Category: Film culture

The Radical Film Network

I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,

“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”

Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.

This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.

This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.

The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.

Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.

There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.

Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.

The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.

Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,

“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.

Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].

The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.

And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.

Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.

The Radical Film Network has a calendar of events for RFN 68 on its webpages. And one can sign up to be kept informed and even participate.

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Ken Loach: honoured and pilloried

This post should celebrate Ken Loach receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. I am not really sure what purpose Honorary Doctorates serve but I do admire Ken Loach’s film output and I am happy to see it celebrated. But this event has become clouded because of charges of anti-semitism against the filmmaker. Of course he is in good company: a host of committed supporters of the Palestinian National Liberation Struggle have been subjected to this type of smear.

It appears for some media, including the Guardian newspapers, The Tablet weekly and the BBC, are happy to offer space to a dubious campaign protecting Israel from criticisms.

The Guardian has printed a number of articles about the problem of so-called ‘anti-semitism’ in the Labour Party and the BBC regularly reports on the issue. Yet I have yet to see a report in the paper or hear on the radio a report about the Al Jazeera series that exposed collusion between staff at the Israeli Embassy and the Labour Friends of Israel, The Lobby.

It seems that Ken wrote a riposte to one of his accusers, Jonathan Freedland, but that the Guardian declined to print it. The Jewish Voice for Labour has kindly done a service by publishing it online.

It is ironic that the problem is usually that it is the right-wing film critics who attack Ken’s films. Those on The Wind that Shakes the Barley were prime examples. Now we have critics, supposedly liberal or left, attacking him. We had an example of the failure of Zionist supporters to argue about the actual words, images and meanings when I posted on Waltz with Bashir. There was a series of critical comment on my article but we never actually heard anything from the writer on the actual film.

There is a long tradition of vilifying artists and writers who support resistance to oppression. We still await a film version of Trevor Griffith’s study of one great advocate, Tom Paine. Nearer our own times Jean-Luc Godard was among a number of French artists pilloried for criticising the French settler occupation in Algiers, Le petit soldat. Daniel Ellsberg was labelled the ‘most dangerous man in America’ by Henry Kissinger. The misuse of ‘anti-American’ for criticising US foreign policy parallels the misuse of anti-semitism.

Such critics would be better occupied critically viewing video film of Palestinian unarmed civilians shot in the back outside the borders of Israel.

When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair (Yang Niu Dao Wo Jia, China 2014)

Natalie (Gianina Arana), Su (Chen Jianbin) and Pipi (Chen Yinuo) out together.

This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.

Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.

Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.

Qin (Xu Fan) and Natalie have an emotional reconciliation.

The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.

But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.

Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):

Films enjoyed and noted in 2016

Student activism in GUEROS

Student activism in GUEROS

I’m against the idea of ‘Best Of’ lists, no matter how they are compiled. I just want to remind myself of the films I saw in 2016 and which ones I enjoyed most and hope to remember or return to in the future. This year I saw over 100 films in a variety of cinemas and probably as many on DVD or recorded from TV. This year, for the first time, I also watched a few films online, mostly for work purposes. Wherever possible, I prefer to see a film on a cinema screen. In my selection below, I’ve chosen just from films on release in the UK in 2016 and I’ve excluded festival screenings and archive films unless they made it into (re-) distribution this year.

So, in no particular order, here are eleven titles that represent one person’s UK perspective on global cinema in 2016:

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015) This was the surprise arthouse hit of 2016, perhaps helped in the UK by the success of the crime serial Trapped on BBC4. Though quite different as a narrative, the TV serial (watched by perhaps a million viewers) may have piqued interest in Icelandic stories.

Court (India 2014) An astonishing début feature that offers a satire about the Bombay court system explored through the lives of a judge and two barristers engaged in the kind of case that clutters up the courts for no good reason.

Güeros (Mexico 2014) Actually released in the UK in November 2015 but still making its way round community cinemas in early 2016, this beautifully shot (black & white, Academy ratio) film is both nostalgic for 20th century ‘New Wave’ cinema and at the same time ‘modern’ in its feel for aspects of Mexican film culture.

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015) Although too ‘sweet’ for some critical tastes, this film by Naomi Kawase seemed to me to tell its simple story very well  and it delighted those audiences perceptive enough to pick it out.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015) This film probably gave me more pleasure than any other I saw in 2016. Kore-eda Hirokazu consistently scores for me and I always try to see his films. Two of the excellent performances in Sweet Bean above came from actors associated with Kore-eda.

The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switzerland 2015) This was the film which impressed me most at the Glasgow Film Festival early in 2016 and again on its UK release a few weeks later. The detailed presentation of social and political history is important, but especially so when presented with such creativity.

Hell or High Water (US 2016) I enjoyed this film immensely and I include it here simply because it represents a return to a form of genre filmmaking for adult audiences that has been missing for far too long in American cinema.

Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015) This film, about a community of nuns attacked and assaulted by soldiers and then supported in recovery by a French doctor, had a powerful emotional effect on me. In a strange way it seemed to link to the smaller community of women in Our Little Sister, whose problems were less traumatic and life-threatening. In both cases I wanted to know more about the communities. Anne Fontaine is a remarkable director.

A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016), L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016) and Arrival (US 2016) are films released in the UK in last three months. I found all three to be riveting viewing and I intend to write about them at some stage. They each raised different ideas in their storytelling and their use of ideas.

The eleven titles here include four directed by women and since I didn’t make my selection on gender criteria that is a hopeful sign that more films by women are getting into distribution. There are two films by Japanese directors, two by Brits and two by French directors (both women). I don’t see many American films these days and the two American films listed here were directed by a Canadian and a Scot. I’m disappointed there are no Chinese films and only one Indian film. Partly this reflects the quality/appeal of the commercial releases available from these territories and partly the lack of theatrical releases for independent films from South Asia and East Asia in the UK. I did consider putting Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016) on the list and I did enjoy aspects of the latest Rajnikanth film, Kabali (India 2016) but mainstream Hindi films didn’t really attract me.

Films on release that could have been included on the list include Dheepan, The Measure of a Man and Julieta. I surprised myself by not including I, Daniel Blake. It is an important film and it has ignited a debate and attracted audiences beyond Ken Loach’s usual supporters. In many ways it is a fine example of film craft and it has moved audiences profoundly. But I was still disappointed that it didn’t argue for a coherent organised resistance to what is happening in the UK. I hope the social media campaign promoting it will generate something substantial. (However, like all Loach’s films, it has been seen by more people in France than in the UK.)

In 2016 I still managed to find the major foreign language films on release, but the number of cinemas showing them continues to shrink. Films released by Curzon Artificial Eye rarely turn up at Picturehouse in Bradford and I’m now even more reliant on trips to HOME in Manchester. Over the Christmas period, foreign language cinema seems to have disappeared completely – on cinema screens and TV. I fear the situation will only get worse in 2017. One slight cause for hope is that the Odeon circuit seems to have expanded its releases of mainstream Chinese and Polish films as well as generally offering more diversity than the other multiplex chains.

Thoughts on French Film Exhibition Practice

The UGC Ciné Cité multi-screen cinema in the centre of Lille.

The UGC Cine Cité multi-screen cinema in the centre of Lille.

France has the largest cinema market in Europe with annual audiences consistently above 200 million. Given that France and the UK have roughly the same population, the extra 30 million plus admissions in the former are worth exploring in terms of differences in exhibition structure and practice. On a simple level, France has more screens per head of population suggesting that French audiences have more choice and a shorter distance to travel, wherever they live, than their UK equivalents. It isn’t so much the number of screens, however, but the number of cinema sites.

Cinemas and Screens 2015 (Sources: CNC/BFI)

Cinemas and Screens 2015 (Sources: CNC/BFI)

My impression from these figures (and trips to different parts of France) is that more small cinemas have been retained in small towns in France. In larger towns/cities, existing buildings have been more carefully preserved and turned into small multi-screen venues. Multiplexes seem to have been built in France on out-of-town sites or in new shopping developments, but certainly not on the scale that this has happened in the UK.

The cinema built inside the old Chamber of Commerce building in Amentières

The cinema built inside the old Chamber of Commerce building in Armentières first built in 1881.

This information display outside the cinema shows how the area was before 1914 with the same building in different use.

This information display outside the cinema shows how the area was before 1914 with the same building in different use.

The cinema is now a multiplex showing popular French and American films on its five screens. Armentières is a small town in Picardy with a population of 25,000 within commuting distance of Lille centre.

The cinema is now a multiplex showing popular French and American films on its five screens. Armentières is a small town in Picardy with a population of 25,000 within commuting distance of Lille centre.

The French system puts much greater emphasis on the ‘cinémas art et essai‘, the official designation of the French version of specialised cinema, with emphasis on the concept of art cinema. Each year there is a published list of ‘approved’ films and cinemas that screen these films are able to apply for the ‘art et essai‘ designation which enables them to receive public support. In 2015, 1159 cinemas received the designation (see http://www.art-et-essai.org/7/le-classement-des-salles). The total support came to €14.5 million euros. With 20% of cinema screens subsidised in this way, it’s no surprise that French audiences have easier access to cinema. I do note that the art et essai cinemas are not evenly spread. The figures suggest that the ‘Lille Region’ had only 48 such screens in 2015 while other regions such as Lyon and Bordeaux had over 200. Lille, France’s fourth city/urban region has only three cinemas in the city centre, all of which show a diverse range of films.

Subtitling and dubbing

The real distinction between types of cinemas in France comes with the approach to dubbing. Given that American films had 52% of the market with French films at 35.5%, over 60% of films originated in a language other than French (CNC 2016) – the exact figure depends on how many ‘non-French’ films actually came from francophone countries and how the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) defines a French film. France is one of the four largest European language groups that supports a professional dubbing industry. As in Italy, Germany and Spain (i.e. the FIGS group), all foreign language films can be dubbed into French. Cinema listings show these dubbed films as ‘VF’ (version française). Native French films are also described as VF. ‘VO’ is ‘version originale’ and usually means that the film is subtitled in French, so ‘VOST’ (version originale sous-titrée) or ‘VOSTF’. As the illustration here demonstrates, an out of town multiplex may dub everything not in French, but cinemas in the centre hoping to attract a cinephile audience will play non-French films as ‘VOST’. Children’s films that are not in French, especially animations, will however be dubbed everywhere (as they are in nearly every cinema market).

Lillelistings

A peek through the glass doors of the UGC Ciné Cité in the morning.

A peek through the glass doors of the UGC Ciné Cité in the morning.

Two of the Lille cinemas shown in the listings mag above (i.e. Majestic and Le Métropole) focus primarily on specialised titles but the UGC (see photo above) covers both specialised and mainstream, showing US blockbusters in both dubbed and VOSTF versions. The other two cinemas listed on this page are specialised cinemas for young audiences (L’univers) and for independent film/shorts/documentary (L’Hybride). I find the cinema offer in the centre of Lille to be more diverse than in UK cities of a similar size. I was struck by how comfortable and welcoming the foyer of the UGC seemed to be compared to the soul-destroying emptiness of my local Cineworld in Bradford.

Ciné Sémaphore,  Nîmes

Ciné Sémaphore is the art et essai cinema in the centre of the old city of Nîmes in Southern France which is currently seeking UNESCO World Heritage status. Nîmes has a population of around 146,000 yet it supports this six screen artplex plus a four-screen traditional cinema, Kinepolis ‘Forum’, also in the city centre, and a modern suburban Kinepolis multiplex with 12 screens. The Sémaphore is a cinephile’s dream. The six ‘salons’ come in different sizes and seat 654 in total. I visited one of the smallest (40 seats) and a slightly larger 90 seat screen. There is a pleasant café bar with a good selection of food and the ticket prices are a reasonable €7 (with a full array of the usual discounts). It produces an excellent monthly brochure which includes events for children, students and community groups. Later I discovered that the cinema is one of five owned by the arthouse distributor Haut et Court, having been bought last year – though it still has the feel of a locally-controlled cinema. I also learned that the Sémaphore (which has been open for 38 years) holds an annual ‘British Screen Festival’ in March each year, organised by volunteers – see this English language website.

Sémaphore Cinema, tucked  away on a side street – but well worth discovering.

Sémaphore Cinema, tucked away on a side street – but well worth discovering.

semaphoreposter

Ciné Sémaphore brochure

My experience watching two films in the Sémaphore mirrored my experience in similar cinemas in other parts of France. In the UK we are used to programmes, even in art cinemas, with up to 20 minutes or more of advertisements, trailers and cinema announcements. Increasingly these ‘preambles’ are shown with the houselights partly up (a horrible state of affairs that damages viewing conditions in otherwise good cinemas). As a result, many of us attempt to enter the auditorium at the last minute to avoid the ads. When we arrived a minute or two after the stated start time in the Sémaphore screen, we stumbled into pitch darkness. With difficulty we found the empty few rows at the front. The feature started almost immediately after just one trailer and proceeded in almost complete dark. What a relief after the compulsory bright ‘exit’ lights and seat guidance lights in UK cinemas. I’m not sure how French Health & Safety regulations work but French cinema operators would struggle in the UK. I think the French approach is to make the audience responsible  – i.e. to take their seats before the lights go down.

Sémaphore Salon 5 – comfortable seats, good-sized screen and a great image in the dark!

Sémaphore Salon 5 – comfortable seats, good-sized screen and a great image in the dark!

 

My favourite films in 2015

Timbuktu

Timbuktu

This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:

Selma USA 2014.

A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.

Mummy Canada 2014

The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.

Phoenix, Germany 2014

A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.

Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014

A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.

A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.

The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.

Timbuktu Mauritania 2014

The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.

45 Years UK 2015

Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.

Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015

Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.

The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015

Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.

Carol USA 2015

What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.

Best Animation:

Song of the Sea Eire 2014

Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.

White God

White God

Best Canines:

White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.

The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.

Best Documentaries:

National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014

Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.

Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013

The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.

Best wedding on film:

Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014

The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.

Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:

Les Misérables France 1928

MISERABLES_05

This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.

Best film accompaniment:

This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Best early sound film:

Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.

The film most worth waiting for:

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.

Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.

The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015

Steve Jobs USA 2015.

Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.

2015 in the cinema

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Girlhood (France 2014)

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

Piku (India, Hindi 2015)

Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)

Theeb (Jordan 2015)

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.

Half of the ten films above are  films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.

I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.

Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.

I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?

I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.

2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.

Live theatre on the cinema screen

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A few weeks ago, the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote the following in a weekly ‘op ed’ column (i.e. not on the film pages):

Another Fiennes mess
There comes a time when you must put your hands up and confess you don’t get something. I don’t get people wanting to watch live theatre beamed into a cinema. But there it is: everyone except me loves it. These events are box-office gold, especially for hot-ticket events such as the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.

Yet there’s an unintended consequence here: possible danger to actual Shakespeare films. In Sight and Sound magazine, the industry observer Charles Gant reports that when Ralph Fiennes made his excellent film version of Coriolanus, it failed to break the £1m barrier; but the live-feed of the Donmar Warehouse theatre Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston has breezed up to £1.2m – and counting.

This could alter the economics of Shakespeare on the big screen: if cinemas prefer live-feed Shakespeare, it could dissuade producers from tackling the expensive business of original adaptation. The future equivalent of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight or Kozintsev’s Lear could be at risk. So there. I knew my live-feed prejudice was justified. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/john-lewis-christmas-advert)

As many of this blog’s followers will know I am wont to moan about Bradshaw’s reviews. But mainly this is because he appears to have a great deal of influence on whether people go to see the films he reviews. Whether we agree or not in our views on films isn’t important but if a bad review stops people seeing a worthwhile film it is important. In this case, however, I am pleased to see him airing a subject which, increasingly, I find alarming.

I should say first that Bradshaw was immediately criticised in some quarters for his London-centric view. For people near enough to a multiplex or a specialised cinema, live theatre (or opera which appears to be the most popular, according to some figures) is an unexpected bonus. Non-metropolitan audiences don’t have to visit London or pay the very high prices to watch a version of a particular production. So far, so good. But there are several points to make.

Who are these audiences for live theatre/opera? I haven’t attended any such screenings so I haven’t got much first-hand evidence but there have been various audience surveys. One by Nesta and The Audience Agency published in 2014 found that ‘National Theatre Live’ had had no impact on attendance figures at regional theatres and that in London, live audiences had actually risen by 6.9% in theatres close to those which had been used to broadcast live shows. This report refuted the claim that ‘live theatre’ broadcasts would ‘cannibalise’ theatre admissions. The National Theatre’s own Annual Report for 2013-4 claimed:

“NT Live reached a total UK audience of 890,000 (in over 500 cinema screens across the country) and overseas audience of 597,000. It is now regularly available in 1,000 cinemas across the world in more than 35 countries; the worldwide audience since National Theatre Live launched in 2009 has now reached 2.7 million”. (see http://www.cabi.org/leisuretourism/news/24080)

This research mirrors earlier NESTA findings. One conclusion is that the audience for live theatre/opera/ballet is the same mainly middle-class audience that goes to London shows, but now they are able to experience those shows nearer home. In general these are not ‘new’ theatre audiences, nor are many of them ‘cinema’ audiences. I have to rely on first-hand observation now. When I first saw the crowds coming for live theatre broadcasts in Bradford I realised that I didn’t recognise anyone and that they all seemed ‘dressed up’. They also flocked to the café-bar and had paid twice the usual ticket price. My observations were confirmed when I ran a day event on Kurosawa Akira and his film Throne of Blood (Japan 1957), a version of Macbeth. All seemed to enjoy the day but when I tried to interest them in future film screenings, one small group told me that they were ‘theatre people’ and didn’t go to the cinema!

The question about what ‘live theatre’ actually is – since it isn’t cinema and it isn’t the same as watching a play ‘in the flesh’ – hasn’t really been explored to any great extent that I’ve come across. In response to Bradshaw, some liked the idea of close-ups via the camera’s lens and others didn’t. I’m not in a position to judge and all I can say is that I don’t find the prospect of something staged for one medium being mediated through another a particularly attractive proposition. I’ve now seen dozens of trailers for NT Live shows and none of them appeal. But I’ve no problem with people who do want to see theatre in this way. Which leads me back to Bradshaw’s comments.

I’m not particularly bothered about filmed Shakespeare. I’ll watch Kurosawa or Kozintsev quite happily but Shakespeare in English leaves me cold. I know, but there it is. What I am bothered about is that every ‘live theatre broadcast’ takes away a screen that could be showing a real film and often a specialised film desperately searching for an outlet. The number of films released in the UK has increased to over 700 a year, but there hasn’t been a similar increase in screens. Compared to other major film markets, the UK is ‘under-screened’. France and the UK have roughly the same population (65-66 million) but there is a disparity in screens:

France (data from Cineuropa)

5,653 screens, 2,020 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 11,731

UK (data from Statistical Yearbook 2014)

3,867 screens, 756 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 16,394

Keith has recently come across examples of archive films he wanted to see that have been moved out of the most suitable screen because it was reserved for ‘live broadcasts’ on specific days. This will happen more and more as the funding of arts in the UK suffers under the Tories. It is worth noting that some of the screens used for ‘live broadcasts’ were upgraded (since they must be digital for the satellite feed) with public funds and that the BFI attempted to see that they were used to screen a diverse range of specialised cinema. That commitment to what was once called ‘cultural cinema’ is now gradually dying out. What were once publically-funded cinemas are being taken over or displaced by the privately-owned chains Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. The purpose of these chains is to make money and live theatre provides not only a sell-out crowd but also a ready supply of patrons for restaurant catering. Cinema managers can claim that they are bringing ‘high art’ to local cinemas (Picturehouse calls its programme that includes live broadcasts ‘Screen Arts’). But those ‘arts’ are being offered to the same people who go to local theatres, not introducing art cinema to new patrons.

My conclusion is that ‘live events’ should be put on in new buildings managed for that purpose or that cultural policy should be to create new publically-funded cinema screens for the diverse range of cinema. It’s not going to happen under this current government, but the cinema lobby needs to get back to concepts of cultural cinema (or something similar with a different title) and prepare for future funding opportunities. We’ve got to start talking about the missing screens and getting some agreements about what to do. And if we need concrete evidence of the problem, the statement by Unifrance, the French film export body, this week makes painful reading. French exports did very well around the world in 2014, except in the UK:

. . . the poor performance of French films in the UK market, the state of which the report described as “alarming”.

The report said that the UK remained a difficult market with fewer and fewer French films making it onto screens in the territory and only one majority French production generating more than 50,000 entries. (Screendaily 1/12/2015)

The decline of opportunities to see films from Europe’s biggest film industry is very noticeable. Back in the summer we noted the pathetic distribution of several major titles and it’s something we are going to keep banging on about. If audiences don’t get a chance to see foreign language films they are going to lose interest in the possibilities pretty quickly. Chains like Picturehouse now regularly show foreign language films just once in their Tuesday ‘Discovery’ slot and they promote their restaurants and live events as major attractions alongside a programme increasingly dominated by ‘Hollywood art’ films.