Category Archives: Cinema Criticsm

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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cinema of the Dutch Golden Age


[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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AHFM: Parajanov and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”


IMG_20160206_232824342Sergey Parajanov’s first major film, and the one he considered to have started his career is SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS made in 1965.

Parajanov was a painter as well as a film maker, and it shows in his films.

SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS is loosely based on a story by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864 – 1913), who wrote about life in traditional isolated Ukrainian villages. Shadows is set in the remote Carpathian region of the Hutsul people and features their sumptuous textiles and folk art in the production  design. Parajanov’s treatment of the story is less ethnographic than mythic. Although there is a wealth of detail in the film, and the life of the pre-communist peasants is shown as hard (de rigueur in Soviet portrayals of pre-revolutionary life), Parajanov gives the film a sense of timelessness that underpins the story of love, loss and grief and vengeance.

But it is Parajanov’s sense of visual storytelling that is most striking.


Leading sheep in the mountains, converging lines and use of different shades of white

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The extreme close up, especially with the subject eyeballing the camera, is little used in western cinema, but does appear in Soviet film making, and in Soviet still photography.* It does not occur in portrait painting until the 20th century, although Gustave Courbet got pretty close here with this self portrait:


It’s an aggressive shot: either aggressive to the subject, being “in-his-face”  – or aggressive to the viewer, having the character’s face shoved into one’s own. It refuses distance. Very effective when used cleverly. Parajanov makes much use of this kind of shot in the film.

IMG_2016-02-06 22-47-59

Another type of shot Paranjov uses that we might find unusual yet evocative is the very high angle shot. Quite a bit of this film is shot from a very high angle. Here the massing of the sheep contrasts with the more isolated figures of the people, who are arranged in quite a rigid line. The film does contain religious images and symbolism (such as crosses and crossed sticks, lambs and so forth) but the way they appear in the film offers much more than just religious symbolism, as can be seen in the shot above. Here we see humans trying to assert their humanity, their ability to form lines, and the sheep just mass randomly. The red spot in the middle is brilliant, it’s like a heart at the centre.


Parajanov’s use of framing is really interesting. Many scenes are shot framed by something (a window a tree, crossed sticks, etc.). Here we see the people enter the courtyard, but it’s shot for above so it’s actually framed by the roof above and below. [sorry this one was shot with instagram]

Abstraction is another very important artistic element that Parajanov brings in to the film and I suppose it is one of the main things that got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities (that and the rampant pagan-Christianity that’s presented). He uses two principal techniques to attain abstraction:


Above, he uses distorted reflection, to liquefy the image, render it insubstantial and constantly eluding clarity of vision. The use of colour (hard to see here, but tones of blue, red and brown-gold with spots of green).


Movement. He moved the camera quickly as the characters also move quickly. The result is a gloriously-coloured blur, an abstract image that nonetheless manages to convey the feeling of what’s happening in the film: a celebration.

From a ‘story’ point of view, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It has all the necessary story elements but like an opera, the story is only the skeleton on which to hang the main event. If you’ve ever seen La Traviata, you’ll know what I man. The story is hokey, awful (even the Dumas novel is practically unreadable). Yet every time I’ve seen it I’ve cried like a baby by Act II. And not just me. Last time I went  to Traviata, people were in floods, a woman behind me was actually howling with grief. Why? Because Verdi’s a brilliant composer, and his music forces you to feel.

In Shadows, the main event is the visual, the art.** Shot by cinematographers Viktor Bestayev and Yuri Ilyenko, it is the visuals that carry the film’s emotion and passion. Production design was by Mikhail Rakovsky and G. Yakutovich, with costumes by Lidiya Bajkova. This team created a convincing yet dreamlike evocation of Ukrainian village life.

Some of the film was shot on location and some was shot at the Dovzhenko film studios in Kiev.***  Aleksandr Dovzhenko was Parajanov’s mentor. I think that it’s Dovzhenko’s amazing film Earth that links Parajanov, Dovzhenko and Tarkovksy. Although Earth is in some ways a standard Soviet film (it’s about the process of collectivization of agriculture and the hostility of the ‘Kulak’ landowners to the soviet), Dovzhenko actually transforms it into a film full of mystery and spirit.

Shadows of Fogotten Ancestors isn’t Parajanov’s best known film, that honour goes to The Colour of Pomegranates. My personal favourite is The Legend of the Suram Fortress which I wrote about in Art History for Film Makers. But Shadows is a good introduction to the director’s style and concerns, and it’s an interesting first step in the development of an extraordinary body of work where style and story converge and create superb film art.


Folk art and folk culture

Russian and Ukrainian folk art is powerful and distinctive and was actually encouraged and supported during Soviet times, which is why a fair bit of it has been preserved. The great History painter Surikov tried to depict the colour and visual style of Old Russia.


[Feodosia Morozova by Vladimir Surikov – Wikimedia Commons]

Some painters tried to capture the remnants of peasant life on the cusp of the Revolution.



genre paintings by Boris Kustodiev [Wikimedia Commons]

Parajanov’s film in many ways adheres to the Soviet celebration of folk culture, but since this rendering is devoid of the redemptive power of class struggle or any foreshadowing of Sovietization it got the director into trouble.




excellent essay on Earth by Dovzhenko with a link to the film


*Carl Theodore Dreyer uses it to devastating effect in The Passion of Joan of Arc

**I rewatched it with the subtitles off and that was better.

***I really need to make a pilgrimage there one of these days

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Art History for Film Makers Facebook page

I have set up a FB page for readers of my book Art History for Film Makers and anyone else who’s interested in the junction between art and cinema.

here’s the link

I would love it if people would actively engage with the subject, so we’ll see.

Meanwhile here is some Eugene Delacroix in advance of the exhibition opening at the London National Gallery on 17 Feb – I have an opening day ticket (excited)


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List #1: Best films, ever (by category)

Best film over all THE THIRD MAN

Social drama A SEPARATION

best film about prostitution, made by a man BELLE DE JOUR

best metaphysical film ENTER THE VOID

most visually splendid film with a great story RED DESERT

best western McCABE AND MRS MILLER

best Mike Leigh film NAKED

Film with the most terrifying immersive sequence THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX

Best film about a twisted relationship MARTHA (RW Fassbinder)


Best interview based doc EXAMINED LIFE

Best film about the Apocalypse MELANCHOLIA

Best docudrama MICROPHONE

Best film about female experience CLEO FROM 5 TO 7


Best film about mis-spent youth THE DOOM GENERATION

Best creepy film DON’T LOOK NOW

Best film about Hollywood the Dream Factory INLAND EMPIRE


Best recent animated film THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE

Best film about real life that resembles anything in my own life SLACKER

Best film about a rock band HARD CORE LOGO

Best Underground film MALDOROR

Best fairy tale film PAN’S LABYRINTH

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Back to Tennesee, please. My review of Blue Jasmine

Tennessee Williams was a great American playwright and one of the greatest of American writers because he combined poetry of word with empathy of spirit. His self-deluded, crushed characters, though they are so often architects of their own misfortune, and tread so heavily on their own dreams, contain within them a spark or spine of strength and resilience that we hang onto. They are fully human, fully alive. We share their pain even as we decry their choices, cringe at their statements, recoil at their reactions.

Filmed versions of Williams’s plays exist – most sumptuously and memorably by Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, but also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and several productions of The Glass Menagerie.

Prolific film maker Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has been a called a homage to Williams (Mark Kermode, The Observer, Sunday 29 September 2013). I thought a homage meant “respect or reverence paid or rendered” (dictionary). Does Blue Jasmine do this? I had not read Kermode’s (or any other) review before seeing the film but quickly as the story unfolded the thought that ran consistency through my head was “third rate Tennessee Williams rip off”.

Allen’s film succeeds in paying homage to Williams only in that it shows us how great a playwright and analyst of human nature Williams was. Allen’s shortcomings highlight Williams’s’ greatness.

Despite incredible mimetic performances by, among others, Cate “the great” Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, the script is beyond weak. The plot points are clunky, and everything is so predictable you could set your clock by it. The skewering of the kind of ice-blonde society woman we secretly and jealously hate, may appeal to our sense of schadenfreude, but we are prevented by the script from really having empathy for her and so our witnessing her descent into neglected madness has about it a whiff of misogyny. Are we just means to hate everyone in the film? The comedy was there, but often misplaced. Tennessee does not make us laugh at brutish domestic violence, at rape. Why are we laughing? Why does Allen want us to laugh?  He extracted the laughs like teeth… Allen does not give us any characters to love. I can’t recall when I have seen a bleaker, more nihilistic film.

It is not the first Woody Allen film to be saved by brilliant actors, but it’s unfair to the actors to give them such a tawdry piece of writing.

Better stay home with a DVD of Streetcar than venture out to Blue Jasmine. Tennessee Williams was a genius because he combined poetry with empathy. Blue Jasmine has no poetry nor empathy.


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Good Films on TV I

I used to rely on TV to show me good films. All my childhood I watched endless numbers of great old films. By the time I got to adulthood though, TV films dried up and dried out. But I have recently got back into the practice of watching films right there on network TV, defying all my DVDs, LoveFilms, Netflixes and so on …


[above: a reminder of the 1980s]

Perhaps it’s cos I am lucky enough to  have The BBC, who has been showing some very interesting films lately and I have been catching up on them via the good old iPlayer. (“i” is for indispensable)

First up was the 1980s New Orleans set crime drama The Big Easy (1986). I was curious about this film, starring 80s sex symbol Dennis Quaid. It’s one of the Hollywood studio films that now inhabits that huge abyss of dated films, films that are never in anyone’s Top 100 and so fall dramatically off the radar within a decade. I had never even heard of it, so I pressed the Play button. About halfway through I started to imagine the remake, and you know what, it’s just not a bad idea at all.

The plot is not too complicated but it is taut and although I guessed some of it, I didn’t guess all of it. The strength of the film is the characters, who are complex, interesting and almost credible. The leads are good, though the secondary characters – notably soul man Solomon Burke and Grace Zabriskie, marvellous in a small but searing role as “Mama”, are better. However, the film just does not have enough of a set-up for the romance. We need to believe that the Quaid character, McSwain, is a chancer aware of his own attractiveness, and flirts with every woman he meets; then with Anne (Ellen Barkin), something slowly starts to happen to him and it’s for real. Instead, the film rushes into it too quickly. It must be due to the studio’s need to keep the film under two hours – at 102 minutes it clips along at a smart pace but at the expense of some of the intensity that might have made it a film to last.

The Big Easy wears the 1980s like a tight glittery big-shouldered dress that dazzles but won’t come off. I was struck (viewing it in SD but on an HD TV) by the clarity, the use of light, the super saturated colour. It reminded me how desaturated and “gritty” – even dirty – the  crime drama aesthetic is these days. A remake would never look like this. Not would the remake have the same fin sentimentale.

I am much more of a fan of the original screenplay approach to cinema, but since remakes are in fashion, we could certainly do worse than The Big Easy. I’d love to see a post-Katrina, gritty NOLA set reinterpretation of this film. With a similarly awesome soundtrack.


[ps. the photo above, the reminder of the 80s actually although it is an 80s car – an East German Trabant – I photographed it  in Sept 2012, here it is in situ in Berlin:


I didn’t drive or even see a Trabi in the 1980s, needless to say]

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