One of the major strengths of the Cambridge Film Festival is the education programme which is carefully threaded through the whole festival by Trish Sheil, the Education Officer for the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium. The Archive event that I reported in my third Cambridge post is a regular event that was given a special festival flavour, but the ‘Meet the Industry’ morning was organised specifically for the festival.
The event was jointly with Anglia Ruskin University and as far as I could tell most of the big student audience (filling the 220 seat largest screen) were from Anglia Ruskin. The students were offered four Q & A sessions with industry professionals with Trish or one of the Anglia Ruskin lecturers in the chair for each guest. Catherine Wheatley is a writer/reviewer for Sight and Sound with a day job teaching at the University of East London. She gave an interesting account of how she managed to get a her first chance to write for what is the most prestigious film magazine in the UK. Clearly persistence and self-belief are essential and the willingness to give up a day of holiday to write in the off-chance that a piece might be accepted. She gave a realistic appraisal of what writing about film might be like for a living (though she has the day job). She also mentioned that she had done a course for prospective writers at the BFI and admitted that she wasn’t the most successful student on the course – but she did get published.
Next up were an interesting couple, Ant Neely and Sloane U’Ren who have recently completed an independent film in and around Cambridge. Neely studied zoology but decided to become a professional musician. He has since had his music used in various film and television productions including Six Feet Under and Boston Legal. But in a way his most useful, if least glamorous, achievement was writing four minutes of music for each episode of a Dutch TV animation series which taught him a great deal about deadlines and ‘being professional’ (and which no doubt paid for the time spent on his more experimental music released on CD – and his filmmaking activities). U’Ren has been an Art Director, Set Director and Production Designer on several well-known Hollywood productions including Harry Potter and Batman Begins. This engaging couple gave students a useful insight into production work on major projects as well as their own more modest enterprise.
Peter MacFarlane was a more mysterious figure for the students. He runs his own ‘literary and talent agency’, MacFarlane Chard Associates, which also operates in Ireland where it is now that country’s second largest agency. I think it was an excellent idea to put an agent in front of these aspiring filmmakers (and in one case, actor). The questions revealed that few in the audience were sure exactly what agents do (though quite a few of us were not surprised to discover that 12.5% is the usual commission). The role of agents within all creative industries is crucially important and it isn’t often studied formally within film studies. I’m not so familiar with production degrees, but clearly it should be included in industry studies.
In between the Q&As a selection of short films were projected on the big screen. This was the only aspect of the event that didn’t work for me. It was probably different for most of the students who would recognise what the production briefs had been, but as the films were presented without any contextualising I was a little lost. The talent and creative invention was there but I didn’t feel I could evaluate the work. I think I probably enjoyed some of the animation pieces most.
The final speaker was Rosemary Richards from BBC VideoNation Network. She presented her project using slides and clips and I found the history of the ‘Video Nation’ concept very interesting. It was good to be reminded of the BBC Community Programme Unit in the 1970s and ’80s which gave birth to Video Diaries in 1990 and then Video Nation in 1993. The concept is now flourishing in the age of social networking and even cheaper digital video recorders. Rosemary set out her case for film students to join the project and submit material. I’m not sure that a ‘community’ project sounds sexy to film students these days, especially since there are various conditions attached to the entry process. On the other hand, the BBC offers a fantastic platform for short video films, online, broadcast and also on the ‘Big Screens’ found in public spaces in various large cities across the UK. Add to that the useful experience of working under restraints and within specific briefs and it looks like an interesting opportunity.
I very much enjoyed my trip to Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse is a welcoming venue and the programme was varied and interesting. There was a lot more that I didn’t see, including a family-orientated programme in the mornings and various special events. Each day a festival bulletin was issued with feedback from festivalgoers and interviews with visiting guests. I’d like to thank Tony Jones and his team from the Cambridge Film Trust, Clare Wilford, the Press Officer who helped me access the screenings and everyone who worked on the festival. This is clearly a labour of love and I hope it can continue for another 30 years. This is a difficult time for the UK film industry and specialised film exhibition is particularly vulnerable. Around the time of the festival, the Regional Screen Agency, Screen East, was suddenly wound up because of its own problems (all the RSAs will now be re-organised as the UK Film Council is phased out). This has left the Cambridge Film Festival wondering if its grant from Screen East will appear. I do hope so as the festival deserves public funding support.
The last film that I saw at Cambridge deserves its own entry. Although I enjoyed all the films that I saw and found something interesting in each, none of the others particularly surprised me. Rewers was the exception. As the Sight and Sound writer Catherine Wheatley pointed out earlier in the day (see next blogpost), the best experience comes from entering a screening without any real expectation of what you are going to see. In this case, I had read the blurb, but then promptly forgotten it.
Rewers was the Polish entry for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. It is another of those Eastern European films exploring the communist period. We first see Sabine, a rather gawky young woman just turned thirty, with glasses in heavy frames and not very attractive clothes, in a cinema watching a newsreel celebrating Poland’s young male athletes who are presented bare-chested in formation displays. Sabine is clearly excited by what she sees. The setting is Warsaw in 1952 when the Polish state is still very much under the thumb (boot?) of Stalin and the secret police are everywhere. Sabine works as a poetry editor in a state publishing house and she lives with her mother and grandmother in a comfortable flat in an old apartment block. Her brother, an artist, has an attic studio in the same block. Sabine’s mother and grandmother come from the petit-bourgeoisie (they ran a chemist’s shop before the war) are therefore suspect according to the prevailing ideology. Sabine’s brother is reckless as an artist. She herself refers not having fought in the Warsaw uprising but confesses that she wishes she had. The various attitudes towards surveillance are effectively summed up when the family find an old gold coin with the inscription ‘Liberté‘. Gold is supposed to be handed in to the authorities, but Sabine insists on hiding it – by daily swallowing the coin!
The two older women work to find Sabine a husband. She is clearly keen for some sexual experience, but not with the unattractive men who her mother invites to the flat. One evening she meets Bronislaw, a dashing young man who saves her from a pair of thugs who accost her. He looks like the real deal – but things don’t turn out as Sabine expects.
The Polish pressbook calls this film a ‘comedy’ and there are certainly comic moments, some of them not dissimilar to the social comedy moments in the Czech films of the 1960s. But it is dark comedy and it is played out in the context of the real social difficulties of living in a Stalinist state. From my point of view, I found the film fascinating and enjoyable because of the central characters and the interplay amongst the family members. I’m still not quite sure what the title refers to. In some ways ‘Obverse’ would be a better title if the intention is to present Sabine as a surprising character who turns out to be not what we expect. My lack of understanding probably explains why I didn’t really appreciate the modern sequences in which we see an 80 year-old Sabine waiting at the airport. These didn’t work for me, partly because the actors attempt to ‘act’ being old. This rarely works. I’m not suggesting that the acting performances are poor, but rather that when we have been watching the actors play close to their actual ages, we can see through the make-up and costumes to a younger person attempting to move slowly etc. On an aesthetic level, I much prefer the 1950s in the film, shot in beautiful black and white CinemaScope – whereas the ‘present’ is shot in murky colours and appears drab. As well as the wonderful cinematography, the music in the film is also important with jazz as the decadent Western music beloved of the intelligentsia and a tango providing one of the highlights of the film.
I’ve watched a few Polish films over the last few years and I’m struck with the frequent appearance of the national stereotype – Poles in movies drink themselves swiftly into oblivion. It happens so often that I feel it must be ‘true’. It occurs again in this movie. Having said that I think that this is the best Polish movie I’ve seen for a while and it deserves to get a UK release – I hope someone has bought it.
A flavour of the film comes through the Polish trailer (no subtitles) but be warned it hints at spoilers for some of the surprises in the film.
Our third day began with the Arts Picturehouse’s regular archive film screening, enhanced during the festival with a double-header programme. Jane Jarvis, Screen East Digital Heritage Co-ordinator, presented the results of a joint project with the French archive responsible for Normandy in a programme that promised ‘Bon appetit!’ and included extracts from a range of films dealing with regional foods, the highlight of which for me was eel fishing, both in the Fens and in the open sea. Alex Davidson from the BFI Film and TV archive then unearthed a number of food related clips. These were well-chosen. A three minute extract from a 40 mins Peak & Frean’s film from the 19o6 showed the operation of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey.
This is in the BFI Mediatheque (which has an access point in the Cambridge City Library) and looks very interesting. Wartime ‘Food Flashes’ are always fun and a Lotte Reiniger animation from 1951, Mary’s Birthday, was wonderful in its creative presentation of food hygiene issues. But the main treat was a 1967 TV programme from one of the first celebrity chefs, Fanny Craddock. The food she prepared (and the context – ‘The Bride’s First Dinner Party’) had the audience gasping in disbelief.
Two in the Wave is the title of Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary was quite similar in format to yesterday’s Glenn Gould doc. So much archive footage exists plus the films themselves, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that the subjects could virtually tell the story themselves, despite Truffaut’s relatively early death and Godard’s current reluctance to be interviewed. I’m not sure that there is much ‘new’ in the documentary, but if you don’t know the details of the story they are entertainingly presented here. I was particularly struck by the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that made those articles that we used to read in translation seem so fresh in their original page layouts. Equally, Laurent has access to some wonderful stills and crisp new prints of New Wave films. It seems extraordinary now that audiences in paris in 1961/2 were not much interested in films like Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Jacques Demy’s Lola. Enjoyable and informative, the film is a treat for both nostalgists and younger film fans.
The third film of the day was an intriguing prospect that in the end was I think disappointing but still interesting. Empire of Silver (HK/Taiwan/China 2009) is a Chinese historical drama with epic pretensions. Set at the end of the 19th century and up to the 1911 Boxer Rebellion it looks stunning with shots over cityscapes and desert landscapes filling the CinemaScope frame with beautiful imagery. The story, adapted from a novel by Cheng Yi, concerns the Kang family of bankers from Shanxi in the North of China who are involved in building up and modernising the banking system in China. I missed part of the opening credits, but the story seems to be told in flashback by the youngest member of the family who is a babe in arms in 1911 and is therefore addressing the current generation as a very old man.
The Kang family has four sons, one of whom is a deaf mute. When the eldest and most likely heir is seriously disabled in an accident and the fourth son has a nervous breakdown, the wayward third son becomes the family’s only hope for the future. This means liaising with his father, but apart from disagreeing as to how to run the business, No 3 son also has a major issue concerning his father. As a young man he had a young woman ‘assigned’ to teach him English and with whom he fell in love, only for her to be married to his widowed father and thus become his stepmother. If all of this wasn’t enough for a family melodrama, the backdrop of the narrative is the clash between the decaying Imperial order, the Christian churches in China and the Boxers who oppose them and the troops sent by Western powers to support their business interests. It ought to be a potent mix, but I don’t think it works. One serious problem for non-Chinese audiences is that there are no recognisable stars (i.e. from either international arthouse cinema or popular Hong Kong action films). The third son (they don’t have names in the family) is played by Aaron Kwok who came out of Cantopop in Hong Kong and then became a Taiwan/HK star, but I don’t recognise the titles of his films. The remainder of the cast are mainland stars, mainly of TV and films not released outside China. Jennifer Tilly is rather wasted as an American churchman’s wife. In a story where most male characters dress in a similar manner with shaved heads, it is quite difficult to follow individual characters in what is a complex plot. Star recognition helps the audience get a foothold.
The obvious question is why release this film internationally. It has taken eighteen months since Berlin in 2009 for this film to be prepared for release in the West via Hanway Films. Jeremy Thomas is Executive Producer and the post-production seems to have been carried out all over the world – why? Clearly a film that features a narrative of banking crises and a debate about the morality of banking, as this film does, possesses a USP during the current international banking mess. However, I don’t think that this mostly talky film with a couple of brief action sequences is likely to intrigue audiences. I have to agree with Variety‘s reporter who suggests that the film looks like the “carcase of a bigger film”. I kept thinking something was missing. Theatre director Christina Yao with her first film (directed and co-written) needs a bit more help in getting audience juices flowing. As it is, they will mostly appreciate the efficient camerawork and production design from Hong Kong regulars Anthony Poon and Chung Man Yee.
Today was about documentaries. The first in the main auditorium was the much anticipated Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Canada 2009). There have been several previous Glenn Gould films, including the celebrated Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), but I haven’t seen any of them, so I can’t make comparisons, but I would be surprised if many are better than this one. I enjoyed every minute of the 108.
For the uninitiated, Glenn Gould (1932-82) was an eccentric but highly talented and driven pianist. I’m something of a philistine about classical music but I knew of Gould as a major figure in Canadian culture and I was fascinated to learn about his career – filling in the many gaps in my knowledge. Unlike yesterday’s The Miracle of Leipzig which struggled with the lack of archive material, no such problems faced the Canadian duo Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont who made this film. Much of Gould’s life as a middle-class kid from the Toronto suburbs was documented by friends and family and he himself preferred to deal with media representations than to perform ‘live’ in front of audiences (he stopped performing at the height of his concert career in his early 30s). But although the ‘personal’ stuff is very interesting, I was riveted by two events that were recorded ‘officially’ – Gould’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 when he was just 24 and his first recording stint at Columbia in New York in 1955 when he had the youthful arrogance to record the Goldberg Variations for the first time. The Russian footage is amazing and we learn that Gould’s first concert was only half full at the start, but the audience were so amazed at his technique and feel for Bach (not officially ‘approved’ in the Soviet Union) that they all dashed out to telephone friends. The second half of the evening performance was full and the rest of the tour was a sell-out.
Because of the wealth of material, the film could be composed entirely from archive and witness interviews. No voiceover commentary was necessary and the editing is seamless in stitching the story together using the interviews and Gould’s own recordings. It’s becoming something of a cliché for me, but I really enjoy the ‘Canadianness’ of people like Glenn Gould who returned to Toronto because he identified with the city. The Columbia head honcho in New York is quite insulting about Gould’s ‘provincialism’ but he is ignored. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It seems to have deals with dozens of documentary TV channels, so you’ll probably have the chance to see it on the box. It has been released to US cinemas so I hope someone picks it up for international sales. I’m sure it would be enjoyed by many audiences on the big screen.
Next up was a German doc about a Lebanese family struggling with immigration rules in Berlin. Neukölln Unlimited (Germany 2010) was screened in the Queen’s Theatre in Emmanuel College – an impressive lecture theatre in a new building, but hard on the backside for a 90 minute movie. Fortunately it was an entertaining film, directed by Agostino Imondi and Dietmar Ratsch. The i website (in English) is here. Imondi is a Swiss-born director trained in Rome.
Neukölln is a district of Berlin which is presumably not that different to parts of London in attracting refugees and asylum seekers. The family in this ‘social documentary’ are Lebanese Shiites. The parents fled persecution during the Lebanese Civil Wars, but all the children have been born and brought up in Germany. They don’t speak Arabic and after being deported once, the family came back (almost immediately, I think. The parents are now divorced and the older (teenage) children all have guaranteed residency for the next year or so because they are in school or apprenticeships. The mother and her youngest child (a baby) still face deportation and the order seems to depend on the possibility that the children, 18 year-old Hassan, 19 year-old Lial and 15 year-old Maradona can earn enough to match the welfare payments made to mother and baby. I confess that the German bureaucracy baffles me but I suspect it is no better (and no worse) than the equivalent gobbledygook in the UK. On this score, however, I did note that a young black woman said that at least in England/London (she had a British passport) there were more black people and she didn’t get called an ‘African’.
The children’s chance of earning the cash is boosted by their prowess in performance skills (possibly a ‘non-pc’ attribute in the UK where linking an ethnic minority to dance skills is a bit ‘iffy’). Hassan is a skilled street dance/hip-hop star who performs in a group at a Berlin theatre in his spare moments and Maradona is a breakdance star. Lial works in a venue promoting boxing matches and other entertainment. Hassan has the most responsibility (and a girlfriend) but Lial is equally committed to helping the family. There is a short sequence, which I would have liked to see extended , in which she discusses the changing family environment for Muslims depending on where they are and how they are brought up – certainly, as far as I can see, Hassan respected her position. Maradona is the bad boy who gets into trouble at school, risking deportation because of a criminal record – but he’s hard to dislike. Everything ends not ‘happily’ but certainly ‘hopefully’. I must also reference the true moment of global culture when Hassan and Maradona travel to Paris to take part in a streetdance contest/exhibition and a discussion takes place, in English, between French and German Arabs about how they are treated in their ‘home’ countries (i.e. in Europe). I’m not sure I totally followed the discussion (I blame the seats) but this seemed important. As well as the performance element (we see several dance performances) the film also utilises animation to record the family history of flight from conflict.
Finally, in the same venue, I watched an American documentarist’s essay about the Zabbaleen – the Coptic Christian garbage collectors of Cairo – in Garbage Dreams (US 2009). This was also a ‘social documentary’, focusing on a wider range of characters, but picking out an educated woman who set up a ‘Recycling School’ and three teenage boys who represent the next generation of garbage collectors. The filmmaker Mai Iskander acknowledges her major influence as the Maysles Brothers, important members of the Direct Cinema movement during the 1960s and 1970s (though she describes the approach as ciné verité – which to me means something slightly different). She has worked elsewhere in Africa as well as in the commercial industry. Garbage Dreams was a long-term commitment (over several years) that has also been followed up on US public television (see this PBS website). There is also an official website for the film.
The film is true to the Direct Cinema legacy, driven forward by its four principals. Laila is the woman who opens the ‘Recycling School’ (which teaches “map-reading and computers”) and attempts to organise the community and act as some kind of mentor for the four young men. She also provides the tetanus shots that are used to protect the workers handling the waste from Cairo’s households and attempting to recycle it. Nabil, a beautiful strong young man is relatively passive. Adham is more entrepreneurial but has to grow up fast when his father is imprisoned and Osama is something of a fantasist unable to hold down a job for very long. Through these individuals and their families we learn about the Zabbaleen and their business. They routinely recycle around 80% of the waste that they collect, turning it into raw materials that can be exported. When Adham and Nabil are able to join an exchange programme and travel to South Wales, they are impressed by new technologies in waste recycling – but not by UK recycling rates – and by the local residents’ co-operation in sorting the waste. Returning to Cairo they hope to develop this home-sorting of waste with their customers, but Cairo (a city of 18 million with no properly organised municipal waste collection/disposal service) now has two or three large European companies contracted to deal with the problem. These companies seemingly don’t care that much about recycling and they won’t co-operate (although they do recruit workers locally). Gradually the Zabbaleen are losing the business. But there is some hope at the end of the film and the ‘project’ continues (hence the websites).
I found the film to be both uplifting in human terms and expertly made with real community involvement. The only slight drawback is that this kind of documentary can only offer us the chance to see what a small group experiences in their work and home lives. We have no idea about how the rest of the community (there are 70,000 Zabbaleen) is doing or how the Cairo authorities are planning to deal with the problem (or not). Having said that, a quality film that promotes recycling and involves those working at the sharp end is always going to be worthwhile.