Silver Shoes: Interview with Jennifer Lyon Bell

Silver Shoes
Silver Shoes

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 February 2015

Distributor: Blue Artichoke Films

Director: Jennifer Lyon Bell

Writer: Jennifer Lyon Bell

Cast: Joost Smoss, Liandra Dahl, AnnaBelle Lee

Netherlands 2015

73 mins

Good films and good sex don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That should be common sense but how many good films can you think of which have realistic, genuinely erotic sex scenes? And how many erotic films can you think of with artistic or dramatic merit? For Jennifer Lyon Bell, the answer was ‘surprisingly few’, and so she set about making her own. Her latest release, Silver Shoes, is a trilogy of erotic films woven loosely around the theme of clothing. In the first, a girl goes to borrow some shoes from a female acquaintance and, after discovering a wardrobe full of men’s clothes, finds her sexual curiosity is sparked. In the second, a housesitter explores the mixed feelings (both erotic and melancholic) sparked by going through the owner’s clothing. And in the third, a woman and a man end up having sex after a build-up in which the woman believes the man to be gay.

Lisa Williams talks to Jennifer Lyon Bell about clothing as sexual currency, feminist porn and how she likes to craft a film.

Lisa Williams: Clothes have emotional and sexual currency in this collection of films; was that the start point of it all, and what is it about clothing that creates this meaning for you?

Jennifer Lyon Bell: I started thinking a lot about clothing after I took a drag king workshop a few years ago by the brilliant European performance artist Louise Deville. Seeing the ways in which small changes in my outfit made other people treat me so differently was intense. And I enjoyed thinking about what items of clothing, anywhere on the gender spectrum, had come to carry erotic power for me. I was struck that the typical female ‘sexy’ clothes – fishnets, black high heels, bandage dresses – didn’t do much for me and never had. And I wasn’t even sure what men’s ‘sexy’ clothing was supposed to be, though I had certainly gotten an erotic charge from certain men’s clothing items in the context of my own life. It seemed only natural to start exploring these issues through the lens of a film.

There is that running theme but there’s also a nice balance to the collection (one woman and woman story, one woman alone, and one woman and a man story). Did you think of it in these terms or did it come about organically?

I’ve always enjoyed short films, and I liked the idea of creating a filmic kaleidoscope with short films, whereby certain elements change while others stay the same. So portraying a variety of relationships in Silver Shoes definitely was an integral part of that idea. In truth, I also shot a solo male scene because I thought it would make a true balance. But in the final edit, that short film felt so different tonally from the others that it made the film feel unbalanced and harder to understand. I liked it better as a trilogy, so I kept it that way. I decided to include the male solo on the DVD release for those who would like a peek at it anyway. I might also add that I like the idea of offering the viewer all kinds of hot sex without necessarily asking them to connect it to their own sexual orientation or desired real-life practices. People have a very flexible ability to identify with characters and get aroused by seeing things they don’t expect. So the sexual variety is quite intentional too.

Mainstream porn plays with fantasy (narratively and in the bodies depicted), yours seems much more concerned with realism. Are the characters and experiences on screen meant to be relatable to the viewer and do you think these are scenarios happening in real life?

It is so rare to see sexuality presented in a realistic way that I still find it fascinating when it is. Personally I need to feel a lot of sympathy and empathy for the main character, which means that there needs to be a fair amount of emotional realism even if the rest of the story is quite fantastical. Even in a non-erotic context, I’ve always been attracted to movies with an element of realism. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind strikes me as an especially strong sci-fi movie because it’s so realistic in other ways. As far as whether these scenarios happen in real life – well, without giving too much away, I can say that the plot of ‘Mimosa’ [one of the short films in Silver Shoes] is startlingly close to something that’s happened to me… more than once! And I know several women who have had the same happen to them. So I was dying to put it up on the screen.

Were there any mainstream porn conventions you wanted to keep (or send up)?

No, I let the stories develop on their own, rather than wrestling them into a particular statement about sex or porn. In some ways Silver Shoes is like porn – there are orgasms, there are wet and hard body parts, there are people enjoying themselves. But in other ways the film evokes something quite different from porn: there’s a lot of story, there are no pre-choreographed porn-style external ejaculations, there are some challenging emotional moments like when one of the characters gets teary. Nothing was off-limits for us.

I sensed the actors in Silver Shoes were friends; can you describe your casting process and what you look for in an on-screen pairing?

I’m so pleased you thought they were friends, because I pride myself on finding couples who genuinely like each other and have great personal chemistry. But in truth, these people all met in real life for the first time the day before their shoot. Usually, before I do any auditions, I like to meet actors and actresses myself over coffee to get a sense of their personality and reasons for getting involved in erotic film. But, in this case, geographically I was considering actors and actresses from all over the world. So I knew I couldn’t rely on in-person meetings or a long rehearsal process. I narrowed down the actors and actresses I liked best to a shortlist, had them do an acting audition with me by Skype or in person, and then put them in touch with each other by Skype to see who hit it off. The final three who won the roles live really far apart. Joost is from Belgium, Liandra lives in Australia, and AnnaBelle lives in the United States. In each case it worked a little differently. Liandra and I were friends when she lived in Amsterdam. I liked her a lot, felt I had a grasp on her personal style, and had recently auditioned her for a different project, so I knew she’d be great if we could find her a match. Joost contacted me about the project and he had a lot of natural connection to it. We chatted by Skype, and eventually I auditioned him by Skype too – though I went over to Belgium to visit with him personally before officially casting him. And AnnaBelle I simply met with and auditioned by Skype. I loved her and thought she had a nice collaborative mentality. Fortunately, she was so open and forthright that I was able to get a good sense of what she was like. They all Skyped with each other and it was a clear ‘yes’ with these three. I’ll also admit that in the brunch party scene, the party guests are all personal friends of mine, so maybe that friendly vibe comes through. I know we had a lot of fun on the set that day, which maybe makes it fun to watch.

How scripted were your films; both in the sense of dialogue and action? Was there any room for improvisation and did much change in the process of bringing it to life?

I’ve worked before in very different modalities, from a full script (Matinée) to total improvisation ((Headshot). This time I decided to try something in between: us all agreeing on a theme and the key plot points, and then letting the actors/actresses improvise the dialogue. While it was a little nerve-racking for me, I think it worked out great. Particularly for performers with no formal acting training, it helps a lot to be able to speak with your own style and rhythm. It also helps a lot that my editor is very talented; he helped me find ways to put the best parts together, so it had a good flow even when we had to cut pieces out.

As far as the sex scenes go, I like to give the performers as much freedom as possible. We do discuss in advance what they would like to do sexually with each other, how the sex fits into the story, and generally what parts of the set we’ll use. After that, I let them take the reins because I think it’s the best way to preserve the real chemistry between them. Usually I’m working with actors and actresses who’ve never been sexual on camera before, so for them it’s especially important not to stop the flow. But now I know that even performers who’ve had sex on camera before do appreciate the freedom to stay in the moment and try out what feels right. Later I can always get a pickup shot if necessary. This method is a heck of a lot more work for the camera people (in this case, the director of photography and me as second camera), the lighting person, and the editor, because we aren’t sure where the best shot or best light will be, and have to stay 100% present during the shoot. But having tried different methods, I think this works well for capturing the kind of spontaneity that I most like to see.

All these films appear to be in ‘real time’. Is this an important convention to you and how long, in reality, did they take to film?

Perhaps it’s just the way my body is built, but I’ve always been attracted to physical continuity in sex scenes. I like to mentally get into the characters’ bodies and then stay there pretty much the whole time. When I see a hard edit between sexual positions, for example, I can feel my body disengage from the characters a little. It’s worthwhile using that effect sparingly: in Matinée I purposely include some distanced shots that force you to imagine yourself as one of the ‘observing’ characters rather than one of the couple; but in general I want to build connection between viewer and performer. The end result is pretty close to real time. But that doesn’t mean the sequences were filmed in real time. Usually I plan for the performers to enjoy the whole sex scene twice, and we use multiple cameras. As a result, we have lots of extra footage which can easily cover the moments that the actor/actress wanted to take a break. You wouldn’t believe the great material I have had to leave on the cutting room floor because there just wasn’t room for it all!

As for the narrative portions of the films, so far I have taken a fairly classical approach in the structure, but I’m very open to playing with nonlinear storytelling. The trade-off is that I need to make sure I don’t confuse the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ interior states too much while trying to create drama. Drama with no erotic connection would be a silly bargain for me.

I was interested to read that you cite films such as The Piano Teacher and Baise-moi among your favourite examples of eroticism. Would you say you are inspired more by sex scenes within a narrative than straightforward porn with little or no plot? Also, these two films arguably show extremely surprising expressions of sexuality; can you describe what you appreciated about each film?

The movies I find sexiest are the ones where I want to emotionally engage with the characters and feel what they’re feeling. Usually those end up being narrative art films that show the characters overcoming a struggle or barrier to get what they want sexually, in a story that I can somehow relate to. In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert’s character is full of struggle. She has a deep sexual itch that she can’t seem to scratch, which is tragic yet wholly relatable to me. I also find it very relatable that her inner sexual life is so at odds with her conservative ladylike self-presentation. People assume all sorts of things about women’s sexuality, especially about women who present themselves as heteronormatively feminine. Women come up to me all the time to confess that their sexuality is darker or odder than they dare to tell their partner. They have no idea they’re not alone.

Having said that, I also enjoy a lighter approach to sex as long as it’s grounded in emotional realism. Especially because I like the idea that sexuality doesn’t have to paired with violence to be appropriate fodder for cinema. John Duigan’s little-discussed film Sirens (with Hugh Grant) is light-hearted, but the individual relationships have enough weight in their power dynamics to make the sex scenes memorable. Or John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which had some intensely emotional sexual plotlines yet is fundamentally uplifting. (I wish Shortbus had gone even further with its erotic and explicit potential – I’d pay good money to see that darling male threesome played out completely.) As for Baise-moi, I mention that film on my site as a landmark example of the millennial movement incorporating explicit sex into art film, which I totally applaud. And I also liked the aesthetics of the film, pairing a rough punk aesthetic with a feminist revenge narrative. But the film is not an example of eroticism, at least not for me.

How do you position yourself within your feminist porn peers? Would you say there is an industry or a community, and are there any other filmmakers/companies you admire?

Of the handful of us making feminist porn, our styles have turned out to be fairly different. I think that’s an entirely good thing. We’re pretty close-knit and trade tips when we see each other at the erotic/pornographic film festivals that have cropped up in Europe and the USA. I would say I personally like creating narrative context (even if not full narrative storyline), creating an intimate feeling through close-ups, and using sync sound with an emphasis on sex sounds rather than music in the sex scenes. Australian filmmaker Gala Vanting has an entirely different production style, more formal and distanced than mine, but she combines beautiful images with unflinching eroticism (sometimes including kink) in a way I love. Queer French filmmaker Emilie Jouvet is a photographer, and hers might be some of the only pure-sex films that I find hot. Her casting is incredible. Erika Lust is also doing some brilliant casting, and she creates fantastic, creative stories. Tony Comstock was one of the first to pioneer the erotic documentary genre, and his relationship interviews are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Other erotic/pornographic filmmakers I’m inspired by include Sadie Lune, Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Ms Naughty, Zahra Stardust, Maria Beatty, Marit Ostberg, Petra Joy, Travis Mathews, Michelle Flynn, Anna Brownfield, and Madison Young. And performer Wolf Hudson’s great collaborations with Aiden Starr.

You say on your website that your reason for making these films has nothing to do with commerce but how does the company fare commercially? Other feminist porn filmmakers we have spoken to have complained of distributors being unwilling to pick their films up. Do you feel you are getting these films out to the people who want to see them?

I have had lots of interest from distributors, but not always the ones I want to work with. The heavy porn consumer who is used to making selections entirely by keyword, and who is accustomed to crap porn quality, apparently does not want to pay a fair price for my genre-crossing erotic movie. In contrast, mainstream outlets like Amazon have been a great place for me to reach people who like good movies and good porn. And as our little community grows, online distribution outlets are cropping up slowly. Pinklabel.tv in San Francisco carries films that you can’t see anywhere else; Erika Lust’s LustCinema has a great selection too. MakeLoveNotPorn.tv offers great amateur films. Little by little the film world is changing. If we can convince the entrepreneurs who make mainstream VOD sites, social media sites, and video hosting sites that it’s worthwhile not to exclude filmmakers who incorporate explicit sex (I’m looking at you, Vimeo), the film world could change a lot – for the better. In any case, almost all independent filmmakers are, as you probably know, getting creative with making their films available directly to interested viewers. Distributors can be very helpful, but since formal theatrical distribution usually isn’t an option for us anyway, we can fill in some of the gap ourselves. We’re an enthusiastically DIY community and a lot of us are enjoying doing it ourselves.

Silver Shoes screened as part of the 12th London Short Film Festival.

Interview by Lisa Williams

Dirty Diaries

Dirty Diaries (Flasher Girl on Tour)

Format: Screening

Date: 13 January 2011

Venue: Horse Hospital

Organised by: Club Des Femmes

Part of the London Short Film Festival 2012

6-15 January 2012, various venues, London

LSFF website

Unless you count teenage sleepovers, or people sitting on opposite sides of an otherwise empty red-light cinema, watching porn isn’t normally a communal activity. So why, when Club Des Femmes screened Dirty Diaries (2009) – a collection of porn shorts – during the London Short Film Festival, were people queuing round the block of the Horse Hospital to get in on returns? All kinds of people too: men in trendy specs with their heads held high, bequiffed women holding hands, a Horse Hospital regular on his first date with a new girlfriend – and not one filthy mac in sight.

It could be down to the fact that Times columnist and neo-feminist Caitlin Moran had tweeted about it to her 185,000-odd followers on Twitter. She’s broached the topic of feminist-friendly porn in her best-selling book How to Be a Woman, in which she calls on feminists to make their own porn rather than attempt to ban it. ‘Something that shows sex as something that two people do together,’ suggests Moran, ‘rather than a thing that just happens to a woman when she has to make rent. Something in which – to put it simply – everyone comes.’

Dirty Diaries is inspired by the same school of thought. In fact, the short film that initiated the collection is called Come Together, and is made up of director Mia Emberg and several other women individually filming themselves as they masturbate. It was first shown during the Stockholm International Film Festival and, as Club Des Femmes co-founder Selina Robertson explained before the screening, it shocked certain – primarily male – viewers, who complained about the women not being attractive enough.

This gave Emberg an idea: why not allow more women to redefine porn? With funding from the Swedish Film Institute, she asked other filmmakers to write, star in and direct their own porn films. The best of these form Dirty Diaries, a thrilling bag of sexual diversity that tells us almost as much about the difference between mainstream and feminist views on sex as it does about the difference between government film funding in the UK and that in Sweden.

Opening short Skin is a poetic depiction of two bodies clad in skin-coloured bodysuits making love, filmed in close-up by an observer and set – as are many of the others – to the music of Fever Ray. As the petting gets heavier, scissors are taken to the clothes on the nearly neutered figures to reveal body parts bit by bit. The sex between the man and the woman is tender, reciprocal and, when the mouths are eventually revealed, they are smiling.
More smiles in Night Vision, in which a woman takes matters into her own hand by reaching her climax with a vibrator, while being watched by her male lover. The film ends just as she breaks out into a wide post-coital grin. It’s a cheeky in-your-face to standard porn, where the ‘money shot’ is the man’s domain.

Body Contact subverts even more fixtures of mainstream porn. A woman and a co-conspirator behind the camera seek a man on an internet hook-up site and, after sizing up his genitals on the webcam, invite him over for sex. When he arrives, he’s dismayed to find another woman there to film the encounter and nervously admires the view out of the window before being coaxed into submission. The sex is comical, as the man works himself into an over-enthusiastic frenzy while the woman looks bored and smiles conspiratorially at the camera. It’s feigned, of course, but it feels unnecessarily mean: do two wrongs make a right?

More imaginative is Flasher Girl on Tour, in which a cropped-haired girl treats the audience to an excerpt of her ‘travel diary’ as she visits Paris, indulging in her fetish of exposing herself in public. Bashing down what she declares to be ‘the exclusive right for men to be disgusting in public’, she masturbates in a taxi, flashes out of her hotel room window, and straddles the gushing waters of a public fountain. It’s not sexy. It’s hilarious.

But it seemed that not many people turned up at the screening to be titillated. ‘I’m not here to be aroused,’ says Lucy, an academic. ‘It’s more about being part of a community. I like being in a room with lots of lesbians, bi-women and queer women, and having a good time. In fact, I know lesbian and dyke women who watch male heterosexual porn because they prefer it to lesbian porn.’

‘The films were all really refreshing,’ added Caroline, who specialises in sexuality, spirituality and sex activism. ‘A lot of porn seems contrived. People are really aware they’re being porn stars. This is really fresh.’

So what can mainstream porn learn from the collection Emberg has put together? Robertson puts it well: ‘That diversity, humour and horny real women are as sexy as hell.’

For more information, please go to the Dirty Diaries website or the Club Des Femmes website.

Lisa Williams

London Film Festival 2011: part 3

Rebellion

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Last part of our coverage of the 2011 London Film Festival by Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin, Lisa Williams, Frances Morgan and Virginie Sélavy.

Rebellion

On April 22, 1988, three gendarmes were killed and 30 others taken hostage in a botched operation by independence fighters on the French colony of New Caledonia. In this fictionalised account, Mathieu Kassovitz plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, the leader of a special operations unit who is sent to the island to negotiate a peaceful settlement, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and sidelined by his own colleagues. The latest from the actor-director mixes docu-drama and action thriller elements to create a wrenching, powerful and intelligent film that exposes the arrogance and brutality of the French elite during the 10-day hostage crisis. Kassovitz opens the film with a tableau depicting the final moments of the stand-off, before piecing together a day-by-day reconstruction of how events went tragically wrong; tension builds quickly, immediately immersing the audience in the politically charged story. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the islanders’ struggle to take back their country from the French; the scenes of the Kanak people performing their endangered rituals are extremely moving, while the unfolding actions of the French army are increasingly sickening (the film ends on a particularly grim note). The hostage crisis took place against the backdrop of the closely fought presidential election between Mitterrand and Chirac, with political allegiances and ambition outweighing any real desire for a negotiated end to the conflict. The politicians back in Paris wanted it over before the elections, and the French army, invading a colony for the first time since Algeria, had enough incentives to ensure the rebels – horribly dehumanised in the French media – were violently suppressed. In Rebellion, Kassovitz has created an impressive and gripping piece of genre filmmaking that is also an indictment of France’s colonial legacy. SC

Dreams of a Life

Joyce Carol Vincent’s body was discovered in her Wood Green flat three years after she had died. Documentary maker Carol Morley has attempted to piece the life of this mystery woman together and has built a portrait, not of the ageing shut-in that most people might have imagined from the tabloid reports, but a pretty would-be singer and bubbly social girl who seemed to hang around in other people’s lives and never quite become herself. Fascinating stuff, with brilliantly assembled material that makes you ponder what effect you have on those around you and what impression you will leave behind. It’s a pity that the long, stagey reconstructions just don’t work and seem to strain for an effect that they don’t achieve, because the talking heads quietly reduced me to tears. MS

Dreams of a Life is released in the UK on 16 December 2011 by Dogwoof.

We Need To Talk about Kevin

We Need To Talk about Kevin is a chillingly apt title as Lynne Ramsay’s latest film contains precious little dialogue. Quite a feat given that it is based on the much-lauded novel by Lionel Shriver in which Eva, the narrator, describes the events leading up to her son committing a dreadful crime and reflects upon its consequences. This format would easily lend itself to a verbatim expositional voice-over in a film adaptation but, as was obvious from her 2002 film Morvern Callar, Ramsay knows the power of silence.

That’s not to say the film is noiseless. In fact, it is charged with sounds which, to Eva, evoke that fateful night when she discovered the full extent of Kevin’s crimes. But, rather than rely on dialogue to tell the story, Ramsay brings out Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities as an actress to communicate Eva’s living hell. We see her close her eyes in almost orgasmic relief when a roadside drill drowns the wails of her crying baby, for example, and – when a doctor tells her that toddler Kevin’s reluctance to talk is not down to autism – what you see register on Eva’s face looks suspiciously like a faint flicker of disappointment.

Combined with arresting cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and disturbing performances from the three actors who play Kevin from infant to teenager, Ramsay’s restraint elevates into poetry what could have, in the wrong hands, been turned into a gruesome misery memoir. LW

We Need To Talk about Kevin was released in UK cinemas on 21 October 2011 by Artificial Eye.

The Kid with a Bike

Another fine film from the Dardenne brothers, who seem to have a way of making low-budget films about people from the wrong side of the tracks that just don’t run along the same rails as others. Nothing here harangues us about ‘issues’ in society. It’s just the story of Cyril, the hell-on-wheels 11-year-old of the title. Living in a children’s home, but escaping to pursue the dad who put him there at every given opportunity, Cyril’s single-minded, resourceful zeal blinds him to the fact, evident to all others, that his father is a bit of a shitbag. Still, somebody up there must like him, because one of his misadventures throws him into the arms of Samantha (Cécile de France), who agrees to take on the little terror on weekends. Is it possible that she can help Cyril to save himself from the world of pain he’s so energetically chasing? There are no ostentatious camera set-ups or performances here, just lean, intelligent filmmaking that finds the best way to get to the heart of scene after scene. For my money, it’s not up there with L’enfant (which just seemed to have more going on), and I kind of wonder how long the Dardennes can repeat a winning formula. But hell, this is great stuff. MS

The Monk

The Monk

Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel adapted by Dominik Moll, director of the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help, with Vincent Cassel in the role of evil monk Ambrosio: it sounded terrific on paper, but the film did not quite live up to expectations. To be fair to Moll, it is a very difficult novel to adapt: narratively labyrinthine, it relies on the intricate echoes and contrasts between its different strands to create depth and resonance; forced to concentrate on one story, the film feels strangely bare. In keeping with the nightmarish quality of Gothic novels, Moll has gone for a dreamlike, artificial world, which sometimes works (the addition of the mask for the character of Valerio is eerie and chilling; Ambrosio’s recurring dream, which is not in the novel but perfectly fits with its spirit, is strikingly evocative), but too often descends into cartoony Gothic clichés (night outings to the cemetery, gargoyles, thunderstorms, etc.). Vincent Cassel is great as the conflicted monk battling repressed desires, and both he and Moll clearly give their all, but the result of their efforts is oddly paced, narratively meagre and stylistically overwrought. VS

Natural Selection

Amiably filthy road trip, as a childless Christian wife (Rachael Harris) tracks down the junkie fugitive fruit (Matt O’Leary) of her husband’s sperm bank habit, after hubby has a stroke while, well, having a stroke. It’s pretty familiar American indie comedy stuff as the odd couple learn from each other, and you can kinda predict where it’s going most of the time, but the central performances are fine, it makes you care, and the dialogue is foul-mouthed and funny. (‘Maybe we can go see a unicorn take a shit made of lullabies.’) I liked it a lot. MS

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Last year, Takashi Miike remade a little-seen 1963 samurai film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins, which was undeniably a lot of fun, but uncharacteristically conventional for the director, both in its filmmaking style and its attitude to the traditional values of the samurai. Puzzlingly, this year Miike has directed a 3D version of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed 1962 Harakiri (Seppuku), a virulent, powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of Japan’s feudal system and the samurai’s code of honour. Miike is clearly going through a chanbara phase, although he seems a bit unsure of where he stands in relation to the samurai tradition. This may explain why Kobayashi’s searing condemnation of the samurai’s rules of conduct as empty, rigid and inhuman is blunted in the dialogue and weakened by lethargic direction and melodramatic excesses in Miike’s version.

When Miike doesn’t water down the original film, he simply reiterates it. The story of a poor ronin, whose request to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a prestigious family’s house conceals a desperate act of revenge, is told through exactly the same series of flashbacks as in Kobayashi’s film. The striking image of the ronin kneeling down in the courtyard surrounded by the almost geometrically positioned samurai simply repeats the exquisite compositions of the earlier film.

Visually, Miike adds 3D, which has the effect of making the colours dull and dark while being completely superfluous, given that there is little action. The most striking 3D scenes are those that show beautiful autumn leaves in the foreground against stony walls in the background, snow falling in the feudal house’s courtyard, and the credits rolling in front of the house’s symbolic samurai statue. Nice, but hardly indispensable. Which is a fairly accurate description of this pointless remake. VS

Shock Head Soul

It’s beautifully shot, and I love the typewriter jellyfish manifestations, but Shock Head Soul renders what seems to be a fascinating psychological case study into an achingly serious, ponderous trudge. It offers no compelling characters or observations of note and I found myself, after half an hour, wanting the whole thing to just shut up, which is possibly not the compassionate reaction to mental illness that the filmmakers were aiming for. Maybe I’m too stupid, too stupid to understand. MS

Mosori Monika

Intimate Visions: Films by Chick Strand

While the LFF closing gala screenings took place on the other side of the river, there was a tiny audience for the NFT’s programme of six films made between the 1960s and 1980s by Chick Strand, the Californian experimental and ethnographic filmmaker who died in 2009. It was a rare chance to see Strand’s work, and we got to sample a few different facets of it, from found-footage pieces that make use of archival material to her poetic, intimate approach to ethnographic filmmaking. The witty and, in the case of Loose Ends(1979), sometimes disturbing montages of old film and audio – in which sound and vision are juxtaposed in a way that recalls the darkly funny audio-visual collages of People Like Us – have dated less well than Mosori Monika (1970), a dreamlike, compelling portrait of a missionary settlement in Venezuela with conflicting voice-overs from a Catholic nun and an indigenous woman. Meanwhile, Artificial Paradise (1986), shot in Mexico, is both a gorgeously tactile, hypnotic piece about human and animal bodies in motion and in close-up – dancing, running, riding – and a comment on the exoticisation of those bodies: an example of having one’s cake and eating it, perhaps, but it’s spellbinding stuff. Strand’s feel for physicality and use of found footage are combined in Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), in which a male dancer whirls in the sunshine to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’, while lights and sequins pulse in joyful sympathy, articulating a feminist vision that’s as sensual and playful as it is critical. FM

360

It’s always nice when the bad guys in an ensemble film neatly take themselves out of the picture, isn’t it? Saves you having to, ooh, I don’t know, write something that might actually happen in the real world. Fernando Meirelles’s latest features a host of fine acting talent (Hopkins! Weisz! Debbouze! That bloke out of The Baader-Meinhof Complex! ummm… Jude Law!) and puts them to work in a series of interlocking scenarios based around travellers from Vienna, London, Paris, Denver and Phoenix. I’d be lying if I said it had nothing going on, with this many characters and stories something was bound to click, and the dissolves and transitions are inventive, but really, this is tossycock of the first order. Tossycock, I tell you! MS

Target

Mentions of the Strugatsky brothers and Tarkovsky in the LFF write-up on this futuristic Russian tale were enticing, but Target turned out to be a pompous sci-fi soufflé, philosophically fluffy, insipid and indigestible. The story follows members of the Russian media and political elite as they seek to obtain eternal youth by travelling to a remote, abandoned astrophysics base and exposing themselves to the cosmic rays channelled into its central well. But the experience is so intense that its consequences are extreme, in a manner both positive and destructive. Unlike its illustrious predecessors, the self-important and portentous Target offers strictly no insights into the human condition, and no ideas of any interest about the future or the universe over its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour running time. The wide screen attempts to convey an epic feel, the sun’s rays over the ‘target’ in the barren landscape are meant to be humbling, the urban settings are as slick and modern as in Hollywood science fiction, and the whole is entirely empty and soulless. And then there’s the sex. Laughably bad sex, made worse by startling outbursts of bombastic music, in case the audience did not quite get how passionate it all is. And in a couple of instances, even dodgy sex, in which the women are barely consenting. This is one Target that is way off the mark. VS

Asshole

With its punkety rockety /sex ‘n’ drugs/ monochrome on the scuzzy streets milieu, Gandu/Asshole kind of put me in mind of the Cinema of Transgression flicks of the 80s and 90s. Most of those films, however, ran for 20 minutes tops. Gandu runs for 89, which is a long time to spend in the company of an unbearable, un-pretty solipsistic douchebag, who smokes smack, nicks money from his hooker mom’s clients, and bemoans his fate as a would-be hip hop star in an Indian backwater that has no need of one. It all looks like photo spreads from Vice magazine, or Dazed and Confused, there’s some of yer actual unsimulated sex, and a datura trip and all kinds of Daily Mail baiting whatnot, but it was only while reading the notes in the programme that I realised that the mother character was supposed to be his mother, which pretty much sums it up. Has its moments, visually and musically, and it has energy to burn, but at the end of the day, it’s bollocks. MS

The Scouting Book for Boys: A Profile of Tom Harper

The Scouting Book for Boys

Format: Cinema

Date: 19 March 2010

Venues: Curzon Soho and selected cities

Distributor: Pathe

Director: Tom Harper

Writer: Jack Thorne

Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Holly Grainger, Rafe Spall, Steven Mackintosh

UK 2009

93 mins

‘I am not interested in telling miserabilist stories,’ says Tom Harper, relaxing with a coffee during a break from colour grading. It’s a bold statement given that, in his own words, his first feature film The Scouting Book for Boys is about how ‘each man hurts the thing he loves’. It’s bolder still considering that the two short films that helped make his name, while not bleak in a kitchen sink fashion, feature the estates, CCTV and inner-city deprivation.

Cubs (2006) is a pacy, hand-held depiction of a young teenage boy getting initiated into a gang of hoodie-wearing urban fox hunters. It gleaned a BAFTA nomination, but to this day attracts messages from internet viewers who love animals and hate the film, perhaps failing to grasp the subtle themes of class prejudice and peer pressure.

The opening shot of Cherries (2007) is of a school surrounded by grey sky, impossibly high fences and overarching CCTV towers. Within the school, teenage pupils expecting a normal class gradually realise they are being drafted to fight in the Iraq war.

Read our earlier feature on Tom Harper‘s short films.

Both films seemingly fit into the school of British cinema represented by Noel Clarke, Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. In fact, Clarke is working on a feature-length version of Cherries, Scouting Book‘s lead character is played by Meadows’s protégé Thomas Turgoose, and Arnold’s Red Road cinematographer Robbie Ryan is director of photography.

But though he admires them, Harper believes he does something different from his British peers. ‘I have a love/hate relationship with British film. I really like the majority of it and we have had a great year. But I think too much of what we do is a bit depressing. There are certainly depressing elements in Scouting Book but I hope there’s a bit of magic there as well,’ he says.

This magic comes from the chemistry between the two teenage leads David and Emily, played by Turgoose and newcomer Holly Grainger, and the sun-tinged setting of a caravan park in the Norfolk country to which they run away and set up home – surviving with the help of David’s trusty Scouting Book For Boys (the use of which was approved by the Scouting Association, Harper notes).

‘It eventually is a tragedy,’ continues Harper, ‘but it gets there via a love story and a magical summer holiday. We were really lucky as we filmed in October last year and it was just glorious. I really wanted it to feel poetic and nostalgic rather than grey and bleak – I find that much less interesting.’

Filming in October was not the only requirement brought on by the £1 million budget. Holiday-makers doubled as extras, accommodation was in caravans, and Steven MacKintosh had to replace Tony Curran, who pulled out as cameras were about to roll after being offered a more lucrative part abroad.

However, budget did stretch to 35mm cameras, which give Scouting Book, filmed mainly outside, the bright nostalgic feel of celluloid. Combined with its painterly aesthetic, Scouting Book signals a departure in style from Harper’s shorts. ‘Both Cubs and Cherries were hand-held and aggressive whereas this has a bit of that but it is much more composed and graphic. It’s a different approach to telling a story,’ Harper states.

And while Scouting Book also shows a leap in setting from the urban environment, and the fences, walls and barbed wire prevalent in the two shorts, its coming-of-age story reveals a commitment to teenage characters. Aged just 30 himself, and with boyish good looks that wouldn’t look out of place in a sixth form common room, does Harper think his subject matter might change as he grows older? ‘I don’t know,’ he says, slowing down. ‘I keep saying I’ll move away from films about teenagers, but I keep on finding them interesting. It’s a turbulent time in people’s lives and it’s the time you make these massive decisions, and I’m drawn to that, but I think at some point I’ll tell other stories as well.’

It seems appropriate that 18-year-old Turgoose has been cast as the film’s lead, since he has effectively come of age on the screens of UK cinemas. Picked up from a youth club near Grimsby, Turgoose demanded a fiver from casting agents to audition for Meadows’s This Is England and answered ‘no’ when they asked him if he would like to be an actor. ‘Clearly he never entertained the thought of being an actor,’ laughs Harper, who refers to him affectionately as ‘Tommo’, ‘ but somewhere along the way he’s made that conscious decision to take it seriously and put hard work into it. That’s what will make him stand out. And of course the fact that he’s fucking good! Really, really, really good.’

Turgoose’s performance is central to the film. ‘This is very much a one-boy story,’ Harper explains. ‘It’s important the audience stays with the main character even though he does some things that aren’t very nice. Tommo’s got such a wonderful, likeable quality I think he’d have to do something really vile for people not to like him. He starts a scene and ends a scene and you will watch his face for 90 minutes. That’s a really tall order but he is exceptionally good.’

The film was produced by Celador, the company behind Slumdog Millionaire, so that Harper now stands in the Oscar-shaped shadow cast by Danny Boyle’s big hit. If he finds this daunting, he hides it well. ‘The film will live or die on its own merit but because the producers have that much more clout and influence, it will be seen by more people, and that’s a good thing. It’s so nice that a really good film with British money is doing so well, and that most of the money is coming back to the UK so Celador can make more films,’ he says.

And if that can’t encourage some more magical British films then nothing can.

Lisa Williams

CLUB DES FEMMES: SWINGING SUMMERTIME SPECIAL

The Killing of Sister George

Date: Sunday 28 June, 2.30pm

Venue: Curzon Soho, London

Title: The World Ten Times Over

Director: Wolf Rilla

UK 1963, 93 mins

Date: Sunday 5 July, 3pm

Venue: Curzon Soho, London

Title: The Killing of Sister George

Director: Robert Aldrich

USA 1968, 138 mins

Club des Femmes website

Curzon Cinema website

It’s the 1960s and the setting is London. A bobbed-haired girl band play some rockin’ tunes while the crowd below jostles and sways. There’s nothing unusual about this scene, except for the fact that all the punters are women and most of them are real people.

Robert Aldrich chose to film this extraordinary part of his 1968 drama The Killing of Sister George at Gateways, the legendary lesbian bar of the era. As a diverse group of gay women slow dance – without being judged – in the background while the three lead characters (all lesbians) argue, it becomes apparent that their struggles are not so much social as internal.

June (Beryl Reid) is an actress known for her role as the do-gooder George in parochial BBC soap Applehurst. In real life, she is an abrasive hard drinker who dominates her babyish girlfriend, nicknamed Childie (Susannah York). The real trouble starts, however, when George finds out her character is due to be axed from the soap and an arch, sophisticated executive called Mercy (Coral Browne) intervenes, resulting in a darkly comic love triangle.

The film’s humour, which ranges from killer one-liners to near door-slamming farce, is what Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson of Club Des Femmes want to highlight at their summer screening. Sister George and her companions may be considered wicked by some audiences, and obscene by the original censors, who to Aldrich’s horror gave the film an X rating, but to Club Des Femmes they are heroines. ‘The film does ask you to take sides, but read in the context in which it was made, it says a lot about how much a gay character would have to suffer before an audience would sympathise and even empathise’, says Wood. ‘We hope that now, watching it in 2009, it’ll be obvious that it’s pantomime. What gives the film heart is the three wonderful central performances.’

A pantomime-style atmosphere is what Wood and Robertson hope to deliver at the screening. ‘Cheer the goodies, boo the badies’, incites the poster, and Sarah adds that she hopes that a 2009 screening of a film that, due to censorship, has so far been denied a big audience will help bring out the fun of what they call ‘dykesploitation’.’We’re jokingly reclaiming a genre of film, made up of certain tropes and stereotypes, to be read and enjoyed by a dyke audience. The Killing of Sister George was made as a general release film, but we like to encourage audience re-engagement. Watching the film on DVD or as a TV re-run in the lonely isolation of your home is one thing. Watching it with an audience who shares the joke is quite another’, she says.

Coinciding with both Pride and the Mayor of London’s Story of London project, the Club Des Femmes event is also a chance for those with memories of the Gateways club to share them with the audience, thus documenting a social history that for the most part has been ignored.

The other film in Club Des Femmes’ Swinging Summertime programme, The World Ten Times Over (1963), features scenes of another nightclub. Its lead characters Billa and Ginnie work as hostesses in a night spot frequented by rich businessmen. While Ginnie appears to revel in the position, and the riches and attention that come with it, her flatmate Billa has grown tired of it. However, when Ginnie’s boyfriend leaves his wife to be with her and she finds out Billa is pregnant, she too begins to unpick the delusion of her existence.

Wood and Robertson describe The World Ten Times Over as ‘possibly the first British lesbian film’. The relationship between the two women is cautiously developed by filmmaker Wolf Rilla, and the biggest display of affection is the loving embrace that closes this stylish and understated film. Although it features nothing as provocative as the sex scene in Sister George that shows a predatory Mercy drive Childie to orgasmic delirium, the censors were still unhappy, presumably because the film challenges the so-called ‘tolerant’ values of the time, which turned out to be anything but.

In case we get complacent about the times we live in, the screenings serve as a reminder of how quickly the freedom of sexuality in this country could be reversed, and how few of the gay female characters we see on screen nowadays are realistic, entertaining or reflective of the naturally diverse group. As Wood puts it: ‘When you want to make a lot of money the default characterisation is still knee-jerk. The lesbians are still to be hunted by the vampire slayers.’

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: SEX ON SCREEN AT BIRDS EYE VIEW

Top Girl

Still from Top Girl

Birds Eye View Film Festival

March 5-13, 2009

Various venues, London

Festival Website.

‘I can’t imagine this talk happening anywhere else but Britain’, said Mike Figgis at the conclusion of Bird’s Eye View Festival’s Sex on Screen panel discussion. He had a point, for although the debate had touched on subjects such as sexual taboos, pornography and masturbation, this was executed ever so politely.

Talking about how gay porn had influenced mainstream cinema, the event’s chair, former Erotic Review editor Rowan Pelling, said: ‘The flipside of that is that it makes you think, “if I don’t like it up the back entrance then there’s something wrong with me and I should go and live on a desert island somewhere”’.’

Under The Skin director Carine Adler, who didn’t seem keen to talk about anything – let alone sex – before the debate was in full swing said to fellow panellist pornographer Petra Joy: ‘I would not have the courage to do what you do, I avoided any nudity, I don’t have the guts to do it, I want to stay ‘artsy’. My mother! Oh my god.’

A similar reaction came from the audience, who burst into embarrassed giggles when Joy described the misogynistic sexual acts depicted in mainstream porn – leaving her to joke that she was used to talking at erotic film festivals and hadn’t perhaps prepared herself for this altogether more polite affair.

But thank god for Joy who spoke loudly and proudly about sex on screen, from her unique viewpoint as a female pornographer, and well done to Bird’s Eye View for enlisting her. She raised the night’s most interesting point; distribution of her films, she said, was hindered by a censorship process that made no sense. Both she and Figgis (suitably attired, some might say, in a long, navy Mac) argued that arbitrary censorship meant that graphic violence slipped through the net, while graphic – read realistic – sex, with orgasms and erections, was not able to. ‘What’s the problem with making a film to arouse people? We see lots of violence in films, like Baise-Moi, and [that’s allowed because] they say, “well the sex wasn’t made to arouse”. But that’s the problem because you can’t control what’s going to arouse people’, she said. Pelling summed it up well, saying: ‘Surely the least harmful form of sex on screen is that which is specifically designed to arouse rather than repel or horrify?’

The problem was compounded, Joy said, by porn shops who balk at supplying films that have no big-name stars and no male ‘money shots’ or other such clichés. What’s more, cinemas need licenses to show hardcore porn – her films shown that night at the ICA were cut to comply with censorship regulations – which puts up yet another barrier between the films and their target audience.

Sam Roddick, founder of upmarket sex shop Coco De Mer, said she too had been restricted by licensing laws, which control the percentage of ‘directly sexual’ products she sells in the shop and subject each item to a permissibility audit. ‘They were very very vague about it’, she said, ‘so I had to get a bit more explicit. I said, ‘I’m carrying 18th-century prints, and they’re of two bridesmaids and a bride and they’re going down on her, and they said fine’. She defined erotic cinema as ‘a lot more emotional, more abstract’ than pornography, which she sees as ‘functional’: ‘When people watch porn they are either doing it to have sex or to wank. There is an outcome.’

Joy called for more films to show female pleasure – ‘women are multi-orgasmic and they can keep on coming after the man has but we never see that’ – gay men who weren’t suicidal, positive sexual role models, and the crucial matter of contraception: ‘it’s sex education as well as entertainment’.

It remains true that most films gloss over the use of contraception, unless the matter is overblown into a comedy sequence. Are viewers to believe so many people don’t give it a thought? Or do filmmakers have the right not to be realistic? Possibly, contraception is inherently unsexy and therefore an unwanted distraction to big screen sex scenes.

Realistic sex is not what Adler finds titillating. Discussing the much praised sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, she said: ‘A married couple having great sex is not something I find exciting. Maybe if they’d had sex with the murderous dwarf I would have found it more so’.

For his part, Figgis declared all pornography ‘boring’ and said what really excited him was unexpected erotica cropping up in non-erotic films: ‘I like it in The Misfits when they suddenly start smacking Marilyn Monroe, it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. You can’t keep that woman down, she is so sexy – maybe she insisted on that scene.’

While he praised Joy’s positive outlook, he admitted that he liked miserable things to happen in films, so dysfunctional sex was no problem for him. Looking at his own body of work, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, is a doomed and tragic love story with scenes in which sex is brutal, forced or impossible.

The short films shown after the discussion were nothing like that. A combination of Joy’s own work and Coco De Mer’s collection of erotic shorts, the films were light-hearted, beautiful and – dare I say it – sexy. Joy’s In Her Wildest Dreams was most definitely a porn film. With no plot or dialogue, the film showed a woman being indulged in many sensual ways by an ensemble of men and women. Following the principles the filmmaker had outlined during the talk, it showed the female orgasm, a positive, sexual, female role model, and as Joy put it, plenty of ‘guy candy’. The action took place behind various layers: part of the film was shot underwater, another part was shot through a beaded curtain across the doorway and mainstream porno’s procession of body parts gave way to more holistic shots taking in clothes, setting and some very contented-looking faces.

Clothes also played a big part in Eva Midgley’s Honey and Bunny, which consisted in a series of cheeky vignettes in which the two actors played out various fantasies. Kitted out in lustrous fabrics and beautiful shoes, the women were not passive sex objects but agents of their sophisticated sexuality. Similarly, Midgley’s Erotic Moments showed gentle, loving, consensual contact, such as the striking Footsie, which depicted a man being pleasured by a woman’s foot.

But nothing was more honest or more moving than the sex scene in Top Girl, a film by Rebecca Johnson that screened as part of another shorts programme during the festival. In the coming-of-age tale, a teenage girl, in her effort to become a rapper, finds herself being led to the bathroom of a DJ’s flat where he encourages her to fellate him. Full of adolescent feistiness, she delights in the encounter until she gets taunted for it at school. It succinctly expressed the joy, secrecy, awkwardness and taboo of sex.

Particularly British sex.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer for Top Girl.

LONDON SHORT FILM FESTIVAL 2009: Club des Femmes

k

6th London Short Film Festival

9-18 January 2009

LSFF website

‘It seems cinema and politics don’t go together anymore’, said Sarah Wood of Club des Femmes as she introduced the Body of Work section at the London Short Film Festival. She and her colleague Selina Robertson, whose mission as CdF is to provide a ‘positive female space for the re-examination of ideas through art’, chose their return slot at the festival to look at female nudity on camera, screening a programme of films selected from the archives to demonstrate Wood’s point.

Marina Abramovich & Ulay’s 1977 film Imponderabilia features a naked man and woman standing opposite each other in the narrow doorway to a museum. As swathes of people cross the threshold, only a handful turn to face the man. The rest – both male and female visitors – choose to face the woman as they squeeze past, revealing the dynamics of power relations and gender roles simply and visually.

A striking sequence in Jayne Parker’s black and white film K (1989) shows the director standing naked in an empty room, pulling a long internal organ out through her mouth and knitting it into a cloth-like structure with her hands. ‘I bring into the open all the things I have taken in that are not mine and thereby make room for something new. I make an external order out of an internal tangle’, Parker said of this work. Indeed, there is something satisfying about seeing the grotesque and abject woven into a symmetrical dress-like structure – which Parker then holds up to shield her nudity – taking on myriad meanings in a feminist context.

Parker uses the female body to awe-inspiring effect in Almost Out (1982), a film that rarely makes it on to the big screen. At 112 minutes it defied the ‘short’ remit of the festival, but was a key part of the CdF Body of Work programme. Self-consciously breaking the taboo of maternal sexuality, Parker films her mother Joyce naked, while asking probing questions such as, ‘Can you see yourself being penetrated?’ Intercut with this footage are scenes showing the filmmaker naked in a similar set-up, being interviewed by a disembodied male who is credited only as ‘Camera-man’. ‘I don’t know what I can do to get you to see me more. I’m sitting here naked and willing to talk’, Parker tells him, before she concedes that, as the film’s scriptwriter and editor, she ultimately is in full control.

Joyce has no such power. Her scenes are seemingly unscripted and she tells her daughter she is taking part only because of the absolute trust she has in her: ‘If you love someone you wouldn’t make them do something they didn’t want. You wouldn’t put them in that position of having to refuse.’ At her daughter’s request, Joyce talks about body image, sex, motherhood and family. Her open and loving manner is at odds with the mode of questioning which is, comparatively, intrusive and confrontational. She fulfils all of Parker’s wishes, apart from explicitly showing her where she came from, whereas her one request – to know if her daughter thought she was a good mother – goes unanswered. But the power imbalance is rectified by comments made by Parker in her own interview: ‘I’m cross with my mother because I depend on her and she sees that I do.’ She claims she wants her mother to desire her. In turn, Joyce wishes she looked young, slim and beautiful – as Parker does. In this way, the cycle of wishes between mother and daughter, and the push/pull dynamic of their exchanges become as fascinating as the taboo-breaking nudity of the piece.

Measures of Distance (1988) is another example of maternal nudity caught on camera. Director Mona Hatoum contrasts the emotional closeness between mother and daughter with their physical distance, brought on by war and exile. Still shots of her mother taking a shower dissolve over images of letters they wrote to one another. A voice-over ties the two together by reading out the text of the letters, which describe the moment the photos were taken, and their repercussions. In Almost Out, Joyce reveals that she was pleased to stop breastfeeding, as it meant her body was her own again and, similarly, Hatoum’s mother describes how her husband feels betrayed by the photos of her taken by their daughter – as if she belonged to him alone.

Body ownership is also the theme of Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977). In the first part of what she describes as an ‘operatic work of three parts’, filmmaker Martha Rosler depicts herself stripping off before being examined by a man in a lab coat. As he reads out every conceivable weight and measurement, such as ‘sitting spread girth’, another man annotates an anatomical diagram in the background. A trio of women signify whether each measurement is above or below average by honking horns, or ringing a bell if the measurement is spot on. She is then made to dress up in ultra-feminine clothes, style her hair and apply make-up before being dismissed. This sequence takes up the best part of the film’s 40 minutes. It is a noble idea, demonstrated well, but the message is repeated to the point of tedium and beyond, and while the political message is urgent the filmmaking certainly is not.

Better filmmaking was seen during the ‘Femmes Fantastique’ programme, which featured new shorts with interesting and original female characters. They tackled a far more wide-ranging and political variety of topics than last year’s selection, and issues such as miscarriage, sexual dysfunction, prostitution and old age were treated with verve and sensitivity. Clare Holman’s winning film, The Escort (2008), showed a woman trying to balance family life with her job as an escort for young people confronted with the police and social services, and the struggles faced by the teenage girl she is currently escorting. While not as explicitly political as the archive films, it demonstrated that women’s issues and spiky storytelling are not mutually exclusive, and that CdF’s call for political filmmaking is not falling entirely on deaf ears.

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: SEBASTIAN GODWIN AND TOM HARPER

The Girls

16th Raindance Film Festival

1-12 Oct 2008

Programme

The Best of 15th Raindance Film Festival Shorts DVD is out now.

Sebastian Godwin’s The Girls and Tom Harper’s Cherries were two of the most memorable shorts presented at last year’s Raindance Festival and deservedly made the short list for the Best UK Short award. They can both be found on the Best of 15th Raindance Shorts DVD. This year’s Raindance Film Festival runs October 1-12 at various venues across London. LISA WILLIAMS caught up with Godwin and Harper to find out what being selected for Raindance last year has meant for them.

SEBASTIAN GODWIN

A graduate of the Lodz Film School in Poland, Sebastian Godwin is drawn to stories that revolve around the family unit. The Girls, completed last year, is about two pre-teens playing a twisted torture game with their father, while his forthcoming short, The Rain Horse, concerns a dad who encounters a wild horse while on a family trip to Wales. Godwin is currently working on a feature film in which he explores the theme further, this time through a story set during a holiday to Spain. ‘I’m interested in families because they can contain a high level of drama and tension’, he says. ‘The family can often be a very political idea as well – the idea that parents protect children, that the family is a “unit”… The family can also be a microcosm of wider society and a good way to explore and challenge certain notions we may have.’

Godwin is particularly interested in the father figure. Notions of patriarchy are placed under scrutiny in his films, often with the fathers being forced to undergo some kind of physical test. In The Girls, the unnamed father is subjected to being blindfolded, smeared in mud, fed with worms and jabbed by a rake. Godwin adapted the script from a short story by Joyce Cary, although the director insists that his version is not as violent as the original: ‘I read the story at school when I was young and it stuck in my mind. It really interested me but I didn’t understand it at the time. In the book, the girls actually strangle the dad but I extended the film so that it is drawn out over 10 minutes and there is more development. It is more playful rather than nasty or violent’.

With an enchanting visual style that moves from steady shots of a fresh autumn garden to a more disorientating, hand-held look as the game escalates, the film is unsettling because of its very domestic setting. Godwin credits the naturalistic feel to the use of different filming styles, which were edited together at the end. This took less planning yet provided a wider choice of shots to choose from for the final version.

As The Girls was one of the highlights of the Raindance Festival shorts last year, it has allowed Godwin to secure better funding for his next project, The Rain Horse, which is part of the Film London and UK Film Council’s Pulse Plus project. The Rain Horse is also an adaptation of a short story, this time by Ted Hughes. While out filming in the rainy Welsh countryside, Godwin reflects that having The Girls shown at Raindance was a big step up for him: ‘Raindance was one of the most helpful things that has happened for my career so far because it was one of the very first showings of the film. We had no idea what the reactions were going to be and everyone at Raindance was incredibly supportive. And the film was nominated for Best Short Film at the festival which meant there were extra screenings and it automatically got more exposure.’

Not resting on his laurels, however, Godwin’s ambition is to make a feature film that would somehow fuse Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. ‘It would be nice to make a film that used the adventure/crazy fun of something like Jurassic Park but make it more indifferent and cold like Haneke’s film, which says something about cinema itself’.

TOM HARPER

Though some people insist they are happy with the short film format, Tom Harper admits that making it through to feature-length territory is no bad thing: ‘I think I will always make shorts when I can but you also need to make money. You can sell feature films and get them distributed, so I would like to make more of them’.

Since his short film Cherries was shown at Raindance last year, he has directed The Last Van Helsing television series and has made a start on his first feature film; known under the working title The Scouting Book for Boys, it is due to be shot later this year. It marks a key change in location and subject matter: Cherries was a paranoid but not wholly unbelievable look at the effect of the Iraq war on an inner London school; his earlier short film Cubs was a stark depiction of urban fox hunting filmed in London. The forthcoming feature, on the other hand, is a coming-of-age film set in a caravan park in Norfolk. Harper insists that his reasons for moving out of London were somewhat practical: ‘This script came up and it was set in a caravan park. As there are no caravan parks in London we had to move out’, he says. ‘I shot my short films in London because it was where I knew and where I grew up but I want to start telling bigger stories about different places’.

His interest in politics remains strong. With a social consciousness due in part to having studied theatre and ideology as part of an academic drama degree, he considers that the filmmaker’s role is not to be taken lightly. ‘If you have the opportunity to make a film I think you have a responsibility to tell a story that needs telling. I don’t want to be overly controversial but if I believe something is right for the story, then I’ll do it’.

Having started out as an editor in post-production, Harper only realised his talent for directing after shooting some of his own footage in order to practise editing. Since then he has taught himself although he acknowledges the role film festivals have played in his career so far: ‘With good festivals, you get a platform for your film as well as an audience. With a festival like Raindance, you also get a great networking arena where you can meet other people’.

Harper is now seeking the help of Shane Meadows’s protégé Thomas Turgoose (who plays the lead role in his new film) to find the right actors for the supporting roles: ‘Thomas is helping us with casting but when we ask him what he thinks of people he always says, “I really like them”. He’s such a talented young man, which is quite unusual to see. He’s going places!’

The same will no doubt be said of Harper himself.

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: STRAIGHT 8

Spring Love

Still from Spring Love

London premiere of 75 of the best of straight 8 08 at Rushes Soho Shorts Festival

July 28-29 at Curzon Mayfair

July 30 at Renoir Cinema

For tickets and information go to straight 8.

While many big filmmakers started their careers with the silent visuals of Super 8, it is likely the device of their humble beginnings is now left to gather dust in the coffers. However, contributors to straight 8, the annual Super 8 filmmaking competition, have clocked on to the fact that the limitations of Super 8 film also give rise to an ‘olde worlde’ creativity and pleasing simplicity.

The rules of the competition are simple; apply to compete, get sent a registered Super 8 cartridge and get three months to make your film. The soundtrack must be supplied separately (to be added later) and the only editing allowed is what you can do on the camera itself. Apart from this, filmmakers are free to fill the 3,600 frames as they see fit.

‘We don’t limit creativity’, says competition founder Ed Sayers. ‘That’s when you get really nice, artistic work. We don’t set a theme and if people have access to studio lighting for example, they can use it. People are starting to be smart about it by playing to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses. Teams can sometimes be up to 10 or 20 people, and it doesn’t have to cost more as no one is being paid.’

This does not mean that those with an eager workforce and a wealth of equipment always end up on top. Sayers is proud of the fact that he has created a level playing field for those wanting to take part. ‘We are about to screen the winning films at Cannes Advertising Week. People working in advertising could be watching a film made by absolutely anyone, including a cardiologist (I explain participants’ professions in the programme). Normally, the entrants are filmmakers but The Last Trip is the third film made by cardiologist Malcolm Finlay and it’s brilliant.’ Finlay’s film is a far-fetched story about a Welshman who wants to send the ashes of a departed friend into space. Simply, yet amusingly told, and starring a host of non-professional actors, it is story-telling at its finest.

Similarly inventive is 2007 winner Sticks and Balls made by Jacqueline Wright and Alice Lowe. Using the euphemistic potential of a game of golf, the film depicts a frolicking female player trying to distract her man while out on the green. Set to a witty electro soundtrack, it is easy to see why it has notched up nearly 30,000 hits on YouTube, demonstrating the potential of basic filmmaking.

Often entries are lavishly executed, their simplicity betrayed only by the occasional flickering or underexposure at the edges of the frame. Some have even pushed the camera to its limits by coming up with painstakingly meticulous production methods. Herrjaapmans’s Spring Love, for example, follows a couple through the streets and parks on a spring day. The simple love story is made more complex in two ways: Firstly, it is set to the jagged edges of the soundtrack; secondly (and most impressively) it is filmed entirely in stop-motion so that the actors are suspended in the air for each and every shot. ‘The actors had to leap into the air. It’s amazing that they were all caught mid-air for every single shot, you would expect a couple of them to be on the ground but it is just done so well’, says Sayers. ‘The title is a clever play on words in that it’s spring and they’re literally springing in the air. When someone has a really great technique and works it so well into a theme, that’s when I really want to show the film up on a big screen.’

The suspense of darkroom development, often forgotten in the wake of ever-ready digital imaging, is magnified by the competition, as the winners see their films for the very first time only when they are being screened to an entire cinema audience. This is obviously part of the fun. Some of this year’s films were given a preview screening on Channel 4, but the man behind The Last Trip reportedly avoided watching his film on TV, preferring to wait until the Cannes screening.

It is the unpredictability of Super 8 that Ed Sayers loves above all. ‘You could accidentally push ‘record’ as you’re walking across the road and when you watch the film a random floor shot will appear – which actually happens quite a lot – and you will be worried but no one else will really notice it.’ Maybe precisely because of that unpredictability, Sayers believes that it takes a lot of careful planning to make a good Super 8 film: ‘You have to be a bit ‘zen’ and go with it. You have to plan thoroughly and do more pre-production. It pushes you to be a better filmmaker.’

Super 8 can also help to remind the industry types what filmmaking is all about. ‘Kodak started to show an interest in what we were doing and suggested we did a regular screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Now some people tell us that it’s the part of the festival that they most look forward to. Super 8 appeals to these ‘grown-up’ film people as it is often easy for them to forget what attracted them to the industry in the first place.’

Sayers is particularly proud of the fact that 75 of the 175 films submitted to this year’s straight 8 will be shown in London at the end of July during the Rushes Soho Shorts Festival, both at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair and the Renoir cinema near Russell Square. ‘It’s amazing how a film that began with an old camera can end up in a nice cinema like the Curzon or the Renoir. From having no budget, to having a West End audience! This is why we do it.’

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2008

I Love Sarah Jane

Still from I Love Sarah Jane

Edinburgh Film Festival

18-29 June 2008

Festival website

Now in its sixth decade, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is still unrelenting in its dedication to short films. This is, after all, the festival that nurtured the careers of filmmakers Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold by supporting their early shorts. This year’s festival boasts six programmes, which all reflect the festival’s commitment to screening challenging work as well as its rejection of Western-centrism: a programme of solely Scottish shorts sits alongside an international category that has contributions from Turkey and Israel among others.

Other programmes include ‘Love Bites’ – a look at the bitter aftertaste of love – and ‘Child Proof’, which groups together films that use child characters in an unconventional way. Both these categories were chosen in order to explore recurring themes in a way that would not betray the originality of the submitted material, according to the festival’s short film programmer Matt Lloyd. ‘There are so many short films that use children’, says Lloyd. ‘Often everything is seen through the eyes of a child – that is fine but it has become so prevalent. The films in our selection go against the grain. Similarly, films about relationships and love often form a large part of the work we see but we’re showing a film about an attempt at sex in a sick bed (Sick Sex). We’ve also got a film called I Love Sarah Jane, which is a love story set in a post-apocalyptic suburb overrun by zombies’.

The fact that short film allows people to push boundaries is not lost on Lloyd, who compares his role as programmer to that of a DJ. ‘I choose films I like and which I think other people will like but I also have to give consideration to how they work together in the 90 minutes of a programme. We can afford to be experimental. The beauty of it is that when you’re watching a short film programme, if you don’t like one of the films, you know it’s going to be over in a few minutes and you’ll probably like the next’.

Film conventions are also subverted in 2 Birds, a film about the growing pains of two teenagers. ‘Coming-of-age films are always about people at a crossroad in their life’, said its Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson. ‘They have to make a decision and this makes them grow wise or lose their innocence. I was interested in a story about how the main characters end up after this. Some people may interpret what the characters do as taking drugs but there is no close-up of the drugs and it is not supposed to be about them specifically. I have a friend who is very Christian and for him the drugs are the Biblical apple. Apparently, there is some kind of myth about Adam and Jesus which was found written in a manuscript and he recognised this story in the film but I hadn’t heard of this – I guess some people are cleverer than me’.

Screening his film at Edinburgh must mean a lot to Rúnarsson, whose last film to be shown at the festival – The Last Farm – went on to be nominated for an Oscar. But most contributors agree that the charm of the event is the opportunity to see burgeoning themes and practices. ‘It’s great to see which works are evolving. With short films you can be experimental and really push things so it’s the place to see what is emerging – it’s like a mini-subculture’, said British director Piers Thompson.

Thompson hopes that his film K, the story of an encounter between a teenage girl and a vagrant on a bleak island, will go down as well in Edinburgh as it has done elsewhere. ‘It’s about a 15-year-old living in the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary with her father. I worked on a documentary out there and saw the location, which I just loved. It’s really barren and really strange – especially out of season. We showed it in Berlin and it worked well there as they liked the cold and clinical aspect of it’.

The aesthetic quality of a film is something that director Sarah Tripp also takes very seriously. Tripp comes from a graphic design and fine art background, and has ample experience of photography, drama and writing, so her short films are the culmination of a broad artistic outlook. ‘What I love about film is how it uses so many other art forms – the aspect of performance, storytelling, photography – and music, which is so important to narrative and the building of emotion. Film builds different sub-disciplines into one’.

Her film Let me show you some things is about a brother and sister meeting after years of estrangement and constructing a relationship by showing each other mementos from the past. It is based on a short story Tripp wrote as part of her artist-in-residence role at Glasgow’s Centre of Contemporary Arts and was turned into a film using improvisation by drama group Stage 5. ‘The film is highly autobiographical. It is about whether or not the brother and sister will reunite and about the dissipation of the relationship’.

She too has high hopes for this year’s festival. ‘I think under Hannah McGill the festival has huge potential. She is a really interesting woman with a fresh outlook. We should see new practices in the short film categories this year. Short films show that despite living in a digital era, creativity is not being compromised’.

Lisa Williams

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews