Posted Sunday 21 July (The Commune (Paris 1871), The Universal Clock)
Posted Friday 19 July (Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth)
Posted Thursday 18 July (Brève traversée)
Posted Tuesday 16 July (Secret Ballot)
Posted Monday 15 July (The Wind Horse)
Posted Saturday 13 July (A Huey P. Newton Story)
Posted Friday 12 July (Domestic Violence, ‘Live’ From Palestine, The Inner Tour)
Posted Thursday 11 July (Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s adventures in Plastic)
Comments by Peter Hourigan
The Commune (Paris 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000), The Universal Clock (Geoff Bowie, 2001) A range of adjectives have been deployed over the years to describe Peter Watkins’ oeuvre – political, polemical, uncompromising, and uncommercial are just a few. They all, in fact, apply to his latest film The Commune (Paris 1871), an account of an important event in French history: the setting up of “The Commune” by the people of Paris, perhaps the world’s first experiment in a socialist or communist democracy, at a time of social collapse in the wake of the Prussian siege of the city. Within two months, the Commune was put down involving a bloody massacre in which 30,000 people were killed.
The running time of The Commune (Paris 1871) is an important part of its aesthetic. It runs for just under six hours, although it was originally conceived and funded as a two-hour project for French television. Watkins maintains that the project was too complex for that commercially mandated running time. His treatment of the event harks back to his 1964 film for British television, Culloden. In that, he recreated the same famous battle but had reporters rushing up to interview either soldiers after a skirmish or their incompetent leaders. In The Commune (Paris 1871), this device is extended further. As well as the historical characters, there are reporters from “Commune TV” and from a bourgeois television station. These interrogate characters about why they are involved in these events, or commentate on events, particularly putting an establishment interpretation on the events.
The Commune (Paris 1871) actually starts off “out of character”, with several of the actors being interviewed about the experience of making the film. They are dressed in costume, and the first impression is of their apparent confusion – are they talking as the characters they played, or as the people they are in their everyday life? This establishes a very important strand in the significance of this work. The cumulative effect is of something much more significant than the recreation of one historical incident. In fact, ultimate historical accuracy is not an objective of the film. Apart from the obvious anachronism of having television reporters tearing about the bloody cobblestoned streets of Paris 1871, we see the studio roller doors in the background as soldiers are drilling. As well, Watkins has filmed many sequences in long takes, taking advantage of digital technology that allows his lightweight camera to get in close. One effect is to allow group dynamics to emerge, so that “the mob” becomes a character in its own right.
These devices work subtly and effectively to expand the significance of the event from one event in French history to something of far greater relevance today. The very confusion of the actors when they are interviewed is a powerful reminder of how enormously relevant to their own lives they found the experience. The issues resonated with them. Watkins’ device of pretending that the media were there and covering the events has greater significance here than it did in his earlier Culloden. He, in fact, seems very bitter about the way that the media has treated his oeuvre. This goes back to the banning from television of his The War Game (1965). Over the years he has developed this critique into an articulate polemic. Here, it is an effectively integrated element in the work, casting light on the way that an establishment media can distort its covering in a range of ways.
The length of The Commune (Paris 1871) is an important element, giving Watkins full opportunity to explore history and its significance. He uses captions to guide the audience through the historical events as well as to draw parallels with modern day reality, in particular globalisation. These captions and this approach are unashamedly partisan and polemical. But that is acceptable – it is not concealed or subtle. (By contrast, Bloody Sunday is surely a more dishonest film, pretending to be “real” and objective, but employing its editing, its sound recording, its story structure in covert ways to manipulate our reactions.)
The Universal Clock is the “making of the film” about The Commune (Paris 1871). However, its interest extends beyond that and is among other things an excellent introduction to Watkins’ work. Watkins’ website outlines many of his views on the mass media. One of his criticisms of the MAVM (mass audio-visual media) is the subtle pressures they apply to producers of films. One of these is referred to as “the universal clock”. “At the present time, filmmakers producing TV dramas or documentaries are usually permitted a maximum of 52 minutes – in order to allow commercials to fill up the remainder of the hour.” Watkins directly challenged this universal clock in making a film of 5 hours 45 minutes – and one not easily segmented into episodes matching the universal clock. As well as recording aspects of Watkins filming The Commune (Paris 1871), Bowie’s film records other aspects of the commercial television industry. For example, he visits the television market/festival in Cannes where executives are buying programs or looking for new ideas that will suit their schedules.
These scenes reinforce Watkins’ thesis about the subtle ways that the MAVM betray their public responsibilities. Any would-be documentary filmmaker would probably see this film and weep – at least if they have any illusions about really being able to make films that would embody their philosophy if it does not match that of the establishment. Watkins is an uncompromising filmmaker. The irony is that he makes films that are deliberately “uncommercial”. The Commune (Paris 1871) is extremely long, in unspectacular black-and-white, with polemical intertitles. But it is also intelligent, thought-provoking and deeply satisfying. Hopefully, it will have some distribution after its one Australian screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival.
Comments by Frances Bonner
Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth (Sinisa Dragin, 2001) This is a film about a serial killer that is not, I would have thought, for those who like the genre – there is no dwelling on the killing, no expenditure of money on associated special effects and the killer appears to derive no pleasure from his murders, all of which involve people he is close to – but then it is not a genre film. Dumitru, the central figure, is a butcher given to killing people when enraged. We first meet him when he is about to be released from an 11-year prison sentence and it soon becomes evident, in case anyone doubted it, that Romanian prisons do not have good programs on anger management. He’s a compulsive gambler too and early in the film wins a bet with a gypsy for a goose which becomes a loved companion. A butcher who is also a serial killer and an edible animal with a lovely long neck would not seem to constitute a long lived couple and indeed this is the case, but had this not been a Romanian film inviting us to metaphysical reflection, it might well be inviting us to contemplate How Dumitru got his Goose back.
The black and white cinematography delivers a fittingly grim picture of life in Romania today with the peasantry beginning to acquire bathrooms while retaining their contempt for gypsies (returned with interest). There is one tiny moment of colour which precedes the moment of magic which brings together the sites of tenderness which intersperse Dumitru’s murders. The film does not invite us to judge Dumitru, and neither condemns or excuses his crimes. He himself, sick of his killings, asks God to take him, but God declines and Dumitru sees some mystical purpose in this though Dragin does not intimate what this might be.
What are we to make of the film – for it is not just a piece of entertainment, delivering nothing other than pleasure (fine though that may be and strangely pleasurable though the film undoubtedly is)? Is Dumitru’s inconsistent amorality, Romania’s? If the black and white is reality, then the moment of colour cannot be. Is it utopian? It brings about the magic which is both a punishment and a blessing and the figure which is so theatrically dressed in red is of a gypsy, outside a church furthermore. Dragin is too fine a filmmaker to be suggesting simplistically that a better relationship with an oppressed minority will improve his country’s future (though the film certainly indicates that there’s room for all manner of improvements), but this is a film speaking about the troubled modernisation of Eastern Europe that demands to be taken seriously.
Comments by Fiona A. Villella:
Brève traversée (Brief Crossing, Catherine Breillat, 2001) Very much like À ma soeur!, Brief Crossing unfolds in a realist, documentary-like fashion, focussed on ‘ordinary’, bourgeois characters and the interface between the ‘everyday’ and the psycho-sexual realm. The premise is simple: a young, sensitive man meets an older, jaded woman on a cruise across the English channel. The bulk of the movie then traces the development of their ‘romance’: from initial encounter to expression of interest to sexual foreplay to sex to separation. Given the story is essentially a two-hander and the plot driven by characterisation, the performances are paramount and both Sarah Pratt and Gilles Grippon are superb. That Pratt’s anti-male attitude becomes tedious after a while – an ‘us’/’women’ vs. ‘them’/’men’ mentality that is alienating – this functions as a ploy that the film later reverses. What I love about Breillat’s films is the way she combines storytelling (of the realist kind: an honesty toward the characters) with the conceptual so that a plot event or redirection can give rise to a philosophical comment on issues of gender, psycho-sexuality and relations between men and women. In À ma soeur!, this plot redirection is the car accident, and in Brief Crossing it’s the revelation of the female character’s ‘true’ identity at the end. The extent to which Breillat’s films make the audience feel uncomfortable is an index of the precision and clarity with which she explores issues of sexuality and male-female relations.
Comments by Jonathan Rosenbaum:
Secret Ballot (Babak Payami, 2001) The orgy of wishful thinking on the part of a distributor as well as liberal humanists like myself that spawned the false rumor that George W. Bush screened Kandahar last year might have settled on this Iranian comedy by Babak Payami (which surfaced around the same time) instead. Inspired by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s euphoric documentary about the national election and set on an island in the Persian Gulf, this battle of wits and wills between an eager, idealistic woman who’s appointed election supervisor and a reactionary, recalcitrant soldier assigned to accompany her is really the Iranian feature that Bush should have seen. Evoking The African Queen at odd moments, this isn’t merely a populist celebration of democracy that gains extra weight after a national election at the US that scorned many of the same values; it also offers a gentle ribbing of certain democratic ideals as they’re confronted with the diverse anomalies of a quasi-anarchistic wilderness. And it’s emblematic of the long, leisurely takes that open and close this small epic that viewers are invited to draw their own conclusions about this tug of war between traditional and reformist positions.
Comments by Frances Bonner
The Wind Horse (Daoud Aoulad Syad, 2001) The road movie is one of the most durable of genres and one of the most translatable internationally. The Wind Horse is a French Moroccan example directed by Daoud Aoulad Syad and a fine example of both the translatability of the genre and the distinctiveness which can be achieved within it.
The requisite mismatched couple comprises a retired blacksmith and a much younger man recently released from hospital. Also, as generically required, each has his quest: the old man wants to escape his daughter-in-law and son and visit his wife’s grave; the younger one has just heard that his mother, thought for 30 years to be dead might still be alive. They travel on the eponymous wind horse, an apple-green motorcycle and side car along the Moroccan coast, meeting old friends, making new acquaintances and visiting a circus where a young woman motor-cyclist rides the wall of death.
So far, so more or less standard, but the pleasures of this film are located in three aspects less often found in road movies: the cinematography, which emphasises moments when the characters are still rather than moving (DOP Thierry Le Bigre is also a photographer); the gentleness of the story especially the development of the relationship between the old man and his substitute son; and the wonderful central performances of Faouzi Bensaïdi as Driss, the younger man and Mohamed Majd playing Tahar, the older. The stillness of Majd’s performance matches the tone of the film perfectly, but the experience would have been perhaps too meditative, even bland without the unsettling edge of Bensaïdi’s acting. Restless and looking like a taller, better-looking Nicholas Cage, he is a mesmerising figure who leaves us uncertain whether or not to believe his brother’s story that Driss was in hospital to avoid a prison sentence for theft or whether he really does have some mental disorder. The producer, Freddy Denaës, speaking after the screening, noted how the small budget film would have been unable to afford Bensaïdi had he not so wanted to work with his friend director Sayd.
The film would have been significantly diminished had it not included this performance, but it emphasises for me how rarely at Australian film festivals we talk about performance. The focus is so fiercely on the director or on the technical merits of cinematography or sound (all of which are admirable here) that to talk of performance at times seems tantamount to announcing oneself a fan or a buff rather than a proper cinephile or film scholar.
Comments by Peter Hourigan
A Huey P. Newton Story (Spike Lee, 2001) Like The Original Kings of Comedy, A Huey P. Newton Story documents a stage performance. Actor-playwright Roger Guenveur Smith devised a one-man show about the co-founder of the Black Panthers. The performance itself is fascinating. On one level, it is just like a stand-up comic rambling on in front of an audience with his observations about life. But on another, the stand-up comic can be a very effective commentator on society. Newton, the historical figure, was a catalyst for change in society – and a figure hated by much of the white establishment. Newton, the stand-up performer, is still a potent character, his comments knuckling in on social inequality, the racism of the ‘6os, but in a way that also illuminates today.
It must have been an exciting performance to witness in a theatre. Spike Lee has recorded one performance in this film, but in a way that is much more than just filmed theatre. Lee has certainly placed his directorial skills at the service of another artist’s creation, but in a way that both preserves the essential theatrical nature of that performance, at the same time as he makes it accessible for a cinema/television audience.
The camera prowls around Smith, almost stalking him like a panther. Newsreel footage from the ’60s at times appears behind Smith/Newton reinforcing his commentary – or extending the understanding of an audience that today does not know the reality of the media image of those days of the black movement. Smith as an actor revels in words. The dialogue is incisive, perspicacious, and frequently poetic. The visuals complement this intelligently.
Spike Lee may not be the exclusive auteur of this work in the way that he is of his fiction films. But it is very much a part of his overall work, using cinematic means forcefully to highlight another aspect of the experience of being black in USA.
Comments by Peter Hourigan
Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman, 2001) Frederick Wiseman has a distinctive approach to documentary. Austere and dispassionate, his camera observes the people in the institution under study. In Domestic Violence the institution is The Spring in Tampa, Florida where victims of domestic violence are supported in a range of ways. The film may have the appearance of an objective, dispassionate observation – but it is in fact a carefully structured work, with a definite point of view to express.
The police are the first contact that a victim has with “the authorities”. The film is bookended with incidents where we see the police responding to different domestic situations. In the most horrific incident, one woman has bitten through her cheek, blood streaming down her face and body. The main part of the film observes the workers of The Spring, through a range of processes. We see women being admitted, to the refuge element of operations. Later, they are offered counselling, including advice on long term approaches to their personal domestic problems. We also see the children in kindergarten or school classes, where their emotional needs are addressed.
In typical Wiseman fashion, the film at first appears loose, and leisurely. It is, in fact, a carefully and intelligently structured work, the length (196 minutes) an important element in the way that the film works. The violence happens in a community, and Wiseman has reminded us of this in several ways. Particularly in the opening and closing sequences he uses many establishing shots, malls, drive-in shopping centres, suburban streets, housing estates. In The Spring itself, we observe the range of services provided in much the order that a victim would. There is the initial admission processing with a still traumatised person, follow up interviews to establish possible options for her, therapy sessions with women already on the way to a different future. We also see the services that recognise how children are victims needing support.
Wiseman’s style is sometimes regarded as detached, or objective. But it clearly is not. In this film, despite its quietness, there is a definite tone of celebration. Wiseman is impressed with the people working in The Spring. But he is also impressed with many of the victims, with the way they are turning their lives around. The film takes joy in the scenes where these battered women are finding the strength to laugh and cry about their experiences and consider options for their futures that do not include returning to a dangerous domestic situation.
* * *
Comments by Peter Hourigan
‘Live’ From Palestine (Rashid Mashharawi, 2001) and The Inner Tour (Ra’anan Alezandrowicz, 2001) BIFF 2002 featured a section “One Thousand and One Voices: Cinema in the Middle East and Islamic World.” These two documentaries presented aspects of the Palestinian experience. ‘Live’ From Palestine is a documentary about ‘The Voice of Palestine’. Several of the reporters express their frustration that Israeli media seemingly has no problem in getting its reports to the world, but the Palestinian viewpoint frequently goes unheard. This problem is underlined ironically at the end of the film when the studios are destroyed by an Israeli air attack. (This section was an update to an earlier version of the film.) Director Rashid Mashharawi has focused his documentary on one of the reporters, who after a day of reporting from situations under fire goes home to what could almost be a normal suburban home. The subject matter is compelling – but without the full impact of several of his earlier films. Curfew (1993) and Haifa (1995) dramatised stories of life in the refugee camps – and these fictions seemed to carry more impact than the documentary.
The Inner Tour is also a documentary about one of the side issues of the Middle East situation. Palestinians are not free to travel through Israel, so many who want to visit parts of Israel do so by joining Israeli sanctioned bus tours. This moving documentary follows one of these tours. The tourists have many reasons for joining the tour, but sightseeing is not one of them. A young man is waiting for the tour to reach the borders with Lebanon. There, he has his first meeting with his mother in many years – calling out to her across a barricaded, barb-wired no-man’s land. An old man is wanting to clean the weeds from his father’s grave.
This film has a quiet power, much of it coming from the way that the camera contemplates the way that these tourists are gazing. In particular, the old man is often seen as a quiet observer, standing alone, and back from the others, his traditional robes a contrast to their Western clothes. These images of people looking communicate their thoughts about being “tourists” in what they regard as their own land with a complexity that many words could not.
Comments by Bruce Redman
Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s adventures in Plastic (Lisa Udelson, 2001) This is one of those wonderfully rare docos that lets you seriously connect with the subject. So much so that I defy anyone to experience Phranc’s adventures in plastic and not want to become Phranc’s friend. The intercutting between her modern day struggles to climb the tupperware sales tree and archival training film from the ’60s is standard doco fare but is used here with great effect to contrast the absurdity of a buzz cut wearing Jewish folk singing lesbian woman doing the ultimate suburban think – tupperware parties. I can’t remember the last time I heard one product name dropped so many times in a doco – it has to be a record if anyone cares to count! It’s hilarious and touching and a film crafted with love and affection for its subject.