Small AxeLovers Rock (UK 2020)

The morning after . . . Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (Micheal Ward)

This magical 68 minutes of delirious cinema is the second of Steve McQueen’s five film series Small Axe. Each film tells a story about ‘West Indian’ characters and communities in London during the period 1968-1982. Lovers Rock has the simplest narrative of the series and is written by McQueen with the novelist Courttia Newland. A group of friends are preparing a large house and garden to host a birthday ‘blues dance’ for a young woman. Meanwhile, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a church-going family, is planning to sneak out of the family house to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). I write ‘meanwhile’ but actually these two sequences are not happening at the same time. Martha leaves her house under darkness but the preparations for the dance are in daylight. This is the first indication that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. Though there are some of the familiar conventions of a ‘party narrative’ such as unwanted guests (who have to negotiate the doorman) and the boy meets girl scenario, the central sequence of the film features an extended playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, the iconic song of the music style known as ‘Lovers Rock’.

Martha and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) meet up to go to the party together

We first get introduced to ‘Silly Games’ as a song sung a capella by the women in the kitchen making the party food – goat curry and ackee and saltfish. Cynthia, the birthday girl is getting ready upstairs and hair is being straightened as the sound system is wired up. As the party gets into full swing and the main room fills with dancers, ‘Silly Games’ plays through with many dancers singing along. When the track ends the dancers keep singing and in one corner of the room is an older man. He’s played by Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced the original single, a hit in 1979 (although Discogs suggests it was first released in 1977). Bovell has claimed that he included the very high note in the song because he knew girls on the dancefloor would compete to hit it. That’s what happens and indeed from the reviews I’ve seen the idea is taking off with a suggestion that people might meet (virtually?) to sing ‘Silly Games’ together.

A note about terminology

I’ve used the term ‘West Indians’ to describe the characters in this film. I think this was correct in the late 1970s but it was gradually replaced by the term Afro-Caribbean and then African-Caribbean. I’m not sure when these changes took place. There was initially a distinct gap in the 1960s and 1970s between ‘Africans’ and ‘West Indians’ in the UK which took some time to close over the next twenty or thirty years as the number of migrants from different parts of Africa increased. (Some of the distance seems to have been created by West Indian parents with views about Africans perhaps derived from the colonial education system pre-the 1960s). One of the aims of political activism and indeed of the designation ‘Black’ was to develop a solidarity with all people of colour who faced the institutional and personal racism prevalent in the UK. But there were also distinctions between the different parts of the Caribbean, not so damaging perhaps but important in terms of cultural differences. Steve McQueen has Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage. He was born in 1969 in London and the five films that comprise Small Axe are ‘personal’ stories based on events and experiences recounted by relatives and family friends, supported by extensive research to present this period in a realist way. At the end of the 1970s the West Indian community in London and other major cities in the UK included the first generation of migrants (the ‘Windrush generation’) who arrived as adults and became part of the new employment programmes sponsored by the UK government to meet labour shortages, especially in public services. Some of the children of this generation followed their parents at a later date and then a second generation was born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the wider Black community there were both African migrants (often refugees or exiles) and the much earlier communities of Black people established in the UK since the 18th century and earlier (such as the Liverpool Black community). In the first Small Axe film, Mangrove, the popular music of Trinidad and Grenada was featured but by the time of Lovers Rock, Jamaican music in the form of reggae is beginning to dominate for young people, even though the setting here is still in West London. The house where the party is staged is on Ladbroke Road, not far from the Mangrove Restaurant but nearer to Holland Park and the wealthier end of the area. I don’t know if this is a deliberate location choice.

On the dance floor . . .

The central section of the film focuses on the dance floor and although there is some narrative progression. Martha meets Franklin (Micheal Ward) and they dance together. But the section is dominated by music and images of dancing in a more abstract way – an attempt by McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to marry the camerawork to the rhythms of the dancing perhaps. Kirchner is from Antigua and has recently been working on independent projects in the US and developing ideas for his own films. It is in this long dance sequence that he really makes his mark in Lovers Rock. The whole sequence featuring ‘Silly Games’ lasts for ten minutes with the extensive a capella section seemingly spontaneous. Kirchner and McQueen offer us a hot sweaty room full of men and women in colourful outfits dancing, in some cases, groin to groin with hands roaming freely. It is both a joyous and erotic scene with a strong sense of solidarity but also a tremor of something dangerous beneath like most such dancing. After this Martha finds herself involved in two separate altercations. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’m not going to discuss these. All I’ll say is that one incident has been the focus for several critics. Back on the ‘dancefloor’, ‘Silly Games’ has been followed by darker, heavier sounds in the form of dub and ‘roots reggae’ and the feel shifts from female centred to male centred solo dancing. The men dance wildly and with a sense of abandon. Again Kirchner’s camera roams freely and picks up the energy of the room. The sequence lasts seven or eight minutes, so two dance sequences in the film take up more than a quarter of the film’s total running time of around 68 minutes.

Kadeem Ramsay as the DJ Samson with Alexander James-Blake

It’s worth pointing out that the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw young Black people in London become interested in a wide range of different popular and roots music forms. McQueen appears to have commissioned Mica Levi, whose work graced such film as Under the Skin (UK 2013) and Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). I haven’t yet worked out/discovered what her contribution was since I don’t remember a score as such in the film and all the music appeared to be diegetic – sung by cast members or from discs, cassettes etc. Having said that the music is skilfully woven through the action and that must be down to editor Chris Dickens and Levi as well as McQueen.

I enjoyed Lover’s Rock very much. I have never attended a blues dance but in this period many of my students probably did and I did collect some of the racks used in the film. I am very impressed by the research done by McQueen and his team, including the young actors to recreate an evening like this. The performances of the film’s leads are very good indeed and the whole cast is impressive. The film works on many levels but for me it feels like a simple genre idea that has been developed almost into a piece of art cinema in relation to the dancing. I was also reminded of some 1980s Black British films, especially Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a film which deals with a relationship between a lower middle-class young woman and a working-class young man. (Burning an Illusion is available on DVD and streaming on BFI Player.) It is a much more developed narrative than Lovers Rock but the two films share several elements. Menelik Shabazz later made a documentary about the musical genre with The Story of Lovers Rock in 2011. The ‘preparations for a party’ are featured in at least one of the avant-garde films produced by Sankofa, Passion of Remembrance (1986). Sankofa was a group of five filmmakers, three of whom were women – Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – and their films presented  a range of perspectives on the lives of young Black women in London. I’d really like to hear what they thought of Small Axe.

Satyajit Ray, May 2nd 1921 to April 23rd 1992

This year sees the centenary of one of the really great film-makers in World Cinema. The question is not whether to celebrate this but whether we will be able to do with the films he wrote and directed in their original format, 35mm prints. Will the pandemic allow audiences to visit cinemas to enjoy these fine films? In West Yorkshire there are a limited number of venues where this could happen. Unfortunately the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds will not re-open until 2022. The City Screen in York, like the company Picturehouse, has an uncertain future. This leaves the Media Museum in Bradford, the Sheffield Showroom and Hebden Bridge Picture House.

Happily the National Film Archive in Britain has a number of Ray’s finest films available in 35 mm prints. The condition of some of them is not great and it may be that not all are accessible for screenings. And the British Film Institute, which controls access to the archive, sometimes seems loath to ship prints outside London. The quality that comes from a 35mm print, even with scratches and jump cuts, make the efforts to screen such prints worthwhile. So these are the titles currently listed as held in the archive.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a 1955 Bengali film produced by the Government of West Bengal. It was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 Bengali novel of the same name and was Ray’s directorial debut. This first film in ‘The Apu Trilogy’ depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family.

I first saw this film in my early film society years. It was a wonderful eye-opener to a very different cinema. One impressive sequence shows a first sight of a train thundering and smoking across the landscape; a trope that I have seen again many times in Indian films.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is a 1956 Bengali film and is the second part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. It was adapted from the novels ‘Pather Panchali’ and its sequel ‘Aparajito’ (1932). It starts off where the previous film ended, with Apu’s family moving to Varanasi, and chronicles Apu’s life from childhood to adolescence in college, right up to his mother’s death, when he is left all alone.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) is a 1959 Bengali film and.the third part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’, about the childhood and early adult life in the early twentieth century Indian subcontinent. The film is based on the later part of the novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.

Released in 1959, The World of Apu focuses on Apu’s adult life. This was the first Ray film that I saw on 35mm and it is the final part of the trilogy. It has wonderful sequences as Apu enters married life. There is a Tonga ride back from an entertainment: a scene of domesticity of Apu and his young wife: and finally a sequence of father and son which is a fine expression of the humanist values that inform Ray’s films.

Jalsaghar ( The Music Room) is a 1958 Bengali film based on a popular short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. The fourth of Ray’s feature films, it was filmed in a village in West Bengal. Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) in Bengal and his efforts to uphold his family prestige while facing economic adversity. The landlord is a just but otherworldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the government’s abolition of the zamindari system.

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Bengali film based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. ‘Devi’ focuses on a young woman who is deemed a goddess when her father-in-law, a rich feudal land-lord, has a dream envisioning her as an avatar of Kali.

Rabindranath Tagore is a 1961 documentary film produced by Films Division of India in English about the life and works of noted Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. Ray started working on the documentary in early 1958. Shot in black-and-white, the finished film was released during the centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore.

Teen Kanya is a 1961 Bengali anthology film based upon short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. The title means ‘Three Girls’, and the film’s original Indian release contained three stories. However, the international release of the film contained only two stories, missing the second (‘Monihara: The Lost Jewels’).

Kanchenjungha (Kanchonjônggha) is a 1962 Bengali film. The film is about an upper class Bengali family on vacation in Darjeeling, a popular hill station and resort, near Kanchenjunga.

Abhijan (The Expedition) is a 1962 Bengali film. When a corrupt cop takes away Narsingh’s taxi license after an illegal car race, Narsingh finds himself reduced to poverty living in the outskirts of Kolkata. A practicing Sikh, he finds himself having to accept work from a dubious business man, Sukhanram, who employs Narsingh in dope smuggling.

Mahanagar (The Big City) is a 1963 Bengali film based on the short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra, it tells of a housewife who disconcerts her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. Shot in the first half of 1963 in Calcutta, this was also the first film directed by Ray set entirely in his native Calcutta, reflecting contemporary realities of the urban middle-class, where women going to work is no longer merely driven by ideas of emancipation but has become an economic reality.

Charulata (The Lonely Wife) a 1964 Bengali film. Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law, Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own cousin, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education.

Chiriakhana or Chiriyakhana (The Zoo] is a 1967 Indian Bengali crime film, based on the story of the same name by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Rather different from many of Ray’s other films we follow Byomkesh Bakshi, a detective, is hired by a rich man to investigate the name of an actress appeared in a movie decades ago, who has eloped ever since. The case became complicated when the rich man is murdered by someone for that.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) is an Indian Bengali film released in 1970, based upon the Bengali novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The partly dramatic story is undercut by the treatment which often includes humour. A group of Calcutta city slickers, including the well-off Asim, the meek Sanjoy and the brutish Hari, head out for a weekend in the wilderness.

Jana Aranya is a 1976 Bengali film, based on the novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee. It is the last among Ray’s Calcutta trilogy series, the previous two being, Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film portrays the economic difficulties faced by middle-class, educated, urban youth in 1970s India.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is a 1977 Indian film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, is a devotee of chess. This plays into the machinations of General James Outram and his empire-building designs. This is the first Hindi feature film of the film-maker..

Sadgati ( Salvation [or] Deliverance) is an 1981 Hindi television film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story of same name by Munshi Premchand. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film [. . . ] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”

From his pioneering neo-realist films in the 1950s, through his more modernist and critical studies of his home culture, Satyajit Ray has been a dominant force, both in his home cinema and in the wider world of art and foreign language distribution. His films are generally both scripted and directed by himself. And, like many other key film-makers he regularly worked with certain actors and craft people. Their contributions are important and the majority of his films have a fine form, style and production delivery. I hope to see many of the above titles, and hopefully, prints from other archives in this year of celebration.

See Roy’s re-appraisal.

Small AxeMangrove (UK 2020)

The protest march

‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.

The four leaders of the march in the front row of the dock

Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also,  it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones.  It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones meeting local South Asian workers as part of her strategy to unionise Black workers

Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow

Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival  and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.

Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandell) is arrested during the march after being attacked by a white bystander

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.

Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) reading C L R James, the great Trinidadian historian, socialist and journalist – and cricket writer.

The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.

I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.

Small Axe – An Introduction

Steve McQueen left with John Boyega on the shoot for Red, White and Blue

Small Axe represents a major development in UK film and TV, or ‘filmed entertainment’ as it might usefully be termed, both as a production and as a major contribution to UK film culture. The five separate film narratives created by a team led by Steve McQueen comprise over 400 minutes of stories about London’s West Indian community set in the period 1968 to 1982. I’ve used terms here very carefully and I hope precisely. The reasons will become clear as I investigate all five distinct narratives. Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize and Oscar winner, celebrated as both an international artist and filmmaker, has managed to do something without precedent. Some of the Small Axe films have screened in cinemas in both the UK and US and all have been well broadcast in a prime BBC1 drama slot and streamed (via co-production partner Amazon) in the the US. The only other UK filmmaker who has directed a similar major production was Ken Loach with Days of Hope (UK 1975) but that was a different era when ‘TV films/plays’ did not receive a cinema release, overseas sales were constrained by distribution deals and video distribution of any kind was unknown. Small Axe was broadcast in the UK between 15 November and 13 December 2020 at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic meant audiences were seeking a wider range of choice on TV and streaming services. It is set to be available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for 11 months (i.e. to mid-November 2021). Whether this availability will mean that the ‘anthology’ as it is being called in the UK will eventually accrue large audiences will be an interesting question to ask later this year. (Accessing viewing figures for broadcast plus streaming is very difficult at the moment.)

I have seen all but one of Steve McQueen’s feature films and a couple of his art exhibitions and I have a great deal of admiration and respect for his work. That carries through to Small Axe, all five of the films generating a very strong engagement. I will deal with each film separately over the next few weeks but here I just want to make some general points. The five films are each in some way ‘personal’ stories for McQueen who had a significant role in writing each film alongside his collaborators Courttia Newland (on two films) and Alastair Siddons (on three titles). Steve McQueen was born in 1969 and so he was a child for most of the period covered by the anthology, but he knew members of his family and others in the West Indian community who could provide direct experiences. His parents were from Trinidad and Grenada. He was attempting to make films about ‘recent history’ – an issue not just for himself but for most of his leading actors. Does this make the films ‘period drama’? Is there a difference about making films today that are set in the 1970s compared to those set in the 1920s or 1870s, the more common settings for UK period drama or ‘costume pictures’? As a viewer I did find that sometimes it was odd to be reminded in slightly different ways of the London of that period when I was a student and later a teacher in the city. (I am not finding fault with the production, simply noting that the mentions of names and incidents mean more to me than names and incidents from earlier periods.) However, this does lead me to what is a significant issue.

In the extensive promotion of the anthology, Steve McQueen re-iterates that he feels it is crucial to tell these stories because they haven’t been told before or haven’t been told by Black filmmakers. The stories are important and everyone needs to have access to their own stories in order to build a sense of identity. Here he is in Sight & Sound December 2020:

For me, these films should have been made 35 years ago, 25 years ago, but they weren’t and I suppose in my mad head, I wanted to make as many films as I could to fix that. (Interview with David Olusoga, p26)

I’m sure that McQueen knows that young Black filmmakers were making films about their experiences during the 1980s and that the Trinidadian Horace Ové had finally been able to get his film Pressure into distribution in 1975. The Black franchise workshops in London such as Black Audio and Film Collective, Sankofa and Ceddo made films for screening on Channel 4 and in various ‘non-theatrical’ venues. The workshops produced major film artists such as John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien. There were also Black filmmakers outside London such as Ngozi Onwurah in Newcastle as well as others across the North of England, the West Midlands and elsewhere. I understand why McQueen made the statement in 2020 as part of promoting his undeniably important work, but it’s ironic that he doesn’t acknowledge the struggles and achievements of the earlier filmmakers who weren’t able to work within the same infrastructure of film and TV commissioning and film distribution that he has utilised. McQueen’s Small Axe films, especially Mangrove, present strong arguments for Black communities to work together in solidarity.

The other issue about Small Axe that might prove controversial in an entirely different way is the distinction between ‘film’ and ‘television’. That might seem an archaic distinction but it is a different form of distinction in different territories. In the US, Small Axe premièred with two of the films being shown at festivals and considered as cinema films. In the UK, where the distinction ‘TV’ and ‘cinema’ works differently, there were other screenings at the London Film Festival and Sight & Sound has seemingly treated the anthology episodes as ‘films’. The five films adopt different aspect ratios and different film stock/digital formats. as the trailer below demonstrates. In the UK, TV studies scholars are more likely to treat the anthology as TV drama. It’s worth pointing out that there is also a history of Black TV drama in the UK to which Small Axe now becomes a major contribution.

The title Small Axe derives from the title of the Wailers’ track from their 1973 album Burnin’, written by Bob Marley for a Jamaican single first released in 1970. It thrillingly suggests that:

“If you are the big tree
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down”

The five films include many music extracts. Spotify lists 69 titles. Look out for posts on individual films in the next few days.

Heading South (Vers le sud, France-Canada 2005)

Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) with Legba (Ménothy Cesar)

This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).

Brenda heads straight for the beach when she arrives, looking for Legba

The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.

Ellen and Brenda with another tourist and the boys on the beach. Note the problem for the photographer in finding the right aperture and lens setting for both black and white skin against a background of white sand

Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.

Ellen treats Legba as a lover

At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.

Sue during her ‘to camera’ monologue

The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.

Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.

About Endlessness (Om det oändliga, Sweden-Germany-Norway-France 2019)

This doesn’t really need a caption . . .

Now streaming on MUBI, this Roy Andersson film appeared at Venice in 2019 and has been joined on the international arthouse circuit by a documentary about Andersson’s work, Being a Human Person (UK-Sweden 2020) by Fred Scott. I’d like to see the documentary. It is suggested that Roy Andersson is unlikely to make another feature and this, possibly last, film certainly feels like a distillation of his ideas, emotions and aesthetics. It’s a shortish feature, just under 80 minutes and I think that it will take me at least a couple of later viewings to appreciate it properly.

The priest who has lost his faith . . .

The structure and the distinctive style of the last three Andersson films Songs from the Second Floor (2000) You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is continued in the new film with no plot as such but a series of vignettes, shot with a static camera and often great depth of field, usually on meticulously painted sets featuring a very subdued colour palette and white-faced actors, mostly selected to represent ‘ordinary people’. The two different scenes that stand out are one of a couple moving through the sky over a bombed city (Cologne) like Lois Lane and Superman and the other a shot in which what seems like an entire defeated army is marching through the snow to Siberia. I assumed that Andersson couldn’t afford thousands of extras but I couldn’t see the join as the faceless soldiers presumably walked past the camera more than once. There is at least one mini narrative threaded through the series in which we follow a despairing priest who has lost his faith and there is one sequence which melds into another – i.e a character walks out of one scene and ends up in another. Unlike in the previous film, I don’t think there is a key scene which in some way provides a focus for the others (e.g. as the Breughel painting does in the Pigeon film).

One of the senes in which mirrors offer the sense of depth in the image

Andersson has been seen as influenced by painters rather than filmmakers. His scenes, usually in a tableau arrangement, dispense with cuts, close-ups and camera movement – those cinematic devices that lead us to make connections by controlling our gaze. But he can still use the movement of figures within the frame and music, dialogue and effects. And we can let our gaze run freely round the scene to find details not apparent at first glance. One important point to note is that this film is shorter than the others at under 80 minutes. It also appeared only five years after Pigeon, rather than the seven year gaps between the earlier films. Perhaps Andersson was more concerned to get the film out while he was still able. This is mentioned in the documentary film cited above. My own feeling is that About Endlessness is if anything even more bleak than the earlier films but this then throws into greater relief the two moments most associated with love and joy and the human spirit. One of these is a musical interlude outside a café. The other I found quietly devastating. A man and a little girl are standing with umbrellas during a heavy downpour. They are out in the open, crossing a large playing field and we understand that they are going to a party. The man bends down to tie the little girl’s shoelaces and as he does so his umbrella is blown away. He has to chase and retrieve it through the mud and puddles. He does so and returns to tie the laces on the other shoe. In one sense, it is a nothing scene, but it’s also a reference to ‘silent’ comedy and in the context of the other scenes it seems like a blast of pure humanity. I’ve just watched this scene again (the benefits of streaming) and I realise I’d forgotten that there is a disembodied female voice telling us that this is father and daughter on their way to a partner. I’m not sure yet what this commentary (which runs across several scenes) adds to or changes the way the film works differently to the earlier films.

This does resemble a Chagall painting but it’s also Lois and Superman

Without a central narrative, it is difficult to remember all the scenes or the order in which they appear (if this is important) but it also means that the viewer can return to the film and find something which feels new each time. These 21st century Andersson films are unique in their style and tone. Yet sometimes a scene reminds me of another film or in one scene here, a Swedish novel I was reading just before I watched the film. I’ve mentioned the benefits of re-watching scenes when the film is available on a subscription streaming service, but I’d still like to watch this film on a big screen in a cinema. If you haven’t seen any of Andersson’s work, I’m not sure if this is the best one to start with, but I urge you to watch at least one. I think you’ll then want to see the rest.