LFF2016 #7: Divines (France-Qatar 2016)

Taking Paris by storm

Taking Paris by storm

Divines is a fascinating and provocative film that is highly entertaining and timely. No wonder it created a stir at Cannes earlier this year where it won the Camera d’Or, the ‘first feature’ prize, for its director Houda Benyamina. Unfortunately, what could be an excellent film to use with 16-19 students in schools and colleges in the UK has been bought by Netflix and is currently certificated (15) by the BBFC only for VOD. If you want to see this in cinemas you’ll have to go to France. Perhaps we should lobby Netflix for a DCP? Presumably it will appear on Blu-ray? But first you’ll want to know why all the excitement.

Divines is a ‘banlieue film’, i.e. a narrative set in the the housing estates outside Paris. Its director is Moroccan-French and the lead character Dounia is played by the director’s younger sister Oulaya Amamra. Dounia is a 15 year-old facing the same bleak future as the central character in Girlhood (France 2014) and she reaches breaking point when faced with a role-play in school designed to train her as a receptionist/desk clerk. Dounia is already equipped for survival on the street and has a shoplifting scam worked out for the local supermarket with her partner in rebellion Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Dounia is petite, beautiful and sharp as a tack, Maimouna is large, exuberant, but also slightly vulnerable. Dounia is in charge. Her family is unable to control her. The family lives in a Roma camp and earn a living in bars and clubs. Maimouna’s parents are more conservative and she is expected to go to the mosque.

Divines is a youth picture which mixes crime, romance and dance – an interesting combination. Dounia can only see herself making progress by working for the area’s drug queen, but she’s distracted by her interest in the security guard at the supermarket – a handsome young man with a six-pack and a flair for athletic modern dance. Dounia seems driven both by desire and envy when Djigui (Kévin Mischel), the guard, succeeds in his attempt to get into a dance troupe. The film’s final section uses a familiar genre narrative device and overall the strength of the film is not so much in the story development as in the performances, the presentation of the action and the emotion packed into the central relationship between the two girls.

According to Isabel Stevens in her useful overview of the film for the LFF, director Houda Benyamina is a self-taught filmmaker who made several short films and set up a workshop for actors, including her sister and Déborah, before this, her first feature. Divines is informed by Benyamina’s experiences of the Paris riots in 2005. Her filmmaking background reminds me of the similar story of Shane Meadows and his Nottingham experience. In both cases the director is working with actors they know from a local community and that gives the performances an energy that is more difficult to conjure up by directors who come into the community from outside. Divines does use some ideas that are shared by both Girlhood and La haine but it is in no way derivative of those two well known films and includes its own innovative ideas alongside the emotional impact of its central relationship. It also acts as an antidote to the negatives of the otherwise worthwhile Black on release in the UK earlier this year. But can we get Divines out of the clutches of Netflix?

LFF2016 #6: These Days (Questi Giorni, Italy 2016)

Four young women on their way to Belgrade

Four young women on their way to Belgrade

lff-2016.jpgOn my last few visits to the London Film Festival I have often enjoyed an Italian film, invariably selected by Adrian Wootton. None of these films has to my knowledge been released in the UK. This year the Vue in Leicester Square showed Questi Giorni and although I could see it was a flawed film in some ways, I still enjoyed watching it. When I looked for some reviews following its appearance ‘In Competition’ at Venice last month I was taken aback by the ferocity with which it was condemned by most reviewers.

Not being familiar with the work of director Guiseppe Piccioni, I looked over his filmography and he appears to have had a career making roughly similar films mixing elements of comedy, melodrama and romance. The one feature of his films that I did recognise was his frequent casting of Margherita Buy who was excellent in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015). In this film she is cast as the harassed hairdersser and single mother of Liliana, a student with a crush on her Literature professor. It’s the summer vacation in a provincial town and Liliana is invited by her friend, the rather stern Caterina, to join her on a journey to Belgrade where Caterina is hoping to get a job in an upmarket hotel, found for her by a Serbian friend. Somehow, two other friends, Anna and Angela, also join the party and it’s four young women on a road trip with a ferry from Bari crossing over to Montenegro and on to Serbia. They meet some Serbian lads making the same trip in the opposite direction but the main (melo)drama is played out in Belgrade. The narrative sees all the characters faced with questions about what they are doing in their lives and what they should do next. Guiseppe Piccioni was present for a Q&A and he told us that he wanted to make a film about those moments in life, especially when we are young, when we don’t realise that we are taking decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. He seemed to be distancing himself from the perception that this was simply a generic road movie.

Margherita Buy as Liliana's mother

Margherita Buy as Liliana’s mother

Piccioni has won awards in the past but I didn’t think of Questi Giorni as a potential ‘awards winner’. But also I didn’t think it was open to all the criticism it received at Venice. Possibly film journalists at festivals have too many expectations of what they want/hope to see and are quick to reject what doesn’t fit. There is also a common feeling that films about young women have to make feminist statements or at least represent ‘girl power’ and it is morally objectionable for a young woman to have a crush on her teacher. In this case it seems that Piccioni adapted an unpublished novel by a younger filmmaker he had been mentoring. I disagree that all the characters were simply stereotypes or that the film is poorly photographed and edited – as argued by some reviewers. I found the beginning of the film a little confusing (I wasn’t sure how old the young women were supposed to be – the actors seem to be in their twenties) but by the last section I’d bought the melodrama in Belgrade.

Piccioni proved an entertaining guest speaker. He discussed his decisions about his approach in terms of Tolstoy and the audience asked questions about Milton and Guy de Maupassant (Liliana is studying Paradise Lost, Caterina is reading de Maupassant). Unusually, I asked him a question. I was intrigued by the film clips played in an old cinema being renovated in Belgrade. I recognised a couple of sequences from Dusan Makavejev’s The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1968), including the iconic shot of a naked woman and a black cat. It seemed to me that this film by Yugoslavia’s best known film director internationally represents a narrative that possibly contradicts that of Piccioni’s film. I was surprised that he didn’t know the Yugoslavian film and wasn’t aware of the effect he was creating.

I suspect Questi giorni won’t get a release in the UK. I enjoyed the film and I hope that Adrian Wootton continues to select Italian films for LFF. I feel our film culture is lessened by the lack of films like this one on release. (No subs on the official trailer, but an idea of the look of the film.)

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35


This International Festival of silent film once again attracted archivists, collectors, film fans and academics to Pordenone and to the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular titles, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.

The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints which Kevin Brownlow has collected over the years. The film was accompanied with music by the long-time collaborator Carl Davis. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s  expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.

Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris after the Revolution and Civil War. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of  a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. The print also had quality tinting, the work of the Jan Ledecky Laboratory. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.


The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.

One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).

One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John  Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine dramas set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.

We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. Such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.

The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander.


Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork.

After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.

The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).

‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination  of drama, science fiction and fantasy. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.

A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel.

The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third  film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912).

There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley up to Woodrow Wilson. with a number featuring Teddy Roosevelt.

Democratic Convention in 1924

Democratic Convention in 1924

There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, a second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ and a third programme with ‘Indian Pictures’ or Native-Americans.

We had animation with Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with animal characters and several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant.

As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. This was a full and enjoyable programme.

One minor flaw in the week was the use by some in the audiences of electronic gizmos, which I reckoned were slightly up on last year. The Theatre staff identified and stopped some miscreants but the main auditorium has large blocks of seats and the offenders were often seated in the middle or a row. A friend suggested that the top balcony be turned into a ‘sin bin’ and offenders banished up there with the gods. One possible response would be for the Festival to replace the printed title projected on the bottom of the screen before programmes with a full-screen warnings about this. Another would be for the audience members to be more pro-active and to tell people to turn off the offending machine. To assist in the latter here are the seven deadly vices of mobile phones/tablet users and their corresponding virtues.

Taking pictures and even moving images of the films during screenings as opposed to turning the gadget off and buying the DVD or looking on the Web.

Making or receiving calls instead of placing the cell phone in silent mode or switching it off.

Using phones or tablets to send and/or receive messages instead of doing this later outside the Theatre.

Using cell phones or tablets to check matters on the Web or similar instead of reading the excellent notes in the Festival Catalogue.

Using tablets or computers to take notes during films instead of following the guidelines on taking notes in the dark.

Using a tablet or cell phone as a torch and waving the beam round instead of keeping it below knee height and changing the white light for a coloured bulb.

Checking the time on a cell phone or tablet instead of reading the programme beforehand and noting the running time.

LFF2016 #5: In the Last Days of the City (Akher Ayam El Medina, Egypt-UK-Germany 2016)

Khalid looks out across the city

Khalid looks out across the city

lff-2016.jpgThe first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.

Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.

The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.

The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.