उसकी रोटी Uski Roti (aka Our Daily Bread, aka A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Clearly low-budget and shot in black-and-white, this feels like a major title in the development of independent Indian filmmaking, part of India’s own New Wave, in which Mani Kaul was a central figure. It’s a small rural village drama between a handful of characters, but has a power to it that draws on contemporary European figures like Bresson.


I’ve not seen a huge deal of Indian cinema, beyond a few big titles and some contemporary commercial movies, so seeing things like this impresses upon me how huge a range there must be in the country. Uski Roti (variously translated as “Our Daily Bread” and “A Day’s Bread”, and which is variously listed as 1969 and 1970 depending where you look) is barely even narrative-driven, being often composed of a series of brief vignettes of almost Bressonian austerity, as a woman, Balo (Garima), makes food for her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), who drives a bus and only seems to show up very irregularly. In the meantime, we see him playing cards, while stories circulate about him having another woman in another village. The wife’s orbit is the home, where she works alongside her sister (Richa Vyas), who is being pestered by the husband’s brother. Aside from Bresson, the images are reminiscent of the stark village scenes in The Cow, a contemporary film from Iran. Slowly we get a sense of these characters and how their lives are, as the film just lays out these images of village life one after another. Clearly the 60s were a fertile time, and the stark simplicity of this film (a debut film, no less) suggests not just a great talent, but just the tip of the iceberg for filmmaking across the continent.

CREDITS
Director Mani Kaul मणि कौल; Writers Mohan Rakesh मोहन राकेश and Kaul; Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ਕੇ ਕੇ ਮਹਾਜਨ; Starring Garima, Gurdeep Singh, Richa Vyas; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 9 June 2020.

प्यासा Pyaasa (1957)

A couple of weeks ago I did a themed week around documentaries because of the Sheffield Doc/Fest moving online (it’s still going until 10 July). However, it’s not the first film festival and won’t be the last to open online only this year. Next week Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a short online programme, and just this past week, the London (and Birmingham) Indian Film Festival has launched an online hub, which looks very similar to Sheffield’s. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch up with a few, but it’s a hectic time in filmgoing, albeit a very homebound one! In honour of this, I’m doing a week dedicated to Indian films, starting with some classics and then moving to more recent works (most of which I’ve seen are by women directors). I’ll start with Guru Dutt’s classic from 1957, whose bio makes him seem like he had something of a turbulent life, though it resulted in some great films.


A magnanimous and generous film about people living on the outside of acceptable society. The director Guru Dutt also plays the leading man, Vijay, a struggling poet (much of it sung) who has been more or less abandoned by his brothers and scorned by polite society, and who is only made to feel welcome by a prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). In a bitter twist of fate, he only finds fame after it is assumed he has died. The Wikipedia plot summary deals mostly with the film’s final third, as much of the earlier part of the film is more of an attempt to capture Vijay’s feelings, of being abandoned and shunned, and of failing to find love or respect, though somehow it’s never really depressing: the luminous cinematography, and the generosity of a small number of (similarly outsider) characters keep the film and its lead character from wallowing in misery. When plot machinations kick in, the grasping venality of those around Vijay is revealed.

Pyaasa film posterCREDITS
Director Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त; Writer Abrar Alvi अबरार अलवी; Cinematographer V.K. Murthy वीके मूर्ति; Starring Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त, Mala Sinha माला सिन्हा, Waheeda Rehman وحیدہ رحمن, Rehman रहमान; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

Global Cinema, Angola: Sambizanga (1973)

Angola is a country which has been beset for most of its independent existence by war, and continues to be hugely impoverished, so its no surprise there isn’t a huge cinema coming from there. Even the most prominent filmmaking linked to the country isn’t really funded there; Sarah Maldoror was married to a prominent leader in the MPLA, and her films about the country and its colonial troubles were funded by the French, and Sambizanga filmed in the bordering Republic of Congo (aka Brazzaville). Still, it’s very much a film about the situation in the country at a febrile time just leading up to its independence.


Angolan flagRepublic of Angola
population 25,789,000 | capital Luanda (6.8m) | largest cities Luanda, Lubango (601k), Huambo (595k), Benguela (555k), Cabinda (550k) | area 1,246,700 km2 | religion Catholicism (56%), Protestantism (37%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicities Ovimbundu (37%), Ambundu (25%), Bakongo (13%) | currency Kwanza (Kz) [AOA] | internet .ao

With a coastal plain along the Atlantic ocean and an inland plateau, divided by a mountain range, this is the seventh largest country on the continent, and has a tiny exclave of Cabinda just to the north, divided from the rest of the country by the DRC. The name comes from the Portuguese colonial name, itself derived from the title ngola held by kings in the highland region. Early nomadic tribes gave way to Bantu in the first millennium BCE, and a number of kingdoms were established thereafter in the region. The Portuguese came in the late-15th century, first explorer Diogo Cão, then establishing a trading post; they founded Luanda but had little control over the interior regions until the 19th century. Post-WW2 nationalist movements led to the founding of the FNLA, UNITA and the Soviet-supported MPLA, and independence declared on 22 November 1975. Agitation between these groups then led to a Civil War (with support coming from Soviet and US factions), which lasted sporadically until 2002. The country has yet to recover, and droughts have compounded problems. The government is led by a President, who had been José Eduardo dos Santos for 38 years until 2017.

The first cinemas were built in the 1930s, but many are now in disrepair. After so many years of war, understandably there is very little money available for filmmaking in the country, though there was a small boost in the 2000s after the Civil War concluded.


Sambizanga (1973)

I’d long hoped to see this film — and still do hope for a proper restoration — but it took the director’s recent passing for me to seek it out online, albeit in a poorly-kept print transferred badly to YouTube. However, some films you need to accept how they are if you want to watch them; in some ways, the poor quality and bad subtitling just adds to the film, which deals with Angolan liberation. It’s named for the area in Luanda where the prison is located to which our hero, Domingos (de Oliveira) is taken. He’s a member of the liberatory resistance to Portuguese colonial rule, and is grabbed from his workers’ shack in a nearby community by armed police. The film then intercuts his own tribulations in prison with his wife searching fruitlessly for him in the various prisons in the capital city, as well as other resistance workers trying to discover who this man is who’s been captured. It has the simple power of Soviet cinema in some respects, as it lays out the terms by which independence is fought for in an oppressive colonial system.

Sambizanga film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Maldoror; Writers Claude Agostini, Maurice Pons, Mário Pinto de Andrade and Maldoror (based on the novel A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier “The Real Life of Domingos Xavier” by José Luandino Vieira); Cinematographer Claude Agostini; Starring Domingos de Oliveira, Elisa Andrade; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

In a sense this film is about one person, Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist who sadly died the year after this was made, but in talking about his work and life, it touches on the history of the United Kingdom, its colonialism and its own struggles in relationship to that colonial past, that continue to echo today, that continue to in fact resound very loudly at this very specific moment.


Despite being born in the UK, I wasn’t educated here and therefore was never really introduced to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, having found out about him near the end of his life when this film was made (he died in 2014). However, the archival clips orchestrated here by John Akomfrah, with a backing of musical clips from Miles Davis records, impresses upon me that he really was one of that dying breed of accessible public intellectuals, so thin on the ground in contemporary discourse and surely never more sorely needed. He speaks of his West Indian roots, of coming to Britain to study at Oxford, and of the persistent racism and colonialist attitudes he encountered. In dealing with periods of his life, and of the history of late-20th century Britain, the film also elucidates the social changes that Hall dealt with in his work, the ways that dreams of the past may have died and that other newer ideals came to replace them, but with a throughline relating to the immigrant and postcolonial experience. The film is as much about the construction of identity itself as it is about telling a story of Hall, but it sort of manages to do all of these things, and though I can’t claim to be a great intellectual, it was persuasive and likeable, and idiosyncratic in its ways as something of a multimedia art project (which Akomfrah has done several of, including about Hall), but also a compelling documentary.

The Stuart Hall Project film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Dewald Aukema; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player on Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 10 June 2020.

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

S21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.