Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday I went to the BFI screening of Hyenas, a film by the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety. I've seen and written about some of his other films - my favourite is Touki Bouki - but Hyenas is notoriously difficult to get hold of so I was thrilled to be able to see it on the big screen.

It's a fabulous film. Made in 1992, it was conceived as a follow-up from Touki Bouki, (which translates as The Journey of the Hyena ), made two decades before. Both films portray human greed and corruption in a highly coded film style, complex and often humorous. The story of Hyenas unfolds in a Senegalese village called Colobane. At the beginning of the film, the town's grocer, Dramaan Drameh, is paid a visit from the past - the woman he'd rejected as a potential wife in favour of someone richer, has returned, years later. Her name is Linguère Ramatou and she's far more wealthy than anyone could have imagined. She also has her mind firmly set on revenge. Mambety based the film on a Swiss play by Dürenmatt, called The Visit (1956). The film works on many levels, functioning as an allegory of the 'postcolonial' or 'neo-colonial' predicament, but also commenting on human society in general, and the way money and power go hand in hand.

It's not all doom and gloom, though: Mambety's films are always polyphonic, filled with colour and energy, highlighting potentials for good (singing, dancing, bright colours evoke a passion for life), whilst simultaneously depicting wickedness and cruelty (Dramaan's customers refuse to pay upfront for their purchases, but parade around in brand new boots from Burkina Faso). The landscape, people, costumes and animal imagery Mambety employs are all African, but the message isn't specific to Africa, it's relevant to us all. The key motto is spoken by the decrepit Linguère Ramatou: "The world turnerd me into a whore. I'll turn the world into a brothel". She executes her revenge plan, but in the end, who do we feel sorry for? As ever, Mambety blames everyone and no one, and there are more questions than answers.

After the screening, we were treated to a lively debate, led by Colin Prescod, Chair of the Institute of Race Relations. He provided an insightful commentary on the film, and then other audience members chipped in with their reactions and thoughts. It gave us all a chance to think more carefully about the different layers of meaning Mambety weaves into his story.

The film's penultimate image shows a desolate, muddy plane ridged with fresh tractor marks - a community 'flattened' by the will of one person in power. But on the horizon there's a baobab tree, deathly looking with its roots hanging like a skeleton, yet resolutely alive, fixed at the centre of the frame. Is this a vision of hope? Or does it suggest that greed and corruption will 'grow again', the cycle of corruption repeating itself? The film begins and ends with shots of elephants moving through a dry savannah. One audience member, who grew up in South Africa, pointed out that in Zulu culture, the way elephants interact and care for each other is repsected and revered. By juxtaposing the community of elephants with visions of hyena-like men, Mambety is reminding us to look to ourselves, question our own motivations and attitudes to each other and society as a whole. Hyenas offers an uncompromising critique of human society and how we choose to build it. It couldn't have been screened at a more timely moment.

(images: Hyenas poster; Djibril Diop Mambety)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Memories of Tea & Sympathy

I'm really enjoying Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. As I said in an earlier post the film is rubbish, but the book is brilliant.

One of the best bits about reading about Young's New York exploits is coming across locations that I became familiar with during my time living there. I was particularly thrilled to read his mention of the Greenwich village 'greasy spoon', aka Tea & Sympathy, as I worked as a waitress there for a couple of months last summer. As I discovered, it really is a New York institution, on a par with shopping for budget designer underwear at Century 21 department store, ice skating in Central Park and buying organic fruit from the Wholefoods on Union Square. Tea & Sympathy is comprised of a tea shop (where I worked, alongside an all-English group of faithful waitresses, some of whom have been there for over a decade), a shop which resembles a Sylvanian families replica of an Olde English sweet shop, and a chippy called 'Salt & Battery'. Tea & Sympathy is, I soon learned, a big celebrity hang-out, favoured by the likes of Rupert Everett (who Nicky refers to as Rupert, reminding everyone they're on first name terms), SJP and Jake Gyllenhaal. David Bowie even rented the whole place out for his 50th birthday bash, back in the day.

While I was working at T&S, I was quickly indoctrinated into the intricate list of do's and don'ts that customers and staff must abide by, if they want to stay on the good side of Nicky, the fiery owner/manager, originally from South London but now a New York establishment in her own right (check the press links on the website for proof). There's even a list of 'Nicky's Rules' stuck firmly onto the front door of the diminutive tea shop, just to make sure there's no messing around. The rules insist that no one can go just for tea, some kind of edible must be consumed. There's also to be no rudeness to members of staff, and, most of all, THE WHOLE PARTY must be present before a table can be seated. You've been warned. I worked there during the summer months, but apparently the warm aroma of apple crumble and treacle pudding pulls in double the customers during winter months - even if it involves waiting in line when it's minus 5 Farenheit outside.

I used to enjoy serving up bangers and mash, eggs on toast and shepherd's pie to homesick expats and anglophile New Yorkers. My favourite was preparing 'Afternoon tea for two' on old-fashioned, metal stacked servers: a portion to share included a selection of finger sandwiches, three slices of cake (chocolate was always one of them), and scones, clotted cream and jam. Everything was prepared in-house by head chef Jimmy and his colleagues, who must be among the only New York-dwelling Latin Americans in the world who've tried marmite and know that 'rosie lee' means tea.

I do think it's funny how you can find more typically 'British' traditions abroad. I mean, how many people really do sit down to afternoon tea these days, here in the UK? It's the same in ex-colonial countries. Whenever I used to visit my grandparents in Bangalore in South India, one of my favourite treats would be to stock up on the tantalisingly titled 'rich plum cake' from Nilgiri's - a supermarket founded during British rule which still sold old fashioned Johnson's soap, tin jars of Cadbury's cocoa and Pond's Cold Cream - and tuck into a good old 'high tea', with the addition of Indian savouries, of course. I still remember the days when I lived in Nairobi as a child, lounging on the deckchairs in the beautiful gardens of Karen Blixen's house, sipping on Earl Grey. Or those crisp, dark early mornings in the Masai Mara, when ginger biscuits, pungent and dampened by the humidity, and hot, steaming tea, coaxed us out of our camp beds and into our land rovers. I can also recall afternoons spent at Langata's Giraffe Manor where we'd climb a raised wooden platform to feed the tall, graceful giraffes pelettes straight onto their long, black tongues, before tucking into our own tea of scones and cream.

The nearest I've come to replicating those childhood tea-time experiences is at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, near Cambridge - sitting in those deckchairs in the open air really does take me back to my Nairobi days. Proust was definitely right, there's something about the tastes, smells and sensations one experiences when growing up that just can't be forgotten. But the Orchard isn't the real world, either - it's about as frozen in time as you can get. Maybe that dreamy idea of lazy afternoon tea can only exist for those 'exiled' from home (or in the novels of P.G Wodehouse or Richmal Crompton, of course). But that's probably a good thing. It wouldn't be half so special if it were a reality.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Good Critic

Last night I attended a very interesting debate at the British Film Institute, discussing the role of the critic in the 21st century.

The talk was chaired by Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound, the international film magazine based in London. The invited speakers included: filmmaker, author and curator Mark Cousins; Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma; The Times film critic Wendy Ide; and Mark Fisher, blogger and Deputy editor of The Wire.

I really enjoyed hearing each of them speak, and to listen to responses from members of the audience, too. I was glad to hear that there are still many people who are passionate about keeping educated, enthusiastic and opinionated (yes, opinionated!) criticism alive. I agreed with Cousins and Ide who spoke against the pressures of marketing ploys to promote star-studded blockbusters at the expense of less mainstream, smaller-budget films. Cousins used Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End as a prime example of what he calls 'bullying'. Quite rightly, he questioned the need for it to be shown 53 times over the course of one single day in Edinburgh. I couldn't agree more. I'm also thrilled that among the list of films Cousins has selected for screening at the BFI at the moment, is Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyènes (Hyenas) is being shown.

It was also fascinating to talk to Nick James and Jean-Michel Frodon after the debate. I asked Frodon whether he thinks that France is suffering the same 'crisis' of criticism that the Anglophone world seems to be undergoing (in America, 31 permanent critics have lost their jobs over the past couple of years, since web 2.0 came into being). It seems evident that the French haven't quite reached our stage of cynicism yet, and hopefully they never will. France has had a cinéphile tradition ever since Lumière and Méliès delighted audiences with their projections. Henri Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1936 - the world's first film archive. It was at this historic location that François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard received their cinematic 'schooling'. They also wrote regularly for Cahiers du Cinema, which was founded in 1951. I loved living in Paris for the very fact that it has so many wonderful art cinemas, and that people there (and in France in general) tend to appreciate a wider range of films. Perhaps I'm looking through rose-tinted spectacles, but I don't think so.

Earlier this week, I was reading a few interviews with Peter Greenaway in the BFI library, and he often says that his most loyal and enthusiastic viewers can be found in France. He says it's because the French public tend to be, in general, more inclined to embrace cinema in relation to other art forms such as painting, theatre and literature, as well as philosophy and history. He also talks about an 'inverse snobbism' in the UK, in that people tend to be sceptical about films which try to be too clever for their own good. In his view, we're a far more literary nation than a visual one, and as a result we're quite accepting of playwrights and novelists to tackle complex issues, but are less inclined to appreciate a thought-provoking, 'difficult' film. I'm not sure if one can make such a sweeping statement, but perhaps he's right to a certain extent. But maybe it's more to do with the fact that we're victims of the 'bullying' that Mark Cousins mentioned in his talk. Perhaps if there was a more equal distribution of small-budget films alongside Hollywood blockbusters, more people would take an interest in a wider range of material.

It was also interesting to hear what Mark Fisher had to say about the demise of terrestrial TV. Nowadays, he argues, mainstream networks such as the BBC and Channel 4 hardly ever show foreign or 'arthouse' films. He says that he first discovered directors such as Tarkovsky and Jarman by happening to switch on the TV and being instantly captivated by what he saw. This is a valid point. However, I'm not sure if I totally agree with him. I find that the availability of DVDs in local libraries and on websites such as Love Film means that we have a far greater access to all kinds of films. The chance encounter is still possible- just in different ways. In my local Camden town video store, there's always a freshly arranged shelf of 'recommended' titles, picked out by the staff. OK, I am lucky to live in an area where there's a high demand for all kinds of films. But internet rental sites are quite well stocked too. However, I do think that local cinemas should be encouraged (or financed) to show a wider range of films. Finally, I think it can be concluded that critics can function as 'signposters' (as Mark Cousins says) or 'bridges' (Jean-Michel Frodon's term). In an age of information overload, we should welcome suggestions and recommendations from critics who dedicate their lives to watching films and framing their reactions thoughtfully, articulately and above all honestly. Long live the critic!

Sweet tooth

I went for a run on Hampstead Heath earlier and happened to jog past fellow Kentish town resident, the journalist Giles Coren. (I know he lives nearby as he often slips in fond remarks about his Camden neighbourhood into his restaurant column in The Times magazine. Coren - an excellent writer, and sworn enemy of sub-editors all over Fleet street due to his wrathful reactions to any tampering with his carefully formed prose - was walking his dog and tucking into what seemed to be a packet of some kind of sugary confectionary. Perhaps the credit crunch is hitting The Times and they're no longer sending him for slap-up, three course dinners, so he's having to resort to afternoon snacking to stave away hunger pangs. Probably not. Maybe his tastes are just less refined than he'd have us believe...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Living, Dining and Philosophising - the art of French cinema

During the Cambridge Film Festival, Isabelle McNeill wrote a brilliant article about a current trend in contemporary French film: depictions of the family home. This was certainly evident in the line-up of new cinematic offerings at the Cambridge Film Festival.

During the week I saw Cyril Gelblat's new film, Les Murs Porteurs (Cycles, 2007), Philippe Claudel's fabulous Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You so Long, 2008, starring Kristin Scott Thomas), Michel Léviant's En Souvenir de Nous (In Memory of Us, 2007), and Eric Guirado's Le Fils de L'Epicier (The Grocer's Son, 2007). They all deal with notions of the family, traditions, coming of age, memory - in particular relation to a shared living space. The films are also about a changing France and in certain ways celebrate a decidedly 'French' way of life - shared meals, philosophical discussions, setting aside time to think and reflect upon life and art.

Tom Sutcliffe on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review hosted an insightful discussion of Il y a longtemps que je t'aime last week. The presenter and his guests - Douglas Kennedy, Fay Weldon and James Runcie, enjoyed the film overall, and it was interesting to hear their observations. However, I was slightly irritated by their shared dislike for a certain crucial scene - "that damned dinner party", as one of the panel puts it. They all seem to agree that the sequence is too obvious, too contrived and of course so irredeemably French, as presenter Tom Sutcliffe says. Brits seem to have a rather contradictory attitude to the French and their attitude to meal times. On the one hand, we long for a 'civilised' dining tradition à la française while we speedily wolf down our lunchtime sandwiches over our computers.* On the other hand, we secretly despise our Gallic neighbours for having a better deal than us, and think it all rather pretentious. We also have a problem watching them 'having their cake and eating it' on screen. It doesn't make sense.

Eventually, the Radio 4 panel conceded that it's refreshing for a British audience to watch a film in which the characters talk about culture and go to art galleries (and, presumably, have long dinners). The verdict is, apparently, that the French are less scared of portraying middle class life than us Brits. "The French invented bourgeois and they practice it", concludes Douglas Kennedy. But maybe the reason why they still 'practice' this slower, more contemplative way of life - whether we label it 'bourgeois' or not - could be linked to the fact that all French students wishing to pursue further education have to pass the compulsory Philosophy module of the Baccalaureate. That means that a large proportion of the French population has been educated to think and ponder in a certain way. French cinema reflects this. I thought the dinner party scene was effective, but then I'm biased because it includes an argument between some of the characters about the filmmaker Eric Rohmer - a master when it comes to filming meal time conversations. A film which is not only a delight to watch, but also slips in a reference to one of my favourite directors of all time, definitely gets my vote.

Cycles is a slow-paced, gentle film about relationships between the generations of a Jewish family - the Rosenfelds - living in the Marais in Paris. The film centres around the old family home - an apartment on the rue de Turenne. The beautiful old flat is no longer occupied by the Rosenfelds. However, family members are drawn back to it during the course of the film. I enjoyed it all the more because it's shot just a few steps away from where I used to live, and it brought back lots of memories.

En Souvenir de Nous could almost be corny in its romanticised portrayal of a remembered youth, but it's not. Léviant weaves into his plot some more troubled, uncertain dynamics between his three female leads. It was also interesting to hear Léviant present the film, and explain how it came to fruition - it's actually two films merged into one, made twelve years apart and with the same actors, bar one. He was inspired to make it because one of the actresses died shortly after the shooting of the original film, and he observed how strange it was to watch the film, knowing she was no longer alive. He decided to frame a second film, based on the notion that the character she played has died and her friends gather together to reminisce about the summer they spent together. The opening of the film depicts them entering the house for the first time after all those years, opening cupboards, peering into drawers and uncovering old relics - echoing how the film itself delves back into the past, not only of the characters but the director and actors too.

I enjoyed watching Le Fils de L'Epicier, again a contemplation of inter-generational relationships and of old tradition. Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé), is the son of a grocer and was brought up in a rural community. The film opens in Paris, where Antoine is working as a hotel waiter, reluctant to join the family trade. Yet his father's ailing health and his relationship with a young girl, Claire (Clotilde Hesme) eventually draw him back to his childhood home. He soon becomes attached to the community he grew up in. Guirado's film is brought alive by stunning location shots and engaging central performances by Hesme and Cazalé.

* Interestingly, Angelique Chrisafis recently wrote in The Guardian how the French are slowly moving towards our mode of desktop lunching as the credit crunch sets in.

The Artist and Model

I just returned from a wonderful day's drawing, led by the artist Tom Davies at the school he teaches at in Ealing. It's a long way from North London but I can't think of a better way of spending a Saturday.

My good friend Aliette was modelling, along with two other people, and between 10am - 4pm the hours just whizzed by. Another fantastic and inspiring artist, Francis Hoyland, was also there. The class comprised a few of Tom's Sixth Form students and then quite a few 'older' people - myself being one of the youngest of that category. As all of us sat and sketched, Tom and Francis kept up an ongoing dialogue about drawing, ways of seeing, and artists. Their favourites seem to be Matisse and Bonnard, which is handy as they're my favourite artists too. The discussion moved to the new Rothko exhibition at the Tate, which I am dying to see. Tom also told us about his imminent trip to Calais, where he's been invited to give a talk at the inauguration of Anthony Caro's new installations in a 12th century chapel. The project is entitled Le Choeur de Lumière.

Tom also talked to us about Balzac's novella, Le Chef d'Oeuvre Inconnu, which he'd suggested as reading matter to one of his pupils who is preparing to study Art History at UCL. The book is set in 17th Century Paris. It's about an ageing artist, the mysterious and foreboding Frenhofer, desperately trying to complete his 'unfinished masterpiece'. He inevitably fails - in the eyes of his critics at least. Balzac incorporates a fictitious young Poussin into the tale, too. According to Tom, the house in which the story is set actually exists, and apparently Picasso was so enthralled by the tale that he decided to paint Guernica there. I read the Balzac work a couple of years ago, whilst researching for a dissertation on painting and cinema. Jacques Rivette made a film loosely based on the book, entitled La Belle Noiseuse (1991), and that's what first inspired me to read it. The film stars a fabulous Michel Piccoli as Frenhofer, and Emmanuelle Béart as the young model. Both the film and the book provide fascinating explorations into perceptions of beauty, the artist's impulse to capture the ephemeral, and poses the unanswerable question of 'what makes a good painting'?

During today's session I completed about 5 drawings, using a mixture of charcoal, pen and ink. I was very pleased with them and can't wait for my next class.