Tell the world about Philosophy! 15 films from around the world that inspired our imagination during the festival in London this year.
The present is a strange beast. – Jean-Luc Godard
Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage, 2014)
Αnother festival of imaginative films closed its curtains last week. Our focus this month was the BFI London Film Festival where we saw films from around the world that took us outside of our comfort zone. It was an adventurous 12-day festival covering for the BFI’s very own live blog and putting forward BFI-produced videos of highlights and interviews. A week later the memories are still bold with inspirational films. Here are 15 that caught our attention.
Winner of The Grierson Award in the Documentary Competition, Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a courageous work filmed under the most dangerous circumstances. A film made of 1001 images, shot by 1001 Syrian men and women and Mohammed himself, the director found these images on a daily stream from YouTube. He left Syria on May 9, 2011, “the day of triumph over fascism” Mohammed tells us in his film. With him he carried these 1001 images for a talk in Cannes and since then he’s been living in exile in Paris. A year later in 2012, Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young woman who lived in Homs, got in touch with Mohammed and started filming what she was witnessing: the cinema of the victim and the murderer alongside her struggle for survival.
A much-deserved winner for such a prestigious documentary award, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait brings forward experiences from a cruel reality that is hard to imagine in the western world. This is disturbing, pure cinema that observes life’s cruel reality and Syria’s deep struggles.
Juror’s for this year’s documentary competition were film-director and producer Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology), the Emmy®-winner and BAFTA-nominated producer and director Roy Ackerman, the Emmy®-winning producer and editor of Storyville Nick Fraser, Dogwoof’s head of distribution Oli Harbottle, and the BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter Penny Woolcock.
For Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s confronting account of life in Syria during the civil war, Fiennes commented:
The jury were deeply affected by this film. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s portrait of Syria is both unflinching and poetic. It is hard to watch, because the fact of war is and should be unbearable. Bedirxan’s passionate and courageous quest to be a reliable witness, while trying to comprehend and survive her desperate situation in Homs, is profoundly moving. Ossama Mohammed’s exile in Paris, resonates with our own safe distance from this war, but the miracle of the film is how it engages us.
In one of the screen talks at the festival, director Abderrahmane Sissako was in conversation with the BFI’s Head of Film Programme and critic Geoff Andrew. When asked why he made his latest film, Timbuktu, Sissako explained there was a situation that made him start with the idea. In July 2012 while on visit to one of the villages in Mali, he witnessed a couple being stoned to death because of adultery. On this very day, he adds, a new phone had come out and the media filmed the very first person buying it, as if someone who has a new phone is an important piece of news. We are bombarded on a daily basis with news that is not of any significance. As Sissako emphasized during his conversation with Andrew, “It is important to him [the person who bought the new phone] but not to the rest of us”.
Later in the conversation, Sissako tells us about today’s spotlight on Islam:
The current discourse is that [Islam] is about this terrible religion but it’s not true. There are a number of people who have appropriated this religion as a vehicle for their own interest and it has nothing to do with Islam itself.
Sissako’s latest picture Timbuktu, bares witness to what the director saw in July 2012. Timbuktu is a powerful portrait of love, compassion, suffering and humanity brilliantly shot by Blue is the Warmest Colour‘s cinematographer Sofian El Fani.
Similarly, writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence) made The President, an insightful film with a universal scope: peace for all. Filmed in Georgia, Iranian director Makhmalbaf triumphs in bringing international anxiety with powerful effect to his picture. The President is an astonishing work that asks this simple question: if ideology is based on revenge, how can you talk about democracy?
Outside the international spectre, we caught up with films that dealt with personal difficulties, struggles, loneliness and rage. Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, adapted from a story by Doris Lessing, is an intelligent portrait of racial identity in the contemporary western world. Poignantly performed by newcomers Guslagie Malanda and Nadia Moussa, the two friends, and adopted sisters, come across a French bourgeoisie that is open to diversity under its own terms and conditions. Following some unexpected circumstances and much consideration for her little girl’s future, Victoria chooses to take this journey but equally it has to be under her own terms too. It is a lonely journey and Civeyrac’s adaptation of Lessing’s story is an achievement in portraying a complex reality.
Tender and at the same time funny, Ne me quitte pas by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, tells the heartfelt story of the friendship between the recently divorced, with two kids, Marcel and his pal Bob. Beautifully photographed with an eye for still-life symbolism, the duo’s film reminded me of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s 1998 documentary Bread Day. In Ne me quitte pas, also reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the two men live their intuitive life in rural Belgium, which is far from harmonic.
Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas’s second feature A Blast is a superb portrait of the gratitude and sadness flaming in Maria’s (Angeliki Papoulia) life. A mother of two whose husband is a sailor and works on a tankship in Germany for six months, Maria is trapped in the misery of loneliness and huge financial depth inherited from her mother (Themis Bazaka).
Like with his debut feature Homeland, in his second film Tzoumerkas focuses on family, its patterns and consequences. But in A Blast rage breaks through institutional, social and personal anomalies in search for dignity and a firm mission for change. With outstanding performances from Angeliki Papoulia (Alps), Themis Bazaka (Wasted Youth) and newcomer Vassilis Doganis in the role of Maria’s husband Yannis, A Blast looks into adolescence, prostitution and escapism against the rise of far-right ignorance. Still threatening the most vulnerable in the crisis that is gripping Greece for the last five years, fascism gets the black eye from Maria’s daring and explosive anger.
Tzoumerkas balances the personal and national turbulence to a poignant level, which together with his film’s electrifying imagery of Maria’s and her husband’s flashbacks to the years of their romance, announce him as an audacious filmmaker. There’s nothing ‘weird’ about Tzoumerkas’s picture. Only the reality of a burning desire: to be loved, unconditionally. A Blast is an engaging film, which together with Ken McMullen’s admirable OXI: An Act of Resistance, also an entry to this year’s festival programme, are perhaps the most accurate accounts that carefully illustrate Greece’s difficult years of austerity and the tragic impact it has in people’s lives.
This year’s festival paid tribute to one of the world’s tireless documentary filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman. This is good news because at the age of 84, Wiseman continues to educate us with his passion for the art of documentary and technique as the great invisible behind the camera. It is truly a magical skill, as his characters in all his films seem almost always not to notice the presence of the camera. It happened most recently in his At Berkeley (2013) and it happens again in his new film National Gallery, a glorious account in a day of the life of the glorious paintings held by one of London’s art museums.
Wiseman’s National Gallery together with Mike Leigh’s biopic of the great Romantic painter Mr. Turner and Mark Cousins’s 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia in the festival’s programme, have an appetite for the act of looking and appreciation for the great British artists. Only that Cousins’s latest essay film on the English novelist and poet and his brief visit to Sardinia in the early years of the 20th century, manifests an exemplary script and testifies the very essence of desire. Though his essay film affirms, “Not all desires should be satisfied”, in the end he simply reverses this affirmation with his very final scene. But I wouldn’t like to spoil it, just watch it when there’s a chance.
Peter Strickland‘s third feature and a follow up to his Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is an adventure in sound and dark humour in the intimate relationship of two women. A long-term experimental musician, English writer-director Strickland emphasises on the intriguing sounds of cats and lepidopterists. But its surreal cinematography, telescopic imagery and kaleidoscopic autumnal patterns, under the supervision of Nic Knowland, alongside metallic appearances of butterflies trapped outside the bedroom, will burst your imagination to a hypnotic effect, transformed to a motif in the sounds of orchestral pop duo Cat’s Eye.
Another favourite from the festival was The Sapience by Eugène Green (The Portuguese Nun). Green is an educator himself who has drawn inspiration from the French baroque theatre technique. Thus it comes as no surprise that his film, for which he also wrote the script, is a visceral attempt to weight the poignancy of education as a bilateral practice between the teacher and the student. In the heart of 17th century baroque architecture during their visit to Italy, withdrawn architect Alexandre and his psychoanalyst wife Alienor encounter young brother Goffredo and his sister Lavinia. The age gap between the four blazes new trails in their personal experiences and the film’s tour around Italy’s celebrated Roman architecture, with strong reference to Francesco Borromini’s work, is an adventure into spaces of light with a ghostly effect. It also emphasises the need for an architecture where cities can grow organically.
Cinema’s enfant terrible, Jean-Luc Godard came back to the festival. This time with his 3D film. At the age of 83, the French auteur paid homage to the great modern philosophers, his dog Roxy, romance and humanity’s blinded conscience. In his Goodbye To Language he superbly plays with a variety of mini-3D cameras and it is an excellent film from which Hollywood needs to learn a thing or two. It felt like a real treat while watching it in full-house BFI IMAX: a celebration of independent thought, an original act of daring to think differently. It was a real gift Mr. Godard.
Sadly, we didn’t catch up with many shorts this year. However both Ahmed Ghoneimy’s The Cave (Cairo), a musician’s odyssey for an audition in Alexandria, and Philippe Lacôte’s To Repel Ghosts, based on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s last trip to Abidjan, deserve a special mention for their vigorous style. Both films screened as part of the African Metropolis programme at the festival.
A revamp programming approach at this year’s festival and a new hub for journalists at the BFI’s Stephen Street location, led an audience turn-out with a boasting 7.5% increase across London venues. Over 12,000 people across the UK attended simultaneous screenings of the Opening Night film of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, the Closing Night film of David Ayer’s Fury, and the Documentary Special Presentation of Laura Poitras’s CITIZENFOUR. This is confirmation that alternative content matters creatively as well as financially and with most of the films from the programme to look out for, hopefully when they get their release after their premier at the BFI London Film Festival, we will then meet you again next year.
Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and curator of film based in London and Athens. You can read more of her writings here.
The recent proliferation of social, personal and reflexive documentaries that has seen a range of experimental approaches towards found footage editing, has increased the frequency of essay films leading towards the innovation of a new factual form of filmmaking.
Historians don’t search, they find. To shield all these images from language means to actually make use of them because they are in the desert and that’s where one has to look for them.
A screening of Harun Farocki’s Arbeiter Verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving The Factory, 1995) followed by Dziga Vertov Group’s British Sounds (1969) at Goldsmiths by the Research Group in Continental Philosophy (INC), highlighted the question of topological desire flagrantly enjoying a visual rhythm between real and fake images.
Whereas Farocki’s sarcastic editorial ability questions the reality of the Lumiere Brothers’ factory, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s (Dziga Vertov Group) single pan shot of workers assembling the car in Ford Degenham’s plant echoes a company-employee fixation. Both Arbeiter Verlassen die Fabrik and British Sounds focus on the energy of social space and 20th century architecture, for the factory is its landmark building alongside the fountains and streets of Paris celebrated in Eloge de l’amour (2001).
The voice-over narration in British Sounds is a compilation of excerpts from Richard Nixon, Georges Pompidou and The Communist Manifesto that encourages feedback from the spectator who desires to learn. Half way in, the image of female body is stranded in the desert of the domestic. Later on, its frontal close-up has no clear intentions as to how we can respond to its isolation. The male voice starts and the child’s voice repeats: “In 1911 Liverpool Town Hall is stormed by strikers and their wives”. Strangely the child’s voice prompts the historical reference and its revolutionary instance. In a similar act of an adult’s phrase repeated by a child, Depardieu’s elusive quest of his two beings (god-like and man) in Helas pour moi (1993) seals the conversation with publisher Abraham Klimt’s (Bernard Verley) remark: “The truth comes from the mouths of babes”.
The female body in Helas pour moi is however exploited in the dark while the voice over reads Jean Ortt’s 1932 study on the calculation of the galaxy mass and the force of gravity. One may straggle from one image to another in Godard’s work, though the common presence of the revolutionary silence of lovers and ideology suggests that Simone de Beauvoir and contemporary feminism hold a key place in the director’s take.
The second chapter with the name “kingdom” (Purgatory) in Godard’s Notre musique (2004) tells the story of two young women visiting a European arts conference in Sarajevo: Tel Aviv journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) and French speaking Jew of Russian descent Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu). Olga (also the name of one of de Beauvoir’s students in Rouen, whose complex relationship with her sister Wanda made the fictional character in the metaphysical novel She Came to Stay, de Beauvoir’s chronicle of Sartre’s sexual relationship with her students) experiences a duality of truth in history, film and perhaps ethics reflecting on her own origin and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The emphasis on gender is climaxed during her attendance to Godard’s lecture on film (Godard plays himself), where she hears about a director’s incapability of seeing the difference between man and woman via the reverse shots of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ 1940 movie His Girl Friday. On another note of feminist existentialism and moral revolution, during her conversation with her uncle Ramos Garcia (Rony Kramer), Olga tells him that suicide is the only truly serious philosophical problem with one minor and one major concern: pain and the next world.
The chapter on Purgatory ends with Ramos’ telephone conversation with Godard. He announces him the news headlines “Hostages where taken in Jerusalem” revealing Olga’s will to blow herself up in a cinema after telling the audience, if there was one Israeli who’d die with her for peace, not for war she’d be happy. Everyone left the cinema and the marksmen killed her. But the bag she was holding had only books.
The palpable element of female power in Godard’s film grammar is a synthesis of reason (Helas pour moi), force (Notre musique), monument (British Sounds) and influence (Film socialisme). Amid simultaneous moments in history, philosophical thoughts, black screens and chilling harmonies in his post 1968 works, Godard has conducted a symphony of images and sounds that sways appropriation in the vague zone of politics.
Odessa. “The ‘stairs’ in Russian is female” tells the guide her group of generous looking teenagers towards the end of Film socialisme: an intelligent account of thought, material world and popular culture. Godard’s latest feature film follows the multilayered emphasis on collective voices announced on the common note of text, a piano piece or the sound of machine tools in the factory, like in Notre musique, Eloge de l’amour and British Sounds. The indispensable connection between sound and image is the monumental concept in Godard’s work, where at times the voice-over is in French, when simultaneously another speaks in English and the phone is ringing. Or a close-up of a deserted piano is accompanied by the melody of piano music (Eloge de l’amour). In Film socialisme Godard is perhaps clarifying this concept quoting Roman Jakobson’s theory of the impossibility to separate sound from meaning and that this theory can be understood only with the method of the phoneme (phone ringing, pure wind sounds, laughter).
In his For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007) Jacques Rancière notes: “Connecting one shot to another, a shot to a phrase, fresco, song, political speech, newsreel image or advertisement, etc., still means both staging a clash and framing a continuum. The time-space of the clash and the time-space of the continuum have, in fact, the same name: history. Disconnecting images from stories, Godard assumes, is connecting them so as to make History”. Nevertheless, Film socialisme, like Notre musique and British Sounds, is seen through the ear, through listening to it. The series of mobile-phone videos from the cruise ship and its discotheque is the representation of current history adapted with the effective dimension of smart media in popular culture.
Seven-years of age Lucien’s (Quentin Grosset) performance conducting Beethoven’s music, at the garage of the Martin family, once again clarifies the tactile position of child-minded occupation towards the development of Godard’s analytical thought. This is further achieved with Lucien’s point on children’s electoral participation in place of their parents, since they are part of the people and paid 30% of France’s debt (exactly the sum of profit, which insurance companies make of the debt) because adults have grown old.
As a modus operandi for prevalent observation on Godard’s films, the historical significance and Film socialisme’s connection to the power of media, TV channel FR 3 Regio’s opening sequence is followed with the text: “after the annulation of the first election, now the children are waiting for the decision of the State Council and this time, they got 93% of the votes […] so they are going to win […] Not far from Toulouse there was a small group part of the ‘Combat’ movement, ‘the Martin family’ who had as their motto, liberate and federate our humanities (Nos Humanités)”.
Film socialisme is the utopia of past wins in Godard’s popular culture context, an operation achieved through a cruise travelogue: Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona. It is the image, in Western ethics, of tourism but it is overlapped with an otherwise violent, turbulent history. Featuring archive footage of the Greek Civil War and extracts from L’espoir, Adieu Bonaparte, Alexander the Great and Roman Karmen’s films, the cinematic medium takes on the glory of the monument like the arcades of Paris in Eloge de l’amour. Yet it is not just a pure evidence of international tourism because at the same time contemporary feminism, children’s rights and history take on offensive capacity and threaten for resistance. But there can be no resistance without memory, the complex process of no obligations. Memory-image is a perception process that becomes complete as it is interpreted (Eloge de l’amour).
Godard has built an image-sound pattern in his more recent cinematic works echoing the nascent perception of the Spanish Civil War in Bataille’s Blue of Noon, a novel driven by madness and corruption. His films propose a point of representation that later fails inside its thought and transgressive capacity to provoke (close-up of the nude female body in British Sounds). Film socialisme is nothing but a pure thought, the core characteristic of the essay film that shows and adapts a principal representation. It is a postcard sent from the cruise ship with the thought that it may never reach the receiver.
This article was originally written in 2010 but it was never published before.