Search results for: argo

Argo (US 2012)

Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:


Weimar – Sonntag

I have now also viewed films in the alternative venue for Weimar, CinemaxX. This is a multi-screen venue right in the heart of Potsdamer Platz. Consequently it is popular and very busy. The screen dedicated for Weimar [with other titles] is CinemaxX 8. This is a 250 seat auditorium with a fairly steep rake and thus has good sight-lines. Friends warned me though that the front three rows are rather too close to the screen: Jenny Jugo (the Weimar Carmen) could drop straight into one’s lap. They have installed a piano for the silent accompaniments. And, for the space of the Festival, pop-corn and bought-in drinks are banned.

The day opened however at the Zeughauskino.

Menschen im Busch, Ein Afrika-Tonfilm (1930). We had an introduction from a member of the Deutsche Kinemathek who provided the background and context to the film. The film-makers, Gulia Pfeffer and Friedrich Dalssheim, filmed in the interior of Togoland [later part of Ghana and the Togolese Republic]. The land had been a German colony before World War I and post-war it became a British Mandate: a method used by the British to grab land in many places. This political dimension was not addressed by the film. Whilst the film used footage shot on location the sound was dubbed in Berlin. Some of this was clearly voiced in Germany but some appeared to be actual sound incorporated. I hope to check this out. The use of actual African voices was a first in ethnographic film; a parallel to Edgar Anstey’s film Housing Problems (1936).

The film opened with an introduction from the former German Governor. We had been warned that his comments were littered with what are now ‘politically incorrect’ descriptions. He compared the Africans to ‘children’ and described their culture as ‘inferior to European Civilisation’. All was not lost, because most of his talk was heard over images of the coast line of the territory. The opening was very well done, we watched fishing boats landing their cargoes, battling through the surf to the beach. This, like the rest of the film offered excellent camera shots and movements.

The film presented a day in the life of the Ewe people in Chelekpe village. In fact the majority of the film followed one family, a village man, his two wives and children. The narrative ran from daybreak to late evening. There were meals, work, and leisure. The village had a division of labour, both in harvesting and hunting, and in the technologically dependent activity of weaving. Animals were a full part of the village life: goats, pigs, chickens, and some smaller animals we could not identify. In the evening there was a religious/social dance ritual. This was accompanied by drumming as both men and women, some in special costumes, swayed and rotated. The dancing and drumming reached a frenzied climax before darkness fully fell.

We then had a two-part film adapted from a novel by Jacob Wassermann. I do not know the novel but the plot of the films suggested a vast picaresque narrative.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (Part 1: World Afire) was directed by Urban Gad in 1920 and in a digital form ran 80 minutes. The opening title explained that the film is set in 1905 in several European countries. Conrad Veidt played the titular role. Christian is the son of a wealthy industrialist. He lacks purpose though he has secret desire for his engaged step-sister. Spoilt and lacking direction Christian is introduced to a popular Pairs-based dancer with whom he begins an affair. Eva is a man-eater and later in the film she has another affair with a Grand Duke, [a stand-in for the Romanov Tzar]. This links the film to the Revolutionary Year of 1905, though it is not actually presented in name]. In the course of the film we have become acquainted with anarchists and a secret group called ‘The Nihilists’: appropriately their political programme is never explained. They are involved in protests and suffer in the repression ordered by the Grand Duke. In one scene he watches a s a machine gun opens up on a civilian demonstration. In the later stages the plot develops round an envelope of secret papers. The story ends pretty badly for everyone, except the Grand Duke and his henchmen: but Christian does survive.

The film followed the style of many early films in this period. Full of parallel cutting between characters and events, often in very short scenes. So the events and characters move at speed and it becomes quite complicated following the plot. It is however full of conventional tropes and stereotypes, and combines motifs from several familiar genres of the period. In that sense it was probably easy for a contemporary audience to follow. Stylistically the production is not that well done. The editing leaves a certain amount to be desired though it was not clear how much was due to missing footage. The cast are reasonable but it is not one of Veidt’s great performances.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem Goldenen Kerker (Part 2: The Escape from the Golden Prison, 1921) is a sequel. The ‘golden prison’ is Christian’s family home where he feels bored and guilty over his privileges. A different friend takes him to a working class district in the hope of excitement. This they find, and Christian assists, a poor prostitute attacked by her pimp. He thus meets a young social worker, Rose. Partly due to her attraction and partly due to acquiring a social and religious conscience, Christian starts to ‘give all he has to the poor’. However, in this slum we find few ‘deserving poor’ and an amount of ‘undeserving poor’. The film resembles Part I in that once again the story ends badly for most characters.

However, this film has a coherent narrative thread and avoids the endless parallel cutting. So it works in a more constrained and effective manner. In addition, whilst the film has the same director as Part I, it has new scriptwriters. Most noticeably it has a new cinematographer, Willy Hameister. His work offers frequent high angle shots of the slums. The exterior use both low-key lighting and effective tinting. It looks much better than the first part. And there are some excellent set-pieces in the slum tenements as the mass of working class denizens are involved in varied agitations. Part 2 seems a much better film than Part 1. A colleague thought that the second part might have been re-edited after release: the digital versions relies mainly on a Dutch print.

Stephen Horne provided the accompaniment for both films. He worked effectively with Part 1 but Part 2 provided greater scope for drama and emotion. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist, so we had several instruments; one at least, the accordion, provided a musical motif for working class scenes in both films. Escape from the Golden Prison is a definite film to see but watching the whole two-part drama makes better sense and the contrasts alone are entertaining.

Der Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth, 1927) was the first film that I viewed at CinemaxX. This was a social comedy. The lead character, Traugott Bellmann (Reinhold Schünzel, who also directed the film), is a Member of Parliament who achieves famed by condemning centres of vice. He specifically names the night club, ‘Heaven on Earth’. However, newly married he discovers first that his new father-in-law sells the copious amounts of Champagne consumer in the club; then, that it belongs to his step-brother, not seen for years. His embarrassment creates problem in both his public and personal life.

The situation opens in a very witty manner with a delightful satire of parliamentary action. The night club itself is only mildly unseemly and hardly at all immoral. The main consumption is the champagne. The dancing girls are leggy but not overtly sexy. And the nudes on the drapery are really quite prim. The comedy in the club is probably stretched out too long: I found the humour and wit dissipated at times. But it come together in a great and comic climax And the scenes of the moral guardians and some of Bellmann’s discomfiture are very funny.

The film was screened from a pretty good 35mm print. Maud Nelissen provided a score that included light sequences, lively dances and touches of ragtime.

Another good day. As the retrospective develops it is emerging as an intelligent and rewarding exploration.

Heritage Day at the Hyde Park Picture House

“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”

On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.

There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927):  just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.

Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.

The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations

First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.

This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers

“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”

So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.

There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.

Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue  Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.

Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.

The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.

Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.

The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.

The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.

The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination.  The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.

The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .

The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.

The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses  ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.

The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.

And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British  cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.

The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.

The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.

It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.

All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.

Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)

Everett (Ethan Hawke) and Maud (Sally Hawkins on their wedding day

Maudie is the kind of film that as a young person I might have given a miss but now I’m older, and I hope wiser, I appreciated it a great deal. In simple terms Maudie is a partial biopic of Maud Lewis from Yarmouth in Nova Scotia who in later life found fame as a well-known ‘folk artist’ in Canada. Actually, however, it is mainly a moving love story about two people both too easily seen as marginal in their contemporary world.

Maud/Maudie (Sally Hawkins) comes from a ‘good’ background but she has developed severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and then, a different kind of social ‘disability’ sees her mistreated by her family. Determined to live her own life in small town Nova Scotia of the 1930s, she applies for an unlikely job as what is really a ‘scivvy’ (a maid, hired to do menial tasks) for a lonely fish peddler. His home is a small shack out of town on the main highway. There is barely room for him to live in the shack and she has to find a space alongside the dogs and chickens. Everett (Ethan Hawke) is an uncouth man who has struggled in the economic hardship of the Depression and he has no idea how to treat Maudie. When she starts to paint on pieces of card with any materials she can find his interest is only really aroused when he realises that there are people willing to pay a few cents for Maudie’s ‘art’. That’s the opening of a story we follow through to 1970 by which time Everett has mellowed and Maudie’s fame has spread nationally, though it will be many years before her paintings are traded at prices that reflect her importance for Canadian art.

One of the landscapes by Maud Lewis

There are two main reasons why Maudie works so well. First, it is a very beautiful film in its use of landscape and in the presentation of Maud Lewis’s art. Aisling Walsh is an Irish director who trained at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then the National Film and TV School in the UK. She has made several features and also worked extensively in UK television for over twenty years. I note that she made one of the BBC’s Wallander films and I wonder whether the location shooting in Sweden in any way informed Maudie. She has said that she found Maud’s story familiar in some ways because of its connection to landscape and small-town life in the West of Ireland. Her vision is presented in the film through the lenses of Guy Godfree who trained in the US but is himself a Nova Scotian. I was struck by the light in the film, the skyscapes and long shots (of the arthritic Maud walking long distances). I was also struck by the music organised by Michael Timmins of the Montreal band Cowboy Junkies. Three distinctive singing voices come from Michael’s sister Margo Timmins, the magical Mary Margaret O’Hara and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan providing a mix of Irish/Canadian folk/country/rock. The script was written by Sherry White from Newfoundland and in one of those quirks of funding, a film featuring distinctive landscapes was actually shot in Newfoundland because the Nova Scotian authorities decided to withdraw funding support for film productions. Labrador and Newfoundland stepped in to fill the gap. I can’t tell if that makes a difference but I’ve read that the landscapes are similar. Either way the film looks terrific.

The film’s beauty is complemented by two stunning central performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. They are quite different performances with Sally Hawkins studying carefully how to represent the impact of arthritis (which constricted the size of paintings Maud Lewis could attempt) and trying to learn the subtleties of a Canadian dialect. Her performance includes a lot of ‘external work’ to represent the twisted limbs of the arthritis sufferer but she definitely ‘inhabits’ the character and it never feels like simply ‘putting on an act’. By contrast, Ethan Hawke seems to be much more instinctive in his presentation of Everett. There are several interviews online in which Hawke seems to tease his audience by pretending to have done no preparation and praising Hawkins for her diligence. Both performances worked for me, but I think that Sally Hawkins was able to ‘age’ more convincingly over the course of the narrative which ends when she is in her late 60s. The real Everett was older but Ethan Hawke still seems middle-aged by the end. This is a common problem with biopics but it didn’t worry me in this case.

I’ve seen criticism of the film because of the way Everett treats Maud, especially when she first moves in. There are claims that this is domestic abuse and that the film isn’t critical enough of Everett’s behaviour. I can see that this might be a reading but I think that the narrative presents Everett as a man who has learned to live alone and is ignorant of how to treat anyone he has to share a house with. Maud must quickly see however that despite his rough demeanour he does not treat her differently because of her physical difficulties and social position. As their love slowly develops it builds towards a beautiful relationship.

I’m probably biased because I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative about small-time Canada in the 1930s-60s. This will go down as one of my favourite films of the year. It’s still on release in the UK and well worth seeing. In the first clip below you can watch a short National Film Board documentary about Maud Lewis and her paintings and then catch a glimpse of Sally Hawkins as Maud in the trailer for the film.

Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)


Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates here and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Leeds Film Festival Short Film Winners



This was a programme of the winners in Short Film City at the 29th Leeds International Film Festival screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. This was a good opportunity to see the films selected as the ‘best’ all at one shot. One of thing I noticed about the programme overall was the amount of explicit sex and violence. There was more than I remember from earlier festivals and more than I saw among the short films I did catch during the actual festival. So I had a look at the four Juries. The four trios consisted of five filmmakers, two film programmers, three artists working with film and two members working in Higher Education. Their short biographies did not shed any light on the issue. Perhaps there was a higher level of such content this year.

The programme ran for 85 minutes. The various films and formats were projected from a DCP.

Louis le Prince International Short Film Competition 2015

Winner: Drama (Guan Tian, USA)

This is an eleven-minute film, and whilst made in the USA has Chinese dialogue. The protagonists, a boy and girl, watch the outside world from inside a car. “An intimate look at human voyeurism’. This was a film I really liked. I thought the plotting was imaginative and the technical aspects were extremely well done. It was very funny as well.

World Animation Award 2015

Winner: Manoman (Simon Cartwright, UK)

Another eleven-minute film using puppets. The premise is the protagonist Glen creates his own ‘homunculus’, [a representation of a small human being]. This attempt at sublimation opens ‘uninhibited impulses [that] lead to disastrous consequences in this night-long insane rampage . . .’ The film aimed to be disturbing and succeeded, though I was not convinced that there was an articulated comment. The catalogue also includes a comment, [presumably by the filmmaker], ‘A film about limits, with no limits!’

British Short Film Competition 2015

Winner: Rate Me (Fyzal Boulifa, UK)

This film ran 17 minutes. Its main protagonist was a teen escort Cocoa. But we do not really see much of her directly. The extremely smart premise of the film is to learn about her through reviews posted on an online forum. This was effective and witty, but I thought that there was not enough import for the whole length of the film. The postings do reveal as much about the authors as the object, but there were limited variation. I suspect if you follow such online forums the film is more effective.

Yorkshire Short Film Competition

Winner: Cargo (Oli Carr, UK)



We had a slight hiccup with this film; the sound did not work at first. I thought this was going to be a really strange type of story. Then we stopped and re-started, with sound and dialogue. Two Syrian refuges hide out in a truck crossing from Europe to the UK. This takes 15 minutes and the opening is deliberately slow and then the tension mounts. I thought the plotting was well thought out, since the story is one that repeats many times a day. And the resolution left space for the audience to consider the implications.

Leeds International Screendance Competition 2015

Winner: Choreography for the Scanner (Mariam Eqbal, USA)

This film used animation for nine minutes. Apparently the technique involved a flatbed scanner: this might be a first. It relies on repeating and multiplying sets of images. Variations were introduced by compressing and elongating the imagery. I did find that the repetition ran out of interest before the end.

Leeds International Music Video Competition 2015

Winner: Lightning Bolt – The Metal East (Lale Westvind, USA)

I cannot really write much about this film. It had the loudest sound track I have heard in ages, surpassing that of Mad Max: Fury Road. I took shelter in the foyer for the approximately four minutes of running time.

Leeds Short Film Audience Award 2015

Winner: The Reinvention of Normal (Liam Saint-Pierre, UK)

This eight minute film follows “an artist / inventor / designer. on his quest for new ideas.” The creations in the film were oddball. There was a slight feeling that this was meant to offer a sense of the surreal. What is did offer was the eccentric. But I felt that needed a more personal voice to sustain interest.

Audience favourite across all short films.

Madam Black (UK New Zealand 2015)

This was almost a family friendly film. A photographer accidentally runs over the pet of a little girl. In order to avoid the painful truth he constructs an alternative world for the child. So we follow Madame Black on her travels and the postcards that she sends back. The film also managed to tie in a slight romance. A pleasure to watch.

I am afraid I missed the last two entries in the programme,

Dark Owl International Fantasy Short Film Competition

Winner: A Boy’s Life (Howard McCain, USA)

Dead Shorts

Winner: Milk! (Ben Malleby, UK)

You can check out the winners and also all the short films featured in Short Film City on the LIFF WebPages.

LFF 2015 #9: Very Big Shot (Lebanon–Qatar 2015)


On the set of the movie production in ‘Very Big Shot’

LFFThis was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.

The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.


Alain Saadeh as Ziad

The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.