Tagged: Realism

The Clouded Yellow (UK 1950)

This is an important film for several reasons but it has suffered distribution problems and has perhaps not been as celebrated as it deserves. Its first claim to significance is that it was the production that launched the partnership of Betty Box as producer and Ralph Thomas as director – a partnership that lasted into the 1970s and which proved to be the most consistently profitable for the Rank Organisation, especially during the period of the ‘Doctor’ series of comedies in the 1950s. Betty Box had begun her career in wartime training films and then joined her brother Sydney Box at Gainsborough Studios where she ran the small production base in Islington. After a number of successful popular films, including the Huggett family comedies, Rank decided to ‘consolidate’ its empire, closing Gainsborough and re-focusing solely on Pinewood as its production base. The plans to make The Clouded Yellow were caught up in the closure procedure. Having already committed to The Clouded Yellow as a project when it was passed to her by her brother, Box decided to go ahead with the production using her own money to ensure the film was completed. The film was then released by Rank through General Film Distributors, but appears to have been picked up by Columbia in the US. It was scheduled as an Eagle-Lion release in the US but Rank wound up that company before the American release date in November 1951. A DVD did finally appear in 2008 but only in a cut version. Finally in 2010 a full 91 minute DVD became available in the UK. With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time. Even so, there did seem to be a few frames missing in the version I watched.

Trevor Howard in 1950 was at the peak of his early fame

The first shot of Jean Simmons in the film as she turns to see Trevor Howard

The second key feature of the production is the script by Janet Green, her first for a film production. She had been a stage actor and had written a play in 1945. Her work was distinctive and as well as thrillers her scripts often picked up on social issues such as racism in Sapphire (1959) and persecution of ‘homosexual’ men in Victim (1961). There are flaws in the script of The Clouded Yellow but it still convinces as a tightly-plotted work with some original features for a British film in 1950. Betty Box in her memoir tells us that Eric Ambler worked on the script when Green was unavailable. As well as Green as a writer, Betty Box also had Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time as her DoP. She also had a stellar cast, headed by Trevor Howard at the peak of his early fame as a leading man and Jean Simmons (British actress of the year in 1949) in her last British picture before her move to Hollywood. There were several notable players in the supporting cast, including Kenneth More and others like Geoffrey Keen who would become well-known in 1950s and 1960s cinema.

The noir scenes in Newcastle

Outline

David Somers (Trevor Howard) arrives back in the UK from a foreign trip, passing through customs at the airport without a passport. He’s a British agent now seemingly disgraced because of his failure on a mission. His boss suggests he should ‘retire’ and find a quiet job. Somers eventually takes up a temporary job cataloguing a collection of butterfly specimens for Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones) a collector in Hampshire. The ‘Clouded Yellow’ is a ‘migratory European butterfly’ often seen in Southern England and less commonly across the whole of the UK. Jess Fenton (Sonia Dresdel) seems very concerned about the mental state of her niece Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who had lost her parents when she was a young child. Somers befriends Sophie and when she is suspected of murder, he attempts to smuggle her out of the country (something he presumably did as part of his time as a British secret service agent). The chase that ensues involves scenes in London, Newcastle, the Lake District and finally Liverpool.

Kenneth More in an early and untypical role as Willie

Commentary

The film is structured partly by the choice of location which in turn influences the use of genre conventions. The opening of the film and the beginnings of the chase are set in London and mainly in the West End/Whitehall area familiar from many films. The country house in Hampshire offers a very different environment and this section of the film does suggest the gothic romance of something like Jane Eyre or its Val Lewton conception, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Somers is sent from a London office London and eventually finds himself in a large house where a young woman is seemingly kept under close scrutiny and may be under some form of ‘control’ by her guardians. Although the house is ‘light and airy’, there is still a sense of ‘disturbance’ and one fateful night the young woman goes walking in the grounds.

The large numbers of police comb the fells in the Lake District

The sequence in Newcastle includes a chase at night and this may be the basis for the suggestion that this is a film noir, such is the depiction of the city. It is also in Newcastle that we get a sense of Somers’ network of contacts, but also that he is under close surveillance by his former service colleague Willie (Kenneth More) who has been assigned to find him (to protect the prestige of the service). The Lake District footage involves a different aesthetic, reminiscent of some American crime stories in which scores of police in cars, on motorbikes and even with the aid of a helicopter (unusual for 1950) scour the hills around Ullswater. The framings become characterised by very long shots of the police on hillsides and big close-ups, especially of Jean Simmons fearing capture.

This American poster makes the link to Hitchcock and Reed

The film’s denouement in Liverpool includes two distinctive elements. Somers’ contacts involve members of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the oldest in Europe and located close to extensive docklands in 1950. The docklands themselves and the warehouses and railway network necessary to move the huge tonnage of goods provides the spectacular setting for the finale. The entire chase sequence from London via Newcastle and then the Lakes has prompted many reviewers to cite Hitchcock’s 1935 romance-thriller The 39 Steps as an important influence. That film was made by Gainsborough as were other Hitchcocks such as The Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Along with Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), these titles were used in promoting the film. Placing The Clouded Yellow alongside Hitchcock is justifiable but there is a difference in the sense that any romance between Somers and Sophie is only hinted at rather than exploited as potentially erotic. Jean Simmons plays Sophie as young and Howard is her protector. She was actually 21 while he was 36.

Newspaper puns?

Somers’ motivation is presented by the script as the ‘freeing’ of a young woman from a trap. Depending on your point of view, the script is either clever in the way it weaves the symbol of ‘entrapment’ through the narrative or possibly ‘over the top’ if you don’t like melodrama. Sophie is known in the press reports as ‘the Butterfly Girl’. We’ve already noted that the Clouded Yellow butterfly is a migrant, just like the contacts Somers has in Newcastle. In another strand, Somers reacts very strongly to the odd-job man at the Hampshire house (played by Maxwell Reed) who traps rabbits to sell. C. A . Lejeune in The Sketch magazine (December 1950) described the film as “Lively, extravagant melodrama and don’t bother your head about the symbols”. The Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in November 1950 thought it “not excitingly enough made to compensate for its improbabilities and clichés”. But these rather silly statements by esteemed critics didn’t stop the film being successful and pleasing many audiences. It repaid Box’s faith in her decision to back it with her own money and established her partnership with Thomas at Pinewood.

Somers and Sophie with their Chinese contact in Liverpool

I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Clouded Yellow for the second time with a better print than on my first viewing and I think I appreciated it more. As well as the performances by Howard and Simmons and the photography by Unsworth, what distinguishes the film is the location footage for the chase sequences. Although more films were being shot on location at this time, few made such extensive use of authentic locations with Howard and Simmons expected to traverse real streams and climb on real hills. There is a nice press release from mid-1950 pointing out that  Jean Simmons survived her scenes in the Lakes but twisted her ankle on the set at Pinewood. If you are a train or bus enthusiast I recommend the film highly. But we could do with a Blu-ray, please!

Here’s a short extract from the noir sequence in Newcastle:

Sidney Poitier: Edge of the City (US 1957)

(from left) Malick (Jack Warden), Tommy (Sidney Poitier and Axel (John Cassavetes)

1957 marked a turning point in American cinema when it was becoming easier for blacklisted personnel in the industry to get jobs and to find sympathetic subjects to work on. Director Martin Ritt began his film career in television but was eventually forced out in the early 1950s after an anti-communist newsletter that accused him of supporting communists in US trade unions. Like Nicholas Ray, his background was the 1930s theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He was also closely allied to Elia Kazan. After four years back in the theatre world he made Edge of the City as his first cinema feature and looking through the credits of the film I notice several of his creative colleagues are associated with socially conscious films of one kind or another. Ritt himself would go on to have a successful career even though he started relatively late as a director, being nearly 43 when the film was released. His is one of the names I remember from the 1960s because of the progressive subject matter of his films.

Edge of the City presents a story set in the docklands of New York and features John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier as joint topliners. Axel North (Cassavetes) is a young drifter who blags his way into a job as a stevedore (US: longshoreman) based on a tip he must have received, only to discover that he has been duped and that he has to pay a cut of his wages to gang leader Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). But on his first day he also makes contact with another gang leader, the more friendly Tommy Tyler (Poitier). The two quickly form a bond. Though Axel remains wary, he ends up renting a room close to Tommy’s home. Tommy turns out to be be a ‘good guy’ who introduces Axel to his wife (Ruby Dee in one of her several roles with Poitier) and small son. The couple even find Axel a date with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) and invite them both to dinner and dancing in a club. Axel is very nervous and by chance an incident threatens to reveal something about his background – we already know he has a difficult relationship with his parents. Gradually he opens up to Tommy.

Lucy Tyler (Ruby Dee) in the foreground with Axel and Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire) who develops a relationship with Axel

The closer Axel and Tommy get, the more we fear that trouble at work will emerge created by a vengeful Malick. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t recount any more of the plot except to say that the work confrontation does provide the climax of the narrative. I want instead to make more general comments. The first is to express some disappointment that we don’t learn too much about the job which appears to be confined to a small area in which boxes and other larger containers are being loaded onto railway freight wagons. The presentation of parts of New York is in line with the general realist work familiar from late 1940s films and 1950s filmed TV series. The jazz-tinged score by Leonard Rosenman is perhaps the marker of a period when black and white features like this used jazz as a sign of modernity. The dancing featured in the film seemed almost free-form to me but I’m no expert on dance at this time.

As my title for this post makes clear, I chose this film because of Poitier. At this point in his career he was mostly playing supporting roles. It would be in the following year with The Defiant Ones (1958) that he would receive joint top billing in a major feature. In Edge of the City, though Poitier had featured in prominent roles in several ‘A’ films, his billing was shared with Cassavetes. Two years younger than Poitier, Cassavetes had many TV credits to his name but only two films, being ‘Introduced’ in 1956 in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Intrigued by the background of this film I started to research it more deeply. I discovered that it was in effect a remake of a celebrated TV play from 1955 titled A Man is Ten Feet Tall written by Robert Aurthur and directed by Robert Mulligan and Hal Tulchin for ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Poitier repeats his role as Tommy Tyler but the rest of the cast for TV was different. I think the TV version was only 60 minutes whereas the film is 85 mins – I’m guessing that the Axel’s back story featuring his parents is one of the extra elements.

Axel watches Tommy and Lucy dance.

Edge of the City is Axel’s story and, though a major presence, Tommy Tyler is a secondary character. In institutional terms Poitier’s career is not moving forward. The role itself does seem to confirm the Poitier persona as a ‘good Negro’ in 1950s terms. But his ‘goodness’ is presented through the way he welcomes Axel and looks after him. In some ways Tommy seems just too welcoming, too friendly. Is he a bit isolated at work himself? Is it that he ‘feels’ Axel’s sense of isolation and that the two of them would both benefit from a strong bond of friendship? We don’t really learn how Tommy came to be a gang-leader. Come to that, we get only brief glimpses of the management of the dock work. I’m tempted to compare Edge of the City to two other features set around the same time. In Flame in the Streets (UK 1961) it is the possibility that a West Indian migrant might become a factory foreman in a London company that causes major problems within the trade union. The film stars Earl Cameron – in some ways the UK’s own Poitier figure, but not so successful. In 1959 Harry Belafonte heads a starry cast in Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York-set crime film with a little of the same feel for New York as Edge of the City. Belafonte had a quite different career compared to Poitier. Perhaps his star image as a popular singer was a major factor in winning him lead roles starting with his second film Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954)? Belafonte also moved into co-producer and later producer roles, including his 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, directed by Poitier and starring the two of them.

Axel and Tommy need to remain vigilant at work.

The promotion of Edge of the City and much of the writing around the film focuses on Malick’s ‘bigotry’ and in particular his racism. Malick is certainly a bigot and a bully and racism is part of that bigotry. But I’m not sure that institutional racism in terms of employment opportunities on the docks is represented in the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that the dock workers are all white except Tommy, but this isn’t true. There must be four or five other black workers but I don’t think they are speaking parts – perhaps their silence is a feature of their secondary status? (See the black worker in the background of the image above.) But Tommy is certainly vocal and in a position of some authority. It does look as if Malick’s gang is whites only, but I can’t be sure. Although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed that there was no union presence as such and that other workers were prepared to stand back both when Malick was the attacker and when he was losing a fight or an argument. Tommy doesn’t seem to be associated with the other black workers. Edge of the City is not really attempting to copy On The Waterfront as some reviews suggest. Axel is really the protagonist and the narrative is his ‘journey’ towards finding himself and finding the courage to act. Poitier’s character is arguably another ‘good Negro’ teaching whites how to work and live with dignity and purpose – and suffering for it.

Possibly the film is trying to do too much. Axel’s back story is a driving force and is gradually revealed over the course of the film. It means that the potentially interesting characters of  Lucy and Ellen are perhaps not developed as much as they could be. Cassavetes was well on the way to stardom with this film. It seems to have taken longer for Poitier, though in the end he made it all the way to the top and Cassavetes moved into directing independent films with acting as something to help pay the bills. Martin Ritt would work on a range of films deemed ‘liberal’ including other ‘men at work’ pictures and others with black protagonists. He again worked with Sidney Poitier, alongside Paul Newman Joanne Woodward, in Paris Blues (1961) and later with Cicely Tyson as part of a sharecropping family in the South in the 1930s in Sounder (1972). Despite my misgivings Edge of the City is definitely a film worth watching and an interesting step forward for Sidney Poitier.

LFF 2021 #5: Hit the Road (Jaddeh Khaki, Iran 2021)

Hassan Majouni as the older man and Amin Simiar as the younger man

This début feature was shown in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. But then the writer-director has the distinction of being the son of Jafar Panahi. In the film’s online introduction, Panah Panahi explained that he has always liked to start watching films ‘from zero’ and that he didn’t want his audience to read about or be told about his film before they watched it. I’d better be careful and not say too much.

Pantea Panahiha as the woman

As the title implies this is a form of road movie. For an ancient viewer like me it has been very difficult to think of the title without adding ‘Jack’ – ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles (1961) was a classic song of my youth. Of course, road movies often have music on car radios or players and this film continues the tradition. The Iranian pop songs of the 1970s are enjoyable and especially in the way they are used here. We meet four people who are probably related but we don’t get their names. There is an older couple, a younger man as the driver and a small boy, a real bundle of energy. There is also a dog, possibly sick or injured. Why are they together on this journey? Where are they going and why? We will find out over the course of the film, though we won’t ever know everything. You will however, have a wonderful time and will be glad you saw the film. I can’t guarantee that of course but all the reactions I’ve seen have been good.

This image seems almost like a painted backdrop

If you saw the film 3 Faces (Iran 2018), made by Jafar Panahi, it could give you some idea about what you might see in Hit the Road. This new film is not a copy or a sequel, but the region where it was shot looks familiar. It might be in the mountains of Northern Iran from where the Panahi family originate. 3 Faces was edited by Panah Panahi and it was photographed by Amin Jafari. Panah Panahi asked him to shoot Hit the Road and in the Q&A said that they worked well together with the cinematographer providing advice about working with actors. Panah Panahi had previously made his own music video productions but did not have the experience of working with successful actors such as Pantea Panahiha as the woman and Hassan Majouni as her partner. The director revealed that he eventually realised that they each approached their roles very differently and that it was best to allow this to happen rather than attempt to impose his own ideas. The young boy and the young man are played by actors who I don’t think have had previous experience so would have to have been directed differently. But however he did it Panahi found the right method.

What I’ve described sounds like a familiar realist/neo-realist road movie enhanced by the treatment of landscape. Panahi told us that he and Jafari decided to stick with ‘normal’ lenses (i.e. 35-50mm) and to avoid any spatial distortion. This is another familiar aspect of a neo-realist approach, especially with the use of long shots – ‘figures in a landscape’- see the trailer below. Panahi does however offer us a very beautiful and moving fantasy sequence towards the end of the film which is all the more affecting because of the contrast with what we have seen previously.

For many reviewers, Rayan Sarlak as the boy steals the film

Hit the Road has been acquired for UK and Ireland distribution by Picturehouse so it will come to UK cinemas. I note that it is also screening in the Leeds International Film Festival in November. Try and see it if it comes to a cinema near you. It will look very good on a big screen.

Here’s a very good trailer that shows you the four characters and gives glimpses of the use of landscapes, but doesn’t give away anything concrete about the narrative as such.

The Girl (Eltávozott nap, Hungary 1968)

This début fiction feature by the documentarist Márta Mészáros is a stunning portrait of a young woman in Hungary searching with steely determination for a sense of her own identity in a society experiencing a dramatic contrast between tradition and developing modernity. It is both an example of the New Wave films of Eastern Europe in the late 1960s and one of the early films of feminist cinema in Europe (although Mészáros is reported as not recognising the ‘feminist’ label). The film is currently streaming on MUBI as part of a four film offering of restored prints. The film also goes by two other English titles, The Day Has Gone and The Sun Has Gone.

The head of the instution with her staff welcoming the ‘old girls’ to the monthly meal.

The central character is Erzsi, a young woman of 24 who has grown up in a state orphanage and now works in a textile factory, living in what appears to be a dormitory in a workers’ hostel. The narrative opens with  a monthly meal at the orphanage where the former residents are served by the older girls who are still living in the orphanage. The opening credits have shown us a group of young women in their twenties being given training in archery. The orphanage and its ‘alumni’ association appear to be single sex institutions, possibly linked directly to the factory as state institutions. Eventually Erzsi is picked out by the camera when she leaves the Sunday meal, complaining that she doesn’t feel well. In fact she is probably just bored. Later she tells her friend that she has made contact with a woman who is probably her mother and she has decided to visit the village where this woman lives. Erzsi is played by Kati Kovács who in 1968 had already been recognised in a TV talent contest and had sung a winning song in a televised dance-song festival. After 1970 her recording career took off and she has become one of Hungary’s most famous singers. Her confidence as a performer is already evident in her portrayal of Erzsi.

Kati Kovács as Erzsi on the train to visit the village

Erzsi takes a train and a bus to get to the village where she finds the family house of her mother. But the welcome is not warm – the woman says that she will introduce Erzsi as a niece who is visiting because she has a work appointment close by. The evening and the next day are difficult for Erzsi. The woman is married and has a grown up son, and a younger boy with her husband. His mother is also living with her. Erzsi becomes the focus of attention for the husband and eldest son. She gets little opportunity to speak to any of the family, even if she wanted to. In a key scene, the family watch a TV broadcast from London of a ‘beauty contest’ (see the image below). Note how the woman watches her husband but the others watch the screen. The woman is dressed traditionally and so is her mother (still in the kitchen). Television was still relatively new in the 1960s, especially in rural Hungary, and these formal groups (as in the UK in the 1950s) were common for audiences. The following day the family attend a dance in the village and the traditional/modern split becomes more apparent especially between the younger and older women. The band is a ‘beat group’ which resembles those seen in small towns in the UK in the 1960s. Erzsi leaves soon after the dance without saying goodbye. On the train back to Budapest she decides to go home with a man she meets.

The family tableau watching the beauty contest

When she gets up the next morning in her dormitory she returns to the factory and socialises with her small circle of friends. She has ‘admirers’, including a young man who appears to be stalking her. Her attitudes towards men are straightforward. She enjoys some of the attention and dismisses other attempts to engage with her. She appears to enjoy her sexual encounters but has no romantic notions. I was reminded to some extent of the Hungarian girl who loves the ratcatcher in Dusan Makavejev’s Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Erzsi is a ‘modern’ young woman but she is still interested in finding out about her history. The film is also similar in some ways to Pawel Pawlikowski’s later prize-winning Ida (Poland 2013) but in The Girl, Erzsi who would have been born in 1944, does not engage directly in discussions about the Second World War. She does eventually meet a man who claims to have known her parents and he tells her a story about them. They are both dead it seems. Erzsi doesn’t believe him but later says it was a ‘nice story’. Hungarians in the 1960s must have been conflicted about remembering the war period. They did not come out of it well, aligned to the Axis powers initially and then occupied by the Nazis. This history also affected the later relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary.

Erzsi in ‘cool’ mode

The oddest thing about Erzsi is that on three occasions she pays the bills for people she meets or her friends. She is paid a modest wage as a textile worker but seems unconcerned about money. Overall, she is a ‘cool’ character who might appear in any 1960s film from Europe or North America. Much of the impetus behind this character must come from Márta Mészáros herself. The director wrote the script herself and her own biography records a similar history of ‘displacement’. Born in 1931, Mészáros went with her artist parents to Moscow as a young child and was orphaned a few years later, being brought up by a foster mother. She returned to Hungary as a teenager in 1946 and later went back to Moscow for film school. She then worked as a documentary filmmaker in both Hungary and Romania. Her second marriage was to the director Miklós Jancsó. They divorced in 1973. The Girl created a strong impression with critics and audiences but divisions quickly developed and it has been suggested that Mészáros became more popular outside Hungary. The reason for this was her strong central aim of exploring the ‘modernising’ of Hungarian society and specifically gender and sexual relations. I suspect that she also disturbed audiences with her probing into personal and social history in a society in which personal identity post-1945 was a difficult issue for many. Here’s a more theorised observation from one writer on Mészáros:

There are not many reviews of The Girl in English and some of them seem off the mark to me. Erzsi is often seen by reviewers as ‘lonely’ and ‘oppressed’. One American review I read seemed to suggest that this was because Hungary was a cold and unhappy country in the Soviet bloc. I don’t think Erzsi is alone and oppressed but clear-eyed and focused. The narrative is recognisable as an East European New Wave film but the standout performance of Kati Kovács is riveting. It is worth watching the film just to see this powerful performance. Her hair and dress sense is modern and sophisticated but it is her ‘gaze’ that is most striking. The presentation of pop music in Hungary in the film is remarkable for most Western viewers (although I am reminded of the earlier Czech New Wave film Audition (Czechoslovakia 1963, by Milos Forman) and the images below refer to a dance at the end of the film in which the band seem to be riffing, in both a musical and fashion sense, on Californian psychedelic and rock music of 1966/7.

Erzsi turns away her friend at a dance and takes up with a man who has been watching her

The band at the dance – channeling The Byrds or Lovin’ Spoonful?

The Girl is a relatively short film, more like 84 minutes in this restoration than the 90 suggested by IMDb. The restoration looks very good and the black and white photography by Tamás Somló presented in Academy (1.37:1) does justice to Márta Mészáros’ selection of locations and framings. Both director and cinematographer had come out of documentary work and with Kati Kovács’ performance as a focus the presentation of life in Budapest and the contrast with the outlying village is compelling. This is one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. I note the next film in the quartet has just popped up on MUBI. There is too much to watch all of a sudden. In fact we have already reviewed one of the four restorations, Adoption ( Hungary 1975). Other films by Márta Mészáros on this blog are Diary for My Children (Hungary 1982/4),  The Unburied Man (Hungary-Poland-Slovakia 2004) and The Last Report on Anna (Hungary 2009). Her latest film is Aurora Borealis: Északi fény (2017). Her body of work is in many ways comparable with that of Agnès Varda and it deserves to be much more widely celebrated.

Camille (France 2019)

Camille Lepage in the midst of the action

This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.

Background

Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)

The view from a French military vehicle as a group of Anti-balaka approach

CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.

Camille approaches the Anti-balaka alone. The Union Jack hat is an incongruous image – the football jerseys are Spanish or German

The filmmakers

Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.

Camille makes contact with local young people (Grégoire Colin and Bruno Todeschini are walking behind portraying journalists)

Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.

How to respond?

I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.

The stills photographer presents Camille in sharp focus, but Leila , an important character in the story is blurred in the shallow focus

The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms  of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.

Lessons of Love (Italy 2019)

The winter home for the cows indoors.

My second film from the online ArteKino Festival turned out to be a technically accomplished low budget feature made as part of La Biennale di Venezia of 2019. The film production was awarded a budget of €150,000 as part of the Biennale College Cinema project. This is the first feature of Chiara Campara. It’s a short feature, listed by the Biennale at 79 minutes but running at 82 minutes in the online festival.

Yuri and Agata on a trip in the mountains.

I’m slightly non-plussed in my attempts to categorise the feature. Its central character is Yuri (Leonardo Lidi) an unmarried 30 year-old, the eldest of three siblings of a farmer in what I assume to be Northern Italy, perhaps in Trentino-South Tyrol. The district is not named but the farm practises a form of transhumance – cattle being taken up to higher ground for summer grazing but kept in pens under cover for winter. Also, Yuri has a small stone hut in a forest which he says was used in the Great War when Italy fought against Austria. Yuri has reached a ‘dangerous age’. He doesn’t know whether to stay on the farm or leave for the nearest large town. His main relaxation is to visit a night club which features pole dancers and private rooms and he has begun a relationship of sorts with one of the dancers, Agata (Alice Torriani). Yuri is clearly a marginalised young man. He’s tall but overweight, though he has an attractive face. He moves slowly and thinks deeply. He works methodically and is clearly skilled in what he does on the farm. He is serious about ‘courting’ Agata but is she too ‘worldly’ for him? Meanwhile his sister has what he considers an unsuitable boyfriend and is about to move out. His younger brother, still in his teens is also likely to leave. Yuri does have the option of moving to the large town and working for his uncle’s construction site team.

Yuri tries out working on a construction site . . .

I can think of several similar films in terms of characters and settings. In the UK a few years ago we had as many as three features which all developed narratives about farms in regions with what might be seen as ‘marginal’ agricultural operations. The one that sprang to mind immediately was arguably the most successful of these, God’s Own Country (UK 2017). But that film was much more dramatic featuring a conflict between the young man and his parents and the appearance of a migrant worker who turned out to be gay. Lessons of Love is much more restrained. It has a realist style and I wasn’t surprised to read that Chiara Campara had trained as a documentarist and had previously directed a  medium-length documentary feature and photographed another. There is attention to detail in all the scenes looking at agricultural practice. I’ve seen references to the film as a form of romance, but I don’t think there is enough to justify such a label and audiences may be frustrated if there was that expectation.

. . . but is he still too close to his cows to leave them for good?

I assume the film is intended primarily to be a character study of Yuri and in that respect it works pretty well but I’m not sure it is sufficient in itself to support a feature. Yuri seems mild mannered but on three occasions at least he loses his temper suggesting that there is more going on beneath the surface. The director’s statement on the Biennale website suggests that it is a “delayed coming of age” narrative – one that requires Yuri to ask a lot of questions of himself and where he wants to go with his life, both in is relationships and his working and leisure life choices. That’s fair enough. I don’t necessarily want those questions to be answered and it is probably enough that they are raised, in particular the cost, expressed in several different ways associated with leaving his life of working close to nature and both his cows and wildlife compared to moving into the exciting but stressed world of urban living. But in the end I think even a short feature of 80 minutes needs a little more drama. I think I found this a film to be admired for its performances and the cinematography of Giuseppe Maio. There is also an interesting discourse about the music Yuri plays in his car. But I think the script (by the director and Lorenzo Faggi) is a weakness. I enjoyed some of the sociological detail – I wasn’t aware of a country music culture in rural Italy – but I needed to be more engaged by the narrative. However, I was impressed by the director’s skills evident in a first feature and I will be interested in what she does next.

Lessons of Love trailer