LFF2016 #2: The Graduation (Le concours, France 2016)

Three of the practitioners on an interview panel for the third round of the application process for La Fémis

Three of the practitioners on an interview panel for the third round of the application process for La Fémis

lff-2016.jpgLa Fémis is the state film school in Paris once known as IDHEC. Every year several hundred applicants for new places are put through a competitive entrance exam which can last for three months and three rounds of ‘analysis’ (in this case of a clip from a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film), projects and interviews. Claire Simon’s documentary follows one cohort through all three phases and finishes with the group photograph celebrating the formal acceptance of the small group of successful applicants (around 40?). Simon herself is a graduate of the school and she follows the individual candidates objectively – this isn’t like reality TV.

La Fémis works on the principle that industry personnel are responsible for selecting each year’s new intake using an agreed set of guidelines and as we might expect, the most gripping parts of the documentary are arguably those in which we see these practitioners arguing among themselves about who should be accepted.

It’s very difficult for me to know how this film might be received by audiences with little sense of the issues at stake in an exercise like this. I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life thinking about examining and assessing students and I was fascinated by this insight. All the interview panels and assessors took their roles seriously – but often ended up with contradictory conclusions about who was a suitable applicant to recommend. In the clip below, disagreement about a candidate in Round 2 (the project) hinges on if it matters that he is ‘crazy’ – and someone wonders how a Cronenberg or a Dreyer would have got on in a competition like this:

La Fémis takes candidates for distinct specialist roles such as director, screenwriter, cinematographer etc. I was also pleased to see that there is now an intake of students who want to specialise in film distribution – and we see some being interviewed by cinema owners and distributors. Later, in the Q & A after the screening, we heard that La Fémis also now takes students from ‘diverse’ backgrounds for one-year courses t enable them to network and make contacts with industry personnel. This sounds like a progressive move, but I hope that they will also increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds for the standard four-year course. In relation to this Claire Simon made an important point in the Q & A when she said that she realised, in the edit suite, that only students from certain backgrounds were able to talk about themselves in interviews in the ways expected by the applications procedures. This puts pressure on the practitioners on interview panels who have to look for the signs of an applicant who could develop these skills even if they don’t have them at the moment. It might also suggest that the system needs tweaking.

I’m not sure what the possibility of seeing this film in the UK will be but if you get the chance I would heartily recommend it. I was impressed by the industry personnel taking part in the selection process. They were actively seeking to select students who might benefit from the course. Some were more progressive than others but all had a very realistic view of the opportunities and were genuinely trying to help candidates whilst also trying to maintain standards – and protecting their colleagues from candidates who might be difficult to work with and not productive. It isn’t an easy task. I don’t know how La Fémis compares to film schools elsewhere but this film confirmed my view of French cinema as healthy in the current climate.

Bob Dylan – poet, singer, song-writer, performer


And now we can celebrate the addition of Nobel Laureate. I am playing my favourite albums in celebration. But there are also a number of films that would add pleasure to this.

A good start is Don’t Look Back (1967), D. A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary. Even in a time when music documentaries are often mainstream this stands out. He can also be seen in Martin Scorsese’s very fine The Last Waltz (1978) and in much greater detail in the made for television No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). Wonder Boys (2000), for which Dylan won an Academy Award for Best Original Song ‘Things Have Changed’, is very good, with a fine performance by Michael Douglas. Even better is I’m Not There (2007), with the multiple variations on Dylan: the best for me being Cate Blanchett.

However, my key moment of Dylan on film is ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, as in the original release version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Dylan is not a consummate actor, but the haunting music over the near tragic death of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) watched by his wife (Katy Jurado) is beautifully rendered. It would also provide a suitable elegy for Dylan as he (eventually) bows out.


Sembène! in UK cinemas


Sembène! is the new documentary about the great Senegalese director, Sembène Ousmane. It first showed in the UK at last year’s London Film Festival, but is now getting a limited UK release courtesy of the Africa in Motion Festival, based in Scotland. Screenings are listed on the film’s website and they begin in Edinburgh at the Filmhouse on Thurs October 6th followed by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on the 7th, HOME, Manchester on the 8th, Hyde Park, Leeds on the 9th, Showroom, Sheffield on the 10th and Broadway, Nottingham on the 11th. Each screening is accompanied by a personal appearance by the film’s co-director Samba Gadjigo. He then gets a couple of days rest before his London appearances. The website gets a little surreal at this point since he is listed as ‘in attendance’ at both Picturehouse Central and Brixton Ritzy at the same time on Friday October 14th. Perhaps there will be a satellite link between the two cinemas or he will introduce the film in the West End then get the tube to Brixton? Best check the cinemas for the details.

Pictured: Fatoumata Coulibaly as Colle Gallo Ardo Sy and Director Ousmane sembene.

Sembène Ousmane directing Fatoumata Coulibaly on the set of his last feature MOOLAADÉ

I’d like to urge you to see this wonderful documentary. If you know Sembène’s work you’ll discover some fascinating insights into his background and his life behind the camera. If you don’t know his films and aren’t aware of why he is such a revered figure, then this is an excellent introduction. His films themselves use great music and the documentary adds some interesting graphics. These documentary screenings are, in most of the cinemas, part of the BFI-sponsored mini-tour Rebel With a Camera: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène which comprises the documentary plus three key films from Sembène’s career, Black Girl (La Noire de, Senegal-France 1966), Xala (Senegal 1974) and Moolaadé (Senegal-Burkina Faso-Tunisia-Cameroon-Morocco 2004). These films are showing on various dates at different cinemas, so best to check with the cinema nearest you.

I feel privileged to be able to chair the Q&A at HOME in Manchester which is screening all four films during October – dates here. Sembène has been called ‘The Father of African Cinema‘ and I’ve written a brief survey of his work here. The blog post dates from 2008 and I’ll be updating it when I can.

Here’s the trailer for Sembène! – I hope you can get to see it:

London Film Festival 2016 #1

'Divines' (France-Qatar 2016) one of the 'Cannes standouts' showing at LFF

‘Divines’ (France-Qatar 2016) one of the “Cannes breakout films” showing at LFF

lff-2016.jpgThe 60th London Film Festival starts on October 5th and runs to October 16th. The official website is here. After last year’s booking cock-up I actually managed to get tickets booked in the members’ ‘window’ before they went on sale to the general public. This time booking was painless and swift online which was a relief. London is, however, even more expensive and I couldn’t believe the expense of hotels – consequently it’s just a limited trip this time. I only go for the films I don’t expect to get a release in the UK – so the most obscure by UK standards. Even so, the best seats were already gone in many venues. The ‘best seats’ in this case being the front of the centre block and also the end of row seats in the centre block.

I’m not sure if it is a new feature or if I’ve simply not noticed it before, but there is a link on the festival website that allows you to scan a Country A-Z of all 245 film titles in the festival. The festival proudly announces that 74 countries are involved – truly an international offering. But what does this actually mean? The representation of different countries is considerably skewed. By far the most films come from the US, UK and France. OK these are all major industries and that seems reasonable enough, but other major industries are seemingly under-represented. India, Japan and China (all 3 industries including Hong Kong and Taiwan) are all limited to a handful of titles. But the real issue is the relative paucity of films from Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia. Where such films do exist they are often either shorts or co-productions with European partners. London is essentially a commercial festival with an increasing emphasis on ‘Gala Screenings’.

The film offers available to me on the days I can attend this year are dominated by Arab cinema and I’m looking forward to films from different production contexts in Egypt (2), Jordan and Tunisia. Two of these are to be screened in a new 700 seat pop-up cinema on the Embankment which is described as having 4K projection and other standard features. Sounds interesting, but rather an extravagant gesture if it is to be dismantled after 12 days of screenings. I was intrigued to discover that one of the titles I had chosen, Divines by Houda Benyamina, was promoted by Jonathan Romney in yesterday’s Observer as one of his five festival picks so I’m particularly looking forward to my trip down to the Ritzy in Brixton.

Looking back

Out of curiosity I’ve been looking back at old brochures of previous BFI Festivals. I looked in detail at the 18th Festival in 1974. The festival has grown enormously over the last forty years. In 1974 Festival Director Ken Wlaschin was responsible for 50 features and 70 shorts using just NFT 1 and 2 plus two West End cinemas for Sunday Hollywood showcases. London was then a ‘festival of festivals’ and this meant that the programme was packed with established and ‘coming’ global auteurs. I’ve included the booking form here and if you click on the image you should be able to see the whole programme. In his introduction Wlaschin  welcomes us to a festival featuring Bresson, Tati, Jancsó, Franju, Welles, Fassbinder, Resnais, Rivette, Peter Hall, Wiseman, Szabó, Olmi, the Taviani Brothers, Kobayashi, Saura, Widerberg, Borowczyk and Kluge (Wlaschin’s listing – I’ve missed off a couple). It’s quite a list and I note from the booking form that I saw Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities as well as Fassbinder’s Effie Briest – this was the breakthrough year for New German Cinema. I’m not arguing the festival was ‘better’ then, just noting how much it has changed. Most films then were European art/specialised films. The major plus is that now all films are subtitled and we don’t have to suffer ‘earphone commentary’ through those dreadful old bakelite headsets!

The film programme in 1974

The film programme in 1974

Reports on new films coming at the end of next week after my visit.