Bringing Silent Film Home

New Silent Film restorations Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Fanchon the Cricket (1915) produced by the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Flicker Alley.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney, DVD Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

‘No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.’

Herbert Howe in Photoplay, 1924.

When I look around at the brightest, most popular female stars in Hollywood today, I can think of no one you could repeat Howe’s phrase about- at least not yet, while we are in the process of reclaiming our inheritance. The more we discover about the early history of cinema, the more it seems that successive generations have been duped into believing that female roles, behind and in front of the camera, have always been secondary. Surprisingly, when the artform was still in its infancy there were many more prominent women working in the industry at all levels, including Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Nell Shipman, Dorothy Davenport, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. It shakes the contemporary view of linear progress to find examples of female stars like Pickford, with superior earning power to today, studio governance and creative control, writing, producing, acting and directing. As we grapple with the cumulative effects of gender disparity in the film industry- and the wider world, making the work of female pioneers of early cinema visible is an imperative.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 80% of all Silent Films are irretrievably lost. We can only see a mere fraction of what was created, an experience further reduced in quality by inferior online copies, which is why new restorations are so vitally important. Mary Pickford’s Silent screen career is inspirational, setting an example of what can be when women are able to shape their professions from the ground up. As a co-founder of United Artist studios with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford ‘the individual’ was blazing a trail in the motion picture industry before the studio rule book as we know it was written. She forged a career with enviable creative control as a producer, a tide now finally turning in the world of Film and TV circa 2018.

New restorations of Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket (1915) and Little Annie Rooney (1925) are very timely releases, not only in broadening our understanding of Pickford as an artist/producer, but as part of a wider reappraisal of women in film, integral in the history of World Cinema. These new deluxe, dual disc Blu-ray / DVD editions from the Mary Pickford Foundation, released by Flicker Alley, are ‘the first of a planned series of her films’ and what a delight it is to see them!  The care taken in both restorations has delivered clarity of vision, crisp tonal definition, exquisite colour tinting and a seamless flow of storytelling. Sensitively accompanied by new scores, there’s a fresh, exuberant spirit in how these films are presented, perfectly in keeping with the intelligence, empathy and wit we see in Pickford on screen. Big screen cinema/ live musical accompaniment experience aside, you won’t find a better introduction to Pickford’s work for contemporary audiences.

Annie Rooney and her gang. Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration journey is a fascinating and painstaking process. The starting point for Little Annie Rooney was ‘the original tinted nitrate print from Pickford’s personal collection at the Library of Congress, preserved photochemically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive (AMPAS). A new 35mm preservation master was scanned at 4K high definition’ to create a digital version, ‘evaluating the film frame by frame, removing dirt and other signs of deterioration to perfectly match the original nitrate tints and tones.’ Composer Andy Gladbach was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation to create a new, original soundtrack. A DVD bonus feature and article in the DVD booklet explores Gladbach’s considered approach to the score. Also included in the publication are rare, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from Little Annie Rooney in production and essays by award winning historian, documentary filmmaker and author Cari Beauchamp, enhancing appreciation of Pickford’s work.

Gladbach’s orchestration includes a variety of sound, with piano, viola, cello, bass, drums, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone and bass trombone. It’s a suitably brassy, rhythmically driven score, bringing Broadway, TV sit-com, Comic and Irish Folk melodic elements aptly into the mix for the film’s ‘downtown’ setting. There’s aural familiarity for a contemporary audience that’s an immediate bridge to the 1925 film, rather than set painting with period music. Our heroine is ‘bold’, spirited, and as she grows up during the course of the film, the music admirably follows her lead. Gladbach successfully builds momentum in alignment with the action, enhancing comedic moments and characterisation with emotive commentary from woodwind and brass. The overall effect is youthful, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable.

I first saw Little Annie Rooney on the big screen at Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017 and loved it.  It was by far the best feel good film I’d seen in a long time, from any century, and Pickford’s performance was a revelation. I immediately understood why she was so respected, adored and meteorically famous in her own time. I was also convinced that if people had the opportunity to see her work more widely, then she would have a Renaissance, inspiring future generations of filmmakers, women and introducing people to the joys and innovation of Silent Film. In many ways Little Annie Rooney is the perfect family entertainment, with more depth, diversity and heart than the standard fare. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ applies behind and in front of the camera. Pickford wrote, produced and starred, with William Beaudine directing, to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Amazingly Pickford was 33 when she played teenager Annabel (Annie) Rooney, but you’d never guess it from her inexhaustible energy on-screen. The warmth and humanity of a performance that ranges from exuberant childhood innocence to adult understanding of loss, allows the viewer to suspend any disbelief. At base, Annie is a winning character who Pickford inhabits completely, engineered in part to satisfy fans, but also extending beyond the brand of “America’s Sweetheart” or “the girl in curls.”

Pickford’s naturalism is her star quality. That every-person appeal is expanded in the central character, a daughter of Irish immigrants living in a poor neighbourhood. Annie is a strong willed, street fighting, mischievous tomboy with a fiery temper. She’s also a smart, kind and determined young woman, who rises to what the plot throws at her in the most entertaining, endearing and heartrending ways. She’s the spirited embodiment of rising above reduced circumstances, which would have struck a particular chord with audiences during the interwar period. Annie’s neighbourhood is an environment of rival gangs, poverty and crime, seen initially in child’s play battles, with every kid in the neighbourhood out pelting each other with projectiles. At one point we see Annie manoeuvring a pram from the inside like a tank, aptly accompanied by comedic, military style percussion. Although multiculturalism is seen through the lens of the day, it is unusually present at a time when on screen characters were predominantly white. In this context, Pickford’s “mini league of nations” of the playground/ inner city waste-ground, was refreshingly inclusive.

On the domestic front, the relationships between Annie and the masculine world around her are nuanced. Her policeman widower Dad (Walter James) and amiable elder brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) take care of her and she of them, with Annie taking on the role of the absent mother in the household. Their bonds are tender and good natured, with an all-pervasive sense of fairness that doesn’t spill over into saccharine.  Altruism and unconditional love are part of the family, a source of strength and tragedy as the story unfolds. Outside the home, gang rivalries divide the community and descend into violence, with Annie’s future partner Joe Kelly (William Haines) caught up in the crossfire. As a heroine, Annie/ Pickford convincingly carries the film. She’s goodness personified, but without being a one-dimensional, saintly goody two shoes- look at her the wrong way and she’ll still sock you in the jaw! Comedy, tragedy, love and sacrifice are all there, conveyed with Pickford’s natural warmth, humour and skill, qualities that never date.

Fanchon the Cricket (1915) DVD image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Made 10 years earlier and directed by James Kirkwood, Fanchon the Cricket, sees Pickford starring as a waif and social outcast, alongside her sister Lottie and brother Jack. Based on the 1849 novel La Petite Fadette by George Sand, this ‘adult fairy-tale’ was largely filmed outdoors on location in Pennsylvania. Fanchon lives in the woods with her unloving grandmother, labelled a witch by the local villagers. Wild and unspoiled by society, she is a child of Nature who craves human company and affection. Edward Wynard’s cinematography captures the natural setting and Fanchon’s predicament with stunning visual clarity. At one point, Fanchon’s isolation is expressed tonally in the frame, bisected by darkness and light. We see a circle of dancing villagers held aloft in the distance, while Fanchon watches them in our foreground, separated by a diagonal barrier of foliage. That evasive sense of human contact, longed for, but just out of reach, is communicated entirely by Wynard’s composition. It’s Silent, pure visual storytelling at its illuminating best. Wynard’s cinematography reminded me of the beautiful early stills work of Steichen and Stieglitz, combining the disciplines of photography and painting.

The popularity of Pickford playing a child never waivered throughout her career and this recurrent figure of the child/ woman is an interesting one in connection with the idea of the waif. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ persona stylised this trope, almost to the point of caricature, but Pickford’s portrayal of a ‘homeless, abandoned and neglected person’ is cast in a mythic guise of childhood, affording the individual freedoms that adult society would never allow.  Until love enters the picture, Cinderella style, Fanchon may be in rags, but she is also her natural, uninhibited self, which is an essential part of her appeal as a character. Although lonely and vulnerable, she’s certainly no damsel in distress. Fearless and resourceful, she dives in to save the hapless “hero” Landry (Jack Standing) on more than one occasion.

Fanchon the Cricket 1915 production still, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration of this film is a triumph of international collaboration between the Mary Pickford Foundation, Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute, who each held elements of the original film in their archives, L’Immagine Laboratory, Italy, responsible for the photochemical and digital restoration of the film and Roundabout Entertainment, Los Angeles, who completed the digital mastering. ‘Colours were recreated using the original tinting notes on the nitrate print and on the dupe negative loaders’ and ‘a new negative and 35mm prints were created from the restored digital version.’ The Mary Pickford Foundation paired Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach to create a new score. The orchestration, for acoustic and electric guitar, flutes, violin, viola, cello, grand piano, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, upright and electric bass, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and vocals, brings a variety of textures and sounds to the interpretation.  The human voice (without lyrics) is used to good effect to invoke memory, together with the ephemeral use of percussion, suspending time in remembrance. Although the range of instruments is broad and contemporary, especially in the use of guitar and electric piano, there is clarity and depth of feeling in restraint. We feel complex emotions like longing underpinning dramatic scenes in the selective use of solo/ lone character instrumentation. Piano, strings and lower woodwind take us deeper into Fanchon’s shifting emotional states. It’s a musical partnership that feels suitably tempered by the soul of the film, something which can often be missing on Silent DVD releases and in newly commissioned live accompaniments, when contemporary musicians simply perform over the film. Thankfully the ethos of ‘serving the film’ shines through in Ducatenzeiler and Gladbachs’ musical accompaniment.

Fanchon The Cricket is a wonderful example of how digital technology, communication and international expertise can be used to put film back together again in a project of global importance. Pickford herself believed that the film had been lost, so there is something very poignant about this release as a found object, drawn from different continents, the Old World and the New. I wish she could see it and her continuing legacy in this DVD release, which includes essays by Cari Beauchamp, placing Pickford’s remarkable work in historical, professional and thematic context. These new releases are a great introduction to a largely unknown era in Film, via DVD, Blu-ray and high definition live streaming.

The late Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett once said that in order to be pioneers, we must first acknowledge that we are heirs. This is certainly true of women working in all artistic disciplines, consistently written out of history. As we rediscover their incredible achievements, perhaps we can gain confidence in possibility, building careers from the ground up in new ways, redefining expectations, reshaping industry and the wider world in the process. Mary Pickford’s talent, imagination and business acumen were a visible leading light in her time and in our own. Yes, this is entertainment, but in the current climate, Pickford’s heroic determination and humanity steps right off the screen into our living rooms. This is an exciting start to an entire process of restoration, reappraisal and Renaissance, for Mary Pickford and for women in film.

https://marypickford.org/

flickeralley.com

Sweet Country

Glasgow Film Festival, 21 February – 4 March 2018

Director Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah was described on release as “the first Australian film” and for this ex-pat living in Scotland, that’s exactly what it felt like. This was a side of Australia that many of my fellow audience members had never seen before, an intensely subtle, silently emotive film of lives blighted by racism, poverty and dispossession. It is also a compelling love story, the kind that offers the possibility of hope, regardless of whether the world within and out-with the film permits it. Unusually on screen, the depiction of life for two indigenous teenagers in “the lucky country” was one I recognised. Far from the projection of a carefree sun-drenched paradise of plenty, Thornton’s depiction of a harsh, unforgiving and increasingly unequal society, separated from the land and clinging to the very edges of it, was a welcome dose of reality. The film had an enormous impact on me when I first saw it previewed at the Inverness Film Festival in 2009. Afterwards I felt a combination of deep sadness, hope and relief, that finally an essential process of re-evaluation had begun in a country founded on the lie of “Terra Nullius”.

Like many white Australians of my generation, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, surrounded by blatant racism. It was a divisive domestic environment of hostility and paranoia, boarded with reticulated lawns. Fortunately, being drawn to Art from a very young age taught me other ways to see. The beauty and freedom of Art/ Cinema is connection-imagining and creating a different state of being and sharing that vision. No matter how oppressive the environment, we can think and project ourselves beyond circumstances, even if in the here and now, it is only in our dreams.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, Australia was starting to wake up. In 1992, a result of the landmark High Court Mabo vs Queensland decision, native title was recognised for the first time by the Australian government. A year later, when Prime Minister Paul Keating made an official statement denouncing the “convenient fiction” our country was founded on, it was a conceptual turning point. The idea that when our white, pioneering forefathers first arrived, Australia was uninhabited, a “land of no one” was no longer sanctioned as truth. Our untaught history of systematic exploitation and genocide has always been there, you just have to dig- and not very far beneath the skin. However, as Warwick Thornton commented after the GFF screening of his latest film Sweet Country, “most people just don’t dig.” The myth of an empty land, “Terra Nullius”, newly discovered, turns conquest into heroic entitlement with no conscience, regret or apology required.

You must lance and drain an infected wound before it will heal – that is how I have always felt about the country I was born and raised in. That excavation is essentially painful, finding out who you are and where you come from, so that self-determination becomes a possibility. Sweet Country digs right into the flesh and consciousness of the country in ways that no other director/ cinematographer could. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the film is an incredibly powerful statement, part of a vital process of re-evaluation and creative renewal. Thornton is a director who embraces the complexity of being human head on, illuminating this on screen to kick start the national conversation and initiate perceptive change. Sweet Country is a remarkable film, as a damning indictment of racism and injustice- and one that wholly succeeds in not alienating audiences. To his credit, Thornton’s vision is big enough not to.  Although this is a deeply personal story of his people, based on true events and filmed on location in the Northern Territory, with the emotional investment of local/non-professional and professional actors, it also transcends its location.

Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

Though many people in the UK will find this hidden history shocking and confrontational in terms of outback Romanticism imploded, Thornton’s baseline is always expansively compassionate. It’s an indigenous vision of the world that denies nothing. Although packaged as a Western, this isn’t a story of reductive “black and white” morality, with good and bad cowboys, an epic chase and a conventional shootout delivering frontier justice. Instead the Western genre is meshed beautifully with a rhythm of storytelling that will be less consciously familiar to audiences, moving in and out of time. In an Aboriginal context, The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is omnipresent, encompassing all time-past, present and future, so this is a very natural mode of storytelling. Despite the ravages of colonialism, the spiritual core of the country survives in the way the story is told visually.

Set in the 1920’s, when vast tracks of land were being claimed and worked as cattle stations, the story of an Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, played with quiet reserve and immense dignity by Hamilton Morris, brings conditions of the past resoundingly into the present. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) live and work on a homestead owned by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a Christian Preacher. There is a degree of safety for them in conversion and service, compared to life in the surrounding countryside, as we see in the brutal treatment of a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) and an elderly stockman, Archie (Gibson John). Worn down by systematic abuse, both gradually succumb to a state of complicity to survive.

We see in Philomac the conflict of the next generation growing up in the shadow of a white father who shapes him into “a man” through punishment. Philomac is part of a lost generation. It’s clear he will never be accepted as part of his white father’s line, nor is he able to return to his people and ancestral land. Like Archie, he has been taken from his home as a young boy and forced to work on the station. The vulnerability of this character is felt acutely in violent outbursts of self-loathing projected onto the son by his biological father. This enforced judgement of worth becomes an inherited cycle of deprivation and dispossession, infecting every character on screen in one form or another.

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

As the central protagonist, Sam Kelly is a complex figure of gravitas, self-possession and grace. Sam has learned to avoid conflict by turning the other cheek, until forced into an extreme position of self-defence. His relationship with his wife Lizzie is tender and trusting, revealed not so much in words, but the intuitive expressions and body language of two people at ease with each other. Sam is an everyman, who quietly absorbs the world around him, but like all the characters in the unfolding drama, he too is capable of judgement. When Lizzie reveals that she’s pregnant, the result of rape, he judges her. The underlying theme of what it is to be a man and what happens when the status quo of masculine power (black or white) is threatened comes to the fore. Sam is equally generous and compassionate, saving the life of Sargent Fletcher (Brian Brown) who relentlessly pursues him across the desert. With or without Christian influence, we feel the presence of a deeply sensitive man with a good soul. There’s gentleness and sense of underlying respect between Sam and the preacher Fred Smith, however this relationship isn’t quite friendship.

Smith is a kind man who practices the compassion he preaches, seeing everyone as “equal in the eyes of the lord” and asking Sam not to call him “boss”. However, his relationship with Sam and Lizzie is based on cultural loss and denial of existing lore, a well-meaning and subtle betrayal of identity that “saves” and obliterates with the same soft hand. Smith’s humorous out of tune rendition of “Jesus Loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so” is a moment laced with genuine belief, missionary zeal and ineptitude. Literally and metaphorically Sam is unable to have children, implying generational loss of life, culture and human potential in conversion. Even in this, the film resists black and White judgement. Human beings and the histories we weave are much more complex- this is the truth, reality and sincerity of the film and its maker.

The arrival of neighbouring landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), wanting to use the “black stock” on Smith’s homestead to work his own land, is an explosive catalyst revealing the true nature of racism as self-hatred, heightened by emasculation. March is a man defined by hate and brutality, having returned from WWI and survived its horrors, only to inflict a rule of violence on others. It is a moment of great sensitivity and insight when Sam identifies that March “is ashamed”, testifying at his outdoor trial just prior to the judgement which saves and condemns him. Although March is a vile character, the nature of his actions can’t be dismissed as madness or evil. Thornton places the viewer in a much more essential position, where we are unable to place the character beyond our own conscience as “other” by simply demonising him.

The insidiousness of racial abuse is a respectable uniform and a base need for power, absent in everyday life. In the lead up to a scene of sexual violence, perpetrated in the dark with only sound used to orientate the audience, we see March calmly closing all the doors and windows, barring light and any means of escape. The horror of this scene is that it isn’t in any way irrational, but highly controlled. We understand from March’s calm composure that he’s done this before and as a white man has no fear of justice. It is dispossession of multiple aspects of self, creeping into everything, twisting human behaviour into something monstrous and oppressive. The choice of this historical era, parallel to Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, reflects forces at work in our own turbulent age, making the story culturally specific and completely universal. Very uncomfortably at times, we are unable to relegate what we see on screen to the comforting distance of history, because it is so urgently relevant today.

Warwick Thornton awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Sweet Country is a gear change for Thornton, a more viscerally direct statement which never loses its humanity, standing very confidently on a world stage. The director’s creative evolution and artistic leadership is thoroughly inspiring. Australia is a country which so often seeks cultural validation outside itself, a quality that Thornton spoke about in his post screening discussion. Media attention at international film festivals and multiple awards including Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival have enabled greater recognition on home soil. As the film is distributed more widely, my hope is that this creative and political momentum will grow, changing how and what we’re taught about ourselves. I have no doubt that Sweet Country will generate healthy scrutiny and essential debate wherever it is screened. As Thornton stated in a recent Guardian interview (Jan 2018) “Australia is ready for films like this.” Thornton’s empowering work in cinema thus far makes me incredibly hopeful, not just for Australia, but in the humane, global reach of his work.

To respond hopefully to Sweet Country might seem strange, given what we bear witness to on screen, however this is clearly framed as a man-made environment. The opening sequence in closeup of a seething, almost molasses thick concentration of boiling billy tea, with a handful of white sugar dissolving into darkness, is accompanied by the sound of racist abuse depicting the violence off screen. It is such a powerful image of confinement in a world of overheated testosterone, imminent threat and negative masculinity about to boil over. Throughout the film, tension is prophetically heightened by flashforwards, giving us glimpses of characters and their potential fates, placing the audience emotively and psychologically on the edge of their seats. The combination of sound, images and editing, with no music, delivers a knockout punch of emotional intelligence. We’re not told what to think or feel, but are free to interpret the flow between past, present and future. The story is held in imaginative spaces of light and shadow in the mind of the viewer, an ultimate form of realism aligned with ancient traditions of storytelling and the birth of Cinema.

Ned Kelly’s last stand, from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Directed by Charles Tait.

Thornton reclaims this cinematic inheritance in a brief clip from The Story of the Kelly Gang, premiered in 1906 and at the time the world’s longest feature film, seen on a makeshift screen as part of a travelling Picture Show. This isn’t just hat tipping though. The subject on screen is national legend, the Irish Bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly, an underdog fighting against corrupt authority and instantly recognisable to most Australians with his tin helmet. Immortalised on film, in literature, song and in the iconic silhouette of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series of paintings, this mythic figure of resistance is subverted and transformed in the heat haze of a salt plain. During his Director’s Q&A, Thornton spoke about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation and massacres at the time, completely written out of history. Whilst Australians readily embrace the Irish outlaw/ bushranger as a heroic figure with the odds and justice tragically stacked against him, in stark contrast Aboriginal resistance to genocide has barely entered public consciousness.

The Western is a genre that naturally confronts audiences with the impacts of institutional racism and colonisation, right on the edge of human behaviour. There’s intense cruelty and enduring beauty in that whole landscape of memory, even more so in the Outback Western. This frontier of lawlessness is permeated with cultural references to masculine honour, fighting “for Queen and Country”, “the last post” reference to ANZAC bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli, Sargent Fletcher’s belief in the ultimate authority of his uniform and the unhinged discipline of March’s rifle drills on the homestead porch.  There’s an absence of blame and positive alignment with accountability in understanding what drives the characters.

Sadly, the underlying nature of their predicament is as relevant today as it ever was. However, the eyes behind the camera (Thornton and his son Dylan River) bring with dark recognition a stark light which is uniquely Australian. When the question is asked at the end of the film, whether change is even possible in the country, Nature answers with an enormous rainbow. There is an overwhelming sense of ancient forces greater and more enduring than humanity in this final sequence, as the preacher turns his back and walks away towards the horizon carrying his disillusionment and doubt. Above his head the sky he cannot see speaks its truth, and what a gift it is that Thornton captures that shining, undeniable projection of hope for all the world to see.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

Postcards from Glasgow Film Festival

I always look forward to February, spending hours in the dark, being transported around the world and out of time to places I never knew existed. Here are some of my postcard GFF18 Festival Highlights; Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Good Favour, More (DaHa), Thoroughbreds, Faces Places/ Visages Villages, Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Moontide,  A Fantastic Woman and Custody, with a full review of Sweet Country to follow in my next blogpost. Each of these films have important stories to tell and my hope is that they receive the widest possible distribution in the UK and internationally.

Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Directed by Jonas Matzos Gulbrandsen.

Good Favour Directed by Rebecca Daly

More (DaHa) Directed by Onur Saylak

Thoroughbreds Directed by directed by Cory Finley

Faces Places/ Visages Villages Directed by Agnès Varda and JR.

Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil Directed by Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Directed by Alexandra Dean.

Ida Lupino and Jean Gabin in Moontide (1942).

A Fantastic Woman Directed by Sebastián Lelio

Custody Directed by Xavier Legrand.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

One of the highlights of the annual festival calendar is visiting Glasgow each February. GFF programming is always stimulating with imaginative twists in presentation in different venues across the city. The post screening Q&A’s are plentiful, the audiences are demonstrably enthusiastic and the combination of inspired retrospective screenings with the latest releases from around the world is second to none. This year there was a lot to savour including exciting new work by emerging directors, a wonderful showcase strand of Canadian Cinema and a delightfully Noirish focus on Dangerous Dames. I’m still thinking about many of the films I’ve watched or have rediscovered over the last week including Elle, Paradise, Zoology, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hounds of Love, Angry Anuk, Werewolf, Illegitimate, The Demons, The Levelling, A Quiet Passion, Berlin Syndrome, Lady Macbeth, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gun Crazy, Secretary and Little Annie Rooney. The immersive experience of Film, place and people that is uniquely GFF is always invigorating and the perfect interior winter escape.

Winner of the GFF17 Audience Award Lipstick Under My Burkha had two sell-out screenings in Glasgow, ironically in the same week that the film was banned in India. Unjustifiably it has not been granted a certificate in writer/ director Alankrita Shrivastava’s home country on the grounds that it is too “lady orientated”. What’s shocking isn’t actually the content of the film which follows the lives, loves and desires of four women in Bhopal, India, but the regressive attitudes towards equality exposed by this blatant act of censorship. Filmmakers have a duty to address such basic issues as freedom of expression and human rights through their work, enabling voices that have been previously denied, suppressed or silenced to be heard. That this is perceived as a threat by those who benefit from maintaining patriarchal power under banner of tradition, righteousness or religious doctrine isn’t surprising but deeply regrettable. The main complaint against the film appears to be that women are doing “unspeakable” things in the film- like making essential life choices; seeking education, jobs outside the home, love outside of arranged marriage, the right to use contraception and to have satisfying sex lives.  As Shrivastava suggests; “our films and governing bodies tell us that women can be object of desires but can’t have desires of their own. That needs to change.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha brings into focus the increasing conflict between traditions of power and conformity vs accelerated economic development, media consumption and changing attitudes in a digital age. Globalisation and increased access to information technology promote the idea of freedom of choice and expression for all, however these rapid advances in communication don’t necessarily translate to political or social reform on the ground. Having to live an emotionally, intellectually or sexually secret life actively denies those freedoms. All four characters face consequences of judgement, ostracism, punishment and exile from their family / community by daring to dream, love or in refusing to accept the limiting role imposed on them. In the end as the characters are brought together, the opportunity of potentially supporting each other through shared experience brings hope and validation. This is something that festival audiences should never take for granted while there are still places in the world where assembling to watch a film or the act of screening it are a crime. Whether it is denial of film certification, representation of women on screen or opportunities working behind the camera, there isn’t a national film industry on the planet that could claim gender equality in 2017, which is why alternative independent film production is so vital in terms of advocacy. These aren’t just “lady orientated” stories but human ones that have a right to be heard.  An appeal has been lodged against the ban in India and hopefully success on the international festival circuit will bring many more people to this film, raising awareness, ensuring its wider distribution and promoting positive change where it is most needed.

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

Transformation of a different kind is the subject of writer/ director Ivan I Tverdovsky’s  Zoology, a wonderfully original take on the universal theme of the outsider. The story centres on a middle aged woman Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) living with her devoutly religious mother in a Russian seaside town. It’s an unrelentingly bleak and confined existence. Natasha is a lonely, isolated figure, constantly mocked and bullied by colleagues at the zoo where she works. The only warmth in her life is her own compassion in caring for her mother and her interactions feeding and petting the animals at the zoo. Then she grows a tail and starts living! She experiences the liberation of being herself for the first time, attracting the loving attention of a young doctor, together with the prejudice, superstition and intolerance of her community. Whilst the story might sound bizarre it is very much a modern fable tempered by Pavlenkova‘s subtle and completely engaging central performance. The tail becomes whatever the audience projects onto it and feels pertinently real in the questions it raises about personal and political freedom in Putin’s Russia and beyond. It’s a contemporary fairy tale with heart, soul, irrepressible joy and deep sadness at its core, where difference is celebrated but ultimately suppressed. We are reminded that conformity and belonging to an established order often trumps pursuit of personal happiness. Natasha’s acceptance by her young lover is rendered as emotionally void as her mother’s rejection because the focus is on her difference rather than her whole self. Moments of intimacy as the character begins to open up to her feelings and to those around her are particularly moving, but there is also a lot of humour making the film both hugely enjoyable and critically illuminating. Zoology is a strikingly unconventional film, focusing on a middle aged female character rarely permitted to take centre stage in mainstream cinema, but I love it most for the universally radical human value of empathy at its heart.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

Following the screening of his latest work A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Nineteenth Century American poet Emily Dickinson, a Q&A with director Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) also provided a focus on the outsider and the empathic role of the director. A witty, articulate, sensitive and intensely passionate interviewee, Davies talked about the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and personality in his “most autobiographical film” to date. He described the way that she “guarded her soul” with ruthless integrity, but was also subject to the same creative ambitions, longing and desire for recognition that all artists crave. Discovering Dickinson’s poetry as a young man through readings by Claire Bloom on television, Davies immediately went out and bought a book of her works. What he found within her poetry was a spiritual quest parallel to the lapsed Catholic in him, each trying to answer the question of “What do you do if you’ve got a soul and there’s no God?” What is inspirational in Davies’ creative approach is his humane spirit in the face of adversity; “Actors open their hearts to you and you must do the same” as a director. “You have to be open, then wonderful things happen”. His latest film is testament to the enduring power of imagination and the creativity that saves us. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, even within the confines of four walls “we have to have a rich inner life or the soul dies.”

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

The death of the soul is one way of describing the murderous couple at the centre of Australian Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love, the most psychologically disturbing film to come out of Australia since Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998). Developed, filmed, produced and set in Perth, Western Australia, the blinding heat and light of Christmas 1987 fuels the oppressive atmosphere of a film which explodes the myth of suburban safety. Based on real crimes such as the infamous David and Catherine Birnie case, there is an unnerving familiarity of place and events in living memory entwined with the film’s fiction, together with a uniquely Australian masculine undercurrent of potential violence. Young’s exploration of women who kill as co-dependent partners of men able to emotionally control them is distilled in the character of Evelyn. Emma Booth delivers a performance of astonishing range, convincing cunning and innate vulnerability, reminiscent of a young Judy Davis. She is joined by Stephen Cummings who is absolutely chilling as her manipulative, predatory and sadistic boyfriend John. We learn that at the age of 13 Evelyn was simultaneously recruited and “saved” from a life of familial abuse by John for the sole purpose of satisfying his own twisted desire for control, sexual violence and murder. Physically slight and frighteningly unassuming to the outside world, we also see in a scene with local drug dealers demanding payment how emasculated he is, later distilled into fury. Evelyn’s ability to use identification with their female victims to control them is equally horrific in its mastered execution. Evelyn’s children have been removed from her care and the nature of the couple’s co-dependency is intensely driven with John’s constant promise of their return to her. Shaped by abuse, rejection and self-loathing Evelyn’s need to be loved is so strong and has become so powerfully deformed that the cost is irrelevant, whilst  John needs her to lure trusting teenage girls into their car in order to abduct, torture and kill them for his pleasure. When they kidnap schoolgirl Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party she must turn her captors against each other if she’s to have any chance of escape.

Use of slow motion, cruising through suburbia past scenes of every day family life, places the audience very uncomfortably inside the killer’s car looking for victims, playing on our deepest urban fears of random violence from strangers coupled with the hard truth of premeditated calculation. The framing of scenes through doors and barred windows creates an atmosphere of increasing tension which becomes concentrated even further in the confined, claustrophobic interior spaces of the couple’s house. Sound is the perfect tool to communicate terror over and above the visual depiction of brutal acts or gore. It’s the primal sense we fall back on in the dark, hard wired for survival and here it is used with brilliance and restraint to suggest the escalation of violence and the warped nature of the killers’ relationship. Songs of love and Christmas celebration are juxtaposed with opposing scenes of suggested violence and foreboding. Young’s film may be low budget but this is not a cheap slasher flick as it attempts to unravel and understand the motivations of its disturbing central characters, demonstrating great promise in terms of the director’s evolving skill. What Young deliberately chooses not to show the audience is pivotal in how this film communicates directly, viscerally and psychologically with the audience. Although the subject is harrowing and the suspended tension in some scenes is almost unbearable, I’m sure that it will be continue its momentum on the festival circuit, having already won Best Actress for Emma Booth and Best Director at the Brussels International Film Festival and the Fedora Award at the Venice Film Festival for best actress in a debut film for Ashleigh Cummings.

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

Another tough drama worthy of attention followed by a fascinating Q&A with writer/ director Ashley McKenzie was her debut feature Werewolf, part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand of the festival.  Her story of Blaise and Vanessa, two homeless junkies still in their early twenties on a methadone recovery programme will have resonance for many rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Crewed and cast locally with all non-actors bar one, McKenzie’s film highlights the lives of young people falling through the cracks, failings in government policy and the Canadian Health and Social Care system. She also addresses the void of displacement and despair experienced by so many people living with addictions, bound to each other in toxic relationships or fatally addicted to the methadone cure. The style of framing, pushing characters to the edge of the composition, amplifying their feelings of being trapped with intimate close ups or just showing their mouths speaking because that is all the person behind the counter is seeing captures their predicament beautifully. There is also the poetics of the everyday in play with improvised scenes evolving naturally, characters slotted into working shifts and the creation of spontaneous moments of reflection, like the image of the Oreo grinder in the ice-cream shop and its endless cycle of halted movement. Mckenzie commented on the Drama of addiction portrayed in films such as Trainspotting as something she wanted to avoid in terms of the mundane, deadening reality of the methadone cycle where there is a lot of waiting involved; at the pharmacist, the clinic or social security office, moving from house to house doing odd jobs to scrape together hand to mouth cash, waiting for the opportunity to leave for a better life that never comes. Although addiction comes in many forms and touches many lives in rural areas it is a subject which is not openly discussed both in Scotland and in Canada.  Werewolf is an important first step in acknowledging that struggle in many communities, asking why dependency exists and what the nature of “the void” triggering it actually is. The film doesn’t provide answers but is a very compassionate attempt to understand, opening up a dialogue based on trust and familiarity with the local community. My only criticism would be that we don’t learn the backstory of the two protagonists and what has lead them to this point in their lives. This is something which begs further exploration as projecting the substance of this local problem has global implications and also feels like the next logical step up for this promising young director.

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

Another talented director showcased as part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand was Philippe Lesage. His impressively composed examination of childhood fears real and imagined in The Demons/ Les Demons presented a different slant on a “coming of age” drama. Set in suburban Montreal the story centres on Felix, a sensitive ten year old boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) grappling with friendship, guilt, love, parental conflict and the insecurities of growing up. Lesage captures beautifully the state of childhood, separate from the adult world where the smallest detail or suggestion becomes magnified, taking on its own reality. It is a pre- internet world where information and reassurance comes from overhearing adult whispers and from peers or siblings. In spite of dangerous turns of the plot in many ways Lesage’s vision of childhood through the eyes of his central protagonist is a resoundingly gentle one, founded on innocence and the doubts we all experience in the process of maturing. The comforting conclusion of the film is that all will be well. We feel that Felix has escaped childhood relatively unscathed with the support of his elder brother and sister and the image of his parents together by the lake waving to him like a living remembrance also affirms this. Clearly the experience is autobiographically close to the director which is part of the film’s authenticity and winning sentiment. It is refreshing to watch a film that quietly explores its subject in such a measured way. Even though there is a seriously deadly threat within Felix’s neighbourhood, it does not become part of his individual story nor is it introduced for tear inducing dramatic effect. These events punctuate Felix’s world but his awareness is thankfully still that of a child sitting in the sun smiling in the final frame, an image that is reassuringly ordinary and stylistically poised.

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk exposes the damaging impact of the global anti-sealing movement on Inuit communities. Focusing on the diminishing economy and threatened way of life in director’s homeland on Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Territory Nunavut on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is a film about ancient knowledge, resilience and survival. Angry Inuk  is an important film on many levels, a positive statement about ways of being in the landscape that are traditional, sustainable and respectful, lessons that must be learned if human beings are going to survive on this planet into the next century. With the Arctic region rapidly becoming the latest international battleground for natural resources (ironically opened up by global warming fuelled by unsustainable industry, mass consumption and decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions) the understanding of indigenous peoples on how to sustain life and thrive in challenging conditions is of paramount urgency and global significance. This is a revealing, articulate and insightful film which offers a different type of dialogue between indigenous people, environmental and animal rights groups to address the overarching threats to all life on our planet. The Inuit way of resolving conflict, expressed face to face, de-escalated through song and resolved in laughter has something to teach us all.

Dependence on seal meat and skins to simply maintain communities living in some of the harshest conditions on earth, in the face of climate change, economic uncertainty and widespread poverty is not a luxury trade. The quiet anger of a people decimated by decision making outside their territory without dialogue or consultation demands a new kind of activism to challenge misinformation and the multimillion dollar anti sealing campaigns endorsed by celebrities. It is heartening that Angry Inuk is succeeding in reaching audiences, winning the People’s Choice Award from Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival in Toronto. The screening at GFF generated a lot of discussion afterwards and it was clear from audience comments that the film was actively changing perceptions. Angry Inuk provides evidence of a different way for human beings to exist in relation to the environment whilst also being part of a global economy and providing much needed leadership. What emerges is the inspiring and enduring strength, dignity and pride of the Inuit people, together with possible solutions for sustainable hunting, management of natural resources and environmental conservation that the world and its leaders simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

The 1925 Silent Film Little Annie Rooney starring the luminous Mary Pickford was an unexpected delight in the True North Canadian Cinema strand and one of the great joys of this year’s festival.  It is easy to see why Pickford was one of the most internationally renowned and best loved stars of her day. As tomboy Little Annie Rooney, Pickford’s superb comic timing, pure pathos and innate sensitivity is conveyed in every thought, gesture and expression on screen. As a pioneer of the Motion Picture industry she understood the power of film as an empathic medium, not just in her artistry as an actor but in her understanding of film as a screenwriter, producer, director and co-founder of United Artists with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. With all the debate about the lack of female representation in mainstream film both behind and in front of the camera, Pickford is an inspirational figure and a commanding presence in the history of Film in spite of the demure label of “America’s Sweetheart”. Her intelligence plays out on screen in scenes which take the audience on a journey from laughter to loss and uplifting celebration. Racial stereotyping aside, Little Annie Rooney’s heartfelt innocence and earnest sincerity may belong to an earlier and less cynical age, but it is no less relevant in terms of sentiment, Craft and cinematic storytelling. Representation of Silent Film at contemporary film festivals should never be absent or underestimated. The origins of Film and why we need it emerges in the collective memory of shadow play, illumination and entertainment. If we strip back the medium it is at base about emotional connection and audience investment in what is depicted on screen. When Annie receives news of her Father’s shooting we run the gamut of complex emotions from the child hiding under the table to adult realisation of loss and despair. It’s a deeply affecting and satisfyingly layered scene, testament to how much the audience has invested in the central characters, their relationship to each other and how we project ourselves into the frame. There’s nothing primitive about the mode of expression, nor can it be dismissed as “vintage fun” although it is that too in terms of the whole enjoyment factor.  Watching Silent Film always revives me and after watching Little Annie Rooney I think I understand why.  As a critic I come to Art to be stimulated, challenged and to understand the Craft behind it, but on a more basic level I come to it in order to feel and connect with something uniquely, perceptively human and as part of an audience I know I’m not alone. As many actors and filmmakers have suggested at recent awards ceremonies we need empathic cinema now more than ever. In that respect the Silent Era is a wellspring and I hope that the Mary Pickford Foundation www.marypickford.org will continue to make more of her extraordinary work accessible to future GFF and other festival audiences. There is so much inspiration to be found in her personal story and in what she so skilfully communicates on screen.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

One of the most confrontational and controversial films of the festival in its depiction of an exceptionally strong and equally unpredictable woman is Paul Verhoeven’s latest work Elle.  I must confess that Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man, Showgirls, Black Book) isn’t on my list of favourite directors! In seeing Elle I was very much putting my faith in lead actor Isabelle Huppert who clearly doesn’t suffer fools in real life and is a formidable presence even in her most subtle performances. The words “fierce” and “fearless” are often used to describe both her personality and on screen potential. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of playing the role of Michele in this film; the character is very much a vehicle for Huppert’s undeniable mastery of her Craft. Here she plays a thoroughly uncompromising, wilfully intelligent and beguiling woman, the head of a successful gaming company living in Paris. As a creative meeting makes clear it’s an industry and market she excels in, comfortably directing whatever content is necessary for maximum audience consumption. This typically male creative/ fantasy space is an interesting setting for a female character who by the sheer force of her personality and obvious skill commands respect, although not without resentment from younger male colleagues. She’s supremely confident in body and mind, unapologetically goes after what she wants, including having what she defines as a meaningless affair with her best friend’s husband and pursuing a neighbour’s husband, without any question of loyalty being part of the scene.

When she is raped in her home by a masked assailant who then stalks her, Michele’s response is to pursue him although not for revenge as we might expect. It is an incredibly rare and complex role in which the female protagonist behaves against type, refusing outright to become a victim of what has happened to her. Given the subject matter it’s a very fine line to walk and the reactions from male and female audience members around me were quite fascinating in that respect. I have no doubt that the film will create controversy, but I hope that on its wider release it will serve a more essential function as fuel for debate on what Femininity means, who our Female role models actually are on screen, the casting of women in particular roles and how in denial or acceptance we cast ourselves as well. The problem here is that neither the character or her backstory are in any way ordinary and this places a certain distance between the main character and the audience. As we learn Michele’s extreme history of childhood trauma the inference is that her strength is ironically borne of psychological damage which is a weakness the Drama demands. So when she starts to behave in an unorthodox way towards her attacker, actively seeking him out, confronting and stopping him in his tracks at one point, but also becoming a participant in his lived fantasy, she’s arguably exerting control, but only as part of a very highly developed coping strategy. Part of what makes Michele tick is the art of detachment, the ability not to make herself vulnerable or to surrender her powers of self-preservation to anyone. In this way she’s able to turn the tables on her attacker almost treating him like a case study, but there’s a disarming understanding between them, identified by his partner who observes that Michele fulfils a role that she cannot. Michele declares both herself and her attacker as “diseased” which to some extent taints her strength, resilience and truth as a character.

I’ve been debating the film’s many conflicted ambiguities in my head ever since and Bravo to Huppert because no other actress could manage believability and conviction within the same story line. This is a film that raises more questions than it answers and this is largely due to Huppert’s totally invested performance. Like all great artist/ collaborators I think she lifts Verhoeven’s game considerably and it didn’t surprise me to read a recent interview with the director in which he stated that this production was so far outside his comfort zone it generated real fear in him, which creatively speaking is a good thing. Elle is a psycho-sexual thriller set distinctly outside the Hollywood vein and surprisingly there is a lot of genuine humour in the film. Family scenes are hilarious and beautifully comedic, particularly those between Michele, her Mother, her son Vincent and their respective manipulative, gold digging partners. Michele delivers blunt summations of what the audience is thinking and so the truth like castor oil is down the hatch whilst our mouths are still open from laughing. Huppert’s naturally wry comedic turns are as sharp as her handling of the film’s most dramatic scenes and this brings welcome relief in a film dealing with very dark and loaded subject matter.    Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle (or She) is complicated, provocative, confrontational, iconoclastic and impossible to definitively classify- arguably all the things a satisfying work of Art should be. So why does it make me uneasy? Perhaps because one woman however feistily played by Isabelle Huppert still doesn’t feel like enough!

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

Another film etched into my mind is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and a well-deserved accolade. Konchalovsky delivers a beautifully crafted, intensely affecting and painfully relevant human response to the Holocaust. Sadly the misappropriated extremist ideal of building a paradise on earth is still creating Horrors around the globe and the director’s strength here is in choosing to bring the audience intimately face to face with three different characters that push the boundaries of resistance, acceptance and morality.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is a seemingly innocuous middle aged family man who we learn is an official with the French police and a Nazi collaborator responsible for the torture and deportation of prisoners to concentration camps. He is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” personified, a figure of pitiable mediocrity, part of the complicit Vichy administration, betraying fellow citizens for personal gain and carrying out his duties without conscience or ever getting his own hands dirty. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is a former Russian aristocrat accused of being part of the Resistance and helping to hide Jewish children, threatened with “interrogation” leading to inevitable confession and doing whatever she can moment by moment to survive. Helmut (Christian Clauss) is a well-educated, cultured and suitably Ayran nobleman selected by Himmler to audit the death camps. Prior to the war Helmut and Olga moved in the same privileged circles, dancing on the edge of an abyss in pristine, sunlit flooded oblivion. Whatever truths or lies each character has constructed in order to deal with the hell they find themselves in are laid bare in a way that resists simplistic readings of good or evil. Everyone is inescapably haunted by these events, even if a veil of delusion is drawn across their faces. The film brings the audience face to face with just how easy it is to reduce human beings to animals or machines in the service of a higher cause. For good or ill redemption and righteousness rest upon belief.

Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) immersed the audience as never before in the mode of survival of its main character, revealing the unhinged chaos of lives being systematically destroyed by Nazism. The emotional immersion of Paradise operates in a different way, in the confessional delivered to camera testimonials and memories of three characters whose lives are entwined by war and genocide. This quality of placing the audience in the position of counsellor, judge and witness is heightened by the use of film stock which provides seemingly time based edits. Film cuts out or dissolves into light, blurring the line between archive, documentary and fiction. Cleverly using a 4:3 ratio, 35mm and 16mm home movie type film stock Paradise recreates 1940’s historical authenticity. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one in terms of how the lives of the characters are experienced by the audience. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography is absolutely exquisite, fully exploiting the beauty and clarity of Black and White, weighing the soul of every frame, perfectly aligned with the film’s subject matter and mode of storytelling through disclosure. He uses the medium of photography as expanded light, creating breath taking compositions, from vivid dreams, aspirations and remembrances to the soiled sweat, filth and smoke of the concentration camp which invades every pore of your skin and stops your breath. The aesthetic is superbly poised on a knife edge, like a scene in Himmler’s office lit to perfection. It’s the blacker than black inner sanctum of the Reich with its Neo Classical sculpture consummately staged and illuminated. This atmosphere also links to the sound design. As Himmler welcomes Helmut to the SS we feel what the character feels, there’s a sickening presence in the room disguised as honourable authority. Helmut excuses himself and goes to the luxuriously appointed and spotlessly clean bathroom to vomit and hears through the ventilation system tortured voices floors below more animal than human. Although he doesn’t consciously recognise it having been blinded by Nazi doctrine, his gut response being in Himmler’s presence and to the SS brotherhood ring on his finger betrays his humanity in that moment. This is unlike any other cinematic treatment of the Holocaust I’ve seen, bringing history vividly and mindfully into the present.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past/ AKA Build My Gallows High.

One of the features of GFF I most enjoy most is the regular series of themed free morning screenings held in GFT1. This year’s focus on Dangerous Dames with a welcome dose of 1940’s Film Noir was outstanding and thoroughly enjoyed judging by the audience applause. Given my love of films from this particular era and even though I had seen them many times before, I timed my visit to include screenings of Out of the Past (1947) directed by the incomparable Jacques Tourneur starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Gun Crazy (1950) starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, looking forward to the added bonus of GFF Co-Director Alan Hunter’s magnificent introductions. How we think of the Femme Fatale and the actresses who played them, doubly framed by the studio system, is a whole other blogpost! It isn’t just the quality of retrospective films in this strand I keep coming back for. There is really nothing better that watching Vintage films with a packed house embraced by the equally vintage elliptical curvature of Glasgow Film Theatre or “The Cosmo” which opened in 1939. Waiting in line to go in or immersed in the comforting pre-screening half-light I often hear people’s reminiscences of the cinema emerging out of the chattering hum. Hearing how they met friends there- some still with them others passed away, how they courted their spouse, discovered a particular film, fell in love with a mesmerising star or simply escaped to a different reality.  For me the magic isn’t just in the story on screen but within the walls of the cinema, in all of the lives, hopes and dreams that have passed through it. It is always a privilege to be there on a weekday morning captivated by the action, romance, comedy and tragedy of what we all are. It’s the kind of connective experience that can’t be replicated on any technological device because people and place are such an integral part of the live cinema experience.  In that respect Glasgow offers something very special which is why I keep returning year upon year.

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival

Glasgow Film Festival

17-28 February 2016

Evolution

Évolution directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović.

Every February I look forward to time spent in Glasgow, sitting in illuminated darkness rediscovering the collective joys of Cinema. There’s something unique about Glaswegian audiences and the Glasgow Film Theatre experience that always gives me a positive lift. Warm, friendly and irrepressibly vocal, Glasgow audiences are up for anything! It’s the ripple of audible excitement through the audience as the opening credits reveal the surprise of the sell-out Mystery Film, the enthusiastic, spontaneous applause after the fabulous Dream Team free morning screenings, the hum of conversation in the GFT lobby or CCA bar as people unpack what they’ve just watched with curiosity, humour and insight, which add significantly to the whole experience.  And of course there’s the consistently wonderful baseline selection of films year on year, exposure to new world releases and heightened appreciation of old favourites in excellent company. The city marketing board slogan of “People Make Glasgow” is actually, resoundingly true and it is equally true of how we collectively experience film.

bigs2

It fills me with joy that daytime screenings of timeless classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep can fill a cinema like GFT1 – proof that the appetite for seeing such films on a big screen is encouragingly healthy -perhaps because, or in spite of, the many ways we can now watch films; mostly at home, in isolation, in a reductive hand held / small screen capacity or ironically as part of a wider, unseen global community of fellow niche enthusiasts. With debates about the Hollywood gender pay divide and race prejudice currently ranging, it’s heartening to see the diversity that Independent Cinema has always offered , celebrated in a city historically aligned with the Socialist belief that Culture rightly, belongs to everyone. GFF has a markedly different feel to other festivals in that respect. It embraces being cinematically and artistically curious, not just in terms of programming, but also in the context of how the city sees itself.

Double-Indemnity-2

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)

Festival Co-Director Alan Hunter’s introductions to retrospective screenings always provide interesting pathways into film- another human element which like Director’s Q&As and the conversations you have standing in line about what you’ve watched so far, are part of a film festival’s value added appeal. That Barbara Stanwyck was paid the same sum as her male co-stars for Double Indemnity and was in 1944, the year of its release,  the highest paid woman in America made me meditate on just how backward mainstream popular culture has become. We think of gender equality as being a recent development and seem to be under the comforting Western illusion that it has already been achieved, with temporary Twitter outrage ensuing when we find high profile evidence to the contrary. But this isn’t just about conditions or pay, it is also about content; how we see or don’t see ourselves on screen and how power relationships are projected and enacted.

I can think of very few contemporary Hollywood films where equality of dialogue, presence and screen time is comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep- certainly a reflection of their personalities and undeniable chemistry on and off screen, but also significantly, the product of a well-crafted piece of storytelling where the male and female lead characters are resoundingly written as equals. Part of the delight in watching this film time and again is seeing that this is possible, especially in a Hollywood studio film from a so-called bygone era. It’s a source of inspiration that doesn’t date and the Dream Teams strand of this year’s festival celebrated not just winning on screen partnerships, but why they continue to be both inspirational and aspirational.maxresdefault

Isabelle Huppert in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs

Storytelling in the dark is as old as cave dwelling and on a deep, human level, fulfils a timeless need; to entertain certainly, but more essentially to make sense of ourselves. GFF 2016 gave me plenty to chew on in that respect; from the absurd projections of male ego in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier to Joachim Trier’s brilliantly complex examination of grief and human perception in Louder Than Bombs starring Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Devin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg. There were many highlights including Santiago Mitre’s uncompromisingly challenging drama Paulina, César Acevedo’s beautifully subtle, accomplished first feature Land and Shade, Thomas Bidegain’s  strikingly unexpected play on theme in Cowboys , the theatrically measured craft of Simon Stone’s The Daughter starring Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill, Julien Duvivier’s wonderful 1946 thriller Panique and the delightfully bonkers  Love and Peace by Japanese director Sion Sono.  But perhaps the film that captured my imagination most for its stunning visuals, painterly sense of composition, colourful symbolism, psychological depth and persistent ambiguity was Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Évolution.

The opening sequence sets the scene with light seen through water- are we above or below? It’s impossible to tell- just go with it. We see the curve of the world and hear the distant sound of the sea; the effect is immediately immersive, like a dive and in that filtered light with fiery orange seaweed wafting against blue, peaceful movement and more sinister auditory undercurrents; the natural and unnatural seamlessly entwine. We are introduced to the film’s main character Nicolas via his shadow; adrift, then diving and surfacing in awareness, dead boy and dead self, sunk at the bottom of the ocean. Accents of red and danger punctuate these scenes- attraction and repulsion within the same frame, chiming perfectly with the body horror of puberty and gestation.

The sensuous underwater world of fluid light as a primordial source of life is contrasted beautifully with the black volcanic beach and stark white geometry of spartan dwellings, which feel as though they have been reclaimed from natural disaster and human abandonment. The island is populated entirely by young sons and their “Mothers”, whose dark unfathomable eyes and culinary habits suggest an intriguing range of possibilities; perhaps evolution borne out of necessity in response to the natural environment, a Utopian society off kilter, an island lab experiment, an alien race or a Dystopian nightmare. The extreme beauty of this film is that the audience is left to fill the gap between the final scene and the previous 79 minutes on their own imaginative terms- exactly the kind of film that I love to watch and that stays with you.

Hadžihalilović skillfully presents the viewer with twisted familiarity, a community of women seemingly evolving as a single organism with propagation of their species aligned to biological determinism rather than the emotive qualities of Motherhood so revered in human society. Moments of ritualised behaviour, such as the washing of their children in the sea or the beach birth feel instinctively rooted in deep memory and strangely conflicting bloodlines. This dredging of the unconscious, submerging the viewer in ancient fears and human insecurities is all the more striking for its focus on male vulnerability. In contrast with his guardians Nicolas’s humanity is his memory and creativity. The drawings he makes of his Mother, are greeted with curiosity by his nurse- one species/ gender / generation beholding another. Her response is evolutionary in an emotional sense and is also a means and trajectory of survival. This is a fascinating film with little dialogue to disturb the visual storytelling and an exciting stylistic calling card from an emerging director. The co-writer of Gaspar Noé’s superb 2009 film Enter the Void , Hadžihalilović’s previous feature Innocence (2004) starring Marion Cotillard is definitely one I’ll be seeking to watch, along with her future productions.Definitely one of this year’s GFF discoveries, together with Manuel Dacosse’s exquisite cinematography.

www.glasgowfilm.org/festival