Pride (UK 2014)

Part of the ensemble cast of Pride: (from left, Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

Part of the ensemble cast of PRIDE: (from left) Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

Pride is a remarkable film in several ways. Its narrative is conventional (based on a true story). It isn’t aesthetically interesting but it does two things very well. One is to provide its audience with high quality ensemble performances, some by well-known and celebrated UK actors, some by relative newcomers, all of which are well-judged and represent very effectively an array of characters, each of whom gets enough screen time to act as an identifiable ‘hero’ for part of the audience. In this way a broad audience can identify with the central narrative because of their attachment to one or more characters. This is no mean feat for a film dealing with arguably the most divisive period of modern British history.

The second great success of the film, at least to my mind, is that it deals with political ideas in a way that is inclusive, but at the same time is quite precise in analysing specific issues. OK, it is conventional, it uses familiar types and it does carry a large element of nostalgia and romance about very difficult times, but I think it manages to achieve the holy grail of ‘serious fun’. In doing so it raises a number of questions that need exploring.

The ‘true story’ here is that a number of activists in London branded themselves as ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM) in June 1984. They then randomly chose a community in South Wales as the recipients of the money they raised. This was not easy as NUM officials and strike committees were suspicious and reluctant to engage with LGBT groups. The resulting link-up was in the end a success, but not without trials and tribulations as well as downright opposition from individuals within the mining community. The strike ended in defeat, the eventual near-collapse of the mining industry and severe hardship for the mining communities themselves. But the film doesn’t end there. I won’t spoil the real ending.

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

The other horror of 1984-5 to go with the scores of police in transit vans and on horseback confronting striking miners was the spread of HIV and AIDS associated at this point with ‘unsafe sex’, especially within the gay community, and represented in public health advertising on TV by images of an iceberg lurking in dark waters. In 1984 gays and miners alike needed all the help they could get in the face of Thatcher’s attacks on ‘the enemy within’ as she branded them. The disappointment is that it’s taken 30 years to put these kinds of alliances on the screen. The current ‘Con-Dem’  government in the UK is now worse in many ways in its attacks on working people, even if so far it hasn’t resorted to Thatcher’s outright violence. Instead it has allowed the rich to get richer while penalising the poor – the kind of mutual support shown in Pride is even more valuable now.

Pride has taken off slowly in the UK despite a wide release. It made number 3 in the UK chart, but the screen averages were disappointing (for the weekend – it did OK in midweek when older people go to the cinema). Everyone I know who has seen it, raves about how much they enjoyed it. It should have the legs to grow a substantial audience over the next few weeks (only dropping 11% after the first week). Perhaps some audiences have been put off by the idea that it is about something from long ago. For many younger audiences the actual struggles will be something they know little about, but this shouldn’t stop engagement with the characters. It’s noticeable that the right-wing press in the UK have given the film 5 star ratings (Daily Mail, Telegraph etc.) even though the film explicitly attacks the ideologies they support. Significantly, they have also likened the film to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot – likeable popular films but films which denigrate traditional male working class culture and the political struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s. Pride is much more akin to Brassed Off which represented the anger created by the attacks of Thatcherism and Made in Dagenham that celebrated the political activism of women workers. Both Pride and Brassed Off represent the historical importance of the politicisation of the women of the mining communities, though Pride does so much more positively.

The screenwriter and director were both new to me. Because I don’t follow theatre I was not aware of Matthew Warchus who has had a stellar career as a stage director. It’s interesting that in aesthetic terms Pride is not particularly ‘theatrical’ in terms of lighting and mise en scène. This is only Warchus’ second feature and I liked the way he focused on the ensemble acting performances, the great dialogue scenes and the use of music. There are several interesting interviews with the pair, e.g. this one in Empire magazine. Writer Stephen Beresford tells us that the idea for the film arose in the mid-1990s during the second and final round of pit closures and, echoing a scene in Pride, Beresford had answered a call to support the miners with a “what have they ever done for us [gay men]?” kind of comment . . . and then somebody told him the true story. But it took more than 10 years to get the film into production because it seemed to break too many rules. It didn’t have a single hero, it had a lot of politics etc. It’s worth reading the interviews to get a full sense of just how conservative the UK film production community is.

The film doesn’t analyse the causes of the strike or the politics behind it, but what it does do is to focus on the idea of solidarity and mutual support, of committing to a cause and not forgetting who are your comrades and who is the enemy. The two other outcomes/’tie-ins’ for the film are the music and the associated news and feature stories. The music includes a host of 1980s club classics but also three great songs of solidarity, ‘Solidarity Forever’ by Pete Seeger, ‘There Is Power in a Union’ Billy Bragg and a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’ by Bronwen Lewis. A soundtrack album adds more 1980s songs and is likely to prove very popular. See the film’s website for details. Meanwhile, the true story is circulating via various press features like this one in the Observer about Mark Ashton played by the American Ben Schnetzer (beware spoilers about what happened to the historical figure).

Go and see it – you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a ‘making of’ featurette to introduce the film to US audiences (opens 26 September):

Satantango (Sátántangó, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, 1994).

In the beginning ...

In the beginning . . .

Fans of long slow movies can enjoy what is probably their ultimate cinematic treat with this film. It is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on the 21st of September courtesy of Scalarama, which runs across the UK through September. As an added treat for real purists the screening will be using 35mm prints. Presumably these will be the same ones screened at the Leeds International Film Festival a few years ago. On that occasion the exhausted but completely satiated audience emerged into the grey light of evening. This time it will likely be twilight as the event starts at 11 a.m. It then runs for over seven hours, 435 minutes of films plus two intermissions.

The film is structured in two parts, the first being the longest: however, these break down into 12 chapters, which are the more important organising principle. The ‘tango’ in the title refers to a complex narrative structure, which like the fabulous Argentinean dance, moves in an intricate forward and reverse motion. The ‘Satan’ refers [along with other aspects] to a strain of millenarianism. The story, [and there is one], is challenging to follow. But filmgoers familiar with the other work of the director Bela Tarr will know that his films are as much about parables and metaphors as they are about stories. The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) was his most recent [and sadly his last] feature released in the UK. Satantango is adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, which, apparently, is as complex as the film adapted from it.

A recent innovation in film studies is the concept of ‘slow cinema’. Tarr is the master of this form. After 90 seconds of credits Satantango opens with a sequence shot, running just over seven minutes, that tracks round a quiet and dilapidated village as cows in the early morning meander out into the field for grazing. This is folowed by a blank screen and a voiceover [subtitled] that opens the story. This style dominates the rest of the film. However the film uses parallel editing to set up counterpoint among the characters and situations; complicated by overlapping time frames. The sound design is equally complex, often seemingly naturalistic but evocative. The film is clearly an allegorical critique of changing face in Eastern Europe over the 1980s and early 1990s. It references the earlier system of state control and the new free-market capitalist economy, which replaced it, with strong parallels to the work of Miklós Jancsó.

Whilst this is an epic screening I think the film deserves viewing the complete chapters and running time. As we move into the reverse sequences of the later chapters [for me when I saw it] both characters and the contradictions in their situations started to achieve some clarity. It is also a film that one will need [and I think want] to consider and discuss for a considerable time after a viewing.

With the distance of time since I saw the film I think Werkmeister Harmonies (Werkmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Turin Horse are Tarr’s finest achievements. However Satantango, partly because of its epic length and complexity, is a unique and masterful cinematic creation.

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy 2014)

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.

A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:

2Days1Night

My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.

The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):

Finding Fela (US 2014)

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

My initial response to this film was to query why I had forgotten so much of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s – and then wonder whether I had ever known about it in the first place. The latter seems unlikely since Fela Kuti, the subject of this documentary, was a prominent figure in both music and political struggle in Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. When I got home I discovered some of his music in my collection. I think perhaps I was more interested in Francophone African music or South African jazz at the time – in which case this film was instructive but also left me wanting more.

Fela Kunti was born into a middle class Yoruba family in 1938. His mother was a significant figure in the Nigerian struggle against British colonialism and his father became a prominent educationalist. His elder brothers trained as doctors but Fela turned to music, abandoning Trinity College in London and discovering jazz. He arrived back in now independent Nigeria in the early 1960s after developing his skills in high-life music in Ghana. From then on he developed his own style later dubbed ‘Afrobeat’ and his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos became a focal point for music fans and also for dissent in the face of oppression by the succession of military leaders in Nigeria – some of whom were well-known to Fela and his family.

Finding Fela is a documentary by the suspiciously prolific Alex Gibney who appears to produce two or three high profile documentary films each year. This one runs to 120 mins – which is both a tad long for my taste but also not long enough to explore all the potential stories crammed into Fela’s relatively short life (he died in 1997). (By African standards it was, of course, a relatively long life and the fact that he died of AIDS seems symbolic in some way.)

Gibney’s approach is to hang his story on the preparations for and extracts from the Broadway musical Fela! first seen ‘Off Broadway’ in 2008 as written by Bill T. Jones and  Jim Lewis. We are taken by Jones through the difficult decisions about how to stage the show and how to deal with Fela’s music and his lyrics – which basically recount his activities and what he made of their impact. Intercut with this is a chronology represented via archive footage and interviews with those closest to Fela, including his children, manager, band colleagues and prominent fans. There are also several interviews with Fela Kuti himself so he is able to speak to us directly.

The more I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more frustrated I feel. The film is well made and its narrative flows easily so that I was never bored – but none of the stories were developed as much as I wanted. More on high-life and how it became Afrobeat would have been good. More background on the family and the politics of Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s would also have been good – but couldn’t have been achieved in a single feature. Gibney’s use of the Broadway musical and Fela’s American contacts gives the whole film an American or perhaps African-American feel. This is interesting, especially given the recent developments in links between Nigerian filmmakers and the diaspora audiences in the US. However, the film’s commentary offers the audience two assertions/observations that are more intriguing. One raises the comparison with Bob Marley – is Fela Kuti a similar figure as a ‘Third World Superstar’? Why is he more difficult for an American audience to understand? The second assertion is that Fela Kuti is second only to Nelson Mandela as an icon of popular resistance in Africa during the 1980s. I’m not sure about either of these observations but I am intrigued that my memory is that music from Francophone West Africa and from South Africa/Zimbabwe made more impact with me than the Nigerian/Ghanaian variety. Why? Fela Kuti sang in English for much of the time. Was he more likely to look towards the US? The documentary quotes his reactions to the racism he experienced in London in the late 1950s and how later he ‘re-learned’ African history after reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, writings introduced to him by American contacts. Again, I would have liked more on this.

Gibney has made his name with documentaries that focus on ‘fallen’ men (most recently Lance Armstrong) and Fela Kuti’s later career saw him increasingly interested in forms of African culture that eventually found him involved with a Ghanaian magician of doubtful repute. He was also criticised because of his approach to his marriage and his sexual adventures. This is covered in the latter stages of the film but I’m not sure about the way in which the transition from ‘heroic’ to ‘lost’ is handled in the film. There were a couple of clips from Channel 4 in the UK (Black on Black and a Muriel Grey interview) that weren’t properly captioned and that makes me think that this documentary was rushed. Overall, the view of Fela Kuti presented seems superficial, somehow less than the sum of the different parts of the film. I wonder what a filmmaker with more understanding of West African culture might have produced with the same access to the archives and personnel presented here. I suspect that they might not have used quite so much footage of the Broadway show and might have dug a bit deeper into the Nigerian experience.

The official US trailer: