The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.
This week I watched two short films from Palestine as part of a link-up between The London Palestinian Film Festival and MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians). The deal is that you make a donation to MAP on a Friday and receive a virtual ticket to watch a film streamed to your device. This last week it has been two shorts but from today the film streaming is a feature-length documentary. Follow this link to make a donation. (There will be a small fee on top of your donation.) MAP is supporting the fight against coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza and in Lebanon.
The two films I watched had a theme associated with Easter Week with both dealing with Christian Palestinian communities. In the first, Yellow Mums (2010, 32 mins) by Firas Khoury, the focus is on a traditional Easter game for children associated with painted eggs. I remember such games from my childhood as Lancashire has one of the strongest traditions of what is an international culture associating decorated eggs with Easter. We called it ‘pace-egging’ which I understand derives from Old English for Passover. The Palestinian version for children seems to involve hard-boiled and painted eggs which are then used in a contest similar to ‘conkers’ in the UK. One child holds an egg in their fist with one end showing. The challenger then strikes the egg with their own. Whichever egg survives the bout without breaking the shell is the winner and if the strike is successful on the other end of the egg, the winner takes the loser’s egg. The central character of the story, Nizar, is an introverted altar boy in his village church. He is bullied by the other boys because he wears socks with his sandals.
Observing another boy who ‘blows’ an egg and fills it with wax to create a stronger weapon, Nizar hatches a plan to win the contest and in doing so, to please Jesus – he listens to the priest bless the contest but ask that all the eggs be given to Jesus. There is a sub-plot in which Nizar makes friends with a woman who keeps chickens and is also a target for abuse by the village boys. Nizar and the ‘egg-woman’ are not heroic characters and the group of village lads are not ‘bad lads’ as such. This is a humanist tale detailing events in a village over the Easter weekend. It’s a long ‘short’ so there is sufficient time to sketch in enough background for Nizar and the life of the village. I suppose it is a coming-of-age narrative of sorts and explores Nizar’s sense of identity in terms of the church and as a boy in the village community. The only evidence of the occupation is that the children have to stop what they are doing and cover their ears as jets roar over the village. I’ve struggled to find much about the background to the film or where it was shot (it’s quite a verdant landscape). It appears that it was officially made with Israeli funding and featured at the Jerusalem Independent Film Festival. It is the only directorial credit for Firas Khoury who dedicates the film to his mother. He has had other roles in various Israeli Arab productions.
Ave Maria (2015, 15 mins) has a much higher profile as a short film nominated for an Oscar and with many nominations and wins around the world. The director Basil Khalil was born in Nazareth but trained in Scotland – his mother is ‘British-Irish’. Khalil worked in London TV productions in the 2000s, but has had only a couple of credits in the last decade. He is now listed as directing a UK production shooting in Gaza. Ave Maria is a very funny short comedy listed as a Palestine-France-Germany production.
The setting is a desolate spot, mined by the Israelis and with barbed wire fences along the road. A lone building on a rise is framed against the horizon which reveals a city in the distance. It’s 5.35pm on a Friday afternoon in the West Bank. The lone building is a convent in which a small group of nuns belonging to a silent order are eating together when they are disturbed by a loud bang. A car carrying a trio of Orthodox Jews heading for an (illegal) settlement has crashed outside the convent badly damaging a statue of Our Lady and wrecking the car. The travellers appear trapped in a situation in which they are powerless because with Shabbat beginning they shouldn’t be using technology to get themselves out of this mess. They must convince the silent nuns to help them. What follows is a sharply written comedy about religious beliefs clashing in the context of the occupation. The film was shot in 2.35:1 by the Israeli cinematographer Eric Mizrahi. I enjoyed the film very much. It’s clear enough where its sympathy lies, but the settlers are humanised enough to make the comedy of beliefs work well. The hero of the hour turns out to be the young novice of the convent who has talents you might not expect. I thoroughly recommend this short which is available on iTunes in the UK. This augurs well for Khalil’s Gaza-set comedy. I’m pleased I could support health-workers in Palestine and I thought this was a good double bill. You can still catch this week’s film.
This series of events organised by the Pavilion visual arts project based in Leeds was screening at the Hyde Park Picture House and a small venue in the Grand Theatre complex in New Briggate. At the invitation of the Pavilion Herb Shellenberger [from Philadelphia but now resident in London] curated an ambitious programme of films by artists; some film-makers but some artists first. Will Rose introducing the opening event admitted that the programme was larger than originally envisaged. There were seven separate screenings with 33 separate films ranging in length from 4 minutes to well over an hour. In his introduction Herb explained that artists based in Yorkshire were contributing but that their art works would be placed ‘in dialogue with work from international artists.
The opening event on a Friday evening saw the Picture House screening two 35mm prints: ‘Bliss it was in that [even] to be alive’. And better still the main feature was one of the outstanding masterworks from the French film-maker, photographer, writer, traveler and eccentric, Chris Marker. Marker died in 2012 after a life full of quirky artistic work. He was a collaborator with Alain Resnais and a friend and colleague of the recently deceased Agnes Varda. These two shared a love of cats. All three were part of the ‘left bank group’ ; a key but overlooked movement within the nouvelle vague. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:
“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”
Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.
The film’s written component is a series of letters read [in parts] with comments by an unidentified female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. He remarks that he has seen the film nineteen times; I am not sure if I have ever seen a film that many times, but it could be Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925 USSR). I actually did the same homage to the Vertigo with a French guide and Marker fan.
The largest part of Sans Soleil are the sequences from Japan and from Guinea-Bissau / Cape Verde; societies that Marker suggests are
“two extreme poles of survival.”
This is illustrated in the film. Marker also notes the political context with archive footage of the African Liberation struggle and one charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral.
The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine
“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”
(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the time).
Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There is found footage and stills/freeze frame in colour and black and white academy. And some of the film is synthesised by a colleague. He recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner, thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The screening presented the original French language version in a 35mm print in good condition.
Sans Soleil was preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm. This was Black by Anouk De Clercq (Belgium, 2015). This was the only print of this art work which by now was showing signs of wear and tear. The sub-titles noted this suggesting the film picked up on a point early in the Marker film where the film-maker addresses the use of black leader. I did wonder if either film-maker had the Soviet artist Kazemir Valedich in mind.
The second screening I attended was titled ‘The Gentle Touch’ and presented five titles featuring:
“Stone, flesh, blood or electric circuit, feet on the ground versus data in the cloud. From automaton to avatar, artists reflect on the tension between our own individual, physical bodies and the animated, virtual body.” (Curator’s Notes)
Three of the regional film-makers attended and spoke about their work after the screening.
The first title was The Love of Statues (2019) by Peter Samson, based in Doncaster. This was a combination of film, found footage and archive stills. Shot partly in Paris at the museum of the Salpetriere Asylum containing a bevy of C19th objects. It was shot in black and white and partly in widescreen and partly in academy ratio. Peter explained that he had worked on the material several time over the years and this was the most recent version. He had to edit together materials in different ratios. The theme at the asylum was hypnosis and hysteria but the visual theme of this title was bodies in relation to both statues and automaton. It had an eerie feeling and much of the film was in chiaroscuro.
Self-digitalisation (2015) by James Thompson ran for nine minutes in colour and widescreen. This was in a single long shot of a picture gallery at Hospitalfield House where Thomson was on an artist residency. The film aimed to ‘re-interpret’ the room and objects as a young man took a series of digital self-portraits, ‘selfies’. These were done at speed in an arch manner. If we were meant to look at the art through these it failed for me; and as a satirical take on the ‘selfie’ it needed more angles or positions.
Dog’s Dialogue / Colloque de chiens (France 1977) was a 22 minute ‘photo-roman’ by Raúl Ruiz, screened from a colour 35mm print. The English sub-titles were projected digitally. A ‘photo-roman’ uses a series of still shots to offer some sort of narrative. This one was unconventional as it included moving images, both of the titular dogs and, later, of a location. The various dogs, mainly tied up and barking, were some sort of metaphor. The humans in the story proper went through a cycle of events that
“consists of news items collected in magazines. A melodramatic pseudo-detective thread woven round imagery from women’s magazines.” (Institut Français).
In what seemed to be a homage to the photo-roman’s founder, Chris Marker, at one point a ‘still image’ turned into a brief moment of movement.
This film was typical of Ruiz’s work in France, where he was an exile after the coup in his native Chile. His work was literary, ironic, sardonic and experimental. It was also, as with this title, always engaging.
Another film on 35mm with digital subtitles was Au Père Lachaise (France 1986) a thirteen minute title by Jean-Daniel & Pierre-Marie Goulet. This is a Municipal cemetery in Paris, apparently the most visited in the world It is the earlier example of as ‘garden cemetery’. Many famous people lie there, notably Oscar Wilde. And the Institut Français offered a quotation from another famous inmate, Honoré de Balzac.
“It’s all of Paris but seen through the looking glass, a microscopic Paris reduced to the dimensions of shadows, larvae, death, a human race that has nothing more than vanity’”
The vanity is obvious in some of the monumental graves, similar to those found in London’s Highgate cemetery. However, the film was more interested in the space, arrangement and foliage; something that disappointed at least one viewer.
The film used a series of tracking shots, interspersed with long shots to close-ups; reminiscent of the style of Alain Resnais. To its credit the film did end with an note about 147 people associated with the cemetery; the heroes and heroine so f the Paris Commune, executed nearby and commentated by a simple plaque.
The Turning of the Helmet (2018) by Rhian Cooke, an artist currently involved in the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The film ran 3 minutes in colour and 16:9, [television funding]. The opening of the film used animation techniques playing with ceramics and textiles to offer a sense of the helmet. The later stage expanded into actual cinematography to present a pill box which was an inspiration for work with a helmet. This was well done but [for me as is often the way with very personal experimental film] I did not really engage with the thematics.
I had a similar problem with Soft Body Goal (Finland, 2010) a four minute title by Jaako Pallsasvuo. This combined digital animation and dubbed sound with a bevy of bodies;
“Body without bone. Sloppy and improper. Body seepage. Naked sewer rats. Hairless aristocratic cats. Slime …. the body of the future ….”
However, the techniques used were impressive.
We almost did not see the final title, Ice Cream. This was a 1970 16mm film copied onto a digital format; I suspect there were compatibility problems because we had three false starts. However, the film repaid the wait. The director, Antoni Padrós, was an underground Catalan film-maker. Born during the Spanish Civil War most of his career was spent under the Francoist dictatorship. His film work was subversive, iconic and iconoclastic. This title featured two young people, explicit sex and the titular ice cream. It clearly subverted and made fun of the repressive values and censorship of the times. One could almost imagine a Franco stooge banning ice creams for a period.
I felt that the older European titles had political as well as aesthetic stances. Whereas the more recent British titles were far more personal and did not have overt political themes: They were also apparently more preoccupied with aesthetics. The former are closer to the key film of the programme, Sans Soleil, which combined politics and aesthetic in a complexly cinematic manner.
A third programme was ‘Sail the Summer Winds’. I was unclear regarding the overall programme title: sea-scapes seen a common feature.
The opening film was A Mysterious Devotion (1973), written and directed by Alf Bowers & Andy Birtles. They were fellow students at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. This institution funded the filming. The completion and editing was done by Bowers whilst a student at the new National Film School.
Herb Shellenberger in his written introduction commented;
“Alf Bowers A Mysterious Devotion evidences several decades of wildly creative and experimental film-making in Yorkshire. The ambitious 16mm cinemascope film [in black and white] is an oblique narrative following several members of a family as they experience and process a traumatic death. There is no dialogue but the camera stalks its actors around the house and at the seaside, at times claustrophobically close and others in wide shots at the sea.”
Alf Bowers and answered questions after the screening. He noted that the film was based on ideas that were in
“the heads of the protagonists … things that could have happened.”
He suggested the only event that was certainly actual was the death of the father at the opening of the film. And the plotting followed the proposal by Jean-Luc Godard,
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
The film was shot in a house in Sheffield and at Flamborough Head. The anamorphic lens used was a projection model, which made the camerawork extremely difficult, The film used filters for one shot and high speed cinematography for two sequence. The film stock used was Kodak Plus-X, [also used on Schindler’s List ( 1993). This produced a high-contrast image. However, whilst there is a 16mm print available the film was screened from a digital copy. There was apparently a technical reason for this. However, the digital copy did not really do justice to the high-contrast imagery: most of the film was reasonable but there were two sequences, including the end credits, where the images was not distinct enough. This was the first screening of the film for about 20 years so it is a shame we did not see a pristine version . It remains a powerful and impressive short film, running 47 minutes.
The Eraser / Keshigomu (Japan, 1977) by Shūji Terayama. This was a 20 minute film on 16mm in colour and academy. The setting is a seashore and we see several characters posing here and in an interior. But the image is overlaid by video filter patterns. And a hand appears frequently using the technique to erase part of the image. As Herb Shellenberger commented,
“a unique conceptual work that is difficult to define.”
Alaska (Germany 1969) by film-maker Dore O who co-founded the Hamburger Filmmacher Cooperative. In black and white and colour the film shared a technique with The Eraser: in this example polka dots cover and obscure a range of subjects, animals, people, settings. The film also has a distinctive sound track using musical instruments, machine noise and recorded sound. Herb Shellenberger’s comment is similar though:
“a film that resists all interpretations.”
All three films demonstrated film-makers working with unconventional and experimental techniques.
I was able to catch three of the seven programmes so my sense of the overall was limited. However, this was an impressive collection of artistic films, many of them rare, especially in theatrical presentations. It is good that The Pavilion and the Hyde Park Picture House were prepared to be so adventurous. The largest audience was for Sans Soleil, the best known work in the weekend. Other audiences were smaller but we are dealing with avant-garde work. It is nice to know that an audience exists for this less commercial but influential area of cinema.
This was a programme of short films at the Hyde Park Picture House with the support of the Cervantes Institute. The programme was organised by ‘cinemaattic’ and screened in a number of major cities. An annual event, the ‘Kimuak’ [Basque word for ‘sprout’] encourages film-makers to work in the shorter length format. We enjoyed seven films in a variety of forms and subjects from 2018. I have seen a few feature length Basque films in the past but this was an unusual and welcome opportunity.
Above 592 Meters (592 Met’roz Goiti, director Maddi Barber). In colour and 1.85:1, with English sub-titles.
This is a documentary about the construction of a dam in the Pyrenees which flooded seven villages. The title is the level of the water in the dam. The film opens with footage of the landscape and wildlife around the completed dam. Then the film explores the impact of the construction on one family that was displaced. There is some fine cinematography included a night-time electric storm. And the family are articulate with a photograph record of the displacement. I think the screening ratio was different from the original footage as there seems to be some cropping in the frame.
Mother (Ama, director Josu Martinez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a short drama set during World War I. A wife and mother waits for a letter from her husband fighting on the Western front. When the letter comes she has to ask a neighbour to read this for her. Finely done with the cinematography and design creating the sad world of the past.
Still Fireflies (Ancora Lucciole, director Maria Elorza.) In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
The film opens with a reference to 1972 and Pier Paulo Pasolini lamenting the disappearance of fireflies. Then the title combines a voice-over addressing the possible extinction of fireflies whilst a child plays with an example in a jar. The ‘fireflies’ in the film are digitally produced and are vibrant against the varied settings, ranging from light to darkest shadows.
The Great Expedition (Espedizio Handia, director Iban del Campo). In colour and black and white and academy ratio.
This title combines images in a tapestry that contrasts heavenly images with more mundane human characters.
Kafenio Kastello (directed by Miguel Ángel Jiménez) In colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.
The title is set in Athens and the background is one of the frequent demonstrations against ‘austerity’ with street conflicts between protesters and police. However the characters in focus are a small group in an urban quarter concerned with more mundane problems of their relationships. The characters and plot are treated in a somewhat surreal manner with references to (amongst others) Tarkovsky and his Andrei Rublev (1966).
Do Not wake Me Up (No me Despertéis, director Sara Fantova), In colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.
Set in the Basque city of Bilbao in 2009 the story follows a school student caught between nationalist activism in her school and her father’s role in the regional Government. The title catches the teenage milieu and the emotional contradictions experienced by this young woman.
Waiting (Zain, director Pello Gutiérrez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a rather surreal presentation that reminded me most of the style and tone of the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. This title has the deadpan humour and ironic style found in his films. A singer with a deadpan delivery is seen first with a musical group and then a solo musician. Meanwhile the audience watching gradually grows smaller. An enjoyable tone portrait.
An entertaining and fascinating two hours with an introduction from people and filmmakers involved in the programme.
The Hyde Park Picture House, supported by the University of Leeds and the Austrian Film Academy, hosted a selection of titles from the event (Österreichische Kurzfilmschau 2019). This was the third annual visit. The films are all nominees for the event’s film award. The programme screened in Leeds included:
Ars Moriendi Oder die Kunst des Lebens (The Art of Living, Kristina Schranz, Austria / Germany 2018). Running 29 minutes, in colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.
Rosemarie Achenbach is 93 years old. Time and again, she has found the strength to liberate herself: During World War II, she was trapped under rubble following an aerial bombardment, but survived. As a pastor’s wife, she was trapped by the expectations of patriarchal post-war society. After her husband’s death, she took her life into her own two hands. She completed her degree in philosophy and today she is writing her doctorate. She is writing about death, because “I am old enough for it”. This is both the portrait of a woman and the portrait of a century now past. Kristina Schranz’s title is well done. The subject, Rosemarie, was an impressive character. She celebrated her 93rd birthday in the course of the film with her children and grandchild. The cutting between home [personal] and the university [institution] worked well. And the framing of characters and scenes was finely done.
When Time Moves Faster (Austria/CA/GR 2016 7 minutes.
Amongst other things, the director’s, Anna Vasof, working method was influenced by pre-cinematic devices stemming from her fascination with the movement of photographic images. These only appear animated given our persistence of vision. Vasof cites the Zoetrope as an example of this phenomenon, a device that filled people of all ages with wonder at fairs of old. This work demonstrates Anna Vasof’s unbelievable pleasure in experimentation and simultaneously shares her delight in demonstrating the illusion enabled solely through the medium of cinema.
Excuse Me, I am looking for the table-tennis and my friend Entschildigung (Ich suche den Tishtennisraum und meine freundid, Austria/Germany … 2018). Running 23 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1 with English sub-titles
A film Bernhard Wenger about a couple on a wellness trip, where one partner disappears and the other isn’t sure whether he’s looking for her or himself. Within the bizarre world of the Alpine wellness resort, Aron begins a new chapter in his life. This had a rather dry humour and recurring tropes. I did think the ending could have been stronger.
Kids n Cats – Frizzle Frizz (Austria 2017). Running time 4 minutes, in colour and academy ratio.
The world of vain and self-absorbed characters gets flooded by gigantic insect legs. The director Patryk Senwicki offered a combination of stop motion and live action techniques filled with surrealist imagery and objects and accompanied by a song from a ménage à trois.
Der Sieg der Barmherzigkeit (Austria 2017), Running time 24 minutes, in colour, academy ratio and with English sub-titles.
Musicologist Mr. Szabo has dedicated himself to collecting archival material from the history of Austrian pop music. Due to an unfortunate coincidence, an original stage costume of a Viennese beat band from the 60s ended up in a charity clothing collection. To retrieve the rare piece, Szabo doesn’t shy away from a veritable break-in. His young, aspiring colleague Mr. Fitzthum helps him – not entirely voluntarily. Unlike Szabo he has a lot to lose: his job, his career and above all, his freedom.
Albert Meisl’s bizarre is tale full of dry humour. Szabo is a full blown eccentric. Fitzthum is a naïve victim of Szabo’s obsession. They are caught in a series of whimsical situations.
A good and varied selection of films. Previous years had more avant-garde examples but this year’s all fell into a recognisable genre.
“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”
On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.
There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927): just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.
Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.
The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations
First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.
This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers
“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”
So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.
There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.
Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.
Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.
The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.
Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.
The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.
The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.
The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination. The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.
The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .
The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.
The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.
The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.
And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.
The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.
The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.
It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.
All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.