Leeds International Film Festival 2017

This year’s festival opens in the Victoria auditorium of the Town Hall with The Square, a European co-production which offers a satire on the contemporary art world. It is in English, Danish and Swedish and in standard widescreen and colour. It was filmed in a digital format and is presented in D-cinema. The title won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

It launches both the Festival and the ‘Official Selection’ programme. This offers 37 contemporary titles from around the world. They include comedy – Battle of the Sexes (UK/US) dramatising a famous gender battle on the professional tennis court; sexual exploration with Call me by Your Name (Italy plus) directed by Luca Guadagnino and like his earlier I am Love , beautifully filmed rather than dramatic; a British rural drama set in Yorkshire, Dark River from director Clio Barnard; Sean Baker’s follow-up to the scintillating Tangerine, The Florida Project; this time filmed on 35mm rather than an iPhone. Bulgaria’s submission to the Academy Awards, Glory, a drama that symbolizes society through the search for a lost watch; a new film from Michael Haneke, Happy End, examines the aftermath of an industrial accident, ‘happiness;’ is unlikely; Sami Blood is a Swedish ‘coming of age’ drama and a title nominated for the European Lux Prize. All the films are from the ‘transatlantic’ territories, so no Asian or African films.

Most titles get several screenings and quite a few at different venues. However, a number are only programmed in at The Everyman, more a video parlour than a cinema. And several are only programmed in at The Vue in The Light. This multiplex has an unnecessarily high level of illumination in the auditorium during features: maybe the Festival can get them to ‘turn the lights down’: [congratulations, they have].

‘Retrospectives’ includes eight screenings sourced from 35mm prints, [barring accidents]. I make this one more than in 2016, progress. All the films will be projected at the Hyde Park Picture House as the only other venue in Leeds with a 35mm projector, The Cottage Road Cinema, is not participating in the Festival: shame. In another example of progress all the titles are listed in the printed ‘Free Guide’ and are noted on the Festival Webpages.

There is a ‘breakfast’ screening of Amélie (France 2001).

The Deputy / El diputado is a Spanish thriller from 1978, filmed in colour and standard widescreen. The plot involves a left-wing politician, the police and security services, black mail and even treason. The treatment makes all of this both complex and fascinating, widening the story with sexual orientation.

The Lives of Others / Das Leben der Anderen (Germany, 2006) was a popular success on its initial release. It studies the situation of an artist under the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic in the 1980s. What makes the story dramatic is a borrowing from Victor Hugo’s great novel ‘Les Misérables’.

Orphée (France 1950) is a film version of the famous myth by poet and artist Jean Cocteau. The film has a dreamlike quality and is full of actions and settings beloved of the Surrealists. The black and white cinematography really does deserve to be seen on film.

The Party and the Guests / O slavnosti a hostech (A Report on the Party and the Guests, Czechoslovakia, 1966) was part of the 1960s ‘new wave’ and was banned for many years. The film only appeared in Britain in 2008. Shot in academy and black and white, the film is an absurdist drama, at times reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.

Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (Spain, 1979) is a thriller based on actual events. After the welcome death of General Franco and Spain’s transition to a more democratic society elements from the fascist past attempted to undermine the process.

Taste of Cherry / Ta’m e guilass (Iran, 1997) is one of the fine films from this country’s art/independent sector. The director Abbas Kiarostami is noted for his minimalist approach. Here, in another Iranian film set mainly in an automobile, we spend a few hours with a man debating a fundamental question.

Volver (Spain, 2006) is another excellent drama from Pedro Almodóvar. This is a film centred on women and the fine cast, as a collective, were awarded the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festivals. This is mainly a dramatic comedy but with many of the issues that always fill Almodovar’s films and titillate audiences.

Surprisingly several other films in the retrospective section are on digital even though I am pretty sure that 35mm prints exist. These include Satyajit Ray’s memorable Aparajito (India, 1956) and the Italian political thriller Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion / Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (1970).

‘Cinema Versa’ includes the recent Palestinian documentary Gaza Surf Club (produced by German filmmakers in 2016). The film also launches this year’s Leeds Palestinian Film Festival, which runs from the end of LIFF until early December.

‘Fanomenon’ includes the traditional Manga and ‘Day/Night of the Dead’ screenings. And there are the various ‘short films’ competition that cover a wider range of titles than ever.

The most serious lacunae in the programme is the complete absence of Soviet titles. The Centenary of the Great October Revolution [in the new style calendar] falls within the Festival. If this is not recognised as the most significant event of the 20th century then surely the cinema it inspired, Soviet Montage, should be recognised as seminal. It was the most challenging but also the most influential film movement in 20th century World Cinema. We will have to wait for December and a trek to Hebden Bridge for such a film.

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States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), dir Elio Petri, starring Gian Maria Volontè as a fascistic police chief

‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’ is the major season at HOME in Manchester starting on Saturday November 4th and running through to Tuesday 12th December. The season has been planned to coincide with the national British Film Institute THRILLER tour organised with the ICO (Independent Cinema Office. The HOME season comprises eighteen selected titles, eleven of which are also available to screen at other venues. (See the information on the HOME website.)

The HOME Season is curated by Andy Willis, Reader in Film at Salford University, with Rachel Hayward (Programme Manager, Film) and Jessie Gibbs (Film Festivals co-ordinator). An enormous amount of effort has gone into finding the best possible viewing prints for films of this vintage and also acquiring screening rights. Given all the difficulties of finding prints, there is an amazing array of film titles in the season. One or two titles are showing twice and many of the screenings are supported by introductions, post-screening discussions and other events.

Angela Winkler in The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (West Germany 1975) dirs Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff

So, why this season at this point? I guess we’ll all have to wait for Andy’s ‘One-hour Intro’ on 8th November for a full explanation, but I suspect that he’s going to focus on two points. The first recognises the political turmoil that existed across Europe in the 1970s. Radical groups prepared to literally fight the authorities on the street emerged in Italy (The Red Brigade) and West Germany (The Baader-Meinhof Gang). These were taken to be ‘leftist’ groups and their violence was matched by attacks from the right in Spain and elsewhere. (The two Spanish films in the season were screened earlier this year as part of HOME’s Viva! Festival.) Though Italy and Germany provide many of the narratives, others are set in France, Spain, UK, Greece, Sweden and East Germany. The second point is that popular genres can often be the vehicle for quite complex investigations into politics and public policy.

I’m offering two ‘events’ in the programme. One is a ‘One Hour Intro’ before the screening of Bo Widerberg’s Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976). For this I’m attempting to read all ten of the original Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The ten novels comprise a single extended essay on the failures of Swedish democracy entitled ‘The Story of a Crime’. Committed Marxists, the authors set out to expose the contradictions of the welfare state and Swedish public policy. That’s one kind of ‘political thriller’ and another is the classic Day of the Jackal (France-UK 1973) about the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle in 1963. I watched this again recently and it’s another riveting procedural drama that I’m looking forward to discussing in the context of the season after the screening.

I’m hoping to get to several more of the films on offer and reports will feature on this blog. Several titles are also screening during the Leeds International Film Festival which opens on November 1st and at other venues over the next couple of months. The season offers a great chance to discover some of the best films of the 1970s and amidst all the nonsense of Brexit it’s great to be focusing on European cinema.

Breathe (UK 2017)

A breath of fresh air visits the institution.

This film is one of those rare beasts, a title distributed in Britain on a 4K DCP. The film is distributed by STX International. It was produced by The Imaginarium Studios with support both from BBC Films and the British Film Institute. Imaginarium is run by Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the real-life character who is the protagonist in this film. It was shot digitally (Codex), in colour and (oddly I thought) in Ultra-Panavision which gives an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, (remember The Hateful Eight, 2015).

In the 1950s Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was struck down with polio. In that period the illness meant hospitalisation, reliance on a ventilator and a short life-span. Robin, clearly a strong-minded character, with his equally strong-minded wife Diana (Claire Foy), contested the prescribed treatment and set about giving the invalid something approaching a normal, as opposed to institutionalised, life. Successful, he became an advocate and pioneer for improved treatment of polio victims. He and his wife were assisted by a bevy of friends including amateur inventor Teddy Hall, (Hugh Bonneville). There was also an infant son, Jonathan (Dallon Brewer, Deacon Brewer, Jack Madigan, Frank Madigan, Harry Marcus, Dean-Charles Chapman at different ages) conceived before the onset of the illness. And, inevitably, there is a terrier, Bengy (Pixie), who gets an important scene.

The film appears to treat the main aspects of the story fairly accurately. However, there also appear to be quite a few lacunae. We do not in the film learn anything about the company set up with Government assistant to manufacture the invention, Littlemore Scientific Engineering. In fact, the whole economic aspect is scantily presented. Early in the film Diana is almost penniless, relying on unpaid support from her own childhood nanny. Then she spends £7,000 in cash on a small mansion with substantial grounds. Later Robin remarks that his shares have been profitable: all rather mysterious. I suspected that Cavendish had an army career prior to his civilian life but this is omitted as is his atheism. I am uncertain about the accuracy of all of the dates.

The film is well produced and the visual and aural qualities are excellent. The cast are uniformly good and Andrew Garfield gives an impressive performance as the immobilised patient whilst Claire Foy is excellent as the devoted wife. The Ultra-Panavision does seem odd because most of the film is small-scale with some occasional vistas of Kenya and Spain (both filmed in South Africa and the latter obviously so.).

The treatment is mainly upbeat. I felt the film presented this story almost in the mode of a romcom: and Hugh Bonneville in particular adds to this. There are a couple of slightly shocking moments: the BBFC decided 12A with

“infrequent bloody images”.

This is so typical, in fact there are two. More shocking is a visit to a German institution in the 1980s where the polio-stricken patients appear in a setting redolent of Britannia Hospital (1982). I was slightly uneasy at this almost stereotypical depiction of a German institution: I wondered how accurate it was. I also found the sequences referring to Kenya problematic, there were  couple of brief references to the Mau-Mau independence struggle, something British cinema has never properly addressed.

The film runs just under two hours and whilst I found it always interesting I also found the rather one-dimensional treatment wearing towards the end. I saw the film at Picturehouse in Bradford’s Pictureville auditorium with 4K projection. So I got the full benefit of the 4K quality, though because of the 2.76:1 ratio we had black/gray bars above and below the frame. If you go to see it check and try and see it in 4K: several multiplexes now have 4K projectors but do not necessarily use 4K DCPs.

Un flic (A Cop, France-Italy 1972)

Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) and Cathy (Catherine Deneuve)

Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).

The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.

Simon (Richard Crenna) left, with Michael Conrad and Riccardo Cucciolla

Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970)  for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.

The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.

The robbers approach the bank along the beachfront in Vendée

This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.

The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.

The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.

I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.

The Party (UK 2017)

Bill (Tim Spall) with vinyl and red wine

Why did Sally Potter make The Party? Here’s a film that reached cinemas as a 71 minute black & white drama shot in just two weeks on, I assume, a low budget – though there are quite a few well-known pieces of music and a starry cast to pay for. Apart from the fact that images are composed in ‘Scope, the most ‘cinematic’ ratio, there is little to distinguish The Party from a TV play or a West End play. I’ve not been tempted so far to watch one of the ‘live’ filmed plays beamed into cinemas, but I wonder whether they are very different? To be fair, The Party is shot by Aleksei Rodionov a Russian cinematographer with a very varied list of credits from the sublime (including Potter’s Orlando (1992)) to the much less so. In this case he glides the camera between four parts of a London townhouse and its carefully shielded backyard and provides some startling close-ups, neither of which would work on stage.

I suppose the answer to my question is provided by Sophie Mayer in her Sight and Sound piece. She describes the work as a “brisk, coruscatingly witty farce”. Mayer goes on to see the film as: “. . . a comedy that bites because it is utterly and urgently of our moment”. The subhead to suggests that “Sally Potter probes liberty and the state of Europe’s left”. I’m dubious about these claims.

April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) are clearly estranged

Let’s start with an outline of the plot. ‘The party’ concerns Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has today been appointed to Shadow Minister of Health and she’s giving a drinks party. The only reason to mention the ‘European left’ is that one of her guests is German – Gottfried, an elderly man (played by a sprightly Bruno Ganz) who has become ‘New Age’ in his old age. A practical (and positive) point to make about Potter’s script is that she has provided four female parts and only three for males. Janet’s husband, retired academic Bill (Tim Spall) is seemingly ‘far away’, listening to his music collection with a large glass of red and a puzzled and rather forlorn expression. The other man is Tom (Cillian Murphy) – a young ‘wanker-banker’ as someone refers to him. The women include a lesbian married couple, Martha (Cherry Jones), former colleague of Bill, and pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and April (Patricia Clarkson) the partner of Gottfried (and long-time friend of Janet). There is also someone still to arrive – Tom’s wife Marianne (who is also Janet’s assistant/advisor). We find out what ails Bill and what drives the manic Tom – and these revelations lead to the whole set of relationships being challenged and recriminations being carried out. Formally, the play is a farce.

April and Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas)

The major problem for Mayer’s argument (and everyone else who sees this as some kind of political satire) is that it is already out of date. Sally Potter is supposed to have written the script in 2015, presumably before or during the General Election campaign. The Labour Party that has emerged since Jeremy Corbyn became leader would be unlikely to include a character like Janet as Shadow Health Minister. Indeed a quick scan through the Shadow Cabinet today shows a significant shift to Northern, often working-class, women rather than the southern middle-class typified by Janet. Sally Potter couldn’t know how these changes would work out and the Labour Party is never named – but the dialogue about health issues makes it difficult to see Janet as anything other than a Labour MP. It felt to me that this was actually quite an old-fashioned play, but that may be as much to do with the form as with the characters. I can see the links to Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Beckett (waiting for the arrival of Marianne) and Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party?).

Unsurprisingly, the film/play is well acted. A friend queried whether I had laughed (on the basis that it was a middle-class play and perhaps you had to know this world to laugh?). Well, I did laugh on several occasions but I also got bored and in the end it didn’t add up to much for me. Bill’s music, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, reggae, Cuban and tango was very welcome as a distraction – and I don’t think I really considered it as a commentary on the absence of issues of colonial history and exploitation in the script as suggested by Sophie Mayer.

Words and Pictures (US-Canada-Australia 2013)

Dina (Juliette Binoche) and Jack (Clive Owen)

It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.

The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)

Dina with her most promising student Emily (Valerie Tian)

The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.

The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.

LFF2017 #8: A Season in France (France 2017)

Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney) with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) and the children Asma (Aalayna Lys) and Yacine (Ibrahim Burama Darboe)

My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).

Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.

A family with no permanent base and no security while they apply for refugee status

In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.

You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf

LFF2017 #7: Sheikh Jackson (Egypt 2017)

Ahmed Malek as the teenage Khaled practising his dancing

Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.

The sheikh hallucinates Michael Jackson appearing in the mosque . . .

As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.

. . . and wonders whether he should shave off his beard and abandon his calling

There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.

Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.