An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.
Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.
To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.
Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.
This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.
It seems the right thing to do in the context of the Russian attack on Ukraine – to watch and discuss a film by Ukraine’s current high-profile filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa that illuminates the darker aspects of Russian history. State Funeral is a film using archive footage in colour and black & white of the announcement of the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and the state funeral that followed. There are two immediate points to be made: the archive footage has been restored and looks stunning, but this film is 135 minutes long and much of the footage is repetitive. It’s not an easy watch because of the slow and deliberate pacing but it does raise many issues, some political, philosophical and historical and others about documentary practice and film history. I suspect that how it is read depends very much on the age and political background of the viewer. Loznitsa doesn’t add any form of commentary, only a few explanatory titles identifying locations or historical figures. But at the end of the film he provides three short statements about how Stalin’s hold over the Soviet Union has been re-assessed by historians and how the the Soviet leadership after 1953 moved to distance themselves from the Stalin era.
The Georgian, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922 and after the death of Lenin in 1924 he gradually increased his own power so that by the early 1930s he had become the supreme leader of the Soviet Empire. A ‘personality cult’ was developed and by the time of his death he was a quasi-religious figure for many of the people of the Soviet Empire. His death at the age of 74 triggered an enormous propaganda exercise involving dozens of newsreel camera operators across the Soviet Union. They shot many hours of film that were intended to be used in the production of a film entitled The Great Farewell. This film was completed but only screened once and then quietly buried by the new regime. The footage remained in an archive and Loznitsa and his editor Danielius Kokanauskis have produced State Funeral from their own selection of material, following the coverage of events from the official announcement (radio broadcasts across the empire and newspaper reports) through to the lying in state and the funeral cortège to the Lenin mausoleum and the speeches by the collective party leadership. Apart from the few titles, the only added material appears to be some extra unobtrusive sound elements to bring scenes to life (i.e. ambient sounds). The music soundtrack may well be the music played during the funeral. There is a mix of black and white and colour filmstock, sometimes in the same location. Because of the set formalities of a funeral, Loznitsa and Kokanauskis have been able to create a seamless narrative. The Great Farewell was intended to be a propaganda exercise bolstering the myth of the great leader but State Funeral is edited without the same intent and raises a whole series of questions.
There are roughly five sections to a narrative covering four days of national mourning. The announcement of the death is represented by radio broadcasts via loudspeakers in public spaces and in work environments and by queues at newsstands to buy papers. These scenes are from across the empire – from the Baltic states to Central Asia and from the Arctic to the streets of Central Moscow. We see the arrival of foreign leaders from Eastern Europe and from neighbouring Finland. Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain is joined by similar prominent communists from other West European nations including the exiled Dolores Ibárruri (aka ‘la Pasionaria’), leader of the Spanish communist party. Chou Ên-lai (later Zou Enlai), the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, was arguably the most high profile foreign representative. The ‘lying in state’ in the Pillar Hall of the House of Unions in Moscow is in some ways the centrepiece of the film because the cameras are able to capture close-ups of a variety of different groups of people as they climb the stairs and pass the open coffin nested amidst dozens of enormous wreaths and bouquets of greenery and red flowers. The cortège then moves slowly to the Lenin mausoleum with the floral displays now moved to an adjacent position. Finally the four organisers of the proceedings, who will subsequently jostle for power, make speeches from above.
As a ‘documentary record’ of a major state event the film is extraordinary. With so many cameras being given privileged positions, the coverage is visually splendid offering both close-ups of mourners and panoramic views of the vast crowds in Moscow. I was also struck by the geographical spread of the coverage of the Soviet empire and the diversity of European and Asian faces. It occurs to me that this event was just a few months before the Coronation of Elizabeth II in the UK. I wonder if anyone has compared the two in detail? The Coronation in the UK was famously deemed responsible for the rise in interest in TV ‘outside broadcasts’ – and was also seen live through projected TV images. The resulting film documentary was later a big hit in cinemas. The Coronation film, A Queen is Crowned was shot in Technicolor. State Funeral was partially shot in what one reviewer suggests was Agfacolour stock captured by the Red Army in 1945. I found the use of the colour footage very odd. Most of the reviewers take the stance that the colour footage is ‘realist’ and ‘immediate’ and that the black and white footage (actually the majority of the footage used) is “easily relegated to the past, is a relic of times gone by” as Eye for Film’s reviewer puts it. As an older person I tend to have the opposite reaction. The black and white footage is what I expect of newsreels in 1953, the colour stock is a novelty, a fantasy. We have only got used to the colour footage of Second World War events over the last twenty years in TV programmes promising ‘something new’. But the colour in State Funeral is surreal partly because the authorities seem to have banned the colour blue. The mourners are generally in dark clothes and the wreaths are uniformly dark green and vivid red with splashes of white. I began to search for any blue shades and found only a few headscarves on women. The promotional material for the film presents only colour photographs but the trailer below does justice to the film albeit not to the range of footage from outside Moscow. I have taken some screengrabs from the trailer to use here. Stalin began to control all aspects of Soviet art, literature, theatre and cinema from the early 1930s so that ‘Soviet socialist realism’ became a new cinema aesthetic. It is ironic that at his funeral the state provided access to a group of portraiture artists who hoped to present depictions of the ‘lying in state’ of their leader, perhaps wondering what the new leadership would expect them to produce?
The major question posed by the footage for me is what, if anything, does it tell us about the 220 million people of the Soviet Union in 1953 who are shown in mourning? What were they feeling? Were they coerced, frightened, bored but wary or genuinely upset by the death of their leader? Their speech isn’t recorded but many of the women are seen crying. Women are rare among the leadership but visible as workers. Most people in the West had very little sense of what life in the Soviet Union was like in 1953. There are a few, but not enough glimpses here. One that has been picked out is the surreal image of a Stalin portrait suspended from a crane above the workers on a large construction site. It offers a pre-echo of Fellini’s later use of a statue of Christ flying through the air suspended from a helicopter in La dolce vita (1960): from Stalin as a communist saint to Christ as the symbol of economic development and consumerism?
I’m not sure a mass audience anywhere would sit through the film but I hope it is studied and discussed by film scholars and historians. Alex von Tunzelmann’s Guardian piece on the film is worth reading on this score. State Funeral is still available on MUBI in the UK and is also available from Apple and Amazon but I can’t find a DVD/Blu-ray which teachers would need. Tunzelmann recommends watching Armando Ianucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (UK 2017), which I haven’t seen. The restored The Great Farewell is available on DVD.
Following the film streamed on MUBI is a recording of a conversation on Zoom between Loznitsa and the Italian documentary filmmaker (and recently fiction director with Martin Eden (2019)), Pietro Marcello. Loznitsa tell us that he believes the film is actually relevant to Russia now, revealing that when it was shown in Russia in 2020 it divided audiences with a ‘liberal’ segment taking a similar line to audiences in the West but many other audiences seeing it as a great tribute to a Russian leader – and ignoring what they saw as the “silly” statements at the end added by Loznitsa. Perhaps Loznitsa’s most striking assertion is that in the film we see masses of Soviet citizens. “Stalin is allegorical of all these people” as he puts it. They each have a little of Stalin within them and “together they act as little bricks making up this apparatus of totalitarian human destruction”. He even compares them to the mice led to their doom by a pied piper – they have an understanding of the nightmare but seemingly are without the capacity to resist it. Loznitsa says this of the Russian people we see in 1953. I’m not sure if the same analysis refers to the people of the 19th century Russian empire. It certainly sounds like it might refer to Russia under Putin.
Finally Loznitsa and Marcello agree on the teams of people who have helped make this film possible. Loznitsa refers to the 200 Russian camera persons (the camerawork is awe-inspiring), none of who me has met and to his major collaborators the editor Danielius Kokanauskis and the sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy, both Lithuanians. The post-production was mainly carried out in Romania. He confirms that there were three types of filmstock from the Russian State Archive. The black and white stock was Russian and there was Kodak stock and something that could have been Agfacolor. He praises the archive highly and says his dream would be to work with them on further films (this was his third(?)). He thinks he could produce two films a year from the archive’s material and that this would help others to understand what happened in the Soviet Union. He’s a remarkable film director and this is a remarkable film.
On January 30th 1972 British paratroopers show dead 13 civilians in Derry in occupied Ireland; they also wounded 13 civilians, one of who subsequently died. There followed the Widgery Report, attempting to exonerate the army: years later the forensic and more balanced Saville Inquiry: leading to a public apology by a British Prime Minister in Parliament. Yet even now no single person has been held responsible in a Court of Law: not a paratrooper: not a military officer: not a state security operative: and not a politician with overall responsibility. There are though representations of the massacre on film.
Produced by Bórd Scannán nah Éireann / Granada Television / Hell’s Kitchen FilmsWritten and directed by Paul Greengrass; The film was inspired by Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (Wolfhound Press, 1997) shot on 16mm and in colour with a blown-up version on 35mm for cinema screenings. It runs 107 minutes in standard widescreen. Originally screened by Granada Television and filmed mainly in Ballymun, Dublin.
The film displays the characteristics now associated with Greengrass’s work, including many close-ups and fast, sharp editing. Key characters are played by professionals, including James Nesbit as Ivan Cooper and Tim Piggott-Smith as Major General Ford. The film also focuses on other characters who represent both the military and the Derry citizens involved in what was a peaceful Civil Rights March. The plot focuses on the events of the day, with some information in the dialogue about the preceding conflict. This is a protest drama, filmed in a quasi-documentary style. But the underlying conflicts regarding occupation, internment and resistance are assumed rather than explained. It is a powerful presentation relying more on emotion that analysis. The soundtrack contains only one piece of music, a version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday‘ by U2 which plays over the closing credits.
Sunday made for Independent Television in 2002; Produced by Box TV Gaslight Productions Ltd. Sunday Productions. Written by Jimmy McGovern, directed by Charles McDougal. Filmed in 16mm in black and white and colour with a ratio of 1.78:1. Broadcast on Channel 4, subsequently released on DVD; mainly filmed in Derry.
This likewise uses a quasi-documentary style with professional actors but avoids using key leading characters and offers a focus on the ordinary Derry citizens represented by three families involved. It also provides background to the events of the day, like the attack by Paratroopers on a peaceful demonstration on a beach near Derry a week before the Sunday of the massacre; and later events like the Widgery Inquiry.. It also uses a more complex narrative with techniques that comment on the actions.
Bloody Sunday was transmitted a week before this latter title and had already premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. McGovern criticised the other film for concentrating on the leadership of the march rather than the ordinary citizens involved. Equally, or more importantly, the latter title has a much stronger political treatment of the events; the contrast is worth exploring.
Note, details of the production and cast can be found on IMDb for both films. You Tube has a version of Bloody Sunday streaming: along with archive film of the day: a Channel 4 programme: a video programme on the earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’, November 21st 1920 when British soldiers and irregulars killed 12 people during an attack at a Gaelic Football event: and other video and audio material.
The events at Croke Park feature in the 1996 biopic, from Warner Bros. Michael Collins, available on Prime Video and DVD.
BBC Sounds has available Radio 4’s ‘Bloody Sunday: 50 Years on’. The programme includes some of the background to the events including the killing in Ballymurphy in August 1971 of nine civilians by the British Paratroop regiment. There is also ‘Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry’, presented by the Tricycle Theatre in 2005: there was a radio adaptation by the BBC, but not to be found on Sounds.Theatrical representations will now include a new play, The White Handkerchief. Book and Lyrics by Liam Campbell. Music by Brian O’Doherty. Directed by Kieran Griffiths. Produced by the Derry Playhouse. This show will also be broadcast online on Sunday January 30th, 2022.
Azor is a terrifying film which shows very little in the way of violence. This makes it even more frightening. Director and co-writer Andreas Fortuna is Swiss but the film is set entirely in Argentina. Yvan De Wiel is a private banker who arrives in Buenos Aires from Geneva with his wife Inès in late 1980 during the period of the ‘Dirty War’ and the ‘National Re-organisation Process’, overseen by the fascist military junta. De Wiel (played by the Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione) is on a mission to discover what happened to his banking partner René Keys, who has ‘disappeared’, and to try to sustain his bank’s relationship with its wealthy clients in this difficult period.
The De Wiels are experienced and cunning operators. Yvan acts in a way that suggests he is humble and amenable – he isn’t, but he does depend to some extent on his wife, who chooses his suits and monitors his performances in negotiations. At one point she implies that he risks falling into the ‘mediocrity’ that her father warned her about. Inès moves elegantly through a series of social gatherings, observing and gathering intelligence especially by talking to the wives of the wealthy and influential characters they meet.
There is something familiar about the narrative device of having the protagonist follow in the footsteps of a colleague/partner. Many of the reviewers make references to Harry Lime in The Third Man. I thought instead of another Graham Greene character, The Quiet American. In a crucial passage (the narrative is divided into named sections) De Wiel is taken down river in a small boat. It is one of those South American rivers, smaller than the famous ones, which is overgrown on either bank and which again several reviewers refer to as a Heart of Darkness moment. Keys was clearly a dynamic character who took risks. It got him noticed and made him successful, but by extension perhaps too dangerous. Although Argentina has long been an independent country there are hints here and there of its neo-colonial past and the North American and European involvements in the culture and economy of the country.
The most frightening character is perhaps Mons. Tatoski, a senior cleric who tries to inveigle De Wiel into getting involved in speculation in the Forex (foreign exchange) market. De Wiel makes clear that his private bank doesn’t do anything so risky. What makes this exchange so tense is the setting, in the inner sanctum of a club that presumably has always limited its membership to the rich and powerful. That now means those sanctioned by the junta and the Monsignor is some form of Papal representative with a past, perhaps as a rugby player. He’s tall, beefy and ‘persuades’ De Wiel to drink Gordon’s gin just like Keys before him. This is one of several exchanges in which De Wiel is challenged by existing or potential ‘clients’. Rongione plays De Wiel as a seemingly mild-mannered man, always watchful and appropriately dressed for a club or a trip to the race track but not giving even a hint of what he may be feeling underneath. However, his appropriate wardrobe is not quite right for his trips to meet landowners in the broad hinterland of Buenos Aries. He travels by private plane at one point and goes riding with a client. There is one staggeringly beautiful long shot of De Wiel and Inès riding on the estate of a traditional landowner, Augusto Padel-Camón (see above). Most of the time, however, Swiss cinematographer Gabriel Sandru is confined to shooting interiors or more confined outdoor scenes. These include meetings arranged around swimming pools in private mansions. It’s noticeable that Inès is often the only one who swims. Director Fortuna clearly knows Argentina well but he was helped by the distinguished Argentinian writer Mariano Llinás as co-writer of the script. Paulina (Argentina 2015) is a Llinás films that I enjoyed.
There are no good guys in this film. The narrative pushes us to identify with De Wiel and some of his clients like Padel-Camón, but this is misleading. They are positioned to show aspects of their humanity and Padel-Camon has already suffered the disappearance of his favourite daughter. But underneath they are still primarily concerned with their own wealth and status. The junta is ruthless in arresting and ‘disappearing’ leftists and critics of any kind. But it is also squeezing the wealthy and extracting their riches. The Swiss private banker offers a more personal touch than his corporate rivals but ultimately the deals he makes are about protecting capital and we suspect that though he may not be as flamboyant or dynamic as his erstwhile partner Keys, his quiet methods might get the job done. But what kind of job is it? None of the characters in the film cares about the working people of Argentina. It pains me to think that it was Margaret Thatcher who inadvertently helped to trigger the downfall of the junta by vigorously defending British interests in the Malvinas. The junta fell with its leading figure General Galtieri after the defeat of the Argentinian forces. It was good to see Galtieri go but the whipped up jingoism in the UK helped Thatcher win an election and proceed with her destruction of many British communities. The Swiss private bankers no doubt smuggled wealth out of the country before the fall in 1982 and we get one hint of how they might have done it.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Overall I found this a compelling narrative about the ‘fear and loathing’ during this dark period of Argentinian history. For a début film it is remarkable. Sandru’s cinematography is also excellent, given he has relatively little experience of features. But perhaps the key to the film’s success is the casting of Fabrizio Rongione. I realised later that I have actually seen him in a host of rather different roles for the Dardenne Brothers. He must speak several languages and Azor is a narrative that requires a multi-lingual approach. International business usually requires English but here most of the exchanges are in Spanish or French. If you are wondering about the title, the word ‘azor’ in Spanish means ‘goshawk’ but in the code language of the De Wiels it means “be careful”, “don’t give anything away”. Don’t be put off by the relatively low ratings for this film. It’s not a Hollywood thriller but a chilling and very intelligent glimpse of the way in which international capital, traditional landowning classes and fascism mix in Latin America. I recommend it. It has reached some UK, cinemas distributed by MUBI ,and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK.
Shanghai was released at the height of interest in the new Independent Indian film production cycle. Though the film managed a commercial Indian release it did not reach UK cinemas and I was frustrated not to be able to see it at my local Cineworld in Bradford. I recently unearthed it from deep in the bowels of MUBI’s catalogue. I’m not sure that MUBI has known what to do with some of its Indian acquisitions since this film has not been given the full treatment with reviews and extra material. In the end I was glad to be able to see it before it disappeared from the streamer.
My interest in this film was sparked first of all by its director Dibakar Banerjee. I had enjoyed his first film, the comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla! (India 2006) and then found his contribution to the compendium film Bombay Talkies (India 2013) to be the best of the four short narratives on offer to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema. Banerjee is an intriguing character whose career began in advertising and by Indian standards he has made relatively few feature films, having started in his late thirties. He seems to have continued making advertising films so perhaps that is how he gets his funding (but I note that this film also had some support from the NFDC – National Film Development Corporation). His films are generally received as being at the more commercial end of the Indian Independent spectrum. Shanghai seems placed as more controversial and ‘edgy’. The location for the film suggests a city blessed/poisoned by modern capitalist exploitation, something like Shanghai and its depiction as the great postmodern global city. It also occurred to me that the narrative includes elements similar to those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008) which gained recognition in the UK after winning the Booker Prize.
The film’s story actually has a rather different source, the 1966 Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was adapted a couple of years later for the Costa Gavras film Z (France 1969), a film made in Algeria masquerading as Greece that was a significant commercial hit and awards favourite. The original was based on the story of a Greek opposition politician during the period of the military junta in power in Greece from 1967 to 1974. This more recent Indian adaptation by Urmi Juvekar and Dibakar Banerjee features several scenes which match exactly those in the Costa Gavras film, but also some different themes and a slightly different tone I think. It feels authentically like an Indian political thriller – i.e. it is familiar from other Indian films. In the fictitious city of ‘Bharatnagar’ (or is it a smaller district/town in a wider urban sprawl?), presumably a state capital, a large business development project known as ‘IBP’ is being pushed through by ‘The Front’, a coalition of political parties on the right, headed by the state’s chief minister, ‘Madamji’ (Supriya Pathak). The project is clearly damaging for several groups of the poor and lower caste peoples whose land is being illegally re-possessed. A leading leftist figure Dr Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes to the city to speak to his supporters but the local ‘goons’ in the pay of the The Front are being organised to sabotage the meeting. When Dr Ahmedi comes out of the meeting hall where he has addressed his followers, a small truck is driven at speed knocking him down as he faces the mob. He will spend the rest of the narrative in a coma.
The Chief Minister institutes an investigation into the ‘accident’ and appoints an ambitious civil servant, T. A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) to head the enquiry. Meanwhile, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Dr Ahmedi’s former student in New York and his most ardent follower, is outraged and determined to uncover the corruption and the conspiracy that has put her leader in hospital. Her response to the hit-and-run soon brings her into contact with local videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) who has captured aspects of the events on a disc. Shalini also meets Dr Ahmedi’s wife (Tillotama Shome) at the hospital and the two women don’t immediately get on. These are the six principal characters of the narrative and the six lead actors. There is also a group of secondary characters who are the paid disrupters and in effect murderers/assassins. I won’t spoil the plot directly any more and I’ll turn instead to analyse the kind of film Shanghai develops into and how it creates meanings. It’s a film that does have some problems, at least for me, but overall it is very successful.
I struggled with the narrative a little because of the six lead actors I only know the work of Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome (who has very little to do, but don’t miss her at the end of the film). Both are associated for me with the ‘Independent’ sector of Indian cinema and at this time in 2012 Kalki Koechlin was in many ways the ‘poster girl’ of this new kind of cinema, partly because of her relationship with Anurag Kashyap, the leading writer-director of the Independent production movement. In his blog posting on the film, Omar Ahmed suggests that Koechlin is miscast in the film and she is indeed an odd character, especially because she seems to have been given a peculiar hairstyle (is it a wig?) that doesn’t suit her and she is required to be quite volatile in the frustration she feels in trying to uncover the truth. This means some almost melodrama acting is required that is sometimes even more disruptive than might be intended. I think part of the problem is the background information about her character which I found confusing. She is introduced as the daughter of a General who has been arrested and kept in prison on remand by the government. Dr Ahmedi is taken to her house as his base for the visit and there is clearly a strong attraction between the two of them. Later on, during her investigation, Shalini is assumed to be a foreigner or an ‘outsider’. (Kalki Koechlin is the daughter of a French couple living in Tamil Nadu but she is an Indian citizen and speaks French, English and Hindi.)
The most intriguing character is Jogi. Emraan Hashmi, like Koechlin, is a well-known actor who is given a beer belly and other distinctive features to turn him into a ‘disreputable’ character. The character has a back story forcing him to leave home and move to Bharatnagar where he is now a videographer making money from filming anything that pays. His ‘bread and butter’ is cheap pornography made with his friend Vinod. He has got some work filming Front politicians and is always sniffing round any action. Jogi and Shalini will make a strange pair. Initially he wants to sell his evidence but later he will have other motives. Krishnan plays the Jean-Luis Trintignant role from Z, except that he is a very Indian figure – a career civil servant who takes his investigation seriously but is also drawn into playing dangerous political games.
The biggest difference between Shanghai and Z is arguably the former’s exposure of the corruption/incompetence of the police and the exploitation of the poor. Those who carry out the attack on Dr Ahmedi include one character who needs money to pay for the English lessons which might help him get a better job. Many of the poor will be removed from their homes and shipped to a re-settlement development out of town. They will not advance economically since it will become more expensive to commute back in for any service jobs that might become available. The poor who resist or who cause problems are easily eliminated by more paid thugs with the police turning a blind eye to the crimes. Although it is set in 2012, Shanghai seemed remarkably on the nose when it refers to corruption within the governing party – contracts going to friends of those in power without proper contracting bids. Now, what does that remind me of in the UK during the COVID pandemic? Several current British ministers need to be investigated on that score. Things in India have seemingly got worse in India as well since Modi won the 2014 general election and increased his majority in 2019.
Shanghai is only 102 minutes long but it packs in an enormous amount of plot – possibly too much. When I thought back over what I’d seen, I realised that there were aspects of the plot that I had forgotten. Included in that running time are two extended musical song and dance sequences. No subtitles for either I’m afraid, but one within the politicians/senior police officials etc. and one within the poorer community: I wish I had had more time to think about what they contributed. Whatever its minor flaws, I think Shanghai is an important film showing real ambition to present the genuine evils of the current political situation in India. The world really is a shitty place right now and this kind of narrative of exposure is needed more and more. If you can find it, Shanghai is well worth investigating.
Here’s the Hindi trailer (no English subs):
There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)
Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.
Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.
The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.
I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:
The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)
The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.