Category: British Cinema

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

The Long Memory (UK 1953)

Philip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

Phillip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay's father

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay’s father Captain Driver (Fred Johnson)

Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.

The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

i-daniel-blake-3

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in The Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteer are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some an analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this films refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 Television drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.