Film from 1919 at Il Cinema Ritrovato

Neil Brand at the piano in the Modernissimo

Every year this Archive Festival in Bologna has a programme of titles from the parallel year in the 20th century, A Hundred Years Ago: 1919′. The curators of the programme, Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, made the point in the Festival Catalogue:

1919 is the first year of the A Hundred Years Ago strand for which a certain canon exists . . . the easiest option seemed not to be the most interesting one, and we decided, as in every year since 2004, to go on a pilgrimage to the archives and view as many films from 1919 as possible . . . We also decided at an  early stage to include as many short films as possible …

They also argued that the focus is on films from Germany and Scandinavia.

This was not planned but simply happened  as a result of the fact that in 1919 the most interesting films were made there.

So we enjoyed some known classics, unknown films and surprises, and a programme of varied short films from small dramas to travelogues and newsreels. One of the attractions of the selection was that the bulk of the screenings were on 35mm. Even so, given the complexity of the overall festival programme, with up to seven screens at any one time, it was not possible to see every single film.

The programme was divided into eight chapters, the first being ‘Old and New’.

Here we saw Carl Théodor Dreyer’s very fine The President (Præsedenten, 1919). Adapted from an Austrian novel the President of the title is a judge. His fallibility repeats the transgression of both his father and grandfather. The print  from the Danish Film Institute was both tinted and toned  and the visual quality was enhanced by a fine accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. This was a great film to revisit.

‘The President’

Three other titles were by Jakov Protozanov, Mauritz Stiller {Sir Arne’s Treasure / Herr Arnes Pengar} and Augusto Genina. The last was a social comedy, The Mask and the Face / La maschera e il volto, in which a husband’s macho boasts on what he will do if his wife takes a lover come back to haunt him.

Next was ‘Censorship Abolished. German ‘Vice and Enlightenment Films”.

A vice film (in German: Sittenfilm) is a film that, under the mantle  of ‘enlightenment’, deals with taboo subjects mostly from  the field of sexuality. (Karl Wratschko in the Catalogue).

There was a film directed by Richard Oswald on a gay them, Different from the Others (Anders als die andern). The Pimp (Der Mädchenhirt) directed by Karl Grune  with prostitution and venereal decease in the plot. When censorship was re-imposed it disappeared from view. Whilst Misericordia (Tötet nicht mehr!) was a committed film addressing capital punishment directed by Lupu Pick.

‘Indian Cinema’ was a screening of D. G. Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan (The Childhood of Krishna). This is one of the few surviving silent films made in India and the only film by the key pioneer Phalke to survive almost complete.

‘Three actresses from the US with Love’ featured an extract from Creaking Stairs with Mary McLaren who also starred in Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916). A woman director, Ruth Stonehouse’s Rosalind at Redgate. And the French director Albert Capellani working with the star Nazimova at the Metro Picture Corporation. This drama, The Red Lantern,  was set  during the ‘Boxer rebellion in China; with fairly awful stereotypes of Chinese people.

Nazimova

‘Independent Cinema’ offered Back to God’s Country, a Canadian wilderness adventure. Historien om en gut / The Story of a Boy, a Norwegian drama of a boy who runs away. And fragments from La Fête Espagnole / Spanish Fiesta directed by Germaine Dulac. All three showed the way that many independent productions utilized actual locations, offering natural detail often lacking from studio productions.

The sixth chapter was titled ‘Revolution’, Karl Wratschko commented;

1919 was one of the most revolutionary years in the C20th. In this year there was revolutionary activity in many different countries of Europe as well as in Egypt.

From Hungary we had a film by Mihály Kertész [later Michael Curtiz] My Brother is Coming (Jön az öcsém), adapted from a revolutionary poem,

released barely two weeks after the proclamation of the world’s second communist republic . . .

‘My Brother is Coming’

From the opposite standpoint came Die Bolschewistischen … (Germany) which depicted the killing by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine of the opposition in the Civil War. A German newsreel showed the street battles during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. A  second included the funeral of one of the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg.

‘Nature, Humour, Science’ provided a sense of a cinema visit in the early C19th.

. . . for nearly two decades, . . . [this] meant not seeing a long story . . . , but some 10 to 15 short films from  a wide range of genres and with maximum diversity in aesthetic impact and emotional register; . . . (Mariann Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

So we had non-fiction, newsreel, adverts and comedy. There was the famous and staged signing of the United Artists incorporation with the stars gathered round Chaplin. From the Soviet Union ‘The Funeral of Vera Kholodnaya, a major star of the Russian silent cinema, including films with Evgeni Bauer. The adverts were animated films from a French pioneer, Robert Lortac. And among the comedies was Seff Kostet 24,50 dollar groteske von seff (Austria). This followed the adventures of a tailor’s dummy and its human look-a-like.

Dummy or human?

The final part of the programme was a serial screened in parts, morning and evenings, at the Modernissimo. This is an underground cinema waiting restoration but extremely atmospheric and [seemingly] the coolest spot in Bologna. I Topi Grigi is an Italian production starring and directed by Emilio Ghione. A major star Ghione played Za la Mort, a master of disguise, who has eight episodes to outwit and bring to justice the ‘Grey Rats’ of the title. As always in serials there were cliff-hanging ends of episodes, a variety of criminal enterprises, a changing cast of villains and victims and a final denouement between hero and arch-villain. Following the whole serial was a commitment but a bonus was that one would hear nearly all of the ensemble of talented musicians who accompany the silent screenings.

Blinded by the Light (UK-US 2019)

An iconic British image composed in relation to the Motorway sign. Eliza (Nell Williams), Javed and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.

The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).

Javed in full Bruce mode and inspired to write

Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).

The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?

Javed’s family with Dad (Kulvinder Ghir), Mum (Meera Ganatra) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta)

The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.

Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.

Examples of the creative visual use of Springsteen’s lyrics

I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.

All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.

The Incessant Fear of Rape (Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal, India Hindi 2019)

In 2012 a young woman was gang-raped while travelling on a private bus in Delhi and her friend was beaten. All the six men on the bus, including the driver were involved in the rape and beatings. The incident and the trial that followed created a media storm in India and internationally. The Incessant Fear of Rape is the second film from the team that made Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017), a film which was much admired when it was shown at festivals in the UK in 2018. It dealt with sex workers who set up a female co-operative as a protection against abuse and exploitation. The new film, again written and directed by Aditya Kripalani and co-produced by Sweta Chhabria, is not directly about the 2012 gang rape incident but instead explores how a group of women might respond to the constant threat of rape they face travelling in the Delhi region.

It is significant that the narrative is set in Delhi which as a city region has grown extremely quickly to become the ‘National Capital Territory of India’ and the second largest urban area in the world with 26 million residents. It rivals Mumbai as symbolic of the ‘New India’ with the ‘satellite city’ of Gurgaon where the women live and the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. All of this means that many workers find themselves commuting for long periods across the city region. Kripalani’s film sees four women who find themselves in a ‘female only’ taxi struggling to make the journey home one evening when the traffic congestion is particularly bad.

In the taxi, from left Shagun driving, in the back Vibha and Shaila and, in the passenger seat, Chitra

The driver, Shaila (Kritika Pande) is the young owner of a taxi company who finds herself driving tonight but who is soon ousted from the driver’s role by the aggressive police officer Shagun (Sonal Joshi) who claims she knows a better route. In the back are Vibha (Shalini Vatsa), employed as a ‘social media consultant’, and Chitra (Chitrangada Chakraborty) who teaches martial arts classes for women. With her closely cropped hair, it took me a while to recognise this lead player from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb. The women don’t know each other but they are soon chatting about, among other things, forms of feminism, and when they decide to stop at a roadside bar/café because the traffic is so bad, Shagun tells the others about her first encounter with a violent man in her police work. At their outdoor table a man in leathers on a motorbike leers at Chitra and makes a nuisance of himself around the four women. Later, the women find themselves on a lonely road where the same man (played by Vinay Sharma) re-appears, riding close to them and shouting. Chitra loses her temper and manages to knock him off his bike. Soon the four women have a ‘captive’. What will they do with him?

After a long day in the office Vibha takes a double dose of nicotine for the journey home

The women have already discussed the fear of rape and how men don’t understand what rape means and what it means to be fearful on the streets at night – or in buses and taxis. They quickly determine to teach this man a lesson. Shagun knows about some empty premises and they lock him up in a metal cabinet. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative pleasures about how the plot develops but I do want to discuss ideas about genre and narrative structure. There are four women in the car who don’t know each other and who each respond differently to the situation. We learn most about Vibha. She is introduced at the beginning of the film arriving for work on a Metro train. In a clever title sequence we see her framed under signage indicating the ‘Women Only’ carriage on the train and later aggressively smoking two cigarettes as she looks out over the city. On the soundtrack is a rock song with some English lyrics I couldn’t quite work out but they relate in some way to the narrative. Vibha recognises something in Chitra’s behaviour and invites her home after they have locked up the man. We will learn about Vibha’s back story in some detail and later we will learn about Chitra too. (Vibha’s story is told in flashback introduced in an elliptical way). Only Shaila will remain without a back story. Her role, in generic terms, is to be the one who has to be ‘taught’ and convinced that what the other three women plan to do is thought out and ‘justified’ as a response to male violence. In a way she stands in for us, the audience.

The women in the print shop contemplating their next step

Once the man is locked up, the generic elements of a different kind of film come to the fore. Now we have a prisoner and four potential gaolers. I was impressed by the script at this point and the way that a certain kind of ‘training programme’ was developed. Although I haven’t watched any examples, I remember the cycle of ‘torture porn’ horror films such as the Saw films and I wondered if the women would inflict increasing forms of physical pain on the man. But their plans are more sophisticated and involve breaking him down psychologically. To some extent this draws on ideas about BDSM. Rape is about power rather than sexual drive and the women want the man to understand this so they use humiliation and link it to gender roles. They discuss how men in India still think of women only in three ways: women must ‘dress to look hot’, ‘cook well’ and ‘be fuckable’. (I think the film’s Hindi title refers to this sexist language.) This might well apply to male ideas everywhere but India does seem particularly mired in this form of sexism. The recent film Article 15 (2019) focused on sexual violence in rural Uttar Pradesh and linked it casteism, but The Incessant Fear of Rape takes place in the National Capital Territory and involves the ‘New Women’ of India. The women want to ‘break’ their captive and to publicise the lesson they are giving. I won’t give away the ending which is in some ways shocking, but on reflection makes some sense after I read about the Delhi bus gang rape in 2012. The Incessant Fear of Rape is a disturbing narrative – as it should be. The women’s fear is understandable but their actions might be considered excessive in relation to what the man did and they conjure up ideas about vigilantism and revenge which aren’t lawful. What do we make of the moral questions about their actions alongside our thoughts about the social evils of rape?

Vibha and Chitra after they have taken the man captive

I did the film disturbing to watch but it certainly made me think about rape in new ways and overall I thought it was an example of how a different kind of ‘social’ film could expose the issue and engage an audience. But how is it as a ‘film’? It’s low budget and classifiable as an ‘Indian Independent’. I don’t think the film has been released to cinemas in India but it is available on Netflix and that’s how I accessed it in the UK. Since I don’t have a Netflix account I had to watch it at a friend’s house. One weakness in the film, which may have been attributable to how the Netflix signal was received, was the poor sound quality. I had difficulty hearing the English dialogue used by some of the women and the music didn’t come across well, especially the bass notes in the guitar track which ran through several sequences. Aditi Sharma’s camerawork, following on from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, uses mainly ‘available light’ and works to represent the harsh environments. The empty print shop is sometimes bathed in different single colours. The mise en scène of Vibha’s apartment offers us artworks, a shelf of books and film posters. I recognised a poster for Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a parallel film starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Vibha is cine-literate and Aditya Kripalani was an FTII graduate. He is also a novelist and the eclectic selection of popular fiction and biographies on Vibha’s shelves made me think about where my images of Gurgaon and ‘New India’ came from and I think they are literary, for instance from Chetan Baghat or Aravind Adiga novels. Chitra’s apartment has another display of artworks and the lives of all four women are quickly sketched out in a series of montages.

The Incessant Fear of Rape is a raw, vital film about a serious issue in the ‘New India’. It deserves a wide audience and a thorough discussion of its ideas.

Photograph (India-Germany-US 2019)

Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) encourages Rafi to buy a drink for Miloni at a street stall near the Gateway

Photograph is an independent Indian film with a supported release by the major UK arthouse distributor Curzon. That makes it unusual and you’d have to go back to the same writer-director Ritish Batra’s 2013/4 release The Lunchbox to find another. At HOME in Manchester, Photograph was introduced by Dr Omar Ahmed in relation to HOME’s upcoming ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ (3rd edition) season in September. I think that the audience for this screening was lucky to hear Omar’s intro as he helped to place the film in context and to think a bit more about it than some of the US/UK reviewers seem to have done since its appearance at Sundance earlier this year.

I’d seen some lukewarm reviews and was a little worried about what would unfold but I soon became engaged and I found the the film low-key but moving and possibly a different kind of film than I was expecting. After The Lunchbox, Batra made two English language films adapted from novels. I haven’t seen either of them but I wondered why he did this (ie why he couldn’t make the films he wanted to make in India). On his return to India he brought back with him his film editor John F. Lyons who has worked on all four of his films and other creatives who I assume he met during his UK/US production periods. Photograph is again his own script and it has strong connections to The Lunchbox. For me the ‘feel’ of the film is similar to that which I get from diasporic or exilic directors such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta. There is one direct connection with other recent Indian independents and that is the actor Geetanjali Kulkarni who also appears in Sir (2019), Court (2014) and Hotel Salvation (2016).

Nawazuddin Sidiqqui is the other link back to The Lunchbox. This time he takes the role occupied by Irrfan Khan in the first film – an older single man who will gradually fall in love. However, this man has less standing than Irrfan’s character and he also has a family history to contend with. Rafi is a Muslim is from a village in Uttar Pradesh and he has been in Mumbai for many years, earning money to send home to pay family debts and to provide a dowry for his sisters. Rafi works as a street photographer, snapping the tourists around the ‘Gateway of India’. One day he snaps a pretty girl who dashes off before he can print out the photo (and before paying him). When he hears through the local village grapevine that runs through his Mumbai district that his grandmother (‘Dadi’) is threatening to stop taking her medicine unless he marries, he decides to send the photo to Dadi, claiming it is his new girlfriend ‘Noorie’. But then, of course, Dadi wants to visit Mumbai to meet the girl . . .

In many ways, Rafi has set up a classic rom-com scenario. He’ll have to find the girl again and convince her to play a role and the two of them will be brought together under pressure and . . . But although this plot will play out, Batra doesn’t necessarily take it in the expected directions and he sometimes refuses to offer us the expected scenes. If a Hollywood or Bollywood romance is what audiences expect to see they will be disappointed by the ellipses in the narrative, by the periods of introspection and by the general slow pacing. None of this bothered me since my interest was in the two central characters and their backgrounds. The young woman in the photograph is Miloni played by Sanya Malhotra who first came to attention in Dangal (2016) – a film I must watch. She is very well cast and gives a beguiling performance as the daughter of a middle-class Gujarati Hindu family who expect her to become a chartered accountant and to marry a successful graduate. She is literally the ‘poster girl’ for a small private accountancy college and the top student. But she feels trapped by her family’s expectations. She’d always enjoyed drama at school and perhaps that is why ‘playing the girlfriend’ attracts her.

One of several taxi rides during which Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) tentatively discover something about each other

One convention that Batra does follow is to provide the two leads with a supportive ‘crew’. Rafi lives in a communal room with other men from his district and Dadi (a terrific performance by 86 year-old Farrukh Jaffar) will find a space for herself in the same room. By comparison, Miloni’s family is wealthy enough to have a live-in maid/cook/housekeeper played by Geetanjali Kulkarni who can advise her about the village man and will be discreet. The romance can only be tentative at first and its prospects in the long-term are not good. Religious differences and social class differences do not make Western-style romances straightforward (not that they do in the US or UK either in some circumstances). Batra offers some good examples of how their daily lives differ and he uses a favourite cinema as a meeting place for the couple which endlessly replays the same films from the 1980s (a similar nostalgia to the TV soaps of the period in The Lunchbox). Omar stressed in his introduction how the Bombay (rather than ‘Mumbai’) in the film is not the Bombay of Bollywood gangster films nor is it only a place of poverty and desolation – or of the glossy modernity of the ‘New India’. Bombay has always been an almost mythical place for migrants from other parts of India, especially in the Hindi cinema social films of the 1940s and 1950s. A more recent tradition of Bombay ‘street films’ takes an almost documentary interest in the lives of the city’s poorer inhabitants, e.g. in a film like Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (India-UK 1988). Photograph shares its starting point with that film – the tourists at the Gateway of India – but it uses the street as a setting for a different kind of narrative, one which still represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, but which which also finds stories at the micro level in the interactions of characters.

The image that has been widely used to promote the film and which perhaps typifies Ritesh Batra’s careful compositions and mise en scène

Batra uses Bombay’s streets, cafés and food stalls carefully. As in The Lunchbox, buses, trains and traditional taxis are important meeting places in which Miloni is taken out of her comfort zone. Significantly it is a food stall that creates one of the moments of distrust by Miloni’s parents about their daughter’s behaviour. Batra also introduces an eccentric story about the history of Indian soft drinks. We see Miloni drinking ‘Limca’, an Indian brand of lemonade/lime now owned by Coca Cola and she tells Rafi that as a child she liked a now defunct brand of Cola. I take this as a signifier of the old Bombay, before the changes of the 1990s brought in American-style fast foods and shopping malls. But some things don’t change. Dadi comments on how dark her grandson’s skin is and he begins to use lightening cream. I think it is also important that at the beginning of the film we see Miloni being taken by her mother to buy clothes. We recognise that Miloni wants something else and throughout the romance we see her wearing quite simple outfits that seem more ‘natural’ and which I thought suited her much better than the more showy costumes of Bollywood films.

Both Rafi and Miloni have times when they sit in their rooms contemplating their futures but in Rafi’s case we get a fantasy sequence in which he discusses his current situation with another migrant from earlier times. I liked this and it worked for me. I’m not sure everything works in Photograph but overall Batra creates a distinctive vision of Bombay through the creation of a ‘feel’ and ‘tone’ for Rafi’s community and Miloni’s family. He presents a unique Bombay story rather than fulfil genre expectations. He’s aided by terrific performances from his two leads and from Farrukh Jaffar. I would very much recommend this film to anyone prepared to be open to Batra’s ideas.