Dheepan (France, 2015)

What’s it all about?

I was enjoying Dheepan‘s representation of migrants on a French estate dominated by drug dealers until the end. Director Jacques Audiard seemed to be drawing parallels between the outsider status of both and the precariousness of drug dealers’ existence being not entirely dissimilar to the Tamil Tiger’s civil war. At the start of the film we see Dheepan escaping Sri Lanka at the end of the war, the Tigers having been defeated. He is thrown together with a woman, Yalini, who we meet trying to find an orphan child to complete their ersatz family.

Most of the film portrays the ‘family’s’ integration, of sorts, into French society and gives a powerful perspective from the outsider’s view. When one of the drug dealers explains to Dheepan, who’s the caretaker on the estate he’s living in, that he’s not from around here and he’s brought in because he has no connections, the film seems to be showing the two group’s similarity: neither belongs to where they are. Similarly, Yalini finds herself looking after a debilitated old man whose son is the local ‘drug lord’, Brahim. Vincent Rottier is sympathetic as Brahim but not sentimentalised. That fact that Jesuthasan Antonythasan, playing Dheepan, was actually a Tiger adds to the realism.

However, at the climax of the film this social realism is replaced by a ‘worm turns’ thriller narrative as Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger is reignited by an encounter with ‘the Colonel’ who, dementedly, is determined to continue fighting, and anger at a shoot out on the estate. It’s interesting to mix two seemingly unrelated genres although I didn’t find it convincing. And as to the ending… (won’t spoil) but it’s so far fetched that I don’t believe Audiard believes it either. Even if it’s not meant to be true but a fantasy I still don’t find it convincing. I was more interested in Yalini’s story anyway for her oppression was greater than Dheepan’s.

London Road (UK, 2015)


Verbatim dialogue, taken from interviews with people who lived on London Road during the capture and conviction of a serial killer in Ipswich during 2005, set to music? It shouldn’t work. Documentary realism mixed with that most stylised of genres, the musical: the characters do burst into song in the street! I’m aghast at the brilliance of the concept and the superb execution it receives in this Rufus Norris directed film; Norris had directed the original National Theatre production (he also directed Broken). It’s mostly the original cast with a few added, including Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. They are uniformly brilliant particularly Kate Fleetwood, who did a marvellous Lady Macbeth in the Chichester Theatre production, as one of the surviving prostitutes who had turned London Road into a ‘red light’ district.

Adam Cork’s music is crucial to the project’s success. To my untutored ear it mixes musical conventions with minimalist techniques that allows sentences to be repeated more as refrain than a chorus; Alecky Blythe wrote the script, based on the interviews. The lines are delivered, presumably, in the way they were originally spoken. The accent is an obvious way words are personalised but the pitch too, particularly when taken out of context (I’m assuming the interviews were edited), give an unusual construction to the lines that emphasises the musicality of speech. The effect is to heighten the every day banality of speech to, along with the repetition, give it emphasis; you listen more to what these people have to say.

The focus on the street’s residents showed them to be victims, in their own minds at least, from the social problems of living in a ‘red light’ district and then from press intrusion. In the film’s finale, a street party celebrating the killer’s –who’d lived at number 79 – guilty verdict, Fleetwood’s wraith-like figure walks along the street, unseen by the neighbours, reminding us who the victims actually were.

The central character, as far as there is one, is played by the ever-sympathetic Olivia Colman so it comes as a shock when she states that she wishes she could shake the killer’s hand and thank him for getting rid of the prostitutes. Whilst this does make it clear how miserable life can be made soliciting prostitutes, and by kerb crawlers, it also speaks of a severe lack of empathy. I guess the problem was a failure of the public services to sort out the problem but then our public servants’ jobs are ever more challenging and under-resourced the long, failing ‘austerity economics’ goes on.

Le Quattro Volte (Italy-Germany-Switzerland, 2010)

The goats have it

Michelangelo Frammartino’s unusual film appears to offer four slices of life in a rural backwater of southern Italy (Calabria). Not a lot happens here but the film is entrancing in surprising ways. There’s no intelligible dialogue (nothing is subtitled), the dominant sound on the soundtrack is the bleating of goats (I’d had enough of that by the end; we do hear the ambient sounds of the town. The central character, if the definition serves, is the goat herder who is obviously, from the start, going to die soon. It’s not only the fact he’s very old but he coughs a lot; a sure signifier of death. That’s hardly a spoiler because what happens is not important, what matters is simply that it happens.

Cinematically it’s interesting as Frammartino often places his camera in a position simply to observe events mostly disallowing the director’s privilege of putting it anywhere he likes. There are, for example, very few close ups (this is one way of avoiding the problem of performance when using an amateur cast). One  position allows us to see the goats’ pen and the herder’s home in the background. During the Easter parade, which marches past this position, we witness farcical happenings that belong more in a black comedy than a low-key representation of routine. This startling clash works but I’m not sure why.

Frammartino is recording the end of tradition as the herder’s successors work in different ways. I wonder about the representation of the Easter parade; is it meant to be laughable or is that my perspective colouring what happens?

There is one dramatic moment, the brilliant cut from the herder’s coffin’s incarceration to the birth of a goat was as visceral a scene I have watched recently. I am slightly concerned that we were meant to think the herder had been reincarnated in goat: ridiculous or more skewed humour?

The film’s short (88 minutes) but that was long enough.

The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, France, 1986)

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here?

The Bechdel test is mentioned regularly on the feminist sites I look at and The Green Ray, known as Summer in America, certainly passes. It follows Delphine (Marie Rivière) as she decides what to do after a friend dropped out of a holiday at the last minute. Delphine is unhappy and whilst the cause of this is because she’s been dumped by a man the film focuses on her desires rather then men’s. It’s ‘co-scripted’, or rather improvised, by Rivière and director Erich Rohmer and this, with the location shooting, where you can see passers-by looking at the filming with curiosity, gives the film a realist dimension. All the other characters are ‘playing’ themselves including Paulette Christlein, the ‘free spirit’ Delphine meets in Biarritz, who, like the other performers I sampled, never appeared in another film.

The long-takes, and meandering narrative, is similar to the style and form that Richard Linklater used in his Midnight films; the subject matter is similar too. Not a lot happens, or rather, quite a lot happens slowly and I was wondering why I was enjoying the film so much as it seemed to be an example of Rohmer’s whimsy. It helps that Rivière’s is brilliant and the several locations used are beautifully shot. The revelation, toward the end, of what the ‘green ray’ is does give the film a weightier philosophical dimension. I don’t think the title Summer is a good one; presumably distributors were afraid audiences might confuse the film with science fiction.

It has recently been re-released in the UK and it’s well-worth catching this film, particularly if you like Linklater.

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

History made alive

History made alive

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.


The Selfish Giant (UK, 2013)

Big mouth strikes

Big mouth strikes

This film has been widely lauded but I didn’t like it. I’m not sure why; is it the fact that I come across tykes like Arbor (‘big mouth’ above) as part of my day job? Maybe it’s my dislike of naturalism, texts that look at ‘low life’ without any political framework (though Mark Kermode says it is political here). I wasn’t engaged by the opening scene where Arbor and his mate, Swifty, opportunistically nick someone else’s thieving; I thought the scene badly directed and so unconvincing. There were loose ends: the electric cable lying around on waste land; the fact that Swifty can sit in the school’s reception despite being excluded; the absence of social services; it was explicitly set in Bradford but you wouldn’t know it from the mise en scene. And I wasn’t won over by the performances, despite the fact that they were convincing.

I saw it in Bradford and, for the art house screen, it was pretty full for an early evening screening though that might be simply to do with the local factor as it didn’t perform well nationally. The people I saw it with were ‘moved’ by the film so maybe it’s my jaundiced perception, as a teacher, who has to deal with ‘Arbors’ in a system that has no place for them.

Catfish (US, 2010)

Facebook romance

This documentary, that follows the Facebook relationship between a New York photographer and a woman in rural Michigan, starts slowly, as there seems little point in making the film, but ultimately nails a key point about the Facebook era. Like Capturing the Friedmans (US, 2003), the documentarists seem to stumble upon something significant; Andrew Jarecki, who made the Friedmans, is credited as a producer of Catfish.

Shelley Turkle, in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, states that ‘People talk about digital life as the “place for hope,” the place where something new will come to them.’ Without spoiling the film, Catfish finds itself investigating the way some people use, in this case Facebook, as a way of escaping their own lives.

Shot on a variety of devices, themselves part of the wired world we live in, of varying quality, Catfish has the look of a home movie, even the sound is wayward, that befits its subject. The two filmmakers, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman , show themselves to be extremely sensitive young men, as does Nev, Ariel’s brother, the photographer, in how they handle what transpires. The subject of the revelation (you see I’m trying very hard not to spoil) is treated with a great deal of dignity and sympathy.

Dead Man’s Shoes (UK, 2004)

Psycho to go

What happens when you cross a revenge movie with British social realism? In this case you get a not entirely successful, but certainly interesting, film. Co-writer, with star Paddy Considine, and director Shane Meadows is renowned for his slices of working class life on estates, his handheld camerawork and ensemble acting lift a lid on an under-represented class in cinema. His This Is England (2006) is a particularly successful example.

On the face of it mixing a genre movie with the aesthetics of realism seems a great idea and I don’t think it ‘fails’ because of the execution. The bunch of slightly deranged, and vulnerable, characters are typical Meadows and are convincingly portrayed. And Paddy Considine is ‘as standard’ as a brittle and unpredictable character, at once warm and threatening. He returns to his home town, looking beautiful in the hills of Derbyshire, seeking revenge for the treatment of his mentally challenged younger brother.

Maybe it doesn’t quite work because genre and realism can’t gel. The former relies upon verisimilitude, the rules of the genre, to convince its audience, whilst the latter states this is a ‘slice of life’. By their nature, genres aren’t ‘slices of life’. However, that should not be an impediment to watching this well-made and ground-breaking film.

A Day in the Life – Four Documentaries by John Krish (UK 1953 and 1961-3)

A fantastic day in the life of

I’d never heard of John Krish when Roy Stafford suggested a Friday night at the pictures to see documentaries made 50 years ago. Low expectations often lead to an over generous appraisal,  however these four films are undoubtedly the work of a great documentarian.

Take They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (above) which follows an NSPCC trip to Weston-Super-Mare from the slums of Birmingham. The subject matter is sufficient to engage most, however aesthetically this is an incredible film. Krish primarily works in observational cinema, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) about the last tram in London being an exception in the four films, where the camera has to appear to offer a ‘window on the world’. This requires participants not to look at the camera, otherwise the fourth wall is broken. HOW THE HELL DID HE GET THIS BUNCH OF OVER-EXCITED KIDS NOT TO LOOK AT THE FOUR CAMERAS USED TO MAKE THIS FILM?! Presumably they were told they’d chucked off the train or dumped into the sea… you get my drift. I found the film an utterly astonishing portrayal of the day. There are numerous close ups of the children and never once do they glance at the camera (a copper helping them cross the road does). The effect of this is to offer an incredibly intimate representation of the day on the beach for these under-privileged children: a masterpiece.

Krish doesn’t use the long takes characteristic of observational cinema, and he sparingly uses voice overs, but there’s no doubting the veracity of what we see. The NUT sponsored Our School (1962) is a fascinating glimpse into a secondary modern school, again beautifully shot. The emphasis in what we see is ‘modern’ and not ‘bog standard’; even in schools which were designated for the non academic. Clearly the film has a propagandistic function, though – as I said above – it was entirely convincing.

The final film,  I Think They Call Him John (1964), is possibly the best portrayal of loneliness I have ever seen. Again Krish shows his ability to allow his subject to act ‘natural’. Even when John is shaving with the camera as his mirror, I wasn’t really aware of the constructedness of the image. It’s a film that verges on the heartbreaking through under-statement (though it was surreal hearing Bruce Forsyth on John’s telly).

Catch these brilliant films and I look forward to seeing more by Krish.


The Circle (Dayereh, Iran-Italy-Switz, 2000) and Offside (Iran, 2006)

We are watching you

Jafar Panahi was fortunate, I think, to be on the jury of this year’s Cannes film festival as it made his incarceration in Iran high profile and newsworthy so probably led to his release. The fact he was also on hunger strike accentuated the situation. His ‘crime’ was, reportedly, planning to make a film about last year’s disputed election in Iran. Was his arrest a tribute to the power of filmmakers or simply a symptom of the insecure feelings of an illegitimate government?

Panahi has anti-Iranian establishment form and these two films portray the ludicrous patriarchal aspects of Iran’s Islamic nation. The Circle starts with a mother worried her daughter will be divorced because the her newly-born grandchild is a girl and not the expected boy. The women are throughout restricted by what they can do because they don’t have a man’s permission. Hypocrisy reigns as – pictured above – a character is asked to make a phone call by a policeman just in case a husband answers the phone and the women are constantly verbally sexually hassled by men on the street.

Panahi’s genius is his use of realism as the camera, at the start, seems to wandering the streets capturing what’s going on. We’re often in the dark as to what’s happening (why were the women imprisoned?) just as we would be as external observers to the events. It’s also tightly structured, it begins and ends – like The Searchers – with an opening and closing of a door.

Not watching a football match

In some ways Offside is more audacious than The Circle as it was shot on location defined by both place and time. The ‘time’ being the day of a crucial World Cup qualifier and much of the film is shot at the stadium where the game took place. Brilliance all round from cast and crew to make this one work. Again the theme’s the subjugation of women – they are not allowed to watch the match as they might hear ‘bad’ language – and their sisterhood as they resist men’s power. While most of the men in The Circle are negatively represented, here we get to know the women’s guards and they are mostly fairly pathetic characters who are simply following orders.

Panahi shot the film hoping that Iran would win the game in order to have an upbeat ending. This contrasts with the bleakness of The Circle and it’s unfortunate that the earlier film seems to be the one that accurately portrays the conditions in Iran at the moment. And as I write this the news tells me that the Israelis are using their usual violent tactics in killing at least 11 people bringing supplies to the Palestinians. Until the Palestinian question is resolved (and I don’t mean Israel’s solution) then the mess to the Middle East will continue to destabilise the world.