Archive for March, 2011

An interesting French documentary covering the last days of legendary Doors singer Jim Morrison, who passed away in Paris 40 years ago this July.

Definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of The Doors and a French speaker.

If you don’t speak French many of the interviews are in English, though you will have to keep your ears peeled through the dubbing.

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On December 20th 2010 one of Iran’s strongest cinematic voices was forcibly silenced. Internationally famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi was charged with “carrying out propaganda against the system” (1). Panahi was initially arrested while making a film in his house along with 18 others. The Tehran Prosecutor said that his arrest is not related to his filmmaking, stating: “His arrest is not because he is an artist and is not political, either. This individual is a suspect for some crimes.” (2) However, the credibility of this claim is seriously lacking given Panahi’s sentence. The sentence means that he will be jailed for six years, but perhaps worse is that he is prevented from writing, filmmaking, giving interviews or travelling abroad for twenty years (3). Essentially he is stripped of his livelihood, his freedom and his voice as a filmmaker. With due consideration to Panahi’s current situation, I will examine three of his films and consider the problems they may pose to the current Iranian constitution. The films I will explore are: The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006).

The White Balloon, written by Abbas Kiarostami, is Panahi’s debut feature. It tells the story of a young girl determined to buy a fish. The story explores the various obstacles she encounters as a result of her innocence; a snake charmer steals her money though she manages to get it back, before promptly losing it again down the grate at the entrance to a closed shop. The film gives us a sense of the struggle the little girl has to go through in a society largely dominated by adult males. While this theme is subtle it is still very much present and hints at the prominent concern of both The Circle and Offside. The White Balloon also resembles a reality which provided the inspiration for Offside, that of childish persistence. Panahi has said that his inspiration for Offside (in which a young girl tries to gain entry to a football match) was his own daughter’s determination to get into a football match (4); these subtle ideas in Panahi’s work represent a tendency to contest fundamental conservative values in Iranian society.

I will return to discuss Offside shortly, but before that I want to look at The Circle. Perhaps the bleakest (but by no means hopeless) of the three films I choose to look at here. The Circle displays a storytelling device that Panahi also employs within Offside, that of using multiple protagonists; Panahi uses this as an effective method of representing woman as a social group. In The Circle we follow six characters, each experiencing a different dilemma caused in part by simply being a woman in a decidedly patriarchal society.  The film begins with the mother of a woman who has just given birth to a baby girl. The mother worries that her daughter will be divorced by her husband, as he wanted a son. The mother then encounters three women who have just been released from prison. Without any money the women are worried that they will be arrested again as their only resources may be criminal. One of the women goes in search of another friend who has just escaped from prison. The escapee is pregnant and wants an abortion, but cannot have the abortion approved as the baby’s father was executed in prison.  The escapee meets another woman who attempts to abandon her daughter with a wealthy family, to give her a better life. Following this the escapee is mistaken for a prostitute and is almost arrested. She manages to escape however, but we witness another prostitute being taken to prison instead. As the title suggests, the women are all stuck in a ‘vicious circle’.  While bleak the end of the film involves an act of defiance as the prostitute lights a cigarette, despite being ordered not to by the men taking her to jail. It is the themes of persistence and defiance as seen in The White Balloon and The Circle that characterise Panahi’s films. In Offside he makes the strongest statement, by subversively celebrating these characteristics.

Offside makes use of the multiple protagonist technique as seen in The Circle, once again to explore the defiant nature of a group of girls who share a love of football. The film explores the taboo in Islamic Iranian society whereby women are not allowed to attend male sporting events as spectators (5), regardless of their appreciation of the sport. Panahi successfully dramatises the problem by not simply making this issue a problem purely experienced by females. For instance in one scene a girl who has been caught sneaking into the stadium requests to be taken to the toilet. Her guard escorts her to the toilets, but loses her in the chaos of the stadium; suddenly where once the girl had a problem, the man now does instead. Many of the men in the film are represented as simply doing their duty, often appearing frustrated at their difficult responsibilities and this suggests that it is the overriding ideology that is governing their actions, rather than a real and heartfelt responsibility. Perhaps by exposing the cracks in the dominant ideology Panahi is even more subversive; he does not just represent women as repressed, but represents the consequences the ideology has for men too.  At the end of the film Panahi shows the detained group of women being taken to the Vice Squad, but on the way they are caught up in traffic when news breaks of Iran’s victory in the world cup qualifiers. The women take the opportunity to break out into the streets and celebrate with the male supporters all around them. The idea that Panahi presents here is very powerful and it draws me to consider the twenty year filmmaking ban he has placed on him.

If Panahi is capable of articulately suggesting flaws in the codes of conduct in present-day Iranian society, as well glorifying moments of defiance in day to day activity, then it is no surprise that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s right-wing government would benefit from having his voice as a filmmaker silenced. Furthermore Panahi is also a supporter of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s Green Party of Hope and given the controversy over the 2009 Iranian elections, where Mousavi claimed Ahmadinejad’s victory to be fraudulent, it comes as no surprise that he should find himself in jail. The truth of the situation though is that this is a tragedy not only for freedom of speech in Iran, but also for the international cinema community. We are now deprived of an important cinematic voice for twenty years. But as Panahi put it in an open letter to the Berlin Film Festival 2011:

“I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films.” (6)

For this reason we must share the work of Jafar Panahi as a symbol of his wish and we must hope that when he is released his influence as a filmmaker will be great enough to make up for the time cinema has spent without him.

OFFSIDE TRAILER:

FREE JAFAR PANAHI PETITION: http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?FJP2310&1

Sources:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12045248
  2. http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/03/arrest-of-iranian-filmmaker-jafar-panahi-and-new-pressure-on-independent-filmmakers/
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12045248
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy8mj4EjHjw
  5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jun/06/iran.roberttait
  6. http://www.berlinale.de/en/das_festival/festivalprofil/berlinale_themen/openletterpanahi.html

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A little gem:

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Upon reviewing Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert placed Korine amongst the most significant of all film artists saying he: “belongs on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage and others…” going on to call him “…the real thing, an innovative and gifted filmmaker whose work forces us to see on his terms.”

So, true to form, Korine‘s latest release is Umshini Wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun) a short film starring South African Rave-Rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er from Die Antwoord. The film tells the story of two wheelchair bound ‘gangstas’,  who shoot guns, sleep in the woods, wear bright coloured jumpsuits and smoke massive joints with the ultimate goal of obtaining some serious credibility by upgrading their wheelchairs.

Harmony Korine is keeping it real, but perhaps this is not what Ebert meant by “the real thing” twelve years ago. Umshini Wam doesn’t entirely fit with the art film credentials Korine was known for with Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy; this film is pure, ridiculous, undiluted entertainment. This said the film makes good use of its two peculiar lead actors, has a great soundtrack courtesy of the unseen member of Die Antwoord DJ Hi-Tek and cinematography by Alexis Zabe who shot Silent Light with Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas.

While it is hard to imagine Roger Ebert consigning this film next to those of Tarkovsky it is fair to say that Korine is consistent in creating work unlike anyone else. For what it’s worth Umshini Wam is a fun addition to the predictably unpredictable career of Harmony Korine and reports suggest that there is more to look forward to, as Korine is in talks with James Franco to make a film involving real life gang fights. I’ll believe it when I see it.

WATCH UMSHINI WAM HERE: http://www.vbs.tv/en-gb/watch/umshini-wam–2/umshini-wam

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Over the years the Australian film industry has produced a particularly striking set of gritty and engaging films (from Mad Max to The Proposition). This year sees Australian short film director David Michôd burst into the world of feature films with the crime drama Animal Kingdom, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival.

This tale of a crime family in meltdown has lead some critics to compare it to The Godfather. However while the films may bear some slight narrative semblance Animal Kingdom, set in the sweltering Melbourne underworld, tells a tale that is far more tragic and absurd.

Josh aka J (James Frecheville) loses his mother to a heroin overdose and with no one else to turn to he moves in with his extended family, comprised of his grandmother and four uncles. The uncles all operate as criminals and seem to live with a great respect and dependence for their mother (Jacki Weaver), who bizarrely insists that they kiss her on the mouth. When one of the uncles is killed by police the family wreak their revenge and consequences follow suit.  The naive J finds himself and his girlfriend in the middle of the chaos as his unhinged heroin addict uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to call the shots.

Things become even more complicated when J is called in for questioning by the police and gradually develops a rapport with Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). The family recognise that it is J who is putting them in the most danger and when ‘Pope’ is imprisoned J’s grandmother becomes the last person he can trust.

The cast bring the group of colourful characters to life with great aptitude and Michôd’s taught and creative direction tells the story with masterful suspense and subtle humour. It would be easy to relate this film to American crime classics but this would not do justice to this distinctly Australian production.

Watching the film one gets the sense that Michôd had done his research to create a realistic portrayal of the Melborne crime landscape; the characters all feel like natural developments of this setting. It is this brilliantly creative approach to time and place that makes Animal Kingdom such a fresh addition to the Crime Drama genre, though it also seems that this time and place are the reason for such tragedy in peoples lives.

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It is a strange coincidence that Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, internationally famous auteurs and central figures of the 1960’s film movement the New German Cinema (which Herzog does not consider himself part of), have both made films in 3D for release this year.

It is also interesting to note the distinctly different approach that each director has taken to 3D. Herzog has shot Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary deep under ground in the Chauvet Cave in France (the site of the oldest known cave paintings), while Wenders has made Pina, a dance film dedicated to the late dance choreographer Pina Bausch.

It is a testament to the maverick spirit of this generation of German directors that both Herzog and Wenders have embarked on these projects. Perhaps their interpretations of 3D will bring something truly special to this often debated technology.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog) trailer:

Pina (dir. Wim Wenders) trailer:

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It is great news to hear that the visionary Mexican films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) by Alejandro Jodorowsky are soon to be released on Blu-Ray. Jodorowsky’s films are extraordinary journeys for their audience and their arresting visual styles play a big part in this. I expect the Blu-Ray treatment will really add to the experience.

In addition to this Jodorowsky’s Sante Sangre (1989) was released on Blu-ray at the start of this year by Severin Films with a long list of extras.

For more information on the El Topo and The Holy Mountain releases see here:

http://uk.bluray.ign.com/articles/115/1153700p1.html

See here for information on Severin’s Sante Sangre release:

http://www.severin-films.com/2011/01/25/santa-sangre-blu-ray/

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Since the days of James Dean, teen Films have been a sure fire hit with film goers. Teen stories are inherent with drama in every genre imaginable; romance, horror, comedy, musical, sci-fi, fantasy, the list goes on. In Britain a distinctly gritty form of teen film can be recognised; from Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) to Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006) social realism has always been prominent.

Despite the quality of these films, it is easy to feel jaded by many decades’ worth of gritty realism. For this reason, I didn’t think I had anything to learn when I sat down to watch NEDS (a Scottish term meaning Non-Educated Delinquents), directed by Peter Mullen. To my surprise I left the cinema educated anew by this powerful and eloquent film about teen life.

Conor McCarron stars as John McGill, a bright but underprivileged teen whose life slides into gang violence. The story sounds familiar but Mullen’s fresh approach demands our interest. He creates an unusually expressionistic visual style and as John McGill slides further into violence he becomes frighteningly monstrous. As John becomes increasingly alienated from his peers the plot takes a number of turns that we could not expect, including a trippy encounter with Jesus Christ and a showdown in which John becomes more deranged than any slasher film serial killer. Despite this, the true success of the film is that Mullen allows the audience to maintain a sense of compassion for John McGill.

The film concludes by forcing John to confront his past and make a tough decision. Despite his recklessness in the face of the gangs we discover that John still has the capacity to feel fear and therefore redeem himself. More than simply another gritty teen film, NEDS is an articulate parable about a young man’s struggle through the anger and violence of his adolescence to truly find his humanity, fears and compassion included.

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