This Day School explored the popularity of the American Western as an influence on filmmakers around the world. The case study ‘classic Western’ was Shane (US 1953) – a popular film embodying some of the most important ideas and values found in the American Western.
The aim of the day was to focus on the themes and story structures of the American Western, focusing on the work of two structuralist critics from the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Kitses and Will Wright.
The day was also intended to prepare the ground for a second day school that will look at Westerns produced outside the US. Watch out for details of the follow up.
The notes for the day can be downloaded as a pdf here: Western Day School Notes
This Day School followed the screenings of The Second Mother and Güeros earlier in the programme. The day explored themes and approaches to filmmaking across Latin America with a full screening of Las acacias (Argentina/Spain 2011).
These three films from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina represent the output of the three biggest film industries in the region but there has also been an upsurge in the smaller industries of Chile, Columbia and Venezuela in the last few years as well as films from Ecuador and Uruguay. Cuba remains important as the home of the principal Film Festival in the region in Havana as well as a possible training and education centre for Latin American filmmakers. In many cases, local productions are made as part of co-production deals with Spain. The existence of a large and growing Hispanic market in the United States is also an important factor for many productions.
Latin America, alongside East Asia is one of the parts of the world where film audiences as well as the number of local productions are growing. The day will try to distinguish some of the main genres and themes of recent Latin American Cinema as well as discussing Las acacias in detail as an example of a film from a first time filmmaker that impressed festival audiences all around the world.
The notes for the day school can be downloaded here as a pdf: Latin America Day School Notes
Güeros is an unusual and exciting film. It’s particularly remarkable as a début film – but its director Alonso Ruizpalacios was already an experienced theatre and TV director who had previously won prizes for his short films. (He also trained as an actor at RADA in London.)
The film’s vitality is built on three noticeable elements. First, it offers a quartet of characters portrayed by young actors with both skill and charisma. Second, it utilises a ‘New Wave’ approach derived from directors as diverse as Fellini and Jim Jarmusch – both name-checked by the director. The introduction of Ana (Ilse Salas) reminds us of Anna Karina in a film like Godard’s Bande à part (France 1964). Third, the film uses Mexico City almost as a fifth character with the ‘road movie’ structure taking us through very different districts and allowing a social commentary, sometimes directly through interactions between the characters and people they meet, but sometimes simply through documentary-style observation.
Mexico has the most cinema screens in Latin America and the highest number of admissions – but most are for Hollywood films and Mexican films have less than 10% of their own market. However, there are smaller films supported by public funds that travel to international festivals. Güeros is one of these – and there are jokes about this kind of film included in the film’s dialogue.
Mexico does not have an ethnic classification in its official census but the majority of the population is of ‘mixed’ heritage – European, African or Asian with indigenous peoples. The ‘European’ community is perhaps 10% of the population and the Indigenous peoples (several different peoples) slightly more than 10%. ‘Güeros’ means light-skinned or ‘blonde-haired’ and is used sometimes as a term of abuse in the film.
Despite its geographical size, Mexico is an urbanised society. Mexico City has a population of over 8 million but the metropolitan area of ‘Greater Mexico City’ has over 20 million and vies with São Paulo as the biggest urban area in Latin America. Income inequalities are large in the country.
Filmic New Waves
References to ‘New Waves’ in film culture often assume the French New Wave of 1958-63 (not a precise period), but there were similar movements across global cinema in the 1960s and again in the decades to follow. There is no standard definition of a New Wave and no necessary standardisation of approaches within a New Wave. As the term implies, New Wave films do something differently compared to earlier films and often, but not always, they are ‘youthful’ in some way, as well as ‘modern’. Having said that, some New Wave films are also backward-looking in celebrating the work of earlier filmmakers through an hommage.
Güeros as a New Wave film
The most visible ‘difference’ here is that Ruizpalacios chooses to shoot in black & white and to use the much squarer Academy aspect ratio (1:1.37). This perhaps references 1960s New Wave films with small budgets. The images are also a product of a dynamic camera style, relatively static at first and then rapidly mobile during the road trip. While the nostalgic feel (Güeros is set during a year-long student strike in 1999) might refer to Truffaut and Godard, it also conjures up the early work of Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s – which included road trip structures. The rather surprising mention of Japanese director Ozu Yasijuro (by the director in his press notes) might be a reference to Ozu’s early 1930s comedy films about schoolboys and college students.
The figure of the fictitious singer the quartet are looking for was inspired by the story Bob Dylan told about going to visit Woody Guthrie in hospital. (Tomás wears a t-shirt with the legend ‘Don’t Look Back’, the title of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary about Dylan’s fateful tour of the UK in 1966.) During the student meeting in the university, the inevitable poster of Che Guevera is seen but there are also references to the Cuban national hero José Marti (1853-1895). Cuba was the centre of the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ in the 1960s.
Films are made all over the world but the most widely seen are those intended either for commercial release in mainstream cinemas or on the international film festival circuit. This means that they follow certain widely understood conventions. But what of films produced in countries with few, if any, cinemas? Or films made from within communities with only limited connections to the mainstream cultures of West or East? Are we forced to ‘read’ them through the critical faculties we apply to Western films? Do we worry about finding them ‘exotic’? Do we underestimate the vision and imagination of local filmmakers? The Day School will explore several different filmmaking approaches from Africa, Asia and Indigenous Australian Cinema (such as Ten Canoes, Australia 2006 – see the image above) that attempt to allow local peoples and local cultures to present themselves as they might wish to be seen. We’ll also consider the barriers faced by these productions.
(Please note there will not be a full screening as part of this event. We will, however, discuss aspects of Timbuktu (France/Mauritania 2014) screened on Wednesday 18 (Kala Sangam) and Thursday 19 November (Dean Clough) and we will introduce Theeb – to be screened on Wednesday December 2nd at Kala Sangam and December 10th at Dean Clough).
Every few years the international film community discovers a new director whose films win prizes at festivals and new fans around the world. Andrey Zvyagintsev first attracted attention with The Return in 2002, followed by The Banishment in 2007 and Elena in 2011. The director’s fourth feature Leviathan was one of the most celebrated and controversial films of 2014 and given the current belligerence of the Russian state, Zvyagintsev’s oblique commentaries on Russian society have begun to attract attention in the news media. What makes these films so compelling and distinctive?
This day school introduced Zvyagintsev as an unusual figure in contemporary cinema who worked for many years as an actor before directing an episode of a television drama series aged 36 in 2000. The move into feature films was rapid and The Return’s award of the Golden Lion in Venice was a reminder of another début win by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in 1962.
Zvyagintsev’s film’s have attracted audiences for three main reasons and these were the focus of the Day School:
- The stories resonate because of strong characters and universal themes (often with Biblical allusions) – which can also be interpreted in specific Russian contexts.
- Some fruitful collaborations with talented filmmakers to produce a powerful aesthetic appeal in terms of cinematography, music and sound and use of settings and landscape.
- A dedication to the ‘art’ of cinema and an obvious debt to several of the giants of art cinema such as Andrei Tarkovsky as well as an affinity with other contemporary art directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
The day included a complete screening of Zvyagintsev’s third feature Elena plus discussion-based sessions with extracts from the other three films and complementary material from Tarkovsky and Ceylan.