Category Archives: Films

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos-John-Akomfrah-Smoking-Dogs-Films-Courtesy-Lisson-Gallery1
Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

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John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…

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The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.

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Estate: A Reverie

This film has been so long in coming, and I have been there for a small piece of its journey. It has been an honour.

Once upon a time I lived in Bow, and out for a long wander up the  Regent’s canal one day, I saw this:

Haggerston Estate

A wondrous thing. I had passed other estates with windows boarded up yet signs that people still clearly lived in them. This left me both angered and confused, as housing is in such short supply for us, and this is our housing standing empty. These are homes that people love in the midst of desolation. Here I could tell someone was fighting back, ensuring they were visible and not simply to be silently swept away.

I met Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson (part of Fugitive Images, those who had put up these pictures with fellow residents) a few months later, the three of us on a panel put together by This is Not a Gateway at the Tate Modern (the Tate Modern! I called home, ever so proud).

This photo installation, i am here, was only the first part of a longer exploration of the process of decanting an estate against its resident’s wishes. This, a protest against the estate’s abandonment in preparation for regeneration. It sat alongside endless meetings, letters, petitions, protests, lobbies to preserve and improve the housing for those who lived there and loved it.

The second was the book, Estate, a combination of personal essays, photographs,  and political-economic contextualization. I loved it. You can buy it here, from Myrdle Court Press.

This film is the third, and perhaps the most powerful of the three. especially as the Haggerston Estate is now gone. I have been away or working during previous showings, but finally got to see it as part of the Open City Doc Festival. That is how we came all the way to the West End and discovered this gem of a place — the Regent Street Cinema:

Regent's Cinema

Built in 1848 and housed within the Polytechnic Institution on London’s Regent Street, the cinema was the first in the country to show moving pictures. In 1896, the cinema showcased the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe to a paying audience, and, as the curtain fell, British cinema was born.

Regent's Cinema

Go there. Enjoy.

I had seen various versions of the film — in snippets, and bits of pieces. A work in progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the full feature.

(After going through the foreclosure with my mum only a year ago, a replay of losing the house they built when I was a teenager, I feel I have lost a home twice, and this drew upon all the neverending grief and anger that such experiences leave inside of you. I don’t know if anyone else dripped tears throughout.)

Inspiring and heartbreaking both, it does two things wondrously well.

It shows the residents as they were, neighbours getting to know each other, the ways they had chosen to decorate their rooms, children playing and growing up, a father and daughter being forced to move, the elderly over time as they grew sicker and sicker. It is the most honest view of Parkinson’s I have ever seen. It brings the people of Haggerston Estate into your heart and they will never leave it. It does not does this with a bright and clinical gaze, but with the warm compassion of someone who has shared space with them for fifteen years. That sees people as they are for good and bad, and thus can love them truly.

You know exactly what suffering the lack of repairs has caused and what the loss of this community will mean. Something planners and housing managers and city officials somehow never understand.

This film could only have been made by someone who had lived there, fought for it, loved it.

That is why it captures the magic that also happened here. Slated for regeneration, the council stopped caring what people did here. Relaxed the patronising and controlling sets of rules that controlled behaviour. You hear a woman recount a story of her grandfather moved here when the estate first opened from the slums. Removed from his home and patch of ground and his animals, when they tried to force him to get rid of his dog too, he gassed both of them in the apartment.

This film is full of dogs. It is full of colour. People didn’t run riot, they painted logs and made seats, they painted goal posts on the wall for the next-door kids, they planted flowers and vegetables. They had barbeques and built a fire pit and sang songs to welcome in the New Year. They helped each other. They told stories.

They put on regency dress and discussed and acted out Samuel Richardson’s novels, whose heroines provide the names for the estate’s buildings.

Councils never did quite figure out that poor people weren’t the enemy, and the slums weren’t their creation, did they. But oh, the things people on estates can build when left alone to come together as a community.

There is so much more to say, and I’m writing a fuller review somewhere else, but just a few notes on the wonderful Q&A that followed with Andrea:

Andrea talking about Estate

She highlighted that this was a film of all the things unseen, to explore what it meant to lose the place after so many years fighting to get repairs. She felt they had to do something after the financial crash, seeing the posters go up everywhere about benefit fraud with slogans like ‘we are coming to get you.’ The strong feeling that something must be done to challenge this image production that blamed everything on the poor who were least to blame.

This was always a collective effort.

She talked too about the transition period where they could do anything they wanted, a time when people were able to take the space and decorate it as they wanted, and it became a magical place. There were some questions about why this film didn’t show struggle, the fight to improve it and keep it.

Hard choices were made on this, footage exists of everything, but there are so many films of struggle, it is something we understand (even if we don’t yet know how to win — but that is my own aside). She chose instead to show the reality of people’s lives, explore not just what the estate and its loss meant to them, but what they were able to create there when allowed some freedom for creation.

(In a previous cut, I remember seeing people come back to the estate who had already moved on, bursting into floods of tears at seeing their old flats, torn in half between all the frustrations of living somewhere in such terrible conditions but also all of the memories that still made that space a home. It was so powerful but Andrea is right, it did not fit here).

She talked about the architecture, about how vilified it is yet in these passages in the sky you have to meet your neighbours, you see them every day, you say hello. New buildings are secure by design, you never see anyone, community cannot grow and people are lonely in them.

Something else we are losing. We still have a great deal of public space, it is important in this country, but home is still seen as private, insular. It’s an interesting observation. Early estates were built to try and help create community, with multiple shared spaces — perhaps not public space but community space. That is something that is disappearing, and surely we are losing something with it.

There is so much to think about here, the film so rich it will reward reviewing. Go see it.

[A version of this post can also be found at drpop.org]

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Sam Selvon’s London

1382607One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet. Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turns black and Moses watch it and curse the fog. (1)

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) is grand. The writing, the characters, the thoughtfulness. The invitation into experiencing a London so particular to the Windrush generation’s time and place. The humour, the tall-tale aspect as though you were listening to these stories spoken aloud. The home truths. How when you come you stay in a hostel at first:

When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn’t have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he could meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away — for this city powerfully lonely when you on your own. (29)

How you find your way around London, into the places and the neighbourhoods you can live in and be accepted to a certain extent. The reflection on class and race and how these fit together.

The place where Tolroy and the family living was off the Harrow Road, and the people in that area call the Working Class. Wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades. This is the real world, where men know what it is to hustle a pound to pay the rent when Friday come. The houses around here old and grey and weatherbeaten, the walls cracking like the last days of Pompeii, it ain’t have no hot water, and in the whole street that Tolroy and them living in, none of the houses have bath. You had was to buy one of them big galvanise bath and boil the water and full it up, or else go to the public bath. Some of the houses still had gas light, which is to tell you how old they was. All the houses in a row in the street, on both sides, they build like one long house with walls separating them in parts, so your house jam up between two neighbours: is so most of the houses is in London The street does be always dirty except if rain fall. Sometimes a truck does come with a kind of revolving broom and some pipes letting out water, and the driver drive near the pavement, and water come out the pipes and the broom revolve, and so they sweep the road. It always have little children playing in the road, because they ain’t have no other place to play. They does draw hopscotch blocks on the pavement, and other things, and some of the walls of the buildings have signs painted like Vote Labour and Down with the Tories. The bottom of the street, it had a sweet-shop, a bakery, a grocery, a butcher and a fish and chips…

It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers. Them rich people who does live in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and up in Hampstead and them other plush places, they would never believe what it like in a grim place like Harrow Road or Notting Hill…People don’t talk about things like that again, they come to kind of accept that is so the world is, that it bound to have rich and poor, it bound to have some live by the Grace and other who have plenty. That is all about it, nobody does go into detail. A poor man, a rich man…

It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades, because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down. A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n. (59-61)

There are tales of stealing pigeons, catching seagulls. Eating well. Spur of the moment marriages. Mistakes. Unexpected aunts transforming a street and suddenly the corner store works on credit. The courage needed to find your way on the tube. The good times of London, the thrill you get sometimes thinking to yourself I’m here, I’m really here, and is fine:

So, cool as a lord, the old Galahad walking out to the road, with plastic raincoat hanging on the arm, and the eyes not missing one sharp craft that pass, bowing his head in a polite ‘Good evening’ and not giving a blast if they answer or not.This is London, this life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. (75)

Galahad is who Moses met on the train. This is as much his story. His musings on race — what better way to think about how it is constructed, how meaningless it is and yet still shape our lives?

And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know, why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, is you, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world.

So Galahad talking to the colour Black, as if is a person, telling it that is not he who causing botheration in the place, but Black, who is a worthless thing for making trouble all about. (77)

A new happiness for me every time I go to Piccadilly Circus, a fictional memory overlaid on my own but such a good one:

Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gar laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. Oh Lord. (79)

This is what I do love about London, even if Bayswater Road is now far out of reach for people like me:

The changing of the seasons, the cold sl9icing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ Picadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’

What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else? What is it that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything — sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. (133-134)

p85112_d_v7_aaAnd then there is Pressure (1975), the story of Tony just graduated from school and looking for work and Notting Hill in the 1970s and the life of a kid born in London to Trinidadian parents who believe this will open doors for him despite the colour of his skin. It is the first feature length British film by a Black director, Horace Ové, and cowritten by him and Selvon. It is a slow, but powerful engagement with racism, with the friendships built across race amongst the working class kids growing up together, with Black Power and Black realities in London of the time, of the tensions between generations and family born in one world and family born into another. It is rice and peas versus fish and chips. It is conformity to white masters and a white world and consolations in Jesus versus taking one’s place by right as a British citizen. It is how to take that right through collective action, but the limited numbers still engaged in that action. It is more serious than Lonely Londoners, a little more angry, less of good times even in poverty and more of struggle and frustration. More racist cops. More beatings. More complexity. It stays in one neighbourhood, perhaps you sense the tightening down of community, there is none of this sprawling across London that the life of hustling brings many of the characters in The Lonely Londoners. These characters, too, are absent in depth, there is no Big City, no Cap here though an echo of their younger selves perhaps, but instead a kid trying to make his own way, discovering racism for himself, working through his own identity slowly but surely.

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Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

Apacheland

`My last set of pictures and post from Arizona…just a few days wandering yields so much. After reading Orientalism I know when writing about an old movie set I should do something more thoughtful about Westerns and representation and how I sit in relationship to the myths of the West and its occupants. But this won’t really be it, just a quick beginning.

In my youth I refused to watch most Westerns at all, especially after the first time I realised a white dude had actually painted himself brown and was pretending to be an Indian. That was a moment of pure WTF. I sided with the Indians and Mexicans and I knew in advance they always lost. I hated that male violence was always so stupidly extreme and defined everything, as women fluttered around them like anachronistically clean and well-fed butterflies. We did, I confess, watch a lot of Bonanza, but I thought John Wayne was an asshole and wanted no part of anything that made him look like a hero.

I still think John Wayne is an asshole. That’s why I now like The Searchers so much.

Now that I have left the desert, I yearn to catch site of it in the multitude of films shot in the very same hills to the SW of Tucson where I grew up. Along familiar trails even. But there are more reasons than that to like James Stewart in Winchester ’73.

Tucson never appears at all in the TV show Maverick, but James Garner cheers me up just to look at him. Nichols may be even better, I’m just sad that the Rockford Files aren’t filmed in Tucson too. L.A. is overrepresented.

I’ll stop listing the Westerns worth watching because I will leave things out (like Lee Marvin! Cat Ballou!) But what is fascinating is the way that the the manufacturing of the Western myth in movies left a trail all across the South West in the form of movie sets and theme parks that sit oddly with the detritus of mining and cattle ranching that actually marks the passing of the old west.

One I had never heard of, next to the Superstitions just south of Apache Junction, is Apacheland (APACHELAND since 1959, is a registered trademark of Apacheland Movie Ranch © 2014).

The name itself is after the Apache trail, or Apache Junction perhaps. All of them together just serve as another expression of how white people have no shame at all at appropriating the names and cultures of those they have massacred and forced to leave the area entirely. And then made money making moving pictures about a rewritten version of that history.

This makes the use of the word ‘innocent’ in its own description a bit dubious:

Apacheland 1956-1959

From its innocent inception of a theme park and western movie studio in 1956 to its founding in 1959 as “The Western Movie Capital of the World,” this is the first chapter in a 55 year history of Apacheland Movie Ranch that covers Richard Boone, Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Henry Fonda to name a few. Apacheland Days at its finest.

Apacheland

This was always meant to be a tourist destination, a show:
Apacheland

Sadly most of it burned down, so its relics have been picked up and moved to the Superstion Mountain Musuem:
Apacheland

Despite all of this, I get a little thrill knowing that these buildings have been the backdrop for the work of some of my favourite people:
Apacheland

Apacheland

Apacheland

I will include Elvis in that, here is the chapel from Charro!:

Apacheland

It is, of course, dedicated to Elvis. Vegas, eat your heart out.
Apacheland

It also contains some pictures of what Apacheland once looked like:
Apacheland

And then because this is indeed a mixture of the real and the unreal, they of course have my favourite exhibit in all western museums — the obligatory board of barbed wire:
Apacheland

Outside, and again outside of Hollywood all together, is this wonderful collection of old mining machinery, like the Cossack Stamp Mill, dragged here with love from Bland, NM and now being restored to working condition.
Apacheland

An old water drill:
Apacheland

And amazing bits of machinery rusting:
Apacheland

Apacheland

Apacheland

Perhaps the most memorable exhibit is inside:

Superstition Mountain Museum
But to return to Hollywood, here is the monument to the wonderful Tom Mix, who died here in a car accident — much further down the highway, but it seemed to fit here:
Tom Mix Monument

And a monument to the leisure activities of many a good resident of Arizona. I miss it.
Tom Mix Monument

Apacheland Filmography

1956 Gunfight at the OK Corral – Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas

1960 Apache Trail Documentary – Documentary of Superstition Wilderness

1960 Have Gun, Will Travel – Richard Boone

1961 Bonanza – Lorne Greene,  Michael Landon, Dan Blocker

1961 Stagecoach West – Wayne Rogers, Robert Bray

1961 The Purple Hills – Gene Nelson, Kent Taylor

1961 The Broken Land – Jack Nicholson, Kent Taylor

1962 Showdown at Redrock – Frank Wilcox, Leland Wainscott

1964 Blood on the Arrow – Dale Robertson, Martha Hyer

1964 Arizona Raiders – Audie Murphy, Michael Dante

1965 Death Valley Days – Ronald Reagan

1965 General Motors – Lorne Greene

1966 Death Valley Days – Robert Taylor

1967 Ice Capades in the Desert – Carolyn O’Kelly, John Labrecque

1967 Pepsi’s ‘Girl on the Go’ – Corinne Calvet

1967 Dundee and the Culhane – Warren Oates, John Drew Barrymore

1967 Death Valley Days – Robert Taylor

1968 Hang Fire – Jerry Vance, Lindsay Crosby

1968 Charro! – Elvis Presley, Ina Balin

1968 Will Rogers Institute – John Wayne

1968 Death Valley Days – Robert Taylor

1969 Ballad of Cable Hogue – Jason Robards, Stella Stevens

1969 A Time for Dying – Audie Murphy, Richard Lapp

1971 Second Chance – Brian Keith, Rosie Grier

1972 Guns of a Stranger – Marty Robbins, Chill Wills

1976 The Haunted – Aldo Ray, Virginia Mayo

1977 Sweet Savage – Aldo Ray, Charles Samples

1977 Jacob and Jacob – Alan Hale, Jake Jacobs

1978 Blue Jay Summer – Ken McConnell, Teresa Jones

1983 The Gambler: The Adventure Continues – Kenny Rogers, Linda Evans

1994 Blind Justice – Armande Assante, Jack Black

1994 Playboy Goes West – Royce O’Donnell, Ed Birmingham, Hank Sheffer

1995 Ford Motor Company – Waylon Jennings

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Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:

yourbritainfightforitnowgames1

Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:

Swimming_pool,_main_hall_web

The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.

3059631875

The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.

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Cairo Drive

Cairo-Drive-MotorcycleCairo Drive was fantastic. Part of the Barbican’s fall 2014 season City Visions, I saw it as a double bill with Cairo as Seen by Chahine, and the filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha was present as well. This was a brilliant film exploring a city through one of its primary forms of transportation – driving. The official blurb fills in the background:

Cairo, Egypt. 20 million people. 23,600 miles of road. Two million cars. Taxis, buses, donkey carts, and swarms of people, all jockeying to move through the obstacle course that is their daily lives. Sitting at a cultural intersection, Cairo is a city unlike any other, where different faiths, races, and social classes all share a few clogged arteries of tarmac.

Cairo traffic is a chaotic experience where rules are constantly challenged: an elaborate dance of leading and following, flow and resistance, and impeccable, almost miraculous timing.

But it’s the following quote opening the film that fully captures the experience of traffic there:

Cairo is an essay in entropy…but order is nevertheless maintained, if barely.
— Maria Golia, Cairo: City of Sands

So different from London, where driving isn’t important. So different from L.A., where driving is all-important. I love thinking about the relationship between this and the city and how we live in it. The dialectical relationship between a culture as a whole and individuals and how they move through a city every day, their patterns of behaviour and feelings.

Cairo Drive is shot by Elkatsha himself, filming from the side of the road or sitting in a passenger seat as he is driven through traffic by taxi drivers, ambulance drivers, friends, and family all discussing, well, driving. But this daily activity, this act of traversing the city,  opens up multiple other avenues of discussion: patience and attitude, bribery and corruption, the nature of the city, what it means to be Egyptian, the experience of moving through urban spaces as mediated by culture and gender and background and class. I loved too that it was begun before the massive uprisings in Tahrir Square, documents the volunteers directing traffic in lieu of the police for a little while during the uprising itself, and then the return of traffic as normal. But not quite, because some of the fear had lifted. For a view of massive social upheaval, using the prism of traffic is a fascinating one.

As Elkatsha noted in the Q & A after the film, this is above all about communication; possibly my favourite set of conversations was on the elaborate language of horns. I hear a horn in this country and I just think ‘asshole’, but in a moving heaving roadway where there are as many lanes as you can make room for and every space must be filled, horns fulfill a much more nuanced function.

Cairo

I also loved the way that some drivers opened up conversations with other drivers, the way that others joined in the conversation being filmed in the car. There is no anonymity, a very different sense of space than we are accustomed to in the US or the UK. A very similar sense of space to what I have experienced in Mexico, El Salvador, Bangladesh — almost that old binary except really I think it may just be an Anglo reserve taken on by the USA wholesale. I quite love Q & A’s, loved hearing that many people told him to just focus on a few stories whereas there are many different people speaking in the film (good choice in my opinion); that he shot over 200 hours of footage and edited as he went along, but in the end raised money to hire an outside editor to help with the final cut; that his father wanted this film to be about solving the traffic problem. With the fear always present under the Mubarek regime, Elkatsha said that people were often very reluctant to be filmed, particularly discussing politics. But a film about driving, a discussion of driving they felt was inoffensive and safe, though without fail this came back to politics. The first thing you learn in planning school is just how political anything to do with traffic and parking and roads is, so that is hardly surprising.

A lot of the people in the audience clearly knew Cairo, asked about the geographies shown in the film. The centre did feature quite a bit simply because it was central to getting from here to there — much of this was simply filmed as part of daily life. But Elkatsha didn’t want it to be about certain neighbourhoods, rather for the built environment to be simply the backdrop to these flows of people. Really for him the film was about the people and the city, the city that is the people. This echoed Chahine, and I wish more planners and architects took this definition of the city a little more to heart. Instead they were trying to change behaviour after the fact — there were some amazing shots of children in school being taught traffic safety, role-playing correct behaviour both as drivers and as pedestrians, singing safety rhymes like ‘red means stop’ even if you’re in a hurry. But really, there is so much to critique about the role the State has played in this mess, the layout of the roads themselves, the immense danger caused by enormous roads cutting through populated neighbourhoods without adequate crossings or subways, and clearly there is a lack of public transportation. The entrepreneurial and unregistered vans making up for this lack have only intensified the traffic problems, stopping anywhere to pick people up and drop people off. I have some love for cars and driving through the American Southwest’s vast spaces, but this film made me want to scrap them all, both for the planet and for society.

Of course, Cairo Drive doesn’t show too much of this bigger critique of planning and etc, it focuses on the actual experience of driving in ways that are both thoughtful and hilarious for the most part. It is the most enjoyable documentary I’ve seen in ages, the football fans stuck in traffic on their way and holding their babies out of the car windows? That had me shocked but laughing out loud and is something I will never forget, as did the wonderful woman who was just like my aunt Ruth — or what she would be if she drove in Egypt. There is a brief look at the cost of this roadway anarchy where anything goes, all the dangers and risks caused by drivers pushing it as far as they can and I’m sure regularly dying in the attempt. But probably not enough. It all seems quite benign as portrayed here, yet I imagine the death toll is horrific. It leaves you to just imagine that for yourself, really, so on the whole this is a feel-good film that illuminates a city and a culture and a key aspect of daily life, that makes you think about traffic and movement and its relationship to society and the city itself. Go see it.

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A Touch of Sin

I loved this film. I saw it alone (my first cinema visit alone I am ashamed to confess) at the Barbican. It was showing as part of their Fall season City Visions, and a nice contrast with the photo exhibit which I had seen earlier, constructing worlds.  I left the theater full of it, a feeling that its violence lurked in the brutalist cityscape around me and within me as I walked to the station and I could not stop thinking of it on the tube back to Brixton. The woman who introduced this film mentioned its nods to Tarantino, but I did not feel that this was the violence of a teenage boy who thinks it’s bad ass, Zhangke’s is a compassionate gaze that does not shrink from the worst within us but with a greater focus on that inflicted by the structures and environments of our world. It consists of four separate stories of violence, linked by a background character or association, though the end circles back upon itself. It opens with the unique brand of gangster capitalism, the current accumulation by dispossession taking place in China that is removing collective assets and enriching a fraction of the people which forms the backdrop to every violent act, is itself the most pervasive form of violence. The rule and power of money. Looking upon the landscapes in the film are like facing this reality in material form, extraordinary speculative buildings that become ruins before their completion, huge industrial works that loom against the sky, the equally large scale of working class housing and its poverty are everywhere.  It made me start to think through the way this structural and spatial violence are intertwined with the potentialities that always lurk within ourselves for snapping, for killing others.

This is presented with great complexity I think, despite the often obvious symbolism — the boy and girl with the internet handles ‘little bird’ and ‘fish seeking water’. The sauna receptionist being beaten with a wad of money, the men simultaneously signalling their insecurity by claiming she is acting above them yet at the same time demanding the rights their money buys them in a brothel. The later scenes of the ‘nightclub’ where the girls march in ranks through the reception area dressed in skimpy red army uniforms.  The scene of traditional Chinese theater set up in the street in the village where the first story takes place that is commentating on recent events — as it did in the first story — and asking the final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ They are almost playful and never felt heavy, thrown in and then undermined and yet surfacing again as a truth. I didn’t feel that there were any easy equations here, violence erupts from the boredom  of village life (though the backdrop is still the great towers of city life in the far distance — or near distance depending on what the air quality is) as much as it does from the city itself, and any degradation it creates. That is the character so often played by the city in film, it was refreshing not to see it here.

The whole is open to widely different interpretations I think, depending on the politics you bring to bear on it. Possibly I might feel different after another viewing (I would like another viewing), or if I were more familar with the politics of China or able to catch the multiple cultural references that I am sure I missed given my ignorance. But I loved the first story, the acting out of that fantasy that many of us share of just shooting the hell out of those people in power fucking you over, and their sorry henchmen just following orders and facilitating their takeover. Their wives, well, that might have been a bit overboard. Dohai is fighting back, but all alone in his anger at the stripping of all assets and power from the people of his village and their concentration in the hands of an old school fellow. And alone he compulsively names it, pushes it, fights to stop it. He is the only one to ever really have a smile on his face. He lays bares his oppression and he shoots it, knowing that he does so. The others do not have this consciousness, only varying degrees of stubborn resistance that erupts almost in spite of themselves — though arguably the second figure was just psychotic and bored. Which I liked. The ambiguity I liked, and so I choose to find the framing in that first story.

One final thought. To the ignorance of Western eyes this was a series of amazing landscapes — I am unsure how much of a spectacle this presents to those from China. But what I loved most was how much it showed of work, of everyday life. Nothing here was slick, glamourised. And this focus on work, on interiors as much as exteriors and the ways that people occupied them underlined for me the strange way that we are all connected through this capitalist system of exploitation and brutality. The girl playing on her tablet between johns, the boy who is crushing on her will go on to work in a factory making electrical components for just such devices. Just as his story opens with his work in a garment factory, sewing our clothes. I am surrounded by objects created in  workplaces like those I watched this evening, in the streets I walk among people who have fled these realities to seek a better life, and it shames me just a little that I do not know more of this world. That final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ It applies to us as well, the western viewers no less than Chinese, the consumers of this industry and this labour. We in the UK or the US are also a part of the structural violence, and often victim to it though the ways in which we are enmeshed in it are different. And offer a qualitatively better way of life, as we benefit from low wages producing cheap goods. And finally, we too, as human beings, are as capable of breaking.

Cairo as Seen by Chahine

These are simply some impressions as this was my introduction to Youssef Chahine, ‘one of Egypt’s greatest directors’ and presented by the Barbican as part of a double feature with Cairo Drive. I hope with respect, I worry about these things and I liked that the film demanded that I worry. It’s short, only 22 minutes, and has a meta-narrative of the filmmaker himself discussing a request from Paris to make a documentary on Cairo and questioning the western gaze. He asks the actors what they think the French want to see: pyramids is the answer, belly dancers, the souk, the Nile. If not tourism than a film of poetic realism, no, social realism. As they speak the film’s subject changes, so in a way it is about all of these things. There is another thread of narrative of a young man recently graduated from college and unemployed, his search for work recurs, as does the face of another student, dedicated leftist in college now turned to fundamentalism — but the lines between what is real and what is acted are blurred and uncertain, much as in life.

What I love most though, is Chahine’s own reflection on Cairo, his love of the city — but that the city is above all its people. He speaks of his love for this people, their character. How their existence in tiny cramped urban spaces means they must learn to get along. There are shots that capture a sense of life in these spaces, fragments of experience and stories in domestic interiors. Others capture something of what it is like to occupy these spaces, to pray in them, to play in them, to search for work in them. They do this with great effectiveness — I think this is partly because these are things the director has approached with love, but there are technical aspects to it I need to think through more. The power of some of the images is one way:

chahine

The above screen shot is from a blog called the Cairobserver —  I found it looking for images, read it, recognised its awesomeness and aspired briefly to such heights. This blog will probably never reach them. It looks at the way this film problematises the rapid development of Cairo, the way speculation started eating up agricultural land, creating issues of overcrowding and (non) sustainability, where international markets and government policies have worked to destroy support for farming and Egypt’s production of its own food. Real Estate people and residents being evicted both speak directly to the camera with the assumption that you are on their side.

And then back to fundamentalism, life in the city, a hint of the first gulf war (it is 1991). It was a joy to see Cairo through the eyes of someone who knows it, loves it, is aware of the limiting orientalist vision of others and escapes those limits.

For more on Chahine himself I have copied a short bio, it can be found with a listing of his films with some synopsis here.

Chahine was born in 1926 of Christian parents in Alexandria, a sophisticated and multi-cultural city that was to figure prominently in many of his films. From an early age, he was a fan of Hollywood movies, and, as a young man, spent two years studying acting at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. As a film director, he was both a social realist and a canny entertainer, fearlessly blending genres to forge his own unique style of story-telling. He even incorporated newsreels, musical numbers, and home movies into his work, notably ALEXANDRIA, WHY?

Themes of openness and tolerance are threaded through Chahine’s work. A pioneer, he often faced opposition, and films including THE SPARROW had been banned in Egypt upon first release. Audiences responded to the overt sensuality of CAIRO STATION by rioting and ripping the seats out of cinemas. Chahine’s frank treatment of sexual relationships and homosexuality was a first in the Arab world, as was the unabashed autobiographical nature of some of his work. A true original, Youssef Chahine told his own story even as he told Egypt’s story in the age of cinema.

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