I stumbled across this Rainer Werner Fassbinder + SF recently and was intrigued to see what the master of melodrama would do with the genre. Predictably, I guess, Fassbinder did what he normally did: use a highly stylised mise en scene to great effect. The two-part television production, Fassbinder made a number of TV films, was based on Daniel F Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3 (1964); later remade as The Thirteenth Floor (Germany-US, 1999). I won’t give too much away of the intriguing narrative which, while it may not have inspired The Matrix, certainly was a precursor.
Sensibly Fassbinder eschewed SF iconography though, as this excellent essay points out, they shot some scenes in Paris shopping malls, places that looked futuristic in West Germany at the time. Instead Fassbinder ramps up his usual stylised mise en scene with elaborate set-ups and playful imagery, such as the one above. He also uses telephoto zooms imaginatively to give the narrative world an unsettling quality. Mirrors are typically used in melodrama to signify issues of identity and so Fassbinder was clearly at home with much of the plot which focuses upon Fred Stiller’s (Klaus Lowitsch) attempt to find out the truth about the computer simulated world he is working on. Lowitsch is one of many Fassbinder regulars and recognising the actors adds a surreal quality to the film as they are playing out of their usual genre.
I thoroughly enjoyed part one but the first hour of the second episode focused on a fairly unconvincing ‘chase Fred’ narrative; and the ending didn’t satisfy. However, Fassbinder wasn’t simply addressing melodramatic questions of identity, he was also making a political point about private interests influencing government policy. Forty years on issues of identity (privacy) in cyberspace, and the influence of business interests, are more relevant that ever. World on a Wire is certainly worth a watch by fans of SF and Fassbinder.
This is a documentary film about ‘the catastrophe’ that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. It traces the history of the colonial policies and actions that led to their expulsion from their homeland. It was made by Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Rawan Damen in 2008 and transmitted on the Al Jazeera Arabic network. Now an English-Language version is being transmitted on their English Television network [Freeview 83 in the UK, with other language versions also available]. It runs for 200 minutes and is going out in four parts. Two episodes have already been transmitted but are being repeated.
Rawan Damen’s film is a fairly conventional television documentary using ‘talking heads’ and film and photographs. Much of the material and comment has been available in academic and historical publication. But now it is being presented in a fairly popular medium and it has the advantage of using visual material, which brings an increased power to the story.
The film starts with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, a key event that was analysed by the Palestinian writer Edward Said in his great work Orientalism. The first two episodes address the British occupation and Mandate of Palestine following the First World War. In was in that conflict that the new Zionist Movement achieved its coup of the Balfour Declaration – the British support for a Jewish State was seen as a way of ensuring the British presence and it’s interests across the Middle East.
It is difficult to decide which was more objectionable: the British colonial manipulation of a people and its lands, or the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the Zionist in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’. Certainly the policies and practices of each have much in common. The British Mandate saw the use of house arrests and executions, concentration camps, house demolitions, the exiling of leaders and the harassment and dissolution of Palestinian institutions. Just as British laws from the Mandate still serve the Zionist State, so do the brutal methods pioneered by the British.
Episode two focuses on the Palestinian resistance and revolution from 1936 to 1939. This is a part of the tale which gives lie to Zionist clams of ’a land without people'; and claims that a Palestinian nation did not exist. It also highlights the weakness and limitations of the Palestinian and Arab official leaders. Their failings were to be an important aid to the Zionist take-over in 1948. The other was the development of the Zionist military forces, which were happy to use actions now loudly condemned as ‘terrorism’ by Israel.
Rawan Damen has added an impressive range of commentators, including both Palestinian and Israeli historians, and ordinary Palestinians including refugees from Al-Nakba. This and the impressive array of actual film from the period really create its effect. There has been excellent research to retrieve film that has not been seen for a long time, including material in the British Archives.
This is both an important documentary film and contribution to the struggles of the Palestinian people. Fortunately Al Jazeera tend to repeat their programme several times. So it will be possible to catch up with episodes one and two if you missed them. Episode three will take us to the key year of 1948. Definitely tune into Al Jazeera - the channel is worth watching for a different slant on the news.
[Note that their transmission times are given in GMT not in British Summer Time],
I was shocked when Anthony Minghella’s death was announced last week. He was far too young and it must have been dreadful for those around him. There have been tributes from all sides of the UK and international film, theatre and oprea communities. He obviously helped a lot of people in the industry and was highly respected. I wasn’t that interested in his films which I assumed to be in the ‘international Miramax mode’ and the only one I saw in a cinema was Cold Mountain, which after a fantastic opening battle scene I found quite literally cold and ultimately disappointing. As a result I approached the film pilot of the projected TV series of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with some trepidation.
I was further taken aback to discover Richard Curtis was a co-exec producer and co-writer. His presence usually puts me off completely, but I’d heard great things of the novels that were the series’ inspiration and I was intrigued by how Botswana would look on film. The cinematography in the film pilot was by Seamus McGarvey and it was very beautiful — far too beautiful really. The opening sequences had numerous crane/cherrypicker shots that might have graced a mainstream Hollywood feature. Unfortunately, the novels (I’m told) are small scale, gentle tales that don’t need the epic treatment.
I have no problem with the BBC screening a series set in Africa (in a Sunday night ‘comfy telly’ slot, just like ITV) and I have no problem with Africa being represented by a gentle comedic series – I readily accept that it’s important to have alternative representations of African stories — they don’t all have to be about civil war, refugees and famine. But . . .
I do have problems with this series. I only lasted for less than half the running time and found something better to do. The opening was slow for no apparent reason. It looked like a one hour idea was being spun out over 100 mins or so. The beauty of the cinematography then began to look likeit was offering an alternative to the slow story. But my main concern is that the film isn’t really an ‘alternative’ to the other representations of Southern Africa. In fact it follows the usual British/American strategy of shipping in actors from the US and UK as well as writers, director, producer etc plus some heads of department. The heavy promotion of the film suggested ‘local’ sourcing of other crew, but as far as I could work out, this meant South African crew members alongside a couple of South African actors. Great play was made of being unable to find an African actor to play the lead role. I interpret this to mean that no African actor was considered suitable for a UK/US audience – I’m sure there are Zimbabwean women who could have played the character, or even South Africans. It wouldn’t be so bad if the BBC (or other UK channels) were prepared to put some money into African film production in Anglophone countries in the way that the French do in Francophone countries — or at least show some African film product.
South Africa is potentially the major source of African ‘films’ (ignoring for the moment the hundreds of video films being produced in Nigeria and Ghana) but as yet the South African industry has remained in thrall to Hollywood. I guess it was too much to expect the Weinsteins and HBO to do anything very different with The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
I managed to catch most of a BBC4 programme celebrating the 30th anniversary of the screening of the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book, and I’m glad I did. The programme neatly fitted into the current series of programmes marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. I didn’t watch the series all the way through in 1977. In those days I was rarely in during the evening, being at meetings, at work or the movies. However, I saw enough to know how it worked and I was well aware of it as a cultural phenomenon. What intrigued me most about the BBC4 programme was the use of a clutch of high profile 40 something British actors and writers to tell us about their memories of the programme as young schoolchildren. The likes of Adrian Lester, poet Lemn Sissay and actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah all spoke about how the programme had been a revelation since they had not learned enough about the slave trade in the classroom to understand what their own identity meant. Indeed Kwame Kwei-Armah changed his name from the ‘slave name’ of Ian Roberts, partly because of his experience of watching Roots. This set me to thinking about how much I knew about the experience of slavery and where I had learned this.
We certainly did cover the ‘triangular trade’ in secondary school history (but not by age 10-11 as the interviewees attested). I think I must have picked up most of my knowledge from popular literature, film and television and certainly a great deal from Jamaican music. I’ve got to acknowledge that it was coming across Bob Marley and the Wailers in the early 1970s that really got me interested in Jamaican history and led me towards Marcus Garvey and the powerful music of Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Sometime before 1977 I must also have got into Walter Rodney the Guyanese historian, probably through meeting Black activists in London.
One thing I certainly learned from the BBC4 programme was the extent of Alex Haley’s success as a journalist and writer. I’d forgotten that Haley was the journalist to whom Malcolm X told his story and which produced a book that went on to sell millions of copies as ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. I bought that book sometime in the mid 1970s and it had a big impact on my teaching. I remember the fuss over the release of the film Mandingo in 1975 (a melodrama about sex and race championed by Movie magazine), but I don’t suppose that even that controversy penetrated far into the popular imagination of the period. That was the achievement of Roots. I wonder how the mini-series would do today? And I wonder too, how much today’s students really know about the history of slavery? Do they have time (or the inclination) to look for the literature and the music that tells the personal stories that carry the emotional power of a Roots? More on this please BBC4.
It’s over a week since the local elections and since Channel 4’s broadcast of The Bradford Riots. I’m surprised that there has been relatively little mention in the national press of the local results in Bradford, where Labour actually did well, taking seats from the Tories and reducing the BNP’s seats. In Keighley, Labour won all three seats, including one for an Asian woman – a significant success, I think.
The Bradford Riots is a ‘realist drama’ based on the events in July 2001 when a National Front march was proposed for Bradford and Asian youths took to the streets to defend their territory. The independent production company stated that they could not get permission to restage the events in Bradford so the film looks a little bizarre to the locals with key scenes shot in parts of Liverpool.
Some of the national critics have complained that the central character is not ‘typical’ because he is a university student. But from what people tell me the story sticks pretty closely to ‘real’ events. It was researched, written and directed by Neil Biswas. He is, I think, from the Bangladeshi community in Whitechapel, the location for his first feature, Second Generation in 2003. He does a good job and the film is well worth watching. At the end, I was moved and angry on behalf of the family at the centre of the drama. But that was mostly because I knew the story was ‘true’ – by which I mean that what happened to the characters actually did happen to real people.
It’s very difficult for realist television drama to do more than that, but the day before I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) What a movie! I love Melville and this a digital restoration by a French archive of a 1969 film. The colours are muted and the film is relatively slowly paced over 145 mins. But Melville is in complete control. I wish I could think of easy ways to introduce this kind of filmmaking to younger audiences. There are no car chases and little direct conflict in this story about the French resistance, mostly based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, but also on Melville’s own wartime experience. The action as such comprises an escape from custody, a reluctant execution, another escape from a firing squad and a ‘mercy’ assassination. Between these dramatic highs are long periods of tension building,with marvellous performances by the likes of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.
Melville is an expressionist rather than a ‘realist’, but I was convinced of the ‘reality’ of the situations that faced the resistance fighters. I particularly enjoyed Lino Ventura’s flight back to France from London. Prepared to jump from an RAF plane with his parachute harness over his overcoat and suit, our hero has his glasses firmly taped to his forehead with elastoplast. It’s those touches of humanity that make this a great film.