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Filming Locations

The venues used for some of the Leeds Film Festival’s screenings this year were just about as memorable as the films themselves. For those of you who didn’t make it along (tomorrow is the final day), here are some photos of the grand Baroque-stylings of Leeds Town Hall, described by Architecture Today as “the epitome of northern civic bombast” and, slightly further out of town, the hidden gem that is the Hyde Park Picture House, built in 1908 as a hotel, converted to a cinema in 1914, and saved from closure by Leeds City Council who have lovingly maintained it since 1989. It’s Grade II listed, lit by gas, and still has a piano and organ. What more could you ask for? Ultra-comfy seats, a bar and a balcony? Well, you’re in luck because it has those too.

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Oh! The films we went to see? Jean-Pierre Melville’s muted and entrancing classic “policier“, Le Cercle Rouge, which has one of the best casts of any French crime movie you care to name (Alain Deloin AND Yves Montand!) and one of the most masterful jewel heist scenes since Rififi. The second film was also understated but was perhaps more inconsequential than existential. A low-budget Romanian drama from 2001, Marfa si banii (Stuff and Dough as in, goods and money) was directed by Cristi Puiu, who you might know better for The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). Combining elements of road-movie, chase-movie, and social realist critique, three twenty-somethings take a trip to Bucharest with what a family ‘friend’ has told them is “medicine”, hoping the promised $2,000 might get them quickly and easily out of aimless and difficult lifestyles. Of course, it’s not so straightforward. Both films remind us in very different ways that a life of crime can be more trouble than it’s worth. Melville suggests that nonetheless, it can be done carefully, with honour, and with style. The thief can be a hero of sorts or at least, a gentleman even if he is ultimately doomed. For Puiu’s less well-heeled protagonists, there is only naiveté, disagreement and exploitation. All of which makes for very good cinema!

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Sapphormation

Even the shortest of amateur films can be more enjoyable than many a mainstream release, and that was certainly the case with the ultra-short shorts shown at last night’s “Sapphic screening”, an hour long event organised by Tanya Smith and Amelia Lee as part of Manchester’s newest lesbian festival, Sapphormation. As their promotional material states, Sapphormation is intended for “women who love women, who also like to think, discuss, debate, try new activities, experience culture and basically do a lot more than the usual things found on the gay scene”. It aims to present a less stereotypical, more inclusive, and culturally richer alternative to the glittery Village-centred events that many people say they find far too predictable, commercial and unchallenging. Chorlton’s Irish Club was an excellent and unusual choice of venue that suited the laid back and clearly enthusiastic audience.

The common link between the films is that they celebrate and foreground multiple and complex issues of identity, self, society, and both lesbian and bisexual experience. But while all of them were engaging, warm, and very well made, they were an otherwise eclectic collection. Two of the most memorable were Love Skate Relationship, by Georgia Rooney and Rachel Tavernor, a straightforward documentary/interview style piece about the women who compete in the Brighton Rockers roller derby, and the darkly tragic Paris/Sexy by Edinburgh-based Ruth Paxton, about a girl and her father dealing with isolation and mental illness. That one had a little more budget behind it, being funded by Scottish Screen and BBC Scotland among others, with the excellent David Liddell as Director of Photography. Everybody wanted to see Hannah Beadman’s experimental and erotic Homecoming, but sadly some technical issues meant that the visuals were too dark. Luckily her tantalising and colourful “queer re-edit” of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome made up for it.

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Although both of Manchester’s Universities have helped support Sapphormation’s organisation, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – something of a holy grail for academics seeking funding – have made an interesting and admirable move in looking beyond their usual University projects to help create something valuable for the LGBT community. Sapphormation’s lineup of events (which included political debates, comedy shows, live music and a “Women in Business” Seminar) took place at venues across the city over only two days, meaning that as I write this it’s all just about over. Hopefully the festival’s organisers will find ways to transcend this year’s shoe-string budget and become an even bigger and annual social fixture.

A Successful Screening

A quick post to say thank you to everyone who came along to Friday’s screening of The Officer’s Wife. It was great to see so many people (over 100 we think) in the theatre, and the Q&A afterwards showed how enthusiastic the audience were about both Piotr Uzarowicz’s film and the work of the Kresy-Siberia organisation. All in all it was an educational, moving, and rewarding evening.

The audience had plenty of comments and questions

Some people present had experienced directly the privations and the horror of Siberian deportation. Others, of varying age, nationality and background, were there to learn about a largely overlooked (and deliberately suppressed) part of history which the film explores skillfully and without bias, despite the deeply personal motivations of the director. Interviews with survivors, historians and activists are combined to great effect with voice-over narration, animation, and an evocative soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek, so impressed with The Officer’s Wife that he agreed on first viewing to provide an original score.

The film’s director outside Manchester Lecture Theatre

Hopefully Trauma film screenings will host similarly worthwhile events in the future. Tomorrow This evening a new season – hosted by Merlyn Taylor – starts. Coincidentally enough it will explore animated films which deal with stories of war and conflict, including Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, and Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. Hope to see you there!

A still from Grave of the Fireflies

The Officer’s Wife

Last week I was contacted by Eva Szegidewicz of the Kresy-Siberia Group Foundation, a charitable organisation devoted to inspiring, promoting and supporting “research, remembrance and recognition of Polish citizens’ struggles in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland (the Kresy) and in Exile during World War 2”. The foundation was looking for a venue to screen an award-winning documentary titled The Officer’s Wifewhich examines the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940 and its legacy. Around 22,000 Poles were murdered by NKVD agents at Katyn following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and the crime was subsequently denied and covered-up (both by Stalin and by his newfound Allied partners in London and Washington, who were aware of Russian culpability but who needed their support in order to defeat the Nazis).

The Officer’s Wife explores individual and collective traumas.

TRAUMA (the film group I help run at MMU) is more than happy to host and raise awareness of this important film which is due to be shown at venues around the UK throughout September. For those of you reading this blog that live in the area, the screening will take place on Friday 21st September at 6pm in the Manchester Lecture Theatre. Everybody is welcome and entry is free. It is hoped now confirmed that we will have a Q&A session with Producer/Director Piotr Uzarowicz afterwards. New Manchester Polish Consul Łukasz Lutostański will also attend and give a short introduction.

If you want to know more about the history and people of Kresy-Siberia, the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum is a fantastic example of how collective efforts and internet technologies can be combined to support, educate and preserve documents, archives and memories which might otherwise be lost, forgotten, or disassembled.

Tales of Two Cities

En route to see the new Batman movie, myself and a friend took a slightly circuitous route as part of an effort to remind ourselves that yes, there is an amazing city out there beyond our cosy home in Chorlton – even if it’s not quite so darkly evocative as Gotham. 😉 We stopped to admire some of the old mills, factories and locks between and around Oxford Road and Deansgate, which have mostly now been (or are being) repurposed to become galleries, studios, commercial spaces and flats as part of a continuing redevelopment plan. Visually retaining a sense of social history amidst patchwork modernity, many of the exteriors are as yet unchanged – spiky green weeds protrude from chipped and broken windowpanes amidst beautiful red brickwork covered in flyposters and colourful grafittied chipboard. The names of defunct-factories imprint themselves in giant letters on the area’s memory while underneath, delicate gold might signify the entrance to private apartments and graphic design firms; secure entry only. Even the most compelling of visions can’t escape the contrasts and contexts of transition.

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As for The Dark Knight Rises. Well, aesthetically speaking, Christopher Nolan and his crew have created a predictably excellent atmosphere of electrifying gloom. Performances alternate between strong and muted, keeping us generally interested in a twisting and turning narrative full of politics and references to previous film The Dark Knight. J.G. Levitt as new character John Blake is particularly memorable although I’m not sure Marion Cotillard’s Miranda really works (or shocks) as intended. Now and then, everything threatens to become laborious, almost collapsing (appropriately enough) under a crushingly heavy but unevenly balanced symbolic critique that plays out over nearly 3 hours.

The Batman movies always (and increasingly with Nolan) combine socio-political metanarratives and allegories with moments of kitschly sexy cartoonishness. Here, I think that combination goes wrong, forced towards a conclusion that might be heroic or might be ambivalent and contradictory. Being asked to consider economic injustice; 9/11 and the War on Terror; the trade-off between nuclear weapons and environmental responsibility; the culpability of the stock exchange in financial disaster, AND the effects of torture, false prophecy and violent revolution is a lot for any mainstream movie. Doing so at the same time as we follow the gymnastics, jewel-thieving and repartee of Anne Hathaway’s well-played but confused Catwoman is just a little bit too much. Certainly nothing comes close to the perfectly pitched genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker. All that aside, it’s definitely worth seeing!

The Life Traumatic…

Next week I will be introducing Le Serpent, the last film of my second TRAUMA season (a collection of modern French crime movies – aka, Policiers or Polars). So far the season has had a good reaction from everyone who’s made it along and I always enjoy putting my presentations together to introduce and contextualise what we’re going to watch (although admittedly I now know more about the life and crimes of Jacques Mesrine than I ever intended)! Still, for some reason we are finding it hard to tempt new people along to our free Monday night film club/group/society [delete as preferred] at the moment. This is truly a bit of mystery – at the same time as attendance has dropped, the lovely TRAUMA brochures that Ben W. and MMU Print Services kindly produce for us have been going like hotcakes! We can only conclude that their graphics are so beautiful, people are hoarding them away like rare and precious works of art.

Some people wonder if TRAUMA is just for academics, or if you have to be a part of MMU to come along. The answer to both of these questions is “no”. Anyone can come drop by and there are no conditions for attendance other than a love of off-the-beaten-track cinema. You don’t need to be an expert in film studies, and you don’t need to be able to cite theorists and critics. But we do enjoy a lively informal discussion at the Sandbar after every screening – where we also get a 10 per cent discount at the bar and a free pizza. What could be better? 😀

Seasons coming up offer something for (almost) every taste. Featured films include: Night of the Hunter (1955), starring the inimitable Robert Mitchum; Kung Fu classic The Street Fighter (1974), Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1963), with the wonderfully expressive Anna Karina, and Sidney Lumet’s masterfully acerbic satire of the U.S media industry, Network (1976). Ana Miller, Sean Cleary, Dom Harbot and Tony Boffey will be treating us to some illuminating presentations about those. Hopefully over the coming months we’ll get a chance to meet some of the fans of our brochures… 😉

Between past and present

Last night I was spellbound by something that happened in Church. Actually, a lot of us were. There were DJs, dancing-girls, a futuristic robot… all sorts of strange machinery. At one point, there was even talk of witchcraft – and then a riot broke out. Seriously! You should have been there. But unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the latest attempt at modernisation by the Church of England. In fact, it was all down to the strange but blissful union between a legend of German cinema (Fritz Lang) and a legend of German electronic music (Dieter Moebius). Definitely a contender for coolest 68-year-old on the planet, Moebius performed a live, synthesised, and largely improvised score to a brand new restoration of Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, in an event organised as part of Manchester’s annual Future Everything festival. To add yet another layer of spectral atmosphere, the whole thing took place inside the beautiful and spacious chapel of St.Philips church in Salford.

Lighting up in church

Appropriately then, proceedings were watched over by a rather saintly icon – sadly, not Maria – high up on the stained glass window above the altar, while at the lectern, a majestic eagle spread its wings. Moebius, standing at the other side with only a little workspace, looked calmly up at the screen and then back at his sonic toolkit, feeling his way into the narrative. Somehow, regardless of its age, the film manages to remain timeless. Class, religion, delusion, scientific progress, desire, politics, dreams, technology; all are wrapped up in an easy-to-follow narrative which reveals itself as a sequence of ethereal yet starkly symbolic Expressionist “mindscapes”. Special effects which, decades later, were often still risibly executed (e.g. the use of miniature sets or the appearance and movement of cyborgs) seem effortless: beyond reproach to an audience half-hypnotised by the world that Lang, cinematographer Karl Freund, and special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan created. Included in this new version of the film are 25 precious minutes of lost footage, discovered only two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, in the archive of a private collector. This essentially brings Metropolis as close as it will get to the way it was when first released over 80 years ago.

The famous head of Hel


Watching in reverence

The film’s ultimate message, repeated more than once by Brigitte Helm‘s Maria, is that: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” Of course there is a role for technology in the achievement of societal advances; but we should never let ourselves be enslaved because of it. The feelings and qualities which make us human must move in harmony with what we invent; in precisely the way illustrated yesterday (music and film technology, composer, audience and sentiment) at what was a truly memorable event.