Monthly Archives: August 2008

L’heure d’été (Summer Hours, France 2008)

Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling as the siblings in Summer Hours

Jérémie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling as the siblings in Summer Hours

Summer Hours is an odd film. My companions in the cinema didn’t like it and although I enjoyed watching it on screen, it began to unravel as soon as I began to think about it and I can see why audiences might take against it. Nevertheless, it is a well-made film and it raises a number of institutional and formal questions as well as those relating to contemporary French culture.

The narrative focuses on a bourgeois family facing the moment when the matriarch dies and the fate of the family ‘heritage’ must be decided. Hélène Berthier is the widow of an industrialist but more importantly perhaps, the niece of a painter. It is the legacy of paintings, furniture and objets d’art as well as the country house in a village in Ile de France that forms the ‘heritage’. The new custodians will be Frédéric, an economist, his sister Adrienne, a designer of ceramics and his younger brother Jérémie who runs a factory in China making sports shoes. What will they want to do?

Juliette Binoche is the star of the film, but Adrienne is not the major character – we learn much more about Frédéric. This is partly because as the eldest, he has two older children and one of these, a teenage daughter allows the narrative to link grandmother and granddaughter – missing out the trio of working adults altogether. The significance of this becomes more apparent when you realise (as I did some time after watching the film) that writer-director Olivier Assayas started the project following a commission/proposal by the Musée d’Orsay (which features in the second half of the film). The objets d’art are really the central characters in the film and herein lies the problem for audiences expecting a conventional drama.

There is no ‘plot’ as such and certainly no dramatic construction. This is emphasised by the editing. We are presented with a sequence of tableau-like scenes which end with fades to black. A new scene fades up from black (often with sound overlapping the fade, so that we hear a babble of voices before we see the characters) but there is no real indication of how much time has passed and little dramatic tension. The narrative is not really interested in the characters as such – we learn little about them and there is little in their behaviour to evoke an empathetic response. Here is the French bourgeoisie discussing concepts of tradition, artistic discernment, pragmatic questions of financial security and, just occasionally, the remote possibility that great art can engender some passion. The only character who really appeals is the old housekeeper, who is largely untroubled by such questions and just does the human things – grieving and remembering. In formal terms, the camera also works against any kind of emotional involvement, constantly moving – twisting and turning between characters, so that important announcements by one character are undercut by another character’s movement across the foreground. I thought the camerawork was very good and that’s possibly what I enjoyed in following the ‘action’.

There is a sense in which the film invites us to consider the family as representative of the French bourgeoisie and to explore questions about globalisation, national heritage etc. Two of the three siblings live abroad and at one point Adrienne’s desire to sell her great uncle’s sketches in New York raises the issue of ‘national art treasures’ leaving the country. At one point, I thought that Frederic’s teenage son and daughter were there just to raise questions about how Americanised French teenagers have become. (Coincidentally, the Guardian published an article suggesting that France has now imported teenage binge-drinking from the UK on the day that I saw the film.)

So, what to make of all this? Summer Hours has received quite a good press in the UK. I’ve argued that it is well made and I think that the performances are good (especially by Charles Berling as Frédéric) but I’m a little surprised that it appeals beyond that. Personally, I’m not that concerned about furniture, glassware and other aspects of design, but even if I was, the film doesn’t really explore what it is about the objets that makes them so important. I’m much more interested in the social/political questions and in this sense the film is frustrating. Frédéric’s professional problems as an economist and his relationship with his son and daughter and his wife – a very under-developed character – would be much more interesting.

The case for the defence is put by Tony Rayns in a Sight and Sound review (August). Significantly, Rayns is an acknowledged expert on East Asian cinemas and he dubs this film as ‘Taiwanesque’, inspired by Hou Hsaio-hsien. Olivier Assayas has many East-Asian connections and this seems a justifiable approach. I confess that I worry that I’m prepared to struggle with Hou but likely to get more impatient with French art films. This perhaps suggests that I have a kind of snobbery about the taiwanese films which I guess could be dangerously close to finding them ‘exotic’ and assuming that the French are more like the English. An example of this comes in my comments on Hou’s Paris-set film, also with Binoche, Le voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2006). Rayns’ review is persuasive in many ways and I’m inclined to move back in favour a little. I did think as I watched it that it dealt with important issues that families everywhere face, but then the politics and emotional coldness of the bourgeoisie returned to put me off. It would, of course, make an interesting comparison with one of my favourite films of the year, Couscous.

36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981)

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen

Another trip to the bargain bin to consider a 2006 DVD release of a film from 1981 on a discount label. I chose to watch this because I so enjoyed the writer-director Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer. The film is one of three titles issued as a kind of Shashi Kapoor trilogy on the Prism Leisure/Odyssey Quest label. The star from India’s acting dynasty does not appear in this one, but he produced it and his wife Jennifer Kendal took the lead role. Kapoor gives an interesting short interview on the DVD.

’36 Chowringhee Lane’ is an address in Calcutta in the late 1970s – the home of an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Miss Violet Stoneham. She lives alone with her cat, Sir Toby and she teaches Shakespeare to classes of younger girls who pay little attention. Her niece writes to her from abroad and her brother is gradually declining in a nursing home. One day this lonely woman meets one of her ex-students, Nandita and her boyfriend, Samaresh. They realise that her flat, empty during the day when she is at school, would make a perfect love-nest and they persuade her that Samaresh is an aspiring writer who can’t work at home. We fear for Violet, but she seems happy with the arrangement, especially when the couple take her out around the city in gratitude. Where will it all end . . . ?

I thought this was a wonderful film, beautifully made with an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Kendal (playing older than her years). It’s a very sad film, human and affecting. It’s staggering to think that this was the first writing and directing role for Aparna Sen. She was by this time a highly skilled actor and much must have rubbed off from the work of her directors. Her film is in many ways quite old-fashioned with shots and sequences which might have come from Satyajit Ray and other Indian masters, but also a surrealist sequence in black and white which is straight from attempts at modernism in European cinema. The sense of ‘pastness’ also comes from the muted and muddied colours (the DVD was presumably produced from a rather battered 35mm master). But it also comes from the sense of decay and desolation which permeates the images of Calcutta as experienced by Miss Stoneham.

The film is part of the long series of films exploring the end of the raj – or rather the slow decline of the British presence in India in the thirty years following independence. The Kendal family of actors were themselves a central part of Indian theatre from the 1930s through to the 1960s and this film is rather strangely announced as being ‘presented by Merchant Ivory’, the production partnership that made many such films around this time. The decline of British ideas is played out in many ways, but perhaps most obviously in the school, where a new Indian principal promotes a young Indian graduate to take over Miss Stoneham’s Shakespeare classes and whose overall approach drives another of the Anglo-Indian teachers to emigrate to Canada.

The difficult position of the Anglo-Indians is a central discourse in the film. I’ve seen some references to Anglo-Indians as simply British people living in India, but the term properly refers to mixed race families who under the raj were given access to professional jobs in the railways, customs etc., which Indians found difficult to enter before 1947. After independence the Anglo-Indians were caught between two national cultures, neither of which wanted to claim them. Jennifer Kendal uses an accent and general way of speaking that corresponds to an Anglo-Indian type. Her eventual fate is as much connected to racial identity as it is to age and spinsterhood.

In the DVD interview, Shashi Kapoor remarks that though the film did reasonably well in the UK and was praised by some critics in India it wasn’t seen by the mass audience. I think this is a shame as it deals with an important aspect of Indian social history (as well as being an excellent film). There are some Indian reviews that are worth pursuing including http://parallelcinema.blogspot.com/2005/07/36-chowringhee-lane-1981.html

Definitions of parallel cinema are hard to come by. I think this film qualifies as its roots are in the classical art film tradition of Bengal. As befits the Anglo-Indian milieu (English as a first language), the language of the film is predominantly English with snatches of Bengali and Hindi.

Before the Rains (India/US/UK 2007)

Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle

Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle

Before the Rains is an intriguing film, though I fear that it will be ignored by several different audiences, each of whom might enjoy it for different reasons. I enjoyed every frame of the film, but I’m biased. I’m a big fan of the colonial melodrama, of Santosh Sivan the director-cinematographer, of its two Indian stars and of Kerala – the most beautiful part of the world I’ve ever visited. The long shots of tea plantations, mountain sunsets and waterfalls in Before the Rains are almost worth the price of admission alone.

The story comes across as a recreation of a classic raj melodrama – one perhaps written by Somerset Maugham. I half expected Bette Davis to emerge from the planter’s house. Louis Bromfield’s book The Rains Came (1937) produced two films, one in 1939 (with Myrna Loy) and one in 1955 (with Elizabeth Taylor). ‘Before the Rains’ is a title which points to the signalling of the climax of the melodrama when the first drops of the monsoon rains fall – most memorably at the end of Black Narcissus (1947). Yet, these are all narratives constructed by American/European writers, produced by Hollywood or UK studios and focusing on a white woman. Before the Rains reverses the narrative focus – the passion comes from an Indian woman, its consequences fall on an Indian man and the director is working with the colonial history of his own state. But the final twist is that he has borrowed the whole narrative from a film about Jews and Bedouins in the Israeli desert (Yellow Asphalt: Three Desert Stories, Israel 2001). (It’s worth noting that there are Indian historical novels that deal with this period in South India, but they wouldn’t provide the British characters that this UK/US financed film requires.)

The story involves a British planter, Henry Moores (Linus Roache) who is having a passionate affair with his housemaid Sanjani (Nandita Das). His wife (played by Jennifer Ehle) and son are travelling back from the UK where the boy is at school. This is 1937 in the Munnar region of South India, part of the princely state of Travancore (Kerala was not actually created until 1956). The third major character is T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), one of the important characters in the raj melodrama – the Indian man, educated in an English language school and caught between his village and the planter he works for as foreman. The context is important, so all the action takes place in the midst of demonstrations by an increasingly vocal local independence movement.

Philip Kemp, who reviews the film in Sight and Sound (August 2008), usually does a very good job on Asian films, but in this case I think he reads it in a misleading way. He criticises the film for being too predictable or not believable in terms of the characters’ actions. But this isn’t a ‘realist drama’. The characters all play symbolic roles. It’s a melodrama – one in which the ‘excess’ is there in the beauty and the expressionist nature of the cinematography and the acting. Yes, the script is a bit of a mess, but the execution of the melodrama is flawless and the issues surrounding the symbolic nature of the characters leads the attentive viewer into quite complex debates about the historical events and what is being represented. The opening titles present the dreaded words “Merchant Ivory presents”, but this isn’t a conventional adaptation of a literary novel – it’s much more interesting (and to be fair to James Ivory, his Indian-based films with Ismail Merchant were, in my view, superior to the later, more famous productions). I for one didn’t find Before the Rains predictable, perhaps because I refuse to play the game of trying to guess what happens next. As a result, I was on the edge of my seat for the last few minutes.

Moores and T.K. look out from the path of the new road – one of several shots reminiscent of Black Narcissus.

Moores and T.K. look out from the path of the new road – one of several shots reminiscent of Black Narcissus.

The metaphorical basis of the story derives from the other main plot element. Moores decides to build a road through the hills to enable him to plant spices (cardamom, cloves, peppers) and to ship them out more efficiently. For this he needs T.K. to find the ‘right road’ that will survive the rains and to organise the local labour – and he needs the local British banker to fund the operation. As some perceptive commentators have pointed out, the road is a metaphor for India, both up to independence and after 1947. T.K. also needs to find the right road for himself to travel. Moores and the bank risk investment at a time when the future of the raj is in doubt. Moores himself risks all because of his relationship with Sanjani. What she (as a married woman in the village) has to gain or lose is just as important. Unlike the British woman, she has few options – a metaphor for women in India both in the independence struggle and ever since?

A further level of meaning can be drawn from the film in relation to ideas about Indian cinema. Santosh Sivan is from a family of South Indian filmmakers. A graduate of the Indian national film school in Pune, he has worked in two of India’s main commercial cinemas in Chennai and Mumbai as both cinematographer and director. He has also made his own low budget film in Tamil (see the post on The Terrorist) – a film which might be considered as part of ‘parallel cinema’. Before the Rains is a hybrid of different modes of Indian cinema and the Merchant Ivory mode of ‘quality cinema’. It sounds impossible, but it works. There are moments when Sivan goes for big close-ups which recall The Terrorist, but there are also nicely staged crowd scenes which reminded me of moments in Bhowani Junction, the 1956 Hollywood-British raj melodrama, which has a similar story in several ways. There is a tension in the film whenever it feels like Sivan will move into ‘Bollywood mode’ – but he never does. (I think it was probably a wise move not to select CinemaScope for this film – which would have set up the possibility of both Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of ‘epic scale’.)

The most notable aspect of melodrama excess comes in some of the playing. I want to watch it a second time to be sure, but I remember some eye-rolling, I think from Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle (as Mrs Moores), that would have been out of place in another film but here worked well. I should also mention the drums – I couldn’t help but think about the importance of both music and sound effects in Black Narcissus and they are equally important here. In fact there were several scenes that reminded me of the Michael Powell film. I wonder if, as a film student, Sivan has seen the Powell film? Where Before the Rains scores of course is that instead of a Surrey country park and a studio interior with an assorted cast from London’s East End, Sivan could shoot on authentic locations with appropriate casting. Perhaps the only point where casting and performance raised questions was Rahul Bose’s portrayal of the film’s most conflicted character, T.K. Neelan. I admired Bose greatly for his performance in Mr & Mrs Iyer in which he played a Bengal wild life photographer – a serious and responsible man. In Before the Rains, he looks different to the other men in his village. Unlike Nandita Das who appears to be able to play a woman from any part of India, Bose is less chameleon-like for me. More of a problem, however, is the English accent (perfectly fine in Mr & Mrs Iyer). Here he must be subservient, almost obsequious, referring to Moores as ‘Sahib’. I’m sure that the mode of speaking is ‘realistic’ for the time and place, but it makes this viewer uncomfortable. Interestingly, Bose himself seems conscious of his own typecasting as the ‘poster boy’ (he’s 41) of Indian alternative cinema, the ‘Sean Penn of India’ and I’m going to try to watch some of his mainstream comedies. (I’m also intrigued by his pairing here with Nandita Das as the two seem to share the same kind of profile as social activists and ‘alternative cinema’ stars.)

Overall, I’d recommend anyone interested in Indian cinema to watch this film and to enjoy working through its complexities – as well as enjoying Kerala on screen.

Romcoms outside Hollywood

I don’t watch Hollywood films that often, but sometimes I do get to see a romantic comedy. I do find, however, that many of them are just not attractive in terms of theme or they have stars I would usually want to avoid. It’s in this context that I watched two ‘alternatives’ – a French/UK co-production and a genuine American independent.

I’ve already posted on Pot Luck and I did get to see the sequel Les poupées russes (Russian Dolls) (France/UK 2005). I thought the original film was interesting as well as enjoyable in the way that it exploited the phenomenon of the Erasmus scheme that brings together young graduates from across Europe in Barcelona. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there was enough in the possible narrative extensions of the first story to warrant a second. That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty here to entertain audiences.

Although the sequel was made only three years later, the characters have aged five years or more and the central character, Xavier, is now coming up to 30. He is still struggling to become a writer and is not in a long-term relationship (but still close friends with Martine, the Audrey Tautou character from the first film). The main thrust of the narrative is to propel Xavier through a series of sexual encounters, including one with Wendy, the Englishwoman from the Barcelona flat. There is a wedding (one of the staple features of the romcom), but it involves Wendy’s brother and a Russian ballerina.

The film is well made and I particularly enjoyed the St. Petersburg sequences, which seemed less touristy than those in London (but that’s probably because I know London well, but haven’t been to St. Petersburg). Ironically, the film seemed to be like a Eurostar ad with Xavier shuttling between Paris and London. Eurostar have actually put money into the new Shane Meadows film, marking the move to St Pancras as the London terminal – but Xavier alights at the temporary terminus built at Waterloo.

Xavier's fantasy image . . .

Xavier's fantasy image . . .

In the modern style, this romcom is upfront about the sexual encounters of its late twenty-somethings and overall is less coy and childish than Hollywood. I thought that the playing was generally good and Kelly Reilly turned the rather gauche character from Barcelona into a sexy woman – she was well dressed by the costume department and wore the clothes with real panache. This was emphasised by a scene in which Xavier obsesses about a model whose ‘autobiography’ he has to ghost-write. The model is objectified by a tracking camera shot which focuses on her legs as she walks in front. Kelly Reilly wears a similar dress much more successfully.

. . . when he should be thinking about Wendy

. . . when he should be thinking about Wendy

I’m not sure what I made of Romain Duris as Xavier. Since he is so good in everything else I’ve seen him in, I have to conclude that he is brilliant at playing a character who is really rather silly (perhaps this is how French audiences see Hugh Grant type characters in British films?) Xavier is never convincing as a writer and although he is still potentially a good-looking man, here he often grins like a demented hamster.

I’m not the target audience for this film and it may well be that twenty-somethings today will respond to the film and identify with the characters. It’s worth noting that romcoms now seem to assume a younger audience (whereas the classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s were for a general audience). For me, Xavier’s behaviour would be understandable for someone in their early twenties, but not approaching thirty. But I know I am out-of-date, so, a change in society generally is followed by filmmakers keeping up with trends. A posting on IMDB asks if this film is similar to some of the Antoine Doinel films made by François Truffaut. This is an interesting observation and I can see that it is similar to Love on the Run (France 1979). As a young man, I enjoyed the the first three Antoine Doinel films, but not the late 1970s one, by which time I thought Truffaut had lost it. (See the post on Anne and Muriel for more on Truffaut.)

Director Cédric Klapisch continues the use of split screens and tricksy editing from Pot Luck – possibly increasing the overall effect. I’m not sure it works, but again I think it probably serves to alienate older audiences in an attempt to be fresh and young? I think, however, that I preferred the approach of a recent American independent, In Search of a Midnight Kiss (US 2007).

Vivian and Wilson and the LA skyline

Vivian and Wilson and the LA skyline

Written and directed by Alex Holdridge, In Search of a Midnight Kiss feels like a genuine low budget independent. The pitch is very simple, Wilson (Scoot McNairy) is virtually broke and due to be alone on New Year’s Eve. His housemates in LA (a couple) persuade him to post on Craig’s List as a ‘misanthrope’ in search of a midnight kiss. He does and meets Vivian (Sara Simmonds). Will they hit it off and stay together through the New Year celebrations?

As the image shows, Holdridge chose to shoot on High Def video and print it as black & white on 35 mm film. I thought the film looked terrific and I really enjoyed the scenic tour of downtown LA and the city that we don’t usually see (including a peek inside an ornate theatre). I was particularly interested in the sequences on the LA rapid transit system. It doesn’t usually feature in Hollywood films, but it gives a completely different feel to the city – making it more like New York and European cities. Overall, I thought the film prompted memories of a host of Hollywood films from the 1950s, partly because of the black & white images and partly because of the way in which the city was presented.

As in Russian Dolls, the film utilises the conventions of modern Hollywood romcoms (and television) in its depiction of sexual embarrassment and potential ‘gross-out’ moments. The difference is that because there are no stars, I did warm to the central characters as real people. I cared about them and by the end of the film I could even forgive the lead character his haircut. I’d recommend this film to anyone jaded by mainstream Hollywood.

The Terrorist (India 1999)

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

(These notes were written for a student event addressing the concept of ‘Shocking Cinema’, part of the A Level Film Studies syllabus in the UK. The Terrorist is an example of ’emotional violence’ – physical violence is mostly off-screen, so the film was rated as ’12’ in the UK.)

This is a Tamil language film, although its director is from the neighbouring state of Kerala where Malayalam is spoken – the two languages are similar.

Plot outline

Malli is a young woman in a guerrilla army. After her lover is killed, she is chosen to be a suicide bomber. The narrative follows her preparation for the assassination of a politician. During this period, she discovers that she is pregnant. Will she go through with the mission?

Institutional background

The Terrorist was seen mainly in smaller arthouse cinemas in selected Indian cities – it was not released widely like a Hindi language ‘Bollywood movie’. Although Bollywood movies have the biggest budgets and are enjoyed by Hindi speakers (about 40% of the population) in all parts of India, in South India films in other regional languages are more widely seen. Chennai (Madras) actually produces more films than Mumbai (Bombay). The Terrorist properly belongs to what has sometimes been called the Parallel Cinema or New Cinema in India. The director, Santosh Sivan, is from Kerala, the South Western state with the highest level of education and political sophistication. He was trained at the main Indian film school in Pune and has a wide knowledge of global cinema. He has acted as cinematographer on films in both Hindi and Tamil Cinema (notably for director Mani Ratnam) and after The Terrorist directed the big budget spectacular Asoka – the story of a legendary Indian king, starring Sharukh Khan, one of the biggest Bollywood stars. In 2003 he photographed the ‘British Indian’ film Bride and Prejudice.

Sivan is a cinematographer who directs, rather than a director who photographs and The Terrorist is a low budget film in which the quality of the images becomes a central feature. Sivan exploits the lush landscapes of South India and the beauty of his leading actor. There are many close-ups and shots of water and other natural features – in stark contrast to the violence of the armed struggle.

The Terrorist was seen at the Cairo Film Festival by the Hollywood actor John Malkovich, who wrote enthusiastically about the film and helped its release in the West. Made for only $50,000, one small New York cinema took $3,000 a day in its opening run. (see http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/jan/21us3.htm)

Civil war in Sri Lanka

The film does not explain the ‘real world’ background to the specific political struggles being explored. The assumption is that it refers to the Civil War in Sri Lanka and its effects in India. Sri Lanka has a majority population of Sinhalese Buddhists (about 14 million), but in the North Eastern corner of the island, the majority population is Tamil and Hindu (about 4 million). This Tamil minority is linked directly to the people of Tamil Nadhu, the Indian state in South Eastern India with a population of 62 million. Since the 1980s Tamil separatists have been fighting against the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The struggle also has major implications in India as Tamil Nadhu is one of the most important Indian states. (Look on a map to see how close Sri Lanka is to Tamil Nadhu.)

Extracts from an interview with writer/director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan on http://www.rediff.com/broadband/2000/sep/05trans.htm
“The idea came when I was talking to a friend of mine, Joe Samuel, who on the day of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination could not travel. That day we spent a lot of time talking about the assassination and were wondering what could have made her do it. This stayed with me for quite some time. So finally when I wanted to make a film I decided that since in our country women are considered very creative people here you have a person who is very destructive.

Maybe if you put a woman in a natural environment where she is very much associated with nature, it rains, there’s violence and very real things and maybe she starts feeling differently! Maybe it affects her. I liked the whole idea of how these thoughts run through someone’s head. So we did a lot of screen tests. We finally discovered Ayesha Dharker who I thought was simply beautiful because she didn’t need not to talk to express her feelings which was I think what I like about her.”

On the reaction of Western audiences to The Terrorist
It is about a subject which is very much in the news. It has a universal appeal to it. The whole idea that here is a film about a terrorist without much of violence in it and not much bloodshed made it a very different film. Even though it is not a very ‘audience friendly’ film, it still has evoked interest in an educated audience, which supports the film.”

The background to the Rajiv Ghandi assassination
Assassinations have had a devastating effect on Indian political life since Independence in 1947. The ‘father figure’ of peaceful resistance to the British, Mahatma Ghandi, was killed in 1948 by a Hindu fundamentalist unwilling to accept Ghandi’s belief in the equality of Muslims in India. Indira Ghandi (no relation, but the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawarhal Nehru), Prime Minister of India for all but three years from 1966, was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984, following repression of Sikh militants. She was succeeded as Prime Minister by her son Rajiv as leader of the Congress Party, which then lost the 1989 election. Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated by Tamil separatists in 1991.

The following extract from http://www.lankalibrary.com/pol/rajiv.htm is © Asia Times, by K T Rajasingham

When he was about five metres from the stage, he received silk scarves from four persons – one being Latha Kannan, a lady Congress worker, whose daughter Kokila recited a Hindi song in his favor. Suddenly a young bespectacled women, about 25 years old with a sandalwood garland in her hand, popped up in the line to greet Rajiv Gandhi. Some eyewitness had seen this women moving towards Rajiv Gandhi and bending down, genuflecting to pay respects, by touching his feet.

At that very moment, at 10.18, a shuddering loud explosion was heard. Though there was a heavy concentration of policemen and Congress workers around Rajiv Gandhi, immediately after the loud explosion, he was thrown about 1.75 meters to the left, inside the barricade. According to some eyewitness reports, the explosion produced a flash of light about 3 meters high, which lasted for a few seconds, followed by a thick pall of smoke. The blast created a forceful impact, throwing people about, and in all, along with Rajiv Gandhi, 18 persons were killed, including nine policemen, and 33 persons, including 12, policemen were injured.

“The intelligence Bureau later briefed the informal meeting of the CCPA [Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs] about the technology of the assassination based on the inspection of the scene of the blast, discussions with the eye witnesses and experts (including doctors and forensic science experts) study of the photographs, examination material objects recovered from the scene etc. It revealed that: (i) The IED [Improvised Explosive Device] was carried on the body of an unidentified woman wearing a green salwar and mustard colored kameez (ii) It was a highly sophisticated and powerful device which had a foolproof triggering mechanism, electric detonator and a well concealed body jacket to house the IED; (iii) Plastic explosive of the RDX variety was used; (iv) Cause of death of Rajiv Gandhi and the woman later identified as Dhanu, who was carrying the IED, was a direct impact from the blast; (v) Small steel balls (or pellets) were used to create an intense impact; (vi) The assassin appeared to have intimate knowledge of the function, its sequence etc; (vii) Highest impact of the blast was borne by the unidentified woman followed by Rajiv Gandhi. It indicates that the epicenter of the blast was closest to the assassin followed by Rajiv Gandhi.”– The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: Unanswered Questions and Unasked Queries, Dr Subramanian Swamy, pages 114-115.

Discussion questions for The Terrorist

1. Does Malli press the button at the end of the film? If she doesn’t, what do you think stops her?

2. Could The Terrorist be described as a film which utilises Hitchcock’s ideas about ‘pure cinema’? In what ways does it make use of elements of ‘film language’?

3. Did you identify with Malli? Which techniques are most effective in allowing us to have some idea about how this remarkable young woman might feel?

4. What do you think is the moral position of the film? Does it ask us to identify with a murderer?

5. Is the film shocking?

Ressources humaines (Human Resources, France 1999)

The son (second right) watches as the boss talks to his father on the shop floor.

The son (second right) watches as the boss talks to his father on the shop floor.

Laurent Cantet won the big prize at Cannes this year with Entre les murs (France 2008). Set in a tough school with an ethnically diverse cast it sounds terrific and I’m looking forward to seeing it (I can’t find a UK distributor yet though).

I thought it would be useful to check out Cantet’s first film which sounded as if it had a similar approach. I missed Ressources humaines in 1999 – something I regret now. I was riveted to my rented DVD screening, what a cracking film!

The story is classically simple. A young man returns to his home town from a business or management school in Paris. He has arranged a placement as a trainee/intern at the factory where his father has worked for thirty years in a mundane job stamping out metal parts at 700 per hour. The son is bright and well turned out and only too eager to naively suggest ways in which the management can approach negotiations with the workers about the move to a national 35 hour week (recently rescinded by Sarkozy). This is the young man’s college project. He has a good idea, but the management are quick to use it in ways he hasn’t thought through. He’s going to have to eat humble pie before the ferocious CGT steward in the factory. But although it’s a terrific representation of evil bosses and a workforce struggling to understand how to cope with change, the real story is about father (who, most of all, doesn’t want to resist) and son, culminating in a scene of terrible emotional ferocity that few will be able to forget.

The approach is pure Loachian social realism, only lacking a little of Ken Loach’s wicked humour (not that this film is po-faced or solemn). All the cast bar the lead role are non-professionals, including unemployed people in the town. The camerawork is observational and functional without drawing attention to itself.

Loach himself has tended not to make too many recent films directly focused on an industrial dispute, although both Bread and Roses (2000) and Navigators (2001) included large elements of unrest at the workplace. Other than those (the first of which was set in Los Angeles) the last UK feature I can remember with such a theme was Dockers (UK 1999), a TV film written by Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh. I always wondered why Loach was so popular in France, but this film suggests that he has French disciples who make similar films.

Shane Meadows and Eurostar

The restored 19th century train shed at St Pancras International, as used by Eurostar.

The restored 19th century train shed at St Pancras International, as used by Eurostar.

The release of the new Shane Meadows film Somers Town in the UK has been accompanied by an unusual amount of soul-searching and questioning re the role of investment by Eurostar. This was evident in the (very positive) review on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last night and formed the basis of Xan Brooks’ argument in a Guardian article this morning. These are just the latest two examples – I’ve seen earlier references and I’m sure that the argument will be mentioned in several reviews on Friday. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ve gambled on it being a useful educational resource and I’ve booked it for events this Autumn.

Background

Somers Town began as a short film that was intended to act as a form of promo for the movement of Eurostar’s service from London’s Waterloo station to St Pancras. (See Rona’s post from the Edinburgh Film Festival screening for more on this background.) ‘Somers Town’ is the area of London situated between the railway terminii of Euston to the West and St Pancras and Kings Cross to the East – an historic location which once housed railway goods yards, hospitals and social housing. The new development (an extended station area and the restoration of the historic St Pancras station and hotel as well as the new high-speed rail link to Europe) impinges on the lives of the locals in two ways. First it has brought increased employment opportunities (and prompted the arrival of migrant workers) and second it has brought a further element of regeneration and ‘gentrification’ to the area with new services allied to the upmarket shops in the newly expanded station (following the building of the British Library and parts of University College (UCL) in Somers Town itself). Here are two potential social issues that could contribute to narratives set in the area. This is one of the parts of London that sees a juxtaposition between working class housing and Central London commercial and entertainment activities and the local community which was once very settled and close-knit is presumably seeing changes. The whole wider area of St Pancras south towards Bloomsbury and Grays Inn is to some extent unique in London and has not often appeared on screen. The most famous images of Kings Cross are probably those of the railway bridge in The Ladykillers (1955) and the skylines of Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988).

When Meadows began to shoot Somers Town (according to Brooks) he quickly found that he had far more material than could be contained in a 9 minute short. (He first refused the commission, then got interested again when he saw the script produced by his frequent collaborator Paul Fraser.) Eventually, he expanded the narrative to a 70 minute feature (just long enough to count as a feature in UK exhibition). The film was first seen at Berlin earlier this year and then won the major prize for a British film at Edinburgh Film Festival in June. The budget of the film is reputed to have been about £500,000, initially from Eurostar with additional funding later, including support from UK Film Council. It is now being released by Optimum.

Debate

The ‘controversy’ seems to be about whether this is a Eurostar ‘branding exercise’ and whether Meadows has ‘sold out’. Should we see this as akin to the massive product placement deals in Hollywood, is it the thin end of the wedge that will drive through UK independent filmmaking? It all seems a little silly to me, but it does help to expose the whole fraught process of how small films need promotion. Meadows, in one of the many interviews he’s given (see www.shanemeadows.co.uk/ for links), reflects that throughout the shoot, Eurostar didn’t interfere in any way apart from helping the producer with locations permissions. However, since the film’s completion, “. . . they have been brilliant at supporting it without ever trying to make into something that it isn’t” (Meadows on LastBroadcast.com).

Given the generally positive reviews and eager anticipation (it’s great to see the enthusiasm for Meadows’ work), Eurostar would be mad not to support its release, but as the coverage shows they need to do it sensitively. It’s a silly debate, however, because all films depend on financial backing which has strings attached and potential constraints for innovative filmmakers. ‘Artistic independence’ is mostly a myth and I’m sure that, for Shane Meadows, this was just a shoot like most others.

Xan Brooks does make a number of useful points in passing, I think. He mentions the legacy of filmmaking commissioned by the British Transport Commission and other public bodies in the 1950s and 1960s, including many fine documentary films about the railways such as the John Schlesinger film Terminus (1961). He also suggests that the film encourages ideas about travel to Europe and Meadows himself has said he has become more interested in what is happening in eastern Europe after his experiences directing Polish characters. There is a general argument about product placement and the ‘non-accountability’ of sponsored filmmaking (Brooks points out that sponsorship of cinema films is not subject to the Ofcom/ASA controls that face TV and print advertising), but it shouldn’t obscure debates about the funding of independent filmmaking generally.

I’ll blog what I think of the film when I see it, but as a railway fan knocked out by the restoration of St Pancras station and an advocate of Eurostar as the green way to travel across Europe, I’m already in the camp. The only sadness for me is that Eurostar is not publicly-owned or that Shane Meadows could not be commissioned from public funds by a London community arts grant.