Category: Politics on film

Glasgow FF15 #12: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Swe/Nor/Fra/Ger 2014)

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea  and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).

Bruegel's painting

Bruegel’s painting

It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.

In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of corse it is occupied!

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of course it is occupied!

Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop – note the carefully painted walls.

'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote' – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

‘Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’ – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.

I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.

Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.

The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:

Concerning Violence, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, USA, 2014.

ConcerningViolence1web

The Leeds International Festival Catalogue describes this as an ‘essay film, rather than a documentary. This places the film in that cinematic discourse best represented by the masterworks of Chris Marker. Like those it offers a studied ambiguity that can and should stimulate the viewer’s thoughts as well as their emotions. It combines recently discovered archive footage covering wars of decolonisation in Africa from the 1960s through to the 1990s accompanied by quotation from Franz Fanon’s seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth. What follows is a short response to a complex film and I plan to return with a longer engagement on the Third Cinema Revisited Blog.

The film is divided into ‘Nine scenes from the anti-imperialist self-defence’. In the course of the film we see many sequences of the white settlers in various occupied territories, mainly lording it over the oppressed and exploited black natives. We also see various conflicts between National Liberation Movements and the colonial armies. There is extensive coverage of the struggles in what has become Angola. Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Each sequence also presents quotations from the Fanon’s book. This provides comment, analysis and ironic counterpoint to the comments of the white settlers, the colonial military, and the predominantly western journalist covering events. There are also extensive interviews with and comments by black natives, including those involved in the armed struggle. Refreshingly there is much screen space given to women, both as part of the exploited indigenous people but also as participants in the armed struggle.

Notably we also hear readings from the writings of Amilcar Cabral  [Guinea Bissau] and an interview with Tomas Sankara [Burkino Faso]. There is also an interview with Robert Mugabe from the early days after the ZANU-PF victory. Whilst there are many male voices on the soundtrack the frequent quotations are read by an Afro-American woman, Lauryn Hill.

Most of the footage was shot in 1.37:1, some in colour, and some in black and white. But the opening and closing sequences are in 1.85:1 and the footage in the older ratio is on a DCP, letter-boxed within this frame. There is also extensive use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic. Unfortunately, [as in common in foreign language documentary] the songs are generally not translated in subtitles. There are a number of scenes of violence and horrific wounds: also of colonial atrocities.

The Director, Göran Hugo Olsson, is quoted in the Catalogue:

When you see these films today you are struck by how biased they were, and how the filmmakers were totally lost in their political views. The use of older archive material reveals perspectives and prejudices that are clear, enabling viewers to see beyond them.

I was impressed by the film. The selection of material, and especially the way that it is edited into a coherent and very effective arguments is finely done. It works well both as a film and as propaganda [expressing complex ideas supporting the movement]. One caveat that I had was that the film has added an introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a writer regularly included in anthologies of ‘post-colonial’ writings: [neo-colonial would be more accurate]. She places the work of Franz Fanon with a short biopic of his life and work. She correctly rejects the notion that he popularised support for violence: the colonized must, of necessity, use violence because of ‘the absolute non-response‘ of the colonisers.

She also makes the point that Fanon’s ideas, many of them developed in the historic liberation struggle by the Algerians against the French occupation, need developing in the present day and situation. However I think she offers only a partial account of Fanon’s politics in The Wretched of the Earth. Moreover, I think her opening remarks offer a reading of the film which is not borne out. She comments on gender and appears to suggest that ‘violence against women’ is committed both by the colonial movement and the anti-colonial movements. But the film depicts armed women who state, “We are on the same level as men.”  The film does undercut some of Fanon’s reliance on male nouns and adjectives when passages are read over images of armed women fighters. But also note that he writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

And both images and quotations undercut the values expanded by the colonialists.

I think Spivak also overlooks the centrality of class in Fanon’s work. But this seems to me something that is at least underdeveloped in the film, especially in the Conclusion where we hear Fanon’s maxims for the future of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist revolution. Fanon writes about the class forces in play after the end of direct occupation: a quotation from these comments would have made sense of the situation of Mugabe and Zimbabwe.

The quotations from Fanon are brief, mainly single sentences. Some the context of his position is often lost. This is the case when the film makes the point that the colonised black people use violence against their own: but Fanon is writing about the situation of the native under colonialism and before the development of an anti-colonial consciousness. One hopes that the film will stimulate viewers to read Fanon’s book – though I fear many may believe they have been provided with a sufficient grasp of his thought. The film’s title and focus is on one aspect of Fanon’s book, violence: this is where The Wretched of the Earth commences, but it goes a long way beyond this.

Even so this is a film that is unlikely to leave you unmoved and should certainly stimulate you. The audience at the Hyde Park Picture House showed their response with applause at the film’s end. This is definitely a film to see. It is getting a UK distribution [probably limited] by Dogwoof. I hoped to see it again, and did, [see http://thirdcinema.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/concerning-violence-with-a-q-a/].

 

Pride (UK 2014)

Part of the ensemble cast of Pride: (from left, Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

Part of the ensemble cast of PRIDE: (from left) Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

Pride is a remarkable film in several ways. Its narrative is conventional (based on a true story). It isn’t aesthetically interesting but it does two things very well. One is to provide its audience with high quality ensemble performances, some by well-known and celebrated UK actors, some by relative newcomers, all of which are well-judged and represent very effectively an array of characters, each of whom gets enough screen time to act as an identifiable ‘hero’ for part of the audience. In this way a broad audience can identify with the central narrative because of their attachment to one or more characters. This is no mean feat for a film dealing with arguably the most divisive period of modern British history.

The second great success of the film, at least to my mind, is that it deals with political ideas in a way that is inclusive, but at the same time is quite precise in analysing specific issues. OK, it is conventional, it uses familiar types and it does carry a large element of nostalgia and romance about very difficult times, but I think it manages to achieve the holy grail of ‘serious fun’. In doing so it raises a number of questions that need exploring.

The ‘true story’ here is that a number of activists in London branded themselves as ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM) in June 1984. They then randomly chose a community in South Wales as the recipients of the money they raised. This was not easy as NUM officials and strike committees were suspicious and reluctant to engage with LGBT groups. The resulting link-up was in the end a success, but not without trials and tribulations as well as downright opposition from individuals within the mining community. The strike ended in defeat, the eventual near-collapse of the mining industry and severe hardship for the mining communities themselves. But the film doesn’t end there. I won’t spoil the real ending.

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

The other horror of 1984-5 to go with the scores of police in transit vans and on horseback confronting striking miners was the spread of HIV and AIDS associated at this point with ‘unsafe sex’, especially within the gay community, and represented in public health advertising on TV by images of an iceberg lurking in dark waters. In 1984 gays and miners alike needed all the help they could get in the face of Thatcher’s attacks on ‘the enemy within’ as she branded them. The disappointment is that it’s taken 30 years to put these kinds of alliances on the screen. The current ‘Con-Dem’  government in the UK is now worse in many ways in its attacks on working people, even if so far it hasn’t resorted to Thatcher’s outright violence. Instead it has allowed the rich to get richer while penalising the poor – the kind of mutual support shown in Pride is even more valuable now.

Pride has taken off slowly in the UK despite a wide release. It made number 3 in the UK chart, but the screen averages were disappointing (for the weekend – it did OK in midweek when older people go to the cinema). Everyone I know who has seen it, raves about how much they enjoyed it. It should have the legs to grow a substantial audience over the next few weeks (only dropping 11% after the first week). Perhaps some audiences have been put off by the idea that it is about something from long ago. For many younger audiences the actual struggles will be something they know little about, but this shouldn’t stop engagement with the characters. It’s noticeable that the right-wing press in the UK have given the film 5 star ratings (Daily Mail, Telegraph etc.) even though the film explicitly attacks the ideologies they support. Significantly, they have also likened the film to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot – likeable popular films but films which denigrate traditional male working class culture and the political struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s. Pride is much more akin to Brassed Off which represented the anger created by the attacks of Thatcherism and Made in Dagenham that celebrated the political activism of women workers. Both Pride and Brassed Off represent the historical importance of the politicisation of the women of the mining communities, though Pride does so much more positively.

The screenwriter and director were both new to me. Because I don’t follow theatre I was not aware of Matthew Warchus who has had a stellar career as a stage director. It’s interesting that in aesthetic terms Pride is not particularly ‘theatrical’ in terms of lighting and mise en scène. This is only Warchus’ second feature and I liked the way he focused on the ensemble acting performances, the great dialogue scenes and the use of music. There are several interesting interviews with the pair, e.g. this one in Empire magazine. Writer Stephen Beresford tells us that the idea for the film arose in the mid-1990s during the second and final round of pit closures and, echoing a scene in Pride, Beresford had answered a call to support the miners with a “what have they ever done for us [gay men]?” kind of comment . . . and then somebody told him the true story. But it took more than 10 years to get the film into production because it seemed to break too many rules. It didn’t have a single hero, it had a lot of politics etc. It’s worth reading the interviews to get a full sense of just how conservative the UK film production community is.

The film doesn’t analyse the causes of the strike or the politics behind it, but what it does do is to focus on the idea of solidarity and mutual support, of committing to a cause and not forgetting who are your comrades and who is the enemy. The two other outcomes/’tie-ins’ for the film are the music and the associated news and feature stories. The music includes a host of 1980s club classics but also three great songs of solidarity, ‘Solidarity Forever’ by Pete Seeger, ‘There Is Power in a Union’ Billy Bragg and a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’ by Bronwen Lewis. A soundtrack album adds more 1980s songs and is likely to prove very popular. See the film’s website for details. Meanwhile, the true story is circulating via various press features like this one in the Observer about Mark Ashton played by the American Ben Schnetzer (beware spoilers about what happened to the historical figure).

Go and see it – you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a ‘making of’ featurette to introduce the film to US audiences (opens 26 September):

Brassed Off (UK/USA 1996)

Brass band

30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.

This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.

The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.

Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local bus company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.

Women picket

The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.

The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focusing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. (Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately). There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.

Chuckles

Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles (a party clown) at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall.

Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.

What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.

Pithead 2

The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s ‘Jerusalem’, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ (‘Land of Soap and Glory’). The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.

The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.

An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.

There is now a successor to this feel-good drama, Pride (2014). Set in Wales in 1984 it takes actual events involving gay and lesbian supporters of the miners to create a comedy-drama.

It opens at the National Media Museum in September and there will be a Study Day to accompany the screening on the 14th, ‘Miners – One hundred years of film’.