‘Utopian visions’ is the central theme for the 14th edition of London’s onedotzero festival, which aims to showcase progressive moving image work and digital art. According to director Shane R.J. Walter, this year’s programme will be ‘imbued with a sense of adventure, hope and creative positivity’, an oddly optimistic and politically phrased choice given Britain is currently steeling itself for an austere economic future. Perhaps the organisers believe the utopian visions will provide some inspiration (or at the least some light relief!).
Indeed, screening as part of the ‘extended play’ programme, artistic collective Knife Party’s animation film, Coalition of the Willing, aims to provide a new political and social ideal. A polemical narration calls for online communities to create a ‘global collaborative culture’, which can tackle climate change via a ‘swarm offensive’. According to Knife Party, it is up to the consumer to make changes. The revolution will be digitised. Possibly not as simple as that but there is a lot of revolutionary digital work at onedotzero. The ‘extended play’ programme champions ‘filmmakers who push boundaries of traditional storytelling with adventurous narrative structures and distinct visual styles’ and Coalition of the Willing uses narrative to push its political point home. The work is the result of 24 filmmakers working on different segments of the script to create a 15-minute film with techniques varying from computer animation to stop-motion models made from sweet potatoes and watermelons. The film was released in instalments on the web, promoting online debate during filmmaking: a perfect echo of the film’s sentiments.
Interactivity and discussion are certainly key components of onedotzero. The Johnny Cash Project, chosen to screen at ‘wavelength’ (a programme of radical attempts at the music video format), is the result of a similar collaborative and web-based approach. Online participants were each invited to draw a frame of the film, resulting in hundreds of stills, which, when strung together, form a hypnotic video for Johnny Cash’s song, ‘Ain’t No Grave’. In addition to finished collaborative works, the festival will provide an opportunity for festival-goers to get involved. There will be a week-long workshop to create multi-disciplinary projects around this year’s theme; participatory installations on-site at BFI Southbank, including one by artists Hellicar & Lewis and Todd Vanderlin, Feedback, which will allow users to project and edit images of their own bodies; and a special forum devoted to ‘data visualisation’, discussing how in our digital world, saturated with data, we can use visuals to explore, present and analyse information.
And in among these 2.0 offerings, there will also be some more straightforward screenings; three feature-length films will run alongside specially curated programmes of shorts, including strands on female animators, city films, moving image made from computer code, films featuring robots, new work from Japan and Britain, and character-led animation, curated by the Berlin-based festival Pictoplasma. It is a nicely diverse selection of topics and interesting fodder for BFI Southbank, a venue that tends to offer a more straightforward viewing experience. The weird and wonderful world of cutting-edge digital arts should make some intriguing and unusual ripples through the British Film Institute.
Nowadays, perhaps the most recognisable element of the soundtrack to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is the haunting lullaby ‘O Willow Waly’, composed by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn, which is the film’s very first sound – even before the appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo (some projectionists apparently took this for a mistake and re-cut the opening before showing it). To modern audiences, the song may be uncannily familiar: a sample of the girl Flora singing it in The Innocents is buried in the crackle and hum of the cursed tape in Gore Verbinski’s US remake of The Ring. Watching Clayton’s film again though, what really disturbs us, at the very moments when the film is at its most disturbing, are the eerie electronic noises that creep around the edges of Auric’s lush impressionistic score. These noises, though unmentioned in the film’s credits, were created by Daphne Oram.
Four years earlier, Oram had been the architect of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, the soundhouse that would one day create the out-of-this-world music for Dr Who, Blake 7, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not to mention countless science programmes, children’s broadcasts and local radio jingles. Oram had wheeled vast old tape machines and battered old war surplus oscillators from studio to studio late at night to experiment on the sly while working by day at the BBC, before a long campaign of lobbying had finally granted her a little room at Maida Vale, a long-cherished dream of hers. There, she and Desmond Briscoe would use the tape manipulation techniques of musique concrète in radio dramas such as Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, and Giles Cooper’s The Disagreeable Oyster, before a trip to the Brussels World Expo in 1958 convinced Oram to leave the BBC and set up her own studio, in Tower Folly, a converted oast house in Fairseat, Kent. It was there that, in between experimenting with her own Oramics drawn-sound composition system, she worked on the music for The Innocents, along with a number of other films, adverts, ballets and theatrical productions.
The image of a woman, dead for over a year, appears across a pond and we hear a rising tremolo of stacked sine tones, harmonised spectrally in just intonation; amid a babble of phantom voices, a door falls shut and the echo from its slamming noise swells into a dark cavernous drone. When we first hear the electronic sounds Oram created for this film, we are inclined to take them, much like those crafted by Delia Derbyshire for John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House 12 years later, as the noise of the ghosts that haunt the old house in which it is set. It soon transpires, however, that Oram’s special sounds are, on the contrary, the leitmotif of Miss Giddens’s creeping insanity, the theme to a certain panicked look in her eye. If the audience spend much of the film unsure whether the ‘monstrosities’ we see are truly phantoms or phantasies, spectres or symptoms, the redoubtable Ms Oram is clearly under no such uncertainty.
If the electronic noises in The Innocents are the sound of encroaching madness, Oram has prior form. In the late 50s, the sound of a nervous breakdown was rather considered to be the Radiophonic Workshop’s stock in trade. The first BBC production to use the word ‘radiophonic’ – Frederick Bradnum’s ‘Radiophonic Poem’ entitled ‘Private Dreams and Public Nightmares’ produced by Oram along with Briscoe, Norman Bain and Donald McWhinnie – featured among its opening dialogue the ominous pronouncement, ‘I fall through nothing, vast, empty spaces. Darkness and the pulse of my life, bound, intertwined with the pulse of the dark world’. Accompanied by a ‘comet-like shriek’ and a ‘pulsating beat’, the piece realistically evokes the inner monologue of a manic depressive. Oram once compared, in her only published book, An Individual Note, the descent into madness with a kind of psychic feedback loop, an overloading ‘through having too high a playback volume’. It is in precisely this way, the echo of feedback overloading, swelling to the point of distortion, that she created many of the chilling sound effects for The Innocents.
The Belgian stop-motion animated film A Town called Panic is out on DVD this month after a theatrical run in October. Unusually for a European film, a pair of British filmmakers have taken on the responsibility of promoting the film here even though they had no involvement in making the film. To find out why, Alex Fitch spoke to Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith (a.k.a. ‘Hammer and Tongs’) about their love of simple animation and marketing a film during the demise of the UK Film Council.
Alex Fitch: Would I be right in thinking that you guys are the British executive producers of A Town called Panic, or is that too posh a title?
Garth Jennings: It sounds fantastic!
Nick Goldsmith: It sounds bizarre…
GJ: I like it!
NG: Yes we are. We’re helping support the film as we love it so much, that’s the main thing.
American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese have been known to promote a classic world cinema title for a DVD or cinema release, but I think this is the first time I’ve come across directors from one country picking up a film that they have no involvement in but felt so passionate about it that they’ve taken over the PR…
GJ: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We just really loved it that much. It was odd when we were first asked to consider it, because we’ve always made our own things, but when we saw it, we thought it would be worth doing to try and get as many people to see it as possible.
So you basically came to the film cold, you hadn’t seen any of the shorts beforehand?
NG: I hadn’t, Garth had.
GJ: I’d seen the shorts – I hadn’t seen all of them, I think there were three seasons of the TV series; I’d only seen one and I don’t think I’d even seen the whole season but I liked it. I’ve always loved that style of animation. We’d followed the progress of the film being made and always thought it would be great – seeing it premiered at Cannes, it looked so interesting. I don’t know about you, are you one of those people who looks up trailers all the time?
I used to, but I’ve grown out of it…
GJ: I used to be addicted! I’m probably the same as you now, but went through several years of always wanting to know what was going on and watching all the clips of new films, and that one was so different and unique.
It seems like a film that’s tailor-made for your appreciation. Having seen Son of Rambow, about an amateur filmmaker who’s using the tools available to him, and then seeing some of your more recent pop promos such as the video you made for Hot Chip, which was like an extended episode of Art Attack where the band were making things, it seems exactly like your kind of thing.
GJ: Yeah, we’ve done our fair share of in-camera effects and stuff. We’ve always messed about with things like that and it appeals to us. I think it’s not so much the aesthetic as the sense of humour that appealed to us the most, but then I suppose that is tied in to the aesthetic. It’s the way that they’re animated that’s often the funniest thing about the scene. It’s just so clever and endearing, imaginative and funny, but very different to the work we do, obviously because it’s animated. I think there’s maybe a match in sensibilities, an appreciation of silliness.
Well, when I interviewed you last about Son of Rambow, we spoke about how that film was very much about the zeitgeist then, the fascination there was at the time with a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark that was remade by kids and people putting that kind of footage on YouTube. The release of A Town Called Panic seems to be coinciding with the increase in makers’ fairs and an interest in craft.
GJ: I like the idea of being part of a zeitgeist but let’s not go into the fact that we have no idea! We’re just going with our gut on all of this! (laughs) I don’t know what to say to that…
NG: In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy we had that section where the crew become knitted and that was stop-frame animation… I think there’s just something more fun in it being in front of you and it being tactile and your being able to touch it and move it. It’s there and you can see the craft of how it’s being made right in front of you. With A Town called Panic, even though they’re very simple characters, the craft is in how well they’ve animated them and how they’ve animated them in a way that’s still in keeping with the structures that they are, for instance a plastic toy whose feet are stuck to the ground together, and that’s how it can then run. I think there’s a charm in that.
It’s like the lo-fi version of Toy Story… I imagine that if a kid watches Toy Story, they might think it’s amazing, but with A Town called Panic, they might think: ‘I just need a video camera and I can make it.’
GJ: It’s true. Even though it’s incredibly clever and complex – there’s 200 models per character – you’re right, it’s something tangible; it’s in the room. There is something nice about knowing that something exists as well, certainly as things become more virtual, it balances it out. It’s like knowing the radio is live – there is something engaging about knowing it’s happening right there and then, rather than it being on the iPlayer. I’m not against all that – it’s great, we’ve used all that technology – but it’s about trying to find the most engaging way to tell a story. The filmmakers have invented their own world over there – loads of their own rules about everything: colour schemes, sounds and voices, everything. It’s very concentrated.
Is the version that’s being released in this country dubbed or subtitled?
NG: Subtitled. They asked us about that when we got involved and it feels like there’s so much in those voices that are shouting all the way through the film, and the fact that it’s in French actually adds to it. So it was a discussion that we all had but Optimum and everyone thought it should stay the same.
Also, by encouraging subtitled kids’ films, you might actually help to get children into foreign languages more…
NG: They’ll all know how to say ‘horse’ in French!
GJ: My kids have all seen it six times! They don’t understand what the words mean in French but they understand what’s going on – they absolutely love it.
I think your passion for the film is something that’s quite unusual in this day and age. When I went to the preview screening a month ago you were there to introduce it, and they gave away Cowboy hats and Indian head dresses to everyone in the audience…
GJ: Yes, that was lovely, I wish we could have stayed longer, it was really good fun. There were quite a lot of ways to promote the film that we came up with, with Optimum. In the past I’ve been used to it being the opposite, you have grand ideas and it’s like: ‘well, that guy wasn’t available, so we’re going to do this instead’ or ‘we didn’t have the money for that, so we’ve scaled it all down to this’… It hasn’t been like that at all – not that it needs a tremendous budget or anything, but we had inventive and funny ideas. It’s got an ambition that film, even though it’s got tiny figures, it’s got a bombastic approach: ‘Right! Now we’re going to go to the Arctic! Now we’re underwater and they’ve stolen the walls!’ We thought that somehow that spirit should be in the ideas we have for marketing the film. So, they range from daft things like making 2D glasses – so that people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth after all this 3D business – through to all sorts of other things that felt like they would have been made by the characters in the film.
Did you have many discussions with the filmmakers?
GJ: No, the main thing was just to discuss with them that they were OK with us coming on board and it turns out we were both fans of each other, so that worked out!
NG: We showed the film at Somerset House on a double bill with Team America – we introduced it there also, videoed it and sent it to the filmmakers so they got an idea of what the screening was like.
Was the crowd suitably uproarious?
NG: We got them to give a big cheer! It was great…
Isn’t what you’re doing with this film – British filmmakers promoting European cinema – part of the remit of the UK Film Council?
NG: We are the UK Film Council! (laughs)
GJ: …all that’s left!
As the UK Film Council is being curtailed, do you think it’s now going to be…
NG: Tongs Council?
…not necessarily just you guys, but maybe any successful British filmmakers who are keen about certain subjects, like Guy Ritchie or Michael Winterbottom. Without a government-supported scheme anymore, is it going to be down to British filmmakers to promote films similar to theirs?
GJ: I’d never even thought of that. Seriously, I don’t know…
It does almost feel like you’re starting that process off with this film, however unintentionally.
GJ: This film is a bit of a one-off though, it doesn’t feel like this could catch on because it’s such an odd and unique film. You know how Quentin Tarantino helped with all the fighting films from the Far East, you can see him bringing all those films to everyone’s attention. This is the only one of its kind. It’s not like there are lots of stop-frame toy movies, but our ambitions…
NG: …have just changed! (laughs)
GJ: It is interesting how you get films out there and how people come on board to help. I suppose there are no rules really. I hadn’t thought of it past this, though.
You don’t think then that after this film, you might watch other obscure movies and want to help them get released in the UK?
GJ: The Horse Whispers of film? That doesn’t appeal to me at all really.
NG: Supporting films is brilliant and promoting this one is a joy but what we want to be doing is making films and hopefully having everyone support us.
GJ: Hopefully we’ll be getting support in Belgium!
How’s the animated project that you’re working on going?
GJ: It’s early days and it’s not confirmed yet, but we are putting it all together and it’s very interesting. It’s a new area, even though we’ve worked with animation in commercials, music videos and that sort of stuff. To do a full feature film’s a new thing for us, and also trying to find the language and the style. This is where we’re at, at the moment. It’s experiment time, but it’s going well.
A podcast of Alex Fitch’s interview with Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith is available at Panel Borders.
Alexander Pashby reports on the highlights of the Raindance Film Festival, starting with the impressive closing film, Mohamad Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon.
Son of Babylon (2010)
How do you make a film about the more than a million people reported missing in Iraq since 1991, or the hundreds of thousands of bodies found in mass graves shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein? You don’t. You can’t. The mind can’t imagine such vast numbers, so instead you make a film on a human scale, telling the story of just one family as they search for a missing member. That’s exactly what director Mohamed Al-Daradji has done with Son of Babylon, the film chosen for the closing night gala of this year’s Raindance Film Festival.
Set just days after Saddam is deposed, Son of Babylon follows Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shehzad Hussen) as they journey from the Kurdish north to the still war-torn Baghdad to find Ahmed’s missing father. A comrade of Ahmed’s father has told them to look in Baghdad prison. Ahmed’s grandmother promises Ahmed that they’ll also take in the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on the way. However, as their difficult journey progresses and they come across more and more newly unearthed mass graves, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are not going to find Ahmed’s father alive, let alone his body. And yet, they decide to carry on, going from mass grave site to mass grave site, even though the overwhelming probability is that Ahmed’s father is one of the majority of unidentifiable bodies.
Although there are subtle references to the dictator – for example a friendly ‘Uncle’ gives Ahmed and his grandmother a lift and when stopping for a toilet break, says he’s ‘going to call Saddam’ – Al-Daradji doesn’t indict Saddam directly, perhaps because the crimes are too huge and it’s too soon, but certainly to allow the audience to form their own emotional reaction as Ahmed and his grandmother’s heartbreakingly futile journey progresses.
Through the title of the film and the juxtaposition of the mass grave sites and the Hanging Gardens site, Al-Daradji is saying, look how far we have fallen since King Nebuchadnezzar II made the desert bloom in the name of love. However, the film is less concerned with blame than with sympathy for the Iraqi people as a whole. The most significant supporting character the pair meet, and subsequently forgive, is a former Republican Guard who was pressed into service as a child. Similarly, in contrast to the way the problems of race in Iraq are reported in the West, people from all tribes help Ahmed’s grandmother even though she doesn’t speak Arabic. Indeed, the film excels at showing the aspects of Iraqi life post-Saddam that we don’t get to see on the news, including memorable scenes on the public transport system, which would be terrifying enough without the interruption of American roadblocks.
Yasser Talib is excellent as Ahmed and is either a genius or so young and innocent that he can’t be said to be acting so much as reacting. Either way his performance is convincing and affecting. Look out for Son of Babylon as Iraq’s official entry into the Oscars 2011.
Armless is a dark yet compassionate comedy about learning to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of our loved ones. Daniel London (Old Joy) stars as insurance executive John, who suffers from the real-life condition Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), which is characterised by sufferers believing that they would be happier living life as an amputee, and sometimes goes hand in hand with a willingness to amputate one or more healthy limbs. John runs away from his suburban home, hotly pursued by his wife Anna (Janel Moloney, The West Wing), to the big city because he’s read on a BIID message board that a certain plastic surgeon, a Dr Phillips, will perform the illegal surgery for him. But, of course, John turns up at the office of the wrong Dr Phillips (if the right one ever even existed) and when the doctor flatly refuses to help him, John threatens to carry out the surgery himself with a power saw he’s bought at a local hardware store.
Donoma is the interesting, if overlong, zero-budget experimental product of a Paris-based collective led by writer/director/producer/director of photography Djinn Carranard. Apart from having an awesome name, Carranard has a lot of Facebook friends and they all helped him to make this series of overlapping narratives, usually two-handers, which poses the question, ‘Is it possible to say anything new about love?’ The film doesn’t necessarily come up with any answers, but the non-professional actors – or at least the professional actors giving up their time for free – are all excellent, and scenarios such as an atheist who develops stigmata and an artist who tries a relationship with a complete stranger where they are only allowed to communicate via mime, keep the scenes from becoming too repetitive.
A late addition to the festival, but a very welcome one, Vampires is a Man Bites Dog– style mockumentary, which manages to be the perfect antidote to the current trend for emotional vampires, a biting satire on contemporary human society and a very funny film in its own right. The Saint Germains are an upstanding family in the Belgian vampire community and have it easy: asylum seekers delivered straight to their door; corrupt police to take care of any remains; and a live-in gourmet blood bank in the form of a young girl they call ‘The Meat’ whose only job is to infuse her blood with interesting flavours for special occasions. However, that’s all about to change thanks to a rebellious teenage daughter who keeps trying to return to being human by committing suicide, and an eldest son whose indiscretion with the local vampire leader’s wife leads to the family being exiled to a far less traditional community in Canada.
Read the reviews of Legacy and Jackboots on Whitehall, which also screened at Raindance, and our feature on the Japanese strand in the festival.
Review by Alexander Pashby
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews