Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011)

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

Anand Patwardhan is a major documentary filmmaker who since the 1970s has courageously produced a series of uncompromising films about the central political and social issues of contemporary India. Jai Bhim Comrade was 14 years in the making. The title is a salutation invoking the memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) who inspired the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. In 1997 a statue of Ambedkar in Mumbai was desecrated and in the aftermath of the discovery of this act 10 local people from the local ‘colony’ were killed by the police. Four days later a local radical poet and singer was so affected by the events that he took his own life. The police officer responsible for the men who committed the atrocity was suspended but it would take ten years for a hearing and a judgement from the court to come through. In the meantime, Patwardhan set out to put together a complex interweaving of witness statements, reportage, history lessons and, crucially, music performances to represent the persecution of Dalits, the corruption of police and judicial services, the hatred fostered by communalist politics, but also the incredible fortitude of the people forced to live in poverty and work in appalling conditions so that the Indian (upper) middle classes can have a comfortable existence.

‘Dalit’ (‘the oppressed’) is the preferred term used by those Indians who find themselves at the lowest level of the Indian caste system, deemed ‘untouchable’ by the brahmins (priestly caste), ‘warriors’, traders and skilled labourers. Statistics given in the film suggest that one quarter of Indians are ‘Scheduled castes’ or ‘Scheduled tribes’ – effectively second-class citizens. This means that a certain number of jobs are ‘reserved’ for them by the constitution but this quota treatment just emphasises the maltreatment of all the other SC and ST populations. Patwardhan puts all of these arguments before us in painstaking detail. But this doesn’t make the film depressing. He finds wonderfully articulate witnesses. Men, women and children discuss their situations eloquently and with fierce spirit and they are accompanied by wonderful singers and poets. I doubt any audience could fail to be impressed.

Not surprisingly perhaps, for much of his long career, Patwardhan has had to look outside India for the funds to enable him to keep shooting and keep editing. (When Channel 4 in the UK was committed to alternative political voices, it was one of Patwardhan’s funders via its purchase of films for telecasts.) He wields the camera, interviews his subjects and edits the footage himself in the main.

There is a great deal written about Anand Padwardhan. For instance, you can see a visual essay as well as a review of Jai Bhim Comrade by Catherine Bernier on the Jump Cut website. Patwardhan himself has his own website and he guards his rights carefully – the film can be purchased from this website. On Patwardhan’s website you can also find a range of reviews and interviews. I found the interview by John Akomfrah and Ilona Halberstadt very useful. But if you want to see and hear Anand Patwardhan talk about Jai Bhim Comrade, I urge you to watch the BFI interview conducted by the revolutionary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson at BFI Southbank.

(Jai Bhim Comrade is referenced at the end of Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.

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.

BIFF 2012 #11: Adalbert's Dream (Visul Lui Adalbert, Romania 2011)

Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu) as the engineer in the coat on the factory floor with two of the machinists who he is persuading to do a little personal job for him.

For some obscure reason I seem to have missed all the major films of the Romanian New Wave, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to see this film. As far as I can make out, it isn’t typical and in fact seems to be a conscious attempt to create a contemporary version of the pre-1989 satires of East European communist states.

The plot (based around a real incident) follows a day in the life of a middle manager, a ‘comrade engineer’ in a Romanian factory. The date is precise and important: May 8th 1986, the day after Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup. Our hero Iulica has videorecorded the match (in which the Steaua goalie made four saves in the penalty shootout) and hopes to show it for his boss at the factory and other colleagues after the ‘festivities’ for the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. (The videorecorder itself being a rare and desirable object.) Iulica has a role in the festivities as well – as the producer of two films made in the factory, one a ‘health and safety’ documentary and the other an ‘artistic’ film, again about health and safety, which provides the overall title of Adalbert’s Dream. Things don’t go quite as planned.

I enjoyed the film which I thought came to life once we reached the factory and met Iulica’s boorish but entertaining boss. After a while, I realised that the tone of the film was familiar, combining elements from the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s such as Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) and also Dusan Makaveyev’s wonderful and surreal Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Gabriel Achim, director of Adalbert’s Dream, captures the absurdity of social relations in these particular communist societies. He does this both in the interactions of characters and in his decisions about formats. The film was shot on various video formats including S-VHS and Beta SP in Academy ratio to match the propaganda and health and safety films of the period.

I confess to a certain nostalgia in watching a film set in a factory with lathes, men with oily rags and overalls, smartly-dressed women from the office etc. By 1986 in the UK factories on this scale were disappearing – and with them aspects of working-class culture. Some of what was lost won’t be missed, including the sexism and the drudgery of some work patterns. But what the factories did provide was employment and a sense of community and belonging. The best factory systems also provided a social and cultural life for the workers and this is something that is important to recognise when watching Achim’s satire. All of those possible pluses are there but they aren’t allowed to be fulfilled because of the underlying problems associated with Romanian communism. Everything is focused on pleasing the political bosses, but because everyone’s individual desires (and beliefs) are very different – and because the system is ‘broken’ in terms of the quality of goods and services it produces – the sucking up to the party boss is doomed to failure. Achim brilliantly crystallises this analysis in his use of the Health and Safety Film, examples of which, with their bureaucratic pedantry, crop up throughout the film. I won’t spoil the film by listing all the ways in which the issue is presented – but Achim is able to end the film with a very striking sequence. I should say that several scenes are also very funny.

I’m not sure how the film will fare in the Bradford competition or how it will be read by younger audiences, but once I’d properly tuned in to the film I realised that it works very well.

A brief trailer:

This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Iran 2011)

Panahi uses tape to mark out a girl’s room/’cell’ in a film he’s banned from making. So where is the camera here? Is Panahi’s colleague standing on a chair?

It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)

For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.

Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)

On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.

Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.

The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.

al-Ard (The Land, Egypt 1969)

The villagers Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim) in 'al-Ard'

My second film at the Liverpool Arabic Film Festival was a beautiful print (supposedly the only viewing print available and hired at considerable cost) of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi. The novel was written in the 1950s about events in the 1930s but the film’s appearance in the late 1960s still resonated, especially after the trauma of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.

Outline

The focus is on a small village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops, especially cotton as a cash crop. The authorities (in the 1930s Egypt was a semi-autonomous monarchy but still ultimately under British control) allow the fellaheen (peasants) 10 days of water (per year?). This is barely enough but then news filters through that the ration is to be reduced to 5 days. The villagers must organise themselves to protest and to put their case. However, there are different interests for the Mayor, the wealthier landowners and the local bey (noble rank) and they conspire to maintain their own status so that the main burden falls on the fellaheen. The central conflict focuses on Abou Swelem the most respected of the fellaheen, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the 1919 rising against the British have ‘progressed’ to positions in the town or in business and now carry the honorary title ‘sheikh‘. Abou Swelem (Mahmoud El Miligui) has a beautiful daughter Wassifa who is courted by a peasant farmer and by the educated son of one of the sheikhs. Eventually the villagers will have to fight for their land and their crops.

Commentary

This long (130 minutes) film is beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by all concerned. The 35 mm print looked stunning – in Technicolor I assume? The film was shown in competition at Cannes in 1970 and this perhaps explains the quality of the subtitles.

In her book on Arab Cinema, Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo Press, 2007: 137) cites al-Ard as an example of ‘socialist realism’ but suggests that the ideology in the script is derived from the novel whose author expressed “an uncompromising Marxism” – rather than from the director, who she points out was from the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The only other Chahine film I’ve seen up to now is the 1958 Cairo Station. Shafik describes that title as ‘commercial realism’ using the generic conventions of the crime film. I think I need to revisit that film.

‘Socialist realism’ was the realist form developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin repressed the more experimental work of the 1920s. In many ways it mirrored the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the 1930s and 1940s except that it focused on the collectivist ideology of the workers’ state rather than the individualism of Hollywood. It was the form taken up by Chinese Cinema post 1949 and up to the mid 1960s. al-Ard, however, made me think not about Soviet or Chinese films but about Indian Cinema. The scenes of village life are reminiscent of Hindi ‘social films’ going back to Mehboob and Bimal Roy, though al-Ard being ten years later is more polished. The politics of the film suggest Indian parallel cinema, especially some of the films of Mrnal Sen. Although the film is essentially realist in its presentation, there are moments when short sequences of montage are used for emphasis. The narrative is ‘bookended’ by close-ups of the central character’s hands running the soil through his fingers at the beginning and being literally torn through the soil at the end. There are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an almost erotic scene of a village woman bathing. The references to Indian Cinema are not too surprising given that the theme of struggles over land are universal. This specific narrative involving careful gradations of social class operating within a colonial framework is certainly very similar to conditions in much of India where British policy left in place feudal arrangements which allowed exploitation by larger landlords (cf the zamindar system in British India).

al-Ard is not a simplistic tale by any means. The various plot lines are brought together very carefully and we learn that the bey, while pretending to help the villagers is in fact using the potential dispute to make it easier to build himself a new road (using land taken from the peasants). To enforce this theft, troops are brought in. The sergeant in charge of these camel soldiers is himself a displaced peasant and he and Abou Swelem have an uneasy bond. But if I remember correctly, the soldier was displaced in order to build a dam – which aids everybody. The bey‘s road is also ‘modernisation’, but designed primarily to boost his private enterprise.  Abou Swelem recognises this like any good socialist. Abou Swelem’s daughter must choose between the brave and strong man who is seemingly a younger version of her father and the weak but educated man who represents the possibility of economic progress. The fair distribution of land has proved to be the major issue for many states following decolonisation. (Zimbabwe for instance?) It remains an issue to fuel political discourse. I hope that this wonderful film gets many more screenings.

The festival screening was introduced by Brian Whitaker, former Guardian Middle East Editor (and current online editor). I found this useful in picking out some of the interesting aspects of the narrative. Viewing the film in 2011 it’s salutary to note that the recent ‘revolution’ in Cairo was largely a middle-class affair amongst the educated youth. Millions of fellaheen still toil on the land for little reward as far as I can see.

al-Ard also played at Cornerhouse Manchester this week alongside Cairo Station so thanks to whoever secured the bookings. More please!

Marcides (Mercedes, Egypt/France 1993)

Gamel (centre) with his partner (left) in the gay community at the cinema in Marcides

To Liverpool for the ‘Arabic Film Festival’ at FACT (part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival). The ‘Arab Spring’ has increased interest in all aspects of Arab culture and this is a welcome event. I’m sure it is very difficult to get prints of Egyptian films into the UK, so I wasn’t too surprised that this particular film turned out to be on DVD. The quality was pretty ropey but quite watchable – better anyway than the experience of lolling about on squidgy sofas to watch a cinema screen which somebody thought was a good idea for patrons of ‘The Box’, the FACT space dedicated to more arty fare.

Marcides isn’t arty as such but it is a challenge for UK audiences. I think it is best described as a political and social satire presented in the format of popular melodrama. Written and directed by Yousry Nasrallah and starring one of Egypt’s major female icons, Yousra, the film was programmed because of the director’s links to the major Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Nasrallah (b. 1952) assisted Chahine and then had his own films produced by Chahine’s company, Misr Films. Nasrallah was first a journalist in Lebanon and then assisted Volker Schlöndorff in 1980. (See this Cannes posting)

Plot outline

Warda (Yousra) is first seen in flashback to 1956 at a VIP function interrupted by the British/French/Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. She is being put forward for marriage by her wealthy mother who doesn’t know that she is already pregnant after a liaison with an African diplomat. Quickly, we learn that she married a much older man who conveniently died soon after. Her first child, to her relief, is not visibly ‘African’ but she calls him Noubi (i.e. after ‘Nubian’). She later has another child she names Gamel (after Nasser) and who is passed off as her uncle’s boy. In 1990 these past events set up the melodrama when Noubi returns home after being incarcerated by his mother (under pressure) in an asylum – because he wanted to give money to the Communist Party! When his uncle marries and then collapses at the wedding, he tells Noubi that the family fortune is bequeathed to him and Gamel, who Noubi thinks is his cousin. All Noubi has to do is find Gamel and avoid the clutches of his new aunt Raifa (a lesbian with a drug problem).

Yousra as Afifa dances with Noubi (Zaki Abdel Wahab) on the streets

From this point on the melodrama develops at a frenetic pace. It involves all of the following – drugs, politics, corruption, people smuggling, Cairo’s underground gay community (in ‘slum cinemas’), street battles between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fall of communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the 1990 World Cup in which Egypt played both Algeria and England. Yousra also appears as a second character, Afifa, a supposedly much younger woman making a living as a belly dancer who falls for Noubi and who in one scene performs for a night club audience. The star is thus fully utilised in twin roles separated by 34 years, looking little different. In fact Noubi is able to pass her off as his mother at one point. Noubi is played by an older actor with dyed blonde hair but none of this really matters. Scenes are underlined by musical cues and for melodrama fans this is a real treat. I enjoyed the film immensely even if there were aspects of the plot that puzzled me or that just whizzed by too quickly. (The title refers to the status symbol of ‘successful’ Egyptian life.)

Commentary

I was intrigued to discover more about Yousra who is famous in Egypt for her TV drama appearances, including in that Egyptian institution the ‘Ramadan Soap’ or musalsalat. These serials, rather like Latin American telenovelas, include historical dramas and thrillers as well as romances. Up to 50 a year are produced in Egypt currently and they obvious draw away potential cinema audiences during Ramadan. Marcides was presumably a model for the way in which some of these shows have developed.  A great beauty and a popular music star, Yousra (b. 1955) has been seen as a modern star who accepted playing the mother role in narratives at a time when she could still be a romantic lead. Her celebrity status is such that she has become a much quoted figure in the Egyptian media.

Marcides was produced during one of the low points for Egyptian Cinema when popular films were often seen as too formulaic. In this film, Nasrallah is possibly satirising the formula by offering title cards to head each ‘chapter’ of the film. Usually these introduce a new character perspective but the last one announced ‘The happy ending’ – which turns out to be just a little ironic. I’m not sure how effective Nasrallah’s satire is but it is interesting that the story links the oppression of gays, the Muslim Brotherhood and football supporters in seemingly a general critique of those in power. The overall narrative offers the ‘downward descent’ of a rich young man from a Christian élite who finds that the life ‘underground’ is more acceptable. There are quite a few laughs in the film but these are undercut by some of the more disturbing images – such as coffins returning from Iraq with the bodies of Egyptian contract labourers.

Marcides received a couple of American reviews which clearly have problems trying to understand the film. It perhaps acts as a good example of films that don’t travel easily – in this case beyond the Arab world. It’s available on DVD from Arab Film Distributors, but only for institutional screenings at $200 per show.

Here’s a 2008 interview with Yousra on Al Jazeera (in English):

Howl (US 2010)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl'

This little film seems to be causing a fuss in the US and over here quite a few people don’t seem to like it – but it seemed to me both eminently watchable and useful in exploring how poetry can be a political form.

Howl is the story of how a poem by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. Some critics have termed it a biopic but I wouldn’t classify in that way since this is not about a character’s life as such, but about a very specific period of it and the impact that his best-known work had on ideas about free speech. Instead, I think it is a form drama-documentary and this is possibly why it is controversial – though a gay-themed movie still seems capable of attracting bigoted comments in the US.

The film is about the ‘beat generation’. I only know of the characters involved at secondhand through the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poetry (written and performed) by the so-called Mersey Poets of the late 1960s in the UK, most of all Adrian Henri (who modelled some of his performances on Allen Ginsberg). Most of the central characters in the beats story appear in the film. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the publisher of Howl, the long poem at the centre of the trial in which he was the defendant. Kerouac features in the story alongside his travelling companion Neal Cassady (who was instrumental in helping Ginsberg to face his homosexuality – as it was usually termed in the 1950s).

The film has four elements which are interwoven. The trial in San Francisco is presented as a straight courtroom drama with a cast of excellent American character actors such as David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels etc. James Franco plays Ginsberg who is seen in two different elements. In one, he ‘performs’ the poem ‘Howl’ in front of an audience of beats and supporters in San Francisco’s Six Gallery – a hangout for ‘hipsters’. In the second he is interviewed by someone offscreen and we see flashbacks/stills of his relationships and adventures (Ginsberg took many photos himself). Finally, there is an animation section which illustrates some of the lines of poetry picking up on 1950s comics but also expressionism and various other forms. At the end of the film we get a brief archive clip of the real Ginsberg towards the end of his life and stills with titles explaining what happened to the other characters.

The issue at the centre of the film is freedom of speech and the trial follows a similar pattern to the ‘Chatterley Trial’ three years later in the UK, i.e. academics give evidence for and against the literary merits of the work. Whereas the British case was heavily circumscribed by issues of social class, the taboo in the American trial is more concerned directly with the use of sexually explicit language. As in the British case, the prosecution look rather silly. But despite the supreme importance of artistic freedom, the film is actually about so much more. The experiences of the beats that formed the material for the poem took place in America in the early 1950s – that period of rising affluence but also rising alienation as felt by anyone who didn’t conform to the consumerism and anti-communism of Eisenhower’s America. The beat generation is associated with the jazz scene, avant-garde literature, drug use, sexual liberation – everything in fact associated with ‘alternatives’ to conformist society.

The key to the way in which the film elicits its responses is probably related to the use of animation. My companion at the screening knows much more about the beats than I do and though he enjoyed the film overall, he wasn’t that keen on the animation. I’ve seen similar comments in UK reviews and from other friends. I didn’t really have these problems. Perhaps I am the more naïve viewer for whom the animation is designed to be an attractive way into the poem? This was certainly the intention of the very experienced co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein was responsible for one of the first major documentaries about the gay community with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and with Friedman he made the fascinating and very useful Celluloid Closet in 1995, exploring the history of representations of gays in the cinema. My first reaction to the animated sequences (which literally illustrate parts of the poem, so that we hear the lines again over the animation that we have already heard Ginsberg/Franco delivering in the gallery) was that I recognised what I thought were comic book graphics. I think Ginsberg says something about this at one point. From the excellent official website (download the Press Pack) I learned that the person with overall responsibility for the animation is Eric Drooker, a New York artist and ‘graphic novelist’. Ginsberg collected Drooker’s work for several years before the two collaborated on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated version of Ginsberg’s poems including ‘Howl’. There is an interesting interview with Drooker about his work on the film here.

An example of Drooker's work on 'Howl' from the website link above.

You can get a sense of the film from the official trailer:

If your interest in the beats and associated American ‘alternative’ films is piqued by this film, YouTube has plenty of other material, including these films by Shirley Clarke and Robert Franks both important starting points for Epstein and Friedman:

It’s also worth listening to Emile de Antonio on documentaries and the beats: