Daily Archives: July 4, 2012

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, Bel/Fra/Italy 2011)

Samantha (Cécile de France) with Cyril (Thomas Doret)

I think I need to watch this film again. The latest production by the Dardennes brothers rather took me by surprise. Much has been made about the decision to shoot in the summer and to offer a story that seems much more optimistic than their earlier work. Even though I knew this was the case, I still found myself slightly bemused. The other ‘difference’ in this production is the presence of a major star in Cécile de France. She is terrific in the role of a hairdresser living above her shop. Since she grew up in Namur, not much further along the Meuse Valley from the Dardennes’ usual location of Seraing, she must have felt quite at home. Jérémie Renier, who has a small part as the mostly absent father in this film and has appeared in other Dardenne Brothers’ films, is also arguably a star name, but not perhaps with the glamour of Ms de France. I guess the UK equivalent of this would be Samantha Morton turning up in a Ken Loach film.

Like all the Dardennes’ films, The Kid With a Bike has a simple idea drawn from contemporary culture in Wallonia. Cyril, a pre-teen boy has been taken into care because his father has abandoned him. The boy has lost his bicycle which he believes has been stolen. In one of his many attempts to find the bike (and evade his carers) he literally runs into Samantha the hairdresser. She takes to him and finds his bike which she buys back from someone on the local estate. Eventually, she offers to look after Cyril and he agrees – but he still seeks his father. Although the woman and boy are good together, he has been messed up by his experiences and he almost inevitably becomes involved with a local drugs dealer/gang leader.

As in the other Dardennes brothers’ films I’ve seen, the narrative simply ends without a clear ‘resolution’. However, the overall tone is brighter than in the previous films – though it has its dark moments as well. The Dardennes have spoken about the genesis of the film as coming from a desire to use ideas from fairy stories in an everyday setting. Cécile de France would of course make an ideal fantasy godmother, but here she is ‘ordinary’ (but still breathtaking). The final element in the mix in terms of changes is the use of music. Instead of a conventional score, music – a few bars of Beethoven, I think – punctuates the narrative at key moments. The austerity of the Dardennes’ usual style eschews music and for me this new addition didn’t work. Reading about it afterwards, I can see what they were trying to do and perhaps it will work when I watch the film again. (I’ve seen its usage quoted as a nod to Robert Bresson.)

I want to say at this point that I was totally gripped by the film and swept along by it. I was shocked by the abrupt end of the film and I left the screening feeling that I’d seen another example of superlative filmmaking – but not sure what to say about it. I’ve read a wide range of reviews and some interviews with the brothers, but in a sense the brilliance of these films is never really analysed. Perhaps this slight change of direction will provide an opening?

Is this naturalism or social realism? Is it ciné verité? These are all referenced in reviews. Many reviews also seize on the bicycle and make the obvious link to Bicycle Thieves. A bicycle is actually a very good ‘narrative device’ in this kind of film. It gives a character mobility and it keeps them close to the realities of life in a particular community. It also places characters in situations which make them vulnerable – they can easily be pushed off a bike and it can easily be damaged or indeed stolen. Throughout this film we do get a sense of Cyril’s energy and restlessness and we are constantly fearful about his safety – and that of the bike. In one sense this is social realism. By making films set in their own backyard of the post-industrial belt in the Meuse valley, the Dardennes do ground themselves and their characters in a specific social situation. However, they don’t (at least in the films I’ve seen) attempt to represent the culture of their region in terms of its politics and economics. The comparison with Ken Loach earlier was deliberate. The Dardennes are, I presume, admirers of Loach – their company Les Films du Fleuve is a co-producer of both The Angel’s Share and Looking For Eric, films which are similarly rooted in specific communities. But whereas Loach and writer Paul Laverty create forms of social melodrama which always appeal to issues of class politics and forms of social justice, the Dardennes brothers films seem more concerned with distilled stories of individual moral dilemmas/struggles and personal relationships. (The Dardennes seem not to offer any social context or ‘back story’ for their characters.) Both Loach and the Dardennes use non-actors alongside professionals cast because they ‘fit’ the social realism of the specific region. The other difference comes in camerawork – Loach’s ‘observational documentary’ style against the Dardennes’ more invisibly choreographed style ((which I certainly need to look at more closely) – and use of humour and popular culture. Loach often tends towards the earthy. I clearly need to find the earlier Dardennes’ films that I haven’t seen before I can complete this comparison.

One last point. The summer shooting does create something magical for me, especially in the nighttime scenes. The limited locations include streets with summertime bushes by the roadside and hidden areas in the woods. There is a strong sense of ‘adventures of a summer night’ and the slightly disturbing feel of summer sun in an urban/suburban setting. One reviewer refers to the ‘poetic realism’ of the Dardennes in this film – and he may be right. It certainly feels different from the austerity of The Silence of Lorna or L’enfant.

I’ve just come back from the Meuse valley in Belgium, so I’ll try and write some more about cinema in Wallonia. In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Le gamin au vélo from Cannes 2011 (where it won the Grand Prix):