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.
First a confession. I found this a puzzling film. It was difficult to watch for various reasons but it made me think and there are many good things about it. I first wrote a blog post asking questions and making guesses about what it all might mean. Then I discovered the Press Notes and most of the answers. I turned out to be more or less correct on several points but there were some things I didn’t know and I certainly hadn’t picked out all the ideas behind the film. I think you need the notes to ‘read’ the film successfully and I’m not sure that is a good thing. Here are my revised notes informed by the Press Pack.
During the screening I thought of an important but little-known film by Jean Renoir, Toni (France 1934). Often quoted as the film that provided the spark for neo-realism, Toni tells the story of Italian migrant workers in South-Eastern France filmed mostly on location. Grand Central is set in the lower Rhone Valley where there are three nuclear plants. The central characters are two experienced workers at one of these plants (one of whom is called Toni) and they accept the responsibility to take into their team three young workers who are marginal characters with backgrounds in petty crime. The older and younger workers live together in a caravan park by the river. One of the trio of young men, ‘Garry Manda’ (Tahar Rahim) then becomes involved with Toni’s young fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) who also works in the plant.
The Renoir connection is strengthened by a sequence in which Gary and Karole have a midnight tryst which takes them in a boat down the river and Toni is cuckolded just like the innkeeper in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (France 1936). I’m not suggesting that the film’s aesthetic approach matches Renoir, but there is certainly a shared sense of seeing the narrative from the point of view of the working-class characters. A second connection to Francophone cinema’s realist wing is the casting of Olivier Gourmet (from the Dardenne Brothers’ films) as Gilles, the senior figure on the works team. Toni is played by Denis Ménochet, best known from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. (These observations are matched by comments from the film’s director in the Press Pack when she says that she consciously drew on the 1930s films with working-class characters. As well as the naming of Toni, ‘Manda’ is a reference to the lead male character in Jacques Becker’s 1952 film Casque d’or. Denis Ménochet reminds the director of Robert Mitchum.)
The visual and aural style of the film does not necessarily relate to realism. Co-writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski employs shallow focus shots with ‘pulled’ focus transitions and a distinctive mix of interiors, seemingly shot inside a real nuclear power station, contrasted with pastoral scenes by the river. The interiors were shot on digital cameras to capture the detail of the harshly illuminated scenes but the ‘warm’ exteriors were shot on 35mm film. The music is often menacing from an electronic score involving various collaborations – most of the music was composed specifically for the film. The menace in the plant comes from the threat of contamination while outside it hangs heavily in the mainly outdoor scenes of a kind of communal life around the caravans and on the river bank creating a nervous tension between the men and relatively few women. I’m kicking myself now for not making the connections with stories about other kinds of industrial life with ‘workers camps’ – fruit-pickers, road-builders, railway-builders etc. The director refers to the bar and the camp found in certain kinds of Hollywood Western. These kinds of narratives all work with the combination of dangerous occupations and strong emotions amongst the camps’ inhabitants.
We learn about the procedures required inside the nuclear plant but very little about the backgrounds to any of the characters themselves. What is clear is that Gilles and Toni see themselves as skilled workers with an informed perspective on the inequalities of the working conditions in the plant whereas the the younger men (and possibly younger women) have no political awareness and are reckless in terms of the dangers posed by contamination. In this divide is the basis of an interesting film about collective v. individualistic behaviour and a critique of labour relations in the nuclear industry. (The scenes inside the plant – and some outside – were shot in a mothballed plant in Austria.) However, Ms Zlotowski presents the ‘worker’s story’ through the prism of the sexual relationship between Gary and Karole, her two attractive leads. There is an emphasis across the film on the bodies of the workers. We see them dressing and undressing and being examined for evidence of possible contamination from radioactive materials. After possible contamination they are hosed down and scrubbed. Outside the plant it is Karole who is clearly ‘exposed’. She wears an extraordinary outfit – a tight, close fitting ‘body’ garment of soft white cotton emphasising her breasts with similarly tight and short cut-off denims. This provocative outfit is both revealing and constraining – and clearly far too much for Gary. Léa Seydoux appeared in Zlotowski’s previous film Belle Épine and she was one of the twin stars of the controversial film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Her ‘exposure’ raises some questions about the intentions of her female director.
In the Press Pack Zlotowski suggests that she deliberately presented Seydoux as an erotic figure and that she had in mind something like the appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (US 1952) in which Robert Ryan pursues Barbara Stanwyck in a small fishing community. Tahar Rahim is a star actor who can suggest both vulnerability and fortitude but here it is quite difficult to understand what might be going on in his head. We do learn something about his difficult family background and there is the suggestion that he might have found a new family with Gilles and Toni like surrogate father/uncle/mentor. But he appears determined to ‘prove himself’ – partly by taking great risks with his own health. This threatens to break up his working group and the relationships in the caravan park. The two young lovers are not a conventional heroic couple.
The mixture of ‘romance’ and the Western helps to explain the focus on the saloon bar (with its mechanical bull, reminiscent of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy of 1980) as the focal point for the ‘showing off’ of the ‘strangers’ who come into town. Rebecca Zlotowski tells us that she also admires the Hollywood films featuring strong and tough working men and she quotes Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (yet another 1952 film) with Robert Mitchum as one of the rodeo riders.
I can now see how the film narrative is supposed to work. I’m not sure it quite does for me and the politics of labour conditions isn’t explored enough for my taste, but this is a much more interesting film than most out there, so please give it a go. The original story comes from a novel titled La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol and was then developed by Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s screenwriter. So, three women as creative forces behind a film about men at work and the possibly disruptive eroticism of a woman in their midst.
The helpful UK trailer:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.
At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.
Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.
It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.
At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8 – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.
The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.
The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.