The 5th BFI Future Film Festival takes place at the BFI Southbank across the weekend of 18-19 February, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to promote the amazing competition that they’re running, aimed at budding young filmmakers.
Over to the guys at FFF:
As part of this year’s Future Film Festival, Doc Next Network is hosting the Pitching Masterclass with an industry professional. Before the event, we’re asking you to send us a 140 character pitch for a documentary you’d like to make, either by Twitter @BFI with the hashtag #FFPitch, or in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday 8 February.
We will then select six finalists, who will be invited to the Festival and given a free weekend pass. These finalists will have to pitch live at the end of the masterclass, and The Winning Pitch will get the opportunity to go to a filmmaking workshop with one of our partners in Amsterdam, Spain, Poland or Turkey, expenses paid!
Terms & Conditions
• To enter the competition you must be aged 15-25 years old
• Travel to the Festival is not included
• You must be able to attend the Pitching Masterclass on Sunday 19 February at BFI Southbank
• Deadline for entries is Wednesday 8 February
• Winners will be notified on Monday 13 February
• Expenses will be paid up to a value of £500
“I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
John Latham's Speak (1965)
Psychedelia and film go hand in hand (or hand on LSD sugar cube), and the BFI’s Counter-Culture UK programme, screened recently as part of a regular strand called Essential Experiments, proves just that. All of the films shown here would have been screened either at the legendary psychedelic UFO club, the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Film or at the Arts Lab, and as such hold significant places in the cinematic avant-garde of the period.
The UFO club, as both setting and subject of Peter Whitehead’s short film Jeanetta Cochrane (1967) was a nightclub which opened in December 1966 in the basement of an Irish pub in London’s Tottenham Court Road. Felt to the be the ‘epitome of hipness’, this was a place where bright young things and Rolling Stones would go to see music gigs, poetry readings, erotic performances, light shows and other groovy happenings. The London Filmmaker’s Cooperative, which includes film directors shown at this event like Stephen Dwoskin and Peter Gidal, held a ‘Spontaneous Festival’, and showed films at the UFO, which eventually decamped to the Roundhouse in Camden, with the Coop finally moving to the Arts Lab. Bands like Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine would perform alongside psychedelic light shows projected onto bands and audience members, accompanied, naturally, by prolific acid use and pot smoking.
Needless to say, the BFI Southbank is a far cry from the light fantastic of UFO in ’66. I asked William Fowler, Curator of Artists’ Moving Image and this particular screening, if he felt the location took away from the cinematic experience: “I think they can be stand alone films, but it’s nice to have a bit of energy with the films you’re showing… It’s that fine line really, because we can’t recreate what it was like in the 1960’s, but at the same time it does feel quite sober showing it at the BFI”.
Thankfully, the films are groovy enough to make up for the after work crowd of phone-fiddlers. All the works shown at Counter-Culture UK are very much products of their time, and some in particular can be seen as stereotypically far-out examples of Sixties cinematography. John Latham’s Speak (1965), for example, is a rapid-fire animation of swirling circles and dots which flash on and off the screen in an encapsulating and hallucinatory manner. Equally, Beyond Image (1969) by the wonderfully named Sensual Laboratory uses coloured oils projected through variously coloured filters to create a gorgeous, technicolour swirling lava lamp of psychedelic joy. Other’s – like Stephen Dwoskin’s Alone (1963), which films for an uncomfortable thirteen minutes a rather beautiful girl called Zelda wanking in front of the camera, or Peter Gidal’s Room (Double Take) (1969) are far more unusual. In Room (Double Take), Gidal’s roving camera nervously trails around the room, scanning a Twiggy poster, some cult art books, and drug-taking paraphernalia before settling on the image of a 60’s beatnik smoking pot. The film is then repeated in its entirety, in order to challenge and deconstruct the formal elements of film and its structure.
Will Fowler runs the BFI's Flipside strand with Vic Pratt
For Fowler, being able to show stereotypical psychedelia with more unusual experimental cinema, was part of the remit of the night: “Because the London Filmmaker’s Co-op has really dominated the way we see the history of experimental film in this country, particularly in the post-war period, a lot of people kind of look at that work [and its] very particular ideology, focusing on the particularly formal elements of film. I particularly wanted to look at the stuff that maybe had a relationship with that, but also had a slightly different sensibility, and show that there’s a variety of different experimental cinema going on”.
He adds: “It was nice to show the Peter Gidal film, as one of the key components of the Structuralist Materialist movement in the ‘70s [along with] Mark Boyle film Beyond Image, which is an almost stereotypical psychedelic film with oils and bubbles, music and backwards stuff. I’m not sure how often or if ever those films have been shown together, so it’s nice to look at a lot of different stuff from that time and move away from the obvious things which people show”.
This point is made most apparent in the last film of the night, Solar Flares Burn for You by Arthur Johns, a ten-minute experimental landscape film with sliding psychedelic colour effects and an amazing soundtrack by Robert Wyatt. My favourite of the night was Whitehead’s hilarious Jeanetta Cochrane, a collage piece with soundbites (including music from Pink Floyd), shots of a pouty Nico, and real footage of sweaty, out-of-it teenagers swaying euphorically inside the UFO club. It’s particularly amusing for its random, sometimes paisley on-screen text, and the gruff voice-over that criticises the goings-on.
For me, the humour element was unexpected in the films shown, but is clearly an important aspect of Fowler’s other project with Vic Pratt, the monthly BFI cult film night and DVD strand The Flipside. There’s another aspect of the ‘60s counterculture, Fowler explains, which is heavily influenced by humour and leads “towards Monty Python, and references to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band, which again has links to psychedelia, but is also more playful”.
Humour, like psychedelia, is a very British affair, and Fowler is adamant to celebrate British cinema past and present: “I think there’s a lot of snobbery about British cinema, and it would be very interesting to try and look into that precise moment when that shift happened, and people started denigrating cinema in this country. A lot of cinema in the 60’s has a popular culture element that appeals to the masses in someway. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in any way less interesting or less rich or made of any less integrity. And there are so many films that aren’t really very well known, which is part of the reason behind the Flipside project: to try and dig that stuff up”. Cheers to that – and thank the gods someone’s doing it for us.
Just like that, the BFI London Film Festival is over for another year. It’s been a staggeringly enjoyable few weeks of film watching, note-taking, tiredness, putting Twitter handles to faces and socializing with some lovely, lovely people. Here, as promised, is a final round-up of LFF stuff: the good, the bad, the sad and the awkward.
PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET’S FILMS OF THE FESTIVAL
My favourite film of this year’s LFF was Steve’s McQueen’s powerful sex addiction drama, which features an astonishing performance in the lead role from Michael Fassbender, who is emerging as one the very best actors of his generation. It’s not perfect (the final third veers perilously close toward moral melodrama) but it is exceptional, vital, haunting filmmaking, and New York has never looked like this before. [Read full review here].
2. DREAMS OF A LIFE
A good measure of how passionate you feel about a film is how you react when someone else criticizes it. So when a fellow writer sneeringly dismissed Carol Morley’s devastating documentary Dreams of a Life as “The Arborfor ITV viewers” and I flew into a Basil Fawlty-esque rage, it was pretty clear just how much the film had burrowed under my skin. In combining interviews, reconstruction footage and the director’s own research, Dreams of a Life is a dizzying attempt to piece together the sad story of 38 year-old Joyce Vincent, a North London resident who lay dead in her flat for three years without anybody coming to check on her. It’s about a million things (community, memories, loneliness, love, music, race, London), it’s brilliantly put together, and it will bounce around your head for days, if not weeks. Sad, staggering and totally unmissable.
3. THE ARTIST
The audience favourite of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifiting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the talkies. Although it flags a bit towards the end, it’s technically brilliant, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and totally in love with the cinema.
I had a clear top three, but there were lots of other excellent films I saw that I was unable to organize into a coherent top five or top ten. They included…
TAKE SHELTER – A slow-burn drama featuring Michael Shannon’s blistering portrayal of a family man on the edge. [Read full review here]
THE KID WITH A BIKE – The Dardennes Brothers’ affecting, naturalistic tale of a troubled boy coming to terms with abandonment by his feckless father. [Read full review here]
MISS BALA – More Gomorrah than Goodfellas, a bleak, punishing, deeply ironic Mexican drama about the evils of the drug trade. [Read full review here].
THE DESCENDANTS – George Clooney shines in a moving, yet satisfyingly dark Hawaiian-set tale of hard life lessons from the reliably excellent yet lesser-spotted Alexander Payne.
SUPERHEROES – Michael Barnett’s consistently amusing, moving and surprising documentary about the ever-growing community of have-a-go caped crusaders that are taking, rather foolhardily, to the streets of America to enforce their own brand of justice. [Read full review here]
MOST OVERRATED FILM
I was debating whether or not to include this category, because a) the concept of ‘overrating’ something is essentially meaningless, and b) it just feels a bit like more needless negativity thrown in for good measure. However, when I heard that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had beaten the far superior Shame and The Artist to the prize of LFF Best Film, my mind was made up. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a weirdly middlebrow horror film, which overdoes the symbolism to a ludicrous degree, and offers practically no further insight into its characters than Eva: not very nice, Kevin: bit of a nutter, The husband: a bit of a twat. Not terrible, then, but certainly not a ‘best film’. A bizarre choice. [Read full review here]
DISAPPOINTMENT & TURKEY ROLLED INTO ONE OF THE FESTIVAL
After the 360 opening night boondoggle, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d been exposed to the very worst that the LFF had to offer. At 10.06pm on Sunday 23rd October, however, as I stumbled out of the VUE cinema, confused and furious, it became apparent that I was wrong.
What was it that had discombobulated me so? Well, in a nutshell, a Surprise Film that had somehow managed to trump the previous years’ one-two punch of Capitalism: A Love Story and Brighton Rock for sheer disappointment. As surprises go, Whit Stillman’s appalling DAMSELS IN DISTRESS was less a turn up for the books, more like finding a cockroach in your soup.
It felt as though Stillman had begun writing it in the early 90s after watching Heathers, slipped into a coma while Clueless, Mean Girls and even, for Christ’s sake, Juno redefined self-reflexive, ironic teen-girl sass, and then farted this out in a half-sentient state after hoovering up the Wikipedia definition of ‘Mumblecore’.
It’s ostensibly a tale of four airheaded college girls at a privileged establishment, but the basics – coherent structure, narrative, characters you can invest in – are entirely absent, and countless scenes sputter to an unsatisfactory conclusion before they’ve really begun. If it deserves any credit, it’s for a singularity of aesthetic style, with the pastel colours and costumes and cloying TV-movie vaseline glow complemented by the relentless muzak on the soundtrack. (A plus point also for bringing The Wire’s tragic Dukie back to our screens in a small role).
Furthermore, it’s not just unfunny, it’s actively offensive, making light of such delightful topics as anal rape and suicide without providing any context for doing so. It’s also rare to find a film that has as much contempt for its own characters as it does its audience; none of the characters seem to learn anything, improve or even develop. Unclear whether it’s supposed to be a parody of college films or simply of its own staggering awfulness, Damsels in Distress is would-be modish, pretentious, vapid garbage that’s destined to become the favourite film of people you’d jump in front of the 159 bus to avoid.
Despite my hatred of the film, however, the distribution company have been kind enough to provide me with its official trailer. Here it is:
DOWNER OF THE FESTIVAL
I’ve written about it here already, but it’s worth repeating that watching certain films first thing in the morning takes a bit of getting used to. The winner of the IT TOTALLY RUINED MY ENTIRE FUCKING DAY™ award this year was Justin Kurzel’s true-life Aussie crime drama SNOWTOWN. Its veritable cornucopia of paedophilia, incestuous rape, animal abuse and graphic scenes of torture were, quite frankly, a bit much for a 10 a.m. start. [Read full review here]
MOST AWKWARD MOMENT
As anyone who has ever been to the BFI will know, there’s a certain contingent of the audience who likes to laugh a little too hard and a little too loud at the most innocuous things, just to prove that they really got it. However, the daddy of all inappropriate laughs came during a screening of EARLY ONE MORNING in NFT1, a downbeat French drama concerning a depressed, humiliated banker who goes on the rampage. The film is barely two minutes old when said psychotic banker played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin (a hangdog genetic splice between Billy Bob Thornton and Iain Duncan Smith) storms into his office and guns down two colleagues in cold blood. You could have a heard a pin drop in the audience. Well, you could have, had it not been for the absolute bellend who let rip a monster guffaw at the first gunshot, probably imagining that by doing so he was striking a blow against capitalism, rather than embarrassing himself and shattering the spell of an incredibly powerful scene. Arse.
FILMS THAT I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT SADLY MISSED FOR WHATEVER REASON
Harry Belafonte in activism documentary SING YOUR SONG, Sean Penn Robert Smith-ing it up in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, low-budget love Brit story WEEKEND by Andrew Haigh, Werner Herzog’s death row doc INTO THE ABYSS and Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut WILD BILL. Hopefully the chance will come around soon for me to see all of these.
I couldn’t be arsed didn’t have time to review everything I saw, so I’ve also given everything I did see a handy score, using the rating system of favourite culture website The A.V. Club:
The Black Power MixtapeB
Martha Marcy May MarleneB
Dreams Of A LifeA
The Kid With A BikeB+
We Have A PopeC+
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A SamuraiB
I’m Carolyn ParkerB
Early One MorningB
The Ides Of MarchB-
We Need To Talk About KevinC+
Damsels In DistressF
A Dangerous MethodB
And… that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed the PPH @ LFF coverage. I certainly have, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival which will be the first under new Artistic Director Claire Stewart, who replaces the outgoing Sandra Hebron. Thanks for the memories Sandra!
I was lucky enough this week to attend the London Film Festival’s Archive Gala, which presented us with the latest in line of the BFI’s fine restorations of neglected British films, Miles Mander’s directorial debut The First Born.
The reappearance of this fascinating 1928 silent drama is timely, as the LFF audience has been treated to Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant new homage to the dying days of silent film, The Artist. While Hazanavicius focuses on Hollywood, The First Born is a very British film which consciously reflects its era’s societal changes, while unconsciously finding itself in the midst of a vast sea change in the history of cinema itself.
Mander stars as the caddish Sir Hugo Boycott opposite a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll, who plays his wife Maddie. With Maddie unable to produce an heir, and the couple quarrelling, Boycott leaves the country to travel to Africa. Retreating into London society, Maddie discovers a rather perilous solution to her problem, along with the attention of an admirer, and the film goes on to explore what were surely considered to be somewhat scandalous issues at the time with sensitivity and sophistication.
At the time that filming on the The First Born began, it would have been at the cutting edge of silent cinema. By the time of the film’s release, however, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, shot the previous year, had opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre and the age of the talkie had begun. Just as The Artist covers a brief period when an established art form was about to be hit by the tidal wave of modernity, Mander’s film marks the end of an era in British cinema, while reminding us just how valuable much silent era British film was and is.
The issue of our attitudes to these films is reflected in the BFI’s excellent current campaign to “Rescue the Hitchcock 9”; the silent works of perhaps Britain’s greatest director, which have been much neglected and require substantial restoration. However, as Pamela Hutchison has observed in The Guardian (while previewing The First Born), the recent discovery of film reels by British director Graham Cutts in New Zealand was barely reported, and what coverage there was tended to concentrate on the footage’s Hitchcockian connections, rather than the reputation of Cutts himself. As Hutchison says, “by overstating [Hitchcock’s] influence we risk casting his peers into oblivion”. This new version of TheFirstBorn is certainly a step towards redressing that balance.
The shadow of Alfred the Great does fall across this film all the same. Mander appeared in films including Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden and Murder!, and his filmmaking style is clearly influenced by the director, while Carroll made perhaps her most famous appearance in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The most important link to Hitchcock comes with Mander’s choice of co-writer, Alma Reville. Reville was married to Hitchcock, but she was also a long-established screenwriter in her own right and her work on The First Born showcases the thematic influence she would later bring to her husband’s films. Furthermore, one particularly memorable scene features a voyeuristically Hitchcockian handheld camera shot, as Sir Hugo searches for his wife through the marital bedroom; a cinematographic device which seems well ahead of its time.
The BFI’s restoration of The First Born, aided by the loan of a 16mm print of the film from George Eastham House in the United States, features expertly restored lost scenes and repaired damage, and returns the beautiful amber, pink and lavender tints which would have decorated 1920s showings. This makes for a compelling and good looking film, but one of the real stars of this new screening was not part of the original. A brand new score by composer Stephen Horne was performed for the first time as part of the Gala screening and provided a rich, unusual compliment to the film’s many moments of romance and suspense.
Performed by a three piece, including Horne himself on piano and various other instruments, Maddie’s melancholy and despair are reflected by a mournful oboe motif, while the trio manage to work up an edge-of-seat racket during moments of suspense and even segue into World Music-style percussion during the Africa sequence. The score also weaves in elements of well-known melodies, with the use of ‘Rule Britannia’ during a scene in which budding politician Sir Hugo unleashes his rhetoric on a crowd both effective and amusing.
The First Born’s denouement delivers a couple of delicious, unexpected twists regarding the fate of Sir Hugo and Maddie’s initial attempt to win back his love, and despite its vintage, it’s a surprisingly modern film, not least its refusal to cast judgement upon its female protagonist. This restored version offers a ringing endorsement of the BFI’s work, as well as confirmation that the era of British silent cinema deserves more of our attention, both as a record of a time of cultural and technological change and for the relevance and power it can still offer today.
Although the 55th BFI London Film Festival kicks off officially this Wednesday with Fernando Meirelles’ multi-character opus 360, there have been press screenings running for the last couple of weeks, and PPH has been lucky enough to get a sneak preview of some of the upcoming fare.
Here’s a brief round-up of what we’ve seen thus far, not including one particular film which a) is under embargo for a few days until its World Premiere, b) made me cry like Paul Gascoigne watching The Elephant Man while the ghost of a disinterested Raoul Moat chops onions in the background, and c) is a haunting, tragic, original and genuinely stunning masterpiece.
Restrained and thoughtful, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is an engrossing, slow-burning drama that deals sensitively with the day-to-day effects of burgeoning mental illness.
Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, an average Joe sand-mining worker who suffers increasingly apocalyptic visions in his dreams, and appears to be in the clutches of a severe bout of depression. Whilst trying to hold his life together, he resolves to construct a fortified shelter in his garden (hence the film’s title) to protect his wife and deaf daughter from the storm he is convinced is impending, incurring damaging financial costs and alienating his friends along the way.
In the wrong hands, this kind of material could easily have slid into tabloid sensationalism, or even silliness, but Nichols handles the material with a sure, steady touch and grounds the action in the believable, engrossing milieu of day-to-day family life punctuated by nicely observed details (back-yard jumble sales, the signing class that Curtis and his wife attend with their daughter). Take Shelter also feels topical, with Curtis’ actions taking on a tangible, terrible financial sting in the light of the current global economic crisis.
The tall, intense Shannon, who anchors the film with a superbly convincing performance, positively aches with the internal torment of a loving family man haunted by his own predicament yet helpless to halt the tide. He is eventually to recognize that he needs help, but repeatedly intones “I’m fine” to his wife in a classic sign of stoic denial. Furthermore, after watching approximately four and a half hours of Jessica Chastain do little but be bullied by domineering men (in The Tree of Life and Coriolanus), it’s refreshing to see her do justice to a meaty role as Curtis’ strong, supportive wife Samantha. She is luminous here, and her conciliatory scenes with Shannon are especially touching.
Curtis’ terrifying visions are impressively rendered with imaginative visual effects on a presumably not-massive budget, and the whole endeavour carries a satisfying emotional heft.
Showing as part of the LFF’s long-standing French Revolutions strand, Americano is the directorial debut of actor Mathieu Demy. Of legendary filmmaking stock (his parents are Agnes Varda and the late Jacques Demy), it’s no surprise that Demy has crafted a film in thrall to the art form with references abound, including cleverly integrated footage from an 70s L.A.-set short by Varda (in which Demy starred as the child version of Martin, his character here) and a cheeky, nose-related nod to Chinatown (“do you know what happens to nosy people, Jake?”). Furthermore, the wide-eyed, Eurocentric rendering of the vast expanse of America is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ in Paris, Texas.
In the wake of his mother’s death, the dazed Martin flies back to L.A. to clear out her apartment, only to find letters connecting her to a young Mexican woman with whom she had developed an ambiguous, yet close relationship. With that, he heads off in search of the mysterious Lola, and soon finds an ‘erotic dancer’ (played by Salma Hayek) at the bar ‘Americano’. But is she who she says she is?
This is a welcome return to the screen for the underseen Hayek, but she is hampered by an underwritten role, as well as Demy’s inability to restrain himself from objectifying her body through his camera. In another noteworthy turn, Geraldine Chaplin (Nashville) appears briefly to deliver a vaguely unhinged cameo as the neck brace-sporting friend of Martin’s late mother.
Americano is certainly not without charm, and is possessed of a shaggy-dog appeal. However, as the familiar movie tropes (seedy strip joints, mildly irritating sidekicks) stack up, the endeavour begins to feel a little tired. Matters aren’t helped by an ineffectual performance from Demy, whose rather lacklustre turn is excusable at the start of the film when he’s woozy, jet-lagged and bereaved, but less so as events progress and you are required to invest in him as a character. Americano is further undercut by a series of jarring tonal shifts in the final third which firmly suggest Demy is still learning his craft.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a largely gripping study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).
The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.
The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, whilst an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.
Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune itself is particularly thinly drawn.
Within this tense thriller there are some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect.Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two nagging plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.
Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin.
THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-75
‘Black Power’ – the subject of this piecemeal, entertaining documentary – as a movement, is a peculiarly amorphous, hard-to-define beast which comprises a multitude of political ideologies, movements, historical touchpoints and key players. Following the ostensible zenith of the Civil Rights movement in the American South which culminated with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, many black Americans remained disenfranchised, and sought – particularly in the North – a clean break from the tactics of non-violence epitomized by Dr Martin Luther King and the Christian church. It was in this climate that the seeds of ‘Black Power’ flowered.
From this jumping-off point, Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson (Am I Black Enough For You?) presents a documentary comprising reams of archive footage from Swedish news reporters, soundtracked by audio clips of prominent, often musically-themed African-American cultural luminaries including Harry Belafonte, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Kathleen Cleaver commenting on a range of topics related to the footage. The period covered includes the assassinations of both King and Malcolm X, the rise to prominence of the charismatic activist Stokely Carmichael (of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committe), the founding of the militant Black Panther party in Oakland, CA, and an ever-shifting socio-political landscape.
There are some utterly riveting sequences in the Mixtape, none more so than the prison interview with activist and academic Angela Davis (pictured) who takes a hapless Swedish reporter to task over his line of questioning. Also of interest are the sequences which provide a fresh Swedish angle; the report on one American TV guide editor’s displeasure at how his country is represented by the Swedish press is particularly amusing and instructive.
The filmmakers never claim to present an authoritative picture of the politics and sociology of the period, so it would be unfair to be critical of them on this point. However, the lack of authorial perspective jars, and at times it really is just like watching a string of clips on YouTube; some are good, some less so, and there’s not a great deal to connect them together. Events move chronologically (marked visually by a slightly irritating ticking timer) which effects an illusory sense of holistic progress and inadvertantly serves to suggest that things are a lot cleaner and simpler than they were. Furthermore, the segments seem reductive of the so-called African-American experience, to wit: here’s the “drugs” bit, here’s the “prostitution” bit, here’s the “prison” bit.
There’s easily enough excellent material on show to make this recommended viewing, especially if you are unfamiliar with the period and the politics, however it left me wanting more; specifically a more rigorous work that illuminates and expands upon the legion complexities and characters of this fascinating period of modern American history. As singer Erykah Badu opines in the voiceover, “We should be telling our own stories”. She’s right. Let’s see it.
Loosely based upon real incidents that occurred in 2008, Miss Bala is a dark, sombre and haunting Latin thriller that’s more Gomorrah than City of God, and uses the surface sheen of a beauty contest as an ironic prop to explore the murky depths of the destructive Mexican drug wars.
In the opening sequence, our heroine, the 23-year old Laura (played by the fearsomely impressive model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman) announces to her father that she intends to take part in the Miss Bala beauty contest. Wary, he warns her against it, but off she goes regardless, and so begins her metaphorical descent into hell. A party that Laura attends with her friend goes horribly wrong, and she finds herself inextricably inveigled in a rapidly escalating situation between drug cops, drug gangs and politicians.
As the plot kicks into action, unbearably tense sequence follows unbearably tense sequence where neither journey nor destination is ever safe. The numerous in-car sequences are particularly riven with claustrophobia and elsewhere there is excellent use of tight framing, often focused on the back of Sigman’s head in the same bracing, unsettling way that Matthew Libatique shot Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
Model-turned-actress Sigman pulls off an immensely tough trick in the lead role; although ostensibly passive, she communicates a range of emotions (though predominantly terror) with her facial expressions and taut physicality. There is also excellent support from Noe Hernandez as the menacing muscular, limping, drug lord Lino.
The sheer depth of the corruption on show is such that at times the labyrinthine plot becomes rather confusing, and the pace begins to drag somewhat towards the end, but this is powerful drama; excellently shot and acted, fiercely moral, and highly recommended. This is one beauty contest you would not want to enter.
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s original play by John Logan (Gladiator) and shot on location in Serbia, Coriolanus is the story of the titular soldier (Fiennes) whose seditious nature sparks a mass riot, political discontent and then… lots more fighting and shouting, with added Gerard Butler.
Though handsomely mounted and competently shot, Coriolanus is erratically paced and edited, and suffers from a tentative contemporary makeover which languishes in a semi-realised halfway state between past and present, without a concerted effort to connect the text (which retains the original Shakespearean language) to modern topical themes or create its own individualised universe, a la Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet or – love it or hate it – Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
Despite this, Shakespeare’s story is typically chunky, so Coriolanus relies for added impact on its central performance. Unfortunately Fiennes, who here resembles a distressed Tim Vine, is unable to bring enough dimension to the role to transform a hugely unlikable character (Coriolanus openly despises “the poor”) into a complex, conflicted anti-hero. As director, he’s also acquired a worrying habit of making absolutely everything else grind to a halt when he is speaking, lending further weight to the creeping feeling that this is all a rather weighty vanity project. Matters are not helped by Fiennes’ dogged insistence on emphasising the “ANUS!” at the end of his name every time he refers to himself (FYI, this happens a lot).
Although a number of other cast members acquit themselves with some dignity (especially Brian Cox, as ubiquitous as he is redoubtable), Vanessa Redgrave is the stand-out, and is absolutely nailed-on for a Best Supporting Actress nom as Coriolanus’ mother. She shines here, and if anything is too good; it’s a little like Lionel Messi turning out in League One.
For all its scale and epic ambition, Coriolanus is an inessential affair; watchable and competent yet curiously rote, and nowhere near resonant enough.
Permanent Plastic Helmet’s dedicated coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival will continue regularly throughout the duration of the event. You can follow us on Twitter @pplastichelmet, and subscribe to email updates by clicking on the +follow button at the bottom right of the homepage.
Menelik Shabazz at BFI Southbank, September 2011. Photo by Yves Salmon
With the long awaited theatrical release of his new documentary The Story of Lovers Rock and a special 30th Anniversary screening of his debut feature Burning An Illusion, it’s been a busy time for director and documentarian Menelik Shabazz. Permanent Plastic Helmet caught up with Menelik recently at London’s BFI Southbank to discuss the origins of his new film, his career to date and his views on the challenges posed to black filmmakers trying to make it in the British film industry.
PPH (in bold): The genre of Lovers Rock – culturally and musically – is a brilliant subject for a film. When did the idea to document the music of that period come to you?
Menelik Shabazz (in regular): It began with an ad I saw in the Voice newspaper promoting a Lovers Rock gala awards ceremony. There were about 24 artists on the list and it struck me as an historic moment. Lovers rock has been overlooked, and seeing these artists coming together – they are now middle aged – it’s a moment that may not be reproduced. First of all I thought of documenting it as an event so I spoke to promoters and we agreed to film it. I then began to think about how else it could develop, and that’s when I began to start interviewing people and it went on from there. It was an organic process, it wasn’t a film I set out to make from the beginning.
Was there a point when you decided it was of vital importance you got this to the big screen?
When I started it i always saw it as cinema. I never thought of it any other way. I couldn’t see it being on TV, DVD wasn’t sufficient. From the beginning, I saw that it needed to be presented and recognised at a level. That was what was important for me and has been all the way through. This needs to be respected at the highest point possible.
Were you a fan of the music or involved in the scene at the time?
Lovers rock was part of the music you danced to with women so yes, it was a part of your life. If you went out to the clubs, it would be there. I was into both lovers rock and roots reggae. In terms of my generation, I grew up with the John Holts, that era that was a little bit more Jamaican, romantic. Lovers rock came in in the late 70 and 80s and I’d slightly moved away from that scene by then. But yes, its part of us. It’s part of growing up. I didn’t realise how people really connected with it until the film. The diverse levels of people that were connected to lovers rock, not just black people. I’ve gone to places on the other side of the tracks and they know about lovers rock, they know about Carroll Thompson.
There’s a scene at a concert in Japan in the film?
Yes. The music developed into that global element, which I wasn’t aware of at the beginning of the journey.
Getting the film to commercial release stage [it’s being distributed by Verve Pictures] has been a lengthy process and clearly a labour of love. How did you go about getting funding and what challenges have you faced with that?
I knew from the get go this wasn’t going to be one that I was going to get funding for, although I did apply to various places including the UK Film Council. However, I didn’t feel that they understood lovers rock or the genre, and I always felt that funding would come from whatever resources I could pull together; personally with the people who’ve supported me, who’ve given interviews, and those who’ve assisted behind the camera. Also, I tried some inititaves with bringing the community into the project. I did some rough cuts in the community to plant the seed that it’s possible to finance films if there is a collective thinking behind it. This [crowd funding techniques] is something that has been tried by others.
I know that Spike Lee did that with a select group of millionaires on Malcolm X!
Yes, he did that early, but latterly, films such as The Age of Stupid have done it too. It has started to become a way that people can finance their films; pooling in, people contributing in various ways. In my case, I wanted to see if I could bring in the community because lovers rock was such a deep part of a generation. I thought there was always a possibility there, and people contributed. I have had to use that model. It has taken my own personal input and the love of the people working on the film to take the project as far as it’s gone. Latterly EDF Energy came on board as a sponsor, and they have really made a difference, because without them I wouldn’t have got this far in terms of getting into the cinema. The distribution end is pretty much like making a record – after shooting the next thing you have to think about is the distribution and in my case with the distributor, I wasn’t confident they would be able to handle this film. I wanted to do a lot of it myself, but figure out a way that I could work with a distributor that could handle the back-end of the situation; thankfully this was something I was able to do with Verve. Nevertheless I was the one exposed to having to pay for costs of making DCP hard drives, PR, marketing, certification, the trailer, post production – you’re into a lot of costs!
The Story of Lovers Rock (2011)
The film has gone through a few different iterations including a rough cut at the BFM Festival in 2009 – is it now 100% in the form you intended?
Yes. When we screened it in April (as part of the BFI’s African Odyssey’s strand) it was 95% ready. We’ve done a bit more work. I’ve made a few adjustments, mainly to the ending, but the beginning is slightly different also. Nothing fundamental but smaller things.
You’ve worked in Nigeria recently. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I was there for 8 or 9 months, having been invited to develop some film projects with some investors. Although it didn’t quite work out in terms of what I intended it to do, being there helped to inspire and re-energize me. The thing about Nigeria is that you’re seeing people make films who have very little resources. They’re at the coalface of making films. They are just going out and doing it, so coming back here it inspired me to make a film and do stuff with that energy. The Story of Lovers Rock is the outcome of that situation and my determination to do it through my own means.
You’re the founding father of the BFM media project. Can you tell me a bit more about the project, its aims and where its at currently?
BFM was the outcome of my frustrations in the film industry. I wanted to channel that anger into something positive which initially started as a magazine (Black Filmmaker) and the intention to pass on information to the next generation about the film industry. One thing that was happening at the time was a lack of young people entering into the industry on a consistent level. The magazine was an interface between industry and filmmakers and out of the initiative developed the Black Filmmaker International Film Festival. I was fortunate as a filmmaker to travel to a lot of countries after making Burning An Illusion and in doing so was able to meet a lot of filmmakers and to see their work, most, if not all of which was unavailable in UK. I was inspired by a French lady who suggested I should do a festival in London, as these festivals existed in other parts of Europe. Producing the festival was easy for me because I knew the films and filmmakers and it wasnt until later on I realised how unique that was. With a lot of festivals now, the producers don’t know the filmmakers, it’s a distant relationship. That was what made the BFM Festival different. We could bring people over and have workshops. We had a short film award. We were about bringing the filmmaking aspect into the mainstream as well as bringing mainstream audiences in to watch these films. That’s what it was about. The festival went on for 11 years and ended in 2009 due to lack of resources. It was never properly resourced so it had to stop. The magazine also stopped slightly before. The tagline was always “bringing the unseen into light”.
Do you plan to to bring the festival back at any point if you get the opportunity?
Others have suggested it but I’m not planning to. It is still part of me, but at this moment I’m not thinking about it. The legacy of it is that people who were involved are doing screenings events and so on, so that aspect has been taken on by other people.
Around 30 years ago you made the documentary Blood Ah Go Run about the New Cross Fire, the Black People’s Day of action and the Brixton riots. Can you tell me about the process of filming that footage and the challenges you faced in getting the film out there?
Blood Ah Go Run was a bit like the film I’m doing now in that I didn’t think of it as a project, rather I felt compelled to act. There was the incident of the fire, the response of the police and the anger that we felt in the community. I had just finished making Burning An Illusion and I just felt I had to do something. In those days it wasn’t tape they were shooting on, it was all film. I remember going to cinematographers and asking them if they had any cans in their fridge – they used to keep film cans in their fridges – so I went around and got a few cans and a crew. We actually had two crews on the day which enabled us to go out and shoot lots on the day. We had an editor who worked at the BBC. So we edited it at the BBC after hours! (laughs)
30 years on, we’ve seen riots again, as well as the rather predictable recent decision on the Smiley Culture case. Do you draw parallels between now and then?
Yes, its the same old story, the same old song. The root of the problem at the time was to do with police brutality and disrespect of black people, and that’s a song that still keeps playing. In this instance, a man [Mark Duggan] was shot in Tottenham, and in the case of Smiley Culture, no-one can explain that situation either. It’s just a disrespect of black men which continues, and becomes a tipping point for all the other grievances that go on. It’s a 30 year cycle, and a reminder that we havent moved on in the way we think we’ve moved on. The lovers rock film in some ways helps to give a point of reflection as to where we are and how far we’ve come and allows us to find a balance in our way of thinking.
Your first feature was Burning An Illusion (1981). It stands up with Horace Ove’s Pressure as a real landmark in Black British cinema. It’s also unusual in that you told the story from a female point of view. What are your memories of making the film and getting into the feature film process?
It started as a small story. I had a moment with a woman talking into a mirror, so I turned that into a short story and got some money from the BFI to turn it into half an hour. I kept writing and writing until I ended up with a movie script. Again, it wasn’t like I set out in the beginning to write a feature length script. It was a process in which one thing led to another, and I ended up with a feature length script that the BFI backed. It was a very organic process.
I’ve always been interested in the slightly amorphous nature of the term “Black British Cinema” – whether it relates to issues covered in the film, authorship, finance, or the actors that are in it. do you ever feel that that terminology could paint you into a corner, and you’d rather just be seen as a ‘filmmaker’?
I don’t think it paints me into a corner at all. In the same way you have Italian filmmakers, it’s a way of identifying who you are, interfacing with your experience, your culture and the very thing that makes you who you are. Your culture defines you, and that’s what makes people interested in you. If you have no culture, why would somebody engage with what you had to say? Where does it come from? I would prefer to use African terminology rather than “black” terminology, though. I’ve heard people in the past make this argument and say “I’m a filmmaker”, but my question to them is “Who are you? Where do you come from?” and, “Is it a denial of where you come from?” Are you saying, “Where I come from is unimportant and insignificant”? That for me is problematic, because the film that you make won’t last, it won’t have any substance or resonance because it doesn’t come from anywhere. If you look at films that stand up, they are the ones with a deep cultural resonance. It shouldnt be seen as a blockage. Is black music – the fact that it is black music – a limitation? No it’s not. It’s a music that drives the world, and they have to figure out how to rebrand it! In any culture – Jewish culture, for example – people draw on their culture as a means to express themselves. Especially as we have a mixed heritage from slavery, we are very diverse as creative people as we draw on a much wider range of exprience than most people. We can draw on the wealthy, the poor, we can play any tune. Thats been one of our key abilities. Unfortunately, we are not given that space.
With that in mind, what do you see as the main challenges facing black filmmakers in this country today?
It’s the same as before. For me, black British filmmakers are the most vibrant talents in this country, but unfortunately they are not getting that space to express themselves. Every now and then you get these little windows, you know – Adulthood, Kidulthood – but these moments are not enough, so filmmakers have to find out new ways to make films. It’s not just black filmmakers that find it hard. It’s a hard industry to work in. But particularly for us. We pay taxes and we don’t see that reflected in the way that our talent is developed. For me that’s the thing that needs to happen. There needs to be more recognition of the inequality that exists within the film industry.
UK poster for Blood Ah Go Run (1982)
And how do we go about that?
Firstly by making it known. Nobody’s speaking out about it. The film industry still self-regulates itself, the film industry talks about diversity and audience initiatives that mean nothing. Over the last decade that’s been the song of the industry. All these training initiatives go on and on but they don’t lead to anything. That’s a major issue. The film industry, unlike the music industry to some extent, doesn’t punch its weight, it doesnt allow for diversity. It’s 90% white, male, middle-class; the least creative sector of the community, but they are the ones that make the films. It makes no sense, yet that’s the way the British film industry has been functioning and continues to function. It does not allow and open up for the best talents, which is why people up and go off to other places. I think the film industry is way behind, so filmmakers at this moment in time are on their own.
Are there any particular directors or artists operating currently whose work you admire andparticularly look out for?
I don’t look at it like that so much. There are films that I like by filmmakers I look at, but there’s not necessarily any that I follow. I recently saw A Screaming Man (by Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) which I thought was very, very good. The problem that we have, talking about us from our perspective, is that most of the filmmakers’ works never see the light of day over here. This is why the [BFM] festival was so important. We showed films that you’d never normally see. You had a chance to engage with them. Most of the films that are made now tend to gravitate toward being mainstream, and especially in the case of UK talent you can see why. US filmmakers are trying to make films as a meal ticket to Hollywood. So you’re not getting the Spike Lees, the Charles Burnetts, Haile Gerimas. You’re not getting that level, that depth of thinking. There are a few, and there are some short films that are very interesting – but we’re in a landscape where not much stands out.
It’s interesting you mention Spike Lee, because some commentators, including the likes of Stanley Crouch, criticized him by saying that he wasn’t trying to develop a specific language for African-American cinema, rather he was playing into the Hollywood system with the techniques he was learning and deploying. Do you have a view on that?
You have to look at Spike in phases. He’s in a different phase now to where he was. In his early films, I think he did try to push things. He worked with Ernest Dickerson who had a strong cinematic vision, style and creativity. I think in his early films you saw more of that. Latterly he’s had to survive, and the films he makes… well, it seems he lost his audience after a while. It’s not a criticism, it sometimes just happens. I think that he developed his style, and that’s all you can do as a filmmaker. You can’t go beyond that. That’s for other people to have a view on. Charles Burnett’s work, for me, has a much deeper resonance.
If you look, for example, at Terrence Malick’s critical standing against Charles Burnett, there’s only ever one being spoken of…
I have seen Charles’ work, he’s done various types of film. Killer of Sheep was his first film out of film school, and he had a freedom, as we all did, as in fact I did with Burning An Illusion, and I think that his work has not been seen as much as it should have. My favourite film of his was To Sleep With Anger. I would say that he hasn’t had the run of films that he deserves.
And just to wrap things up, what’s next for you? A return to narrative filmmaking perhaps?
I have a lot in my head. I’ve written a script. At this moment I’m not forcing things. I tend to let things evolve more. I spent a lot of time thinking, “I want do this project and I want to do that project” but now, in the stage of life that I’m in, I don’t need to be chasing on the projects so I’m just allowing things to develop. I have a theatre piece I’m interested in doing. What I’ll do next, I don’t know yet because the likelihood is I’ll say it to you now and it’ll come round and be something else. Let’s wait and see!
The Story of Lovers Lock is screening in the following cinemas on the following days: September 30. Cinema City Norwich 29/09/11, Ritzy Brixton 30/09/11, Rio Dalston 30/09/11, Shortwave Bermondsey 30/09/11 (3 days), Vue Shepherds Bush 30/09/11 (7 days), Vue Birmingham Star City 30/09/11 (7 days), Peckhamplex Peckham 30/09/11 (7 days), Pictureville Bradford 04/10/11 (4 days), Riverside Hammersmith 18/10/11, MAC Birmingham 18/10/11 (3 days), Rich Mix Bethnal Green 20/10/11, Duke of Yorks Brighton 22/10/11.
Burning An Illusion is screening at the BFI as part of the African Odysseys strand on Saturday October 1. Visit the BFI website for information on how to buy tickets.
Hundreds of eager journalists and bloggers crammed into Leicester Square’s Odeon cinema this morning to enjoy pastries, chocolate and each others’ company, as the full programme was released for this year’s BFI London Film Festival – the esteemed event’s 55th instalment. This year is notable for being the last that long-serving artistic director Sandra Hebron will be in charge of. Following a speech by BFI director Amanda Nevill, Hebron introduced a tantalising clip reel comprising some upcoming festival highlights.
The festival, which runs from 12-27 October, and will be hosted in selected cinemas across London, opens with Fernando Meirelles’ multi-character opus 360 and concludes with a veritable Terence-fest: Davies’ much-anticipated adaptation of Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea. (Watch out for cameos from Stamp, Howard and Venables).
A more considered LFF preview will appear on PPH in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s a hastily cobbled together list of some films I’m particularly looking forward to.
Shame – Steve McQueen’s long-awaited follow up to his debut Hunger, starring the not unpleasantly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender as a New York-based sex addict. The clip we saw featured Fassbender giving his best shark eyes across a crowded dancefloor to the strains of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’.
The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius black-and-white homage to silent cinema, which went down a storm at Cannes, and has a rapidly growing reputation as a serious crowdpleaser.
A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg’s latest – a tortured tale of the relationship between famed psychologists Freud and Jung, starring Viggo Mortensen and that man Fassbender again. I’ve been a bit worried about Cronenberg recently – I think he’s been on the slide since roughly an hour into A History of Violence – but this looks as though it could be a rum, camp treat.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – a fascinating looking Swedish documentary featuring a mountain of eclectic testimony and archive footage relating to the American Black Power movement. Director Göran Olsson has form with the excellent, underseen Billy Paul documentary Am I Black Enough For You
Surprise Film – Each year, the Festival has a secret film in the programme, and it’s always an exciting occasion. I live in hope that this year’s fare is better than the one-two punch boondoggle of the last two years (the woeful Brighton Rock and the uninspiring Capitalism: A Love Story)
W.E. – Madonna’s latest directorial effort; an account of Wallis Simpson starring Andrea Riseborough. Intriguing, if only to see if it’s quite as dreadful as indicated by the likes of estimable critics Guy Lodge and Xan Brooks.
Initially shown as a work-in-progress version at the 2009 BFM International Film Festival, The Story of Lovers Rock tells the tale of an era and a music – romantic reggae – that defined a generation in the UK of the late 1970s and early 80s. Combining live performances, interviews from the key figures of the scene, and winningly funny sketches (fans of 1990s comedy series The Real McCoy will enjoy contributions from Eddie Nestor and Robbie Gee), the film paints a fascinating and compelling picture of an influential, yet hitherto undocumented, moment in time.
In presenting the story Shabazz, a skilled documentarian, doesn’t ignore the chastening political context of the time, referencing Sus laws and race riots along the way. However, he displays a deftness and lightness of touch which never lets us forget that his core subject is the joyousness of the music and a developing sense of black British identity.
The Story of Lovers Rock is screening for a second time this Saturday 16 April at the Notting Hill Coronet. Doors open at 1.30 for a 2pm start. You can only buy tickets online, and you can get them HERE. And you really, really should.
Although the film is practically complete, it needs support to ensure that all loose ends are tied up with rights clearances before it can move on to the next stage – the emotional rollercoaster of distribution and marketing. It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
On the way up to Birmingham today, a strange thing happened. As the motorways melted into one another, the endless stream of lorries merged lanes and the fog descended, a film which I had seen a while ago bolted into my consciousness with a rarely experienced clarity and immediacy.
Chris Petit’s Radio On is an acknowledged cult classic, mythologized in a fantastic, yet little-known novel entitled The Director’s Cut by Nicholas Royle (Mum, that was a cracking Christmas present a few years back by the way) and re-released by the BFI in 2008.
It is a deeply odd, insidiously haunting road movie which follows an alienated DJ (David Beames) who travels from London to Bristol by car to investigate the mysterious yet devastatingly symbolic suicide of his brother. Of course he discovers very little, other than a collection of eccentric characters who populate the film’s barren landscape like animated scarecrows. One of these characters, an enigmatic muso-gypsy, is played by a pre-twat Sting (clip here). It imbues the roads, highways and overpasses of the southwest of England with a mythic, monolithic quality, and has been read by many as a treatise on a country in stasis at the end of a decade.
Heavily influenced by the road movies of Wim Wenders (it was shot in appropriately stark monochrome by Wenders’ assistant cameraman Martin Schfer and starred Wenders’ then-partner Lisa Kreuzer), Radio On is also notable for it’s blisteringly strong soundtrack, which features David Bowie (‘Heroes’, the German version!), Kraftwerk, Ian Dury and Devo. It also features, long before it was used in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, Wreckless Eric’s snarling-yet-toothless lovelorn anthem ‘Whole Wide World’ (vid below).
When I get back from Birmingham, Radio On is the first thing I’m going to watch. Orlroight moite? You should check it out, too.
The most recent of the British Film Institute’s African Odysseys strand – a series of films and events which explore the African Diaspora on screen – saw a double bill of little-seen works that shed light upon two key figures of the Black Power movement in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of whom were tragically, and almost inevitably murdered by the state.
The Murder of Fred Hampton is a bracing documentary from 1971, made by the Chicago Film Group, about the death of the titular chairman of the local Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Bookended by the dispiriting and utterly shambolic cover up of the murder by Chicago police and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the majority of the film is an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall study of Hampton making speeches, mobilising supporters and preparing for his upcoming court case (Hampton was jailed for allegedly looting an ice-cream van; “I’m big, but I can’t eat 710 ice creams!”), which has a grainy, raw and vital quality entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
The relatively lesser-known Hampton (in comparison to nationally recognised contemporaries such as Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton) was an electrifying, rhythmical orator, and his myriad talents are captured at close range here. Confident, driven and preternaturally assured for his age, Hampton, amazingly, was just 21 years old when he was slain in his sleep in a state-sanctioned 4am raid. Capturing a moment in time, The Murder of Fred Hampton is an essential primer for anybody unfamiliar with the period, the politics or the man, and the intricate explorations of the crime scene and disgraceful cover-up are darkly fascinating.
The Murder of Fred Hampton was accompanied by Death of a Revolutionary, a 30-minute World in Action special from 1972 followed by an illuminating Q&A with its producer Dick Fontaine. A study of the ‘Soledad Brother’ George Jackson, who was assassinated in San Quentin penitentiary, Death… was a meditative piece rather than overtly political, and largely focused on the community and national reaction to his death, interspersed with readings of his poetry and writings. The film was interesting, moving and only slightly marred by a hilariously flat, overly casual voiceover from an unnamed Brit. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to imagine such a poetic, neutral and nuanced study making it onto prime-time television today.
The essential work that the BFI Education department does in promoting a wider cultural experience was underlined and epitomized by a refreshingly mixed crowd occupying a sold-out auditorium. So overscribed was this screening that there was a last-minute (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to have it switched into a larger theatre.
African Odysseys will continue in March with I Heard It Through The Grapevinefrom 1980 (again by Fontaine) in which the legendary author James Baldwin revisits his past and reappraises the Civil Rights movement.