short film review: BBC ARABIC Film Festival 2017

Today I visited the BBC Arab film Festival 2017, which is a showcase of films from across the Arabic-speaking world, presented by the BBC with the support of the City of London and involving a wide variety of people from the BBC, the Guardian and independent film production. It’s a big deal and is probably the main showcase for films from the Arabic-speaking world in the UK. Unfortunately, films from the Arabic-speaking world rarely get screened in the UK, even in London.  I don’t know why, because as a general rule London has a broad taste for world cinema and I don’t doubt that there’s a big audience out there. Certainly the screening I went to was packed, and I would be surprised if the rest of the screenings are not similarly busy. However, I wish it was possible to see films from the region on a more regular basis, in cinemas, screening events and of course on DVD.

So what did I see today? It was a program of shorts, one documentary and four fiction films and I’m going to review four of them. I discuss them in the order that they were screened today

The first film I saw was called Aida, directed by Maysoon ElMassry, a student at Egypt’s National Film School. It’s not like any film school project I’ve seen; it’s a really strong and well realized piece of observational documentary. The subject is a very old woman called Aida, who was well known in the city of Alexandria as a flower seller. For over fifty years she has trudged the streets of Alexandria selling flowers; the film shows her in the twilight of her life when every movement is slow motion without a camera. We see her getting ready to go out, as she edges slowly and gingerly down a long staircase from her upper story flat to the street below, where she pushes an old wheelchair piled with flowers to sell on the street. Each day is a repetitive, Sisyphean event. It is pathetic. Yet she is not pathetic; she is strong and proud, dignified and, we suspect, stubborn. She never speaks, and the filmmaker never directly addresses her; it is truly fly-on-the wall cinema. The camera focuses all the time on Aida, but we get a strong sense of the chaos and cacophony of the modern city, as she trundles her way through heavy traffic stopping cars to sell them flowers and cadge a cigarette. As a portrait of old age, it is sad. Yet as a portrait of human dignity it is immensely beautiful and makes us understand just how valuable human dignity is.

The second film, Jareedy, is also by an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Hisham, and it is a drama set in Nubia in the far south of Egypt. A “jareedy” is a type of small boat used by the Nubians to cross the Nile, and it becomes the dream of a young boy who is haunted by the stories and cultural memory of the displacement of the Nubian people for the building of the High Dam. The most striking thing about the film is the cinematography, revealing the beauty of the landscape, the power of the river and the starkness of the sandy, sundrenched hills. The village, with its painted houses and exuberant children,  comes alive in this film, showing a world which few of the film’s audience will probably have seen (even among Egyptians, as the director pointed out during the Q&A). Again the theme of human dignity comes out, as both the young boy and the old man refuse to forget the Nubia that once was; they claim their rootedness in the land, and their insistence on memory and story is a stance of dignity.

Fate, Wherever It Takes Us is a different type of film, a personal autobiography by Kadar Fayyad. Fayyad works with NGOs on human rights issues, and issues around youth and conflict. However, she is also a refugee – a Syrian national who went to Jordan to do her master’s degree and found that her country had fallen apart when she was away. Now she lives under asylum in Amman, where she continues her work. She was invited to create an auto-portrait on film in a workshop organized by Danish film project. Fayyad use her phone camera, which leads to some very interesting experimental moments, as she muses on the concept of “fate.”  It is an immensely moving, touching portrait of an ordinary woman, little different to myself or any of my friends, who has found herself in this strange position. She speaks delicately about her state of existence at this fault line of human tragedy which is the Syrian conflict. Somehow she makes us feel as though it could happen to any of us, any time – and indeed this is true.

The final film of today’s screening was shocking and it made me cry. Yes, really. It is a drama called Mare Nostrum and was made by the Syrian filmmaking duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf. I really wish everybody with eyes should see this movie. It is set on an unnamed beach on the Mediterranean shore where a Syrian father rehearses over and over an agonizing ritual in the hope that it will lead to salvation. It is beautiful, with gorgeous painterly abstract moments, which are at the same time taut and terrible. The best and worst thing about the film is how recognizable it is, how much we are already aware of the story, and of the suffering and of the helplessness. Yet it is not a despairing film; it forces us to confront our own judgments and the judgments of others – particularly those voices in the media – and examine, and imagine what it takes to make such a decision. Shocking, yes; compelling, yes; essential, definitely.

 

Following the screening, there was a really interesting panel discussion featuring the filmmakers which (barring the usual complete idiot’s question – there’s always one) was enlightening and stimulating.

Out of today’s experience watching these films, it comes to me again, in a very immediate and urgent way, how important art is, and how important a tool like cinema can be to give voice and visual complexity to things which are talked about endlessly in the media.  But the nature of media discourse makes what we see/hear there almost impossible to feel. Art is not media discourse, it has much more potential to make us examine things in depth and to engage emotionally. All of the films presented today manage to do that very successfully, and this is what art is for.

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after the revolution

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[ Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]

Looking forward to seeing this show at the Royal Academy tomorrow. I’ve been to the great Russian art museums many times and am familiar with much of this work so it will be like seeing old friends, without the vodka. I’m a particular fan of the symbolist painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

I had a friend in St Petersburg who used to have to paint Lenins for a living, back in the Soviet Union. He had to do it, he got a salary from the government to paint Lenin all day. Every building in the land had to have at least one Lenin pinitng. Obviously he gave that up after the end of the cold war, when nobody wanted Lenins anymore. Later his work was quite a bit more like Petrov-Vodkin’s, highly symbolic.

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ABSTRACTION

Robert Linsley, “Turning Away”

“Art exists entirely within the social realm, since even to see an object as art requires some social training, namely an understanding and acceptance of conventions, and abstraction has made this fact more evident by separating art from many of its social roles. But the entirely interior space of art has a hole that lets in the air—sometimes the cold wind—of the world outside.”

 

http://tripleampersand.org/turning-away/

A fascinating article about abstraction in the present; I am fascinated by the possibilities for abstraction in cinema (not ‘abstract cinema’ but the way abstraction can be used IN narrative film an a sensorial element)… Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day is a good one, also the abstraction created by bokeh in Locke, and the opening of Enter the Void … but it’s little used because I think film makers don’t understand it well enough. I wrote about abstraction in Art History for Filmmakers  but should probably develop it a bit more.

Unfortunately I was led to this superb article  by a FB post about Robert Linsley’s death. Although I never met him, I feel the loss, after reading this eloquent and thoughtful essay.

night-palette

[Night Palette – photograph ©2016 Gillian Mciver]

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lecture

I used to lecture for a living, teaching art and film. I have given it up for now, focusing on writng and creative work but periodically I do give lectures. I did one yesterday at Central St Martins and it was really fun! Really stimulating discussion too.

I did not record the lecture but here is a short 15 min podcast recording of a lecture I did at the IF Project, a kind of ‘free university’ in London, on ‘how to interpret visual art’

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/how-to-interpret-visual-art/

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[me giving a lecture – actually no, its a Halloween event a few years back]

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cinema of the Dutch Golden Age

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[Jan Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring,  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

I’m writing a chapter on realism and Golden Age Dutch art, and the films Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) and Admiral (Roel Reiné). All 3 films are interesting represntations of the Dutch “Golden Age”, yet are totally different in subject and style. I recommend all of them! Girl with a Pearl Earring is about Jan Vermeer making the famous painting (above); Nightwatching is about Rembrandt making the eponymous painting and the consequences of that, and Admiral is about the life of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

To my mind, the main thrust of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to achive heightened realism by the total recreation of 17thC Delft life; Nightwatching‘s thrust is to explore Rembrandt’s painterly techniques transposed onto film; Admiral uses tropes of Dutch painting (from Vermeer to van der Velde) to cement the story’s time and place, give it gravitas and affirm its significance. It’s interesting to see how each film does this and how the paintings they refer to resonate in different ways. Also the totality of Dutch painting as a precursor to cinema is always present in the back of the mind of any who sees these works.

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the ‘POW!’ power of Colour: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

A few weeks ago I managed to have a free day to go down to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition. This is an absolute massive exhibition, and apparently it’s the first time all of the major abstract expressionists of been brought together in one place in London since the 1950s

Information about the exhibition:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

The show was huge, and it was honestly too much take in at any one time and the only thing I really came away with in any important sense was an extremely overwhelming sense of colour. Yet that’s enough for me. I’d never really thought about the abstract expressionists as revolutionists of colour but indeed that’s exactly what they were. In their hands colour, that includes the monochrome of black and white, takes on a completely new aspect, completely new from the whole history of painting. Yet their sense of colour is also deeply embedded in the ancient history and tradition of painting. It was so exciting; I really wasn’t expecting this.

Okay I’ll own up, actually never liked abstract expressionism. Thing is, I never saw any of it. There’s very little of it in Britain, where I had my creative education and certainly there wasn’t any of it in Vancouver where I grew up (NOT an art city, tbh). I saw glimpses here and there: the occasional Jackson Pollock in the (excellent) Seattle Art Museum and a Motherwell at the Tate Modern, but I had never seen them brought together in any meaningful way and I’d certainly never seen a sufficient number of them to really get strong sense of what these artists accomplished.

Instead, like many people, what I really saw was a whole lot of derivations and simulacra of copies that vaguely remembered resembled abstract expressionism at a level far below pastiche – adorning the walls of banks and institutions. That is, washes of bland colour designed to create a soporific and unchallenging atmosphere away from the intellectual/emotional engagement invited by figuration. How lame; how horrible, who on earth would like abstract expressionism if this is what they think it is?

Luckily I grew up and started to engage more meaningfully with it. It was an interesting trajectory, Rauschenberg led me to an interest in the earlier abstract painters which led me to an interest in Motherwell which led me to bit by bit more than appreciation for abstraction, although (until the RA show) I still completely rejected people like Barnett Newman.

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Mark Rothko, no name, 1969, at Museum of the University of Navarra
[By Mika58 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44153557%5D

Simon Schama’s Power of Art opened my mind up to Mark Rothko. Yes I admit, before Simon I actually thought Rothko was boring. Pretty, but boring. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Schama’s emotive take on Rothko but it certainly engaged me to look at the paintings differently and spend a lot more time with them at the Tate. I grew to love them. I think it’s not necessary for art critic or an art historian to necessarily be “correct” (boring!) but to engage and inspire and then I can just make up my own mind. (Thanks Simon Schama and Waldemar Januszczak!)

So, the exhibition: as I said, the thing that I came away with was this sense of being completely assaulted by colour. The way in which the colour appears and doesn’t appear in these paintings is completely fascinating and absolutely absorbing. The greatest experience for me was understanding finally, something I’ve never been able to understand from looking at any reproduction or matter how high quality. Which is that Jackson Pollock was an incredible, delicate, sensitive colourist. His colouring is on a level with the greatest Renaissance painters, and with my personal favourite colourist John Singer Sargent. Okay how can I compare Jackson Pollock to Fra Angelico or John Singer Sargent or Titian for example? Because of the way in which he lays the colours on the canvas, the combinations, the way moves the colour into shapes, the way the eye follows the colour across the canvas. See, amazing. I’m really hoping to find some kind of book or article on Jackson Pollock as a master colourist and his relationship to the tradition of colouring.

BUT, you have to go see the paintings in the flesh to get any of this. NO reproductions can offer a real sense of the colour. Sadly.

Colour is the most interesting subject in painting, although relatively not that much written about it.

Now of course in terms of my own research, this brings me to think about what was going on in cinema at exactly the same time as the Abstract Expressionists were doing these incredible things with colour; of course! colour cinema in the 1950s! the successes of Technicolor and so forth! the development of blazing new film stocks and the evocation of a whole brightly coloured world, fantastical and seductive! Haven’t got any conclusions about this now … it’s all going on in my head but it’s really interesting … stay tuned.


Mark Hudson’s review in the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/abstract-expressionism-royal-academy-review/

Januszczak’s review in the Times
http://www.waldemar.tv/2016/10/abstract-expressionism-the-show-of-the-year/

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TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

the Tatsuko Storyboard: A graphic novel version of the 44 minute long, silent feature shot in black and white. Consisting of one continuous watercolour [with mixed media additions] on a sheet of paper 8 metres long, and concertinered into an A4 sized portrait format book. Ribbon ties and bookmark. This unique book features as an […]

via TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

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thoughts on Caravaggism

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Tavern Scene with a Lute Player by Bartolomeo Manfredi. prob early 1600s

One of my favourite artists in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravagio show – Bartolomeo Manfredi was a real find for me.

To my mind, Bartolomeo Manfredi is one of the most interesting of the characters just painters, the direct followers of Caravaggio who either studied with him or knew him or had opportunities to see his work at first hand in the period immediately following his death. Like Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi did not live long, he seems to have died around the age of 40 and sadly there do not seem to be any books about him, although he does appear in various books about Caravaggio (of which there are many). Many if not all of Manfredi’s picutres seem to have been attributed to Caravaggio at some time or other. But he has his own style and interests.

It seems clear to me, from this and other of his paintings, that like Caravaggio, Manfredi was deeply involved in urban life, painting not only “from life,” (that is, from a model), but from observation of the life around him.

This is the great strength of Caravaggio and his immediate followers. Although they did paint from models, they also were exceptionally observant of the world around them and wanted to paint or incorporate into the world their paintings, to incorporate people and scenes from everyday life. This is true even in the greatest religious paintings. They rejected “classicizing naturalism” that is, painting things realistically but in the classical manner (according to the rules laid down by classical aesthetics and classical statuary). They were after the ‘here and now’. Whether it’s found in the detail of a table’s still life, a hand gesture, the tailing of a garment or facial expression, these things really bring the pictures to life and they don’t feel posed or modelled at all. The absolute lack of idealization in Manfredi’s work, like Caravaggio’s, is I think what makes these paintings reach out across the centuries and appeal to us.

Frenchman Valentin de Boulogne was another  Caravaggist of the era, and his work is equally fine – “naturalistic emotional drama.” Both Valentin and Manfredi bring realism and comprehensibility to religious painting, and drama to genre painting.

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/lastsupp.jpg

above, Last Supper by Valentin de Boulogne 1625. Each person in the shot is an individual, having his own personal feelings/reaction to the situation.

Of course there are deeper layers in the Caravaggist work. They appear quite easy and communicable on the surface, but like many paintings they can be read for much more complex symbolism and allusion, should you want to. The beauty of them is that you don’t have to. Like a great film, these great Caravaggist paintings have both text and subtext; this is what makes Caravaggist painting so close to cinema.

 

[here is a review of a show I wish I had seen]

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a white poppy for today

I wrote this a few years ago and I haven’t changed my mind.

gillianmciver

half-wreath-rToday is Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Day, and it is the day which was set aside on the memory of those who died in the first world war. It is also used to honor those who died in the second world war and subsequent wars, because unfortunately, WW1 led fairly directly to these other wars. The first world war was a dreadful imperialist war that not only that ravaged the northern European landscape, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, but also dragged huge numbers of people from around the colonial empires into the fray where they lost their lives. If we can concede that the Europeans who fought in the war perhaps did so to defend their home soil, which is understandable, we cannot see the sacrifice of the lives of the colonized is anything but a dreadful, pointless, meaningless and utterly cruel waste.

When we think…

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The first ever horror movie?

Art History for Film Makers

The first ever horror movie?

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[the woman holds a ‘magic’ lantern casting the drawing of the Devil onto the wall]

Giovanni Fontana “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” – showing how to create a projection of a Devil drawing, using a ‘magic’ lantern
These were used for a variety of purposes: as entertainment, in theatres, at sideshows and by those seeking to manipulate the credulous.
Fontana was a scientist trained in medicine, but he fancied him self as a bit of a magician (called himself a ‘magus’) and this was probably due to his interest in “natural magic” – a fine line between the natural sciences and alchemy.
The original “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, but the pictures are all online.
I can’t find a date for the book, but Fontana was born in 1395 and died in 1455 so it was sometime in that period.

The specific technology of the lantern is not apparent here, as the illustrated lantern seems to simply have been a glass  lamp with a candle, with the devil figure drawn on the glass to project a larger image. However, although this does work to some degree, it probably wouldn’t project the image as clearly as Fontana’s drawing suggests. But in this period  Leon Battista Alberti is thought to have possibly projected painted pictures from a small closed box with a small hole* so I am guessing that quite a few people were experimenting with projections, for different reasons – to create theatrical effects, to understand the science of light and vision and – as Fontana suggests – to scare and manipulate the credulous. Fontana seems to be saying that these were used for that purpose and did work. It could be that neither Fontana nor Alberti were quite ready to share the specifics of their own technical discoveries, hence Fontana’s sketchy drawing that does not reveal the mechanics of his lantern, and the absence of detail about Alberti’s box.

 

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