Category: Politics on film

The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, USSR 1927)

This was one of several films commissioned in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Great October Revolution. The most famous of these is Sergei Eisenstein’s October Ten Days that Shook the World (1928). Both films include sequences showing the storming of the Winter Place: in fact the filming of these sequences found the two productions ‘stepping on each others’ heels’.

However, Vsevolod Pudovkin, the director, has a different approach to drama and to ‘montage’ from Eisenstein. There are parallels between this film and his earlier adaptation of a Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother / Mat (1926). This film follows the experiences of a young rural worker who migrates to St Petersburg in search of employment. We follow him in a linear fashion as he experiences the exploitation of the proletariat in Tsarist Russia and he becomes politicised. The film includes very fine sequences showing the advent of war, the experiences of the Russian army and then the series of conflicts that led to the overthrow, first of the Tsarist regime, and then of its bourgeois successor.

Pudovkin, together with his script writer Nathan Zarkhi and the cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, present the city, the social movements and its representative characters with a strong sense of the world they live in and of the historic events in which they were involved. Whilst Eisenstein’s film ends with the Vladimir Lenin announcing the start of Socialist Construction Pudovkin’s film ends on a quieter note, expressive of the victory but also of the cost it has levied.

Sheffield Showroom have a screening of the film this Sunday, October 15th. The screening uses the Contemporary Films 35mm print. Unfortunately this is copied form a 1969 Soviet re-issue where the film was reframed to accommodate a music track, and there is some cropping in the top of the frame.  However, it will enjoy a specially composed musical score from the Harmonie Band: the score is excellent and works well with style and drama of the film.

This is fine film and a signal celebration as we approach the anniversary of the most important event of the C20th. Hopefully we can look forward to other significant dramas and records of 1917.

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Not Just Bollywood #1: Newton (India 2017)

Rajkumar Rao as Newton in the jungle

Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.

Outline (no spoilers)

‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?

Commentary

Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.

The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.

The three leads in Berlin for the film’s first international appearance. From left, Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi and Anjali Patil

For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?

Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.

Postscript

I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.

Jinnah (Pakistan-UK 1998)

Jinnah as an old man (Christopher Lee) meets his younger self (played by Richard Lintern) during the tour arranged by his heavenly guide.

I’m posting this as part of the current focus on Indian Partition in August 1947.

Sometime in the early 1980s I remember watching an extraordinary film, Blood of Hussain (Pakistan-UK 1980), in the Brixton Ritzy. When I heard that the same director, Jamil Dehlavi had made a biopic about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader who is alleged to have forced the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan, I immediately wanted to see the film. Unfortunately, although the film had a successful festival run it was never properly released in the UK and I’m not sure how it was released in Pakistan in the midst of controversy. A DVD appeared in India in 2004 and the film has now been seen and seemingly enjoyed by many Pakistanis. In 2015 Jamil Dehlavi seems to have re-asserted his copyright and a dual format Blu-ray/DVD is now available from Eureka in the UK.

For me it has certainly been worth it to wait for this release. I think this is an excellent film with an unusual take on the biopic and it was interesting to watch it for the first time a few days after seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (UK 2017). Jamil Dehlavi is based mainly in Europe and for this important historical drama he decided to use mostly British actors and crew and to attempt to shoot in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are no ‘extras’ on the Blu-ray/DVD release and little material available online, so it is difficult to work out what was planned originally and what had to be changed when Pakistani support was later withdrawn. IMDb simply lists Karachi and London as locations. The resulting film is quite unlike either mainstream South Asian popular cinema or indeed like Anglo-American or ‘international cinema’. So it doesn’t look like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (or Chadha’s more recent Viceroy’s House) despite covering many of the same events. It seemed to me to be visually like some Indian parallel cinema films (partly because of some of the casting decisions) or like British independent films of the 1980s. I’m thinking here of the more experimental films shown on Channel 4, though the acting performances here are much better. The odd visual style is partly because the budget perhaps didn’t always allow for crowd scenes with any depth and the few ‘generic’ locations had to stand in for official residencies, courts, libraries etc. I think also that locations might have had to be changed at the last minute. There is therefore a feel of a more abstract presentation.

Jinnah (Christopher Lee, right) with the ‘Recording Angel’ (Shashi Kapoor)

Jinnah created the situation which forced the British to consider and then implement the partition of India as a prerequisite for their withdrawal. He did so by steadfastly maintaining that Muslims in an independent India would be fearful of domination by Hindus and that the only secure means of progress was the creation of Pakistan as a new state in which Muslims would be safe. The film narrative depicts the historical events in such a way as to consider them from the perspective of Jinnah himself and not as an objective account. (I don’t mean to criticise the film, simply to point out that it isn’t a straightforward ‘historical’ account.) Dehlavi and his co-scriptwriter Akbar Ahmed constructed the narrative around the familiar, but still unusual, device of giving us a dying Jinnah in November 1948 who meets a ‘recording angel’. The ‘angel’ explains that the bureaucracy of heaven has failed  and he must take Jinnah through the key points in his life, ‘dropping in’ to specific scenes and a couple of occasions interacting with his younger self. These fantasy sequences extend the narrative forward in time, so, for example, Jinnah is told that Mountbatten will be killed by the IRA. Heaven has become computerised and that’s why things are not working. The implication is that the ‘evidence’ that they find will determine how Jinnah will be treated in the afterlife, what will happen to his reputation and how he will come to terms with himself.

There are only three bona fide ‘film stars’ in the cast, headed by Christopher Lee who is excellent and by Shashi Kapoor, equally good as the ‘recording angel’. Kapoor has appeared in over 150 films, mostly in Hindi but several in English. He married Jennifer Kendal and appeared with her several times in parallel films in India. He and Lee make an excellent pairing. Louis Mountbatten, the ‘last Viceroy’ is played by James Fox, again perfect casting (except that Fox was older at the time of shooting than Mountbatten had been in 1947). The rest of the main cast comprises actors mainly known for work in British television and they are also uniformly good. In particular, Richard Lintern, who I must have seen many times on TV without noting his performances, succeeds as a believable younger Jinnah whom we first meet during the First World War and then follow up to the 1930s. British Asians or Asians based in the UK play other roles including the historical figures such as Gandhi and Nehru. I think that because Gandhi is in one sense a very recognisable figure because of his dress and mannerisms, we easily accept an ‘impersonation’ and don’t look or listen very carefully. But we aren’t distracted by wondering if this is really Gandhi. With Nehru, I think it’s more difficult. We expect to see intelligence and sophistication but we aren’t really sure what else. IMDB informs me that ‘Robert Ashby’ was born as Rashid Suhrawardy, the son of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, so he has a head start. Jamil Dehlavi did, however, decide to include the alleged liaison between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten (Maria Aitken) and I wasn’t completely convinced by the representation of lover and statesman. This isn’t a failing by the actor and overall everything hangs together very well with Dehlavi’s direction supported by his crew. Nic Knowland the DoP is a veteran with a long list of film and TV credits and I note that he shot the last two Peter Strickland films, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, two notable achievements.

Jinnah speaks to the crowds with his sister alongside

The question for most viewers will be, “What kind of man was Jinnah?” with the corollary being “Is this biopic a hagiography?”. I would say that it can’t be a hagiography since the angel shows Jinnah what he has done and what the consequences (not all good!) have been. On the other hand, the narrative sets out to show that Jinnah was a man of honour and principle and that he did what he thought was the ‘right thing’ in the circumstances. I didn’t have an axe to grind when I started watching, though I was aware that in most British and Indian versions of the story Jinnah feels like the bad guy. After watching the film, I felt that I had learned a few things (about what happened after partition) and that I had a clearer picture of the man himself. You can’t really ask more of a biopic except that it is also entertaining – and I felt that was the case. The film is almost entirely presented in English. Most of the characters would have used English on a regular basis. Jinnah himself had Gujarati as his native tongue but was fluent in English as a barrister who practised law in London.

One of the fantasy scenes in which Jinnah ‘prosecutes’ Mountbatten (James Fox) and the angel (as judge) looks on. (These last two mages are from DVDbeaver.com)

The extent to which Jinnah is a genuine biopic is debatable. The furthest back we go is to 1916 when Jinnah was 39 years old and meeting the 16 year-old woman who would later become his wife. One of the functions of the 1916 sequence is to reveal the hypocrisy in Jinnah’s approach to ‘mixed marriage’. He wants to marry a Parsee girl but will later forbid his daughter to marry a Parsee. The film is quite prepared to present Jinnah as a complex individual. One of the interesting shifts that I don’t think I’d registered in other films is the way that for the British, Jinnah went from ‘favoured’ status (he was never imprisoned like Nehru or Gandhi) to someone who posed the problem of partition. What might have been explained a little more in the biopic was the way in which Jinnah, who was initially a Congress Party member, decided to withdraw and focus on the Muslim League (he was initially in both organisations).

The Eureka package is widely available at reasonable prices and apart from the lack of extras, I think this is a ‘must have’ for anyone interested in South Asian cinema, the history of India or indeed the performances of Christopher Lee.

This is the trailer from Eureka:

Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected  the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers.  The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.

Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.

Neruda (Chile-Argentina-France-Spain-US 2016)

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in disguise on the streets of Valparaiso

Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.

Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.

Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) makes up her husband for another ‘performance’ as ‘Neruda’

Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.

Detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) who always seems to be just one step behind Neruda

The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.

¡Viva! 23 #9: Santa y Andrés (Cuba-Colombia-France 2016)

Santa brings her chair so she can conduct her vigil over Andrés’ movements

This Cuban offering during ¡Viva! is an example of the sometimes confounding nature of Cuban art and culture. I looked in vain in the end credits for any mention of the Cuban state film agency ICAIC, but it didn’t appear. I learned afterwards that although the script for the film was accepted in 2014 (and I think won an award) the completed film has been disowned by ICAIC and denied a proper release in Cuba. It was also withdrawn from official competition at the Havana Film Festival in New York with claims that this represents pressure from ICAIC on the Festival which would suffer from losing such support. (The director then withdrew the film completely from the festival.) On the other hand, the film has been shown at major festivals around the world, starting at Toronto in September 2016. It looks like a cock-up by ICAIC, giving ammunition to right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami. So what’s the problem?

Santa y Andrés, directed and co-written by Carlos Lechuga, is a film set in rural Eastern Cuba in 1983. It presents a narrative in which a well-meaning but naïve woman, Santa (Lola Amores), is ordered by her boss Jésus at the collective dairy farm to watch dissident writer Andrés (Eduardo Martinez) for three days. Jésus has been told to make sure Andrés does not attend the Regional Forum where he might speak to foreign journalists as he would seem to have done in the past. Andrés is doubly marked as both a dissident writer and a gay man. Santa sticks to her task. She is resolute in sitting on her chair outside Andrés’ shack and then taking him to the local hospital when he is injured in an altercation with a local rent boy. Eventually she cracks and discovers that she and Andrés have much in common and she puts on a dress and tries to build a relationship with him. (I think her change to a dress is an attempt to ‘soften’ her image and show she is not ‘on duty’.) We then learn more about both characters and their life in Revolutionary Cuba. The cinematography by Javier Labrador Deulofeu captures the feel of the locations very well.

The beautifully-lit and nicely composed image of the hospital vigil

This is quite a slow-moving narrative but the film held my attention. We gradually realise that the story is as much about Santa learning about herself as it is about what will happen to Andrés. The chair is a nice touch (i.e. how she carries it around as a representation of something about herself?) and in a sequence later we see a truck arriving in the village carrying a load of chairs and dropping off just one at a shack before driving on. In a later scene between Santa and Andrés there is mention of a ‘shape-shifter’ character and a few minutes later a brief appearance by a character dressed as what I took to be a shaman of some kind. These two incidents are contrasted with more realist/documentary shots of Santa at work in the cow-shed or buying clothes from a trader who arrives in the village by train.  I should mention here that there were problems in screening the DCP at HOME (something I’ve not seen before). It froze on a couple of occasions and was difficult to restart. We might have lost a few minutes and I can’t be sure of all the details of the narrative. The overall mix of elements in the film reminded me of a range of Cuban films from earlier periods including the satirical/metaphorical films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío (whose name appeared in ‘thanks to’ credits at the end of the film). This was Lechuga’s second feature and later I realised that I’d seen his 2010 short, The Swimmers, which was in the same tradition as Alea and Tabío’s films with its ironic commentary on Cuban sporting facilities, economic shortages and social divisions. If you search carefully online you can find several examples of Luchaga’s work.

Santa and Andrés on a day out on the coast

The real question is why did this film upset ICAIC so much? Films which critique the revolution in different ways have a long tradition in Cuba since 1959. Usually, however, in such ‘critical’ films most characters are supporters of the revolution who find fault with aspects of daily life. This film presents us with Andrés who is still writing in secret (although we don’t know what it is that he is writing). I don’t think his gender orientation is the real problem. I do find this kind of situation very difficult. In the Summer of 1983 I marvelled at all the help Cuban workers, teachers and advisers were giving to the Revolutionary Government in Grenada. I’ll always support the Cuban revolution, but I despair at the attacks on dissident writers and other artists. I can understand the arrest of counter-revolutionaries who directly threaten the state and could damage the society, but once a state starts persecuting writers, it begins to lose credibility. The health of any society is judged by how it deals with criticism and this just feels like an over-reaction by ICAIC. What is being exposed in the film are the petty bureaucracies of the system and, if I understood the truncated final sequences, the inefficiencies of a system that allows some people to go unpunished for criminal behaviour (i.e. not ‘political’ crimes). The final outcome for Andrés seems a sad conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed watching Santa y Andrés and I thought the two central performances, by actors who have no previous credits listed on IMDb, were excellent.

Here’s the Toronto Festival trailer:

Also available on YouTube is a collection of ‘Making Of’ episodes. Here’s one with Lola Amores (they all have English subs):