30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.
This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.
The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.
Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local bus company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.
The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.
The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focusing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. (Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately). There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.
Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles (a party clown) at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall.
Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.
What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.
The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s ‘Jerusalem’, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ (‘Land of Soap and Glory’). The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.
The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.
An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.
There is now a successor to this feel-good drama, Pride (2014). Set in Wales in 1984 it takes actual events involving gay and lesbian supporters of the miners to create a comedy-drama.
It opens at the National Media Museum in September and there will be a Study Day to accompany the screening on the 14th, ‘Miners – One hundred years of film’.
Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.
This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.
The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.
I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.
The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.
Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).
The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. (Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in (Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.
Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.
Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber
John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books
With Jimmy’s Hall in UK cinemas at the moment I’m looking back and re-viewing the films Ken Loach has made about events in Ireland. Hidden Agenda is one of the two ‘odd’ films that Loach made in the 1980s (Fatherland in 1986 is the other). Hidden Agenda is odd for both institutional and aesthetic reasons – but in other ways it ‘fits’ the general trajectory of the director’s work with his various collaborators.
Ken Loach found it very difficult to get TV commissions or to raise money for films in the 1980s and this project was initially taken up by David Puttnam at Columbia in 1987. When Puttnam left Hollywood, his endorsement nevertheless enabled Loach to raise the money from Hemdale, the UK-US company founded by David Hemmings and John Daly. Hemdale already had a reputation for producing controversial films such as those from Oliver Stone (Salvador and Platoon) and a political thriller set in Northern Ireland presumably appealed to Daly as a sound commercial business proposition. I do wonder though if he realised what kind of story he would get from Jim Allen.
Allen was in some ways Loach’s mentor in developing political ideas and he had written Days of Hope in the mid 1970s plus three of the more controversial of Loach’s TV plays, including The Big Flame (1969) about a dock strike in Liverpool. Allen was from an Irish Catholic family in Manchester and it’s interesting that the name of the central character in Hidden Agenda is Peter Kerrigan – the name of one of the regular actors (and trade union organisers) in Loach’s TV plays including The Big Flame.
The film’s narrative combines elements of two conspiracy stories of the 1970s and 1980s. The plot begins with the final press conference of an international ‘Civil Rights Monitoring Team’ which has been collecting evidence of the maltreatment of suspects held by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. One of the lawyers, an American Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), has been given a cassette tape by ‘Harris’ (Maurice Roeves), a mysterious figure who is clearly being watched by undercover British agents. Having listened to the tape Sullivan attempts to meet Harris again but is assassinated. Deputy Chief Constable Kerrigan (Brian Cox) flies in to investigate the murder. He meets resistance from both the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and various figures from British secret service groups. Initially at least he is prepared to push and to find out the truth with the help of Sullivan’s partner Ingrid (Frances McDormand). Kerrigan’s investigation is arguably a reference to the so-called ‘Stalker Inquiry’. John Stalker was the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who investigated the alleged ‘shoot to kill’ actions of the RUC in 1983, but who was then controversially removed from the case. (A 1990 TV drama, Shoot to Kill, covered the affair in some detail.) Hidden Agenda also draws upon the stories of conspiracies by right-wing British politicians and security personnel to destabilise the governments of Heath and Wilson in the 1970s in order to ensure the election of a more right-wing Tory government.
Apart from Jim Allen, only Jonathan Morris as editor and Martin Johnson as production designer were present from Loach’s usual crews. Rebecca O’Brien was a co-producer alongside Eric Fellner (who with Tim Bevan later became the main mover behind Working Title). Stewart Copeland was responsible for the score. Later he also worked on Riff-Raff and Raining Stones for Loach. Copeland had co-founded the pop band The Police with Sting but had started composing for films in the late 1980s. His was one of the more unusual collaborations with Loach. He’d attended Millfield, the public school associated with sport and his father was a senior member of the CIA. But Hidden Agenda includes a couple of Irish Republican songs featured in a Republican club and linking the film to both Days of Hope and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Cinematographer Clive Tickner had just completed photography on the award-winning mini-series Traffik for Channel 4 and this and his documentary experience clearly recommended him. However, the production overall was invariably caught between the kind of political struggle film – the personal and collective struggles over conscience and actions delivered by Allen with the generic thrills of commercial cinema. Added to this, the production was forced to abandon Loach’s preferred ‘authentic locations and performers’ strategy. Parts of the film were shot in Belfast and its environs but the film’s insurers forced some shooting in England. Brian Cox and Maurice Roeves were well-known British actors at this point, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif had been together in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (US 1988) for which McDormand had been Oscar-nominated. Put all these elements together and the result is a production that resembles one of those Hollywood international thrillers directed by a European filmmaker. Sometimes they work in interesting ways – and sometimes they don’t.
Hidden Agenda does work as a thriller on one level. Loach, Morris and Johnson capture some of the street feel of Belfast and the action is generally well-handled. All the performances are good I think and there are several set-piece arguments between the principals that are exciting in terms of political ideas. There are also a couple of very neat devices signalling the history of Irish struggles against British colonialism. The film opens with a quote from James Fintan Lalor (1807-49): “The entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right by the people of Ireland”. This is soon juxtaposed with a shot of an Orange march and a quote from Margaret Thatcher (about her ‘ownership’). Later in the film, a patrician British security chief opines that Ireland would be a “lovely country if it wasn’t for the Irish”. There is also a clear link made via the McDormand/Dourif characters with Chile in 1973. “It couldn’t happen here” one of them says – but it does, in a way. These moments promise us something that the film can’t really deliver and though I was gripped throughout the narrative, I realised afterwards that the script doesn’t manage to resolve the contradiction in the mix of genre and politics. It would be good, for instance, to know more about the background of Kerrigan. What lies behind his ‘professional’ career policeman persona? At one point he suggests that he might be prepared to lose everything to expose the truth. What motivates this?
Of course, whatever the film managed to produce in terms of readings it wouldn’t matter to Loach’s right-wing critics. Alexander Walker (a Unionist) famously denounced the film at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize) as ‘IRA Propaganda’. This is nonsense of course. Certainly the film is pro real freedom for the whole of Ireland but the focus is completely on the behaviour and the ideology of the British security forces. And there is the problem. Perhaps Walker was referring to the film he expected to see. In her review for Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1991) Verina Glaessner identifies a character played by Michelle Fairlie as a young mother whose IRA husband is in Long Kesh internment camp. This is the kind of Irish character who needs to be central in the narrative to root the political discourse in the personal lives of ordinary people. John Hill (1997), one of the best analysts of Loach’s work, offers a detailed account of his problems with Hidden Agenda. He suggests that it is the constraints of the ‘conservative genre’ of the political thriller/detective story that undermine Loach and Allen. The generic narrative constrains the possibilities of different types of engagement by audiences – i.e. they must follow the conventional ‘uncovering’ of the conspiracy – and, as we noted, the personal story is focused on the ‘maverick investigator’. (There is actually a second detective, confusingly played by John Benfield (often a police chief, e.g. in Prime Suspect) who seems to disappear from the action early on.
Hill also refers to the way in which the generic mise en scène of the police thriller clashes with Loach’s more usual naturalistic style. He suggests that Loach finds only clichéd generic images to represent the Northern Ireland setting which doesn’t allow audiences to reflect on the political issues. The film becomes an entertainment featuring a vulnerable hero – the ‘good policeman’. This ties in with Glaessner’s complaint that Loach’s overall embrace of naturalism/realism, for which he was heavily criticised by left media/film theorists in the 1970s, is not suited to ‘political filmmaking’. Hill refers to the debates around the film as Costa-Gavras style thrillers rather than Godardian, self-reflexive policiers (like Pierrot de fou?). All of these are valid points, although I would argue that the tradition of Swedish crime fiction suggests that it is possible to re-cast crime thrillers in a ‘non-Hollywood’ way in visual terms without losing the politics (see my review of Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976)).
I don’t want to end on a negative note. Hidden Agenda didn’t offer the alternative view of the Irish struggle that Loach and Allen’s supporters might have wanted, but to get the film made and released in 1990 in the face of the British media’s distorted view of Ireland was a triumph in itself and Ken Loach made up for some of its failings with The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006. Hidden Agenda put him back in cinemas and he has not been kept out over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to Jimmy’s Hall.
John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books
It 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?
This biopic is predictably but depressingly conventional. It is based on the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I have not read the book but this seems to be both a travesty in terms of history and in terms of politics. The Sight & Sound review suggest that it “may find its natural home in school classrooms ..”: if the reviewer is right I find that even more depressing.
The film is an Anant Singh Presentation. Singh produced films during the Apartheid era, often with a critical edge. The most well known is Sarafina! (1992) based on the successful musical set in an African township. That film watered down the politics: reducing the struggle to individual terms and undermining the role of violence in the liberation struggle. The new Mandela does something similar. The politics of the anti-apartheid struggle are here reduced to simplistic slogans. There is no sense of the changes that led from the armed struggle in the early 1960s to the negotiated settlement of the 1990s. There is little sense of either the economic situation of black people or the values that motivate the dominant white population. As you might guess the dynamics of class are missing from both sides of the conflict. The film has space only for Nelson Mandela himself and his second wife Winnie. The rest of the ANC leadership remain ciphers, even Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In fact, we get a fuller portrait of a friendly guard on Robbin’s Island than any other ANC member. The film reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), ands also at times of the same director’s Gandhi! (1982). All three films present leaders whose politics are acceptable to the so-called ‘International Community’: though I think the two latter films work better as cinema. Where Mandela scores is with the focus on the black characters: they are not as in the other two films mediated by white characters.
We do get some of the Mandela warts, though he emerges mainly as an almost saintly character. Both he and Winnie are shown as involved in extra-marital affairs. However, Nelson Mandela’s ‘fling’s are presented uncritically whilst those of Winnie’s are disparaged in the dialogue. This is an important aspect of the treatment of the two major characters. The white minority, including their leaders, are presented mainly in stereotypes. The film is more accurate in depicting their racism and their brutality. The autocratic strain in Mandela’s politics is apparent, but this is treated uncritically, and with little show of opposition. The greatest danger to Mandela in the film’s narrative comes from Winnie Mandela. She seems a more radical character in the later stages, but she is also discredited by her association with the neck lacing in the townships of the 1980s.
The more complex politics of the resistance are glossed over. So events at Sharpeville are presented as a seemingly spontaneous protest and massacre. The Pan African Congress, who actually organised the boycott of the Pass Books, is nowhere to be seen. In a similar vein the youth rebellions in the townships, including the massacre in Soweto, are missing the important leadership of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko.
The plotting of the film is schematic. The actual life of Mandela is tricky to handle: all those years away from the struggle in prison. But the script fails to find a way to tie these together. The early part of the film works fairly effectively, but the latter parts lack coherence. Stylistically the film is well produced. But we see fairly conventional images and set ups, with a fairly conventional score. The film opens in widescreen colour as a young black boy runs through the long grass on the veldt. Such landscape images recur throughout the film: frequently in flashbacks with a soft focus. The action sequences are shot as with a hand-held camera, [probably a steadicam]. They are then edited in a series of extremely brief shots. This does not help comprehension. There are also low-angle shots of Mandela and his fellow leaders. However, this is not Soviet Montage or even Dogme. The film also has any number of overhead shots: a common predilection in modern cinema.
The cast work hard, I thought Naomie Harris as Winnie was the most effective. But it requires more than authentic costumes and accents to convince. The script does not supply great depth and there is a structural problem in the age spans traversed, which make-up cannot hide. The film is also long: I remembered to comment of Mort Sahl [possibly apocryphal] at a preview of Exodus ‘Otto, Let my people go!’.
Apparently the film is performing well. I saw it in a packed auditorium at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Presumably Mandela’s impeccable timing, passing away on the day of the premiere, assisted. It may also be that he had a premonition about the film! Despite the reformism of Mandela and of the ANC political line – demonstrated by the little change for the Black working class even now – they deserved better than this.
The last several decades have seen a series of mainstream film dramas that address the vicious colonial and neo-colonial system – much of it British. Many of these films have also attempted to sympathetically present the heroic struggles of the National Liberation Movements. It is difficult to think of any that have succeeded. They either wish to let the exploiting classes off the hook – as in Mandela or they end up settling for a personalised resolution that misses the point, also Mandela. As with this film many do both.
There was a post-screen discussion at the National Museum. People were generally positive about the film, though they noticed the omissions. Several argued that to reach a wide audience films had to dramatise and simplify. I think this argument ignores the many facets of the industry: star or auteur power, marketing and publicity, and crucially distribution.
Filmmakers have to consider which audience they are addressing. I do not think it is worthwhile aiming for a mass audience if that entails reducing the ‘message’ to what can be accommodated by ‘Western Union’! There are examples of relatively successful films that dramatise anti-colonial struggles – The Wind that Breaks the Barley (2007) for one. And there are films that both dramatise the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and retain the politics. My favourite from Azania is Mapantsula (1988, by Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane) which utilises and then subverts the conventions of the genre.
Can I recommend Khalo Matabane’s Mandela, the Myth & Me, shown in BBC Storyville on BBC 4 on January 13th. Presented as a dialogue of voices, it includes radical viewspoints that never made it into the new film biopic.
This was the most impressive film for me personally at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Akerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.
The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and single mother’ have very different connotations.
On the first day, Wednesday we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal. Reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada. And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.
Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.
On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.
The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.
As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasises this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.
Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.
The Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.
If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.
The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing. If you missed this, the fortunate news is that there are plans to circulate a package of Ackerman’s films in 2014: hopefully this will include Jeanne Dielman.