European Catalyst Films Seminar

The Sun in a Net

The Sun in a Net

This ‘round table discussion’ was presented by the Centre for World Cinemas at Leeds University as part of the Leeds International Film Festival. I should start by confessing that I was out of sympathy with most of the seminar as it ticked quite a few of my prejudice boxes. In fact the title was a misnomer. The definition of catalyst was not fully explicated, and several speakers had reservations regarding the use of the term. Moreover the European dimension was under-developed. We actually got comments on Hollywood, Latin American Cinema and Mumbai or Bollywood cinema, but not a great deal on the actual catalyst films screened in the Festival. The seminar appeared to be directed mainly by the research interests of the academic speakers. I would have preferred speakers chosen to elucidate the titled topic. In fact the panel was composed of four academics and one industry person: not as varied as suggested in the Catalogue which also specified ‘media practitioners’. The ‘conversation’ [a term used at least twice] was mainly between the panel. Even when the seminar opened up to the audience we were asked for questions rather than comment. The seminar seemed like one presented for students at the University. There were indeed students from the Centre there. However, as an event that was part of the public festival I thought a rather different approach would have been better.

And there were technical deficiencies. A microphone was only switched on after I pointed out the introduction was not really audible. And nearly all the stills and all of the video extracts presented were in the wrong aspect ratios. 1.85:1 clips looked about 2.2:1 and scope extracts were over 3:1. I did note that the panel turned to view the extracts on the screen, but no one seemed to notice or think this mattered much. They did, though, mainly avoid the often obscurantist language favoured by some academics. We did get one or two specialist terms, notably polycentric: “the fact, principle, or advocacy of the existence of more than one guiding or predominant ideological or political centre in a political system, alliance etc in the communist world.” (Collins 2000 English dictionary). The academics were using it in a rather different sense but I think they thought of it as addressing ‘ideologies’. As a Marxist I do not use ideology in the sense that they appear to use it.

The introduction started by setting out the catalyst films programmed in the Festival: it was pointed out all these films in some way fit into a ‘new wave’ or new film movement category.

Ossessione, Italy 1943.

Le Beau Serge, France 1958.

The Sun in the Net / Sinko v sieti, Czechoslovakia 1962.

Yesterday Girl / Abschied von gestern1966

Festen, Denmark / Sweden 1998.

Stuff and Dough / Marta si Bani, Romania 2001.

Le Beau Serge

Le Beau Serge

Presumably that is why two films in the Festival that would seem to fit the topic, Peeping Tom (UK 1960) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium France 1975) were left out. The latter’s omission seems to me a serious one. Moreover this film was screened in 35mm. Only two of the catalyst films were screened in what was their original exhibition format. The others were all on digital video. And there were other films that could have graced the Festival. At one point we had a mention of Turkey as a possible E.E.C. member. Turkey has had its own ‘new wave’ and a catalyst film: Hudutlarin Kannu / The Law of the Border (Turkey 1966. Director: Lüfti Akad. Scenario, dialogue: Orner Lufti Akad, Yilmaz Güney). The film has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation and is available on 35mm.

The session was introduced by Stephanie Dennison, Reader in Brazilian Studies at the Centre. She introduced the panel members and then displayed four questions on the screen. They were not up long enough for me to copy them. The first addressed how particular films might help us understand the impact of ‘new waves’? The second how the films might help us understand their catalyst role? But since there was little comment on the individual films I don’t think the questions were much discussed. She went through the list of films screened at the festival, making the point about ‘new waves’

She then moved beyond Europe to talk about examples from the New Latin American Cinema, specifically Ukamau’s Blood of the Condor (Yawar Maliku, Bolivia 1969) and the Cinema Nuevo’s  Black God White Devil (Deaus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Brazil 1964). The latter was directed by Glauber Rocha and she specifically mentioned his manifesto The Aesthetics of Hunger. I remember that these films caused a stir among European critics in the 1960s. However, I cannot think of European films that show a great influence from them. Rocha was influenced by the nouvelle vague. However, both he and Jorge Sanjines [of Ukamau] clearly make the point that the cinemas fighting colonialism and neo-colonialism are distinct from cinemas of the colonisers. Rocha comments on ‘hunger’, “For the European, it is a strange tropical surrealism. For the Brazilian, it is a national shame.” Two other Latin American filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, went further and coined the term Third Cinema. This is an oppositional cinema over and against both mainstream or first cinema and auteur or second cinema: the latter applying too much of the output of European art cinemas. Stephanie Dennison went on to question the distinction between ‘centre’ and periphery’, a distinction which does not seen to accommodate Third Cinema.

Paul Cooke is the Chair of the Centre. He discussed the way that the “Centre’s work looks to rethink the notion of a catalyst film by adopting a ‘polycentric’ approach”. He also wanted to rethink notions of centre and periphery. He made the valid point that films are labelled catalyst, though he did not clearly define the notion of catalyst. He talked mainly about German Cinema and Alexander Kluge, director of Yesterday Girl. He also pointed up other aspects, including Kluge’s role in working for changes in the German Film Industry and State funding policies of film: a key factor in the development of the New German Cinema.

Alan O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Italian Cinema at the Centre, wanted to address notions of art cinema and the mainstream. He also used display material of posters, stills and video clips. His main example was a popular Italian genre of Christmas movies. The key film was Vacanze di Natale (1983), a popular box office success that spawned something like 20 sequels over a couple of decades. This was an interesting example of his argument to study popular mainstream films with the rigour applied to art films. He drew a distinction between ‘catalyst’ [art cinema] and ‘prototype’ [mainstream film]. He also went on to offer a definition of catalyst from an English language dictionary, “Effect produced by a substance that without undergoing change itself aids a chemical change in other bodies.”  This is a chemical definition, I don’t think he actually addressed the sense in which it is used in humanities, “person or thing that causes change”: a rather different sense.

His follow-up for this seemed to me to take us away from the European focus of the films screened at the Festival. He argued that one example of a prototype was the Hollywood Blockbuster. He showed a clip from one example The Matrix (1999). And then as an example of its influence he showed an extract from a Bollywood film, Robot (2010). The problem with this is that long before the appellation of Bollywood to the Hindi cinema of Mumbai there was a clear line of films that ‘borrowed’ heavily from foreign language films circulating in India. Another example of a prototype film that he presented was A Fish Called Wanda (1988). I do wonder how much influence this exerted outside the cinema of the UK? Given the European focus I thought better examples could have been found in the cinéma du look, for example films produced and directed by Luc Besson.

The final part of his argument was ‘against cinephilia’. He seemed to regard cinephilia as the same as a strong penchant for art films. I think this is very debatable. Even among directors this is not a clear distinction, Werner Herzog would be a good example. It certainly is not a valid distinction among audiences. Someone pointed out in the question section that cinephilia could equally apply to fans of horror films. And during the festival I had friends who both attended and enjoyed films characterised as art cinema and films that fell in the horror genre.

The fourth speaker was Mariana Liz, a new member of the centre. She talked about Europe and the European film industry. She raised some interesting points, both about what constituted Europe and what might constitute European film. One example was where might one place Turkey? However, again she said very little about the films that we had actually watched in the Festival.

Finally we had Bill Lawrence, who has worked extensively as a film programmer and now offers consultancy work with Reel Solutions. He provided a number of telling criticisms and questions regarding the essentially academic categories already offered. He made the point about ‘plagiarism’ in Bollywood. He also stressed circumstance over other aspects. An interesting example concerned the Danish Dogme movement. It seems that in earlier times a Senior Lecturer at the highly regarded Danish Film School advocated to his student groups a return to film basics and an avoidance of unnecessary extras. Much of what he advocated bore a striking resemblance to what became the Dogme Manifesto. You can guess that one of his students was Lars von Trier. Bill remarked that the Lecturer was rather disappointed that he never received any credit when the Manifesto appeared.  Bill also provided some interesting examples of the dominance of money and box office take in the industry.

After this we opened up to questions, though fortunately several of these were actuality comments. One of the other centre members produced some interesting examples from mainstream Spanish cinema, including a genre of bigoted cop films. He suggested these might have influenced the successful Irish film The Guard (2011). Another audience member made the point I mentioned earlier regarding what constituted cinephilia. In response Alan O’Leary bought up the aspect of what we call ‘realism’, arguing that ‘realism is a value in our culture’. Moved at last I suggested that realism was also a political issue, and that there had not been direct address of the political in the discussion of the catalyst films. In response Stephanie Dennison explained that they had wanted to avoid the ‘obvious talking points’.

This was my most serious concern about the seminar. I think all the films in the Festival programme have a political dimension. But in particular I find it difficult to agree that one can discuss, for example, Neo-realism or the Czechoslovakian new wave or New German Cinema without addressing both their politics and the political context. And as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out with reference to the zoom: even style has a political aspect. In fact, we probably should have had a Godard film included. If Godard’s work has not been a catalyst I wonder whose has? And given the absence of British films we could have included a work by Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966) whilst made for television is clearly a catalyst film.

Equally important the political dimension is a central aspect of how audiences relate to film. One distinction one can make is about how audiences respond to and even seek out the political dimension. Most films are commodities, with an exchange value. This is paramount in mainstream cinema. Audiences purchase a set amount of time in the cinema and the entertainment can be judged on how well that times is filled with interest and enjoyment. There is a whole gamut of art film and of independent film where this division between the world inside the cinema and the world outside is more fluid. Much of the expectation about art film is the stimulation that a film will provide for post-screen activities. So Alan O’Leary has a point about how we tend to treat art cinema and mainstream cinema. However I disagree that this constitutes cinephilia. If we take the work of Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin was also screened during the festival, the way he distinguished his audience was the degree to which they were willing to engage with advanced ideas. And that would certainly apply to contemporary filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard or from a different slant Chantal Ackerman.

So my criticisms of the seminar include a whole dimension which it failed to address. I rather feel that if we had focussed more closely on the actual films that such a discussion would have been more likely. I had one other worry at the end of the seminar when the Chair advised us that the Centre was already in discussion with the Festival about 2014. I should now reveal an interest; I teach and lecture on film. But 2014 is the centenary of World War I and there are certainly plans to provide some sort of cinematic perspective. I am sure the academics at the Centre can address interesting issues around that topic. But it would be nice to see something which works outside the limitations of academia. And if that WW I is not a central political issue in European cinema I wonder what is.

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4 comments

  1. sambroadhead

    I am shocked that it is considered ‘obvious’ to discuss the political context of a film, I find it difficult to concieve of any analysis being ‘apolitical’ because everything is socially constructed. The comments about style and technique being a means reproduce/subvert relationships of power would be very interesting to me as a mere member of the public.

  2. Jake Baldwinson

    Thanks for this in depth post, Keith. Sounds like the seminar wasn’t particularly successful in delivering that insights I was hoping it would from the description in the brochure.

  3. Roy Stafford

    I’m really sorry that I had to miss this event through work elsewhere. The topic includes my central concern in film studies/film culture – the need to treat popular cinema from around the world with the same attention as art cinema and mainstream American cinema. However, I might have been frustrated by the seminar described by Keith as I agree with the thinking behind most of his points. I will say though that I have used the term ‘polycentric’, following the argument in the introduction by Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam and Rajinder Dudrah to their collection Theorizing World Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2012). They use it as a counter to ‘Eurocentrism’, arguing that there are other ‘starting points’ for theorising about cinema and for analysing the ‘flows’ of films and film culture rather than always from North America to Asia, Latin America etc. This precisely my view as well.

  4. keith1942

    Nice to know that thei report struck a chord.
    Re ‘polycentric’ and ‘eurocentrism’. these are other terms I avoid. They strike me as academic terms that miss the point. We seem to be talking about colonialism and neo-colonialism, or indeed ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third cinemas’.
    Re ‘relationships of power’, this was one idea that did get treated in the seminar. However I felt that it was treated in a rather abstract fashion, so whose relationship of power to whom? Just to take one film, Alexander Kluge’s Brutality in Stone addresses the question of state power and hegemony in the fascist period. The way that he uses montage of both image and sound draws the viewers’ attention to how that works in a particular artistic discourse. The reason that I thought we should have discussed Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman is that both the content and the style [so to speak] draw attention to how power operates in terms of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of class and commodity exchange.

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