BAADER’S ANGELS: INTERVIEW WITH PAMELA JAHN

Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom

Baader’s Angels: Women’s Roles in German Terrorism Films

6-10 December 2007

ICA, London

Programme

Born from the radical student movement of the late sixties, the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof group, as it was known in the press, threatened the stability of the West German state for a decade. Their violent attacks against a right-wing establishment that they saw as a direct continuation of Nazi Germany deeply polarised the nation and put into question the very foundations of German democracy. It’s been thirty years since the group’s leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, died in prison, and the ICA is marking the event by presenting a season of films that focuses on the role women have played in the revolutionary movement. We talked to Pamela Jahn, curator of the season, to find out more.

Virginie Sélavy: The thirtieth anniversary of the death of the Baader-Meinhof gang leaders is a strange anniversary to mark. In your view what does it represent?

Pamela Jahn: First of all, when I was thinking of putting the season together I struggled with marking the death of the leaders as an anniversary, so I decided to call it not an anniversary but rather a season to remember the German Autumn. I think that the debate over the deaths in Stammheim over the last few years is about German democracy, and the way that the police dealt with them is still something that interests a lot of people in Germany, especially because many former RAF members are now being released from prison. There’s a lot going on in Germany and I thought that might well be of interest to people elsewhere too.

VS: Yes, definitely, I think there’s an interest in this all over Europe. Why did you decide to concentrate specifically on the role of women in these filmic representations of German terrorism?

PJ: Two reasons mainly. The first one was that I personally found it really interesting that when you look at, for example, old wanted posters you see that almost half of the people that the police were looking for were actually women. I think that women played a very important role in the RAF. While I was looking for films a lot of filmmakers pointed out the struggle that women had experienced personally and politically at that time.

VS: It is striking to see the number of women who were part of the RAF, not just the leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but many other young women. How do you explain that? Why did so many young women join such a hardcore revolutionary movement at the time?

PJ: I think one of the reasons was that it all started in the late sixties, and even though I wouldn’t call it a feminist movement, I think a lot of women were given the opportunity to actually act within the group. They also found a base to fight against what was going on in West Germany and everything that they didn’t agree with. And I think they were given as much space as men, and maybe that was something rather typical in West Germany, more so than in other countries at that time.

VS: There definitely seems to be a link between the involvement in the RAF and the feminist struggle in the story of people like Inge Viett, that we see in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. In her case, there seems to be a clear connection between personal and political struggle.

PJ: I think Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the best example of the way the women explain why they did what they did and I think that what Inge Viett says applies to most of the women who were active within the RAF. This is why it’s a very important film within the season, as much as The Legends of Rita, in the way that it shows how a lot of women terrorists had to take on another identity. I find it incredibly interesting how Schlí¶ndorff deals with the fact that there’s a woman actually on the other side [the East German side] who’s trying to change her life, to escape from her previous identity and to find a new identity in a new country. All these films focus a lot on the political situation in the separated and then unified Germany.

VS: You’ve mentioned Volker Schlí¶ndorff and it’s interesting that in such a short season that features only five films, there are two films by him, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Legends of Rita. Why did you include those two films in the selection?

PJ: Because I think Schlí¶ndorff was not only important at the time – he also plays an important role in Germany in Autumn, which was made in 1977-1978 as a reaction to the events of the time – but it’s also very interesting to see his development within his own filmography. He comes from The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and then [25 years later] he picks up the topic again to do The Legends of Rita. I think he’s one of the crucial directors when it comes to terrorist films made in Germany and especially within New German Cinema.

VS: What’s also interesting in the comparison between the two films is that in Katharina Blum you have a character who’s come into contact with a terrorist but is not actually one herself. In The Legends of Rita, Rita is actually a terrorist and she’s been involved in violent action. Do you think that Schlí¶ndorff could have made a film like this in 1975 or do you think that at the time it would have been unacceptable to portray such a violent female terrorist?

PJ: I’m pretty sure he could have. What I think he was more interested in back in 1975 when he made The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was the way the media dealt with the German Autumn and the death of Baader and Ensslin in Stammheim. I think that at the time he wanted to point out the particular problem of the media’s attitude in West Germany rather than show the personal destiny of someone who was an active member of the group. I think what was more important to him was to show how you can become a victim of the media even if you are not directly active yourself. But at the same time it shows the character’s own sense of democracy and resistance.

VS: In The Legends of Rita, Rita is a kind of composite of various female members of the RAF. There are elements in her character that come from the real life of female members of the RAF. How does Schlí¶ndorff portray these women terrorists through the character of Rita? What does he show about them through that character?

JD: I think he shows her struggle to carry on living. Whether you want to or not you have to take on a new identity and live under cover to survive. And that’s not really related to Meinhof or Ensslin who actually decided to end their lives in prison instead of doing everything they could to survive. Rita Vogt was never like a real character, she was never a real terrorist. Interestingly enough, it’s a story Schlí¶ndorff wrote with [Wolfgang] Kohlhaase, who is an East German screenwriter, which makes it even more interesting in the connection between East and West Germany. I think that it is really about the second movement of the RAF and what happened after the German Autumn and how these active men and women who had played an important part in the movement had to struggle to go on and had to keep their will to fight for whatever they thought was the political future of Germany.

VS: In Rita’s story there are echoes of the life of Inge Viett, a member of the RAF who took refuge in East Germany to escape prosecution in the West and whose life is documented in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. By including these two films in the season did you think that it would be interesting to have this kind of echo between this fictional story and the real story of someone like Inge Viett?

JP: They are connected to each other, of course, and even though The Legends of Rita was made up it certainly relates to real-life stories.

VS: I think this mirroring of fiction and reality among the different films in the season is quite interesting.

PJ: Definitely. And it’s really cleverly done, for example The Legends of Rita never mentions any RAF events, it’s never said, it’s never shown, there aren’t many references directly given in the film. But you don’t have to know much about the RAF when you’re watching the film.

VS: Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the only straightforward documentary in the season. Why did you pick this one in particular, rather than for instance, a film like Ulrike Marie Meinhof, the 1994 documentary about the RAF leader?

PJ: I found it interesting to see not just a portrait of one of the most famous leaders of the RAF but to show the personal struggle of all these women who were fighting within the RAF and for its aims. I thought that the comparison between the destinies of the two women [Inge Viett and Urugayan anarchist Maria Barhoum] was done in a very sensitive and very interesting way. When I first saw the film I was really impressed not only by those two lives but also by the emotional impact it has on everyone, even someone from a later generation.

VS: It is a very interesting film, also because there is no commentary to help you figure things out. It’s just these two women reminiscing and meeting in Cuba, and although it obviously has a lot of meaning for them, that’s never overly emphasized.

PJ: I have to say that one of my major problems in putting this season together was that a lot of the films that I would have liked to have shown are just not subtitled. I really wanted to have Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom and at the same time screen Marianne and Juliane, which is related to Ensslin’s life, and it would have been incredibly interesting to show them as a double bill, but unfortunately there is no longer any subtitled print available.

VS:Yes, it seems like an obvious film to show in this season.

PJ:I know, I was hoping until the last minute that we would be able to get hold of it but unfortunately we couldn’t.

VS:There were two other films that I was going to ask you about, two films that were actually made by or connected to the two main female leaders of the group. Ulrike Meinhof made a film called Bambule in 1970, a TV drama set in a girls’ boarding school. It wasn’t broadcast until 1997, and it’s obviously a very rarely screened film, so this would have been a great opportunity to show it. Did you consider including it?

PJ:I would have loved to show it but as it was only produced for TV there is no subtitled version of it and we can’t show anything that is not subtitled, even though I think that there is actually a large German community in London that would have been interested in seeing it.

VS:I think other people would have come as well. Even if you don’t understand, it would be such an amazing thing to see!

PJ:Of course, but even with the few films that we’re showing I was already struggling. It’s a shame because there are a lot of very interesting documentaries that were made for TV in Germany, which don’t necessarily concentrate on women but which would have been very interesting to show to an audience that is not directly involved in the whole political situation. I’m glad that I can at least screen Germany in Autumn. I used it as a kind of historical background even though it also deals with women’s struggles in a lot of ways. It is interesting to see Fassbinder in a very emotional conversation with his mother who’s completely passive because of the generation she’s from – basically the WWII generation – but it also shows a few women who were not terrorists but who were trying to deal with German history at that time. So even that film is somehow related to what I wanted to show with this season. There have been a lot of seasons about this subject, in other European countries and also at the ICA in 2002. Personally I found it most interesting to show the women characters depicted in the New German Cinema films.

VS:The other film I was going to ask you about is the one that Gudrun Ensslin starred in in 1967, Das Abonnement. I suppose that must be even more difficult to get hold of than the other films?

PJ:Yeah, I would have loved to see that film but I couldn’t get hold of it. It would have been incredibly interesting to see her acting. But it was made before she became a leader of the RAF.

VS:It sounds like a very intriguing film: it’s been described as pornographic and experimental at the same time.

PJ:Yes, it would have been interesting. In Germany now they’re currently shooting the film version of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the book that was written by Stefan Aust. It would have been great to show that as well but I would have had to wait until next year.

VS:Three of the five films you’re showing were made in 2000, while the other two were made in the 70s. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to mix films from the time with more recent films?

PJ:I really wanted to show the development not only in terms of time going by and how people from different generations are now living with what happened in the late 60s and 70s, but also to show the development of the New German Cinema. I think 2000 was a crucial date. After the wall came down a lot of filmmakers started to think about how to deal with that subject again. It’s all related to the new unified Germany in some way or another. So I wanted to make people aware of that development, in the political situation and the personal situation of the terrorists, because it was only in the early 90s that they said they would stop their activities.

VS:The State I Am In is a bit different from the other films you’re showing because it focuses on the daughter of former terrorists. Why did you choose to include that one in the season?

PJ:Because even though she’s only fifteen, in a way she’s a woman. What also interested me was that even though she’s from a completely different generation, she has to deal with whatever her parents did, she’s thrown into a life that she didn’t choose. It made me think of the lives of women like Anne Frank, who basically don’t have a choice in the first place. She’s a strong character, you can see where she comes from, her family roots are showing in the way she struggles to deal with her situation; even though she’s looking for a normal teenage life, she is very political in her own right.

VS:There’s another German film that deals with the younger generation’s attitude towards 70s politics, called The Edukators in English. It’s interesting that there is a focus in these two recent films on how the younger generation responds to this period, and on their way of being political, because it’s different from the previous generation.

PJ:Yes, it is. I think it’s also got to do with the fact that the whole RAF movement and the Baader-Meinhof Complex is becoming more and more a sort of cultural phenomenon, as it happens with a lot of political events and especially personalities, if you look at Che Guevara for instance. I think that there is this strong political stance among the German youth, probably because of our history. It’s a great topic for filmmakers to pick up and to show how they think we can deal with that and how to go on in life if you have a history like that.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

SHORT CUTS: THE LONDON SHORT FILM FESTIVAL

Philip Ilson and Kate Taylor

London Short Film Festival

4-14 January 2008

ICA, Curzon Soho, Roxy Bar and Screen

LSFF website

This year’s London Short Film Festival is the fifth organised by Halloween, but the first to run under that name. Halloween co-founder Philip Ilson explains: ‘When we started the festival four years ago we were actually going to call it the London Short Film Festival but we thought that by calling it Halloween – because we’d been using the name for a few years – it’d help to have that kind of ongoing connection with what we’d been doing. And also I think the pressure would have been on quite a lot at the beginning if we’d called it the LSFF, which has happened this year. I think there is a certain amount of pressure for us to deliver something that might be considered more mainstream than what we’ve done in the past. But it’s still us, and the only difference this year is that there are going to be more industry-based events because we’re linking up with people like the Film Council and Shooting People.’

Overall the programme follows the same template as in previous years, with shorts gathered into loosely themed selections – comedy, horror, love, experimental, and a Fortean Times-sponsored night of general weird stuff. Turntable Café will be organising a night of British-centric visuals while Darryl’s Hard Liquor & Porn Film Festival are coming all the way from Toronto to present work. In spite of the name, it’s not a porn festival, but rather a comedy event: Darryl’s co-director Jill Rosenberg’s entry at last year’s Halloween was Origasmi, an origami sex film.

Music is again an important feature of this year’s festival with events featuring XX Teens and The Young Knives. Says Ilson: ‘We link up with organisations that we like that are doing interesting things. Transgressive Records are an independent label, they’ve got lots of up-and-coming young bands like Foals, Jeremy Warmsley and The Young Knives. The Young Knives got a few filmmakers to make a video for each track of their new album. We’re going to premiere all the videos – which will be on the album released later that month – and the band will do a live set afterwards.’

As in previous years, there will be retrospectives of directors whose films have been regularly screened at Halloween events. This year, the focus is on Asif Kapadia, who presented his masterful second feature Far North at the London Film Festival in October, and Jes Benstock, who won the award for best film at the first Halloween festival. Benstock gained notoriety for his music videos, including one for Orbital, but over the years he has become more of a documentary filmmaker, though this is not a path he had deliberately chosen. ‘Creative life tends not to work in straight lines’, explains Benstock. ‘I started with a half-hour film called Poof, which wasn’t a documentary as such but was real-life filming in real time. But it wasn’t well received so I thought I’d do something else for a while. I did a lot of interactive art and art installations, and then made videos for live music shows. Then some people I knew were doing an audiovisual programme for ITV with VJs and DJs. I’d been VJ-ing for a while, but this was a chance to create a ten-minute audiovisual work with no editorial control. It was a chance for me to experiment. The first one I did was Baby Dreams, which was a conjecture of what my then three-month-old baby son would dream about. There was a lot of colour and animated toys as well as people and family gatherings. I found it really interesting so I did another called Phosphenes, which are what you see when you close your eyes. It was a ten-minute animation with the music of Professor Oz. I really liked the idea of combining the visual elements of animation with documentary so I moved in that direction.’

This year, the festival’s women’s award will be given by Club des Femmes. Sarah Wood, who won Halloween’s best film award last year with I Want To Be A Secretary, runs Club des Femmes with Selina Robertson, a former programmer at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Wood and Robertson started Club des Femmes to show experimental work by women filmmakers. ‘We use a lot of old artists’ films which we want to re-contextualise. We choose work that is innovative, pioneering and adventurous so we match up well with what Philip does with Halloween’, says Wood. ‘For the festival we wanted to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Kathy Acker. We love her and we thought it would be interesting to show films that pay tribute to her work and combine that with readings of her writings. She wrote about inappropriate and radical sex, so we’ve chosen films with the same kind of sex-positive ideas.’

The festival has always been an occasion to link up with organisations outside of London and to showcase their work. Last year, 7inchCinema came down from Birmingham and this year it’s the turn of Bristol Meth, a collective of artists led by David Hopkinson. ‘Bristol Meth is based around three films made in Bristol’, says Hopkinson. ‘One is my video art piece called Cutting Up My Friends, which is about the mix of people who are part of the Cube cinema. Then there’s a film called Get Good, an extended music video by Frí ní§ois and Rozi Plain, who are musicians and animators. It’s a very sweet love story about the start of a relationship but it’s also very experimental. The third, Don’t Do Tricks, is a skate film by Lady Lucy and James Canyon. It’s a day in the life of a feminist skateboarder. All the films are underground, self-funded indie films made in Bristol around the same time, featuring some of the same people and locations. I put them together as I thought they were interesting as a trilogy. They’re often shown accompanied by live music. They show the cross-fertilisation going on in the underground Bristol scene. It’s all based around the Cube cinema, which is a very important meeting point for creative people in Bristol.’

With such an array of juicy delights, it looks like the London Short Film Festival will live up to its bigger, bolder name: it’s good to see that, despite the influx of sponsoring money, the projector’s teeth are still as sharp as ever.

Lisa Williams and Virginie Sélavy

REVIEW OF THE YEAR: 2007

La Antena

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2007.

VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY:

THE GOOD

Exiled
Johnnie To’s most accomplished film to date combines punchy direction with a well-knit, pleasingly convoluted script while the unusual Macau setting, with its colonial buildings and desert landscapes, is utilised to magnificent effect. With Exiled, To is openly emulating Sergio Leone, and this is a great riff on the Italian master’s trademark mix of playfulness, melancholy and spectacular violence.

Ten Canoes
A wonderful folk tale set in an Aboriginal community, Ten Canoes is about the eternal story of mankind – a repetitive tale of love, lust, jealousy, conflict, food, farts, shit and death. Although it presents itself as a morality tale, the film is anything but, the ending being a joyfully inconclusive illustration of the messiness of human life. One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

Inland Empire
There is an experimental, uncompromising feel to this three-hour dream tale as well as a structural and thematic ambition that make it one of David Lynch’s best films in a long time. Lynch uses the set-up of the film-within-the film not as an empty self-reflexive device but as a way of exploring the idea of different levels of reality. The film is very much concerned with time, a fluid, non-linear kind of time, with doors, windows and TV screens providing the gateways from one dimension to another. This is no virtuoso demonstration of temporal complexity, however, and the echoing fragments of time are all connected to an eternally repeating tragic love story.

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic fairy tale set amid breathtaking landscapes. Against the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival, an increasingly tense triangle develops between two women and the escaped soldier they have rescued. At a time when there is so much angsty questioning about the state of British filmmaking, it is baffling that such a beautifully accomplished film should still be awaiting distribution.

Frozen
A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film.

La Antena
In this magical fairy tale from Argentina a megalomaniac TV boss has stolen the voices of the city’s inhabitants. In a delightfully playful homage to silent film, blonde heroines and intrepid, if slightly bumbling heroes on bizarre flying implements bravely stand up to the fascistic villains. The wonders of early twentieth-century mechanical inventions are mixed with surreal touches to create a cautionary tale about brutally repressive power-hungry media moguls. Enchanting, quaintly charming but also very timely.

THE BAD

The Fountain
Peddling mystical rubbish of the most literal kind, The Fountain has nothing but tiresome special effects to guide us on the path to enlightenment. Sadly, this atrocious new-age mumbo-jumbo comes from the director who gave us the brilliantly inventive Pi in 1998.

TOM HUDDLESTON:

THE GOOD

This Is England
Shane Meadows cements his position as Britain’s finest living filmmaker with this savage, sympathetic, angry, nostalgic, hilarious and heartbreaking study of his own conflicted childhood, in which a poignant study of England’s past becomes a stark warning for our collective future.

I’m Not There
There’s no doubt that it helps to be a Dylanophile when viewing Todd Haynes’ magical, fractured take on the great man’s life and work, riddled as it is with in-jokes, references, and entire plots and sequences inspired not by real life but by Dylan’s lyrics, lies and exaggerations. But as an exploration of the relationship between creator and creations, between truth, fantasy and self-expression, I’m Not There is truly worthy of its subject.

Zodiac
The best journo-procedural since All The President’s Men, this is by far David Fincher’s best film since Se7en (not that there’s been much in the way of competition). Expansive, involving and gorgeously photographed while still managing to be genuinely disturbing, Zodiac is prestige filmmaking in the classic sense.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros
A giddy, gender-bending, bizarrely loveable take on City of God, replete with corrupt cops, shabby small-time crooks and wayward street punks, all in orbit around the titular cross-dressing twelve-year-old, a dayglo whirlwind in high heels and his dead mother’s dresses. Ghetto fabulous, in a very literal sense.

Knocked Up/ Superbad
In a year bereft of a decent studio blockbuster it was left to Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow to save our summer. And they succeeded admirably, with a pair of crass, juvenile, deliriously heart-warming indie-stoner comedies, reuniting the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and marking a high point for American comedy unseen since Bill Murray was king.

THE UGLY

Death Proof
In a bumper year for badness (300, Exodus and Pirates 3 were all strong contenders) one film effortlessly clawed its way to the top of the dung heap: Death Proof is boring, crass, pretentious, totally wastes Kurt Russell and offers yet another unwanted insight into Quentin’s bizarre, conflicted, adolescent view of women as either whores or heroes, preferably both.

SARAH CRONIN

THE GOOD

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
An edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a riveting film about oppression in Communist-era Romania, told through the eyes of two young women entangled in a backstreet abortion. Excellent performances and brilliant cinematography help make this Palme d’Or-winning film one of the best of 2007.

The Counterfeiters
Stylishly shot and superbly acted, The Counterfeiters is a film set during the Holocaust that manages to be suspenseful, entertaining and provocative, perfectly capturing the agonising decisions that tormented the men in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who were recruited by the Nazis for the largest-ever counterfeiting operation in history.

THE BAD

I Don’t Want to Live Alone
Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. Unfortunately, his latest film I Don’t Want to Live Alone is a dreary, unspeakably dull film that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions.

LISA WILLIAMS:

THE GOOD

This Is England
Another stylish addition to the country’s canon of social realism. Meadows abandons his hardcore revenge fixation and replaces it with a tenderness delivered through a coming-of-age story. It soars from the highs of sexual awakening to the lows of a racist’s squalid flat and has an excellent ska-soaked soundtrack to boot.

Control
While nothing can get close to explaining the last moments of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ troubled life, through its measured characterisation and telegraphic storytelling Control comes close. Corbijn evokes the aesthetics of the period through moody monochrome, but his characters are anything but black and white.

Eagle vs Shark
The last few years has seen a glut of pastel-hued kooky movies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Eagle vs Shark never pretends to be anything different. But the unrelenting geeky arrogance of its male lead juxtaposed with the sheepish sweetness of its female lead makes for a successfully offbeat rom-com with the perfect ratio of emotional moments to funny ones.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
This documentary about the life and times of the Clash’s infamous lead singer feels more like an extended television programme than a movie but how else could Julien Temple fit in so many testaments to the musician’s wit and wisdom? Archive footage spliced with interviews with Strummer’s friends and associates cleverly asserts his sound musical and cultural legacy.

Opera Jawa
It is centuries-old and its musicians can play overnight concerts without a break but no one thought of using gamelan on a film soundtrack until Javan film director Nugroho earlier this year. The eerie sounds and patterns unfamiliar to a Western ear accompany this love story to its tragic end while the art installations, lively dance sequences and a good use of colour make this film the most visually spectacular of the year.

THE UGLY

Hairspray
Although John Waters gave it its full blessing, this remake is a poor interpretation of the original. Its theme of racial integration and the idea of accepting oneself no matter one’s size are undeniably healthy for the younger audience, but the un-PC sleaze and flamboyant style and most importantly, the music of the original are shamefully missing.

ALEX FITCH:

THE GOOD

Persepolis
A perfect animated version of the popular graphic novel, which mixes terrific caricature and subtle chiaroscuro shading. A touching coming-of-age story about an Iranian girl who never feels at home in her own country or studying abroad is the best animated film in years and one that’s attractive to older children and adults alike.

Drawing Restraint 9
Matthew Barney’s latest cinematic masterpiece is a memorable epic that confirms his talent not only as an artist but also as a filmmaker. Mixing his usual esoteric but beautiful imagery of sexuality and daily routine Barney brings the ritual and paraphernalia of whaling into sharp relief.

30 Days of Night
Continuing this year’s trend (300, Persepolis) of turning cult graphic novels into films that capture the aesthetic of their original format, 30 Days is the best vampire movie since the original Blade and the best horror film set in the frozen North since John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

Zodiac
David Fincher continues to bring the finest thrillers in a generation to cinema screens. Here, he has made an almost flawless melodrama that mixes Robert Downey Jr.’s finest performance to date with a perfect policier of the French tradition that has as many evocative temporal stylings and red herrings as you could possibly hope for.

Brand upon the Brain!
Cynics might accuse Guy Maddin of being a one-trick pony – producing obscure silent movies full of deviant sexuality and exaggerated performances – but no one else does it so well! In his latest, a lurid tale of orphans, mad (naked) scientists and a haunted lighthouse combine to produce another memorable phantasmagoria that could make Lemony Snicket jealous!

THE BAD

Running Stumbled
John Maringouin’s self-indulgent and exploitative verité movie is a mixture of real life and staged performance that brings to the screen a depressing tale of drug addicts in pre-Katrina New Orleans. There’s enough material here for a diverting short film, but at feature length, the director’s stunt seems to be mainly concerned with trying the audience’s patience…

CLAUDIA ANDREI:

THE GOOD

The Lives of Others
The film deservedly scored a foreign language Oscar: It’s 1984 in Communist East Germany, and Big Brother is watching its citizens. More precisely, Stasi top dog Weisler oversees the surveillance of George Dreyman, under suspicion for being the only non-subversive playwright in the land. A bleak tale of how state and secret police control the masses, and of how little has changed.

Two Days in Paris
This DIY affair from Oscar-nominee Delpy (who wrote, produced, directed and starred) is the ultimate antidote to saccharine love stories. Razor-sharp dialogue, oddball characters, twisted humour and political undertones make for a spicy anarchic soufflé.

Joe Strummer – The Future Is Unwritten
Julien Temple is no amateur when it comes to making music documentaries. Combining archive footage with rare interviews and other snippets, the film celebrates the late Clash frontman as a legend whose punk ideology is here to stay. With contributions from the likes of Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese, this is as cool as it gets!

The Bow
A poetic tale of love and betrayal on the high seas – and not a pirate in sight. An old fisherman and a young girl live on a boat – isolated from the mainland. He boosts his income by acting as a clairvoyant – using the girl and a magic bow as his tools. Magic is pushed off the plank, however, with the arrival of a young stranger…

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Forget the gun-wielding, bank-robbing James gang… for this is more American Gothic than Wild West. In fact, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy that de-mystifies the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and portrays his killer (Casey Affleck) as a psychological wreck. Superb!

THE UGLY

Rabbit Fever
Hailed as the most hilarious Brit comedy of the year, Rabbit Fever tells of sexually frustrated females who find nirvana via the aid of, ahem, the Rabbit vibrator! The humour is as low as an exhausted Duracell battery bunny, and cameos by an all-star cast do nothing to stimulate the G-Spot!

BEN DOOLEY:

THE GOOD

I For India
A truly impressive and emotionally complex film memoir about life for a family of Indian migrants settling in Britain in the 60s and trying both to maintain contact with their faraway relatives – with increasing desperation – and to understand a Britain in the age of Enoch and Maggie, of mass poverty, unemployment and racism. Director Sandhya Suri displays creative intelligence in her use of a Super-8 diary sent back and forth between her doctor father and his family in India in combination with archive TV footage, bringing to the fore a multiplicity of voices that speak of the contradictions inherent in the immigrant condition.

Inland Empire
David Lynch undoubtedly remains the modern master of suspense and horror. While many directors are content with setting us up in a believable world and terrifying us with the monsters that lurk beneath, Lynch is really only ever interested in ripping reality apart to tear into the psyche and the world of cinema itself. Terrific stuff!

Funny Ha Ha
First-time actress Kate Dollenmayer is captivating as Marnie, suffering through the doldrums of post-university loneliness; unemployed, single and floating through pointless parties and dull temporary jobs. Director Andrew Bujalski is clearly indebted to Cassavetes’ emphasis on improvised interactions between actors, but nevertheless offers up a smart and funny script that hones in on a time of life close to his heart with a documentarist’s eye for detail.

INTERVIEW WITH ANDERS MORGENTHALER

Anders Morgenthaler

Title: Princess

Format: DVD

Release date: 7 January 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Anders Morgenthaler

Screenplay: Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler

Cast Thure Lindhardt, Stine Fischer Christensen

Denmark 2006

78 mins

Thought-provoking, decidedly un-PC and formally inventive, Anders Morgenthaler’s first feature Princess mixes animation with some live action to tell the story of a young woman, Christina, who becomes a porn star under the name ‘Princess’. When she dies, her intense, guilt-racked priest brother August takes in her five-year-old daughter Mia and sets out to destroy all material starring his sister, which leads to a violent confrontation with unscrupulous porn barons. Below, the Danish director discusses some of the most controversial aspects of the film and explains why he used animation to comment on sex and violence.

Virginie Sélavy: What was the starting point of the film? Did you begin with the idea of criticising the porn industry or with the idea of a revenge story?

Anders Morgenthaler: I started to do it because I wanted to comment on the roughness of the porn industry. I really love the work of the Japanese photographer Araki, I’m very fond of the way he mixes sexuality and art. He made a book called Tokyo Lucky Hole where he cruised the prostitution district in Tokyo in the 80s and took pictures of the girls in a very refined way. They became something other than sexual objects. That made me see them in a different way. Suddenly I saw these girls, I saw their faces, and then I had this idea, what if that was my sister, or my mother or my daughter? I think that was the turning point, because when you start thinking like that, you don’t get disgusted by sex, you get disgusted by what these people have experienced in their lives that made them decide to do porn. And that was the start of Princess. If you start thinking not from a larger social point of view but on a more intimate level, what would it be like if this happened to someone around you, then you find the anger and the rage very fast. And from there on it became a revenge story.

VS: Is that what you were trying to imagine? That Princess was your sister?

AM: No, no. Actually I had a big problem with the Danish press. People abroad seem to understand the movie a lot better, that it’s a kind of fairy tale, it’s not realism, it’s based on reality but it’s a poetic, gruesome fairy tale. In Denmark it was taken exactly like, oh that’s you, that’s exactly like it is. And the movie can’t be treated that way, it would be way too violent.

VS: So the Danish press thought that you were saying, go out and kill all the porn producers?

AM: Exactly. They said, OK, this guy believes that. And I can’t believe they missed the point, because the whole point of the movie is, don’t do it, don’t react like August does.

VS: It seems quite clear that you’re not advocating violence because we see that August’s actions lead to some very nasty, tragic things.

AM: I think most men tend to react like August does, with anger and rage and violence. We want to tear the fucking world apart, and find the person who’s responsible. The film is done from a very male perspective. What the movie is saying on a higher level is that if a woman had taken Mia in, and I tried to put that in at the start of the movie with the old hooker character, she’s obviously not a role model, but she would probably have taken better care of Mia.

VS: Why is August a priest?

AM: I needed to create a job function for August within which he could react. Therefore I had to set up a character who lived by a set of rules. In the first draft he was a soldier coming home from the Army. But then it would be too obvious that he would go berserk and kill the whole world. So I had a talk with one of the writers and she said, what if he was a priest. I had thought about that but I thought it might be too obvious. But making movies is an organic process so thinking about it, it became very clear to me that if you want a person to go completely berserk then you have to take someone with religious beliefs. Because they have a set of rules that they live by, they have moral standards. So just having him in a priest outfit sets the rules for the way he’s going to react.

VS: You’re making a film that is very critical of porn but at the same time there is some extremely brutal violence in the film. Do you think that there is a risk that some people might like the film because they enjoy those violent scenes?

AM: I think that’s a pretty big risk! (laughs) Men like harsh reactions to emotional things. I like him reacting like that. I wish I didn’t but I like it. I like the fact that Mia takes out this crow bar and removes this man’s genitals, which is a very harsh and violent scene.

VS: It’s a very shocking scene, because she’s five years old.

AM: But the point of the scene is that she’s completely ruined from that point on. She was a ruined girl before but the moment they do that, you experience five seconds of happiness in the act of revenge but eventually it ruins you. If you start living up revenge, you start breaking all of civilisation’s rules. And from then on you’re an animal.

VS: Do you feel that the violence is more acceptable to audiences because it’s animation?

AM: It makes it bearable to watch. You can sit in the cinema for the whole film. If I’d made it in the same way but entirely in live action then many people would probably have left, because it would be too much. And I could never justify putting a little girl through a film like this. I just couldn’t do it.

VS: So animation is a way of…

AM: It’s a way of keeping a distance. I think the good thing about animation is that you can use it to create a poetic feeling. And I think that succeeded very well in Princess. That would have been much harder to do in a live action film with a budget like this. It’s also a budget thing. If I’d had a big budget I could have done this movie. But who would give me 100 million dollars to do a film like this? (laughs) And it’s also funny that animation is for kids in people’s minds, except in Asia, and suddenly you’re watching something that you wouldn’t want your kids to see until they’re eighteen.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read the review of Princess.

THE VIOLETS’ FILM JUKEBOX

The Violets

Citing Suspiria and Rosemary’s Baby among their influences and with one single, Foreo, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, The Violets were obvious candidates for our Film Jukebox. Their darkly atmospheric, edgy melodies have caught the attention of the music press and they’ve recently supported Siouxsie on her solo UK tour. Following five singles on Angular Records, they’ve just released their first album, The Lost Pages. Below, film buff singer Alexis Mary picks her top 10. More details here.

1- Eyes of a Stranger (1981)
I have every film that Jennifer Jason Leigh has ever been in. Eyes of a Stranger was her debut performance, she plays a young blind girl. It is unusual to be able to see the killer in this way, and not just from a voyeuristic point of view. This could not have worked had the killer been a less believable character. Casting really is integral to good filmmaking.

2- Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
Bubby has lived in the damp, grey interior of a house for 35 years. Under the reign of his dominating mother the feral man knows only the incestuous life he leads with her. She has warned him of a poisonous gas beyond the front door. He wears a gas mask she has given him, until his curiosity becomes too great… This film is not without humour, hedonism or even rock’n’roll, although its main attribute is its ability to draw the watcher deep into its life, making you witness its candid disturbances and driving you down its lost path to wickedness.

3- Bagdad Cafe (1987)
Out of a hot mirage a lone Bavarian woman in traditional dress appears at the Bagdad Cafe in the heart of the Californian desert. Brenda runs the cafe/motel and is a fiery kind of lady, superstitious and obstinate. It’s a stylised film with odd camera angles and haunting vocals on the soundtrack, about a friendship between two people that overcome their fear of the unknown to establish a richer life in soul.

4- Labyrinth (1986)
The classic soundtrack to my youth. You could get lost in this fantasy. I’d imagine Sarah on the other side, a decadent medieval wedding, as she’s entwined forever to Jareth the goblin king.

5- Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)
This film is a sex comedy but you sense that the origins of the characters’ anguish are born out of Britain’s social divisions during the 1980s – the grindingly poor and the nouveaux riches. A good British classic.

6- Marnie (1964)
Some films are uncanny in the way they parallel your life or that of people you know. This film was made for me. I even wrote a song about it. Despite its dire reviews at the time, this film is undoubtedly Hitchcock’s darkest and most disturbed moment.

7- Les Yeux sans visage (1960)
This is an evocative and stylish nightmare thriller about an elegant young girl kept away from society whilst her father experiments with the faces of nice young ladies.

8- Trouble in Mind (1985)
A low-budget, avant-garde, new wave, criminal love story. Marianne Faithful sings the theme ‘Trouble in Mind’ just as her voice had ripened to a fully-lived sound. With its visual cool, perceptive understanding and intelligence, this film is near perfect. And as an added bonus there’s Divine in a male role.

9- Suspiria (1977)
An artful horror that floods colour to my mind.

10- Blood Simple (1984)
I like films with a theme music that threads in and out. One of my favourite scenes in this film is the opening scene: you don’t get to see the faces of the people who are talking until a good amount of dialogue has occured. I like the pace of this film, and its decidedly cryptic and sparse script.

51ST LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REPORT

Tom Huddleston and Virginie Sélavy report on the hits and misses of the 51st London Film Festival.

HITS:

MISTER LONELY (Harmony Korine)

A pure pleasure: joyous, kaleidoscopic, fragmentary and incredibly silly, Harmony Korine’s return feels almost like the work of a different filmmaker, a man baptised by fire and chronic depression, now returned with a new fervour and passion for film and life itself. That is, until you get to the part with Werner Herzog as a flying priest. Tom Huddleston

FAR NORTH (Asif Kapadia)

With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic fairy tale set amid breathtaking landscapes. Against the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival, an increasingly tense triangle develops between two women and the escaped soldier they have rescued. At a time when there is so much angsty questioning about the state of British filmmaking, it is baffling that such a beautifully accomplished film should still be awaiting distribution. Virginie Sélavy

I’M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes)

Not for everyone, but a pure joy for Dylan fans, this is a bit of a nerds’ compendium, overflowing with in-jokes and witty asides, and some of the greatest music ever recorded (and, in some cases, re-recorded, for the most part very tastefully). Not all of it works, by any means, but what does is so dreamlike and involving, so vivid and original, it’d be a hard heart who didn’t come away feeling something. And Cate Blanchett’s performance is quite simply uncanny. TH

KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett)

Newly restored by the BFI, Charles Burnett’s 1977 neo-realist look at life in the ghetto is a beautiful, heart-rending film. Weighed down by his dehumanising job at the slaughterhouse, Stan sleepwalks through his life, unable to respond to his wife’s loving gestures. Stan and his friends’ efforts to improve their lives seem vain, and even though there are some very warm, humorous moments – in particular the scenes of kids playing in the wasteland – all that remains at the end is sheer hopelessness: the film closes with images of Stan working at the slaughterhouse as Dinah Washington’s sorrowful ‘Bitter Life’ is heard on the soundtrack. VS

TALK TO ME (Kasi Lemmons)

Something of a no-brainer, this tells the story of loudmouth ex-con and DJ Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene, a no-holds-barred man of the people and civil rights agitator who ruled the Washington airwaves in the late 60s and early 70s. Recycling every cliché in the DJ-biopic rulebook, this manages to be totally familiar and consistently surprising, thanks in large part to the passion and drive of director Kasi Lemmons, a terrific period soundtrack, and an extraordinary central performance from the wonderful Don Cheadle. TH

FROZEN (Shivajee Chandrabhushan)

A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film. VS

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (De Fortabte Sjaeles) (Nikolaj Arcel)

Or, Harry Potter, Danish style. This is a rollicking kids’ fantasy, drawing on diverse sources (Scandinavian folklore, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) to create a dynamic, exciting and enjoyably daft mythos of its own. The special effects are cheap and cheerful and the action sequences may lack pace, but the script is witty and self-aware, the young actors striking and watchable, and the plot moves at a lick. Roll on the American remake. TH

PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novels deservedly won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes festival. Although the film is a necessarily stripped-down version of the two volumes, which respectively describe her childhood in Teheran and her exile as a teenager in Austria, the film version retains all the elements that made them so successful: the mix of Satrapi’s personal story with her country’s history, the wryly humorous look at the absurdity of political power games, the penetrating observation of both Iranian and European societies and the powerful contrast between cute, simple animation and the complex, tragic events it depicts. Full of life and irreverent spirit, this is a film that is simply impossible to dislike. VS

MISSES:

EXODUS (Penny Woolcock)

Like a bad school play with far too much cash behind it, Penny Woolcock’s latest is a desperately worthy, hopelessly amateurish plea for understanding. The idea is fine – a retelling of the Moses story in a modern context – but the execution is woeful, wildly unsubtle, battering us over the head with its sociological and political parallels, insulting the audience’s intelligence at every turn. The cast are awful, the script weak and the narrative laughable – overall, this is a misjudgement of epic proportions. TH

THE LAST MISTRESS (Catherine Breillat)

I really wanted to like Catherine Breillat’s latest. A confrontational filmmaker who has been unfairly and violently reviled simply for taking a brutally honest look at sexuality, Breillat has always had all my sympathy. A ma soeur was a stunning film; Anatomie de l’enfer was flawed but had the merit to radically question traditional male views of women’s sexuality; even when not entirely successful, her films are usually fiercely intelligent and thought-provoking. Sadly, this is not so in her latest work and The Last Mistress, centring on the character of a nineteenth-century femme fatale, has none of the punchy questioning spirit that made her earlier films so exciting. VS

LIONS FOR LAMBS (Robert Redford)

Interminable at 90 minutes, Robert Redford’s well intentioned but hopelessly toothless take on the war on terror has attracted publicity for its cast and its subject matter, not for the film itself. This is essentially three tedious conversations about the state of America, between Tom Cruise’s slimy senator and Meryl Streep’s disillusioned journo, between professor Redford and his apathetic student, and between two heroic American soldiers stranded on an Afghan hillside surrounded by jibber-jabbering Jihadi insurgents. Boring, worthy, pointless. TH
HIT OR MISS?

FUNNY GAMES US (Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke has done a Gus Van Sant and remade his own controversial 1997 film almost frame for frame, only in a US setting and with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the hapless couple tortured by two freakily polite young men. Funny Games US offers the same unsettling and provocative dissection of our voyeuristic consumption of violence but adds nothing new to the original. VS

INTERVIEW WITH MOHAMED AL DARADJI

Ahlaam

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2-13, 15 November 2007

Venue: ICA, London

Distributor: Human Film

Director: Mohamed Al Daradji

Iraq/UK/Netherlands 2005

110 mins

Ahlaam opens on images of American bombs raining down on Baghdad in 2003, interspersed with the frightened faces of the inmates in a mental institution of the capital. Cut back to 1998, when soldier Ali travels back to the Syrian border where he is doing his national service with his friend Hasan. Elsewhere the bright-eyed, cheerful Ahlaam is preparing for her wedding to Ahmed and dreaming about the life they will have together. But soon both Ali’s and Ahlaam’s lives change dramatically. An American bombing kills Hasan and leaves Ali traumatised. Carrying Hasan’s body across the border he is picked up by the Iraqi forces, accused of being a deserter and brutally punished. Meanwhile Ahlaam’s wedding is violently interrupted by the Baathist police who arrest Ahmed and take him away to an unknown fate, which drives Ahlaam insane with grief. Both Ahlaam and Ali end up in a mental institution in Baghdad under the care of the very humane Dr Mehdi. But when the Americans start bombing the city, the hospital is destroyed and the inmates escape. Ahlaam, still wearing her wedding dress, wanders amid the rubble of an eerily empty, ruined Baghdad, where the silence is broken only by the sound of random sniper shots. Ali, displaying some awareness of what is happening, scours the dangerous streets of the city to help Dr Mehdi round up the escaped inmates.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji had been living in exile in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime when the war broke out. In 2003 he went back to his country wanting to make a film about the plight of ordinary Iraqi people. He shot Ahlaam in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.

Virginie Sélavy: Ahlaam is structured as a flashback, opening in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the 2003 bombing, before it goes back in time to show how the characters that are in the hospital ended up there. Why did you decide to structure the story in this way?

Mohamed Al Daradji: To be honest with you, the story chose me, I didn’t choose the story. I wrote the story in a mental institution, so I know these characters well, I spent two or three weeks with them. While I was writing there I was thinking, shall I tell the story from A to Z, or shall I twist it in an artistic way? I like to not give too much information to the audience, I like the audience to be involved in the film. I think there is a certain artistic sensibility in any human being so I try to let this feeling come out of the film and involve the audience.

VS: One of the main characters is called Ahlaam, which name means ‘dream’ and is also the title of the film. She seems to be central to what you’re showing about Iraq in general in the film.

AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.

VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?

AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.

VS: It’s a very poignant title because their dreams end up in nightmare.

AD: Sometimes you say something but you mean something different. With the name Ahlaam I was trying to say, yes, dreams, but what kind of dreams, does it end as a nightmare or does it end as a dream. And that’s why at the end of the film I leave it to the audience to decide where Ahlaam ends. It’s up to each individual member of the audience to decide. If they’re positive people, Ahlaam will be OK, and her family will get her back and there’ll be a happy end. Or if they’re negative people, they will think that Ahlaam will be killed, and this is what happens in Iraq. So I left it open for the audience. For me it’s a dream but it’s also a nightmare. It’s a nightmare mixed with dreams of how normal people would like to live but they can’t control life and this is why it ends up like we see in the film.

VS: What’s really striking is that the dreams of those people are destroyed by both the brutality of the Americans and of the Baathist regime – you don’t take sides at all. It’s more about the consequences that their actions have on these people. It shows an incredible restraint because you must have felt some kind of anger towards both sides, so how did you manage to have that restraint?

AD: I had a debate with myself – where am I standing in the middle of this chaos, which side am I on – and the answer came to me one day: I thought, you’re a filmmaker, you need to just tell the story, to show your point of view. My point of view is the human being, the human element in this story. I didn’t want to guide the audience, and tell them they should be on this side or that side. I just show you the story, I show you both sides. I want you to feel this character, to feel like she’s very close to you, like she’s like your friend or your family. I try not to take sides but to observe the situation, and to put you through the situation, take you out from wherever you are and take you to Baghdad so you can feel what these people feel. It’s very important to me that the audience feel the suffering of these people. Of course I have a lot of anger. If I shout now, I will shake the whole of London. But I try and express my anger through the way I tell the story.

VS: VS: You’d left Iraq before the war and you decided to go back to shoot the film in Baghdad. That must have been incredibly difficult.

AD: After I graduated from Leeds, I felt like going back to Iraq and trying to do something for my country, for my family, for my friends. A lot of Iraqis went back in 2003, a lot of artistic people, filmmakers, who went back to try and rebuild the country. But unfortunately, it was really difficult. There was no finance, either from the Middle-East or from the UK. To finance the film I got money from banks in Europe and Holland and small grants from Holland. The crew and cast worked for nothing. They made the film on a voluntary basis, for the country. And we faced all the difficulties of Iraq: there was only three hours of electricity a day; the process of shooting the film took 55 days, sometimes we shot just three hours because of the problems and the area where we worked. An American helicopter almost shot at us when we were building the set for the Army camp scene in the desert but thankfully they didn’t and we got permission to film. The Iraqi police arrested us because they thought we were doing a propaganda film for the insurgents and the insurgents shot at us a couple of times because they thought we were making a propaganda film for the Americans. So we were in the middle of this chaos. One week before we finished the film three members of my crew and I were kidnapped and they shot my sound recorder in the leg. They took all the equipment and I lost about 25 minutes of the sound material for the film. We were left on the streets in Baghdad. We went to the hospital and told the police about what had happened to us but they didn’t believe us. They didn’t believe that we were making a normal film, they thought that we were working for the insurgents, for Al-Qaeda. So we got arrested by the American Army and we spent five days in the green zone area where we were subjected to psychological torture by the Americans. They didn’t believe we were filmmakers. I have double nationality so the Dutch embassy got involved and got me out of prison. So it was a nightmare. But I felt this nightmare was worth it. Of course you could do it here in the UK, but there when you see the children in Iraq you feel you need to do something for these people. You can’t change things but at least you can tell their story.

VS: You basically experienced the same things that your characters go through in the film.

AD: Yes, of course. My new film is called Made in Iraq and is about the story of how we came together to make this film and what happened to us and basically what happened in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 and why it’s like this now.

VS: The actor who plays Ali, Bashir Al-Majid, was actually a freelance reporter and had been a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. This must have brought another level of authenticity to the film.

AD: I tried to work with non-professional actors to tell the story. In 2003, when I went back to Iraq, he interviewed me for one of the newspapers in Baghdad and I told him I was going to make a film. When I went back to Iraq to shoot the film I was looking for the character of Ali. I called him and I learned about his story: he suffered under Saddam’s regime, he was a prisoner in Abu-Ghraib for five years, and he also lost his friend in the war. So we talked about all this experience and I think it came through a fantastic performance. In the workshop I made him go back to the time he spent in prison and work it out through his character. It was a very good experience.

VS: I’ve read that you had trouble finding an actress to play Ahlaam. Why was that?

AD: There isn’t much of a film industry in Iraq at the moment. We haven’t made a film since 1991. And before that the film industry was used by the government for propaganda. So between 1991 and 2003 there was no film made in Iraq. So it was difficult to find actors and to find actors who would go with you in the war zone, when there is a curfew, and you can’t go anywhere after 7pm. And then there’s the rape scene, which is difficult from a cultural point of view: people don’t show sexual scenes or sexual violence. I went to universities, schools, family, friends, relatives, to try and convince them, and none of them wanted to do it. My producer said jokingly that we should make the female character male. But I thought my film needed to be represented by a woman; women are very important in Iraqi society. So we started filming the hospital scenes with Ali the first week, and Ahlaam wasn’t there. Sometimes I was thinking about how I could change the script and make the film about Ali and Doctor Mehdi, but I thought I needed a female character. A week later they found Ahlaam for me. Aseel Adel accepted the role but on three conditions. One was to rewrite the rape scene, and I agreed – I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to show the rape but it was an important scene; she made it shorter. The second condition was that the rapist had to be her husband in real life so the rapist in the film is played by her husband! And she had a one-year-old baby called Mustafa, and she insisted that Mustafa needed to go everywhere with us because she didn’t want to leave him at home. So we all ended up babysitting for Mustafa! (laughs) We’d have to have breaks when Mustafa needed feeding or needed to sleep or when he was crying. It was very different.

VS: And you’re filming in the real Baghdad that has been destroyed so that makes the film incredibly powerful.

AD: All you see that is destroyed is actually a set, we used some destroyed buildings but I had a really good team of designers who did a great job recreating the scenes. But filming in the real environment was important. With all the films about Iraq that you see now, Arabic and Iraqi audiences can tell that they weren’t shot in Iraq. Western audiences can’t get a feeling of the Middle-East, of what it feels like in Baghdad, but in my film, because it’s shot in Baghdad it gives you the real environment, it’s the real Tigris river, the real buildings. It’s very close to what you see on the news.

VS: The really striking thing about your film is that there’s a documentary aspect about the life of ordinary Iraqis but it goes beyond that in the sense that there’s a real attention to the artistic quality of the film. How did you manage to keep focused on the artistic side of things when shooting the film was so difficult?

AD: I tried to surround myself with a good team of people, people who believed in what we were doing. I had 20 to 25 crew members, and I treated all of them as very important to the film – there was no difference between the first assistant director and the sound recorder or the production manager. All were responsible. There was the sense that you needed to do it for your country. When we had problems they tried not to disturb me or to tell me about it but instead tried to sort it out themselves. At the same time – maybe you’ll laugh – there’s an important relationship between me and the Tigris river, and it gave me the inspiration to focus on the film. When you write a film that is so personal you can see it in your head, and then you have to translate it to the camera and to other people. For me it was like the Tigris river, I went there every day to write, smoke a cigarette and have tea and relax, thinking about the next day and how to create what I wanted. I also believe that God was behind this film. The way the film was made was unbelievable. Now when I see the film I don’t believe I made it. Some scenes in the film wouldn’t have happened without God. There’s a scene at the beginning where Ali and the soldiers push the truck as the sun is rising. I’d written it differently in the script. We couldn’t find an old Saddam Army truck because they were all destroyed so we built one but it wasn’t working very well. We were waiting for this golden moment when the sun rises and it lasts just for a minute. So all my crew and cast were waiting but when I called ‘Action!’ they couldn’t hear me because they were too far away and it was dark. I called ‘Action! Action! Action!’ but nobody replied; nothing happened. So I went to them and they said that the truck was broken and they couldn’t fix it. So I shouted and cried, God help me. And then I thought, let them push the truck, it’ll be more powerful, we don’t need to shoot the scene as I wrote it, just do it. We had one minute so I gave the instructions, it was difficult but they pushed the truck, and we had a very good scene.

THE ENCHANTING WORLD OF RENE LALOUX

Gandahar

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Eureka

Director: René Laloux

Titles: The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps, 1982), Gandahar (1988)

France

A whole generation of French children were brought up on René Laloux’s magical films, bussed to the local art-house cinema by their teachers to feast on the other-worldly sights of La Planí¨te sauvage (Fantastic Planet): buzzing plants and strange fruits, blue creatures shape-shifting to music and headless statues dancing together in space. Light years away from the bland slickness and smug cleverness of Shrek and co., Laloux’s films have fallen into obscurity, rarely screened despite the success they enjoyed on their release. Thankfully, Eureka have now made the films available in the UK, with last year’s DVD of Fantastic Planet joined by Gandahar and The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps) last month, providing a welcome opportunity to revisit this master animator’s wondrous world..

In a career spanning three decades Laloux only completed three features and five shorts, his work always constrained by budgetary limitations. It was while he was working at the progressive La Borde Psychiatric Clinic at the end of the 50s that he made his first foray into filmmaking. The success of a short animated film made in collaboration with the patients led to a meeting with Roland Topor (creator of the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowksy and Fernando Arrabal). This marked the start of Laloux’s string of partnerships with respected illustrators: after making Fantastic Planet as well as two shorts with Topor, Laloux worked with Philippe Caza and Moebius on his following films.

Although Laloux’s collaborators changed from film to film, there is a remarkable unity of vision in his work, which emerges not only through recurring narrative themes, but also through the intensely poetic visual world that is created. It is a world alive with movement and sound: in Fantastic Planet, vegetal tentacles sway to electronic warblings, while crystals fall like rain, covering everything with a hard, shiny surface that shatters when a small boy whistles. The enchanted forest of The Masters of Time hums and pulses with life, and the paradisiacal world of Gandahar is a lush land of plenty, in which bizarre farm animals plough the land and humanoid women pick bright red fruit from blue trees. Eerie sounds underline the strangeness of this world and, synched to the movements of the extra-terrestrial flora and fauna, make it come alive. These alien landscapes and the creatures inhabiting them are reminiscent of a dreamy and more benign Hieronymus Bosch. Never sentimental, it is a world that is poetic and cruel in equal measure: in one startling scene from Fantastic Planet a bird of prey attacks a humanoid Om tribe, devouring some of them before the rest of the tribe manage to kill it. The scene ends with the Oms drinking the bird’s blood.

There is certainly nothing childish in Laloux’s animation, and the director explores some very serious themes. One recurrent concern is the sinister side of human civilisation. Both Fantastic Planet and Gandahar depict very advanced, refined civilisations that have a monstrous, inhuman side to them. In the former, a race of towering blue giants called the Traags, whose preferred activity is meditation, have enslaved the man-like Oms, treating them at best as pets and at worst as vermin to be exterminated. By reversing our own world order and placing humans at the lower end of the scale, the film strikingly underlines our own casual cruelty to all other living beings (the opening scene in which Traag children nonchalantly kill a female Om trying to run away with her baby is chilling). Most importantly, it highlights the danger inherent in establishing any kind of hierarchy between species or races, and in this warning one can see the trauma left by Nazism on Laloux’s generation. In a significant reversal of the traditional savage/civilised opposition, the ‘savage planet’ of the title becomes a place of hope for the group of rebellious Oms trying to escape the persecution of the supposedly civilised Traags.

Gandahar explores a different, but just as dark, side of civilisation, and it is a variation on another Nazi nightmare, that of genetic selection. The people of Gandahar first appear to live in a utopian society where everybody is beautiful, food is plentiful, nature is luxuriant, and humans live in harmony with their environment. Having forsaken technology in favour of natural means, the people of Gandahar use mirror birds for surveillance and sprouting seeds for weapons. Emphasizing their perfect integration within the natural world that surrounds them, their main city Jasper is a human shape carved into the rocks of a mountain. However, when Gandahar comes under attack from mysterious steel men, the price that had to be paid to create this idyllic world is revealed: past genetic experiments have led to the creation of monstrous creatures, such as the mutant Transformés, or Métamorphe, a freakish giant brain that was left on a platform in the middle of the ocean when Gandahar’s scientists abandoned the experiment. Just like Métamorphe, the Transformés are not permitted access to the city of Jasper and are forced to live hidden away in underground caves. Kept out of sight of the beautiful Gandahar people for a long time, these past horrors are coming back to haunt them: it is quickly revealed that the steel men come from Métamorphe. It is therefore Gandahar’s own dark side that is now threatening its idyllic world: the attempt to engineer a perfect civilisation has resulted in the creation of brutal armies.

The spectre of totalitarian oppression is also present in the opposition between individual and collective identity that runs through Laloux’s work. Métamorphe is a pink blob that absorbs individuals before turning them into empty metallic shells. The steel men all breathe as one, the loud, creepily regular Darth Vader-style breathing uniting them into one big collective entity that leaves no place for difference or individuality. The Masters of Time also features a big blob that reviles difference and promotes unity above all else, turning all those who approach him into blank-faced angels. More ambiguous than the sinister steel men, the angels point to the dangerous allure of the totalitarian discourse that promises harmony and happiness in return for relinquishing all individual will.

These reflections on human civilisation are inscribed in wider philosophical considerations about the surrounding universe, a universe that is governed by a process of constant transformation. The steel men turn the Gandaharians to stone using petrifying ray guns before placing them into egg-shaped prisons. When these eggs go through the door of time, the Gandaharians are turned into more steel men. The eggs, the empty shells of the steel men and the petrified Gandaharians all point to the unstable nature of being: in this universe, identity is not a fixed given but is constantly fluctuating so that the Gandaharians are threatened by their own transformed selves. There are no simple oppositions between light and dark, between beautiful and monstrous, or between organic matter and steel; rather, they are one and the same thing at different stages of evolution.

The Transformés most clearly represent this process of constant metamorphosis: their misshapen bodies are not stable forms but keep mutating. As a result, they shun the present tense and instead use a strange mix of future and past tenses. The living embodiment of the continuous flux of time, the Transformés exist in a zone that hovers between past and future. This interest in a non-linear, non-fixed time leads Laloux to explore temporal paradoxes in both Gandahar and The Masters of Time (although in the latter film the temporal paradox feels somewhat like an underdeveloped afterthought). In Gandahar, the beautiful people of the present civilisation coexist with their mutated selves who have come back from the future to destroy them. But it is less the temporal paradox in itself that interests Laloux rather than the investigation of time as a parameter of a universe in a permanent state of mutation.

Some of the ideas in Laloux’s films were part of the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s – the abhorrence of a dehumanising, collective identity, eugenics, ecology or out-of-body experiences – but, integrated into a magical world that weaves visual poetry and philosophical musings, they never feel dated. As Moebius remarked, Laloux is ‘an artist outside of time’, and having developed his style far from any fads or easy categories, he’s remained a unique voice in animation. Thirty years later, his films have lost none of their ability to make children and adults alike dream with their eyes open.

Virginie Sélavy

INTERVIEW WITH RIGOBERTO CASTANEDA

KM31

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 December 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Rigoberto Castañeda

Mexico 2006

103 mins

A big hit in Mexico, Rigoberto Castañeda’s horror thriller KM31 centres on a young woman whose twin sister is in a coma following a road accident. Bathed in blue light, the film has more than a whiff of J-horror about it, and Catalina’s search for the truth inevitably leads to a spooky ghost child.

KM31 received its UK premiere at FrightFest in August on the same day as the Zombie Walk. When I arrived at the Odeon for the interview hordes of dazed zombies were still hanging around Leicester Square, blinking in the sun as though it hurt or crumpled on benches: the perfect setting for an interview with a director who is a horror fan through and through.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve said before that KM31 was influenced by films such as The Shining, The Exorcist, The Others and The Ring. Out of all these it seems to me that The Ring is the most relevant comparison, and you seem to have been influenced a lot by Japanese horror in general.

Rigoberto Castañeda: Many people have said that but I started writing the script for KM31 about seven years before pre-production started, so way before The Ring came out. It’s based on a well-known Mexican legend. Five or six years after I wrote the script The Ring came out. I went to see it and I was crushed because I thought it was so similar! I was about to quit! The producers suggested some changes but I said, you know what, fuck it, this has happened a hundred times in the history of cinema. The thing is, now more than ever because of the Internet, everybody sees the same things so it’s natural to have the same ideas. So I decided not to do anything.

VS: You don’t mention any Mexican films or directors in your influences. Why is that? Were you not influenced by Mexican horror in any way, by directors like Taboada and Moctezuma?

RC: In a way I was. When I was little I would go to my best friend’s house and watch horror movies at the weekend. I was pretty young when I saw The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and also the Taboada movies and Alucarda by Moctezuma, which shocked me. I was really traumatised by those films. When I started film school I tried to find them but when I saw them again, I was like, that’s not as scary as I remember! So they influenced me because of the memory of watching them as a kid but they didn’t influence me in a cinematic way. As a filmmaker I’m influenced by directors who are not horror directors, like Hitchcock or Kubrick or Kurosawa, all the classic directors.

VS: In recent years Guillermo del Toro has had a big impact on the horror genre. Has he influenced you in any way?

RC: He’s God! I love him. In film school everybody knew him. I wanted to do horror so the teachers said there’s one person in Guadalajara who also likes horror film, he’s a make-up artist, you should hire him. I wanted to work with him but by the time I was ready to make my first short film he was already working on his first feature

VS: Do you think del Toro’s success has made it easier to make horror films in Mexico?

RC: His first picture in Mexico was Cronos. It was successful but it wasn’t really a horror film, it was more of a fantasy tale with horror elements. There was a vampire in it but the film was more a romantic story about the transformation of the vampire. When Cronos came out, everybody was like, that’s it, we’re going to have horror cinema, but nothing came out of it. So no, it’s weird but it didn’t help. KM31 is actually the first feature since Cronos that really is a horror film. When I decided I wanted to make a horror film, I thought that it would be a big success because there hadn’t been a horror film in Mexico since the 70s and Mexicans love horror. It was like a big wide open space. Now there are several horror films being made.

VS: I’ve seen that several of Taboada’s films are being remade.

RC: Yes, two of them. That’s fantastic! I hope they’re good! Right now there are several things that are helping. One of them was KM31, it was a big success so it helped the genre a lot. And then, many different Mexican directors have been very successful internationally and that’s helped to show that in Mexico we can make good films. The Oscar nominations were on when we were making the film, and there were sixteen nominations for Mexicans, so that helped a lot. Mexican people go a lot more to the movies, it’s definitely growing. The Mexican film industry in general is healthy.

VS: Is there anything that makes your film specifically Mexican?

RC: It’s mostly the legend of La Llorona. If you’re Mexican you will have heard it at some point in your life from your mother or your grandmother or your aunt or somebody. Every young kid in Mexico knows that if you behave badly La Llorona will come for you – it’s very scary for a young kid! We never mention the character in the film but it’s not necessary. When KM31 was showing in Mexico I went to the cinema to see people’s reactions. When the main ghost appears at the end of the movie everybody got so scared and started shouting, ‘La Llorona! La Llorona!’ – it was a very emotional moment for everyone. That makes it a very Mexican film. But at the same time I think it’s a universal story: La Llorona is like a banshee; it shares things with the Bible, and with Jewish tales. I think everybody in the world can identify with this story.

VS: Why did you decide to take that legend as your point of departure?

RC: Actually, the point of departure was something else. I was listening to Mexico’s most famous radio programme, a horror show called ‘The Hairy Hand’. People call the programme and tell a horror story that’s happened to them. Everybody loves to listen to this show and to tell their horror story. It’s amazing. It’s so big that they’re now broadcasting in the US. The day I started writing the script I was listening to the show and a truck driver called and told a story about seeing a woman in the middle of the road who was clearly a ghost. He told it in such an incredibly dramatic way, I’ve still got goose-bumps just remembering it. It was fantastic, I was almost crying with fear. So I ran back to my desk and I wrote the first ten minutes of the movie – I never changed those pages. And then I thought this could be a fantasy story, the story of the crying woman. So while I was writing those ten pages, I was already thinking of the story of La Llorona.

VS: Where were the scenes on the road and in the forest filmed? How did you find those locations?

RC: I wanted to write the script in a special place. I went to the forest that is around Mexico City. There are people who live there, just like in the film, people who have houses almost in the middle of the woods. When I was little, my parents used to take me to the forest. There is an old Catholic convent there, with catacombs, so it was REALLY SCARY for a kid. I used to love to go there when I was little.

VS: On your own?

RC: Yes, on my own. (laughs) So I decided to go there and write. I went to the convent, I looked at the woods, and I wrote on my computer, sat on a rock, and I got this feeling of the woods. The highway is the actual highway. The river up there in the woods goes down to the city and as the city grew the river became the sewer system. So it’s based on something that is real and on the tales that people told me when we were doing the research. KM31 was invented by me, it’s not real. But what’s quite funny is that now in Mexico there are people who go to KM31 and record videos, searching for the ghost! (laughs) It’s turned into a real story in Mexico!

VS: The scene in the sewers is very atmospheric. Were they a set or do they actually exist?

RC: We were very lucky. In Mexico City, they close the sewer systems to do work on it for six months every seven years. We were lucky to be ready to film during those six months so we were able to go down into the sewer system and shoot there. Right now, it’s full of shit, literally. But it’s an amazing place. The final part in the sewer system, that was constructed on a stage.

VS: You’ve said before that you had the intention of writing a ‘commercial thriller’. How did you go about doing that?

RC: I’m a movie buff, I love going to the cinema. I enjoy art-house films but I’ve always gone to the movies for entertainment. That’s my education in film, watching movies at my friend’s house. So I try to make films that I would have enjoyed as a kid.

VS: Do you see yourself solely as a horror director? Would you like to direct other types of movies or are you happy to keep exploring the horror genre?

RC: I think I will make horror films all my life. I’m interested in other genres but what I love is horror, thriller and fantasy, and I’d like to work in those three genres all my life. Fantasy is the most difficult of them because it’s the most expensive, so the way to get to fantasy is by starting with horror and thriller. It’s a way to get to fantasy but it doesn’t mean that they’re inferior genres. I see myself at 92, directing a horror film, (squeaky voice) ‘blood! more blood!’ I will never do romantic comedies. Never! (laughs)

SHORT CUTS: ROCK’N’ROLL CINEMA

Rock'n

Photo by Lisa Williams

In an age where big studios dominate filmmaking, short films have become a means to bring experimental and adventurous work to the movie-goer, and no more so than at events like Rock’n’Roll Cinema. The evening of bands and short films, held at 93 Feet East in Brick Lane, is going into its fourth year – quite a grand old age for a monthly event, many of whose contemporaries have vanished without a trace.

‘It was born out of a combination of me being in a band and wanting new places to play, and of knowing different creative people who could come together to help me put on a night. I also found that when I went to the cinema I always wanted to talk about the film afterwards’, explains Dan Cundy, founder of the night. The different creative people include Dan’s girlfriend Wednesday, known as Rollergirl, who skates around singing jingles and selling popcorn, and the DJs, VJs and compí¨res he chooses to pull together the night.

Also with him from day one was the team at Future Shorts, who provide the night with a tailor-made programme of short live action films, music videos and animations. The choice of films is dictated by the nature of the crowd and the set-up at Rock’n’Roll Cinema, according to Pippa Rimmer, director of exhibitions at Future Shorts. ‘I think the films we choose to show here are a little bit quirky’, says Pippa. ‘We choose lots of music videos, show the longer films earlier in the night and try not to use many with subtitles because it isn’t a theatre venue. When we see films in the office we can often tell straightaway which films the crowd here will really like.’

One of the films specially picked for the Brick Lane crowd today is Fitness Video by Japanese director Nagi Noda. A surreal spoof exercise routine led by a young girl with Popeye-style muscles backed by a chorus of bipedal poodles, it is lapped up by the audience. You can tell when the audience likes a film because the laughs are louder and longer than those usually heard in a cinema. The same goes for the gasps, and even the awestruck silences seem more silent. ‘I think people are more relaxed here because they can walk around. It might mean that they’re less absorbed in the films because they’re right next to a bar but you get a better reaction from them as they’re having a laugh with their mates’, says Pippa.

The loudest gasps come during the opening film Spider, an Australian film directed by former stuntman Nash Edgerton. Its slow build-up of tension and triple-shock ending show that with the right story and execution you can move the viewer more in eight minutes than some films manage in two hours. There may be speed-dating and cakes in the next room, a barbecue and bottle bar outside, and bands and hula-hooping to come, but while this film is playing all eyes are fully forward.

Lisa Williams

Rock’n’Roll Cinema takes place every first Sunday of the month at 93 Feet East, London. For more details visit the website.

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews