Although I’ve always been aware of this film, for some reason I don’t remember watching it in the 1980s. Watching it now I was surprised at how accessible it was. I remember the critical backlash against the film which attracted the attention of the mainstream press because it featured Julie Christie – during her 1980s stint as champion of independent and political film. There are several notable features of its production which are key to its high status in the history of feminist filmmaking in the UK. As well as Sally Potter as writer-director it had a largely female crew and creative team. It was also one of the first films to be produced by the BFI Production Board and the new Channel 4 working together and this means it was in the vanguard of the British experimental and new art film movement of the 1980s. In her succinct and very helpful entry on the Screenonline website, Annette Kuhn comments on the film’s beautiful black and white cinematography by Babette Mangolte, suggesting that it has the qualities of the best European art cinema such as Ingmar Bergman’s films. Mangolte had already worked with Chantal Akerman and was herself already a specialist in photographing dance and performance art as well as working on experimental film and theatre productions.
The Gold Diggers was shot on 35mm with a budget of around £250,000, most of which went on the shoot itself as all the participants, including its star, were on the same basic wage of £30 a day. The look of the film is thus very different from the 16mm low-budget Thriller. Its narrative is, like Thriller, a feminist investigation of patriarchy but with a much wider remit. The story concerns two women, one a computer operator (Collette Lafont from Thriller) and the other an actor/performer (Julie Christie). The computer operator wants to discover how men control the economy through possession of gold and she teams up with the actor who, born to a ‘gold digger’ (scenes shot in Iceland to represent the Klondike) later finds herself as the ‘queen’ in a parade of bankers. She is in effect investigating her own image as a ‘woman in film’. The film’s title is also a clue to this second narrative investigation into the history of cinema itself from Chaplin’s Gold Rush, through Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933) to later melodramas and costume pictures. The investigation is both a celebration and a critique of mainstream cinema and, via the chase and the dream sequence, the ways in which those narratives use female stars. Rather than linear, the narrative is circular so the investigation ‘reveals’ many things but never finds closure – the ‘riddle’ of cinema as an art form underpins everything. If this sounds ‘difficult’, rest assured it isn’t. There are songs and dances (music by Lindsay Cooper, choreography by Sally Potter, who also sings) and sly digs at the pompous men who are definitely not in control of the action. All the performers acquit themselves well and this is not ‘minor’ Julie Christie work.
Intrigued as to how the film was received at the time, I sought out Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound. In 1984 (when the film was released) the two BFI journals were still separate publications and they had distinctly different writing cultures. MFB in May 1984 included an interview with Sally Potter by Sheila Johnson alongside a detailed and perceptive review of the film by Pam Cook. In Sight & Sound by contrast, the film receives a mainly positive but limited ‘thumbnail review’ in the Summer 1984 issue, but earlier in the Spring issue, Jonathan Rosenbaum had reported from the Rotterdam film festival to the effect that: “Shown only in the Market, it has not yet found many defenders”. To be fair to Rosenbaum, he did write that he found the visuals “deserved applause” and the avant-garde tropes were “consistently fresh and unpredictable”. According to this 2010 review of the BFI’s DVD package of the film and Sally Potter’s shorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum has produced a new essay on the film which refers to him being “taken aback” by the reaction of Janet Maslin (then New York Times film critic) who described watching the film on its 1988 American release as “pure torture”. I have to agree with Rosenbaum. Pure pleasure was my reaction watching it now. I hope more people find the DVD. There are more films from this era to be re-discovered. I note that The Gold Diggers was released alongside another BFI-distributed film, Bette Gordon’s Variety with a script by Kathy Acker. Variety is reviewed in that same MFB issue with an interview with the director conducted by Jane Root. When was the last time two feminist filmmakers were reviewed together in this way?
Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.
The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/
This was the other film, along with Diego Star, that I picked out immediately from the BIFF programme and again I wasn’t disappointed. I have to agree with the brochure’s headline to its blurb on the film: “Lively, energetic and full of larger than life characters”. It’s good to see more documentaries from India making it onto the festival circuit. Many, like this production, involve some overseas input. The two directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa both have strong links to Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad and Kanpur respectively. Fahad Mustafa trained in Vienna and some of the film’s creative contributions come from his Viennese contacts. The majority of crew and HoDs comprise an impressive array of Indian talent. The film is a co-production because of the input of ITVS, the American organisation funded by public donations that feeds documentary programming into the Public Broadcasting System in the US.
The ‘powerless’ city of the title is Kanpur, with a population of nearly 3 million. Kanpur was one of the major industrial cities of British India (under the anglicised name ‘Cawnpore’) and was known as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of the large number of textile mills. Most of those have now gone (but we see an operating mill of the British India Corporation, now state-owned in the opening shots of the film) but many of the tanneries remain (there were once 400) and it is still known as the leather capital of India. Tanning requires power and creates water pollution. Because of the outages many businesses use diesel generators which add to air pollution. This is an unhealthy and poor city and the lack of electricity makes the situation worse. Kanpur has the worst electricity supply problems of any major Indian city and the residents are so angry with the local electricity supplier (KESCO) that they have taken to stealing electricity from whatever cables are actually live.
The documentary introduces three principal characters. The new boss of KESCO is Ritu Maheshwari and she is determined to reduce the theft of electricity and make the state utility more efficient. She establishes hit squads who tour the city threatening to disconnect those who are stealing. But as quickly as the squads move through the city, the specialist thieves like Lola Singh re-connect people illegally. He knows how to disable local transformers and how to attach the illegal cables – katiyas. It’s very dangerous work and at one point Singh shows us his twisted fingers and scarred limbs recounting the number of accidents he has survived. The fight then becomes three-handed when a local ‘community’ politician becomes involved, seeing the opportunity to boost his own status by bringing down the KESCO chief.
What we don’t see is any suggestion as to how the basic problem of energy supply can be resolved. The filmmakers argue that what they are concerned with is the inequality inherent in contemporary Indian society. They didn’t want to make a film about the poor as ‘victims’ or to be didactic in analysing the situation. They have tried to present both Ritu Maheshwari and Lola Singh in a balanced way and attempted to enable the issues to become visible as we watch them at work. The executive, for instance, suffers from chauvinism in her company. The film works so well because it is the product of highly competent documentarists augmented by commercial Indian filmmakers who contribute an excellent music score and sound design. It is very accessible and entertaining as well as a real eye-opener about the appalling state of Indian industrial infrastructure.
As India goes to the polls, the frustration with the Indian political system becomes more and more visible. As the filmmakers suggest, electrical power is not available on a universal basis. It goes first to the rich and India’s poor have the least access to electricity of any major population group worldwide. The people are ‘powerless’ in this sense. But do they have political power? I’m apprehensive about the result of the elections, especially if the BJP get a majority but I’m heartened by quality work like this film.
The film’s website gives more background and here’s a teaser trailer: