Monthly Archives: July 2008

Youssef Chahine, 1926-2008

Chahine himself and Hind Rostom in <i>Cairo Station</i>

Chahine himself and Hind Rostom in Cairo Station

On July 27, Arab Cinema lost its premier director, Youssef Chahine, who died aged 82 in Cairo. It was good to see obituaries in print and online. A detailed and informative obit by Sheila Whitaker appeared in the Guardian on July 28. Visit the ‘official’ site at http://www.youssefchahine.us/

It seems a long time since I watched Chahine’s most famous early film, Cairo Station (Egypt 1958) so I must dig out the videotape. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find DVDs of his later films (in fact, any of his films) in the UK, but I did find a Region 1 DVD of An Egyptian Story (1982) at a reasonable price on Amazon and I’ll try to review it when it arrives. In the last few years, we’ve lost Sembène Ousmane and Gillo Pontecorvo – also very badly served by DVDs in the UK, forcing dedicated cineastes to search for American or French editions – with attendant problems of Region coding and subtitling. UK DVD distribs please note.

Raincoat (India 2004)

Ajay Devgan as Mannu (with borrowed phone) and Aishwarya Rai as Niru.

Ajay Devgan as Mannu (with borrowed mobile phone and 'man-bag') and Aishwarya Rai as Niru.

Searching for a film starring Aishwarya Rai running under two hours for a possible education event, I came across this curio which certainly passed me by in 2004. The ingredients are a successful Bengali director, Rituparno Ghosh, making his first Hindi film, a story ‘inspired by’ the American short story writer O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and two major stars – Ajay Devgan joins Rai.

Mannu (Devgan) travels to Kolkata from his village in Bihar where he has been made redundant from a jute mill. His task is to try to raise money from friends and colleagues in the city in order to start a business. During the rains (when he wears a borrowed raincoat) he looks up his childhood sweetheart Niru (Rai) who he had ‘lost’ to a wealthy man. She receives him in a gloomy room overstuffed with antique furniture and he spins her a tale about how he is now a TV producer (of soap operas). Most of the film takes place in this room with flashbacks to the characters’ village childhoods (in Mannu’s home). There are only a few extra characters and apart from the strange title sequence (Mannu’s journey to the city by train) with its haunting song, only some lines of poetry and the background sounds of the city add any sense of familiar Indian melodrama traits to the basic ‘romance drama’.

As I watched the film (like most Bollywood films in CinemaScope) I was struck by how old-fashioned it looked. The Kolkata interiors of Niru’s house could have been filmed 40 or more years ago and I began to think of British and American films of the 1950s – two-handers and stage adaptations made into screen melodramas (a character even makes an ironic reference to An Affair to Remember). As the plot progressed and questions were raised about Niru (is she who she says she is?) I began to think about the kinds of romance melodramas made by Max Ophüls and I expected a twist to the story – deception must lead to exposure or tragedy. I remembered the O. Henry connection only after the film finished.

Overall, I found the film interesting but curiously uninvolving. It is certainly well made and the performances well judged. Devgan manages to be convincing as both the older and younger man (in the flashbacks) and Rai is suitably weary and dishevelled, her usual radiance economically disguised by a few wisps of hair falling across her cheeks. I think I would have liked more expressionist devices – something else in camerawork, music and editing to emphasise the emotion.

The reviews and comments on the film are interesting. There are a few who simply ‘don’t get it’, but many more who are seemingly overwhelmed by what is described as ‘art cinema’ or ‘parallel cinema’. I don’t think it is either of these, but there is a similarity to Hollywood in the way that two major stars hope to show that they can act in serious drama. Rai in particular has her detractors who are mainly surprised by her performance. (But she has appeared in a wide range of roles, including a Bengali film for this director, Provoked, set in the UK and, earlier, Tamil films for Mani Ratnam and Rajiv Menon.) The art cinema tag is perhaps lazy and derives from the assumption that a Bengali director is more likely to deal in this kind of film. I think it is more fruitful to think back to when Hindi films were consistently involved with ‘social problems’. There were moments here when I remembered Guru Dutt films. The theme of the film involves the embarrassment of ‘middle-class’ characters who have lost money and status. The modern twist is the play on ideas about television soaps (Mannu takes on the TV producer persona from the friend he stays with in Kolkata and Niru refers to her mother who would watch all the soaps) and the village/city distinction is discussed in terms of the number of TV channels available. I wonder how the characters in 1950s-60s films would have responded to a world in which you could watch television all day? (A mobile phone also intrudes into a story that still uses handwritten letters as essential narrative devices.)

‘Bollywood’ actually produces a much wider range of films than is often acknowledged, but the common assumptions about the musical romance melodrama still hold for many audiences and this film would be useful to show to students. (Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to hire 35mm prints of Bollywood films for education screenings in the UK.)

European Box Office Data 2007

One of our aims on the blog is to promote ‘cross border’ knowledge about films. Outside Hollywood, many films only circulate in their own domestic market or associated language markets. Films have to be sold to distributors for different territories. There are reasons why sales don’t take place for some titles, but sometimes it is just a matter of luck or timing – whereas Hollywood films are often sold to affiliates/partners of the US studio distributor.

It is relatively straightforward to discover what is happening in Europe since there is good quality data available from several sources including the Lumiere Database, Cineuropa and Focus. These sources collate data from across the EU (and sometimes beyond to the ‘Europe of 36’). The only slight problem is that UK box office data is usually expressed as box office revenue. This has to be converted into approximate admissions data to match the European convention.

Here is the Top 25 European-produced films of 2007 (taken from Focus 2008)

(Showing title, producing country, year, director and admissions)

1 Mr. Bean’s Holiday GB/FR/DE/US 2007 Steve Bendelack 15,251,106
2 La Môme FR/CZ/GB 2007 Olivier Dahan 7,225,794
3 Taxi 4 FR 2007 Gérard Krawczyk 5,334,716
4 Hot Fuzz GB/FR/US 2007 Edgar Wright 4,849,649
5 Das Leben der Anderen DE 2006 F. H. von Donnersmarck 4,057,710 (a further 1.8 million admissions in 2006)
6 Ensemble, c’est tout FR 2007 Claude Berri 3,304,303
7 Manuale d’amore 2 (Capitoli successivi) IT 2007 Giovanni Veronesi 3,134,777
8 Natale in crociera IT 2007 Neri Parenti 3,074,353
9 Atonement GB/FR/US 2007 Joe Wright 3,059,096
10 Arthur et les Minimoys FR 2006 Luc Besson 2,902,293 (a further 4.8 million in 2006)
11 Lissi und der wilde Kaiser DE 2007 Michael Herbig 2,751,339
12 Katyn PL 2007 Andrzej Wajda 2,735,777
13 Elizabeth: The Golden Age GB/FR/DE 2007 Shekhar Kapur 2,686,064
14 Die Wilden Kerle 4 DE 2007 Joachim Masannek 2,655,249
15 Ho voglia di te IT 2007 Luis Prieto 2,309,624
16 Una Moglie bellissima IT 2007 Leonardo Pieraccioni 2,306,726
17 The Last King of Scotland GB/DE 2006 Kevin Macdonald 2,250,156
18 Run Fatboy Run GB/US 2007 David Schwimmer 2,202,040
19 Notte prima degli esami – Oggi IT 2007 Fausto Brizzi 2,057,238
20 Notes on a Scandal GB 2006 Richard Eyre 2,052,873
21 Hitman FR/US 2007 Xavier Gens 2,038,333
22 Beyaz melek TR 2007 Mahsun Kirmizigül 1,995,040
23 Eastern Promises GB/US/CA 2007 David Cronenberg 1,940,419
24 28 Weeks Later GB/ES 2007 Juan Carlos Fresnadillo 1,873,720
25 Le Coeur des hommes 2 FR 2007 Marc Esposito 1,846,351

The chart does not include the UK/US films designated ‘Inward investment’ by the UKFC, so no Harry Potter or The Golden Compass etc.

In many ways, the chart offers what you might expect with most of the films coming from the four biggest economies – Germany, France, Italy and the UK. There is no Spanish entry, which signals the recent decline of Spanish domestic production. (However, there must be a mistake in compiling the chart as the horror film El Orfanato was released in October 2007 attracting over 4 million admissions – nevertheless, Spain has recently seen a real decline in domestic successes.)

What is perhaps surprising is the relatively high position of the Italian entries, signalling something of a resurgence in domestic production. Note also the high position for Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn and the entry of a Turkish film, Beyaz melek, which made money in Germany and the UK as well as Turkey and some other non-EU countries.

There is some American money involved in European majority co-productions, but it is significant that several of the films here are co-productions involving UK, France or Germany.

The real importance of the chart for our purposes is to note how many/few of the films have been released widely in Europe. A rough calculation suggests around a half of these titles have been released in more than two or three European countries.

The films that are assumed not to travel are usually comedies. Manuale d’amore 2 (Capitoli successivi) is, as the title implies, a sequel to a previous hit in Italy. IMDB describes it as a ‘comedy romance’ and lists it as opening in Spain in 2007 and Greece (and South Korea) in 2008. At the moment, it is only showing Italy on the Lumiere database. (The film does have a star known acroos Europe in the form of Monica Belucci). Much the same goes for Natale in crociera. The other three Italian films are all comedies. The two German films at nos. 11 and 14 are also comedies, but only released in Germany and Austria. IMDB rates all these films very low on the 10 point scale, but presumably somebody out of the millions who saw the films enjoyed them? How do we take account of these productions in terms of European Cinema?

The Turkish film Beyaz melek is rather different. It appears to be an ‘epic drama’ about people in a retirement home in Eastern Turkey and is the first directorial effort by a Turkish singer. The film played to diaspora Turkish audiences in at least Germany and the UK and possibly other European countries as well. In the UK, the screenings were at Wood Green Cineworld and Lee Valley Odeon in North East London. I for one would be very interested in seeing this film with English subtitles.

The crunch film in the list is Katyn. Poland has both a potentially large domestic market and a large number of Poles both temporarily and permanently overseas. In the UK, Dogwoof has imported Polish films (see our review of Wesele). However, Andrzej Wajda is not only the doyen of Polish filmmakers, but also a world figure. There was some dismay when a rumour began that the major arthouse distributor in the UK did not want to buy Katyn, seeing it as ‘old-fashioned’. Now it seems it will be released in the next few months. The story, about the massacre of Polish Army officers by the Russians in 1940, is both a ‘national story’ for the Poles and a personal story for Wajda (whose father was one of the officers killed). The UK has missed out on similar films before (e.g. Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz in 1999).

The distributors may well be correct in their commercial judgment about how films will travel, but Hollywood has persevered and sold us dross. Perhaps European distributors could be more adventurous?

(As of 3 August, I have been unable to confirm that Katyn has got a UK distributor, so the statement above should be ignored until further notice.)

A Tale of Two Film Cultures: UK and France (Part 1)

UK scholars have routinely compared British film culture (and film industry) with the US. A second comparison is often suggested but only rarely carried through – with France. There is a long tradition of a love/hate relationship between Britain and France in the popular press and this to some extent carries over into discussions within the film industry. We don’t often get any systematic comparisons between the two countries in terms of film industries and cultures.

The basic facts in 2008

The two countries have similar populations (but rather different geography and population distribution):

Population

France (Wikipedia estimate 2008) 64.4 million (61.8 million in ‘Metropolitan France’)

UK (Wikipedia est 2006) 60.6 million

The film territory of UK and Ireland has a population of 65 million (the territory is the geographical area in which distribution rights for films are traded – France is a single territory). It is always difficult to tell whether Ireland is included in UK figures, but it is important to know that admissions are higher in Ireland in terms of frequency of visits – 2006, Irish admissions 17.3 millions, frequency 4.3 (from Cineuropa.com).

Admissions (2007 from Cineuropa.com, as are other data below)

France: 178 million (recent highest no. 195 million in 2004), per capita: 2.74

UK: 162 million (recent highest no. 173 million in 2004), per capita 2.6

Screens

France: 5,362 (no. of multiplexes 146)

UK: 3,493 (no. of multiplexes 265)

Ticket prices

France: €5.9

UK: €6.1

(The UKFC Statistical Yearbook quotes the 2007 average ticket price as £5.05 or €6.36 at current rates.)

Films produced

France: 228 (of which 95 were ‘co-productions’)

UK: 117 (of which 29 were ‘co-productions)

Budgets

France: Average: €5.43 million

UK: (Median figures) ‘Inward investment’ (Hollywood productions) €16.7 mill, ‘Domestic’: €2.3m, Co-production: €4.1

Releases

France: 565 (222 of which were ‘local’)

UK: 516 (107 of which were ‘local’)

Box office share

France: Local: 35.6%, US: 49.9%, Other European and ROW: 14.5%

UK: Local: 28.5% (includes UK/US co-productions), US films: 67.7%, European films: 1.8%, ROW: 2%

Summary

These bald figures do suggest a similar size of industry and interest in films, but they do also show up some important differences.

1. The UK industry and UK film culture is heavily dominated by Hollywood. ‘British films’ are only likely to make money at the UK box office if they are either (a) made in the UK with American money and/or (b) distributed by a Hollywood studio. The real American share of the UK market is more like 80%. The 50% share of the French market for Hollywood is significantly less.

2. Overall, the UK film market is less diverse with only a small share for films that are not UK/US (the single biggest share for non-English language films goes to Hindi films).

3. The UK market has been more valuable because the ticket price is higher, but the recent rise in the Euro against the £ and $ has boosted France. Film finance is always counted in $ in the international industry.

4. France has more screens and more cinemas, with less dependence on multiplexes (of six screens or more). This means more possibilities to screen a wider range of films.

5. France produces more films with more chances for first time filmmakers. Budgets are difficult to compare, partly because of the massive Hollywood investment in the UK, but it is likely that there are slightly higher budgets for ‘domestic’ films in France.

What explains these differences? First it is important to recognise that the mass audience in France enjoys Hollywood films as much as those in any other country and they watch them in multiplexes where they are shown in VF – dubbed into French in ‘Version Française’. But, intervention by French public agencies does allow more local product to get a release and to be seen locally. This is a crucial difference. The UK Film Council does have a similar policy in the UK, but more emphasis is placed on supporting filmmakers in the context of a commercial Hollywood environment.

Conference Report: Europe on Screen 2008

11/12 June 2008

Academic film studies tends to be more interested in analysing films than in studying how they are distributed and exhibited and as Andy Willis, one of the three conference organisers, pointed out, academic contact with the film industry usually tends to be concerned with production. Here then was a chance to reverse the usual approach. Over a day and a half, ‘Europe on Screen’ featured a mix of academics and industry personnel (with some speakers wearing both hats) addressing issues focused on the distribution and exhibition of European films on European screens. Willis suggested that it was important to assess how specialised cinema was coping with the consolidation of twenty years of multiplex building.

Mark Cosgrove, cinemas director at Watershed Cinema in Bristol, opened the main proceedings with a personal account of how he saw distribution and exhibition in the UK, drawing on experience of more than 20 years of working in independent cinemas. He gave his paper the title “Where have all the films gone?” He outlined the difficulties he faced operating away from London, even in a major centre like Bristol and he also bravely attempted to explain some of the seemingly strange behaviour of the UK Film Council. Cosgrove contrasted his early experience as a programmer, encouraged by his success introducing audiences to new filmmakers, with the commercial realities of trying to develop audiences today. Watershed as an institution attempts to meet its array of targets re European films but it increasingly has to work within the more commercially orientated structures created by UKFC support for specialised film – which for instance, selects certain films to be promoted and others which it deems “difficult to attract new audiences to”. This sees relatively high profile European films like Downfall or the co-production, The Motorcycle Diaries, gaining a further push whilst others receive no support at all. Cosgrove wanted to to try persuade other exhibitors to get together and support new filmmakers who would otherwise be ignored

Sarah Perks and Rachel Hayward from the education department at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Cinema outlined the wide range of activities that makes Cornerhouse an important focal point for European Cinema in North West England – whether it is the diverse screening programme, the education events in various modern foreign languages, the high profile Viva! Spanish Film Festival or the variety of Director Q & As, evening classes and other day events.

The final session on the first day featured Janet Harbord from Goldsmiths in London. She presented early findings from her research into ‘Cinema exhibition as nostalgia’. Taking a cultural studies approach, she has begun to investigate how the Picturehouse chain of cinemas, operated by City Screen, offers what she termed ‘positive nostalgia’ to its clientele. The Gate in Notting Hill, one of City Screen’s acquisitions, was compared to one of the company’s ‘new builds’, the Picturehouse in Stratford, East London. Harbord discussed the ethos of City Screen and how this was represented in the choice of architects for new builds and how it had produced designs with nods towards Bauhaus and Le Corbusier whilst also seeing a sensitive updating of acquired cinemas, some with a long history. City Screen has positioned itself somewhere between the commercial multiplex and the kind of independent British cinema that has developed since the establishment of the ‘Regional Film Theatres’ in the 1970s by the British Film Institute. There was some discussion about whether City Screen’s approach could be compared to that of ‘quality art cinemas’ as seen in North America, but not previously seen in the UK. There were certainly many interesting questions here, but since the research did not take on the business interests and structures of City Screen (now controlled by Arts Alliance) there was a potential missed opportunity to link the presentation to others where Arts Alliance also figured. (City Screen ‘virtual’ – its programming service for other cinemas – now has a strong hold over specialised cinema bookings in the UK.)

On the next morning the conference was treated to a bravura performance by one of Europe’s leading film academics, Thomas Elsaesser from Amsterdam. Elsaesser’s paper discussed ‘The place and role of film festivals’ based on a current research project. He identified the central role that film festivals have played in European Cinema since the demise of the film clubs which operated in parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Crucial to Elsaesser’s approach was his search for other theoretical models outside of film studies and he focused on aspects of systems theory in an attempt to explain how and why festivals have proliferated. He sketched in a background that recognised the political imperative of old spa towns looking for a new role (e.g. San Sebastian) and major cities used as part of deliberate cultural interventions (e.g. Pusan in South Korea and earlier the promotion of Leipzig in the GDR to rival Oberhausen in West Germany).

Elsaesser’s was the longest and most detailed presentation and it offered a great deal for delegates. Just to pick out a few plums, he identified the plethora of modern festivals as offering something ‘thrillingly unpredictable’ – yet actually very standardised. The festival film has become not an evaluative category, but an institutional category. He then traced the impact of this development and its influence on the relationship between European independents and Hollywood and also upon production, distribution and exhibition worldwide and certainly within Europe. He also discussed the role of the festival director, now arguably more powerful than the auteur director as a presence in European Cinema and negotiating a role informed both by Hollywood and the museum curatorial tradition. He argued that post-war festivals have created ‘all auteurs’ (except presumably those created retrospectively by the auteur critics) and posited that festivals have an important function in relation to the public sphere combining ‘mediatisation and politicisation’ of film culture.

Elsaesser’s injection of a theoretical debate crossed with insights into film cultural practice across Europe gave a real boost to the proceedings. It was a hard act to follow, but the next three sessions all offered some useful ideas. Paul McDonald from the University of Portsmouth offered ‘Bringing European film home: DVD in Europe’. It must be difficult to research and prepare presentations on this as the market is changing so quickly. McDonald discussed the decline of DVD rental and the rise of online retail and rental – what termed ‘e-tailing’ – as well as the coming of film downloads as a potentially viable market (the VOD market has been touted for a long time, is ‘Download to rent or own’ going to become meaningful more quickly?). He touched on Arts Alliance and its interest in LOVEFilm (now merged with Amazon’s rental business in the UK and Germany) and also asked whether the ‘long tail’ of the ‘e-tail’ market offered audiences a way out of the bottleneck of theatrical distribution – if the film doesn’t come to you, go and get it on-line.

Julia Knight from the University of Sunderland followed with discussion about independent film in the digital era entitled ‘Digitalisation and Diversity’. Knight herself has a background in independent distribution and she reminded us of the earlier claims of VHS as an alternative distribution mode. She introduced contemporary alternative modes such as the successful viral marketing of Outfoxed (US 2004) and various websites hosting independent short films and archive material. Knight operates a website which gives background on the history of distribution of ‘Independent Film and Video’ in the UK plus ongoing research projects and links etc. She discussed the possibilities opened up by Web 2.0 but also raised the issue of rights for avant garde filmmakers and the websites that don’t seek permissions.

David Sin is the Acting Director of the ICO (Independent Cinema Office) in the UK. He has many years experience in the specialised cinema sector and he began his paper by suggesting that 2008 was a very different scenario compared to 2000, when many European films failed to secure a UK release. The ICO aims to support and promote the exhibition of specialised films in the UK and it offers a film booking service used by 18 independent cinemas, as well as training courses and touring seasons of films. Sin outlined a current scenario with seemingly paradoxical factors. On the one hand, there are many new independent distributors, with theatrical exhibition being seen as a means of raising the profile of a DVD release. On the other hand, specialised cinema screens are closing and what was once ‘arthouse cinema’ is developing a Hollywood mainstream mode (not helped in my view by City Screen’s increasing use of mainstream films in its programming). Sin was only a few weeks into his acting role and therefore reluctant to say too much about how the ICO could counteract these trends, but he suggested that they weren’t necessarily good for European film. He left us with two  questions to ponder. With specialised cinema screens closing in London, are regional cinemas becoming more important in the UK? And, how important is the retention of the DVD window in terms of theatrical distribution?

The last speaker was Ian Christie, film historian and polymath from Birkbeck, London, but on this occasion speaking as Vice-President of Europa Cinemas. There are 42 UK cinemas registered as members of the Europa group and for many of us the ident telling us about the cities across Europe in which Europa operates is as familiar as any studio logo. However, in an impassioned presentation Christie warned us that we in the UK don’t get involved enough in Europa activities – we don’t join in and we don’t get the benefits. As arguably the second most valuable film market after the US, we could do a lot more to promote European film. He stressed that certain myths had been established in the UK, such as the assertion that the 1930s quota system had been a failure – it hadn’t, it had been a success and many of the UK’s failings in Europe were as a result of 1980s ‘de-regulation’ policies. In the UK, we should be involved in all Europa’s four priorities: distribution as a driver of policy, script development, training and support for exhibition. Too often, the UK has missed out for no good reason. Europa aims to promote ‘National’ and ‘Non-national European’ films across Europe (and beyond into the Mediterranean littoral). It is in the latter that the UK lags behind.

There was a little time at the end for general discussion and Thomas Elsaesser announced an interesting new research project in which he envisages re-thinking the ways we categorise/classify films for study by considering the terms used in internet discussions via ‘Tag Clouds’.  (One for us on this website possibly.)

It was an enjoyable and informative couple of days and I certainly got a great deal from it. I’d like to thank all the speakers and organisers and especially Andy Willis, for making me welcome.

More on the University of Salford’s Institute for Social, Cultural and Policy Research here.

La graine et le mulet (Couscous, France 2007)

Slimane with daughter Karima and granddaughter

Although 2008 has been a good year for film releases, I’ve been waiting for another film that really bowled me over, like Fatih Akin’s Auf der Anderen Seite. I wondered if Couscous would be that film and I was disappointed to miss it locally. So disappointed in fact that I shelled out £12 to see it at the Curzon Mayfair (a truly wondrous cinema I hadn’t visited for more than 30 years). And, yes, Couscous proved to be an overwhelming film, not without flaws, but then the great films never are.

This is a film with a simple story, but one that works on several levels for a discerning audience. It also demands that the audience works and suffers a little so, unsurprisingly, it is one of the most critically praised films of the last year and one which has prompted audience walk-outs and derision.

Slimane is a 61 year-old shipyard worker in the port of Sète on the Mediterannean coast of France. The port is declining in terms of fishing and boat repairs and tourism is the growing trade. Slimane is a victim of economic circumstance and is forced into redundancy. This prompts him to consider his legacy to his extended family. He is separated from his wife Souad and is now living in a small room in the hotel owned by Latifa his current partner. He has numerous daughters and sons who together with their spouses and children constitute a large crowd for Souad’s famous couscous dinners. But it is Latifa’s daughter Rym who is closest to Slimane – who understands him best and tries to help him achieve what he wants. The vehicle for this turns out to be a plan to create a ‘fish couscous restaurant’ on an old ship destined for scrap.

The idea of a restaurant opening as a feelgood ending to a film is something of a cliché, but in Couscous the ending is not conventional and the story has several levels. I was reminded of Volver – a very different film in which the Penelope Cruz character is obliged to run a restaurant to cover up her other actions. Couscous and Volver are essentially family melodramas. The difference is that the writer-director of Couscous, Abdel Kechiche, has adopted a distinctive style. It is a form of social realism that has been compared to Renoir in 1930s France and Italian neo-realism. I can understand this (in her Sight & Sound review, July 2008, Ginette Vincendeau mentions Renoir and references an Agnès Varda film with neo-realist tendencies) and it works on the level of location shooting and the use of non-professionals etc., but it is important to recognise the contemporary stylistic decisions.

Kechice uses a handheld camera and alternates between BCUs (big close-ups, emphasising parts of the face) and long shots as expressive devices. Much of the time, the film looks fairly conventional, but the BCUs dominate in the emotional interactions between family members and the long shots (which are neo-realist references, I think) feature in the narrative when Slimane is being placed in the environment of the port. I take the BCUs to be part of the melodramatic ‘excess’ of the family exchanges (along with the music in the restaurant scenes). They are difficult to watch, not least because the emotion is raw and we focus on crying eyes, food being taken and chewed etc. The effect is heightened by the whip pans between characters. I was sitting on the front row in the middle of a giant screen and it was certainly disorientating. But by making the audience uncomfortable in this way, I think Kechice forces us into the family exchanges. The critics argue that the exchanges go on far too long (the film is 154 mins) but I disagree. I was never bored in the screening (even if occasionally I couldn’t watch because I felt the emotion too much).

For me, the triumph of the film is to use this one man’s story to act as a metaphor for a wide range of issues about not only the experience of North African migrants to France, but also about French society under late capitalism, masculinity in crisis etc. The metaphors begin to appear very early. A woman’s bottom is spanked in a brief sexual encounter and the action then cuts to the boat repair yard as a commentator’s voice explains careening – the process of turning a boat on its side to expose the underside for cleaning and repairs. There is something almost biblical about Slimane collecting fish from the local fishermen (with whom he obviously has good relations) and distributing them throughout his family – and getting a varied response for his pains. The metaphor is also there in the title of the film, I think. I can’t remember the subtitle, but at some point there is an inference that ‘la graine’, which means the seed, could also mean the ‘secret’. The title in some parts of the world is actually ‘The secret of the grain’. We might argue that the constituents of the meal: the couscous (a processed form of semolina), vegetables, hot sauce (harissa) and fish (grey mullet in this case) are each in some way symbolic. The fish comes from the fishermen, the vegetables are prepared by the women of the family. I think Rym provides the spice and the narrative reveals that the couscous itself becomes the mystery. This is a very contrived reading of course, but I do think that the film is more than just a humanist account of one family.

One of the interests in the film in a UK context comes from the fact that this is one of the few French films from what used to be called ‘beur cinema’ to be released in the UK. What it reveals is a film which, as Vincendeau notes, is not primarily focused on issues about ethnicity and nationality. I don’t think that Slimane’s native country is actually mentioned (although the reviews suggest Tunisia). What is clear is that he is accepted by the other men on the docks and it is the next new wave of migrants that is the concern as industry declines. Slimane’s children are the second generation and they are French. There is no discussion of Islam (except indirectly in the practice of reserving a plate of couscous for a poor person) but I did note that one of the IMDB commentators, who I took to be from the Maghreb, refers to the ‘Egyptian’ belly-dance sequence (an implication of vulgarity?). The hybridity of local culture is also emphasised by two members of the extended family, a daughter-in-law who is Russian and a French son-in-law who is teased about his attempts to speak Arabic.

It is the small things that add up in the narrative. For instance, Souad’s insistence in taking a plate of food to the poor will inadvertently cause problems, compounding a major disaster created by the behaviour of one of the men. The story is about Slimane and it takes its dramatic pulse from the emotions that build up around the project to help him open his restaurant. What he really wants to do is to feel that he has done something for his family. I’m reminded of that great Sam Peckinpah film, Ride the High Country in which Joel McCrea plays an ageing gunfighter who dies believing that at last he can “enter his house justified”. That’s all that Slimane wants and for me the ending of the film works.

Contemporary European Cinema

Contemporary European Cinema, Mary P. Wood, Hodder Arnold 2007, £17.99, 200pp ISBN 0340761366

This is an important and timely book. Mary Wood attempts a great deal in a relatively short book. Inevitably, this means that the reader might sometimes be left wanting more, but that’s no bad thing if they have been introduced to a wide range of issues and given all the appropriate starting points.

Traditionally books about ‘national’ or ‘regional’ cinemas have focused on particular directors, film movements, specific genres and/or issues related to representations of national identity. In this process, popular cinema sometimes gets neglected because it is less often seen outside its domestic market, lesser-known directors and smaller producing countries are often missing altogether and distribution and exhibition rarely get a look in. In Wood’s book there are none of these omissions.

A quick run through the chapters will establish the book’s range. An overview of European production in terms of the international film market is followed by chapters on art cinema, the so-called ‘quality’ film, the attempts to match high concept Hollywood films and ‘popular films and local stories’. Issues of cultural identity are linked to the importance of television and satellite distribution. Two cultural issues are addressed in the question of ‘heritage films’ in ‘theme park Europe’ and the global/local issues of migration and multiculturalism. The book ends with a case study of a small European country with an interesting history and an important contribution to film culture – Ireland.

Mary Wood is Professor of European Cinema at Birkbeck and her specialism is Italian Cinema. This gives her a headstart in terms of knowledge about a major industry which has to some extent slipped off the radar of cinemagoers in the UK. She matches this with forays into Turkish and Balkan Cinemas and coverage of genres ranging from soft porn and gangster films to massively popular Spanish local comedies and children’s films from across Europe. It’s also good to see contemporary British Cinema discussed as part of European Cinema with Michael Winterbottom as auteur and British heritage films considered alongside those of France, Italy and Eastern Europe.

As well as the diversity of film culture explored, the book also delves into institutional questions and makes use of the wealth of European audio-visual data and reports which have been overlooked by many film studies academics.

At this point, I could register a small gripe about the book’s production. There are no illustrations apart from the various charts and tables (which I think could have been more attractively presented). I think a handful of good quality stills could have helped introduce some of the kinds of films not usually seen in the UK. Overall, the book feels crammed with small margins and a single column of text which is probably too wide for comfortable reading. I can only imagine that Hodder Arnold are trying to save money, but I think the design does a dis-service to the content.

Put the design points aside. If you want to reference European Cinema in your film or media studies teaching, you should definitely buy this book. It is written in an accessible style and crammed with information and ideas that students will find useful and it will introduce issues and case studies that might suggest unusual and rewarding critical research exercises. A detailed bibliography and index will help students get started.

Roy Stafford