Tyneside Cinema's Film Programme Coordinator Rachel Pronger went along to the Cinema Rediscovered film festival to gain inspiration for our cinema programme - find out about all the incredible films she rediscoverd.
Cinema Rediscovered is a film festival based at the Watershed in Bristol that seeks to celebrate digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from around the world. Modelled on the highly influential Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, which has been unearthing gems from film history for over 30 years, the festival is underpinned by a philosophy that we agree with passionately here at Tyneside – that brilliant films, no matter when they were made, deserve to be seen on the big screen.
Most of the work screened at Cinema Rediscovered is classified as archive – moving image work from the past that has some kind of historical importance and deserves to be preserved and remembered. I went along to the festival to gain inspiration for our cinema programme and to hear experts talk about approaches to screening these works to contemporary audiences. It’s a particularly exciting moment for archive film for us over at Tyneside, because we are one of the lead organisations for Film Hub North, who will be shaping a UK-wide 4 year programme of Screen Heritage launching in January 2019.
What’s so exciting about Cinema Rediscovered, is that the definition of archive is bracingly broad. Over the weekend I watched television news reports, cult horror films, British costume drama, TV programmes and European classics. Cinema Rediscovered is brilliant at reminding us that archives are as much about our present and future, as our past. In the festival keynote, Danny Leigh, former film journo turned BFI curator, emphasised the span of what we can consider archive, from nitrate in armoured vaults to 35mm, VHS and YouTube (“If I can’t have Chicken Connoisseur, I don’t want your archive.”)
Representation, diversity and activism were hot topics of conversation over the weekend. As curator Jemma Desai (I Am Dora), highlighted in workshop Reframing Archives, the archive is always a political space. When we watch old films, we bring with us the politics of today, but we also have to understand the politics of the past. Film History is dominated by privileged narratives and white male perspectives. It takes time, effort and thought to address this, to look back at the archive, identify gaps and seek out those whose work has been lost and forgotten in the churn of history.
An understanding of both contemporary and present-day politics can bring new perspectives to classics. The first film I saw at this year’s festival was a lush 4K restoration of Merchant & Ivory’s Maurice (1987), which is now playing at Tyneside. The dazzling landscapes, gorgeous lighting and a floppy haired Hugh Grant all left me swooning, but what most struck was the quiet radicalism of the story. Although a costume drama focused on the Edwardian upper classes might look like a tale focused on privilege, it’s worth remembering that this tender, celebratory gay love story was made by a gay couple (one of whom was Indian) and a Jewish woman in 1980s Thatcherite England at the height of the AIDs crisis and only shortly before Section 28. Watching the film today, I felt that there was something subversive about the tenderness with which it treats the affairs of the central character and the seriousness with which it takes Maurice’s distress at living in a world that sees his love as indecency.
A somewhat better-known classic that also benefits from a revisit in the current climate, is Billy Wilder’s witty and wonderful The Apartment (1960), presented here in gorgeously crisp black and white. The film is of course a charming rom com, packed with fabulous lines (“that’s the way it crumbles… cookie-wise”) and career-defining performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. The capitalist satire at its heart has been well documented, but post Me Too the behaviour of Lemmon’s vile bosses feels weightier than ever. In a film that sometimes risks side-lining its female characters as fools or victims, MacLaine’s dazzling central turn ensures that a female voice remains loud and clear, even as she is almost destroyed by the patriarchy that surrounds her.
One of the central strands of this year’s festival was Women of the Periphery, and a series of films made by women across the programme forced us to question why, despite huge talent and promise, so many female filmmakers have been forced to the side lines of cinema history. As Festival Producer Tara Judah stated: “the greatest film trick cinema history ever pulled was convincing the world that women filmmakers and women’s stories didn’t exist: their light shined bright, but history dimmed them and said we imagined it”.
While this selection quite rightly shed light on some filmmakers that have begun to be included in the film canon in recent years – such as Chantel Akerman and Agnes Varda (whose new film Faces Places screens at Tyneside this August) – the true revelations for me came from left field and spanned the whole festival programme.
Screening collective Come the Revolution presented two short films by Madeleine Anderson, the first African American woman to executive produce a nationally aired TV series. Anderson’s reflective documentary work presents an unusually intersectional perspective on the history of unionisation and collective struggle that highlights the roles race and gender play in industrial disputes. Images of black female hospital nurses peacefully protesting and being attacked and arrested by police demonstrated the power archive film can have when it resonates with the present moment. Another film interrogating intersections, although from a very different time and place, was Shola Amoo’s docu-drama A Moving Image (2016). This thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable exploration of gentrification in Brixton forced us to consider our own culpability in the global social cleansing that’s displacing communities in exchange for fancy coffee and luxury flats.
Less down to earth and altogether more fantastical was My Twentieth Century (1989) directed by Ildiko Enyedi (Body and Soul). Following the story of two twin girls, born at the moment Edison invented the light bulb, this strange, otherworldly and dazzling (in every sense) journey through an alternate history of Europe was truly unlike anything I’ve seen before. There are echoes of Guy Madden in Enyedi’s playful appropriation of early cinema aesthetics, and a good dose of anarchy that brought to mind Vera Chytilova, but otherwise all I can say is that it has to be seen to be believed. And if you’re not sold already, I should also point out it features both a milky way of twinkling, gossiping stars and a series of top notch animal performances. A true, uncategorizable cinematic adventure.
Oh, and if it’s uncategorizable adventure you want, you can do worse than asking The Final Girls, insanely well watched purveyors of feminist cult cinema who know how to blow the dust of a rarely seen film print with aplomb. At this year’s festival they presented Karen Arthur’s fantastically unhinged rarity The Mafu Cage (1978) a fabulously obscure, extremely 70s B movie focusing on an uptight Lee Grant, a psychotic Carol Kane, and a very unfortunate monkey. To say more would be to give it away, so my only advice is, if someone asks you to be their Mafu, run like the wind…
The true highlight for me however (and, judging by the rapturous response, for most of the audience) was a screening of the criminally underseen Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. plus Q&A with director Leslie Harris. This bright, bold, comedy drama centres on Chantel (a sensational turn from Ariyan A. Johnson), a black teenage girl living in Brooklyn who dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor, who becomes derailed when she meets the devastatingly fly Tyrone.
Like Do The Right Thing meets Clueless, Just Another Girl is endlessly quotable, brilliantly authentic and fantastically stylish (cut through with hip hop and fabulous 90s outfits), and its portrayal of a young black woman who defies stereotypes still feels refreshing. Despite winning a prize at Sundance in 1992, the film seems to have sunk without a trace, and filmmaker Leslie Harris (a contemporary of Tarantino, Lee and Rodriguez) has struggled to make another feature. Her experience highlights how many female filmmakers, particularly women of colour, have been pushed out of mainstream cinema. As Harris comments “Yes today we have Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, but it’s not enough. Audiences are still missing out on so many wonderful stories by black women filmmakers… the time is now.”
Currently Just Another Girl is only available to screen exists on one, slightly battered 35mm print owned by the filmmaker, but if someone doesn’t intervene and restore this (as Chantel would say) mutha-f**cker then it’s a crime against cinema. And trust us, if we can find a way to get that print back across the Atlantic to the Tyneside, we will. Leave it with me…
Keep an eye out for other restored and reissued titles coming soon.
Cinema Rediscovered photo credit: Lorena Pino