Monthly Archives: March 2011

BIFF 2011 #14: Helen of Four Gates (UK 1920)

One of the beautifully composed landscape shots in 'Helen of Four Gates' with Alma Taylor in the foreground as Helen.

There is quite a story behind the interest in this film from arguably the major pioneering figure in British Cinema, Cecil Hepworth (1974-1953). Like several of Hepworth’s later films, Helen of Four Gates was a ‘literary adaptation’ – but this time of a novel by a former mill girl from Blackburn, Ethel Carnie (1886-1962) who married Alfred Holdsworth. Helen of Four Gates was published in 1917 when Ethel was living near Hebden Bridge. Her most famous novel was This Slavery (1925). She was a socialist, feminist and a peace campaigner and now acknowledged as one of the most important working-class women writers in British literary history.

Helen of Four Gates is a story of abuse against Helen. The rather contrived plot sees a woman dissuaded from marrying because the prospective groom has a family history of mental illness. She marries someone else and has a daughter but she and her husband both die when the child is still a baby. Before her death, the woman gives her daughter in care to her former boyfriend who agrees to become her guardian. However, this is not an act of altruism but of cruelty as he intends to mistreat the girl as a form of revenge. The girl is Helen and her stepfather is the farmer of ‘Four Gates’. What follows is a full-blooded British melodrama in which the earlier plot elements are re-visited. Helen (and her mother) is memorably played by Alma Taylor, one of the British stars of the period who worked extensively with Hepworth.

Cecil Hepworth, who was responsible for several important short ‘early films’ such as Alice in Wonderland (1903) and Rescued by Rover (1905) eventually owned his own studio and produced features in the late 1910s and early 1920s. He made several films ‘on location’ in distinctive British landscapes and Helen of Four Gates was shot in the Hepptonstall/Hebden Bridge area. Unfortunately, he was a better filmmaker than financial manager and the business went bankrupt in 1924 despite commercial successes like Helen of Four Gates. All these feature films were for many years feared lost having been melted down for their silver nitrate. Local Hebden Bridge historian-filmmaker Nick Wilding was one of the major players in an exercise in tracking down an original negative in Canada, overcoming copyright difficulties and finally producing a viewing copy via the National Film Archive. Wilding has since shown the film twice in Hebden Bridge to audiences of up to 500 (I can vouch for the interest as I was one of many turned away as the queues wound into Hebden Bridge Picturehouse).

For this festival screening, Nick Wilding introduced the film and stayed for questions and comments after the screening. The film was accompanied on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. Wilding offered us some very interesting background on the film and on Ethel Carnie. I think it was probably a mistake to show the trailer he devised for the Hebden Bridge screenings though. The festival audience didn’t really need it and it cut down the time for questions afterwards – and there seemed to be quite a few knowledgeable people in the audience. Wilding emphasised Hepworth’s use of long takes, suggesting it was a unique authorial style. I then looked up the Screenonline entry on the film in which Bryony Dixon argues that it now looks very old-fashioned because Hepworth refused to cut on action and instead faded between scenes which were usually shot in tableaux with a static camera. Added to this, she argues that the actors suffer from poor direction and are “. . . left floundering and resort to a gestural melodramatic manner on occasions”. I’m not sure about these comments. I don’t think that Hepworth was particularly unusual in terms of shot length as both British and European films were ‘slower’ in terms of cutting than Hollywood. I enjoyed the film, especially the second half. Rather than old-fashioned, I thought that the location photography looked forward to the 1930s/40s (there were just two interior studio sets and many more outdoor scenes). And, since it is clearly a melodrama the use of melodrama gestures and acting styles looked appropriate. In fact, my first conclusion after the film finished was that the cast were well-chosen to fit the melodrama types of rough villain, deranged farmer, rather soppy boyfriend etc. Alma Taylor as Helen is wonderful. I thought about the waif-like Gish sisters in D.W Griffiths’ melos and compared them to the strapping Ms Taylor who represented a strong Northern lass (albeit born in Peckham) very well. But I’m no expert on silent cinema and I take all the comments which I could then use in comparing Helen of Four Gates with a Hollywood film of 1920, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (posting to come).

This clip on YouTube gives the merest hint of Hepworth’s style. It’s from the BBC Series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996) – note how the commentary read by Kenneth Branagh makes the common mistake of referring to the Yorkshire Dales instead of the South Pennine Moors:

BIFF 2011 #13: Honey (Bal, Turkey/Germany 2010)

Yakup and Yusuf in the forest

Honey is something of a companion piece to Le quattro volte as another example of ‘slow cinema’ (and as a prizewinner, the 2010 Golden Bear at Berlin). It’s the final film of a trilogy but since I haven’t seen the other two I’ll discuss it as a one-off. The title refers to the occupation of the protagonist’s father. 7-year-old Yusuf lives in the mountains of Rize Province near the Black Sea Coast in the far North-East of Turkey. His father Yakup places hives in the tallest trees and the sale of the honey is the family’s chief income.

Yusuf is devoted to his father and every day he rushes home from school to see if Yakup has made any progress in carving a small wooden sailing ship. At school Yusuf desperately wants to get the medal that his teacher bestows on any student who successfully reads out loud, but Yusuf is too self-conscious to manage this and can only stutter – much to the amusement of his classmates. At home, he reads the almanac for his father each morning, safe and confident in his home surroundings. Father and son have a close bond and Yusuf whispers to his father about their secrets as they walk through the forest to check the hives.

A classic image of exclusion – Yusuf watches his classmates play through the classroom window

The film shares the narrative structure of the Japanese film Seesaw featured earlier in the festival. It opens with an incident that leaves us literally hanging and to which it returns later in the film. The local bee hives are failing and Yakup is forced to look for suitable sites in a forest some distance away. When he doesn’t return after a few days Yusuf’s mother Zehra begins to worry. She takes Yusuf to stay with his grandmother and also to a big local festival where she seeks news of Yakup. These are the only scenes outside the home, school and local forest tracks.

The cinematography is beautifully composed, scenes are well lit, the performances are extraordinary, especially that of Bora Altas as Yusuf. Writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu writes about how he managed to get Bora to act the part of Yusuf – a boy with a very different personality (see the Press Pack from Olive Films). Kaplanoglu describes his approach to filmmaking as ‘spiritual realism’. This is something he has discovered through making the ‘Yusuf trilogy’. He seems to invest a great deal in every decision he makes about locations, actors and technology/techniques. I’ve discovered that the trilogy has actually been made in reverse chronological order so that Honey finally reveals some of the events that helped to make the adult Yusuf in Milk (2008) and Egg (2007). Neither of these films seems to have reached the UK, but I’m intrigued to see them now. Kaplanoglu is not interested in period drama as such so all three films (which cover 30 years or so and have different actors playing Yusuf) are set in the present. Even so, Kaplanoglu tells us that the forest setting in Honey is magical and traditional in an area of outstanding beauty that is disappearing under the pressure of development.

Honey is scheduled for a June/July release from Verve in the UK. I hope it does well – I could certainly watch it again. Here’s the German trailer which gives a good indication of the fantastic use of natural sounds in the film:

BIFF 2011 #12: Mount Bayo (Cerro Bayo, Argentina 2010)

Inés is consoled by her brother in Cerro Bayo

Cerro Bayo offers a pleasant and diverting way of spending 86 minutes. My initial response was ‘Almodóvar lite’ or ‘telenovela plus’. I hope that isn’t too much of a putdown because I enjoyed the film. Writer-director Victoria Galardi has several things going for her including a good cast and a beautiful setting in Villa La Angostura, in the Andes of Western Patagonia close to the popular ski resort on Cerro Bayo. The script has its comic moments and she’s only really let down by the occasional clunky sequence and a rather weak resolution to the narrative.

The plot hinges on the drastic action of the mother of two middle-aged women. After winning some money at the casino she buries it under the headstone on her husband’s grave and then attempts suicide – but only manages to put herself into a coma. Cue the return of her older daughter Mercedes from Buenos Aires sniffing around for the money while the younger daughter Marta sits by her mother’s bedside. Marta’s husband meanwhile is inveigled into a plan to sell his mother-in-law’s plot of land to some Spaniards. Her son needs money to travel to Europe and her daughter is obsessed with winning the local beauty contest. There are more old memories for Mercedes to turn up and the usual small town relationships to disentangle. I don’t think that there is enough here to warrant a UK distributor picking up the film, but I’m glad I saw it all the same. I’ve not seen this part of Argentina represented before and it made me think about how this country (the 8th largest in the world) has so many varied landscapes and narrative possibilities for filmmakers.

BIFF 2011 #11: How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provyol etim letom, Russia 2010)

Sergey (left) and Pavel outside the weather station

I saw this film at the end of a long tiring day. It think that is why I didn’t have quite the same ecstatic response to it that seems to be the case with so many audiences. It won the ‘Best of Festival’ prize at London last Autumn plus Silver Bears for the two actors at Berlin and it’s easy to see why it might be an arthouse hit in the UK.

Writer-Director Aleksei Popogrebsky has always been fascinated by polar exploration (see the interview in the Press Pack downloadable from UK distributors New Wave). After two previous art film successes (Koktobel, 2003 and Simple Things, 2007) he embarked on this extremely difficult shoot using a tiny crew and two actors transported to remote locations in Chukotka Autonomous Region. In the story these locations are on an island in the Arctic Sea and the two men are operating a polar weather station. The older of the two men is Sergey, a veteran of the service. His younger companion Pavel appears to be spending his first summer on the island and the two men are not entirely comfortable together. Sergey takes Pavel to be lazy and possibly careless. Pavel thinks the older man is too uptight. He plays video games, listens to his MP3 player and is skilled in dealing with computer readings. Sergey’s behaviour is more disciplined and his activity more physical. The boredom and the endless summer daylight are bound to affect both men.They know that they are on their own, that help of any kind can only come by  air or ship – and that bad weather and pack ice could leave them completely isolated.

The narrative turns on two events. First Sergey goes fishing for ‘Arctic Trout’. He is away in a small boat for a couple of days. This isn’t allowed of course, but Sergey knows that fresh fish will supplement their boring diet and that the break in routine will do him good. But while he is away, Pavel receives a radio call with urgent news for Sergey. He has to lie about why Sergey can’t respond himself. The news is shocking and when Sergey returns, Pavel fails to tell him about it. Once the lies begin, the relationship between the two men is doomed and what was a slight discomfort becomes the basis for psychological and then physical conflict.

The film is beautifully shot and edited (the cinematographer and sound recordist each have a background in documentary) and the generic elements of the thriller with two men in an unforgiving wilderness are generally very well-handled. Polar bears, especially in September, are a real hazard in this area – the director had a first-hand experience of one! Why then wasn’t I overwhelmed? I think that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the plotting but possibly more important I was irritated by the younger man. My sympathies were all with Sergey but the narrative seems to push us to if not identify with, then at least follow, Pavel. The director says that he doesn’t consciously build parables into his script, but that when they meet an audience, people may find parables. It did seem to me that Sergey represents the Soviet professional – someone who began working life before the break-up of the Soviet Union – and that Pavel represents the ‘New Russia’.

I’m willing to have another go with the film. I think that it is likely to do very well and it certainly is worth seeing. It might be interesting to compare it with Hollywood thrillers in regard to certain sequences. Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia come to mind.

How I Ended My Summer is released in the UK by New Wave on April 22nd – here is a list of cinemas showing it.

BIFF 2011 #10: Two films by Thomas Arslan

An Istanbul shot from the window in 'Aus der Ferne'

The second and third films in Bradford’s Thomas Arslan retrospective confirmed that the stylistic traits of Ferien shown earlier in the festival have deep roots. Turn the Music Down (Mach die Musik leiser) (Germany 1994) is recognisably the work of the same director, albeit with non-professional actors. There are the same perfect compositions on which the camera lingers – perfectly still but seemingly waiting for something that doesn’t necessarily happen. Or perhaps it is to allow us to reflect on the lives of the young characters in the story? I found myself happily watching a film in which nothing really happens in the sense of the generic narratives found in ‘teen films’ of any kind. I think this was because I was watching on a big screen and it was pleasurable to watch the scenes roll by and muse about the characters – but if this had been on television (it was shot for ZDF in Germany) I would probably have ignored it.

Turn the Music Down focuses on a group of four lads aged 16-20 (I’m not sure of their ages because the German school/college system is different) plus a similar number of girls (probably slightly younger). They live in Essen in the Ruhr and the major source of entertainment for the lads is music – ‘death metal’. They also go to a drive-in cinema and a music bar, but otherwise simply ‘hang out’. So far, so good, but these are bloodless teens by US or UK standards. They appear to have little testosterone – there’s no sex in the movie, no fights, no blazing rows with teachers or parents or police, no drugs. They drink beer but don’t get drunk. Their only vice seems to be to smoke too much and occasionally to shoplift or steal petrol. On the other hand, they are closer to what I imagine German youths of the time to be like (confirmed by some of the comments on IMDB etc.). I think the closest British film I can think of would be Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles (1981), set in Sheffield and also made for TV, but that film has much more plot and an anger about unemployment. The German youths seem to have lost anger and found ennui – the global affliction of the 1990s? The most interesting comment comes from the older brother of the central character when he warns that “you mustn’t show fear – that’s what they want to feel” (the ‘they’ being, presumably, parents, education authorities, employers etc.).

Arslan himself lived in Essen and must have observed young people like this – I wonder what they did next? The oldest youth was due to start his Army Service at the end of the film.

From Far Away (Aus der Ferne, Germany 2006) is a documentary about Arslan’s journey through Turkey in 2005. It adopts the familiar style of the earlier features. A static camera, carefully positioned, creates landscapes, views over the city from windows, street scenes, closer shots of groups etc. The structure is the journey – starting in Istanbul and then moving to Ankara. In Istanbul Arslan joins Nuri Bilge Ceylan – editing Climates as far as I could make out. In Ankara he takes us to his old house and tells us about the school he went to. The journey then moves south to nearly the Syrian border and then East towards Iran. There are a couple of other short commentaries (about the Kurds and the history of persecution against the Armenians). Otherwise we are left to make our own minds up about what we see – which is fine by me. What it meant to me was an introduction first to busy, secular Instanbul, literally the gateway to Europe (with the image of people leaving the station) and then to calmer Ankara, the ‘modern’ capital. But as we travel south and east, an older, more complex image develops – not without its issues of security (the constant checkpoints on the road) and struggles for identity in a multicultural society, but also with beautiful landscapes. I’ve seen a negative review of the film but for me it acted like an invitation to the South and East of this large country which I’d certainly like to visit. In a later Q&A session, Arslan denied any strong identification with Turkish Cinema and in answer to a question about what he thought about Turkey (this documentary was his first visit for many years, I think) he said only that things looked different from his perspective simply because he had been away for some time and he had changed – the perfect response, I guess, from someone making a largely observational documentary.

BIFF 2011 #9: Traces of a Diary (Portugal/Japan 2010)

This was my third ‘photography documentary’ in a mini-fest I seem to have created through my film choices. I’m struggling to classify the film but perhaps it is an art photography doc also referencing avant-garde cinema. The Portuguese filmmakers Marco Martins and André Príncipe travelled to Japan to present the work of six Japanese photographers. They decided to present these photographers and their work in the form of a kind of travel diary shot using wind-up Russian 16mm cameras and very grainy Black and White stock. All shot hand-held and presumably using only available light, the resulting footage was, I assume, processed to emphasise effects created by harsh contrasts and smearing lights in nighttime scenes. Overall the effect reminded me of American avant-garde films of the 1950s/6os. Sometimes this worked very well, but at other times I found the bobbing heads irritating as the camera attempted to follow a particular photographer through their chosen milieu.

I missed part of the opening credits (and the introduction) so perhaps I didn’t pick up all the information I needed to make sense of the film. The photographers featured are, I think, mostly well-known in the photography world. Here’s the list: Moriyama Daido, HiromixNobuyashi Araki, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Soyien Kajii, Nakahiri Takuma. But apart from a single discrete title naming each photographer when they first appear, the only chance to learn about their methods is through what they tell us – which some do in detail, but others don’t.

Many of the photographers have developed a career through photobooks or ‘diaries’ so this perhaps explains the film’s title. Out of the six, two seems to focus on the streetlife of Shinjuku in Tokyo. A third delves into Tokyo parks after dark to expose couples and their accompanying voyeurs via infra-red photography. ‘Hiromix’ stands out as the only woman and her self-portraiture acts as a contrast to the exploitation (and celebration?) of aspects of the sex industry in some of the other work. Also distinctive is the work of Soyien Kajii whose images of temples in his trips to Sado Island represent a different Japan to that of the ‘extremes’ of Tokyo.

I think that I would have appreciated  the film more if I’d researched the photographers beforehand and I would watch it again given a chance.

BIFF 2011 #8: Le quattro volte (Four Times Italy/Germany/Switzerland 2010)

The old goatherd in Le quattro volte

Some films deny classification. Le quattro volte has a cast of characters and a narrative of sorts. It starts and ends with sounds and images presenting the charcoal burners of the mountains of Calabria in the far south of Italy. In between there are effectively four linked ‘stories’. These do not directly refer to the four seasons but instead to the four elements: human, animal, vegetable, mineral. There is virtually no dialogue or music in the film, but plenty of natural sounds – a soundscape in the truest sense to match the stunning landscape. This is a ‘fiction’ and there may be some ‘acting’ but the events depicted are ‘real’ and have been practised for centuries. The difference between this film and ‘poetic documentary’ seems marginal. In terms of thematic and ‘tone’ you could describe the film as being an essay on tradition, spirit, folklore etc. Its style places it in the frame for ‘slow cinema’ – a concept analogous to ‘slow food’ – it takes time to say something but what you get has intense flavours and is deeply satisfying.

Writer director Michelangelo Frammartino is a native of Calabria and in the fascinating Press Notes he explains that the philosophical underpinnings of the film derive from the work of Pythagoras (who taught in Calabria). Pythagoras introduced the idea of transmigration between human, animal, vegetable and mineral. In the image above the old goatherd in a mountain village takes an elixir made from the ashes produced in the local church – a form of pagan practise which he secretly follows thanks to the woman who tends the church. The goatherd is ‘watched over’ by his herd which in turn browses beneath the tree that provides the material for a village festival (another pagan event) and ultimately the basis for the charcoal and thus the ash. That’s more or less the cycle, but I’ve left out many of the interesting and on occasions emotionally charged events along the way.

Frammartino’s mise en scène and camerawork is adaptable according to the needs of his narrative. At one moment we have a close-up of the old man’s face as an ant crawls across it. At other times the camera is high above the village watching everything down below in VLS (very long shot). In a truly stunning sequence, all in VLS, we see an Easter procession come out of the village and progress down the road, encountering the goatherd’s dog on the way in an elaborate comic playlet that could have come from silent cinema or in more recent times from an Elia Suleiman film.

Le quattro volte is stunningly beautiful and a joy to experience, though I should warn those (like me) who are perhaps too sentimental that there is a very sad moment in the film. The film is scheduled to play at a few venues in the US in the next couple of months. In the UK it has been picked up by New Wave Films for release on May 27. I hope it turns out to be a ‘slow-burner’ – like the charcoal. It’s already one of my films of the year.