I thought the year was less productive and interesting than 2013: however I had a lay-off of nearly two months and missed a number of new releases. The ones that really impressed me this year were:
Winter Sleep / Kis uykusa Turkey / France / Germany, 2014.
For me not just the best new film this year, but the best for several years. Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his team have produced a long, but richly complex film. One that reflects on the personal and the social. Despite comments by some critics this is a splendidly cinematic film.
Ida, Poland, Denmark / France / UK, 2013.
An absolute pleasure in black and white academy ratio. Director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographers Lukasz Zai and Ryszard Lenczewski have produced a visually stunning film. The cast are excellent. What also impressed me is that the film not only achieves the look 1960s Poland but also of the Polish cinema of the period.
The Patience Stone, France / Germany / UK / Afghanistan, 2012.
This film had one of the outstanding performances of the year from Golshifteh Farahani. The screenplay, from the director Ayiq Rahini’s own novel, by Jean-Claude Carriére suggests he is still the finest writer in European cinema.
Concerning Violence, Sweden / Denmark / Finland / US / Norway / Germany.
This was an outstanding documentary, which showed proper respect for the archive material that it used: something that many films do not. The structure and editing of the film by Göran Hugo Olsson and his team was exemplary. The treatment of the writings of Frantz Fanon was somewhat partial, the most serious failing in the film.
The Missing Picture, France / Kingdom of Cambodia, 2013.
This was another exceptional documentary though its politics were less fully developed than in Concerning Violence. Rithy Panh’s direction and design was powerfully evocative: and the use of models and dioramas gave the film a very distinctive form.
Set Fire to the Stars, UK.
A last minute addition: 2013 ended with a film about a sculptor, 2014 with one about a poet. Beautiful wide-screen black and white cinematography and a fine sound design and music score, (director Andy Godard, Cinematography Chris Seager, Music Gruff Rhys). It also rescues the poetry of Dylan Thomas from its rather facile treatment in Interstellar.
The 20th (and possibly the last) Bradford International Film Festival gave me the discovery of the year – a retrospective of the films of Japanese director Nomura Yoshitarō based on the writings of Kobayashi Mosahiro. I especially liked the 1958 Stakeout (Harikomi) with my favourite Takamine Hideko in a leading role.
The Festival also provided a welcome retrospective of British director Sally Potter.
The 28th Leeds International Film Festival provided the best UK retrospective of the year – five films by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in 35mm prints. Included were his masterpiece Persona (1966) and the equally fine Through a Glass Darkly / Såsom I en spegel, 1961.
The Festival also provided the most challenging screening of the year – an immaculate print from the Netherlands Film Museum of Max Ophuls’ 1936 The Trouble With Money. Unfortunately the print had no English subtitles: it says something for Ophuls skill as a director that I could follow most of the plot.
Il Cinema Ritrovato 28th edition offered a film that I have waited long to see in its full format. As part of The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics the Festival screened, in a black and white 35mm CinemaScope print, Kaagaz Ke Phool / Paper Flowers, 1959. One of Guru Dutt’s memorable melodramas with very fine cinematography by V. K. Murthy and music by S. ED. Burman.
The Festival also screened the best digital restoration and screening I saw this year, a 4K version of John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine, 1946. The ample Arlecchino cinema was packed for the occasion.
The best offering from the silent era was at [predictably] the 33rd Le Giornate del Cinema Muto – The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov unfortunately listed as Russian Laughter rather than the correct Soviet Laughter. I especially enjoyed The Trial Concerning Three Million / Protsess o Trekh Millionakh, 1926.
The nadir of 2014 was February, which saw the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, US. I can understand it being the most plagiarised film of the year but found it unaccountable that it was in the Sight & Sound ‘top listings’. There have been recurring traces of misogyny in the films of Martin Scorsese and this seems to me to be the worse example.
Then it was joined by The Book Thief, US / UK, 2013. Markus Zusak’s novel is an exhilarating and formally audacious piece of writing. The film version reduced it to the worse sort of mainstream conventions.
Finally, notable centenaries. The Hyde Park Picture House passed one hundred years – November 1914. The team still manages a pretty varied programme of films and also we enjoy fairly frequent 35mm screenings.
And then this was the anniversary year of Charlie Chaplin, first appearing in February 1914. I saw a considerable number of Chaplin films during the year, the one I most enjoyed revisiting was Modern Times, 1936. The screening at the National Media Museum was enhanced by a clip from the delightful Cuban film For the First Time / Por primera vez, 1967.
Any film that starts with the Toronto skyline has me at hello. However, this first feature-length film by Ingrid Veninger, does not linger in the new world but uses it as a jumping off point for its heroine Lina’s travels back to her European family’s home in Slovakia, to the town of Modra. Having been dumped by her boyfriend just before the trip, she takes Leco, a schoolmate, both acting on a whim out of the loose end they each find themselves in. What follows is a great treat – an unpredictable, uncertain alliance played out against the strangeness of the country to these new world kids adding to the emotion. The local cast was made up of Veninger’s own extended family – she emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was 2 – to complement her daughter Hallie Switzer in the main role.
We can find ourselves watching much consciously staged, bigger budget cinema, that might strive and never achieve the kind of easy tone and great empathy with the characters that this film does. I’ve seen it described as “DIY filmmaking” and it has that quality of being filmed almost as a home movie at times. However, there is an assurance behind this style that makes all the scenes ‘add up’ to a narrative about being that age and starting to understand – that you don’t know very much! The tone was sustained; I think this is at least partly due to the control of scripting the director describes in the press kit (www.modrathemovie.com) rather than surrendering completely to improv, giving it a control and shape for her audience. There is a visual assurance as well – to film with apparent realism but creating scenes drenched in light and warmth, with a canny eye for visual storytelling in the frame. The narrative arc similarly did not get lost – despite the way, given the regular confusion of its key characters, it made some good use of the ‘near miss’ throughout. One of its greatest markers was the way in which this was a story about going home, but not one which needed to exploit the strangeness of another culture or to counterpoint the teenagers as ‘strangers in a strange land’. They were, but they became part of it too, and the friendship/relationship/friendship developed believably – as it would do – in fits and starts. This is credit to the lead actors (Alexander Gammell alongside as Leco) and Veninger’s direction. As an actress herself (by her credits) Veninger seemed to know how to draw performances out of an inexperienced cast without losing their appealing ordinariness. She has also turned something clearly deeply autobiographical into a film that engages more widely, particularly with its understated humour.
It reminded me strongly of a film I saw years ago, Looking for Alibrandi, an Australian coming-of-age movie, that also had that an immediate charm. This film has distribution in Canada (with Mongrel Media) and is being released on DVD there (May 17th) but it has some hope of international sales with an agent recently signing on. Meanwhile, after Toronto, Vancouver, São Paulo – and Bradford – it continues on the festival circuit (Murmansk upcoming in May). Veninger was in Bradford to introduce her film, to field a short Q&A and then to use the time to film a scene for her next project (about a woman filmmaker) using the audience in the cinema. I like this woman’s style already!
Following two earlier photography documentaries, BIFF offered a chance to explore photographic practice directly through a Q&A with the Swedish photographer JH Engström. For several weeks the National Media Museum had been showing an exhibition of photographs by Engström and his ‘mentor’ and later colleague and close friend Anders Petersen. The exhibition closed a few days after this Q&A, but there is a book of photographs available for ‘From Back Home’ – a substantial project concerned with presenting images of the people and places of Värmland in West Central Sweden. In conjunction with the exhibition, I’ve been offering an evening class on aspects of Swedish Cinema entitled ‘Home and Memory’ so I was very interested to hear from Engström in person.
The event as advertised included both photographers and a screening of a short film about the pair’s work. However, Anders Petersen was ill and unable to travel and so Engström showed his own film about Anders, A Film With and About Anders Petersen (Sweden 2006). He also showed a ‘rough cut’ of a slide presentation of photographs from his new project focusing on his own recent family life – an intimate portrait culminating in the birth of his child. I found the slide sequence to be filmic and very striking. The documentary on Petersen was also very engaging and took us into Petersen’s world of close contact with his subjects which enables his distinctive high contrast black and white portraits. I understand that Engström has trained as a documentary filmmaker and there was clear evidence of this in the way he presented his friend (who reminded me in some ways of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell).
JH Engström proved to be an entertaining speaker with lots to say, often very forcefully. Since I don’t know that much about international photography culture I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Engström is clearly a major figure and the small cinema was packed. We learned that Engström’s whole outlook has been influenced by his background. He lived in Paris as a boy and returned there as a young adult to be an assistant to photographer Mario Testino. Then he returned to Sweden to gain a photography qualification. This is when he first worked with Petersen. But eventually he found Stockholm to be too ‘organised’ and restrictive and for a time he lived and worked in New York where he produced work for a project called ‘Trying to Dance’ (2004). When he did return to Sweden it was to Värmland where he had been born and where he embarked on ‘From Back Home’ with Anders Petersen. Now based in Värmland he seems to travel widely to give workshops etc. (See his website for his background.)
The key word for Engström’s approach appears to be ‘intimacy’. There was discussion of what this might mean, but for me Engström demonstrates it very successfully in his work. He seems to have a loose and free approach – but of course he works very hard and very professionally to achieve his aims. He said that when he first worked for Marion Testino, he wasn’t interested in fashion but he was impressed by the professional approach that he saw. He works in both black and white and colour on different formats, but always analogue not digital. I gather from this that there is no rigid ‘technique’ to be applied. Rather, he goes with whatever feels right in capturing the feeling of intimacy. As he said – “photography is about everything except reality”. His first project was in fact concerned with ‘social documentary’ – creating images with members of a women’s shelter in Stockholm but his later work consciously moves towards less organised communities.
In relation to the discussion about ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ qualities in the work a perceptive comment from the audience suggested the idea of the photographer who oscillates between the ‘personal’ – being immersed in the environment and emotionally close to the human subject – and the observer who is ‘close’ but detached. I think I’ve got this right but certainly Engström himself thought that this was an interesting line of enquiry.
I was impressed by many of the ideas in this session. For instance, I was taken by aspects of Engström’s methodology. He said that in his projects, selecting and editing photographs for the book comes first and that this then informs what goes into the exhibition (and presumably how they are presented). The photographs themselves I found quite striking and in his new work I was interested in how willing he was to display both himself and his partner for the camera. He seems like a very confident and assured young man. When I first saw the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition, I was struck by how the characters in what were recognisably Swedish locales looked rather different from the stereotypes – or rather that they looked both distinctively Swedish and ‘not at all Swedish’ at the same time. This probably says more about my own lack of knowledge about Swedish culture. However, several of the students on our evening class on Swedish Cinema linked to the exhibition remarked on how at first the characters seemed unusual but that after we had watched films set in Värmland or adjacent counties they seemed very familiar.
Here’s a short YouTube clip taken during the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition’s stay in Angers (dialogue in French):
The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.
Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.
Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.
The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.
The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?
A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.