A Story of Children and Film: Interview with Director Mark Cousins

mark-cousinsMark Cousins is a man who knows his cinema. His impressive encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema makes his films a must see for any cinephile. I spoke to spoke to Mark for HeyUGuys ahead of the release of A Story of Children and Film, a study of the relationship between children and cinema.

A Story of Children and Film is very similar to The Story of Film in style. What made you decide to choose children as a subject matter?

Well I didn’t intend to choose children to be honest, I was determined not to make another film about cinema, because A Story of Film had taken 6 years and I was tired. But even to relax, I have a little camera and I shoot stuff, and I was shooting stuff with my niece and nephew in my flat, and you know sometimes when you switch off, that’s when you’re brain starts to go, and saw the footage and I thought ‘uh-oh, I can feel a film coming on!’ I found a lot of charm in their silly play. It was very believable, their lacking in self-consciousness, and I think because I was determined not to be making a film, I was very un self-conscious as well, and out of that came something a bit fresh and a bit fun. The thought train started to tremble and I started to ask myself questions like ‘What is the relationship between children and movies?’ Have movies been good to childhood over the years?’ I answered ‘yes’ and then I asked myself ‘How good?’ and I then realised- very ,very good, in fact better than most art forms. It’s the pleasure of thinking and making visual connections which drove this picture.

So obviously a lot of research goes in to something like this, where do you even start?

Well to be honest, I don’t do loads of research! I never have, I’ve always had a head full of movies and I’ve got a very good visual memory, so even when I was writing The Story of Film (the book on which the movie was based), in terms of actual research, there wasn’t all that much, so for A Story of Children and Film, I’d seen most of those films already. So the challenge wasn’t that I had to go out in to the forest and find loads of trees and bring the wood, it was more like ‘what kind of house to I want to build? I did ask around a bit, I had a great friend in Sweden and one in the Czech Republic and a very good friend here in the UK, and I did ask ‘What am I missing here, is there anything really special?’ and they came up with some good suggestions too . So the big thing for me wasn’t an information gathering, it’s more the universal question, how to avoid banality and how to actually find poetics in the material, how to find the spark, the connective tissue between things, so they were the challenges.

Your films tend to be sort of film essays, so is educating people about cinema always your main goal?

No, not at all. I started as a filmmaker in the late ‘80’s and my films were about neo-Nazism, the Golf War etc. so a lot of my work is not about cinema. I’ve completed a film just recently about D.H Lawrence, and I’ve just co-directed a film with Mania Akbari, the great Iranian director. So some of my work is about cinema, and it’s the stuff that I’m best known for certainly. To be honest, hopefully people will learn something about cinema, but at the same time, I feel more like a drug pusher, trying to get people hooked. It’s feels more about intoxication, or passion, rather than education. Education sounds more factual. In the Story of Children and Film, I quite often don’t even mention the name of the director which is usually a big no-no for movie buffs, so it’s not about facts or information, it’s more intense than that. It’s more like ‘Look, I’m a freak in that I love cinema, I come from this planet called cinema, it’s a great planet, come and join me there, come and join the aliens!’

The voice over and commentary in your films are often very literal and accessible to people, as if you want people to understand your point of view, rather than you just giving your opinion.

Yes, if you notice, especially in my films about cinema, I speak in the present tense. It’s always, ‘Look,’ or ‘the character does’, rather than ‘did.’ It’s more complicit in that way, I always feel that I’m sitting in the cinema with you, and we’re looking up at the big screen together, and it’s mutual and I guess what I’m trying to do it move your eye around the screen and notice things that you probably would’ve noticed on your own, but if you haven’t then I help you there. Hopefully, whilst it’s got element of a lecture, it’s slightly more visual and more enchanting than that. I come from a background where nobody went to university, and I don’t want to exclude people in what I do, hopefully my work has a degree of welcome, a degree of embrace. It’s sort of saying ‘this is for you’. Particularly with cinema, you can’t afford to be elitist or snobby, that doesn’t work for cinema. I don’t like when you come across critical writing where you feel as though they may as well put a barbed wire fence saying ‘stay out.’ We need to be more inclusive than that.

Your film takes a moment from ordinary everyday life and treats it almost as it was something that is cinematic in a way. Is that how you generally view the world?

Very much so, that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. I’m extremely influenced by those Iranian directors. I think it was Abbas Kiarostami who said that Iranian cinema is poor on the outside but rich on the inside, and I think that’s what life’s like. Like right now, I’m looking out my window and it’s pissing with rain, and the bus is just going by, and in many ways it’s a miserable day, and yet, there’s magic in that day, and a kind of life force, all sorts of things are happening. I think I sort of believe that every day moments are sort of a miracle. I’m not religious at all but, the great scientist Einstein said that ‘either nothing is a miracle or nearly everything is. So when you point your camera at some ordinary street scene, you see a richness, if you look closely and I thought about that when I filmed my niece and nephew and I think that’s one thing that cinema does very well, it notices that richness, it notices the ordinary miracles of the everyday.

With regard to your films about film, particularly A Story of Film, there are some references to Hollywood. Do you think that Hollywood can teach us things even now?

Absolutely. Story of Film as you know was a history of cinema and it’s been about a quarter of the story, which is why it’s about a quarter of the story in the film, whereas A Story of Children and Film is as much about childhood, and so I felt more free to focus on the more unusual films about childhood so I didn’t focus on any particular part of the world. In terms of Hollywood’s ability to teach us things, there are a number of things. There’s a kind of optimism in American culture in general and you get that in Hollywood, which is very unfashionable, but you get a kind of joy and fun which it’s good to be reminded of over time. It’s like the new Lego movie, it’s just got this absolute wallop of joy in it, and we can learn that from Hollywood. And more specifically, we can learn that Hollywood will back a film like Gravity. It will put a film with big stars with a lot of money, even though it was made in the UK. With Gravity, a lot of people were a bit down on it, but I just thought it was this splendid grief movie, I thought it was a grief movie in the way that Three Colours Blue is a grief movie; a woman spinning in space, the ultimate emptiness and weightless, but it was also technically dazzling and a lot of fun. There’s an extravagance to the Hollywood imagination at its very best and an optimism that is very precious. It’s a kind of tent pole for other movies and it’s the reason a lot of us got in to the movies in the first place. I’d never be snooty about Hollywood, I’m snooty about individual Hollywood films because there’s so much shit, but the idea there is still very valuable in our popular culture.

So of the working directors now, who are the ones that you would say have influenced your passion the most?

I can tell you that I think the best directors in the world are Apichatpong in Thailand, I think Jonathan Glazer in the UK, I’ve just seen Under The Skin for the third time. Roy Andersson in Sweden Kira Muratova in the Ukraine, Alexander Sokurov in Russia and David Lynch. There are so many great directors working today. The ones that I feel closest to in terms of my modest filmmaking are Kirostami in Iran, Roy Andersson in Sweden. Again I’ve just made a film with Mania Akbari who inspired me before I started working with her . I think Mohsen Makhmalbaf inspired me a lot. So it’s filmmakers who are working on smaller budgets who are trying to be innovative, particularly those who blur the lines between fiction and documentary.

So, what is the best film of all time?
[Laughs] The best film of all time is Insect Woman made by Shohei Imamura in Japan in 1963. I love his films any way, he famously said that he wanted him films to be about the lower part of the social structure and the lower part of the human body- class and sex. So he made this film about this really gutsy, determined woman who really has a lot of things thrown at her, and yet she survives and keeps going. As well as stunning to look at, it is about something that is so brilliant which is human fortitude. We are so determined, and I just love it for that reason.

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For Those in Peril: Interview with director Paul Wright and actor George MacKay


To mark the DVD release of For Those in Peril, I interviewed director Paul Wright and actor George Mackay for Hey U Guys.

For Those in Peril is the debut feature from Scottish filmmaker Paul Wright. The critically celebrated film won a slew of awards, and was nominated for a BAFTA this year (Wright won his first back in 2010 with short film Until the River Runs Red). Also nominated this year for a rising star BAFTA was George Mackay, who delivers an exceptional performance as tragic Aaron, whose life is catapulted in to despair when a disastrous fishing trip makes him a hate figure of his local community. We caught up with the director and star to talk about one of the best British films to come out of 2013.

So, you were both up for BAFTA’s at this year’s awards which is pretty exciting?

Paul Wright: Yeah I think it’s great in that it gets the word of the film out there. It premiered in Cannes and then played in Edinburgh so it’s had a good festival run. You know, a film like this, hopefully always going to be about the people that did get to see it having a connection with it, something like a BAFTA nomination helps.

So Paul, where did you get your inspiration from? Your short film Believe (2009) seems to have quite a similar themes running through it.

PW: Well I grew up in a very similar village to the village in the films so, living right by the sea there was a certainly a lot that I could relate to, and in terms of the themes of the films, with death and grief especially. When I was younger, about 14 or 15 I lost my Dad, and I guess it’s that age where obviously I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t totally get my head around it, but I guess that probably doesn’t change no matter what the age is. The film obviously isn’t autobiographical but there’s certainly things there, and I think that’s been quite interesting with audiences. I don’t know, I think there’s something with grief, it’s quite an extreme thing, and life and death become a lot more vivid and in this film and maybe in some of my short films as well, I’ve been interested in exploring that.

One of the interesting things about the film is that whilst there is obviously the element of the ‘gritty British Cinema’ that people are familiar with, but then you also have element of fantasy, which is very unique.

PW: Well I know my favourite films, rather than having the bit at the end where somebody wakes up or there’s ‘…and the moral of the story is…’ or whatever, it’s nice to allow a bit of space for the audience. With the character in this film and the journey he goes on, I think it’s more true to life almost. You know, you can remember one thing whilst you’re doing something else, or you suddenly have a moment where you’re fearful of something in the future, rather than waking up and ‘oh, it was all a dream.’ So it was about exploring that, and also, I think that there’s something interesting about grounding a film in reality and playing around with it in that way. And it isn’t even like it is fantasy, or has dream scenes or anything like that, which hopefully is more powerful than if there were to be dragons flying about or whatever!

In the film, George MacKay’s Aaron is in this awful situation where he loses his brother in a fishing accident, and then he has to come back to a situation where people think it’s his fault. Did you find that this sort of attitude still exists? It’s quite hard to believe.

PW: Well it’s not based on any experiences that I’ve had, but certainly whilst researching for the film, there were certainly people saying things like ‘they’d rather go down with the boat,’ or whatever, but what kind of made sense to me is this feeling that, in your darkest moment, if you’d lost a love one, maybe you would feel have that slight feeling of ‘why couldn’t you have saved them? ’The idea of the film was to push that to the extreme by having Aaron going in the opposite direction to the rest of the village, it brings out these feeling that he has, which may have remained subdued. But anyone who comes from a small village will know, once you go in a different direction to everybody else, it becomes sort of amplified.

So George, how did you come to be involved with For Those in Peril?

George MacKay: Well I was working away at the time, and I’d sent a tape off, then there was a chance to meet Paul and do a reading. So I met with him and Polly Stokes and Mary (Burke, Warp Films producer), and I’d been given scenes to prepare, but when I got there, they were sort of used as a framework. It was a really cool audition actually in the sense that there was a lot of improvisation; Paul said quite quickly that I only has to use them as a guide which was cool. It was great fun, I’ve not really had many other auditions that have felt quite so free. He still gave me a really strong idea of what I had to do.

How do you prepare for a role like that? Obviously it’s an extremely harrowing film, and the emotions that you’re having to bring to the surface are quite strong.

GM: I felt like a lot of the work was done for me in the sense that the character that Paul creates. Again, we talked quite a bit about Aaron and came up with a broad framework of his journey, and what he’s feeling at particular stages, and within that, we plotted quite specifically what Paul wanted to achieve from each scene, and then all of the sadness comes out of that process. I think the sadness comes from the fact that he’s the only person who thinks that the decisions that he makes are the right ones. It’s interesting because if you’re looking at the character that you’re meant to be sympathising with, and they’re feeling sorry for themselves then it’s a bit like ‘Oh, well.’ But if the character is absolutely sure that they should be punished for what they’ve done, then it’s more upsetting.

The film is devastating, it makes you feel real grief, which is hard to do….

PW: Well I think it’s quite important to just go for it not be shy about what we were trying to do, and that’s what film is, is about trying to create an emotional response.

So George, you’ve managed to build up quite an impressive body of work, are there any plans to go to Hollywood?

GM: I don’t really think about a strategy really, it’s good to be able to think about what you would want to do, but I’m not trying to get carried away yet! For me, it’s about the script and the people you work with and wanting to be part of that, and if that’s further afield than grand, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about.

You’ve just finished filming Pride about the Thatcher era, can you tell us a bit about it?
GM: Yeah, well its set in 1984 and is telling the true story about these gay rights activists who started a support group called ’Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ and started fundraising for the miners on strike in Wales. It’s all about the bond created when you find a common goal, and transcend surface level boundaries.

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Oscar Race: Why 12 Years A Slave Should Win Best Picture

Awards season has begun. A time of year to celebrate the very best that those in cinema have achieved over the past year. The Oscars are perhaps the most highly sought after award that a member of the film industry can receive. Every year, people place bets on the winners, gasp at the injustice of thoroughly overlooked masterpieces and pretend that they really don’t care who wins, only to be outraged when their favourite misses out. And the most esteemed of these awards every year is always Best Picture. A Best Picture nomination is acknowledgement that at the very core of any picture, there is a team.
So, who are the Oscars really for? Are they for the cinephiles and critics who approach a film with an expert eye? Or are they for the ordinary folk, who spend their hard earned money in the cinema, looking for a thrilling story and visual stimulation? Well arguably, they should be somewhere in between. The ceremony itself is as much about the who’s wearing who as it is about the films, and of course, it’s the ceremony that draws in the general public, without whom the whole thing would be rendered pointless (even if they’re not the ones scrambling for an online link to view the show live at 5am). So those who buy in to the glitz and glamour need to be rewarded with films that they’ve heard of. And similarly, those who do have a deeper dedication to the beautiful art naturally want to see something with a bit of substance as well as technical brilliance. So really, a film that will satisfy everybody has to win, and that film, this year, is 12 Years a Slave.
12 Years a Slave is a film that truly displays the full potential of cinema when all of the elements are perfectly married together. From the very first scene, an extreme close up of two people, searching for intimacy in a place where everything around them is totally devoid of love; that scene is a perfect example of cinema at its most spectacular. It’s gut-wrenchingly tragic, it’s absurdly beautiful and the pain etched on their faces cuts through to the soul. It’s what cinema is all about. Great acting, beautiful shots, tense moments. And of course, that’s just the first scene in what turns out to be an epic tale of injustice, pain, grief and love. It has absolutely everything. It’s a film which can switch from a torturously long scene of a man hanging from tree, clinging on to life, a scene that would not be out of place in an ‘art house’ film, to an exciting, tense, adrenalin fuelled scene where our prisoner is trying to escape his captors. Of course the film is about slavery, and yet manages to be sincere without being manipulative or judgemental to the audience, and at the same time exciting, without being offensive or dumbing down the seriousness of the subject. It’s art and it’s commercially viable.
It would be fairly insulting to try and suggest that the film has in any way made an impact in terms of larger discussions around slavery in the real world, and that certainly isn’t what McQueen is trying to do, but it’s impossible to discuss the film without at least raising the political context. It is important that a true story about slavery is being told and that this is recognised. McQueen isn’t saying ‘feel guilty, stand up and listen, address America’s chequered past.’ He is saying ‘Here is a film about something that actually happened to a real person and it’s terrible.’ And so McQueen strikes a balance, and sets out exactly what he is trying to achieve.
So as well as being a technically brilliant film, 12 Years A Slave should win the Oscar, because it represents a flawless collaboration of art and commercial viability, and appeals to both the film lover and the casual film viewer.
Ultimately, in order for a film to win a ‘Best Picture’ for anything, every single element of the film has to be the best, because the award is recognising a team effort. There cannot be any average qualities. Gravity is an astonishing visual treat, but is the writing alone worthy of an Oscar? No. Wolf of Wall Street is well written, with impeccable performances from the lead cast, but was the cinematography exceptional? Not at all. 12 Years does not have a single imperfect element. Steve McQueen, one of the finest directors of his generation, presents a film without a single flaw. The performances given by lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o are breath-taking. And then there’s ever-faultless McQueen regular Michael Fassbender giving a brutal, unrelenting performance. There is no single element that could be classed as anything other than utter perfection, and only a film that is outstanding in every single way, deserves the Best Picture Oscar.

Article originally written for Hey U Guys

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Free Cinema: Part Two

Every Day Except Christmas

Every Day Except Christmas

The second part of the Free Cinema Series will confusingly be exploring the third film programme that was part of the series.

As well as showing more experimental British films, the Free Cinema movement also explored the work of international filmmakers, including Truffaut and Polanksi.

The third programme was the second selection of the British shorts shown as part of the movement. These four films however, didn’t seem to quite fit in with the initial remit. From showing experimental films with no restrictions, the third programme seemed to show films that were far more conventional in their style- which was not really the point in the first place. With restrictions placed on Anderson by the commissioners of his two films that were part of this programme, it’s hard to understand why they were included- they are not totally ‘free’ after all.

Despite this, the films are essential viewing. They all display characters from marginalised areas of society, and are in keeping with what the movement was trying to achieve.

Programme 3: Free Cinema 3

The Wakefield Express- The second of Lindsay Anderson’s film to appear as part of the Free Cinema programme, it differs quite obviously from the other work in the movement. Anderson was commissioned by the Wakefield Express newspaper to make the film to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the newspaper going to print, and so naturally, he would’ve been far more restricted in terms of the type of film he could deliver. The film is very similar in style to a lot of the earlier documentaries that the movement itself professed to reject, and it is hard to understand why it was actually part of the movement at all. Anderson, whose other work is usually critical of the traditions and nostalgic portraits of British life in cinema, explores the stories of the people of Wakefield with a fondness and romantic glow. It also has the informative nature of many of the early Grierson documentaries and public information films. It’s certainly an enjoyable watch, but perhaps an odd choice for the programme.

Nice Time- Directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta was almost certainly influenced by Anderson. His film O’ Dreamland that was part of the first Free Cinema programme cast a critical eye on the postcard imagery of the British seaside, and Nice Time follows suit, but has moved to the Capital, more specifically, Piccadilly Circus. In keeping with Free Cinema tradition, has no dialogue or linear narrative, but simply observes groups of people on a night out on the town. As with O’ Dreamland, there is a sinister undertone to the frivolity and laughter that is presented on the scene. Flashes of nude images of women on billboards, coupled with a soundtrack that mixes club music with dialogue from some of the films showing at Leicester Square is at times overwhelming. London is at once exciting and terrifying.

The Singing Street-The Singing Street is the most amateur of the films in all of the Free Cinema programmes. Shot in and around Edinburgh, the film was directed and shot by a group of school teachers, who simply wanted to document the songs sang and the games played by school children. Historically, the film was shot at a time before television took over in the UK, and the filmmakers were eager to capture the carefree attitude of the young children, who could still run around in the streets. The film is one of the more positive of the programme, and is a celebration of childhood and community.

Every Day Except Christmas- Another film from Anderson, this time with Karel Reisz as the producer, the film was the first of the ‘Look at Britain’ series commissioned by Ford Motors. The film starts at midnight, and follows the delivery drivers who bring produce to the market. As the day dawns, the market is bustling with people and Anderson observes the various characters who mingle around, looking for a bargain. Anderson’s focus seems to be on the ordinary, working class people who go about their daily business, and it’s similar to Wakefield Express in its style.

Stay tuned for the final instalment.

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A Certain Incompatibility: British Cinema and French Film Criticism

Hitch and Truffaut

Alex Dudok de Wit is a freelance writer and assistant editor at Time Out Paris. His chief interests are Japan, cinema, and above all Japanese cinema. Here, he explores the difficult relationship between French film critics and British Cinema.
You can read Alex’s blog here
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In 1968, the British Film Institute invited French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard to give a lecture at the National Film Theatre in Waterloo. The invitation was accepted and travel arrangements were made; but in the event Godard never showed up, sending two telegrams in his place:


followed by


This kind of stunt, this reactionary stance and obtuse language, was the modus operandi of Godard, the great terrorist of French cinema. Yet it also reveals something that’s bothered me since my arrival in Paris, and whose lineage can be traced back to the New Wave criticism of Godard’s contemporaries and beyond: the utterly dismissive attitude of the French towards Britain’s film culture.

If we’re to trace this lineage, Godard’s films and writing are a good starting point. In his monumental film Histoire(s) du cinéma, he all but writes Britain out of his historical narrative – hardly surprising, given his lament in an article of 1958 that the state of cinema in Britain “is enough to make one despair. Except that to despair of the British cinema would be to admit that it exists.” This hostility pervades the writings of his colleagues at the legendary film revue Cahiers du cinéma (founded in 1951): François Truffaut, the most influential among them, had the cheek to remark to Alfred Hitchcock (who was English) that there appears to be “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘cinema’”.

The extreme terms in which these attacks are phrased point to one of the chief motivating factors behind them. The Cahiers critics of the ’50s and ’60s were above all polemicists who did not deal in mild language. By denying the very existence of a British cinema, Truffaut and Godard were articulating their nascent theories of what constitutes cinema, whereby a distinction was made between films that reflect the creative vision of their maker – their ‘auteur’ – and those that have been artlessly churned out for consumers by a studio. They believed that a true director would stamp his authorial voice on each of his films, in the form of innovative aesthetic or formal techniques – never mind what the film was actually about.

Hollywood directors such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles were canonized as auteurs; in contrast, all of British cinema was denigrated as slavish plagiarism of Hollywood production values at best, and vapid crap at worst. According to the Cahiers argument, Britain occupied a position of cultural subordination to the States (not least because of the shared language), and so simply handed over its few good filmmakers – Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin – to Hollywood without a fight. Those that remained in Blighty were only capable of churning out staid literary adaptations (Brief Encounter, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) and spineless comedies that placed more importance on content than on formal innovation, and so betrayed a lack of creative talent.

There’s a certain Anglophobia at work here too. The Gallic perception of Britain as a nation deficient in the visual arts has been around for a while – film theorist Peter Wollen suggests that it stems from the absence of British works from the Louvre when it opened as a museum under Napoleon, which has more to do with the fact that Britain wasn’t under French imperial control than anything else. This bias is already detectable in pre-war French writing on British cinema (and other arts), where it often turns into an attack on the British national character: starting from the neo-Hegelian belief that a nation’s spirit expresses itself in art, early French critics often held up the internationalism (read: ties to Hollywood) and creative timidity of Britain’s films as proof of a kind of inadequacy in the British way of being.

Truffaut was certainly channelling these xenophobic preconceptions when he said to Hitchcock “I get the feeling that there are national characteristics – among them the English countryside, the subdued way of life, the stolid routine – that are antidramatic in a sense.” These are the criticisms of a man who doesn’t know Britain – indeed, Truffaut was familiar with very little outside his native Paris, at least until he swallowed his pride and came to England in 1966 to film his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (after which he publicly retracted much of what he’d previously said about the country). His articles also disclose a hint of resentment over the British victory in World War II: when he writes “I am also exasperated by English discretion faced with pain: ‘look at us, we do not cry, our emotions are intimate; we are great”, he comes across like David Brent lashing out at popular boss Neil, with a pathetic sarcasm that screams self-loathing.

In this light, questions of whether the Cahiers critics were being fair to Britain’s cinematic output fade in importance. Their specific mission was to elevate certain works of cinema, a medium then still widely considered mere populist entertainment, to the level of art by demonstrating that they were the product of a sole creative mind – a very 19th-century Romantic vision of what defines art, and a questionable one at that, especially when applied to the collaborative endeavour that is filmmaking. This project entailed establishing a pantheon of Hollywood auteurs, against which the less formally radical British directors served as a convenient foil. Thanks to relentlessly polemical writings of Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the lot, the auteur theory became gospel in film criticism both French and Anglophone, and with it the perception of British cinema as auteurless, lifeless and dull.

The caricature lives on. The French have made progress towards recognition of Britain’s achievements in film, beginning with the pioneering research of Anglophile Cahiers critic Bertrand Tavernier and continuing with Ken Loach’s mad success at Cannes throughout the 90s and 00s; but a core section of French cinephilia retains its hostility. British directors are routinely overlooked in the otherwise wonderfully diverse retrospectives put on by the Cinémathèque Française. A list of the 100 greatest films of all time published by Cahiers du cinéma in 2008 featured a grand total of zero British films; Jean-Michel Frodon, then editor, pointed out that “until now there has been no British cinema”. His comment reveals how little French attitudes have changed since the 50s.

Which is ironic, given how much has changed otherwise. We’ve spent the last few decades trying hard to shake off charges of philistinism. Since the war, British and French approaches to state funding for the arts have gradually converged on a model that balances public and private investment, and initiatives such as the National Lottery Arts Council and Channel 4’s film ventures have stimulated the kind of independent, innovative filmmaking that has paradoxically found a rapt audience in France (Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh). British cinema, at once maligned and ignored by the French establishment, is now the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, early Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan, the radical formal experimentation of Derek Jarman and Ken Russell, the wild baroque surrealism of Peter Greenaway, the searing social realism of Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, the warmth of Mike Leigh, the coldness of Peter Strickland, the weirdness of Ben Wheatley and the bitter nostalgia of Terence Davies (whose Distant Voices, Still Lives was singled out by Godard as the only good film ever made in Britain). For a critic, to dismiss it is to surrender professional integrity in the service of an outdated national stereotype that didn’t stand up in the first place. Truffaut’s critical project is long dead; now let’s bury it.

Incidentally, Hitchcock’s reply to Truffaut, too rarely quoted, was: “I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.”

Alex Dudok de Wit

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Free Cinema- Part One

Momma Don't Allow

Momma Don’t Allow

Over the coming months, I will be exploring the films of the British Free Cinema Movement. A collection of films so vital in terms of their influence, yet rarely recognised for their cultural importance.
The movement began in the 1950’s. Lindsay Anderson, viewed as the founder of the movement, teamed up with friend (and NFT programmer) Karel Reisz, and along with filmmakers Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti programmed three of their shorts at a screening in the NFT. The three films- Anderson’s ‘O Dreamland’, Reisz and Richardson’s ‘Momma Don’t Allow’ and Mazzetti’s ‘Together’ were all fairly different in style, however the films all reflected a similar distain for how British cinema was represented at the time. The films of Post-war Britain, in particular documentaries, hadn’t quite managed to move away from the wooden, class-obsessed, propaganda that had been served to perk up the nation. And the portrayal of the working-class, who during the war went from being ignored or dismissed to being suddenly held up as the perfect soldiers, was uncomfortable, however well meaning. The four directors were tired of the rigid format, and wanted a change. The screening was the catalyst for what was to be known as the Free Cinema movement. As with any cultural ‘movement’, it is only upon reflection that the influence it had on British cinema can be realised. It grew to include non-British filmmakers (Mazzetti herself was an Italian immigrant), and heavily influenced the British New Wave (Truffaut, of the French Nouvelle Vague also made a film as part of the movement.)
The films were free in every sense of the word. Most importantly, they were free from the constraints of popular British filmmaking. Low budgets meant that the quality of the films were not always perfect, but that didn’t matter. It was substance over style. The mantra of Free Cinema was ‘No film can be too personal’- a filmmaker didn’t have to be afraid to speak up about injustice, or disagreeing with society’s rules. The first programme was so popular that five others followed, and brought about a great shift in the national cinema that still resonates today.

Programme 1: Free Cinema

O Dreamland- Anderson’s short film, was an abstract documentary set in the Dreamland fairground in Margate. The film cut nightmarish images of bizarre attractions with images of families playing at the fair. Over the film, a regular, sinister laughing from a grotesque, mechanical sailor is deeply chilling. The film is a direct reaction to the phony image of the archetypal British seaside arcades. Here, the fairground, is ugly and repelling. Anderson went on to make If…, which was of course heavily critical of another British establishment.

Momma Don’t Allow- Reisz and Richardson’s short, another documentary, was set in a London Jazz Club. With no solid narrative, the film merely observes ordinary groups of working class people on a night out. Everyone in the club is letting loose and dancing, and there’s a real air of fun. However, the relaxed atmosphere is almost spoiled, when an upper class couple enter, looking stifled and uncomfortable, and unhappy with the raucous crowd- hardly subtle, but then that was the point. Whilst both went on to make films as part of the British New Wave, the influence that Momma Don’t Allow had on Reisz’s superb ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is tangible.

Together- Mazzetti’s offering as part of the first programme was the first (and not the last) to deal with the subject of immigration, albeit in an abstract way. Set in London’s East End, the film, not a documentary, followed two deaf mutes, muddling through their lives, together. The lack of ability to communicate is difficult for both them and the audience, they are outsiders in the community. Mozzetti experiments with sound, capturing both the industrial sounds of the docks, and the silence of the world of the two lead characters. What is also striking is that 7 years after the war has ended, the East End is still recovering. Huge areas are still rubble, anti-Japanese graffiti is still visible. Mazzetti uses her piece to give a voice to those who are forgotten and those who are alone. It is perhaps the most overtly political of the three, and certainly the most moving.

I will continue to review the other Free Cinema films over the next few months- stay tuned.

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New Review: The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant
Following the success of her debut feature The Arbor, Barnard returns to Bradford for The Selfish Giant, a superb, beautiful story of friendship. Loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s children’s story, the film tells the story of Arbor and Swifty, two local boys, disillusioned with school, decide to make some extra money by selling scrap metal. Their mission leads them to Kitten, the local scrapyard owner, who pays the boys minimal amounts to do his dirty work. With both boys having difficulties in their home life, particularly with the male members of their families, Arbor in particular naively looks to Kitten as a role model figure, and his willingness to please him leads both the boys astray.
The deep connection that Barnard has with the Buttershaw estate in Bradford where part of the film was shot, is apparent, and there’s a real beauty captured in the industrial landscape of the town. Comparisons have been drawn to Kes, and it’s not hard to see why. Both Loach and Barnard are driven by a sense of commitment to those whose stories they are telling, and like Kes, The Selfish Giant, whilst fitting easily in to the ‘social realist’ genre very comfortably because of the melancholic tone, is hopeful, and Barnard really projects the good in her characters, and seeks out positivity even when it is hard to find.
Whilst the film is hopeful in many ways, there’s an unescapable sense of dread that runs throughout the piece. The dull crackling of electrical wires adds to the feeling, much like in a horror film, that something sinister is looming, it’s almost unbearably tense in parts.
However, the ray of sunshine in the dreary landscape are the lead performances. The two boys are played by non-actors, Shaun Thomas, who plays Swifty, and Connor Chapman who plays Arbor, and both give exceptional performances. Arbor is something of a live-wire whose behaviour is often erratic, and the much calmer Swifty perfectly balances him out. The boys really love each other, and their bond is the most striking and genuine to come out of the cinema in recent years. Despite his apparent cheek, Arbor is intuitive, and feels responsible for Swifty, though his support is often misguided. The extended cast all give sterling performances, and the love that Barnard feels for her characters shines through.
The film is a celebration of friendship, loyalty, and also to all that is great with British Cinema. It’ll be hard to find many films this year that will leave you feeling as hopeful about what British Cinema can achieve, it’s simply brilliant.

Review written for The Fan Carpet

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New Review: For Those In Peril

There has been a lot to get excited about in British cinema in recent years, but it has to be recognised that For Those in Peril, the debut feature from writer / director Paul Wright is truly leading the way. For those who may be searching for something more than the bleak imagery that is commonplace in British films, For Those in Peril is truly a unique and remarkable contribution.

It’s still bleak by all means, and in fact the cloud of grief that will consume you after viewing will be hard to shake, but what your left with is the knowledge that you have witnessed a piece of cinema that will truly be remembered as a masterpiece.

Aaron, played by the exceptional George Mackay, has been ostracised by his community after a fishing accident claims the lives of a group of young men, including his older brother. He is blamed for the accident, and seen as a sort of curse on the superstitious townsfolk of the village.

Feeling increasingly isolated and submerged in a pit of despair, he desperately clutches to the hope that in some way, he can see his brother again. His belief is so strong, that the lines between fiction and reality become muddled, and the viewer is pulled through a cycle of childish hope and despondency.
Wright’s fascination with the powers of thought, particularly grief, shines through here.

The ludicrousness of Aaron’s ideas are somehow totally acceptable even within the naturalistic world of the film; after all, are his fantasies any more ridiculous than those of the people who have turned on him? And not only are they acceptable, they’re welcomed, they are beautiful, they are a release for Aaron and for the viewer. Dream and memories are intertwined with truth, although where the truth of the film lies never fully understood.

The cast are solid, with an understated performance from the superb Kate Dickie, and from Nichola Burley, who acts as an unlikely ally to Aaron. The development of their friendship provides some warmth, and is a welcome comfort to Aaron in a world of hostility and loneliness.

The film also looks beautiful, at parts using both video and super 8 to create a dream like quality that is often misused in cinema today.
For Those in Peril is a wonderfully original, tragic, and yet uplifting piece of cinema. One can only hope that this is the start of a long feature-making career for Paul Wright, although it’s almost impossible to imagine how he could top it now.

This review was originally written for The Fan Carpet

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New Review: The Crash Reel


Part sports doc, part drama, part character study, The Crash Reel is one of the most exciting documentaries of 2013. It’s thrilling, tragic and deeply moving, and is a real cacophony of everything you’d want and expect from an established filmmaker like Lucy Walker- it’s her best film yet.

In basic terms, The Crash Reel tells the story of Kevin Pearce, former Snowboarding superstar who has a near fatal snowboarding accident that results in a traumatic head injury. The film follows Kevin throughout his recovery, and then ultimately explores the emotional effect that Kevin’s steely determination to continue snowboarding after his recovery has on his family and friends. It really is a complex situation, and director Lucy Walker handles the material skilfully.

Clearly an emotional subject for all involved, she handles the material sensitively, yet doesn’t shy away from glorifying the very sport that lead to Kevin’s accident. The scenes of Kevin competing in his heyday are exciting to watch even for those who don’t know anything about the sport, and Walker even includes some almost dance-like sequences being seemingly composed purely for the film, and the audience very quickly comes to understand why Kevin has such love for the game, and why he continued to push the limits until it nearly cost him is life.

Where Walker’s previous films often have a clear political agenda, the joy of this documentary lies in Walker taking a step back from her subjects and allowing them space to talk about their experiences. She doesn’t apply judgement to anybody, instead allowing the audience to form their own opinions of the situation. Perhaps the most interesting interviewee is Shaun White, Kevin’s former arch rival (he and Kevin have a relationship so similar to Senna and Alain Prost that it’s near impossible to avoid the comparison).

The film is as much about their rivalry as it is about snowboarding, and the dynamic of their relationship is sometimes touching, and at times unbearably catty- either way, it’s a thrill to watch.
The footage included in the film contains a lot of the Pearce family’s personal videos, as well as footage shot my Kevin himself and his friends before his trauma; it’s is gold dust in narrative terms, because it allows the audience to see the real transformation in Kevin’s character, first as a baby (incredible footage on Kevin as a small baby trying to climb a table as his mother warns ‘That’s Kevin’s problem, he just doesn’t know when to give up’ couldn’t have been any more prophetic if it had been written in a script) then a slightly arrogant but funny teenager living his dream, to an angry, confused but determined trauma victim, and then through to a compassionate, caring man. 

The Crash Reel is an emotional, multi-layered documentary that deserves praise, not only for its sensitive handling of the material but also for the care and craft that went in to forming it. Superb.

This review was written for The Fan Carpet

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New Review: Mister John

Mister John: watch the trailer - video

I was very excited to be asked to review for the Time Out reader’s issue recently. The filmmakers are both Irish (and both brilliant) but I felt they were geographically close enough to be included in this blog.

‘Mister John’, the second feature from Irish directors, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, is an honest and frank drama. Aidan Gillen (best known from TVs ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Wire’) plays Gerry, a man who has all but given up on his marriage after discovering his wife is cheating on him. Then the sudden death of his brother in Singapore, where he owned a grotty bar and lived with his wife and child, gives Gerry the opportunity to escape. At first, the change of scenery is an escape from his problems, but as he learns of the murky business his brother has been mixed up in, Gerry is forced to confront the truth.

Refreshingly, there is no attempt here to sensationalise the drama. Rather than use shock tactics the filmmakers confidently allow the drama to play out through the performances. It’s a real character piece, focusing heavily on Gerry’s state of mind – pulled off beautifully by Aidan Gillen. However, the very little dialogue that there is can sometimes be clunky and unnatural, which does let the film down. Still, its original style makes it one to watch.

You can my review on the Time Out website here

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