Reviewed today: Electro Chaabi, Hirokazu Kore-eda Screen Talk, Kalpana, Model Shop.
Uday Shankar was as much of a pioneer in Indian dance as his brother Ravi was in music. His reputation was largely built on stage performances, but he also made one film, Kalpana (Imagination), in 1948. Treasures curator Clyde Jeavons suspects it's never been shown in the UK in all that time: it's only being presented now thanks to a restoration by The World Cinema Foundation, a project by Martin Scorsese to bring undiscovered classics of global cinema back to light. And these are the people who restored A Brighter Summer Day for us back in 2010, so I'm prepared to accept their definition of 'undiscovered classic'.
Uday Shankar could almost be considered the James Franco of his time - he wrote this film, produced and directed it, designed the choreography, and plays a thinly disguised version of himself in the leading role. At least, he does after the first reel, in which his character Udayan is played by a child overactor with crazy eyes, trying to compete against adult cast members who literally twirl their moustaches in several early scenes. Still, these sequences get across that Udayan has dancing in his blood from childhood, despite the disapproval of his family and peers. When he grows up he goes out on tour with a small company, and along the way has two women vying for his favours, the lovely Uma (Amala Shankar, wife of the director) and the totally demented Kamini (Lakshmi Kanta). As Udayan's ambitions grow - first creating an academy, then a national theatre, all in the name of preserving India's culture - the love triangle inevitably gets stretched to breaking point.
You can see why the World Cinema Foundation wanted to restore this film - it's utterly one of a kind, and unlike anything you've ever seen, even coming from a country where 'masala' is a common word used to described the mix of styles in a single film. The copious dance sequences - including the gala performance that takes up most of the back end of the story - are simultaneously stagey and cinematic: shot on sets, then spiced up with jump cuts, sudden costume changes and multiple exposures. Shankar showcases a huge range of dancing styles as part of his cultural preservation agenda, but he also addresses the issue explicitly in dialogue and at least one rant directly to camera, as he tells of his fears for his country's future.
For full enjoyment of Kalpana, I suspect it would help to be a bit more clued up on the socio-political situation at the time. Its 1948 release positions its shooting during the period where India was transitioning into independence - at least one character complains that Gandhi and Nehru are taking too long to get things moving. But it's obvious that the film is crammed with references to the issues and concerns of its time. Some of them are still relevant: note the framing story where Shankar attempts to pitch his story to a movie studio whose entrance features the sign 'Box Office Our God'. But at this remove, both geographically and temporally, it's sometimes difficult to grasp everything that's going on. Without that knowledge, Kalpana still works as a wild ride of imagery broken up with a political subtext that you can't quite grasp.
3.30pm: Model Shop [trailer]
Our second archive film of the day, but instead of an introduction from Clyde Jeavons, we have LFF boss Clare Stewart doing the honours here. There's something enjoyable about seeing her get her hands dirty, as it were - normally you assume the Festival Director's job is to introduce the big movies and the famous people who come with them. She does a good job of setting this film in context: French director Jacques Demy's one attempt at making a movie in Hollywood, neglected since its 1969 release due to its lousy reception, but now back for reappraisal thanks to the hard work of LFF regular Grover Crisp and his restoration team at Columbia. (Are we going to see you on stage this festival, Grover?)
Model Shop shows us one day in the life of George (Gary Lockwood, the other guy in 2001), a man living in LA with a sulky girlfriend and an MG he can't quite afford. He only has one thing he needs to do today - pay off the hundred bucks he's currently behind on car payments, or else it'll be repossessed. After a couple of false starts, he manages to get the money from one of his friends, which should be the end of the film: but it isn't. Because earlier in the day he's had a chance encounter with the mysterious Lola (Anouk Aimée), and has become a little obsessed with her. He starts to stalk her, and eventually tracks her down to the model shop of the title. And it's not the sort that sells Airfix kits.
Apparently the working title of Demy's film was the more prosaic Los Angeles 1968. It would have been a waste of a title, because the place and time are obvious from every frame. The place is apparent from the low-slung architecture of the streets that George drives down, with the occasional elevated vantage point that reveals the hidden beauty of the city. And it's got every cliche of a sixties movie you can imagine: the acid rock soundtrack, the relaxed approach to relationships, the continuous threat of the draft, the introduction of marijuana in act one without it suddenly turning into Chekhov's Joint in act three.
It's a rambly, incredibly loose picture - you could take all the plot in here and make an entirely serviceable short story out of it. But the bagginess is what makes it work: effectively, Model Shop's episodic nature makes it more or less a road movie, just one that's constrained within a few city blocks. A long-lost film it may be, but time has turned it into a rather delightful little time capsule, and it's nice to have it unearthed.
6.30pm: Hirokazu Kore-eda [Wikipedia biography]
In recent years, the LFF has started announcing its live interview events quite late, normally after the programme has gone to press. I can sort of see the logic behind this: they want to be quite sure they can guarantee the presence of the people they announce (the huge set of last minute cancellations at LFF 2001 was a special case, but you get the idea). However, there's a downside: a large proportion of the audience uses the printed programme as their guide, and isn't looking out for late changes to it. Which is how we end up with the situation we're in tonight - a live appearance by one of the greatest Japanese directors working today, playing to a house that's less than half-full. Well, it's everyone else's loss.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is in town with his new film Like Father, Like Son, and he's being interviewed on stage by Jasper Sharp about that movie and his earlier work. Sharp's a good choice for interviewer - he knows his stuff, being among other things the author of the definitive book on dirty Japanese cinema - but he ends up having to ditch quite a few of his questions because he's underestimated the amount of time that has to be spent in translating both questions and answers. Nevertheless, it's only fair to mention the terrific job being done by the BFI's interpreter on the night (I didn't catch her name, and I'm really annoyed about that). She did the whole thing without taking any notes, translating Kore-eda's long and detailed responses in one go without any obvious fluffs.
Kore-eda starts by talking a little about his entry into the movie industry. When he was at university, his aim was to become a novelist. Unfortunately, he found that universities don't teach you how to write novels, so he effectively dropped out and spent the next five years hiding in cinemas rather than studying. He picked up a lot of his cinematic influences along the way, Fellini probably being the biggest. His first jobs behind the camera involved working on television documentaries, which he saw as a useful way of learning how to engage with the outside world after half a decade of avoiding it at the movies.
His first feature, Maborosi, was a very stylised piece of work, quite unlike anything he's done since. It turns out that one of Kore-eda's heroes, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, gave him a bit of a telling-off after seeing it, complaining that he'd planned the film too much in advance rather than reacting to what was happening in front of him. Kore-eda took this advice to heart, and since then he's tried to be much more improvisational on set. This particularly applies to his much-admired work with child actors: during the audition process, he observes the language and gestures that the children use, and works that into their scripted characters. I Wish, for example, was inspired by a general desire to capture the energy of children running, and specifically by the relentless nature of the Maeda brothers he cast in the lead roles. "If you put them on a desert island, they would be the last ones standing."
Thanks to the various overruns in the interview, the middle years of Kore-eda's career get skipped over a little: but as these events traditionally open with a discussion of the subject's latest film, there was time for some talk about Like Father, Like Son. It's a curious anomaly in the director's career, in that it's done spectacular business in Japan, and is getting its UK release next weekend rather than after the usual two-year delay we've come to expect. Kore-eda has a few theories as to why that is: his lead actor Masaharu Fukuyama is one of the biggest names in Japan right now (mainly through TV and music - no, we haven't heard of him before either), its story has links to some real-life events from the seventies, and its profile was raised by the announcement that Steven Spielberg is looking at producing a US remake. Personally, I'd like to think that everyone else has finally caught up with just how good a filmmaker Kore-eda is: after all, the family dramas he makes should have universal appeal. "Maybe I'll make films from a grandfather's point of view in the future. If I'm still making films by then..."
9.00pm: Electro Chaabi [official Facebook]
This festival has traditions. One that's been in place for the last decade or so has been the Saturday night music documentary slot, generally the responsibility of programmer Michael 'Low Fat Morrissey' Hayden. He's moved on now - he's been Head of Programming at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin for the last few months, and congratulations to him on that. But it's nice to see the tradition carrying on regardless, as part of the Sonic sub-section in the programme that would have been so much his thing.
Electro Chaabi (spelt 'Shaabi' in the programme booklet, so oops) looks at the music scene in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, and specifically the underground movement in the poorer areas of Cairo. A new musical form has grown up in the wake of the revolution - part punk rock, part hip hop, part dancehall, it involves socially aware lyrics being sung or rapped over the filthiest electronic beats you can imagine. The film interviews several of the artists involved in the scene, listens to their music, and follows their progress up to just before the 2013 revolution. (Given the rate of change in Egypt, maybe we should call it the first 2013 revolution for clarity's sake.)
Those of us who've been through all this with punk or other movements will recognise the throughline of the story. In the beginning, the musicians are creating tracks on cheap bedroom PCs, and performing them at wedding parties. As they get more and more popular, their ambitions start to grow. At one point, a duo called Oka and Ortega sells one of their tracks to a film, and then feels ripped off when it's used without credit. However, any sympathy you may have for them is short-lived, as you discover the speed at which they're prepared to sell out when the people from TV come calling.
Hind Meddeb's film isn't the only document of the Electro Chaabi scene: there was recently an epic series of articles on the subject by John Doran at The Quietus, which suggests at one point that Meddeb's film may not be as well-researched or accurate as she thinks it is. That may or may not be the case, but what she's made is an impressive starting point for additional investigation into the movement. The music sequences have an insane energy: huge wedding parties lit by hand-held flares, impromptu raves held on a rooftop driven by a single genius playing a keyboard, rappers performing while holding onto the side of a moving tuktuk. It's a terrific document of a country in transition arranged to music, which nicely loops us back round to Kalpana at the beginning of today, and reminds me that all the good films I've seen at LFF 2013 so far have been either documentaries or archive restorations. Will that change? We'll see.