Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales

US 1971

97 minutes

Title: Baadasssss

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Mario Van Peebles

Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T.K. Carter, Ossie Davis

US 2003

108 minutes

‘Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker’. That’s how Melvin Van Peebles, the legendary maverick whose revolutionary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song sparked Hollywood’s blaxploitation fever, describes himself. His actor and director son, sat next to him, exuding the same effortless cool, does not disagree, in spite of all the respect and esteem he evidently has for him. It is in this spirit, enthusiastic but truthful, full of admiration but critical, that Mario Van Peebles made Baadasssss, a vibrant, exhilarating docu-drama recounting his father’s struggle to get Sweetback made.

One of the first black film-makers in Hollywood, Van Peebles first had to take a detour via France to be able to direct in his native country. After seeing his short films, the director of the Paris Cinémathí¨que invited him over to France and, nine years later, Van Peebles’ La Permission was chosen to represent France at the 1967 San Francisco film festival. That got Van Peebles noticed in Hollywood and he was hired to direct the successful race comedy Watermelon Man. Just when it looked like he had made it he suddenly broke ranks with Sweetback, a raw, hard-hitting, edgy depiction of the black urban ghetto with, as a hero, a black hustler forced to go on the run after killing two white cops. Unable to find investors, Van Peebles used his own money, hired a multiracial crew against the rules of the all-powerful unions, and after finally completing the film through sheer bloody-mindedness, found that only two cinemas in the whole of the United States would show his film. Through word-of-mouth and the Black Panthers’ mobilisation, however, Sweetback took up and became the highest grossing independent film of the year.

In an interview conducted in 2005 father and son told Virginie Sélavy how, thirty years on, nothing much has changed in Hollywood.

Mario Van Peebles: To some degree, it’s like a pot with boiling water, if you keep the lid pressed on it, eventually the pot will explode. If you lift the lid periodically, you can keep people oppressed for a lot longer. If you let the steam out and you give them some awards, a couple of Oscars, say ‘you deserve it, you’re terrific’, you might forget the fact that there’s no head of any studio that is black, Asian, Hispanic or female. So you can get distracted by watching the Michael Jackson trial – ‘what do you mean? We’re making progress!’ But when I wanted to make a film like Baadaassss, I sent my script and I was told that if I made a hip-hop comedy out of it, and added a rap soundtrack, they would make the movie. But they said that my father was too political, too sexy, too black, the film was too multiracial and they couldn’t figure out where to slot it in. And I had to make him a more likeable character. And my dad is who he is, and he was very cool, he said ‘hey, make me who I am, tell the truth’. Once I realised this, I thought, well, I made most of my other films for about $8 million and in about 40 days. I made Baadaasssss for $1 million in 18 days. It makes a big difference. So in a weird way, 30 years later, to communicate this message, to show people of all colours making this film, we had to do it in the same way that my father made the original film.

Virginie Sélavy: What do you think of films such as Shaft and Superfly? You made your film as an independent filmmaker and those films were made in Hollywood. How did you feel about them?

Melvin Van Peebles: What happened was, Sweetback made all this money. Hollywood desires money but they could not stand the political content so they emptied the formula, they took out the political content and made it more cartoonish and that became blaxploitation. One of the things that happened is that Sweetback is so steeped in the ambience that they had to hire black screenwriters, black choreographers, etc, so many people got to learn their craft that way. It was a step. Because of the fixation on race, we often overlook the fact that Sweetback was the beginning of independent film, not just black independent film. So I’m the godfather of those films as well as The Blair Witch Project or Motorcycle Diaries. I made those things possible too.

VS: How do you feel about the term blaxploitation?

Melvin: It’s not my term. I don’t consider myself a sociologist, I consider myself a filmmaker, among other things. Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker.

Mario: If I can add something here, Sweetback was a revolutionary film but in the subsequent films, when big money got involved, they made cops hip, they made drug dealers hip so the message gets diluted. But there is a difference too: if you make a series of Vietnam-themed films, Apocalypse Now etc, they won’t say it’s white film, it’s a genre of film. But if you make Shaft, Superfly, etc, they won’t say it’s a genre, it’s got black actors in it so they call it black film.

VS: How did you start in the film industry? When you made Watermelon Man, how many black filmmakers were working in Hollywood at that time?

Melvin: I came to San Francisco in 1967 as the French delegate to the festival. They didn’t know I was black or American. There is a law in France that says that a writer can have a temporary identity card. So I wrote fifty words in French and I got my card. I made a film called La Permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass) in France and the film won the San Francisco festival and I was the only black person there. So before me, there was nothing. They didn’t expect the French delegate to be black. They also didn’t expect the French delegate to be American.

VS: How did you end up being the French delegate?

Melvin: I’m smart. … I was studying mathematics and astronomy in Holland. Henri Langlois at the Cinémathí¨que saw my first short films and he invited me to go to France. There was a little cinema on the Champs-Elysées where they showed my films and afterwards, we go downstairs and everybody hugs me and kisses me. And I’m standing in the middle of the Champs-Elysées, no money, I can’t say a word of French. That’s how I came to France. Nine years later I was their delegate. So when that happened, that embarrassed the Americans because they could not have the only black American director a French director so they offered me jobs which I did not accept and that forced them to look for others and certainly they discovered other black directors, discovered they were there the whole time, Gordon Parks, the guy got a chance to make a film, and Ossie Davis too.

VS: What happened after Sweetback?

Melvin: When I made Watermelon Man I had a three-picture deal with Colombia but I decided it was time now to attack my plan, my master plan. And my master plan was to retake the images. The long and the short of it is that when Sweetback became very successful, because no one expected it to become successful except for me, only two theatres wanted to show it. But the movie was a runaway success and everybody began to show it. Colombia were so angry that they tore up my contract. That’s what happened to me. However, they did take the formula and take out the political content. And that caricature, that became blaxploitation.

VS: After Sweetback, did you want to make more films like that?

Melvin: Yeah, it’s a trilogy, I never had a chance to make the other parts. I made a couple other American films which no one would distribute because it’s too dangerous, no one owns me. I own Sweetback 100%, I’ve got no partner, I own the music, the book, everything. I had to do it all alone so it’s all mine. And no one would help me. Bill [Cosby] loaned me money at one stage of the game but even he would not take a piece of the movie. He only wanted his money back. This is what I’ve taught Mario and I’m very pleased. He not only knows how to play the game but how to own the team. That’s very important.

VS: You could have done a documentary but you decided to do a fictionalised drama. Why did you decide to go with that option?

Mario: I wanted to be able to get into all those places where a documentary wouldn’t go, like the relationship between my father and me, and I thought that it was such a wonderful period. But beyond the fact that it’s true it’s really about one person standing up and making it. It’s like Rocky, it’s a very classic story.

Melvin:I’m confused by your question. What about Beautiful Mind or Kinsey, would you call them fictions or docu-dramas? Fiction takes you to another place and everything in the movie is true.

Mario: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then, in a weird way, in the interviews with the characters, it almost gets to be mockumentary. But at the end it does become a documentary, so it changes forms. And it also feels like at times it’s a making of, like someone had walked around with a camera, capturing this wonderful time, when you had all those people, you could see Janet Jackson and Jimi Hendrix and Santana on the same set. And today it would be black radio, Latino radio and rock and be fragmented. And this was a time when everybody was on this movie set, we had every demographic, we even had kid demographic, I was one of the kid demographic, and what a quirky, interesting time to show and to relive, go back to those streets, go back to my father’s life in essence with a camera, talk to Bill Cosby, talk to Jose Garcia, talk to Ossie Davis, and go back to that time.

VS: That form, whatever you choose to call it, works really well for the film.

Mario: It is a strange thing. I hadn’t really thought about that but what happened was once I realised that no one was gonna back it and that I was going to have to make it with my savings, same as how my dad made it, without money, something else simultaneously happened. My muse, my little angel who speaks to me, suddenly said (he switches to a squeaky voice) ‘what studio is gonna take it? What are they gonna make you do?’, that was my muse said and I said, ‘guess what, no studio took it so I’ll do it myself’. So I could literally have a parliament with myself, I could go ‘Oh, let’s see if the director likes it’, ‘I like it’, ‘Well, I don’t know if the writer will approve’, ‘I like it’, ‘well, let’s see if the lead actor likes it’, ‘I like it’. Once I realised this, it was like ‘what now?! We can just take this form further out! Because now it’s just me and I’m just gonna do my own shit.’ So once that happened, I didn’t have to please anybody. And I wasn’t even aware of the fact that my muse was self-editing already so that I could say it’s like this movie or like that movie, because if I couldn’t say that the movie was like anything else before, I couldn’t explain it to the financiers, and I couldn’t get it done. But with my own finances, I could go ‘now I want the thing to go black and white’, and ‘I want to have an angel, and the angel sits on the ceiling’ Who would let you do that? Who would let you have Malcolm and Dr. King talk to the character in a movie? It’s a very rare thing that you get to go that far.

VS: Did you worry at any point that it might turn into some bizarre Freudian thing? Because obviously you’re playing your dad in Baadassss and in Sweetback you played your father’s character as a young boy…

Mario: (laughs) Every now and then I stand back from my life and go ‘wow, that’s kind of wild! I didn’t have a lot of time to think in the process but certain things happened. My son was also in the movie, playing the little angel. When he was playing the angel, the camera broke down. We were shooting on the actual street that my dad lived on, on a lady’s lawn. She really liked me as a kid, but she likes me less now! We’re shooting on her lawn and now she wants me off her lawn, the sun is going down, the camera’s broken and no one’s eaten lunch and everybody’s getting pretty grouchy and my son is running off to have lunch with the other kids… and I heard my dad’s voice: ‘Get back here, this is not a hobby, this is our family business, you wanted to be in the movies, now you’re in it, now do your job!’ There’s my father’s voice coming into my head! And I’m like, ‘this is getting really scaaaary now!’ So I found in making the film that things like that came up all the time. But recently my dad made good on something that had been outstanding for about 33 years. He finally gave me that bicycle, the bike that I didn’t get. They did a re-issue of it and I got the bike. Now my kids can ride the bike. It means nothing to them but to me, I’m like, ‘I’ve got that bike!’ There were lots of times when I had to stop and laugh at the inevitable, you know, that in some ways truth is stranger than fiction.

VS: You don’t shy away from the controversial aspects of Sweetback and your relationship with your dad, in particular when he made you have play a sex scene on film as a teenager. And it’s fascinating to see the conflict, and the drive, Melvin, you seem to be willing to sacrifice the well-being of your children in order to finish your film.

Melvin: That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. I think his reaction is completely valid. Hey, but I’m the parent!

Mario: You know, what’s interesting is I wouldn’t do what he did at the time but my kids are gonna have objections to how I parent. At the end of the day though, if they respect what I stood for, that’s cool.

VS: Was this a way of dealing with it and finding out how you feel about it now?

Mario: No. I’ve done that before. I could have made a hand-held movie about that. That’s a personal thing. But I had already cleared things with him on that. He’d said to me ‘Look, tell the truth’. And I said, that’s the way to do this movie. And that was another reason I had to go independent. People are now looking at the world in terms of axis of evil and evil-doers and by logical extension good-doers, and that’s a very polarised look at good and bad people. Reality is much more complex than that and people can be good and evil on the very same day. The other thing is that as a kid I sometimes felt I was involved in a battle without understanding the war. But in the course of that summer I saw that there was something bigger out there. It’s like stepping your toe is a bad experience but when the person next to you loses their leg in a landmine it’s somehow crushed by something bigger. And then you see that that person is trying to go on and save other people from some situation by putting himself at risk. This was a guy who could have gone off and made money in the system and taken a nice picture with a suit on in front of a big mansion that he bought and been held up as an example to the rest of us to sort of follow in line behind. And here he says ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna have a multiracial crew, I’m gonna do a revolutionary film and I’m gonna do my own thing.’ I could have done New Jack City II and III and IV but I said no, I’m gonna make a film about the Panthers and Baadasssss for no money. I don’t have to risk my house at this juncture and yet there’s a different value, it’s not just economic value, it’s social and political and artistic. And I think that’s a nice thing to pass to your kids.

Vote for your favourite Black Screen Icon in the BFI poll! Closing date June 29.


Catch Us If You Can

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Title Catch Us If You Can

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, Lenny Davidson, Mike Smith

UK 1965

91 mins

Title Gonks Go Beat

Director: Robert Hartford-Davis

Cast: Kenneth Connor, Frank Thornton, Pamela Brown

UK 1965

90 mins

Title Pop Gear

Director: Frederic Goode

Cast: Jimmy Savile, Peter Asher, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis

UK 1965

68 mins

The sixties are often considered the heyday of British pop music and British filmmaking but rarely both at the same time. In fact the pop music film in any country (or at any time) has a pretty low reputation. But with young people making up a large percentage of cinema audiences producers have always looked to tap this rich vein. Elvis’ endless stream of rock-a-hula beach parties were at least financially successful if not critically. The British Elvis, Cliff Richard made similarly successful films – replacing dragsters and surfboards with double-decker buses – while within a year of their breakthrough The Beatles were being signed up to star in their own vehicles. This was an era when the entertainment industry was coming to terms with a’changing times. Three films from 1964-65, Catch Us If You Can – The Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night -, Pop Gear – Jimmy Savile introducing some of the best bands of 64/65 – and Gonks Go Beat – a truly awful film with some great bands and great songs – illustrate this moment perfectly.

As Matt Monroe sings in Pop Gear, ‘the Beatles started it all’. Although perhaps not as musically innovative as is often thought it was the huge success of The Beatles that sent every A&R man looking for the next best thing and prompted every skiffle band to trade in their banjos and washboards for electric guitars and drums. Similarly the success of A Hard Day’s Night set many producers thinking how to turn the beat boom into successful movies, especially after the Beatles and The Dave Clark Five (followed by the rest of ‘the British Invasion’) made it big in America.

Pop Gear was a cinema release from before the days of pop videos or YouTube. It features a collection of mid-sixties greats and also-rans miming to their hits (in Techniscope and Technicolor). It holds together surprisingly well as a film with the exception of the tacked-on low quality footage of the Fab Four at the beginning and the end, which looks like it must have been acquired through some copyright loophole. The rest of the film is directed by Frederic Goode who avoids the fast cutting style that became de rigueur for pop videos and concentrates on finding imaginative ways to frame the bands. The performers are all dressed in matching suits purchased by managers like Brian Epstein (although The Animals somehow still look grubby). The performances vary from Billy J Kramer’s trademark awkward stiffness to Tommy Quickly’s irritating chirpiness (playing a rhythm and blues version of Humpty Dumpty) to The Four Pennies going round and round a fountain almost in a daze. The minimal sets are often a bit too literal – balloons and alphabet blocks for BJK’s ‘Little Children’ and eyes for The Honeycombs’ ‘Eyes’. There is also some cross-over into light entertainment with a couple of unnecessary interludes – silly dance routines straight from Sunday Night at the Palladium – and three songs from the old crooner Matt Monroe. It is not quite the swinging scene of Austin Powers but we at least get the glasses and the ‘English teeth’ (Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits).

As Jimmy Savile says, it was a big year for rhythm and blues. Thus The Nashville Teens (from Surrey) sing about living in a shack on Tobacco Road or catching fish in the Mississippi, The Animals (from Newcastle) sing of brothels in New Orleans. But despite this emphasis on the blues all of the performers are white. It is notable that the only black face in all three films is a black and white minstrel costume in Catch Us If You Can. Supposedly one of the reasons that the British invasion was so big in the US was that white Americans were more likely to buy black American music if it was performed by white British singers like Billie Davies.

Catch Us If You Can features those great exponents of the Tottenham sound and the Fab Four’s first major rivals, The Dave Clark Five. The ‘Tottenham sound’ being Merseybeat with a saxophone (and also seems to be played solely by the DC5). It is also noteworthy as director John Boorman’s first film and the only film of the three where the direction is as ‘up to date’ as the music.

The plot seems to have been written to match the title of one The DC5’s hit records – although in America it was named after another equally suitable song from the soundtrack – Having a Wild Weekend. Basically, an actress (Barbara Ferris) and a stuntman (Dave Clark) abscond with the boss’ Jaguar whilst shooting a TV commercial for meat. Dave Clark was a former stuntman and drama student as well as being the band’s manager, producer, co-songwriter and drummer. The rest of the band play fellow stuntmen and flatmates who all live together in an old church – complete with a pipe organ alarm clock. Unlike The Beatles the DC5 don’t just play themselves – although only Dave Clark’s character has a different name – Steve. Dave Clark is a bit wooden in the lead role and, as with the band, lead singer Mike Smith steals every scene he’s in. There are a few poor attempts at Beatlesque quirky dialogue and a few zany antics – bouncing on trampolines etc. but it soon moves away from A Hard Day’s Night imitation.

The episodic structure takes them on a variety of adventures from a masqued ball in Bath to wild-west horseback riding in Devon whilst the evil world of advertising tracks them down. We meet some early hippies (who deny being ‘beats’) who try to get the super straight Dave Clark to try drugs. He later turns down offers of cigarettes and sherry claiming, ‘tried it once didn’t fancy it’. This is perhaps why the DC5 failed to make the transfer to the late sixties. Right there in a shed on a military exercise base somewhere in the West Country the future of rock’n’roll is made. If only he’d taken the spliff the DC5 could have made that great psychedelic concept album (imagine an upbeat stompin’ Sergeant Pepper) but instead they were playing Merseybeat (with sax) on the cabaret circuit by 1968.

Gonks Go Beat exploits that curious sixties fad for shoddy handicraft (remember Humpty from Playschool), although the gonks themselves make only a very brief appearance. I wonder if kids took their gonks to see it – although the fad was probably over by the time the film came out. It is a film so poor that even its star, Carry On‘s Kenneth Connor, an actor whose single talent is his unrivalled ability to say ‘phwoar’ to saucy nurses, seems embarrassed by the proceedings. The special effects are sub-Dr Who (in his 60s incarnation) and the story – a war between country of up-tempo music Beatland and its rival Balladisle, whilst two star-crossed lovers search for a happy compromise – is just daft. Even Jimmy Savile seems a better option, even Cliff and ‘the young ones’ putting on a show to save the youth club would have been better. It also features the worst battle scene in the history of cinema – a dance with guitars for guns and drumstick hand grenades. The only highlights are a few great songs by the much undervalued producer/songwriter Mike Leander (the man who gave the world Gary Glitter) performed by likes of The Graham Bond Organisation and Lulu.

Not many people realise it but 1965 was the greatest year in pop music history; even the Eurovision winner was a truly brilliant song. Experimentation was rampant, albeit confined to three-minute pop songs, and yet that year is often dismissed as the transitional period from rock’n’roll to rock. The recent BBC2 series Seven Ages of Rock typically starts with Hendrix and completely ignores this important era. I recently got an email encouraging me to sign a petition to get The Monkees enrolled in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I think I’ll sign that one and start one for the Dave Clark Five (unless they’re already in). Critical reputation still seems based on a band’s ability to make ‘great albums’ (the DC5 were a singles band) although maybe this will change with the increase of the pick’n’mix i-tunes selections. The Dave Clark Five and some of the great one-hit-wonders from Pop Gear deserve better than to be languishing on compilation albums with names like ‘Now that’s what I call the swinging sixties’ given away free with The News of the World. And Catch Us If You Can is a good film (a great pop film) although in cinema as in music The Dave Clark Five were never quite as good as The Beatles.

Paul Huckerby



Bearsuit are a ‘stop-start boy-girl cutie-killer six-piece with everything from cinematic waltzes to catchy electro disco and hard punk screaming riot grrl noise. A mix of Belle and Sebastian, Huggy Bear, and Sonic Youth with electronic twists and turns, and screamy art punk.’ You can see them magicking up their brilliantly chaotic tunes at the Luminaire, London, on June 23, at the Buffalo Bar, London, on July 27, at Indie Tracks, Ripley, Midlands, on July 28, and at the Norwich Arts Centre on August 25. Records available on Fantastic Plastic, Fortuna POP! and Microindie.


1- Chungking Express (1994)
This is pure romance. Wong Kar-Wai gets a lot more kudos for 2046 (which, even though it had monorails and robot girls and stuff in, I found a bit too much like hard work) and In the Mood For Love, but this is by far my favourite of his films. It’s a melancholy love story (mostly unrequited) and ruminates on loneliness and nostalgia, but at the same time it’s shot through with such punk vigour and lo-fi artsiness that it never feels slow or pretentious. The camera speeds breathlessly through the crowded apartments and neon-drenched noodle bars of Chung-King mansions, and every frame is gorgeous and hazy and chintzy and day-glo; it’s exactly like having a smoke on your own, gazing out over the city from your window, and wistfully remembering your romantic mistakes and briefly joyful encounters. sigh….

2- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
I’m serious. This is like Star Wars made by Woody Allen. It’s beautifully shot and framed; it’s obsessed with incredible architecture and imposing sets, lit in amazing noirish blacks and greys and whites for the Empire’s scenes, boiling red and oranges when Han Solo is killed (killed? oh no, just frozen ’til the sequel) and when Luke descends into hell and has to fight his OWN FATHER in the bowels of a deserted city. It moves along as fast as the first film during the amazing action sequences (dude! AT-AT walkers!), but slows up enough for hilarious wise-cracking and one-liners from the relaxed and top-of-their-game lead cast, suddenly beats the shit out of our heroes, then lets the baddies win! Imagine how much of an effect that can have on a little boy going to the cinema with his dad for the first time: just devastating (Woking, 1981, me). It’s existential techno-nightmare. It’s Hamlet, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or The Seventh Seal, but for kids!

3- Duel (1971)
Jesus this is bleak. There’s no reason for any of it to happen. An everyman office worker is driving cross country to get home from a conference or something (we never really know), when a truck driver (whose face we never see) decides this little guy needs to have his life ruined (we’ll never know why). The truck itself is a terrifying monster, all belching smokestacks, rust-brown body and moaning, bellowing engine, which, just like the shark of Jaws is a relentless, unstoppable, alien killing machine. It’s about 80 minutes of the purest cinema I can think of – Spielberg sets up the wafer-thin premise and racks up the tension like a baseball-capped Hitchcock. The editing coils around the sweat-drenched protagonist like a boa: truck, car, truck, car, nearer! Nearer! The underdog has to fight his foe – he has no help, a crappy slow saloon car and no idea why he’s been singled out. He does have a pretty good moustache however. This film makes me hate the outdoors even more.


4- Mulholland Drive (2001)
Did you know David Lynch has got his own brand of coffee? I think the strap line is him saying something like, ‘My coffee is made with only the finest beans, and I’m just full of beans.’ Coffee usually features in his work. There’s a particularly funny coffee scene in this film, but it’s one of very few where you can take a breather from the nightmarish story. It’s not a particularly easy film to follow – it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. I think it’s because of all of the really resonant images and threads of intriguing mystery that I love this so much. You think you’ve found the answer, but then realise that it can’t be because something else doesn’t stack up. It’s shot in a beautiful noir style, the performances are amazing, as is the music (thankfully dispensing with the industrial/nu metal that soundtracked Lost Highway). I don’t know what it is about David Lynch – all it takes is a dimly-lit room, ambient music, a frightened face and a telephone and I start getting the fear.

5- Time Bandits (1981)
I don’t think Terry Gilliam has made a better film (although Brazil is very close). I really wanted a bedroom like Kevin’s, with knights coming out the wardrobe and stuff. I love the fact that all these heroes from history are flawed and have personality disorders, like Napoleon’s height complex & Robin Hood’s upper class arrogance. Also, the ending is just totally shocking, with his parents being blown up! You kind of felt he was better off because they were so obsessed with material wealth and didn’t pay him any regard. There’s also a kid actor who doesn’t make you want to puke, lots of black humour, some amazingly imaginative scenes (put together on a shoe-string budget) and a snappy tune from George Harrison – awesome.


6- Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
I’m a sucker for films featuring animals, from the canine-crazy Best In Show to Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Dolittle (yes, even Stuart Little!), but Babe: Pig in the City has to be my favourite of them all. Don’t be fooled by Babe’s syrupy 1995 debut – this dark 1998 sequel saw kids being carried out of cinemas in floods tears by horrified parents. The blackly comic story follows the little pig as he ventures into the vivid and seedy animal underworld of city life in a bid to raise enough money to save the farm back home. It starts with a horrific well accident that near kills Farmer Hoggett and goes on to feature hooker poodles, the death of a disabled jack russel on wheels, and best of all, PG Tips style talking chimps. A bizarre and grotesque fantasy, reminiscent more of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, than a family blockbuster. AND with
talking animals – what more could you want?

7- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby is one of the most the most bone-chillingly scary horror movies I’ve seen, without relying on blood-splatter, special effects, or shock tactics. The story follows newlyweds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) after they move in next door to the over-friendly and eccentric Minnie and Roman Castevet (who are really ring-leaders of a satanic coven). Guy’s acting career quickly takes off and Rosemary falls pregnant. But within this picture of mundane everyday life, the increasingly paranoid, hysterical and powerless Rosemary descends into a living hell that sees her craving raw meat, hallucinating, loosing weight, and becoming obsessed with the idea that the Castevets want her baby for a Satanic ritual. I love it because it’s so ambiguous, you never really know where the borderline is between reality and Rosemary’s imagination. Amazingly filmed, this is definitely one to watch again and again to glean extra snippets of information, oh and to indulge in its 1960s kitsch chic fashion!

8- When Harry Met Sally (1989)
It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry! Yes When Harry Met Sally ticks all the right boxes for a perfecto chick flick romantic comedy. Brilliantly schmaltzy and sentimental, it poses the question, ‘Can men and women ever just be friends?’ Being best buddies with Iain Ross from Bearsuit, I like to think that yes, they can. But by the end of the movie, I’m proved wrong. Ahoi, a marriage in our 80s, followed by a honeymoon cruise beckons…


9- The Shrinking of Treehorn / The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge,1956)
I’ve cheated here by putting two films in one, but when I was younger we used to have a video tape which had on The Shrinking of Treehorn followed by Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. I can never seem to separate the two in my mind. They were so ingrained in my family’s viewing habits that my sister and I knew all the dialogue from Treehorn and would paraphrase it over and over again much to my parents’ annoyance. It was a simple animation of a boy who started to shrink, which went unnoticed by his family, but the dry humour was wonderful throughout. I still want to get a dog whistle (even if I can’t hear it; even if no dogs can hear it, it would be nice to have a whistle?) even now. Luckily The Red Balloon had (more or less) no dialogue so my parents were spared another film ruined for them. A young boy comes across a very large red balloon with a mind of its own, which follows him to school, causing him trouble and jealousy from the other children. Eventually their jealousy turns to anger and the fate of the balloon is sealed. But there is a happy ending… My dad recently sent me a DVD of both these two films so my childhood viewing is now restored.

10- Bugsy Malone (1976)
What can I say about Bugsy Malone? It’s an absolute classic – custard pies, splurge guns, pedal cars, speakeasies, Jodie Foster, Baby Face, kids in spats and great tunes to boot. I’m still waiting for the Bugsy Malone Bearsuit stage outfits to happen, or at least a Bugsy Malone fancy dress party… But what to dress as… Tallulah or Fat Sam? And where’s my pedal car?


The Battle of Algiers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor: Argent Films/Maiden Voyage Pictures

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Based on: Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger by Saadi Yacef

Cast Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef

Algeria/Italy 1965

117 mins

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers has experienced a remarkable resurgence since the Pentagon organised a private projection of the film in 2003 to discuss ‘the challenges faced by the French’, in particular ‘the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq’ (as reported by Michael Kaufman in the New York Times). While the Pentagon had its own twisted motives to watch The Battle of Algiers, the film’s lucid dissection of colonial conflict certainly makes it essential viewing in our neo-colonial times.

Based on the memoirs of former FLN (National Liberation Front) leader Saadi Yacef, The Battle of Algiers charts the rise of the Algerian nationalist movement from 1954 until independence was declared in 1962. While it explicitly describes the brutally repressive methods – which included intimidation, torture and summary executions – used by the French Army against the insurgents, it also unflinchingly depicts the indiscriminate bombing of civilians perpetrated by FLN militants. Despite awards at the Venice and Cannes festivals it was banned immediately on release and when the ban was lifted in 1971 screenings were marred by such intense violence that the film was withdrawn from all French cinemas. This effectively buried the film for decades and it was only in 2004 that the film was screened on French TV for the first time.

Now 79, Yaacef, who produced and starred in the film, is a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Algeria’s struggle for independence has shaped his life and his memory of events that took place over forty years ago remains very sharp. When he evokes his violent activities as a guerrilla fighter, it is clear that he is acutely and painfully aware of what he did, and that this awareness has not been blunted by time. Warm, soft-spoken and extremely articulate, Yacef comes across as a passionate humanist who was led to commit violent acts from which he would have recoiled in any other circumstances.

Virginie Sélavy: After remaining unseen for years The Battle of Algiers has attracted a lot of interest recently. What do you think of that resurgence?

Saadi Yacef: I think it’s a completely natural thing. France recognised recently that what happened in Algeria was a war, which they had denied until then, saying it was just insurgents and terrorists. As soon as they recognised that they realised that there was no hate in The Battle of Algiers. It’s a very even-handed film that shows the violence of both sides. Each side is fighting for something, the ones to reinforce the French empire, the others for independence. And the generation who protested against the film at the time has begun to disappear now. The climate was right to release the film. And it had already been revived by the American press who had talked about it in relation to the occupation of Iraq. So in France they thought, the Americans have seen it, everybody has seen it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see it too.

VS: What do you think of the fact that the Pentagon organised a screening of the film to find out what they could learn from the French strategy in Algeria?

SY: They had planned the occupation of Iraq but they needed information so they looked through all of the political, revolutionary films to see if they could find anything they could use when they occupied the country. And among a number of films they chose The Battle of Algiers. When the officers watched it, it was only for information – France colonised Algeria then left, why, what did they do, what was the reaction of the insurgents, etc. They wanted to draw lessons from that that they might be able to use in Iraq. I don’t know what conclusions they drew from the film. I think they’re bad pupils because they haven’t learnt anything. They also had Vietnam and obviously didn’t learn their lesson since now they’re even building walls to resolve the situation in Iraq.

VS: Do you see any links between what’s happening in Iraq and your film?

SY None at all. The Latino-American or Vietnamese guerrilla style is not comparable to Iraq from a geographical, social or economic point of view, and neither is it comparable to the kind of guerrilla that we practised in Algeria. In our case it was about colonisation, about a population that had been displaced for economic reasons and came to Algeria to turn it into a French territory.

VS: It is clear from watching the film that you tried to remain very balanced and French soldiers come across as very human. It must have been difficult for you to try and see things from the point of view of people who were your enemies at the time.

SY: No, we wanted to let them express their side of things. I thought about the films that the French or the Russians made about WWII. The Germans are always the bad ones; they’re idiots and murderers whereas the others are victorious and noble. So I thought that we had to show the atrocity of war, how it causes damage on both sides, and we had to make things balanced so that the film would be credible. If we’d shown the Algerians as the victors and the French as the idiots, people wouldn’t have believed it. We even went a bit further. We had a scene in which a bomb [planted by the FLN] explodes even though there’s a baby there. I thought that it was too easy to just blame the French. They were fighting to maintain Algeria under French domination and we were fighting to get them out. Each side had their own reasons but it caused damage and destruction for everybody.

VS: You’ve tried to be so even-handed in the film that in a way I feel you have been quite lenient with the French. There is an extraordinary restraint in the way you depict torture: in the film torture is something that the Colonel decides to use for rational, strategic reasons rather than something sadistic, uncontrolled and hateful.

SY: A man capable of torturing another human being, even if he’s scum, feels something break in him, the most important thing that he has, his humanity, his soul if you want. Torture is something that happens between two people, the torturer and the victim. The victim is made to taste death without actually dying. He is subjected to atrocious pain and begs his torturer to kill him. He’s even ready to forgive the torturer as long as he kills him. Torture is abominable, things like ripping out someone’s nails, or burning someone with a blowtorch. And those who practise it feel a certain power but it’s suicidal. They will never get over what they’ve done. And it creates sadists.

VS: Were you tortured?

SY No.

VS: But you know people who were tortured?

SY Oh yes, many. I wrote reports on torture and gave them to various personalities. It was something terrible. And I wrote about the methods of torture in my book.

VS: How did you become an FLN militant?

SY: I was born in the Kasbah, the old Algerian quarter in Algiers. It has 80,000 inhabitants. The density is unimaginable – 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometre – which doesn’t even exist in China. When you left the Kasbah to go in the European part of the city you could see the difference straightaway and you realised how poor the Kasbah was. I joined a party called Party of the Algerian People, which was demanding independence for Algeria. I was precocious and at a very young age I was writing inscriptions on the walls and distributing tracts, until the events of 1945 after the fall of Nazism. On May 8th the whole world was celebrating victory but the French killed 45,000 Algerians [in reprisal for the killing of a hundred Europeans following clashes with the French Army on VE day], including soldiers who had come back from the front after fighting for France. The 45,000 dead gave me the energy to fight. I joined the armed branch of the party. The French empire had crumbled; they had lost Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco. Their weaknesses allowed us to get organised and I was among those who took up arms in 1954.

VS: What was the first violent act that you committed?

SY: I killed. (silence) Well, I killed. (silence) Then I started making bombs. I felt I was forced into this because there were 400,000 Europeans who lived in Algiers as well as 400,000 soldiers. We were forced to use guerrilla tactics because we didn’t have the same weapons as the enemy. Some of the more extremist French people who lived in Algeria planted a bomb in the Kasbah that killed 75 people and injured many more. And the population was just starting to believe in us so we had to show that we too had weapons that were as cruel as those of the French. That’s how I started making bombs and planting them. It was in order to tell people, we’ll avenge you, you’ll see, we’re fighting for you, so please help us and support us. That’s how we started using bombs. It was efficient. As soon as the French did something, we retaliated with a bomb. It was a question of blood calls for blood.

VS: So the character of Djafar that you play in the film is very close to your own experience.

SY: Yes, Djafar was actually my war name. We were in hiding and we didn’t use our real names to avoid being identified so we had pseudonyms and mine was Djafar. Later I changed it because the enemy knew that Djafar was me.

VS: How did you meet Gillo Pontecorvo?

SY: When I was in prison in France I wrote a book called Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger in which I described the most important events that I had experienced. I published it when I was released from prison in 1962 and I travelled to Mediterranean countries in order to look for a director because those countries were ahead in the domain of cinema, with neo-realism in Italy in particular. I went to Rome and I learned that there was someone called Pontecorvo who was a former resistant. I went to see him and explained what I wanted to do. He himself wanted to make a film about Algeria but he abandoned his own project in favour of mine. I hired him and the script-writer [Franco Solinas], offered them a reasonable fee and invited them to come to Algeria to do some research, to immerse themselves in the Algerian soul and understand what had happened. They stayed almost a year and became experts on urban guerrilla – they knew the question better than me. They were insistent that I should play in the film because they liked my face. At first I refused but then I accepted, to make sure that events would be depicted authentically. I thought that if I acted in the film I would always been present either as producer or as actor and I could stop them if they wanted to embellish the film or add things that were not true. This is why the film is so truthful. And there is not one image in it that comes from any other source.

VS: That’s one of the most remarkable features of the film. It looks like a documentary but everything in it has been recreated. Why did you decide not to use news footage from the period?

SY: Because the war had just ended three years earlier and the wounds were still open and it was possible to film that truth. In order to make it look like a documentary we did things to the images, altered their quality, so they would look like documentary images.

VS: So for you it was more truthful to recreate events than to make a documentary using newsreel footage?

SY: I had the possibility of making this film in reality without relying on fiction because the events were so recent and true. I wanted to use historical truth to preserve it. That’s why I made this film – to give the events a filmic language that would resist time and would later show future generations how we freed ourselves.

VS: Did you shoot the whole film in Algiers?

SY: Yes, everything.

VS: The Kasbah is a fascinating place, with its intricate labyrinth of streets.

SY: That was thanks to Marcello Gatti, an excellent cinematographer who was very good at filming without a tripod. He knew how to use the camera in those tiny streets and that’s what gave this result.

VS: Was it difficult to recreate certain things?

SY: No, not really because I know the Kasbah like the back of my hand so I knew what had been destroyed during the war and what it looked like before. It cost us a bit of money but we reconstructed what had been destroyed and then we destroyed it again on film and that gave very truthful results. We recreated the cafeteria and the milk bar, which had existed. The house where Ali-la-Pointe dies is the same house. The place where I was arrested, that’s where we filmed. Everything was real. There was no need for fiction. It was fascinating.

VS: Was it sometimes difficult to go through these things again?

SY: Sometimes. But I really put myself in the actor’s position and that made it easy, it wasn’t a game of death. I had never acted before, but Pontecorvo was pleased with the result.

VS: Most of the actors were not professionals, is that right?

SY: None of them were professionals apart from two, two stage actors who played extras and one French actor who played the role of Colonel Mathieu. He was a stage actor and had been chosen by Pontecorvo.

VS: How did you select the non-professional actors? Were they people that you knew?

SY: The war had just ended so they were all still marked by it. They didn’t need to go to film school; when they saw French paratroopers they remembered what it was like, it took them back to the war. If we had filmed ten years later it would have been different. I had 15,000 people to film the demonstrations so we just couldn’t have 15,000 actors. They were all ordinary people.

VS: There must have been an extraordinary atmosphere when you were shooting.

SY: Yes, we felt very motivated.

VS: The film focuses especially on the years between 1954 and 1957, which ends with the strategic victory of the French. The film then quickly sums up the events that followed, which led to the victory of the FLN and the independence of Algeria. Why did you choose to focus on those years rather on the events leading to the FLN’s victory?

SY: We filmed almost eight hours of material. But if we had made three films people would not have been interested. We had to limit the film, try and make it two hours long, so that the audience could watch it. So we chose the most important events. That’s why we started with 1954, the beginning of terrorism and the results.

VS: But why focus on the beginning rather than on the final victory?

SY: In order to explain how it all started, how you start a guerrilla against a country like France, which had NATO and the Americans on its side. We didn’t have the same weapons. So we had to show the whole process of how we started.

VS: In the film the character of Ben M’hidi says something very striking. He says that the difficulty is not to win the revolution, that’s the easy part; the problems start after, once the revolution has been won. Do you still agree with that?

SY: Ben M’hidi was a friend. I lived with him for several months. While we were fighting he had problems with some of the FLN leaders. It was about ambition, everybody wanted to be the boss. When we talked in the quiet moments he said ‘you know, there are people who want to take over power even now as we are fighting the war. So what will happen later when we’re free?’ And he was right. As soon as we got independence everybody wanted to govern the country. I wanted to put that in the film to show people that the real difficulties start after you’ve won the revolution. You need financing, intellectuals, engineers, you need everything to build a country and that’s difficult. In the film I also made him say something else. When the journalist asks, ‘don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?’ he replies, ‘give us your planes and we’ll give you our baskets’. I put those words in his mouth because he’d died anyway, but the rest, that was something that he’d actually said. He was a character, not like Che Guevara, but a real revolutionary.

VS: And what about Ali-la-Pointe?

SY: Ali-la-Pointe became an excellent fighter, conscientious, loyal, brave, I could go on. He was illiterate, he was one of the victims of colonialism, and to earn a living he was forced to resort to street card games and to mix with pimps. He was always in a fight with the police and he was condemned to eight months in prison for hitting a police officer. While he was in prison he met FLN militants. He asked them why they were there and they explained that they wanted to throw the French out of the country so that later his children would be able to read and write. It was a real education for him. He swore to escape from prison and to join the fight and that’s what he did. He came to stay with me and became a great strategist in the guerrilla.

VS: Even though the film is full of extraordinary characters there is no unique hero. It’s really about a group of characters.

SY: It’s about the people. That’s why we recreated the eight-day strike, the demonstrations of December, all that, to show the people who rose up. It’s not my film. I told Pontecorvo that I didn’t want to make a film about myself because it was the people who fought the war, it’s thanks to them that we freed ourselves so the only hero is the people.

VS: In the film we also see that women played a very important role in the struggle for independence.

SY: Algerian women had been relegated to the background before the war started but there was an evolution in the revolution. Women changed during the war. They made us food, they were our look-outs, they really supported our actions and it’s thanks to them that we succeeded. Even recently when there were terrorist bombings in Algeria, women were the first ones to protest in the streets.

VS: We also see them plant bombs.

SY: The women who planted the first bombs were students. The universities were on strike and they joined us and said they were prepared to do whatever was needed. We chose them because it was easier for them to get into the French area, by changing their clothes and hair. That’s what we show in the film.

VS: You are now a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Is it important for you to play a political role in your country?

SY: I will do whatever I can to help my country until my death. At the Senate I try to devise laws that fit in with the way people live, and I give my opinion. And I will always do this, even if I leave the Senate. I will always try and be useful.

VS: Working for your country is your life, is that it?

SY: Yes, it’s what gives it meaning.


The Night of the Sunflowers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo

Original title: La Noche de los girasoles

Cast: Carmelo Gí³mez, Judith Diakhate, Cesáreo Estébanez

Spain 2006

123 minutes

A serial killer, an isolated village in the Spanish backwoods, the discovery of a cave, feuding neighbours, speleologists, a murder and an old-fashioned policeman. These are the unusual ingredients of Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s assured debut feature The Night of the Sunflowers, which relocates the crime thriller to the rugged outlines of rural Spain. The dying countryside provides an unexpectedly suitable background for the kind of moral dilemmas usually found in urban noirs while grounding the film in a sturdy realism that keeps clichés at bay. The tale is told over six interlocking chapters, each focusing on one of the protagonists, and each gradually uncovering more. This multi-stranded structure is no vacuous attempt at stylistic virtuosity but a skilful way of maintaining the suspense throughout while also creating the sense of a claustrophobic web of connections from which the characters cannot escape.

The Night of the Sunflowers was met with resounding acclaim in Spain and Sánchez-Cabezudo suddenly found himself the toast of this year’s Goya Awards, being nominated for best screenplay alongside such luminaries of Spanish-language cinema as Pedro Almí³dovar and Guillermo del Toro. In the interview below he talks at length about serial killer films and the disappearance of rural Spain and he also explains why the last scene of The Night of the Sunflowers is not an homage to Luis Buñuel.

Virginie Sélavy: The Night of the Sunflowers is your first feature. How did you get into film-making?

Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo: I made two short films ten years ago. One was La Gotera, which starred Dominique Pinon, who was in Amelie and Delicatessen. It was a fantastic experience because he didn’t know anything about us and we wrote him a letter saying we could offer him sangria, free accommodation and a visit to the Prado Museum and he agreed to do the film! (laughs) Incredible! He remains a very good friend of mine. La Gotera was an absurd comedy and it had a certain amount of success. It received prizes in various festivals and was nominated at the Goyas. That same year I made another short film called Mustek, which was a bit more experimental. After that I spent ten years working on scripts for TV and trying to write the story that would convince a producer.

VS: Why is it called The Night of the Sunflowers?

JSC: Well, in France it will be called Angosto. It’s the name of the village where it takes place and it was the original title. In Spanish, Angosto means ‘narrow’, and it’s also ‘angustia’, ‘anguish’, and it evokes ‘Agosto’, which means ‘August’, heat, all that, which suited the film. But in Spain they didn’t like it. They thought it didn’t sound right. La Noche de los girasoles was the title of another script I’d written, and it had given me the idea for the first image of the film. So that’s what I picked when they told me to change the title. Also, the characters are a bit like sunflowers lost in the night. They have nice, organised lives, they think they’ll never leave their well-marked path, and then suddenly everything changes and they get lost.

VS: The title also refers to that crucial night when everything changes.

JSC Yes, there was also the idea of night and day. I wanted the light to be very strong, and to evoke intense heat. The terrible things happen at night and the light of day hides what happened.

VS: It’s a very interesting story because you approach the serial killer story from an original angle.

JSC: I thought about not just the serial killer genre but also current film noir and I thought, why not make a thriller with the type of Spanish characters that you meet in the street every day? In Spain there is a tendency to imitate American thrillers with clichéd characters so I wanted real people, ordinary people who would never imagine they could find themselves in such a situation. Of course the trigger of the whole story had to be someone who is really a killer – and a rapist. There are films that have approached this type of character differently from the classical American story, such as Citizen X, the story of a Russian serial killer, or It Happened in Broad Daylight by Ladislao Vajda, which has a realistic, psychological point of view. I wanted to start the film in a way that would make the audience think that it was a straightforward thriller and then they discover that it’s not that, that the story is different and the final aim is to give a meaning to violence. In some films violence is consumed in a playful way, like some kind of entertainment, but for me, violence is something that is transcendent and important. Killing someone is a serious thing, and it’s a serious thing for those who kill. It’s a bit like in Unforgiven, when Clint Eastwood says, ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.’

VS: There was a Spanish film about a serial killer a few years ago, called Las Horas del Dí­a by Jaime Rosales, which had a similarly realistic approach. Do you feel close to that film?

JSC: I saw that film after I’d already written the script for mine and really liked it. I definitely feel close to the way Jaime Rosales focuses on daily life. And one of the actors, Vicente Romero, who plays the friend of the protagonist in Las Horas del Dí­a, plays the young policeman in my film.

VS: In Las Horas del Dí­a the focus was very much on the killer whereas in The Night of the Sunflowers the killer is simply the trigger for the violence – his violence starts a whole cycle in a kind of chain reaction.

JSC: Yes, it’s a bit like dominoes. The intention was to show how other people’s lives can change ours. It’s like a mosquito that stings and then flies away but triggers the whole drama. It’s the story of lives whose paths cross but it’s not about fatality. The characters are not doomed to do what they do, they can make decisions. It’s just that they decide to go down the worst possible path. The dilemmas that they face are the most important thing in the film. It all came from watching the news and thinking, how can this happen, what happens in someone’s head to make them do those things? And in the news you don’t get the before or after of the story. So I was interested in the circumstances that lead people to do certain things and how they face those things, how they justify their own actions.

VS: Is this why the film is divided into six sections that each focus on a different character?

JSC: Yes, it’s about the subjectivity of each of the characters. And it allowed me to show what happened to them before and what conditioned them to react the way they do. That’s why each chapter has a small amount of flashback so that we know where they come from and why they do what they do when they get to the moral confrontation. It wasn’t about attempting a stylistic tour de force, it was just the best way to tell the story.

VS: The structure makes you feel that their lives are so interconnected that they can’t escape from the events. It creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere.

JSC: It’s interesting that you should say that because the landscape is very open, but at the same time it feels like it swallows the characters. And the claustrophobia is mostly in the relationships between the characters, for instance in the young policeman’s family. The dinner scenes are harrowing.

VS: Yes, and precisely because those scenes are so depressing, we can really understand him even when he makes some rather dubious decisions!

JSC: That was the intention, I didn’t want to judge the characters or give a kind of final moral because that’s not what reality is like. I wanted to let the audience think what they want and judge according to their own criteria.

VS: There is also a certain amount of black comedy in the film.

JSC: Yes, it is a comedy of the absurd in a way. In the scene of the murder there is something completely absurd because both sides believe they are defending themselves. Both feel that they are being attacked. And it’s exactly what happens in most conflicts: each side think that they are defending themselves against the other, just like in Israel and Palestine. Violence is justified through lack of communication and the inability to adopt a point of view different from one’s own.

VS:The thriller aspect is mixed with issues such as people abandoning the countryside and the decaying of the villages. Why did you choose to set your story against this kind of background?

JSC: It was very important to me because it’s something that’s happening in Spain and all over Europe. Rural areas are not a priority for the European Union but the countryside is a very big part of the Spanish identity because it was the basis of our culture and our economy. Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been an exodus and many villages have been completely abandoned. Rural cinema was a strong tradition in Spain, we had many films about country life. I wanted to talk about that Spain, but the way it is now. It was important to have a new perspective on what is happening because everything is changing and there is a whole way of life that is going to disappear completely. Again here I don’t have any answers because I know some villagers welcome the changes while others don’t, but I’m showing what’s happening. And it was perfect for a thriller because there’s an atmosphere of decadence. It’s also the decadence of the characters. I didn’t want to talk about it directly and make a social film. I like films like The Third Man, where the decadence of the background invades the characters and causes moral confrontations between them. It’s not in the foreground but it’s something that enters the characters and is dealt with obliquely through the crime story.

VS: The story shows urban characters coming to a village but it never falls into a clichéd opposition between city dwellers and villagers.

JSC: Yes, I really wanted to avoid that, and I also wanted to avoid clichés about the violence of country people. In Spain we have films like Pascal Duarte, part of what we call Tremendismo, that are about the violence of rural Spain and I didn’t want that either. In The Night of the Sunflowers the violence comes from the town, it’s the city people who bring it into the village. So there is a confrontation but it’s not all black and white.

VS: Why does the character watch a documentary on bees in the last scene?

JSC I wanted to adopt the perspective of an entomologist. We see the story from above, we see the way people’s paths cross. And in the documentary the commentator says, ‘bees don’t sting if you don’t bother them’, which I thought worked well with the killer’s story. But in the subtitles there is a mention of Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), the Buñuel documentary, and I hadn’t seen that. So everybody said, ah, so it’s an homage to Buñuel, but it wasn’t that at all, I just hadn’t seen it! (laughs)

Interview by Virginie Sélavy


Airport Girl

Airport Girl are a downbeat country-pop combo hailing from the Midlands. They have just released their second album, Slow Light, which has received much plaudit from the critics – ‘Swathed in Cosmic Country Shimmer…A toasty soundtrack to duvet-wrapped winter despondency’ said The Metro while SoundsXP saw the band as ‘the true heirs in a lineage of such elegant bands as Felt and The Go-Betweens’. Check out their mySpace page or their label page. Below they tell us about their favourite films.

1- Don’t Look Back (1966)
This documentary of Dylan’s 1965 British tour captures the point in the sixties where he was changing from an earnest protest singer in thrall to Woody Guthrie into, quite possibly, the coolest man on the planet. No one would put up the money for the film to be made so D.A.Pennebaker funded it himself and shot it cheaply (using just a soundman and a couple of Dylan’s friends as his film crew) achieving an intimate, cinéma verité feel. It starts with one of the most iconic film sequences in pop music: with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ playing and Dylan throwing away cue cards while Allen Ginsberg lurks somewhere in the background. From there on in the documentary follows Dylan from hotel room to venue to press conference as he tours around the UK running rings around hapless journalists and putting Donovan firmly in his place. Dylan is, at turns, arrogant, shy, spiteful, funny, but always compelling. I never get tired of watching this film.

2- If… (1968)
‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.’
This was the first in a trilogy of films by Lindsay Anderson that spanned three decades and featured Malcolm McDowell’s character Mick Travis (followed by O Lucky Man in the seventies and the very odd Britannia Hospital in the eighties). In this film Mick Travis is a senior at an English public school with little respect for tradition or for the authority of the school prefects. The revolutionary spirit of the film’s central characters echoes the student unrest that was taking place across America and in France at the time of the film’s release. The film is shot partly in colour and partly in black and white which adds to the feeling of fantasy and reality being blurred.

3- Kes (1969)
This has to be one of the most heart-breaking films I’ve ever seen. One of Ken Loach’s first, it features an incredible, naturalistic central performance from the unknown David Bradley as Billy Caspar, an unloved, working-class lad. Bullied at school by his peers and teachers, and at home by his brother, he finds solace and a sense of identity in training a kestrel hawk. Despite the sense of hopelessness in Billy’s situation, the film is shot through with moments of humour like the farcical school football match in which Brian Glover, as the school’s PE teacher, lives out his fantasies of playing for Man Utd. If you’re not sniffing back a tear at the end (when Billy’s brother kills the bird as revenge for Billy not placing a bet for him) then you have a heart made of stone.

4- Nashville (1975)
This film is set in the Country and Western music scene in Nashville but it isn’t just about Country and Western music. It’s about show business and politics and the points where the two meet. The film follows the lives of a large cast of diverse characters, each with their own story, over the course of a few days in Nashville, coinciding with the run up to a political rally. The end brings all the characters together but does little to tie up the various narrative threads. It doesn’t have a traditional plot with a beginning, middle and end but it’s still totally absorbing.

5- The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Nic Roeg made a whole bunch of great movies in the seventies; Performance, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, but my favourite has always been The Man Who Fell to Earth. In typical Roeg style this film doesn’t present the viewer with a straightforward narrative and whenever I watch it I’m always a little unsure that I know exactly what’s going on at certain points, but then, afterwards, it all seems to make sense. Bowie’s great in it. He doesn’t seem to be acting.

6- Gregory’s Girl (1981)
Charming, slightly awkward and Scottish. This is like the film equivalent of an early Orange Juice record.

7- Withnail & I (1987)
You know those annoying people that substitute having a sense of humour with quoting catchphrases from their favourite TV comedies like The Fast Show and Phoenix Nights? Well, with this film the temptation’s just too much to resist. It just has some of the most outrageously good dialogue in one of the best, funniest scripts ever. Pitch perfect casting too. Richard E Grant has never been able to match the performance he gives here as Withnail. Don’t ever try and play the Withnail & I drinking game though. You will make your liver cry.