“Time Regained”/”Le Temps Retrouve” 1999 directed by Raul Ruiz (review by Cynthia Webb)


“Time Regained”/”Le Temps Retrouve” 1999, directed by Raul Ruiz
Review by Cynthia Webb
I am still drifting and dreaming inside the corridors of the mind, the chambers of memory of Marcel Proust, after seeing the exquisite film of his “Le Temps Retrouve”/”Time Regained”. This piece of pure cinematic bliss was made in 1999 and directed by one of the great ones, Raul Ruiz.
Today I took the train from Gold Coast to Brisbane (1 hour 20 minutes) to see it at the Cinematheque at the Gallery of Modern Art. I did so because the opportunity to see this film has never come up for me before and because I knew from viewing other work of Raul Ruiz, that the journey would be worth the trouble. There is one more screening on Saturday 24th August (2019).
Ruiz demonstrates that he is a true maestro of cinema’s possibilities, through the genius and beauty with which he has brought Proust’s great work to the screen. So many films are just like “visual books” and do not use the full potential and possibilities of film making. Here is truly cinematic expression of a novel. It is not like the usual films we see, not even like the great films we have on our jealously guarded list of special favorites. This film will certainly be added to mine, and near the top of the list too! It’s almost unique, and the only other filmmakers whose work comes to mind after experiencing it, are Andrei Tarkovsky and Theo Angelopoulos.
How is it different?
Marcel Proust is confined to bed, knowing he’s in his last days, and he is lost in his past, as he looks through his papers and photos, and memories come bursting into his mind of those certain moments from his lifetime, that we all carry like vignettes…. scenes from the movie of our life, that have never faded, but which we still can feel, smell, hear, and locate in the place where they happened. Sometimes they come to us when we are dreaming, sometimes when we are awake. Those indelible memories stored in the part of our memory where they are destined never to fade.
One is called upon to identify with this dying man, and the call is more difficult to ignore, the older one is.
So as Marcel recalls his life, his family, friends, loves, acquaintances, the people in his social circle, the tragic time of the First World War, we, the blessed audience are taken back there with him….. into the streets of Paris, into the Salons of the upper classes, the rich, the famous, the aristocratic, even into a dark and murky S & M ‘house’ for the very best people only. Our “time travel” is not chronological, and we see Marcel, and various other people as they were in their youth and middle age, and even their last days, but not necessarily in that order. We experience the memories as certain stimuli cause them to suddenly come alive in Marcel’s mind, sometimes from a sound, sometimes because they are linked to another memory – just in the random way that we are all familiar with. It is all brilliantly constructed and not difficult to follow if one is paying the attention that this work of art deserves.
One scene in the home of one of Marcel’s relatives where a musical concert is being presented (a violinist and a pianist), is beyond complete description, such is the atmosphere created. Ruiz and his brilliant cameraman, Ricardo Aronovich, have devised a way to move the camera and also move certain groups of the people sitting, listening entranced, in a crowded room, so that we are floating with them in a sort of divine sorcery.
From Proust’s writing we know that he was an acute observer of his times and we see him as such, in this scene of the film too. He is well connected, and respected in the highest circles of Parisian society. He weaves his way around the gathering, during the interval in the musical programme, when everyone gathers around an enormous table adorned with delicious sweet patisseries to complement the sweetness of the music. Marcel has total mastery over smiling, observing and listening – being the one to whom people will tell what’s on their mind. He is a master of discretion, and doesn’t say much at all, just looks empathetic and keeps on moving about once the person has shared their gossip, leaving each one feeling understood.
There’s a lovely scene of Marcel and his wife, Albertine, played by Chiara Mastroianni. To see Chiara is to see her real life father, Marcello Mastroianni, alive again, in her lovely face.
The nice thing is that Chiara’s real life mother Catherine Deneuve also has the plum role of Odette, a legendary beauty of the Belle Epoque era, in this film. (We have recently also seen Chiara in the 2018 film “Claire Darling”.)
Starring as the adult Marcel, Marcello Mazzorlla perfectly allows us inside his head, to spy on his memories.
Also starring here are John Malkovich, as Baron Charlus, Marie-France Pisier, Emmanuelle Beart as the daughter of Odette, Vincent Perez, plays Morel the musician.
The Belle Epoque (which ended with World War One) is recreated in a sublime manner through the set decoration and costumes, and a screenplay adapted from Marcel Proust’s novel, as well as the performances of the many actors (all just perfect).
“Time Regained” runs for 163 minutes and comes to us in three parts, those being before the war, during the war, and after the war. It’s an era, a lifetime, that expressed a long established condition in French history, class structure and way of life, that was violently swept away by the war. We are witnessing the momentous end of an era that had been refined to a high degree of sophistication, manners, class consciousness and sheer beauty. It’s difficult to understand just how different everything was afterwards.
Raul Ruiz was born in Chile, and began his career there, but left the country to live in Paris in 1973 after the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a USA supported coup, and replaced by General Pinochet.
In Paris, Ruiz was prolific and completed a total of 100 films during his forty years of filmmaking. He died in 2011, and sadly isn’t so well known in his native country, Chile. However, his talents were much appreciated by the Europeans.
“Le Temps Retrouve”/”Time Regained” is for me an unforgettable experience and a sublime work from a maestro of cinema.
Copyright, Cynthia Webb, August 1999
Poster image, courtesy of the producers.

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“The White Crow” (2019, director, Ralph Fiennes……….. review by Cynthia Webb



“The White Crow” (2019, director Ralph Fiennes)
By Cynthia Webb

The White Crow (belaya vorona) is a Russian expression for a misfit, a non-conformist, one who stands out from the crowd.

This was certainly Rudolph Nureyev. His character was like that, his background was one of struggle, born on the Trans Siberian Express near Irkutsk, growing up hungry in wartime, with loving mother, and absent father. His Muslim parents were of Tatar heritage – (inheritors of the blood of Mongol conquerors of the 12th and 13th century). His childhood was spent in Ufa, with three older sisters, an outcast amongst the other children, wearing ragged clothes and often on the sidelines.

At age seventeen, Rudolph (Rudik, his mama calls him) came to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to try to catch up on years of dance education, and was in the care of ballet master, Alexander Pushkin, played by Ralph Fiennes, who is also the director of this film. He had had some dance instruction since a young age, and there are some precious scenes near the end of this film, of the little Rudolph performing traditional dance, based on a Russian story. He learned to have great belief in story, advised by Alexander Pushkin that it should be expressed in one’s performance and Rudolph believed also in one’s own destiny.
Rudolph is profoundly determined, self confident, and ambitious, and works hard. In Leningrad, his innate talent is noticed immediately, but time must be spent on refining his wildness. Rudolph worked extremely hard to catch up on all that he had missed. It could be said, that in dancing, the refining process more or less worked, but not in his personal life. He later danced with considerable technique, but fortunately for Ballet-o-manes of the world, they didn’t crush his wildness, which seemed to be the thing that audiences felt, appreciated and adored.

He was offered a place in the Kirov Ballet, narrowly avoiding being sent by the Soviet government, back to the small town of Ufa from which he came, presumably to teach dance, and ‘give back’ to the people of the Soviet Union who paid for his education up until that time. Intervention from high places saved him, (the director of the Kirov) and the prima ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya who wished to have him as her partner, for their mutual benefit.

In 1961 the Kirov Ballet toured to Paris and London. It was the first time Kirov Company had ever performed in the West. The ballet company was in Paris for five weeks, escorted and watched by KGB men. It was risky, sending a large group to the West in 1961, the height of the Cold War. Presumably the Soviet government gave approval, in a conflicted way, knowing it was dangerous, but wanting to show their enemies The West, just how cultured they were. This was definitely true. Ballet was invented in France, but it was Russia that perfected the great art, and no-one argues with that, then or now.
Rudolp Nureyev was a strong individualist, and longed for freedom in a most powerful way. He knew he was the best, and he wanted to show the world. His rebellious personality was so much ‘the individual’ that he was made for Capitalism/Freedom, and living in the Soviet Union’s culture did NOT suit him at all. There, he was certainly the misfit, the White Crow.

In Paris, the 23 year old dancer won the love of the audiences, and made friends. He went out with his new French friends every night and every day to see the great culture of France, in Museums, and in cabarets and including gay clubs. The French awarded him with their coveted Nijinsky Medal of Honour. They saw him as the new Nijinsky, a dancer who had set Paris alight back in the Twenties, when the Ballet Russe performed there. He met a young woman, Clara Saint, who was close to the family of high level politician and novelist, Andre Malraux, and seemed to know everyone who was anyone. They became close friends. Nureyev was gay, and he was arrogant, proud, and sometimes rude. He’d learned English back in Russia, but sometimes he didn’t use it well. However, she forgave him everything and played a leading role in the success of his tense and terrifying defection at Le Bourget Airport, as the company was leaving for London.

The film shows the tense drama at the Airport as being set off by his KGB minder telling him that he wouldn’t be going to London with the Kirov Company, but must return to Moscow to perform. When he refused another excuse for why he should do as they told him, was explained to him, in an attempt to defuse his resistance. But suspicious Rudolph resisted, and panicked. One of his French friends, at the airport to see him off, intervened, made a phone call to Clara Saint, she came as soon as she could, and talked to the airport police, who soon intervened. Rudi was saved at the eleventh hour, by the laws of France relating to people who request political asylum.

This story is well known by almost everyone across the world, as it was in every newspaper, on every television screen, and talked about ever since. It was a disaster for the Soviet Union, and a triumph for the West in the propaganda war.

The film implies that he wouldn’t have defected in Paris, if the KGB hadn’t tried at the last minute to get him separated from the company and returned to Moscow. Their reason was that they knew he’d been out and about so much in Paris and was loving every minute of it far too much. They suspected he might be planning to defect. However in the film the defection in Paris is shown as something, unplanned, but forced upon him by crisis at the airport as the other dancers left to go to London. After the event he was declared a traitor to his country, and he thought he would never be able to return. In fact he was allowed to return 26 years later for a visit.

One of the beautiful parts of this film is in the flash-backs to his life in the Soviet Union, and to his childhood. These scenes are extremely real and genuine looking, and show just how much he has to give up, to renounce, leave forever, by defecting….the good as well as the bad. He is a man caught between his love of his family, friends, and Mother Russia, and on the other alternative, his powerful individualist’s nature and dream of showing the world what he can do on their ballet stages. Russia’s great and fine heritage and history is a force to be reckoned with, and Rudi must make a choice In with nothing but a glass of cognac to help him, during 45 minutes alone in the police room at the French airport.
We all know the result.

As cinema, this is a fine piece of work by Ralph Fiennes, who is more recognized as an actor, but has directed several fine films. His education and love of art and culture is evident in all of them. In his own scenes in the film he speaks Russian.

There are no extravagant scenes of ballet performances, and this aspect of the story is handled in a more subtle and lonely kind of way. We see Rudolph Nureyev on the stage still standing isolated ( as in childhood) … or watching from back stage. He is portrayed as deeply thoughtful, with great artistic sensitivity, immense intelligence and self confidence that cannot be ignored, by himself or anyone else. He is shown observing everything that happens around him – what does it mean, is it useful to his ambitions? However, sometimes his pride over-rules everything and he says and does things that could bring him undone. He is saved by his immense talent, clearly evident to all who see him dance.

The role is played by an accomplished Ukrainian ballet dancer, Oleg Ivenko and he has done a fine job, with both the dancing and the acting. The personality of Rudolph Nureyev as shown to us by Oleg Ivenko and the director Fiennes, dominate the entire film, as indeed it should.

The writing by the maestro David Hare is sublime.
Locations and art direction and cinematography are very fine. The film has been made in Serbia, France, Croatia and Russia, and it is nice to see that the Executive Producer was Liam Neeson.

Clara Saint a solemn young woman in mourning for her boyfriend, son of Malraux the writer and politician, is played by Adele Exarchopoulos, (remember her from “Blue is the Warmest Colour”).

Russian actress Nadezhda Markina plays a small role, as the Government official who tells Nureyev, in no uncertain terms, that he is just a small cog in the big Soviet wheel, and must leave Leningrad and return to his remote hometown and pay back his debts in contribution to Soviet culture. She has been seen in the films of renowned director , Andrey Zvygintsev and has visited Gold Coast, Australia for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, when nominated as Best Actress in “Elena”.

“The White Crow” is the perfect title for the film, which tells an enthralling story of the 20th century, and shows us the type of man Nureyev was, to make him brave enough and able to do such a drastic and terrifying thing, at that Paris airport in 1961.

Copyright – July 2019 Cynthia Webb
Photos  from the film provided by the Producer

Portrait by Sanden Senior, (Assoc Press) of the real Rudolph Nureyev in 1961 the year of his defection.

POSTER 2 The White Crow

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“Everybody Knows” (2018) Asghar Farhadi

EVERYBODY KNOWS (Spain, 2018) directed by Asghar Farhadi
review by Cynthia Webb
POSTER Everybody Knows

In November, 2014 I was speaking with Asghar Farhadi while he was in Brisbane, acting as Jury President for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. He told me that he had just spent most of the year in Malaga, Spain, resting and writing screenplays, after some very busy years following the success of his film “A Separation”. That break-out work of cinema won many awards around the world and topped its achievements off with the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He had also made “The Past” in France, before his Spanish getaway. Mr Farhadi told me how much he loved Spain, and added, “Oh, the music! The dancing!”
Since then one of those screenplays, “The Salesman”, a story set in Iran, won him a second Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Then at last it was time for him to return to his beloved Spain, in August 2017 to shoot the second of the screenplays he wrote there – “Everybody Knows”.
I wholeheartedly agreed with his love of Spanish culture, and was reminded of his remarks again today while watching his latest film, “Everybody Knows”, set in Torrelaguna, a small Spanish village to the north of Madrid and starring Penelope Cruz, her real life husband, Javier Bardem, and the much respected Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darin.
Penelope Cruz plays Laura, a woman who grew up in the village, who returns with her two children, from Argentina for a family wedding. Her husband Alejandro, played by Ricardo Darin is not with her, and doesn’t appear until about half way through the film, after a crisis occurs and she asks him to come. Returning home to her parents, and siblings and the extended family, she also meets up with her first love, the local man Paco, played by Javier Bardem. They haven’t seen one another for sixteen years, and he is happily married, as is Laura. However, if you come from a small village, you are never really free of the past and the village knows all, hence the film’s title.

There is a joyous family reunion, preparations for the wedding, the wedding itself, and the party, and then suddenly the mood changes, and film becomes a ‘domestic mystery’. While the first part of the film is showing us the delights of Spanish family life, music, dance and celebration, we are actually being ‘fed’ pieces of information that may seem unimportant at the time, but later will tie up many linkages and explain everything – so pay attention. So as not to write any ‘spoilers’, I will not talk about the story. It is best if you go along, completely ‘in the dark’.
Suffice to say that Asghar Farhadi has written another of his unique screenplays, which explore the minutiae of family and close-friend relationships, especially when the situation involves a small town where everybody knows. His screen-writing is unmistakable, and his ‘fingerprints’ and ‘thought-prints’ are all over it.
There were certain small similarities relating to personal relationships, that have also been in most of his former films, going back to “About Elly” (2009).
Because of the Spanish setting, and an obviously bigger budget than usual, and because the film is not made for the Iranian market, it is far less claustrophobic than his films set in Iran, where the women are wearing head scarves, (even in their homes) and somber covered-up Islamic clothing required by Iranian censors. For the wedding party scenes Farhadi has been able to ‘let his hair down’ and the women are wearing colourful and by Iranian standards, revealing clothing. The wedding singer has a backless dress, many of the guests have bare shoulders and plunging cleavage. This is not normally something I would even mention, but it is unusual in a film by Asghar Farhadi and the reason why the film feels more expansive and ‘international’. The wedding party features wonderful music and dancing – flamenco touches abound and that is where I was reminded of him telling me how much he loved that, back in 2014.
The first part of the film moves along at a brisk pace. There is a lot to tell us, and he has to do it without making us feel as if we are being primed. The editor has done a fine job and the actors too. After the wedding celebration, the whole pace changes, and so does the mood.
We are in the same situation as the protagonists, trying to solve a mystery, and although we don’t feel as anxious as they do, which I think may be the only short-coming with this film, we are busy trying to concentrate on what we’ve been told, what we are learning now, and figure it out.
I think that this film for the world market, but set in Spain, has proved what some people have been wondering, including myself. Could Farhadi leave behind his culture, his country, and the intimate knowledge of the way things work there, and make a totally non-Iranian film? ( Six out of his total of eight feature films have been made and set in Iran.) Well, he can! He did so with “The Past”, set in Paris, featuring only a minor link with Iran, through one character. He has definitely demonstrated his skills here, particularly the screen-writing, and to tell his story he has used the aspects of his characters’ lives that are not ‘Iranian’, but ‘human’. Anywhere, and everywhere, some things are always the same. Small towns, multi-generational families and their dynamics, past love affairs, young love, the way events of long ago are not forgotten, and memories do not stay buried. When a stressful situation arises, old resentments bubble up to the surface and muddy the waters. To sort things out, even the most deeply buried secrets must be revealed.
We have here a world class director, working with three world class actors, who are backed up by an excellent Spanish supporting cast.
I particularly liked the closing scene, where more secrets are being buried, to perhaps bubble up to the surface at some time in the future. This is a masterful screenplay, and one worthy of Asghar Farhadi’s reputation as a Maestro of the cinema.


Copyright: Cynthia Webb, March, 2019
Poster: thanks to the Producers
Photo: thanks to Sunita Jariwala for taking the photo of Asghar Farhadi and me during our conversation in November 2014 in Brisbane, Australia.

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Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 2018 – In the right place at the right time

APSA 2018 posterAPSA award vessels by Joanna Bone

Overview of industry change, and APSA’s potential as the cinematic focus shifts to Asia
By Cynthia Webb, Brisbane, Australia

This awards event is similar in form to the Academy Awards, of Hollywood. The first “APSA” year was 2007, and this year was the twelfth year of celebrating the cinema of the Asia-Pacific region. Asia’s population is 4.5 billion, Asia comprises one third of planet earth and encompasses 70 countries.
Asia Pacific Screen Awards, was the brainchild of Mr Des Power, then working for Events Management of the Queensland State Government. He is an ardent cinema lover and his idea came to him in the right place at the right time. That place is Brisbane, in the State of Queensland, Australia. He told me last week, about the vast amount of planning, travelling, persuasion and talking it took to bring this ‘baby’ into the world. In some countries film-makers welcomed the idea, others couldn’t quite ‘get it’, and wondered, “but why in Australia?”

To this writer, APSA’s situation in Brisbane, Australia is ideal. This is because although Australia is geographically placed close to South East Asia, it has a somewhat ambiguous position, also being part of the Pacific region, so it could be seen as a somewhat neutral territory, a little on the edge of Asia. Australia has a Pacific Ocean coastline but is not quite actually in the Pacific either. Our continent is so big that it is a transition territory between the Pacific and Asia. Therefore it can be seen as not inclined to any kind of unfairness, parochial attitude or bias towards a particular country, culture or religion. It also helps that as English has become the second language for the world, Australia is an English speaking nation. Most of APSA’s international visitors can communicate in English, however for those who cannot, translators are provided.

Brisbane is also home to the Asia Pacific Tri-Ennial of Contemporary Art at the Gallery of Modern Art. This huge exhibition has recently opened and is on show at the same time as the twelfth APSA event. In late November, Brisbane was the artistic ‘hub’ of the Asia-Pacific, with so many artists, and film-makers in the city.

APSA has two special concepts at its heart – first, to recognize and reward excellent film-making, and second, to recognize the films that most reveal cultural diversity and therefore promote international understanding and friendship. Six films that began ‘life’ at APSA, by being awarded the APSA-MPA film fund, towards their creation, have premiered in Cannes, Venice, and Locarno film festivals, and several of them were nominated in APSA list this year.

For APSA 2018, 46 films were in the list of nominations and they came from 22 Asia-Pacific countries and areas. A surprising fact is that over half of this year’s nominations were from first time film-makers, such is the talent in the region. There was a new category this year, Best Musical Score, an important addition.

In the twelve years since the beginning of APSA the statistics of film production and distribution have changed considerably. Half of the films made in the world are now made in Asia.
Lord David Puttnam, the legendary British film producer was a special guest at APSA, and its partner Griffith University Film School, again this year and he remarked that APSA has a “phenomenal opportunity because it is sitting at the heart” of a world cinema revolution, as focus moves to Asia, from Hollywood, Britain and Europe.

The day before the APSA Awards were presented he gave a most interesting Master-class, and I will sometimes share his comments in this article, because he expressed so well, the potential for APSA in the region.
He told us: “In China alone we can compare the fact that only three years ago the top six box office films included five American films and one Chinese film. Now it is the other way around – six Chinese films and one American film. There was a 46.7% increase in Chinese domestically made films just in 2018.”

APSA has already been at the heart of quite a few success stories. It was at APSA that some of the big names of contemporary Asian cinema have found an international platform for their earlier films – I’m thinking of Asghar Farhadi (Iran), Lee-Chang Dong (South Korea), Hirokazu Kore-Eda(Japan), Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Anurag Kashyap (India) Nuri Bilge-Ceylan,(Turkey) Andrei Zvyagintsev,(Russia) Jia Zhangke,(China) and others who have been submitting their films to APSA over the twelve years of its history.

I read in the British Film Institute’s “Sight and Sound” magazine, July 2018 issue, a remark from the editor, Nick James: “Take the Hollywood element away from any festival and you find that the art of cinema is alive and artistically thriving, mostly in Asia.” He was commenting on the fact that American films were scarce in Cannes this year. “Instead, what we got was a carnival of cinema art, the best of it from Japan, South Korea and China – a programme of the highest quality with good choices.”

This draws attention to the fact that the Hollywood product has become increasingly predictable, consisting mostly of franchise films, super heroes and remakes. In my opinion, they have entirely lost their imagination, and financial courage, and think mainly about ‘sure-thing’ formula films, blockbusters and box office returns, when considering green-lighting projects.
Many of the same Asian films Nick James praised at Cannes Film Festival, were submitted to and then nominated in this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards too, such is the high regard that has developed amongst the top Asian film-makers, for APSA. For example at APSA 2018, the Japanese film “Shoplifters” won Best Feature Film. (It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.) The star of Jia Zhangke’s “Ash is the Purest White” Zhao Tao, won the Best Actress award. A Jury Grand Prize, went to Lee Chang-Dong’s “Burning”. Nadine Labaki, of Lebanon won Best Director for her new film “Capernaum”. All of these were highly regarded or awarded in Cannes last May.
“Cinema is the art form of the twenty-first century”, Lord David Puttnam declared in his Master-class, the day before the APSA Ceremony.

Once the only screen in our lives was the cinema screen, and we would buy tickets and go there for a shared evening of entertainment on the big screen. It was the big night out for people until the advent of television. I will always treasure the memory of when cinema was truly spectacular, shot in the 70mm film format, and there were huge screens and 70mm projectors in the cinemas to screen these epic films, such as my personal favorite, “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). The Sixties were the technology pinnacle of the film era. Then along came the video tape movies for rental and VCR player in the home. People didn’t have to go out to see movies of their choice anymore. Technological change speeded up when the digital era dawned, with DVDs, then Blu Ray discs. Home viewing was never easier or cheaper.

However, Lord Puttnam explained that for some time now, people increasingly prefer the Movie Streaming Services, which are catching on rapidly around the world, and are especially popular in Australia and China. Netflix is the choice of 31% of Australians, but in other Asian countries Netflix subscriptions are still in single digits. A corresponding change he mentioned is that sales of the physical versions of films in his home country the United Kingdom, are falling rapidly and this is an international trend.
“NETFLIX have gone into film production, as have AMAZON. Netflix has already won 43 Emmys and Amazon, has won 10 Emmys. The patterns of release and distribution of the films have changed, and the old Hollywood business model is being left behind and will collapse. The middle-man is being eased out of the picture. “This is the real world, and it’s not going to go away,” said Lord Puttnam.

Today’s young people are OK with streaming movies and watching them on their tiny Smart Phone screens – from one extreme to the other, in sixty years.
Whatever their size, screens are all around us, the most predominate way of communicating in the modern era, used not only for film and television, but for many other aspects of our lives.
Lord Puttnam said, “More and more money than ever before is chasing film-making talent. It’s a growth business – Culture and Technology is the ultimate power couple.”

All of this immense change, much of it during the lifetime of APSA, certainly does place APSA in the heart of things. It is open for first time film-makers, or for famous directors who already have two Best Foreign Film “Oscars” from the Hollywood Academy, such as Asghar Farhadi of Iran, whose international success story closely involves APSA and their partner, MPA (Motion Picture Association of America). Farhadi first came to APSA in 2009 with “About Elly”, and also with an idea for his next film. That project won the APSA-MPA funding and he went away to make “A Separation”, his international “break-out” film, which won the Oscar. He followed that with “The Salesman”, another Oscar winner. In 2014 he visited APSA again to act as President of the International Jury.

This story demonstrates that APSA can achieve its aim to help the region’s film-makers become known outside their own countries, and even achieve world fame.
Another project is the APSA-Griffith University Screen Lab, where emerging film-makers can submit a project hoping to be chosen for the program. This year there are three mentoring scholarships and three lucky film-makers will be mentored for a year while they are developing their screenplay in readiness for shooting. Their mentor is an appropriate member of the APSA Academy which now has a membership of 1200 international film-makers – winners and nominees in the past twelve Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Asia is the creative centre of world cinema now, and APSA is the region’s very own international competition. The future is shining with potential.

To see the full list of winners for this and every year of APSA, please visit http://www.asiapacificscreenawards.com

Copyright – Cynthia Webb, December 2018

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“Israfil” directed by Ida Panahandeh (Iran, 2017)

Esrafil poster
REVIEW by Cynthia Webb, 19th May 2018
“Israfil “ (2017, Iran) directed by Ida Panahandeh (pictured above)
Review by Cynthia Webb
While in Iran recently, I watched this very moving second feature film of the young female director, Ida Panahandeh. Her first film was entitled, “Nahid”, and also concerned the often difficult lives of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Nahid” won a prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival.
Ida has studied film making in Tehran, and also in Berlin’s “Talent Campus” in 2009, after being recognised as having great potential. This film, “Israfil” showed very mature film-making and is quite a remarkable achievement for a second feature film. I will be watching the future work of this gifted young film director, very closely.

This new film, “Israfil” is like a master-class in classical film-making. Her DOP, Morteza Gheidi, deserves special mention, because the colour design of the film is very subdued, and each frame is carefully thought out to the artistic conventions of composition. The cinematography is always calm and unobtrusive, to complement the behavior of Mahi, and the resigned nature of her attitude to life. The Editor, Hayedeh Safiyari, has supported the quiet tone of the film’s story, by cutting in a measured manner, and although I imagine every woman in the audience was feeling the sadness, perhaps the males were unable to grasp its full message.
The setting is in North Eastern Iran, a small town, where a female teacher, Mahi Ebrahimi (a role written for and played by Hediyah Tehrani, who won Best Actress Award at the Fajr International Film Festival for this performance) is mourning her teenage son Babak, recently killed in a car accident. Her ex boyfriend Behrouz, (Peyman Bazeghi) from almost 20 years ago, has returned from Canada, to sell some family land, and turns up at the funeral. The relatives of Mahi are furious, and there’s an angry uproar in the kitchen of her family home, while her Uncle Abbas says he wants to kill the interloper, with shouts such as “How dare he come back here?” The others manage to calm him down, but he’s a man who will not ever change his mind and forgive.
Then begins the ‘back-story’ and secrets are very quietly revealed. This man, Behrouz, has been the Mahi’s lover in their youth, and in such a subtle way, we learn of his true connection to her and the boy. He and our heroine, walk together and talk and remember past times when they were young, innocent, happy and in love. But it’s all impossible now. He has a new girlfriend.
As the film is divided into three sections, we next meet Sara, (Hoda Zeindabedin) who is Behrouz’s much younger girlfriend, whom he met online, and she has a story of her own, concerning her mother and her brother, which we explore and come to understand why she wishes to go with Behrooz to Canada. Her story too, reveals family problems and responsibilities that can also cause great difficulties to the younger generation.
Finally the third section brings us back to the protagonist, Mahi’s current day problems, which are caused by several things. She’s in grief for the loss of her son, she has committed indiscretions in her youth, which haunt her to this very day, and now she’s alone, with no husband (they split up) and no son either. At her teaching job, there is also trouble.
Life for a woman in modern-day Iran, is filled with pitfalls, and in a small town, it’s even more difficult, as no-one forgets anything, and everyone gossips.
The director has kept control of every tiny detail of this film, and it is loaded with empathy for the difficult lives of women, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Two or three times I found my eyes filling with tears. It was powerful empathy for the brave women of this world who have a more difficult life situation than me.
Always, the quiet and deliberate pace is sustained, to communicate to us the kind of life that one would live in such a small and distant town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s like walking on egg-shells.
The story ends with little hope for the proud and brave Mahi.
Ida Panahandeh, the director explained that she had a lot of trouble getting the screenplay past the Islamic Republic of Iran’s censors, to get permission to make the film. There was one element that may have been the cause, but wasn’t because it was transmitted in such a subtle manner, that perhaps they didn’t notice it. The problem they cited, was that the young woman Sara, states that she wanted to leave Iran, to be able to study art and have more opportunity, by going to Canada with Behrooz.
The title, “Israfil” is the name of one of four angels in the Iranian Islamic tradition, who has a trumpet. In Western world, he is the equivalent of Raphael. There is a line in the script that tells us that our protagonist’s grandmother had some plates with a painted image of Israfil on them. She and Behrooz find one in an antique shop while browsing and talking.
The fact that Mahi is socializing with Beyrouz again, albeit in public places only, scandalizes the town, because everyone knows that they were once in love, and that she attempted suicide when he fled from the town, in fear of her angry uncle. So to mention a “spoiler” which is kept so VERY subtle in the film, Behrooz is the father of her dead son, and she has been hurriedly married off to someone else to avoid scandal. This “ruined her life”, she says, and she has divorced from the husband, who has since died.
The film tells us that these strict religious and social traditions have been cruel to the young people in love, and that both their lives were ruined, but it tells us this almost wordlessly. The spirit of the dead child seems to be one of the main characters in this film, although he’s never seen, except in a picture. He is the link between Behrouz and Mahi, and he is the beginning of their sadness and is hovering over it now. The words that come to mind to describe the feeling of this lovely film, are poignant, dignified, and even tragic. It has so much humanity.
The film was recently shown to considerable acclaim at the BFI’s London Film Festival, 2017.
Copyright 19 May 2018, Cynthia Webb
Poster courtesy of the Producers and IMDb
Photo of the director by Cynthia Webb, copyright, 19 May 2018

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Press Conference with Oliver Stone, Tehran, Iran. At the Fajr International Film Festival, 19-27 April, 2018

Press Conference 25th April 2018 at the Fajr International Film Festival, (FIFF),Tehran, Iran.
(Festival Director, respected Iranian film maker Reza Mirkarimi.)
Report by Cynthia Webb (Tehran, Iran)

Media from Iran, from nearby countries, and even from Agence France Presse,and even Hollywood, attended this very interesting Press Conference, with a man who is certainly not a typical American film-maker, however he is a very famous one. His films have won several Oscars, and he has always had an interest in “the other side of the story” which is demonstrated by his documentaries as well as the feature films. His documentaries include interviews with Arafat,Castro, Chavez, Netanyahu, and Putin, and the ten episode series: The Untold History of the United States of America, made with a prominent American historian, which is riveting viewing.
Mr Stone came to Iran a few days early, and visited, Kashan and Esfahan before coming to the FIFF for workshops with Iranian film students and the press conference. Apparently he is the first big name American film-maker to ever attend this festival. As for the Fajr International Film Festival, he mentioned that it was a great opportunity for inter-dialogue between film-makers and other people.

He said it is his first time to come to Iran, and that he has met the warmest of hosts, and smiles. He added that movies speak any language.
Mr Stone explained that he had seen between 12-24 Iranian films, amongst thousands from many other countries. At this Film Festival he has watched about ten films, and was particularly impressed by those from Central Asia, Russia and even Germany too. He said it was a more relaxed festival for him, because he was not presenting a film of his own.

When asked why he accepted the invitation to come to Iran, Oliver Stone replied ,“ The history and culture. Persia has been on the map for two and a half thousand years. I was always interested in Iran but I have been very busy. However, this Festival is at the right time for me, and my son and my South Korean wife have urged me to come here. I am having a wonderful time.”

As for Iranian films, Mr Stone said that when he was on the Jury of a Film Festival in Bhutan, he saw many interesting Asian films, and “Blockage” from Iran was one of the co-winners . He commented that it was a very honest film, about corruption, even in everyday problems. He said, “The main character was a policeman, and there seemed to be no shame about the corruption. The film was absorbing to watch and the Jury all loved that film. It happens everywhere to some extent.”

In recent years, Mr Stone has made a lot of documentaries: “The Untold History of the USA”, The Putin Interviews, and also films about Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu. He said he has been finding it refreshing to get back to reality, and talk to real leaders. When asked if he had any plan to make a film about an Iranian leader, he answered that he did not.
Another question came about if he had considered making a film about the activities of ISIS, which are seriously affecting some countries in the region. He said “That’s a very good idea! Write a treatment and we’ll pitch it!” He was smiling, and then added that actually the world is very political, including the world of cinema and thatthere’d be little chance of him getting the money for such a project.
“You can do it honestly, here in Iran,” he added.

Deborah Young from “The Hollywood Report” asked his opinion of the situation regarding famous Iranian director, Jafar Panahi. Mr Panahi has a film in the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, (“3 Faces”) as does another Iranian, Asghar Farhadi. Mr Panahi cannot attend, as his passport is still revoked by the Iranian government.
Mr Stone did not know the full details and said that if Mr Panahi had made quite a few films, then that is an achievement in itself, and that he is personally against all ‘detention’.

(Note from the writer:) Mr Panahi was arrested, forbidden from making films for 25 years, passport revoked, and he was under house arrest for a long time. This was because of his outspoken comments in the street demonstrations after an election in Iran, in 2009. He also had a history of making films critical of the Iranian regime, particularly with regard to women’s rights, and even his newest film “3 Face” has that same theme. It later won a shared Best Screenplay prize at Cannes Film Festival, 2018.)

Asked what he thought of Iranian films, Mr Stone said that a few were very good, and continued, ,“I often wonder how can some films are so monotonous and don’t have enough tension. He made this comment in general , about films from many lands that he sees in Festivals across the world. He then advised – “Make your film exciting.” He mentioned that the issue of pace is subjective, according to your cultural background and told an anecdote about the legendary Billy Wilder (Hollywood director) who said “Make your point and get off. Cut the film in three weeks and have a preview.”

The subject of international prejudice against Iran was raised, when another reporter mentioned that lately a lot of films had made Iranians the villains. (e.g. Hollywood’s “ARGO”).

Then Mr Stone brought up his film “Alexander” 2004, (Iskandar) which was discussed in some journals as “anti-Iranian”. He clearly had a lot of historical knowledge about Alexander The Great’s exploits in Iran, and the historical battles with the army of Emperor Darius. He told the audience that there have been several versions of this film released on DVD, and that he had a lot of trouble with Warner Bros Studio’s very strong management. He said they had wanted a lot of things censored, such as sex between males, and the violence cut down. “It was very limiting” said Mr Stone. “The only version to watch, the one that I supervised and love is available widely around the world, entitled “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut” which came out in 2014 as a fourth version.. It runs for 3 hours 26 minutes.” This DVD has sold over a million copies and came out ten years after the original studio version.

The next matter raised, was that the Israeli press had published negative stories about Mr Stone coming to Iran and had printed some incorrect facts in the past, saying he had requested to interview Amedinejad. He assured the audience that the latter was totally false information. Israeli press also criticized him for visiting Iran for the Film Festival, criticism that he just ignored.
Someone asked which world crisis he felt would be interesting to make into a film.
“That’s a giant subject,” he answered. Then continued to say that it would be better to work on the subject of ISIS’ effect on the Middle East countries in documentary form, rather than feature film.

On making political films he mentioned that his film “W” ended in 2004 when President George W Bush ( the subject of “W”) invaded Iraq, and therefore the movie suffered at the box office. Stone said that he loved the film for its satire. He explained a particular scene, showing President Bush and Dick Cheney, studying a map of the region. The Cheney dialog – “Our goal”, (pointing to the oil rich Middle East nations and Iran). “The prize is oil money. We’re going to Baghdad!”
When the President asks, what is our exit strategy? Mr Cheney replies, “There IS NO exit!”

Mr Stone admitted that it hurt him when the American Press criticized and slammed the film, but he acknowledged that it was predictable, as American soldiers were at war with Iraq at the time.
“My timing sucked!” said the director.

He went on to say that ever since then (2004) the USA policy was Regime Change. It has been a pattern since 2001 – 2018 for the Neo-Cons, a policy that works for them. He said, “It is referred to as “creative destruction”. It’s a disgusting policy, ruining millions of lives, and continual tragedy is unfolding. It has been the same under both Presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump. America will break any treaty. We are continuing to do this. The USA tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. For us, treaties are breakable! We lay waste to a region and we call it “peace””.
Stone is openly appalled at the foreign policy of his own country. (note from writer: only a few weeks after this Press Conference, President Trump tore up his agreement with the Iranian Government about their nuclear power stations, so after that the Iranian parliament followed suit, tearing it up too, now that it was one-sided. It was a huge media story in Iran, and greeted with much dismay.)

Speaking about his impression of Iranians, Mr Stone praised the ‘charm, warmth and softness’ of Iranians he has met. He then added that one Iranian man told him – “We can be hard when we want to!”

A reporter from France asked about censorship in Iran, and requested comments, to which Mr Stone said that censorship restricts artistic freedom.’ Then he expanded by saying that there was almost no interest in his film “W” or “Snowden” in the USA, and that this too was a sort of censorship. However in France and Germany where 60% of people approved of what the real Edward Snowden had done (he was a whistleblower about USA government activities in spying on citizens) it did well.
“In some countries censorship can sometimes be excessive, to protect national security. For film-makers dealing with a subject that is about such matters, film-makers must be very subtle – it’s the only way to get around the problem. In the USA when I cannot get the money to make a politically controversial film, they call it “Economic Constraints”, but actually it’s a kind of censorship working in advance. No studios wanted to go near “Snowden”. “They just don’t give you the damn money!” Mr Stone exclaimed.

There was some plain speaking from Oliver Stone. He made a special point of again addressing specifically, the representative from the Agence France, to say that he had been very depressed by seeing on TV the previous evening, the young French President Macron, in cahoots with Trump on certain issues, and thought that it represented a return to the thinking of the French colonial era Imperialist attitudes. He said that Macron didn’t seem to have much sense of history. Mr Stone noted that his own mother was French. It was clear that Mr Stone definitely wanted his comments known in France, by taking this action.

Another questioner enquired as to whether Oliver Stone thought that was any chance of Iranian films penetrating the USA, and being widely seen there.
He answered, “No, because no other international cinemas have managed to do it yet either,” and mentioned China, and France as examples. He went on to say,
“Americans won’t watch sub-titles, and most of them do not travel abroad. However things are changing, through television where we have Netflix. Sometimes some hit TV series and films from France and England have been re-made in the USA”
Note from writer: Examples are “House of Cards” (based on a former, British version of the series, which was even more edgy). Also several French comedies by Francis Weber have been treated to the American re-make treatment in the past. The Swedish film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was re-made with American setting, by David Fincher. This is about the limit of such international film-sharing. So, it is not very promising for Iranian films to hope to get wide viewing in the USA.

There was then a question on whether Mr Stone would like to make a film about the situation in Syria, and he said that he would never be able to get the funding for such a project, as an American. He also mentioned that he “looked to Saudi Arabia as the major destructor in the region.”
Someone said that he had once made statement that George W Bush was like John Wayne. Therefore, who would he compare Donald Trump to?
His answer coming quickly, was one word, “Beelzebub”. There was a bit of explanation for some who didn’t know that this name Beelzebub is associated with the Canaanite God Bal, and was later associated with the Devil.

As is by now very clear, the political nature of Oliver Stone’s previous work and political interests, plus the situation in this region of the world, and the strained relations between the USA and Iran, led to the majority of the questions at this press conference being political ones.

Next, an Iranian journalist wanted to know if he knew about the eight year Iran/Iraq war, and if he’d like to make a film about it. He said, “no, not much at all, but that it was an interesting subject for an Iranian film.” He added, “You have to remember I am limited, and it is not possible at my age, and that it would be impossible to get the money for such a project because the USA was supporting Iraq at that time, when Iraq attacked Iran. (although not necessarily for the actual attack). He said that if there were chemical weapons in Iraq, they got them from the USA. “The USA fights proxy wars” he said, looking very depressed and angry about this fact. As for his future work, he said he’d return to subjects in the USA.

The final question was about whether Oliver Stone thought that at rare times in the West, when Iranian films won prizes, ‘was it a political choice’, rather than based on the merit of the film. (Two Iranian films are in competition at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, from Asghar Farhadi, a 2 time Oscar winner in Best Foreign Language Film category), and Jafar Panahi, a political activist who has been punished by the Iranian regime with strong restrictions on his life and professional activities.
Mr Stone answered, “Probably”.

As the press conference, which had been very long, wrapped up, I looked at my list of questions, and regretted that I had not known about the list to put my name on, to ask a question, and also, perhaps I wasn’t important to be on that list anyway, as I am not from any major newspaper or news service.
My final note: For the record, I’d have liked to ask about the fascinating moment during his Putin Interviews, when he enthusiastically showed Mr Putin footage from the Stanley Kubrick film, “Dr Strangelove – or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb!” I had watched Mr Putin’s face carefully, and he did NOT seem to think this image of the end of the world by nuclear war theme was any kind of laughing matter. Perhaps this extremely black satire/comedy just didn’t “travel” or perhaps he needed to watch the entire film or perhaps he did. It wasn’t clear but a scene out of context is certainly not really fair if that’s what happened.
Also, I wondered what Oliver Stone thought about the standard of the films emerging from Hollywood in recent years, where I see a depressing fall in the intelligence and quality. There are very few quality films, or good dramas on serious subjects emerging from the Studios anymore. Another of my questions, he had commented on during the conference, which was about whether he was intending to return to making feature films. He had already said that he would. If he does so, then it will be a big relief to see some good work about serious subjects again, in my humble opinion.

Copyright, Cynthia Webb, Tehran, Iran
Photos by Cynthia Webb
Film Poster: Courtesy of the Producers, via IMDb
26 April, 2018

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“The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) Directed by Clint Eastwood. (review by Cynthia Webb)

POSTER 15 17 To Paris
“The 15/17 to PARIS” (2018) Directed by Clint Eastwood
By Cynthia Webb
Perhaps Clint Eastwood’s days as a great director are over, going by his latest offering. Or perhaps this screenplay just didn’t have enough interest in it to sustain a feature film, albeit a comparatively short one, at 92 minutes.
“ The 15:17 to Paris”. This film is interesting for the fact that it tells the story of an event in August 2015, and the 3 young male stars are the actual young men who participated in dramatic events on the Thalys fast train between Amsterdam and Paris. At Gare du Midi, a Brussels train station, a 25 year old Moroccan man boarded the train. He went into the toilet and was noticed to have been a long time and a couple of men were waiting outside the door. When he opened the door, he was shirtless, but heavily armed and dangerous. One man instinctively tackled him, there was a scuffle, a shot was fired, and one passenger was shot and was on the floor losing a lot of blood. In the carriage, were 3 young men, Americans, life-long friends, two of them with training in the armed forces. They showed the benefit of their training, and did not hesitate to charge at the assailant. With help from a couple more male passengers, (French and British) they took his gun and knocked out the Moroccan, trussed up with ties and whatever else was to hand.. One of the Americans spent 20 minutes with 2 fingers jammed inside the bullet hole in the neck of his fellow passenger, pressing on the artery and thus saved his life. The train was diverted to a station about 20 minutes away and the police, and medical help boarded , removed the injured, the would-be shooter, and it was all over.
This is all public knowledge, and I’m sure most people remember that it was widely reported around the world.
However, I am sad to say that this is really the only interesting part of the film, when it begins to feel like a Hollywood Studio film directed by a legend, rather than home-movies.
For two-thirds of this one and a half hour movie, we are watching the standard growing up of 3 ‘All-American boys’, nice boys, good people with caring families. The opening scenes are truly awful, because they show two of the mothers getting repeatedly called to the office of the Principal of their Christian private school. However the film does not show their sons as even slightly deserving of being in trouble, OR having Attention Deficit Disorder, as one teacher informs the flabbergasted mothers. She thinks they should be on medication, but we the audience have seen nothing unusual.
This film could have been considerably improved and more interesting, if there had been an attempt to balance their All-American stories, with the story of the young Moroccan man…. Who was he, why was he on the train with all these guns. What was he thinking? What led him to this? He later claimed in court that he wanted to rob people, not kill, but he had enough firepower to kill most of the passengers. However, he appeared to be very inept with weapons, and fortunately for almost everyone, the AKM assault rifle jammed. He seemed to be a lone amateur and a bit of a bungler too. I might point out that there is a large community of Moroccans who live in Belgium, most of them good law abiding people. Way back in 1964 the Belgians invited them to come to live there and work in their coal mines, also steel and auto industry – work that Belgians weren’t keen to do themselves.

As for the young American heroes, following the childhood scenes, there’s a stretch of watching their grown up years, finding careers for themselves, and till close friends, keeping in touch via Skype.

When they plan a backpacking tour together in Western Europe, there’s more footage reminiscent of any American tourists’ amateur video recording – yes, far better quality than that would be, I admit, however the content is unremarkable… Eastwood seems to want us to only see the glories of Europe as a backdrop to the young heroes. The friends take a lot of Selfies, see a few of the compulsory “tourist attractions” in Italy, Germany and then go off to Amsterdam, after meeting an elderly musician in a bar, who tells them how great it is there. As they “do” Rome, Venice, Berlin, they seem to hardly bother to look at the history all around them. Like so many tourists I’ve seen in Europe myself, they are more interested in taking Selfies.

This first 45 minutes of backstory, is occasionally punctuated with some brief ‘flash-forwards’, with which Eastwood has attempted create a link to a moment happening in their youth. .. or maybe try to tell us everything was leading to this event on the train. One of the young men is still a dedicated Christian, and so there is, at least twice, a bit of unconvincing dialog, about being drawn to something powerful in his destiny. If those things were really said, and felt, the film has failed to show it as anything more than random chance.

In Amsterdam they are even considering not bothering to go to Paris. Are they in their right minds? Some of the dialog is rather lame on this subject too, where they say that various people they’ve talked to say it’s not worth bothering to go there. Are average Americans really this culturally blind and insensitive or is it just the folly of youth, or dare I say it, growing up in one of world’s most insular nations?

At least I enjoyed a small moment when they were on a bicycle tour of Berlin. The tour guide told them they’d stopped on the location of Hitler’s suicide, at the end of the war. One of the Americans, argues and says he thought Hitler died at his Alpine retreat in the South. The German says that Hitler was right here and it was the Russians that took Berlin, and caused Hitler and Eva Braun to commit suicide, in their underground bunker. He said, “You American’s cannot take credit for everything, in the war.” It is indeed a fact that it was really the Russians who won the war, and they lost eighty men for every one G.I. who died in World War Two. They had been fighting the Germans in the East for four years, when the Americans finally entered the war in only the final year.

The action scenes of the drama in the train are quite a relief after the tedium of the long lead up. It probably would have been better to just make a documentary about the event for television.

Clint Eastwood has made quite a few films recently about Americans at war, going right back to Flags of our Fathers. It was generous of him to put in the above-mentioned scene in Berlin with that dialog, in a small attempt to counteract how he has glorified the USA at war. Of course the individual young men and women, their courage, their sacrifices, should be appreciated and forever remembered. But it would be far better if the USA didn’t go to so many wars these days.

However I hasten to say the world was grateful when they finally appeared in the European theatre of war, in 1944, but much earlier in the Pacific, (because they themselves had been attacked at Pearl Harbour.)

The final scenes of the film are the actual media footage of the young men and another of the passengers, being presented with France’s Legion De Honneur medal, by President Hollande, and then a sort of victory parade when they came home to their hometown Sacramento, California.

I went along, I suppose only because I have lived about 4 months in Antwerp, Belgium since 2013, and will be back there for another couple of months very soon. I often use this train line, boarding at Antwerp Station. The spectacular architecture of Antwerp Station‘s building would have been impressive. This very busy station has a “layer cake” of four levels of lines and platforms, one on top of the other, because it is such a busy point on Europe’s rail transport network.

However, back to the film, my advice is “Don’t bother” to go to it. It’s not as interesting as Paris!

Comments by Cynthia Webb
Copyright Feb 2018
Photo: Courtesy of the Producers

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“Ellipsis” (2018) Directed by David Wenham (Australia)

“ELLIPSIS” directed by David Wenham. (Australia)
Cynthia Webb, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia
Australian actor David Wenham has been on many a film set starring in some of this country’s finest films, – also television. He began to ponder the matter of how film-making could be minimalized. now that this time of digital film-making is with us to stay with equipment becoming better every year, it was time to give it a try. I was fortunate to see it on 8th February at a screening at HOTA, ( Home of the Arts, the new name for The Gold Coast Arts Centre) presented by APSA ( Asia Pacific Screen Awards) and Gold Coast Film Festival. (The GC Film Festival is coming up in April, and I hope will screen this film again.)

The result is “Ellipsis”, which was conceived, work-shopped and shot (in 18 different locations around Sydney) in only ten days. AND, there was no screenplay for the two protagonists, known as Viv and Jasper, played by Emily Barclay and Benedict Samuel. Only four crew were involved, the DOP, Simon Morris, and a second cameraman, a sound-man, David’s assistant, and himself.
David Wenham said, “It was a film that I didn’t plan to make. I was well into making another film with this couple of actors, when it fell over, because of a funding issue. It was very disappointing because a lot of work had already gone into it. So, as I’d always wanted to make an experimental film, the actors and I decided to give it a try.”
David talked to them briefly about who their characters were, and took them out to lunch, “in character”. The shared luncheon was filmed, and was a success, with very natural performances from the actors.

So the experimental film commenced shooting, on a very simple premise.
Two attractive young people collide on a busy central city pedestrian crossing in Sydney. It was Jasper’s fault because he was looking at his cellphone instead of watching where he was going. Viv, who was also carrying her phone dropped it and smashed the screen. He reverses direction with her, to the side of the street, apologises most profusely and offers to take her to a phone repair shop nearby, run by a quiet and kind Chinese gentleman. Jasper wants to pay for the repairs. At first the repairman says it’s a serious job and will take a while, but when Viv pleads with him, because she’s leaving for London the next morning, he takes it home to work on it overnight.

Hence begins a day and a night of Jasper and Viv, filling in time together, wandering around Sydney, talking, getting to know one another, laughing a lot, obviously becoming more and more in tune with one-another. The only problem is, she is engaged, back in London life. They go by bus out to Bondi, they meet a dog that is out alone but has a phone number on its collar, and call the owner. They take the dog to the owner by taxi, receive complimentary eats and drinks in this grateful man’s café, then go back out onto the streets of King’s Cross, as darkness falls. There they meet various local characters, (these are all real local people) and have further adventures. All of this was as much a surprise to the actors on location, as it was to us, the audience! The young couple are becoming ever easier in one another’s company, getting somewhat tipsy and laughing more and more. The audience is beginning to wish for some sort of ‘happy ending’.
The delight of their night together is that they are living in the moment, free of any other responsibilities, obligations, and seemingly have ‘all the time in the world’ – OR at least until 8.00a.m. next morning when they will collect the repaired phone.

While all this is going on, we have the contrasting images coming from the Chinese phone repairman’s home, where he DOES have obligations, – an annoyed wife, a mother whom he has promised that he’ll assist her with something, plus the tricky job of getting that phone operational again, without the necessary spare part in his possession. Ingenuity is required, and the ending of the film reveals the ingenious way he did it in a quiet way, to the great delight of the audience with whom I saw the film, and linking the opening and closing shot of the film.

This film was delightful, with the charming protagonists, the natural performances, and the wonderful characters of King’s Cross who participated. Spontaneity is the key word, when I think of this lovely experiment in film-making.
David Wenham explained later, that he in fact lives close to King’s Cross and knows the area and all the eccentrics of the area very well. He had made certain arrangements with the ones who appeared, however, it was all a surprise to the young actors. Eighteen locations were visited, in one day and the longest time spent in any one location was two hours. The nightclub scene was where they stayed the longest, – 20 minutes!

One would think that a film like this, leaving so much to chance and the spontaneity of the actors, could end up being a bit of a mess! However, in this case. The cinematography is extremely good, and the editing has brought it all together seamlessly . The fact that Simon Morris (DOP) has experience in documentary filming as well as narrative features was a big advantage. No artificial lights were used – there was no time or money, for that.
Following two days of ‘work-shopping’ the film, they took to the streets, and all the shots in the film were captured in one take only, with no rehearsals
When asked about the stress levels , during the shooting process, David Wenham answered, “It was the least stress I have ever experienced on any film set. We were all feeling liberated, instead of having to always follow detailed instructions.”

Well known and respected film director, Robert Connolly, (“Balibo”) was Executive Producer on this project, and he said he’d be very happy to collaborate any time on another film with David Wenham. He enjoyed it because of the freedom from the normal list of ‘barriers’ that are involved with a normal type of film shoot, that involves a lot of people and equipment. Permissions are required for so many things. Rules apply in many places, such as not being able to shoot at Bondi, or on trains, he explained. When asked about the budget for this cinematic-experiment, Robert Connolly laughed and said, “Put it this way – I’ve made short films that had a bigger budget than this one. We call it a micro-budget. It’s the extreme end of experimentation.
Immediately after the shooting was complete, David had obligations to be in the USA for a role, so editing didn’t commence until about seven months later. This turned out to be a big advantage. He found he had a useful distance from the footage, and could make decisions easily. He was not so attached to the material.

David explained more about the pleasure of this way of filming. “I loved doing it and it exercised more creative muscles than being an actor. It’s the little moments of human connection, that count. Get rid of those devices (cellphones) and you have the opportunity to really connect. “
When asked what he wanted the audience to take away from seeing “Ellipsis” he said.
“I don’t want to be prescriptive. They can take away whatever they want.”
For this writer personally, I realized afterwards, that almost the only time I find I can live in that un-tethered, free and unobligated way, following the flow of events and going with it, is when travelling, (preferably overseas.) One’s normal life isn’t pulling on one in the new place, and there’s no particular routine to keep to. If something happens, you can just enjoy it, participate, follow its lead.
It also points out in a subtle way, how much we are missing by being preoccupied with ‘devices’ as David said, and missing certain experience which present themselves, hurrying on by, following an often self-imposed routine. For a day and a night, Jasper and Viv just set themselves free.

If you have an opportunity to see this film, please go along – you’ll enjoy it, and also it’s very good to support this experiment in film-making that turned out so well. You will then resolve to be ever watchful for these fleeting moments when life offers you an opportunity to connect with a stranger, and to be careful never to let them pass you by.

Cynthia Webb
Copyright, February, 2018
Photos of Mr David Wenham: Cynthia Webb
Images from the film, courtesy of the Producers

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‘DARKEST HOUR”, Directed by Joe Wright (UK, 2018)

Darkest Hour poster
“Darkest Hour” – by Joe Wright (UK, 2018) comments by Cynthia Webb

Pretty soon, this film will be collecting major awards on both sides of the Atlantic! “Darkest Hour” is the best film of a recent burst of Winston Churchill stories. He is a towering figure in the history of the 20th Century. Early on, he got the blame for the Allies’ ignominious failure at Gallipoli in the First World War. At the age of 65, he was made Prime Minister of Britain ( 1940) when Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign, he made up for it. That early failure haunted him apparently, and so it must have been weighing on him so much when in May 1940, the British Isles were under serious threat, Europe was already Hitler’s and Britain was hopelessly ill-prepared for the war they had to begin to fight immediately. No help was forthcoming from the USA, who declared themselves “neutral” at the time. Between the 26th May and 4th of June the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, using mostly civilian pleasure craft, and fishing boats – a citizen navy. This was Churchill’s only possible way to get 300,000 British soldiers back home from now surrendered, and occupied France. I hope everyone has seen “DUNKIRK” last year, so I don’t need to elaborate about that.
The film, “Darkest Hour” is directed by Joe Wright, who has touched on the Dunkirk evacuation before, in his film “Atonement”. This for me is his best film yet though. The performance of Gary Oldman is stunning, and he’s in every scene – commanding the screen, as well as the nation. He has already won the Golden Globe Best Actor Award.
His secretary is played very competently by Lily James. Kristen Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s beloved wife Clemmie, who was his own tower of strength. All versions of the Churchill story, have implied that the nation owes a lot to Clemmie, the smart and brave woman in the background, (confirming the famous cliche).
The screenplay by Anthon McCarten is full of wry humour, brilliant dialogue, and consists of quite a lot of quotes from actual speeches by Churchill. Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn is superb as King George, with only a slight hint of the previously filmed “stutter problem” he had… (“The King’s Speech”), the man who was not meant to be king, but had to take on the role when his brother abdicated. He ended up doing his duty for his country with great courage and dignity, and was the father of our Queen Elizabeth II. Ben Mendelsohn even looks quite similar to the King, and his body-language is just right too. The film shows that he visited Churchill in his messy art studio, unannounced…. and told him he supported him. This moment was a turning point in this film anyway, for Churchill. I’m not sure if it actually happened. Nor do I know if the very moving scene where he rides the Underground to Westminster really happened, but it is a brainwave on the part of the screen-writer anyway. This is an important and powerful film, with all performances striking the right note, and the sentimental moments, not ending up being too mushy and weakening the enormous strength of this film.
It reminds us yet again, of the immense courage and strength of Britain in those darkest hours… when things looked so very bleak and hopeless, the leaders and the ordinary people found their pride, quiet dignity, and humility and gathered in their sense of humour too, and they withstood five more years of war. This included the Blitz, (nightly bombing of London) as the war this time, was air-borne, as well as on the ground. They were able to do it because their Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was able to communicate the sheer force of his will and courage into the nation, and without the aid of television!
I must admit, that this film roused my pride in my British heritage… On both sides of my family, going back many, many generations, all my forebears were mostly English and one-quarter Irish.
For those interested in history and politics, this film is a MUST see experience.
For those who appreciate superb film-making, this film is a MUST see too.
For young people who know next to nothing about those times, this film should also be compulsory viewing. It is necessary to know what your grandparents went through, and to therefore remind today’s generation of young people that vigilance is always necessary in Democracy, and that we need strong, intelligent, courageous leaders, whose first duty is to their country. Watch how you vote! What would happen if today’s leaders were suddenly catapulted into the sort of situation in which Churchill suddenly himself as the new Prime Minister. How many of them could match his leadership and instinct for the task in hand? These are the times when decency, breeding, education, courage and guts are what is called for.
Go and see this remarkable film.

Text copyright January 2018
Photo – courtesy of the Producers

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‘Sekala, Niskala” (The Seen and Unseen) directed by Kamila Andini, 2017, Indonesia Review by Cynthia Webb

Dini with her award at APSA 2017

The island of Bali in Indonesia has become a tourist magnet of powerful attraction, but probably the majority of tourists just enjoy their holiday, and don’t know very much at all about the unique culture and religious lives of the Balinese people.

The Javanese film maker, Kamila Andini comes from a mainly Muslim culture in Java, however she has been raised by a father who is also a film director, and one who appreciates and makes films about all of the varied ethnic groups on the many islands of this archipelago that the Dutch called ‘the emerald necklace’, when they were the colonial power there.

So Dini, as she is known to her family and friends, (aged only 31, and who is now a young mother of two daughters) has a rich inner life and wide understanding of her country. She has now won two major awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the first Indonesian to do so. In 2012, her film about the Bajo people, or “Sea Gypsies” of the Wakatobi region of South Suluwesi won the Best Youth Feature Film Award. Now she has done it again, by winning the same award category, with her film about Balinese twins, entitled “Sekala, Niskala”. “The Seen and Unseen”, is the best English translation, referring to the hidden ‘world’ the tourists don’t know about, that the Balinese also live in. For the Balinese, the Unseen is just as real and relevant as is the material world. (For those who would like to know more about it, refer to the book “Bali – Sekala and Niskala” by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr which was first published in 1990, by Periplus.)

At Tokyo Filmex, two days after the APSA Award was announced, the Jury couldn’t choose between Kamila’s film and the film of Mouly Sourya, ( also from Indonesia), entitled “Marlina the Murder, in Four Acts”, so they awarded both films the Jury Grand Prize. “Sekala, Niskala” has been screened in the Platform section, of the Toronto Film Festival, and at Busan too, and received a lot of comment and good reviews.

Rare films from Indonesia showing the richness of the culture, and the variations from island to island, are often totally fresh and new to the eyes of Westerners. “Marlina” is shot in the remote island culture of Sumba and is quite unique. “Sekala, Niskala” is shot in Bali, (a vastly different culture from Sumba’s). Mysticism and spiritual power that runs strong beneath the visible world of Bali. It comes from a mixture of Hindu/Buddhism and Mysticism. Seen through the eyes of the young, who are still pure and undamaged by the tourism aspect of life in Bali and the realities of adulthood, that world is revealed to us in Kamila’s delicate film.

We meet village-dwelling twins, a boy, Putra and a girl, Putri, aged about 10. The names are the male and female version of the same name. Their village is in close proximity to the holy mountain, Gunung Agung, which is often seen in the background of night-shots, and is thought of as “the navel of the world” by the Balinese. Babies and young children in Bali are seen as still connected to the Niskala, the unseen world, and these two are no exception. They run freely in the rice paddies, and play imaginative games, and can read each other’s heart and soul.

But, catastrophe strikes. The boy becomes ill with a brain tumour and must go to hospital. His sister is quite terrified at this turn of events, and is afraid to even enter the strange white and sterile room, where he has been settled on a high bed and attached to a drip. They have been so at home in Nature, and now have to go to the city and are now in an unfamiliar world.
Putri finds a way of coping by removing herself into the world of Niskala, where she puts on costumes and dances with him, she plays games with him and is often accompanied on her night time walks by the ghost-children. Her dreams of happier times together when he was well, wake her. The ghost children are also surrounding Putra in this strange between-worlds place, the hospital. He is in the slow process of leaving the real world, he is not yet in the Unseen world, but he has access, through his sister’s imagination, love and connection to it.

The passing of the months is communicated to us via the phases of the moon in the night sky.

There is very little dialogue between them, and we do not miss it, we do not need it, and neither do they. The film is all about feeling and visions of mystic life that the sad little sister enters, and allows us to experience with her. She does everything she can to hold him to her, as he is her other half. She tells him, after one of their duo dances, in wonderful bird costumes that she has created from grass and paint, that she would trade places with him, if she could. She collapses to the floor, and he collapses to the bed – it has been his final effort in this life. He soon descends into a coma.

Balinese spiritual life is linked to the Saka Luna calendar that came to Bali from Java, with the migration to the island of Hindu people from Java’s Majapahit culture, in the fourteenth century. The calendar is organized around the moon’s cycles, still also observed in Javanese culture. The new moon is the beginning of a new cycle.

Duality (represented by the male and female twins) is potent in Balinese culture. Balinese religious activities, offerings, ceremonies are directed at attempting to keep the balance of good and evil. Their traditional black and white checked “poleng” cloth represents the two opposites.
The eggs, that appear several times, during the film, tell us that these two are really ‘one’– an egg that divided in the womb. How will Putri carry on in the Sekala world, without her brother? Putri will only eat the white of the egg, and Putra eats the yolk. In the opening scene, as the boy is being wheeled into the hospital room, she symbolically crushes the last ‘whole’ egg in her trembling hand. Later she is eating lunch with her mother. In her hard-boiled egg, there is no yolk.

A lot of “Sekala, Niskala” is filmed at night by Anggi Frisca, who captures the shadows against a sky often lit up by a full moon, and the silhouettes of mysterious children in the long grass. Night magic is abroad on the island some know as the Island of the Gods. The sounds of nature are also evocative in experiencing this unique film. The scene of Putri dancing for the moon silhouetted against the night sky, and in full Balinese traditional dance costume is particularly beautiful.

Kamila Andini’s primary achievement is in the concept, and it’s in her realization that words are not necessary, and that this sad story can be fully told visually. Only the scenes with the adults have dialogue… her mother talks to her a reassuringly, and she witnesses one scene where the village men discuss the crucial to life matters of planting the rice paddies, and sharing the water. We also see Putri make an offering at a simple rice-field shrine to Dewi Sri, the Rice Goddess. On Dewi Sri, and on water, all of Balinese life depends.

In a film about a death, these scenes about life, are also about the ‘duality’ and give meaning and balance, so important to the Balinese ways.

Kamila does everything to keep the subtlety, the delicacy and the sweetness, and she succeeds. There is no story, except that a fateful time is passing quietly in the timeless pace of Balinese life, so closely linked to the sacred world and to nature. We are privileged to be watching through the eyes of the brave little Putri.

Kamila has a quite miraculous ability to see and share with her audience, the innocence and beauty of childhood, in both of her APSA Award winning films. Her gift to Western audiences is to show us how to see and feel beyond the material world.
Copyright, Cynthia Webb – November 2017

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