Category: Festivals and Conferences

The Leeds International Film Festival 2014

A screening at the Town Hall – 2001

This was the 28th festival of film held in Leeds. My impression was that this was the strongest programme for several years. Friends I talked to were mostly in agreement. Given the number of films shown, not all were completely entertaining or top line films, but there were enough to fill up the fortnight over which it ran.

The most popular film with audiences was What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand, 2014). This is an unconventional vampire movie. And it is getting a UK release from Metrodome. Friends and colleagues also recommended a number of other films: there was the Possibilities are Endless with Edwyn Collins (UK 2014). This is a documentary about overcoming a near death ailment by the songwriter of the title: this film was highly praised by several people. This should also be available in Picturehouses venues. Another was Stations of the Cross (Germany 2014) which combines the form of this Catholic ritual with the story of a young woman, Maria. Everyone who had seen it praised it to me. It is released by Arrow on Friday. And there was Stray Dogs (France, Taiwan, 2013), one of two film directed by Tsai Ming Liang. This director has a growing reputation in the International art cinema, though it may not be easy to find opportunities for seeing his films. Roy has reviewed some of them other films in the Festival. And some of the ones previewed here were successes. Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) made a strong impression and was well accompanied on the Town Hall organ. My biggest regret [due to a teaching commitments] was missing Goodbye to Language 3D (France, 2014) Jean-Luc Godardpushing the boundaries’ at 83 – one response was ‘brilliant’, another was far less polite about the film, someone’s ‘worst experience’ of the Festival..

One of the substantial elements in the Festival was the Short Film City programmes, including several competitions. The most prestigious is the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition: named after the pioneer inventor who produced film in Leeds in 1888. The eight person jury selected Art (Arta, Romania, 2014). This is probably a filmmaker’s film: I thought Chorus (Choro Dos Amantes, Portugal 2014) was the best of these films that I saw – this got a special mention from the Jury along with Greenland (Israel, 2014).

For the British Short Film Competition 2014 the jury selected Exchange and Mart commenting ‘A beautifully executed coming of age film.’ – I read the film rather differently though it was a fine production from Creative Scotland. I preferred the Audience Award: Anthony – if you can access this film save it for December 24th.

There are further details including the other competitions such as the Animation Shorts on the Festival Website. Apparently ticket sales this year topped 40,000 for the first time. It was an extensive programme and there were a few duds – one of the Iglesia films merited the description ‘a wretched piece of sexist crap’! And there were a few technical and presentation problems with some digital and digital video – what Festival did not suffer such glitches?  Overall a real success and the omens for 2015 look good. All the more important as that year will not see a Festival across the way in Bradford.

Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.

Short Film City – British Short Film Competition

Anthony

Anthony

This was another strand in the Leeds International Film Festival extremely extensive coverage of short films – local and international, features, documentaries and animation. The British selection comprised 15 films spread over two programmes.

Exchange and Mart (2013 – 15 minutes).The film was set in 1986 in a girls’ boarding school somewhere in the Highlands. The film opened with the teenage girls attending self-defence classes. Then it explored the way that two particular girls responded to and explored the issue of men and sex. The treatment and performances were nicely done. Rather than being dramatic the film struck a droll note, as suggested by the title which is also refers to a prop.

A Generation of Vipers (2013 – 15 minutes). ‘A day in the life of a violent and nihilistic youth …’.As the Catalogue description suggests this is a bleak character study. The young lad is effectively portrayed and there is some context; though I felt this needed more development.

Love Me Tinder (2014 – 11 minutes). This is an evening between two online daters – an older woman and a younger man. The treatment is deliberately oddball, as the title suggests. I found it not surreal enough to be funny but lacking realism it seemed to lack comment.

The Outside In (2014 – 20 minutes). This film used an unconventional set to present a couple where the man dominates and virtually imprisons the young girl. I never quite figured out how the setting was supposed to comment on the relationship, though the intent was clearly symbolic.

  1. Enstone (2014, 15 minutes. The film was developed from the discovery of 89 reels of Super 8mm film shot in the 1980s by the aforesaid Richard Enstone. The introduction suggested ‘hidden messages’, which never actually seemed to materialise. The film used the Super-8mm footage in a variety of ways – original ratio, stretched, split screen and speeded up. There were also interviews with people who knew Enstone. I thought there was interesting material here but that this documentary did not make adequate use of it.

Woodhouse (2013 – 9 minutes).The film is set in the Woodhouse Nature Reserve in South East London.  This is partly fantasy, mainly from the viewpoint of a child. The film makes good use of effects and school artefacts. As the mystery develops a local journalist also becomes involved, but this mystery is too whimsical for the media.

Anthony (UK / Finland, 2014 – 15 minutes). This is a droll tale of Santa, elves, reindeer and, of course, Rudolph. It offers a sardonic take on the winter festival, just the entertainment to follow over-indulgence during the festivities. It has bright, pleasing snow covered settings and has some fine unconventional gags.

Sex Life

Sex Life

Sexlife (2014 – 15 minutes). Another film which is letterboxed within a 2.37:1 frame. It presents a couple facing a minor crisis, to which the husband responds with extreme measures. The opening belies the direction of the story, which presents an intriguing and revealing exchange between the couple. It is effective though I found the conclusion not completely convincing.

Alice (2014 – 5 minutes).Thomas was ten when his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. The adults in the family are quite inhibited in the relationship, Thomas, unencumbered by adult attitudes, relates effectively and playfully with her. A warn portrait of a very positive relationship.

The Stomach (2014 – 15 minutes). This is a bizarre tale of an extremely unconventional medium. It is definitely sardonic and does tend to schlock. There are some visceral moments and a very effective reversal.

Seagulls (2014 – 14 minutes).  This was one of several films produced by Creative Scotland. They all enjoyed high production values: and this was for me the most completely realised. Ryan and his mother, who run a fair attraction, arrive in a small seaside town on the West Coast. Ryan’s life style has limited his opportunities for bonding with other teenagers. Meeting a group of local boys he is invited to join in on their celebration of the longest night. This involves climbing up into the surrounding foothills and soon an unfortunate incident. The film makes good use of both the small town environment and the mountainscape. The there is very effective staging and blocking to comment on the characters and events.

Crow (2014 – 5 minutes). The film uses an extract from a reading by Ted Hughes of his major poem, ‘Crow’. The film adds to this music by Leafcutter John. The animation is visceral and exceedingly well done. Five very rewarding minutes.

Crocodile (A Life to Live, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a film about bereavement: in this case the loss for a head teacher and his wife of their teenage daughter whilst working for Voluntary Service overseas. The sense of loss and the accompanying performance was extremely well done. The film leads up to a moment of catharsis: I found the final scene unconvincing, but I have always thought crocodiles, whilst dangerous are also oddly attractive.

Blue Train (2014 – 15 minutes}. The train journey in this film is by a man into his past, his dreams and imaginings. The journey involves magical landscapes, and figures from his actual life. The combination is extremely intriguing and the visual splendour gives great pleasure. The film has original music Alexandros Kavadas and Paul Tyan, but there are also some extracts from Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’.

1946 (2014 – 15 minutes). Set in a gleaming chromium bar we meet Jimmy Stewart home from World WWII. His agent has a new prestige script but Jimmy will actually go on to make the classic It’s a wonderful Life (1946). This was pastiche, and I always think this is the most difficult type of treatment to get right. The film did not work for me: possibly because the actual Jimmy Stewart is one of my two or three favourite |Hollywood stars.

I thought the second programme was much the stronger of the two. There were a number of fine films in that programme. With some of the weaker productions I felt that they either failed to combine narrative and style effectively, or that generic qualities tended to cliché: I rather thought these stemmed from weaknesses in the script writing. But there are promising young filmmakers out there, as the Brochure suggests,

Prepare to meet the film directors / actors/ key grips of top morrow.

Given what I saw in the best shorts there are also certainly the cinematographers and animators of tomorrow. Plus a number of technical craftspeople whose work contributed to effectiveness of the films.