Code 46

Code 46 screened at the Barbican, London, on 24 November 2008 as part of the Architecture on Film series.

Next Architecture on Film screening: Los Angeles Plays Itself

Date: 21 January 2009

More info on the Barbican website

As part of a series of films celebrating architecture on film, the Barbican recently screened the underrated British science fiction film Code 46, which tells a tale of forbidden love in a city that is futuristic and yet very familiar at the same time. Just before he went on stage to do a Q&A following the screening, Michael Winterbottom discussed some of the themes and ideas raised by the film with Alex Fitch.

Alex Fitch: With Code 46, did you try to capture a particular architectural aesthetic that hadn’t been seen on film for a while?

Michael Winterbottom: No. When we were thinking of making the film it was much more about what the characters were doing, what the society was like. So it wasn’t so much about trying to find a look for the buildings or a style of architecture, it was about the function of the buildings and how the city was organised. It was to do with the relationship between the city and what was outside the city, between which spaces were safe and which weren’t, between the bureaucratic controls and complete lawlessness. It was more to do with those kind of ideas, which connect the story and the characters, than it was to do with looking for a particular style.

AF: One thing that’s very interesting about the style of the film – in the programme notes it’s described as ‘an architectural collage’ – is that you mix shots of the Jubilee Line in London with shots of Shanghai and various other cities. When you set a film in the future, predicting what things will look like is very problematic, but making a city that’s ‘all cities’ gives it a kind of timelessness.

MW: Yeah. The idea was that we’re in the future, but we’re not that far in the future, so we weren’t trying to imagine a society that had no connections to today’s society. Between starting the idea of making Code 46 and actually filming it, we did In This World, which is a film about refugees, and to a certain extent, some of the ideas about the landscape and the organisation of the story came from working on that. Also, a huge percentage of buildings in London were there 50 years ago, so if you’re talking about a film set 50 years in the future, a large number of buildings from now would still be there. There’s more continuity than there is change in that respect. I wanted it to be very familiar, very recognisable, very real, and not a created world on a stage or on a set, but at the same time feel like you couldn’t quite pin down that it was like any particular kind of place that exists right now. That was the criterion: to find things that were interesting and made sense of the story and gave it a context, but were one step away from the real.

AF:With that sort of retro-futurism, you seem to be following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott somewhat, by retrofitting buildings and predicting things that almost seem old the first time you see them in the film.

MW: Yeah, to a certain extent, although this is different from Blade Runner. I think Ridley Scott’s a brilliant filmmaker but he was looking for an image and a style and we weren’t. We had the experience of doing In This World with the refugees that we had to get papers for – it was incredibly hard to get them across any border. So, the idea is that although things are difficult, and the environment is harsh, and the ozone layer is depleted so people don’t want to go out in the daylight, and it is very crowded, the city kind of functions. Outside, you have a chaotic desert, and all the outsiders are trying to get into a city, so instead of having the difference between different countries, you have just ‘the city’ and ‘outside the city’ replicated in lots of different places. So it was about looking for places that made sense of that idea and the specifics of the story, rather than looking for a retro style. What was brilliant about Shanghai as the core of the city that’s in the film is that you have a whole section that’s only really gone up in the last 15 years with a determined effort to look towards the future and then you have bits of Shanghai that look like they’ve been there for a century and haven’t changed. You have that density of population and therefore the sense of how a society organises itself when it’s packed together – Shanghai is an incredibly crowded city, incredibly full of energy, incredibly full of work; it had the sort of energy you would have if you were in the city that we were imagining.

AF: What was the genesis of the project?

MW: I’ve worked with (writer) Frank Cottrell Boyce quite a few times and with Andrew Eaton, the producer. Andrew, Frank and I were talking about things to do next and I liked the idea of doing a simple love story set in the future. The starting point was that it would be very simple and have a kind of mythic connection or fairy tale feel to it. By being in the future, you would strip out the specific reality of this year and this time and have something more generic, more universal optimistically, or more detached from a social context. That was the original idea but when it came to developing it, it became weirdly more than we were expecting. By the time we sent the script to actors, the actors were talking about what they thought were the politics of the script in relation to the future world, what it was saying about ‘the state’ that they were living in. They took it in a much more overtly political or social way than they would have done if it had been set in a real city. It was almost the fact that it was fictional that made them question ‘is that good or bad?’ – the fact that some people had freedom to move and others didn’t, for instance, which, in a film set today, everyone would accept as ‘that’s how it is’.

AF: I think it’s interesting that a lot of science fiction films set in modern cities seem to have unreliable narrators. Both the two lead characters in this film end up with their memories wiped because they’ve broken the genetic laws and that follows in the footsteps of the replicants in Blade Runner, the multiple motives of Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil… Do you think that’s something to do with the multi-faceted nature of cities?

MW: Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it like that. The starting point was a simple love story and then transgressive love. Then you take the Oedipal myth and genetics becoming an issue, which connects the idea of what’s taboo and what’s not taboo. So by introducing an element of not knowing who your parents are, that creates a place where you could break a taboo without being aware of it. At the time, and still now, there was a lot of talk of genetics and artificial reproduction, and how that connects to issues of morality. These are issues that people haven’t had to face before, so it was interesting from that point of view, but as we were making the film it was more about the story rather than any social issue. All the elements, like climate change or population growth or bureaucratic controls, connect to important things going on in the world today, but we weren’t trying to make a film about genetics, it’s more that it just connects into our story.

AF: It’s interesting to see Code 46 again in light of the other films you’ve made recently. In Code 46, Samantha Morton’s character has to be shown the photographs in her album to remind her of what happened, because those memories have been taken from her. In 24 Hour Party People, when the fictional version of the narrator meets his real self, he says, ‘It didn’t happen like that!’ And in A Cock and Bull Story, you have the film within a film and the actors playing versions of themselves. Is that a theme you’ve become very interested in?

MW: It’s an area that’s interesting to work in. In one way, In This World was creating a fictional journey to bring over two refugees, but they were nevertheless real refugees, so we had to get real paperwork to get them across and deal with real bureaucracy on how to get that paperwork. And finally, when we took them back, one of them came back over and became a real refugee! So it’s fun if those areas between the story you’re telling, the world where they are set and the world where you are making them, are integral and complex and have different sorts of connections with reality. It’s done in a serious way in In This World, or in a comic way in 24 Hour Party People, but it’s still enjoyable to play in that area. I like to film on location, and the reason we shot Code 46 that way rather than in a studio is to place characters in real situations and see what happens.

AF: It’s almost like you’re bringing a degree of psycho-geography to the filmmaking process by putting actors in interesting locations.

MW: Completely! You hope the places you take them to aren’t just photogenic or just some kind of background, but if you get the story right you feel you understand the characters because of the world that they’re living in, and you understand a little bit more about the world because of the characters. I remember when I started watching films as a teenager, watching something like Breathless, it’s so great when you see the characters walking down the streets of Paris because on one level you can see people looking into the camera as they walk by, and you’ve got two main actors who don’t, so you can tell the other people aren’t really in the film, they just happen to be there. That makes it more real in a way because it’s really the streets of Paris, and those people are really walking there! It also makes it more fictional because it makes you very aware of the camera; there are your actors pretending the camera isn’t there, and there’s that guy looking at the camera who knows it is there. So in a way it both intensifies the fictional and the real aspects of the film.

AF: Regarding the creation of the futuristic world, I remember when Minority Report came out, Spielberg said something along the lines of, ‘Oh yes, we hired all these scientists to come up with things that would be coming true shortly’, but it all seems absolutely ridiculous. By contrast, your film is spot on with video iPods, etc.

MW: Exactly! Minority Report came out while we were in preparation for ours. At one point, as a joke, we were going to do this big pseudo-scientific document about all the science that we’d drawn on to make our film because Minority Report was completely based on that ludicrous gadget/gimmick thing. For us, it was a question of looking at the way societies work now in different places, taking some of the issues like genetics and refugees and just move one step away from that. In the opposite sort of film, it’s great to watch something like Alphaville and just pan across a random skyline of Paris and that is the future. It’s as realistic a vision of the future as you’re going to get.

The only leap in a science fiction direction was that Tim Robbins’s character – by having this empathy virus – could sense what people were thinking, which I think is probably quite a long time off! Apart from that, it really was quite a retro story, quite a classic, conventional story about a man who goes away, meets a girl and falls madly in love with her. The initial idea for the love story was that you cannot explain why someone falls in love with this person and not that person.

AF: It’s interesting that at the end of the film the other characters try to explain away the love affair by saying, ‘it’s a side effect of his empathy virus’.

MW: It is, isn’t it? A side effect of being empathic! The idea at the end was that it’s about two people who can’t be together. They want to be together, but the reality of their worlds is that they’re opposites and they become victims of the transgression, and as usual as in today’s society, the man’s okay!

AF: Do you have a particular interest in science fiction or did it just feel like the right world for this story?

MW: I occasionally see science fiction films and read science fiction books, but I’m not a science fiction fan in the sense of reading or watching a lot of it. It wasn’t even to do with dealing with issues, it was more to do with it being in a fictional world. The futuristic world allowed us to simplify the story. That was the initial impulse, that it would be nice to do a story that was very, very simple: man meets girl, falls in love, they can’t be together and they end up apart. It was the idea of the fictionality of it that was appealing, and as I said, weirdly, as you go on, that fictionality can get lost in the world that you create. You have the extra problem with science fiction, ‘what are we supposed to understand about this world?’, which is a given when you do a film set now.

Interview by Alex Fitch

Listen to the interview.



Photo from Zift

Pí–FF: Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

13 November – 7 December 2008


As the guide books are quick to point out, there’s something unmistakeably Disney about Tallinn’s old town – its medieval spires, the charming narrow streets and the perfectly preserved merchants’ houses, all overlooked by the stern towers of an ancient fortified hill, and wrapped, at least during the month of December, in a tangle of lights and tinsel. Market sellers proffer Glí¼hwein and gingerbread, while students dressed in medieval cassocks beckon from the doors of Hanseatic-themed restaurants: it’s all rather twee.

So it’s something of a surprise to step out of the cobbled courtyards and into the urban sprawl of the modern city, wherein lies the Coca-Cola plaza, a neon no-man’s land indistinguishable from any other multiplex in the Western world, as well as the sleek surroundings of the Hotel Forum, where director Tina Lokk presided over proceedings for the 12th Black Nights Film Festival (named for the seemingly endless nights that cast the city in darkness from 3pm to 10am at this time of year). Having built the festival up from modest beginnings, Lokk can be credited with hosting one of the most inclusive and (ironically, given the sub-arctic temperatures outside) warmest festivals in Europe, featuring a host of small strands aimed at promoting minor works that might otherwise slip under the radar, and a number of events for students, including a dedicated competition and a Film School connecting future talent with well-known specialists.

The Black Nights’ open-door policy is aimed to some extent at allowing Estonian audiences otherwise starved of international fare access to a selection of world cinema, with the emphasis on European films. The programme mostly comprised the great and the good from this year’s circuit, bulked out with the best of the Baltic’s offerings and spiced up with a regional focus, this year on Turkey (who produced a sadly lacklustre set of films, rife with the melancholic self-indulgence that art-house poster boy Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made his trademark). The weighting was somewhat reflected in the awards, with Jos Stelling’s panel handing out the top prizes to the already heavily decorated Hunger, Genova, Waltz with Bashir and Il Divo. Some plaudits were deserved, others less so; but tempting as it would be to put the Jury’s choices down to jumping on the bandwagon, the general feeling was that after a strong couple of years, 2008’s regional contingent lacked bite: inspiration was thin on the ground this time round, and it was whispered that the winner of the Tridens prize for best Baltic film, Laila Pakalnina and Maris Maskalans’s Latvian documentary Three Men and a Fish Pond (for which Maskalans also won best cinematography), was the best of an undistinguished bunch, despite the Jury’s gracious description of the film as an affecting portrayal of the parallel ecologies of human friendship and the natural world. In fact, it was from neighbouring Finland that the Black Nights’ real discovery may have come – although not from the expected source. Directed with a firm hand by brother of Aki, Mika Kaurismäki, Three Wise Men had masculine melancholia in spades, but served it up with a light touch and a refreshing sense of aesthetic restraint, doubtless in part a result of the younger Kaurismäki’s background in documentary film. The semi-improvised script allowed for superb performances from the three leads Kari Heiskanen, Pertti Sveholm and Timo Torikka, justly rewarded with a joint prize for best acting.

It was in keeping with the kitsch cityscape and the mostly middlebrow tone that the festival’s gala performances and dry-ice-swathed award ceremony were held in the resplendent Russian Vene Theatre, a throwback to a bygone age burnished in red velvet and gold brocade. But a short clatter down the city’s side streets revealed hidden gems tucked in between the city walls in the form of the tiny Kinomaja and Von Krahli theatres. It was in the latter, a black-washed performance space with a makeshift screen, that audiences could discover Bulgarian neo-noir Zift (loosely translated as ‘Shit’), a pounding, putrid pastiche of classics such as Gilda, which made for an exhilarating experience. Admittedly, it was followed by the loathsome Blink, from the Philippines – putrid for altogether different reasons; as is the case with the city itself, you take your chances by venturing off the beaten track, but the rewards may well be worth it.

Catherine Wheatley


Lion's Den

Photo from Lion’s Den (Leonera)
Discovering Latin America 7

27 November – 7 December 2008


It takes some guts to make a film where the closest anyone gets to resolution is a dead body being re-interred after its 10 years of settled decomposition are interrupted by the lease on the plot coming up. This is just one of the dangling elements that make up Andrés Wood’s engaging and intimate examination of life in the city of Santiago de Chile, The Good Life (La Buena vida).

Even the corpse only gets another 10 years’ peace. There are always negotiations pending for Wood’s characters. They are allowed development but no conclusions, drama but no dénouement. Not that they are casual drifters; their desires and ambitions are concrete forces driving them on but life keeps turning solidity to haziness and even death doesn’t offer finality.

The Good Life was just one notable achievement on display at the 2008 Discovering Latin America Film Festival. As a triumph of imagination and resourcefulness over obvious budgetary limits it is perhaps fairly typical of the best films coming out of South America. Pablo Trapero’s prison drama Lion’s Den (Leonera), on the other hand, could never be described as typical or limited in any way. It’s a film that delivers the best you can expect from cinema, a totally absorbing emotional experience. In contrast to The Good Life, Lion’s Den focuses entirely on one character, Julia, a 25-year-old student who wakes up with blood on her shoulder and two bodies slumped in her flat and proceeds to travel, pregnant, through the Argentine legal system. Martina Gusman’s performance as Julia is astonishing. She begins as a blank and is progressively more vividly outlined as the film unfolds. It’s an emotional journey without clichés or superfluous sentiment. Trapero makes full use of his prison locations, hovering over their spaces, letting the stillness speak for the agonising passing of time and coaxing a curious mixture of cosiness and frustration from the children’s section to which Julia’s pregnancy grants her access. After the birth of her son, we get one magically incongruous scene of the prison’s brightly lit night-time serenity interrupted by the baby’s cries and the consequent howling chorus of fellow infant inmates.

Lion’s Den was the highlight of this year’s DLAFF for this writer. The festival has grown considerably over the seven years of its existence. This year, there were 21 feature films and seven documentaries shown at seven London locations. It is now the most significant opportunity there is to see South American films in the UK, an especially remarkable achievement considering the festival is run entirely by volunteers. They even manage to donate a proportion of ticket sales to a chosen charity each year. This year’s beneficiary was Progressio, a group working with women suffering from AIDS and HIV in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Other notable screenings included the UK premiere of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin cabeza), a film that has divided critics following its appearances on the festival circuit, and Rodrigo Plá’s account of the Cristiada rebellion in 1920s Mexico, The Desert Within (Desierto adentro). I also enjoyed Espectro (Al final del espectro), a spooky thriller from Colombia that cleverly exploits its claustrophobic setting, and A Gastronomy Story (Estí³mago), a quirky and mischievous study of human appetites and weaknesses.

Nick Dutfield


One Man in the Band

Still from Man from Uranus from One Man in the Band (Adam Clitheroe/One Man in the Band). More information on the film here.

London Short Film Festival

9-18 January 2009

Various venues

LSFF website

Now in its sixth year, LSFF returns to the capital with a charming mix of films, music and can-do attitude. Set to be a highlight of this year’s programme, Adam Clitheroe’s work, One Man in the Band, perfectly encompasses the festival’s DIY ethos. Having started out making ‘odd little shorts’ on 16mm film, Clitheroe has always preferred a samizdat style of filmmaking and found a kindred attitude in the ‘stubborn persistence of one-man bands’, as he describes it. Influenced by the atmospheric style of Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida, Adam’s documentary is a lyrical, poetic portrait of seven lone performers. A strange menagerie of acts, the one-man bands provide an illuminating meditation on man’s creative impulse – that strange desire to define oneself and connect with the world, which so often leads to loneliness and isolation.

In order to keep costs down and retain control, Clitheroe spent six months acting as a one-man crew, undertaking all aspects of filmmaking from camera to editing to sound mixing. As he explains, ‘it was just me on my own, chatting to the performers, getting distracted by scowling cats and trying not to drop my camera as I drank a cup of tea at the same time’. Clitheroe’s unobtrusive approach has resulted in some distinctly surreal scenes: a skeleton puppet playing the theremin; a strange duet between one man and his Hornicator, a homemade instrument made from junk-shop finds; and The Man from Uranus, a Gulf War veteran playing avant-garde space rock to a garden full of Cambridgeshire children. By acting alone, Clitheroe also garnered some very honest, poignant conversations from his subjects. As he wisely says, ‘if you’re filming someone interesting, just listen to what they say’.

Speaking about the initial motivation behind the film, Clitheroe admits to being ‘seduced and overawed by the impossible glamour of music performers’, but in retrospect he’s not so sure he ‘discovered the glamorous face of music making’. Indeed the film does so much more than that; through the weird and wonderful performers, it presents a fascinating exploration of the creative process.

In addition to individual filmmakers, LSFF also invites the participation of film organisations, and last year one of the guests was Darryl’s Hard Liquor and Porn Film Festival – a Canadian festival showcasing comic shorts all about sex. Having started out nine years ago in filmmaker Darryl Gold’s bachelor pad, the ‘festival’ has grown beyond a small network of filmmaking friends to a large-scale annual event but the same irreverent spirit remains. Audience participation is strongly encouraged and it went down especially well in London last year, with an extra screening being scheduled to satisfy demand. As festival co-curator Jill Rosenberg explains: ‘It is always a spirited crowd and often quoted as the best party of the year.’ It’s not just about the festivities, however; the films themselves are often extremely creative. Jill’s brilliant animation, Origasmi, winner of the lo-budget film award at LSFF 2006, is a case in point. Such an experimental do-it-yourself attitude is integral to LSFF and one which makes the festival such a deserving hit with London audiences. Make sure you don’t miss out!

Eleanor McKeown