This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue (a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.
The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditoria with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performances in auditoria but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.
Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator checks the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male workers at a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.
Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.
Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.
Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing (with liberalism) vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping African-American user at a desk. This points up, (as do other parallels), that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.
As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.
The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of African-American women at a branch (Queens I think). They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an African-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.
There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The managers are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviour was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.
The Sight & Sound, August 2018, review offers,
“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”
From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries.
I do remember John Curry’s Olympic Gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976 but I don’t think I took much notice at that time. I didn’t follow his career as a professional skater who then took skating into theatres and opera houses as well as arenas. I was therefore surprised and intrigued to discover Curry’s story in this documentary directed by James Erskine, a prolific director of film and TV documentaries and fictions, many with a sports background. The film was released in February this year in the UK just as the Olympics in Pyeongchang were ending. It also coincided with the UK release of the American film I, Tonya (US 2017) based on the experiences of another, rather different, Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The Ice King opened on 5 screens, I Tonya Harding opened on 338 screens. The Ice King struggled to find audiences in cinemas despite excellent reviews, mainly because Dogwoof only placed it in only a handful of cinemas. Their strategy is to use the release profile to promote it on other platforms. It screened in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ documentary slot this week and is currently available on iPlayer in the UK as well as online and on DVD from Dogwoof.
The Ice King is a conventional sports ‘biodoc’ that benefits from some excellent film archive research and the use of material which on-screen titles suggest is “the only known record” of the various ice dance performances by John Curry and his company of dancers. Some of this archive material is presented inside a form of masking that signifies its status – and preserves its aspect ratio – the mask allows the jagged edges of the film frame to show, suggesting it is running through a projector. Most of the TV material appears to have been cropped to fit the 16:9 ratio, but there might be some slightly squashed images. Overall, I didn’t find this a problem.
Research also finds home movie footage and clips from Curry’s appearances on well-known TV programmes of the time (i.e. in the 1970s) on the children’s programme Blue Peter and The Michael Parkinson Show (chat show). Looking at these clips now, of John Curry outside of his performance arenas, I recognise him as a gay man and simply a very beautiful and charming interviewee. I didn’t see those clips at the time and it’s difficult to think back and try to re-discover the attitudes of a time of transition when, in the UK, consensual sex between men (over 21) was no longer illegal but being forced ‘out’ was still a major issue, especially for athletes and sports personalities. It was also the period just before AIDS terrified populations in the early 1980s. The documentary leads us into this story by showing a clip of the British TV series Man Alive and American film from the 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. The American clip is simply terrifying when a large audience of children is warned (especially the boys) that same sex relationships are dangerous and that they could ruin lives forever (“1 in 3 of you could turn queer and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”. This clip reminded me of those propaganda films warning of nuclear attacks and instructing small children how to behave when the sirens go off.
In John Curry’s case his problems began with his father who refused to allow him to train as a ballet dancer but accepted skating because its athleticism could be seen as more ‘manly’. Curry was able to train as a skater from an early age but he found that the skating competition authorities were also prejudicial in how they constructed and judged performances. The sport was dominated by Cold War antics and the film suggests that it was a Czech judge who broke ranks and voted for Curry that helped him become a champion. Curry would become a pioneer of an expressive dance style which gradually moved ice skating from purely ‘figure skating’ exercises towards the idea of the ice dance. When in 1976 he won Olympic Gold to go with his European and World titles, he retired from the sport and moved into professional presentations of ice shows in which he hired well-known classical and contemporary dance choreographers and was able to pursue his love of ballet. The second, and longer, section of the documentary deals with the highs and lows of his career as dancer, choreographer and promoter. I was unaware of this career and it was a revelation to watch the beautiful and imaginative performances that he and his dancers produced in the most unlikely places (the Albert Hall in London, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and to marvel at how ice rinks were constructed on an opera stage. The film suggests that Curry accidentally ‘outed’ himself in an interview with an American journalist and was then subject to tabloid coverage in the UK. Since he left ‘sport’ as such and became a dance ‘performer’ he didn’t suffer the UK media pressure that had a more damaging impact on the footballer Justin Fashanu when he confirmed he was a gay man in 1990.
Although the documentary is generally conventional in format, it does begin with John as a competitive dancer who is lucky to find a family of skaters in New York in 1971 who provide a room and friendship for a lonely young man. Later he finds an American millionaire who becomes his sponsor and helps him with expenses. Flashbacks to his childhood then fill in the background. There seems to be a conscious decision at this point to avoid further discussion of his father’s negative feelings and his death when John was only 16. There is no mention either of his schooldays. His father was an engineer who owned his own small factory and John was sent to independent schools, boarding for a period. This must have had an impact on a lonely teenager, whose only outlet seems to have been competitive skating. There must be a reason for this omission but since a large part of the film is John Curry’s struggle with his own demons and his sometimes difficult relationships it seems odd. His ‘inner thoughts’ are expressed in the film through passages from his personal letters which are read by Freddie Fox and appear on screen as hand-written text.
In her Sight and Sound review Hannah McGill suggests that the title ‘The Ice King’ refers to both Curry’s prowess on the ice and to his emotional state. I can see this but several of the interviewees suggest that once you got to know him, this ‘iciness’, proved to be false. Loneliness and the memory of his father’s rejection (his mother later became his biggest supporter) that created insecurity seem to have been the main drivers of his perfectionism. The Ice King is based on a book Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury 2014) which offers more revelations than some of the earlier accounts of Curry’s life. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. McGill suggests that director Erskine tried to make a film like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) or Amy (2015) but seems to leave too many gaps in the story. She suggests that Curry was never the kind of global star that Ayrton Senna became, nor was there the social media material about Curry’s life so there perhaps wasn’t enough ‘extant material’ to tell the story in the Kapadia way, i.e. without a commentary or explanatory talking heads. These are good points and it is perhaps significant that the film is relatively short – 83 mins on TV. Still, I think Erskine succeeds in thrilling us with the material he has found and perhaps performing a service by suggesting that John Curry did have friends he loved as well as enjoying the gay scene in the late 1970s/early 80s before AIDS struck. I’ll certainly remember him now and I recommend The Ice King.
This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.
I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.
Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).
At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.
At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.
When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.
I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.
This shortish documentary (84 mins) received some cinema screenings in the UK before being broadcast on BBC2 at the start of June. It also has a planned release in Australia (under the title Tea With the Dames) and IFC has it for the US. The idea for the film couldn’t be simpler. The four surviving ‘grand dames’ of British theatre, film and television meet at Joan Plowright’s country house in Sussex – something they have done regularly in the past, but this time it is a ‘choreographed’ meeting with cameras present and proceedings under the control of director Roger Michell who asks questions off-screen.
Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were all born in 1934. Joan Plowright is a few years older and she is now visually impaired. The film has several jokes about hearing aids which most of the four appear to need. Judi Dench possibly has the highest public profile of the four, regularly appearing on chat shows and telling her anecdotes. Maggie Smith also has a high public profile, here and abroad because of Downton Abbey. Both Judi and Maggie have gained many fans from working on film franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter respectively. All four women know each other very well, primarily because they met in West End productions as young women and all have a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. One of the experiences they share is working with Laurence Olivier – and Joan Plowright married him in 1961 when he was considerably older. They tell stories about Olivier which only strengthen my idea of him as an unpleasant man (and I never really enjoyed his acting either). Much of this discussion is about playing Shakespeare on the stage and therefore something I know little about.
The most enjoyable parts of the film are concerned with finding out about the early lives of the women and how they got into the business. Some photographs of Eileen Atkins as a young teenager dancing in workingmen’s clubs in relatively skimpy outfits might raise a few eyebrows today, but much about her beginnings reminded me of earlier British actors like Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood except that Atkins eventually more involved in theatre than cinema. Of all the four, I feel that it is Maggie Smith that made the most impression on me in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through her marriage to Robert Stephens. I think I did see their stage performance together in Coward’s Private Lives in 1972. Judi Dench is a great sport and I’d seen her telling some of the anecdotes that she repeats in this film on earlier chat shows. It was nice to be reminded though of her TV sitcom success in A Fine Romance (1981-4) with her real-life husband Michael Williams. I wish I had learned a bit more about Joan Plowright since apart from The Entertainer (1960) I don’t know her work at all. Eileen Atkins is slightly different because I have seen her in quite a few films, but not necessarily in lead roles.
Since I mainly study films and now never get to West End Theatre any more, my sense of the four great actors is limited, but by bringing the four of them together like this the producers of this film (Sally Angel and Karen Steyn) raise two important issues. One is, why were these four made ‘Dames’? It occurred to me that there are at least three other women of a similar age and breadth of career – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Sheila Hancock. I don’t know whether they would accept being made a dame (Redgrave is reported as turning one down in 1999 and I imagine that the other two would think twice about it). My point is that it does seem to be an establishment thing. I’m not arguing that Dench and co don’t deserve all their awards, only that some performances seem to have more ‘worth’ in terms of cultural kudos than others (Judi Dench has also worked extensively in the charities sector). Vanessa Redgrave is acting royalty but also politically a supporter of causes not welcomed by the establishment. She and Glenda Jackson outscore the others in terms of film rather than stage or TV work I think. Following on from this point, I think it would be interesting to contrast the seven UK actors I’ve listed above with leading actors in Europe, especially in France. It’s difficult to do this, but my impression is that the well-known stage actors in the UK tend to end up in much more mainstream fare on screen. This week I saw mention of Isabelle Huppert reading two stories from the Marquis de Sade on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Huppert seems capable and willing to do anything that interests her artistically. Would any of our four great dames do something similar? What would audiences think if they did? (If they have done similar things, forgive me, but I think you understand my drift.) Huppert is twenty years younger, but I’m sure Delphine Seyrig (born 1932, died aged 58) would have been game. In the latest honours list, the establishment skipped a generation to make Emma Thompson a fifth dame. She has a strong film background, but again mainly in middlebrow or prestige productions. The British actors who take on the widest variety of roles, such as Tilda Swinton or the late Billie Whitelaw (known for her work with Beckett) tend to get overlooked – they get the next award down, a CBE. Eventually I found this Wikipedia list of ‘dames’ and there are far more actors (stage, film and TV) than I ever imagined (but how could I have forgotten Dame Thora Hird?). My point still stands though – damehood is granted for the things you do that appeal widely to the public.
Nothing Like a Dame is entertaining and part of the BBC’s arts programming. But it’s time we had some serious programming about film culture back on BBC television.
The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important in the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for African-Americans.
The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.
The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well-chosen songs from the African-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.
The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment, Loving (2016), of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. She scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight craftspeople in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film also respect the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.
Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on African-American women over decades. (Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960s song.) And there is African-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.
One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on to increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trial of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:
“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”
Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.
The film has a limited release into cinemas and is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House this week.
See more on Oscar Micheaux and the ‘race cinema’, including Within Our Gates, a film utilised in this documentary.
I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as
“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”
A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,
“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”
Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.
This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.
This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.
The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.
Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.
There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.
Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.
The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.
Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,
“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.
Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].
The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.
And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.
Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.
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.
‘Arcadia’ is a term full of meanings for cultural work. In one definition on Wikipedia it is seen as “a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires”. The name derives from a region of Greece, so that it is through classical studies that is known in the UK. The GFF Brochure describes the film Arcadia as:
A provocative and poetic exploration of Britain’s relationship with its own land . . . a dense and elegiac essay of wonder, hope, horror and decay.
This shortish documentary feature (78 minutes) was put together by Paul Wright, the director best known for his fiction feature For Those at Peril (UK 2013) about the impact of the deaths of several fishermen on a remote Scottish fishing community. Original music was composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. The film was produced by Hopscotch Films, one of the leading Scottish film production companies and supported by the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland.
The film is divided into various chapters and there is a narrative of sorts that reflects the seasons. I have problems writing about these kinds of ‘poetic’ documentaries, especially when the subject matter is so diffuse and difficult to pin down. I find my concentration wanders when there is not a pithy argument to follow. In this case I did recognise some of the ‘found footage’ taken from various film archives as well as extracts from named documentaries and, I think, possibly from some fiction features. The festival blurb for the film suggests that we are:
following an unnamed protagonist from the future as she travels through metaphorical ‘seasons’; from spring’s romantic agricultural idyll to winter’s political turmoil, as nature reacts with violent storms.
I couldn’t make much sense of this.
What is the relationship between people(s) in the UK and the landscapes of these islands? It’s certainly mixed. For some it’s about the ‘pastoral’ and the concept of living close to nature and some kind of innocence. For others it’s about superstition and inward-looking cultures and for some it’s the ‘folk horror’ of The Wicker Man (UK 1973). Although this film is produced within a Scottish context, many of the ideas in the film seem to come from a rural ‘English’ culture (and are often seen from the perspective of the middle-class – UK archives carry a lot of footage taken by amateur filmmakers, most of whom were middle-class). There is also input of material from the rather disparagingly termed ‘Celtic ‘ and ‘Nordic’ ‘fringes’ – there are several events from Padstow and the Up Helly Aa day from Lerwick. At the beginning of the film I remembered John Major’s famous misuse of Orwell and the “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. We were watching a seemingly timeless scene of an English village coming alive in the morning. I feel that sometimes these images can be a pernicious form of nostalgia. They mask so many political realities across rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (North and South). The one extraordinary element I remember from Arcadia was the amount of ‘naturist’ footage. Who on earth shot all of this footage? Is it from a naturist archive? Nubile young women did form more of the naked figures on display, though to be fair there were some naked males as well. What was the point of including this footage? Is it as simple as ‘naturism’ and ‘nature’?
You might be getting the impression that I was not as enthralled by this film as perhaps I should have been and you would be right. I’m interested in both industrial history and social/cultural history but not the ‘pastoral’ so much. Having said that, Arcadia did remind me of the great film directors who have attempted to use the British landscape. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Powell in The Edge of the World (1937), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Gone to Earth (1950). Powell was a ‘High Tory’ and with Pressburger he was interested in passion expressed through landscapes. I’d love to see a documentary collage of the use of landscapes in British cinema. It would also be interesting to compare Arcadia with Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (UK 1942) as a poetic documentary representation of Britain during the early part of the Second World War. This last year has also seen the release of three successful small independent films dealing with the loneliness of small farming families: God’s Own Country (2017) and Dark River (2017) set in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire respectively and The Levelling (2017) set in Somerset. Arcadia certainly has a subject to explore but perhaps not in the way it worked out. I’ve been rather hampered in writing this review as I haven’t found a full crew list (who edited all the clips – was it Paul Wright himself?) and I struggled to find images, even on the Hopscotch Films site. I’m not sure how Hopscotch Films are going to follow up this festival screening (and previously London and Leeds with Borderlines to come) with a cinema, download or DVD release, but I think they need better promotional materials. The images from the film that I did find were from the website of another production partner Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity with some interesting projects. This film is worth seeing but probably with an introduction and a discussion. It might even work best in a gallery installation. And that reminds me to recommend John Akomfrah’s work, especially The Nine Muses (UK 2010) if this kind of film interests you.