Daily Archives: August 2, 2010

The Kurosawa Centenary in 2010

The international film community celebrates the centenary of important directors on a regular basis, but only a handful of such celebrations reach a wider audience. This year’s major subject is Kurosawa Akira (born 23 March 1910), who could reasonably claim to be the first globally acknowledged ‘master of cinema’ during the 1950s and early 1960s. In a long film career of over 50 years he directed 30 features – all of which have been remembered and many of which have been screened again somewhere this year – not least on home DVD systems. Our own mini-season of Kurosawa films on the big screen kicks off in Bradford towards the end of August. There will be just five films with possibly one or two others elsewhere in the region, so I’m hoping we can blog on a few more and develop some ideas.

There are a number of reasons why Kurosawa remains important:

1. His career spanned several key periods in both Japanese and global film history. He began work in 1936 under a form of apprenticeship in the Japanese studio system, gradually developed an autonomous position within Toho, established his own company and worked co-operatively with other directors, flirted with Hollywood and became in effect a global film producer.

2. His career also spanned momentous changes in the social, economic and political history of Japan – crucial conjunctural events in his filmmaking experiences.

3. With education and interests that covered both traditional Japanese cultural achievements and the diversity of influences from elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America, Kurosawa became the centre of problematic debates about his ‘most Western’ status amongst Japanese critics.

4. Outside Japan, Kurosawa joined Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Andrjez Wajda and a few others as central figures in the humanist art cinema of the 1950s which dominated the new international film market.

5. Like John Ford, the American director he so admired, Kurosawa had his own stock company dominated by two very different actors, Shimura Takashi and Mifune Toshiro.

6. Recently some critics have identified a homo-eroticism in many of Kurosawa’s films and questions have been raised about the lack of major female characters in his films – certainly in comparison with other ‘Japanese masters’ such as Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse.

All too often, Kurosawa is tagged as an action director and associated with the ‘samurai movie’. Although he certainly made several important historical films with samurai warriors in central roles, he also made several important ‘contemporary films’ and in so doing, displayed a wide knowledge of film styles and aesthetics, both Japanese and Western. We’ll attempt to range across Kurosawa’s whole output.

Ajami (Israel/Germany 2009)

Malek and Omar in Ajami

This was a film I was eager to see having watched an item about its making on a YouTube clip from Al-Jazeera. I confess that about a third of the way through the screening, I began to wonder if I was going to be disappointed because I was finding the story hard to follow and the rough and ready camerawork was not offering me much visual pleasure. But when I finally grasped how the narrative was working I found everything to be much more rewarding. I’m still not sure about some aspects of the film, but I can see why it has won so many awards, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

In the fashion of several recent films such as Gomorra, Crash (US 2004) or Amore Perros, Ajami offers several overlapping stories which are retold from different perspectives. Misleading ‘chapter’ headings suggest a linear narrative and for a moment I had the feeling that the reels were being projected out of order (except that I knew that it was a digital print!).

The title refers to a district of Jaffa, the now Israeli port city which has been almost swallowed by Tel Aviv. The district has a predominantly Arab population, but also a Jewish minority – the city is Jewish overall. The Arabs are both Muslim and Christian. The narrative begins with a feud between an Arab Muslim family and a Bedouin family from the Negev. After a series of tit-for-tat shootings, a ‘negotiator’ organises a financial settlement. This leaves Omar, the surviving oldest member of the Ajami family, with the task of finding a large sum of money in a short time. Inevitably, 19 year-old Omar is forced to turn to drug smuggling to raise money quickly. The story is narrated by Omar’s younger brother Nasri and the separate plotlines are linked via the restaurant/transport business where Omar works. Malek is a young man from the West Bank working in the restaurant illegally. His mother is seriously ill and he needs money for her medical care. ‘Binj’ is a chef with a Jewish girlfriend and Dando is a Jewish police officer. The restaurant is owned by a Christian Arab, Abu Elias, who helps both Malek and Omar – but Omar risks all in conducting a secret relationship with his boss’s daughter Hadir.

Commentary

The film has a low budget and a cast of non-professional actors who attended workshops set up by the two writer-editor-directors, one Jewish, Yaron Shani and the other Arab, Scandar Copti. Copti also plays the role of Binj. The whole process took around seven years to prepare, workshop, shoot and edit. IMDB suggests that it was shot on 35mm, but the definition of the print I saw suggests that it was digital or Super 16. The shooting and directing style appears to echo Ken Loach with an observational camera and non-professionals required to react to certain dramatic actions not directly explained in a script that is otherwise quite carefully fashioned.

The interest in the film is explained by three things, I think:

  • the acting style, camerawork and editing all contribute to a ‘gritty’ authentic feel;
  • despite the obvious antagonisms between different cultural groups and occasional asides about the occupation, the film doesn’t ‘take sides’ as such and is seen by several commentators as ‘even-handed’;
  • the use of familiar genre conventions such as family feuds, drug deals, over-strict fathers, exploitation of illegals etc., means that despite the non-linear narrative the film is still accessible to a wide audience (even if the subtitles and low budget will keep it out of multiplexes).

These three factors make this a film that could be used with 16-19 students in the same way that City of God/La haine and other youth crime films have proved so successful. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will develop a sufficiently high profile to attract teachers. It would also need a fair amount of work to explain the background to the plot (even Sight and Sound‘s subs make a mistake in referring to ‘Berbers’ rather than Bedouin).

Overall, it is clearly the work of young talents and can’t directly compete with City of God/La haine etc. I think it is perhaps 10 minutes too long, but still fails to deliver on some aspects of the narrative. However, it does offer something fresh. I’m glad that I saw it  and I look forward to further work by this pair.

Here’s the UK trailer (which strangely overplays the political narrative):

The US trailer is perhaps a better intro to the film:

Press Pack

Seen at Cubby Broccoli Cinema, Bradford, 1/8/2010