Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:
Carol (UK-US-France 2015)
Girlhood (France 2014)
Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)
OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)
Phoenix (Germany 2014)
Piku (India, Hindi 2015)
Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)
Theeb (Jordan 2015)
Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)
West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)
Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.
Half of the ten films above are films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.
I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.
Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.
I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?
I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.
2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.
These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
Some time today this blog site will pass 1 million page views. It’s not that many considering that we’ve been online since 2008, but it’s still a sign that people are interested in a wide range of films. Perhaps more significantly we know that we’ve been visited from over 200 countries – more than the number of members of the UN – so our reach is genuinely ‘global’ (see the little ‘Visitor Flags’ indicator) in the sidebar. We hope at least some of those page visits have helped to entertain and inform.
This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.
In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.
The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.
They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.
Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.
Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.
Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.
It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.
The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.
After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.
In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.
Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.
To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.
The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.
I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.
I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.
The film scholar and film educationalist Jim Hillier has died after a long illness. He was the first film teacher I met and my experience of a week of seminars studying the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie at the BFI Summer School in Stirling in 1974 was the start of my formal engagement with film. At that time Jim was the Deputy Head of the ‘Educational Advisory Service’ of the British Film Institute at their old offices in Dean Street and in a key position to help kickstart film education in schools and colleges in the UK. What struck me then was how open and welcoming he was towards young teachers and what a difference his approach represented compared to some of the university teachers I had encountered a few years previously. Jim’s enthusiasm for film was infectious and I remember his stories about cycling across London to visit obscure suburban cinemas, soon to shut down, in the hope of seeing films by important directors which he had missed first time around.
In 1975 Jim Hillier was one of a group scholars and teachers responsible for the revival of the journal Movie which had first been published in 1962 but had suffered two interruptions since then. The others involved comprised Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, Michael Walker and Ian Cameron and the first new volume carried articles by Doug Pye and Charles Barr. Movie didn’t survive in its third incarnation for very long but it provided a different take on the emerging field of film studies to that coming from Screen in the mid-1970s, providing examples of close reading of texts and leading the UK analysis of American cinema in particular. Jim Hillier was also on the boards of Screen and Screen Education at this point and also already a published author, having written Studies in Documentary with his colleague Alan Lovell for the Cinema One series in 1972. As a film scholar, Jim had many interests as demonstrated by some of the other titles in his impressive list of publications. The two volumes of selected translations of articles from Cahiers du Cinéma that he edited over many years and which emerged in 1985-6 and New Hollywood (1993 Studio Vista) represent essential resources for any film student. Later he co-authored The Film Studies Dictionary (Arnold 2001) with Steve Blandford and Barry Keith Grant and three of the BFI’s ‘100 Films’ Series with Alistair Phillips (Film Noirs, 2009), Barry Keith Grant (Documentaries, 2009) and Doug Pye (Film Musicals, 2011). Somehow he also found time to edit the BFI collection Howard Hawks: American Artist with Peter Wollen (1997) and the Sight and Sound Reader on American Independent Cinema in 2008.
That first book on Studies in Documentary in 1972 arose from Jim’s experience of the BFI/London University Extra-Mural Film Studies courses, the training ground for many later film teachers (and which eventually became the basis for Birkbeck College’s film and media degree programme). In 1979 I was invited to teach an Extra-Mural class with Jim. From him I learned the pleasures and great strengths of team teaching and I was also introduced to several of his less well-known film interests such as the avant-garde films of Jon Jost and both popular Hindi cinema in the form of Guru Dutt and the parallel cinema of Kumar Shahani. I taught again with him in 1987 and it was noticeable that despite his writing activities he still had the enthusiasm to offer the introductory courses in the programme. Working for the ILEA (Inner Education Authority) I was also aware of Jim’s part in the development of the ILEA Sixth Form Film Project, one of the first attempts to put film education into practice on a large scale across Inner London schools. Jim was involved in the development of the first GCE O Level in film in the early 1970s and then later the A Level in Film Studies in the 1990s. When Jim took up a post at Bulmershe College in Reading (which eventually became part of Reading University) he became a greatly respected and much-loved university teacher. The tributes on this blog with contributions from Doug Pye and other colleagues and students attest to the impact he had as tutor and scholar. It seems fitting that at the time of his death, Jim Hillier was still listed as a guest at the Midnight Film Festival in Finland, June 2014. Finnish Cinema was another of his interests and he had first written on New Cinema in Finland in 1972. Jim’s combination of inspirational teacher and scholar across so many different forms of cinema is rare and deserves to be long remembered.
For the past couple of years I’ve been trying to distil some of the best ideas and analysis on The Case for Global Film into a form that I hope will be accessible and useful for students and teachers. The project has now reached fruition in the form of The Global Film Book published in January by Routledge in the UK and US. I’m very grateful to Routledge for their support in publishing a full colour textbook with a range of illustrations and I think it looks very good.
I have also committed to writing a support blog for the book and that too is now live at globalfilmstudies.com At the moment, nearly all the posts on the new blog are taken from the archives of The Case for Global Film, but they are organised in relation to the structure of the book and, over time, new material will appear as exclusive to the new blog (but I will also continue to contribute to this one).
The new book offers an argument about the global production of films (and includes a chapter on ‘global television’) and analyses the ways in which the international trade in film exports operates. It can’t cover every film-producing territory so I have selected certain film industries and film cultures in order to explore specific aspects of my general argument. After a brief outline of the development of the international trade in films since the early 20th century, the book offers an analysis of the influence of the ‘Hollywood model’ and then considers ideas about European ‘national cinemas’ in the UK, France, Spain and the Nordic countries.
I’ve included a chapter on the festival circuit, new waves and auteur cinema (with a case study on Claire Denis). Cuba and Sub-Saharan Africa feature in discussion of what was once known as Third Cinema, ‘Middle East Without Borders’ surveys a region whose cinematic identity often seems to be defined by those outside the region and which is sometimes characterised by the influence of diasporic and ‘exilic’ filmmaking. Japan and South Korea are the focus for a debate about the challenge to the idea of Hollywood as the ‘only’ classical cinema and Indian and Chinese cinemas get separate chapters in recognition of their importance for the future.
One chapter looks at four case studies of filmmaking from around the world and attempts to help students become engaged. I’m going to draw on this material in a free event to be hosted by the National Media Museum in Bradford on Saturday 15 March which will launch the book officially. Film and media teachers and students of all ages (including evening class students) are welcome to attend. Please check out the details here. After this event I will also be giving an illustrated talk to introduce the screening of the new Claire Denis film Bastards (France-Germany 2013).
If you can’t make the launch, the book is available from all good bookshops and the usual online stores – it’s also available as a Kindle book and an e-book from Taylor & Francis (Routledge’s parent company). You can get full details and ‘look inside’ on the Routledge website.
The Global Film Book follows on from The Media Student’s Book in not being tied to a specific syllabus or course. I hope it provides useful background and an introduction to study of films from around the world for any student from A Level to undergraduate and evening class – indeed anyone interested in global film.