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).

Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, 1999)

Following on from my post about Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow earlier today, another filmmaker crafting a similar meeting between history and travel is Ruth Beckermann, whose work I discuss today takes the form of a travelogue but again uses historical texts and incidents to structure it, finding a little bit of the past in present actions perhaps, and revealing something of the world as it’s not perhaps frequently seen by the West.


An essay film with shades of Chantal Akerman I thought, in the way it elegantly constructs its telling of the story of the peripatetic later life travels of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the 19th century with its own travelogue visions of Egypt. There are lateral tracking shots of markets and bridges across the Nile, among many other sights and sounds of the country, pulled together by a studied narration (available in both German and English). It seems like something that must be very deeply considered, and I confess that I watched it in probably less than the careful scrutiny it deserves, but I very much warmed to the sense of feeling it imparts (presumably somewhat like the Empress would herself have encountered) of peering somehow through the exoticised Othering of Egypt and its people that exists in the West, of getting a glimpse of life in this bustling world city, albeit with a certain distance.

A Fleeting Passage to the Orient film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ruth Beckermann; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv נורית אביב and Sophie Cadet; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 30 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

War Is a Tender Thing (2013)

A Filipino film set in the southern, more contested, part of the country, around the second-largest island of Mindanao. This is a personal documentary that looks at the conflicts from one woman’s point of view, and that of her family, and deals with interfaith marriage.


A personal essay film about the filmmaker’s family in Mindanao (an area also known as the Southern Philippines), this uses family history as a way to represent and interrogate ideas about the past, not least a long-running conflict ostensibly between Christian and Islamic populations in the area. Mindanao isn’t much represented in mainstream cinema, so it’s good to see some attention paid to the area and its people and histories. Certainly, the filmmaker’s family are sceptical about this idea of religious conflict, given that many members of their family have intermarried, and that becomes a theme that moves through the film, of understanding political turbulence through personal connections, and the film eschews any editorial contextualising of the conflict, aside from occasional snippets of television news. Technically, there are some messy edges to the filmmaking (a lot of shaky handheld shots), but it captures a lot of beauty of the region, and there’s an abiding mystery at the film’s heart.

War Is a Tender Thing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Adjani Guerrero Arumpac; Cinematographers Arumpac and Victor Delotavo Tagaro; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 15 April 2019.

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Setting itself apart from other films about Filipino history is this striking hybrid documentary, or rather more of a pseudo-documentary that blends actuality with propaganda and staging to create a critique of historical representation on film. There are a huge number of ideas bubbling throughout this hour-long film.


A strange hour-long piece that plays out as an earnest personal essay film about a Filipino-American man’s search for his grandfather, taken from the mountain region tribe of the Bontoc in the Philippines to be a performer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. This man, ostensibly the filmmaker Marlon Fuentes (indeed, played and voiced by him), reflects on his children and their lost ancestor, while Fuentes the co-director marshals archival footage to illustrate this (personal) historical lacuna. And yet, from the outset, there are hints that something more is going on — for example, the use of clearly fictional material (such as contemporary American propaganda representations of the US-Philippine war of 1898) without context, or implying their status as actuality film, or modern interpolations of ethnographic displays, tribal dancing, or images of his children holding cameras or doing magic tricks, as if representations of the filmmaker’s own practice. So this pseudo-documentary in fact interrogates the uses and purposes of image-making to shape historical representation, so sadly lacking in the education system not just of the US but the Philippines too (as seen in John Gianvito’s documentaries). In other words, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth unpacking.

CREDITS
Directors Marlon Fuentes and Bridget Yearian; Writer Fuentes; Cinematographers Rubén Domingo, Fuentes, Tommy Hafalla, Chris Manley and Yearian; Starring Marlon Fuentes; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 30 January 2018.

La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968)

Here on Filmcentric, I am doing a week of South American cinema (focused on Argentina) as La flor (2018) is being released cinematically in the UK on Friday 13 September, a film which is longer even than the one I’m discussing here. Filmmaking in South America really came to international attention in the revolutionary 1960s, under the label “Third Cinema”, and Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino were key amongst the figures within this movement, publishing a manifesto called Hacia un tercer cine (“Toward a Third Cinema”) the year after this three-part film. One of the key tenets was to resist neocolonialist and capitalist forces, and challenge viewers to include an awareness of class differences and power structures within the entertainment they consumed.


It’s clear at least that watching a film like this 50 years on in the institutionalised setting of the British Film Institute is a quite different experience from what the filmmakers intended, and probably effectively changes some of its meaning. After all, it’s a film that constantly mentions the necessity for the audience to continue the discussion outside the film, to reflect on it and complete its meaning themselves, and even includes intertitles exhorting them to stop the film and have discussions at various points. Instead, my impression is of an inexhaustible supply of facts and testimonies (and sometimes more-or-less propagandistic agitprop content) about post-war Argentinean politics, the rise of Juan Perón and the subsequent coup against him. If you’re not familiar with the events (as I am not) it can sometimes be a little difficult to follow, but the documentary footage, archival clips and supporting material from other “Third World” conflicts is joined by large amounts of textual quotes — alternately printed, flashed, zoomed into, or printed character-by-character on screen, to keep one’s attention presumably. It’s exhaustive, and it never quite seems to find a place to finish, but it’s a model of filmmaking that would have great impact on revolutionary modes of presentation, and still exerts its own fascination now.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas; Cinematographers Juan Carlos Desanzo and Solanas; Length 260 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 May 2018.

Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)

On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.

Continue reading “Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)”

Là-bas (Down There, 2006)

A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.


I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.

Down There film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Akerman and Robert Fenz; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.

Beyond Clueless (2014)

Charlie Lyne, the youthful director and writer of this visual essay about the teen film cycle that seemed so omnipresent after the success of Clueless (1995), is a film critic, and in many ways it’s surprising more critics don’t use the form they’re critiquing to put forward their argument. (Then again, maybe they do, but if so, I suspect it’s mostly the domain of YouTube videographers.) The Northern Irish critic Mark Cousins has made a range of essay films about various aspects of film history, while Jean-Luc Godard took to the form in his usual idiosyncratic way with Histoire(s) du cinéma, but other prominent examples are rather scarce.

Lyne’s project may be more straightforward than Godard’s, but it still allows for plenty of interesting juxtapositions, often carried as much by the swelling and jagged music of his musical collaborators Summer Camp as by Fairuza Balk’s dreamily-detached narration. The film enjoyably marshals all those iconic teen movie experiences — the high school corridor gauntlet, the cliques in the school canteen, the prom, the house party, and of course the lust and consummation of rampaging hormones — but also interrogates more closely the tropes and how they’re represented through chapters which delineate a sort of coming-of-age life cycle (from conformity and rebellion to social reintegration and maturation). Along the way the film wisely avoids the familiar works to focus on the revealing and surprising byways, from the more basic personality-makeover tropes of Slap Her, She’s French! (2002), to the insidious sexual politics of The Girl Next Door and the confused homoerotic undertones of EuroTrip (both 2004), and almost too many other films in between. There’s a creeping sense, in fact, that taken together, the whole genre is just cynically exploitative and retrogressively conservative in its morality (not that this stopped me loving many of these films at the time).

Beyond Clueless is not a history of the genre and it doesn’t waste any time trying to define what counts as a teen film, so there’s still room in the marketplace for something that does that (taking in, say, the John Hughes comedies and straight-to-video filth of the 80s, to the lacquered cheerfulness of the post-High School Musical generation). Instead this is a personal essay that is more concerned with what this distinct subset of period films say about us as an audience, hungrily lapping up all these films which are so distant from our own lives (even for those who live in the States), and touching on how those meanings may have changed as we ourselves get older and wiser. It doesn’t always cohere perfectly, and some of the nuances feel lost by Balk’s uninflected voice as we’re carried along by an impressionistic deluge of barely-contextualised clips, but it’s put together in a way that’s surely more accessible than a lengthy written post on the subject would be. If it feels like a starting point for further conversation about what we should take from all these films, then it’s a fascinating conversation and one that I enjoy listening to.

Beyond Clueless film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlie Lyne; Starring Fairuza Balk; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 14 January 2015.