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Fatherland (UK-West Germany-France 1986)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 June 2014

Klaus in the machine shop where his stepfather works. The sign says "This machine does the work of 40 men". The added graffiti says "Bet it won't replace the Central Committee [of the Party]"

Klaus in the machine shop in East Berlin where his stepfather works. The sign says “This machine does the work of 40 men”. The added graffiti says “Bet it will never replace the Central Committee [of the Party]“

Fatherland was the only cinema feature by Ken Loach that I hadn’t seen so I was pleased to find the Region 2 DVD from Park Circus. This is an unusual film for several reasons and although it presents some problems I did enjoy watching it. It raises a range of interesting questions.

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.

Outline

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.

Commentary

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.

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

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.

Political discourse

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).

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a 'stakeout' of a post office in Cambridge.

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a ‘stakeout’ of a post office in Cambridge.

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.

References

Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in FatherlandHidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books

Posted in British Cinema, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 June 2014

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

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.

Outline

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.

Production

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.

Commentary

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?

Hidden2

Hidden3

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.

Reference

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

Theatrical trailer:

Posted in British Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , , , , | 1 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 »

Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (Republic of South Africa /UK 2013)

Posted by keith1942 on 11 January 2014

mandela-long-walk

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.

Posted in African Cinema, British Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, France 1975).

Posted by keith1942 on 21 November 2013

JeanneDielman1web

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.

Sylvain and Jeanne

Sylvain and Jeanne

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.

Posted in European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Politics on film | 2 Comments »

Secret City (UK 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 18 November 2013

SecretCity1web

This is a low-budget documentary screened in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival. It was written by Lee Salter and directed by Michael Chanan, the latter joining the screening to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards.

The ‘secret city’ of the title is the City of London Corporation. As noted in the Catalogue the film “exposes the inner workings of London’s financial heart, how it resists democratisation and has worked to become the predominant forces in global capitalism.” However, I found the film rather disappointing because the exposure operates at a descriptive rather than an analytical level. The City of London, after centuries of undisturbed power, has more recently been subjected to attention by journalists and in other films. I think something with greater depth is now called for.

The film‘s presentation is interesting. There are a number of interviews with a varied selection of people, predominantly experts of some sort. For much of the film these are constructed around a history of the City of London. This in itself is revealing both in terms of the privileges acquired by the City and with regard to the ability of this powerful institution to avoid public scrutiny or accountability. There are also some well-chosen archive films, nearly all of which h are presented with proper respect for their ratios. And there are some rather nice touches with on-screen graphics and manipulated film material.

When we came to the Q&A the first point raised was the poor ratio of women and black people among the ‘experts’. Someone else added trade unionism and working class people. Michael Chanan responded that this was not something on which they had taken a decision; rather it came out of their approach. He amplified this by explaining that they had not worked to an actual script, the credit presumably refers to the final structure and occasional onscreen commentary. Their approach was to conduct the interviews and then start editing these and seeking out appropriate archive material. I did suggest to Michael Chanan that maybe this was something that required a conscious decision.

When you look at the list of interviews they include a member of the house of lords, a member of parliament, two vicars, several activists involved in the Occupy event in the City, and four professors [including two of the three women]. There were a number of other people interviewed including a businessman in the City who was blackballed after winning an election, [presumably one of the ‘good guys’]. The general tone is one of slightly left labour. Capitalism is a term that turns up frequently, but it is never cleanly defined. Socialism is also mentioned frequently, but in the UK ‘socialism’ is used fairly simplistically. Then we also get Finance Capital, but its functions and operations are not defined either. Karl Marx receives only one mention, by one of the Vicars, who seemed to think we had a ‘new form of capitalism’ for which Marx’s analysis did not apply. He obviously had not actually read Capital, the best analysis for understanding the current ongoing crisis.

The word ‘reform’ also cropped up a number of times. At least two people suggested that if the City was made account able or democratic the crisis could be surmounted. As Marx argues crises are endemic to capitalism. And the particular severe crisis of 2008, whilst certain financial actions exaggerated the impact, was closely related to the declining rate of profit in contemporary capitalism.

I also found the form of the documentary disappointing. Michael Chanan has written compellingly of the radical Cuban cinema that followed the revolution. This includes the great documentary and newsreel filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Alvarez used a particular variant of montage to produce films that managed to both dramatise and analyse the politics of resistance, mainly to US Imperialism. But Secret City is fairly conventional with a blend of talking heads, archive footage and actual location filming. Something more radical would have suited the subject matter.

Even so this is worth seeing as it does offer an informative view on an important and under reported power base of the bourgeoisie. As Chanan noted, it is a ‘zero budget’ film. This, unfortunately, means that it will probably get limited circulation? Even its restrained criticism is likely to be a little too much for the dominant media institutions.

 

Posted in British Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Politics on film | Leave a Comment »

Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 November 2013

We watched this film a fortnight ago and it seems a little strange that I haven’t thought much about it since. I’m hoping that Keith will have some comments to add.

I’ve always been a fan of Andrzej Wajda and I looked forward to this biopic of Lech Walesa very much. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of films stretching back to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). In the first of these films Wajda adopted an approach not dissimilar to contemporary films from other countries. He mixed fictional and archive material in a film that tells the ‘real’ story of a model worker in the 1950s. This story is uncovered by a young TV director making a documentary. The second film then explores what happened to the son of the bricklayer from the first film. It focuses on the Gdańsk shipyard in the late 1970s with an appearance by the real Lech Walesa. Man of Hope focuses directly on Walesa himself but again utilises an investigatory narrative structure so that the early part of Walesa’s story (i.e. from his first brush with the authorities on the night his first child is born during the food protests in Gdańsk in 1970) is told via the device of an interview conducted by a visiting Italian journalist in 1983. The film ends with the downfall of the Polish government in 1989 and Walesa clearly an important and charismatic leader of a workers’ movement –but with some doubts about exactly what he did and how it affected the eventual outcome.

Wajda has been making films since the early 1950s and Man of Hope is of course very well executed with good performances by the two leads, Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska as Lech and Danuta Walesa. Many critics have pointed out that only Wajda is capable of so expertly melding the fictional and archive footage to recreate specific events from the 1980s. However, the enterprise is fraught with dangers. There are several different audiences for the film, each with different views on Walesa and the history of Poland during the post-war period and up to the present. Walesa himself has gone through periods of popularity culminating in his election as the second President of the New Poland in 1990. Since 1995, when he narrowly failed to be re-elected, he has lost support at home whilst still being lauded in international circles.

Wajda is said to have seen this production as a personal goal, although it followed his earlier film about the Polish officers killed by the Russians at Katyn. That really was ‘personal’ and concerned his memories of his father. I’m not sure how he feels about Walesa. He promised a film about Walesa that would not be hagiographic and Man of Hope does cast some doubts on the legend, including references to Walesa being forced to act as a stooge for the Polish secret police in his early days – something he at first naïvely accepted. Did he then repudiate the links later?

Danuta Walesa at home in the family's tiny flat with the Walesa children.

Danuta Walesa at home in the family’s tiny flat with the Walesa children.

I don’t know enough about Polish political and social history to make any kind of reasoned comment on how the ‘real’ Walesa is represented. I’ve never taken to him as a public character. He was not a trade union leader in the conventional sense or a socialist. His social views seem highly conservative. In fact I confess that the collapse of Eastern European communism has always seemed to me a mixed blessing – out of the frying pan of Soviet state capitalism and into the fire of privatisation, the (not) free market etc. The story about the rise of Solidarity has the capacity for great drama, but without the depth of historical knowledge needed to analyse events I turn to the more personal stories. In Man of Hope I found Danuta to be more interesting as a character – left to cope with the children and humiliated by the Polish authorities when she returned from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize. (I noted in my review of Katyn that Wajda had represented the women at home in order to show the effects of the Russian invasion in 1939.)

Wajda’s film is in the end perhaps too polished. Wajda himself has argued that Polish films were artistically stronger when making films was a struggle against censorship. Now films with serious themes struggle to find audiences unless they become more conventional (and perhaps shorter – this one at 125 minutes is much shorter than its two predecessors). At least in the UK it has got a release from the Polish independent distributor ‘Project London’. In its first weekend it was in 44 cinemas but managed only a £1,497 screen average. But in Poland the film topped the box office with the best opening of the year and attracted 150,000 cinemagoers over the first weekend. Fandor rounds up some of the American reactions (to screenings at festival, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet) and I noted that Marilyn Ferdinand praises the “energetic mise en scène of the Gdańsk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists”. I do agree that this was one of the positives of the film and it is simply good to see images of a mass of workers in an industrial dispute. The workers’ tactics sometimes struck me as naïve – presumably this is due to the years of repression of free trade unions. The lack of proper union leadership was perhaps why an opportunity arose for a charismatic outsider like Walesa?

 

Posted in Biopic, Polish Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Hannah Arendt (Germany/Lux/France 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 October 2013

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.

Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.

Commentary

The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by  Bettina Böhler.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah's New York apartment.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah’s New York apartment.

A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.

I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.

Thinking and smoking . . .

Thinking and smoking . . . (photo: Véronique Kolber)

If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.

Press pack to download.

Posted in Films by women, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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