Category Archives: Diaspora film

Midnight’s Children (Canada-UK 2012)

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Babha) are two of 'Midnight's Children' with magical powers.

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Bhabha) are two of ‘Midnight’s Children’ with magical powers.

I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .

So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.)  She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.

Outline

Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of  Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of  important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.

Production and reception

Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.

The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.

Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.

Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.

Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:

Izzat (Norway 2005)

The three friends as part of the East Side crew in 'Izzat'

Izzat is exactly the kind of film this blog is all about. It’s a crime genre film from Norway – a filmmaking country better known internationally for serious social drama until hits like The Troll Hunter and Headhunters in the last couple of years. But Izzat is also one of the first films (possibly the first) to emerge from the Pakistani community in Norway and as such belongs to the broad category of diaspora film.

Migration has become a visible social issue in Scandinavian countries over the last thirty years, but in the UK we are mostly familiar with representations of migrant communities in Swedish and Danish films and TV. Norway has experienced similar inflows from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and the Pakistani community is the largest of the non-European groups in Norway – around 35,000 mostly living in and around Oslo, especially on the East Side of the city.

‘Izzat’ is the Urdu and Hindi word referring to ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, particularly in relation to the family and the onus on men to maintain the reputation of the women of their family. In a European context this has led to rather negative representations of South Asian family relations and made it difficult to report objectively on so-called ‘honour killings’ in which young women have been murdered by family members. These kinds of actions are not part of the plot of this film Izzat – but the plot does use the protagonist’s desire to protect his family, particularly his brother and sister, as an important narrative device.

Narrated as a long flashback (but starting pre-credits with a crucial scene from later in the story) Izzat presents us with three young Pakistani boys in their early teens growing up in East Oslo in the 1980s. Bored in “the safest city in the world”, they fall in with a Pakistani criminal gang, ‘The East Side Crew’ led by two brothers, Sadiq and Khalid, and gradually they become part of the gang. The narrative then moves forward several years and we see Wasim and his two close friends, Riaz and Munawar now established as part of a drugs operation. The East Side Crew are opposed mainly by a local operation run by ‘The Bullet’ and his gang of Nordic skinheads. Inevitably the two gangs clash but Wasim also finds it difficult to reconcile his family responsibilities and his close bond with his two friends with the realities of working in a criminal gang and this is where the main narrative conflict arises (there is very little about the police attempts to control the gangs).

The models for this kind of narrative are The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America – all of which have been popular and influential across global cinema. But films about organised crime have always been a staple of major film cultures from Europe (France, UK, Italy), Japan, Hong Kong and India. Izzat is on a much smaller scale than the Hollywood films, but it looks very good in CinemaScope and it successfully combines elements from Hollywood, Europe and South Asia. There are a couple of sequences shot in Lahore where Wasim is first sent as a teenager and then later as a gang member. Written by two Norwegian-Pakistanis, one of whom Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen is also the director, the film does to my mind offer a pretty slick crime film. It has scenes reminiscent of the Swedish TV crime series seen in the UK, but also has elements of the domestic cultural world of Pakistani migrants and narrative moments that are quite specific. At one point when Wasim is arguing with Sadiq he points out that he is a Norwegian citizen but that Sadiq can always be deported if he is convicted. The Oslo setting also throws up some interesting juxtapositions with shootouts taking place in near deserted streets. One climactic moment involves a suburban bus and a tense meeting between two gangsters takes place in a genteel coffee shop to the bemusement of the elderly customers. Colour is used quite carefully in the film so that the 1980s has a conventional ‘golden glow’, present day Oslo is relatively muted and the Pakistani scenes are quite vibrant.

The technical credits on the film are very good. There is an extensive use of Norwegian rock music on the soundtrack (with several songs featuring English lyrics) and the central character, Wasim (as an adult), is played by Emil Marwa. I thought he looked familiar but I didn’t realise that he was born in Norway to a Norwegian mother and Kenyan-Sikh father and has had a long career in British TV and film. His first big break was as one of the sons in East is East in 1999. Although he speaks Norwegian (and presumably Punjabi), his accent was considered wrong for the Oslo-based character so his voice is dubbed (something which didn’t go down too well with some Norwegian commentators). Overall Norwegian audiences seem to have been split between enjoying a relatively new kind of action film and criticising it for not being as slick as Hollywood.The film doesn’t appear to have been seen outside Norway where it had 130,000 admissions which doesn’t sound much but would make it a hit.

I have been wondering why in the UK there is no cinema film that I can think of that uses this kind of crime genre structure in a British-Asian context. Instead, British-Asian films tend more towards social comedies or melodramas or, more recently, have become absorbed into the less ethnically-defined category of ‘urban films’. On the other hand, all the elements of Izzat have turned up in UK TV series or TV films. I’m not sure what this tells us about the differences between the UK and smaller European countries – both in terms of representing migrant communities via popular genres or about the roles of TV and cinema films. It would be interesting to know if anything similar has appeared in Norway (or Denmark or Sweden) since 2005.

Our evening class discussed the film in the context of the development of ‘Nordic Noir’ cinema. With its focus on the Pakistani community the film offers us the obverse view to that of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in which the effects of globalised crime and migration are viewed from the perspective of a host community gradually realising that a settled social democracy is being challenged. The Pakistani criminals in this film are a threat to order but the community as a whole is not represented as a victim or a problem. What is more obvious is that the Norwegian welfare system is simply puzzled by how to handle the boys in school and how the family ties re-exert themselves. I won’t give away the film’s ending, which is possibly a surprise, but it makes a further comment on the relationship between Norwegian liberalism and Pakistani culture.

Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan, Ger/Austria/Fra/It/Ukraine/Morocco 2009)

The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men

This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)

The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.

The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.

The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.

The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)

What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.

I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.

There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.

Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers:

 

Le Grand Voyage (France/Morocco 2004)

Father and son wait at customs control in Le Grand Voyage 

Father and son wait at customs control in Le Grand Voyage

I thought this film was much more interesting than some of the rather sniffy reviews that appeared at the time. Le grand voyage won various prizes around the world, including one at Venice and was then dubbed a conventional ‘festival film’ or, worse, a ‘road movie’. To be fair, however, lots of people clearly enjoyed it as much as I did. I don’t accept that recognition of a film as a road movie means that it won’t be an interesting film.

The plot is very simple. A Moroccan who has lived in France for 30 years decides that the time has come to make the hajj to Mecca. But instead of flying or going by sea to Saudi Arabia, he opts to go by car, commanding his younger son Reda to drive him. Reda is due to take his high school exams for the second time and is upset to be parted from his French girlfriend, Lisa. The pair set off in a reconditioned Peugeot estate supplied by Reda’s older brother. It is indeed a classic ‘road trip’ with two travelling companions who have little in common and barely speak to each other. Many of the elements of the road movie are covered – strange, unannounced extra passengers, comic misadventures etc. – and the overall thematic about characters learning about each other and about themselves through the adventures. Yet, it isn’t anything like an American road movie, or one across any other large country. One of the important narrative threads is the change in the sense of which of the two characters is ‘in control’ of the journey. At first Reda is comfortable driving in France and Italy – although he still has to obey his father, he is still justified in chastising the old man who gets them lost because he can’t read maps. But as they cross the Balkans it slowly becomes apparent that Reda’s French culture is less and less useful – while the father becomes more capable of sensible decision-making.

For any monoglot English speaker, it is rather chastening to think that Reda actually speaks three languages – French, some English and the Moroccan Arabic of his family. But because he has rejected Islam and his Arab heritage, he doesn’t know the classical or the ‘Egyptian Arabic’ that is more useful travelling the back roads of Syria and Jordan. His father has this and is anyway much more comfortable dealing with the farmers and local villagers they meet on the way. The last part of the film deals with the pair’s arrival in Mecca. Many of the reviews find this the most interesting part of the story – especially the crowd scenes. I’m not sure that these scenes are that unusual in news footage terms, but it is true that for a fictional story to include such scenes is very rare (probably unique). I would certainly agree that the closing scenes of the narrative are important. Once again, it’s quite interesting to compare the ending with the generic conventions of the road movie. What have the two characters learned/achieved? For me, although the personal stories were interesting, I was more taken by the commentary which emerged about the whole issue of ‘North-South’ relationships and the process of migration. For the last thirty years, the assumption has been that migrants have travelled from the ‘South’ (i.e. North Africa) to Western Europe to find employment, just as Reda’s father presumably did. But now with EU membership opening up to Eastern Europe and eventually the Balkans and Turkey, the definitions need to change. The old man, not the 2nd generation ‘French man’ who is his son, moves more freely through what might soon become the new extended Europe. Allied to this, the director, French-Moroccan Ismaël Ferroukhi  has said that he wanted to represent a new sense of the wider Muslim community – one which dealt with the majority of community-minded Muslims travelling to Mecca, not the minority involved in conflict. I think he succeeds.

Black History Month: Babymother (UK 1998)

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Babymother is one of the few Black British films to receive a UK release of any kind since the 1980s, but even so, it is likely to be better known abroad where it was shown in festivals. In the UK it received only a very limited distribution and has been seen mainly on Channel 4 television. The first TV airings showed cropped images from what is a widescreen (CinemaScope) film musical (which bizarrely links it to the early Cliff Richard ‘Scope musicals such as The Young Ones (1961). The film represents a conscious attempt to avoid the typical ‘burden of representation’ that sits heavily on Black British films – it isn’t concerned with the ‘problems of life in the inner city associated with racism and deprivation’. Instead it celebrates one aspect of Jamaican life in London – ‘dancehall’, with its distinctive musical style and dramatic costumes.

A Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen (made on digital video by the legendary Don Letts) was released in the UK in 1997 and did good business in South London. This may have influenced Henriques. Some critics have also suggested that Babymother may owe something to the look and feel of Bollywood. Henriques himself speaks about the long tradition of specifically Jamaican culture including the links to the Saturday night ‘blues’ party which often carried over into Sunday church.

The film is set in Harlesden, the western part of the London Borough of Brent, arguably an area of London that has been defined through successive generations of new communities – Irish, African Caribbean and Asian. The plot sees a young single mother (the ‘babymother’) – Anita, a beautiful talented singer who has not found the confidence to assert herself in the dancehall culture, especially when she has felt herself in the shadow of the ‘babyfather’, Byron, played by Wil Johnson (now a leading UK TV actor). But when Byron steals one of her lyrics, she finally decides to take him on in the competitive arena of the dancehall. The film plays this narrative from the musical (which sees characters bursting into song as in the classical musical as well as in the dancehall) against a more familiar family melodrama about Anita’s mother and older sister. This has an interesting twist. A full synopsis and commentary is available on Screenonline. Though the Screenonline account is accurate, I don’t think it quite picks up the unique qualities of the film. Certainly this is a film to divide audiences. If you are expecting the usual ‘social realist’ drama about inner-city London, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like the idea of a vibrant musical with some reality thrown in, I think it works. If you don’t know about dancehall, it is extremely colourful with the performers wearing outlandish costumes (a bit like the carnival costumes seen at Notting Hill or other Caribbean carnival events). It is a completely Black musical, with no white characters as such. Screenonline suggests that this is a weakness, but it seems fine to me. A TV series called Babyfather appeared in 2001. There was no direct connection between the film and the series which both focus on the concept of single parents, but Wil Johnson also appeared in the first episode of the TV series.

Anita and the children

Anita and the children

Writer-director Julian Henriques was born in Yorkshire. He studied psychology at Bristol University and worked as a lecturer, policy researcher, and journalist before becoming a television researcher. In the 1970s, he started the journal Ideology and Consciousness (later I and C) with a group of young psychologists and social theorists. Their aim was to bring together critical work in psychology with work on the subject and subjectivity coming out of European social theory (structuralism, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis), as well as continental feminism. He has made documentaries for LWT, the BBC and with his own production company for Channel Four. We the Ragamuffin (1992) was his first narrative short film, Babymother his first feature film. Henriques taught film and television at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and currently works at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Here is his staff page at Goldsmiths.

Producer Parminder Vir began her career in 1978 as an Arts Administrator with the Minority Arts Advisory Service, moving to the Commonwealth Institute and eventually becoming Head of the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the GLC. In 1986, she moved into film-making and began working as a researcher for the BBC. She set up her own production company in 1994 and produced several award-winning programmes. In 1996 she had joined Carlton Television as a Consultant to the Director of Programmes, implementing a strategy for achieving cultural diversity on and behind the screen. Since 1998 she has become a leading figure in the film and television industries, serving as a UK Film Council Board Member from 1999-2005 and setting up Ingenious World Cinema to aid production of films from “emerging markets, including India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the Diaspora” as part of the larger Ingenious Media. (She is also married to Julian Henriques.) 

Amazon shows that there are still some copies of the Film Four DVD available.

(Notes updated from a screening in 2002)

Black History Month: Introduction

October is ‘Black History Month’ in the UK. It’s a celebration of the importance of Africa and its peoples and diaspora around the world. The US has a month in February, but in the UK, October became established after an initiative by the late (and very lamented in these parts) Greater London Council in the 1980s. You can find out more at the Black History Month website. 

Having noticed the celebrations over the last few years, which now occur not only in London but across the UK, we decided to celebrate the month by focusing on some of the films from Africa, North America and Europe that deal with African culture and diaspora culture. We are compiling lists of interesting films and also intending to review one or two significant titles.

To kick off, we’d like to celebrate the latest film to receive the restoration treatment organised by the Martin Scorsese-backed World Cinema Foundation. This was announced at Cannes in May and a further news item appeared in the Observer today highlighting a screening at the London Film Festival. The film in question is Touki Bouki, directed in Senegal in 1973 by Djibril Diop Mambéty.

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki is an important film for several reasons, but most of all because it proved that African filmmakers could make a diverse range of different kinds of films, including those that were seen as ‘avant garde’, but also as youth pictures with a ‘New Wave’ feel. A pair of young lovers attempt to leave Senegal and have adventures presented in an unconventional narrative structure. The pdf downloadable from the World Cinema Foundation website above has a short statement from the great Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé:

Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe. He soon discovered, however, the cruelty of life. While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave “Europe”, his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill.

Touki Bouki is a prophetic film. Its portrayal of 1973 Senegalese society is not too different from today’s reality. Hundreds of young Africans die every day at the Strait of Gibraltar trying to reach Europe (Melilla and Ceuta). Who has never heard of that before? 

All their hardships find their voice in Djibril’s film: the young nomads who think they can cross the desert ocean and find their own lucky star and happiness but are disappointed by the human cruelty they encounter. Touki Bouki is a beautiful, upsetting and unexpected film that makes us question ourselves.

The restoration has involved a digital process to recover the colour range of the original. This is at the 2K international standard and a 35 mm interneg has been produced at the end of the process. The restoration was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory. It sounds wonderful, so if you get the chance, check out the LFF. The film screens at 18.30 on 24 October.

A second film spotted in today’s Observer also deserves mention. Babylon is a British film from 1980 featuring a fantastic cast of young Black British acting talent, many of them also leading musicians. Brinsley Forde, lead singer of Aswad and former child actor plays a reggae DJ with a sound system. He and his crew face plenty of obstacles as they fight a ‘battle of the bands’, not least the racism endemic in London at the time. The music was overseen by Denis Bovell and the cast also includes Trevor Laird and Victor Romero Evans (as well as a host of other British TV regulars). For the last couple of years there has been an Italian DVD available of dubious provenance (not certificated for the UK):

Here is the trailer for the Italian version:

Now there is a new UK DVD from Icon Home Entertainment. In 1980 the film was rated ‘X’, now it is a ’15’.

If the film is not directed or written by a Black filmmaker, does that invalidate its status as a film to be celebrated as part of Black History Month? I don’t think so – my memory is of a film that felt authentic for the streets of London in 1980 and an important assertion of Black British culture. I’m looking forward to watching it again. There’s a useful Guardian plug for the film here, commenting on director Franco Rosso’s pedigree as a filmmaker representing the UK reggae scene on film.

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.)