Notes from the LFF: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA/France, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a meta-Coens film.

This needs some explaining, since the Coens have always made movies that are in part about movies – making their films a kind of meta-cinema that is about cinema and its influence on society (especially characters who go getting hair-brained scam ideas and who think it’ll work out as per the movies, but for whom things typically go amusingly wrong).

Inside Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, is not just meta-cinematic, but it feels meta-Coen-like. That is, it surveys and reviews Coen films from the past.

Small signs thereof: a cat that we discover latterly is called Ulysses, recalling O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA, 2000), a John Goodman performance that is straight out of The Big Lebowski (USA/UK, 1998), a long, silent car journey as per Fargo (USA/UK, 1996), and the general suffering of a central character that was crystallised by the Coens in their Job film, A Serious Man (USA/UK/France, 2009).

This does not make Inside Llewyn Davis a tired film. On the contrary, it is as ever a pleasant trip into Coenland, as we follow singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) from Greenwich Village to Chicago and back again for a week in 1961, surveying the folk music scene of the time (with a hilarious performance from Justin Timberlake as nice guy singer Jim).

Now, the Coens are not exactly without success, having won four Oscars between them, and having been nominated for various more. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems like something of artistic statement from them.

By which I mean to say, the self-referentiality of the film leads the viewer to suspect that this is quite a personal project for them. Not personal in the sense that it is autobiographical (though I suppose elements of the film could be – not that I am interested/think it important to find out).

Rather, in the sense that the Coens may, like Llewyn, find themselves never quite seeming to make it, unwilling to sell out (except for Intolerable Cruelty, USA, 2003, and The Ladykillers, USA, 2004 – the equivalent of Llewyn’s singing with Jim?), and somewhat on the margins of the film industry in spite of some success (notably, even after the success of No Country for Old Men, USA, 2007, the Coens have had to return abroad – to France and the UK – in order to co-fund their projects).

It is striking that the film is really about Llewyn’s inability to move on from the death of his singing partner, Mike, whom we never see. Llewyn performs repeatedly in the film – and often very well. But his style, while appreciated, is not deemed commercially viable. And, indeed, he is told by those who do not know that Mike is dead that he should find a partner and/or team back up with him.

This is striking, because of course the Coens work as a pair, and yet neither has – and long may it be before such an event comes to pass – has passed away as of yet. And yet there is a sense that while the Coens, like Llewyn, put in some remarkable performances (including winning Oscars), they remain somewhat overlooked – perhaps like Llewyn they feel surrounded by mediocrity, and it is not that they are any better per se, but they are surprised about how everyone settles for mediocrity.

Except that Llewyn ends up playing the same old tracks the whole time – trapped as he is inside himself, as it were. For this reason, the film has a looping structure, which it is not too much of a spoiler to say.

Do the Coens also feel trapped in their own universe? Were it not for the self-referentiality, I would not feel at all inclined to read Inside Llewyn Davis in this way. But it does seem to be working there somewhere under the surface – like Llewyn himself, very honest, but deeply enigmatic for almost precisely the same reason.

It is a joyful journey through Coenland. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems to be calling out, asking for something more. Maybe the Coens will go really crazy with their next project. Or maybe they are mourning the loss of something dear to them, and which keeps them stuck in Coenland, pleasant though it is to be there with them…

Notes from the LFF: Pardé/Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2013

A man (Kambuzia Partovi) arrives at a house with a holdall. He locks the door, closes the curtains, blacks out his windows and then pulls out of the holdall a dog. We discover that he is a writer and from the television that owning dogs is illegal – and that many dogs are being executed when found.

A knock on the door, a couple enters who claim to be fleeing the police. The man (Hadi Saeedi) leaves, the woman (Maryam Moqadam) seems to come and go – as if materialising and dematerialising within the house at different times.

The house is raided, the writer and his dog hide. Then, as the writer leaves frame during one shot, Jafar Panahi walks into frame – and begins to fix up his house, the window to which has been smashed.

The woman and the writer discuss the fact that Panahi is forgetting them – and that they must make themselves enter his thoughts in order to remain alive.

A second woman (Azadeh Torabi) comes looking for her sister, Melika, who is the woman who arrived during the night and who is talking to the writer. Panahi, however, tells the second woman that he has not seen Melika, nor her brother, the man who came with her.

Workers come and go – and we get the impression that we cannot tell who is imagined and who is real in this movie that seems to be a defiant treatise on the creative process.

Jafar Panahi’s second movie made since his ban on filmmaking for 20 years (after In Film Nist/This is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011), Closed Curtain similarly revels in interiors that are in fact an ‘externalisation’ of the imagination, and fictional characters that are the contents of Panahi’s head.

As the film progresses and as the seeming-fictional characters inside Panahi’s head decide that they do not wish to be forgotten, or die, as a result of Panahi not remembering them, we get the sense that filmmaking is almost an ethical duty.

That is, these people that the filmmaker – which we can expand anyone creative – has in head (and if we don’t like the idea of ‘people’ living ‘inside our head’, then we can simply call them ‘ideas’) have a life – and one owes it to them, as if they were real, to keep them alive. For, the life of the mind is as important as the physical realm in which our flesh circulates.

Indeed, Panahi’s film makes it clear that we cannot tell these apart: if Melika were simply imagined, why would her sister talk to Panahi? And if the writer were merely imagined, then why would he get into Panahi’s car at the film’s end and drive off with him with his dog (leaving Melika, sadly, in the house)?

Panahi contemplates suicide in the film – walking into the ocean and never coming back (shades of Darbereye Elly/About Elly, Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, 2009). We see this happening, but then Panahi is back in the house. In a film, what is imagined and what is real are inseparable – and the power of film is to make us question precisely what is real, to encourage us to think.

And even though the Panahi character laments the fact that he cannot be as creative as he wants, ultimately, he must be defiant and carry on creating, since the life of the mind, those ideas that live in our mind, are as much us as our bodies – and we must realise these ideas by making films (the French verb for directing a film is réaliser).

The liminal setting of the seaside is important here: the ocean is our unconscious, with its unseen depths. And as much as Panahi (and Melika in her own way) are lured by the ocean towards death, one also gets the sense that all characters that we see, perhaps we ourselves, have come from the depths of the ocean, the unconscious, where ideas turn and flow in unseen fashion.

Images within images: Panahi filming on his iPhone, a camera crew walking into a shot – replaying a moment earlier when the writer lets in Melika and her brother. As Chuang Tzu says:

Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.

What is dream? What is reality? The time of the body and the time of the mind become indistinguishable. As, arguably, do Panahi’s films and those of his contemporaries.

I am thinking about oblique references in Closed Curtain to the work of Abbas Kiarostami, who recently has become a migrant filmmaker working in Italy and Japan.

In particular, Closed Curtain seems to speak to Five Dedicated to Ozu (Iran/Japan/France, 2003), a lyrical contemplation of the sea – driftwood on the waves, ducks walking along the beach, humans meeting by the seaside, with a brief lightning flash reminiscent of ABC Africa (Iran, 2001).

I do not think Panahi is offering an implicit critique of Kiarostami here, though potentially he could be. More, I get the impression that movies are memories, even those of/by other people, and that they constitute who we are. As is said in the film, in the end, life is memories.

Lyrical, melancholy but, as mentioned, ultimately defiant, Closed Curtain is another fascinating work by one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers.

Notes from the LFF: Dast-Neveshtehaa Nemisoosand/Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2013, Uncategorized

I fell in love with the cinema of Mohammad Rasoulof when I saw Bé omid é didar/Good Bye (Iran, 2011) at the 2011 London Film Festival. For me this film was every bit as good, if not better, than the works by Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi that caught most/more public attention in terms of films from Iran at around that time.

I was then fortunate enough to see the remarkable Jazireh ahani/Iron Island (Iran, 2005) and Keshtzar haye sepid/The White Meadows (Iran, 2009) during a retrospective of Rasoulof and Panahi’s work at the British Film Institute last year.

So it was with great expectation that I went to see Manuscripts Don’t Burn at this year’s London Film Festival. And in many respects the film does not disappoint.

The film is about a writer, Kasra, played by an anonymous actor – since all who took part in the film must remain anonymous, apart from the director, of course, as a result of the danger in which they will be for taking part in this film – who has written an exposé about the murder of various writers in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.

His manuscript, entitled The Uneventful Life of a Retired Teacher, is to be published clandestinely, except for the fact that the authorities are on to him and are searching for the titular piece of work – in his house and in the houses of those who work with him (publishers, other writers, poets).

Interestingly, however, the film is told predominantly from the perspective of those who are carrying out the investigation into Kasra’s manuscript. To this end, we follow two hitmen, Morteza and Khosrow, as they carry out searches, abduct individuals, torture and murder suspects and the like.

Since Rasoulof is, like Jafar Panahi, serving a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is by consequence an underground film, even if it predominantly eschews the handheld and improvised aesthetic of many ‘underground’ movies – such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

That said, while the film does often look controlled and elegant, rather than filmed in a rush, Manuscripts… opens with, and continues for quite a while to show, images shot with a high shutter speed, which lends to the action that we see a sort of ‘digital jitter’ that does in fact suggest a hurried, ‘guerrilla’ aesthetic.

There is a nod, then, to the clandestine manner in which the film was shot, but Manuscripts… is aesthetically interesting because it spans the two trends that seem to predominate concerning films coming out of Iran. These are namely underground films along the lines of Persian Cats and others – films shot without permits, often made on the fly and, in Ghobadi’s case, on the streets, and genre films, like Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), more ‘official’/authorised films that seem to ‘hide’ subversive elements within more mainstream-seeming fare (suggestions in the muse-en-scène).

Manuscripts… is also politically interesting, because rarely will one have seen a film out of Iran that features such violence (even if still shot and carried out in a muted, unsensational tone), the drinking of alcohol, and, simply put, criticism of the authorities as they carry out their surveillance and torture in pursuit of the elusive manuscript.

The film is downbeat, pessimistic even, but also fearlessly defiant in this way. Even though, I have read, the film’s story is based on the real abduction of writers in 1995 (what unites many of the writers is their having all been on a bus to Armenia for a conference), Rasoulof nonetheless sets the film in the present: mobile phones seem ubiquitous and at one point a character, Kian, says that in the age of Facebook and Twitter no one is interested anymore in politics – a sentiment echoed when another writer, Forouzadeh, suggests that politics today means just living, the implication being that it does not mean protesting.

And yet, the deliberate digital jitter that we see so overtly for the opening section of the film (potentially it remains, but my eyes began not to see it anymore as the film progresses) suggests that this overtly political film is a result of the digital age, the age of Facebook and Twitter. And so Manuscripts… seems to be more upbeat than its characters about the possibility of and for change in the contemporary era.

Nonetheless, it is a guarded ‘upbeatness’ – for the film also ends in a loop, taking us back to the beginning of the film where the government hitmen run away from the scene of one of their murders.

The moment triggers several thoughts: is what I have seen real, or a hallucination? What takes place when? Have I utterly misunderstood the film? This hallucinatory quality suddenly instils a kind of fear or vertigo in the viewer, bringing out the feverish urgency, perhaps, of Rasoulof’s movie. It also unsettles our understanding of what is real and what is not, or of what happens when. This suggests the malleable nature of truth in societies that control all media outlets that help to form the consensual hallucination known as ‘the truth’. And it also suggests a sense of entrapment – for both the victims and the perpetrators of state crime.

What is more, the film ends with one of the hitmen walking away from the camera and into a crowd of people (before the credits tell us that no one is to be credited). This is the territory of Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1948).

But where in that film we see Ricci merge with the crowd to suggest that life is tough for people on the streets in post-war Italy, here we have a sense of conspiracy: whom can we trust if anyone on the streets might be coerced, for financial if not for ideological reasons, to become a murderer for the state?

Rasoulof’s film sets us in a panic, then – and we are not even sure that we have watched a ‘film’ proper because no one is credited. Manuscripts may not burn, but Manuscripts Don’t Burn burns passionately – and yet it seems indestructible, even if its life is mainly a digital file mainly to be pirated. Unafraid of complexity, Rasoulof has delivered another excellent, relevant and profound film.

Notes from the LFF: Soshite chichi ni naru/Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Japanese Cinema, London Film Festival 2013

Kore-eda Hirokazu is for me one of the finest filmmakers in the world today. He makes splendidly and subtly crafted films about everyday characters plunged into slightly extraordinary situations – and although I have not seen all of his films, those that I have seen are always fascinating and humane.

Like Father, Like Son is no exception. It tells the story of a family that discovers, six years after living with who they believe to be their child, that their son is in fact not their son, but really the child of a different family – whose presence in their home has come about as a result of a mix-up at the hospital where the children in question were born.

The film is in part a moral tale about how money is not necessarily the best thing that one can provide for a family, since love and time are perhaps two unquantifiable commodities that nonetheless might help not only to bring and keep a family together, but also might create the conditions to raise a child that is better suited (ethically?) to the world in which we live today.

However, while beautiful – and while ultimately very moving – it is not this aspect of the film that I would like to discuss briefly now – even if Hirokazu manages to make a moral film seemingly unmoralistic, which is no mean achievement given (I could not help thinking how uneven this film would be if the same story were told by, say, Mike Leigh – which I do not wholly intend to serve as criticism of Mike Leigh, whose films I also like).

*Spoilers* (though it will not spoil the emotional impact of the film).

What I wish briefly to discuss now is the fact that wealthy businessman Ryoto Nonomiya (Japanese singer, songwriter and actor Masaharu Fukuyama) realises that he cannot abandon his adopted son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) when he finds on his digital camera pictures that Keita has taken of Ryoto while he has been asleep in the build-up to the big child swap (the families decide to raise their own genetic children rather than to raise children that are not their own).

The moment is moving in a way that – inevitably but perhaps also lazily – recalls Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum – the idea that certain images can pierce/traumatise us so much because they bring the person depicted in the images to life, even though they of course technically absent (or, in the case of Barthes who devises the concept in relation to a photography that he sees of his mother, dead). I say that this is a lazy link, because death, irretrievability, and a real family bond seem key to punctum – and so while Ryoto arguably has a punctum in the film, we do not and cannot necessarily have one, because we are seeing fictional characters. Nonetheless, some aspects of the punctum remain relevant.

What is more noteworthy, though, is that Ryoto chooses to abandon Keita after six years as his father basically because Keita does not have his genes – and he’d like to sire a child that continues his blood line (Ryoto is something of a snob, unlike his counterpart father, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), who runs an electronics store in the countryside).

And so when it is that Ryoto reverses this decision as a result of seeing photos that Keita has taken of him while asleep, we get a sense here not simply that time with someone is what creates a family bond – but that images, photographs in particular, create a stronger bond between humans than do genes.

The ramifications are numerous, though I shall mention only two: no wonder we find CCTV synonymous with the notion of the Big Brother; maybe Facebook friends are an ersatz family for those who use Facebook and who tag themselves in photos with other people.

Photos seemingly are our memories – the photos jogging Ryoto in such a fashion that now Keita truly is his son (even though Keita is not in the images; he just took them). Furthermore, photos do not simply show that which is within their frame; they also show the intentions of those who take them – as Ryoto realises as Keita’s love for him becomes clear in these images. Finally, photos are not objective records of events, but they are invested with emotions and they touch us in a fashion that extends far beyond simply our eyes.

To suggest that the digital – because manipulable, deletable, reproducible – somehow eludes the photographic, because unlike an analogue photograph, a digital photograph does not necessarily have what is often termed an ‘indexical’ link to reality (digital images are made up of numerical code and are not necessarily the direct impression of light on polyester/celluloid film, such that the image is proof of what was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking), would be to misunderstand the digital.

Indeed, it would be to misunderstand the digital on a variety of levels – of which I shall name two.

Firstly, it would reduce to the digital alone the possibility that the world is not a fixed thing ‘out there’ but something that is in fact dynamic and undergoing constitution at all points in time; in fact, even analogue photography was always only ever mummifying change (to borrow a phrase from André Bazin), which in turn leads us to understand that change is perhaps the chief characteristic of reality – but not necessarily a change that happens ‘out there’, but in/with which we are entangled and in/with which we take part.

Secondly, to separate analogue from digital photography would be to lose how photography is the concept that unites the two, and that it is – to continue with the biological discussion that Like Father, Like Son evokes – a meme of sorts that evolves. That is, photography has migrated from analogue to digital; it has changed in the process – as all things evolve; but the digital has also allowed photography to prosper even more than analogue ever allowed it to.

As a result, we have photography transcending its ‘genes’ (it will evolve via digital if it has to), just as Ryoto realises that family also transcends genes, with photography playing a key role in gluing a family together and making it what it is, above and beyond the genetic link that yokes father to son.

In this way, Like Father, Like Son is not only the most moving film that I saw at this year’s London Film Festival, but it is perhaps also one of the most profound.

Notes from the LFF: Electro Chaabi/Electro Shaabi (Hind Meddeb, Egypt/France, 2013)

Blogpost, Egyptian Cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Hind Meddeb’s documentary is about a group of Cairo-based musicians who have pioneered and cornered as their own the genre of ‘electro shaabi’ – a fusion of hip hop, electronic music, protest songs and Middle Eastern and Indian sounds.

Over the course of the film, the extended group begins to splinter, in particular as two of their number, Oka and Ortega, gain commercial success and begin to appear on television, in films, and elsewhere. Of course, they drop their long-standing collaborators like a stone – as per the story of commercial success from indy roots that has been told so often.

The film, however, remains with Wiza, Figo and others, especially MC Sadat, who continue to eke out an existence on the streets as performers at birthday parties, weddings and the like. Their music is often pirated (they tell a story of being ripped off by one of Egypt’s biggest film stars); and they rarely/barely see a penny for their creative endeavours. But, Oka and Ortega perhaps aside, making money is not what motivates them; telling their story is their raison d’être.

This seems also to be Meddeb’s rationale for making this film; the film has an evidently low budget, features much ‘crude’ handheld camera work, and yet captures the vibrancy of the Cairo streets.

The film culminates in MC Sadat and friends observing a march against Mohamed Morsi. It is not my place to judge these actions; Morsi may have been the first democratically elected President of Egypt, and to have had him deposed by the military may seem to an outside observer a worrying sign of anything but democracy – but however odd such events may seem to the outsider, those on the march evidently are against Morsi. And the reason that I raise this is because on the march, MC Sadat explains that those marching are ‘the people’ – and he asks how can the people be considered enemies of the nation. And yet protestors are (often) considered enemies of the nation because they do not conform to the image of that nation that someone else – typically in power – is trying to impose.

The reason that I mention this sequence is because an interesting distinction seems to be drawn here by MC Sadat, one that is perhaps enlightening beyond Electro Shaabi, and which is arguably ‘philosophical’ in nature. By in effect saying that the people and the nation are separate entities/phenomena, we gain a sense of how the people perhaps always eludes the nation.

That is, the nation is a top-down concept that is imposed upon various humans who, for whatever reason, happen to live within certain geographical boundaries during a certain period of history. The people, meanwhile, cuts across those temporal and spatial boundaries – in a fashion that cannot entirely be defined.

For so long, thinkers and politicians have tried to characterise the people according to nationality; the concept of the nation was a means to contain the rebellious libido of the people. And yet now we seem to have a sense – from MC Sadat’s interpretation of contemporary Egypt at least – that the people cannot be contained, and that the nation might well be a concept that needs refining and redefining, even if MC Sadat is referring (paradoxically) to a uniquely Egyptian situation when he raises his question about the people and the nation.

Nonetheless, what we can glean from MC Sadat in Electro Shaabi might have significance elsewhere: the people always exceeds (perhaps even disappoints) the nation, or those who seek to apply a rigid definition to what constitutes a (particular) nation at any rate. It is this excess that is their power, their source of hope, that potential for change. Long may it elude definition…

A final aside: the film definitely embraces the utopian potential of digital technology, with musicians using free software to make their music, and online video sites to share their music. Although the story of Egypt is far from finished, there remains hope when we know that people like MC Sadat are still out there, and that they will not (they say) be nullified by the bright possibility of becoming light, of becoming cinema, as happens to Oka and Ortega.

Instead, MC Sadat and friends elude the ‘cinematic’ in the sense of glossy, beautiful/beatified images, and instead belong to that other aesthetic that is ‘cinema’s’ necessary but neglected twin, the non-cinema that is low grade images, low grade sound, but all the more real because achieved in a guerrilla fashion. An intriguing film.

Notes from the LFF: Taşkafa: Stories from the Street (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Turkey, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Taşkafa: Stories from the Street is ostensibly a film about street dogs in Istanbul. It consists of interviews with residents of the city – who talk about the role and meaning that the street dogs play in their lives – as well as the reading by John Berger of extracts from his novel, King, which, in Zimmerman’s own words, is ‘a story of hope, dreams, love and resistance, told from the perspective of a dog belonging to a community facing disappearance, even erasure.’

Made for a tiny budget, Taşkafa is a wonderful example of what we might call democratic filmmaking. That is, the film seeks to explore the ways in which human society – in this case the city of Istanbul – often seeks to exclude from its reality – here, dogs – that in fact are a core part of that society’s ecosystem.

That the dogs form a core part of Istanbul’s ecosystem is made clear by the testimonies of many of the city’s dwellers. And yet, as we hear from numerous Istanbulites, we get the impression that these humans, too, might be on the verge of exclusion. In other words, what is true of dogs and other animals – that some humans seek to exclude them from their lives for the sake of a ‘sanitised’ (bourgeois?) existence – seems also to be true of people.

In other words, while ostensibly about street dogs, then, Taşkafa is really about the drive to exclude certain ‘undesired’ aspects of society from our spaces – and all in the name of ‘progress’.

As such, the film is a passionate defence of what we might term ‘the people’ – but with people here extended into the realm of people and their confederate animals, with whom we share our existence.

Given its emphasis on people and a desire to include that which is otherwise excluded, it is important that Zimmerman’s film gives voice to people – and gives screen time to dogs – who can tell their own story or show their existence.

Zimmerman has written about how films should be collaborative and communal – a perspective I tend to share. This means that her work is not far from Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of ‘modern political cinema’ – a cinema comprised of ‘intercessors’ – people who come in and tell their own story, with or without embellishment and/or exaggeration, and who thus shape the film with, perhaps even instead of, the so-called auteur.

And thus, since time is the focus of Deleuze’s study of modern political and other ‘time-image’ cinemas, we can understand that Taşkafa is also really about time. It is about the need for the world to allow people to live at their own pace, and not to be coerced into leading their lives following the beat of a particular (for want of a better generalisation, capitalist) drum.

A film made under the dictates of profit and production value is always already taking part in this ‘capitalist’ process of homogeneising time, of making all humans march to the same rhythm (this militaristic image is intentional). And so it is also important that Zimmerman is working outside of the confines of the film industry qua industry.

There are nonetheless some issues. These centre around the question of ‘where do we stop?’ By which I mean to say: one of the Istanbulites in the film says that we should do no harm to plants or ants – in addition to dogs. Or rather (for my memory is not exact), if we cannot but occasionally do harm to plants and ants, then we should at least recognise their part in our ecosystem, the importance that even these overlooked elements play in our lives.

And yet Taşkafa seems to stop at dogs (and cats) – and we are not asked (not specifically, at least) to reflect on the provenance of the meat that we see some people offer to the dogs. Is to eat meat to be harmful? Or is it that – beyond good and evil – we can eat meat, but we should be respectful of where it comes from? That is, we should give thanks to life – in all of its forms – meaning that we are now on ground similar, in the smallest type of film, to the ‘lesson’ offered in James Cameron’s Avatar (USA, 2009), the biggest type of film.

(Perhaps it is okay to like Avatar, but the issue is whether you can get beyond its insistent fast pace and its high production values and learn also to love Taşkafa, for the latter forms an equally important part of the mental, cinematic and perhaps material ecosystem that is our world. And if you cannot love Taşkafa, too, then you are potentially lost.)

And if we opened up our inclusive love for the world to ants and plants, then surely we must also to air, that which helps sustain and constitute us, and also then to mere matter for it is that from which we are composed, and thus also to antimatter, for antimatter is also real, simply it ‘exists’ at a different rhythm to matter itself. We need to push as far as we can go – this is my argument in Supercinema – in order to lead an ethical existence based on what we might call ‘withness.’

Finally, given his own views on the cruelty and indifference of nature, I wonder what Werner Herzog, to whom Zimmerman makes reference in her essay on Open Democracy, would make of Taşkafa? Does it romanticise its canine brethren (too much)? I’d like to think not, but I am interested nonetheless.

Taşkafa is a beautiful film – about much more than street dogs, as this blog post has hoped to suggest (and this is without going into the specificities of its being a film made and set in Istanbul, for which oversight on my part, apologies). It is wonderful that the LFF chose to programme it. It would be great to see more films like it…

On the eve of the London Film Festival 2013

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

In many respects, I am certain that what I am about to write will be proven wrong over the next couple of weeks. The London Film Festival (LFF) is about to start, and I am going to write below that cinema is not just dead, but has been for a long time – from a certain point of view, at least. I hope that I shall at the LFF see at least a few films (I cannot afford to go to many) that are formally and thematically interesting. Indeed, on a certain level I have no reason to believe that human genius has come to a close and that humans do not continue to be innovative and ingenious in all fields of endeavour, including filmmaking. But I’d like to outline some concerns nonetheless.

I have a voice that does not carry very well. It is a common experience in restaurants, at shop and kiosk counters, and on the telephone for my interlocutor to say to me something along the lines of ‘I can’t hear you’ – typically in an irritated tone that immediately riles me and which often will lead to me saying something along the lines of ‘well don’t you think you should listen more carefully, then?’ I then often will raise my voice in an exaggerated fashion so that they definitely can hear me – i.e. I basically start shouting at them (or I start doing my version of shouting, which is probably just about audible for them).

Why this anecdote? Well, I am using it as a symptom of something else: namely the fact that the world is not so interested in the low voice, the whisper and the murmur – but really only in the shout, the bang, the loud noise. And having naturally a quiet voice, I find it saddening and infuriating that no one will listen.

Don’t get me wrong; I can perform ‘loud’ both professionally – I am a teacher/lecturer and it is necessary on a certain level to perform ‘loud’ – and socially – I can demand attention as others do, and likely in an equally annoying fashion, especially when inebriated. But forasmuch as I do desire and demand attention, especially when inebriated, I, like many others, also try not unnecessarily to be loud – except when circumstances suit or require it (e.g. during group inebriation).

(This blog is a performance of quiet, too, of course – so bear in mind the fractal of infinite regress that potentially we are entering: is this a ‘loud’ quiet or a ‘quiet’ loud?)

What is true of my personal experience – not only do people not listen to quiet voices, but in fact they find them annoying and are impatient with them (my interlocutors in various places in my daily life) – is perhaps also true of movies.

That is, people have little patience, it seems, with ‘quiet’ movies. With slow movies. With movies that are not immediately recognisable.

What does this have to do with the LFF?

Well, it is not uniquely to do with the way in which the LFF has a large number of gala events revolving around blockbusters (by which I mean large-scale productions, typically featuring well known stars). This is increasingly commonplace at film festivals and it does suggest the encroachment into art house territory of mainstream cinema. Festivals need to hold such events because they attract attention, which in turn attracts audiences, sponsors, and the interest of the media. Nonetheless, that festivals need to do this at all suggests the prevalence of ‘loud’ as the defining ethos of the LFF and other festivals, and ‘loud’ as the defining feature of contemporary society, driven as it is by the storm of hysteria propagated by the media.

Don’t get me wrong; the LFF will also feature many ‘quiet’ films – typically films about poor people from other places on the planet. But there is a sense in which the ‘quiet’ films that one sees are of a kind that has been sanctioned and/or ring-fenced in advance. That is, they are a ‘controlled quiet’ that, by virtue of being controlled, are not necessarily ‘quiet’ at all, since they are ‘quiet’ in the pay of ‘loud’ – or what we might in short term festival films. We might refine our dichotomous quiet/loud analogy here and say that these films belong to one of a small number of vocal pitches or tones that are deemed acceptable; there is not much scope, however, for differences. And while the term festival evokes loudness as probably a defining feature, nonetheless a festival should also be a celebration of difference. Sanctioned/ring-fenced difference is not really difference at all.

Talking with filmmaker colleagues of mine, a common rant against film festivals is the submission process. This is not simply an excuse for me to rant (again) about Withoutabox, the online film festival submission system owned by Amazon, and which sees hundreds of hopeful filmmakers sink large amounts of money into film festival submissions without telling them the honest truth: that maybe one or two per cent of films submitted via this system will make it into the festival in question; that the interns that watch the films submitted may watch two to three minutes of each film submitted, but by no means the whole; that the interns that watch the films may not watch their film at all, the festival instead taking the (substantial sum of) money paid for the submission and – so to speak – ‘running’.

Indeed, the rant against Withoutabox cannot on some levels apply to the LFF at all; they are one of few festivals that does not use Withoutabox (as far as I am aware), and if you are a British filmmaker, it is in fact free to submit your film for consideration. I have no idea who watches films submitted or for how long, but I take it on faith that everything is fair and equal. Although, oddly enough, it remains strange how pretty much all films at the festival have a clear ‘pre-sold’ element to them. That is, the festival is not just thinking about whether a film is good or bad, they’re thinking about how much of a ready-made audience that film already has, about how easy or hard it will be ‘sell’ that film to the general public.

I am going to return to the general public, since they/we are an important aspect in my hopelessness, my sense that cinema has long since been dead. But I would like right now to stick to an issue just raised in connection to Withoutabox. For, filmmakers know these days that they might have two or three minutes in which to convince a festival intern (or a festival director; I am happy to accept that some festival organisers watch every film submitted to them) to accept their movie, and so they commonly ‘frontload’ their film, in effect making it ‘loud’ so that the viewer will continue watching.

But surely wanting to continue watching is the definition of a good film, and why would one accept a film if one did *not* want to continue watching it?

This is on many levels a likely and a useful objection. It helps to raise a couple of points. Firstly, if indeed it is often (likely unpaid) interns who sort through the first rung of film submissions to a festival (and this would include the LFF, regardless of whether one pays to submit a film or not), then – no disrespect to those interns – their tastes most likely reflect their (probably young) age more than they represent the whole filmgoing community. Secondly, and in a related fashion, this means that only certain types of film will be accepted, namely ‘loud’ ones – with ‘loud’ here not being defined by explosions, but by familiar faces (stars), familiar scenarios, familiar locations and/or, in the case of ‘unfamiliar’ faces, scenarios and locations, ones that are ‘familiarly’ unfamiliar, by which I mean to say ‘recognisably exotic’. What is left out, then, are films that are truly different, ones that are, metaphorically speaking, too quiet to be heard. Ones that may be very quiet to begin with – films that are not ‘frontloaded’ – but which potentially could redound in the imagination for years to come, were they given the chance.

But they are not given the chance. Even though they are, like me at the kiosk/on the phone, the client (who we should know nowadays is always wrong, and if he should raise his voice when complaining, then he is obviously being abusive to the poor and not responsible staff member and could face a fine and/or imprisonment, even though bus drivers, to take one example familiar to me, are regularly abusive to their clients, as if now the service provider were the only person who was right), they are chastised for speaking too quietly, as if they were wasting the service provider’s time. And that is all that festivals are – service providers. And makers of different films, like me at the kiosk, are made to feel inferior, incapable, unacceptable as a result of the way in which the service provider/festival is unresponsive to them and/or the way in which the service provider will take their money, but will also make clear that they are really/somehow wasting that service provider’s time.

I sometimes wonder that filmmakers wasting their money on festival submissions would be better advised taking their £50ish submission fee and contacting a school or university that is somewhere within their reach, and using that money to travel to that school or university to present their work to that school or university’s film society (or a film club out in the country, in a small town, in a suburb, in an area of a large city – wherever). This way they might play their film to 10, 20, 30 or 40 people at a time, rather than to a lone festival intern who won’t watch the whole thing.

But this then needs to address the fact that many university film societies themselves just play mainstream fodder in order to attract viewers/people. That is, if I am Jane Filmmaker and I contact a university to show my film, they likely will just ignore me as the festivals do.

To restore some structure to what otherwise might seem to be becoming a rant: the frontloading filmmaker, the festival filmmaker, the mainstream filmmaker, the film festival organiser, the film society organiser, the film festival goer who is not dissatisfied with the service provider – all are guilty of the same logic. And that logic is the cult of the silver screen. It is the belief that you are nobody unless you are cinematic. And this is where the general public must be brought into this blog.

For, so in the grip of cinema are we as a (global) society that many, many (most? all?) people are prepared to go to enormous lengths, perhaps to any lengths, in order to ‘make it’, in order to ‘get into the industry’, in order to become ‘somebody’ by being on or by being connected to the silver screen. This is the cult of celebrity – and it extends beyond cinema itself, though I use cinema as a keyword because cinema is still largely considered the ‘top of the pile’ – even though television and internet celebrity might involve a significantly greater number of viewers.

Everyone is complicit in this system of cinematic logic such that those who are making films to say something unique and different rather than in the interests of pleasing others, those who are making ‘quiet’ films, are inaudible to others. Not only are they inaudible, but people do not want to hear them – not even a student film society that is ludicrously worried that both that no one will turn up to their *free* event, but also that if the audience does not *like* what they show at that free event that somehow this will reflect poorly on them; likewise film festival organisers both put themselves forward as arbiters of taste while also running scared that people won’t like their tastes – as if disappointment were not the most common reaction to most mainstream films, as if people were not actually happy enough with disappointment that the experimental reaching out for new thought that is filmgoing could not sustain greater levels of experimentation with regard to making and programming. And yet, given that films are made by people, not to value original, different, ‘quiet’ films is akin to saying that they do not value the people making those films. Potentially it is against the concept of value that we should take issue; nonetheless, even within a system of value, it is problematic to deem some humans as without value, while others have value because they are ‘loud’ (that is, because they not only conform to, but also set the terms concerning what constitutes value – i.e. they validate themselves and others are complicit in going along with them, in believing their self-validation to be ‘true’ or ‘real’).

But just because people believe the loudest to be the best and thus the quietist the worst, this does not mean that it is so. Everyone has had experiences in which they have a quiet moment to think for themselves. These are not solipsistic moments; most often what happens during these quiet moments is the person thinking or reflecting eventually lets the world consciously into their experience and they get to think about how amazing is a tree, a car, air, the sky, the universe and existence more generally. As humans, we value these moments.

Nonetheless, as humans we are seemingly also bent on destroying these moments and on destroying the possibility for these moments. For, the sheer loudness of the world makes it impossible for us to think. We are bombarded by loud sights and sounds day in day out, and if they do not come from our surroundings (i.e. if we live in the remote countryside), these sights and sounds will nonetheless come crashing into our world via our media (a generation of people who grew up in the countryside and who cannot stand the thought of going back there). In effect, we are killing our capacity to think; we are rewiring our brains such that we would rather put on our iPod headphones and blast musical shit into our brains than listen to what is actually going on around us. Quiet moments of reflection are not solipsistic; the acceptance of a loud world and the putting up around us of a loud wall such that quiet has no place – that is the road to solipsism, and it is the road that humans walk down in growing numbers, traipsing stupidly after the belief that they will become cinematic, that they will ‘make it’, that they will ‘get in’ – with no concern for what is actually around them, for the life that they are leading now.

I like and watch a lot of mainstream films. They are not uniquely bad for you. But they cannot be the only thing. On the eve of the London Film Festival, I take time to reflect on this and related matters – and while I hope to proven wrong, I am concerned that the LFF is more complicit in the culture of loud, in the cult of cinema and of celebrity, than it is in the world of quiet, the world of difference.

If the media, with cinema as their figurehead, are responsible literally for rewiring our brains – for brainwashing us – then this is something that we should take very seriously, indeed. But the battle is not one that can take place outside of cinema – encouraging people simply not to watch films. It is one that is taking place in and on cinema screens. Note how a large number of recent blockbuster movies have involved the use of ‘arty’ directors – from Tim Burton to Sam Raimi, from Ang Lee to Kenneth Branagh. Why the rise of the ‘blockbuster auteur‘? It is because the art house poses a threat to the mainstream; too much quiet, too much quiet time, too much thinking for and – Heaven forbid – expressing of oneself is too much of a threat to a system that requires people to accept their fate by stupidly chasing the carrot on the stick that is cinematic and celebrity culture. And so the way to negate that threat is to get art house directors to become complicit with the mainstream, by making mainstream films.

The rise of the ‘blockbuster auteur‘, then, is an aggressive, combative manoeuvre to negate the art house. To drive the quiet films from art house cinemas and into the fewer screenings that are film festival screenings. And then to drive them from film festival screenings and on to television. And then to drive them from television and on to the internet. And then to drive them from the internet and into oblivion.

This is a war that is raging – the war for our hearts and minds, the war to have a heart and a mind of your own, or to have a heart whose desires and a mind whose thoughts are dictated by the commercial imperatives of cinema and its fellow media. The London Film Festival is a minor battleground in that war, which is ubiquitous and ongoing. Like all wars, what is happening is confusing and confused; people think they are fighting on one side, but in fact are unleashing friendly fire on their fellows. The ideal would be to put down the weapons entirely. But as long as this does not happen, we can only participate in how things unfold. I hope that I am about to see some quiet and different films that help me to think; I am worried that the ones that I see will simply be POWs paraded by a festival that really is wearing the uniform of the loud. Perhaps cinema – a cinema of difference – has long since been dead; it went with a whimper, but no one heard it because they were distracted by the ongoing series of loud bangs.

Notes from the LFF: In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

On 20 December 2010, filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years.

He is not alone: plenty of other filmmakers and artists have been placed under arrest in the last 12 months and more in Iran – including this film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was arrested since the completion of this project.

Before seeing This is Not a Film at this year’s London Film Festival, organiser Sandra Hebron read aloud a letter signed by various Iranian filmmakers in exile, including the whole of the Makhmalbaf family (Mohsen, Samira, Hana, and Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini), calling for people worldwide to put pressure on the Iranian government in whatever way they can in order to release Panahi.

His crime? Being critical of the current Iranian regime, which – as per my previous post on Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011) – seemed illegitimately to install itself in power after the 2009 general election.

Being a filmmaker, not least a filmmaker with a global standing, Panahi is a dangerous man: he has the power to influence people, to rouse a sense of injustice in the (already-roused) masses of Iran who are in search of a more democratic society than the one currently on offer. He can also rouse anti-government support beyond Iran’s borders.

Given Panahi’s global standing, and given Iran’s refusal wholly to endorse films that – even if only ambivalently or allegorically – critique Iran’s status quo, it is no surprise that Panahi’s films – like those of many of his fellow filmmakers in Iran – have sought funding from outside of the country, principally Europe (and principally within Europe from France, Germany and the UK).

I am surely not the first to argue this point, but I must say that even if undertaken innocently, there is little to no true innocence with regard to the politics of who funds what films and for what reason. Representation is an awesome and persuasive tool. That is, all films have – or at least one can read into all films – an element of propaganda: incapable as we are of perceiving the whole of reality, consigned as we are only to partial truths, no film will present things as they are. But this does not stop a filmmaker from portraying events/the world as he sees them/it.

For this reason, to stand accused – as Panahi does, according to the letter that Hebron read out – of being an agent for French and British power in Iran seems to overstep the mark as far as his filmmaking is concerned. Panahi is a filmmaker trying to find the means to make the films that mean the most to him; if his funding comes from the UK or France or anywhere, and if that funding comes with few or no conditions with regard to the kind of film that he is supposed to deliver, then Panahi is, or should be free, to work with those funders.

In light of the seemingly stolen election, in light of the evident lack of freedom of speech or filmmaking in Iran, and in light of the documented and murderous brutality of the present Iranian regime towards dissident elements within contemporary Iranian society, it seems that any filmmaker concerned with anything but the most reactionary escapism must give room for elements that are critical of the contemporary regime.

This does not necessarily make Panahi an agent of British or French interests in Iran – even if as a filmmaker his outlook and approach finds favour with foreign (predominantly educated, middle class – i.e. festival) audiences as much if not more than it does with domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, to be denied the right to critique the country in which one lives and which with much probability one loves is a betrayal on the part of that country.

And this is what Panahi has suffered: a betrayal.

If we are to get all up in arms about Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers, we should not limit ourselves simply to their plight. Others have suffered terribly under the current regime, including, for example, Neda Agha Soltan, whose death can be seen on YouTube (but to which I shall not link here). And beyond Neda Agha Soltan, there are many more people who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime. In other words, this is not just about filmmakers. This is about the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even the entire world.

Even if Panahi himself is only one of a multitude of Iranians adversely affected by the current government in Iran, Panahi is still very much to be admired.

For what he has done is to produce a film – playfully, perhaps rightfully, termed a non-film – in spite of the ban that has been imposed upon his creative output. Furthermore, in total defiance he has had that ‘non-film’ distributed globally, including at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did he achieve this? Remarkably, by hiding the film on a Flash drive in a birthday cake – which then found its way out of his apartment block, out of Iran and – first of all – to the Cannes Film Festival, before making its way – among other locations – to London.

Panahi’s non-film is what we might term minimalist in execution: Panahi is under house arrest – pending an appeal on his sentence – in his flat/apartment block in Tehran, and so the majority of the film takes place in the few rooms to which he is (was – is he still?) confined, and it features for its greatest part only Panahi and Mirtahmasb.

The non-film starts with Panahi taking breakfast, talking on his mobile phone, and then missing a family phone call while he is in his bathroom. These moments are comprised of two static shots in which Panahi refuses to recognise the camera.

In other words, the non-film starts almost as though it might be a fiction film as opposed to a documentary – Panahi is acting rather than ‘being himself.’

This fictional feel is broken, however, when Panahi picks up the camera that has been left rolling in his bedroom and carries it through his house: the refusal to recognise the camera’s presence is immediately broken.

Nonetheless, once Mirtahmasb arrives and takes over the filming, Panahi prepares tea and feeds his iguana, Igi, as if the camera were not there.

However, it is when he receives a phone call from his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that Panahi definitively casts off the illusion that this is a film in the conventional sense of the word, thereby taking us into the realm of the non-film.

Gheyrat explains that the ban on filmmaking might well be rescinded by the courts, but that Panahi surely will face some prison time. She then affirms passionately that the ruling against Panahi is not legal, but political. That is, the judiciary is not in charge anymore; Panahi is a plaything of the political powers that be. As such, Iran is no longer a country in which all are equal in the eyes of the law, but a country in which the law is changed according to the whims of politicians.

(Britons: take note. One should not call for ‘special punishments’ for the perpetrators of crimes, for example looting during riots. The crimes committed – damage to property and theft – should be punished according to the law and not, to use Gheyrat’s words, according to ‘current social conditions.’)

This phone call is enough for Panahi to say to Mirtahmasb that he cannot act anymore. Referring to a moment in his own film, Ayneh/The Mirror (Iran, 1997), Panahi does what his child actor, Mina Mohammad Khani, did in that film – and refuses to act. This he calls ‘throwing off the cast’ in reference to how Mina in Mirror refused after a while to wear the cast she had been given and stepped off the bus on which they were filming.

Of course, Mirtahmasb keeps the camera rolling even though Panahi says he is not acting anymore. If this is no longer acting, but if the camera is still recording, what is it that we are seeing now? As per the greatest of Iranian films, and as identified by a host of scholars of Iranian cinema, the line between fiction and reality becomes definitively blurred here – in a fashion that befits the more ‘art house’ branch of Iranian film.

(The argument that Iranian films blur the boundary between fact and fiction has been used persuasively to argue that we should not take Iranian films to be immediate representations of Iranian life. That is, we should not believe everything that we see in Iranian films as being real. In fact, it is an Iranian artistic tradition to blur this boundary. Even though Panahi has made not a film but a non-film, then, its artistic credentials are high, perhaps even beyond question.)

This ambiguity between fiction and reality is only heightened when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut – only for Mirtahmasb to refuse, because Panahi is not entitled to make films and so therefore cannot direct the very film in which he currently is featuring.

(Humour, perhaps surprisingly, but also in a very human fashion, features prominently in This is Not a Film, as hopefully this blog will make clear.)

Not only is the non-film only ambiguously a documentary and/or a fiction, then, but the question concerning whose film/non-film this is also becomes ambiguous. That is, who is the filmmaker here? Panahi or Mirtahmasb? This ambiguity is further heightened during moments in which the camera is simply left rolling with no operator, as happens towards the film’s climax. No one is making this film at such moments; as such, this cannot be a film, since a film needs a maker, no?

Further to complicate matters is Panahi’s ingenious use of mise-en-scène. As Panahi shows to Mirtahmasb on his TV the sequence from The Mirror that Gheyrat’s phone call brought to mind, we have a mise-en-abyme effect whereby there is a film within the non-film that we are watching: if This is Not a Film is not a film, perhaps it is so because films like The Mirror lie within it and not necessarily beyond it. In this way, This is Not a Film is not a film because it has its own reality – such that it contains even other films.

Panahi pauses The Mirror, and Mirtahmasb pans over to him, stood as he is next to a shelf that houses a variety of DVDs. Most of the DVD sleeves are illegible – at least to this viewer – but prominent among those that are legible (to me) is the DVD of Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France, 2010).

Buried is about an American truck driver in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin. Practically the whole of Buried is set within the confines of the coffin. To have the DVD of Buried so prominent in the frame, then, is to suggest a parallel between that film and this non-film: Panahi’s house arrest is also akin to some sort of artistic death, as if he, too, were buried alive.

What is more, the way in which Buried functions for some viewers as a film that raises awareness of the complexity of contemporary Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East in general (including Iran), makes of it a truly canny choice. It is contemporary, relatively fresh in the minds of those who have seen it, and politically relevant. Without wishing to over-read what could, after all, be a random detail, the prominent placement of the Buried DVD also suggests Panahi’s desire to send out coded messages about his imprisonment specifically to Western viewers, knowing full well that it is most likely only Western – or at the very least non-Iranian – viewers that will be able to see his film.

If the reader thinks that the above is the over-reading of what is arguably a random detail, then I would respond thus: in fact it does not matter whether the DVD of Buried was prominently placed in frame on purpose or by accident. What is important is that this non-film makes us question this very issue. It is when we are not – and perhaps cannot – be sure about the fabricated nature or otherwise of the images that we are seeing that Panahi’s film works best: is this a film or not?

Panahi then speaks to fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, who tells him that she is trying to rally support for his cause. Panahi discourages her from doing so, repeating the advice of his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that it is perhaps better for him to court the support of foreign artists and Iranian artists in exile than for domestic artists to risk trouble of their own by speaking out against the government’s persecution of Panahi in particular and Iranian filmmakers more generally.

Bani-E’temad replies by saying that too many artists in Iran are living in fear of the present regime and that they must be more defiant. This truly is a bold act of defiance on her part to go on record as saying this.

(Even if Panahi cannot leave his home, his trusty iPhone keeps him in touch with well-wishing supporters. If anyone thought Iran were a backward country – if anyone took a Kiarostami film to be a ‘transparent’ depiction of life in Iran, then they should remember that the protests against the stolen election in 2009 were not for nothing known for their innovative use of Twitter and other social networking tools for their organisation.)

Panahi then decides that he will not make a film, but instead will read a screenplay of a film that he wanted to make before he was placed under house arrest (although, Panahi tells us, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government agency responsible for approving films at script and edit stage in Iran, did not approve this script when he sent it to them).

This script tells the story of Maryam, a young woman from Isfahan who wants to study the arts in Tehran. Her parents, however, refuse to let her go to study and so instead lock her in her room – such that she has little to no contact with the outside world – a kind of young adult version of the two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf’s beautifully poetic Sib/The Apple (Iran/France, 1998), who also are confined to their house and who pass messages over their courtyard wall in order to communicate with the world beyond.

In the style of Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland, 2003), Panahi lays tape down on the carpet in his living room (which also houses a beautiful old Lumière-style cinematograph) in order to show us the borders of the set that he had created for his film about Maryam.

He then talks us through the story. It is as if Panahi here has become Scheherazade, who must make up stories in order to stay alive. That is, like storytelling for Scheherazade, filmmaking is for Panahi not a money-making pastime, but something that he feels compelled to do, something that he must do because he has no option (and on a level that is above and beyond all those who in the blush of youth claim to feel the same about filmmaking – “I don’t think I can lead my life without making films” – and yet who never do it – a chiding I give to myself more or less everyday). Without filmmaking Panahi might as well be buried…

Even without the ideal tools (sets, actors, lights, etc) to make a film, Panahi nonetheless films; he will make a non-film if he cannot make a film. The important thing is to make, to create. This is the gift of the filmmaker and other poets and artists: it is not uniquely the gift of skill in art-making that they have, but the compulsion to give that skill to the world, the inability to stop that need to create from bursting forth. A gift to and a gift from the artist.

At one point, Panahi (a gmail user) checks what is perhaps his own website, or at the very least a website featuring news about him. It is pure propaganda, with the website supposedly reporting that Panahi has turned to political filmmaking recently (by which is meant a turn to pro-government films), as well as stating that he ‘directed’ the recent Berlin Film Festival – even though in reality he was not allowed to travel for it – in February 2011 as in 2010.

This manipulation of the truth, then, may in its own way make artists of the Iranian government in their participation in the falsification of websites such that we cannot tell fact from fiction anymore. But whereas Panahi is intelligent and playful, in this case we can tell that the website in question is spreading downright lies.

What sound like gunshots outside begin to become increasingly common on the soundtrack. Panahi receives a phone call from a friend who offers to pick up his wife and daughter – since many people are taking to the streets, since traffic is heavy, and since the police are beginning to turn out in force.

Whether this is a staged phone call or simply a fictional device weaved into the film, the caller hangs up – saying that he is being pulled over by the police. Minutes later he calls again – safe, but saying that the police had spotted a camera on the passenger seat of his car and had pulled him over to ask him what he was doing with it.

In spite of being asked in my own experience to stop filming by the police on various occasions in public spaces and for a variety of reasons – most of which have seemed to me unreasonable – there is something sinister about the police pulling someone over simply for owning a camera and not for using it.

But as the non-film goes on, we begin to realise that those are not violent protests in the streets, but rather fireworks being set off for Chaharshanbe Suri, or Fireworks Wednesday, which typically takes place in Iran on the Tuesday night before ‘Red Wednesday.’ This takes place on the last Wednesday before Nouruz, which is the Persian New Year.

(This means that – if it were filmed in one day, which in fact seems unlikely – This is Not a Film was filmed on 15 March 2011, which partly tallies with the coverage that we see on television of the Tōhoku earthquake, which took place on 11 March 2011. That said, Panahi seems to react to the earthquake news as if it were brand new to him, which surely it could not have been had four days elapsed since the earthquake. This renders ambiguous the true timeline of this non-film’s making – made only worse when the IMDb credits the film to 2010 – while at the same time showing that even in his confinement, Panahi is once again in touch with the outside world – most of which simply cannot be faked – thanks to the media.)

As is explained in the film, Fireworks Wednesday (which, coincidentally, is the name of a film by the excellent Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi – he also responsible for the recent Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Iran, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, A Separation (Iran, 2011)) has been ‘called off’ by the government, and yet people go out and do it anyway – including Panahi’s downstairs neighbour, Shima, who at one point tries to leave with him her yapping dog, Mickey. Amusingly, Panahi ejects Mickey swiftly when it turns out that he and Igi do not get along.

Therefore, the soundtrack to the film sounds something like a war zone, while at the same time being charged with political resistance, as people light fireworks and street fires to celebrate the coming of a new – dare one hope for a better? – year.

This is Not a Film reaches its climax when Panahi starts to film Mirtahmasb on his mobile phone as Mirtahmasb films Panahi with the professional camera. Mirtahmasb quips amusingly – one of various moments of genuine humour in this otherwise anxiety-ridden film – that they are like hairdressers, in that when they run out of people whose hair to cut, they start to cut each other’s.

(Panahi also recounts an amusing story about how he and Bani-E’temad dream of starting up an Idle Filmmakers’ Mobile Kitchen during the periods when they are not making films – simply so that they can meet people.)

Mirtahmasb then says that he needs to leave. He leaves the camera rolling on the kitchen table, explaining to Panahi that ‘it matters that the cameras are ON’ (the upper case ‘ON’ appearing in the subtitles) – perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the film that filming whatever one can will help to make clear the would-be criminal nature of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

And as Panahi goes with Mirtahmasb to the door, there appears a good-looking young man who calls himself Hassan, and who claims that he is filling in for Akbar in emptying the bins, and that he is the brother of Nasrin, Akbar’s pregnant wife.

A strange encounter ensues: Hassan recognises Panahi, even though Panahi does not recognise Hassan. Mirtahmasb leaves, while Panahi questions Hassan about his life.

Oddly, though, Hassan becomes nervous, seemingly evading Panahi’s questions about his jobs (he has various) and his studies – only ever answering in the vaguest of terms: he’s studying the arts, but he provides no details that might make this response plausible.

To a westerner/to me (if not to everyone), there is something strange in this exchange. Hassan’s evasiveness in answering Panahi’s questions leads one to suspect that he is a spy of some sort, sent by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which is often referred to as MOIS or VEVAK. And that, seeing Panahi with a camera in his hand, he is about to do Panahi’s appeal case no favours whatsoever.

Furthermore, the sequence is immensely tense in that Panahi, filming Hassan at first with his iPhone and then with the camera that Mirtahmasb has left running in the kitchen, goes with Hassan in the lift. Here the conversation changes to half-charming, half-sinister, in that the now-greater levels of confinement in the lift only add to the claustrophobia of the film.

In addition, Hassan has told Panahi that he was working in the building on the night that the police raided the apartment building to arrest him, his wife, his daughter, and 15 others including filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, who was assistant director of Bahman Ghobadi’s underground film, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

Why was Hassan there when the police raided Panahi’s place – in a fashion seemingly reminiscent of the party raid that occurs in Talayae sorkh/Crimson Gold (Iran, 2003)? Why does he specifically bring it up now, nearly a year later? The answer to these and other questions is repeatedly forestalled as Hassan takes the lift down level by level – from the 9th floor (Panahi’s) to the basement – stopping at each to check if there is rubbish to pick up.

Perhaps it is nerves on Hassan’s part – being stuck in a lift with a great director who is also filming him (Hassan does amusingly say that he is not looking good enough to be filmed). But there is something sinister about the way Hassan continually begins to explain his version of events on the night of the raid and arrest (which, incidentally, was 1 March 2010) – only to stop, leave the lift to check for rubbish, and then to start again when he returns.

What is more, it is only when Panahi prompts him to ring the neighbours’ doorbells that Hassan begins to do so to check for rubbish. Otherwise, Hassan explains, everyone seems to have forgotten to leave their rubbish out.

When Hassan does begin to ring doorbells, barely anyone answers. Hassan assumes that this must be because everyone is out at Fireworks Wednesday, but the viewer is nonetheless unsure – and this lack of security, which runs throughout this non-film but which is here redefined through the lens of the spy thriller, which – outrageously (at least for me) – seems to have surfaced from nowhere within Panahi’s film, only adds to the tension.

Further elements increase the anxiety: Hassan often steps out on to pitch dark landings that we cannot see – our inability to see enhancing our sense of uncertainty; one floor – the seventh – has raging party music thumping from its door, meaning that the non-film’s soundscape also creates tension.

Hassan and Panahi then reach the second floor, prior to arriving at which Hassan speculates that there will be lots of empty pizza boxes outside the inhabitants’ door. Once again, Hassan reminds us of Hussein (Hossein Emadeddin) of Crimson Gold, who himself is a pizza delivery man and whose sense of dissatisfaction with the world might be similar to Panahi’s in his current predicament.

However, comedy is unpredictably injected here into this prolonged lift sequence, when the door is answered not by pizza-guzzling neighbours but by Shima, whose voice once again we hear (we never see her) as she tries to fob Mickey off on to Hassan for a few hours so that she also can go out to Fireworks Wednesday.

(Hassan accepts – but he will look after Mickey in the lobby after the film has finished.)

The intrusion of comedy does not allow for a release in pressure, however; it in fact only renders us (or perhaps only me) further incapable of working out quite what is going on. Is Hassan a spy of sorts? Is this film – in spite of its ‘ramshackle’/improvised appearance – so well organised that it is only fooling with our expectations? Is this a comedy?

Bizarrely, Hassan tells Shima to try giving the dog to Panahi up on the ninth floor. She says that she has already tried, but that Mickey only survived two seconds up there. Suddenly what could well be a truly innocent conversation becomes once again sinister because the subject of the conversation, Panahi, is recording it. Panahi has now turned spy instead of Hassan. Perhaps Panahi as non-filmmaker is the intrusive one, documenting the strangeness of other people’s lives.

Nonetheless, down the lift goes – further into the darkness of the basement. All the while remaining immensely polite, Hassan then carries the rubbish he has accumulated through the underground car park (if I remember correctly – it is dark, after all) and towards the exit.

If Panahi has been playing with our emotions – is this real? is this staged? is Panahi in danger of being caught filming by a government that surely would use any excuse further to punish him? – then the unease only (impossibly!) increases as the film comes to its final moments.

Panahi steps outside of his apartment block and towards the gates of his building. Hassan turns and tells him that he must not be seen here – a gesture that seems to confirm, finally, that Hassan is not a ‘bad guy’ – but which only suggests, after so much claustrophobia upstairs on the 9th floor, a sense of liberation. This sense of liberation in stepping outside of the apartment further reinforces one’s sense of Panahi’s frustration and enclosure. That he might get spotted simultaneously reinforces one’s sense of paranoia – ‘they’ are, or at least, might be watching.

And as the film draws to its close, Panahi films a street fire taking place right by the gate to his apartment block and around which shadowy figures gather and dance. What had for a while seemed a generic film now becomes once again political: the fires are an act of defiance, suggesting the passion of the people, their desire for change in an Iran in which Panahi has been imprisoned for, it seems, nothing more than making a film. A beacon in the darkness.

But this final political charge does not resolve the question – defined as it is by uncertainty and anxiety – concerning whether we have just watched an elaborate hoax, or whether Panahi has managed to make a film that portrays a reality the weird and wonderful nature of which is more inscrutable and fascinating than any fictional world could be.

In creating a film that plays with our expectations in this manner, Panahi exposes the way in which cinema has ingrained itself in our thought patterns. An innocent man, Hassan, could be a spy, we/I fear. Paranoia perhaps characterises our times, but this paranoia is also linked to our secret belief that somehow we might be in a filmic reality in which people are spying on us.

Except that we know that Panahi is under house arrest; that ‘they’ probably are spying on him – regardless of whether or not he has managed to make a non-film and to have it distributed (how have the powers that be in Iran responded to this? is this all part of an even bigger hoax in which – crazily – Iran creates myths about its filmmakers in order to enhance their international reputation?).

It is not that we should take the content of these questions seriously (or should we?). It is that the suspicion that we could possibly be in a film, or what I shall call ‘cinematic thinking,’ suggests that cinema is our measure of reality – and not that reality is our measure of cinema.

This is not intended as disrespect to anyone who has suffered recently or ever at the hands of this or any political regime, but it seems as though repressive regimes (which I shall label as fascist, whether the regimes in question identify themselves with this term or not) themselves function cinematically. That is, fascism and cinema are inherently linked, in that the cultivation of fear that allows one to control the people is achieved not strictly in films, but in making people suspect that they might be in a (genre) film.

If we find the roots of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime back in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during which cinemas were burnt down (with people in them), and during which the late Ayatollah Khomeini critiqued the cinema as a dangerous, but potentially useful, tool for controlling the people, then we could conceivably argue that Ahmadinejad has taken Khomeini’s lesson to heart. He has done so not by rejecting cinema, but by allowing cinematic thinking to penetrate the minds of his people, such that they live in fear. Such that they think that their lives could turn into a film, like Panahi’s life here, and that they, too, could be buried alive or worse…

If – paradoxically – the current Iranian regime asserts its power through the propagation of cinematic thinking, then, Panahi’s anti-regime film must by definition be non-cinematic. As he and Mirtahmasb themselves declare through their title, if it is Iran itself that has become a movie of sorts, then this film is not – and cannot be – a film.

What is true of Iran here becomes true of cinema as a whole – meaning that Panahi – whose films up until this point have always left me only lukewarm in comparison to some of the other Iranian filmmakers whose works I love – has made not just his masterpiece, but a true masterpiece of all cinema and – remarkably – under the most strenuous and minimal conditions.

This ‘truth’ is that ‘cinematic thinking’ infiltrates all of us – and the more we feel that we are living in a film, the more (potentially) we are prey to the logic of fascism, whether or not control is the deliberate or merely the unconscious aim of anyone anywhere.

That is, the more we prefer cinema to life, the more we wish our lives were cinematic, the more we will into existence the repressive/fascistic regimes that are required to bring this about. In a fashion akin to (of course) Gilles Deleuze, Hollywood and Hitler go hand in hand – such that cinema and fascism are inextricably bound the one to the other.

If this is the case, then Panahi’s non-film strikes a blow to fascism everywhere. But how is this so?

This is so because the non-film is not cinematic in the recognisable and generic sense defined above, hence its status as a ‘non-film.’ This non-film explores paranoia, but where mainstream cinema might make that paranoia real, not least by centering the film on an individual protagonist or on a small group of individual protagonists, here Panahi’s film leaves us to query whether the paranoia is real, or whether it is just us reading it into the film.

By raising the question that we are reading this paranoia into the film, Panahi exposes to us our susceptibility to cinematic thinking (rather than simply reinforcing it). Panahi, himself a political and not a legal prisoner, as Mrs Gheyrat argues (and if we are to believe her); in other words, Panahi himself precisely the person to say that the paranoia is justified because he has been placed under house arrest for his thoughts and for his creative endeavours, as if either could ever be crimes. If Panahi, then, exposes our susceptibility to cinematic thinking despite being entirely qualified to think it himself, then truly we must take note.

If Panahi – together with Bani-E’temad – refuses to live in fear, then none of us, be we from Iran or anywhere, should live in fear. By creating a film that in some senses destroys cinema, then Panahi’s film is justifiably ‘not a film.’ Panahi is superficially the centre of his film – we see plenty of him in frame throughout its duration. But his encounters with others, hopefully innocent as they seemingly turn out to be, remind us that we are not the centre of things and that we should not in an individualistic/paranoid sense believe that we are. There are always others; we are always with others; we do not – and cannot – exist without others.

And yet cinema has – in its more popular iterations, anyway – perpetuated the myth of the individual, written wider as mancruel against, and not with, nature. In this way, This is Not a Film is not the becoming cinema, or the becoming light, that most humans dream of. Rather it is Panahi’s unbecoming cinema that, paradoxically, lends to the film its great depth and power.

If cinema were not linked inextricably to fascism (again, defined here not as a single historical movement or moment, but as the repressive (and often self-willed) control of the people in all places and at all times – perhaps even in pre-cinematic times), then non-films like Panahi’s would not be necessary. They would have no existence, no meaning.

Perhaps the paradoxically mainstream nature of individualistic/paranoid thought justifies the artist, who tries to remind the world that we are with each other and with the world. That is, perhaps fascism has a mass psychology that is difficult for we humans to accept, even though we disavow our desire for fascism on an almost daily basis.

This is one conundrum I am not in a position to resolve – not during this [non-?]blog at any rate.

Nevertheless, in unbecoming cinema, Panahi exposes the cinema that has filtered repressively through Iran to allow Ahmadinejad to steal an election and to continue to impose his will on a people waking up to the realisation that this is not what they want, and that they need not live in fear.

As Panahi steps outside, he sees others who are also already outside. The example can spread beyond Iran: perhaps it is time for us all to step outside. To live not in fear. But to embrace reality and all that it contains. To think not just individually, but through a sense of withness. To reject fascism, to realise the extent to which we think cinematically – perhaps even to realise the extent to which thinking cinematically means that we think in clichés, and to realise that thinking in clichés means that we probably do not think at all.

If these are not in themselves clichés (and they could be), it is time, perhaps, to think – and perhaps to act by stepping outside, by exposing ourselves to encounters with others, by recognising that we are only ever with others and with the world. Not to have answers, but questions. Not to be certain but – as per Panahi’s film – to be asking about the truth-status of all that we see.

Perhaps there is no reality without cinema, no cinema without reality. Answering this question is not important. Or rather, not answering this question is very important. Buried in Iran, where paranoia/cinema is perhaps most justified as a mode of thought, Panahi refuses to answer this question. Again, for this reason his non-film is not a film in the conventional sense of the word.

But it is for certain a work of art that dances on the edge of cinema and non-cinema, of thought and non-thought, asking questions, inducing thought, living not in fear, even if the film also explores – consciously or otherwise – the politics of fear, making us aware that fear is not imposed from without but something with which we are all complicit.

Strangely, if we are complicit in our belief in the individual and the concomitant rise of fascism-enabling paranoia, then a paradox emerges in that individualism/paranoia/fascism is reliant on complicity/withness, while at the same time occulting that very withness that enables it; the job here is to bring withness back to visibility such that rampant individualism, paranoia and thus fascism might evaporate.

Since we are all together, we must all recognise this and each other. When we recognise each other – even when, like Panahi, we live confined to only a few rooms – then we can begin to live in a democracy, both in Iran and around the world.

Notes from the LFF: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, Uncategorized

Mourning is one of the three Iranian films playing at this year’s London Film Festival – and I will be blogging about all three once I have had a chance to see them.

Mourning tells the story of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents abandon him one night after a row.

The next thing we see is a car traveling through the Iranian countryside, a nice black 4×4 drifting along dirt tracks and surrounded by lush grass dancing in the wind.

Subtitles appear as if in error on the bottom of the screen – we can hear no spoken words. But after some time we realise that this is the conversation taking place in the car in sign language between Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), two middle-aged deaf and dumb people who have taken Arshia into their care after his parents’ departure.

En route, Kamran and Sharareh come across a car crash in a tunnel. Kamran leaves his vehicle and goes to investigate. It soon transpires that Arshia’s parents have seemingly died in this car crash, meaning that Kamran and Sharareh will have to look after Arshia from now on.

Mourning is not quite a real time movie, but all of its action takes place over a night and a day, as Arshia, Sharareh and Kamran try to come to terms with the death of the former’s parents, and to envisage a future for the young boy that has been left behind.

The car seems to be a staple motif – and setting – for various Iranian films, with Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/USA, 2002), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2004) and the more recent The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010) emerging as prominent examples. Given that director Farshbaf is a Kiarostami protégé, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The car suggests a simple paradox: it enables mobility while at the same time being an enclosed space. What is more, the use of tunnels along the way in this movie, and in The Hunter also, suggests further layers of enclosure – and darkness.

Given the prominence of these visual motifs – the car and the tunnel – it becomes hard not to read Mourning allegorically.

That is, the film does play as an affecting character piece in which Arshia, who seemingly can both lip read and sign, must learn in a brutal fashion about the death of his parents (which we never see), and in which Kamran and Sharareh run through a range of responses to the death of the child’s parents, from the pragmatic (they are the best placed people to look after Arshia) to the darkly comic (Kamran complaining about how Arshia needs the loo every few minutes).

But the film nonetheless – perhaps in a ‘bad’ way given Fredric Jameson‘s belief that Westerners cannot help but read ‘Third World’ literature, and by extension films, as national allegories – seems to be less about the characters whose lives briefly we share, and more about the place in which the story takes place.

Given the overwhelming silence of the film, the allegory is far from over-stated. And yet the abandonment of a child, his adoption by kind, mobile, but ultimately confined-to-the-car ersatz parents, whose voices literally cannot be heard, and whose language is alien to all but the happiest few, seems strongly to suggest an Iran whose youth has also been abandoned by rowing parents who will drive each other to death, and whose institutional support is minimal.

This reading is without question simplistic – as well as arguably problematic given the perennial issue of for whom this film was made and to whom it will most likely appeal (your average Iranian Joe, or well-to-do Westerners who have time to worry about a land so foreign to them as Iran). That is, in (over-)determining Mourning as a ‘message’ film, I have almost certainly overlooked its power to affect viewers in diverse ways, some abstract (such are allegories) and some physical.

But to stick to the allegorical, the film ends with Arshia in a tunnel. We see a protracted shot of the tunnel – a gaping black hole in the middle of the screen, the impenetrability of which suggests an uncertain future. And then we see a reverse shot: daylight at the end of the tunnel, but with darkness all around us. The light seems ever-so-close, but we do not approach.

Having also had the chance recently to see The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Germany, 2010), a guerrilla film involving tweets, amateur footage, voice recordings, talking heads interviews and animated versions of blogs concerning the Green Movement, Mourning becomes even more resonant.

The Green Wave documents the repressive violence that surrounded the wave of protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s seemingly fraudulent re-election to office in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

There have since been arrests, murders and brutality aplenty – condoned if not directly authorised by the government.

And what is being protested is not just a stolen election but the deprivation of the right to a democratic society based upon choice.

Iran is a country with a huge youth population – not least in part as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that ran from 1980 to 1988, and which resulted in 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. In other words, with the adult generation of the 1980s depleted and scarred by war, it is those who have grown up since who now are the driving force, or the main constituent part, of the Green Movement.

As such, Arshia seems to stand for all Iranian youth – stuck in a tunnel, having lost his parents to internecine disputes, and with new, surrogate parents who do not necessarily speak his language – however benign-willed they are or wish to be.

Given the difficulty with which filmmakers can make films in contemporary Iran (and given the arrest of some 25 filmmakers recently in Iran), it seems that allegory is the only means through which filmmakers can make any political points – even if the use of allegory risks confusing that message (if the message could be anything but confused if it were to pay respect to the complexities of the world and perhaps of Iran in particular).

As such, my take on Mourning as being allegorical is reinforced, since films like The Green Wave cannot be made in Iran, as that film’s German production location makes clear. Farshbaf must be political – like Kiarostami his master – by avoiding the overtly political.

Once again, this is not to overlook the film’s poetic nature: beautiful landscapes filled with human and humane people who live and love like anywhere else on Earth. But politics and poetics do not have to be mutually exclusive; indeed, the film’s patiently long takes – especially of Iran’s luscious green grass – lend to Mourning not the howl that The Green Wave evokes, but a calm, reasoned, certain appeal to a better future…

Notes from LFF: Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

If I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011) only obliquely situates itself within the context of the current global economic downturn, Dragonslayer does so in a much more overt fashion.

Or rather, hearing director Tristan Patterson discussing the project, the very first thing that he said was that his subject, bum-like, nearing middle-age skater dude Joshua ‘Skreech’ Sandoval, was an amazingly intriguing character given that he just skates through the world as around him everyone’s lives – in the USA at least – are turned upside down thanks to the post-crisis fallout and its effects on the man in the street.

Like the would-be rock star father in I Wish, Sandoval gets by doing what he can: he works as little as possible, he gets – seemingly minimal – sponsorship for his skating, he smokes (a lot) of weed, he drinks, he is friendly to all and sundry, and he travels (in whatever capacity he can).

Sandoval emerges as a figurehead of the not-so-much angry generation as the don’t-give-a-fuck generation. Let me be clear about what this ‘generation’ (if it is one) does not give a fuck. This generation seemingly does give a fuck about the world, as Sandoval’s insistent trips into nature to go camping and fishing suggest.

That about which Sandoval and others do not give a fuck is the current organisation of the human world. That is, questions of economics, perhaps also of politics, interest Sandoval, and presumably many more like him, so little, that he is just happy getting by in his own way as he can.

This position has a romanticism of its own: a middle-class viewer like me truly fears for Sandoval, as perhaps does he himself, when, come the film’s end, it is documented that he is now working (at least part-time) serving beer in a bowling alley. How can he survive, not least since he has a young infant in tow, on the bare minimum that he currently has?

But perhaps how is the wrong question, and a real reason to admire Sandoval. How is not important. The only important thing is that he will survive – no matter how hard the world is made for him as a result of the choices he has made so far (economic imprisonment based upon ‘economic crimes’ that are not illegal at all, but which will keep Sandoval from material wealth for as long as he lives unless either he changes or he breaks – miraculously – into Hollywood or some such).

Beyond Sandoval and some unanswered questions regarding his relationship to the film (his – perhaps unlikely and younger – girlfriend, Leslie Brown, starts going out with him during filming – and whether the presence of the cameras has anything to do with this is not explored; similarly, given his economic situation, one wonders whether the filmmakers had any performance money to give to Sandoval), the film is well shot.

Patterson and his cinemtographer, Eric Koretz, said that they did not want the film to look like a skater movie. Only it is hard not to look like a skater movie given the light qualities of southern California that play such an important part in skater culture (and which has been co-opted by Coke, etc).

It is furthermore hard not to look like a skater movie when the film features so many obligatory emptied swimming pools.

And yet, Koretz and Patterson are not using mobile fish-eyes (although they do use the indy rock soundtrack), and they are capturing blades of grass, fluffy toys hanging from rear view mirrors and the like.

In short, then, Dragonslayer cannot but be a skater film – but it also is, as implied by the discussion of Sandoval’s seeming ethos/philosophy above, an activist – or perhaps better, a comtemporary beat – film.

Beyond the cinematography, this is evoked most formally in the editing. The film has a schizoid feel thanks to its insistence on (Godard-style) cutting short musical segments before they can become the obligatory music video, and the often chaotic juxtaposition of impressionistic images. This all caged by an 11-chapter structure that runs from 10 down to 0 over the course of the film. 0.

L’œuf, the egg, or what tennis umpires call love.

Sandoval’s dream is to be the only person moving on a planet stilled in time. He can empty pools and skate, raid fridges, drive other people’s cars. Just go wherever he wants to (there is a strong emphasis in the film on Sandoval jumping over fences – the wilful making-common of an otherwise increasingly privatised terrain).

While Sandoval does say that in this fantasy world he’d make some people wake up to hang out with him (how would he choose?), his vision does sound more like a desire for solipsism, or to be the One in a planet full of otherwise disposable human beings.

But 1 always needs 0 (hence the digital image’s democratic possibility for 1+0). And it is pleasing that the film takes us to 0. Not because it favours annihilation over anything/everything. Not because this is a negative choice in comparison to the possibility of an additive world in which the numbers just get bigger and bigger.

But perhaps because 0 is the only way to get back to the ground and to extend a sophophily of love. Not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of loving.

Sandoval is perhaps an anti-hero of our times. But in others he is just a plain hero. Even with his bowling alley job, the Quixotic elements seem to remain as he takes a hit from the bong on the way to work.

We don’t all need to be dope smoking stoner skater dudes. That surely cannot be the message here. But the message clearly is: we must have the courage, the love of ourselves and of others, to go forward into the world in a fearless fashion. To be ourselves.

The self is a performance, no doubt about it. But it is a performance into which one injects one’s heart and soul, hence its courageous nature. Nothing disingenuous here.

Indeed, one of Sandoval’s friends, a total stoner who seems barely coherent, speaks of reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza here emerges as a great reference point for the film. For Spinoza argues (in my reading of him at least) that if truly we become ourselves, we cannot but love others and the world that surrounds us.

You can Occupy wherever you like. But the success of this movement can only begin with the occupying of oneself with oneself, filling oneself up with one’s own understanding and vision of the world, such that it can only spill over into the commons with love and respect.