“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.
Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.
A century after the 1918 Spring Offensive, one of the best-loved First World War stories returns to the cinema. Director Saul Dibb has made a new film of RC Sherriff’s intense, claustrophobic play Journey’s End, and it’s a terrific movie, capped by a blistering performance by Sam Claflin as the disintegrating Captain Stanhope.
The story takes place during a week in which one battalion is posted at the frontline, just 60 yards from the enemy trenches. The story unfolds among the officers – especially paternal Osborne (Paul Bettany), green Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) and volatile Stanhope. While the soldiers must sit and wait for an expected, and horribly imminent, German attack, the higher-ups insists on a daylight raid into enemy territory.
Neccesarily, the play is almost all talk, and although it was written in 1928 it was not adapted for the screen in the silent era. James Whale’s 1930 epic talkie adaptation is was a big success, though, and the play remains popular, performed regularly in professional and amateur productions. There was even a German film, starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Heinz Paul in 1932, which was banned by the Nazis.
The new Journey’s End doesn’t immediately seem to have any connections to the silent era, but when I saw it at a preview screening recently I thought otherwise. This powerful film is well worth watching for its own sake, but it also has some interesting resonances with silent cinema that I found fascinating.
Dibb pointed out at a Q&A after the screening that Simon Reade’s wasn’t solely based on the play, but mostly on the later novelisation by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett. This goes a long way to explain why the film is so effectively opened-out from the dugout contains the action in the stage version. Dibb further said that, although many of the cast were very familiar with the original, he hadn’t watched Whale’s film or read the play. In fact during his research, he chose not to watch any fictionalised accounts of the First World War at all. No Paths of Glory or Shoulder Arms. What he watched instead, and it shows, was archive footage of the war itself.
The publicity for compelling new documentary Letters From Baghdad quotes a description of Gertrude Bell as the “female Lawrence of Arabia”. To be strictly accurate, it was T. E. Lawrence, at 20 years her junior, who followed Bell rather than the other way around – first to Oxford, then to the Middle East and into government service. It hardly needs stating that these routes were rather less well-trodden for Bell than for Lawrence, although there is no need to diminish the achievements of either one. Bell’s story, as told in this engrossing semi-dramatised documentary, is that of a pioneer – a woman whose ambitions exceeded the expectations of her class and gender, who experienced bitter personal disappointment but achieved a notable and important career. Although her story has a sad ending, the work she did had far-reaching consequences, ones that are still felt today.
Bell was born in 1868, in County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a first in history, she began to travel the world. Initially to Persia to visit an uncle who was a diplomat there, and then around the world indulging a passion for mountaineering. She learned several languages, including Arabic and returned to the Middle East in 1899, travelling right across the region and writing an influential book on Syria. She spent some time working as archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire and also in Mesopotamia, where she first met Lawrence.
It’s during the war that Bell’s story gets especially interesting, as the British intelligence service recognised her expertise and hired her to assist with their operations in the region. After the war she would continue in the Middle East until her death, later as part of the team drawing up borders of modern Iraq, and after that she was given responsibility for the safeguarding the area’s antiquities.
In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.
Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.
A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.
Love is private, intimate. Speak its name aloud and the spell is broken. Share it and the magic is shattered. Except, except … in the 20th century popular culture crashed into the space between lovers, the gap between two pairs of moist lips, the air that thrummed to their heartbeats. Pop music ran away with love, spinning out each precious moment of desire or sorrow for three minutes of passion and repetitive heartbeats. But the movies, arguably, got straight to the dirty bits first. In the dark of a cinema, that is to say a tent or a grubby room, crammed next to a sweetheart or a maybe-sweetheart in the dark, we could watch actors (imagine!) play-act the the motions of love: smooches in train carriages, swoons on the hearth. Illicit affairs, happy marriages, flings, crushes … all the joy and misery of human existence on the screen. And in the cheap seats (they were all cheap), a fumble, a fondle, a kiss or maybe more. And did I mention it was dark? A private act in a public place – disapproval be damned.
Kim Longinotto knows exactly what goes on in the dusky darkness of the Odeon. Her new collage film Love is All (2014) is a super-cut of romance: sexy, sedate or seditious. It’s a full-tilt rush for the hormones, soundtracked by the grizzled, tender love songs of Sheffield music legend Richard Hawley. Not strictly a silent film, this, but one in which the few fragments of dialogue are incidental, another instrument in the orchestra. Hawley sings what is on our lovers’ minds – what they actually have to to say is rather beside the point.
The Barbican is marking the weekend’s 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster with a moving event that combines live music with archive footage. Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic was inspired by reports that the ship’s string ensemble continued to play the hymn Autumn as the vessel sank; it was written in 1969 and first recorded on Brian Eno’s label Obscure. It will be performed in the Barbican concert hall by the Gavin Bryars ensemble with multimedia artist Philip Jeck.
The archive footage projections have been designed by film-maker Bill Morrison, whose work, including Decasia and The Miners’ Hymns, you may already be familiar with, in collaboration with Laurie Olinder.
Tickets for the event start at £15, but readers of this blog can enjoy a 20% discount when booking online. See the promotional code below.
Throughout the 72 minute piece Bryars and the ensemble weave refrains from Autumn with layers of Jeck’s sample-based materials, creating, at times, clamouring waves of sound that suggest the great engines and massive bulk of the vessel and the ocean that swallowed it. The result is a heart-achingly intimate and direct work.
The Sinking of the Titanic also features projection design by the internationally renowned Bill Morrison, who has commissioned work for some of the most important composers of his time, such as Steve Reich and Henryk Gorecki . Collaborating alongside Morrison is Laurie Olinder, multimedia designer, founding member of New York’s Ridge Theater with previous work being screened at some of the world’s most prestigious arts venues, such as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Silent London readers can claim a 20% discount on tickets for The Sinking of the Titanic. Just enter promo code 15412 when booking online, at barbican.org.uk. The Sinking of the Titanic plays at the Barbican on 15 April 2012 at 8pm.
Read more about the earliest films of the Titanic disaster and about events to commemorate the anniversary in our guest post by Greg Ward here.