Tag Archives: BFI

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer + Q&A with Charlie Ahearn | BFI, 18 June, 18:10

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I’m properly excited about this event, so I thought I’d give it a plug here. The BFI is hosting the UK premiere of this documentary by celebrated hip-hop historian and director, Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style). Its subject, Jamel Shabazz, started out as a teenage photographer in early ’80s Brooklyn, and set out to document the then nascent hip-hop movement. According to the blurb, “Ahearn takes us on a modern day and very personal journey with Shabazz as he revisits old neighbourhoods and talks to friends and colleagues about life in New York, hip-hop culture and its 30-year history.”

Anyway, it looks great. You can book tickets here.

Here’s some more of Jamel’s work to get you in the mood.

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See you there.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) | review

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“It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every grey hair on my head I call ‘Kinski’?”

Werner Herzog’s triumphant anti-epic concerning man’s crazed will to power – over nature, other men and adverse shooting conditions – is now being brought back to the big screen by the British Film Institute in all its compelling, insane glory.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog’s first collaboration with genius/maniac Klaus Kinski, who works to evil, haughty effect in the role of the vaingloriously ambitious Don Lope de Aguirre. Towering, glowering, hyper-intelligent and totally unhinged, Aguirre hacks like a zealous devil through an unwelcoming Amazon on his singularly quixotic quest. With the mythical treasures of Eldorado as his goal, promises of boundless wealth, fame and power burning in his fevered imagination, Aguirre is the ostensible leader of an ever-more rag-tag group of lost conquistadors as they stumble towards their stifling Equatorial graves. With the uncomfortable nearness of the jungle translated vividly on screen, its dispassion and tactile intrusiveness so directly expressed, you imagine the film crew feeling a great kinship for this group of doomed fools as they followed their own bloody-minded leader into the unknown.

The film follows its own linear path, heading towards its destination with unremitting purpose, not so much written as bluntly forced into being. Which isn’t to suggest it is in any way brazen or simplistic. Rather, it’s incredibly nuanced, perversely conjuring poetic tragedy and weightiness through being light and actually somewhat silly. As Aguirre, Kinski’s performance is totally absurd and hilarious, but you wouldn’t dream of laughing within 20 miles of his face.

Within a barrage of sledgehammer blows, Herzog is engaging in subtle connections. Though the film is intently focused on its lead, there are some fantastic supporting characters: the noble yet short-sighted Don Pedro and his beautiful wife Inez, blind to the tide of fate that’s turning against them; the corpulent and childishly entitled Don Fernando; the grubby and sycophantic priest Brother Gaspar, calmly reshaping his influence to suit the interests of whoever happens to be the group alpha of the moment. And, of course, the Amazon itself: churning brown water framed by impenetrable jungle, untamed and unforgiving.

Herzog’s genius lies not just in his ambition. It’s in his intuitive feel for what lies beneath, the hidden nature of things. Stripping away all the bombast and bullshit he shows the stickily glistening pulse at the core. From the breathless opening shot, men and women the size of ants forging their hesitant way down a mist-swathed Andean face, he places a supposedly cultured humanity back in the cycle of that same fierce nature which for years it seems to have been deluded enough to believe it had escaped. Back in the midst, oft-vaunted civility is openly revealed as a lie.

And there’s the kicker: on some level, everything which seems alien to us about what this film portrays is actually incredibly, intimately close at hand. As remote as Don Aguirre is, a coldly burning star in the void, like all anti-heroes there’s something painfully knowable about him. Despite the grandstanding, his motives are as simple, as proximate – as inane and ultimately pointless – as our own. There’s an absurdly comedic horror that as everything falls apart he only grows more certain; that, in the face of impeding failure, he’s only more committed to what he sees as the authenticity of his actions.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God is on limited release now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

FAKE! Orson Welles Tells Art to F-off

“Talent borrows, genius steals.”

That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?

Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.

True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?

For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.

Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.

Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).

They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.

If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.

F for Fake is being screened at the BFI Southbank from 24th August 2012, as well as selected venues across the UK. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon

Over the weekend I watched a couple of excellent documentaries about key global anti-authoritarian figures. The first was Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which intimately tracks the activities of the dissident Chinese artist from 2008 up until 2011 when he was detained by authorities. The second was Fela Kuti – Music is the Weapona short doc from 1982 which takes a look at the legendary Nigerian musician’s passionate interweaving of performance and politics set against the backdrop of tumult in his home country. The doc is on YouTube so if you find yourself with 50 minutes to spare, here it is. Credit to unpronounceable YouTuber n3ph3dh for the upload.

On a further Fela-related note, the BFI’s African Odysseys strand continues this weekend (Sat 18, 2pm) with a screening of the documentary Fela: Fresh From Africa which focuses on his long-awaited return to New York in 1986 and features extensive, exciting live footage. You can buy tickets here.

The PPH interview | David Somerset of BFI African Odysseys

African Odysseys is an ongoing monthly programme of films and events which takes place at London’s BFI Southbank, and focuses on cinema by and about the people of Africa and the African diaspora. Permanent Plastic Helmet recently caught up with African Odysseys programmer David Somerset to find out more about this successful strand.

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PPH (in bold): Let’s start with the here and now. The next event in the African Odysseys strand is Ivan Dixon’s controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat By The Door (on Saturday May 26 – tickets here). Can you tell me a bit more about that?

David Somerset (in regular): Yeah, basically it’s a real cult item. It was the first film of Ivan Dixon, who was a rising star in the black American film world, and it’s been limited to bootleggers or the occasional short run DVD release. To the best of my knowledge it’s never been screened theatrically in the UK, so we’re massively excited to have it here. It’s about a black American ex-CIA operative who returns to Chicago and uses his skills to prepare his brothers for revolution. It was hugely controversial at the time – this is early 1970s America we’re talking about – so the FBI deemed it cause for concern and all but one of the existing prints were seized and destroyed. It’s a great film, really exciting.

Going back a bit, when did African Odysseys start at the BFI? 

African Odysseys started in 2007 at the BFI as a programme of educational screenings that reach out to wider audiences. I had just taken up the post and was a huge film fan. I knew of a Cuban classic film from Tomas Guiterrez-Alea, called The Last Supper about a plantation in 18th century Cuba. We showed this title to a sell out audience during the last RISE anti-racist festival in London. Speaking to collaborators such as Tony Warner from Black History Walks I said, “Why dont we get a bunch of cultural groups and individuals together and devise a programme?”. That’s the simplest explaination of what happened.

What was your inspiration/drive for the programme, and why do you consider it to be important? 

I believe in genuinely collaborative programming and not programming that is simply driven by economic imperatives – that’s why I like working in a cultural institution. I believe cultural institutions should not only think about wider audiences but also work in conjunction with them. These are both things that such institutions rarely do in a meaningful way but at the BFI I have been able to pursue this on an educational level. I also love to do this because I am constantly educated about new films, films that I have never heard about, films such as The Spook Who Sat By The Door that have been deliberately written out of history as a result of both political represssion and ignorance; an ‘educated’ elite who simply cannot look beyond the limited horizons of their education, who have never learned to think for themselves, ‘outside the tent’.

What other groups/organizations are involved in African Odysseys? 

A whole range of cultural and community organisations and individuals. Lobby groups, archives, film festivals directors, cultural activists – I couldnt begin to name them for fear of leaving some out. I dont hear from some contributors for a while and then they get in touch and say that they have a film and will we take a look at it. But there is also a core of people who attend all meetings. Some are politically driven and committed to the need to promote exposure in the face of a media and wider society that refuses to deal with representation unless its on a banal and inert level.

Where did your own interest in African diasporic cinema stem from? 

Well, I have always loved cinema per se. Diversity and creativity are inseperable and I am into genuinely creative cinema. Diaspora cinema is a difficult concept. Do we mean national cinema? Or cinema that deals with diaspora experience? Or just cinema that includes diverse, disapora casting? Its a broad category. Working with wider audiences I always look for resonant work that raises pertinent issues within a particular community, for which there is a wider discussion to be had. I am also attentive to the universal experience and if we are concerned about human rights, for example, it should be a concern for everyone and not just a particular region or background. So the ideal is to mix up audiences, share experience, recognise common ground as well as specific experience and there’s no better medium to do this than cinema.

Do you think that African cinema currently gets the respect and exposure it deserves? If not, why not?  

I think we have to begin from a standpoint that recognises the limitations to any cinema exhibition. Unless we are fortunate enough to travel to film festivals, the public get to see a minute drop in the ocean of the work that is produced on an international level. There are festivals in London and the UK and if one goes to these niche platforms, its possible to get an insight into what is being produced in Africa. And what is being produced is not getting sufficient exposure, certainly not at multiplex cinemas but also at the smaller rep chains that have become increasingly streamlined in their programming. But I hold broadcasters to account, too. In the 80s, I’m sure that an appetite for African cinema sprang from a rich output on BBC2 and Channel 4 where you could discover not only drama that represented a diversity of UK experience but also scheduled great African cinema from people such as Regina Nacro, Sembene, Cisse, Mambety – great film makers. Nigeria is doing some exciting stuff now and moving away from the admittedly popular (but local and low-budget) to the international, and doing it despite wider ignorance and with an attitude of “if you dont know about us, too bad ’cause we’re coming anyway”.

How much of the programme deals specifically with Africa? 

In January we screened a doco by a new director about witchcraft in Northern Ghana. Last year’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun season at the BFI was tremendous, especially A Screaming Man which overwhelmed audiences. We also welcomed Gaston Kabore and Wend Kuuni which was a joy. I’d always like to see more. In July as part of African Odysseys we are screening a film about Algeria, Outside the Law. In August we have a doc about African religion in a double bill with a newly discovered record of the late, great Fela Kuti and his trip to NY in 1986. In November we are hoping to put together some new Nigerian films. At heart I believe people will take a chance if given the opportunity! Sometimes the industry is ignorant to its own economic criteria and miss commercial films that would actually make a good profit for them.

Have there been any particularly controversial screenings so far? 

Have there been any that aren’t? I am amazed at the discussions that come out of screenings and the different views that come from speakers and audience. The remarkable Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical took aim at a sacred cow and outraged a good section of the audience. But a strongly divided audience makes for tremendous discussion. This was certainly the case with the shock documentaries Addio Zio Tom and Africa Addio. The discussions were second to none. When we all think the same way there’s no debate.

African Odysseys continues at the BFI Southbank with The Spook Who Sat By The Door on Saturday 26 May. Book tickets here, and view the forthcoming programme here

This Film Was Shot On Digital

Click HERE NOW to watch filmmaker Ian Mantgani’s instructive and moving short This Film Was Shot On Digitala timely piece which examines the impact of the onrushing “tidal wave” of digital technology replacing traditional cinema projection. One of the featured interviewees, Julia Marchese, has set up a petition to maintain studios’ 35mm archives. You can sign it here. I have, and so should you!

P.S. I swear on my life I’m not just posting this because I pop up in the credits, it really is essential viewing, and informative about an issue which many of us may not be really aware of, yet affects anyone who loves cinema.

African Odysseys at the BFI in March: Nadia Denton, Sidney Poitier and more…

A great sounding event has come to my attention, and I’m delighted to give it a little plug here on PPH.

In the Blue Room down at London’s BFI Southbank on Saturday 17 March as part of actor Tim Reid’s Legacy Media Institute programme, Nadia Denton will introduce her book The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success – an indispensable volume which outlines funding, marketing and distribution opportunities for filmmakers. Denton, who is former director of the BFM International Film Festival – will take questions and be joined by special guests in an interactive morning session. The event, which kicks off at 11am, will be hosted by journalist Lisa Bent.

I interviewed Nadia last year for PPH, and if the great conversation we had is anything to go by, this is going to be an exceptional event. Tickets are only £3, are selling quick, and are available here.

That’s not all, though. Later in the day (in NFT1) comes a super-rare screening of Michael Audley’s 1957 drama The Mark Of The Hawk, starring the great Sidney Poitier as a rising nationalist leader Obam (that’s Obam), who struggles for his people’s freedom in the face of bloodthirsty colonials, disorganised Africans and a hot-headed brother. It’s a delightfully odd Technicolor curio, and will be introduced by Reid, with an accompanying short from his Legacy Media Institute programme. Click here to book tickets.

For the uninitiated, the BFI’s African Odysseys programme is a monthly strand dedicated to exploring, promoting and presenting cinema of the African disapora, regularly augmented by talks, Q&A’s and presentations. It’s long been an essential part of my cinema calendar, and I urge it to become part of yours too.

Here’s the trailer for The Mark Of The Hawk, to whet your appetite.