Were you at the Barbican for the London Film Festival Archive Gala last year? It was a really special evening: the premiere of the BFI’s immaculate new restoration of Indian-Anglo-German romance Shiraz: A Romance of India with a stunning new score composed by Anoushka Shankar. I was there, and you can read my review here.
However, whether you missed out, or you just want to relive the magic, there is good news. Shiraz gets a theatrical release very soon – it lands in cinemas from 2 February 2018. If you want to take Shiraz home, you’ll be able to buy it on DVD/Blu-ray on 26 February too. You’ll also be able to watch Shiraz on the BFI Player, and BBC4 will broadcast a behind-the-scenes documentary on the recording of Shankar’s ambitious score at some point during the year.
Last night I had a sneak preview of the DCP of Shiraz – the digital version that will be shown in cinemas and appear on disc, with the recorded score. A repeat viewing confirmed that this is an especially gorgeous film, with beautifully composed frames full of detail. The first time round I was distracted by the leading players, but on second viewing the landscapes in the background caught my eye, not to mention a donkey scratching his neck on a tentpole, a potter spinning his wheel. And sorry, Hollywood, but all your grandest designs can’t compete with the stunning architecture in this film. Shankar’s score, too, is full of surprises, bold decisions and graceful melodies. The range of instruments and styles in this piece of music is really breathtaking, and yet it’s always sensitive to the film – a really accomplished silent movie score.
There may be more good news too – although you’ll have to cross your fingers. The BFI hopes to stage some more screenings of the film with the music played live, but we will just have to wait and see …
It’s not often I find myself recommending a natural history programme, but on Tuesday night this week a BBC4 nature documentary will celebrate the work of film pioneer Percy Smith. Edwardian Insects on Film is punchy name of the hour-long doc, which is part of the channel’s Alien Nation insects season. As the video above shows, the film follows wildlife film-maker Charlie Hamilton Jones’s attempts to replicate Smith’s ingenious film The Acrobatic Fly (1910). It promises to be a rare opportunity to look in detail at early cinema methods and technology – and an even rarer opportunity to see such things on TV.
While the tricksy manipulations of The Acrobatic Fly are many miles away from modern wildlife film’s hands-off observe-from-a-distance approach, the documentary also looks at Smith’s pioneering work in timelapse photography (the gorgeous The Birth of a Flower, 1910), which is still a staple of the genre – used for example in David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995). Attenborough himself makes an appearance in the programme, as will a few other faces familiar to readers of this blog.
Smith continued working in the film industry into the 30s, most notably making the Secrets of Nature series for British Instructional Films from 1922-33. Should you want to know more, BFI Screenonline has plenty of information about Smith and his films, some of which are available on DVD, or like the clips above, on the BFI YouTube channel:
Smith was a true pioneer, inventing original (and bizarre) methods for time lapse and micro cinematography, involving all kinds of home-made devices, including alarms all over his home to wake him up in the middle of the night if the film in the camera needed changing. With endless patience, he could spend up to two and a half years to complete a film. He also had the popular touch, with the happy knack (as he put it himself) of being able to feed his audience “the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. Modern film technique could hardly better the results achieved by Smith in the first decades of the century and his early masterpiece Birth of a Flower (1910) has never been out of distribution.
Edwardian Insects on Film screens on BBC4 at 9pm on Tuesday 19 March 2013 and again at 2.40am on Wednesday 20 March 2013.
A quick mention for a chance to see some early films on TV. BBC4 is repeating the three-part series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon and it is a very welcome return. The Mitchell and Kenyon hoard was discovered in the cellar of a disused shop in Blackburn in 1994 and contains many beautiful films of Northern England in the Edwardian era. When the programmes were first shown in 2005, Guardian TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith called them “Lowry come to life”.
The films were advertised to the public at the time as an chance to “see yourselves as others see you”, but now they are a precious opportunity to see ourselves as we once were. The collection has recently been added to the Unesco World Heritage list and is even being used by scientists at Imperial College London to study “handedness” – the researchers are scanning the films by computer to measure how many of the people waving at the camera in the films are using their left or right hands. For the rest of us, they offer a nostalgic, often bittersweet, glimpse at a time gone by.