eye-eye

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

. . . it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage . . . The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

‘Dziga Vertov’, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

Posted in Documentary, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Celebrating 75 Years of the National Film Board of Canada

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 August 2014

The current Norman McLaren centenary  screenings and the ‘Documentary Special’ edition of Sight and Sound (September 2014) have prompted me to think about one of the most important public bodies associated with film production: the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is 75 years old this year having been founded by the Scottish documentarist John Grierson in 1939. His fellow Scot Norman McLaren was recruited in 1941. The Film Board went on to embrace and significantly develop the film culture of Francophone Canada and to encourage filmmaking for all Canadian communities. As well as a resource for Canadians, the Film Board has become a major international producer of documentaries, animated films and fiction shorts and features, winning so far – as the banner above proclaims – over 5,000 awards in its 75 year life. The NFB has produced a timeline graphic as part of its celebrations and has encouraged everyone to display it, so here it is: timeline-nfb-75th-final-english

My own encounters with the board’s films came first in the 1970s when I remember seeing its documentaries in various programmes at the National Film Theatre here in the UK. When I started teaching I found that the film library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London would lend copies of films (no charge) on 16mm to use in the classroom and I borrowed several NFB films in this way. It was around this time that I became aware of the legacy of John Grierson’s work and the importance of Norman McLaren – as well as the diversity of Canadian filmmaking. I don’t know if such arrangements survived the demise of 16mm but educational activities remain an important part of the NFB’s overall programme. More recently I’ve become aware of the importance of the NFB in the remarkable growth of Quebecois filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. Often quoted as the most important Canadian feature, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is one of several feature films available both online and for download from the National Film Board website. More recently, the NFB produced the marvelous Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell (2012). The online collection of films is extensive and anyone could spend happy hours or days exploring it. Many films are available in both English and French language versions – the practice seems to have been to dub rather than subtitle the alternative versions of many of the films. This is a little unfortunate since the dubs sound artificial. But that’s is a minor quibble.

Women as creative filmmakers at the NFB

Because I was recently reading about the difficult careers of John Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion (in The Media Education Journal – Issue 55, published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland), I was intrigued to stumble across the wartime short documentaries made by Jane Marsh at the NFB in the early 1940s. Jane Marsh produced, wrote and directed six films between 1942 and 1943 and five of them are available online. She eventually fell out with Grierson because she felt that he didn’t give her proper recognition for her achievements. Jane Marsh’s beautiful colour film from 1943, Alexis Tremblant: Habitant was written, directed and edited by Marsh and photographed by Judith Crawley – one of the first films from the NFB made largely by women in the creative roles:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/alexis_tremblay_habitant_en

Grierson was old-fashioned, even in the 1940s, in his attitudes towards the many women who worked at the NFB during the war. An interesting short film about the wartime period at the NFB can be found here. Evelyn Spice Cherry was a young woman from Western Canada who met Grierson in London where she became a director in the 1930s and was then invited to join him when he set up the NFB. She would make around 100 films in all, though she left the NFB in 1950 when it came under pressure from anti-communist witch-hunters – the Board has been at the centre of a range of controversies, which is probably an indicator of its engagement with Canadian life. Evelyn Lambart was one of the first female animators at the NFB, collaborating with Norman McLaren on six productions. Grierson was a chauvinist but also an inspirational figure who encouraged women – as another female director Gudrun Bjerring Parker attests:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/making_movie_history_gudrun_bjerring_parker

In the post-war years other women became significant directors at NFB including Caroline Leaf who joined the NFB in 1972 and directed both animations and live-action documentaries – I enjoyed watching one on the singer-musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle from 1981.

Public service

The collection of NFB films available to view on https://www.nfb.ca is invaluable for cinephiles, film historians and anyone interested in Canadian culture. The database of films needs to be seen alongside those available from the British Film Institute, British Council and other publicly-funded resources such as PBS in the US. I hope to explore some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please checkout the NFB site.

Posted in Animation, Canadian Cinema, Documentary, Films by women | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Of Time and the City revisited

Posted by keith1942 on 31 May 2014

online poster

online poster

This screening took place at the Hyde Park Cinema and was one in a series of films organised with The Culture Vulture, celebrating 100 years of the Leeds Society of Architecture. The film was introduced by Ronnie Hughes who authors the ‘A Sense of Place’ Blog. The film came out in the year that Liverpool celebrated its status as City of Culture (2008), a title that bought European funds into the city. Ronnie is a life-long Liverpudlian who ‘walks round the city regularly’ and who believes that cities need to be loved by their people. The film, directed by Terence Davies, is a poem or eulogy to the city by a filmmaker who was born and raised in the city but who has not lived there for some considerable time. As Ronnie noted, city lovers has their sacred places and the film presents us with those of Terence Davies.

The film is composed of a wealth of archive footage accompanied by music and a commentary by Terence Davies. The film footage has been researched by archivist Jim Anderson. He performed a similar role for Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, and his results for this film speak just as eloquently as they did for Ken Loach’s project.

The music includes popular songs from the 1940s and 1950s, but predominantly one hears classical music, especially Davies’ beloved Mahler. The commentary stands out because Davies no longer retains any semblance of a Liverpool accent. Ronnie Hughes pointed out that in his youth Davies organised his own elocution lessons from Newsreels and the BBC Home Service, acquiring a pronounced ‘received pronunciation’ of the period.

Davies uses poetry frequently in the commentary, and like the music, much of it is from ‘high culture’. This is interspersed with his own comments on his memories and experiences of the city. These are often best described as choleric: [the S&S review makes a comparison with Philip Larkin]. There is little sense of empathy in much of this. There are a few inserts of voices of ordinary people from the past. And the archival extracts also offer a sense of empathy for the people of the city, but one strains to find this in Davies’ own voice.

The film moves over time and there is some chronology in this, but there is also much cutting between periods. This is not a history but a journey through a collection of memories. Towards the end we get film of the contemporary city and its people. Starting with children this has a warmer and slightly less pessimistic feel.

The film opens with shots inside an old cinema and this is soon followed by shots inside several churches. These are the two abiding images of Davies childhood seen in his other films – cinema and religion. He tells us later that he has become an atheist, yet religion seems to still loom large in his life. He also later came out as gay. One senses that the repression of the times and of religion has left a large mark on the filmmaker. Yet surprisingly in this film and in some of his features it is these early years that loom largest. And it is only in the 1940s and 1950s that he seems to have any feel for popular culture – something that is powerfully important in the history of Liverpool.

I was concerned about the treatment of the archive footage in the film. The sources seem to be 35mm, 16mm, possibly 9mm or Super 8 and even DVD. The early film has been cropped or at some points stretched to fit the 1.78:1frame. And the smaller formats appear to have been blown up so that the grain is extremely noticeable. The film is partly funded by the BBC, so some of this is presumably down to the demands of television. Whilst this is justified for the occasional pan across an image and for the rostrum work, it does rob much of the footage of its sense of authenticity.

This was the second time that I have seen the film at a cinema. But my impression remained the same: of a rather bitter portrait which lacked empathy. There is no sense of the famed scouse humour, or of the resilience that must have enabled the city’s people to survive and adapt through the years of extreme hardship. Both those qualities can be found in the interviews with Liverpudlians that grace Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 [though that film has serious political problems].

There was a Q & A following the screening. A couple of people seemed fairly impressed with the film. I raised my problems with the film. Ronnie remembered being strongly moved when the film was premiered. He was especially struck by the footage of the city and the grand music that often accompanied this. However, he admitted that there was a sense that Davies had left the city for years and then returned. It seems that the film did not have a general run in Liverpool, just special screenings. Ronnie had met people who had not seen the film, partly because it sounded like an art movie.

Ronnie Hughes added that he would like to make a film using the footage but with different sound, music and commentary. Apart from the comparison with Ken Loach I also thought of other filmmakers. The film is extremely well edited by Liza Ryan-Carter. Much of this is effectively montage. However, the blend is closer to the abstract treatment in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: die Symphonie der Grosstadt, 1927) than to a documentary with a greater feel of humanity such as Man with a Movie Camera (Chevolek a kinapparatom, 1929). Still, it was good to have the opportunity to see the film again and in the context of a very interesting discussion. Note, my colleagues seem to have rather different views on the film.

Posted in British Cinema, Documentary | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #20: Powerless (Katiyabaaz, India-US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 April 2014

Loha Singh – the 'Robin Hood' of Kanpur

Loha Singh – the ‘Robin Hood’ of Kanpur

Portrait Without BleedThis was the other film, along with Diego Star, that I picked out immediately from the BIFF programme and again I wasn’t disappointed. I have to agree with the brochure’s headline to its blurb on the film: “Lively, energetic and full of larger than life characters”. It’s good to see more documentaries from India making it onto the festival circuit. Many, like this production, involve some overseas input. The two directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa both have strong links to Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad and Kanpur respectively. Fahad Mustafa trained in Vienna and some of the film’s creative contributions come from his Viennese contacts. The majority of crew and HoDs comprise an impressive array of Indian talent. The film is a co-production because of the input of ITVS, the American organisation funded by public donations that feeds documentary programming into the Public Broadcasting System in the US.

The ‘powerless’ city of the title is Kanpur, with a population of nearly 3 million. Kanpur was one of the major industrial cities of British India (under the anglicised name ‘Cawnpore’) and was known as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of the large number of textile mills. Most of those have now gone (but we see an operating mill of the British India Corporation, now state-owned in the opening shots of the film) but many of the tanneries remain (there were once 400) and it is still known as the leather capital of India. Tanning requires power and creates water pollution. Because of the outages many businesses use diesel generators which add to air pollution. This is an unhealthy and poor city and the lack of electricity makes the situation worse. Kanpur has the worst electricity supply problems of any major Indian city and the residents are so angry with the local electricity supplier (KESCO) that they have taken to stealing electricity from whatever cables are actually live.

The documentary introduces three principal characters. The new boss of KESCO is Ritu Maheshwari and she is determined to reduce the theft of electricity and make the state utility more efficient. She establishes hit squads who tour the city threatening to disconnect those who are stealing. But as quickly as the squads move through the city, the specialist thieves like Lola Singh re-connect people illegally. He knows how to disable local transformers and how to attach the illegal cables – katiyas. It’s very dangerous work and at one point Singh shows us his twisted fingers and scarred limbs recounting the number of accidents he has survived. The fight then becomes three-handed when a local ‘community’ politician becomes involved, seeing the opportunity to boost his own status by bringing down the KESCO chief.

What we don’t see is any suggestion as to how the basic problem of energy supply can be resolved. The filmmakers argue that what they are concerned with is the inequality inherent in contemporary Indian society. They didn’t want to make a film about the poor as ‘victims’ or to be didactic in analysing the situation. They have tried to present both Ritu Maheshwari and Lola Singh in a balanced way and attempted to enable the issues to become visible as we watch them at work. The executive, for instance, suffers from chauvinism in her company. The film works so well because it is the product of highly competent documentarists augmented by commercial Indian filmmakers who contribute an excellent music score and sound design. It is very accessible and entertaining as well as a real eye-opener about the appalling state of Indian industrial infrastructure.

As India goes to the polls, the frustration with the Indian political system becomes more and more visible. As the filmmakers suggest, electrical power is not available on a universal basis. It goes first to the rich and India’s poor have the least access to electricity of any major population group worldwide. The people are ‘powerless’ in this sense. But do they have political power? I’m apprehensive about the result of the elections, especially if the BJP get a majority but I’m heartened by quality work like this film.

The film’s website gives more background and here’s a teaser trailer:

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Indian Cinema, Indian independent | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #16: Costa da Morte (Coast of Death, Spain 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 6 April 2014

Local shellfish harvesters on the Costa da Morte

Local shellfish harvesters on the Costa da Morte

Portrait Without BleedThe third Spanish film in my BIFF viewings offers something very different and very welcome – beautiful images of a unique landscape and its people in an artistic and poetic documentary. These images are nearly always framed in long shot and held long enough for us to contemplate the stories being told and to allow our gaze to wander across the composition, following tiny moving figures or noting the import of the situation. Before the feature screening there was an earlier short by the same filmmaker, Mountain in Shadow (Spain 2012). In the short Lois Patiño trains his camera on the ski slopes of a mountain range in Iceland. The contrasting white, grey and black of landscape and people (tiny figures) make both abstract patterns and moving tapestries. On a big screen the image seems to tremble or pulsate with life. As well as marvelling at the compositions and framings, I found myself also wondering how did you get those shots. Is the camera on another hillside hundreds of metres away with a long lens? Or is the camera in a balloon or on a helicopter? I think the latter is unlikely since the shots are held steady and the expense would be too great.

The same questions about camera positions come up with Costa da Morte. Here the long shots show us the treacherous waters of the Galician coast around Finisterre which the locals are able to navigate to harvest shellfish and goose barnacles. This is in itself dangerous but at least the locals know where the rocks are. The coast’s name is said to arise from the high number of shipwrecks caused by hidden rocks in difficult waters. As on other ‘wrecking coasts’ there are also stories about ships being lured in so their cargoes can be ransacked. Patiño shows us the coast in detail and we hear the tiny figures in the distance discussing the dangers. He also takes his camera inland to the forests and mountains of Galicia, exploring forestry and that other elemental danger of fire on the hills. I was a little surprised by the extent of these fires – Galicia is generally wet and green, but presumably dries in Summer. (The first images in the film gradually reveal loggers at work as the trees emerge from the mists on the mountains.) Again we hear stories about firefighters who sometimes re-started fires to keep themselves in work. We also see farmers and quarrymen – all in relation to their environment. This is a region where people have struggled in poverty for centuries battling against the elements. At the end of the film in the credits I noticed the name ‘Castro’ and remembered sitting in a bar in Havana which displayed Galician mementoes and support for the region’s teams. I assume that like Ireland and the Canary Islands, many Galicians from the coast looked West for the chance to make a new life.

Lois Patiño is a young filmmaker from Vigo (the biggest city in Galicia to the South-West of Costa da Morte). This is his first feature and he is an obvious talent who with this film is an obvious contender for Bradford’s European feature prize. (The film has already won prizes in other festivals.) The beautiful Press Pack on the film’s website includes the director’s statement which eloquently sums up the filmmaker’s intention:

I sought to relate the vastness of the natural space to the intimate experience of people through a double perceptual distance to the human figure (far in the image close in the sound). Eventually through the deep contemplation of the image we will dissolve in the whole and disappear into the landscape of Costa da Morte.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #12: Phantom (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 April 2014

"A montage of Tokyo sights"

“A montage of Tokyo sights”

Portrait Without BleedPhantom was screened alongside a short film, Tokyo Dreams (Japan 2013) by Nicholas Barker. It’s not difficult to see the logic of the pairing. In Tokyo Dreams the camera captures commuters on Tokyo’s network of local rail services sleeping through the routine of their journeys. I wondered just how many of these sleepers had been asked to sign a release form for their appearance but otherwise the film didn’t do very much for me. Phantom is much more interesting. The title refers to the sense of people all around you in a city like Tokyo who are somehow not ‘solid’ and ‘connected’ to the life of the city. They aren’t ghosts but they haven’t got substance. The extract below includes the discussion of the term in the film.

Phantom is directed by Jonathan Soler and it is basically a one-person job. He is a young (born 1985) French filmmaker who has spent a year and a half in Japan. The idea of the film is an essay about living in the city constructed around a young woman and her boyfriend who spend a night when neither can sleep discussing how they feel about their lives in Tokyo. In fact it’s mostly the woman who reveals her thoughts and the boyfriend who listens and occasionally adds his comments. Soler auditioned actors to read the script he had written and then edited the dialogue before adding the image track. The images comprise short and long sequences in a montage of aspects of city life (trains again, discarded objects in the street, roads, buildings etc.) and some scenes of the couple in her flat or in art galleries, on walkways above the city etc. I got the impression that the views of Tokyo gradually moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts. The crucial point is that although we see the couple on screen, none of the dialogue is in synch with characters we see speaking – everything is in effect voiceover. Music is in an important part of the film. During the montages of Tokyo life, an electronic score underpins the camera’s movement but I think that during the dialogue scenes the music is absent. Soler credits several filmmakers as the possible source of inspiration for Phantom and it was Chris Marker’s San Soleil (with its Japanese sequences) that resonated with me.

I confess that I did find Phantom difficult to follow, although I found what the young woman was saying to be very interesting. Part of the problem was that I found it more difficult than usual to track the image while at the same time reading the subtitles. This was partly because the image was often very dark and blurred and therefore needed more attention, but the subtitles were also quite dense. The blurring of the image is a function of the decision to shoot in available light with the aperture on the Canon 50mm lens permanently set at f1.8 and therefore always giving only a shallow depth of focus. I can imagine that if I didn’t have to read the subtitles, I could have given more attention to the images. I also found the overall aesthetic (the music/silence, the dark screen and disembodied voices) to be quite good at lulling me to sleep. (I should have had the coffee before not after the screening!) This was unfortunate as the script has plenty to say about being young in the city.

The young woman eventually reveals that she is well-educated, including a year spent overseas, but can only get temporary work – often as a menial worker. As well as the stress of not being able to afford her modest flat and enough food to keep her going she feels that she can’t be part of urban life (we watch her eating instant noodles). She describes how she feels that the world around her is floating, coming apart.  She talks about having to return to live with her mother – the common issue for young adults across the developed world today. She also refers to more specifically Tokyo issues. At one point she says that some people live in manga cafés and both she and her partner dream about opening a small bar/restaurant – which made me think of the excellent Japanese film Dreams For Sale (Japan 2012). She mentions two novels that she has been reading. One is Horoki, a 1927 novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Hayadhi was known as the major writer of ‘women’s literature’ which for many years was deemed ‘inferior’. Several of her books were adapted by Naruse Mikio for his great melodramas of the 1950s. Also mentioned is Kanikōsen (1929) a short novella about exploited crab-pickers that has also been filmed (twice) and adapted for the stage.

Phantom is an intelligent and original film. I think most of the people who have seen it (and have commented on IMDB) have done so via an internet link. The film is available (with English subs) from Amazon France (Region 2). Its theatrical screenings might perhaps be rare because its length (76 minutes) is best suited to compilation screenings in festivals etc. I suspect that it is actually easier to watch on DVD or on a computer screen. However, I don’t regret seeing on a very big screen. I would recommend the film and I’ll look out for future work by Jonathan Soler.

Press Pack (in English)

Extract explaining the meaning of ‘Phantom':

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #10: Mouton (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 April 2014

David Mérabet as 'Mouton'

David Mérabet as ‘Mouton’

Portrait Without BleedThis was the first disappointment of the festival for me. The festival brochure makes much of the prize and high critical ratings that the film has received but it seems to me that it takes too much time over its limited character studies. The praise perhaps helps to demonstrate the gulf between the festival critic and the cinema audience – even one attuned to arthouse films. Festival critics are keen to latch onto something new. The two directors, Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone were making their debut feature. DoP Eric Alirol shot on 16mm blown up to be projected on 35mm – which we watched on the large Pictureville screen –  and this is perhaps another reason for its critical success since the film looks and feels quite different to most of the festival’s digital offerings.

There has been a debate about ‘slow cinema’ over the last few years and there is certainly an argument to say that having time to reflect and observe can create new experiences for audiences. But there must be something to see and something to think about. Here I thought that we needed to know a little more about the people and the place. The title (‘Sheep’) refers to the nickname given to a young man (presumably aged 17) who is forcibly removed from the control of his mother by local social services and who gets himself a ‘live-in’ kitchen job in the small coastal town of Courseulles-sur-Mer in Basse-Normandie (the site of Juno beach for the Canadians during the D-Day landings). We see Mouton at work and at play with the others who work in the restaurant-hotel and with his friends in the town. There is a dramatic incident halfway through the film but little in the way of conventional narrative (a young waitress starts work in the restaurant and Mouton starts a relationship with her). At the end of the film you do feel that you have learned something about the lives of a small group of people in a particular region of France – but that doing so has been a bit of a slog.

This isn’t to say that the film is without merit and several scenes work very well. To pick a couple at random, a young man feeds the dogs in a dark and dingy kennel block and then hoses himself down. In another the central character comes back from the beach and washes the sand from his feet (in a big close-up). These simple actions work well on screen but I couldn’t help thinking that they might have been more effective in a series of short films. Similar sequences (filmed rather differently) are offered in some of the shorts which have accompanied the feature screenings at BIFF.

I feel mean in not responding more positively to Mouton but it is in the end a matter of taste and what we think cinema is for. For a feature of this kind (100 mins) I personally want more to get my teeth into. If the intention is to explore a documentary drama technique, I think that could work in half the time.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2014 #8: The Joycean Society (Belgium 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 April 2014

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

Portrait Without BleedI haven’t laughed so much in a cinema for a long time. This ‘mid-length’ documentary (52 mins) is extremely simple. It comprises a single camera roaming, mainly in close-up and shallow focus, around a room in Zurich in which the James Joyce Foundation offers the chance to discuss Finnegan’s Wake on a regular basis. The informative website gives all the background. The participants in the discussion in the film are mainly older people with just a couple younger, and presumably academics. We learn that for some of them this is their third time reading the book a few lines at a time and attempting to find all the possible meanings in this, Joyce’s richest book in terms of allusions.

The group comprises Europeans and at least one North American. The whole conversation is conducted in English and my only gripe about the film is that on the print we saw everything is also subtitled in English. It is certainly helpful to see Joyce’s words in print since so many of them are recondite and spelt in interesting ways. However, to have all the dialogue subtitled is unnecessary and a distraction. Everyone speaks English well enough and the subs aren’t needed. It’s revealing how easily the eye is drawn to read when there is no need. Having said that, Dora Garcia’s film isn’t particularly interested in the image as such, although the cinematographer tries to ring the changes. There are a couple of scenes outside the room in which one of the participants expands on the background to the group. Speakers are often framed in profile or are only seen partially, often out of focus. The words are the important elements.

I think that I laughed most at the naiveté and sensitivity of the participants concerning sex, death etc. – topics Joyce was gleeful about exploring. Mostly it’s like watching University Challenge and enjoying getting question right before the team. But I shouldn’t underestimate these guys and they do know a lot. It’s a pleasure to see people working together without being competitive.

I understand that the work is actually part of a larger project. That makes sense. As it stands I don’t think it fits into the European features competition. I tend to go by the French definition that requires a feature to be 65 mins or more. But if you do get the chance to see it, do take it.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 501 other followers

%d bloggers like this: