‘iLL Manors’ [Ben Drew]

Back in 2008, Ben Drew [Plan B] used his own cash to make ‘Michelle’, a hybrid short film, part music video/part drama, which tells the story of a crack whore who gets pimped out to pay a drug dealer for the theft of his mobile phone. The episode turns up again as a pivotal sequence in his debut feature, ‘iLL Manors’. The setting remains the same, but evident that Drew’s filmmaking skills have developed in the interim.

In ‘Michelle’, he’s trying too hard, from the edgy hand-held camera, the noisy actors, to the intrusive and repetitive presence of Drew himself spitting out the rap/narrative. Two years on, he has developed the confidence to hold back, keep still, let the editing keep things sharp, including some nice crossings of the so-called line. His ear for dialogue has matured. I can’t testify to the authenticity of phrases like “off-key” and “it’s not the one”, but they sound less forced. The actors aren’t fighting for attention with the quantity, volume, and vulgarity of their (probably) improvised dialogue. Riz Ahmed will have been a factor here. A charismatic and generous actor, he brings out the best in his inexperienced co-star, Ed Skrein. You get a relationship, a sense that Ahmed’s character has always been the more cautious of the two, but has benefited from his friend’s lack of scruples.

‘iLL Manors’ may push the rapper/narrator out of the frame and onto the soundtrack, but the film still seems led by the music and in these sequences it retains some of the artistic limitations of music video:

 ~ The visuals illustrate the lyrics. They correspond with what we’re being told. When we’re given some back story, we get back story visuals (the usual half-glimpsed clips of faded home videos). When the rap describes a scene in the present, the scene plays out as described. There is an upside to these sequences as they spare us the full weight of some all-too-familiar histrionics: Chris’ gun-point interrogation of murder witness Terry, for example.

 ~ The visuals sell the product. They show off. Extra cash was pumped into the project during post-production* and, as a result, we get some second unit urban landscapes and indiscriminate access to the full box of visual tricks: fast and slow-motion, time-lapse, freeze-frame and split-screen, even animation – the tiny figures of architectural models are seen perpetrating indecent and criminal acts. All very cool, but they add nothing of substance.

To its credit the film doesn’t posture or play-act like so many other British crime dramas. It may not be half as “real” as Drew seems to think it is, but it is a sincere film – Drew is telling it straight – and this is what makes it worthwhile.

This, and the music.


*’iLL Manors’ was made as part of Film London’s Microwave scheme, but post-production was financed through a deal with Revolver Entertainment. Its budget thereby significantly exceeded the oft-quoted £100000 associated with the scheme. It’s not yet apparent whether Film London intends to venture further along the path of commissioning projects with demonstrable co-financing potential.


Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán’s work has concentrated almost exclusively on the political convulsions that seized his country in the 1970’s. His landmark, three-part documentary ‘The Battle For Chile‘ reported from within the turmoil of Salvador Allende’s democratic revolution and the subsequent military-led coup d’etat. Then came exile as the new regime led by General Pinochet brutally suppressed the opposition. The trauma of this period may have passed, but the aftereffects persist. Some would prefer to forget, but this cannot be allowed to happen until everything has been brought into the light.

With ‘Nostalgia For The Light‘, Guzmán has found a surprising, and discreet, angle of approach. Beginning with personal memoir, in a gentle, reassuring voice-over, he reflects on a childhood fascination with astronomy. A period of innocence for both the young Guzmán and for his country, an eternal present, before the Allende revolution provoked the terrible backlash.

He leads us to the Atacama desert. The driest place on earth, whose mysterious landscape, rich in nitrates, but devoid of plant or animal life, most closely resembles Mars. Here we find astronomers and archeologists attracted by the clear, rarified atmosphere. We also find bands of women sifting through the sand, searching for the bodies of their loved ones who ‘disappeared’ during the Pinochet regime. All of them, in some sense, looking into the past.

Thus Guzmán extrapolates a profoundly visual link between the light from the stars, ancient drawings in the rocks, and the remains of political prisoners executed and dumped in the dry earth. Majestic shots of the celestial night sky, enhanced by original music (Miranda y Tobar), counter-balanced with bone fragments in the palm of an old woman’s hand. An exquisite poem weighted by the gravity of the moral imperative:

We must remember, we will not forget.

Adventures in distribution, part 3:

Nostalgia For The Light‘ premiered in Cannes last year. It won best documentary at the European Film Awards last year. It was released in the US back in March and was followed by a region-1 DVD/Blu-ray release. But no sign of it in London or the UK. How long do we have to wait?

Self Made (Gillian Wearing)

Gillian Wearing’s ‘Self Made’ is a documentary feature, but it could have been a reality TV series. ‘The Method’. Seven ordinary people, selected from thousands of applicants, participate in a protracted acting workshop using the celebrated ‘method’ technique.

That sounds disparaging, but it isn’t. Not entirely.

What makes reality TV so tawdry is the cynicism of the producers. Our natural curiosity about other people is turned into a circus of competition and conflict, contrived by the threat of elimination; joy and tears, witnessed by condescending presenters, pompous experts, and crude drum rolls. ‘Self Made’ doesn’t have any of that, apart from the tears, which are abundant, but it does offer up the personal lives of its participants for our viewing pleasure.

‘The Method’ as practiced by acting coach, Sam Rumbelow, seems to be a form of drama therapy. Exercises, including voice work, manipulative improvisations, and re-enactments are aimed at unblocking “the flow of energy,” accessing and accepting your personal truth.

At first, Rumbelow (who resembles a boyish John Malkovich) comes dangerously close to sounding like a charlatan, but later a reassuringly sympathetic warmth emerges. He seems to care. (If only he’d remove his dapper cloth cap and accept the personal truth of his baldness.)

The participants are told they have been selected because they have unique personal stories to tell, but it turns out many of these are generic tales of domestic dysfunction, bad parenting, bullying. We are all unique – that’s the only thing that isn’t unique about any one of us – but that doesn’t make us all interesting.

Several of these ‘unique’ people have violent fantasies, of revenge, or resentment, which they are encouraged to act out (in the safe environment of the workshop.). Rumbelow does not judge them, nor does Wearing, and this is what makes ‘Self Made’ an edgy, bracing experience.

Most disturbing is the self-exposure of warehouse worker, Dave Austin, crypto-fascist personality. Masochism, control, sadistic rage, and emotional blankness. His decision to determine the day of his own death, a revulsion with the decay and impotence of old age, recalls the narcissistic theorizing of Mishima. His choice of character  – Mussolini – speaks for itself.

‘Self Made’ points to the limits of the Method. It does repressed aggression and raw cries of pain. Ironically, given its obsession with truth, it enables the authentic performance of otherwise melodramatic material. It doesn’t  – at least, on this evidence – deal so well with more pacific emotions, those of sorrow, and longing. The romantic disappointment of middle-aged Lesley makes for the weakest of the ‘end scenes’ (the short films or dramas towards which each participant is working). As an actor, Lesley was more convincing in earlier improvisations. In this gentle, nostalgic duologue which sees her spurning an admirer, she is as stiff as you’d expect a non-actor.

Or it could be that Gillian Wearing, who we assume to be directing this film-within-a-film, did not engage with the period material, shooting it without passion.

Or it could be that I just wanted her to see Lesley act out her frustrations and kick the shit out of her polite admirer.

‘Self Made’ was released in UK cinemas last week (September 2nd)

The Arbor, or How to put words in their mouths

Something strange happens as you watch ‘The Arbor‘, Clio Barnard’s docu-drama based on the life and work of playwright, Andrea Dunbar. The actors perform directly to camera; they look at you, they confront you, confide in you; this is disconcerting. But then you remember it is not the actors speaking: their lips are moving, but the voices are not theirs, but recordings of the people whose harrowing story is being told (Dunbar’s daughters, their fathers, foster parents).

It exerts a strange fascination, this disjunction, simultaneously artificial and authentic, acutely aware of both the quality of performance and the reality, if not the reliability, of the testimony.

(Our desire for voice and body to be unified is persistent. Despite being advised of the lip-synching, I continued to identify voice and actor. When ‘Lorraine’ declares that she has grown up pretty, I nodded, with my agreement based on an appreciation of the big eyes and balanced features of the actress as if she were Lorraine.)

The style is an ingenious correlative of verbatim theatre (in which the script is constructed entirely from the text of interviews with ‘real’ people) and sits nicely alongside open-air stagings of Dunbar’s work, whose dialogue seems to have been pulled straight from her own domestic life, raw and authentic and in your face; real words in an actors mouth.

The Arbor‘ is available on DVD.

Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

An awkward, hyper-verbal teen faces a dull, uncomprehending world enlivened only by one seemingly out of reach girl. Will he betray himself in his effort to win her heart? Will he lose her and get her back having learned his lesson? Will you care? In this instance – ‘Submarine’ – the answer may be more ‘yes’ than ‘no’. Or ‘maybe’.

Much has been made of the film’s Nouvelle Vague panache (pastiche). The brisk, unreliable voice-over, the jump cuts, the energy. All good (apart from the appropriation of Godard’s design aesthetic which verges on the superficial – this is film is Truffaut, not Godard. It has an ironic, alkaline heart. Subversive, or political, it ain’t.)





But thankfully the success of Richard Ayoade’s debut film is not just a matter of style. A poignant, nuanced study of depression lurks behind the perennial coming-of-age plot, nicely camouflaged by the droll observations and all that romantic super 8 fluff.

Some (script editors) might argue the boy’s sudden concern over his mother’s possible infidelity with their sleazy neighbour pulls the story in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, but that would be missing the point. His possessive attitude to the mother leads to a crisis of identification with his father – at one point, he authors a letter in his name – but this identification also leads to a (slightly) deeper awareness of his father’s – and possibly his own – depressive tendencies. Yes, it’s Oedipal, but this is the engine of the story, the romance merely its output.

Submarine‘ was released on DVD in the UK a few weeks ago (July 29th).

In a Better World, or How to wring your hands on two continents

Remember the series of ER in which several of the earnest doctors – was it Carter and Kovacs and another whose name escapes me? – took themselves off to ‘war-torn Africa?’ There they could continue to grapple with urgent issues of life, death, and personal responsibility, clear of the fatty acids of their domestic lives. Africa is good like that. Big themes, big landscapes. Troubles back home in the developed world are made small by comparison.

Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning drama, ‘In a Better World‘ tries to have the best of both: twinning a tranquil island in Denmark with a desert somewhere in Africa. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has to deal with bullies on two continents, albeit on radically different scales. An evil warlord who delights in ripping open young women, but turns out to be nothing without his gang; and a boorish mechanic who just won’t be told. So, Anton’s son, Christian decides to deal with the mechanic himself – having previously sorted out a school bully using the time-honoured direct method. (Yes, it’s all about bullies.) But Christian’s increasing obsession with violence blinds him to its dangers.

The result is a slick, intelligent drama, with handsome photography and weighty themes, but not a single interesting image in almost two hours.

Still, it’s an slight improvement on her previous continent-straddling melodrama, ‘After The Wedding‘.

In a Better World‘ will be released in UK cinemas on August 19th.

Finisterrae (Sergio Caballero)

As one depressed ghost said to the other as they sat by the campfire:

"Are you still going to the psychiatrist?"
"(yes) And I'm still on medication."
"I don't believe in doctors. The most important thing is food ... and sport."

Finisterrae will appear on your screens suddenly in a puff of smoke, next year, some time.