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BIFF 2014 #22: Thriller (UK 1979)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2014

Colette Laffont as Mimi in THRILLER

Colette Laffont as Mimi in THRILLER

Portrait Without BleedSally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.

Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the  café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.

The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.

Posted in Avant-garde cinema, British Cinema, Directors, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, People | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #21: Nomura Yoshitaro Retrospective

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2014

Nomura Yoshitaro (second left) shooting The Demon (1978) on the Noto peninsula.

Nomura Yoshitaro (second left, Ogata Ken is third  from left)) shooting The Demon (1978) on the Noto peninsula.

Portrait Without BleedThe highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.

I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: , , | 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 #19: Diego Star (Canada-Belgium 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 April 2014

Isaka Sawadogo as'Traoré' on the Diego Star

Isaka Sawadogo as ‘Traoré’ on the Diego Star

Portrait Without BleedFor several years Bradford’s International Film Festival offered the opportunity to see anglophone Canadian films that rarely got a UK release. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any this year. Instead the festival has picked up on the recent successes of Québécois cinema such as the films of Philippe Falardeau, Kim Nguyen, Jean-Marc Vallée, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve creating a stir wherever they have been shown. Will the next in line be Frédérick Pelletier with Diego Star? I think it deserves to be and already the film has begun to win prizes at international festivals.

I’m a fan of Canadian cinema and very impressed by the recent Québécois films that I have seen and I was pre-disposed to enjoy this film. It didn’t disappoint. Bradford screened a Pelletier documentary short before the feature and this set up expectations with its portrait of a retired seaman and his wife in their small house in the city of Lévis on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec City. Diego Star uses the same location and tells a simple but powerful story.

The title refers to a cargo ship registered in Cyprus with a crew comprising a Russian captain and a crew from Africa, the Middle East and further afield. The ship breaks down and is to Lévis on the St. Lawrence seaway with one of the biggest shipyards in North America. The crew are offered accommodation in Lévis at the shipping company’s expense while the ship’s problems are investigated. The ship’s second engineer is an experienced sailor from Ivory Coast who tends to be known as ‘Traoré’ since his personal name is too long/difficult to remember. Early on we realise that he is a man of principle who has told the captain several times that the ship’s engine needs to be serviced. Traoré is billeted on Fanny, a young single parent who needs the money for his bed and board to supplement her wage from kitchen work in the shipyard’s cafeteria. At first hesitant about being too friendly towards Traoré, she soon realises that he is a family man who is good with children and she accepts his help with her infant.

The Canadian authorities question the crew about the ship’s service record but most of the crew are prepared to keep quiet as they are still owed their wages for the last trip. Traoré decides to tell the truth believing that the authorities will support him. But he soon discovers that the company have suspended him – withdrawing his right to enter the shipyard. Fanny loses his bed and board allowance and their friendly tentative relationship breaks down. Traoré finds himself without any support in a country he doesn’t know. Diego Star is a bleak tale and, without giving away what happens, there is no artificial happy ending.

I think this is tight, muscular filmmaking with terrific performances by the two leads played by Isaka Sawadogo and Chloé Bourgeois. Both Traoré and Fanny are abused by the system and struggle to maintain relationships in which others let them down. The overall aesthetic is a form of social realism probably more akin to the French mode of Laurent Cantet in Ressources humaines (France 1999) or the earlier work of the Dardennes Brothers than to the social melodramas of Loach in the UK. We do learn about Traoré’s family through the photographs he places in his room and the interaction with Fanny and her child and the film does move into a dramatic final sequence, but always without non-diegetic music. Pelletier doesn’t resort to any kind of conventional narrative devices. He deals in the realities of the lives of sailors far from home and a young woman facing the problems of bringing up a child in difficult economic circumstances. The film looks very good and the freezing Canadian winter (beautifully captured in the stately progress of the snow blower moving down the narrow street) is almost another character in the drama. This was one of the most impressive films that I saw at BIFF and is highly recommended.

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

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 April 2014

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Danish Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Icelandic Cinema, Nordic Cinema, Russian cinema, Short films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #17: Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es tevi milu, Latvia 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 April 2014

Raimonds runs the nighttime streets of Riga

Raimonds runs the nighttime streets of Riga

Portrait Without BleedThis charming tale of a 12-13 year-old boy tripped up by the conflicted emotions of early adolescence was my final screening at BIFF 2014. In the end it didn’t win the European Features prize but it has won other international prizes and it seemed to me a genuinely commercial film – although at 82 minutes it is a little short. I’m not best qualified to select films for children but I would want to show it to secondary school children (11+) and possibly younger. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got this wrong.)

The central character is Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) who is small for his age and is at that awkward stage when some of the girls in his class are tall and willowy, towering over him. He attends a specialist ‘orchestra school’ and his instrument is a saxophone. One day he plays a joke on one of the girls that misfires and he is required to take home a behavioural report to be signed by his mother. Mother (Vita Varpina, one of the professional actors) is a hardworking single parent (a doctor/midwife?). Raimonds thinks that she will react badly to his misbehaviour and he removes the page from his report book and prevents her receiving a message from the school. Of course, one lie leads to another and he finds himself in an escalating crisis which his friendship with Peteris, the drummer in the orchestra, unintentionally makes worse. Raimonds’ relationship with his mother will deteriorate further before it gets better but the film ends on an upbeat note.

The film is the second feature by Jānis Nords who trained formally after working in film and television and directing his first film in 2008. Mother, I Love You was shot on location in Riga in just 20 days with most of the cast being non-professionals. It looks and sounds very good and is directed with vitality. It can’t be easy creating a CinemaScope feature on the streets with a non-professional cast but he succeeds and I found it very enjoyable. I’ve seen several mentions of François Truffaut’s work in critical responses to the film and especially to Les quatre cents coups. There are certainly similarities but the tone of this film is quite different. Raimonds is not the ‘wild child’ presented by Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel and there is not that sense of romantic despair. Raimonds’ mother is not an uncaring parent – this trope has been passed onto Peteris who suffers beatings from his mother.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a Latvian feature before but the Press Pack for the film suggests that Raimonds “has to venture into Riga’s thrilling night-life”. This is a little hyperbolic. Raimonds visits a skate park (the actor is, the Press Pack tells us, a very good ‘extreme cyclist’) and he follows a young woman through the dark streets (she has something he needs). That’s as thrilling as it gets. Nords does not make the mistake of shifting the tone of the film. He neatly sums up his approach:

A seemingly minor misdeed can seem like grand offence bound to bring harsh consequences. Though Raimonds is faced with a moral dilemma – to act dishonestly and escape punishment or tell the truth and face backlash – I tried to avoid teaching my protagonist a moral lesson. Instead, I was looking to portray a child, who thrown into the wildest of circumstances and confronted with tough choices, manages to maintain humanity and gain conscience. In other words, a child who “grows up”.

I hope the film has more festival showings in the UK. It should be on general release but I fear it won’t get picked up. If it does get a screening near you, please go.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Films for children | 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 #15: El futuro (The Future, Spain 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 April 2014

The party

The party

Portrait Without BleedIt was almost a relief to be presented with a feature that didn’t work for me. I confess that I missed the introduction to the film and I hadn’t looked very carefully at the brochure blurb for El futuro but that shouldn’t have mattered. And actually my struggle to work out what was going on at least got me engaged with a film that I seriously thought of abandoning (I’ve only once done that before and that was over thirty years ago).

Eventually I twigged that El futuro presents a group of young people in Madrid partying after the announcement of the election success of the Socialists under Felipe González in 1982. They aren’t celebrating a Socialist victory as such, but rather what they perceive as freedom now guaranteed, seven years after the death of Franco. I was trying desperately to remember the term given to these young people and the culture they created in the late 1970s, celebrated in the early films of Pedro Almodóvar – La Movida Madrileña. So the party features the usual drinking, smoking, drug-taking and at least one ‘outrageous’ display accompanied by a soundtrack of Spanish ‘New Wave’ and punk music. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course. Most of us have attended parties like this. Thirty or forty years later they don’t seem much fun but they seemed important at the time. More problematic is the presentation of the material – deliberate crash editing, fluctuating sound levels, break up of the image, end of reels etc., almost as if the filmmakers (Luis López Carrasco from the Collective Los Hijos) wanted to replicate the look of those early Almodóvar Super 8s. (Cineuropa suggests he was using 16mm) It didn’t work for me. I can see that the approach does intentionally frustrate the audience’s desire for a conventional narrative flow. A good example of this is the subtitling which sometimes seems to shift from giving the song lyrics to what is actually being said in a conversation almost randomly. Are they really talking about lemon blue vomit?

What did work was the insertion of a collection of still photographs. Someone at the party refers to those ‘summer holidays in the 1960s’ when “you knew who your boyfriend was”. The photos show rather complacent looking men and women in formal poses – and they did bring back the Spain of the Franco years. At the end of the film we see a series of shots of an empty apartment at dawn with the debris of the party and then several street scenes. I think that we are meant to ask ourselves what ‘now’ might look like viewed from the past? All this may be some kind of (justified) howl of rage at the waste of youth unemployment. Who knows?

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Politics on film, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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