The process of researching Filmmakers on Film was a joyful one, a case of visiting old friends and making a few new ones along the way.
My formative awareness of film – the established canon and the masters that exist on the fringes – was something of a rush job. I crammed during the ’00s because I lived next to a (sadly shuttered) DVD rental shop that bolstered its catalogue of family favourites with lots of weird and wonderful titles from across the globe. In fact, their collection was ordered geographically, so each visit to the shop was an opportunity to take a trip to a far-flung locale, and it helped me make sure I was always looking beyond the cultural hegemony of the US and UK. Here are six films I watched (of about a little over 100 in total) to prepare for writing this book which offers a broad survey of personal creativity in cinema, and is very much a reflection of my own tastes.
The Music Room by Satyajit Ray (1958)
My knowledge of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit ray – revered by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa – was patchy at best, so I jumped at the chance to fill in some gaps. The Music Room from 1958 was a revelation – a character study of an entitled bounder who wants nothing more than to dispense with civic responsibility and soak up art and music. An intoxicating fusion of close character study and metaphysical drama. Incredible soundtrack too.
An Angel at my Table by Jane Campion (1990)
I was always a little put off by the 160-minute runtime of Kiwi director Jane Campion’s second feature, despite the fact that many respected colleagues had assured me it’s her masterpiece. Watching this meandering biography of the troubled poet Janet Frame, essayed to perfection by actor Kerry Fox, was a case of “where have you been all my life?”. The movie “biopic” has become such a hackneyed form, and this gets to the heart of the subject with none of the clichés and or the artificial dramatic arc.
Señorita by Isabel Sandoval (2011)
The drive behind this book was never to lean on the calcified old guard of cinema, but to look at exciting new filmmakers with their own distinctive voices. I’d encountered the brilliant 2019 film Lingua Franca on recommendation from colleagues, but Sandoval’s place in this book was cemented when I saw her earlier, lesser-known film Señorita – which is set in the Philippines and sees the writer-director starring as a trans sex worker who also moonlights as a political activist. It’s hard to see, but definitely work tracking down to glean the full power of Sandoval’s unabashedly sensual cinematic style.
The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun by Djibril Diop Mambety (1999)
We can’t move for streaming services vying for our eyeballs, but there’s still a huge chasm when it comes to availability of material, and African cinema remains poorly served by physical and digital media. I watched the 45-minute swansong by Senegalese maestro Djibril Diop Mambety on YouTube with automated subtitles – definitely not ideal viewing conditions, but the sheer beauty of this film about a tenacious newspaper seller and her miniature rivalry against a gang of boys shone through.
Vagabond by Agnes Varda (1985)
This was a classic case of a film I watched when I was a younger man and didn’t fully appreciate its depths and nuances. Upon a contemporary rewatch, this study of an untethered young woman wandering around the French countryside went from a film I respected and admired to an all-time personal favourite. It is a devastating essay on freedom and its discontents, but is also an example of the late, very great Agnes Varda’s remarkable skill as a formal innovator.
Titanic by James Cameron (1999)
My first and only viewing of this was at the cinema on opening night at the Lee Valley CGI (now the Odeon LUXE Lea Valley), and I remember thinking it was fine but not really my cup of tea. Jaw-dropping effects, mammoth scale, but also a bit of a soppy love story and a very simplistic critique of class. Coming back to it over 20 years later, it’s hard not to be in awe of its practical innovations and the artisan skill with which the fulsome melodrama is delivered. And more importantly, seeing it again I now definitely agree that Leo could have hobbled on to that makeshift raft with Kate.
Blog by David Jenkins