Some notes on cinema in 2016

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I saw 416 films for the first time in 2016. I saw 237 of these at the cinema. I saw 128 online. I saw 27 on DVD or from a file. I saw 13 on an aeroplane. I saw 9 in a gallery. And I saw 3 on television.

I do not know how well qualified I am to judge anything like Films of the Year, although I suspect that I have seen more films than a number of people who have offered up their thoughts on the matter. But as a result of the number of films that I have seen, I can at the very least draw upon a wider knowledge base – if not a stronger understanding of what I have seen – than those others in order to summarise the year.

In my view, there were two films that really stood out for me at the cinema. The first is Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade), which I understand many other people also greatly to have liked. The second is We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper), a documentary about South Sudan.

Beyond this, I was very much taken with Actor Martinez (Mike Ott and Nathan Silver), Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios), Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari), Baden Baden (Rachel Lang), Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven), L’Avenir/Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve), Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello) and I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach). So these films might constitute my Top 10 of sorts.

Films that then get a kind of proxime accessunt might include: The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu), The Big Short (Adam McKay), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Rams (Grímur Hákonarson),  Chronic (Michel Franco), Obra (Gregorio Graziosi), Les Habitants (Raymond Depardon), Desde allá (Lorenzo Vigas), Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson), Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas), Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu), Sweet Bean (Naomi Kawase), I am Belfast (Mark Cousins), Divines (Houda Benyamina), Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi), After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Ma’Rosa (Brillante Ma. Mendoza), Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Stuart A Staples), Ta’ang (Wang Bing), Paterson (Jim Jarmusch), Les Innocentes (Anne Fontaine) and Your Name (Makoto Shinkai).

I feel that I ought not to given the hullabaloo about it, but I also found Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker) and Snowden (Oliver Stone) to be quite curious films that I cannot claim to understand, and yet the verve and self-confidence of which still remain with me.

Other highlights of the year included the British Film Institute’s retrospective of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, which provided me with the opportunity to see a bunch of films that I had not seen before. I was also especially taken with the retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik’s work that took place as part of the Essay Film Festival organised through Birkbeck.  This involved a rare opportunity to see Who Invented the Yo-yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? and Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment – all of which are excellent.

MUBI continues to offer numerous pleasures, including a wee season of Jacques Rivette films (especially Out 1: Noli Me Tangere) that I enjoyed immensely, with an ongoing retrospective of Lav Diaz (whose Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) I also saw for the first time) also taking place. Meanwhile, MUBI also allowed me to see Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and Horse Money. Furthermore, I enjoyed getting to know a bit the work of Joseph Morder and Jean-Paul Civeyrac through MUBI, while also being taken with White Dog (Sam Fuller), Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May), Los Hongos (Oscar Ruiz Navia), and Mes séances de lutte (Jacques Doillon).

Beyond MUBI, the internet also provided me with various other pleasures, including an introduction to the work of Paolo Gioli, about whom I spoke with John Ó Maoilearca at the Wilkinson Gallery, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade extended video. The BBC iPlayer allowed me to see Adam Curtis’ provocative HyperNormalisation, while I was also very excited to see Michael Chanan’s Money Puzzles online. The latter two are thought-provoking and wonderful films, with Chanan working on almost a zero budget to investigate the workings of contemporary capital.

Meanwhile, three fantastic gallery exhibitions were John Akomfrah’s solo show at the Lisson Gallery, William Kentridge’s Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery, and The Infinite Mix at the Hayward Gallery. I also enjoyed Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage at the Frith Street Gallery, with Stephen Dillane’s performance being one of the most exciting things I have seen in a while. Finally, Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, which is showing at Tate Modern as part of their Media Networks exhibition, is well worth seeing, too.

With regard to actors, I did keep noticing Finnegan Oldfield cropping up in lots of French films; perhaps one to watch out for. The films in which he featured all seemed to draw upon a nexus of anarchic sex and/or violence from young people.

In a year of celebrity deaths, Brexit, Donald Trump, Homs, Aleppo, Mosul, Andrey Karlov and more, it struck me that there were a lot of films about child birth, lost babies, stolen babies, abortions and so on – from Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford) through to Blue Jay (Alex Lehmann). I have commented in my last post on Le corbeau on how I query that this relates to creeping fascism in our time.

There also seemed to me to be a number of films about the difficulty of distinguishing between life and death – including The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy) and Swiss Army Man (Daniels).

I read a couple of student essays while teaching my World Cinemas class towards the end of the year, in which it was claimed that Bollywood recycles ideas, is thus unoriginal, but also unrealistic in its story lines – while the West is more invested in originality and realism.

My reply to the students who said this was to ask them to look at the highest grossing films of 2016. These include Captain America: Civil War (a sequel), Finding Dory (a sequel), Zootopia, The Jungle Book (a remake), The Secret Life of Pets, Batman v Superman (a sequel), Deadpool (based on a comic book), Suicide Squad (based on a comic book) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a sequel) and Doctor Strange (based on a comic book).

If the West is so invested in originality, then why does the Top Ten list consist of eight sequels and/or  adaptations based on existing material? Furthermore, if the West is so invested in realism, then why are all 10 of these films either about talking animals or flying humans (or both)?

The point is not simply to demonstrate how the young Western mind continues regularly to have little to no idea about its own cinema, its own reality, its own originality, its own understanding of what realism is or might be and so on – such that it can make such sweeping claims. Rather, the point is also to show that it is outside of the mainstream that the most interesting, the most original, and perhaps even the most realistic work might be found.

All of this said, I think I am still hoping for something really quite extraordinary from contemporary cinema – be that its makers (if it does not yet exist) or programmers/promoters (if it does exist, but we simply do not get to see it). Perhaps I am too beholden to cinema as a form (and really the most exciting stuff is circulating outside of cinema). I completed three films in 2016 – Letters to AriadneCircle/Line and St Mary Magdalen’s Home Movies, and I am proud of all of them (which is not to mention the compilation film that I have curated, Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016), with which I am deeply proud to be associated). It is a shame that there seems not to be an audience for these films (blanket rejections from festivals so far); I am not sure that there is much out there like them, and yet I personally (being biased) of course feel that there is much to like about them. What I mean when I say that I am ‘hoping for something really quite extraordinary,’ then, is that it would be extraordinary but wonderful to find some films that chime a bit with mine – however arrogant, narcissistic, stupid and plain twattish that might sound.

Ade, Sauper, Kidlat, Lang, Ott/Silver, Ruizpalacios, Depardon, Chanan, Mendoza, Rivette, Costa, Morder, Cousins, Lang, Steyerl, Hansen-Løve, Diaz, Dean (and Khavn de la Cruz, whose Goodbye My Shooting Star I also got to see this year, with Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal and a Whore lined up for viewing shortly): perhaps they all have in common a sense that they don’t care about imitating the cinema of other people, and are instead making the films that they want to make, often disregarding the so-called rules – and regularly working on tiny budgets.

Far from being (overly) alienating as a result of its weirdness and difference, such filmmaking paradoxically becomes all the more exciting for it. It is in some senses a cinema of poverty, then, or a cinema of commiseration, that is most exciting to me. And I should like to see that pushed further. I certainly find it more exciting than the unoriginal mainstream stuff being churned out and which dominates the box office. I hope that makers, programmers, distributors, promoters, reviewers, audiences and others alike can encourage this other cinema – this micro-cinema, what Steyerl might characterise as the poor image, or the wretched of the screen, and what I might call non-cinema – to proliferate.

Notes from the LFF: Amigo (John Sayles, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

Filipino cinema has seemingly had a bit of a renaissance recently – although why I say this will need to be put in context.

From what I understand, the Philippines did have a thriving local film industry in the 1930s, with plenty of domestic stars that mitigated the unrelenting presence of Hollywood products. The country’s art house peak, meanwhile, is perhaps exemplified by the work of Lino Brocka, who was a prominent figure on the film festival circuit in the 1970s and 1980s.

But of late a ‘new wave’ (whatever this term means these days) has been spearheaded by Brillante Mendoza, by whom I have only seen Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009), which was excellent and which makes me want to see more. In other words, it seems as though the Philippines has its own fair crop of talented filmmakers and that Filipinos are more than capable of telling their own stories – as perhaps has been clearly exemplified in the realm of literature by the work of José Rizal, whose novel Noli Me Tangere (1887) forms a core part of Benedict Anderson‘s analysis of nations as ‘imagined communities.’

Rizal perhaps inevitably gets a mention both in this blog (as the only Filipino some of whose work I have read) as well as in John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo, in which a character declares that the Philippines will be saved one day by Jesus Christ and José Rizal riding into town. The moment raised a laugh in the audience, perhaps by people who had heard of Rizal in a bid to vocalise the fact that they recognised the name, but more likely because a fair number of London’s Filipino community seemed to be in attendance at this London Film Festival screening.

And while the mention got something of an approbatory laugh – suggesting that the desire for Filipino economic independence may still make of the the Philippines something of a ‘people to come‘ – it also got me to thinking: why is this film being made by John Sayles?

Don’t get me wrong: I find John Sayles a most intriguing filmmaker. His stilted, even belaboured dialogue can be heard a mile away (not least because it is often spoken, as in this film, with the voice of Chris Cooper). And yet his films, didactic though they can be, are still committed in their righteousness concerning the effort to revivify/sustain America’s ever-dwindling left. That and the fact that Sayles started as a writer on films like Piranha (Joe Dante, USA, 1978), Alligator (Lewis Teague, USA, 1980), and The Howling (Joe Dante, USA, 1981).

Furthermore, Sayles has been a filmmaker committed to making films about issues that are not necessarily connected to him. By which I mean to say, that from his treatment of lesbianism in Lianna (USA, 1983), to his treatment of race in The Brother from Another Planet (USA, 1984), TexMex relations in Lone Star (USA, 1996 – and my favourite Sayles film to date), and Mexican life in Men With Guns (USA, 1997), we might argue that Sayles has taken up ’causes’ with which he may well share all levels of kinship, but which sometimes are the kinds of stories that those involved in these situations must tell for themselves. In other words, Sayles is neither a lesbian, nor black, nor Mexican.

Nor is he Filipino. And yet here is directing a film in part about Philippine independence. For Amigo tells the story of a village chief, Rafael (Joel Torre), who must deal with an invading US garrison at the turn of the last century, which has helped to relieve the Philippines of Spain’s colonial presence, only to decide to take the country for itself/as its own.

As in any Sayles film, we get a plethora of viewpoints on what is happening in the film, including that of many of the American soldiers posted in the baryo, a bunch of the locals, a Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) who is lingering to retain control of his flock, and even some Chinese workers whom the Americans employ (and who soon into the film are slaughtered by Filipino rebels living out in the wilds).

In other words, Sayles is ‘fair’ as a filmmaker in at the very least trying to give as many of the myriad possible viewpoints there could have been and perhaps were of/at this particular moment in world history. Interestingly, the war depicted here has apparently been referred to by Sayles as a ‘forgotten war.’ But this does beg the question: forgotten by whom? I have no idea whether this was is a monumental war for Filipinos, but it seems most likely that this is a war ‘forgotten’ by Americans.

But if this is the case, then why have no Filipino filmmakers (whose work is at all available outside of the Philippines) addressed this moment in Philippine history? Perhaps because it is forgotten in the Philippines. But this still cannot prevent the film from seeming at times like a lesson in other people’s history. More ironic: the film implicitly is a critique of American imperialism (Rafael, who is perhaps an impossibly/infallibly good guy in the film, ends up being pointlessly executed after a ceasefire), and yet for an American to tell Filipino history is potentially to mirror on a cultural level the economic/political/military ‘imperialism’ carried out by the USA 100+ years ago.

As mentioned, the film is ‘fair’: there are good and bad American soldiers, those who make an effort to get on with the locals (including the obligatory young GI who falls in love with a girl with whom he cannot verbally communicate – the stuff of a true, loving relationship, for sure), and those who remain somewhat ignorant/racist. There is one particularly bad local (Nenong, played by John Arcilla) who is looking to find a way to depose Rafael, and some rebels who are not so much bad as constrained to carry out an attempted murder on Rafael because they recognise that he may be perceived as helping the Americans (when in fact he just trying to keep the peace). But on the whole, everyone is likeable(-ish). It is not that the film should have villains that are readily identifiable; but the film does have a couple of these, and it also has a couple of readily identifiable ‘hero’ types, not least Rafael himself. The problem arises, then, in that by idealising Rafael the versimilitude and the veracity of the film seem compromised…

Sayles should not and does not maintain mere gringo-bashing as his sole agenda, however. In fact, the baryo successfully takes on and uses their new access to democracy to vote in Rafael over Nenong at one point; the imposition of democracy might even be a laudable thing in several respects. But whatever problematising that the film makes of the various issues at play (maybe imposing democracy on people who do not have it is sometimes an okay thing to do), applies to the film itself (telling other people’s histories for them can sometimes be okay, but we should be wary that it is a complex and thorny issue, out of which Sayles wishes to take something of an easy way out, it seems, because, speaking frankly, the film is not particularly self-conscious about its role as a representation of history, even if the acting sometimes has a touch of the Brecht about it).

If we compare Amigo to Lola, then arguably we can see something of a difference to be highlighted. Bearing in mind that I may be prey to believing Lola as a ‘true’ portrayal of contemporary Manila, because its handheld, digital shooting style is of course designed to induce credulity in me/the audience, not least because that and associated techniques have historically been linked to movements involving the word ‘realism,’ Lola does at least have an ‘imperfect’ or ‘raw’ look to it. This suggests that Mendoza works with a very small budget and outside of even the Philippine mainstream (let alone outside of Hollywood), which probabilistically if not de facto means that Mendoza can make a film that must respect/allow to creep into its being reality itself – because the filmmakers do not have the budget to shoot the whole film in a perfectly controlled manner.

Sayles is well known as an independent filmmaker, who uses script editing as a means to finance his films – i.e. he has limited funds, too, and makes films his own way. His latest film is set over 100 years ago, and so shooting on location (which he did) becomes hard to achieve without some falsification, such as the construction of the baryo in which most of the film takes place. But as an American filmmaker who makes plenty of cash from script rewrites in Hollywood, his level of ‘independence’ – regardless of whether chosen or enforced – is far greater than that of Mendoza, in the sense that he does (likely) have greater control over what happens on set, which means that fewer extraneous or, as I am arguing here, ‘true’ elements can or will find their way into the film.

It is not really about the story that is told in either film, then (FYI: Lola sees two grandmothers enter into each other’s lives, one as she tries to raise money for her grandson’s funeral, the other trying to raise money for the bail of her grandson, the murderer of the first grandson). Rather, it is about where the films are made and how much reality is allowed into them.

To malign Sayles on this level is in some respects unfair to him, since little or no reality from the past will make its way into any film, let alone his (in spite of the detailed and I would expect accurate mise-en-scène that his film does offer). But it is to say that Filipinos can and perhaps should tell their own stories – even if, as already mentioned, Sayles’ film is relatively ‘fair’ – in all senses of the word.

But while a Filipino audience might watch a Filipino film about independence from Spain and, subsequently, from the USA, would an American, British, or any non-Filipino audience go to watch that film? Do subtitles really make that much of a difference (there are subtitles in Amigo, but we (anglophone viewers) also get guidance from the American characters)? Do subtitles put audiences off films so much that they could not care to watch them? Given that few relatively few people will see Amigo, can we surmise that most audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about the Filipino independence movement and America’s war over there? Given that fewer still will watch Lola, can we surmise that most (Western?) audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about Filipino life at all? Given that relatively few people in the Philippines watch Mendoza’s films (which therefore might be considered ‘festival films’), can we surmise that few Filipinos want to watch films about their own country (or at least would prefer escapist fare to neorealist-influenced, art house fare? Can we surmise that few people want to watch art house films full stop?

If, as seemed the case with the elements of the audience in London that I took to be Filipino/interested in the Philippines, Filipinos are grateful to Sayles for telling this story, is this because he is bringing to the attention of the non-Philippine/anglophone world a moment in history that should be remembered? In other words, does the film function as a way of bringing attention to the Philippines full stop? (Film as a tool for tourism?) Or are they grateful that the film has at least interested someone because neither Filipinos nor anyone else is/seems interested in making a film about Filipino independence? And if this is the case, why is this so? Because we have fatigue from information overload and few are those who are prepared to grit their cerebral teeth and keep on taking in information? Or because the globalising processes that have in part helped to bring about information overload are truly ‘eurocentric’ processes that privilege the global rich over the global poor – hence my own personal anger and attempts to swallow my frustration every time I hear a student tell me straight-faced that they don’t like art house (especially politically-minded art house) cinema because it is ‘boring’?

An interview with Sayles is to be found here for your consideration.