Sema Stori – Documentary Film in Kenya

Sema Stori – Comic Relief Workshop Members

A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.

Documentary in East Africa

There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.

Docubox

Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:

DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND

We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.

Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.

Comic Relief

Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.

Submissions

Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).

Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.

Dragon Gate Inn (Taiwan-Hong Kong 1967)

Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan takes on one of the Dong Shang leaders outside the inn

Dragon Gate Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Inn) is one of the best known and most influential wuxia films by the Chinese director known as King Hu. Both this film and the equally celebrated A Touch of Zen (1971) are currently streaming on MUBI. Dragon Gate Inn is also available on separate Blu-ray editions (Masters of Cinema in the UK and Criterion in the US) of the 2013 restoration of the film. I remember these films from the 1970s in the UK in cinemas and later on prints broadcast by Channel 4 and I think I must have seen at least extracts from then but it wasn’t until I bought a DVD of the 1992 remake that I really began to explore wuxia – more of that later.

King Hu was born in Peking in 1932 and attended art school before joining the flow of exiles to Hong Kong in 1949. He joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 a nd worked in various capacities on the studio’s Mandarin films and came under the influence of the Taiwanese director Li Han-hsiang. Hu directed his own films starting in 1965 and it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966) which introduced his update to the wuxia. Soon after this he left Shaw Brothers, moving to Taiwan where Dragon Inn was produced for the Union Film Company – a local producer giving Hu the chance to try out his own ideas.

Chun Shih as Xiao who travels to the inn to meet the inn-keeper

Wuxia

Wuxia is an ancient Chinese form of fantasy literature that in the 20th century developed in new forms such as newspapers and magazines and, soon after, cinema. The term refers loosely to the idea of ‘martial chivalry’ and the idea that highly trained warriors would roam the country righting wrongs. After 1949 the nationalised Chinese film industry reduced its reliance on these kinds of action genre films and the development of the genre fell to the exilic directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a suggestion that wuxia began to be influenced by Japanese chanbara (swordplay) and Japanese cinema was accessible in HK and Taiwan. King Hu developed a particularly elegant and ‘open’ style of traditional wuxia in which he maintained roles for female martial artists and staged swordplay in spectacular natural environments, presented in CinemaScope formats and with traditional music scores.

Outline

The plot of the film is relatively straightforward. In 1457 AD, during the Ming Dynasty period, the Empire is being controlled by a group of eunuchs in the Imperial Palace who have already framed the Defence Minister Yu as a traitor and executed him. His two surviving children are to be sent to a remote destination in the desert but the Dong Chang ‘Eastern Agency’, in effect a military group controlled by the eunuch Ciao (Ying Bai), has been ordered to ambush and kill the children and their guards. Their first attempt to do so is thwarted by two sibling warriors (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan and her brother played by Han Hsieh) and the eunuch’s men decide to descend on the Dragon Gate Inn which is the children’s ultimate destination. The Eastern Agency announce themselves as working for the Ministry of Justice, expecting to find some Imperial Guards at the Inn, but they are not expecting the presence of other independent warriors including master swordsman Xiao (Chun Shih) and the innkeeper Wu (Chien Tsao) who turns out to be one of Yu’s warriors. At the inn a series of encounters between the Eastern Agency troops and the four warriors loyal to Yu’s memory escalates and Ciao himself arrives to try to finish the job. The ending may be predictable in that ‘good’ triumphs over evil, but each contest is different and the narrative is gripping throughout.

Xiao waits in the inn – the studio set enabling an action mise en scène

Hu’s legacy

There are several reasons why Dragon Gate Inn became a massive hit in Taiwan and later Hong Kong (where Shaw Brothers delayed the film’s release to help one of their own films. Whatever you might think of action films and ‘martial arts’ films in particular, watching this film for ten or twenty minutes will convince you that Hu was a master filmmaker. Hu was originally an actor and an art designer before becoming a writer-director. In wuxia the characters are individuated through action and the visual qualities of their performances, including facial gestures and body postures as well as their martial arts skills and athleticism. Hu handles his actors well and he makes excellent use of his resources. There is just one studio set in the film as far as I can see – the inn itself which offers many opportunities for imaginatively-staged action set pieces – overturned tables, staircases, roofs, balconies, balustrades, windows/doors etc. This is then contrasted with the vast open spaces of deserts, mountains and river-beds. The Taiwanese interior offered so much more than the limited spaces of Hong Kong and Hu presents them on screen using CinemaScope ratio (2.35:1) and often extreme long shot framing by Hua Hui-Ying. But what makes him a special director is the ease with which he shifts from extreme long shot to close-up and a whole range of framings. His staging in depth is equally impressive.

An extreme long shot of the Dong Chang with Ciao beneath the parasol

Hu’s knowledge of Peking Opera informs the staging of  his swordfight sequences and these are presented without the later wire work. Much is achieved by the editing which suggests movement rather than presenting it directly. The final ingredient is the music score by Chow Lan-Ping which is evocative of Japanese as well as Chinese cinema. Put all these ingredients and Hu’s skills together and stand back. You can recognise now that Hu’s masterpieces comes at a particular time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, Japanese and European cinema are converging around the Japanese chanbara and Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (these latter two directors equally drawing on Kurosawa’s work). We might look even further back to John Ford Westerns (which influenced Kurosawa). The isolated inn in the desert is in many ways similar to the Edwards homestead  in The Searchers or the inn in Stagecoach, both set in the landscapes of Monument Valley.

The shift to close-up, here of Ciao

Dragon Gate Inn was more than a major hit film, it raised expectations of what a wuxia film could be and without it the later global blockbusters by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) would not have had quite the impact they eventually achieved. But before that, Hu’s success encouraged the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Waves with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) and Ann Hui’s Romance of Book and Sword and Princess Fragrance (both 1987). I haven’t seen these last three titles but my own introduction to appreciation of wuxia came through films produced by Tsui Hark in Hong Kong and starring action heroes such as Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh. In particular, I enjoyed the remake of Dragon Gate Inn (New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992) with Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Maggie Cheung (as the inn-keeper) and Donnie Yen as the evil eunuch. The remake uses standard modern widescreen (1.85:1) and the exteriors are limited by comparison, but the performances and dialogue as well as action choreography make for an entertaining film.

A classic long shot with staging in depth. Look closely for the sibling warriors in the background and their would-be assailant behind the rocks in the foreground

In Taiwan, King Hu is still an important figure in Taiwanese film history and his status was confirmed by Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003) in which the auteurist direct Tsai Ming-liang constructs a narrative around the final screening at a major classic single screen cinema. Only a few fans are present and various encounters take place between them during a screening of Dragon Inn. I do struggle with Tsai’s films but I saw this one in Bradford with a small audience in Pictureville cinema if my memory serves. I wish I’d seen the whole of Dragon Inn at that point. I would have perhaps made even more sense of Tsai’s tribute.

I recommend the Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema (which also includes a DVD version of the film). The extras include a David Cairns visual essay and a newsreel of the films opening in Taipei plus a booklet with pieces by Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong. The Criterion release has similar material by different scholars/industry personnel/actors.

(My apologies about names for actors and crew in this posting. The various sources I’ve consulted don’t use either the Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin names (as in Taiwan at the time) or the Hanyu Pinyin which replaced it in the PRC in the 1950s consistently and I may have unintentionally mixed them up.

Trailer for the Criterion Blu-ray release:

Shirley Valentine (UK 1989)

Pauline Collins and Bernard Hill in flashback as a young couple

Shirley Valentine is an essential title for our list of Liverpool films. It’s also an interesting film in terms of its audience and the group of creatives who made it a big hit in the reviving British cinema of the late 1980s. The film might be described as a ‘feelgood’, nostalgic feminist comedy-drama – a strange and perhaps contradictory description. Looking at reviews, I was interested to see a number of US reviews which are in some ways quite distanced and critically acute, but also quite welcoming and celebratory. Pauline Collins who plays the titular lead was Oscar-nominated and the original play had been a hit on Broadway so the the US reviews do make sense. But the fact that the film is an ‘opening out’ of a successful stage play that doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in that practice and has tended to downplay the artistic achievement in the UK.

If you aren’t familiar with the play or the film, here’s a brief outline. Shirley Valentine was a bright grammar school girl with a rebellious streak who somehow became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw and the traditional stay at home mother of two living in a suburban street in Liverpool. One day, after the kids have left home, her long moans to her kitchen walls finally lead to action and she accepts the chance to go on holiday to Greece with a friend Jane (Alison Steadman). She hopes to rediscover her younger self and surprise herself with what might happen. Her sudden change in behaviour is prompted by her nosy neighbour across the street (Julia McKenzie) who puts on ‘airs and graces’ and her children Milandra (Tracie Bennett) and Brian (Gareth Jefferson) and her husband Joe (Bernard Hill) who have all long ago taken her for granted. The cast also includes Tom Conti with a moustache as a Greek hotel/bar owner and both Joanna Lumley and Sylvia Syms in cameo roles.

Shirley meets her friend Jane (Alison Steadman)

I remember enjoying the film in the cinema with my partner, who identified with Shirley just as many other women in the UK would have done at the time. We were also conscious of the Liverpool setting and the fact that nearly everything worth watching in the 1980s in the UK seemed to be set in Liverpool. Willy Russell was the playwright behind Shirley Valentine as well as the earlier Educating Rita which also became a major film, in 1983 (it was filmed in Dublin but at heart it remains a Liverpool narrative). Russell had many other theatrical hits as well as TV drama scripts throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one other film Dancin’ thru the Dark (1990) based on his earlier script Stags and Hens (1978). He was one of the most successful of the Liverpool writers in this period. His work tended towards comedy, music and working-class life whereas Alan Bleasdale had similar success with more politically edged material such as his TV serial Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Bernard Hill as ‘Yosser’ Hughes in that production became something of an iconic figure of resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s with his catchphrase “Gizza a job” (“Give us a job!”). Watching Hill as Shirley’s husband in 1989 was undoubtedly different for many audiences in the UK than it might have been for those overseas. Bleasdale and Russell were both trained as teachers in the mid-1960s (they were born in 1946 and 1947) and therefore they were around as teenagers and young men with the rise of popular music and football ascendency for the city’s teams. Pauline Collins was born in 1940, slightly earlier than the writers and her character Shirley might already have been married by the time the Beatles and the other Liverpool bands became so influential. Several of the successful Northern comedies in the 1970s and 1980s have that slightly odd feeling of being written a few years before they emerged as popular films – and therefore have a slight nostalgic feel.

Shirley finds herself on a Greek island

Shirley is very much the central character of her own narrative as emphasised by her conversations with the kitchen walls and with the camera. This latter was also famously an element of an earlier successful film (by a Northern-based writer, Bill Naughton) Alfie (1966), another film adapted from an earlier play. The link between the two films is also through the director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert (1920-2018) was a remarkably successful British director who succeeded in several different genres. He followed a series of wartime-based dramas in the 1950s with three James Bond films and then both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine looking back to Alfie. Always seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, his success directing Julie Walters and Pauline Collins led to the suggestion that he was good with these roles which saw women changing their lives and creating a different identity. The result was that in 1991 he was was hired by Paramount to direct an American version of another similar British play, Steppin’ Out featuring Liza Minnelli. This seems to have turned out slightly less well (like the remake of Alfie?). Although these adaptations each derive from stage plays my feeling is that their referents are mainly a certain kind of British television production.

Although Pauline Collins made a big impression internationally as Shirley Valentine, her UK profile has always been maintained by her theatre work and her TV stardom rather than by cinema and this is true for most of the actors in the film of Shirley Valentine. In 1989 the UK cinema audience had increased significantly but was still not much more than half of its 2019, pre-Covid figure. I think this TV focus explains partly why the film today feels nostalgic for a period before the late 1980s. To give another example, Shirley’s trip to Greece sees her meeting various British holidaymakers still reacting xenophobically to local food and culture. This was one of the points of criticism of the film and it reminded me of British TV sitcoms, particularly Duty Free (three seasons 1984-6) featuring Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron. One of my favourite Monthly Film Bulletin critics, Philip Strick, offers in MFB October 1989 what is I think a typical response to the film which he suggests works because of Willy Russell’s skill with one-liners. What doesn’t work, he argues, are Shirley’s pieces to camera and the whole opening out of the play and peopling it with the characters who in the stage version were mentioned by Shirley but who didn’t actually appear in the flesh. I understand this criticism, but I don’t have any problems with the ‘to camera’ monologues. I also feel that films work with audiences in many different ways and in this case I think I know Shirley and all the characters, because they are ‘typical’ for British social comedy rather than because they are rounded characters in a drama. But perhaps this does date the film and thirty years on it stands primarily for enjoyable nostalgia and for a fine central performance.

Giraffe (Germany-Denmark 2019)

Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) working on her archive finds

Giraffe uses footage of an animal in a Danish safari park to introduce a story about displacement and globalisation. What follows is in some ways a familiar European ‘festival film’. It first appeared at Locarno, then won a prize at the Viennale in 2019. My first thought was that it seemed like another example of a film associated with the ‘Berlin School’. Writer-Director Anna Sofie Hartmann is Danish but she trained at the German Film Academy (FFFB) in Berlin and this film has Maren Ade as one of its producers and Valeska Grisebach and Bettina Böhler are listed in the credits as mentors/consultants. Maren Eggert has a secondary acting role in the film and she has previously appeared in two films for Angela Schanelec. These names suggest that the Berlin School links are strong. They also signal a film with a predominantly female creative team and a female perspective at the centre of the narrative.

Lucek the Polish worker

Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is an ethnologist and photographer on Lolland, one of the main Danish islands, where she grew up. Though she is now based in Berlin, she is back in Lolland for a few months on a project to document the buildings and the people associated with them who will be displaced because preparations are being made for construction of a tunnel which will link Lolland to Northern Germany. There is very little plot in what is a relatively short film (85 mins). Dara meets various people and delves into local archives to research earlier inhabitants and artefacts. But there is a romance in which Dara, a woman in her thirties, becomes involved with Lucek, a younger Polish worker who is part of a gang laying a cable for services to be used by the construction workers on the tunnel.

My main interest in the film, apart from the aesthetics of its production and the performances, is in the geography of the location and what it means for the economics and sociology of the region. Although I’ve learned something through reading Nordic crime fiction and watching films and TV from Sweden and Denmark, I hadn’t before appreciated just how interconnected the countries around the Eastern Baltic Sea were, and especially how important the network of ferry services is to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland. Hartmann includes various extracts from diaries and personal testimonies in ways which sometimes suggest we are watching a documentary. (Some of the characters in the film are clearly ‘real people’.) We listen to Lucek’s fellow Polish workers who sketch out the economics of why Poles take up contract work elsewhere in the EU since 2008 and these seem like authentic conversations. Lisa Loven Kongsli is actually a Norwegian actor which adds another layer to the film’s meaning with its mix of Danish, German and Polish actors and crew. Maren Eggert’s role is as a woman working on the main ferry to Germany. She has time to simply observe the passengers and she gives us her thoughts about who they are and where they are going – and again Jenny Lou Ziegel’s camera films these passengers in observational documentary mode.

Käthe (Maren Eggert) observes the passengers on the ferry

Dara and Lucek get together

I was reminded in several ways of the French film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014) in which a young woman is a ship’s engineer who works with various nationalities, both officers and crew, and has a traditional masculine sailor’s idea about a sexual life in every port. Like Alice, Dara finds a young man even though she has a partner in Berlin and like Alice she is shown to be a highly competent and professional young woman. Both films use diaries and video calls/filmed material to communicate with lovers/friends overseas. A final similarity in the two films is a narrative strand in which the globalised workforce finds itself at the mercy of layers of sub-contractors who come between them and the multinational company who is ostensibly their employer. So in Giraffe, Lucek and his colleagues fear that they might not be paid. I’m not clear on who is paying Dara but she seems to be ‘secure’ in some way. This kind of interaction between workers from different countries often means that conversations are conducted in English, even if in this case, the countries themselves are often geographically quite close. Dara and Lucek make love in English.

The Polish workers meet to decide what to do when they are not paid

I enjoyed watching this film but a quick trawl through other online responses reveals a mixed audience response. In Berlin School style, the narrative is not laid out as a conventional story. Instead each viewer simply needs to watch and listen carefully and piece together their own story. That said, I found some scenes to be humorous and some quite moving as Dara delves into the lives of the people who owned the houses that are to be demolished. The performances are all good and I found simple pleasure in watching Dara at work. Giraffe is currently available on MUBI.

Here’s the only trailer I can find, but no English subs:

Doubles vies (Non-Fiction, France 2018)

Selena (Juliette Binoche) and Léonard (Vincent Macaigne)

Although the English title of this film does make sense as a reference to the film’s narrative, I prefer the French title which is more subtle and has more referents in its translation as ‘Double Lives’. This is another Olivier Assayas film which delves into formal questions about film, narrative, narration etc. and does so by exploring the behaviour of those involved in writing and producing ‘texts’. In this case the whole discussion is then worked into a familiar genre narrative of extra-marital affairs. Assayas has plenty of form in this area. The most recent film of his that I spent time thinking about was Clouds of Sils Maria (France 2014) in which Kristen Stewart plays the personal assistant to a moody star film actor played by Juliette Binoche. Much earlier in his career Assayas made Irma Vepp (France 1996) in which Maggie Cheung, playing herself, has a tough time making a film with a director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Assayas later married Ms Cheung. Léaud himself played in several films directed by François Truffaut including one in which Truffaut appeared as a director making a film – La nuite américaine (France 1973). It should be clear from all of this that we are in the rarefied world of the mise en abîme – the story within a story and a blurring of identities. Given that Doubles vies has a starry cast there is also likely to be a mismatch of expectations in which audiences looking forward to an entertaining marital comedy instead get a great deal of blather about the onslaught of digitalisation. One IMDb user calls it a “mediocre Ted Talk”. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not a totally inaccurate analysis.

Guillaume Canet as Alain

Guillaume Canet, who has often played action roles, is here cast as Alain, the head of a small but prestigious publishing house. He is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated stage actor who has become successful as the star of a TV series (a cop show of some kind). At the start of the narrative, Alain is in the process of deciding whether to publish the next novel of his friend Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). It isn’t clear at this point whether Alain knows that Léonard is having an affair with Selena. Alain himself is busy with his hot (in the industry sense) new colleague Laure (Christa Théret), his ‘Head of Digitalisation’. This extends into a physical relationship. Despite both having plenty to do, Alain and Selena also have a child who is seen occasionally with his nanny. There are two central themes in the film. One is how and when the analogue publishing industry will be forced to become yet another predominantly digital media industry. This is an industrial question about how publishers will organise their output, what staff they will need and how they will develop relationships with writers. It is also about something less tangible about prestige and high art credibility. Can an e-book ever have the cultural cachet of a well-bound and printed book? The other theme is around the ethics and credibility attached to ‘autofiction’, the form of literature defined as autobiographical fiction. The rise of this form in recent years has been more pronounced in French literature than in most other national literary cultures.

Christa Théret as Laure the ‘Head of Digitalisation’

Léonard’s novels are seen as autofiction which means that he is writing about his affair with Selena. Can he really expect that Alain and his other friends won’t work out that his lover in the novel is Selena? Léonard also has a partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and she is busy being the media ‘minder’ for a politician who predictably drives her crazy. I watched the whole film but I admit that at times I did find it wearisome. The discourse about digitalisation is not particularly new or clever (admittedly the film is two years old). I think Juliette Binoche is wasted and I have a real problem with Vincent Macaigne. I’m sure he is a nice guy but I can’t see women falling for him as they do in several recent French films. I obviously don’t understand romance in France but it is odd that Macaigne seems to play similar buffoonish characters in several films. The only one of the characters in Doubles vies I could bear to spend time with would be Valérie. That said the dialogue in the film is witty and if you like this kind of French marital comedy this is a well-made example.

Nora Hamzawi as Valérie

Doubles vies is currently streaming on MUBI.

Kirk Douglas 1916 to 2020

Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.

Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty  secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.

“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]

Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life  (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.

His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.

In 1955, like  a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film  has one of the most famous lines in  Hollywood productions;

“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.

The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.

Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is  man, and his horse,  out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.

Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.

From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television  productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.

In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.

He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.

I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.