issue 227 - January 1992
Toronto's latest Festival of Festivals again provided a valuable and rare showcase for those interested in the explosion of Third World film. Here are three of the highlights.
directed by Jorge Fons
One of the most emotionally charged offerings at the Festival, Red Sunrise deals with the massacre of hundreds of students at the time of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. All the action takes place in one family in one apartment overlooking the killing ground of the Three Culture Plaza - an early parallel to Tiananmen Square. The suspense builds throughout the film: two of the family's sons are involved in the student movement and a web of repression closes around everyone.
The film has a claustrophobic feel - it could have made a stage play as easily as a movie - and is for neither the fainthearted nor those who like their cinema lush and full of virtuoso big names. But the acting is sound and the plot carries the viewer along to some startling insights into what makes present-day Mexico tick. The fact that the film was blocked from release in Mexico for two years is blunt testimony to its effectiveness in laying bare one of those episodes that the powers-that-be would rather keep buried.
directed by Barry Barclay
Maori director Barclay's first film Ngata was widely praised internationally. His follow-up is structured as a thriller in which performance poet Peter Huaka and his lawyer uncle Rewi Marqangai devise separate undercover operations aimed at repatriating three sacred Maori carvings from a Berlin museum.
The main narrative thus grapples with the global controversy of aboriginal artifacts being caged in the institutions of another culture. This is interwoven with subplots involving romance and family tensions, whose honesty and humour about the strains between generations and between cultures strike a universal chord.
But the great strength of the film is that even its plotline reflects the particular Maori perspective on the world: it is at the request of the old grandmother Nanny Matai that the carvings have to be reclaimed, yet the way this happens is, to say the least, unconventional. Barclay is a talent to watch.
directed by Sturla Gunnerson
This movie has an unlikely heroine: a bureaucrat from that hardy band of do-gooders the Canadian International Development Agency. She is assigned the job of preparing a ministerial visit to El Salvador and is shocked by what she finds: by the violence, the poverty and by what is being done with Canada's aid dollars.
In order to make the Minister's visit a success she tries to work out the transfer of needy refugees to a Canadian-built housing compound that has been hijacked by the Salvadorean military. In the process she gets caught up in the heat and dirt of the conflicts that are rending apart Salvadorean society. She alienates the peasants and angers both the military and their US paymasters.
Diplomatic Immunity is an exaggerated version of real events and while parts of the story and some of the characters are thin, there is enough credibility and drama to carry the story. It provides a powerful challenge to official Canada's wilful innocence about US motives and methods in the Third World and how this undermines Canada's cherished ambition to be a 'helpful fixer' for those in need.
When Humans Roamed the Earth
by Chris Madden
Cartoon books that can sustain their level of invention and wit over a hundred pages (as opposed to the single-frame burst) are actually few and far between. Usually you weary of the style or the voice. Too often there is also no sense of a positive ethos underlying the satire.
Chris Madden's book supplies so clear and consistent a positive Green ethos that you would think he'd be in grave danger of becoming tedious by harping on the same theme. There are certainly elements of repetition here: the lead-free fuelled car/tanker smashing the hapless hedge-hog/cyclist; the recurring dinosaurs and dodos, trees of life and hapless green consumers.
But more often that not the development of a particular idea from a number of different angles (including, most unusually, the view of the insect or animal) gives the book more depth and consistency. So you not only have the insecticide which kills ugly insects but spares ladybirds and butterflies; you also have the fly selling pseudo-butterfly wings as a sure-fire way to 'cheat the human death sprays'.
Madden's intelligent insects are particularly affecting. As the World Wide Fund for Nature (the book's co-publishers) well know, it is easy to care about cuddly-looking pandas or magnificent tigers but less easy to be bothered about bugs. Yet here it is the stag beetle who signs a treaty on human-animal co-operation ('the humans later reneged'); the woodlice who manoeuvre their robot into the position of managing director of Pesto-Kill and have him announce 'We're moving out of pesticides and starting a big programme of laying damp stones on the ground'.
In fact the book should perhaps carry a warning to consumers: 'read this and your capacity to kill flies and other irritants may be severely impaired'.
Flash of the Spirit
by Jon Hassell/Farafina
Farafina are a group from Burkina Faso whose use of atonal percussion with traditional balafon (marimba-like tuned gourd instrument) makes for a hypnotically dense sound, curiously close to Balinese gamelan. Composer and trumpeter Hassell has, over the years, adopted a particularly intellectual approach to the fusing of world sounds, one predicated largely on taking musics out of their cultural contexts. If his music occasionally suggests a slightly arid idea of sound as art installation, nevertheless it has extended the palette and the transcultural awareness of the electronic avant-garde.
In Flash of the Spirit, recorded in 1989, Hassell's sparse instrumentation - keyboards and eerie blasts of treated trumpet - builds on Farafina's original compositions, not using them as backing for solos but adding terse, impressionistic colouring. Mixing and editing by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno then add a further distance to what already sounds strangely aloof and ghostly.
The result is consistently fascinating, often quite scary, the nearest equivalent perhaps being Miles Davis' all-but-inscrutable electronic work of the early 1970s. But there is an artificiality here which rather refutes the stereotype of 'naturalness' that often attaches to African music.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) begins amid the deafening roar of a Nottingham engineering factory. In it we see Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), a surly young man working away at his lathe. Arthur's attitude to life is summed up by his opening voice-over, spoken over the clatter and repetitive routine of his job: 'Don't let the bastards grind you down!'
In the story that follows, we see this insolent rebel bluster his way through some of the formative experiences of his young adulthood. He drinks a lot of beer and continually speaks his mind about the society he's been born into: a world where people marry young, get dead-end jobs and 'before they know where they are, they've kicked the bucket!' He has a scathing attitude to these people for passively giving in to the 'gaffers' who make sure everyone stays in their place. 'They rob you left, right and centre and then after they've skinned you dry, you get called up in the army and get shot to death!'
Arthur meets a young woman, Doreen, in the pub and talks her into a date. But he's also having an affair with Brenda, the wife of one of his workmates, and his two-timing love life moves into crisis when Brenda tells him that she's pregnant. By the end of the film he seems to be drifting into marriage with Doreen. It's a trap perhaps, but as he looks down on the bland new housing development he'll probably be living in, he can't resist throwing a stone as a last gesture of defiance.
Scripted by Alan Sillitoe from his own novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a landmark film in all kinds of ways. Following on from the much more restrained Room at the Top (1958), it sounded the death knell for several decades of British films extolling cosy middle-class values in which everyone cheerfully knew their place. In British cinema until the late 1950s (apart from a brief wave of egalitarianism during World War Two), working-class characters performed much the same function as black characters in Hollywood movies. They were types, thick-accented comic relief to the main drama which typically involved such quintessential middle-class actors as John Mills and Jack Hawkins. In movies such as Brief Encounter (1945), the working-class characters had only a painfully limited emotional range compared with that of their well-spoken 'betters'.
Screen newcomer Finney's bravura performance broke that mould decisively with a loud and very sour note of dissent. Here was a working-class character with no trace of deference, a brazen individual who believed in nothing but himself - 'all the rest is propaganda!' He is an authentic but not a progressive figure. His attitude to women is appalling. But, Finney '5 Arthur Seaton is still the only character in British Cinema to rank with the likes of Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1953) as a celluloid rebel.
Even though the movie is populated entirely by working-class characters, the British class system is delineated here with an accurate verbal savagery which no film before or since has equalled. The maintenance of the class system was, and is, the most important organizing principle of injustice in British society. The film very powerfully presents this as a trap and, similarly, work and marriage are seen as constraints holding the individual in a grip of conformity. Seaton sees the world through jaundiced eyes but, his sexism aside, it's a persuasive viewpoint. His description of his parents is still as good a summary as you'LL get of a country where tabloid newspapers and TV game shows are staples in far too many people's lives: 'They've got a television set and a packet of fags but they're both dead from the neck up... They've had their hash settled for them, so that all the bloody gaffers can push them around like a lot of sheep!'
The world of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one I recognized immediately when I first saw the film as a teenager. I grew up in a colliery village in the North-East and went to the local school. Of the 180 plus children in my first year at that school, only three of us went on to university seven years later. Almost all of my friends left school at 16, got blue-collar jobs and were married with children by their twenty-first birthdays. That's still standard procedure in the area, except that these days unemployment often substitutes for work. The reality of that kind of severely circumscribed upbringing is reflected in pitifully few British films and yet it remains the norm for many and perhaps most people.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was arguably the first British film to give an uncondescending representation of working-class life and it was certainly the first to celebrate convincingly a working-class hero. For all his faults and vulgar bluster, I liked Arthur Seaton a lot when I first saw him - and I still like him a lot now.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning written by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Karel Reisz.