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Posts from May 2017

Cannes 2017: Jo's Blog

Posted Thursday 25 May 2017 by Jo Duncombe in Festival Reports, General

This year, I took my second trip to the French Riviera for the Festival de Cannes. I was excited and expectant about entering in the exhausting fray of back-to-back screenings and seeing films with little to no context. I am still, very much, a learner. Indeed the feeling of being an outsider / unimportant / desperate is one that indiscriminately seeps into the egos of even well-established festival goers. Everyone, no matter the colour of their festival pass, is, at some point or another, subjected to hours of queuing, criticism of personal appearance and rejection.

One wonders if even the ‘top tier’ of filmmakers and stars are also brushed by that feeling of being an intruder. It’s probably inevitable at a festival with 70 years of glamour and prestige under its belt; a festival where even the films in competition reference the stature and historical weight of the event. See, for example, Le Redoutable, in which Luis Garrel plays a despondent Jean Luc Godard, who successfully lobbied to cancel the festival 1968 in respect of the civil unrest sweeping across France that year.  Or see Hong Sang-Soo's Claire’s Camera in which Isabelle Huppert’s opening line – 'I’ve never been to Cannes before' – was met with knowing laughter at a festival screening.

That feeling of being an intruder is heightened by the many traditions and rituals one experiences at festival screenings. I have never applauded a logo before, but the Festival de Cannes’ oddly tacky logo and ascending stairway sequence gets one every time. Take a look at it here . It screens ahead of every film and is always applauded. This year, the names of Cinema’s heavy weights were added to each step (changing daily). The inclusion of the names makes the sequence even more outlandish – the festival openly flashing its predilections, and further adding to the ‘exclusive club’ vibe.

Image result for Générique Marches Festival de Cannes

Cannes' Générique, one of the festival's many traditions.

Another ritual that had me baffled is that of the ‘Raoul shout-out’ which often happens ahead of screenings in the Debussy theatre (the second largest of the festival, next to the Lumière). The first time I heard the howling ‘Raouuuul!’ yelled into the dark auditorium, I assumed someone was just desperately looking for their friend. Saving seats isn’t easy in the packed theatres, so – y’know, understandable that someone might crack under the pressure. I wasn’t expecting the shout-out to be met by a flutter of laughter, applause and sighing.  Just a funny one-off perhaps? Poor lost Raoul! But no – the exact same thing happened the very next day. Turns out, the ‘Raoul shout-out’ is a long standing tradition in the Debussy – and there is much speculation as to its origin. Some cite a 30+ year heritage, hailing it an ‘emblem of Cannes clubbiness’ whilst others suggest it perfectly captures the overwhelming need to find a friend, felt by even the most established festival veterans,  in amidst all that flagrant hierarchy.

Anyway, enough of all that. Onto the reason everyone is there - however lost (respect Raoul) - to celebrate film!

Image result for visages villages

The eternally energetic Agnès Varda teams up with artist JR to explore France in Visages Villages  

VISAGES VILLAGES (hors competition)

Dir: Agnès Varda & JR

Perhaps Agnès Varda has some sense of being an outsider at the Festival de Cannes. Despite global admiration for her work (which has been awarded at international festivals including the Golden Lion for Vagabond at Venice in ’85), only a small selection of her films have been presented at Cannes. She was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or in 2015, but it would be another two years until she would present her latest film (nine years since her last), Visages Villages, at the Festival.

The film is Varda’s first co-directed work; a seemingly improbable collaboration with superstar artist, photographer and muralist JR. Watching the pair walk the red carpet together ahead of the premier off-set any anxieties I had about the likelihood of their friendship – their deep-rooted respect and droll comic synergy was clearly authentic.

Visages Villages is a documentary film in which Varda and JR embark on a journey across France in JR’s camera shaped van, which can instantly print large-scale photographs for his renowned mural artworks. Along the way, the pair visit their nation’s villages, meeting strangers and mounting murals of their photographs, revisiting Varda’s memories and, most importantly, forging a friendship. JR’s mischievous but principled respect for his elders (including his 100 year old grandmother, whom we meet along with Varda at her home) is apparent throughout. It’s clear that Varda is very much calling the shots from the outset. ‘Chance has always been my best assistant,’ she states early on, leaving JR to the happy role of Varda’s travel companion.  

To match JR’s respect for age, Varda is herself joyfully invested in celebrating youth. She reminisces about old friends not with sadness, but with fond regard. She's conscious that her memories can enrich the present. Although we observe Varda (in her 89th year, no less) undergoing regular eye-injections and struggling to walk at ease, she resourcefully finds outlets for her insatiable, youthful energy. Whether it’s JR gleefully pushing Varda’s wheelchair through the Louvre in a playful re-enactment of a scene from Bande à Part or Varda’s frequent engagement with modern techniques, the film is as much about respecting our past as it is about embracing the present.

Indeed, whilst Varda is always keen to reminisce (she once described her memories as ‘sand in my hand’), the film also carries a message of calm acceptance; of time passing and allowing space for new ideas and new friends to come along. It is a sentiment beautifully captured in a photograph of Guy Bourdin taken in 1954, which Varda and JR paste onto an old WW2 bunker. Overnight, the image, which Varda holds dear, is washed away by the sea – something that is briefly acknowledged before the pair move on to make new stories with new friends.

Along the journey, with every encounter that Varda & JR have – whether with the wives of the Le Havre dockworkers, or a goat farmer fighting to protect goat horns – new friendships are forged. It is a healthy reminder that despite the distractions and sufferings of modern living, kindness is not a dying art. Indeed, it is this realisation that reassures us in the final moments of the film when Varda’s old friend, Jean Luc Godard, refuses to see her. Varda is visibly hurt, but reassurance is quick to follow from her new friend, JR.

There is speculation that Visages Villages will be Varda’s last. I hope not, but if it is, there is much to celebrate in this film which is so honestly about love and kindness and the joy of sharing stories with friends old and new.

Keep an eye out for more of Jo's favourites as well as more Cannes reports from the ICO team in the coming week!

Why Film on Film Matters: Celebrating Celluloid

Posted Tuesday 16 May 2017 by Duncan Carson in General

il cinema

Image: Il Cinema Ritrovato

With the switch to digital cinema now nearly five years in the past in the UK, the true value of the way film was shown for the first hundred years is thrown into relief. Yet, despite the ubiquity of digital cinema prints (DCPs), there is a strong resurgence of screenings on film in independent cinemas, from Eastbourne's Overnight Film Festival to Bradford's Widescreen Weekend. Is this film's own 'vinyl revolution', or is celluloid only for niche audiences? We asked four curators who are passionate supporters of film on film why the format matters and why everyone should get the chance to regularly see celluloid screenings.

Ian Mantgani, Badlands Collective

What is it about screening on film that makes it an essential experience?

When you see a well-produced film print, properly projected, it still feels like a miracle in the lineage of the magic lantern show. One thing film still has over digital is that it feels alive –  because it’s light shining through an emulsion, it’s dimensional –  and because the grain structure is different in each frame, the illusion of movement feels vibrant. Digital cinema now has a decent resolution, yet compared to photochemical cinema, it’s still comparatively flat and static; colder, if you will. The contrast and colour range in decent film prints are also greater than what’s currently available digitally, making the images richer. A projectionist once said to me, “35mm looks like something you can jump into; digital looks like something shined onto something.”

Film is also an essential experience because it was the standard screening format for the first century of cinema; I see it as the people’s birthright to be able to view this medium. Now that digital simulacra have become the norm, and celluloid is treated like some elite delicacy… Well, I understand there are economic imperatives at work, but it still feels to me that everyday people have been robbed of nice things that were once normal.

What screening on celluloid first blew your mind or one that’s meant something to you recently?

One of the first prints we screened as The Badlands Collective still stands out as a special moment, and that was Jonathan Glazer’s showprint of Birth, developed on silver nitrate. It was in perfect condition, and had a real shimmering quality. In terms of new movies, I feel grateful to have seen the beautiful prints of Interstellar, The Hateful Eight and Inherent Vice that did the rounds these past few years; my colleague Craig tells me the 70mm print of Batman vs Superman was very good too. Unfortunately it didn’t play long enough for me to see it!

In London we get lots of great repertory cinema. Some of my highlights from the past few months include when the Prince Charles played a never-before-shown print of Nothing Lasts Forever, when the BFI imported some rarely-seen US prints of John Carpenter films like They Live, and when the Curzon unearthed a print of Andi Engel’s Melancholia. My colleague Phil listed a few recent London 35mm highlights as including Kundun, Millennium Mambo and Lost Highway. All three of us were also lucky enough to attend last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, where there were a multitude of gems, including the only IB Technicolor print of The Thin Red Line ever made. That’s another special thing about film: prints have their own story and history, which we become a part of when we view them.

To read more about The Badlands Collective and their events, click here.

 Astor 35mm
Image: The Astor Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

Tara Judah, critic and programmer

As a bored teen, stranded in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, I loved melodrama and the tragedy of Shakespeare, but knew little about the movies. Invited by a friend, to a single-screen cinema, to see Kenneth Branagh’s screen adaptation of my favourite Shakespeare play, Hamlet, I ventured out of my two-bit suburb and into an art deco/jazz-moderne cinema building of epic proportions. Inside, behind the glorious gold-curtains, I was treated to a 70mm extravaganza; roaring sound and stunning images that romanced me and so began my deep, profound love affair with film. What made it even more special was that each frame, as it flickered before my eyes, held the love and affection of the projectionist whose hands had laced it up, carefully focused it and made sure it looked and sounded as good as it possibly could, for my enjoyment. I was unsuspecting, on that fateful day, that those very loving hands belonged to someone who would, some fifteen years later, become my mentor, employer and a life-long friend. Film is so much more than just a movie.

And why film is so essential? 

It is easy to fall into the false economy of thinking about cinema as a purely visual exploit: pixels that pass in front of our eyes. But cinema is far more sensory than eyeballing images suggests. The true joy – and romance – of moving images is that they bring multiple senses to life; the touch of the projectionist’s hands; the physical imprint of his/her finger onto the leader and edges of the film strip that itself holds a physical imprint of the image it once captured, IRL; the stories and aesthetics that touch our souls. What we see, when we see film, is photochemically indexed in emulsion, fed through a machine crafted and cared for by human hands and beads of sweat – far more moving than a screen full of 0s and 1s. Each time I hear a xenon lamp spark and the whirr of a film projector kicking in, I know I’m in for a treat, because the show is more than just a movie. Each sprocket hole moves in sync with well-oiled beat of our hearts and, as I take up my seat, so continues the rich tradition of touching images, with human hands, sweat, souls and eyes.

To read more of Tara Judah's writing and more on her curation, click here. She will be leading The State of Things: Film Critics' Day at Watershed's Cinema Rediscovered.

Apocalypse Now
Image: Apocalypse Now, Studiocanal

Rebecca Nicole Williams, curator, The Celluloid Sorceress

What is it about screening on film that makes it an essential experience?

Celluloid is the fundamental basis of cinema. While a modern audience still refers to a long form motion picture as a “film” so few of them are actually shot on that shiny, translucent strip. Let alone the three of original 3 strip Technicolor! In order to understand what cinema was, and still should be, I think it’s important to honour the pioneers and champions of the form. Through this we get an understanding of the technical complexities of making a film, but also, if presented correctly, a good presentation from film will also capture for an audience the pride and showmanship of the early exhibitors. With so many notions of “event” and “spectacle” still evident in today’s Imax and large format presentations we can only truly understand how far cinema has come by examining and appreciating the qualities of film making and exhibition gone by, some of which can not be recreated by today’s technology.

What screening on celluloid first blew your mind or one that’s meant something to you recently?

I’m of an age that all my formative cinema experiences were on 35mm film. I’ll never forget CE3K at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, the biggest screen in the East Midlands. Or Amadeus. Or the double feature of Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Or my first 70mm, Apocalypse Now! In some ways my childhood was a bit “Cinema Paradiso” so I have vivid memories of watching the boys at the local ABC lace up Raiders back on its original release before my 8-year-old-self sat and watched a film that remains a favourite today. More recently 3-Strip Cinerama at Bradford’s Widescreen Weekend is a rare experience. And, of course, my own contributions to 35mm programming and those of my programming contemporaries provide magical cinema experiences every week. Good times!

The Celluloid Sorceress's 35mm Cult Saturday (showing five classic and rare 1980s films on 35mm film) takes place September 23 at The Cinema Museum in London. 

the strange vice of mrs wardh

Image: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh

Josh Saco, Cigarette Burns Cinema

There’s an inherent adventure attached to screening films on film. Perhaps more so when you are screening rare prints. You can never be sure of what version you are getting.Sometimes this can be a gift: for instance the Lucio Fulci film One on Top of the Other, which happily was an extended version adding an additional ten minutes of super rare footage.

On the flipside, there are films that are so bogged down in mystery and confusion that the only versions available are heavily bastardised from the film you may be expecting based on its digital counter. However, I argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it’s interesting to watch Next! the US cut of Sergio Martino’s classic The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. Editorial decisions were made to make the film appeal to a US audience. This doesn’t just include excising the “sexy” bits, but altering the introduction of one of the lead characters, re-cutting the story and effectively making it even more nonsensical than it began.

I find these choices interesting.It’s fun to see what people did or didn’t do to a favourite film. These differing versions are unlikely to ever be digitised as we enter into the world of Ultimate Most Complete Edition Blu-rays, and a fan base who are hyper sensitive to perceived “cuts”.

But often times, these films were introduced to their audiences in these ways, these are the versions that won awards, acclaim, fans and ultimately created the legacy that we cherish.

New transfers involve recolouring; 4K remasters where creatives “go back” and “fix problems”.These all effectively change history, alters our relationship with the art in its original form.

Celebrating film on film is complex: it’s not as simple as digital vs. celluloid, but celluloid is our past no matter how you approach it, and that alone makes it worth saving, tending to and caring for.   

Cigarette Burns' Into the Woods programme of folk horror is currently taking place at the Barbican in London. To find out more about the season and future screenings, click here.

Club des Femmes' decade of queer feminist film programming

Posted Friday 12 May 2017 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, General

Club des Femmes blog montage
Films screened by Club des Femmes (L-R): Sepideh; De Cierta Manera; Carry Greenham Home 

Club des Femmes is a queer feminist collective that has now been showing films, running events and changing the shape of programming and culture for ten years. Founded in 2007 by programmer Selina Robertson and filmmaker Sarah Wood, then joined in 2009 by writer, curator and academic Sophie Mayer, it has proved an enduring and essential presence in the UK’s independent curation scene. With Sarah and Selina’s bond having been forged when they were both working at the Independent Cinema Office, we’re very happy to pay tribute to this programming force at this milestone.

This decade anniversary is marked by one of their most ambitious projects to date: a tribute and celebration of queer cinema royalty B. Ruby Rich at the Barbican in London. For those yet to be initiated into Club des Femmes’ modus operandi, the season is a strong indication: committed to showing work that has been underexposed, with a close eye both to the past and to the future, and with concerns that stretch way beyond the confines of film and cinema. Club des Femmes’ events have encompassed a powerful excavation of the Greenham Common Wimmin's Peace Camp, a highly oversubscribed night of feminist porn, a collective action on Wikipedia and much more. I spoke with Club des Femmes three core members and got their take on what is at the heart of the way they programme.

Programming is about sharing

CdF dykesploitation

The core of Club des Femmes work is to offer access to queer feminist film work and thought, bring a rich tapestry of new and neglected voices into the light, so they can be enjoyed, discussed and contextualised. 

Selina Robertson (SR): We are always generating new programming ideas between us. Sometimes we are invited to curate a season (as in the Barbican's Being Ruch Rich) or we decide to revisit a filmmaker whose body of work has been overlooked like Annette Kennerley's 16mm films - as with everything we do it's about showing films that have a critically and a feminist consciousness and rebel aesthetics (as B. Ruby Rich calls it).

Sarah Wood (SW): It's been central to what we do – to revive work, place it in a new context and see what resonances work for a contemporary audience. Women's work has often been marginalised. It takes a bit of extra work to find that work and put it back on screen but it’s always valuable when we do.

Sophie Mayer (SM): That's part of the impulse behind Being Ruby Rich: I certainly connected to feminist film through reading her accounts of films I thought I would never ever be able to see… Like The Gold Diggers not being on DVD or video until 2009! So there's something about translating the cultural and critical histories back ONTO the screen, with an audience – and panellists. It's never just a screening.

Sometimes it's even a bit like a seance: you need people present to create a presence. Of course zines and magazines do that too (and we make print artefacts), but screening a film that hasn't been screened for a decade or more – there's a frisson of presence to that.

Make sure everyone is included

One of the hallmarks of a Club des Femmes event is the collapsing of hierarchies between audiences and curators, experts and neophytes. Avoiding the typical relation between spectator and curator, a wide range of voices feel empowered to offer their perspective. If a great deal of the history of women’s movements has yet to be written, a Club des Femmes creates a space of active participation where that can happen. This helps avoid a digested, determined view of the work and open dialogues that have a lasting impact.

SW: There are many ways to think of cinema. For us it’s always been a space for ideas. It has to be. Our programming is a move away from questions of defining a single canon or authorship and towards a growing understanding of what women have brought to the screen in terms of politics, thought and aesthetics.

SM: Something that I've really noticed is that the CdF community/audience is very horizontal: someone who is an audience member at one screening might be a filmmaker we present later on; a panellist might give us a lead to our next project; a shy and nerdy viewer like me might become part of the team – so it is very much community-building around shared interests. A continuous flow of actions and conversations that don't assume anyone in the room has a fixed role.

Make the cinema a space for discussion

Carry Greenham Home

The cinema itself is often a harsh environment for honest and productive discussion amongst equals, especially given the ‘master and pupil’ dynamic of the traditional Q&A session. Showing radical work is inherently about opening up a space for new ideas, and so creating a space in which these ideas can circulate is something that Club des Femmes have taken care over (to the extent that their Carry Greenham Home event at the Rio in East London exploded into spontaneous song!).

SR: Our practice of collaboration is all that we have, and the queer feminist space that we actively create every time we come together...

SW: I agree. Because so much of culture is now mediated through screens, and viewing is so isolated there's nothing more exciting than humanising a screening event and enabling it to become properly about dialogue.

SM: I've learnt so much from audiences over the years. We've had great conversations because as a group we're not that interested in our own authority but what is possible through dialogue. We try to programme films that also have a welcoming stance (and to show that experimental and alternative cinema has its own forms of welcome and invitation), and to work with panellists who bring that off the screen.

Think practically and sustainably

Of course, there is a strong practical, as well as theoretical, element to producing an event. I was interested in how Club des Femmes have managed to stay sustainable and active across the ten years.

SW: Our projects have rarely been publicly funded but we have just about always managed to break even through box office splits with the venues we've worked with. The one good thing about this is that when you know you're relying only on the money you'll generate through ticket sales it keeps you on your toes about how you programme, how inclusive you can make it and how well you can communicate what you're doing to the widest possible audience. It's telling that we've taken risks with the films we've shown, risks that commercial cinemas would be wary to take but have proved that it's possible to screen unfamiliar work and still make a financial success of it. In a world where everything boils down to economics this is one of our quiet triumphs!

SM: We also try to keep ticket prices affordable, and (at the same time) to pay our guest speakers and filmmakers fairly, so that's always part of the consideration when we're budgeting an event and talking to a venue.

Club des femmes first event
Poster for Club des Femmes' inaugural season at Curzon Soho

SR: There's a lot of attention to detail, especially working with multiple formats and harder-to-find films!

For our first event at the Curzon, we were partly funded by them and supported the event through box office. We have been working like that ever since: covering our costs sometimes paying ourselves a little bit. Now we are being properly funded through Film Hub London, it's very exciting to be able to pay ourselves properly but it's still a VERY precarious job especially in London and we all work on a millions other projects to make it all work.

Celebrate history...

b ruby rich

Image source: IndieWire

With the Being Ruby Rich season, Club des Femmes are paying tribute to a figure who has proved emblematic of their project, celebrating not just ten years of their history but also twenty five years since Rich coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ in the pages of Sight & Sound.

SW: It symbolically honours all the women critics who shape film theory but often go unacknowledged. There's a wonderful legacy of thinking film and feminism. We are so lucky in this country to have Laura Mulvey and Elizabeth Cowie (just to name two of the amazing long list of women) helping us understand what cinema can be. I think this season and the acknowledgement of B. Ruby Rich's contribution to thought is genius. Club des Femmes has honoured women behind the camera, women experimenting with film, women on screen and now we honour the contribution made by women theorising cinema. It's going to be great.

SM: Ruby has been so connected to feminism and film in the UK since the 1970s, through Edinburgh Film Festival, Sight & Sound and New Queer Cinema that our intent is to tie those feminist history circles back together again for new audiences to appreciate and enjoy…

Thinking about ideas and moments often leads us to new films and filmmakers as well – there's often a sense of how much we need to learn to fill in gaps, or how excited we are when a new film like Wanuri Kahiu's Pumzi appears and we can programme it!

I've learned so much about how films actually travel through culture and memory by researching our events and putting things together.

...And look to the future

If one were looking for signs that Club des Femmes’ advocacy has made a difference over the last decade, it doesn’t take much to see.

SR: The margins/mainstream switch up all the time.... I guess the filmmakers that we showed our our launch event June 2007 at the Curzon were people like Lizzie Borden, Sadie Benning, Vivienne Dick. Last year Borden's Born in Flames was digitally restored and had a new 35mm print struck, which was very exciting to see this film finally recognized by mainstream film culture...


Image source: Sandra Lahire Edge 1986, film still. Courtesy LUX

SM: Feminist film in general has entered the mainstream conversation over the last ten years – as in the main-mainstream (national newspapers, BFI backed, etc), but it's in a way more exciting to see the kinds of experimental work that we've screened move into larger cultural spaces like Tate, like with Maud Jacquin's London Film-makers Co-op programme, which Sarah was part of.

SW: I think cinema itself has changed a lot in ten years and that what was once considered the margins is now a thriving alternative to mainstream commercial cinema, largely thanks to the activity of film clubs and festivals.

I asked Club des Femmes about what developments they were glad to see over the last ten years and which they could do without.

SR: Since we started there is now a really strong social network of queer feminist film curators, activists, programmers, pop ups, festivals in London – that links UK wide through alternative exhibitors  – e.g. Scalarama, SQIFF, Liverpool Small Cinema, Eyes Wide Open - whose rebel interventions within cultural cinema exhibition are significant and growing larger.

The development I am not happy seeing is the continuing exploitation by some cinemas of young feminist curators who are expected to give their skill and labour for free in return for supplying cinemas with ‘diverse’ content and audiences. This is an issue that needs to be addressed and we are talking within CdF about this a lot and how we can help change that. Watch this space!

SM: Online streaming and the emergence of boutique cinemas: these have both created opportunities and problems for making a breadth of films available.

I think the most important development is/was around digital projection enabling community cinema, especially with support from the BFI Neighbourhood Film Fund, which has created a massive growth in programming and curating (obviously supported by ICO training and distribution!), which can be local, responsive, communitarian, contextual, investigative and can offer real challenges to the status quo (like Liverpool Small Cinema’s 58% project); the second is theatrical release strategies for documentaries. As there are more women directing documentaries than fiction features, this has had a signal and dynamic effect, including raising filmmakers like Kim Longinotto to the deserved level of icons – although online streaming may mark the end of this brief golden era…

Have fun!

SR: We try to have as much fun as possible. Doing feminism is so much about that!

SW: Selina and I had both worked programming for different organisations but missed the freedom to follow our instincts and put film events together that could be more light of foot and responsive to what was happening in the world. We have always been creative and playful about the way we programme and that literally began with a conversation.

So, in the true spirit of Club des Femmes (and as a love of Tove Jannson and her creations was one of the original ways Sarah and Selina bonded at the ICO) I’m happy to share the official Moomins/Club des Femmes pairings as shared with me over the course of this interview:

Club Des Femmes Moomins2
(L-R: Little My AKA Selina Robinson; Moomintroll AKA Sarah Wood; Snufkin AKA Sophie Mayer)

Here’s to ten more years!


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