Category: Animation

My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette, France-Switzerland 2016)

A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.

There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.

The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.

A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.

Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”

The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.

A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).

If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.

As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.

The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)

We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.

Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.

Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge, France-Belgium-Japan 2016)

Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Wild Bunch/Why Not/CN4/Belvision

The Red Turtle is every bit as good as the rave reviews make it out to be. It seems pointless to add another general review so I’m just going to focus on a few points. Subscribers to Sight and Sound are lucky to have an excellent review by Kate Stables and an interview with the film’s director Michaël Dudok de Wit (by his son Alex) in the June 2017 issue. This short (81 mins) animated feature has a narrative that riffs on the original Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Defoe. The new idea from de Wit and his writing collaborator Pascale Ferran introduces a magical/mystery element in the form of a large turtle. If you have knowledge of the legend of the ‘selkie’ from Celtic and Nordic culture you’ll know what to expect. There isn’t a great deal of plot – instead there is the pleasure of interaction between a very limited number of characters and a real sense of humanity recognising its place in the ecology of the South Pacific. It’s no wonder Studio Ghibli is a partner.

Michaël Dudok de Wit at work

The most interesting institutional issue is that this is the first co-production outside Japan for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, in the UK, we are used to experiencing Studio Ghibli’s output in cinemas being filtered through the distribution muscle of Disney and having to choose a subtitled screening (if we can find one) or a ‘re-voiced’ American version with big name actors. But that ‘re-voicing’ is the only ‘creative’ input by Disney. The Red Turtle has no dialogue (beyond cries of alarm, warning, greeting etc.). Studio Ghibli actually approached the animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit after his Oscar success with the short Father and Daughter (2000). Dudok de Wit is Dutch, but trained in the UK (at West Surrey College of Art & Design). He has worked in London and in Paris and Barcelona. He decided to take up Studio Ghibli’s offer when it became possible to work with French and Belgian film funds. Having not made a feature before he decided to use a large group of animators but hoped that they would respect his unique style which combines European and Japanese-Chinese styles. I found an interview with de Wit which appears to have been conducted for Positif magazine. Here are de Wit’s thoughts on the techniques he developed:

[Interviewer] Let’s talk about technique: apparently, you discovered digital at Prima Linea Productions.

That’s right. Prima Linea is the studio — in Paris and Angoulême — where we made the film. While we were doing our first animation tests, another crew was finalising the film WOLFY, THE INCREDIBLE SECRET, using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. With this tool, you can instantly visualise the results of your animation, without having to scan drawings separately. It’s more economical, gives you more creative freedom and increased control for retouching. We animated two versions of the same shot, one with pencil on paper and the other with this digital pencil. The line of the digital pencil was more beautiful and that convinced us.

One of the charcoal drawings included in the Press Notes

For the backgrounds, we chose a different process. The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated. It would have been hell to animate them in 2D. As everything is finalised in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital. During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch ups.

I can vouch for the effectiveness of these decisions. I sat in my usual seat in the centre of the second row close to the screen and I could appreciate the ‘graininess’ and the subtlety of the backgrounds. Kate Stables suggests that some of the backgrounds depend on a style similar to ‘grisaille’ – creating depth through careful shading in grey or another single colour. One reason for preferring anime to contemporary American animations with computer generated backgrounds is the use of drawn backgrounds and The Red Turtle is a standout example of what can be achieved. It’s also interesting to think about the use of long shot compositions, especially in the earlier part of the film where ‘the sole survivor’ is coming to terms with his position in a setting that can move from idyllic to dangerous very quickly.

The crabs in The Perishers

One of the genuine pleasures of the film are the tiny crabs that often accompany the actions of the man on the beach and act like a comedy chorus. For a while I couldn’t work out why the affected me so much, then I realised that they reminded me of a classic Daily Mirror cartoon strip, ‘The Perishers’ (1959-2006). Every year the children and their dog would go on a seaside holiday where they would meet the crabs in a rock pool – crabs who believed the large eyes of the dog were mystical ‘eyes in the sky’ as the crabs saw them from beneath the water-line.

There are so many pleasures in The Red Turtle, ranging from the cartoon-like fun with the crabs to the ecological questions, the folk tales and mystery and the emotions created firstly in relation to the turtle and then to the human family. Like all the best animations, The Red Turtle has something for everybody. It’s especially thrilling that the film achieves its effects without dialogue. There is music, however, as Michaël Dudok de Wit acknowledges :

The music is key as there is no dialogue. I didn’t have a clear idea of a specific musical style. Laurent Perez del Mar made a few suggestions including a very beautiful melody that was perfect for the main theme. I was delighted. He was quick to suggest music where I would not have thought to have any, and he was right. He often surprised me. [Same interview as above.]

Some reviewers have suggested that there is too much music but it seemed fine to me and served the narrative well. You can hear the main theme in the UK trailer and glimpse the style outlined above:

London International Animation Festival

Simon's cat

This was the Children’s Programme toured from the London International Animation Festival screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. A rather nice idea, a set of films suitable for all the family. That is what we got at the Picture House, and [with a few minor wanderings] the kids and their parents seemed to really enjoy the selection. I gathered from the projectionist that the programme was provided on a disc and then the staff copied this to a DCP: one would have hoped that an International Festival could mange to use a theatrical format for this. Still it was an entertaining selection of varied animation films from a number of different countries.

Simon’s Cat: Pizzacat (2015), 1’50

A hungry cat gets the last slice. This was the first of two ‘cat cartoons’. From the credits it seems that this character appears both on film and in books: I suspect the latter was the earlier appearance. The films are drawn in black and white lines. The cat is typical of its kind:. clever and self-contained, usually battling with his owner: in this case over a pizza. The second example – Box Clever. In this case a regular character, the neighbouring boxer/bulldog, assists the cat caught in a cone guard.

You can check out episodes and creator Simon Tofield’s techniques at https://simonscat.com/about/

Perfect Houseguest (2015), 1’35

A house is visited by a clean, organised and well-mannered guest. The film from the USA uses models, the houseguest being a domesticated mouse who makes the house ordered and shipshape.

rita_croc_still_fishing_02

Rita and Crocodile – Fishing (2014) , 5’00

Rita and Crocodile are going fishing and Rita lectures Crocodile on how to fish.

We also had a second film in which Rita & her Crocodile visit the Forest in search of conkers. The Crocodile is extremely affable, far removed from the threatening beasts common on screen. The films, produced by Ladybird, are from Denmark, but this was an English-language version.

Submarine Sandwich (2014), 2’00

The first step to a delicious sandwich is slicing the meat. Only in this case what the film animates is a set of food substitutes: balls, gloves, medallions and so on. This is a new stop-motion film from the director of Fresh Guacamole (PES, USA 2012), the latter had the status of shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar.

With Different Eyes (2015), 4’10

A trip around the world on a wooden train set. This film is almost abstract, playing with sets of mecano-type-like parts. There is also a song, translated via subtitles.

Boom Boom The Fisherman’s Daughter (2013), 8’25

A lonely fisherman with a long nose befriends an orphaned baby elephant who believes that the man is its mother. This was beautifully drawn though the plot was rather opaque. The relationships between characters are very nicely done.

A Single Life (2014), 2’20

A life can be lived, measured and manipulated in so many different ways but beware the cracks and the sudden endings. The ingenious story here offers a series of transformations, which also take us through the cycle of life and death. This Dutch film makes ingenious use of an usual prop, an old 45 rpm vinyl record.

Airmail (2014), 6’10

A fish, a cat, a wrestler and the woman who would save them all. Unusual ingredients for an unlikely long distance love affair. The title and the style of this film suggest homage to Len Lye. There continuity is tied together by the continuing efforts of a cat to catch a goldfish.

Taipei Recyclers (2014), 7’00

A riot of sound and colour using trash collected from the streets of Taipei. The film uses all the possible detritus from its setting, a rather abstract presentations.

VeryLonelyCockb

Very Lonely Cock (2015), 6’00

It’s a hard day for the very lonely cock. Perhaps tomorrow it’ll be better. Who knows? Anyway, it can’t get any worse. Or can it? Bizarre but entertaining Russian film with no dialogue. The film is almost surrealist in its antics and humour.

Sweet Dreams (2015), 11’45

A coincidental meeting of a house hamster and a pair of squirrels. It took me time to identify one animal as a hamster. Their relationships are built on accords, though winter and into spring.

The London International Animation Festival.

Some of the films are featured on YouTube.

Rita and Crocodile Submarine Sandwich by PESA Single Life

Paddington (UK-France 2014)

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France  – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.

I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)

As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s  blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.

There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.

The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.

The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised  him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.

Damon Albarn's re-release of Lord Kitchener's calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

Damon Albarn’s re-release of Lord Kitchener’s calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it? Just a thought.

The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.

Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.

Celebrating 75 Years of the National Film Board of Canada

The current Norman McLaren centenary  screenings and the ‘Documentary Special’ edition of Sight and Sound (September 2014) have prompted me to think about one of the most important public bodies associated with film production: the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is 75 years old this year having been founded by the Scottish documentarist John Grierson in 1939. His fellow Scot Norman McLaren was recruited in 1941. The Film Board went on to embrace and significantly develop the film culture of Francophone Canada and to encourage filmmaking for all Canadian communities. As well as a resource for Canadians, the Film Board has become a major international producer of documentaries, animated films and fiction shorts and features, winning so far – as the banner above proclaims – over 5,000 awards in its 75 year life. The NFB has produced a timeline graphic as part of its celebrations and has encouraged everyone to display it, so here it is: timeline-nfb-75th-final-english

My own encounters with the board’s films came first in the 1970s when I remember seeing its documentaries in various programmes at the National Film Theatre here in the UK. When I started teaching I found that the film library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London would lend copies of films (no charge) on 16mm to use in the classroom and I borrowed several NFB films in this way. It was around this time that I became aware of the legacy of John Grierson’s work and the importance of Norman McLaren – as well as the diversity of Canadian filmmaking. I don’t know if such arrangements survived the demise of 16mm but educational activities remain an important part of the NFB’s overall programme. More recently I’ve become aware of the importance of the NFB in the remarkable growth of Quebecois filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. Often quoted as the most important Canadian feature, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is one of several feature films available both online and for download from the National Film Board website. More recently, the NFB produced the marvelous Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell (2012). The online collection of films is extensive and anyone could spend happy hours or days exploring it. Many films are available in both English and French language versions – the practice seems to have been to dub rather than subtitle the alternative versions of many of the films. This is a little unfortunate since the dubs sound artificial. But that’s is a minor quibble.

Women as creative filmmakers at the NFB

Because I was recently reading about the difficult careers of John Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion (in The Media Education Journal – Issue 55, published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland), I was intrigued to stumble across the wartime short documentaries made by Jane Marsh at the NFB in the early 1940s. Jane Marsh produced, wrote and directed six films between 1942 and 1943 and five of them are available online. She eventually fell out with Grierson because she felt that he didn’t give her proper recognition for her achievements. Jane Marsh’s beautiful colour film from 1943, Alexis Tremblant: Habitant was written, directed and edited by Marsh and photographed by Judith Crawley – one of the first films from the NFB made largely by women in the creative roles:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/alexis_tremblay_habitant_en

Grierson was old-fashioned, even in the 1940s, in his attitudes towards the many women who worked at the NFB during the war. An interesting short film about the wartime period at the NFB can be found here. Evelyn Spice Cherry was a young woman from Western Canada who met Grierson in London where she became a director in the 1930s and was then invited to join him when he set up the NFB. She would make around 100 films in all, though she left the NFB in 1950 when it came under pressure from anti-communist witch-hunters – the Board has been at the centre of a range of controversies, which is probably an indicator of its engagement with Canadian life. Evelyn Lambart was one of the first female animators at the NFB, collaborating with Norman McLaren on six productions. Grierson was a chauvinist but also an inspirational figure who encouraged women – as another female director Gudrun Bjerring Parker attests:

https://www.nfb.ca/film/making_movie_history_gudrun_bjerring_parker

In the post-war years other women became significant directors at NFB including Caroline Leaf who joined the NFB in 1972 and directed both animations and live-action documentaries – I enjoyed watching one on the singer-musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle from 1981.

Public service

The collection of NFB films available to view on https://www.nfb.ca is invaluable for cinephiles, film historians and anyone interested in Canadian culture. The database of films needs to be seen alongside those available from the British Film Institute, British Council and other publicly-funded resources such as PBS in the US. I hope to explore some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please checkout the NFB site.

Norman McLaren Centenary Film Tour

Pas de Deux

Pas de Deux

This programme, organised by McLaren 2014 in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is a celebration of one hundred years on from the birth of Scottish animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. In Yorkshire both the Hyde Park Picture House (Friday August 8th) and the National Media Museum (Sunday August 3rd and Saturday 9th) are offering screenings. And both venues are also offering Digital Animation Workshops (with different age ranges – for HPPH) in which participants can use the McLaren iPad App (National Film Board of Canada) to create short animations. These will later to uploaded to the McLaren 2014 Website.

Norman McLaren was born in Stirling on April 11th 1914. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. His notable films include Hell Unlimited (1936) an impressive and innovatory anti-war short film with touches of the surreal. This film led to him being invited to join the GPO Film Unit by John Grierson in 1936. He also worked as a cameraman in Spain during the war to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion. He emigrated to the USA in 1939 and in 1941 was invited by Grierson (again) to join the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. He also worked in Asia for a time helping to develop visual methods in overcoming illiteracy. He died in 1987.

McLaren frequently worked on live-action documentaries and animated films where he drew directly onto the celluloid. He was an important innovator in the techniques of drawing on film and also experimented with 3D animation and animation translated into synthetic sound waves.

He won an Academy Award for his 1952 live action film Neighbours, which made use of pixilation techniques.

The screenings will feature 13 of his short animations, mainly from his work at the National Film Board of Canada. His best works are beautifully drawn, technically assured and both stimulating and sometimes very humorous. His technical ability encompassed a range of styles, including abstract works. The prime focus tends to be movement and colour is often added for emotional resonance. Included in the screenings will be his first professional film, Love on the Wing (1938), an advertisement for the Empire Mail Service, but also an exercise in technique and surreal combinations: a war-time contribution V is for Victory (1941): A Chairy Tale (1957) which ‘brings to life inanimate objects’: Blinkity Blank (1959) which explores motion by painting directly onto raw film stock: and Pas de Deux (1968), a live-action film of ballet dancers, which uses step-printing on an optical printer.

The workshops promise to be instructive but also fun. And the screenings offer a rare opportunity to see masterworks from the field of animation on the big screen.

http://www.mclaren2014.com/

http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Films/N/NormanMcLarenCentenaryFilms.aspx

Hyde Park Picture House – email: admin@hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Japan 2011)

The house on 'Poppy Hill'

The house on ‘Poppy Hill’

The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.

Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokahama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokohama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

Umi and her sister venture into the boy's world of the 'Latin Quartier' building.

Umi and her sister venture into the boy’s world of the ‘Latin Quartier’ building.

The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.

The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.

The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.

Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.

Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.

 

Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/from-up-on-poppy-hill