Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman was born 100 years ago on 29 August 1915. We mark her centenary with some of her iconic images, as selected by 11polaroids.
Last June Robert Greene’s Actress and Måns Månsson’s Stranded in Canton had their UK premieres at London’s blossoming Open City Documentary Festival. Both films use models of director-subject collaboration to produce narrative, character driven documentaries. Stranded in Canton (2014) portrays an episode in the life of ‘Lebrun’: a brooding, determined, yet flawed businessman from Kinshasa falling into debt in Guangzhou where he tragicomically attempts to make good a mistimed sale of t-shirts. In Actress (2014) Brandy Burre (The Wire) balances a crumbling relationship, family life and the casting toils of trying to relaunch her career.
Månsson, uses real locations and non-professional actors as his fabric for self-informing scenes, collaboratively moulding a narrative as he shoots and interacts. Greene tinkers with a malleable observational mode of filmmaking and more forced cinematic intervention. Recently I’ve seen an increasing interest and willingness from filmmakers to play with forms of subject collaboration: crowdsourced footage, handing over the camera, or facilitating a record of self-fictionalisation. Making documentaries together seems to be in a moment of creative development. However these experiments are perhaps nothing new. Intently subject-collaborative methods of documentary filmmaking have something of a long tradition from ethnofiction and performative works, to citizen journalism.
Jean Rouch was one of the seminal minds in rethinking the filmmaker’s relationship to subject, the subject’s relationship to audience, and the audience’s relationship to the filmmaker. After showing a scene of hippopotamus hunting from Bataille sur le grand fleuve (1950) to locals in Ayoru, they contested that the film was not believable due to the presence of music. A hippopotamus hunt, they remarked, requires absolute silence. Rouch responded to this creative dialogue by removing the soundtrack and correcting further observed errors in the documentary construction. This feedback model was also included within the film of Chronicle of a Summer (1961) allowing subjects to offer comments on the direction of the film, and their reaction to what had so far been recorded and edited. In Cocorico! Monsieur Poulet (1975), a surreal road trip of mishaps for two poultry sellers, he furthered this collaborative direction to develop one of his more narrative and cinematic ethnofictions, improvising scenes with the protagonists and his long-term friends Damouré and Lam. The film co-credits all three as directors using a combined acronym ‘Dalarou’.
If another wave of collaborative documentary cinema is surfacing, the most pertinent question to digest is not necessarily ‘what does this mean as a ‘new’ form of filmmaking?’, but ‘why is it re-emerging now?’ Are shared contemporary technologies of connectivity, recording and feedback influencing the filmmaking processes and self-performance by their subjects? Greene and Månsson and their contemporaries belong to a generation of western filmmakers who evolved with readily accessible means of making and sharing films from VHS camera culture of You’ve been Framed (1990-) to mini-dv Dogme 95 to connected phone cameras and periscopic life after the internet. Perhaps this continued exposure to lens omnipresence and universal everyday use of cameras has waned some of the hierarchical structures of documentary portraiture, making this artform a more shared act. Or have the perpetually increasing means of collaboration out there, producing thousands of unmediated perspectives on the world, become simply bewildering? Does negotiating the multiple voices, ideas, movements and lives of others require the confidence of a master storyteller?
The majority of post-millennial collaborative documentaries, both long-form cinematic and ‘interactive’ web-based works, have assumed this model by creating depository funnels: open calls to submit material to an ultimately singular filtering, curating, editing, directing body. Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day (2011) is a primary example.
More daftly exciting, deftly creative, and dubiously moral works have been emerging from the hot cathodes of the small screen. The immortal movement of reality TV and its incessant demand to spawn new formats readily confuse images of performance, self-representation and documentation. New incarnations take more risks in questioning the limits of subject collaboration and participation than commercially successful documentary cinema. Television has provided a crass test-bed for co-producing an ‘enhanced’ reality with its subjects: Made in Chelsea (2011-), Big Brother (1999-), Geordie Shore (2011-) and Steven Seagal: Lawman (2009-) put forward increasingly layered documentary viewing experiences if not content.
Both Actress and Stranded in Canton initially appear to be shot in a rather standard observational cinéma vérité style. However, the revealing of their making, and some self-evident moments in each film collapses our inherited theory of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking: you the subject must be honest, real and undisturbed by the presence of a creative act. I the filmmaker will extract and edit a story from the material of your reality. The suspended illusion of unobtrusive filmmaking still prevails amongst many filmmakers and, more dangerously, amongst audiences. Joshua Oppenheimer recently, quite succinctly, denounced the myth in his BOATS speech:
“What is really happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present… All documentaries are perfomance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.”
All observational documentary is collaborative conceit: the filmmaker and subject compromise imagination and reality to produce a facsimile. Why then not play with the balance and form of collaboration rather than pretend it isn’t occurring?
Perhaps it is time to openly acknowledge this shared creative space: a space of enactment, not distantly documenting or retrospectively commenting on reality but working together to understand the actuality of the moment and the production of its record. As subjects of the connected screen world have increasing exposure to the means of selective selfie-representation and self-mediation the possibility for naive performance disappears, documentary ‘direction’ could become more of an act of initiation, negotiation, and facilitation. The question is then raised: whose story is this and whose film is this? What would a good documentary performance be? A truer character? A more stereotypical self? Someone who is dramatic and engaging on screen? Someone who is more able to articulate the story they are living through in a way that an audience can easily follow? What is a ‘good’ balance between performance and being, documenting and directing? I asked filmmakers Robert Greene and Måns Månsson to try to understand their methods and motivations behind exploring those boundaries.
My impression of Actress was not one of a fluid, singular vision but a performative push and pull between portraiture and self-portraiture. Greene describes this as an attempt “to demonstrate the way we play and can get trapped in social roles.” His methods try to permit creative dialogue between his directorial desire and the progressing actuality:
“I never used a script but I often knew what I was after. I very much believe in ‘directing’ a documentary and that it can still be entirely emotionally truthful and remain tethered to reality…I asked Brandy to do something (go shopping, clean the house, etc.) that she’d already be doing. Other moments I’d be in the room when something really dramatic was actually happening. Still other moments we reenacted things that happened off camera.”
Actress is largely operating in this structured observational mode of occasional composed slow motion interludes with emotional musical accompaniment: such as Brandy swaying in the shower, crying to camera, ‘playing house’ by performing domestic tasks in self identified ‘mum role’. In the film Brandy discusses her balancing of roles in terms of being ‘selfish’ fulfilling her ideal role as an actress, and ‘selfless’ continuing to give herself to a family role. She recognises an unconscious sway in herself between performance and personality, “I’m amazed at how many rules there are, and how we all agree to them, even when we don’t”. Greene appears to revel in this representational friction rather than ignore his subject’s struggle with societal rules and personal volition.
Stranded in Canton pushes the constructs of subject and scenario intervention much further, to a point where the tether of reality is quite minimal. Månsson describes his framework quite honestly as:
“…bringing characters together in certain places and letting the scenes unfold with very basic ideas of a premise and a certain conflict/desire while then trying to capture that with somewhat observational techniques.”
As a director Månsson works on the fly, progressively developing the situational reality with his character and editor:
“…we went about developing that story further day by day while shooting and editing simultaneously. Lebrun and myself would be out shooting and George Cragg would be back at the hotel room next door to Lebrun’s suite editing and by the end of each day we would sit down and look at scenes and discuss what to do tomorrow.”
However, for the viewer, the resulting consistent strength in cinematography and fluid narrative construction become problematic. Their smoothness escapes the common experience of documentary verisimilitude and its aesthetic associations of roughness, gaps in narrative and awkward development of events. Working together with the subject to smooth out the performance, its recording mechanisms and moments of chronological suture may ultimately cause a loss of audience trust in the story portrayed.
The exploratory, improvised techniques of Actress and Stranded in Canton appear more rooted in the tradition of John Cassavetes than classic factual documentary. There are many more recent examples of filmmakers using various levels of subject collaboration to initiate an autogenetic documentary:
Bloody Beans (2013), Tchoutipoulas (2012), Only The Young (2012), Summer of Giacomo (2011), Argentinian Lesson (2011), Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), You All Are Captains (2011) and the forthcoming All These Sleepless Nights by Michal Marczak.
They all portray young characters and loose, temporally contained episodes of life. Perhaps this emergent group of films is a result of the ease of self-fictionalising and suspended belief that youthful characters inspire. With the exception of Bloody Beans, they are also quite safe narrative territories, unlikely to provoke questions of ethics or aestheticization that the collaborative methods of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) or Eliane Rehab’s Sleepless Nights (2013) require. A mix of young subjects working with self styled creative documentarists does prompt the question of how reciprocal the dialogue of collaboration is. Filmmakers can’t assume that efforts to increase dialogue automatically bypass exploitative forays into treating subject as object, and otherness as an image.
In a generous and blurry filmed interview the director of Stop the Pounding Heart, Roberto Minervini, emphasises his relational prerequisite for making a film that suggests a levelling of subject and filmmaker in the creative process. He states that he and his subject must first of all ‘care’ for each other, then the subject can take the baton to lead the story. This is a direct effort to avoid the obstacles of personally imposed ideologies of representation.
A rather analogue, traditional set of values for collaboration is evident. A number of these films partner it with analogue cameras: Summer of Giacomo, Argentinian Lesson, You Are All Captains, Stop The Pounding Heart are all shot on film. The retrospective fetish is also under the influence, no pun intended, of a canon of predominantly male auteur filmmakers, notorious for their experiments with improvisation, performance and reflexivity: John Cassavettes, Jean Rouch, Maurice Pialat, Peter Watkins.
They contrast with assumed techniques and technologies of progressive forms of collaboration: films or web documentaries that embrace new means of connectivity through video conferencing, anonymous uploads and crowdsourced material. Astra Taylor makes a point of the continued need for these analogue values of filmmaker subject relations with reference to Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2010): “The internet might be a wonderful thing but you can’t crowdsource a relationship with a terrorist or a whistleblower.” There is an ongoing necessity for filmmakers to build subject relationships offline and over time in particular with more complicated subjects. The act of making documentary films together with a subject questions the supposed ease of contemporary relationships, connectivity and self-managed social profiles.
I’m hopeful of future collaborations, which will use today’s new personal technologies and aesthetics of intimacy: the lens of a web or phone camera, the broadcast presence of livestream, periscope and skype. The need for filmmakers and subjects to share physical space will erode only with the spread of connected trust and trusted connections, but for now the production of shared narratives seem to require an offline bond. Needless to say there are large parts of the world population still unaffected by the 4G stage.
In Greene and Månsson’s films the push and pull qualities of filmmaker-subject collaboration manifest in both positive and negative results. Actress shows a visible friction between the filmmaker as director, the subject as a confident on-screen performer and the real occurrences neither could have predicted. In moments this makes for a layered, engaging viewing, other scenes feel like forcedly inserted attempts to give the director a voice. Stranded in Canton presents a double filtered, smooth narrative. One in which removal of the reflexive devices such as production apparatus and modus operandi result in a polished film that potentially undermines any belief in the image: it appears too good to be true.
This isn’t solely a problem of creative documentary filmmaking. The most commercially ambitious of documentary cinema presents a different kind of smoothness: constructing seamless story arcs, charismatic heroes or dramatic events stylised with hollywood genre determined soundscapes and camera techniques. What else does the audience lose in terms of affect from this aesthetic shift towards an enhanced reality? Are drifting, stabilised cameras, movements and choreographed scenes smoothing out the possibility of visceral emotion, empathy and engagement? The push and pull between direction, subject participation and the shifting actuality might be exciting if handled masterfully, but it might also result in failure or more clear movements away from that reality towards the safer world of pure fiction. Richard Brody was recently outspoken against removing evidence of the director from the film, advocating for a need to be absolutely transparent:
“Filtering themselves out of the dialogue and off the screen (an editorial trick that might be fun to try at home) would do worse than to thin out the film – it would falsify it.”
Ultimately the loss of reality pointers and didactic context within the frame will require a shift in audience reading of the documentary film, and an increased need for ‘reading about’ the film. Månsson, who also operates in the wall text, critical review and gallery pamphlet justified conceptual art world, already recognises this in his viewers:
“Audiences seem to be very happy to be introduced to narratives where nothing is what it seems but maybe we are moving into an age where audiences are also more and more keen on appreciating that the production process was not what it seemed.”
One level of understanding is the experience of the film work, the second is reading about the work. The exhibition of a documentary film rarely provides an opportunity for supporting texts outside the film frame other than a brief synopsis. Brody’s comment is a common criticism of documentary as an art form due to a weighted expectation of documentary as a form of journalism: discipline and detail over vision and ambiguity. Are binary terms, drama versus documentary, objective versus subjective, art versus journalism or the hybrid between, redundant in discussion of these layered collaborative stories? If from the outset the filmmaker doesn’t have faith in the notion of ‘recording reality’ as a representation of truth, then documentary practice, dialogue with subject and audience, become a quest for truth: sharing the production and understanding of a represented reality.
Camden’s Electric Ballroom was host to an exhilarating, physical and stylistic performance by Foxygen, the alt-indie Californian band formed by Jonathan Rado and Sam France. Frontman France had all the moves and swagger from the rock n’ roll stage book, Iggy-esque bare chest to David Lee Roth leaps and Jarvis Cocker ass-wiggling. Complimented by the group’s three go-go dancers-singers and five-piece band, the show was full of theatrics including a mock jousting fight between the two guitarists and France climbing the stage equipment.
At times almost like Jim Sharman’s 1975 cult musical Rocky Horror Picture Show, the band’s baroque style falsetto swept away their custom changes during which a scratchy recording of “Shuggie” from their second album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was playing from the sound engineer decks. Yet the music grooves, the band is rigid and the backing vocals were a perfect fit. However, translating the sound live lacks the production quality of their studio recordings and perhaps the elaborate stage performance tries to compensate this. With shades of Ariel Pink wackiness and fusing many genres together, they certainly have a part to play in the Californian alt-indie scene. As performance goes, it is a watch with a lot of style but it requires more substance.
Foxygen’s third album …And Star Power was released in October 2014 and follows a loose concept around the fictional band Star Power.
Documentarian Kim Longinotto returns this year with a film about prostitution. Perhaps, an obvious and depressing subject about sex victims wouldn’t appeal to many people at first. Let alone film financiers and Longinotto herself, whose subjects have boldly focused on rebels and people’s lives going against the grain, see Salma (2013), Gaea Girls (2000) and Divorce Iranian Style (1998). But once Longinotto saw a showreel about Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder and Executive Director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation that strives to end human trafficking in Chicago, she fell in love both with Brenda and her imaginative ambition through her work as social worker.
As Longinotto says, “Brenda’s damaging life couldn’t be worse from being made to have sex from the age of four for money”. When she made her life-turning decision to leave prostitution, Myers-Powell decided to focus all her efforts towards offering help and listening to the girls hanging on the dark corners of Chicago and its surrounding areas. While she is driving in the midnight to find the girls and offer them condoms and support, we hear a number of heartbreaking stories of abuse from girls as young as 14 years old. The saddest side of the coin is that we often ignore these difficult stories because they are veiled from the public eye.
Dreamcatcher’s central character, Brenda Myers-Powell, is admirable for fighting her weaknesses with strength, passion for life and change. Towards the end of her 25 year-long experience as a teenage and adult prostitute, Brenda was on the streets recruiting girls for her pimp. “I think this is the thing she feels really guilty about” Longinotto says. But the impact Dreamcatcher has on us is to look back and accept our past, to learn to live with it and get on.
Every time Brenda meets a girl, she sees herself in them so she listens and gives support to them without any judgement. Her busy life working in the prison during the day and delivering her bold message relentlessly as a survivor of drugs and sex abuse to young girls at-risk in the city, is a genuine inspiration.
How important do you feel it is for both women and men to see your film and why?
In a way I feel it appeals to everybody. I don’t see that it’s an issue film. I see it as a film about all sorts of things that touch all of us. It’s about growing up in a family. It’s about all the secrets and the lies. When you’re a child you are very vulnerable and you believe that what you’re growing up with it is the same as everybody else. You don’t realize that your life is different from any other child’s life. So in a way if you’re having a happy childhood, you don’t realize you’re having a happy childhood. And if you’re having a terrible childhood, you think most of it is your fault and if it isn’t your fault then you just accept it.
You don’t have a sense when you’re a child that one day you’ll be an adult and that you won’t be in this. It’s very strange the way a childhood becomes your whole world. I think we’ve all had many of these experiences of feeling vulnerable, of feeling small and not valued, of feeling that you can’t tell adults things because nobody is listening to you. So I hope that the film has resonance to everybody in different ways. Not just for the obvious things, of all the millions of us being abused as adults or as children and rape victims. It’s also about anyone who is dealing with childhood, about the things that you can’t say to your parents, the secrets that you have to keep. The way that you are very separate from other people and the way the world doesn’t seem very easy to understand.
Brenda’s story is an inspiration because as well as helping the girls on the streets, she also has her own personal life coping with her own struggles.
That’s another thing that makes Brenda’s story universal. Girls have come up to me saying, “I’m going to stay at college because if Brenda can make it, I can.” And people have said, “I’m in a very bad situation at home, I’m going to leave. If Brenda can leave, I can.” She’s a real inspiration to me, she has a tough life, she has a job in the jail, she brings up a small child, she’s talking to the girls, there’s so much going on. There’s a scene where Brenda is in bed exhausted, she can’t really cope and she gets up and says, “I’ve tried my best”.
She’s failed Melody and she can’t help her brother’s wife so it’s not all success. Most of the people in the film, she feels, she lets down. At the very beginning she meets this very young 19-year-old girl who says, “I’ve got nobody” and she loses her, she’s gone. It breaks her heart but Brenda keeps going by putting herself together literally everyday. Her wig, eyelashes, the dress, the attitude, that’s all part of putting this person together. And you can see she’s transforming herself. She is really vulnerable and she says it in the car, “People don’t realize how much it takes.”
The girls in your film open their hearts with confidence in front of the camera. Did you have a method to help this happen?
Once I decided I wanted to make the film, nothing else mattered and I think that was very moving. You mention these girls: those girls had never been listened to, like Robin for example who says, “Every night I was raped by my family’s friend, I would tell my mum and she wouldn’t believe me” and Cherissa says, “I was being raped from the age of four, and I’d tell my mother, she would cry and nothing would change.” Here for the first time the film would listen to these people. Witnessing the film is kind of listening. It’s like a document, it makes it there forever.
Brenda makes it very dark in a funny way, she says, “Those boys outside, I’m gonna show you how to avoid them. Tell them you’re not ready” and they all look at her one by one and they say, “We’ve all already had sex from the age of four! Too late.” They were never listened to, they had no help or people didn’t believe them. They were told that they shouldn’t had told them because they are recycling what had happened to them. It happened to all their mothers as well. One of the girls says, “My mother was angry because the same thing happened to her.” So it happened in all generations as well.
How personal is this project to you if compared to your previous films?
Every film, when I make them, is an important thing. And they’re all personal in different ways. For each of the films I have this realization of myself, and my life, and they’re all so different, scary, exciting and wonderful and all those things together. They are all a journey to go and you have to be very open to it and put yourself into it and you see where it takes you. You wait for the right moment to film, you listen to people, you watch them. It’s a mixture of being very flexible and being very disciplined.
Dreamcatcher had its world premiere at Sundance this year where it won the World Cinema Directing for Documentary award. It is now showing in cinemas across the UK and screens as part of the Guardian Live: Doc Sundays on 22 March at Rio Cinema, London.
The last years in the life of English Romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is the subject of director Mike Leigh’s latest film starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson and Lesley Manville. It won Spall the best actor prize at Cannes this year for his performance as J.M.W. Turner, the finest of his career to date.
Following its premier at the BFI London Film Festival earlier this month, Leigh’s biopic of the English artist and associate of the Royal Academy since 1799, has already been received with positive reviews by critics. The film’s cast give a superb performance including Dorothy Atkinson’s as housewife Hannah Danby with whom Turner had a sexual relationship, Marion Bailey’s as Margate widow Sophia Booth (Turner’s late-life relationship) and Joshua McGuire’s act as writer and patron John Ruskin.
With cinematographer Dick Pope in charge, Mr. Turner is beautifully shot with the distinctive colouring of a calm morning like Turner’s paintings from his early career in the first decade of the 19th century, which recognised him as a prodigy. But the British director of Naked who also wrote the script for his latest film, brings back to life an artist’s genius of contrasting character with Mr. Turner. What is fascinating in Leigh’s film is how strongly bonded Turner was with his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant.
Here we’ve compiled a number of films about artists alongside their real-life portraits and sample of their work to try and imagine their spectacular creativity.
Mr. Turner is out in cinemas on 31 October and the exhibition Late Turner – Painting Set Free, devoted to the work of J.M.W. Turner between 1835 and his death in 1851, runs at the Tate Britain until 25 January 2015.
Based on a story by Carl Zuckmayer with music score by Geoffrey Toye and cinematography by Georges Périnal, Rembrandt is a biographical film of the life of 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and starred by Charles Laughton. In 1940 Dutch filmmaker Gerard Rutten directed a film also portraying the life of Remmbrandt under the same title and performed by Jules Verstraete and a 1942 film was also made by German director Hans Steinhoff, starring Ewald Balser (The Woman at the Crossroads).
The one (and only) explanation surviving about what Rembrandt wanted to achieve with his art, is in a letter to poet and composer Constantijn Huygens where he wrote: “the greatest and most natural movement, translate from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid.” The word “beweechgelickhijt” is argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Rembrandt’s painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) is still missing after the robbery from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
In the role of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Kirk Douglas famously practiced painting crows to closely imitate van Gogh at work in Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor’s biographical film about the Dutch painter. Anthony Quinn’s performance as Van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin, earned him an Academy Award for best actor in supporting role. Lust for Life is based on Irving Stone’s 1934 novel and the film was received with praise upon its release. On 18 September 1956, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote about the production team: “consciously made the flow of color and the interplay of compositions and hues the most forceful devices for conveying a motion picture comprehension of van Gogh.”
Vincent van Gogh was influenced by Impressionism, Neo-impressionism and Japanese prints and he painted peasant subjects in earthly colours. While in Paris in 1887, Vincent and his brother Theo met and befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in the city. A year later van Gogh went to Arles and was joined by Gauguin shortly afterwards. But their violent arguments led van Gogh to his first mental crisis and cut off his own ear. His Sunflowers are the most recognizable series of paintings in all art.
Named as the best arthouse film of all time by the Guardian, and placed in the top 30 within the BFI’s once-a-decade greatest film poll, Andrei Rublev is a 205-minute epic story about the greatest medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescoes. A feast in the language of film, Andrei Tarkovsky‘s biopic of Andrei Rublev (c.1360-c.1428), also known as The Passion According to Andrei, depicts a portrait of a turbulent 15th century Russia that resulted to Tsardom.
Due to pressure from Soviet officials and the film’s religious themes, Andrei Rublev was not released in Russia for years after its completion except from a one off screening in Moscow in 1966. It screened at Cannes Film Festival in 1969 but again due to pressure from the Soviet Union it was not eligible to compete for the Palme d’Or or the Grand Prix awards. It did however win the FIPRESCI prize of national organisations of professional film critics and film journalists from around the world.
Little is known about the life of the painter. The first mention of Andrei Rublev is in 1405, in the list of masters who created the icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Moscow Kremlin. His name is listed together with Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek who had moved to Russia and is believed to have trained Rublev.
Writer-director Peter Watkins’s drama about the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was originally created for TV but got its theatrical release in the US as a three-hour biopic in 1976 and screened at Cannes Film Festival in the same year. It is an extraordinary account of Munch’s life and influences that shaped his art, the gratification of disease and death in his family and his attempts to explain life with his art and through his emotional and psychological states.
The Scream, which exists in four versions – two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) – is Munch’s most famous works. He left all the works in his possession to the City of Oslo to form a Munch Museum.
Shot in a docudrama style, Leslie Megahey’s Schalcken the Painter was aired on 23 December 1979 as part of the BBC’s arts documentary programme Omnibus. It is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic story Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter inspired from the atmospheric work of Dutch portrait painter Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706). Magically shot by cameraman John Hooper to closely illustrate the Dutch painter’s studio, director Megahey was influenced by Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s film Blanche (1971).
Schalcken drew small scenes lit by candlelight and examples of his work can be found in the National Gallery, London, the Louvre and Dresden Gallery.
Artist-director Derek Jarman spent seven years experimenting with 8mm films and raising money for his 1986 biopic Caravaggio, a fiction film on the life of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Funded by the BFI and for the first time with the help of the British television company Channel4, Caravaggio saw Jarman’s first collaboration with actor Tilda Swinton. Her role in the film as Lena was her first film role and in real life Swinton and Jarman established a long and strong friendship until the director’s passing in 1994.
Marking Jarman’s new phase in his filmmaking career, which opened up the opportunity of support received from television companies for his films’ distribution, Caravaggio screened at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded the Silver Bear for outstanding single achievement.
With superb visuals, live representations of Caravaggio’s most notable work and outstanding production designs by Christopher Hobbs, Caravaggio is Derek Jarman’s most notable works alongside his 1977 daring film for its originality in the punk genre, Jubilee.
Based on the book by Reine-Marie Paris, Bruno Nuytten’s biopic film about 19th century French sculptor and graphic artist Camille Claudel (1864-1943), was seen by almost three million in France alone upon its release on 7 December 1988. Co-produced and starred by Isabelle Adjani, whose performance earned her the Academy Award and Silver Bear at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival for best actor, the picture’s cast and crew also took the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Gérard Depardieu stars in the role of Auguste Rodin, with whom Claudel had a long and depressing relationship. Later in 2013 Bruno Dumont also wrote and directed Camille Claudel, 1915, a riveting portrait of the artist powerfully performed by Juliette Binoche.
Camille Claudel was one of the first artists to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne annual art exhibition in Paris since it was initiated in 1903 and novelist and art critic Octave Mirbeau once described her as: “A revolt against nature: a woman genius.”
Based on his autobiography of the same name, My Left Foot tells the story of Irish writer-painter Christy Brown (1932-1981) who was born with cerebral palsy and could only have unequivocal control of his left foot with which he wrote and sketched. Brown’s story was adapted by Shane Connaughton and director Jim Sheridan and during production Daniel Day-Lewis could only manipulate his right foot to perform the scenes from the film thus many of them were filmed through a mirror. Day-Lewis’s performance earned him the Academy Award for best actor alongside his co-star Brenda Fricker in the role of Brown’s mother Brenda, who also received the Academy Award for best actor in supporting role.
As with Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film that looked at the last years in the life of J.M.W. Turner, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh follows the last 67 days of the Dutch artist. Contrasted with Minnelli’s film Lust for Life mentioned earlier, Pialat’s approach is on the 19th century society and the artist’s relationships with his brother Theo, his physician Paul Gachet and the women in his life.
Shot in Paris and Southern of France, star Anthony Hopkins in the role of Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) gives an all together bold performance but the artist himself comes out as cold and careless. Directed by James Ivory, Surviving Picasso is seen through the eyes of his lover, French painter and author Françoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone) and other women who were influential in his life.
Basquiat was the debut feature about a painter made by a painter-filmmaker, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). With generally favourable reviews, including Roger Ebert’s high rating in the Chicago Sun-Times, art press reviews were unconvinced by Schnabel’s idea. Nevertheless, Basquiat, the biopic based on expressionist and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is a fearless film, bold for its subject, its trying difficulties (Schnabel was not permitted to film Basquiat’s work by the artist’s agency so he had to recreate it all by himself) and performances by Jeffrey Wright in the main role and David Bowie as Basquiat’s friend and mentor Andy Warhol.
A long-term dream of Ed Harris, his biopic of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) in which he also stars in the lead role, is a fierce portrait of the artist’s volatile personality. Harris created all the paintings in the film himself and co-star Marcia Gay Harden‘s performance as Pollock’s wife and artist Lee Krasner earned her an Academy Award for best actor in supporting role.
Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and is thought to be the first artist to have originated the term action painting through his technique of pouring and dripping paint to his canvases from all directions.
Winner of two Academy Awards for best makeup and best original score, Julie Taymor‘s film biopic Frida tells the story of life and art of surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). With an exemplary performance by Academy Award nominated for her role as Frida, Salma Hayek alongside Alfred Molina as her husband and painter Diego Rivera, Taymor’s film is perhaps one of the most adorable art biopic films worldwide and its total gross reached more than $56,000,000.
Due to an accident while on a bus ride at the age of 18, Kahlo suffered from multiple injuries including a broken spinal column. As a result, a great deal of pain persisted throughout the rest of her life. Her work is celebrated in Mexico and around the world for its indigenous tradition and by feminists for its representation of the female experience. She created more than 140 paintings alongside dozens of drawings and studies.
Séraphine is a portrait of French painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1942) who found inspiration in nature from where she collected her material (soil, dead pig blood) while walking to work every day. Martin Provost’s film is an inspiring work elegantly telling the story of a talented housekeeper, self-taught artist and the prize of being a creative in a narrow-minded society.
The film explores the relationship between Louis and German art collector Wilhelm Uhde when they first met in 1912 and won a number of awards in France including the César Award for best film and best actor for Yolande Moreau in the lead role.
Based on the last years of leading impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919), Gilles Bourdos’s film is a celebration of colour, light, flesh and beauty with a voyeuristic eye. It tells the story of French actress Andrée Heuschling (known as Catherine Hessling), Renoir’s last model and first actress in the films of his son, Jean Renoir destined to become one of the greatest film directors of all time.
Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and curator of film based in London and Athens. You can read more of her writings here.
Tell the world about Philosophy! 15 films from around the world that inspired our imagination during the festival in London this year.
The present is a strange beast.
– Jean-Luc Godard
Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage, 2014)
Αnother festival of imaginative films closed its curtains last week. Our focus this month was the BFI London Film Festival where we saw films from around the world that took us outside of our comfort zone. It was an adventurous 12-day festival covering for the BFI’s very own live blog and putting forward BFI-produced videos of highlights and interviews. A week later the memories are still bold with inspirational films. Here are 15 that caught our attention.
Winner of The Grierson Award in the Documentary Competition, Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a courageous work filmed under the most dangerous circumstances. A film made of 1001 images, shot by 1001 Syrian men and women and Mohammed himself, the director found these images on a daily stream from YouTube. He left Syria on May 9, 2011, “the day of triumph over fascism” Mohammed tells us in his film. With him he carried these 1001 images for a talk in Cannes and since then he’s been living in exile in Paris. A year later in 2012, Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young woman who lived in Homs, got in touch with Mohammed and started filming what she was witnessing: the cinema of the victim and the murderer alongside her struggle for survival.
A much-deserved winner for such a prestigious documentary award, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait brings forward experiences from a cruel reality that is hard to imagine in the western world. This is disturbing, pure cinema that observes life’s cruel reality and Syria’s deep struggles.
Juror’s for this year’s documentary competition were film-director and producer Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology), the Emmy®-winner and BAFTA-nominated producer and director Roy Ackerman, the Emmy®-winning producer and editor of Storyville Nick Fraser, Dogwoof’s head of distribution Oli Harbottle, and the BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter Penny Woolcock.
For Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s confronting account of life in Syria during the civil war, Fiennes commented:
The jury were deeply affected by this film. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s portrait of Syria is both unflinching and poetic. It is hard to watch, because the fact of war is and should be unbearable. Bedirxan’s passionate and courageous quest to be a reliable witness, while trying to comprehend and survive her desperate situation in Homs, is profoundly moving. Ossama Mohammed’s exile in Paris, resonates with our own safe distance from this war, but the miracle of the film is how it engages us.
In one of the screen talks at the festival, director Abderrahmane Sissako was in conversation with the BFI’s Head of Film Programme and critic Geoff Andrew. When asked why he made his latest film, Timbuktu, Sissako explained there was a situation that made him start with the idea. In July 2012 while on visit to one of the villages in Mali, he witnessed a couple being stoned to death because of adultery. On this very day, he adds, a new phone had come out and the media filmed the very first person buying it, as if someone who has a new phone is an important piece of news. We are bombarded on a daily basis with news that is not of any significance. As Sissako emphasized during his conversation with Andrew, “It is important to him [the person who bought the new phone] but not to the rest of us”.
Later in the conversation, Sissako tells us about today’s spotlight on Islam:
The current discourse is that [Islam] is about this terrible religion but it’s not true. There are a number of people who have appropriated this religion as a vehicle for their own interest and it has nothing to do with Islam itself.
Sissako’s latest picture Timbuktu, bares witness to what the director saw in July 2012. Timbuktu is a powerful portrait of love, compassion, suffering and humanity brilliantly shot by Blue is the Warmest Colour‘s cinematographer Sofian El Fani.
Similarly, writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence) made The President, an insightful film with a universal scope: peace for all. Filmed in Georgia, Iranian director Makhmalbaf triumphs in bringing international anxiety with powerful effect to his picture. The President is an astonishing work that asks this simple question: if ideology is based on revenge, how can you talk about democracy?
Outside the international spectre, we caught up with films that dealt with personal difficulties, struggles, loneliness and rage. Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, adapted from a story by Doris Lessing, is an intelligent portrait of racial identity in the contemporary western world. Poignantly performed by newcomers Guslagie Malanda and Nadia Moussa, the two friends, and adopted sisters, come across a French bourgeoisie that is open to diversity under its own terms and conditions. Following some unexpected circumstances and much consideration for her little girl’s future, Victoria chooses to take this journey but equally it has to be under her own terms too. It is a lonely journey and Civeyrac’s adaptation of Lessing’s story is an achievement in portraying a complex reality.
Tender and at the same time funny, Ne me quitte pas by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, tells the heartfelt story of the friendship between the recently divorced, with two kids, Marcel and his pal Bob. Beautifully photographed with an eye for still-life symbolism, the duo’s film reminded me of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s 1998 documentary Bread Day. In Ne me quitte pas, also reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the two men live their intuitive life in rural Belgium, which is far from harmonic.
Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas’s second feature A Blast is a superb portrait of the gratitude and sadness flaming in Maria’s (Angeliki Papoulia) life. A mother of two whose husband is a sailor and works on a tankship in Germany for six months, Maria is trapped in the misery of loneliness and huge financial depth inherited from her mother (Themis Bazaka).
Like with his debut feature Homeland, in his second film Tzoumerkas focuses on family, its patterns and consequences. But in A Blast rage breaks through institutional, social and personal anomalies in search for dignity and a firm mission for change. With outstanding performances from Angeliki Papoulia (Alps), Themis Bazaka (Wasted Youth) and newcomer Vassilis Doganis in the role of Maria’s husband Yannis, A Blast looks into adolescence, prostitution and escapism against the rise of far-right ignorance. Still threatening the most vulnerable in the crisis that is gripping Greece for the last five years, fascism gets the black eye from Maria’s daring and explosive anger.
Tzoumerkas balances the personal and national turbulence to a poignant level, which together with his film’s electrifying imagery of Maria’s and her husband’s flashbacks to the years of their romance, announce him as an audacious filmmaker. There’s nothing ‘weird’ about Tzoumerkas’s picture. Only the reality of a burning desire: to be loved, unconditionally. A Blast is an engaging film, which together with Ken McMullen’s admirable OXI: An Act of Resistance, also an entry to this year’s festival programme, are perhaps the most accurate accounts that carefully illustrate Greece’s difficult years of austerity and the tragic impact it has in people’s lives.
This year’s festival paid tribute to one of the world’s tireless documentary filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman. This is good news because at the age of 84, Wiseman continues to educate us with his passion for the art of documentary and technique as the great invisible behind the camera. It is truly a magical skill, as his characters in all his films seem almost always not to notice the presence of the camera. It happened most recently in his At Berkeley (2013) and it happens again in his new film National Gallery, a glorious account in a day of the life of the glorious paintings held by one of London’s art museums.
Wiseman’s National Gallery together with Mike Leigh’s biopic of the great Romantic painter Mr. Turner and Mark Cousins’s 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia in the festival’s programme, have an appetite for the act of looking and appreciation for the great British artists. Only that Cousins’s latest essay film on the English novelist and poet and his brief visit to Sardinia in the early years of the 20th century, manifests an exemplary script and testifies the very essence of desire. Though his essay film affirms, “Not all desires should be satisfied”, in the end he simply reverses this affirmation with his very final scene. But I wouldn’t like to spoil it, just watch it when there’s a chance.
Peter Strickland‘s third feature and a follow up to his Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is an adventure in sound and dark humour in the intimate relationship of two women. A long-term experimental musician, English writer-director Strickland emphasises on the intriguing sounds of cats and lepidopterists. But its surreal cinematography, telescopic imagery and kaleidoscopic autumnal patterns, under the supervision of Nic Knowland, alongside metallic appearances of butterflies trapped outside the bedroom, will burst your imagination to a hypnotic effect, transformed to a motif in the sounds of orchestral pop duo Cat’s Eye.
Another favourite from the festival was The Sapience by Eugène Green (The Portuguese Nun). Green is an educator himself who has drawn inspiration from the French baroque theatre technique. Thus it comes as no surprise that his film, for which he also wrote the script, is a visceral attempt to weight the poignancy of education as a bilateral practice between the teacher and the student. In the heart of 17th century baroque architecture during their visit to Italy, withdrawn architect Alexandre and his psychoanalyst wife Alienor encounter young brother Goffredo and his sister Lavinia. The age gap between the four blazes new trails in their personal experiences and the film’s tour around Italy’s celebrated Roman architecture, with strong reference to Francesco Borromini’s work, is an adventure into spaces of light with a ghostly effect. It also emphasises the need for an architecture where cities can grow organically.
Cinema’s enfant terrible, Jean-Luc Godard came back to the festival. This time with his 3D film. At the age of 83, the French auteur paid homage to the great modern philosophers, his dog Roxy, romance and humanity’s blinded conscience. In his Goodbye To Language he superbly plays with a variety of mini-3D cameras and it is an excellent film from which Hollywood needs to learn a thing or two. It felt like a real treat while watching it in full-house BFI IMAX: a celebration of independent thought, an original act of daring to think differently. It was a real gift Mr. Godard.
Sadly, we didn’t catch up with many shorts this year. However both Ahmed Ghoneimy’s The Cave (Cairo), a musician’s odyssey for an audition in Alexandria, and Philippe Lacôte’s To Repel Ghosts, based on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s last trip to Abidjan, deserve a special mention for their vigorous style. Both films screened as part of the African Metropolis programme at the festival.
A revamp programming approach at this year’s festival and a new hub for journalists at the BFI’s Stephen Street location, led an audience turn-out with a boasting 7.5% increase across London venues. Over 12,000 people across the UK attended simultaneous screenings of the Opening Night film of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, the Closing Night film of David Ayer’s Fury, and the Documentary Special Presentation of Laura Poitras’s CITIZENFOUR. This is confirmation that alternative content matters creatively as well as financially and with most of the films from the programme to look out for, hopefully when they get their release after their premier at the BFI London Film Festival, we will then meet you again next year.
Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and curator of film based in London and Athens. You can read more of her writings here.