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.
This was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.
In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.
Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.
As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?
I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.
Here’s a trailer for a US release:
The third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?
1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.
The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.
The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.
The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.
Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):
This was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.
Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.
The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.
The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.
Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:
The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.
N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.
This was the earliest of the films by Nomura Yoshitaro to be screened at the 20th Bradford Film Festival. All five films at Bradford were adapted from stories by Matsumoto Seicho. Although I enjoyed all five films this was perhaps my favourite. It was screened second which meant that I’d already got some idea of what to expect (even if all five films adopt slightly different styles).
Stakeout was screened on a 16mm anamorphic print, always a difficult projection format even for the National Media Museum’s world-class projectionists. These are the only subtitled film prints available from the Japan Foundation Film Library. The print was buckled/warped and it was impossible to get the whole film in focus at the same time so we had to cope with a blurring of the right-hand quarter of the screen. Along with the relatively large subtitles and the loud and rather brash-sounding music score this made the screening experience less than ideal. It’s a tribute to Nomura’s filmmaking skill, therefore, that the next 116 minutes revealed a gripping film narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The film opens with a lengthy pre-credit sequence, unusual for the period, in which we follow two Tokyo detectives as they catch the overnight (and very crowded) express to Saga City on the southernmost island of ‘mainland’ Japan, Kyushu – a journey of around 1,000 km. It’s a very hot Summer and the police officers have an uncomfortable journey before finding a ryokan (a small hotel/boarding house) which overlooks the house where they are to watch a woman. The woman is played by the great Takamine Hideko, one of the most popular stars of the period, often remembered for her roles in Naruse Mikio’s melodramas such as Floating Clouds and When A Women Ascends the Stairs (1960). This is Sadako, a housewife married to an older businessman and stepmother to three small children. The police believe that she is the ex-lover of a murder suspect and that he will attempt to contact her. Their hotel room provides the perfect vantage point from which to watch her house – but it’s hot and their vigil might last a long time. The detectives are played by Oki Minoru (Yuki, the younger man) and Miyaguchi Seiji (the older man)
Nomura spent several years preparing this film, making sure he got it right. It doesn’t take too long during the stakeout for us to realise that there is more to this story than solving a crime. Nomura gives us flashbacks to explain how the investigation began in Tokyo but also to look at the home lives of the two police officers. The older of the two has three children at home, the oldest girl now a working woman who is seeking to marry – but a police officer’s pay means that her father is struggling financially. The younger officer is wondering about whether he should marry the daughter of the local bathhouse keeper. These thoughts trouble the detectives as they note that their target is a woman suffering in a loveless marriage with children who don’t really care about her. Nomura underlines these concerns by involving the proprietor of the ryokan and her maids. The three women are curious about their guests and try to involve them in the social life of the inn (the ryokan has public areas and a communal bathhouse). Because Nomura makes this effort it means that when the finale comes after Sadako’s lover eventually contacts her, we recognise that the younger detective who follows her on the fateful day is himself concerned about how Sadako responds to her lover. Nomura has constructed a discourse about marriage – its joys and possible pain – which he lays on top of the police procedural. The result of the stakeout will affect the lives of four human beings.
The initial set-up in Saga City is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (US 1954), even down to the broiling heat. The detectives watch the house across the street and think about their own problems. Later on during the chase, Nomura sets up a big street parade in which Sadako is able to elude Yuki (but she might not even have noticed him) . This is reminiscent of Hollywood (and European) crime films, but there is no clear indication that Nomura is directly referencing any Western films. When the film was shown in the US in 2002 it was included in a season of ‘Japanese noirs and neo-noirs‘. I’m not sure how useful these terms are. I can see that such arguments could be made but I find that the crime melodrama tag is more helpful. In effect here, the ‘crime’ is banal and the criminal is a weak man rather than a doomed hero. The woman is no femme fatale and indeed may be ignorant of the crime.
I would argue that although structurally a ‘police procedural’, Stakeout is fundamentally a crime melodrama in which we are invited to think about the personal and emotional lives of the central characters and that this becomes more important when we see how the narrative is resolved. For me, all of the Nomura films in Bradford are melodramas but the genre mix is slightly different in each case. Stakeout is a ‘realist melodrama’ and the finale takes place mainly in the mountains and at a spa resort. Melodrama is a difficult generic category to define and it may be simply a ‘mode’ of filmmaking. Some of my ideas about melodrama are contained in this post. There is music in the film but I would need a second viewing to discuss it in any detail. Nomura’s bravura style with camerawork by Inoue Seiji includes overhead shots, tracking shots, lots of good railway footage and also the rapid wipes for transitions so favoured by Kurosawa Akira at this time.
This trailer (no subtitles) gives a good idea of the visual look of Stakeout:
Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) has organised a short retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Nomura Yoshitaro, put together by Festival Director Tom Vincent with the co-operation of Nomura’s studio Shochiku. Five films have played in Bradford and they will also go to the ICA in London for screenings between 18 April and 23 April. Before the first screening Alexander Jacoby, author of A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day, gave us some ideas about how to place Nomura as a Japanese director.
Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) is barely known in the West, although some of his films were released in the US by Shochiku. In Japan however he was greatly admired and Alex told us that in the Kinema Jumpo ratings (from the most authoritative Japanese cinema journal) Nomura’s films were often placed higher than those of Kurosawa and other directors well-known to Western fans of Japanese cinema. Why didn’t this success lead to exports? Alex suggested two possible reasons. First, Nomura was unfortunate in that he did not become fully established as a ‘name’ director until the late 1950s/early 1960s. The Japanese ‘masters’ – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Naruse and Ozu began to see their films exported via film festivals and art house releases from the early 1950s and therefore Nomura missed the boat. By the early 1960s the Japanese New Wave headed by Oshima Nagisa was starting to make noises and Nomura was then too ‘old-fashioned’.
Second, Nomura was seen primarily as a ‘genre director’. He made films in many different genres but the films on show in Bradford are all based on stories by the very successful writer Matsumoto Seicho and mix crime fiction and melodrama. Alex suggested that actually Nomura was a director with ‘personal vision’ and that perhaps he worked in the same way as Howard Hawks. I’m not sure whether Hawks is the director I’d pick out but within any studio system there are bound to be directors capable of producing a genre film with the something extra that makes them recognisable as ‘personal’.
Nomura intended his films to be for the popular market but as soon as he was able to get more substantial budgets (his early films were low-budget programme-fillers in the early 1950s) he prepared carefully for his productions, especially in organising location shooting for Matsumoto’s stories which often featured scenes in different parts of Japan (and frequent train trips). Chaiki Omori from Shochiku’s international department helped to introduce the films and she emphasised that as far as possible Nomura tried to create the precise conditions for each locations described in the story. He would turn off the air-conditioning and make his actors really sweat if the story demanded it, he would shoot at noon if the script said it was noon etc.
The problems with making the distinction between an ‘auteur’ and a ‘genre director’ are immediately apparent when comparing Kurosawa Akira’s adaptation of an Evan Hunter crime novel in High and Low (1963) with Nomura’s policier/melodrama Stakeout (1958). All the critical praise for the former should be matched by that for the latter (my review to follow). There are differences between Kurosawa’s approach with its attention to historical/social details and references to other filmmaking and literary cultures and Nomura’s more directly Japanese focus but both directors are interested in the characters as much if not more than in the genre narrative. I think that Nomura’s films could have worked overseas and the Bradford season offers a useful opportunity to test out this theory.
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):