The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters

Raindance Film Festival

25 Sept-07 Oct 2007

Festival programme

Celebrating its fifteenth birthday this year, the UK’s biggest independent film festival runs in London from September 26 to October 7, with a packed programme that comprises eighty features as well as numerous shorts and documentaries from all over the world. In the last decade or so, independent cinema has grown to encompass anything from modest, no-budget works to bigger crowd-pullers and this is reflected in the selection, which includes Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park as well as obscure gems such as gritty Icelandic social drama Children, camp sci-fi comedy Turks in Space or quirky Argentine oddity La Antena.

Since its inception in 1993, Raindance has played a vital part in bringing eccentric, challenging and unusual films to these shores, films that would not stand a chance of getting a general UK release. Originally set up as a platform to promote independent film, it has remained true to its objectives. Says Senior Programmer Suzanne Ballantyne: ‘We aim to promote first-time directors, discover new talents, open up new worlds to cinema-goers and show audiences that there is life outside the multiplexes.’ The criterion for selecting the films is simple: ‘At least two or three people in the office have to like the film.’

Raindance has always had an interest in music, and inviting punk icons to sit on the jury is becoming something of a habit: last year Marky Ramone was playing film critic, and this year it’s the turn of Iggy Pop and Mick Jones. ‘A lot of people who work at Raindance are into punk’, explains Ballantyne, ‘and I think it’s very good to have a musician judging films. It’s an interesting mix, and Raindance has always featured music documentaries in its programme.’ Sadly, there are fewer music-related films this year, simply because there were fewer submissions than in previous years.

But this year’s selection promises plentiful cinematic delights, including Ballantyne’s personal favourites Phantom Love, ‘a very special, visually breathtaking film about a woman’s subconscious by true indie auteur Nina Menkes’, and Waz, ‘a flashy British thriller that has been compared to Se7en‘. Below we take a closer look at five films showing at the festival.


This bizarro-comic fantasy from Mamoru Oshii (author of the brilliantly ambitious animé Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) is the kind of film that makes Raindance so special. Catch it at the festival for it is doubtful that any UK distributor will take their chances with such a baffling, beautiful and plain bonkers UFO of a film.

The Amazing Lives presents itself as an erudite study of the con artists who began to swindle free noodles out of food merchants in post-war Japan. We hear about mythical characters such as Moongaze Ginji, the charismatic white-haired old man who started it all, the gorgeous Foxy Croquette O’Gin who vamped her way around the noodle houses in the 50s, and many more. As this is Oshii, this is not simply about food but each grifter’s own particular approach to life, revealed by their individual scamming style.

Through the tale of the grifters’ exploits Oshii also charts the history of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. In the background of each story there are references to political and social events of the time, from WWII to student protests and a Red Army plane highjack. The grifters are outsiders who, through their attitude to food, represent individual resistance to political power and business interests. Nowhere is this as clear as in the story of Hamburger Tetsu: as he brings down a thriving fast food chain by ordering hundreds of burgers his tactics are compared to that of the guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War.

Oshii creates here another wondrous visual world, experimenting further with animation techniques, mixing fuzzy footage of devastated post-war Japan and the occasional animé image with computer-generated visuals. At a time when CGI animation is all about the excitement of 3D, the director decidedly goes the other way and makes it all as flat as he can. Not only does he succeed in creating a singularly weird, atmospheric world but such resolute individuality is truly inspiring.

Virginie Sélavy


Indie comedy The GoodTimesKid is the second feature from director Azazel Jacobs, son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Taking a more mainstream tack than his noted ancestor, the interestingly named Azazel constructs a gentle, good-hearted if slightly inconsequential tale of romantic estrangement around three disillusioned thirtysomethings crossing paths over 24 hours in LA.

Shot in fourteen days with a crew of six, on film stock lifted from a major Hollywood studio, the film is low-budget and proud of it. Taking its cues from early Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and classic Chaplin, the film develops almost wordlessly. The minimal narrative centres around two men, both called Rodolfo Cano, and their helpless attraction to an unnamed girl, charmingly played by the director’s girlfriend Sara Diaz. Indeed, the entire film could be seen as something of a love letter to Diaz, as the two Rodolfos find themselves in orbit around this unpredictable creature.

There are scenes of real beauty in The GoodTimesKid: a central sequence of tentative romance on a houseboat unfolds almost flawlessly, opening up these taciturn characters, drawing us into their world. The camera is used to magical effect, intimate close-ups capturing every flicker across the actors’ effortlessly expressive faces. There are a few indie clichés on display here: hints of artful dispassion; helpless, existentially traumatised men; a free-spirited woman who expresses her independence by dancing to old jazz records. But the film is perfectly constructed, strikingly photographed and never less than involving. The enduring impression is of a sweet, transitory experience, as slight as a backward glance but just as intriguing.

Tom Huddleston


M is a bleak and often perplexing psychological drama which journeys into the seedy underbelly of Japanese society, exposing a thriving industry of pornography, prostitution and violence. Satoko (Miwon) is a seemingly ordinary, contented housewife and mother who secretly works as a prostitute for a dangerous and violent yakuza gang. Minoru (Kengo Kora) is an intense young man who delivers newspapers and hangs out at hedonistic parties thrown by bored bourgeois teenagers. One day their paths cross: they share a lingering gaze and Minoru becomes intrigued by Satoko. After seeing her photo on a porn site, an image strangely bereft of any eroticism, he attempts to warn her away from the dangers of the yakuza, but the pair develop a perverse and destructive bond which leads to brutality and murder.

The way Satoko (and other women) is treated in the film suggests that male fantasies revolve around sexual violence against women: sadomasochism, humiliation and exploitation are explored in a frank and unflinching manner, and static, clinical camera angles coupled with Satoko’s cool detachment exclude any trace of sensuality. But baffling plot twists and flashbacks hint that Satoko isn’t simply a passive object of desire, nor is Minoru simply her knight in shining armour. Although it is never clearly spelt out, childhood secrets may well be the source of their dark desires. Does Satoko perceive the abuse as punishment she deserves? Does Minoru see his mother in Satoko? Such ambiguities in the narrative suggest that nothing should be taken at face value; fantasy, reality and illusion frequently blur and collide.

Director Ryuichi Hiroki learnt his trade working in the Japanese ‘pink film’ (soft-core porno) industry, before going on to have international success with his 2003 road movie Vibrator. His formative experience has visibly influenced M, but he is clearly commenting on the industry from the outside, making it an unusual and uncompromisingly dark film.

Lindsay Tudor


In this Yorkshire-set British thriller, the whole film itself is ‘exhibit A’, a tape recovered at a murder scene by the police. Filmed by fourteen-year-old Judith on her brand new camera, it starts as a home-movie of ordinary family life before turning into the chronicle of her father’s descent into an increasingly psychotic state.

Shot in an ultra-naturalistic way, the film replicates the style of an amateur filmmaker down to the flat TV image, shaky camera and funny angles. This uncompromising realistic approach is applied unwaveringly throughout the film so that some events occur off the screen, with sounds and voices the only clues as to what is happening. Although the constant jerks of the camera can be a tad tiresome, they succeed in creating the impression that what we’re watching is strictly impromptu filmmaking. In this way the film makes us privy to the inside reality of a sensational news story and implicates us as voyeurs.

In a Hidden-like way, Exhibit A plays on the ambiguity of different kinds of images. The film we’re watching is really a piece of evidence in a murder enquiry. Within it there are more incriminating images, including revealing photos and embarrassing mobile phone footage. Images are double-edged, and both Judith and her father’s disturbingly stalker-like behaviour is also bizarrely well-meaning: by exposing everything, they believe they will be able to put things right. They are, of course, sorely misguided and as more and more uncomfortable truths emerge, the unity of the family is dangerously threatened. Too much truth is toxic, the film seems to be saying, and the omnipresent recording devices of modern life place us all under a scrutiny so intense that no relationship can survive it. One question remains at the end: Would any of this have happened if Judith hadn’t been filming?

Virginie Sélavy


On the surface, Being Michael Madsen is a slightly dubious premise for a movie. A self-consciously self-reflexive work of self-mythology, a pseudo-documentary about a pseudo-documentary, this is cinematic meta-fiction taken to a new and dizzying level. It doesn’t help that, in the early stages, the celebrity ‘interviews’ are quite obviously scripted, the actors’ efforts to appear casual and off-the-cuff somewhat unconvincing.

But the central sections, as the crew pursue the hapless Dant through the streets of LA, have a gripping, manic energy. And there’s a genuine desire to explore the complex relationship between celebrities and their hack stalkers, a situation which seems to serve everyone’s needs while simultaneously making them all angry and miserable. Gratifyingly, the film offers no easy answers, blurring the lines between celebrities, journalists and the ‘ordinary’ people in between, taking well-aimed potshots at each.

Being Michael Madsen is listed as unfinished, and it could perhaps benefit from a little fine tuning. Nevertheless, this is a witty, intelligent examination of stardom, its pitfalls and its pratfalls, with a wry sense of humour and an agreeably non-judgemental outlook.

Tom Huddleston


This year’s festival opener is a witty, laugh-out-loud stoner comedy from Canada in which two dopeheads desperate to get their hands on some dosh to pay back an angry drug dealer have to contend with a Satanic cult, Medieval midgets and an undead girlfriend.

Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore
Journalist or polemicist, genius or manipulator, influential filmmaker or paranoid megalomaniac, ‘St Mike of the working man’ or ‘Showman Mike’? A team of filmmakers turn the tables on Michael Moore and use his own methods to illuminate his true nature.

The Devil Dared Me To
Bad taste comedy from New Zealand about an incompetent stuntman – involves lots of disastrous stunts, outrageous deaths, maimings and gross bodily fluid jokes.

Offbeat, bittersweet Belgian comedy about a bumbling inventor who goes to Canada in search of his birth family, built around an intricate series of meticulously orchestrated coincidences.

John Waters: This Filthy World
John Waters shares pearls of wisdom and insights into his influences in this filmed one-man-show. Highlights include a hilarious account of filming a spoof of the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie K crawling out of the back of a car in a pink Chanel suit to the shocked bewilderment of neighbours – only two years after the event. We are also treated to Waters’ fond recollections of watching underground movies as a young man: ‘You got arrested when you went to the movies. You’d go see Flaming Creatures and the cops would raid it and the whole audience would be taken away in police vans. It really perks up the movie-going experience.’


High Maintenance

Raindance Film Festival

25 Sept-07 Oct 2007

A-Z of Shorts

Selecting shorts for the Raindance Film Festival means sitting through thousands of films every year in order to pick the 100 that make up the programme. Having worked as a shorts programmer since 2000 Jamie Greco has seen his fair share, yet he has lost none of his enthusiasm for the format: ‘It always amazes me to see fresh angles and original concepts. You think you’ve seen it all before over the years, but there’s always something new that comes up. It’s great to find a film that’s totally unexpected, and that’s the whole Raindance ethic, to find invigorating, refreshing stories.’

Short film as a legitimate form has greatly developed in the last few years. For Greco it’s down to two reasons in particular: ‘Filmmakers now have got it down to a fine art. Instead of simply making a short film to promote their career, some use it as a format, like a writer might use the short story. And then there’s the likes of Future Shorts; Fabien (Riggall, founder of FS) has done an amazing thing with shorts, he’s really promoted the whole format in itself. Before, short films were just throwaway items, but now people will go out of their way to see a programme of short films.’

There are eight programmes of shorts on at Raindance, representing an amazing diversity of genres, subjects and styles: The Girls, a stunning slice of British Gothic about two cruel little girls; Cherries, a topical film set in an all-boy comprehensive which brilliantly subverts expectations; Quincy and Althea, in which an old couple discuss divorce while walking around a New Orleans devastated by Katrina. ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, the section devoted to the more surreal shorts, includes films such as High Maintenance, about a lady so unhappy with her unresponsive husband that she switches him off and exchanges him for another, and Forna, which, says Greco, is about ‘cocks growing in the garden… you know, genitalia.’ There is also a section devoted to animation, an area that has grown so much in the last couple of years that Raindance have now introduced a special animation award.

The film that surprised Greco most this year was The Demonology of Desire: ‘It’s about a teenage girl who’s praying for God to find her a boyfriend. At the beginning you think it’s going to be a nice teenage love story, but then it turns into a drama of manipulation and twisted desire. The leading actress is straight out of a David Lynch film. It’s bizarre, shocking and brilliantly done.’

Aside from the many unknown and first-time directors there are also some famous names in the programme: Dog Altogether stars Peter Mullan and was written and directed by Paddy Considine while Club Soda features James Gandolfini and Joe Mantegna. But the fact that big names were associated with the films had no influence on their selection. Says Greco: ‘It makes you take notice a little bit more, but it certainly doesn’t make you say, this is in, this is out. I rejected films with famous people in them; if they’re not good enough, they’re not in.’

Greco has worked hard to make the programme ‘as tight as possible’. The excitement he feels about this year’s films is contagious and on the evidence of the ones we saw, entirely justified. It is this kind of vibrant enthusiasm that makes Raindance such a unique festival.

Virginie Sélavy


Opera Jawa

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Garin Nugroho

Based on:‘The Abduction of Sinta’ (from the Ramayana)

Cast: Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Martinus Miroto

Java 2006

120 minutes

Javan director Garin Nugroho is a slight man dressed in pale jeans, a black T-shirt and beige anorak. As he introduces his latest work, Opera Jawa, to the Barbican audience, it is impossible to predict how much colour, music and movement is about to appear on screen. Opera Jawa is a retelling of a story from the ancient Hindu text – the Ramayana. It sings the story of a love triangle in modern Java which leads to domestic turmoil, mass political unrest, and death. Nugroho, who is known for his socially-conscious, indigenous films, tells the audience that in the making of the film 60 songs were composed, 70 dance routines were choreographed and seven art installations were created.

Opera Jawa was commissioned last year by the New Crowned Hope festival – funded by the city of Vienna to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday – and fittingly, the film takes the form of a requiem. Perhaps predictably, Peter Sellars – the man who staged a series of Mozart’s works re-imagined for New York settings – was chosen to curate the New Crowned Hope project. At the Barbican screening Sellars introduces Opera Jawa as ‘the first film of the 21st century’. As he discusses the making of the film with its director, it becomes clear that these two men from different backgrounds share the same vision – combining old works with challenging new art forms.

Lisa Williams: Opera Jawa is a requiem for all those who have died in natural and man-made disasters in Indonesia. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

Garin Nugroho: The film is about disaster and violence. The three main characters are symbolic in the same way as classical Javan puppets are. Siti means ‘land’. She represents what has happened to the people as a result of natural disaster, conflict and the fight for holy land. She goes through three months of conflict when people fight for her body for these different reasons. She says in the film, ‘I’m not a holy land, I’m a human being’. The character Ludiro represents people who have power in the economy and military and who abuse this power. Setio represents the people who are disempowered and so become violent. That is the way of the world.

LW: Was it important to you to make an intrinsically Javan film?

GN: It was important – in the film there are many popular elements of Javan culture such as the market places, the clothes, the Javan puppets. The movement and the dance are very Javan. But I think the most important thing was the gamelan music. This is the first film accompanied by an entirely gamelan soundtrack. The soundtrack of the film reflects how the medley of art, music and dance can work together to create something incredibly valuable like it does in Java. We live in an oral tradition, and if you come to Java you can see how song, dance and art all live together.

LW: The film is like a showcase of local talent – the artists, musicians, singers and dancers. You made an effort to get the artistic community involved but you also mentioned this move backfired – with artists producing a glut of work for you to include. Where did you draw the line?

GN: Art is about being given room for productivity and the person who gives this room becomes like a hero. I gave artists room to be creative but I had the final say. It is like people are giving me small glasses of sake. Each time I drink one I become a hero to the person who gave it to me. But it’s up to me to control myself. Everyone wants to give me more and more sake, but I must control myself or else I become drunk.

LW: You said the film was conceived five years ago – how does the final product match up to the original vision?

GN: It’s better than how I thought it would be because so many artists gave me their ideas and creativity. So many people collaborated with me and each one brought their own ideas and their own spirit. They trusted me to deliver something, and it was wonderful to be given that space and it was the perfect time to make the film.

LW: To what extent did the Indonesian reformation (following the 1998 revolution which saw the end to 30 years of authoritarian rule) affect your work?

GN: We are still living the post-1998 moment. This is our euphoric moment, the moment for expression and for politics. For example, for the first time many different Indonesian cultures can come together – the Sundanese, the Javanese, the Papuans. Now these different communities can hold festivals and make films. After the 1998 revolution more than 1000 short films were made in a year. It was like a sudden euphoria. People could use film as a way to express what they had been feeling for years. I’ve been using films firstly to express our personalities, and secondly to express what I felt about what had happened in Indonesia. I make films because I want to start a dialogue about something.

LW: What would you be doing if you weren’t making films?

GN: If I hadn’t become a filmmaker I would be a politician. I was the chosen candidate in a number of elections in the past. I’ve also worked for non-governmental organisations because I’m interested in politics. But filmmaking is political itself. Film both affects and reflects the way we are thinking and reacting.

LW: What was it like working with Peter Sellars?

GN: Sellars knows about Java. When I read his autobiography I saw we had similar feelings about things. We have similar aims and I think this is important because we don’t need to discuss everything and break it down into logical details. When I went to him with the idea, he didn’t hesitate, he just said, ‘do it!’

LW: When he has recreated operas and stage plays, Sellars has been criticised before for straying too much from the original story. Opera Jawa was very loosely based on ‘The Abduction of Sinta’ from Hindu text the Ramayana – was this deliberate?

GN: Artistic interpretation has always been important. Reinterpretation is the beginning; it is what I call the support of creativity. I think what Peter did with Mozart was fantastic because he reinterpreted it. Through Opera Jawa people will learn about the Ramayana. Through reinterpretations people hear about the originals.

LW: What is your last word on Opera Jawa?

GN: The important thing about the film is that some of it is chaotic. If there is chaos, people will develop their own system, their own way of understanding what is going on around them. We tell the story of living in a chaotic place where the future is unpredictable. In Asia there is so much unpredictability, but that is the beauty of it.


Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire

Having formed and killed off more bands than anyone else in rock history (except possibly for Mark E. Smith, but then his band’s name has always remained the same), Billy Childish is back with new outfit The Musicians Of The British Empire, which features Nurse Julie on bass and Wolf Howard on drums. Their recently released debut album, ‘Punk Rock At The British Legion Hall’ takes up where the Buff Medways left off, offering more of Billy Childish’s very own brew of radical punk spirit and raw garage-blues. Below, they pick their ten favourite films.


1- The Third Man (1949)
I like black and white films with lots of shadows, I like Orson Welles, Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee, I like Austria just after the war and I like Anton Karas and his zither. I saw this film at a cinema recently and was surprised to find out that it is quite funny too.

2- Spartacus (1960)
What could be better than a lazy Sunday and a three-hour epic starring a ginger-haired bum-chin in a too-short metal skirt?

3- Nuts in May (1976)
It is a brave thing to make a film that has this much space with such little action. The main character, Keith, is seen by all as a rather petty man with petty ideals always sticking to the rule book where he feels most comfortable. This film was made before mobile phones, MP3s and laptops and, although I may not relish having a lengthy conversation with a Keith, I do often wish that he were in my train carriage brandishing an oversized branch and screaming, ‘be told!’


4- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
This film is a heartbreaker – it gets me every time. I love a film that’s about community, family, integrity and kindness. It’s the kind of a world I would like to live in.

5- Oliver Twist (1948)
One of the greatest opening scenes. The emotion and feeling of it is amazing. I’m a huge fan of David Lean and Charles Dickens so it’s double bubble.

6- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
This was been a favourite of mine since girlhood. I’d spend hours re-enacting the ‘doll on a music box’ scene in front of the mirror in my bedroom. Great songs, great story, Lionel Jeffries and of course Benny Hill, what more do you need. This is Ian Fleming’s best, better than Bond any day.


7- Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
I think Sherriff is one of the great screen writers. I first saw this film as a child. It is heartbreaking and still makes me cry whenever I watch it.

8- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
My favourite Powell and Pressburger film with a story of deep meaning, comedy and integrity.

9- Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Charles Laughton was a great actor (and a great director when given the chance); this film is full of humanity.


10- Sons of the Desert (1933)
We all like Laurel and Hardy films. This is one of the few full features they did that really works and is one of their funniest films from beginning to end.


I for India

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 August 2007

Distributor: ICA Films

Director: Sandhya Suri

UK 2005

70 mins

In the 1950s, economical filmmakers such as Ed Wood and Terry Morse could fashion entire narratives out of found footage to fill drive-in double bills. As film stock and cameras became cheaper, the amateur filmmaker could shoot home-movies and commit transitory life experiences to celluloid and later, home video. As we find ourselves comfortably in the second century of cinema, there are now stacks of footage coming from both traditions for low-budget documentarians to forage within and find more homespun narratives to fill the silver screen.

Following 2003’s acclaimed Tarnation, in which American filmmaker Jonathan Caouette turned the home-movies of his formative years into an introspective psychological examination of his life, a British director has now collated and edited her family’s history into an engaging tale of a bifurcated family separated by land and culture. Alex Fitch caught up with I for India director Sandhya Suri at the ICA in London and asked her about her project to turn decades of transcontinental communication between her émigré father and his family in India into her first documentary feature.

Alex Fitch: When did you decide to take your family’s footage and turn it into a feature?

Sandhya Suri: When I got hold of the audiotapes. There had been Super 8 films I used to watch as well that I knew of, but it was the discovery of the tapes, which really showed there was this exchange of audio letters and films on both sides – forty years of recordings from my father in England and his relatives back in India. So when I realised I had such a long span of material, I absolutely had to make the film.

AF: Presumably the Super 8 films were silent before that and adding the sound made it more real in a way?

SS: Sometimes they’d send us Super 8 reels and the audio reels separately and sometimes as a family we would put our own soundtracks on them, which is why there is some very dodgy 70s music all over the place! We’d either add commentary or send sound separately.

AF: I did wonder: when there’s footage of travelling on a train or going to the beach, is that foley sound that you recorded separately for this movie or was it recorded at the time?

SS: Some of it was recorded at the time. One thing that my father did a lot was soundtracks, he really loved putting on the music that he thought was atmospheric, so for example when he shot snow he took the music from Doctor Zhivago and thought it would really add to the drama when he sent the tape to India!

AF: Was it growing up in that environment that encouraged you to become a filmmaker or was it something you came to on your own?

SS: Well, my sisters have both got very sensible jobs, so maybe I was influenced! I think that the thing that my father taught me most was the importance of documenting, as opposed to cinema, it was the fact that he constantly documented and chronicled everything. That’s why my entry into film was via documentary as opposed to fiction.

AF: What was your filmmaking education?

SS: I studied documentary at the National Film and Television School. I was lucky enough to get this first feature financed directly out of film school – that process was quite quick, making it took a bit longer!

AF: When you look at the kind of Indian films that are available to the general public in this country, it’s fairly earnest titles like Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Earth and Water. In contrast there’s the whole Bollywood tradition. Do you think that perhaps as your film is linking both British and Indian cultures, it’s creating a dialogue between those cultures on behalf of the film’s audience as well?

SS: I hope so. There’s space for Indian documentaries on British cinema screens – I really wish people would come and see more, as there are some really great documentaries out there and there are a lot of interesting things happening in Indian cinema. There’s been a tendency to take a look at Bollywood culture and focus on the kitsch and the funny, but there’s a lot more behind all of that of course.

AF: There are political elements to your film: you add footage of the National Front and some fairly antiquated footage from the BBC welcoming visitors to the country. How much did you feel you had to add that kind of narrative, which is absent from the home movies?

SS: It was a really difficult process doing the editing because at one stage my editor and myself felt we were really disrupting the flow of the Super 8 by bringing in this archive footage. But at the same time, it was really clear to me that the film had to have a bigger feel about it rather than just my family’s story. There were things in my family archive that were implied but were missing so they needed to be reinforced by the archive footage. I felt it was really important to give that overall picture. The film has a lot of different textures and a lot of different colours and media – Super 8, digi-beta and old archive – so I think it added to that as well.

AF: It’s interesting as well that the first footage your father shot of Britain is in black and white and then the first colour footage you see is of India, which is almost what people expect when they see films from that period!

SS: Exactly! He was going through an experimental phase with black and white when he arrived but he always sent them colour film to record on. I think he always wanted to see India in colour – he would have been terribly disappointed to get black and white India footage back when he was feeling homesick.

AF: And he’s still making films now – you open with him taking footage of Egypt to his local camcorder club. I’m surprised that at that point he’s asking for advice on how to have it edited, after a lifetime’s worth of making films!

SS: Well, like every good filmmaker, he’s always learning! Especially with the release of the film and now that I’ve been to film school and taken up filming more, he’s filming less and less. It’s getting more difficult – he’s getting a lot older, he’s in his mid-seventies now – but when he goes on holidays or to major events he still makes films.

AF: Your film shows how back in the 70s the locals were particularly aggressive to the Indians who’d moved to this country. There’s also an undercurrent of that when you show your mother recently attending a meeting where there’s some haughty guy talking about his experiences in India – it seems just as patronising as some of the stuff from the 50s. Did you want to introduce the theme that that’s still prevalent today in certain circles of society?

SS: No, not at all. That scene’s filmed quite neutrally; it’s more of a surreal situation that my mother is part of this club with a lot of elderly white ladies. She was genuinely interested in seeing this man talk about India, because there are not that many opportunities. There’s Indian television, but she still welcomes those opportunities with any link to India and actually, although his words could be construed as a little condescending, they were also very true in many respects. He did end on a very important note about how hospitable the Indians had been when he’d travelled there and how he wondered if Indians arriving in England – in his town, in his village – would get the same reception. He sent out very mixed messages and I just want people to watch and come to their own conclusions about that.

AF: There seems to be a renaissance in documentaries made from found footage – recently there was the American film Tarnation – because the last couple of generations have been obsessively recording themselves, now on video and then on Super 8. Do you think there are thousands of stories out there waiting to be told in the mountains of footage?

SS: I pity the poor young people of this generation who are going to have to go and deal with eight thousand hours of birthdays and weddings and all that stuff because what was easy for me was that each reel of Super 8 footage is three minutes of film. You have to decide and be very conscious of what you’re filming and why you’re filming it. I think with home videos now there’s a tendency to film for hours and tapes are cheap. It’s not the footage that makes the story, it’s the story that counts.

AF: I suppose also that the period of time that’s elapsed is important. There’s a film about London made in the 60s (The London Nobody Knows), narrated by James Mason, and St Etienne recently made a thematic follow-up (Finisterre) but that film doesn’t have the same resonance because you can just go out on the streets and see what London looks like now. So, maybe it’s like the fascination audiences have now with silent footage of Edwardians – 50 years from now people might want to see all this camcorder material to see how people lived back then.

SS: Exactly. Even now I’m very conscious of that. Even though I’m very bad at it because it’s my job as well, I’m very keen to record little fragments of my life that I can add to this whole mountain of footage that we have that I’ve been able to make into a film.

AF: Self-consciously, you seem to edit yourself out of the film. For example, when you’re talking on the webcam with your sister, your face is obscured by your camera. Did you just want to have the camera itself portray you as the narrator?

SS: For me, it was very important that there not be too many narrators in the film. The strength in the film is the immediacy of listening to the audio archive, particularly my father speaking and the ability of that archive to help you connect with him, because they are very intimate recordings. So, adding me as another layer in between, guiding you through the film in a more explicit manner, that wouldn’t be very helpful. I felt that would have diminished the emotional strength of the film, which is why I kept a back seat, but I am referred to and you know that the daughter is making the film. I hope there is an intimacy in the shooting and the storytelling. People generally seem to realise that there is a daughter that made this film and you can feel the love and tenderness in it without my being present.

AF: What project are you working on next?

SS: It’s a little bit early to say but I’ve got a couple of documentaries in development – these are long-term things that take a long time to get funded and to get going…

You can listen to the Resonance FM podcast of the interview here.


Tokyo Drifter

Format: DVD

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Titles: Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Fighting Elegy, Pistol Opera, Princess Raccoon, Fighting Delinquents, The Flowers and the Angry Waves

Japan 1960-2005

Despite having influenced a whole generation of major directors, from Takashi Miike and John Woo to Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, Seijun Suzuki has remained a relatively unknown name in the West. While some of his followers have overused and even formulised the stylised violence, mischievous humour and fetishistic attention to detail that he introduced, Suzuki’s own films still look as alien and fresh as they did at the time they were made.

Hired by Nikkatsu Studios in the mid-fifties to make low-budget genre flicks, Suzuki soon began to develop a flamboyant, original style unpopular with his employers. Although his personal touch was already evident in such early output, Suzuki really upped the ante in 1963 with Youth of the Beast, a film which combined his trademark explosion of colours, hatchet editing style and unexpected leaps into the surreal – the club as fish tank scene remains one of the director’s most memorable moments. Three years later Suzuki was at the top of his game, firing a staggering three-shot salvo with Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill. Ironically, it was over Branded to Kill, a film that many consider his best, that Suzuki was fired by incensed Nikkatsu executives who thought the film ‘incomprehensible’.

The exuberant energy of Suzuki’s films as well as his audacious stylistic subversions sharply contrasted with the stifling subtlety of the previous generation’s filmmakers, affiliating him to the Japanese new wave. Just like the work of contemporary directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Yasuzo Masumura, Suzuki’s cinema is one of exacerbated emotion. However, rather than exploring human feelings and desires, it is with a purely aesthetic emotion that Suzuki concerns himself: the formulaic genre narratives he was forced to work with are simply excuses for increasingly daring visual feasts. In Tokyo Drifter, his pop art masterpiece, Suzuki gleefully dynamites the rules of the yakuza movie, paying scant attention to the stripped down plot and concentrating instead on creating saturated vignettes of bubblegum noir. The Tokyo Drifter of the title is a moody gangster decked in a powder blue skinny suit and spotless white shoes, condemned to lonely (if exquisitely elegant) wandering, forever fleeing the goons of a rival gang. From the villain to the girlfriend, from the gang’s back room to the teen club and the girlfriend’s bar, everything and everybody is colour-coded. In this perfect pop bubble a heightened, intensified kind of life is played out, its delirious beauty an antidote to the repressive kill-joy reality of contemporary Japan. Whether or not Suzuki knew about Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quip, it is clear that for him, too, a film is ‘a piece of cake’ rather than a ‘slice of life’.

As integral to Suzuki’s oeuvre as his ultra-pop aesthetic is his offbeat sense of humour. While there are many light-hearted moments, it is a humour that is more often than not absurd and sometimes even tinged with darkness. The comedy in the director’s work is never simply about entertaining his audience, but constitutes a vital part of his world view. Suzuki was drafted into the Japanese Army as a young man and this experience gave him a particular outlook on life: witnessing grimly comic rescue attempts and farcical corpse disposals in the war made him realise the incongruous, pathetic drollery of death. His is a Dadaist kind of humour, steeped in a keen awareness of the madness of men and the transience of life, laughing in the face of it all with a joyfully anarchic energy.

This spirit clearly shines through in Fighting Elegy. An irreverent anti-militaristic comedy that ends on a sombre note, it draws on Suzuki’s profound dislike of the warmongering Japan of his youth. The film paints a caustic picture of a Japanese society in which traditional views of masculinity force Kikuro, a sympathetic if naive youngster, to repress his emotions and constantly fight other youth gang members in order to prove that he’s a man. The film is played out as a comedy, and the fights, although extremely graphic, are also highly entertaining. Kikuro’s uncontrollable erections, which occur every time he thinks of the young piano-playing girl he has a crush on, are the occasion for a number of outrageous jokes. In one scene, Kikuro, aroused after fantasising about his sweetheart’s delicate hands, relieves himself by playing her piano in a rather unorthodox manner. However, the farcical nature of the film is undercut by the sharply downbeat ending, which shows Kikuro and the local gang members called up to go to war. That abrupt conclusion was added by Suzuki himself (it was not part of the novel the film was based on), making Fighting Elegy one of the most personally revealing films in the director’s oeuvre.

Suzuki’s sixties output culminated with Branded to Kill, in which he abandoned his lush colour palette to plunge deeper into oddball existential noir. The plot is even more condensed than in Tokyo Drifter, reduced here to a succession of duels between professional assassins competing to be the best. The chipmunk-faced Number 3 has to fend off a number of attacks until he finally faces Number 1 in a battle for the supreme title. Our hero, constantly fighting for survival, is tempted by the voluptuous appeal of death and annihilation in the form of a dangerously alluring female assassin who lives among dead insects. With a hero who kills an optician by firing a bullet through the sink’s plughole, gets off on the smell of boiling rice and has a breath-taking multi-position, multi-location romp with his treacherous wife, Branded to Kill is as wildly inventive in death as it is in sex.

This astonishing tour de force, however, not only earned Suzuki a dismissal from Nikkatsu but also ensured that no other studios would hire him. The eccentric director only returned to filmmaking in 2001 at the age of 78 with Pistol Opera. A sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, it pitches a female Number 3 against a mysterious Number 1 in another deadly fight for the Guild’s top spot. Even more theatrical than Tokyo Drifter and with gorgeous colour compositions to rival it, focusing on an existential fight to the death as in Branded to Kill while sharing its disregard for narrative logic, Pistol Opera feels like a summation of Suzuki’s concerns. The dialogue itself, far more expansive and explicit than in the earlier films, is somewhat self-conscious: one of the assassins says she wants to die on stage like an actress; elsewhere the hero of Branded to Kill reappears (played by another actor) as the washed-out former Number 1, claiming that they, the killers, ‘make the impossible possible and make it into art’, something that could just as well apply to Suzuki’s own work. In the absurd theatre of life dying is no more than play acting and all that matters is that it should be beautifully choreographed. While Pistol Opera‘s explicit self-consciousness makes it a much less compelling experience than its predecessors, the over the top stage-set showdown provides the perfect finale to Suzuki’s ultra-aestheticized cinema (a much more appropriate end note than Suzuki’s last work to date, the rather indulgent musical Princess Raccoon).

Suzuki’s cinema encompasses a whole attitude to life: unlike some of the filmmakers that he has influenced, his work is not simply a case of style over substance. Instead, he strives for an intense aesthetic experience, in which achingly stylish elegance combined with playful humour is the only stance possible in the face of the absurd randomness of death.

Virginie Sélavy


Le Chat Noir

Le Chat Noir are girl drummer Eileen and guitarist Teddy and together they play a riotous mix of dirty bluesy garage-punk-rock. They’ve just released their second album, Deadwood, and are currently gigging in the UK. They’ll be heading off to Europe in September to play shows in Germany, Italy and France and will also be playing in Belgium and Holland in November. More details here!


1- Hana Bi (1997)
Too many films these days employ violence for the sake of spectacle, with half-hearted plots seemingly tagged on as an afterthought. Whilst Kitano’s films are undoubtedly violent, he’s a master of using it to subtle effect. Nishi, the ex-cop played by Kitano in the film, is a man facing a kind of ultimate mid-life crisis; he leaves the police force after his partner ends up in a wheelchair following a botched stake out, and has borrowed money from the Yakuza to help care for his dying wife. Nishi leads a double life; he is a cold-hearted, unpredictable killer and a loving, gentle husband. You cannot help but share his pain as the two worlds come crashing together. It’s wonderfully acted and is directed and edited with sensitivity and imagination. The film has everything – isolation, loneliness, joy, tragedy, bittersweet comedy… if ever a film captured the duality of our nature, the sadness and beauty of life and death, this is it.

2- Amelie (2001)
The ultimate feel-good movie, but not in that cloying Disney way. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can identify with the eponymous heroine – she is a reclusive dreamer whose flights of fancy are beautifully realised, but are also evidently a defence mechanism against the experiences of her dysfunctional childhood. You can’t help but smile as her childlike romance with fellow oddball Nico unfolds, the barriers she has created to isolate herself from the world melting away to reveal a character full of love and warmth. Ultimately, the film is a celebration of the fleeting joys of life and making the most of the time that we have – if you don’t feel like going out and doing something good for someone else after seeing this, you’ve got a heart of stone!

3- The Big Lebowski (1998)
Like Raymond Chandler on acid, this is a neo-noir crime thriller blended with absurdist comedy, a laugh-out-loud funny film populated by rich, colourful characters, bizarre dream sequences and stellar dialogue that you will be quoting incessantly after a few repeat viewings. The twisting, shambolic storyline is often as loveably oddball and wayward as the ‘hero’ of the piece, The Dude, a frazzled, ageing hippy who meanders his way through life until a case of mistaken identity turns his existence upside down. Everyone should see this film, then buy the DVD and watch it again and again.

4- Adaptation (2002)
This movie delights in playing with perceptions of authorship and reality in a way that is common in literature but seldom attempted on the big screen. Essentially it’s a film about writing – a ‘metafilm’, if you will, and far superior to the only other film of this kind that springs to mind, the disappointing A Cock And Bull Story. The basic premise is that Charlie Kaufman (the real-life screenwriter who worked with Spike Jonze on this film) has been commissioned to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but struggles with writer’s block and ultimately descends into neuroticism and hypochondria as he unsuccessfully juggles his failing script with his unsatisfactory life. Simultaneously, it tells the story of Susan’s own struggles in writing the book. The parallel plot lines deal with the desperation of trying to fathom the unfathomable – both writers are ultimately not trying to dissect their subject matter, but explain and justify their own existences to themselves through their work. It’s a film about artistic integrity, passion and standing your ground when pressures from outside tempt you to succumb to the easy path.

5- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
An offbeat, quirky film about honour and decline. Ghost Dog is a hitman who lives in a shack on a rooftop and follows the teachings of Hagakure’s The Way Of The Samurai. He and his mafia bosses live existences that seem anachronistic in the modern setting of the film – these are not the confident, ruthless mobsters of Coppola or Scorsese, but rather tired, ageing incompetents clinging to faded glories. The real power of this film lies in Forrest Whittaker’s poignant performance as Ghost Dog – he is single-minded and ruthless in performing his duty, yet there is an underlying sadness in him that is never voiced but permeates the film from beginning to end. He is alienated from society, a lonely figure with little connection to reality, cut off by his devotion to a code which has no place in the modern Western world. His relationship with his only ‘friend’, a Haitian ice cream man, is intriguing – they speak English and French respectively and cannot understand each other on a linguistic level, yet they share an understanding that runs far deeper than words. In their relationship, we see a microcosm of all human interaction – in the modern world we are all essentially isolated from each other, yet sometimes we find unity and solace in the most unlikely of places and people.


6- Amadeus (1984)
Adapted to the big screen from the theatre, it’s a thoroughly entertaining story of the mediocre court composer Salieri and his jealousy for Mozart. Although the film at times isn’t too accurate about Mozart’s life, you get a sense of why Salieri was so jealous and why he detested the young genius. Mozart had everything Salieri wanted: to be loved for the music he wrote and become a success. However, the viewer sees that Mozart had drinking and womanising on his mind as much as composing. In many ways, it almost portrays Mozart as pretty much a ‘rock star’: with his fame, he managed to make a lot of enemies by saying a lot of the wrong things, having a few affairs on the side, drinking far too heavily, then tragically dying a pauper’s death… all at a very young age. I see Mozart as any kind of rock star who lived the life of excess, was famous, adored and hated, and paid the price for it. Saying that, I think every musician must see this film.

7- Ghost World (2001)
A film based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes tells the story of Enid and her best friend Rebecca after their high school graduation. They’re both outsiders who dislike all the normalities of life. Enid has to go to a remedial art class whilst Rebecca gets a job. They play a joke on Seymour, a lost and lonely soul, but Enid ends up becoming friends with him and finds out that she has a lot more in common with him that she realises. Eventually, Enid begins to discover the complexities of becoming an adult in the modern world and views the world in a different light. I think anyone who sees the outside world as a place of conformity, as Enid does, can sympathise with her, which is exactly how I felt when I first saw this film. I can’t think of any other film that has made that kind of impact on me.

8- The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The title character just seems to have everything go wrong for him: his partner gets eaten by a mythic shark, his estranged wife has eyes for her ex, his sea-life films are going bust, a man claiming to be his son and a pregnant reporter whom he has a thing for join his crew… the list goes on! But the main chunk of the film focuses on the search for the shark that ate Zissou’s partner and the events that happen along the way. I love Wes Anderson’s other works, but this one is probably my favourite. I’ve seen it about 3 times and I can never get bored with it. The humour is subtle and witty, and there is always something new you learn about the characters and the story. Another plus about the film is that the soundtrack has Seu Jorge singing Bowie covers in Portuguese, how awesome is that?!

9- Ran (1985)
A beautifully shot epic by one of the most important directors of our time. Set in medieval Japan and based on Shakespeare’s play King Lear, it’s the story of the ageing warlord Hidetora and his three sons, Taro, Jiro and the youngest of the three, Saburo. The basic plot is the same as King Lear, but Kurosawa makes it his own by fusing west (King Lear) and east (setting), which he is renowned for in his later films. It’s an exciting and wonderfully done film, with its epic, colourful battle scenes and the haunting image of the lord’s descent into madness. At a staggering 160 minutes, it grips you from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Kurosawa’s work has provided the basis for a lot of famous films, such as The Magnificent Seven and the first Star Wars film, but I feel the original films have so much more to them. Such talent and vision should not be overlooked.

10- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
‘If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones’. You better bet your socks it is! I love the Indiana Jones films, I have the box set and everything! But this one (the second one) is my all-time favourite. It’s another one of those films that I’ve seen a million times and will never get bored of. The premise is Jones and his 12-year-old friend called Short Round and a singer by the name of Willie Scott go to a small village in India, where the people believe evil spirits have taken their children away after a sacred stone was stolen and it’s up to Jones to save them. At times, it can be a bit cheesy and ridiculous, but that’s part of the charm of the Indiana Jones films. The cool thing about Dr. Jones is that he isn’t really a hero at all; he’s a run-of-the-mill archaeologist who happens to find himself going on a few adventures here and there. This film is also a bit special to me because this is pretty much the first film I’ve seen as a child! It was an awesome film when I was 6, and it’s still awesome now!