Tagged: political cinema

Tony Garnett, 3 April 1936 – 12 January 2020

We have lost one of the major radical voices in British film and television. I more or less grew up on a diet of the trailblazing television dramas produced by Tony Garnett; most often with writer Jim Allen and director Ken Loach. Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966) was both an emotional and political clarion call. The Wednesday Play, dramas like Rank and File (1971) coincided for me with my political education into Marxism. And I was studying Labour History when I saw Days of Hope  ( 1975). Later there was a film like Kes and more impressive television work like Spongers (1978). Recently, in 2016, I had the pleasure of hearing Garnett live as he introduced his ‘Memoir – The Day the Music Died. A life behind the lens’. This a fine autobiography, interweaving the political and the personal with everything that is needed for an obituary..

Garnett was an intelligent, analytical and engaging writer and speaker. At the meeting we had a tribute to writer Barry Hines with whom Garnett worked. Garnett was passionate about working class culture, something that he and Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Ken Loach did so much to represent on the large and small screens. Garnett was also the most intelligent voice in the film Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (2016), a work that really did not do justice to Loach’s radical films.

Jim Allen

This ‘Memoir’ details both Garnett’s personal life and his professional life as a producer on British television and in both British and Hollywood cinemas.

The early chapters record his family life in Birmingham in the 1930s and 1940s. It was then that the family tragedy represented by ‘the day the music died’ occurred – the trauma of his mother’s death after a back-street abortion, followed nineteen days later when Garnett’s grief-stricken father committed suicide and Tony was sent to live with other family members. This clearly marked Garnett throughout his life. However, the portrait of life in the urban Midlands in this period is finely described and makes for fascinating reading.

When Garnett moved on to London he initially worked as an actor, with limited success. In this period he also experienced a further tragedy. He met and married Topsy Jane. She gave a memorable and sensitive portrayal as Audrey, Colin’s (Tom Courtenay’s) girlfriend in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). She then had a nervous breakdown and suffered a severe mental illness from which she never really recovered. This tragedy too marked Garnett life.

Then, in the most significant move in his professional life, Garnet was invited by producer Sydney Newman to work on a new series of television dramas. This led to the famous partnership with Ken Loach and some of the most outstanding productions in British television history. These were watersheds in a number of ways. This was not just because of its quality and politics but because they became test cases for the conservative reaction against such work. The responses included the withholding a title from screening, BBC’s first use of a ‘’balancing’ programme and that bourgeois tribute, fulminations in a ‘Times’ editorial.

Garnett discusses some of the productions in some detail in the book;, including Cathy Come Home and his famous collaboration with Barry Hines and Ken Loach on Kes (1969) in individual chapters. He also pays tribute to the particular contribution they brought to these films along with Jim Allen. All of them would be termed left-wingers, though there are variations in their political stances.

Barry Hines

All were formed to some degree by the heightened activities and debates of the 1960s. In one fascinating chapter, ‘Protest and Confusion’, Garnett records his experiences in this area. These were centred round the influential (at that time) Workers’ Revolutionary Party with their leader Gerry Healey. Trevor Griffith, also involved in these activities at the time, has a witty portrait of these events in his play The Party (1988).

Garnett went on to produce further work for British television and for a period worked in Hollywood, though I find this the least successful output in his career. The best known title is Handgun (1983), a film that draws parallels between US gun  culture and sexual molestation. Garnett’s work on this film was re-edited by the production company, EMI. As Garnett acknowledged, the BBC, where he produced so much, became an inhospitable environment for his type of drama. Up until 2017 he ran World Productions where he produced Between the Lines (1992 – 1994).

The earlier years at the BBC, as was later the case with the young Channel Four, saw Garnett as a key protagonist in many memorable achievements. His memoir combines the story of these years with his own personal odyssey and he recounts this with a distinctive personal voice. I found the book fascinating and informative. It remains essential reading for people interested in the British media in the late twentieth century. So read the book whilst we wait for enterprising exhibitors to re–screen some of the classics.

The Day the Music Died, A Life behind the Lens – A Memoir, Tony Garnett, Constable 2016, 306 pages, (illustrations, no index). ISBN 978147212273S

Parts of this post are from a review in the Media Education Journal.

Palestinian Cinema in Leeds

This year’s Festival of Palestinian Films launches, as usual, with a screening during the Leeds International Film Festival,

It Must Be Heaven (France-Qatar-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Palestine, 2019). The film runs 97 minutes, in colour and in English / French / Arabic / Spanish / Hebrew (English subtitles), it has an unusually wide ration, 2.66:1.

Already screened at the London Film Festival which provided this description:

The beard is now inflected with grey and the eyelids hang a little lower, but for Elia Suleiman, the deft comic touch and wistful regret for a home just out of reach remain strong in It Must Be Heaven. The Palestinian film-maker fourth feature film – and his first in a decade – revisits similar themes to his earlier work, once again employing himself as the near-mute central character. This time, however, Suleiman transposes much of the action to Paris and New York. The upheaval across the Arab world since 2011 has seen the Palestinian struggle for statehood lose some of the existential urgency it once had to outsiders. Suleiman’s film is a delicious reminder of both the vitality of the cause, and the vibrancy of his artistry.

The title screens at the Hyde Park Picture House on Monday November 18th and on Wednesday 20th, (some publicity mistakenly has the second screening down at the Vue, thankfully incorrect).

Voices Across the Divide (US 2013)

Running 57 minutes, in colour and English.

The title follows Alice Brainchild’s personal journey as she begins to understand the Palestinian narrative, while exploring the Palestinian experience of loss, occupation, statelessness, and immigration to the US, exploring voices for a just peace in the region.

At the Wheeler Hall On Friday November 22nd.

Wall (Canada 2017)

82 minutes in colour and English.

This documentary follows the English playwright David Hare as he explores the impact of the Separation Wall built on Palestinian land.

At Seven Artspace on Monday November 25th.

Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army (Palestine-UK 2003)

75 minutes in colour and English.

Jeremy Hardy died earlier this year and this documentary, a tribute, charts his travels and experiences in occupied Palestine.

Otley Courthouse on Wednesday November 27th.

Advocate (Canada-Switzerland- Israel 2019)

Runs 108 minutes, in colour and in Hebrew, Arabic and English. English subtitles.

A portrait of an Israeli human rights lawyer who defends Palestinians from the Israeli state.

The Pyramid Theatre on Sunday December 1st.

Gaza (Ireland-Palestine 2019)

92 minutes, in colour and in Arabic [English sub-titles].

Roy has written an in interesting review of this title.

Screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on Tuesday December 3rd.

 

Soufra (Souffra, US-Lebanon 2017)

73 minutes, in colour and Arabic (English subtitles).

The story of a food truck catering project built in a Lebanese refugee camp.

Woodhouse Community Centre, on Friday December 6th.

In Between / Bar bahar (Israel-France 2016).

In colour and 2.35:1, in Hebrew and Arabic (English subtitles).

Three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv.

Roy’s review from 2017

HEART on Tuesday December 10th.

There is, unfortunately, one title that has not made it to the Festival though it was proposed for this year.

Witch Hunt (Jewish Britain 2019)

62 minutes, in colour and English.

A documentary which examines the victimization Labour party member and pro-Palestinian activist Jackie Walker. Produced by Jewish Voice for Labour whose Web Pages have a number of articles that expose this fraudulent campaign and it false claims against Palestinian activists.

The title can be seen here:

However, a theatrical screening of the title during the Festival would have provided an opportunity to publicise the documentary and encourage discussion of the important issues that it raises.

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze Czechoslovakia, 1965)

5de0-shop-on-the-high-street

Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner excel in their roles

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won –and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scène, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

Rosa Luxemburg (Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, West Germany 1986)

This title is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. It is also the first one to be screened in West Yorkshire; at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Tuesday January 15. Let us hope that it will be followed by the other three. This film was screened at the National Media Museum a couple of years ago. But two other titles, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been seen for years. Whilst the fourth title, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) is getting it first British release.

This film is a biopic of one of the most important and in influential revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg was a lifelong critic of capitalism and the reactionary governments in her native Poland and in Germany where she worked politically. She was an important contributor to Marxist theory and analysis. Read her ‘Reform or Revolution’ (1900) now and sections offer an astute and detailed critique which applies directly to the recent 2008 crisis of capitalism. Most notably Rosa was one of the few Marxists, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and our own Sylvia Pankhurst, to oppose the imperialist war of 1914 – 1918. Finally she was murdered in 1919 after the failed Spartacist uprising.

[[See the recent demonstration to commemorate Rosa and Karl Liebknecht].

“Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)

She told the poor what life is about,

And so the rich have rubbed her out.

May she rest in peace.” (Bertolt Brecht).

Von Trotta’s film covers most of Luxemburg’s adult life. It is selective, of necessity with a running time of just on two hours. The film opens in one of the many spells in prison; here in 1916 and then cutting to an earlier prison spell in Poland in 19106. This film continues to use changes in time to explore Luxemburg’s adult life. The key characteristics of Luxemburg are dramatised, including her break with the reformism of the German Social Democrats. Luxemburg spent a number of spells in prison and these show the steely conviction of this heroine. The film uses well chosen extracts from Luxemburg’s letters and speeches. The weakness of the film is that whilst it shows the complexity of Luxemburg herself it is not able to do this for her comrades and her enemies. The film does not attempt to explicate the Marxism of the period but concentrates on her battle within the German party and her opposition to the war. It details both her political and personal lives but does no completely integrate them. The film does emphasise Luxemburg’s political action as a woman; making it seem relevant to the present. But it also means that the male revolutionaries do seem pale by comparison. Oddly Lenin and the Bolsheviks only get one brief mention.

Luxemburg is played by von Trotta’s long-time collaborator Barbara Sukowa, who won awards in Germany and at the Cannes Film Festival. Deserved awards as Sukowa creates a complex character who generates sympathy but who also is a difficult person with whom to deal.

Margarethe, as is her wont, has also scripted the film. Her production team is, as usual in her films, excellent. The music, by Nicolas Economou, is orchestral and marks the more dramatic sequences. The cinematography is by Franz Rath, who also worked on the earlier films. The palette, given the subject and settings, is often suitably grim and gloomy. This is especially true of the prison sequences but at other times there are impressive long shots of Rosa against settings that are both realist and symbolic. The Film Editing is by Dagmar Hirtz and Galip Iyitanir in a film that has a complex structure, cutting back and forth in time and space. And the film’s look, with Set Decoration by Stepan Exner and Bernd Lepel and Costume Design by Monika Hasse, catches the period accurately. In the latter part them film also uses archive film to weave this biography into the seismic events at the end of the war and in the immediate post-war world.

We are still waiting for The Young Karl Marx to appear in West Yorkshire but it is good that the portrait of this outstanding and fascinating woman revolutionary is with us. And fortunately the film is of the quality that she deserves. The film is in standard widescreen and colour with English sub-titles. And the German transfers to digital are usually of a high quality.