This was an afternoon event of screenings and discussion of the work of a film/sound artist organised by The Pavilion together with Leeds Black Film Club. Trevor was a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. This collective produced a series of pioneering and experimental media products and films. Their work reflected what can be called ‘black consciousness’ in the 1980s. Their work was sited in the broader context of colonialism, the diaspora and movements of rebellion. Their productions worked through visual and aural poetry to present challenging representations around these themes.
Trevor Mathison worked on the soundtracks for their productions. He used performed music, noise and invented sounds to produce tracks that worked with the poetry of the visual material. He also worked as sound engineer on Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) and on Pratibha Parmar’s Sari Red (1988), screened at an earlier Pavilion event.
The first screening was a work which was originally a two-part tape/slide presentations which had been transferred to digital, Expeditions: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1983–84), These were the first works produced by the collective when they moved to Hackney from Portsmouth where they had studied at the Polytechnic. The two part video exemplified the poetic style that Black Audio developed and presented their key themes: representations around “race”, colonialism and empire, oppression and racism, and assertive consciousness. Each work ran for 25 minutes. The first part opened with Wagnerian strains and then developed a mixture of images and sounds. The second part concluded with the Congo and a voice-over with lines from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.
Following this Trevor offered some comments and answered questions from the audience. He explained some of the process of production. The main source of images were various monuments around London, and specifically the Victoria and Albert Memorial. They used slide film and the transparencies were worked on and words were imprinted using Letraset. Trevor remembered the collective spread round a long table of materials and gels with the everybody working on the artefacts. The soundtrack was produced with similar techniques, However Trevor worked alone here, (partly from preference). And he recorded and re-recorded the various sounds. What was impressive was that he was using both reel-to-reel and cassette tapes yet the quality on the re-mastered digital version was excellent.
Each part was composed of four carousels, operating in tandem, each containing 80 slides. One technical problem was transferring carousels. But Trevor also thought that the ‘dissolves’ between slides were especially effective because of the slow pace of changes. Much of the music was from the collections of the members and they also investigated the material in a local bookshop.
At one point he used the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, a regular motif in Black Audio’s work. He suggested that the work involved stories of ancestors and their ‘ghosts’ Asked about the title of the event Trevor did not exactly explain this but did refer to the effective romanticisms of ‘soul’.
An early presentation of the work was at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. But the collective also travelled widely with the presentation, including to the USA. The approach of the collective was that the content and message were their responsibility and this involved for them alternative narratives. . They expected audiences to treat this critically.
The second work was Twilight City produced for Channel 4 in 1989. The video film ran 52 minutes in colour and with both voice-overs and interviews. The starting point was London after ten years of Conservative rule. So the film spoke to the present of 1989 but Will Rose (who introduced the event) suggested that it also spoke to the present of 2018.
The video started with a young Afro-Caribbean woman writing a letter to her mother who had returned to Dominique ten years earlier and was now thinking of returning to London. This was a neat conceit which enabled the young woman to retell London and its changes over the decade. At several points the film presented extracts from interviews with Afro-Caribbean activists. There was also footage of places and people including a Somali Centre in London and a Community Church. . There were recurring sequences, one of waves on the Thames: another of a car driving through the night-time streets of London, all light and shadows. There were photographs, engravings (Hogarth) and monuments, as in the earlier work. And there was older archive footage of wartime and the ‘Blitz’. All of these were paralleling and connecting with the voice-overs. The film ended with a night-time car drive and then a coastal shot with the sun rising over the ocean.
Trevor talked about the production of the piece. There was more division of roles and the end credits showed different functions including Reece Auguiste as director. He had produced the initial idea which was developed and then the collective obtained funding from Channel 4. At this time there was a scheme for publicly funded workshops agreed by Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Channel 4 and a number of public institutions including, until its demise in 1986, the Greater London County Council. Black Audio Film Collective, along with other groups such as Sankofa, benefited from this scheme.
In answer to questions Trevor said more about how he worked up the soundtracks. One example he gave was of dismantling a piano and using the sounding board to create particular noises. The narrative of a ‘returnee’ was invented but provided a focus for the narrative. And the film like the earlier works, combined poetry, symbolism and (amongst others) monuments around the city. One theme central to the work was ‘belonging’. He talked about one sequence that recurred several times of homeless sleepers at night. This was shot in the underpass across from Waterloo Station. And he saw rats there whilst they filmed. Now this was the site for the London IMAX, considerably changed.
The Black Audio Film Collective was wound up in 1998. Over its sixteen years it produced a range of works, including films and programmes aired on Channel 4. In 1988 the ICA published booklet on ‘Black Film British Cinema’. The Document profiled some of the workshop collectives including a discussion with members of the Black Audio Film Collective. They talk about their influences, centrally I noted Franz Fanon. They also mentioned influences on form and style, both Alexander Rodchenko, a Soviet pioneer of photo-montage, and, more recently, Henri Cartier Bresson. At the time they were also discussing a number of French intellectual, including Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. These explained the interest that can be discerned in psycho-analysis and also a tendency, common in the 1980s, to use fairly complex theoretical language. Closer to home, an important influence was Stuart Hall, an important writer and theorist: he was far more accessible than the French theorists though with a tendency to reformism.
Referring to Expeditions Reece Auguiste commented;
“Expeditions (1983), which was our first cultural project, was a way of testing those ideas and trying to extend the power of the images and debates around colonial and post-colonial moment. In order to do that we had to articulate a particular language and vision of that moment.”
The ‘post-colonial, which I find anachronistic when we still have colonialism (just across the Irish Sea for one), is referenced in Expeditions by quotations from Homi Bhabha, a theorist in Cultural Studies.
Reece continued later on Expeditions;
“The way, for example, in which we would actually appropriate from English national fictions – like the Albert and Victoria Memorial – going back and really engaging with the archive of colonial memory. We were not only constructing a colonial narrative, but also critiquing what was seen as the colonial moment – critiquing what was seen as the discourse round empire.”
Twilight City followed later than the ICA profile. I found the work slightly hybrid in style. Much of the film used the visual and aural montage that was the bedrock of Black Audio’s work. But sited within this were a series of interviews. The early interviews were personal and concerned with memory. But later in the film they tended to be prescriptive around political issues. The montage work of the collective seemed to me to be rich in both denotations and connotations whereas some of these interviews were much closer to ‘realist’ documentary. There is something of the same dichotomy in their most famous work for Channel 4, Handsworth Songs (1987), addressing the riots/rebellion in Birmingham in 1985. This particular film occasioned strident debates including an angry attack by Salmon Rushdie in the letter page of the Guardian.
In answer to my question Trevor made the point that in their work for Channel 4 the collective had total editorial control. So I suspect that the use of more ‘realist’ forms was occasioned by the collectives sense of the medium and its audience. It should be noted that Channel 4 at this time was the radical edge of British television. It had a brief to present ‘new voices’, which it did very effectively. But once it settled in the predominant values of the British media gradually toned down its offering The workshop Ceddo had their film The People’s Account (1988) effectively banned by the IBA. The Derry Film & Video Workshop’s Mother Island suffered a similar fate, though that was later screened on Channel 4 with enforced cuts..
This was a fascinating and rewarding sessions. The Black Audio Film Collective work has been missing from screens for a long time and it amply pays revisiting. Trevor has a low-key and very affable manner: but he is also effective at drawing out the import and stance of the work.
The original collective consisted of seven people: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph. Joseph left in 1985 and was replaced by David Lawson.
In 1998 three of the members formed the new Smoking Dog Films: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Trevor Mathison has worked on several of their projects as ‘sound designer’, a recently innovated term that describes his work more accurately.
One of these is The Stuart Hall Project (2013) presenting and celebrating one of their influential mentors. Unfortunately, whilst effective, the film follows the convention of television and reframes much of the Archive footage.
The Nine Muses (2010) is devised from an original exhibition work. It is a complex study of migration, structured around Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It presents the visual and aural montage that typifies the work of both the Black Audio Film Collective and Smoking Dog Films. It is a brilliant but little seen art work and a key documentary in C21st British film.
The Charmer is classified by IMDb as a ‘psychological drama’ and that may be a possible description, but this is a complex film which draws on several genre repertoires. It might not be a unique take on a modern phenomenon and I’ve certainly seen elements of the story in several other films, but I don’t think I’ve seen them combined quite like this before. We are in the world of migrants attempting to achieve something ‘better’ in a new land, but the narrative begins with a rather shocking action which seems to be immediately forgotten, only to re-appear as an issue much later. Those of you who enjoy second-guessing the mechanics of the plot will probably see the moment coming well before I did.
The ‘Charmer’ of the title is a handsome young man (perhaps in his early 30s?). He appears to be facing the chop from his girlfriend after the couple have attended a social event in a beautiful house and garden. We follow him as he disconsolately travels back to what appears to be an upmarket hostel of some kind with quite pleasant rooms. After an interview we realise that he is a migrant applying to stay in Denmark and that his time is running out. The hostel turns out to be less inviting when we watch officials arriving to take one of the other migrants away.
Our charmer is called Esmail and he’s from Iran. He earns money by working for a removals firm alongside Amir who has been in Denmark longer. Esmail makes occasional calls home, often being cut off or perhaps deliberately cutting himself off. At night he frequents an upmarket wine bar hoping to meet Danish women who might agree to a longer term relationship and provide him with an opportunity to stay in Denmark. But they could easily turn out to be married and just looking for ‘a bit on the side’. The narrative changes when two things happen which suggest different genres. One refers back to the opening of the narrative and creates the threat of the thriller. The other involves Sarah (Soho Rezanejad) a young and attractive woman who is from an Iranian family which is established in Denmark. She sees immediately what Esmail is up to, but she seems interested him. What will her interest lead to? Together these two events will determine Esmail’s future. I won’t spoil the plot further. First time director Milad Alami, working from a script he co-wrote with Ingeborg Topsøe, handles the narrative and his lead Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) very well. (Alami was born in Iran, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Denmark.) We are never quite sure where the narrative is heading and what kind of genre conventions might pop up. The film looks terrific as photographed by Sofia Olsson – who I note shot the film Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) which I saw in Bradford a few years ago when it won a European Cinema Award.
Esmail is in a sense a double bluffer. He has learned enough Danish to ‘pass’ as a resident. How long has he really been in the country? But also, who is he? What could he do apart from move furniture? Who is in the family back home? There are answers to some of these questions, but we realise that migrants who make the journey as undertaken by Esmail will always want to keep aspects of their identity under wraps.
A film like this might fall foul of the censors in Iran, so sequences set in that country were filmed in Turkey. This is a well-made and engaging film with good performances and I think it should please audiences across Europe and beyond. This was screened in programme strand of ‘Pioneer’ – first or second films by directors. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been sold for UK distribution.
My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
Welcome attracted over 1 million admissions in France in 2009 and was also successful in Italy for writer-director Philippe Lioret. It received won awards at festivals and prizes at competitions around Europe. However, in the UK, where part of the story is set, interest was negligible with only a few thousand admissions. Perhaps this was because the small distributor Cinefile had difficulty getting bookings – but was this in turn because of a reluctance to deal with narratives like this? The ‘Welcome’ of the title is deeply ironic and refers to the (presumably British?) doormat in a block of flats/apartments in Calais where the common greeting extended towards migrants attempting to reach the UK by crossing the Channel is anything but ‘welcoming’.
The narrative concerns two couples. Marion (Audrey Dana) and Simon (Vincent Lindon) are a French couple living in Calais. She is a teacher and an activist helping to run a support centre for asylum seekers. He is an ex-swimming champion now working as an instructor at a local pool. Their marriage has broken up, partly because he doesn’t share his wife’s commitment to helping asylum seekers. The other couple are also separated. Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) is a young Iraqi Kurd (17-18) trapped in Calais while his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi) is now living with her family in London where her father is a restaurant manager. Bilal makes one abortive (and traumatic) attempt to get to England using a people-smuggling gang and then seeks another way. He is a strong athlete who wants to become a professional footballer but now decides to attempt to swim the channel. Searching for a trainer to help him prepare he comes across Simon. Reluctant at first, Simon gradually takes to the boy and realises that by helping him he might have a chance of getting back with his wife. (Simon and Bilal communicate in English – the lingua franca of migrants in Europe.) This unlikely story is apparently based on something Lioret heard about in Calais and his meeting with a young man like Bilal when he spent time living with migrants and supporters. (See this interview with Philippe Lioret.)
Without these two love stories I wouldn’t have had a movie but a documentary about immigrants. I’ve seen many of these documentaries – and they have all been very good – but unfortunately I don’t think people are necessarily moved by them. If people are interested in my film, it’s because it speaks to them emotionally. (Philippe Lioret in the interview above.)
What Lioret says makes sense and I thought the film worked very well. I don’t want to spoil the storytelling by revealing the ending but I did find the central idea difficult. Swimming the Channel is challenging for the most experienced swimmers with full support and seemingly impossible to achieve ‘under cover’. Is this attempt meant to be ‘real’ or symbolic in terms of storytelling? While we are concerned that Bilal might undertake the journey, we are also made aware of the French law (L622-1) that makes it an offence to help illegal immigrants in France. Marion and her co-workers have to work carefully in relation to this law. Simon is more cavalier and risks imprisonment because of the way he acts.
Overall I think the film works in terms of the writing and performances, although I think it is sometimes difficult to have a well-known actor like Lindon alongside much less experienced young actors like Ayverdi. It works in terms of ‘trainer’ and ‘trainee’ but in other scenes it is difficult not to look at Lindon’s performance differently. (As I write this, Lindon’s performance in 2015’s The Measure of a Man which won the Cannes Acting Prize is being lauded on the film’s UK release.) I’m also now conscious of spotting actors like Thierry Godard, prominent in the TV cop show Engrenages shown on BBC4.
The subject matter of the film is now arguably even more compelling since the camp, ‘The Jungle’, in Calais is still there even though its profile in the UK news media is being eclipsed by the tragedy of migrant flows across the Mediterranean and by the furore about immigration deliberately inflamed by the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK European Referendum. If this kind of story was to appear in the UK it would most likely be in the form of a documentary, possibly for television. The equivalent of a production like Welcome has not, as far as I can remember, happened in the UK since a trio of films by ‘name’ directors in the 2000s. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000), Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (UK 2002) and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006). Any one of these would make a good choice for a comparative study with Welcome. It’s also worth noting that it took another French director, Rachid Bouchareb to make a film about the personal stories associated with an international tragedy in London River (France-Algeria 2009), which deals with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London.
Philippe Lioret’s film perhaps focuses on the French couple too much for audiences whose first concern is the fate of the migrants. But the fate of both couples is important. Migrants, whether they are asylum seekers or simply ambitious people wanting the chance for what they perceive as a better life are not necessarily ‘victims’ or ‘heroes’ and those who attempt to help them do so for a range of reasons. The point of a humanist film is to represent all the characters in a story as who they are rather than as characters with specific narrative roles. Welcome is a film well worth seeing in the contemporary climate and it’s still available on DVD.
Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ ending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.
You have to admire the chutzpah of BIFF programmers Tom Vincent and Neil Young in starting their festival with Michael Winterbottom and finishing it with Mira Nair. They are two of my favourite directors but both are almost guaranteed to cause controversy or to produce films that critics write about negatively (which is important for the success of specialised films). I wasn’t keen on the Winterbottom this time but the Mira Nair, though seriously flawed in some ways, was very interesting. The more negative reviews I read, especially from the US, the more I like it. To be fair though, the most sensible article on the film I’ve seen so far came from the New York Times.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid published in 2007. The script is by William Wheeler and Ami Boghani with some input by Hamid. I haven’t read the novel but I understand that it has been ‘opened out’ for the film – or perhaps changed in terms of genre. The protagonist identified in the title is Changez Khan, son of a Punjabi poet in Lahore who gets to Princeton and from there wins a job with a major US financial consultancy, becoming a ‘lord of the universe’ and rewarding investors while ruining the lives of workers around the world. Changez moves up the associates ladder at a rapid rate but is halted by the after effects of 9/11 and also by a relationship with the niece of his employer. He turns against his mentor, returns to Pakistan and becomes an academic. This story is told to an American journalist in Lahore in the context of the kidnapping of an American professor from the same university. We are asked to consider if the journalist is a CIA agent and if Changez has become a mujahid.
A number of reviews and comments I have read which are very negative have come from Americans who don’t seem to recognise that the narrative is from the POV of Changez, so the film works differently to those Hollywood thrillers about ‘terrorists’. Other negative reviews (including from the UK) criticise the film for lecturing/moralising or peddling clichéed liberal views and using characters as symbols for ‘big ideas’ etc. I have to admit that there are also reviews like this one in Slant magazine in which it is a South Asian in North America leading the attack. I don’t really go with any of these, though I can understand some of them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens in the UK in May and despite my misgivings, it’s definitely worth seeing. Riz Ahmed is excellent and so too is Kiefer Sutherland as his US boss. Many of the people I talked to after the BIFF screening liked the film.
The major problem in the film for me was the romance. Kate Hudson has been seen by many as being miscast. I’m a bit uncomfortable about this. She isn’t, in this role, anything like a Hollywood female star and I should applaud that. To put it bluntly, she isn’t a stick insect and she seems much older than Riz Ahmed as Changez. I should applaud the casting – and her playing – but it didn’t work for me and I just didn’t believe in her as the character she played. In many ways, the romance got in the way of the main story – but it was necessary to bring the issue of family into play. The importance of the family in Lahore is emphasised several times and for me the key scenes are in Istanbul. Changez and his boss are there to close down an Istanbul publisher which is losing money. Changez reveals some of his background and the publisher says he should be ashamed as the son of a poet. Later the publisher tells him about the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire – Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period. This seems to me a neat way of critiquing Changez’ position and I think that to criticise it as heavy-handed is ridiculous. Hollywood tries hard to normalise its promotion of Western capitalist values. Here Asian and Muslim values are being promoted by a character. What’s the problem?
This is another film which uses the horror of 9/11 as a key event in the narrative structure. There have been many such films from the West but relatively few that are seen from the perspective of a Pakistani character. The only other one that comes to mind is Yasmin (UK/Germany 2004). Because the event appears in the film, it seems to inevitably push the rest of the narrative into a security-based CIA thriller. I don’t think that this is in the novel and for me it spoils the film. I think what is interesting and enjoyable about the film is the struggle that Changez faces over competing ideologies and competing social environments. As he grows up he realises that he can be successful in the cut-throat world of international capitalism. He has the skills and the drive, but he attempts to combine that with a commitment to family that is threatened by the same actions. I think that narrative is compelling without the “is he a terrorist?” sub-plot which I found just made me angry. What would be interesting in terms of ‘reading’ the film would be to compare it with Indian films that similarly bring back successful migrants to the US and see what happens to them in a South Asian context. For example, Swades (India 2004) sees Shahrukh Khan return from his job as a successful space scientist to search for his childhood nanny in rural India.
Mira Nair is both an Indian and a North American director who moves between bases in the US, Uganda (where her husband teaches) and India. This gives her a different perspective on issues than if she remained in only one location. She is arguably a prime example of a ‘transnational filmmaker’. Unfortunately this also means that she can be claimed or rejected by cultural critics in each territory. In one of her best films, The Namesake (India/US 2006) she explored the two cultures narrative through two generations of a family that moved from Calcutta to New York. That film was based on a story by Jhumpa Lahiri and my feeling is that if she had stayed closer to the story by Mohsin Hamid for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her Pakistani melodrama might have worked better. I’m not here promoting “the book is better than the film”, but I am suggesting that the added genre element of the CIA in Lahore weakens the narrative. However, shooting a story set in Pakistan presents a whole range of problems re funding and the logistics of the production. Most of the scenes in Lahore were shot in India (in Delhi) and the film has a significant Indian crew and cast. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play the parents of Changez (played by the British-Pakistani Riz Ahmed) and the film is edited by Shimit Amin, known in India as a director. Meesha Shafi who plays Changez’ sister Bina is Pakistani. She also contributes to the soundtrack. The other heads of department in the crew are mainly American and British. Disappointingly there have been mutterings about representations of Pakistan from India but it would not have been possible to shoot this film on the streets of Lahore. Mira Nair also makes the point that her family roots are in Lahore and in the context of the film’s central narrative it’s important to remember that the values that Changez has to consider are South Asian rather than solely Pakistani. The different paths for economy and society in India and Pakistan since 1947 were to a large extent determined by the imperial decisions of UK governments in the 1930s and 1940s and the development of US foreign policy since the 1950s. Mira Nair is reported as saying that she hoped that her film would “start a conversation”. I hope that it does and that it swiftly moves on from the problems of the romance and the CIA surveillance of Lahore to consider the issues about Anglo-American capitalism, alienation and the South Asian family.
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012: