David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), dir. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm

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David Lynch might seem enigmatic: his films are full of mysteries that only he knows the answers to, requiring elaborate fan theories to decode. An artist at heart, Lynch never sought to become a filmmaker. As visual mediums, art and film aren’t separate, but bounce off each other to reveal and create something new. Lynch follows the daily notion of the “art life”: he drinks coffee in the morning, without distractions, and paints. Even for those not interested in the art world, The Art Life remains engrossing. Other documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer (2013), depicting Ushio Shinohara’s and Noriko’s lifetime of sculptures and performance art, present us with the intricacies of being a creative and its routines and relationships.

Lynch’s enigma remains in place. Lynch splits himself into three identities: his family, friends, and his representation of his inner self within art. Lynch talks about his adolescence in Missoula and Boise, becoming just another normal guy; Missoula is no longer just the birthplace of Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017). Lynch recalls efforts to convince his father Donald that being an artist is a viable career decision: Lynch was the rebel who hanged out with the bad kids, working late nights in the studio after class, remembering how his mother was disappointed in him. Remembering his early 20s, his recollections become more interesting: smoking marijuana as his friend drove down the freeway; leaving a Bob Dylan concert; living in Philadelphia, where he came across dead bodies shot out in a diner, and encountered crazy people in the street.

But The Art Life is frustrating: the film chooses its endpoint as the production of Eraserhead (1977), suggesting an end of a chapter with more stories to tell, reinforcing the notion that Lynch is more filmmaker than artist. But Lynch embodies different kinds of art, never slowing down; he carried on with life. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes illustrate Lynch’s recollections with his current, mixed media artwork, but without offering direct commentary. But Nguyen, Neergaard-Holm and Barnes also don’t hide the reality of Lynch’s life: he’s a father, playing with his young child; he takes a drag of his cigarette, frustrated at his own paintings and artwork. Lynch speaks reflections into his anachronistic microphone, just as he has done in his own reflective documentaries like Eraserhead Stories (2001).

Even shot on digital, The Art Life is never able to compare to the closeness and authenticity of the direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s, lacking neither enough insight nor a complete portrait to make it interesting enough, especially amid an existing canon of films interviewing the director. The film’s directors struggle to find a singular authorial voice, acting instead as a meditation that lacks the coherence one might expect to find.

Coming Out (1979), dir. Carol Wiseman

Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.

Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.

Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.

Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.

Girl (1974), dir. Peter Gill

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The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.

Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.

Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.

Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.

Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.

My Life as a Courgette (2016), dir. Claude Barras

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Courgettes are perhaps one of the most underrated vegetables. They can be done as slices; as batons; bathed in olive oil; served with couscous, with chickpeas, with risotto. 2016 has seen a strong selection of releases, but My Life as a Courgette has been one of the most anticipated. Its title might confound anyone who hears its name, but behind its title and delicious vegetable is a beautiful tale of adolescence.

As the film began, I was confounded: My Life as a Courgette was playing in its American dub, lacking both zucchinis and its French voice cast. I almost walked out: dubs are something I avoid at all costs. Dubs are a necessary part of international distribution, not only to attract wider audiences, but allowing accessibility for its target demographic: kids. Studio Ghibli’s films weren’t ruined by their dubs, but broadened the potential audience. Courgette’s dub is strengthened by its voice cast: Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation (2009-15), excels as police officer Raymond, providing a sense of both his exhaustion and joy for these kids.

Studios like Laika have redefined what children’s stop motion can be, both as portraits of adolescence and as meditations upon death, thanks to the pathos of Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016); Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox elevated a Roald Dahl adaptation to a beautiful piece of filmmaking. In its stark realism, Courgette goes beyond the fantastical elements of Laika or the adventurous nature of Aardman for something far more grounded. Screenwriter Céline Sciamma built her career writing portraits of conflicted adolescence. Tomboy (2011) is one of the few works on gender dysphoria in childhood and parental conflict; Girlhood (2014) is brutal, portraying a conflicted young black teenager forced to fit into different social circles.

The orphan might be a trope of film and literature, but director Claude Barras makes this trope seem real. Icare, nicknamed Courgette, isn’t happy go lucky, and neither is the rest of the orphanage, suffering great trauma after accidentally killing his alcoholic mother. My Life as a Courgette frames us within the real world: Camille wants nothing to do with her abusive aunt, whilst other orphans lost parents to drug addition or suicide, still feeling the effects. We care for the orphanage as a unit, never wanting to see them torn apart; Simon becomes an ally, providing covert surveillance.

My Life as a Courgette’s darkness doesn’t lose it of soulfulness, using humour to great effect as kids come to term with sexuality, forced to mature at a young age. Courgette experiences his first crush on Camille, wanting to understand her and her traumatic background more deeply. Kids seek to understand: staring at diagrams of men and women, confused; chuckle under covers at night and on the bus about how willies explode. The film’s conclusion is one of hope, but problematizes Courgette and Camille’s relationship to make it just a little bit creepy. Can they really expect things to continue as they stand? During a party scene, Eisbaer is played, becoming an earworm for the ages.

Although My Life as a Courgette disappointingly lacks the deeper portrayals or queer themes that pervade Céline Sciamma’s work, Barras’ film provides a powerful portrait of overcoming trauma and abuse in childhood that demands to be seen, for all its short duration.

Eraserhead (1977), dir. David Lynch

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The highlight of the Flatpack Film Festival was something I’d anticipated for weeks: a sold out screening of David Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead, presented with a live score by French indie band Cercueil. Cercueil’s score pervades the film with unease, heightening the surreal atmosphere. Sparse dialogue becomes distorted, echoing through as though in a tunnel. Cercueil’s score is no substitute, but a welcome alternative.

#davidlynch's Eraserhead at a sold out screening with live score! The hype is real

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1977 was an important year in cinema history: Star Wars redefined what the blockbuster and science fiction fantasy could be, drawing massive crowds. Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved Spielberg wasn’t going away, inspiring a generation to watch the skies. But 1977 was also the year David Lynch was unleashed upon the world, catapulted through midnight screenings outside the studio system. Eraserhead’s development was long, emerging from a grant during Lynch’s period at the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies.

Lynch had been working on a 45-page script for a film called Gardenback, based upon one of his paintings. Recalling in Eraserhead Stories (2001), Lynch didn’t remember writing a script, but developed a 21-page outline. Lynch was afforded space and time to develop, living and working from stables in Beverley Hills that were mostly his. The crew worked other jobs: assistant director Catherine E Coulson worked a day job at BBQ Heaven; Lynch delivered papers at night for the Wall Street Journal.

Lynch’s name might be best at home with experimental artists that defined underground cinema through the mid-to-late 20th century: Kenneth Anger’s occultism and queerness; Stan Brakhage’s abstract shapes; Derek Jarman’s punk aesthetics applied to cinema. Lynch’s filmography may bend rules of narrative cinema to Lynch’s own aesthetic, but largely holds onto its generic conceits: engaging protagonists, narrative goals, mysteries. Plot is never Eraserhead’s priority, going far deeper into the depths of Lynch’s mind, into the surrealism of experimental cinema. Eraserhead is identifiably Lynch. Lynch explores female sexuality, bathed in pools; the mother making moves on Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), although perhaps not to the extremes of Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) or Fire Walk with Me (1992). The carpet is identical to the carpet in the Red Room in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), cast in stark monochrome. The Lady in the Radiator, emerging from a picture Lynch scribbled in the food room, sings In Heaven in haunting, emotive repetition.

In Heaven
Everything is fine
You got your good thing
And I’ve got mine

Over 6 years of production, Lynch followed a wave of creativity. As he tells Chris Rodley, Lynch developed an idea for an educational series with Coulson entitled I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge, about a young mother who lost her woodsman husband in a forest fire and carries her log everywhere, that eventually manifested as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks.

Lynch’s use of monochrome is superb, showing dedication to the image thanks to cinematographers Herb Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Monochrome might be born of necessity from economic limitations, but has aesthetic potential both in adding dramatic weight and surrealism. When done wrong, monochrome can seem flat, but monochrome can elevate films like La haine (1995) and Nebraska (2013), evoking an entire mood, beyond the evocations of historical contexts in Schindler’s List (1993) and Ed Wood (1993). Lynch wanted to capture a mood, filming at night without external lights or sounds, creating a descent into the subconscious.

Though Eraserhead is surrealist, its power doesn’t lie within abstraction, but grounded within the real. Eraserhead’s concerns are human: tending after an ailing parent, raising a son, resolving family conflict, the relatable circumstances of Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) bringing her boyfriend home to her awkward yet interested family, a ritual all likely go through. Lynch had explored conflicted parental relationships in his experimental short The Grandmother (1970), but Eraserhead goes deeper. The industrial landscapes were drawn from Lynch’s own time in a decaying Philadelphia, forming “a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood” of “little torments” that is “neither here nor there”.

Though never autobiographical, Lynch drew upon his experiences, both in his deteriorating relationship with his wife Peggy and daughter Jennifer, who spent time on set. As Joel Blackledge writes, Lynch was a “reluctant father”: Jennifer was born with club feet, whilst Spencer’s “dark suit and gravity-defying hair” evokes Lynch’s “trademark look”.

Eraserhead moves into our own consciousness and bodies. Consciousness is an absurdity: minds within an embodied vessel of flesh and bone. Lynch questions our existence and its unreality, manifesting latent fears and anxieties within cinematic form. What makes us us? The head, beyond a vessel for consciousness, is an easy subject for experimental cinema. In A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès’ anthropomorphised moon gazes upon us; in Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), human faces meld into each other. Lynch’s visual effects are incredible, creating a design of an alien baby that stuns to this day. Lynch relies upon shock: a chicken dances; creatures stomped on; an eraser’s head is sharpened.

As he tells in Eraserhead Stories, Lynch found resources for the film from wherever he could, raiding a closed down studio for wire, nails and backdrops. Lynch contacted a veterinarian to acquire a dead cat that Lynch placed within a jar and dissected, watching the colour drain away from its internal organs; the cat never appears in the film in a recognisable form. Spencer’s suit and shoes were acquired from Goodwill; Coulson cut his hair. Eraserhead was completed and found distribution outside the festival circuit thanks to the monetary investments and finishing money from Jack and Mary Fisk and Sissy Spacek; its legacy continues to be felt.

The Giant (2016), dir. Johannes Nyholm

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Having finished watching Clash, I sat waiting around in the Everyman for the start of The Giant, presented with a Q&A with director Johannes Nyholm.

Sweden’s cinematic legacy seems defined by Ingmar Bergman, perhaps one of the most celebrated world cinema directors to have ever lived, for his melancholy tales of humanity. Other films and directors have come after Bergman: Let the Right One In (2008) might be one of the most well known, with its teenage vampire romance, whilst directors like Lukas Moodysson have a noticeable presence.

Nyholm has previously worked on music videos and short films like Puppetboy (2008), but The Giant is his first feature. As Nyholm tells in the Q&A, the road to The Giant was a 10-year process, developing the script and other ideas in the meanwhile, filming another yet to be released feature in 2011. Nyholm found funding from Dutch financiers, but remained limited by budget. Nyholm explored The Giant’s basic concept in his music video It Will Follow the Rain (2006), but music videos and cinema are two different, though connected, realms.

When I asked Nyholm the inspiration behind the project, Nyholm related a time when he had a dream, aged 4 years old. In the dream, his body was bloated; Nyholm was unable to move, his mind turning to existential thoughts. Rikard’s love of pétanque comes from Nyholm too: Nyholm used some of his old teammates from the game in starring roles, largely relying on nonprofessional actors; Nyholm used only 4 professional actors within the film.

The Giant might be difficult to describe in terms of genre: the film combines sports, magical realism, drama and the western, finding a perfect balance between each, combining surrealism with the mundanity of everyday life, juxtaposing moods against each other. Other recent films like A Monster Calls (2016), through its giant, embodied monster, balance the dark world of mortality and the wish fulfilment of children’s fairytales. Nyholm achieves similar: the giant embodies two aspects of Rikard’s self. Rikard holds onto a dream to compete in the Nordisk pétanque championships, but Rikard feels constantly held back. Rikard imagines what it would feel like to be free. As a 30 year old with a deformed condition, Rikard feels infantilised, looked after constantly by carer Roland. In scenes shot through Rikard’s own perspective, we see how difficult it is within his body: though Nyholm injects Rikard with personality and humanity, through his distorted, circular vision, he struggles to see the world around him.

But Rikard feels joy: at his birthday party, he is enraptured by the love and care afforded to him by others, surrounded by gifts and multiple slices of birthday cake; Nyholm makes a cameo during this sequence. Speaking to Roland on the bench outside the hospital, they joke about blowjobs, showing only some maturity; he still has sexuality, despite his condition. Rikard insists his individuality and ability to look after himself: he refuses to stay down in a hospital bed; he holds onto a deep relationship with his mother, insisting he see her. As Nyholm tells, Elisabeth’s song also came from his own family.

Like the disabled characters of Freaks (1932) and The Elephant Man (1980), Rikard must prove his humanity in the face of otherising and dehumanising; the carnival sideshow of Freaks drank alcohol, had interpersonal relationships, had their own existence, despite the hate and mockery of others. Rikard’s skull is fractured in an intentional attack during a game, but Rikard becomes the one punished by management. At a train stop, bullied by a group of men, Rikard’s misery is turned into spectacle, recorded on their phones; attacked by his own pétanque balls. In the championships, Rikard is constantly underestimated within the tight, restrictive rulebooks of the game.

In Rikard’s paintings, he sees himself as master of his own universe: he paints landscapes, as a joy and passion of expression as other senses fail him. In pétanque, the formation of the game represents the motion of planets within the galaxy, drawn upon his restrictive bedroom floor where he can’t make too much noise; Rikard is at the centre. Through animation and model work, Nyholm injects the film with bright autumnal orange sunsets, as the giant walks among trees; his giant foot lands upon train tracks. The camera moves across the landscape, amid the trees and mountains and waters; a place truly beautiful. In the final scene, he rises from the ambulance. The giant rises upon the city as Godzilla or King Kong; everyday citizens run for their life. Rikard emerges as powerful, two bodies as one.

Clash (2016), dir. Mohamed Diab

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The morning of Saturday 8th April 2017 was a morning of firsts: I took my first Uber ride; made my first Instagram post. After a morning distributing flyers and boards around the Birmingham canals and SeaLife Centre, I prepared for an afternoon at Flatpack Film Festival with a great series of films lined up.

The @everymancinema is rad! The Giant starts here at 5pm

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The Everyman Mailbox might take the record for the comfiest cinema in Birmingham. Hidden away inside a shopping centre, the Everyman is decked out with a bar and unreasonably comfy seats, enough space to chill out and relax with a few drinks.

Egypt’s image might be as a land of pyramids and pharaohs, trapped within its history and tourist industry. Egyptologists and adventurers seep through the sands, looking for the great mysteries of the ancient ages. But Egypt is far more complicated than we can be led to believe. As the Middle East is engulfed by conflict and the emergence of ISIS, Egypt’s existence is far from stable. The Arab Spring emerged throughout Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, becoming seen as emblematic of the participatory nature of the internet, alongside the Occupy movement: a powerful, leaderless force, manifesting mass protests through social media, with the power to topple governments. But the Arab Spring has not seen the birth of new democracies, but waves of extremism and oppression; Syria has collapsed to rubble, creating a mass refugee crisis and troubling use of chemical weapons by Assad. Tahrir Square stood as a symbol of revolution, but revolution dissipated. Clash situates us within the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in July 2013, retelling the military coup overthrowing Mohammed Morsi from power as president. Coproduced with French and German financiers, with assistance from studios like ARTE and Pyramide, Clash recreate protests through its use of contained space and assembling a group of extras to act as a mass of protestors, struggling with the difficulties of financing and distribution and limited budgets.

Much of what we understand about Egypt comes from journalism, not only in reportage but photojournalism. In an age where journalism is justifiably questioned more than ever, from clickbait to social media, to dubious online advertising to paywalls and fake news, we need more diligence than ever. Journalists need time and resources to cover stories in-depth, rather than throwaway headlines awash with speculation. All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) act as powerful defences of news journalism’s impact in exposing the truth. But often, film is unable to use journalism effectively. No Man’s Land (2001) and the re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) insert English-speaking journalists in a way that feels clumsy, explaining away events for international viewers outside the film’s native country, destroying narrative logic and authenticity. As AP journalists, Adam and photographer Zein could be presented as easy international audience conduits. But Adam’s heritage gives him narrative license: as an Egyptian-American, Adam buried his dad in Egypt; the future of his country is just as much of interest to him as it is to any other Egyptian. Adam is constantly treated like shit, but his presence is essential in drawing international attention to injustices and events.

Clash conveys immediacy through its use of handheld camera, creating a documentary quality. Released only 3 years after the events depicted within the film, Clash walks a line between historical events and contemporary politics. Clash’s documentary quality lacks narrative justification: there is no unseen cameraman within the van following events. Clash refuses to conform to the found footage element of films like Chronicle (2012) that often strain credibility, instead evoking the form to create a mood that feels raw and contemporaneous. Events are depicted that cannot be captured as documentary, transcending limitations. Though we live in an age where cellphones are everywhere: potentially, no event can go uncaptured, every minute of the day committed to film through multiple angles, there are still limitations. As journalists risk their lives in warzones, there are still blind spots: atrocities can still be suppressed. The camera on Zein’s smart watch feels like a Dan Dare-esque gadget: Zein acts as guerrilla filmmaker, depicting the people on the van. Later, the camera acts as a memento, depicting song and joy as a record of people assembled together. Adam and Zein must negotiate their positions between acting as journalists and as trustworthy friends and allies; the van’s occupants remain self-aware they are being watched.

Cinematographer Ahmed Gabr achieves a strong use of cinematography, looking out to the world outside, lit out in lights, lasers and fireworks and punishing purples. After A’isha’s father’s death, her face becomes engulfed by reds, conveying her internal emotions.

Enclosed within a van, the film creates a sense of suffocation. Clash might be best watched in the confinement of a shaking van on a miniature TV. Hitchcock used contained spaces in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954) not only to focus upon the intensity of character performance but to focus upon location as a character within itself. Conflict arises with human emotion at its most tested, separating into tribalism instinctively as they are forcibly moved in a vehicle against their will. Though our characters begin as blank slates, we come to know them much more deeply. Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Journalists. Protestors. Everyday citizens. Mothers, fathers and children. A wannabe DJ, a film star, soccer fans. Rather than a homogenised mass, Diab grants each character subjectivity, with their own backgrounds and experiences.

Each character finds their own way of coping against the inevitable. Diab builds uneasy prescience around our characters’ doom: they remain aware that in the van before them, 40 people died, bound to be left for death. Characters negotiate with soldiers and police as captors, wanting at least basic human dignity, still with basic human needs: water, air, needing to piss. Clash has some gore: open wounds, stitches, blood, exploding bodies, but the film never becomes too gory, instead seeking realism. Some hold onto a faith in God, knowing a better day will come. A’isha removes her hijab to find a pin, in order to force the door open, contending against the systems of respect and oppression built into Islam. A’isha plays a game of noughts and crosses upon the wall, reflecting wider conflict within the rules of the game.

Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.

History History History (2017)

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Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival, running from April 4-9th 2017, is one of the most wildly creative film festivals: Kino Trains in the middle of New Street; live music; short films; Holoramas; discussion panels; documentaries; silent films.

Having barely scratched the surface of last year’s festival, I volunteered. After a long day handing out flyers and a frantic writing session at Starbucks, I arrived at The Old Rep, one of Birmingham’s best stage venues: its impossible slope of seats assaults the eye. I entered the performance without expectations, nor any interest in football either.

In History History History, Pearson relates the story of the failed Hungarian student revolution of October 23rd 1956 that resulted in military intervention and her grandparents leaving for Canada: tied up within the fate of a film, starring her grandfather, repressed by Soviet censorship to filled seats the following year. History History History has already been performed across the globe, with upcoming dates in Edinburgh and Australia.

Pearson’s premise should be simple. But history is never simple, comprised of many narratives. All films owe something to our own lives, relating something about the world around it: our lives and histories. As a seemingly innocuous football comedy starring Ferenc Puskás, the film may never be canonized as a masterpiece. Pearson highlights the difficulty of availability: occasionally played in Canadian cultural centers; a VHS tape she grew up with, symbolically fetishized with meaning whilst unable to decipher intent; downloaded off the internet; unavailable within Hungary itself. Its very existence is politicized.

Pearson’s focus on preserving film and searching for meaning seems at antithetical to Communist reality: objective truth, a singular dictator, shared communes. Yet Soviet reality is slippery, constructed within film and propaganda – eliminating people from existence, in present and past, constructing national sentiment. Vertov’s mechanical kino-eye created constructed reality through editing; Eisenstein’s masterworks recreated the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as cinematic epics. But the documentary medium itself relies upon artificiality in creating an image of reality.

Pearson constructs her “live documentary” through various sources: projecting sequences, narrated over; a small, framed screen, playing the film in the background of the performance; drawings, illuminated through magnifying glass on a classroom-esque projector; archival photographs of family and revolution; a placard held by Pearson, adding a third dimension to the image whilst making faces within more visible. Pearson researched her own history, travelling to the Corvin Cinema and conducting interviews with screenwriter Tibor Méray, her mom and grandma, narrating the film in absence of translation. Pearson injects the piece with mock subtitles, like a game of Mad Libs or an episode of RiffTrax, attempting to understand a language that isn’t her own yet means so much; the Downfall (2005) meme on a personal level.

Film acts as a document, with a trace of a past that has come before. Pearson allows us to situate ourselves, within the theatre, in the embodied space of the present moment, and contemplate the time before: our legacies and ancestors that intersect together. But those narratives are constructed: the stories we tell ourselves, or our told by our parents; the things we’re allowed to remember, or allow ourselves to remember. The camera will never capture everything, for all its power and presence.

History History History is so strong it deserves to be enshrined as a film of its own; it does not deserve to be ethereal, but that is part of its beauty.

Faust (1926), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Screening at The Old Rep Theatre, with a new live score composed by Matt Eaton and Gareth Jones, as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Seeing a a new score performed against a nearly century old film is an indescribably wonderful experience, animating the carnival sensation of life in the town and the elemental forces of the storm, giving the film a new life. It’s a little modern compared to other scores – but it works incredibly well. I could almost feel the music go through me – hopefully I’ll have a similar positive experience when I see John Carpenter play live later in the year.

Faust is a far cry from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), repeated over and over through A-Level English Lit classes. Because Marlowe didn’t have Mephisto mixing cocktails with a woman who would very much like to fuck him. Honestly, I think I prefer Murnau’s rendition of the myth.

Rather than the younger man of Marlowe’s play, ageing for decades before Mephistopheles finally pulls him down to Hell, here Faust is an old man, tempted by Mephisto to reclaim his youth (and by extension a romance with Gretchen.) Marlowe damned Faustus with inevitable eternal damnation, yet Murnau redeems Faust.

Faust never has a sense of the truly irredeemable: Mephisto tricks him, rather than tempting him outright. All Faust wants to do is bring life back to the town he loves in the face of death. He becomes a ‘miracle maker’ in the same vein as Jesus, but is then rejected by society like Frankenstein was when they find he cannot face the cross (because Faust is definitely a vampire.) Gretchen is also ostracised by society, left to freeze to death with her baby, before a group of knights condemn her as a “baby murderer” and burn her to death. Because these are definitely Christian values. Faust seeks power through the wrong means, not entitled to godly powers as a mortal, but he is admirable. He does not want the wenches or the orgies or the crown that Mephisto tempts him with: all he wants is a normal life of good.

The visuals are the other important aspect of this film. Visually stunning, we are entranced within the heavenly battle between an angel and Mephisto; between good and evil. Humanity is reduced to mere ants, able to be wiped out through one storm through the power of Mephisto. The planets become tiny globes. Murnau animates words, coming to life in emphasis. The universal concept, love, stands out, moving towards the screen. Over the mountains, the superimposed Gretchen screams out, to be heard by Faust. Faust and Mephisto float in the air over trees and rivers over to the palaces in Italy – an image that every adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1843) must have taken influence from.