To complement its offer of ‘Four Seasonal Tales’, MUBI has also been carrying three short documentaries directed by Eric Rohmer and made by the company he founded with Barbet Schroeder, Les films du Losange in the 1960s. I’ve only just found them and they are about to disappear from the streamer. Here are just a few thoughts about what they might add to an understanding of Rohmer’s work. I think they are also available on one of the DVD packages from Criterion.
Nadja à Paris (France 1964) is a 13 minute film shot by Néstor Almendros which follows a student, Nadja Tesich as she moves around Paris. Nadja provides the voiceover commentary. Born in Belgrade, but brought up in the US, she is a student at a university in parkland in the 1960s but is able to study at the Sorbonne for her research on Proust. This sounds like the kinds of arrangements that I remember from the 1960s when American post-grad students could spend time in Europe for research unencumbered by a defined syllabus. The Cité University where she is based reminds her of American campus universities and everything she might need is close at hand with a whole range of cultural events, including theatre and cinema. But the Latin Quarter is not far away and she prefers to wander in the city. She admits her visits to the Sorbonne are infrequent. Instead she visits the old bookshops and sits alone in pavement cafés. Ultimately she finds herself visiting the working-class area of Belleville. She enjoys drinking with a group of older men who are writers.
Nadja is a familiar subject for Rohmer – a young woman finding her way. There is no romance here but she seems absolutely one of the young women celebrated in la nouvelle vague and indeed in the British New Wave (in 1964 heading towards ‘Swinging London’). She even wears a matelot-type top reminiscent of Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle in 1959 and as she lopes across the park she has the same sense of freedom as Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963). In many ways this short could be an extract from one of Rohmer’s early fiction films set on the streets of Central Paris.
Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1966) is a more conventional documentary study of the the changes in French higher education that saw a big increase in the number of young female students in the 1960s and especially in the sciences. Again this is a black & white 13 minute short film, shot by Néstor Almendros and edited by Jackie Raynal. It demonstrates Rohmer’s interest in the sociological changes in French society along with the economic growth of the period. There is some distressing animal research using cats which certainly dates the science but there is also a presentation of a new phenomenon, the married couple, both involved in higher education. This extraordinary little sequence shows a middle-class couple in an apartment with fashionable furniture and decoration. This seems at odds with the shots of crowds of students juxtaposed with the building of new universities.
What is most striking visually is that the students are mainly dressed in conservative, traditional outfits more associated with the office. For women it means dresses or skirts, handbags and court shoes until some don a lab coat. There is a ‘voice of God’ commentary apart from a brief exchange between a researcher and her supervisor. In some ways there are too many lines of enquiry for a short. I would have liked to know more about the building of universities outside Paris. France must have been experiencing the same kind of growth of the HE sector as the UK during the 1960s. At least Rohmer does include this statement, an early indication that he was interested in getting ‘out and about’ outside Paris.
The American title of the film is ‘A modern coed’. I guess the literal translation would be ‘A female student of today’. We wouldn’t use ‘coed’ in British English, but then I think the UK was probably behind both France and the US in the numbers of young women entering HE in 1964-5.
Fermière à Montfaucon (France 1968) offers a different type of documentary again, although in a way it is similar to Nadja à Paris. Again this is 13 minutes but this time in colour and made, I think, for French television. The subject is a farmer’s wife in Montfaucon (in Aisne, a rural départment in Northern France). We seem more in the territory of an Agnès Varda narrative. The farmer’s wife tells her story of working on a small family farm. The same problems existed then that also plague small farms now. There is just the couple with a small boy of school age who cycles to school. She says (on the voiceover) that she was happy to come to the countryside and become a farmer’s wife but many women don’t and many farmers stay single. She adds that women who do take up the opportunity must be organised.
She works hard in the house and on the farm. At harvest time, they can’t afford to hire extra workers so she has to help even more. In some shots she seems quite smartly dressed to be milking but those bright white boots are actually wellies. She does seem to prefer dresses and skirts to trousers and I was relieved when I saw she had found some trousers for her role of stacking hay bales. She also recognises that it is important to get involved in the village community and she has become a town councillor. This woman has not ‘fallen into’ her role. She knows what she is doing and organises herself accordingly. It does smack a little of the ‘model citizen farmer’, but as in his fictional tales, Rohmer simply focuses on daily routines as well as the special roles she fulfils at harvest time and for the community. You feel that Rohmer must have learned a great deal in preparation for some of his later films.
It’s interesting that Rohmer’s subject is nearly always a woman younger than himself but he always takes care to allow them to speak for themselves – except in the case of the ‘modern student film’ which perhaps might have worked better with more comments from the students. I enjoyed these short docs, mainly I think because they offer an interesting comparison to my memories of the UK in the 1960s. Rohmer’s later skills are developing at this stage but his ability to find interest in the mundane is already there.
(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)
Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.
Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.
The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)
Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.
I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.
Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.
I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.
The Edge is a sports documentary about the England Test cricket team. Released in cinemas in July 2019 soon after England won the Cricket World Cup (50 Over white ball game) it is now available on DVD and digital download and is free in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks. Presented in ‘Scope format with some spectacular footage and voiceovers by Toby Jones, the documentary does have the feel of a cinema feature and follows Warriors (UK 2015) the earlier film by Barney Douglas. That told the story of a cricket team from the Masai in Kenya who came to Lords in London, the home of English cricket. As well as presenting the ‘feelgood’ journey for the team, that documentary also featured a discourse about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) still an issue in the Masai community. The Edge has a similar overall approach. While it has a conventional sports documentary structure about the rise (and fall) of a team that reached a peak of No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is also about the mental stress of top level sport and the personal stories of specific players.
The crucial question about the documentary is whether it can appeal to a wider audience than simply cricket fans (although there are many such fans around the world). How much do you need to know about cricket to appreciate the highs and lows that the players and coaches experience? The film does work as a compelling narrative about a group of young men, presenting the drama of their encounters at major Test venues but it doesn’t attempt to explain how the game works or to offer any basic facts – the individual and team scores in the most significant games. This could be frustrating for both fans and the wider audience. Like its American equivalent, baseball, cricket is a game in which statistics are important for fans and players alike.
If you don’t know cricket and cricket culture I think some of subtexts in the film are difficult to grasp. Test cricket is the ‘highest’ and most demanding form of the game, played by national teams in a series of 5-day games. Cricket expanded from its English base, first to Australia and then to many other parts of the British Empire from the early 20th century. There are now ten Test teams recognised by the International Cricket Council with several more ‘Associate Members’. Because of the Imperial background there are issues about race and class in the history of cricket which still have an impact today and events in The Edge do in some respects refer to this history.
The narrative begins at the point in 2009 when England were at rock bottom. Zimbabwean Andy Flower, already associated with England as a coach, was appointed as full-time director of the England Test team. Flower is presented as a tough coach and a man who had left Zimbabwe after criticising the undemocratic policies of President Robert Mugabe. He was actually born in Apartheid South Africa and in the England team when he took over there were four players who had been born in South Africa. Captain Andrew Strauss and wicket-keeper Matt Prior came to the UK as children, but batsmen Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen came as adults, gaining qualification status to play for England. The squad of 13 featured in the film comprised five young men educated at private schools (which often have cricketing facilities) and six who came from state schools (plus the two schooled in South Africa). Monty Panesar, the second spin bowler in the team, was the first Sikh to play for England and the only non-white player in the squad. I mention these distinctions simply because they represent references to the colonial history of cricket and the different cultures associated with private and state schooling. Up until the 1960s English cricket teams often comprised ‘gentlemen amateurs’ and professional ‘players’ with the distinction clearly marked in terms of status. Unlike the England football team, most of whom are likely to share a similar educational background, the cricket team has potential divisions which can be damaging, especially on tour. Perhaps because of this, Flower chose to take the team squad on a rigorous team-building course in a Bavarian forest devised by the German military. They were a talented group of players and this exercise arguably helped them to become much more effective as a team.
The trajectory of the narrative is over the next few years during which time the team won several Test series and were eventually seen as the No. 1 team in world cricket. The apogee of their journey was a 3-1 defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11. But it would also be in Australia three years later that the team would finally fall apart. What fascinates followers of élite team sports is as much the implosion of a team as its rise to pre-eminence. Cricket, as the documentary shows, is an unusual sport in that it is all about the cohesion of the team but also the capability of each individual to cope with the pressure of performing in their individual role to the highest possible standard. All professional cricketers are highly skilled at playing the game of cricket, but only a few have the mental strength to play a 5-day Test on a consistent basis. As a batter or a bowler or a specialist fielder each player has a lone battle on the pitch. To captain the side, especially when things go wrong, is also onerous and for a variety of reasons the successful captain Andrew Strauss in this case was under great pressure.
Each of the thirteen players speaks in the ‘talking heads mode’ of the conventional documentary but some are singled out to enable the narrative to be clearer. Strauss the captain trying to keep things under control, Graeme Swann the joker, Steven Finn as the youngest feeling the media interest or Tim Bresnan as perhaps the most bemused by the whole set-up of the team and the tour and Monty Panesar seemingly as the outsider in the squad all feature. But the biggest stories concern Kevin Pietersen, considered the best batter but also a controversial ‘celebrity’ figure and Jonathan Trott as the mild-mannered player most visibly affected by the mental health issues associated with cricket. These two are at the centre of the story and James (‘Jimmy’) Anderson is presented as the contrast, a calm figure who seems able to deal with it all. An early sequence in the film includes an extreme long-shot of Jimmy running along the sands of a river estuary, heading for a large post in the distance. Like a similar sequence later in the film of Jonathan Trott walking in his cricket gear across a crop field these kinds of ‘creative’ images contrast with the interviews, archive footage and clips of the players’ own video footage. There is a music score by Felix White of the Maccabees which works to stitch the different types of material together. ‘The Edge’ has several meanings. It refers to that sense that all élite players have that something extra that makes them Test players but it also warns us that they are often on the ‘edge’ of their self control and the stress can push them too far. But in cricket, the ‘edge’ also refers to the moment when a bowler induces the batter into a false shot and the ball makes the slightest of contacts with the bat and is edged into the hands of the waiting wicket-keeper or slip fielder. It is these tiny margins that separate the winners and losers in Test cricket.
Test cricket is only available on Pay TV in the UK and the live games are expensive with tickets difficult to come by for certain games so I haven’t watched much since the 1970s but this documentary kept me engaged throughout. Barney Douglas and co-writer Gabriel Clarke (a sports doc specialist) have crafted an entertaining documentary well worth catching.
An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.
Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.
To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.
Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.
This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.
It seems the right thing to do in the context of the Russian attack on Ukraine – to watch and discuss a film by Ukraine’s current high-profile filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa that illuminates the darker aspects of Russian history. State Funeral is a film using archive footage in colour and black & white of the announcement of the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and the state funeral that followed. There are two immediate points to be made: the archive footage has been restored and looks stunning, but this film is 135 minutes long and much of the footage is repetitive. It’s not an easy watch because of the slow and deliberate pacing but it does raise many issues, some political, philosophical and historical and others about documentary practice and film history. I suspect that how it is read depends very much on the age and political background of the viewer. Loznitsa doesn’t add any form of commentary, only a few explanatory titles identifying locations or historical figures. But at the end of the film he provides three short statements about how Stalin’s hold over the Soviet Union has been re-assessed by historians and how the the Soviet leadership after 1953 moved to distance themselves from the Stalin era.
The Georgian, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922 and after the death of Lenin in 1924 he gradually increased his own power so that by the early 1930s he had become the supreme leader of the Soviet Empire. A ‘personality cult’ was developed and by the time of his death he was a quasi-religious figure for many of the people of the Soviet Empire. His death at the age of 74 triggered an enormous propaganda exercise involving dozens of newsreel camera operators across the Soviet Union. They shot many hours of film that were intended to be used in the production of a film entitled The Great Farewell. This film was completed but only screened once and then quietly buried by the new regime. The footage remained in an archive and Loznitsa and his editor Danielius Kokanauskis have produced State Funeral from their own selection of material, following the coverage of events from the official announcement (radio broadcasts across the empire and newspaper reports) through to the lying in state and the funeral cortège to the Lenin mausoleum and the speeches by the collective party leadership. Apart from the few titles, the only added material appears to be some extra unobtrusive sound elements to bring scenes to life (i.e. ambient sounds). The music soundtrack may well be the music played during the funeral. There is a mix of black and white and colour filmstock, sometimes in the same location. Because of the set formalities of a funeral, Loznitsa and Kokanauskis have been able to create a seamless narrative. The Great Farewell was intended to be a propaganda exercise bolstering the myth of the great leader but State Funeral is edited without the same intent and raises a whole series of questions.
There are roughly five sections to a narrative covering four days of national mourning. The announcement of the death is represented by radio broadcasts via loudspeakers in public spaces and in work environments and by queues at newsstands to buy papers. These scenes are from across the empire – from the Baltic states to Central Asia and from the Arctic to the streets of Central Moscow. We see the arrival of foreign leaders from Eastern Europe and from neighbouring Finland. Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain is joined by similar prominent communists from other West European nations including the exiled Dolores Ibárruri (aka ‘la Pasionaria’), leader of the Spanish communist party. Chou Ên-lai (later Zou Enlai), the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, was arguably the most high profile foreign representative. The ‘lying in state’ in the Pillar Hall of the House of Unions in Moscow is in some ways the centrepiece of the film because the cameras are able to capture close-ups of a variety of different groups of people as they climb the stairs and pass the open coffin nested amidst dozens of enormous wreaths and bouquets of greenery and red flowers. The cortège then moves slowly to the Lenin mausoleum with the floral displays now moved to an adjacent position. Finally the four organisers of the proceedings, who will subsequently jostle for power, make speeches from above.
As a ‘documentary record’ of a major state event the film is extraordinary. With so many cameras being given privileged positions, the coverage is visually splendid offering both close-ups of mourners and panoramic views of the vast crowds in Moscow. I was also struck by the geographical spread of the coverage of the Soviet empire and the diversity of European and Asian faces. It occurs to me that this event was just a few months before the Coronation of Elizabeth II in the UK. I wonder if anyone has compared the two in detail? The Coronation in the UK was famously deemed responsible for the rise in interest in TV ‘outside broadcasts’ – and was also seen live through projected TV images. The resulting film documentary was later a big hit in cinemas. The Coronation film, A Queen is Crowned was shot in Technicolor. State Funeral was partially shot in what one reviewer suggests was Agfacolour stock captured by the Red Army in 1945. I found the use of the colour footage very odd. Most of the reviewers take the stance that the colour footage is ‘realist’ and ‘immediate’ and that the black and white footage (actually the majority of the footage used) is “easily relegated to the past, is a relic of times gone by” as Eye for Film’s reviewer puts it. As an older person I tend to have the opposite reaction. The black and white footage is what I expect of newsreels in 1953, the colour stock is a novelty, a fantasy. We have only got used to the colour footage of Second World War events over the last twenty years in TV programmes promising ‘something new’. But the colour in State Funeral is surreal partly because the authorities seem to have banned the colour blue. The mourners are generally in dark clothes and the wreaths are uniformly dark green and vivid red with splashes of white. I began to search for any blue shades and found only a few headscarves on women. The promotional material for the film presents only colour photographs but the trailer below does justice to the film albeit not to the range of footage from outside Moscow. I have taken some screengrabs from the trailer to use here. Stalin began to control all aspects of Soviet art, literature, theatre and cinema from the early 1930s so that ‘Soviet socialist realism’ became a new cinema aesthetic. It is ironic that at his funeral the state provided access to a group of portraiture artists who hoped to present depictions of the ‘lying in state’ of their leader, perhaps wondering what the new leadership would expect them to produce?
The major question posed by the footage for me is what, if anything, does it tell us about the 220 million people of the Soviet Union in 1953 who are shown in mourning? What were they feeling? Were they coerced, frightened, bored but wary or genuinely upset by the death of their leader? Their speech isn’t recorded but many of the women are seen crying. Women are rare among the leadership but visible as workers. Most people in the West had very little sense of what life in the Soviet Union was like in 1953. There are a few, but not enough glimpses here. One that has been picked out is the surreal image of a Stalin portrait suspended from a crane above the workers on a large construction site. It offers a pre-echo of Fellini’s later use of a statue of Christ flying through the air suspended from a helicopter in La dolce vita (1960): from Stalin as a communist saint to Christ as the symbol of economic development and consumerism?
I’m not sure a mass audience anywhere would sit through the film but I hope it is studied and discussed by film scholars and historians. Alex von Tunzelmann’s Guardian piece on the film is worth reading on this score. State Funeral is still available on MUBI in the UK and is also available from Apple and Amazon but I can’t find a DVD/Blu-ray which teachers would need. Tunzelmann recommends watching Armando Ianucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (UK 2017), which I haven’t seen. The restored The Great Farewell is available on DVD.
Following the film streamed on MUBI is a recording of a conversation on Zoom between Loznitsa and the Italian documentary filmmaker (and recently fiction director with Martin Eden (2019)), Pietro Marcello. Loznitsa tell us that he believes the film is actually relevant to Russia now, revealing that when it was shown in Russia in 2020 it divided audiences with a ‘liberal’ segment taking a similar line to audiences in the West but many other audiences seeing it as a great tribute to a Russian leader – and ignoring what they saw as the “silly” statements at the end added by Loznitsa. Perhaps Loznitsa’s most striking assertion is that in the film we see masses of Soviet citizens. “Stalin is allegorical of all these people” as he puts it. They each have a little of Stalin within them and “together they act as little bricks making up this apparatus of totalitarian human destruction”. He even compares them to the mice led to their doom by a pied piper – they have an understanding of the nightmare but seemingly are without the capacity to resist it. Loznitsa says this of the Russian people we see in 1953. I’m not sure if the same analysis refers to the people of the 19th century Russian empire. It certainly sounds like it might refer to Russia under Putin.
Finally Loznitsa and Marcello agree on the teams of people who have helped make this film possible. Loznitsa refers to the 200 Russian camera persons (the camerawork is awe-inspiring), none of who me has met and to his major collaborators the editor Danielius Kokanauskis and the sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy, both Lithuanians. The post-production was mainly carried out in Romania. He confirms that there were three types of filmstock from the Russian State Archive. The black and white stock was Russian and there was Kodak stock and something that could have been Agfacolor. He praises the archive highly and says his dream would be to work with them on further films (this was his third(?)). He thinks he could produce two films a year from the archive’s material and that this would help others to understand what happened in the Soviet Union. He’s a remarkable film director and this is a remarkable film.
Taiwan New Cinema (sometimes abbreviated to TNC) is arguably one of the most rarefied of film movements, especially if you are in the UK where some of the important films have been very hard to see until quite recently. But although in strict terms represented by only a small group of films made between 1982 and 1986, the filmmakers concerned have since had a seemingly disproportionate influence on other filmmakers, especially elsewhere in East Asia. I’m not going to explain the whole background here. It is already very well-presented on the ‘Cinema of the World website‘.
I’m trying to remember when I first became aware of Taiwan New Cinema. Possibly it was an early screening of an Edward Yang film at the NFT in London but it may have been a brief season of films shown on Channel 4 in the UK when the channel was still cutting edge in terms of global cinema. I remember two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and City of Sadness (1989). They may have been introduced by Tony Rayns, one of the few British experts on East Asian cinema at that time – certainly he fronted some of the Fifth Generation Chinese films on C4. Rayns does figure as one of the film personnel interviewed in this documentary film, Flowers of Taipei directed by Chinlin Hsieh and currently streaming on MUBI.
The film generally follows the familiar documentary conventions of a ‘talking heads plus film clips’ structure, but quite a few of the ‘witness statements’ are shot in interesting locations around the world. We meet filmmakers of all kinds as well as critics, programmers and festival organisers and some other non-film artists. Some speak directly to camera and others within short sequences in which they are ‘observed’ in conversations about TNC films. The film opens with an evocative montage of archive footage and a presentation by Lin Hwai-Min, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taipei explaining the historical background. This then leads to a railway journey taking us through Thailand and a statement by the auteur director Apichatpong Weerasethakul explaining how he first saw Taiwanese films as a student in Chicago and how the films, especially those by Hou Hsiao-hsien, resonated with memories of his own youth and how he was encouraged to return to Thailand to make films.
Chinlin Hsieh is herself now based in Paris and that provides the next stop where we meet Pierre Rissient (consultant to Cannes Film Festival), the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and others who are critics or festival organisers talking about what appealed to them about the emergence of TNC. We then meet Tony Rayns in Rotterdam, another important global film festival city, followed by a discussion in a pavement café in Buenos Aries involving the Argentinian filmmaker Martin Rejtman. He makes an interesting point in suggesting that because he was too young to have experienced the French New Wave in the 1960s, TNC was the ‘new wave’ for his generation. The interviews that come next in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China feature a galaxy of directors such as Kore-eda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien himself plus the actor Tadanobu Asano and many others. You can see a full list on the ‘Cinema of the World’ website referenced above.
Among all the interviews/conversations Hsieh includes clips from various films by the TNC directors, including several made since the 1980s. As the interviewees suggest, these films were often beautifully composed and they do convey something of the youthful vitality of the filmmakers in the 1980s and a real ‘feel’ for the country. But they also add to the mystery of the film for anyone who is coming to a screening without having seen many or indeed any of the films before.I recognised clips from two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, Millennium Mambo from 2001 and Café Lumière (2003) which is set mainly in Tokyo – Tadanobu Asano discusses his role in that film while sitting in the real bookshop where his character worked. There are also striking images from Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers (1986) and clips from many other films, some of which are clearly signalled in the text. But the question does remain as to exactly what Chinlin Hsieh hopes to achieve with her film.
I think that if you know some of the historical background and you have seen at least two or three of the films (preferably including something from the 1980s) you will have a good time and find the film useful and informative, especially in terms of the influences that TNC has had on other filmmakers in East Asia. I learned many things from the documentary and it helped to explain the links between some filmmakers. I hadn’t known or perhaps hadn’t thought about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family links to Taiwan for instance and I was prompted to think more about the ‘modernity’ of TNC compared to the Fifth Generation films in the PRC. Both sets of films emerged in the early 1980s and both ‘arrived’, at least in the UK, around roughly the same time. Why then did the Fifth Generation films ‘take off’ and the TNC films struggle for distribution? Partly, I think it is to do with the general profile of the two countries. In the 1980s I think I was much more supportive of the PRC and dismissive of Taiwan. Since then I’ve changed my mind. To some extent, I’ve gradually reversed that view and the development of TNC and the ‘democratisation’ of Taiwan has been an important part of my shift.
As a film in its own right Flowers of Taipei is definitely worth watching. It has a great deal to offer but please try to read up on the background and try to see some of the TNC films. The only sad aspect of the film, watching it in 2022, is that there are relatively few women featured as filmmakers in a documentary made by a woman.