This was a Pavilion event presented at the Hyde Park Picture House. Pavilion events are always interesting and offer disitntive areas of contemporary and recent cinema and culture. This was the case on this occasion with a feature length documentary and two experimental films addressing
The poetic potential of river and sea…
The documentary by Peter Sekula was The Forgotten Space (2010). This was lengthy and complex film and I feel the need to give it lengthy consideration: so these are brief introductory comments to which I will probably return. We had introductions from Will Rose and Gill Parks. Sekula worked at the University of California and was interested in both photography and film. He was described as a critical realist, a term which sets him off from those who saw photography as a ‘high art’ exercise. His collaborator Noël Burch is better known for his critical writings on film, but he has also been involved in other films, usually with an eye to avant garde techniques.
‘approaches the sea as a crucial site within capitalism’s global supply chain.
And the central motif is the container ship. We see numerous examples of this technology at seas and at various sites of arrival/departure in North America, Europe and South East Asia. There is a major port facility alongside Los Angeles: Antwerp is a major port for the European Community. And Hong Kong, both under British colonialism and now as part of modern China, is another key site.
The film looks at the development of the technology and it impact on the global organisation of capitalist production and distribution. It pays equal attention to impact on the working classes and the value of their labour power. And there is attention to the impact on communities both immediately affected by this technology and the wider cultural impacts. We hear interviews with representatives of the industries, of the workers, of the communities which home them, and analysts who study the industries.
The film develops an accumulating understanding of the immediate and more distant effects. The plotting constantly returns to this central technology, but this intercuts with particular examples: including the displacements of people in Europe, in California and across the Asian mainland and archipelagos.
In line with Sekula’s stance on ‘style’ for much of the time the images and sounds present their subjects and objects without drawing attention to themselves. But at key moments rather more unconventional techniques draw attention to the texture of the film and to the contradictions therein. Thus at one point studying effects around Antwerp the commentary offers the ‘discussions’ surrounding the displacement of a town and community, whilst an edit brings visual attention to police in riot gear. At another point as the camera pans across a landscape to the sounds of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, both sound and image are disrupted by a passing of a speeding train. At various points there are also shots in slow motion, speeded up shots, jump cuts and overlapping sound. All these techniques reminded me of some used in earlier films involving Noël Birch. And at another point shots of a line of trains are reminiscent of the films of James Benning: but whilst a boy’s voice counts the trains a series of wipes bring an effective disruption.
At other points there are some visually impressive camera shots: one a series of images taken across modern Hong Kong, using the reflections of doors and windows. The other, close to the end, offers a series of vistas around a ‘golden’ Guggenheim Museum erected in Bilbao.
Whist the films uses a range of locations and [presumably] filming it also uses extracts from recognisable features. Two of these, Michael Powell’s Red Ensign and Robert Aldrich Kiss Me deadly are cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame. However, a separate extract from Joseph von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is in the correct 1.33:1. This is odd and rather unsatisfactory.
As you might guess from some of the terms above, the film is informed by the seminal analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, though neither gets an actual reference. There are however a number of phrases which are immediately familiar: the container
‘contains the seeds of its own destruction.’
This is very effective but the analysis does not use the full range of Marxist concepts. Two important points are not presented: the actual nature of the value of labour power and the declining rate of profits. Of course, the analysis of Marx and Engels is long and complex. Even so, both of these points are essential to an understanding of the recent global crisis, which the film does reference.
The programme then screened two films by Peter Hutton, a cinematic artist working in North America. These are some way from the form of Sekula’s film. Shot and presented on 16 mm the films offer a series of shots and sequences of the Hudson River in New York State. These fit into a recognisable pattern of aesthetically orientated and independent filmmaking. At various points there are parallels with the work of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. However, Hutton has his own preferred tropes and thematic interests. The shots are discrete and at some points similar to the tropes of film roman. At times the shots are ethereal and beautiful but one also senses a social comment beyond the objects in some of the placements and sequencing.
Study of a River (1997) is in black and white and runs for 16 minutes. Time and Tide (2000) is in both black and white and colour, and runs for 35 minutes. The latter film has a series of shots through the portholes of a barge. These are especially evocative. Recurring shots of a particular scape or building, like a power station, suggest further reflection.
Time and Tide also uses film shot by the veteran pioneer cinematographer Billy Bitzer in 1903. I had, happily, seen this footage before at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Bitzer famously was cinematographer for D. W. Griffith, both on the early one and two-reelers at Biograph and the later feature films. I was intrigued when a shot followed of ice flows in the Hudson River: was this a subtle reference to Way Down East (1920)?
The whole programme provided both a challenging and thought provoking essay and a more aesthetic, almost dreamy film reverie. However, Hutton is not merely the aesthete criticised by Sekula. All three films provided both stimulation and cinematic pleasures.
This is a feature-length documentary due for release by Picturehouse in April this year. The film is about actual events in the horse-racing world between 2008 and 2011, hence the release close to the date for the Grand National. The presenter suggested that this would be a ‘feel-good’ release offering a tale of ‘making good’. The plot follows a small group in a Welsh mining village who raise and train and thoroughbred race horse. The form of the film involves cutting between interviews with actual participants and either actual footage or recreations that present the story of events. I could see that the film has that ‘feel good’ factor and it has a central character of a horse: surely a winner with the British public. I was interested in how the film constantly offered contrasts between the working class Welsh villagers and the world of racing, very much dominated by the aristocracy and land-owning faction of the bourgeoisie. However, there was a lack of a political edge to this. There is at one point some stills and found footage from the miners’ strike of 1984: and it is clear that the village has suffered economic deprivation since that event. But this does not really feed into the stony or characters, [Brassed Off (1996) or . . . do a better job of this aspect]: this is very much about ‘making good’ from the other side of the tracks. I also found the style of the film rather repetitious: for most of its length the film cuts between the filmed interviews and ‘found footage’, usually of relatively short length. The lack of variation in rhythm does not help developments. There is at some point also a problem with visual or aural quality, as the film uses material from a variety of formats. I was puzzled why the feature itself is presented in 2.39.1. This leads to the cropping or stretching of much of the ‘found footage’ and also often emphases the inferior quality of some of this material. There are also quite a few really conventional, if not stereotypical moments, as when we hear Tom Jones’ ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’ over a long shot of the Welsh landscape.
The story and the interviewees are attractive and that may help the film on release. But I felt that there as an opportunity missed. This did rather look like a lot of TV documentaries rather than having a real cinematic feel. In fact, the director and writer Louise Ormond, has mainly worked on television and in documentaries.
The film is in colour and runs 85 minutes. Not to be confused with The Dark Horse (New Zealand, 2014).
These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.
Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.
This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.
Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.
The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.
Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.
This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.
Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.
This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.
There is a posting on Drifters at
GFT3 was packed for the second screening of this documentary at 10.45 in the morning. It all bodes well for a new film by Wim Wenders for whom documentary has been the most successful film mode in the UK in the last twenty years (i.e. Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 and Pina, 2011). He co-directs Salt of the Earth with Julian Ribeiro Sagado and it is his co-director’s father, the photographer Sebastião Salgado who is the subject of the film.
Going into the screening, the only thing I knew about Sebastião Salgado was that he was a great photographer as evidenced by an exhibition I had seen at what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford in the 1990s. A single B+W image of the thousands of workers toting loads up and down the steep sides of an open cast gold mine in Brazil has stayed with me ever since. That image (and associated film footage and stills – see the image above) is used early in the film to introduce us to Sebastião before we see him at work more recently and then flashback to his university days and the launching of his career.
Salgado was born in North-East Brazil on a farm/plantation and after degrees in economics he found himself working for agencies like the World Bank and making frequent trips to Africa. He was living in Paris with his wife Lélia when the couple made the brave decision to invest in a new joint career in photography. Sebastião became a social documentary photographer who spent months and then years away from home for long periods on ambitious projects like ‘Workers’ and Lélia worked with the agencies, catalogued the images and organised the project material.
My viewing companion is a photographer and he confirmed the talents and skills that Salgado employs. Working mainly in B+W in the earlier projects, he shows great technical mastery of exposure and light control, most evident in the extraordinary depth of field of massive landscape images. He also has a fabulous eye for composition and, presumably enormous patience and the social skills to persuade his subjects to ‘pose’ informally to make his compositions work.
The key moment in Salgado’s story came when he experienced the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. After coping with other disasters like drought in the Sahel and blazing oilfields in Kuwait, the massacres in Rwanda devastated him and he lost his faith in humanity. In the final stage of his life he has turned to wildlife, the environment and isolated communities who live off the land. We follow him shooting for new projects in Siberia, and the rainforests of South America and Indonesia. He and Lélia have also transformed his family farm, ravaged by deforestation, and replanted 2 million saplings as the basis for a new national park. Salgado’s life has been remarkable – and he is a good storyteller.
The documentary is expertly compiled from archive and new footage. France is the main production partner and Salgado speaks in French most of the time. Wenders provides an excellent introductory commentary in English (the language of international cinema) and there is some Portuguese. I found every moment of the 109 minutes compelling and I think this will be a big hit. Salgado’s images on a big screen are extremely powerful. I should add one note of caution. When I spoke to a friend who also remembered seeing the exhibition in Bradford, he said that he did worry that the images had been presented as primarily art objects and not in their proper political context. I understand this argument and I think that it is something to consider, but in terms of the film’s narrative I think that Wenders and Julian Salgado foreground this issue so that viewers are aware of it. Even so there are a handful of images from Africa in both famine and genocide sequences that are truly horrific and some audiences will find upsetting.
Curzon have got the rights for the film in the UK but since it doesn’t have a BBFC certificate yet it may be some time before it hits cinemas. Here is the official trailer. Feast your eyes on these images and I defy you not to plan to see the film if at all possible. You won’t be disappointed.