The Non-Commissioned Officers’ Film Jukebox

The Non-Commissioned Officers

There are many reasons for wanting to start a band, but doing so in order to promote a film is pretty unusual. When brothers Jordan and Eric Lehning were drafted in to act in indie zombie romance Make-Out with Violence and compose the score for it, they went beyond the call of duty and formed a band to help raise money for the film. The moody synth-pop of their Make-Out with Violence EP (Make Mine), full of teenage longing, eerie sounds and melancholy voices, is certainly a tantalising foretaste, and if the film is on a par with the music, it is well worth checking out – watch the trailer. Below, Eric Lehning tells us about the films that have inspired him.

1- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This is the best movie ever made. For months after I saw it, I thought I was supposed to become a Bedouin. Sitting there in front of the TV with an A&W root beer in my hand saying, ‘The desert calls me’. Thank god I realised it was the medium of film that inspired me. I would not make it on camel’s milk alone.

2- Blazing Saddles (1974)
Hatred has never been funnier. The way Mel Brooks smashes the N word in your face like a pie just deflates all of its malicious power. I don’t know if it’s easier for a Jew to get away with that than a honky but I’m so glad he did. My favourite line is: ‘A tollbooth!? Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes.’

3- The NeverEnding Story (1984)
This is a great movie to see as a child. Right off the bat the hero’s horse drowns in mud. The scene where he’s crawling through the swamp and is saved from the wolf by the Luck Dragon still makes me misty. That dragon became an incarnation of art for me as a kid. A benevolent force that dispels fear. When Fantasia is just asteroids and the Ivory Tower appears from the void, the music cue gets right on top of me.

4- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Mishima should be in the Smithsonian. This is one of the most coherent, precise films ever made. It’s a movie about the Japanese artist Yukio Mishima made by Paul Schrader. The guy’s whole life is about the harmony of art and action (pen and sword). Philip Glass’s score is in a class of its own.

5- Ghost Busters (1984)
Something about really smart people scared stupid makes me feel alright about everything. Rick Moranis’s rant about the ‘form of the destructor’ is something I used to have memorised until I got a little too comfortable with a girl I was sweet on and just spewed the whole thing out over dinner. I knew I was blowing it but I was transported and had to go all the way. I went there… alone, and subsequently forgot the monologue.

6- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
What is so strong for me about this episode of the Star Wars saga is that you could watch it without knowing anything about the other films and be left with a total sense of that world. It’s the most legit sci-fi/adventure movie of all time. Wanting to be Harrison Ford is why I don’t have a Southern accent.

7- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 is more than a fantasy or a genre film. It’s about the relevance of soul when put in the context of evolution. Nothing else makes me feel as human or as alien as this movie.

8- Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s vision of the effects of overpopulation and a civilisation on overdrive is still the industry standard when imagining the near future. What’s so impressive to me is that you could actually see all those big hairdos coming back by 2016.

9- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Most love stories aren’t really about love, they’re about being smitten. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are so vitriolic with each other, but as soon as an outsider challenges them they become a monument of solidarity. Virginia Woolf is the best movie that’s ever been made about staying together. The damage two creatures of flesh do to each other as they attempt to be one.

10- The Dark Crystal (1982)
There’s plenty of logistical reasons why more puppet movies haven’t been made. There’s only so much Frank Oz to go around I guess. And Jim Henson’s dead. I watched this movie just the other night, and the scene where all the Skeksis are chewing down is a gross/intriguing sensory overload.


Johnny Mad Dog

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 October 2008

Venue: Curzon Renoir (London)

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Writer: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Based on the novel by: Emmanuel Dongala

Cast: Christophe Minie, Diasy Victoria Vandy

France/Belgium/Liberia 2008

98 mins

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s extraordinarily powerful Johnny Mad Dog finally gets a long-awaited UK theatrical release. Set in an unnamed African country, it opens with a shockingly brutal, surreally violent scene in which a pack of frenzied, coked up, brainwashed children attack villagers before walking away dressed in stolen rags, bizarre headgear and a wedding dress, brandishing guns and rifles. By adopting the point of view of the child soldiers, Sauvaire makes us experience the war through their eyes, plunging us into their perception of the senseless chaos and madness of war, avoiding any simplifying, worthy platitudes about the situation. They are both terrible victims of the war and terrifying murderers, childish and vulnerable on the one hand and capable of the most chilling acts of violence on the other. Virginie Sélavy talked to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire about why he chose to film in Liberia, how he worked with former child soldiers and what sort of war film he wanted to make.

Virginie Sélavy: The film was adapted from the novel by Emmanuel Dongala, which is about the civil war in Congo. What made you want to turn it into a film?

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire: The book is not really about Congo. Dongala is from Brazzaville and he used his experience in Congo, but he mixed it up with other things to create a fictional story. It is about the fight between the Dogomani and the Manidogo, he’s set the book in a generic Africa. I wanted to do something on child soldiers because I made a documentary in Colombia [in 2004] that I couldn’t complete the way I wanted. It was meant to be fiction but I turned it into a documentary called Carlitos Medellin, about the kids hired by Pablo Escobar to kill policemen and politicians because they’re minors. We received threats and I realised that we couldn’t make a documentary during the civil war in Colombia. I came across Dongala’s book and I found the story really interesting. I liked the journey of the two teenagers – in the book there’s a chapter on Johnny and one on Laokole [a young girl with a parallel experience to Johnny’s], so you follow the boy and the girl, which provides two different points of view. I found the situations described in the book very convincing, realistic and interesting.

VS: Why did you decide to film in Liberia?

JSS: At first, I thought I’d make the film in Kinshasa because I know the place better, but it’s a big city and it’s a complicated country politically. Also, the problem of the child soldiers has affected West Africa, in particular Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was important for me to film with former child soldiers and when I met them, they said not to make the film in South Africa or Senegal, which was what the producers wanted initially because Liberia had just come out of war and they didn’t think we would get insurance to film there. It was a difficult project to set up, so by the time we arrived in Liberia, it was exactly the right moment, in 2006, just after the elections. The government supported the project because internationally it showed that the country was peaceful and that you could make a film there. At the same time, they’d just come out of 14 years of war and they wanted to talk about it because it was a way of exorcising the past and avoiding doing the same thing again.

VS: How did the filming go with the children? Was it traumatic for them to relive those events or was it cathartic?

JSS: It was therapy. I spent a year doing the casting, looking for the 15 kids who were right for the film. I lived in a house with them and we started working on the film, talking and improvising. I explained cinema to them, showed them films, and they told me what happened during the war. It was always playful. They found stability there because most of them were street children who had no family left and had never been to school. With us, they had a place to sleep, and food every day. When they didn’t feel good, they would talk about what they had experienced. After that, they really started working as actors with a coach, but it was still always through games. I was worried some of the games were too simple but they loved it, they were like two-year-old kids! That was the amazing thing with them: they had the maturity of adults because they experienced things that they shouldn’t have, and at the same time they were like little kids in need of attention. As it lasted a whole year, by the end of it, they’d become actors. I made a documentary about them where you can see their evolution. It starts with the casting where the kids talk about horrifying things, which they never enacted in the film, not even in the improvisations – they never recreated the most violent things they went through.

VS: There is a documentary aspect to the film – it ends with images of real child soldiers taken during the war in Liberia between 1990 and 2003. But at the same time, you don’t set the story in a specific country and you don’t give any information about the political situation. Why did you choose to make a sort of universal fable rather than analyse the problem of child soldiers in political and social terms?

JSS: The book was already like that, it was situated somewhere in Africa and I liked that universality, to not anchor the story in a historic reality, in a war that is over and that no one cares about anymore. I remember feeling this way when I saw Hotel Rwanda: on the one hand, it’s important to show what happened, on the other hand, it happened 10 years ago and it no longer affects us. So I didn’t want to anchor the story in Liberia in 2003, with Charles Taylor – although I hesitated for a while. But ultimately, child soldiers are a universal and international issue. For me, it was about saying it happened, but also that this is still happening. It was more about what it’s like to be a child soldier than about offering a historical narrative – it was also about provoking the audience. I wanted to keep the documentary aspect but also make a fiction film to keep the emotions of the kids, and the chaos and intensity that they must have experienced.

VS: Did you think about making a documentary instead of a fiction film at any point?

JSS: Not really. It would have meant interviewing the kids after the war, so their stories would have all been similar, and it doesn’t affect you in the same way. The other alternative would have been filming kids in the middle of the war, and that would have been complicated. So it had to be realistic fiction. A war film has to be violent otherwise it is not doing what it should be doing. If you want to denounce war and the violence of war, your film has to have a minimum of violence, without descending into butchery. In Johnny Mad Dog, there is no blood. The violence is more psychological and is connected to the children, because a child with a gun, that’s already violent. The kids had a certain approach to things, a sort of energy that was quite violent.

VS: The film reminded me of Lord of the Flies, especially the scene with the head of a pig on a spike. Was it an influence on Johnny Mad Dog?

JSS: I like both the novel and the film very much and I re-read the book because there is something similar in the way the kids recreate society. But I don’t remember the scene with the pig. In the film, the kid just started kissing the pig’s head of his own accord, it wasn’t planned.

VS: I also thought of Apocalypse Now because it goes beyond other war films and really conveys the madness of war and the descent into hell it represents.

JSS: That’s one of the war films I like best, I find it more realistic than others even though it operates on a more oneiric level. I often used it as an example when people were saying to me, ‘you’re going to make a war film in Scope with beautiful images, you’re going to glorify war’. I don’t want to glorify war, but I also want to make a beautiful film. Just because you make a film about war doesn’t mean that you have to use shot-on-the-spot video images. I’m not comparing Johnny Mad Dog to Apocalypse Now because Apocalypse Now is a great film, but I never found it shocking that it was beautiful, and so I decided to use a more dream-like approach to tell the story, rather than a completely realistic one.

VS: You seem clearly more interested in the way the children perceive the events than in a straightforward chronicle of the events themselves.

JSS: Absolutely. It is about how they feel, what they have been through and how to experience it through them in a manner that is much more visceral than narrative. There are three war films that have influenced me a lot – Apocalypse Now, but also Full Metal Jacket for its realism and Come and See, a very beautiful Russian film from 1985 that inspired Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In each case, we’re very close to the characters, we’re inside their heads, and I’m more interested in human films about war and people lost in the chaos than in seeing war from outside as a series of action scenes.

VS: The ending seems to suggest some hope, but it is destroyed in the very last scene, as if it was impossible to escape from the tornado of violence that has been unleashed on the country. I thought it was a very appropriate ending. Why did you choose to end the film in this way and did you think of any other possible endings?

JSS: The ending was complicated. In the book, the ending is similar but there is more hope. I didn’t like it, symbolically all the child soldiers were killed and Africa was rebuilt with the ones who’d been to school. The child soldiers are victims as much as anyone else, so I didn’t want to end it in that way. I’d written a happier end where the children all go to school, but I found it hard to film. It didn’t fit. These kids are now on the street, so I didn’t see why we’d shoot an ending where they go to school and everything ends well, because that’s not the reality. What interested me was the violence that comes out in the other main character at the end, as a result of everything that’s happened.

VS: How was it, filming in Africa as a European?

JSS: I think the story is universal and I never saw this as a problem and never encountered any. Liberia is a very peculiar country because it was created by the Americans to return black slaves so it’s the only African country that wasn’t colonised by the whites. So there’s never been this colonial relationship and there isn’t the tension you can feel in other countries.

VS: Were you accepted from the start?

JSS: Yes. Matthieu Kassovitz [who produced the film] said, ‘be careful, when I made La Haine on the estates, people were asking what I was doing there’, but I never felt that. I made the film with the people from the country, I didn’t bring a script and tell them to learn their roles, it’s a film we made together. They brought their experience of the war and I brought my experience of filmmaking. I spent two years in Liberia to really immerse myself in the country. Everybody got deeply involved, even the extras. I’m still in touch with the children because we established the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation for them. It was a beautiful adventure.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy


The Warriors

Event: Secret Cinema

Date: 6 September 2009

Location: London Fields

Organised by: Future Shorts

Secret Cinema website

You can probably count on the fingers of one transatlanticly befuddled hand the number of times that anyone has mistaken Hackney for New York. Even taking into account epic jetlag combined with elephantine doses of ketamine it would still be a difficult mistake to make. Usually. Thanks to Secret Cinema and their constant urge to impress, the illusion of New York was fixed in the minds of about 2,500 London Fields visitors, most of whom were under the influence of nothing more disorientating than popcorn and good tea. This was the Secret Cinema September screening of The Warriors, their most ambitious undertaking so far.

Secret Cinema is an organisation that specialises in one-off cinema events. Each occasion is something new and each punter gets a special surprise. That’s the secret – you don’t know what you’re going to see or what’s going to happen. For The Warriors, the 1979 New York gangland odyssey, London Fields was transformed with theme park trappings and marauding handfuls of colourful gang members, done up like the gangs from the film – The Baseball Furies, The Punks, The Rogues, The Lizzies, The Hi Hats and The Satan’s Mothers. The gangs do some posing, taunt each other and occasionally break off to be chased round the park by Officer Dibble. The cool cars and cool clothes make gang membership look enticing. Luckily, there is a large fence to keep Hackney’s real miscreants out, so our blankets, mobiles and fancy dress boxes are safe. ‘Yay, Magners me up!’

The magic descended along with the darkness and then we got a rare viewing of Romain Gravas’s video clip for ‘Stress’ by Justice. Rarer still for having its kids-get-gang-kicks controversy blasted out on a big screen with big sound. ‘So French!’ applauded the Green Fiends. ‘Morally Bankrupt,’ mumbled the Flapjack Mafia.

Then the main feature. If you’re going to give people a surprise it pays to put some quality inside the wrapping. The Warriors is pure quality. Happily shorn of arseache-inducing waffle (remember, everyone is sitting out on the ground), the characters are drawn broadly but smartly and the action is happily free of guns and big on running. It also has the most sumptuously glorious lip close-ups ever committed to film. ‘Give me more of that sticky stuff’, shrieked the Southside Pouters as the film’s DJ appeared for the last time to bring the film to a close. They were to be disappointed. The Warriors were home at last and it was time for the assorted posses in the crowd to pack up their recycling and start their own happy treks back to home turf.

Nick Dutfield

Next event: Halloween special on October 31. To sign, up, visit the Secret Cinema website.


Monsieur Cok

London International Animation Festival

27 August-6 September 2009

Various venues, London

LIAF website

The London International Animation Festival, now in its sixth edition, brought a treasure trove of animated wonders to the capital from August 27 to September 6. One of the most interesting programmes was their selection of highlights from the 2008 Siggraph Asia festival, a yearly event that showcases the most innovative computer graphics from around the world. The films were a mixture of music videos, ads, technical demonstrations of animation processes as well as narrative shorts to reflect the variety of material presented at Siggraph Asia. The more corporate or technical films were the least interesting, but the others demonstrated a breadth and richness of vision that impressed this – until now – CGI-phobe writer.

There was a number of Gothic-toned films in the selection, starting with the predictable but enjoyable Emily by Kim Leow (Canada), which told the story of a girl who seems to have the ideal parents because she can do everything she wants, until a dark twist reveals why at the end. Guy Bar’ely’s Cycle (USA) told the surprisingly affecting story of a father dealing with guilt, remembering the events leading to a terrible tragedy as he sits on an underground train. The winner of the best film award at the Siggraph Asia festival, Smith and Foulkes’s This Way Up (UK), which follows the misadventures of two undertakers as they try to take the coffin of a grand-mother to the cemetery, was funny, deliciously macabre and brilliantly animated – it was not hard to see why it won the award. This Way Up, Cycle and Emily all used the conventional type of CGI character that we have become accustomed to, but The Horrors’ video for She Is the New Thing by C Hardy (UK) used a completely different style: messy, scribbled animated drawings depicted the band being attacked and torn apart by a ghoulish woman. It was a great horror short, dark, bloody and with a suitably gruesome ending.

Also different in style was F Dion and R van den Boom’s Monsieur Cok (France). One of the longest films at 9’45, it was a satirical denunciation of the connection between war and big industry. Seemingly set during the First World War, it shows how the egg-shaped Monsieur Cok substitutes robots to the workers in his factory, who are then picked up and placed onto the conveyor belts to be turned into soldiers. But the chillingly well-oiled system is threatened when an angry, straggly, bearded former worker comes back from the war with both legs amputated, determined to make his protest heard by Monsieur Cok. Inventive, detailed and using all shades of grey to create the oppressive atmosphere of a world where beating the system seems hopelessly impossible, Monsieur Cok was one of the most accomplished films in the selection.

At the opposite end of the chromatic scale, Taku Kimura’s Kudan (Japan) was a colourful and super-quirky fable illustrating the necessity of communicating with those nearest to us through the tale of a bonzai-obsessed father who pays no attention to his son. A mysterious bell-shaped hat is delivered to their house and when the father puts it on he is taken to another world where people grow in glowing plant pots. Strange tentacular creatures float around armed with scissors, ready to sever the plants, killing the humans connected to them. As his son’s plant is about to get cut off, the father manages to save him and they both find themselves safely back home, pink letters excitedly coming out of their mouths, the father having finally learnt the joys of talking to his son.

Another outlandish delight came courtesy of the Croatian T Jantol. Wizard of OS: The Fish Incident presented itself as the remaining footage of an experiment called the Fish Incident. A golden-eyed man in a metal body hanging from a bizarre implement attached to something resembling a computer menu bar seemed to be having an ongoing battle with a fish adorned with the design of an ancient map, the various episodes taking place in different fantastical environments. It was strange, enigmatic and fascinating, and the opacity of the meaning only made this writer want to watch it again.

Finally, Martina Stiftinger’s Onde Sonore (Austria) was one of the true gems of the programme. A film she made for her thesis, it showed fish floating to the sound of music, which are left stranded as if out of water when the music stops and have to find some ingenious way of starting the gramophone again. Playing with circularity, mechanical devices and repetitive cycles, it was beautifully animated, poetic, original and quite magical.

Virginie Sélavy



Still from The Yes Men

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

The first Abandon Normal Devices festival, with its mix of screenings, media art and workshops, successfully established AND as an event with a strong social-political context, albeit not to the extent that a specific ‘mission statement’ was evident. This meant that the festival programme featured filmmakers and artists of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, reflecting not only the geo-political concerns of the creative community, but also offering an insight into their methods of aligning topical subject matter with their own aesthetic sensibilities. Held at various venues in Liverpool’s cultural quarter, but mostly located at FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology), AND demonstrated how developments in both the technology and distribution avenues available to filmmakers have enabled their ideologies to reach a receptive audience.

Two distinctly different filmmaking personalities played key roles in AND, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and The Yes Men offering alternative methods of political engagement. Weerasethakul, the Thai director best known in the UK for his spellbinding features Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, premiered Primitive, a video installation project that was commissioned by FACT in partnership with Haus der Kunst and Animate Projects. Located in Nabua, a region of Thailand that was occupied by the military in the 1960s and where communist suspects were tortured, Primitive echoes the current political climate of Weerasethakul’s homeland, where new cases of ‘enforced disappearances’ began to emerge in 2008. While the softly-spoken Weerasethakul was a low-key figure even when attending the opening night of his exhibition, The Yes Men proved to be masters of modern media by generating feverish discussion during the first two days of AND without actually being present. The conversation revolved around the recent arrest of Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum while he was pulling a stunt in New York. Although he had made headlines earlier in the week by distributing fake copies of The New York Post to increase awareness of climate change, Bichlbaum was taken into custody on an altogether less exciting charge: arranging a gathering of more than 50 people without a parade permit. The Yes Men obviously have their legal representation on speed dial and Bichlbaum was released within 24 hours with all charges dropped. Bichlbaum’s partner in agitprop, Mike Bonanno, delivered the AND workshop on How to Be a Yes Man and, as this festival strand also included a Yes Men exhibition at John Moore’s University, not to mention a screening of the amusing if somewhat self-congratulatory The Yes Men Fix the World, it could have been cynically viewed as a thinly-veiled Yes Men recruitment drive if the political anarchists were not so self-deprecating in their pursuit of corporate satire.

In terms of screenings, the major coup was the UK premiere of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, an intentionally uncomfortable comedy that won the Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. A hybrid of the mumblecore movement and the more commercial ‘bromance’ genre, Humpday deals with the relationship between two recently reunited friends – one a married suburbanite, the other a bohemian backpacker – and how the dynamics between them subtly shift when they decide to make a gay porn film, despite both being of heterosexual persuasion. The loose plot builds to what is, quite literally, an anti-climax, with the ensuing awkwardness leading to laughs and longueurs in equal measure. The audience response to the Korean drama Breathless was easier to gauge, with this account of the burgeoning relationship between a thuggish debt collector and a troubled high school girl leaving most viewers shaken by its unflinching depiction of domestic violence and its refusal to offer any conventional catharsis. This tour de force by writer-director-star Yang Ik-joon is seemingly straightforward in terms of message and execution, yet its moments of dark humour and insights into familial tension make for a morally perplexing experience. Almost as emotionally gruelling was Katalin Varga, a Transylvania-set revenge tale in which a rural housewife ventures into civilisation to kill the men who raped her 10 years earlier. An intense performance by Hilda Péter in the title role and a haunting use of landscape ensure that Peter Strickland’s debut feature subverts the expectations associated with the rape-revenge genre.

However, the film that perhaps best exemplified the ethos of AND, in terms of engaging the social-political conscience in a manner that is thoughtful rather than judgemental, was Lucy Raven’s China Town, a fascinating documentary project comprised of 7,000 photographs that have been edited together to chronicle the global production of copper from the mines of Nevada to the smelters of China. By methodically capturing this process, China Town touches on such topics as globalisation and nationalism, but leaves the audience to consider the consequences of such industrial activity. The second AND festival will be held in Manchester in 2010, and should prove to be an equally interesting event if the organisers continue to balance issues with innovation.

John Berra

Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre, which premiered at AND, in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!


The Beaches of Agnes

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 October 2009

Venues: Barbican, Cine Lumiere, Curzon Renoir (London) + key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Agnès Varda

Writer: Agnès Varda

Original title: Les Plages d’Agnès

France 2008

110 mins

Renowned veteran director of the nouvelle vague Agnès Varda returns to UK screens this month with The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès). Part autobiography, part documentary, part cinematic essay, Varda’s latest film is a lyrical, free-flowing recollection of her life in and around the cinema.

Varda studied art history and photography in Paris before making her first feature, La Pointe-Courte, in 1954. Thanks to her friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, Varda went on to make the dazzling Cléo de 5 à 7, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1962. Between 1962 and 1990, Varda was married to fellow director and master of ‘the film in song’ Jacques Demy. Side by side, they made films in both France and Hollywood over the years. More recently, Varda has returned to her visual art roots, and created installation exhibitions for such institutions as the Cartier Foundation and Venice Biennale.

Slightly unsure of what to expect from a ‘short, plump old lady’ with such a glittering past, I meet Agnès in a small office in Holborn, London, to discuss her latest film. She speaks with English clearly learnt in America, and wears a curious mixture of tasteful, floaty clothes and a two-tone ‘punk’ haircut. I find her to be at once amiable and venerable.

David Warwick: Where did the inspiration for The Beaches of Agnès come from?

Agnès Varda:I wanted to make a point because I was turning 80. I thought I should do something. You always remember passing by a zero, and when I was younger I could never imagine being 80.

DW: You didn’t like the idea?

AV: Not at all! I can remember thinking that people who were 40 were very old, and people who were 50 – they were out! I remember vividly being disinterested in these people and thinking, ‘I hope I don’t live beyond 45’. I thought it was poetic to die young.

DW: In the film you say that imagining yourself as ancient is funny.

AV: Haha, yes. Do you know that my grandchildren call me ‘Mamita Punk’? It’s like the name of a stripper! I love it. I’m glad I’m still in the mood for enjoying jokes and punk behaviour… Most of the papers like to quote the first sentence of the film, ‘I’m a short, plump, old lady’, but the second part of the sentence is more important – that it’s the others that I like, the others that interest me, that intrigue me passionately. That’s the statement of the film. It appears at the end of the film when they give me all those brooms for my birthday, and I sit here and I think, what are all these brooms. And I say, ‘it happened yesterday; it’s already gone, it’s already in the film’, and then, ‘je me rappelle pourquoi je vis’ – ‘I remember why I’m living’. Making this film is a way of living on, living and remembering.

DW: How did you go about making The Beaches? How much was scripted, and how much emerged from your talents as a gleaner?

AV: A lot was scripted and planned. When we build a set, when I decide I want to show my courtyard as it was, we have to be organised. When we have the boat on the river Seine, and the whale on the beach, we have to be organised. It’s set up and constructed. But I remember to let myself be disturbed, like when I go to my childhood house: I visit the garden, and I remember my sister, and then I meet the man who lives there and his wife. They are collectors of little trains, and since I have the soul of a documentarist I can’t stop myself. I question them, I make them speak about how they found them, how much they cost, the value of the collection – and I’m gone! So I stage a lot of things, it’s organised, but open to things happening.

DW: What about the narration?

AV: I wrote most of the narration before shooting, so that I knew where I was going. But sometimes during the shooting, I have an idea and I say it to the camera. A lot of the narration was finished later or changed – because it has to fit, and also be sometimes contradictory. I like to play off words, which becomes a play of images.

DW:I imagine it was a difficult film to edit?

AV: Yes, the editing was long – nine months – but I had to figure out how to make it free… I think it is free, and that’s what makes me feel good. Like the scene with the naked couple in the courtyard. It is interesting that you have this in the middle of the film, and then you go to something else… By the way, I heard that because of this scene the film is banned – because the man has a hard-on. Earlier in the film, we use a fake hard-on, but this is a real one, and because of that it’s banned… I should have used a real one both times, but at the time I didn’t think of it, and then it was too late.

DW: You praise new digital techniques in The Beaches.

AV: I praise it? … I use it.

DW: You seem impressed by it though. Grateful for it.

AV: Yes. I could have shot it in 35mm and had a second camera, but I knew that I wanted lots of little editing tricks; and if I had done it in 35mm it would have been hard. When you do any kind of tricks in 35mm, you have to go backwards and forwards between film and digital. Also, sometimes, when something was missing from the film, I’d take my camera, I’d go in the street or in my courtyard, I’d film something, bring it back in, and five minutes later I’d put it in the film. So for a film so complicated, that relies so much on collage, I think we had a good tool.

DW: The form of The Beaches is very interesting. You mix lots of different material and styles.

AV: Yes. The technique is collage, and many artists have done that – painters like Rauschenberg for example. It’s a way of disturbing the paper. Collage can just be a puzzle in which you have to figure out the real figure or the real landscape, but you can also make a collage that doesn’t end as a recognisable figure. You can make a collage that is just a collage.

DW: And you’d define The Beaches as a collage that is just a collage?

AV: No. It’s hard to define. I see it as an Unidentified Flying Object, because it doesn’t belong to documentary really, even though I speak about real people, and it’s not a fiction film because it’s my life. And it’s not action, it’s not totally fantastical, it’s not a thriller. It’s a film that comes out of me. As a cinematic object, that’s the way I see it.

DW: It’s quite a history lesson too, full of radical people and radical ideals.

AV: It’s mostly about showing many people. Alexander Calder on the beach, dancing like a bear, images I have of Fidel Castro, pictures I took in China. It’s about part of my life but mixed with a big period of history, the second half of the 20th century. Even though I never belonged to a political party, never signed anything, I have been with it, and I try to understand it.

DW: You explain in the film how you were an angry feminist in the 70s. Is the fight for feminism still important to you now?

AV: Yes, it’s still important. I mean, read the paper. The fight is just beginning in many parts of the world. In France, in England, in some educated countries, it has changed, not totally, but at least the thing about birth control is coming to be understood and used. But in many countries it is not… The freedom of women though, it’s exciting. And more and more women make films. We have some very good directors. Claire Denis for example: her work deals with something fantastic coming out of life, and it’s so strong, so powerful. Have you seen the one with all the blood?

DW: Trouble Everyday?

AV: Yes. It’s incredible; very powerful. She’s very powerful.

DW: What about her latest film, 35 Rhums?

AV: Yes. That one’s strange; difficult to understand, but interesting. She’s always interested in people, black people.

DW: In The Beaches you recall how, when you were just starting out, you thought that you could make a film by just putting words and images together.

AV: Yes, I was ridiculous at that time. It’s obviously not just that at all. It is movement, it is editing, it is music. It is creating a world, a mixed world, like in The Beaches, in the first sequence on the beach with the mirrors. The big thing in this scene is the wind. My scarf goes like this, and it pushes me like that. The wind makes the scene feel much more alive.

DW: The Beaches reminded me a little bit of Godard’s Histoires du cinéma, in as far as both films use this technique of collage, and both pursue this old question of ‘what is cinema’.

AV: Yes, I think it deals with this question, ‘what is cinema?’ through how I found specific cinematic ways of telling what I was telling. I could have told you the same things that are in the film by just talking to you for six hours. But instead I found shapes. Like in the scene when I wanted to show the five men their fathers, whom they’d never met. I made a sort of exhibition with a 16mm projector and a screen, and they have to push the images of their fathers into the night. I could have just shown them a picture, but I found something that people will share and feel. It’s a ritual and a burial. I found things like this in many places in the film. I made a fool of myself, and I made a fake car in which I tried to park. It’s interesting to do that at 80, and I enjoy doing it and showing it to people and to my grandchildren.

DW: Will you ever stop making films?

AV: Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese director, is 100 and he’s still making films. I hope I don’t get very old though. Very old age is terrible, apart from in a few cases. I will continue to do installations until the end, and they include films. You have the space, you have to build, you have to invent. But fiction films, I don’t think I’ll do any more of those. The Beaches of Agnès is already a hybrid.

Interview by David Warwick


Ghost in the Shell 2.0

Title: Ghost in the Shell 2.0

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 October 2009

Venue: ICA (London) and key cities

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Writer: Kazunori It?

Based on the manga by: Masamune Shirow

Original title: Kôkaku kidôtai

Cast: Atsuko Tanaka, Akio ?tsuka, Iemasa Kayumi

Japan 1995/2008

82 mins

Title: Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 24 October 2009

Venue: Sci-Fi London’s Oktoberfest, Apollo Piccadilly, London

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki

Writer: Hideaki Anno

Original title: Evangerion shin gekijôban: Jo

Cast: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi

Japan 1995/2007

98 mins

The word ‘retrofitting’ in SF film criticism is usually found in the context of the rich and detailed depiction of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). For those unfamiliar with the term, it means the addition of new technology to existing objects to give them longevity and a continued purpose in the present. In Blade Runner, this meant the addition of neon signs, moving adverts and other modern artefacts to the archetypal art deco landscape of Los Angeles, which made the future look both modern and retro – a futuristic dirigible floats above iconic LA landmarks such as the Bradbury Building while Union Station houses a busy Police Headquarters.

Scott’s retrofitting, which he borrowed from French sci-fi comics from the 1970s, became a template for the renewal of science-fiction films themselves from around that point on. In 1980, Steven Spielberg had released his Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in a new ‘special edition’, which included seven minutes of new scenes and special effects. As the 1990s saw collectors buying films on DVD with the earnest intention of keeping them forever, Spielberg released a ‘collector’s edition’ in 1998, which was a remix of the two earlier cuts. We can only hope that he won’t feel compelled to reframe each shot for smaller screens in an ‘I-Pod edition’ for the 2010s…

In a similar way, George Lucas’s endless tinkering with his Star Wars franchise is common knowledge – from the addition of the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope to the first cinematic re-release of the original 1977 film in 1981, through remastering of the soundtrack into various new surround sound formats over the next decade and a half, to the addition of new computer-generated effects in 1997, and again in 2004. Lucas claims that each of these additions are to make the film closer to his original vision, though one might debate whether he has yet to decide what that original vision was, as a 3D version is threatened a couple of years from now. You might also argue that each version was intended to match each decade’s audience perception of what films should be like, first with regards to sound, and later, visual effects.

Science fiction as a genre is often concerned with the future, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the future should always look as futuristic as possible. The problem with envisioning the future is that the world you try to predict is always based on extrapolation of the present, and so 1970s SF looks like a futuristic version of the 70s, 1980s SF looks like a futuristic version of the 80s, and so on. The most extreme 1980s remix of a classic sci-fi film was the 1984 release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which added a contemporary pop music soundtrack and comic-book-style colour-tinting to an edited version that was more than an hour shorter than the original.

What Scott got right with Blade Runner was to make a film in 1982 that looked like a futuristic version of 1932, and for that reason has aged as well as any classic film noir. Unfortunately, Scott himself disagrees, and he too tinkered with his film, releasing a ‘final cut’ last year, in which he unnecessarily added a little CGI here and there and reshot certain scenes. I hope he’s happy with the result, but can’t help but worry that he’ll end up in a George Lucas-style loop, making new ‘final cuts’ every decade from now on.

While 1980s special effects have a certain classic appeal, coming towards the end of a century of ‘practical’ special effects on screen and being therefore the product of a refined and specialised industry at the height of its powers, modern special effects are almost entirely reliant on CGI. Unfortunately, bad computer graphics – and by that I mean CGI that is intended to recreate a solid object in a live action film, but is rendered at a time when the budget or the technology was unable to match the demands of the production – date quicker than any other kind of FX, as Lucas himself found out in his first attempt to make a CGI ‘Jabba the Hutt’ in the 1997 special edition of Star Wars. ‘Good’ CGI has existed for as long as the technology itself, as for example in Tron (1982), where the depiction of a virtual world set inside a computer is as visually stunning now as when it was first released, due to the aesthetic acumen of the filmmakers. But even CGI that is used ‘non-realistically’, i.e. in films that are entirely animated or in scenes that are intended to look animated, can age as badly as any other form of animation.

In spite of all this, other filmmakers have followed Lucas’s example and used new CGI to augment existing films. One example of this is the newly released and confusingly titled Ghost in the Shell 2.0, a reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell film from 1995. Not to be confused with the same director’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is a re-release of the original film in which several scenes have been replaced with CGI versions of the original cell animation. The original version of Ghost in the Shell already included CGI in among the traditional hand-drawn animation, which worked well as it was often used to depict computer animation itself in a world where people interact with computers for work, leisure and out-of-body experiences. In the 2.0 version, additional scenes are now also in CGI, so that it is no longer just used functionally, but also aesthetically. If Ghost in the Shell had always looked like this I wouldn’t find the CGI scenes objectionable, as overall the 2.0 version is a beautiful movie. However, as with some of George Lucas’s additions to the Star Wars franchise, much of this new CGI is simply unnecessary as there was nothing wrong with the original animation. In some respects, version 2.0 of Ghost in the Shell is a better film than the original; in other respects it is a worse film, particularly when the new CGI is distracting from the storytelling.

One of Oshii’s stated reasons for the changes to Ghost in the Shell is that the overall look of the 1995 film doesn’t match the look of his 2004 sequel. The original film was made in the 1990s as the first great realisation of the cyberpunk movement in fiction and manga, reflecting the cool, mirrored glass aesthetic of the genre – a future world illuminated by the blue / green phosphorescence of computer displays and neon light refracted off the soda-lime glass that lines office buildings. By the time Innocence was released, that look was passé; the world of the future is now a burnt orange, reflecting a more autumnal planet that sees humans shedding their bodies for cyberspace like leaves falling from trees. In some respects, Oshii’s motivation is more objectionable than updating special effects to match the presumed expectations of the audience, as this is revision as fashion accessory.

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is another ‘new’ animé film that blurs the distinction between remake and update. The latest version of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, the film is a reworking of the original animation with the same voice cast, storyboards, writer and director and condenses the first five episodes of the TV series into a 98-minute movie. Revolving around humans who put on giant robot suits to fight gigantic alien monsters called ‘Angels’ who intend to destroy the latest rebuild of Tokyo, Evangelion 1.0 is a very watchable film, although the plot seems occasionally hurried. Like Evangelion, other sci-fi TV shows are being remixed for potential new audiences. The pilot of Stargate: SG1, itself a follow-up to a much better movie, has been just re-released on DVD with new special effects and a new score. The most extreme and absurd, but slightly charming example of this trend is the DVD release of a Doctor Who TV serial from 1964, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which was remade in colour for the cinema in 1966 – the DVD contains new CGI effects added to black and white footage shot 45 years ago!

In the case of Evangelion, the move from TV to higher-resolution cinema screens at least justifies the redrawing and augmenting of the animation with CGI, even though it means that the makers of the franchise have spent the last 14 years revisiting the same material over and over again. For a series that translates from the Greek as ‘New Beginning Gospel’, its audience’s obsession with seeing different versions of the same material verges on religious fanaticism. Following the completion of the TV series, feedback from the audience made the creators realise that fans of the series were unhappy with the dénouement, so they remade the final two episodes as two movies. Not only did these movies repeat episodes from the series, but the second film – End of Evangelion – also reprised the only new material from the first film – Death and Rebirth. Further DVD releases of both these films and the original series saw still more tinkering with the material. Evangelion 1.0‘s proposed sequels will remake later episodes, with changes to the series varying from a redrawing of the original animation to entirely new interpretations.

This is a fascinating idea that takes the concept of a remake or a remix to a meta-textual level – appropriately the new releases are called ‘rebuilds’, adding an architectural nuance to the idea of a remake – where the original plot of a work of fiction is so ambiguous that both the fans and the makers have to keep going over the same material again and again to find some kind of solution that suits everyone. Indeed, each of the new Evangelion films contains a word in brackets within their titles, displaying the ambiguous nature of their themes. This could be the ultimate expression of the trends discussed above – filmmakers keep revisiting the same material and carry the audience along like passengers on a bus, with people disembarking with a version that makes them happy, until there is no money left to be made from the journey or the tyres wear out.

Alex Fitch

Evangelion 1.0 screens as part of the Anime All-Nighter at the Sci-Fi London’s Oktoberfest, which takes place on Oct 23-24 in London. Other events include an Aliens and Predators All-nighter, Sci-Fi Stand-Up and a very exciting event at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. More details on the Sci-Fi London website.



Format: Cinema

Date: 23 October 2009

Venue: London and key cities

Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Director: Mark Price

Writer Mark Price

Cast: Alastair Kirton, Daisy Aitkens, Kate Alderman, Leanne Pammen, Tat Whalley, Kerry Owen

UK 2008

97 mins

The new British zombie movie Colin is an ultra-low-budget film that follows the eponymous character around the streets of post-apocalyptic London during an outbreak of the living dead. The twist in this film is that the lead character is a zombie himself for most of the running time… Between screenings of the film at this summer’s FrightFest at the Empire cinema in London, Alex Fitch spoke to director Mark Price about genre audiences, the differences between high- and low-budget film and the benefits of cheap technology.

Alex Fitch: Was the screening at Frightfest the world premiere?

Mark Price: No, it has screened in a couple of other festivals. We fell in with our sales agent when we screened at the Abertoir festival, which is the only Welsh horror festival – it’s in Aberystwyth, and spelt Abertoir like Aberystwyth but pronounced Abattoir – it’s funny…

AF: I guess the low budget of the film is a double-edged sword, because a lot of the pre-publicity has been about how little it cost, rather than about the fact that it’s a very good zombie film.

MP: The good thing about that press is that it’s a platform for us to talk about what we wanted to do with the characters – that’s the heart of the story – and how we went about making the film. But I think that once the film is released the interest in the low budget will go away fairly quickly, even though it’ll be all over the DVD covers and what not. We always hoped that the quality of the story would be the selling point.

AF: At this year’s FrightFest there are a lot of zombie films, and out of the ones I’ve seen so far, the two that have impressed me the most are your film and Pontypool. I think that maybe it’s because when you have a very low budget and want your film to attract attention, you really have to work on the script and the actors…

MP: I was raised on blockbuster movies in Swansea and I still feel a lot of fondness for them, but I think the script and the acting should always be the most important thing, regardless of all the amazing advances in digital technology – they’re just tools to tell your story. Although we weren’t in a position to embrace much technology, we did embrace the ability to make a movie in your own home, in your bedroom on an old wrecked PC. I’m a zombie fan, I wanted to do a zombie movie, but I also wanted to do something that I could be confident hadn’t really be done before, obviously missing the fact that there was a movie called I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain. I honestly think that if I’d known about I, Zombie beforehand I probably wouldn’t have made Colin!

AF: I think I, Zombie is probably obscure enough that you don’t have to worry about people having seen it…

MP: …and it’s a very different movie as well, apparently. I haven’t seen it myself, but Andrew Parkinson, the director, sent me a copy of it; he’s a really nice guy. His film is more of a slow transformation from a man into a zombie, so by the end of the movie, he becomes this zombie – it’s more akin to The Fly, I guess. We just kind of skim over that in the first 10 or 15 minutes of our movie and crack on with the zombie part!

AF: I thought the structure of the film was really interesting – you leave the origin of Colin’s transformation into a zombie right until the end. What motivated that decision?

MP: I think it was the idea of rewarding the audience with interesting information. I know giving the back-story isn’t always necessarily the best way to develop a character, but for us, it felt more like a payoff. We always knew how the movie was going to end, but how do we draw attention to certain objects and items? That was the challenge. If you look at a movie that’s shot on 35mm with a budget like Chinatown or Hot Fuzz, when the twist comes at the end, you realise everything you’ve been watching means nothing. But that’s OK because you have a character trying to find something out, so the audience is with him, trying to find that something out. When you have a character who isn’t motivated in any clear direction and because of the low-budget format we shot the movie on, there’s a very real danger that we look like we don’t know how to tell a story, or how to edit a scene. So, we could lose a lot of our audience along the way, it’s scary for us that it all relies on that last 10 to 15 minutes, but we certainly wanted that to be a rewarding experience for the audience.

AF: What kind of camera did you shoot it on? It does have a very sharp, clear image, but it’s obviously not HD.

MP: We shot it on two camcorders, one was a three-chip camcorder – both Panasonics – and the other was a single-chip camera, because the three-chip died about half of the way through. This is the little trick to it: you can’t get these cameras to look like 35mm, and if we were to try and make it look like 35mm and light it very cleanly, it would just look cheap. So we really went the other way and embraced the flaws in the technology – we had lots of ‘hot spots’ and dark shadows, and I think that lends something to the visual quality of the film. If I knew as much about cameras as the cameramen I’ve been meeting recently, I would have gone: ‘I’d never have made a movie like this, let’s not bother’, and we wouldn’t have made it! So, sometimes a little ignorance can be a good thing! This idea that you have to spend a lot of money on technology, on HD cameras, it’s really not the case. A low-budget filmmaker only needs to worry about the story and the characters.

AF: I wouldn’t say that you don’t deserve to get a decent budget for your next project whatever that may be, but when low-budget filmmakers get a big budget for their next film, quite often it completely falls apart. What would your ideal next project be?

MP: Well, the idea for our next project is to keep the budget very low, so low that we retain a level of control, but we want the film to look like it cost three million, so we’re trying to find ways of doing that, which is a challenge. But at the same time, I think movie-making is problem-solving, whether your movie costs £70 million or £70. The best thing we can do is to hang on to the team of problem solvers we had on Colin, making sure we’re all working together on the next film. There are elements of the next film that seem easy and there are elements that seem beyond our reach, but that’s the excitement. That’s what it was like with Colin – when we started this, I knew nothing about make-up design and now I can make a zombie! Our make-up guys showed us how to make zombies, so that they wouldn’t necessarily be around all the time.

AF: In the publicity materials for the film, it says you found the actors for the film on Facebook – was it the same for the crew as well?

MP: That’s something that got a bit out of hand, actually. We used Facebook to communicate with everyone, but we didn’t really find many people on Facebook. Alistair, who plays Colin, I knew already, and other actors I met through Alistair. We had two auditions. We were really looking for people who we got along with and there’d be a degree of banter. We didn’t want any egos on the film because it’s low-budget, there’s no place for them. It was such a harmonious experience that if luck comes in quotas, then I’m in serious trouble; I’m fucked, because we used it all up on this film, so the next one’s going to be a disaster!

AF: I hope not! In terms of locations for the film, it doesn’t actually look that British, it has more of an international feel to it. For example, the scene with the hoodies, for want of a better word…

MP: …yeah, the stacked terraces…

AF: … I saw a similar scene in an Italian gangster movie recently, so it feels much more European than British. Was it just that you looked for interesting locations and didn’t have a particular aesthetic in mind?

MP: We were definitely looking for places that had a sense of isolation. For Rowley Way, one of my students – I was teaching low-budget techniques at Kilburn Park – said: ‘You’ve got to see this place, Rowley Way, it’s just off Abbey Road, it’s fantastic above ground and underground.’ What it allowed us to do visually was to really breathe and have that sense of depth. Actually, I still look at the film and every time I see those scenes, I’m waiting for someone to walk out of a door and just blow a take, which I missed this entire time!

AF: You didn’t leaflet everyone who lived there to say: ‘Could you please stay in your homes between the following hours…’?

MP: No, the students were telling us that Rowley Way was quite dangerous and we shouldn’t go down there without them! It was like one o’clock in the afternoon and I guess everyone was still in bed! Everything else there – the tower blocks were just around the corner – was visually so striking. I’ve got a lot of fondness for those places and definitely the ones that were incorporated in the film.

AF: What has been your students’ reaction to the film? Have they seen a complete cut yet?

MP: They’ve seen it and they were amazingly responsive and positive. That’s such a relief, and the response had been great from all of them. And that scene with the hoodie guys – they’re not actors, they’re just giving it a go! One of them was auditioning to get into RADA, the other one was just giving it his best shot. The next day, he just cracked me up, saying: ‘Man, I think I’m the best zombie in your film!’ And I said: ‘You weren’t a zombie, you were a human!’ ‘Was I?’ he says, ‘ah, whatever!’ And they were up against two LAMDA students – Daisy and Alistair – and a very experienced television actor. It was really amazing to see these two guys thriving among all these actors, holding their own. The guy with the samurai sword, he had just come round, giving it a go – he’s the guy who found the location – and he said: ‘I can get a samurai sword if you want…’ I said: ‘It is it sharp?’ and he said no, so I thought, ‘Go get it then!’

AF: Nobody lost their limbs in the making of this movie…

MP: No, we were OK, but it was quite scary, his running around, waving a sword at people going: ‘Arrgghh, I’m gonna cut your head off!’

AF: I suppose in a low-budget film, one of the most important applications of budget and training must be the fight scenes, where people are being beaten up, so that no one gets hurt.

MP: Yeah. That actually explains some of our frenetic camera work, because if you had the camera smoothly gliding along, you’d see that apart from the two actors we had placed to throw proper hits that registered properly on camera, everyone else is awkwardly grappling. We had some fun with that in the documentary on the DVD, you really get to see some of these guys being quite lame, because it’s really funny! Of course, in the film, because of the camera work we wanted to generate a level of intensity. The camera becomes a character and the idea was to have two camera styles. There’s a dominant human perspective in a scene, which is quite panicky and frantic and handheld, then there’s the zombie’s perspective, which is relatively calm and quiet.

AF: I probably shouldn’t ask this as a film should stand on its own, but the way that I read the final scenes was that when Colin comes home, it almost starts awakening memories in him. Was that your intent or do zombies not have human thoughts?

MP: One of the things we wanted with the film was for the audience to ask themselves questions. There are certain elements I don’t want to address, I want to leave people to come up with their own decisions. The basement scene is a really interesting one, some of the stuff I’ve heard back about that, what people think is going on there is like: ‘You’re a sick, sick man Price!’ And I’m like: ‘Woah! We don’t clearly state that! You’re the one who came up with that…’ I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone what it was. The film should speak for itself and I wouldn’t want to acknowledge that you’re absolutely correct or rob you of thoughtful analysis. It’s not the place of the filmmaker to do that. That’s the one downside to DVD. You think certain filmmakers are geniuses, and then you hear them talk about their stuff and you go: ‘Ohhh, man, Brett Ratner isn’t a genius!’

Interview by Alex Fitch




27-31 August 2009

Empire Cinema (London)


31 October 2009

ICA, London

Programme on FrightFest website


Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 October 2009

Distributor: Icon

Director: Christopher Smith

Writer: Christopher Smith

Cast: Melissa George, Michael Dorman, Liam Hemsworth, Rachael Carpani

Australia 2009

99 mins


Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 October 2009

Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Director: Bruce McDonald

Writer: Tony Burgess

Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak

Canada 2008

93 mins

For its 10th anniversary year, London’s horror film festival, FrightFest, relocated to the sumptuous location of the Empire cinema, which holds court over Leicester Square from its central position on the North side of the square. This gave the festival its most prestigious venue yet, showing there’s money to be made in horror films even after a decade of increasingly uninventive entries in the genre and offered the fans a huge main screen for the main programme as well as a more intimate downstairs screen for the ‘discovery’ strand. The building also has a foyer with sofas, which made it a lot easier for ticket buyers and filmmakers to hang out between the screenings and chat about what they’d just seen.

This convivial atmosphere contributes to the feeling you get at FrightFest that a significant amount of the audience comes back every year to resume friendships and conversations they can perhaps only enjoy online the rest of the year. The foyer certainly was always a hive of activity with radio and TV interviews being recorded in one corner and a merchandise stall in another offering fans the chance to have posters signed by the likes of John Landis whose American Werewolf was screening at the festival.

Aside from the domination of zombie movies in the line-up, there was also a definite Nazi theme this year: they were included in the plot of a quintet of films, from the sins of the (grand)father trope in Millennium: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the mad scientists of The Human Centipede and Shadow and of course the Nazi zombies in Dead Snow plus the blink and you’ll miss it cameo of monstrous storm troopers in one of American Werewolf‘s dream sequences. The Nazi leitmotif was even commented on in the short comedy films that had been made especially for the festival and accompanied some screenings. If Quentin Tarantino can find box office (Nazi) gold in the subject, we shouldn’t begrudge others the same on a weekend that was only a week shy of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

Like all film festivals, there were so many titles in the line-up that of course not all were guaranteed to be great and some rested on the reputation of their stars or earlier career of their directors, but even when the films proved to be so bad they elicited laughter from the audience – Dario Argento’s Giallo, for example – the experience of watching a horror film with an audience of appreciative genre fans on a massive screen made it worthwhile…

Here’s to another 10 years of FrightFest.


In anticipation of FrightFest’s Halloween extravaganza, we review some of our personal favourites from this year’s festival, two of which are out in UK cinemas in October.

Triangle (released Oct 16)

From the director of Creep and Severance comes a satisfyingly chilling thriller in which a young woman is caught in a circular nightmare and is led to go through the same events over and over again. Although anyone who saw the excellent time-travel Spanish thriller Timecrimes may have an unpleasant sense of déjà vu, Triangle offers enough genuine tension and striking images as well as a real sense of existential claustrophobia to make the audience forget that the plot is not only derivative but also sometimes a little muddled. Melissa George gives a fantastic, intense performance as the woman in trouble and infuses the film with emotional depth. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY

Pontypool (released Oct 16)

In 1938, Orson Welles created a radio adaptation of his British namesake’s The War of the Worlds, which famously ‘panicked’ America into believing Martians were invading their fair shores. Pontypool updates and subverts that idea by having the observers of a zombie-like outbreak hole up in a radio station and stay on air to inform other possible survivors about the situation, leading to a phone call from an incredulous BBC World Service reporter and the dissemination of a possible cure over the airwaves. In my opinion, this was the finest film of the festival, showing how you can create a haunting atmosphere with a small cast of great actors and an intriguing, infectious premise. Appropriately, the recorded soundtrack of the film was broadcast, with slight alterations, as a radio play, which works almost as well without the visuals. At a Q & A after the screening, the producer said a sequel was on its way and since the plot of Pontypool is based on only one page from the out-of-print novel it’s adapted from, I’m fascinated to find out what happens next. ALEX FITCH

The Human Centipede

Danish Artist Tom Six has managed to create a truly original horror film with his bizarre, off-the-wall, yet touching The Human Centipede (the First Sequence). Focusing on the effort of Dr Reiner to create a human centipede using three unwilling volunteers, Six infuses the film with a Cronenberg feel while managing to retain the human drama rather than focusing on gross-out moments. Actor Dieter Laser as Dr Reiner is a true revelation – a mad doctor clearly inspired by Udo Kier. The film is a staggering success, and one can only hope Six manages to go ahead with his intended sequel for which he promises even more bizarre action. EVRIM ERSOY

Trick ‘r Treat

Released after a two-year hiatus, director Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat may be the only true successor to Halloween in creating an ode to a the celebration of fright that can viewed every year. Taking his cue from the portmanteau pictures of Amicus as well as EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt, Dougherty brings a fresh angle to the genre by using a fractured timeline à la Amores Perros. Strong performances from actors such as Brian Cox ensure that the acting is well above average while the stories send the necessary shivers up the spine. The mischievous sack-headed figure of Sam, hovering around the edges of the film and keeping a vicious eye on the proceedings, might be the new Halloween icon for a new generation. A delight to watch and a future classic! EVRIM ERSOY

Alex Fitch, Evrim Ersoy and Virginie Sélavy

The Film4 FrightFest All-Nighter takes place on October 31 at the ICA Cinema, London: six UK premieres featuring poltergeists, vampires, zombies, mutants, backwoods monsters and an incredible torture show! More details on the FrightFest website.


Big River Man

Format: Cinema

Release date:4 September 2008

Venue: London and key cities

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: John Maringouin

USA 2009

100 mins

John Maringouin made his feature debut in 2006 with Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts that turned the camera on the director’s sadistic, drug-addicted, estranged father and his surreally sordid, chaotic existence. He returns with Big River Man, another unconventional documentary that charts eccentric Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel’s extraordinary attempt to swim the Amazon. An unlikely champion, the rotund, hard-drinking, 53-year-old Martin combines a day job as a flamenco guitar teacher with a line in swimming the world’s most polluted rivers. The megalomaniac nature of the project, the strangeness of his relationship to his entourage and the spectacular Amazonian scenery make for one of the most enjoyable films of the year, a soulful journey into dark places, lunacy and the extremes of human behaviour that is at turns desperately farcical and profoundly affecting. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY had the pleasure of interviewing John Maringouin for a second time at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2009, where the film had its UK premiere.

Virginie Sélavy: What gave you the idea of making a film about Martin Strel?

John Maringouin: I was watching TV with my girlfriend in the middle of the Iraq war and there was a really short piece on CNN, maybe 15 seconds – ‘man swims Mississippi’. I grew up in Mississippi, and you couldn’t go in the river, so that was already interesting to me. When we called Martin we found out that he was going to swim the Amazon. It started up in a random way.

VS: The events are narrated by Martin’s son Boris, so in a way, just as in Running Stumbled, it’s the story of a man with a certain form of insanity as seen from his son’s point of view.

JM: That was sort of accidental. I didn’t think of that at first. I realised it quickly, which made me think about a lot of things, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.

VS: Why did you decide to have Boris narrate the story?

JM: I just found it really interesting how much Martin relied on his son. It had more of an emotional weight than just making a film about a man who does something. The onus was on Boris to articulate why his father was swimming these rivers and why Boris would give up his life to help him.

VS: How do you see their relationship?

JM: Boris is a guy who tries to understand his father, who’s an alcoholic at the same time as an Amazon swimmer. I thought that was both traumatic and very funny at the same time!

VS: We never get Martin’s take on the whole thing. Was that deliberate or did you try to talk to him too?

JM: That was another thing that I thought was infinitely funny. There’s a cult leader aspect to him, which I thought was pretty incredible, especially once we got away from civilisation – it was like being with Jim Jones. People started to project onto him all their notions of what it meant to be a superhero.

VS: At one point, the navigator, Matt, describes what Martin does as ‘self-sacrificial’ and ‘Christ-like’. What do you think of that?

JM: I think that in the context of the situation it’s pretty appropriate (laughs). He was certainly being treated like both a god and a martyr.

VS: It goes from that to a point later on in the film where Boris says, ‘we can’t see him as human anymore, more like an animal or a monster’, and he compares him to Frankenstein.

JM: Yes, he was very much both martyr and monster. He was this sort of belligerent, groping monster who was unable to speak and also incontinent… He had to be managed at all times. People were afraid he was going to go crazy and kill everybody on the boat. And at the same time he inspired a sense of religious fervour and wonder.


Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read the rest of the interview in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!