Category: British Cinema

The Confession: Living the War on Terror (UK 2016)

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I saw this film at the Hyde Park Picture House: there was also a Q&A with the subject of the film, Moazzam Begg, and the director, Ashish Ghadiali, following the screening. The film centres on a long interview with Moazzam Begg as he recounts his experiences: radicalised by events in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s: harassed by the British Security Services and a move to Afghanistan; with the US invasion he moved with his family to Pakistan; and then the kidnapping and imprisonment at the US air base at Bagram and whisked away (illegally) to the Guantánamo base in occupied Cuba. There he was interrogated and tortured in the company of hundreds of other illegally detained men under the euphemism of ”enemy combatants’. Finally released Moazzam Begg has become an active Moslem and an activist in anti-imperial struggles. So predictably the UK government attempted to charge him again in 2014: and as with much on the so-called ‘war on terror’ pursued this incompetently.

The interview is absorbing and Begg is fluent and clearly has considered his experiences carefully and intelligently. The interview is well filmed by Director of Cinematography Keidrych Wasley: for much of the time we watch Begg and his reflection in a darkened mirror, occasionally changing to a large close-up for emphasis. The interview is supplemented by found footage, some of related people and places, some other interviews and much television and film footage of the events in which Begg has been involved. Some of the media footage is well judged, illuminating the topic or being illuminated by Begg’s voice over. Some of it feels like the visual padding that is so common on television news. There were a couple of over familiar sequences of Bush and Blair where I almost groaned out loud.

All of this is edited together in a predominately linear narrative which develops its themes and commentary into a coherent overview. The Film Editors Nsé Asuquo and Simon Barker have done this in excellent fashion. The sound is effective and there is frequent commentative music by Nitin Sawhney, well composed but at times a little intrusive.

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The Q&A that followed was interesting, especially the added comments by Moazzam Begg. And Ashish Ghadiali added some background to the film. But we then had several questions taken together before any response, which did not make for clarity. I had a couple of queries which I did not get an opportunity to put to the filmmaker. One was concerning the opening titles which included one that noted that Moazzam Begg and been imprisoned in ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and Britain’. This is not really correct and is misleading: The Guantánamo Detention Centre is in a part of Cuba occupied by the USA. A point that one would hope an independent film offered clarity on. Of more concern  to me was the use in the film of two unidentified interviewers, one heard briefly with Moazzam Begg’s father, but the other (or perhaps the same person) on several occasions with Begg himself. We do not actually see him but it did not seem to be the director in this role. But it was clear that the style of questioning determined to a great degree how Begg presented his experiences and therefore on the form of the film itself. What we saw and heard was rather similar to the approach one finds on the BBC (who were part of the production), requiring Begg and his supporters to justify their position. It should be obvious especially with the critical volume from bourgeois critics, that the justification lies entirely with the US and UK Governments and security services.

This produced a strong reservation for me about how effective this approach is. I certainly think the film and Moazzam Begg deserve full attention. But it needs to be supplemented by a more radical approach. I thought that The Road to Guantánamo (2006) had that. It seems that the screenings of Confession with an accompanying Q&A have finished but the film is still screening nationwide.

Barry Lyndon (UK-US 1975)

The opening shot of Barry Lyndon presenting Redmond Barry's father's death in long shot

The opening shot of ‘Barry Lyndon’ presenting Redmond Barry’s father’s death in long shot

The BFI’s release of a 4K restoration print of Barry Lyndon is now doing the rounds of UK specialised screens. After my recent viewing of the new Blu-ray of Novecento/1900, I wondered how Stanley Kubrick would measure up to Bertolucci with a similarly long and meticulously created historical drama. I didn’t see Barry Lyndon on its 1975-6 UK release but I vaguely remember its poor reception by critics and its lack of commercial success (i.e. compared to Clockwork Orange in 1971-2). Since that first release Barry Lyndon‘s stock has risen considerably and now it is taken by some critics to be Kubrick’s masterpiece. Intrigued by this change of heart I went back to the extended review article by Penelope Houston in Sight and Sound Spring 1976. She sets out what reads now as a calm and measured view on the film and one which seems spot on to me. Sight and Sound gave the film a 3 star (out of 4) rating. I also checked Monthly Film Bulletin in which Richard Combs also gives a positive/constructive review so the critical reception was not all negative. Houston does quote some of the negative comments by UK and US press reviewers and says that she herself was puzzled by the film, but then uses the space available to her (as editor of Sight and Sound) to produce a more measured response.

Background to the production

Barry Lyndon is argued to be the eventual outcome of Kubrick’s frustrated attempt to make a film set during the Napoleonic Wars. After a lukewarm response from Warner Bros. he turned instead to an early work by Thackeray, first published as a serial in 1844 and later re-issued as a novel. Set in the second half of the 18th century, the story (based on a real biography) involves a young Irish ‘gentleman’ named Redmond Barry with limited prospects who seeks to better himself and who, after adventures in Prussia and across Europe, marries a wealthy widow, Lady Lyndon, with land and a small son (who inherits his father’s title). Barry becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’ but ultimately fails to establish himself as a member of the aristocracy and is effectively defeated by his own stepson. The story is in some ways a precursor to the much more well-known Vanity Fair (1847) with Becky Sharp as its protagonist. Kubrick appears to have altered significant aspects of the narrative of Barry Lyndon, including changing the narrator from Barry himself to an unseen ‘omniscient’ narrator voiced by Michael Hordern. The suggestion is that Kubrick loses something of Thackeray’s comedy and changes the nature of his satire. For some audiences this means it is more difficult to understand what it is that Kubrick wants to say about 18th century British life or about the aristocracy of Europe. The two charges against the film are therefore that it is ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘static’ and that Kubrick’s intention is difficult to define.

One of Alcott's interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son's tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

One of Alcott’s interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son’s tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

The outcome of the film’s Oscar nominations seems to have been influenced by these charges so that its four Oscar wins were all ‘technical’ – Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Music Scoring. Kubrick himself was nominated in three categories – Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay – but didn’t win for any of these. I’m not sure about the music (an acknowledged strength of Kubrick’s production) – it is certainly noticeable and there are some excellent choices but sometimes it seems heavy-handed. The other three awards are richly deserved. Cinematographer John Alcott worked with Kubrick to produce interiors lit only with candles and the long shots of landscapes and several interiors evoke the fine art painting of the 18th century masters. It’s hard to deny that the film is wondrous to behold on screen. But what does it all mean?

Analysis

Kubrick followed the (eminently sensible) roadshow convention of inserting an intermission so there is a part 1 of 102 mins and a Part 2 of 82 minutes. Part 1 is the picaresque adventure and Part 2 is the failed attempt to become an aristo. Richard Combs argues that by removing Barry’s ironic narration and presenting the action in such a distanced way Kubrick creates a character who is first passive and then compliant as an agent in the cold, harsh world of 18th century Europe. He sees a connection to Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and he argues that Ryan O’Neal as Barry is “not perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray’s swashbuckling braggart”. Combs goes on to carefully sketch out how this works. He may well be right but I’m afraid I’m still stuck with O’Neal as miscasting.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry's fall.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry’s fall.

Ryan O’Neal was undoubtedly a star in the early 1970s with lead roles in Love Story, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – films which did very well at the box office, pleased many critics and won awards. In most of these roles O’Neal is the romantic/passive/idealist figure. I certainly see these elements of his star persona in Barry Lyndon but the role also demands cunning/deceit and a form of courage which is less in evidence for me. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad acting’ but rather that O’Neal brings ‘star baggage’ that works against the other performances, mostly by British character actors. Leonard Rossiter offers one of his gurning comic turns but generally the rest of the cast fits Combs’ overall description of the world Kubrick creates. I wondered how Barry might have come across played by Malcolm McDowell. I was thinking not only of Clockwork Orange but also of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Penelope Houston points out that McDowell also appeared as an early 19th century scoundrel/cad in Royal Flash (1975) and argues that he might have portrayed Thackarey’s original Barry – but not Kubrick’s revised version. I think the point here is simply to recognise that in ‘reading’ Kubrick’s film it is too constricting to take it as either an auteurist project or a literary adaptation. The approach to cinematography, set design and costumes places the film in relation to a long history of attempts to represent British landscapes and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of Chris Menges’ work on Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) (set in Yorkshire in the 1750s) and in my post on that film I discuss many of the other titles to which Kubrick’s film alludes, if only tangentially, via its concern with landscape and forms of realism.

I’m pleased to have seen Barry Lyndon. I think that what I most enjoyed was the array of British character actors as well as the sheer beauty of the film. I did feel distanced from the narrative but I think with a second viewing I would fully appreciate the Houston/Combs readings and understand Kubrick’s project. But I don’t think I would be moved by it. I’d like now to go back to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), a film I did enjoy at the time despite its generally poor critical reception and indifferent box office. Both Nair and Kubrick represent attempts to use Hollywood money to make ‘international films’ based on British literary texts by the same author. Their very different approaches are worth exploring.

Barry Lyndon new 2016 trailer:

Hard Stop (UK-US 2015)

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This is an independent documentary that explores, to a degree indirectly, the events and  responses that followed from the death of Mark Duggan. He was shot by a Metropolitan police squad in Tottenham in 2011, and the circumstances surrounding his death offer conflicting stories. What is undeniable is that a wave of unrest and rioting occurred after the shooting , first in London and then in other towns round the country. This re-ignited a debate that has raged on and off for years about social violence and state violence.

The film does not offer the apparently dispassionate account common in documentaries but explores the events and situations through personal stories. The key characters are two friends of Mark Duggan, Kurtis and Marcus. We learn both their stories, and piece by piece, some of the story of Mark Duggan. Kurtis is married with a child and he has struggled to find work to support them. He ‘got on his bike’ and worked in Norwich for a while but the disruption damaged his home life. Now he works back in the area. Marcus was sentenced to prison following the riots. Since the death of his friend he has embraced Islam and since leaving prison he has a mentor for young black boys.

The story of the events and subsequent investigations of Mark Duggan’s death unfold alongside these two other stories. So it was only late in the film, when the delayed inquest in to Duggan’s death took place, that I found out to what the title refers: a phrase used by the Metropolitan Police to describe stopping criminals with extreme violence. The Inquest resulted in a contradictory finding: the contradiction between law and justice. We see that the family, including Mark’s two surviving friends, continue to struggle for justice.

The film was directed by George Amponsah who also shot some of the film. There is no script credit, so I assume the film was structured around the varied film footage, both archive and found footage and film shot round Tottenham, and edited together. This increases the very personal and subjective feel of the film. The differing footage is well edited into a 85 minute film in colour and standard widescreen. There was one odd ratio among the footage, which I did not recognise, which produced a slight black bar on the top of the screen at some points.

The overall effect of the film is powerful. The film’s point-of-view eschews comment using the voices of family, friends and local residents, but this creates a gradually growing volume of discrepancies and disquiet. Some of the participants do voice strong feelings. These include commenting  on earlier events, the death of Cynthia Jarrett, the Broadwater Farm rebellion/riot and the death of PC Blakelock in 1985. Here the film draws connections between long running social problems, deprivation and racism in this area of London.

The film opens with a quotation from Martin Luther King,

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

a point eloquently re-enforced by the film. The well judged testimonies and accounts by Kurtis and Marcus speak volumes about the lives and situations of young black men in London. The film then ends with a quotation from Leo Tolstoy,

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

This struck me as a far less appropriate comment. In fact, we see Kurtis and Marcus changing in the course of the film, and it is clear that other people we  see do as well. But whilst they change they also remember the past. One recurring scene is the annual anniversary gathering at the grave of Mark Duggan. Tolstoy’s quotation would have been more relevant if he had referred to institutions.

The film is circulated by Metrodome Distribution and both the Picturehouse and Curzon chains are offering screenings. I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House regular Tuesday slot. At the moment the only other screening in West Yorkshire appears to be that at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on Monday evening August 15th.

Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (UK 2016)

Ken Loach looking at locations for I, Daniel Blake (© Sixteen Films)

Ken Loach looking at locations for I, Daniel Blake (© Sixteen Films)

For over 25 years since the release of Hidden Agenda (1990), Ken Loach has been the most consistently successful British filmmaker – not in gross box office, but simply in terms of producing films regularly and putting working-class characters (English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Latin-American) on screen in ways that do them justice. Before that he had a prolific career in UK TV drama and film and a great success in cinemas with Kes (1969) before he was sidelined in the Thatcher 80s when ‘greed was good’ and the working-class were hammered before being marginalised. Ken will be 80 in a few days and this new documentary was released midway between his birthday and the award of a second Palme d’Or at Cannes to his company Sixteen Films for I, Daniel Blake. Ken Loach certainly deserves a cinema documentary made about him. Unfortunately there are some problems with this one.

Director Louise Osmond is a celebrated documentarist whose last film Dark Horse (2015) won prizes at Sundance and at the British Independent Film Awards and she had full access to Loach’s preparations for shooting I, Daniel Blake, as well as to Ken and his collaborators. I’m puzzled by the lack of real analysis of the work and by the poor technical qualities of her film. To be fair, Ken Loach has had an eventful life so far and his films and television material represent a formidable body of work. To do justice to the man and his work would need a documentary series rather than a single 93 minute film. I’ve seen all Ken’s feature films (apart from the new one) and most of the important TV work. It isn’t surprising then that I enjoyed being reminded of the work and that I was grateful for the archive material insights into his early life alongside the contributions of his family. The film also includes useful contributions from Tony Garnett and Gabriel Byrne (who give the best insights into Loach as a committed director) and a host of other talking heads with stories and observations. Osmond’s strategy is to use the making of I, Daniel Blake as a running example of Loach at work. She then breaks into this ‘making of’ narrative to visits distinct periods in Loach’s life and career, not necessarily in chronological order.

There are arguably four sections to the film to add to the ‘making of’ doc. We get archive photos and memories to learn about both Loach the boy from Nuneaton and Loach the paterfamilias in later life. Tony Garnett takes us through the early work at the BBC and explains that Ken was not really ‘politicised’ until he met the writer Jim Allen in the late 1960s. Garnett’s analysis ends with Kes in 1969. The third section deals with the frustrations of the 1970s and 1980s and in particular on the cancellations of TV commissions and the last minute cancellation of Jim Allen’s Royal Court play Perdition in 1987 – a furore over the exposure of Zionism during the Second World War in Hungary that seems very contemporary today. Loach was reduced to making commercials to avoid financial disaster – something which still makes him feel ashamed. The fourth section plots the ‘renewal’ following a Cannes prize for Hidden Agenda. Throughout the film Ken responds carefully, guardedly perhaps with lots of self-deprecation, but also occasionally with the steely determination mentioned by both Garnett and Byrne.

The narrative structure is intended to serve the film’s title – to present the Ken Loach who is loved (by the left) and loathed (by the right). But this is very simplistic and demeaning. Loach is also treated with condescension by many of the so-called ‘liberal élite’ in the UK. His films are seen by this group to be all the same, without any real analysis. There is an indication of this in Liz Forgan’s explanation of why Channel 4 refused to broadcast Ken’s 1980s series on Questions of Leadership on the grounds that they all argued that trade union leaders had betrayed their members. I think it is a weakness of the documentary to not explore Ken’s politics and the different politics of his films across the years. My own question to Ken would be why he has always set his films in one of London, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Strathclyde or Ireland. Why not the Midlands? Why not Nuneaton or Oxford which he would know from his own experience (since this is part of why he casts actors and recruits writers)? I’d also ask why there are relatively few non-white characters in most of the films and only one film (Ae Fond Kiss) specifically about a migrant family? (I’m not arguing that he should make a film about any particular set of characters – only that it is an interesting question to ask.)

The technical problem with the film is now a common-place – and already identified as a problem with Loach’s own Spirit of ’45. All of Loach’s early TV work was shot 4:3 on video or 1.37:1 on 16mm film. Even a feature like Kes was shot for 1.66:1 projection. Yet in Versus all this early material is either cropped or squeezed to fit a 1.85:1 ratio (in fact it might even be 2.35:1 Not only this but the archive footage seems to have come from someone’s old VHS collection and it looks dreadful. Even the extracts from some of the later films look like poor copies. I’m worried that younger audiences will look at these downgraded images and fail to appreciate not just Ken’s direction but the great cinematography of collaborators like Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd. Menges is interviewed in the film but not Ackroyd – who helped establish the Loach style of social realism in the 1990s (as against the more naturalistic style of Menges’ work on Kes). The film does attempt to explore Loach’s work with actors and it does mention the Czech New Wave (to underpin Menges’ comments) but there is much more to the development of Loach’s approach than that one film movement. Some explanation of neo-realism and possibly some discussion of Robbie Ryan’s current work for Loach would help to dispel the view that Ken’s importance in British Cinema is just down to the subject matter of his films. There is a brief discussion of ‘Ken at Cannes’, but it would have been good to hear from some of his many European supporters why they are so passionate in support of his films.

My other moan is about what is becoming a modern documentary convention for ‘bio-docs’ – the shot of a location for no real reason except to break up the talking heads. Here we get shots of Blackpool Central Promenade because the Loach family went there for their annual one week holiday when Loach was a child – and because Thatcher made speeches there at the Tory Conference. Similarly we get aerial shots of Oxford, again from not very good footage.

Versus seems to me to be a rushed project made on a low budget that struggles to do full justice to its subject. I realise that documentarists have to select carefully and they can’t include everything, but in this film the choices could be better. I assume that they were made because of constraints. I do applaud the ‘pay what you can’ screenings that helped launch the film in cinemas and it’s true that the technical limitations of the image might be less visible on smaller screens, so I hope it does find some new audiences for Ken Loach’s work who will want to explore the films in more detail.

Here’s a clip from the film – one of the best parts in which Tony Garnett recalls first meeting Ken (note the cropped footage at the end):