I have in my hand my diary from 1989, the first year I started regularly attending the London Film Festival. Here's part of the entry for Tuesday November 14th, specifically what I had to say about the movie Diamond Skulls: "had some nice ideas about the British aristocracy but didn't really touch me." Bah. When I had the idea to look that up in the diary last night, I was hoping there'd be more detail than that. I'd assumed I would have mentioned that Diamond Skulls was the first fictional feature by acclaimed documentary maker Nick Broomfield, and that his talent for capturing real situations had vanished out the door when he had to deal with actors. (It's not an unusual opinion: Broomfield himself repeats it at today's post-film Q&A.)
After 17 years, Broomfield has made a second attempt at a non-documentary feature, but one that's based on real-life events. Ghosts tells the story of Chinese single mother Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin), who's forced to seek work abroad in order to make ends meet. After a payment of $25,000 to a dodgy middleman and a hellish six month journey by road and sea, she eventually finds herself in England, only to discover she's become the property of gangmaster Mr Lin (Zhan Yu). He puts her to work with a dozen or so other Chinese illegal immigrants on a series of low-paid menial jobs: meat preparation for Sainsburys, gathering produce on a local farm, and so on.
British viewers may well remember where this ends up: on a beach in Morecambe in the winter of 2004, when 23 illegal Chinese workers were drowned while out picking cockles. The story was picked up by journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai for an extended piece in The Guardian which highlighted the plight of these particular workers, and the millions of others who've come to this country to do the jobs that nobody else wants. Broomfield has used that article as the basis for his fictionalised account of the events leading up to the tragedy.
With Ghosts, he's managed to find a way to integrate his documentary style with the demands of working with actors. Broomfield lets the actions of the cast drive the direction of filming, the way he would if he was shooting real events, and not the other way round. He's assisted by Mark Wolfe's remarkably fluid camerawork, which uses the flexibility of HD to get in close in situations where a full camera crew would be intrusive, or (in a couple of shots) positively illegal.
Having said that, the film occupies a curious middle ground between pure fiction and pure documentary - it's not trying to give the issues the glossy treatment which was the main criticism of Dirty Pretty Things, but it isn't trying to blur the lines between fiction and reality the way Michael Winterbottom's In This World did. It's a dramatic feature that engages the viewer through its narrative, but isn't afraid to take a break occasionally to baldly state the facts about the exploitation of migrant workers. I know some people may find that a clumsy mixture [looks down], but it works for me: it has the ring of authenticity, thanks to Broomfield's intensive research and the input of his cast, most of whom have some experience of this labour market. And even though it's not a documentary, the official site is worth visiting to find out what can be done next.
6.30pm: Heart, Beating In The Dark (1982)
Pay attention, this gets complicated. The director Shunichi Nagasaki made this film on Super-8 in 1982. The LFF liked the look of it, and showed the film in the 1984 festival, inviting Nagasaki to come over to London with it. While he was there, he took his Super-8 camera out onto the streets of the city, making a short film called London Calling: and so tonight's revival screening of Heart, Beating In The Dark is preceded by a short that was made during its previous appearance at the LFF. (It's going to get even more complicated later, trust me.)
London Calling proves to be a nice introduction to Nagasaki's lo-fi aesthetic, telling the story of how the director tried to look up an old girlfriend while he was in London. If nothing else, it's an excellent time capsule of London in the autumn of 1984 (coincidentally, my first autumn in the city): the impact of the miners' strike on its politics, the group Frank Chickens becoming the most famous Japanese people in town, LFF Asian cinema guru Tony Rayns with hair. But it's all done in grainy 8mm with little or no sync sound, and prepares the audience for how the main feature will look and sound.
Ringo (Takashi Naito) and Inako (Shigeru Muroi) are a young couple, possibly on the run, who spend the night at a friend's apartment. They spend the night fucking, fighting, arguing, and remembering the events that brought them here. As you watch this, you realise that this must be typical of the London arthouse cinema experience in the early eighties: a bunch of white middle-class people in a darkened room, watching grainy 8mm footage of foreigners having sex.
My main problem with Heart is that despite all that, it isn't really cinema: it's theatre. The action constrained to a single set over a single night: the jumps in time covered by cutaway scenes or music: the slow buildup to a big revelation at the climax: even the devices used to make the narration of Ringo and Inako's backstory interesting are all theatrical in nature. You could adapt this film for the stage using the traditional Monty Python method of just putting it onto a piece of wood and banging a few nails through it. Not to say that it isn't interesting in parts, just that it doesn't really work as a film.
Still, that's not the reason why we're watching this...
8.45pm: Heart, Beating In The Dark (2005)
Okay, bear with me here. In 2005, Shunichi Nagasaki decided to remake the film I've just reviewed above. That's not just a statement of fact: it's the initial premise of the film. And its first scenes show the actors from the 1982 movie complaining to the director that they should get to appear in the remake as well.
As a result, the new version of Heart, Beating In The Dark intercuts between no less than four separate narrative strands. We have footage of the original 1982 film (although as this remake is a more commercial proposition than the underground original, all the shots featuring pubic hair have mysteriously gone missing). We have a contemporary retelling of the story using two new characters, Toru (Shoichi Honda) and Yuki (Noriko Eguchi), which stays relatively close to the original but with a couple of interesting gender flips. Meanwhile, across town, Ringo (Takashi Naito) and Inako (Shigeru Muroi) from the 1982 film are having a reunion after two decades apart. And all of this is mixed in with footage of the cast in rehearsal, where the older actor Naito is insisting that this film should be the story of his character's redemption, and the only way he can depict that is by punching the younger actor Honda in the face.
In the interval between the two versions of Heart, I told The Belated Birthday Girl about my theory that Heart (1982) was typical of arthouse cinema at that time. And after this film, she came up with a terrific observation: isn't Heart (2005) typical of arthouse cinema now? The postmodernist mashup of the movie and the process of its making: the multiple story strands interweaving with each other: the way the emotional thump of the original has become muted as a result of jokey narrative tricks.
I'd say that the important thing here is that Heart (2005) is a better piece of cinema than Heart (1982) - it uses the medium to an extent that the earlier film could only dream of. As we jump between the various narrative strands (sometimes sliding between two in a single shot), the dividing lines between them become fascinatingly blurred, and each story complements and comments on the other three. It's lovingly shot (making for some spectacular contrasts between the old and new footage), and the cast cope admirably with their multiple roles. Curiously, the repeat screening of the double bill on Sunday October 29th (catch it if you can) will show the two films the opposite way round: the remake has enough footage of the old film to make it work as a standalone proposition, but once you've seen it the 1982 version becomes more or less redundant. Still, as a pair they're a rather fascinating narrative experiment, and the new movie is rather fine in its own right.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Fast Food Nation
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - "There's shit in the meat." Well no worries, because as Bruce Willis says later (in a five minute cameo): "Everyone has to eat a little shit sometimes."
Anyway our story revolves around a fast growing hamburger chain called Mickeys, looking at how its product reaches the consumer, the types of people involved in the industry, and whether there is an uncalled for savoury ingredient in the 'Big One'.
As such we learn that Mexicans earn more money in the US than at home, but have to work in dangerous conditions, where they are exploited by their own countrymen. Also student types tend to flip burgers for low wages. Finally (and get this) there are dead cows in the burgers. What's even worse than that, these are not cattle found expired by the side of the road, but instead are actually reared, rounded up, and knocked off in purpose built meat production factories.
Well duh. All this non-information is served up as if it is something we don't already know. I can't believe this is the same director who made the brilliant films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and School Of Rock (alright that one's good only), but I suppose everyone is due an off day.
So was there any excitement to be had? Well yes actually, as I saw probably the strangest happening ever in a cinema. About three quarters of the way through the film, about 30 to 40 of the centre section of the cinema started standing up, followed by a certain amount of low level female screaming. The next thing various people from completely different sections of the cinema (rather than ground zero itself), started to leap up and bolt for the exit. Thus I was trying to work out what it was that they knew that I didn't. Was there a murder in the house, or perhaps an unexploded terrorist? After a few minutes of this commotion some sort of usher type with torch in hand headed for the centre of it all, whilst various female types were wiping their eyes, covering their faces, or being comforted by their boyfriends. By this point the film had become completely incidental for everyone. So what is next I wondered (given that this was going on for a good five minutes) - are the lights coming up, will the cops or paramedics come bursting onto the scene, will there be bodies going out on stretchers? Well no, none of that, and what was really bizarre (to me anyway), everyone suddenly sat down as if nothing had happened, and got on with watching the film. My only assumption therefore is that someone must have spilt their popcorn.
The only other highlight (for me anyway) was that the film was introduced by Ms Hebron, resplendent in her usual kinky black boots (and far better than Spank's 'Diet Morrissey', whom I seemed to be getting all the time up till this film). Anyway she proceeded to bring on Richard Linklater, whose brief was to tell us all what it was we were about to see. Well he said the film wasn't a comedy, or a drama, or a satire, or a documentary. So I guess what he was actually saying was that the film wasn't really anything at all; to which I wholeheartedly concur.
The Belated Birthday Girl - You really want to be kind to this film, because of the subject matter, and because of Nick Broomfield, who has made some excellent documentaries in the past. And there are some good things in it, which could make it possible to be kind to it: there are some terrific visuals - the opening scenes of the tide rushing in are particularly memorable - and there are some nicely played moments of humour between the Chinese workers. But I'm afraid that this isn't actually all that good as a film: there is some awfully clunky scripting, particularly when you feel facts being shoe-horned in, and the acting is mostly fairly poor, particularly from the non-Chinese ("Robert", the dodgy slum landlord, was cringeworthy).
Much of the problem comes, I think, from a couple of my bug-bears: using non-actors to "keep it real", and loose scripting, from someone who just isn't a scriptwriter, when it comes down to it. It's all very well to try to keep rawness and immediacy, and, to be fair, those moments of humour between the Chinese characters I mentioned earlier were probably improvised from the cast members' personal experiences, but maybe you need a more skillful director of actors to make these non-actor casts really work. Or maybe Broomfield just wasn't even concerned about getting something which actually works in those terms, believing that the subject matter ought to be enough. But, if that's the case, I just don't agree: for this to be truly effective - and affecting - as a drama, it would be much better if it were better written, and better acted. Relying on the audience's natural sympathy for the subject is not good enough.
I have very little doubt that Nick Broomfield could have made a very good documentary on this topic, and personally that's what I wish he had done. In the Q&A session, when asked why he had opted for a drama rather than a documentary, Broomfield talked about the technological advances meaning he could use a documentary-scale crew to make a fiction feature, and referenced such examples as Michael Winterbottom. The mention of Winterbottom brings to mind his In This World, which skillfully blurred the fiction/documentary boundary - so much so as to raise questions at the time over the ethics of such an enterprise - and only serves to point up how much poorer in comparison Ghosts was.
Ultimately Ghosts was a bit of a disappointment: a worthy but amateurish film. Broomfield's aim of putting the plight of the Morecambe Bay victims' families out there, and using his film and associated website to raise awareness - and, more importantly, funds - may be laudable, but a well-made documentary, or a well-written and well-acted drama, would serve the purpose better.