The French director was a guest of the Bradford International Film Festival and joined in a ScreenTalk with Neil Young: he also received The Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship 2012, (he is the first foreign language filmmaker to receive this Award). This was followed by his 1996 film Irma Vep starring the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. At that time Maggie Cheung was not that well known among European audiences. Bringing her to the attention of this world was an appropriate action by Assayas, as he had established himself originally as a writer and editor for the prestigious Cahiers du cinéma. In his time there he steered the journal, and interest amongst European film critics, to the cinemas of Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Those cinemas have subsequently become lauded for the films of directors like John Woo (Hong Kong) and Hou Xiaoxian (Taiwan). In keeping with his punk sensibility he expressed an antipathy to Film Theory, though he clearly believes in analysis. He suggested that what is known as Film Theory has been ‘reduced to a system of references, which had become academic’. Unfortunately he did not detail the particular critical writings he was talking about.
I found the interview rather diffuse. We got some sense of Assayas’ work with Cahiers du cinéma, but the conversation focused primarily on Irma Vep and the 2010 epic thriller Carlos. The talk opened with a clip from Irma Vep with a scene in which Maggie Cheung becomes increasingly disorientated. In the film she plays a Hong Kong actress bought to France to appear in an ‘art film’ remake of the classic silent French film serial Le Vampires (1916). Predictably, given my love of early film, I found the first part of the film, which revisits the 1916 silent, fascinating. But the later stages of the film focus on Cheung’s increasing alienation in the strange and backbiting arena of French film. The film was scripted fairly fast and shot even faster, and to be honest I shared Cheung’s disorientation in the later stages.
Neil Young asked Assayas about the use of a punk sound by the band Spiral (Sonic Youth) in the scene in question. Assayas clearly has a love of punk and shares some of their characteristics. Another festival dubbed him a ‘post-punk auteur’. I think this explains the mixture of critical and personal, which feature in Assay’s films, though I prefer a clearer focus on the critical. One comment by Assays summed this up: “I am standing nowhere channelling the chaos.” On the music itself he explained that this is written in the script: that he dislike conventional film scores and aims rather to produce collages.
Assayas does have a strong cinematic background. His father was a screenwriter, Jacques Rémy. He had a sort of apprenticeship in England at the Pinewood studio. One film he worked on was the original Superman: very different in scale and tone from his own films.
His career bears a resemblance to some of the young Turks in the Nouvelle Vague. After his stint on Cahiers du cinéma Assayas was fairly critical of the French cinema in which he emerged in the late 1980s. He expressed eclectic tastes, having praise for Clint Eastwood (especially Honky Tonk Man, 1982), early Cronenberg such as Videodrome (1982), John Carpenter’s Assault of Precinct 13 (1976), and the lesser known ‘sub porn’ filmmaker Jesús Franco. His own film work reflects this eclecticism, Demonlover (2002) tends towards horror with a plot constructed around Japanese anime: whilst Summer Hours (L’heure d’été, 2008 – also screened at the festival) is a family drama constructed round the death of a matriarch.
The latter part of the Talk focussed on Carlos, which tells the story of the ‘terrorist/revolutionary’ ‘The Jackal’ (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). I find it difficult to judge this film as it was distributed in the UK (and screened at the Festival) in a version running 165 minutes: cut down from a five and half-hour television version. I was conscious of frequent lacunae in the film, which left important gaps in the story of Carlos and also appeared to weaken the political representation of his career. We were shown a clip from the film: a dynamic sequence where Carlos is surprised by the security police at a social gathering and with great aplomb shoots the two policemen and an informant. Both Assayas and Young saw this as the central sequence of the film, partly because this was the action for which Carlos was tried and imprisoned for in 1997. It seems that the longer version has material on German Revolutionary Cells, an attempted assassination of President Sadat and more detail on his relationship with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I would hope that this gives greater political substance to the biopic, which in the UK released version tends to present Carlos in a schematic fashion and focuses as much on his inconsistencies as his convictions.
This film is though, like Irma Vep, fascinating and intriguing and the style has great panache. One could pay the same compliment to Assayas, who is a fascinating and talented filmmaker. I rather felt though that we might have learnt more with a tighter focus in the interview.
I did manage to ask him a quick question after the talk about his membership the 2011 Cannes Festival Jury. He said that he voted for Malik’s The Tree of Life for the Palme D’or, but that also he ‘worked very hard to get the Grand Prix for Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu`da)’: he certainly deserves credit for the latter award.
The Festival also screened Late August, Early September (Fin août, début setembre, 1998) with Mathieu Amalric and Virginie Ledoyen. The film also features actress and director Mia Hansen-Løve whose new film, Goodbye First Love, is just released.
The full five and half-hour miniseries has now been screened on British television Channel 4 twice. So it is possible to consider the complete film and the differences from the shorter versions distributed to UK cinemas. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos) himself has denounced the film for its ‘deliberate falsifications of history’. I think this has some justification, but probably what is most problematic is the characterisation, with Carlos himself depicted as a womaniser and prone to political rhetoric. And the majority of other political activists in the film are not presented so much as political characters but as romanticists or hard-line ideologues.
I di not find the longer version made a lot of difference from this angle. We do get to see the actions of the Japanese Red Army, The German revolutionary Cells, and later their involvement with the Stasi and other EsterEuropeanRepublic’s secret services. But what political discussion or argument are heard tends to the rhetorical. I also thought here were more scenes of a sexual nature in this version.
The film is impressive technically and in managing to maintain narrative interest over such a length. Much of this is due to the cast, especially Edgar Ramírez in the lead role. However, the film fails to find a form that gives expression to the actual nature of the politics of Carlos and the individuals and groups with whom he worked. To be honest I don’t think this would have been a conscious aim of the producers or the director: this fits with the other films by Olivier Assayas.. The first part of Steven Soderberg’s Che is a much better example of how to treat the political discourse of violent opposition to the status quo. To be fair though, the liberation politics of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro do have more substance than that of the European fellow travellers of the Palestinian struggle of the 1960s to 1980s.
I wasn’t able to make the final day of the festival on Sunday but a press release reveals that the winner of the first European Features Competition was Volcano directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson, who received €3,000. I’m happy to concur with the judges and this was the winner I expected. It’s a fine film and the director deserves support – perhaps someone will now distribute the film in the UK? My only slight concern is that Volcano is in some ways a ‘typical’ festival prizewinner and sometimes it would be good to see the prize go to an animation like Arrugas (which did receive a ‘special mention’), a road movie like Avé or even a quirky satire like Adalbert’s Dream.
The winner of the Shine Shorts Competition was the German film Kinderspiel (Child’s Play) by director Lars Kornhoff. I wasn’t able to see the shorts in this competition so I can’t comment but David Wilson, Director of Bradford City of Film, said: “The winning film, Kinderspiel, was chosen due to the quality of the production. The film was really well shot and the jury thought it was very well acted. There was a real tenderness to the film and a plot line full of surprises. The music score was also noted for its writing and production and the way it worked with the film.”
I enjoyed my visits to the festival this year, managing six days in all. I haven’t posted on everything I saw and there are still two to come, but I might delay these as they are both due to open later this month. For the record, Ismaël Ferrhouki’s Les hommes libres was my favourite film of the festival and one of the films of the year so far. I also very much enjoyed the new version of Faust by Alexander Sokurov.I was grateful to get the chance to see Belle de jour again, on a 35mm print that although a bit scratchy on the reel changes looked good with excellent colour. (Belle de jour was part of the celebration of Pierre Clémenti’s film work.) I think that there are also postings from Rona and Keith to come.
So, congratulations to co-directors Tom Vincent and Neil Young for establishing a new competition and overseeing what appeared to be a successful transition of BIFF into a new era. Thanks too to Rachel McWatt for organising my press tickets. It will be interesting to see how this year’s festival comes through its evaluation and what then awaits us next year.
Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.
Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.
There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)
Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1). I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.
I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.
As I watched this film I found myself engrossed but also at times bewildered and definitely disturbed. Toomelah was screened as part of a celebration and exchange between Bradford and Sydney as the first two UNESCO ‘Cities of Film’. My reaction was partly formed around the question of what kinds of considerations went into the choice of this film? I found that some of the other audience members I spoke to afterwards felt the same way. It was only afterwards that I noticed in the festival brochure that Toomelah had won a UNESCO prize for ‘An outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film’ at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2011. That explains the choice of the film for a Bradford screening but there are still plenty of questions to explore. I should point out that if, like me, you prefer not to read the full blurb in the brochure before the film, this is one film where it could be a mistake.
The problem for a UK audience is that the film itself offers no context for what it shows us and therefore runs the risk that we might misread it. At the end of the opening credit sequence we are presented with close-ups of a small figurine of a boxer, a trophy or an award of some kind. The first scene then shows us a small boy waking and asking his grandmother for money which he uses to buy some chips to eat on his way to school. But at school he behaves in such a disruptive manner that the teacher asks him to leave the room. For most of the rest of the film Daniel refuses to go to school and instead tags along with a group of men led by Linden the local drugs dealer. Daniel’s mother appears to have little control over or indeed much interest in her son and his grandmother withdraws to her room when her sister Cindy re-appears after 50 years away. Daniel’s father appears to live literally ‘in the gutter’ and is usually drunk. The father was indeed a boxer and Daniel sees boxing as something he can be good at. The boy’s other relationships involve his girlfriend Tanitia and Tupac the boy he fights with at school. The community is made up of indigenous peoples – the only white Australians we see are a teacher and two police officers.
The setting of this community isn’t given (though since the film is part-funded by New South Wales Screen, we assume it must be in the state somewhere). There are occasional long shots showing the landscape and these images of great natural beauty contrast with the brutality of the language used by everyone in the community. If it was released in the UK, the BBFC would struggle to give the film less than an 18 Certificate. All the dialogue is subtitled, which I found annoying since only the occasional word is a problem, but it’s difficult not to read the subtitles. None of the characters in the narrative appear to be played by ‘actors’. Is this a documentary, a dramatised reconstruction of an event or a completely fictional story? The filming style is both skilful in terms of framing and editing but also very loose, especially in the use of a handheld camera and a pronounced tendency to ignore focus, often seeming to be adjusted during shots, as if the filmmaker had just forgotten. There is a clear narrative that involves Daniel and the return of another ‘bad c**t’ from prison who threatens to take over Linden’s business. The climax of the film is then predictable.
I’m presenting the film in this way just to emphasise how such films can come across. I said I was engrossed and that’s true. The performances are staggeringly good with only a couple of occasions when sly glances towards the camera or slight hesitations in speaking betray the non-professionals. What is also clear is that while the film in one sense reinforces a negative image of indigenous communities, one which is repeated for similar communities in North America and other parts of the world, the script is also carefully constructed so that we are aware of real social issues. The lack of employment, the aimlessness of lives, substance abuse and sexual abuse are major problems associated with the racist policies which took children away from families (the ‘Stolen Generations’) and tried to eradicate the cultural identity of communities with the loss of language and history as well as the condemnation of whole communities to a second class status in Australian society. These references are carefully woven into the fabric of the film rather than presented directly. Personally I wanted to know more, e.g. about the black and white photographs in the schoolroom showing group portraits from earlier decades in the community. Having said that there are some discussions (and school lessons) about the ‘lingo’ of the local peoples and a couple of songs.
It took me a little while to research the film and this is what I found, starting with the official website. ‘Toomelah’ is a real place, a remote community of the Gamilaroi people based around an old mission (set up in the 1930s as part of a forced assimilation project for scattered smaller groups) in the far north of New South Wales nearly on the border with Queensland. It became the centre of a scandal in the late 1980s when a leading judge visited the community and helped to publicise the shocking living conditions and social problems (the most discussed being child abuse). This in turn led to an ‘intervention’ by the federal government and later changes in policy by the New South Wales government. So, I presume that Toomelah is well-known in Australia.
The filmmaker is Ivan Sen, whose mother grew up in Toomelah. He himself was brought up in Inverell, a small town further down the Macintyre River. He trained as a filmmaker and achieved success with his first feature Beneath Clouds in 2002, winning a prize at Berlin. A fiction film drawing on Sen’s own feelings growing up as a mixed race young man, this was followed by several other short dramas and documentaries, an experimental feature Dreamland (2010) and then Toomelah. Sen has maintained his interest in his roots, returning over several years to Toomelah. The filming style of Toomelah is explained by his decision to make the film virtually by himself so that his non-professional cast of locals (many from the same family) would not be intimidated by the presence of a large professional crew. This willingness to lose the slickness of a proficient crew has been rewarded by very ‘natural’ performances – and didn’t prevent the film being selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ programme at Cannes in 2011.
According to its Facebook page and several glowing reviews in Australia, the film has been warmly welcomed by audiences, including those who know the community at Toomelah. However, its theatrical release in Australia seems to have been limited. I suspect it will do well on DVD and in non-traditional screening events. My concern is how it will be read elsewhere in festivals and specialised cinemas. One of the questions is about the ‘humour’ in the film which is mentioned by the filmmaker and the promotional material. I think that the film deals in authenticity and often this extends into a general sense of warmth in communal relations which we can all respond to. However, there were moments in which the film’s style reminded me of reality TV and the kinds of potentially exploitative material featured in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and similar programmes focusing on the ‘exotic’ behaviour of particular subcultures. Are we laughing at or with these communities? Toomelah is of course made from within a community and I’m not suggesting that it is exploitative, only that it could be misread. I’m sure that most audiences want children like Daniel to have a better future than their parents’ generation. The exposure of the problems they face is best organised from within their own culture and therefore it is important that filmmakers like Ivan Sen are funded and able to negotiate decent distribution deals. How we then respond to such films is a question which I think prompts a call for better film education in film cultures generally around the world.
Here’s the official trailer from the production company, Bunya:
And an interview with Ivan Sen: