Tagged: Direct Cinema

Dont Look Back (US 1967)

Bob Dylan travelling on British Rail when you could smoke in a closed compartment.

Dont Look Back was broadcast on BBC4 as part of a programming segment celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I watched it again after many years and remembered some scenes very clearly but was surprised by others. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it documents aspects of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in late April – early May 1965 which comprised eight concerts in large venues in seven English cities. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t reach Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The film is a form of documentary, though not a ‘music concert documentary’ as such. More of the time is spent backstage, in hotel rooms or on the road. There is music, but often only snatches of songs on stage. The ‘best’ song performance may well be a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ sung by Dylan in a hotel room. There is also a prelude featuring the famous early ‘music video’ with Dylan presenting the scrawled lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on flash cards. This song shot into the UK singles charts during the tour.

Dylan has a more formal interview with a Jamaican journalist working for BBC World Service’s African division.

Film scholars have categorised the film as an example of ‘Direct Cinema’, the documentary form that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Canada and the US, seeking to present an observational documentary with as little artifice as possible. Ironically, although it was one of the first such ‘backstage’ music docs, Dont Look Back‘s cinema release was delayed until 1967 in the US (distributors didn’t believe it would attract an audience) and it did not reach the UK until 1970 when the BBFC for some reason gave it an ‘X’ certificate. This meant that the film’s topicality was lost and in 1970 it was in competition with Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers, also like D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Dont Look Back, seen as Direct Cinema pioneers. Nevertheless the large Dylan fanbase and its desire for archival footage of Dylan has meant that Dont Look Back has been well supported over the last fifty years. (It appears that the original title didn’t have the apostrophe in ‘Don’t’.)

‘Direct Cinema’ appeared at roughly the same time as cinéma vérité in France. Both were made possible by developments in film technologies, especially the lightweight 16mm cameras which could be handheld, faster film stock and synchronous sound recording via a linked audio recorder. French pioneer Jean Rouch went out on the streets of Paris for his film Chronique d’un été in 1961 with the sociologist Edgar Morin. North American filmmakers such Robert Drew and his associates and documentary filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada had already started using the new technologies for a range of documentaries. Drew made the biggest impact with Primary in 1960, following John F. Kennedy on his early Democratic primary campaign in Wisconsin. This was made for TV in the US but seen on film in festivals around the world. Many people use the terms ‘direct cinema’ and ciné vérité interchangeably. One difference is that Rouch as a filmmaker had a direct dialogue with the people he filmed, interacting with them on screen. Direct Cinema projects were strictly observational.

Marianne Faithfull in the corner of the room as Joan Baez sings and Bob Dylan writes.

The great strength of Direct Cinema is the chance to document interactions between their subjects and the various people they meet in their jobs. The filmmaker can to some extent prepare for these. For instance, at the beginning of the film Dylan meets reporters at Heathrow airport and the ensuing dialogue between rather po-faced reporters and a waspish Dylan could be predicted, whereas later scenes of young girls outside the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool seem spontaneous. I think, watching the film now, the main pleasure for me is in the way it documents aspects of British culture which are precisely about 1965. The one failing on this score is that perhaps to preserve the ‘no artifice’ rule, there are no inter-titles explaining where we are (which is usually pretty obvious) and, more importantly, who is shown on screen. Dylan is accompanied throughout by his manager Albert Grossman and fellow American folk-singer Bob Neuwirth (there primarily for ‘moral support’ I guess). For the first few days Joan Baez is present. It was the end period of their relationship and although we hear her singing in the hotel rooms, she doesn’t sing with Dylan on stage. At other points in the film there are glimpses of Marianne Faithful and John Mayall among the many musicians and performers hanging round the hotel rooms.

The two performers who are picked out in the film are Alan Price and Donovan. Price had just left the Animals and had not yet formed the Alan Price Set. He seems a little manic at times and his references will have baffled American audiences. He mimes and sings in the style of Dave Berry whose cover version of ‘Little Things’ was a UK hit in April 1965. Berry appeared on TV always hiding behind a prop or obscuring his face with his hands or with his jacket collar. Price also runs through a George Formby song. Formby was the biggest UK film star and music act (with his ukulele and comic songs) during the 1930s and 1940s. Donovan is featured rather differently. At this point he was a month away from his 19th birthday and had released just one hit single ‘Catch the Wind’. His first album would be released in the next few weeks. In a hotel room he sings for Dylan and the others gathered around. Dylan seems impressed and plays It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in response. In the next scene there is a discussion about how Donovan’s tour (with the same promoter as Dylan’s) is going (not well). The UK press was trying to create a narrative around Donovan’s ‘challenge’ to Dylan.

Donovan behind Dylan

In fact, the UK press was very interested in the Dylan tour. 1965 was a key moment in the development of pop/rock culture and its place in the public imagination. Dylan was briefly a ‘pop star’ and his responses to interviewers’ questions were more intelligent than most of his peers. This was also a period when ‘youth culture’ became more important. All of the performers discussed here – Dylan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan etc. were under 25 whereas most of the reporters for both the national and regional press were much older. Pennebaker’s film, whether by accident or design, picks out elements of the new music culture. It includes a sequence in which the UK promoter Tito Burns, a major player as a manager and impresario since the 1950s, discusses with Albert Grossman how to increase appearance fees for Dylan. They phone the BBC and Granada trying to drive the fees up. In another scene Pennebaker captures the chaos at Newcastle City Hall when Dylan’s mike cuts out – the problem was discussed at length in the local paper. It’s noticeable that at this point, the major venues like the civic halls were still not properly equipped for rock ‘n roll. In 1965 Dylan was on the cusp of ‘going electric’ and the tour played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where a year later Dylan would be met with cries of ‘Judas!’ when he introduced the Hawks as his backing band.

I’m sure there is a lot to say about Dylan’s state of mind during this tour and I leave that to the Dylanologists to sort out. Simply as a direct cinema documentary, Dont Look Back is a gem, capturing a moment in UK youth culture.

Inland Sea (Minatomachi, Japan-US 2018)

Wai-chan, the fisherman in his 80s.

This is an engaging documentary about characters in a small Japanese fishing port. It’s long for a film of its kind, but it has an energy, the camera is often moving and the characters are interesting. Japan’s demographic of an ageing society and its experience of stagflation is indicative of where the UK and much of Europe is heading, so it’s also an important sociological insight into our futures. The good news is that in general the older people in the town seem cheerful and at ease with themselves and their situation. The exception to this rule inevitably becomes the central character and this reveals both the positives and negatives of the filmmakers’ approach.

Inland Sea is officially ‘No 7’ in the series of ‘Observations’ by Sôda Kazuhiro, the Japanese documentarist working out of New York with his producing partner Kashiwagi Kiyoko. I hadn’t come across Sôda’s work before. I think that in the UK he may be known only by those frequenting documentary or ‘non-fiction’ festivals (or strands in major festivals – this film was screened at Berlin in 2018), so I was pleased to be able to watch Inland Sea courtesy of distributors Rock Salt Releasing in the US. Most of Sôda’s previous work seems only to have streamed for 30 days on MUBI in various territories but now it is available to stream/download in the US (on Amazon, InDemand, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, Fandango).

Sôda trained in New York but only became interested in documentary after completing his course. He then discovered Fred Wiseman and became intrigued by his approach. If Inland Sea is typical of Sôda’s practice he is certainly a worthy disciple of Wiseman’s methods, becoming, as the subtitle to his films attests, an ‘observer’ of first the individual actions of people in their environment and ultimately of the communities and institutions in which they operate. Japan’s ‘Inland Sea’ is the body of water between three of the five main islands of Japan, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku in South-Western Japan. The focus of this film is the small fishing town of Ushimado, one of many ‘left-behind’ towns with a rapidly ageing population as younger people leave. Perhaps as a means to invoke this idea of ‘left behind’ by ‘progress’, Sôda decided to grade the film in monochrome although it was shot in colour.

This cat seems to cope very well with life in Ushimado.

‘conversation with Sôda on MUBI’s website by K. F. Watanabe suggests that Sôda operates under a set of self-imposed rules much like the Dogme ’95 Manifesto. The ’10 Commandments’ are listed on Sôda’s own website. They stress that this is to be a sole authored (and financed) film that will proceed with no research, no script, no theme, no narration and no music. It will have long takes and shooting will continue as long as required. This means that the film’s narrative (all films have a narrative of sorts) will be dependent on who Sôda and Kashiwaga come across as they observe a community. One review I read suggested that Kashiwaga comes from Ushimado or at least the region around it, so that might mean the people they meet are not completely random. Also, Sôda has worked in the area before, making Oyster Factory in 2015. I think that he met a couple of this film’s characters on the earlier shoot. Ushimado was also a favourite location for Imamura Shohei.

Sôda and Kashiwaga work as a duo as far as I can see. They are, in a sense, in the long line of North American ‘direct cinema’ filmmakers except that Sôda does intervene and prompt, occasionally asking questions. Though he only appears as a shadow holding the camera, his partner does sometimes appear in the background. I’m not sure this pushes him into ciné vérité territory in which the filmmaker becomes a provocateur, but it does mean that this is something other than ‘only observation’. Even if neither Sôda or Kashiwaga speak, the subject of the camera’s gaze often addresses them directly and questions them or cajoles them into action.

Kumiko spends her day on the sea-front and becomes the central character of the narrative.

Inland Sea begins and ends on the seafront with the woman who becomes central, Kumiko. She’s 84 during filming and we learn something of her difficult life. She is clearly lonely but also energetic and knowledgeable about the town and Sôda’s methodology means that he engages with her, seemingly ‘because she is there’. How the audience then reads how she is presented and how she presents herself will then determine whether she comes across as symbolic of a refusal to accept inevitable decline or that she becomes the focus for a critique of a society which just regards her as another case for welfare services. The same is true for the town itself with its empty houses (“the people died”, Kumiko tells us) but also with inhabitants who have found ways to continue – as in the case of the two other major characters, Wai-chan the fisherman and Koso the owner of the fresh fish shop who buys his catch. (I found Koso the most interesting character and I enjoyed the ‘procedural’ narrative that takes the fish from the sea to the customer.) We could argue that this selection of characters makes the film ‘humanist’ and doesn’t tell us what to think, even if it does ‘direct’ us towards different lines of investigation. I wonder how you will feel when you see the final shot?

I’d like to be able to show this film and I hope someone in the UK eventually finds Sôda Kazuhiro interesting enough to consider a DVD or digital download. Below is a film festival trailer. I should point out that the music isn’t in the film. Also, as someone who eats fish I found the fishing scenes disturbing, but as a cat lover I really enjoyed the feline characters.

BIFF 2013 #11: MDF Films of Toronto

Two of the 'users' for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

Two of the ‘users’ for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

BIFF19logoThis screening offered a double bill of recent films from the Canadian independent film producers MDFF or ‘Medium Density Fibreboard Films’. Trying to research the group online I’ve found http://www.mdfproductions.com/ a ‘crossplatform production company based in Toronto’, which I think is connected and a Facebook page which certainly is. I think I need to put my cards on the table here. I’m a fan of many aspects of Canadian culture and I’m always happy to when I see that Bradford has programmed something Canadian since it’s often hard to find the films elsewhere. So I’m pre-disposed to look kindly on this double-bill. But there are some things that can put me off.

The first film screened was East Hastings Pharmacy (Canada 2012) by Antoine Bourges. This a 46 minute fictionalised observational documentary. In other words what we see is a ‘drama’ played out by a pair of actors playing the pharmacists in a dispensary for methadone users in Vancouver. The users are ‘real’ and members of the local community (which, according to the Montreal Documentary fest is the district in Canada with the highest proportion of drug users). The pharmacy was built as a set a few doors down in a shopfront close to the real pharmacy (see an interview with the director here). So, while the film looks like a classic slice of the Direct Cinema school of US documentaries of the 1960s it’s actually much calmer with some of the stress taken out of the encounters at one level, allowing the audience to gradually understand what is happening and reflect upon the lives of the methadone users – which aren’t all grim, even if they are stories of loss. Shauna Hansen as the dispensing pharmacist is very good. She has both strength and vulnerability and we get to understand what the job entails as well as what is happening with the users. The whole film is non-judgemental about the issue of drug dependency and I found watching it a rewarding experience. Here is a brief trailer that conveys the calm observational style (you can also use this link to see the a trailer for the next film, Tower:



Tower (Canada 2012) is rather different. This is the first feature-length film from MDFF at 78 mins and it has been seen in cinemas, first at the Royal in Toronto. It’s directed by Kazik Radwanski, one of the founders of MDFF with Dan Montgomery. I had no problem with the subject matter of the film but I found it almost unwatchable because of the visual style. Now this may also be associated with watching the film on the IMAX screen, i.e much bigger than it would usually be (standard format films take up roughly a third of the IMAX screen, still much bigger than in a small arthouse screen). Radwanski films everything and everybody in Tower in medium close-up/close-up, even BCU, in shallow focus using a handheld camera. There are just the occasional mid-shots and perhaps a couple of long shots in the whole film. I can see that there is a logic to this and it takes us into the cheerless world of ‘Derek’ a thirty-something man, losing his hair and getting nowhere in terms of work or his social life. We spend the entire film with Derek, still at home with his parents and working part-time for his uncle in the construction business when he isn’t painstakingly creating a computer animation in his basement. We follow him to clubs, desultory dates and social gatherings and in his war against a raccoon which is attacking the dustbin at his parents’ house.

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

Several of the reviews contrast Canadian cinema’s approach to characters like Derek with their Hollywood equivalents, who would either be ‘redeemed’ or there would be another kind of real ‘closure’ of the narrative. Derek is also compared to literary fiction’s anti-heroes. Again, I can see the connections but I found the visual style so alienating that I couldn’t engage at all. Towards the end of the film I found myself very worried that something bad was going to happen – and I feared most for the raccoon. I should mention also that in the opening scenes Derek gets drunk at a club and when he comes to on the floor of his parents’ home he has a deep gash near the bridge of his nose. This stays with him as a livid scar (as his mother predicted) throughout the rest of the film (i.e. over several weeks). Alas, poor Derek! I think I’ll pass on Tower. The filmmakers clearly have talent and ambition, so it’s probably my loss. The film was presented in English with French subtitles. I wondered if this was a requirement for screenings in certain Toronto or Montreal cinemas? Anyway, it meant that I could practise translations when I found the screen image too off-putting.