Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, Italy/France, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Italian Cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

The below is a written version of an introduction that I shall make for Salvo at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton this evening (Tuesday 29 April 2014). Come along if you can – though you may also have to suffer me putting in a gratuitous plug for my film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), which plays at the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase from 1 May 2014)!

And so…


Salvo is the debut feature of screenwriters Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. It tells the story of a hitman, the titular Salvo (Saleh Bakri), who starts out getting into a gunfight. He chases down his assailants and then goes to the house of Enzo Puleo (Luigi Lo Cascio), the man who organised the hit. There he meets Rita (Sara Serraiocco), a blind woman and Enzo’s sister, who suddenly can see at the moment of her encounter with Salvo.

Subsequent to this encounter, Salvo and Rita go on the run – and must evade the mob, which surely will hunt them down in a quest to find out what has happened to them.

In certain respects, then, the film tells the story of a miracle. But rather than being a miracle couched in a sense of religiosity, we have the miracle functioning in Salvo as something of an allegory.

For, the encounter between Salvo and Rita becomes some sort of primordial event, a transitional moment after which nothing is the same – and this event is based upon the encounter between two people who mutually change.

In short, then, the film is about how love can open our eyes – it can take away our blindness – and it can put us in touch with other people. Indeed, if Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people, Grassadonia and Piazza might counter this by saying that love, too, is other people, constituted in and by a recognition of other people.

Thus Rita’s literal blindness is accompanied by what the directors call Salvo’s ‘moral blindness’. Indeed, in an interview, Grassadonia explains it thus:

The topic of blindness is important. We come from Sicily, we grew up there, and our experience is that you live surrounded by voluntarily blind people. We told this story, this meeting by two characters affected by two different kinds of blindness: the moral blindness of the mafia killer, who is nothing more than a killing machine at the beginning, and this blind girl, physically blind, but not innocent. She knows exactly her role in that kind of world.

It is in encountering Rita that Salvo can see – and the film works hard stylistically to convey the encounter to us, mainly as a result of its absence of close ups and its absence of faces for the first section of the film, the section that culminates in the miracle.

For, we do not see Salvo’s face until the miracle – if anything we see only disembodied eyes surrounded by darkness. We can surmise two things from this.

Firstly, we can surmise that in a world without faces, people do not exist as humans but as objects that can be killed and discarded without a moral sense of guilt.

Secondly, we can surmise that in having no empathy, it is not that Salvo sees no faces, it is that he himself is also faceless. In encountering Rita, Salvo not only sees her face, but she also sees his, and thus he begins to take on a face.

In other words, identity – Salvo as a recognisable human being – is not something born solipsistically in a body and mind detached from the rest of the world; identity is something that exists only in relation to the world, only with the world. We exist only with other people. Subjectivity is intersubjective.

If the film makes this point, the point does not exist in a bubble. That is, while it it may simply just be that humans can only exist as subjects if there is intersubjectivity, nonetheless the film suggests that we live in a world that lacks recognition of others, a world that lacks empathy, and which is thus a world that encourages what I shall term solipsistic.

So when I say that the point does not exist in a bubble, what I am really asking is: what is this world in which we are encouraged to be solipsistic, blind to each other, rather than with each other?

In interviews, Grassadonia and Piazza talks extensively about how they made the film in their native Sicily, Palermo more specifically. Indeed, in the quotation above, they talk about ‘voluntarily blind people’ there – who in effect turn a blind eye to the mafia, thus accepting its way of life, even if they are not directly involved in it.

In one interview with the ICA, the directors state this clearly:

We are both from Palermo and we naturally chose to set our story in our home town. Palermo is a world where freedom is hazardous. A world that feels the need for a tyrant, an oppressor, is a totally unacceptable state of affairs but somehow understandable. What’s more mysterious is the presence of a silent majority that wishes to be oppressed, that needs to live in a “state of exception”, a state of constant emergency, where violence and oppression are the only laws. A situation where an unencumbered meeting between two human beings is inconceivable.

What is noteworthy here is the use of the term ‘state of exception’ – a concept developed and used at length by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

For Agamben, the ‘state of exception’ is the generalised totalitarianism of the present age. That is, during exceptional times, a state might give itself increased power in order to keep everyone safe. However, what we increasingly have these days is the way in which all times are presented to us as somehow ‘exceptional’ – and so we live under greater levels of control at all times, under a generalised ‘state of exception’ (a key example for Agamben is the War on Terror in the aftermath of the plane crashes of 11 September 2001).

In suggesting that Salvo reflects upon the ‘state of exception’ that is the mafioso rule of Palermo, Grassadonia and Piazza in fact spread the relevance of their film, such that it might well be speaking not just of Sicily, but perhaps of an Italy that has recently been under the control of a media-magnate. Perhaps even to a world in general, in which political and economic crisis are presented to us as the master narratives that keep us all in our place – and scared in our homes – trusting of no one else, in competition with everyone else.

Not seeing each other as human beings, as subjects, but as threats, opportunities and objects.

This wider relevance of the film is signalled aesthetically, too. It is hard not to read the opening sequences, full of bloodshed, and in which we follow Salvo as he chases down his would-be assassins, as borrowing from computer games, in particular the behind-the-head shot familiar from shooter games (and complete with the odd silences that moving through space can involve in computer games).

In other words, the film suggests via this reference to computer games that its message is relevant to the whole of the contemporary, media-saturated and digital world. That we no longer look at each other – but instead pursue a faceless world characterised by affectless, or unemotional, violence.

Salvo does not just make references to a computer game, however. It also makes reference to other films and/or genres. The filmmakers themselves discuss how their film pays homage to the likes of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, and that it also draws inspiration from Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic, Le Samouraï (France/Italy, 1967) – while its use of a miracle, its sparse dialogue and its interest in procedure also seem to recall the cinema of Robert Bresson (for me at least).

In other words, while the film is about how we are with each other in the world, even at a time when we are encouraged to feel that we not together, that to create a bond with another person is ‘inconceivable’, the film itself is also making bonds with other films; films only exist in an inter-cinematic way, too, it would seem.

And yet, for all of Salvo‘s precursors and reference points, the film had a hard time getting made.

After writing the 2004 comedy Ogni volta che ne te vai/Every Time You Go (Davide Cocchi, Italy, 2004) and the TV movie, Gli Occhi dell’amore/The Eyes of Love (Giulio Base, Italy, 2005), the latter of which suggests an ongoing interest in eyes and looking, Grassadonia and Piazza wrote and directed Rita (Italy, 2009), a short film that in some respects is the basis for Salvo (it is about a blind woman).

It then took them four years to get Salvo off the ground, making the film the product of a five-year process. Piazza recounts his experience thus:

Basically if you’re a first time director and you don’t arrive with the conventional comedy made for television, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to finance a film. In our case, the Italian press was talking about the film because of the support of French television but not the support of the Italian television

In other words, the aesthetics of Salvo, a cinephile’s film that is in part about films, reflects the production history of the film, in that a film about two characters who come to understand the existence of themselves through finally seeing others, is a film that was only made because of a transnational coproduction (with the French) – most Italian producers being too risk-averse, too caught up in the solipsism of contemporary capital, to want to tell a story that reaches out in the way that this one does.

The generalised ‘state of exception,’ then, is also present in the risk-averse nature of the film industry – and it is only in collaborating with strangers, perhaps, that films of this kind can get made. Perhaps it was a concession to commercial interests that the film features prominently on its soundtrack the number one Italian chart hit, ‘Arriverà‘, by Modà, featuring Emma Marrone.

Perhaps this even helps to account for the casting of the film. Salvo is played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, the star of Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains (UK/Italy/Belgium/France, 2009), while a couple of well-known actors have cameons, including Luigi Lo Cascio as Rita’s brother, Enzo. Lo Cascio won a Best Actor Donatello (Italian Oscar) in 2001 for I Cento Passi/One Hundred Steps (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2000), was nominated for the same award two years later for La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003), and was nominated for Best Director in 2013 for La città ideale/The Ideal City (Italy, 2012).

Leading actress Sara Serraiocco, meanwhile, stars in only her first movie. Perhaps this is emblematic of her character, that she is revealed to the world as the world is revealed to her. But then her character is perhaps a bit more canny than this – she is counting mafia money when we first meet her. That is, while Salvo may romanticise her, the film arguably does not, with the ‘miracle’ potentially being in Salvo’s head – it is an allegory, not necessarily a miracle to be believed in a literal sense – with the cheesiness of ‘Arriverà’ as the central musical motif also suggesting as much.

The directors quote great Italian writer Italo Calvino in relation to the film:

In the inferno of the living, where we live every day, that we form by being together, there are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

One can argue that the film is not without complications; Salvo and Rita do not necessarily escape the cycle of violence and it is perhaps only by perpetuating it that they stand a chance of surviving. Indeed, as Salvo’s name suggests, not only might he ‘save’ Rita, but he might also be a force for the state of exception, in that ‘salvo’ also means ‘except’ (in the sense of ‘save for’ – as in, ‘I would have been killed, save for a hitman coming to my rescue’).

Nonetheless, as a film Salvo is not inferno – and so we must give it space and thus help it to endure in a world of rapidly recycled and endlessly forgettable films.

Ur Preview Screening Announced

Beg Steal Borrow News, Uncategorized

Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux will enjoy a preview screening at the prestigious Olympic Studios in Barnes.

The screening will take place at 10am on 25 May 2014.

If for any reason you have come across the film and would likle to attend, then please email us here.

The Olympic is the site where many of the world’s greatest music artists have recorded their work – including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Jam, Pink Floyd, Duran Duran, Queen, Oasis, Barbara Streisand, Madonna, Prince and The Spice Girls.

Film-wise, the Olympic also features in Jean-Luc Godard’s film One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil (UK, 1968), which is about the Rolling Stones.

Ur t-shirt and flyers

Tian zhu ding/A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film reviews

It has been a couple of months since I saw A Touch of Sin at a cinema in Paris (La Clef on rue Daubenton), and so my memory of the film is not necessarily fully accurate.

However, I wanted to get down some thoughts on the film ahead of the fantastic-looking Chinese Visual Festival that runs from 8-18 May in London, and which features a visit from director Jia Zhangke to discuss both his early short films and A Touch of Sin.

For, my plan is not to send out spoilers ahead of the film’s screening. Rather, it is to encourage people to attend the screening(s) – since A Touch of Sin is a remarkable film by an important director. And I wish to delineate the film’s importance, as well, perhaps, as its contradictions, in this post.

(I cannot, alas, make the screening – in fact I can only make one film during the whole Festival. Should any readers care to know, I shall be away to give a talk at the Cinemateket in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first part and on holiday/at a wedding in Spain, for the second part of the festival. Even though I have these treats in store, I am still envious of anyone who gets to hear Jia in conversation.)


A Touch of Sin tells four stories, each based on true events, about contemporary China. It opens with a man on a motorbike, Zhousan (Baoqiang Wang), who is held up by a gang of young highwaymen. He kills them with a gun and then rides off – past Dahai (Jiang Wu), who sits astride his own bike next to an overturned tomato truck (it could be red apples).

We then stay with Dahai as he tries to arouse anger in his village against corrupt businessmen, especially an old friend who has become very rich (owning a private jet) while others continue to be poor. So angry does he become that he decides to take getting revenge into his own, soon-to-be-bloody hands…

The film then returns to Zhousan, who has come home for New Year to see his wife and child. He claims to be doing successful work during his migrations, but in fact leads a life of crime (as his early murder of the highwaymen makes clear – more murders follow).

A third section of the film sees a pretty receptionist at a sauna, Xiaoyu (Jia regular Zhao Tao), who is beaten up by the wife and friends of her lover (Jiayi Zhang), before being abused by two rich businessmen (one of whom is also played by Jia regular Hongwei Wang) who mistake her for a prostitute. This insult leads Xiaoyu to exact her revenge on the businessmen.

And, finally, a young factory worker named Xiaohui (Lanshan Luo) quits a job in a clothing factory after an accident sees him needing to pay compensation to one of his co-workers. He joins a friend at a factory in a different town, is found and beaten up by his former colleague who suffered the accident, and commits suicide.

The description of the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is as follows: ‘Four people, four different provinces. A reflection on contemporary China: that of an economic giant slowly being eroded by violence.’

While this description is in some senses accurate, I wonder that it is also a bit misleading. It suggests that violence is eroding China as an economic giant, when in fact the film is really about how in becoming an economic giant, China is becoming an increasingly violent place.

And although the violence that we see in this film is both startling and based on a set of true stories, the film also functions at an allegorical level: the major violence perpetrated in this film is by those Chinese citizens who have embraced the get-rich-quick ethos of what we in the West might term neo-liberal capitalism, and who, in adopting this ethos, concomitantly adopt an ethos whereby the rest of the world can go hang. Whereby violence, in the form of exploitation, is enacted on the rest of the world. Humans are deprived of their very humanity and instead are seen as commodities, as economic opportunities, and objects to be disposed of as one sees fit.

A Touch of Sin is vastly more violent than any of Jia’s films to date, even if those other films also chart the disenfranchisement of various members of Chinese society – right from first feature Xiao wu/Pick Pocket (Hong Kong/China, 1997) through to Er shi si cheng ji/24 City (China/Hong Kong/Japan, 2008), Jia’s last fiction feature.

I find this violence interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have written an essay – to be published in a book provisionally entitled Marxism and Film Activism, edited by Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen – on the films Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil, 2007) and Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, France/Belgium/Chad, 2010).

In that essay, I argue that we are entering an era of renewed activism, one that in particular features violence as a response to the injustices of the world – and one in which standing by and observing is no longer justified.

For those who care to note the technical aspect of my essay, I make this argument using the language of Gilles Deleuze and his writings on cinema.

Deleuze argued that his concept of ‘time-image’ cinema featured ‘seers’ – characters who can only watch in the face of the world, and who do not decide to be agential heroes that do violence to the world, something we might characterise as the typical mythos of the American western.

I argue that while the ‘time-image’ might have been revolutionary in its time, perhaps a new ‘movement-image’ cinema of action is being adopted now as a means of resistance against the inequities of global, neo-liberal capitalism – as per the (admittedly problematic) violence of Elite Squad, and as per the critique of passivity in A Screaming Man.

I then use Marx to argue that we should not put time-image and movement-image cinema into a hierarchy; the time-image is often interpreted, in the modern context, as superior to the movement-image, which, in broad terms, we can equate as being the superiority – aesthetically if not commercially – of art house cinema to mainstream cinema (cinema that uses the fast-paced aesthetics of what David Bordwell would term ‘intensified continuity editing’).

To return to A Touch of Sin, I see the film’s violence as being Jia’s own expression of how we have perhaps gone through the time of/for passivity as a response to the intensified spread of neo-liberal capital, perhaps especially in mainland China. So maddening is the onslaught that accompanies it that we are looking at what the Invisible Committee would term a Coming Insurrection; an outbreak of violence so severe that it might bring neoliberal capital to its knees.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the move on Jia’s part is premeditated and deliberate. The film’s title is of course a reference to King Hu’s classic martial arts film, A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971), which tells the story of an artist caught up in a struggle against Imperial conspiracy and domination. That film uses martial arts as a means of resistance against hegemony, with the martial being/becoming an art – with art always being a tool for resistance against domination (art is always political, and art for art’s sake is a bourgeois concept intended to nullify the political power of art). Perhaps Jia considers violence in a similar, contemporary fashion here.

But Jia’s film involves not just a reference to King Hu. Among its rich forebears must surely be included not the western, but the spaghetti western, especially the works of Sergio Leone, and/or a film like Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy/Spain, 1966). As David Martin-Jones has cogently argued, these films also use violence as a means to express the disempowerment of Europe’s impoverished south, and as a means to try to empower themselves, but not by positing a wholly new, artistic cinema (as happened further north in Europe, for example), but by taking the tropes of a very Western genre, the western, and reworking them for their own ends (perhaps we can argue that the giallo does something similar with horror).

In this way, A Touch of Sin also is part of a tradition that takes tropes of the western in order to give expression to dissatisfaction with the ongoing drive towards global capitalist domination, a domination that historically was itself espoused in the Indian-destroying, nature-taming genre of the western itself.

(I argue in this book that Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012) might also be trying to do something similar – as might the overwhelming emphasis on revenge in contemporary cinema, with the recent Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland/UK, 2014), and in some senses, ahem, my own film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), being (Christian-influenced?) considerations of how allowing that vengeful violence, of how standing up saying ‘perhaps it is right that you should attack me’ might in turn be a/the bourgeois-but-understanding response.)

The question then becomes, though: does Jia (do all of these films) express a solution to the problem, or only a means of perpetuating it? If (the spectacle of) violence is at the very soul of capitalism, then to give in to violence – even if in ‘only’ a film, albeit one based on a true story – might simply perpetuate the status quo rather than in fact challenging it…

I quote:

as Antonio Negri puts it, “antagonism is the motor of development of the system, the foundation of a continuous resurgence of antagonism each time that the project, the history of capital, progresses,” then perhaps it is only in an inventory of the failed efforts and strategies of human liberation that the forces of oppression can be identified and fought effectively.

This is from Jonathan Beller, quoting, as is clear, Antonio Negri.

Perhaps, then, the antagonism of A Touch of Sin only adds to the progress of capital. Vicious, thought-provoking and heartfelt as A Touch of Sin is, one wonders if Jia has succumbed to a (too-human?) desire for violence in order to endeavour properly to get out of the paradoxes and contradictions of capital – only to fail because antagonism is what capital wants. Indeed, it is not as if the cinema has not commodified violence since soon after its inception – as an early film like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1903) makes clear.

The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, Australia/Thailand/Laos, 2013)

Australian Cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Laotian Cinema, Uncategorized

I recently introduced The Rocket at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London. The cinema has asked me to post my comments on the film online. While I was working from notes, and thus cannot reproduce fully what I said, this blog post nonetheless can convey some of my thoughts on the film.


Set in Laos, The Rocket tells the story of Ahlo (Sittiphon Dissamoe), one of a pair of twins, but whose brother dies during childbirth. Ahlo is loved by his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), but twins are considered to be omens of bad luck according to local superstition. And since Ahlo’s brother died in childbirth, Ahlo must be a bringer of bad luck – or at least this is what his grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindee), believes.

That Ahlo brings bad luck to the family is affirmed when the family is forced to migrate as a result of a dam being constructed in the region where they live. They are taken to a refugee camp, where their lives are affected by poverty. At the camp, Ahlo befriends fellow outsiders Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her father Purple (Thep Phongam), who is obsessed with James Brown.

The family flees the camp, but endures more loss – affirming Ahlo’s status as the purveyor of bad luck, something that even Ahlo’s father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), begins to believe.

And so, in order to redeem himself, Ahlo decides to enter a rocket competition. This is a festival in which people build their own rockets and then fire them at the sky. Those rockets that fly highest, explode biggest and, if possible, which bring much-needed rain, will win a cash prize.

Ahlo enters, re-bonds with his father, and sets off a rocket that soars high, explodes mightily and forces the heavens to open. After tragedy, then, the film has a happy ending.

The Rocket is directed by Kim Mordaunt, a British-Australian who has lived extensively in Asia, and who has also taught filmmaking there.

Mordaunt has historically plied his trade most prominently as a documentary maker. Indeed, his earlier film, Bomb Harvest (Australia, 2007), has various similarities with The Rocket. Although the central character of that film is an Australian bomb disposal specialist, it nonetheless features Lao children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. This film no doubt informed The Rocket, since we also see Lao children playing around and working with unexploded bombs, including Ahlo.

The Rocket is Mordaunt’s first fiction feature, and it has won awards at the Berlin (Crystal Bear, Best First Feature, Amnesty International Film Prize), at the Sydney (Audience Award), and at the Tribeca (Best Film, Best Actor, Audience Award) Film Festivals.

Nonetheless, Mordaunt’s documentary sensibility remains in the film. This is made clear in the use of locations in the film (especially the stunning mountain scenery), but also, particularly, through the final rocket festival that is the film’s culminating point. Here, Mordaunt fuses documentary footage shot from an earlier, real rocket festival with footage shot at a recreation of that festival – and featuring his actors.

Furthermore, The Rocket has something of an ethnographic sensibility, charting rural Laotian life, including superstitions – as embodied in particular in Taitok and her belief that Ahlo is the bearer of bad luck.

Indeed, the clash of tradition with modernity is perhaps one of the key themes of the film, as I shall discuss presently.

According to Mordaunt, Laos is the most bombed nation on the planet, in part as a result of American bombing of the country during the so-called ‘Secret War.’ The ‘Secret War’ is another term for the Laotian Civil War that took place between 1953 and 1975, and which also involved those taking part in the Vietnam War. As a result, American and other forces dropped many bombs in/on Laos during this period.

Indeed, there are haunting scenes in The Rocket featuring unexploded bombs that have become an almost fixed part of the Laotian landscape – even 40 years after the end of the Secret War. The bombs, therefore, come to symbolise in the film both the precarious nature of life for the many people living in the Lao countryside (these devices could explode at any time, and lives can end suddenly, as the film shows us even from the outset with the death of Ahlo’s brother), but also the way in which Laos has perhaps been affected not by internal forces (how ‘civil’ was the Secret War?) but by external forces.

One senses, almost, that rural Laos might well continue to exist in a peaceful and bucolic fashion had it not been bombed into modernity. This forced entry into modernity continues today, but instead of bombs, the film shows to us the forced relocation of many Lao people as a result of dam construction (Mordaunt in interview reminds us that 60 million people have been relocated worldwide for dam construction – more than the entire population of the UK).

And, in an interview with the BFI, Mordaunt talks about how the film wants to reflect on Laos’ relationship with the wider world, suggesting how Australia plays a role in the dam-related relocations and the problem of robber barons (basically, people who bleed a country’s veins dry of its natural resources and get extremely rich in the process).

In Mordaunt’s own words: “There are a lot of cowboys about,” he says. “Our government is always saying we must relate to Asia. But the majority of that relationship is sheer economic opportunism. There are Australians making millions every year out of the place.”

In short, then, we see in The Rocket a Laos being forced into modernity by external factors that are not necessarily much to do with the country itself.

Nonetheless, the film does not simply suggest a romantic return to a pre-modern existence. Taitok’s superstitious belief that Ahlo means bad luck is ultimately proven wrong; Ahlo is not bad luck and, indeed, might be the bearer of good luck as he wins the rocket competition.

Indeed, that Ahlo wins the rocket competition by using materials from the unexploded bombs dropped during the Secret War suggests something quite stubborn, inventive and empowering. As Mordaunt says, the rocket competition allows the Laotians to ‘shoot back at the sky’.

That is, we see Laotians reappropriate the very bombs that brought them into modernity – even if, as Curtis LeMay might have put, the aerial onslaught of the time was also designed to bomb the Laotians back to the Stone Age. And in taking the remnants of foreign presence in Laos, in turning them into their rockets that help to maintain a Laotian tradition (the rocket festival), then we see an affirmative, potentially nationalistic, act of resistance taking place.

Perhaps we can read the character of Purple in this fashion as well. In impersonating James Brown, we see Purple take on an American icon who is associated with sex and libidinal release, suggesting that Laos, too, has desire for change.

However, the film is not without issues – and we can start to sort through those with a further consideration of the character of Purple.

On 5 April 1968, the day after the death of Martin Luther King, James Brown held a concert in Boston (the city where King had been assassinated) that was otherwise due to be cancelled, thus pacifying that city’s black community, which otherwise might have risen up in resistance and outrage in response to the events (as documented in The Night James Brown Saved Boston, David Leaf, USA, 2008).

With King as a noted civil rights activist who was vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War, Purple would seem to use Brown also a means to speak out against the national trauma that has been the Secret War. Indeed, with Ahlo’s lost brother, with Purple’s alter ego as James Brown, and with the Secret War being the hidden other of the much more widely recognised and covered Vietnam War, The Rocket is in part about doubles – about missing doubles and overlooked histories that really ought to figure much more in our historical consciousness and in our understanding of the world today.

Nonetheless, Brown also caused controversy during the Vietnam War by travelling out to Asia in order to play to American troops. How ‘against’ the war was he such that he could do this? Brown insisted that soldiers are humans, too, but this makes the Purple-Brown analogy muddier and more problematic. And it becomes even more so when a source like this one suggests that Brown only agreed to play the concert if paid US$60,000 (of which he only allegedly received US$10,000). Did Brown take the money because one should not work for the Man for free, as it were? Or in going on stage and in asking Boston’s community not to react violently to the King assassination, did this make of Brown an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure – as various people accused him at the time?

In relation to Purple in The Rocket, that James Brown is such an unclear figure perhaps only reinforces the sense of trauma that Purple, with his military past, must have suffered. Somewhere here we have reworked Purple’s erased, real identity as the double of James Brown, as Ahlo is the double of Laos’ past, trying to work his perceived bad luck into some good luck by taking American bombs and firing them back into the sky.

The explosion might cause some rain to come down – with water being a key symbol of the film. A dam is being built – to use water for power, of course, but in an effort that might also privatise water, this most natural resource. The rural dwellers of the film are in a drought – and all that they have experienced in the past is a rain of bombs. And so they fire back into the sky and a new shower descends; perhaps the past will not so much be washed away, but allowed properly to appear and to be understood.

However, Purple is played by a well known Thai actor, Thep Phongam. In other words, if Purple as a character, and the film perhaps as a whole, are designed to make visible a ‘secret’ past that has for far too long remained invisible, it is ironic that a Thai star in fact only re-occults Laos; not even a Laotian actor can be found to play the part of a traumatised Laotian. That is, Laos continues to be invisible.

Perhaps the same is taking place through the casting of Bunsri Yindi as Taitok, Ahlo’s grandmother. Yindi is also a Thai actress, best known for playing the mother of Ting (Tony Jaa) in Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003).

But most pertinent to this erasure-under-the-pretence-of-exposure is Mordaunt as director and the film itself.

 As the film’s website says, ‘The Rocket is one of the first feature films for international release set and shot in the intriguing and little-known country of Laos, rarely seen by the outside world since the end of the Vietnam War.’

(Air America, Roger Spottiswoode, USA, 1993, was set in Laos – but the film was in fact shot in Thailand and the USA. It stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr as pilots ‘recruited into a covert and corrupt CIA airlift organisation’.)

And yet, the film is made by an Australian-British filmmaker – and not by a Laotian.

In the film’s press kit, Mordaunt proudly declares that after Bomb Harvest, the ‘Lao and international response to the film was that we should make another film with a Lao child as the protagonist. And because Laos didn’t have a funded film industry we should be the team to endeavour to make Laos’ first internationally released feature film.’

It is in some ways fair enough that Mordaunt should make any film he chooses to, not least because, as he makes clear, Laos has no film industry to speak of. But on another level, since it is Mordaunt who is at the centre of the film’s publicity (rather than, say, Ki, the boy who plays Ahlo and whose performance is absolutely remarkable), we see Mordaunt himself becoming a quasi-robber baron of sorts – exploiting Laos and its history in order to make a career for himself.

Similarly, Australia put the film forward as its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. Australia, therefore, is happy to reap the benefits of this film in a similar fashion that makes Australian a film that is supposed to be giving to Laos its own cinematic identity. Those amazing landscapes that help to sell the film are not Australian, but Laotian. They should be recognised as such.

In short, then, if the film is supposed to convey how Laos has been forced into modernity by foreign forces (Vietnam, the USA, Australia), then the film and Mordaunt in fact only continue this cycle. Laos itself gets re-buried after having exhumed for the benefit of Western audiences – something made clearer still when we learn that the film was banned in Laos itself (my thanks to Sonia P Barras and to Ben Dunant for bringing this to my attention).

Perhaps this also explains why, even though Mordaunt mentions that the film reflects on how Australia plays a role in shaping contemporary Laos, this is not actually particularly visible (if at all) in the film itself. In other words, while Mordaunt’s words do help to justify his film politically, one wonders that the film itself does not in fact have much political, but rather an economic sensibility.

This is made clear by the film’s final ambition for Ahlo to get rich quick via a rocket competition. As per the equally problematic Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008), money – and money gained via luck/a lottery of sorts (it happens to start to rain when Ahlo fires his rocket) – is posited as the answer to all problems. In other words, Laos can only get on board in modernity if it adopts a policy of individual, rather than collective, enrichment via competition.

In short, The Rocket suggests that capitalism is the answer for Laos. No wonder the film got banned in the communist country that is Laos itself…

Slumdog is equally problematic in its British use of India – and in its tale of individual escape by competition-winning. That co-director Loveleen Tandan is barely given any credit for the film – Danny Boyle did not share his directing Oscar with her – demonstrates clearly the true erasure of India that the film in fact gives to us.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Western reimaginings of places like India and Laos can only be problematic – and perhaps we are in the midst of seeing a new, cinematic imperialism given how prominent it is becoming that Western filmmakers travel to the Third World in order to start their filmmaking careers.

(A short list of films might include Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, Colombia/USA/Educador, 2004), Año bisiesto/Leap Year (Michael Rowe, Mexico, 2010), Soi Cowboy (Thomas Clay, Thailand/UK, 2008), Grand comme le baobab/Tall as the Baobab Tree (Jeremy Teicher, Senegal, 2012), Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Romania/UK, 2009) – but there are many, many more.)

Finally, then, cinema is itself a double of reality. As Ahlo hides his dead twin, so perhaps The Rocket hides the real (dead?) Laos that this film proclaims to reveal. The Rocket is a visually stunning and beautifully acted film, demonstrating the precarious nature of life in rural Laos and showing us – at least implicitly – a scarred and traumatic national past in a sensitive and affecting fashion.

The problem remains, however, that while Laotians should perhaps indeed shoot back at the sky, they are not (yet) shooting their own films. The deprivation of water, here understood as the flow of cinematic images, seems instead to continue…

Common Ground selected for American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase 2014

Beg Steal Borrow News, Common Ground, Festivals, Screenings

We are delighted to announce that Common Ground has been selected for the 2014 version of the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase.

The Showcase starts on 1 May 2014, and participation in the showcase means that Common Ground is eligible for the various awards handed out by the American Online Film Awards in New York at the end of the year.

Common Ground has been accepted into the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase 2014.

Common Ground has been accepted into the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase 2014.

Naturally, everyone at Beg Steal Borrow, and all those involved in the production, are immensely excited at the prospect of the film’s involvement.

More news hopefully will follow shortly!

Preparation under way for new Beg Steal Borrow films

Beg Steal Borrow News, New projects

Preparations are under way for a whole slate of Beg Steal Borrow productions.

First off, there is a film called Selfie, an essay-film that blends fiction and documentary and which consists uniquely of selfies of/by William Brown. William has nearly finished all photography for this film, having been actively shooting during February and March 2014.

The film is a consideration of the selfie phenomenon – but made ‘from within’ (i.e. by taking selfies). Selfie features sequences shot in London, Basel, Paris, Seattle and elsewhere.

Beg Steal Borrow are also hoping to bring to production a pair of films over the summer. The first, tentatively entitled The Life Automatic, is about a young girl who must find her friend in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in order to return to her some money that she has ropped.

The second, provisionally called The Rebirth of Metaphysics, is a London-based film shot in two parts, the first about a young boy who befriends a tramp, and the second about the rocky nature of the marriage of the child’s parents.

Cinematographer Tom Maine and director William Brown are also in discussion to find dates to begin shooting a vox pop documentary in London called Circle/Line, in which the filmmakers, in the spirit of Chronicle of a Summer and Le Joli Mai, ask Londoners how they are feeling.

Finally, various of the Beg Steal Borrow team have submitted an application to the iFeatures scheme run by Creative England, the BFI, BBC Films and Creative Skillset, in order to win money to produce William’s script, Assisted Living, which is a quasi-autobiographical account of a weekend-in-the-life of a middle class family in Worcestershire.

Fingers crossed that the application garners some interest!

Ur Preview Screening Announced

Beg Steal Borrow News, Screenings, Uncategorized, Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux

A preview screening of Beg Steal Borrow’s latest film, Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux, has been announced.

The screening will take place at 10am on Sunday 25 May 2014 at the prestigious Olympic Cinema in Barnes, London.

The prestigious Olympic Cinema will host the first preview screening of Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux.

The prestigious Olympic Cinema will host the first preview screening of Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux.

If you are interested in attending the screening, please email – although places will likely be limited.

Further preview screenings will hopefully be arranged during the summer as the film’s makers move towards submitting the film to various European and other festivals.

A teaser for the film can be found here:-

Common Ground has screening in Preston

Beg Steal Borrow News, Common Ground, Screenings

Beg Steal Borrow’s third feature, Common Ground, has enjoyed a screening at the University of Central Lancashire in Preson.

Director William Brown was invited to introduce the film to various students and staff members at the university, in particular those studying a course on British cinema with Professor Ewa Mazierska.

William spoke about zero-budget filmmaking in contemporary Britain with an enthusiastic group of students, before holding the screening to a gathered audience of around 30 people.

Common Ground was screened at UCLan on 7 April 2014.

Common Ground was screened at UCLan on 7 April 2014.

William was delighted by the invitation – and considers it a real honour to be considered a filmmaker of sufficient significance (?!) to be a representative of contemporary British cinema – even if only of the possibilities that zero-budget filmmaking opens up for contemporary filmmaking in Britain.

The screening took place on 7 April 2014.

Beg Steal Borrow Films on Vimeo

Afterimages, Beg Steal Borrow News, China: A User's Manual (Films), Common Ground, En Attendant Godard, Screenings

Beg Steal Borrow has added its first four features to Vimeo for viewers to watch for free.

Please go to the Beg Steal Borrow Vimeo page and see our first four features for free!

Please go to the Beg Steal Borrow Vimeo page and see our first four features for free!

Anyone who has had a chance, therefore, to catch En Attendant Godard, Afterimages, Common Ground or China: A User’s Manual (Films) is welcome to go to the Beg Steal Borrow Vimeo page and to watch the films there.

Please pass on the word – and enjoy the films!





China: A User’s Manual (Films) gets first screening

China: A User's Manual (Films), Screenings

Beg Steal Borrow’s Chris Marker-inspired documentary/essay-film, China: A User’s Manual (Films), has had its first public screening.

The film played as part of a series of films programmed by the Centre for Research into Film and Audiovisual Cultures (CRFAC) at the University of Roehampton, London.

The University of Roehampton, London, which recently hosted a screening of Beg Steal Borrow's China: A User's Manual (Films).

The University of Roehampton, London, which recently hosted a screening of Beg Steal Borrow’s China: A User’s Manual (Films).

The screening took place on 12 March 2014, and it involved an enthusiastic response from and an engaging discussion between those present and director William Brown.

The CRFAC series has also involved screenings by Omid Djalili, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Michael Chanan, Suridh Hassan, Rozy Sarkis, Catherine Grant and Austin Vince during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Hopefully, China: A User’s Manual will get more screenings in the near future. Keep an eye out for it!