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.

The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, Ghana/UK, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

Shown at the 2010 London Film Festival, but denied even a brief and minimal release until now, The Nine Muses is one of the best films that Jean-Luc Godard never made.

Boring stuff: the film combines archive footage and images of faceless men staring at ganzfeld-like Alaskan snowscapes (think J.M.W. Turner’s later paintings that are more or less depictions of fog in Italian cities) with spoken and written quotations from Joyce, Beckett, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and others, and music by Godardian composers like Arvo Pärt, David Darling and Hans Otte, to develop a poetic collage of ideas that combine to form a meditation diaspora and black (British) history.

The above is ‘boring’ because that’s the brass tacks of the film.

The interesting stuff (to me) is something like the following:

The poet does not necessarily know history, but the poet certainly feels history. The Nine Muses includes a prominent quotation from Zelda Fitzgerald that “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” And yet, even if this were true, John Akomfrah as poet is sensitive to (he ‘feels’) the pain that weighs down on migrant peoples as a result of their travels.

That is, not everyone who is from a migrant family knows or understands the past that their ancestors have endured. Indeed, as someone like Ariane Sherine has recently written, the question ‘where are you from?‘ is a boring one.

No disrespect to Sherine, who can make any claim she wants about the implicit (and certainly real, if ‘well intentioned’) racism that such a question entails. I’m not saying that she is in denial of her roots, but her argument runs the risk of saying ‘[personal] history is boring and unwelcome burden.’

And, sure, her roots are in the UK. I’m not trying to imply that she or anyone else whose family immigrated to the UK long ago – and certainly before she was born – is not ‘British.’

But, again, if we don’t pay attention to history, then we might find ourselves repeating it.

Which is to say that we don’t all need to have a full genealogy mapped out such that we can say that we are descended from Spanish gypsy immigrants (as, according to my cousin, I am). Nor do we need wear badges that make clear our family origins.

But we must understand that the long and troubled history of immigration did happen, and we must perhaps try to get a sense of what global relocation means.

And this is what Akomfrah’s masterful cine-poem seems to be about. It reworks Homer to say that African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants to the UK are wandering souls, and that, as Basho has said, the journey/the wandering is perhaps itself our home.

And yet, wandering is a difficult home to inhabit; it is cold, arduous, and it puts humans on the limits of all that they know, there where humanity itself is forged (for humanity is only a measure of the limits of humanity; anything easily within its limits is almost inhuman, perhaps it is even death).

The enormity and difficult nature of this journey – this is what Akomfrah suggests, and his reworking of footage of immigrants now either grown old or lost to the world, such that literally their beautiful holograms haunt the screen as we see them reanimated – a cinematic punctum of the highest order – is what we should not forget.

We should not forget that the most famous rapist of all time, Zeus, begot the muses with Mnemosyne, the incarnation of memory. That is, memory is the mother of all art. If we forget, then, pace Sherine, art like this will be lost.

The answer to the question ‘where are you from?’ is not, then, some mythical ‘Africa’ or ‘Barbados’ or ‘India’ – but that we are from here, the place in which we currently reside, and which is perhaps always changing. It is not the condemnation to death of the past by declaring the past to be, precisely, finished; it is the declaration of the continued existence of the past in the present.

The poet, then, carries history not as history – but as the fundament upon which is based the present. This is what I mean by ‘feeling’ the past rather than necessarily knowing it (being ‘good at history’ in terms of dates and events, important though that also is).

In a week when the government published its findings on and hopes for the British film industry, it strikes me that a film like Akomfrah’s is all the more important to champion.

The document published – which admittedly I have only glossed – talks a good game of supporting diversity in British independent cinema. And many of the films cited – usual suspects including not just The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK, 2010), but also people like Terence Davies – would arguably make us think that this diversity extends beyond the popular appeal of the former and into the ‘art house’ realm of the latter.

But… One gets the jittery feeling reading the document that it really does mean supporting more mainstream cinema – The Inbetweeners Movies (Ben Palmer, UK, 2011) was a commercial hit, don’t you know? So why not make more films like it? – with not so much regard for art cinema of the kind that Akomfrah has made here, and which does not have much/any of the commercial appeal of British comedies and heritage films.

Given the year and a half turnaround on The Nine Muses between the London Film Festival and its current cinema release (showing only at the glorious ICA at present), one worries for films like Akomfrah’s: it must take a lot of persuading for someone finally to agree to stump up cash to take on the risk of even a one-week run at a single screen in London. Sure, DVD sales will be reasonable, but even with the plaudits on the poster (testimony to the failing power of journalists to convince anyone other than the pre-converted to step out of the multiplex?; there were 9 (nine) people at the beginning and 7 (seven) at the end of the screening I attended), The Nine Muses is still obviously struggling. And with the government paper’s emphasis on the profitability of films, one cannot see labours of love like Akomfrah’s being anything other than lost in the future.

And yet, this is the kind of film precisely to support as vociferously and as eloquently as possible. It is a poem that deserves to be seen repeatedly, and even if it is ‘lost’ on some people (those who walked out of the screening I attended?), its feeling for, or sense of, history – and not in the sense of the ‘great man’ myth peddled by The King’s Speech, but, rather, in the way that human lives in a collective sense prop up and enable any great man (or woman) to exist at all – is what makes it worth promoting.

I know I’ll carry on making movies for nothing – and I more or less expect never to get funding for my films. Sad though this makes me (if I allow my vanity to speak), a superior talent like Akomfrah should be supported at every level: by funders and by audiences.

See The Nine Muses, then, before it is too late.