Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France 1961)

History activated

History activated

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.

Waiting For August (Belgium 2014)

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.

Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.

Teodora Ana Mihai, <>

Director Teodora Ana Mihai

If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.

The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:

. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.

Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.

As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.

I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.

At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.

Trailer:

Betibú (Argentina-Spain 2014)

Mercedes Moran as 'Betibu', the crime novelist turned investigator.

Mercedes Morán as ‘Betibú’, the crime novelist turned investigator.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680This was perhaps the most enjoyable film to watch in my festival selection. It’s a solid mainstream investigative thriller with some interesting characters and a twisty plot. It’s the kind of film that would work well in BBC4’s Saturday night European crime fiction slot.

The title refers to the Spanish name for the cartoon character ‘Betty Boop’ and it was affectionately given as a nickname by Jaime Brena (Daniel Fanego), a crime reporter for a Buenos Aires newspaper, to a leading crime novelist Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Morán) some years ago. Brena is now being pushed out of his job and Iscar is reduced to more mundane writing after her last novel failed to please the critics. But when a wealthy man is found with his throat cut in a gated country club community, Brena and Iscar become involved in investigating the murder. Brena’s boss discovers that the newly-appointed young graduate crime desk chief needs guidance and lacks useful contacts and Brena is back on the job. Iscar is hired to write a ‘colour piece’ on the crime scene – but this is also a ruse by which the editor can attempt to rekindle a relationship with her. The subsequent investigation unearths a story which can be traced back to events many years ago involving wealthy families in Buenos Aires and the narrative has a darker ending than might be expected from some of the earlier exchanges.

The Argentinian production company behind the film (the wonderfully-named ‘Haddock Films’) is best known internationally for The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). That was a much more adventurous film and more clearly concerned with the dark political history of Argentina. Betibú suggests that the dark past can be kept dark by ‘The Organisation’, but there are certainly similarities with The Secret in Their Eyes in some of the settings. The film’s director is Miguel Cohan whose first film was the well-received No Return (Argentina 2010). Betibú is an adaptation of a novel by Claudia Piñeiro.

Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán are excellent and I could have taken much more of them. Fanego underplays to great effect and Morán is convincing as a writer-investigator (and quite different to the well-known Angela Lansbury character Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. but I would have to agree with The Hollywood Reporter review which suggests that the two roles taken by Spanish actors, the editor and the young crime desk chief, are both underwritten and not up to the level of the two central characters. This raises the question of co-productions and the extent to which Spain and Argentina/Mexico/Columbia etc. need each other to be involved in a production. Betibú looks great and it looks like a certain level of production funding was required. It may also be that ‘pan-Hispanic’ distribution is helped by co-production. However, many of the other co-productions I’ve seen make much better use of Spanish actors.

Warner Bros. distributed the film in Argentina but I haven’t seen any indications of European or North American distribution as yet. Overall I’ve been impressed with the quality of Argentinian productions in the last few years and I hope this does get a wide distribution. It’s probably for older audiences who, I think, will enjoy it.

58th BFI London Film Festival

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The 58th BFI London Film Festival closed on Sunday after offering an enormous range of films over 12 days across 17 venues (and other one-offs). The festival screened 248 features and 148 shorts. I managed 10 in three days. Even if I’d kept that up for the whole twelve days I would only just have scraped a bit off the surface. The only way to see four films a day (given that screenings tend not to start until 12.00 at the earliest) is to choose one you want to see and then work out the other titles you can fit round it. Even so, I found myself dashing between venues more than 30 minutes apart by public transport.

All the films I saw were worthwhile. Most were very enjoyable and some were painful  but still interesting. I think three of the ten will get a UK release soon and one of those is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Four of the films were directed by women and six of the screenings included Q & As with the director. Overall then the festival can certainly be made to work as a celebration of film culture. I’ve no complaints about what I experienced on screen. I do think, however, that since I first attended it some forty years ago the London Film Festival has become too big and too commercial. There are now as many ‘Gala’ screenings (mainly of UK/US films that will soon be released anyway) as high profile screenings from other festivals. The programme with its sections on ‘Love’, ‘Dare’, ‘Laughter’ etc. is very difficult to navigate. Archive restorations are buried in these sections and there is no easy way to find say Indian or Chinese films. In some ways, the festival is like ‘BFI Southbank’ as we are now supposed to call the BFI’s HQ – efficient, modern, ‘popular’ but also for me a little soulless and missing the excitement of smaller festivals. Of the screening venues, I was in NFT2 for three screenings and I think it’s time it was replaced – it’s a rather cramped rectangular shape with a screen that’s too small. I was lucky that four of my films were showing in the largest of the screens at the Vue West End and I enjoyed the CinemaScope presentations on the big screen.

Reviews to follow over the next few days.