Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019

Paulo Cherchi Usai in interview

Once again an international mix of committed cineastes gathered in Pordenone in north-west Italy. There were about a thousand here for a week of film from the first thirty five years of cinema, [WebPages]. Within this crowd were a select group of ‘Donors’, who support the Festival by attending and financially. Some have been returning year after year since its earliest days in the 1980s.

All guests receive a pass and a Catalogue; the donors also receive a large and impressive set of publications; the Catalogue offers details of the titles, their provenance and some indication of the content. Donors also receive a selection of new writings on the ‘silent era’. This year there were two books from Paulo Cherchi Usai, one of the founders of the Festival. He has also recently finished his work as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum. His work and research there has fed into the two books.

‘Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship’, BFI 2019.

This is a revised and much expanded version of his book and which has one of the most thorough accounts of the cinematic process in the founding and development of cinema and which also addresses the issues around the transition from photo-chemical film to digital.

‘The Art of Film Projection A Beginner’s Guide’. George Eastman Museum, 2019.

This promises to be a detailed study of projection of ‘reel’ film in all its aspects. In which case the British Film Institute should buy a stack of copies and send them to the several cinemas that still have 35mm projectors but no projectionists.

‘Silver Screen to Digital A Brief History of Film Technology’ by Carlo Montanaro, Translated by Liam Mac Gabhann. John Libbey Publishing, 2019.

The book covers from the silent era up until the new computer based systems.

The volumes are pertinent. Peter Rist, who every year does his calculations, noted that there were 27 features on DCP at this year’s Festivals but only 17 on 35mm. The short film programmes were better, about 50/50. The latter were interesting as digital versions and film versions were side by side and the characteristics of each could be both compared and contrasted. So far this has confirmed my preference for the traditional technology. The opening and closing events of the Festival were digital projections. The opening night offered Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with an accompaniment by the Orchestra San Marco conducted by Timothy Brock; an expert in music for Chaplin’s films. The digital version was fine but this was the version re-edited by Chaplin and some of us would have preferred the original version from 1921.

The closing night offered Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, A Story of London Fog (1927). On this occasion the Orchestra San Marco was conducted by Ben Palmer with a score by Neil Brand. This was a digital rendering of a tinted copy and [as is frequently the case with the format] the tinting was over-saturated, reducing the definition within the image.

Neil Brand, Ben Palmer and the Orchestra San Marco

The audience included the citizens of Pordenone, who also enjoy the Festival. One of their favoured events is ‘Striking a new Note’, titles accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Instituto Comprensivo Rorai Cappuccini e della Scuola Secondaria di Primo Grado di P. P. Pasolini. [a school celebrating the great film maker; I somehow doubt we have a school in Britain cerebrating Derek Jarman]. The students play recorders with a piano alongside. This year they accompanied ‘Our Gang’ in Dogs of War (1923) and ‘Baby Peggy’ in Carmen, Jr. (1923).

Students of Scuola di P. P. Pasolini

There were also screenings specifically dedicated to the citizens. On the final Sunday the Verdi screened Chaplin’s The Kid this time with the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gunter Buchwald. There was also an event for the citizens of Sacile where the Festival spent many years whilst the new Verdi was constructed. The Zancanaro Theatre hosted one of the films from the Reginald Denny programme of the Festival; What Happened to Jones (1926). This is an excellent combination of slapstick and farce and enjoyed a score written and composed by Juri Dai Dan with the Zerorchestra Partitura.

Both sets of audiences are fairly well behaved, but even here at a specifically cinema event we have some ne’er-do-wells. The occasional mobile phone goes off: people actually text in the auditorium: actually light up tablets: and, whilst, one can understand using a phone as a torch in the darkness, some wave it about like a searchlight. The Festival would benefit from more frequent and more emphatic warnings; this year seen only occasionally before events.

A quiet moment at Reception

But the staff and volunteers of the Festival are very good. One worker in the reception admitted to being worn out after registering all the guests and handling their queries. And, unfortunately, this year the staff at the Verdi had to assist when one unfortunate guest who collapsed and had to be wheeled by out by medics: he has recovered. Most of the guests are in a good condition despite the demands of a fairly heavy programme of screenings. The staff received a special thank you on the last night. Jay Weissberg [the Festival Director] admits it is not possible to list all the staff and volunteers who care for the festival-goers. So I suggested perhaps we could have a ‘photo-montage’ of staff. There is already one for the recipients of the Jean Mitry Award, a prestigious honour given annually. This photo-montage of the previous award-winners also means that every year we hear Aaron Copland’s magnificent ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. So perhaps readers could consider an equally appropriate piece of music for a ‘Fanfare’ for the hard-working staff.

The Jean Mitry Award is one of the special events in the Festival. Past years have seen the honour awarded to some of the major luminaries of Silent Film study, preservation and presentation. This year the two recipients were Margaret parsons who has for a long period has organised the film programmes at the National Gallery in Washington DC; and Donald Crafton who wrote and taught key works on early animation.

Also this year one of the students from the David Selznick Film School presented her work for the Haghefilm Selznick Fellowship. This was a 1912 Russian Pathé film, the second part of 1812 (The Retreat From Moscow). This was a fine 18 minute 35mm print with excellent tinting. We watched Napoleon as he suffered the travails of the Russian winter and Russian resistance. Though the real suffering was reserved for the French soldiers, cut down by Cossacks, hacked down by serfs and savaged by wolves.

In between and alongside these events were a series of programmes which I shall return to discuss in greater detail. They included the early films of William S. Hart; the finest exponent of the western in early Hollywood. There was Hollywood star Reginald Denny, little seen until this year. We had early stars of French cinema and a range of short films from Weimar Cinema. And we had a series of ‘flip-books’ painstakingly transferred to photographs and animated for projections. All of these enjoyed musical accompaniments both from the orchestras and from a talented team of musicians, mainly on the piano, but supplemented by the violin, accordion and percussion and the human voice.

The audience takes a breather between screenings

We also met and chatted to old friends and colleagues: wrapped up well for the start and enjoyed warmer sunshine for the end of the week; and, as space and time allowed, indulged in the excellent Italian cuisine.

The Festival remains one of the high spots in the cinematic year. I still regret that I missed the first twelve years.

LFF 2019 #9: Koko-di Koko-da (Sweden-Denmark 2019)

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Living a nightmare

LFFlogo2019 Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.

The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.

Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.

LFF 2019 #8: Made in Bangladesh (Bangladesh-France-Denmark-Portugal 2019)

The workers at ‘Modern Apparel’

One of several revelations during my LFF visit, this is an excellent film that deserves wide distribution. Writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain was present with her lead actor and others for an intriguing Q&A and I was very pleased to discover a filmmaker who I had not known about before – certainly a weakness on my part. Ms Hossain has followed a trajectory familiar from those of some women in Indian independent cinema – education and training in the US alongside film production and ‘social activism’ back in Bangladesh. Her first film as a director, Meherjaan in 2011, caused a stir in Bangladesh with its story of the impact of the 1971 War of Independence on a woman’s life and was taken out of cinemas. Her second film Under Construction (2015) is concerned with a woman in an unhappy marriage and who is an actor appearing in a Tagore play. Researching her background, I’m now glad I didn’t ask a naïve question about the possible influence of Indian parallel cinema on Hossain’s work – Wikipedia tells me that she has been inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Made in Bangladesh, as the title hints, is concerned with the sweatshops of Dhaka where young women work to produce cheap clothes for customers in Europe and North America. But as the director stated, it isn’t about these women as victims, but instead about how they fight for their rights. Its origins are in the account of the experiences of a ‘real’ worker that have been translated into a fiction narrative featuring the actor Rikita Nandini Shimu as a young seamstress ‘Shimu’. The original worker also helped organise training for the women playing the factory workers. The director acknowledged that she needed this kind of input to ensure the authenticity of her presentation of the women’s stories. The narrative begins with a fire alarm in a factory which shuts down operations for a few days and raises questions about working conditions, safety and workers’ rights after one of the workers has died. During the closure Shimu tries to meet the managers and get paid her overtime which she needs to pay rent arrears. This is when she meets an NGO activist who offers to pay her for an interview about what goes on in the factory. She informs Shimu about how to form a union and offers to help her generally. The narrative then follows Shimu’s attempts to develop a political consciousness about rights among her workmates and to try to recruit enough would-be members to register a union for official recognition. The narrative presents a series of events that were once familiar in British, French and other film cultures in the 1970s before filmmaking lost much of its political energy in the West. Rubaiyat Hossain manages to resolve her narrative in an interesting way that I won’t spoil.

The director is second from the left, next to Shimu who has the microphone during the Q&A

But there is more to the narrative on top of the important central story-line. In the Q&A Hossain revealed that wages for the young workers (most are aged 18-30) have improved over the last few years. The garment manufacturing sector is a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy and these young women have some leverage. Like all young people who start to receive a living wage they find themselves in a situation which allows them to ‘have a good time’, but also puts them under pressure to help with other family members. In some ways the women are similar to the young British working-class girls of the 1960s who experienced economic improvement but still found themselves struggling in a patriarchal society which attempted to define them. The director stressed the idea of female empowerment and reminded us that Bangladesh has a history of female prime ministers and women in positions of power. I’m not sure that this has necessarily helped the mass of Bangladeshi women so far, but the general point is important. The freedom experienced by the young women in the factories is expressed through their clothing. The director commented that they wear salwar kameez rather than the saris favoured by most women in the city. This is more comfortable and functional in the factory but also allows more freedom as they move together through the streets where the colours of their costumes contrast with the drabness of the city.

The style of the film is a familiar form of social realism enlivened by music and the exuberance of the women themselves. Sabine Lancelin photographed the film. She was born in colonial Belgian Congo. Composer Tin Soheili was born in Iran and is based in Denmark. He has a long list of credits, many for documentaries. There were several women in other creative roles on the shoot and overall it is a good example of European producers supporting but not overwhelming a Bangladeshi production.

Shimu faces pressure from her husband at home

Shimu (the same actor who was in Hossain’s earlier films) is a young woman from a rural area who left home at the age of 14 and fled to Dhaka to escape an arranged marriage to a man she feared. She had received enough elementary education to become literate and this, combined with her native intelligence, makes her a potential activist. But she has married in Dhaka and though she loves her husband he is out of work. When he does find employment she may be under pressure to spend more time at home. When she is working, she is paying the rent. The narrative shows Shimu in a range of relationships with other women, several of whom exert different kinds of pressure on her activities in forming a union. Social class, traditional ideas about women’s roles etc. all make an impact.

Shimu is given a book on the legal basis for a factory union

The questions in the Q&A and the comments in various reviews always puzzle me. There are many assumptions made about people in countries like Bangladesh. Ms Hossain handled all the questions well. She explained that the film hasn’t yet cleared the Censors’ office in Bangladesh. She explained that she was prepared to make cuts to ensure the film was screened and that she wanted the widest release possible so the workers in the factories would get to see themselves on screen. I understand that discussions with possible distributors in the UK were possible during the festival. I hope something is organised as I’m sure there is a market for the film in the UK, both among the local Bangla populations and for many other UK audiences who are aware of and energised by campaigns to pay these women more and regulate the factories who make the clothes sold in UK stores. International sales are through Pyramide and the film will be released in France in November.

Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:

LFF 2019 #7: Wet Season (Singapore-UK 2019)

Eating durian with their fingers . . . in the classroom

Writer-director Anthony Chen from Singapore has been living in London for ten years and he was present to introduce his film and then to offer a Q&A (which I had to leave after around 20 minutes to get to my next screening). Chen’s first film Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013) won the Sutherland Prize for a ‘First Feature’ at LFF in 2013. The director explained that he had been involved in two other productions (as a writer and producer for his jointly-owned company Giraffe Pictures) since 2013, but also he needed a long time to make his own films because he is so concerned with the details of location, casting and production design.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this fascinating film is that the two principal characters are played by two of the leads from the earlier film, even though initially the director had been determined not to cast them. This isn’t such a minor point as will become apparent after a discussion about the plot outline. Yeo Yann Yann, the mother in the first film, now plays another woman in an unhappy marriage, but now she is a teacher in an English-medium high school (where students take a form of the traditional British O levels, still available internationally). This character, ‘Mrs Ling’, is under pressure in three ways. As a wife she has been undergoing intensive IVF procedures but has ‘failed’ after several years to become pregnant. She is also a migrant from Malaysia, married to a Singaporean man, and finally she is a teacher of Mandarin – a subject that is sidelined in a high school which is resolutely focused on English and Maths. Add to this that she has become the main carer of her father-in-law who is severely disabled and requires intensive personal care. A carer is with him during the school-day but it is Ling who must cope at all other times. Ling is determined to secure her place as a Mandarin teacher by improving her students’ grades and she organises a post-school remedial class. It quickly becomes apparent that only one boy, Wei-lun (Koh Jia Ler, the 10 year-old from Ilo Ilo, now a strapping 16 year-old), is prepared to take it seriously. When the other boys drift away, Wei-lun stays, citing his parents’ wish that he learns Mandarin to be able to ‘do business’ in China when he grows up.

Wei-lun competes in a wushu event

As the relationship between Wei-lun and his teacher develops in this ‘after-school’ time, it becomes apparent that they are too lonely people who need each other and that makes them feel validated. (Wei-lun’s parents are away much of the time.) Later Ling will introduce Wei-lun to her father-in-law and the pair will bond over a love of martial arts. I won’t spoil the plot but you will guess where all of this is heading. What I do want to do is to discuss the film as a melodrama. Compared to relatively restrained Ilo Ilo, which I haven’t seen for a few years, this new film feels like a full-blown melodrama. I love melodramas and this was, for me, a successful film, but from the few reviews I’ve seen so far (mostly North American), it will suffer in the West because of melodrama’s poor reputation with contemporary audiences. But not here for me.

The starting point of the film is the winter monsoon season, when rain is torrential. In melodrama, rain is often associated with sexual desire/sexual release. It rains a lot in Singapore and when it rains, it’s heavy rain. Anthony Chen uses rain very effectively but he has other melo possibilities as well and this is where his meticulous attention to detail pays off. I’ll just mention a few instances. One of the key ‘significant objects’ of the narrative is the durian. The durian is a very large and heavy fruit which Ling breaks in two and then she scoops out handfuls of fleshy pulp which she shares with Wei-lun. Durian is native to Borneo and Sumatra and is imported into Singapore from Malaysia. In this sense it is like Ling herself. But the fruit is also divisive. While many love the fruit, many others think it has the most disgusting smell of any fruit. In Singapore there are shops and stalls devoted to the fruit but it is also banned from the transit system and many hotels because the smell is said to linger. The symbolic value of the image of eating durian should be clear (see the image of Ling and Wei-lun eating at the head of this blog post and in the clip below).

A second sequence involves Wei-lun taking part in a wushu contest – a display of a distinct form of martial arts movements. Anthony Chen told us that Koh Jia Ler had been interested in this activity as a young boy but now he trained intensively for several weeks to get to the standard necessary to win a gold medal in a national schools competition. Ling and her father-in-law support his performance. Finally, to emphasise the importance of location, Chen has two key scenes in which we see Ling and her banker husband Andrew each in their ‘natural habitats’. Andrew (Christopher Lee who is ironically Malaysian) is shown in Singapore’s financial district where the tall buildings are linked by green walkways. Ling is shown at one point in her home environment in rural Malaysia – a quieter, calmer and more organic environment. Chen told us the house in Malaysia took him a long time to find. (Yeo Yan Yan was also born in Malaysia.)

On the bus together

Yeo Yan Yan wore a wig for the part of Mrs Ling and Chen dresses her in what seemed to me to be fairly dowdy outfits with rather shapeless skirts and clumpy shoes for her teacher role. She comes across as an attractive woman who has lost interest in her appearance, which perhaps helps the idea that the confused Wei-lun sees her as both a teenage boy’s idea of an ‘older woman’ and a maternal figure. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing basis for a student-teacher relationship. My impression is that as the narrative progresses her costumes become slightly less dowdy. As a melodrama with a woman at its centre, the other notable feature is that Ling doesn’t seem to have a close female friend but then the more I think about the film as a melodrama, the more interesting it gets. I need to see it again. At the moment, I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal in place. It is scheduled for release in Singapore in November and I think it may do well in Asia generally. The two leads are very good and the UK DoP Sam Care does a great job with director Chen’s careful selection of locations.