Permanent Plastic Helmet has already done its Top 10 of 2011. You can (and should!) read it HERE. The following is a list of some other film-related things from 2011 that have been on my chest. I’ve decided to get them off it.
THE ONE FILM I WISH I HADN’T SEEN – Snowtown
Unlike my dear Granddad, I don’t believe that films should only serve the purpose of providing pure escapism. However, I would have preferred more from Snowtown than the feeling of stomach sickness that it left me with when I emerged blinking from a mid-morning press screening at the LFF. Justin Kurzel’s dramatisation of Australia’s notorious barrel murders was a tawdry – if technically accomplished, well acted and fiercely, atmospherically oppressive – fiesta of animal abuse, male rape, paedophilia, torture, and dodgy haircuts. I guess I can see what people got out of it, but I’ll be honest: it seemed more like depiction than interrogation or illumination to me, and – yep – I wish I hadn’t seen it.
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THE FILM THAT I DESPISED AND SEEM TO BE IN THE VAST MINORITY IN DESPISING – Melancholia
After an astounding opening sequence, Lars Von Trier’s latest turned into a thunderingly dull slab of navel-gazing with a first half that played out like a student version of a David Lynch movie, and a second in which you could you go for a curry and a reiki session and not miss anything. Stunning visuals and some good acting (especially from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) just couldn’t make up for the crashing boredom. Ever divisive, Von Trier left me way on the other side of the line with this one. I found Ballast to be a much more powerful and rich study of depression and its effects.
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THE HIDDEN SUCCESS STORY OF THE YEAR – The Story of Lovers Rock
Menelik Shabazz’ excellent, important slice of black British cultural history The Story of Lovers Rock had a troubled conception, being stuck in development and rights hell for a few years. However, thanks to tireless work from Shabazz himself and a loyal team of supporters, the documentary has weathered the tough times (Shabazz, for example, went to the Birmingham VUE only to find that not only were the posters for the film not up, the film itself hadn’t even been delivered!) and in January 2012 it’ll enter its fifth month in UK cinemas. To date, it’s enjoyed a string of sold-out, vibrant Q+As in cinemas across the country, and has rolled out into prestigious venues like The Tricycle and Riverside Studios. Despite very limited, lukewarm press coverage (a piece in Time Out gave the film a mildly positive review, yet signed off with the dismissive “for fans only” line), it’s taken a very respectable £50,000+ at the UK Box office. It seems that the people wanted this film, and they got it. Its continued success represents a victory for black British independent cinema and the power of the consumer. [interview with Menelik Shabazz]
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THE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR – Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom
Honourable mentions go to Uggie the dog from The Artist, Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter,and everyone in A Separation (there’s loads more but there’s also loads more end-of-year-lists that’ll do this sort of thing in more detail. And the Oscars, I guess). However, the turn that’s lingered longest in my mind is Ben Mendehlson as the seedy, villainous and utterly psychopathic uncle Pope from Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom (which I saw way back in January). I can’t remember having such a visceral reaction to a fictional character since the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters gave me sleepless nights years ago.
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THE RETURNING BLOG COMMENTER OF THE YEAR – “Truthteller”
Last year, I published a short piece praising Errol Morris’ tricky, entertaining documentary Tabloid(which tells the confounding tale of former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney). Imagine my surprise when I returned to my computer to discover an 801-word screed by somebody named ‘Truthteller’ in the comments section. Well, I did another post this year to announce the film’s UK release date, and lo and behold ‘Truthteller’ came back with another rant. This time “they” branded me “a heartless, gossiping moron”. “They” were at least a third right. I would suggest my assailant was Joyce McKinney herself, but if I did that I’d be in all sorts of legal hot water. It was Joyce. IT WAS JOYCE!
For upping their game to match their compelling USP (to wit: UK distribution for social issue films and documentaries) with a consistently intriguing and often brilliant slate. In 2011 alone Dogwoof pictures provided us with PPH’s film of the year Dreams Of A Life, Steve James’ astonishing The Interrupters, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, the paean to newspaper journalismPage One: Inside The New York Times, Mark Cousins’ The First Movie, and chess doc Bobby Fischer Against The World, to name but a few. Bravo.
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THE MOST TEMPTING CHRISTMAS PRESENT TO BUY FOR SOMEONE YOU HATE
Sadly the price – coming in at well over the £0.01 to £1.00 bracket that I’m prepared to spend on joke presents – proved prohibitive. Note also the steadfastly tripartite approach to titling. Triads, yardies and onion bhajees! Well I never.
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THE TV OF THE YEAR – The Story Of Film/Black Mirror -’15 Million Merits’
Across 15 spellbinding weeks, writer and broadcaster Mark Cousins’ passionate, jet-setting documentary The Story of Film was an absolute joy to watch. I loved his emphasis on world cinema, his fiercely personal take on things and his slightly mental metaphors (“The bauble!” “The gorilla!”). I learned a lot, enjoyed every minute and now, as a result, have a viewing list as long as my arm.
The biggest surprise of the year TV-wise was the second instalment of Charlie Brooker’s techno-dystopian trilogy Black Mirror, entitled ‘15 Million Merits’, co-written with his wife and ex-Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. It depicted a terrifyingly realised (and horribly imaginable) near-future in which humanity now consists of bored subordinates participating in a never-ending videogame to accumulate points. And what can you do with those points? Enter an X-Factor-style reality music show, or watch porn. It was beautifully shot and designed, deeply disturbing, and rising star Daniel Kaluuya was brilliant as the stoic yet vulnerable hero.
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THE MOST VIEWED ARTICLE ON PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET IN 2011
Earlier this year I discovered that the erstwhile host of kids’ TV show Art Attack had a side career as the guitarist in a metal band called Marseille. Despite it having literally nothing to do with the site’s film-specific remit I decided to post about it anyway, and it’s racked up thousands of hits. Although most people have found their way to the article by enquiring via search engine (Q. ‘is+Neil+Buchanan+dead+?’ A. I hope not), I’m amazed at the levels of interest it’s generated. Perhaps I should knock the film thing on the head and dedicate the blog instead to the whereabouts of 90s TV entertainers. Whither Jonathan Morris?
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THE BEST YOUTUBE VID THAT WE POSTED THIS YEAR
It had to be Guillaume Gendron‘s discovery of Joe Pesci’s short-lived career in gangsta rap, which had me laughing like a drain for days every time I thought about it. “A lovely day for a drive-by” indeed. Enjoy:
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THE MOST HILARIOUS NON-FILM RELATED ARTS REVIEW OF THE YEAR – The Daily Express on ‘Let England Shake’ by PJ Harvey
You’ll find the “review” underneath the player. Enough said:
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THE “WHAT WE’RE MOST EXCITED ABOUT FOR 2012” AWARD(S)
Michael Fassbender winning the Best Actor Oscar for his amazing performance in Shame.
The return to our screens of Spike Lee with his new film Red Hook Summer (which you can find out a bit more about over at Cinemart).
Amour, the latest effort from Michael Haneke, which sounds absolutely spellbinding.
The big one: Paul Thomas Anderson (for my money, the best, brightest director currently working in American cinema today) returns with The Master, a Scientology-inspired epic starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.
Another wish would be full UK distribution for William Friedkin’s latest Killer Joe, and Michael Rapaport’s excellent documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest which was released in the States in August. Here’s the trailer:
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Thank you for reading. There’s one more post to come in our look back at 2011, and it will be packed to the gills with bad language. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
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.
Permanent Plastic Helmet is pretty chuffed to be quoted on the poster for Menelik Shabazz’ brilliant documentary The Story of Lovers Rock, which opens in selected cinemas on Friday 30 September. Visit the film’s official website for full details of where the film is showing.
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.