The Brilliance of Show of Shows and Total Archive Documentaries

The rise of the ‘total archive’ documentary film is not so much a new concept, but rather an approach which has expanded and become hugely popular in recent years. The idea, of making a film composed to 100% of historical footage is an idea which on paper might appear a stretch too far for most audiences, but which thanks to Asif Kapadia’s box-office shattering successes Senna and Amy, appears to be anything but the case. Five-year old paparazzi footage of Amy Winehouse might not intrinsically feel like ‘archive’, but it still is such, and presenting this with heard-but-not-seen talking head voice-overs is surprisingly effective at mapping a narrative over this string of visuals. On more than one occasion I’ve had to insist there is not a single second of modern day footage in Senna, despite the pleadings of friends absolutely convinced that an overweight and aging Nigel Mansell ‘surely’ pops up on screen to discuss his memories of the Brazilian driver. Mansell’s voice is there, in archive itself, and in recollecting voice-over, but never in a cut to 21st century profile of the man. The same is true in Amy, and the effect is no doubt similar in being both effective without being disruptive. The story is told, biases and all, without visual interjection from the world of ‘today’.


Archive footage in and of itself holds an intrinsic value, a compelling draw as a window into the past, and the proliferation of endless hours of archive on both Youtube and on curated channels like the BFIplayer, means this material is more readily available than ever before. Yet outside the niches of specialised interest, its hard to maintain the draw of this material from one clip to the next. Idling about online I could easily kill half an hour browsing Youtube videos on Ayrton Senna, but skimming along on algorithmic suggestions and with next to no context or connection, this archive rabbit-hole wouldn’t run very deep. The curatorial eye of the director and the narrative woven through voice-over is all the more powerful then in Senna, employing a familiar yet distinct documentary adhesive to bind the narrative together. Strike into a particular theme or subject from the archive however, one which does not offer an inherent narrative, and the challenge of making the material cohere is much more difficult. The natural temptation might be to import a narrative line from a biography of tract on a given period of time, but by doing so we immediately place the narrative before the material. The story is broadly speaking pre-established, but variegated by whatever archival material the researchers can lay their hands on. The more compelling documentary would however be the film which approaches the historic footage as primary material and not secondary; one where the narrative is drawn out of the sum of the material, and which does not set out to use the material for illustrative purposes. That still requires the curatorial eye of the director, editor and researcher working in tandem, but it does lack an obvious adhesive to draw the material

A brilliant recent example then is to be found in the new ‘total archive’ documentary Show of Shows, compiled by Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson and built on material from, and in collaboration with the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield. Over seventy three tight minutes of archive footage, the film pushes through a visual overview of the circus, the fairground, the variety theatre, and performed entertainments more generally, as captured on screen in the first sixty years of motion pictures. With discreet chapters on various types of performer, from acrobats to musicians, from animals to human physical wonders, each segment loses itself in the singular performance found in the theme, skipping from clip to clip in a breathless notion of almost free association. From jumping unicyclists, to spinning trick bicyclists, to a full grown bear spinning around on a bike in central Berlin, the connections are vivid and unexpected, giving the viewer enough time to get lost in the detail of the film before suddenly switching to something similar which is still radically different. It quickens the heart, while barely giving you a chance to blink for want of not missing some unique peculiarity. This free-falling free association is not tied together with expert voice-over, and scant context is offered beyond the thematic groupings of the films. What does brilliantly tie together this material is the original score from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, whose distinctive soundscapes give texture and pace to the footage onscreen.


My own personal connection to some of the footage is also strong, as having completed my doctorate from a base in the National Fairground Archive I was lucky enough to know a lot of the material as it is seen in Show of Shows. Countless times my supervisor, the director of the archive, would call me across to see some new clip or another that had been gifted to the archive.
“Do you recognise what country that might be in. What bombed out city is this?”
“Is that a man in drag, or not?”
or perhaps most peculiar of all “can you tell if it’s a dog or a monkey in that dress?”
To encounter these films in isolation, and stripped of context was in the first instance a challenge of research and investigation. It was also consistently a moment of humour and excitement, but all too often a fleeting and fragmentary moment at that. Moment we would witness in silence of course.
Show of Shows is brilliant then for stitching together theses fragments into a vivid and stirring document in its own right. The narrative, if it can be described as such, is the rush of history, and the changing face of those we see in it. The wonderful score from Sigur Ros drives this all forward, and strengthens the association and totality of this collated material. Some of the footage is shocking to modern eyes, from performers falling a-foul of gravity in excruciating fashion, or the sight of animals taking the brunt of humanity’s cruelty, the shock is underscored by how recognisable yet simultaneously distant it feels. There is no cut-away to the talking head of an academic or expert condoning or contextualising this material. No punches are pulled, no excuses are made. The shock is short and sharp, but fleeting, affording no time for the viewer to dwell on the suffering. The music builds and the film comes to a crashing end, and the result left me genuinely breathless in a way you rarely expect a documentary to do. Perhaps I am too close to the material to not get caught up in it. But that doesn’t lessen the effect of the film itself, and convince me further of the potential and the impact of actual ‘total archive’ documentaries.

The Show of Shows has a one-off screening at The Cube Microplex this Thursday the 10th of December, at 8pm.


Day Five at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Where Tuesday offered almost too many short films to mention, Wednesday was quite another ball game as I only managed to see three films. It does however bear pointing out that one of them happened to be a six hour silent version of Les Miserables, so it’s not as if I’m shirking my film-watching duties while I’m here.


Before I get to the colossus in the schedule, a brief mention has to go to the other two titles, or rather one feature and one collection that I managed to encounter today. Morning started with the deliriously wonderful Swedish comedy Flickorna Gyurkovics, or A Sister of Six to take the peculiar English title for the film. A dizzying tale of betrothals and missed engagements, the young lovelorn cast bounced between fighting for the affections of the opposite sex, only to lose interest completely once the feeling was requited. This incredibly tightly woven farce demanded the audience’s complete and utter attention, as more than a few gags set up in the first reel only gave their pay-off come the final act. For this half-British/half-Swedish audience member there was a subtle thrill in seeing the British comic actress Betty Balfour hold her own in the Swedish production, although initially I was puzzled why the film had a Hungarian setting, of all things. “Oh that’s because it was based on a Hungarian play!” a Danish friend pointed out “The Danes and the Swedes were crazy for Hungarian stage comedies in the 1920s.” Funny indeed how trends in comedy and drama come and go with the ages, as I cannot say the Hungarian influence lingers any longer on Nordic shores. Or maybe our modern concept of Scandinavian humour actually has it’s roots in the Magyar tradition. Who knows? There’s a research project in there somewhere no doubt.


The second collection was a very peculiar programme of incredibly short and fragmentary titles from the Italian quick-change artist Leopold Fregoli. The art of the quick-change is not as popular in the UK as it still proves to be in continetal Europe, and for the uninitiated it can briefly be described as the trick of changing costume on stage dozens of times, going from one improbable get up to another in a matter of seconds. As in ten seconds of less to be precise. The Italian quick-change superstar Arturo Brachetti was in town especially for the show, and while his status was lost on most (but not all) Brits, the buzz among the locals made clear that this was a very special appearance. Think of him as a celebrity on par with Derren Brown, and we might be approaching an equivalent strata of star veneration. Either ways, he gave charming history of the original Italian quick-change mastermind, which served as a brilliant briefing before a very scatter-gun and peculiar programme of films. Almost all from pre-1900, these were fragmentary clips, most barely more than 30 seconds, and showed Fregoli developing ideas, workshopping skits, generally just trying out things in front of the camera. Very few had a punchline, even fewer had a complete narrative as such, but it was a fascinating insight into how the master worked, and a fine example of how stars of the stage actively had to adapt their shows for the new phenomenon of cinema.


And finally we get to the epic film screening, the hump of the festival week which had been anticipated with equal parts glee and dread, or so I sensed when asking around in the last few days. As someone who has tacitly managed to dodge Les Miserable in all it’s forms, thanks in great part to Mr Lloyd Webber et co, I was eager to see an unexpurgated version of the story. Clocking in at six and a half hours, or eight if you include breaks, this viewing experience loomed large as a test of stamina more than anything else. Yet in the moment, the six and a half hour moment that is, the film thundered along at a pace which rarely dragged or felt overly languid. There really is a truism in the point that a terrible film of ten minutes can drag for a neverending eternity, whereas a brilliant film of seven hours can pass in the proverbial blinking of an eye.


Split across four chapters, this grand adaptation from 1925 shows French director Henri Fescourt in his prime. Coming from a long history of self-consciously worthy silent stage to screen adaptations in the long running Film d’Art series, this version of Les Miserable felt liberated from having to justify it’s existence in the face of more established art forms. It manages to be uniquely cinematic, not with the visual fireworks of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, but rather in it’s ability to capture wonderfully humane performances. Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean was a towering presence on screen, and his redemptive arc, and gradual aging were shown in a convincing way. Jean Toulout as Javert was also superb, at times overpowered by some of the mightiest brows and mutton chops I’ve seen in a long time. The climax of his personal crisis, and collapse of his moral world was incredibly striking, with extreme close-ups capturing a bristling performance.

However the truly noteworthy performance of the evening was that of accompanist Neil Brand, who followed the whole film in sensitive and grand fashion for the whole duration. I could barely imagine typing on a keyboard for six hours flat, so how the virtuoso pianist managed to keep pace with the film, to underscore the emotional performances without melodrama, while also driving the narrative forward, is a feat of tremendous skill and talent. Having heard more than one of his musical peers rave about his performance after the show, I think their claim that his was a seminal silent event is no great exaggeration. An unforgettable musical accompaniment from a redoubtable pianist for a epic yet utterly humane film. It rarely gets much better than that.



Day Four at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

While I may have met the new day with news that I missed a subtly brilliant film in the midnight slot, I was more than relieved to be bright eyed and bushy-tailed for the 9am programme of Girls Will Be Boys. Curated by Laura Horak, the preeminent scholar on female-to-male cross-dressing in silent cinema, the programme included six quite brilliant one-reelers that put paid to the idea that Marlene Dietrich might have been first to the screen in the male garb department. The motivations for the cross-dressing could be both external to the narrative (borrow the theatrical tradition of casting small girls as small boys, appear more traditional/respectable as a result) or wholly baked into the story itself (get the job done by dressing as a man, in one example masquerading as Union soliders, in another going incognito to get a male-only role on a ranch kitchen). Humour was at the heart of all these reversals, and while the test of gender performativity could be laughable in its own right (can a woman really handle a cigar?) there was a brilliant moment in Making a Man of Her when an impromptu sparring match ends in horror as a hat gets knocked off, and OH NO the cowboy has been knocking the shit out of a woman all this time! From swinging blows to grovelling deference in the dropping of a hat.

The absolutely highlight of this brief programme was however What’s the World Coming To, a surreal science fiction comedy which posited a world where the ‘men have become more like women, and the women more like men’, which is to say the genders had effectively been inverted. But to an absurdly exaggerated degree, with the blushing groom barely able function without bursting into an emotional heap, and the women constantly swaggering around town, and managing cigars without a moments hesitation. A high paced and highly physical slapstick affair, the film barely gave you enough time to pick apart the gender jokes and included more than a few subtle inferences baked into the comedy. One rather jokey title card asking if any person objected to a marriage on the ‘grounds of inter-state eugenics laws’ was an oddly charged note, a nod to a time in history when anxieties over women’s coming suffrage clashed with a new public rhetoric of race and genetics. A flash of Brave New World a good few years before that took form.


Otherwise my Tuesday viewing schedule was dominated by early cinema, which is to say shorter titles from before the first world war, and being a huge fan of these earliest years I was more than in my element. A programme of colour shorts from the Norwegian National Library in particular stood out, starting as it did with women modelling the latest Parisian fashions. Films of women wearing rather extraordinary hats might not sound like a title to set the world on fire, but the distinction in this regard was that the whole programme featured films which had been meticulously hand-painted on their original release. Every reel of every film, hand-painted or stencilled coloured by an army of women, going carefully from frame to frame. The labour involved is staggering to imagine, and the result is a series of films which shimmer with exaggerated primary colours. Some films had been immaculately coloured, others looked a bit slap-dash, like an enthusiastic five-year-old’s colouring book come to life. The effect can be amazing in it’s own right, and while the series of films from the Parisian zoo used neither the right colours, nor stuck within the lines, the morphing lines of brown elephants and orange kangaroos had a bizarre and almost impressionistic quality.

Tucked among this programme of colour films was also a short called the Princess and the Frog, which contrary to expectations mostly focused on a lithe contortionist in extremely tight frog costume. Almost impossible to explain, it was basically a man tying himself in knots in a manner you could possibly construe as sexual. Or not. It was after all just a man in a costume, but that’s not quite how everyone saw it.


Further to this there was also a programme of shorts from the Coleccion Sagarminaga held by the Filmoteca Espanola, which started off on a troubling note. When a programme of early films starts on a series of parades there is always a feeling of unease that this may in fact be an hour and a half programme of nothing but marching troops. The festival has had form on this front in the past, and more than a few audience members quickly stirred after two films, thinking they were getting out while the going was good. Alas for them the programme quite quickly got away from the endless marching, and instead included a mixed retinue of visual magicians, bull fights, cycling clowns, acrobats, short vaudeville skits, and ending on rather a bleak note of a British fox hunt. Dating from 1906 this film may have a claim to being the oldest surviving film of a fox hunt, and it did not shy away from showing the grim realities of the blood-sport. I almost felt sorry for the film’s accompanist, who had cheerily been keeping an upbeat note throughout the chase itself, and then when it cut to scene of a fox corpse being thrown to a pack of dogs the pianist was left hanging without anywhere to musically go. How do you score a fox being ripped apart in relatively graphic detail? Silence was about the only escape, and that’s where the film left the audience in an otherwise quite light and entertaining programme.

Beyond these short titles the stand out title of the day was a recent documentary of all things, a film called Cinema: a Public Affair, which concerned the troubled history of the Russian Musey Kino, the cinema museum in Moscow. Having been evicted and harried, and homeless for close to a decade, the museum hit the headlines last year when it’s passionate director/champion/founder Naum Kleiman was gazzumped by a new state appointed head, who immediately started picking apart the institute. Kleiman resigned formally a few months later, and not long after that all 22 of the museum’s staff submitted their collective resignation in protest at the destructive new leadership which they felt had no grasp of curatorship, or the importance of protecting the museum’s collections. Letters of concern flooded in from archives, filmmakers, and cineastes around the world, and the future of the Musey Kino remains up in air.


Having documented the years leading up to this meltdown, Cinema: a Public Affair is a candid insight into the foundation of this temple of cinema, the curatorial team which have kept the institution alive, as well as the bureaucratic clamp down which has squeezed the museum almost out of existence. Kleiman takes centre stage and speaks with wonderful eloquence about cinema, and how it has affected his life, and the importance of protecting our shared film heritage. Alongside him the team at Musey Kino, who eventually resigned their posts, talk with brilliant passion and insight about cinema as well, and the overall effect is a stirring cri de couer for recognising and protecting our shared past.

Day Three at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Silence is golden. At least at two in the morning it is. Sadly my neighbours had a different point of view, and returning at two they decided that MTV at the loudest possible volume was just what the doctor ordered. To the local trio’s credit, and to give you a sense of quite how wafer-thin the walls of my guesthouse  are, they did lower the volume of their TV after I sat up in my bed and loudly shushed them. The sleep that did eventually follow was far from deep, and I mention this only as a broken night can have a real wipeout effect, especially when you’re trying to watch silent films. Monday as such weighed heavy with the veil of certain exhaustion.


Not that the programme was any worse for that, as two rather distinct shows gave the notion of silence in cinema a run for it’s money. The first was a collection of German Tonbilder, a short programme of recorded songs and recitals from cinema’s first decade. From operettas to cheery drinking songs, these titles were created by separately recording the song, and then having very same singer performing and miming the song live on camera. A bit like Top of the Pops, if you will. Many of the films were known, but only recently were German archivists able to match extant discs with the surviving films, and having meticulously synced up the two as far as possible the result is really quite uncanny. That most of the songs seemed to revolve around boudoirs, sex work, and drinking didn’t hurt either.

The second much grander sonic experience of the day was the much vaunted Japanese Benshi show in the evening. While almost all the earliest films shows across the globe regularly relied on a real-life narrator or lecturer, the tradition of having a living breathing person standing alongside the screen faded away as narratives became more complex and as the art of intertitles grew into maturity. Except in Japan, where the discipline and traditions of the film-explainer became enshrined in the role of the Benshi. Sometimes they would just read the intertitles and elaborate on them, sometimes if the film had foreign intertitles they might just make up the whole thing as they went along. Others would completely undermine the film, or perhaps go off topic, or indeed go on topic, pretending the film was about a recent news story. The discipline grew and changed throughout the silent era, and sound was late coming to Japan as the Benshis repeatedly went on strike against the technology that would render them useless.


The tradition of the Japanese narrator would now be completely extinct were it not for the efforts of a very small cadre of historians and performers who have chronicled this discipline, and who also keep it alive giving performances to Japanese silent films. The Pordenone silent film festival has turned into a regular showcase for this historic art, and Monday night offered a grand performance of the film Chuji Tabinikki accompanied by the Benshi Ichiro Kataoka, as well as a percussionist, a pianist, and a fellow on the traditional guitar-like Shamisen. Some Benshi shows I have seen in the past have been so elaborate and involved that they obscured more than they enlightened the film, but not so with last night’s performance from Kataoka-san and the Otowaza Ensemble. In a historic film that involved bandits, police, a lot of stern looks, a fair amount of sword waving, the subtle interjections from musicians, and the wavering tones of the Benshi, explaining, miming, and generally making the grunts and wheezes seen on screen brought the film to life in a strange manner. Overall I was grateful for any kind guidance in a narrative which didn’t make any concessions for those uninitiated to Japenese feudal society. There is a strange comfort of coming out of a film like this and realising that you were far from alone in wondering what the hell was going on.

A strangely dissonant moment was however coming out of a 1914 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Wasn’t that brilliant?” “What a performance from Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom!” “How about the photography in that, hey?” was the wider chorus I met, but personally I felt the film left no lasting impression at all. A grounded performance from Sam Lucas certainly did stand out when set against the histrionics of the rest of the cast, and notable as a performance from an African-American surrounded by several white actors in black face. Yet the film struck me as a curiosity more than a lesser masterpiece. But that is an oblique pleasure of the festival, as you never can be sure of any critical consensus as you stumble out of the theatre. One person’s treasure inevitably turns out to be a snooze-fest for the other, and more than a few wines have been spent trying to work out exactly how we ended up at such critical distant poles. It’s tough work I tell you.


That said most folks I met did concur that Dva Druga, Model i Pordruga was a surprisingly light and charming Soviet comedy. Translating roughly as Two Friends, a Model, and a Girlfriend the internet-meme minded among you might be making lather lewd insinuations at this point, but the titular model turned out to be a prototype for a crate-making machine. The two buddies spend much time knocking heads on creating a device which will revolutionise production in the soap factory they work in, and it is with great worry that a local crate-manufacturer/capitalist views their progress. “With this technology we will destroy Capitalism!” read one enthusiastic title, and of course the arch-villain crate-making industrialist sets out to scupper their plans every step of the way. More than a bit mad-cap, slap-dash and knock-about, Dva Druga, Model i Pordruga was a welcome mid-morning break, and while not on the side-splitting end of the comedy scale, it certain did amuse.

Coming to the end of what felt like an incredibly long day I decided to sacrifice the near-midnight screening of Der Tunnel for an early night. It can’t be that good I thought, only to be regaled by my Finnish friend Jaakko the next morning of what a surprisingly treat it was. They build a tunnel between France and New Jersey. No great characterisations, he says, but really striking visuals, a really stirring story. Well you win some you loose some. Hopefully the next film I choose to cut won’t be the universal highlight of the festival, but heaven knows that has happened before.

Day Two at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

‘Primitive’ was a word that got thrown around a lot more than I was expecting on the second day of the Gironate. In part it came during the late evening screening of the Douglas Fairbanks farce Mollycoddle, which quite merrily praised and damned the Native Americans of the painted desert for outwitting the dumb out-of-towners, despite being so crushingly primitive in their ways. Gosh isn’t the line between civilised and primitive man so thin, the film quipped, without actually nailing its colours to mast as to whether it’s ‘civilisation’ who is ahead of itself, or indeed it is the ‘primitives’ we underestimate at our peril. Either ways it was a bit much for me to mentally unpack as the last reel of the film unspooled around the midnight hour.


The second engagement of the less than charming ‘primitive’ adjective came during the antiquated film history documentary Thirty Years of Motion Pictures. Released by coalition of American Film lobbying bodies as a look back on film’s brief history in 1927, it did a fine job of getting more than a few key facts quite sharply wrong, while at the same time driving home it’s own tidy pro-American agenda. If you took them at their word you’d have thought Thomas Edison and George Eastman had the whole invention of cinema thing wrapped up, with a concession by the film, that of course, the Lumieres in Paris, and Robert Paul in London, just happened to do awfully similar things in other corners of the world.

But in it’s sweeping remit the film history lesson did quite happily signpost some examples from cinemas ‘primitive’ days. A ‘simple’ adventure here, a ‘dumb’ chase there, and a ‘primitive’ projector over there. For me the tone of the lecture conjured up the absurd image of Neanderthals hammering away at relatively complex early cameras and projectors, while occasionally taking a break from their neolithic habits to crank the handle on some dumb melodrama. The point being that, distant as the world of the past may seem to modern eyes, the evolution of cinema, where every iteration of the past is seen as a step towards the accomplished and complete cinema of today does rather presuppose that the filmic cavemen and women of our Victorian/Edwardian past were just scratching at the wall on their way to, well, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon 3D? The word primitive in this context really is quite toxic, and the fact it had the same tang of condescension in 1927 as it does today was interesting to see, especially in an early documentary which all the same had the luxury of being so close to this increasingly forgotten period of time.


Fortunately we did also get a reprieve before the history lesson in the form of Der Marchenwald – ein schattenspiel, a German fairytale told in a recreated shadowplay. Instead of shadow puppets, real actors were recorded acting in outlined profile, an almost abstracted form of 2D which gave their performances the look and feel of an animated film. While the story itself was not the clearist, possibly assuming the audience would already know the tale, the striking appearance of the film was really quite uncanny, and its shimmering style certainly lingers well beyond it’s brief running time.

Alongside the farce of Douglas Fairbanks in Mollycoddle, I also had the immense pleasure of seeing him behave like an absolute dork in the comedy of superstition and errors, When Clouds Roll By. Douglas is a man obsessed with superstition to the point of sheer compulsion, and what should happen when he has the good fortune of bumping into a charming young lady who is just as committed to the avoidance of ladders, cats, and opal rings, of all things? A burgeoning romance of course, with earlier suitors to be contended with, dedication proven with classic Fairbank acrobatics, and a general escalation of calumny. Going from four acts set in the big smoke, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the ending which saw Fairbanks and lover getting married on top of a church floating in the middle of a flooded valley. You can’t beat an imminently bursting dam to ratchet up tension in the final reel, and heaven knows When Clouds Roll by delivered in daft spades for it’s closer.

A final mention goes to the beautiful new restoration of L’Inhumaine, a lavish futurist fantasy which preempted Metropolis in some of its visuals and arguably  in some its key themes and plot points. An adored female idol, who inspires crowds and stirs revolution, whose genius is captured and transposed by a mad scientist, all against the backdrop of highly abstracted form of super-modernist architecture and set design? This is familiar ground, but where Metropolis‘ characters are human, the figures in the aptly named L’Inhumaine were distant and driven by strangely opaque desires. The clue is in the title, and this frosty behaviour is after all a major point in the film, but that made it no easier to get onboard with the film itself. Quite a visual experience, and cut together in a striking and aptly futurist fashion, but still too distant to fully carry me through to the world it had created for itself.

A long and exhausting day all told, with surprises along the way. Hopefully day three will keep things a little less ‘primitive’ and a bit more, well, humane perhaps?

Day One at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

There aren’t many regular fixtures in the silent film calendar, but the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is the big one that sees stummfilm fans from around the world bending over backwards to get there. Having first attended the festival back in 2007,  I’ve been back almost every year since, with an unnerving regularity that has non-silent film friends asking “what, you’re going back to Italy again?” For the converted the discussion revolves solely whether you will be going, and I know one good friend who, without batting an eyelid, starts asking around December time whether I have made plans for attending the festival in the following October.  For those on the outside this can seem a little baffling; to those on the inside it makes total sense.

Which for me is no better reason for trying to keep a running journal of sorts while I’m here at this year’s festival. Partly to keep track of what I’ve seen, but also to try and give some half-baked sense of what this obsession is, and to try and help those outside the silent film bubble to understand why the converted bang on about this festival so much.


The setting is part of it, as it takes place in the town of Pordenone (pop 52’000), just shy of an hours travel north of Venice, and spitting distance from the Venetian alps. It’s difficult to not view the festival-goers as an invading horde, as the slew of international visitors completely take over the city for the week. English is the language the lingua franca you hear echoing in the streets, and silent cinema, if not film history, seems to be the only topic on everybody’s lips. At times you really have to remind yourself there actually is a city of Italians who live here for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Charming as the city is, with its reasonably priced wine/coffee/gelatos, the film programme is the chief attraction, and Pordenone is the pre-eminent place to see premieres of the latest discoveries and restorations from the fading world of silent cinema. To describe the programme as eclectic would be an understatement, as within the narrow remit of non-sound cinema it still manages to capture film from across the world. To take the first day as a prime example I had the good fortune of seeing a Norwegian tiger-tamer, a brief documentary about Romany travellers from 1932, an occasionally dream-like city symphony in honour of Chicago, a daft take on Romeo and Juliette in snowy Austria, followed by a ludicrously funny Italian war film, where the Italian strongman Maciste effectively won the war against Austro-Hungary by defenestrating every enemy soldier he could find. That is, when Maciste wasn’t too  busy snacking on a joint of ham or the like.


A certain pleasure of the festival is the repeated confrontation with the unexpected, and the complete absence of critical consensus on almost everything. Talk to a gaggle of festival goers after any screening and more often than not the opinions will stretch from pillar to post. Romeo and Juliette, despite it’s light and cheeky humour, true to director Ernst Lubitsch, somehow had friends in raptures while sending me to sleep. Others found Maciste a colossal bore, but I couldn’t stop laughing at his ability to just end any conflict by either a) sitting on someone or alternatively b) throwing them out the window. That and his undying need to eat, and smile constantly through out. Daft and humourous, but also incredibly dark if you consider how it dramatizes an extremely dark and tragic chapter of the alpine front of World War One. Either ways the one critical consensus we did establish was the film probably could have benefitted from being a reel shorter, but that opinion may have been informed by the fact that the screening started at ten in the evening and wrapped up not long before midnight.

Now at the start of Day Two I’m already running late for some more City Symphonies, but uncharacteristically it is absolutely pissing it down with rain. Or rather intermittently so, and the last shower started and stopped in the time it took me to write that last sentence. Better run while the sun still shines, off to go and sit in a darkened room for another 9 to 12 hours. Mustn’t grumble.


At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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At Doc/Fest: Circus Dynasty

The show must go on. The old show business truism never fades, and the old promise is as much a cry of resilience as it is an affirmation of the status quo. From the performer gritting their teeth and riding through the pain, to the notion that the traditions of circus must live on, a quiet note of defiance holds across both. In the documentary Circus Dynasty we see this truism first-hand, and are allowed to witness the tireless momentum which carries these performers forward in life, despite the many trials they face in their chosen profession.

CassellyFamilyDocFestCircusDynastyAt the heart of the doc we find the young couple of Patrick Berdino and Merrylu Casseley, the oldest children of two respected circus families working out of Denmark. While Patrick is being lined up to inherit the ringmaster role from his grandfather, Merrylu has made a name for herself as a spectacularly agile animal acrobat. Together they have devised a spectacular act, where Patrick throws Merrylu around himself, while riding on the back of two harnessed horses. The film showcases such staggering acts, and despite their breath-taking qualities, it’s the human drama which shines above all else. Like watching spinning plates in a shooting gallery, as the circus patriarchs admire their love-bird prodigies perform in the ring, beaming at the box-office potential, you just feel the weight of the crash that’s coming. With their families futures unrealistically put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds, you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know the relationship cannot last.

PatrickBerdinoDocfestCircusDynastyWhile the split happens off camera, countless sparks fly between the two youngsters, and the parents stand by glum faced as the rift slowly starts to pull the families apart. But the show must go on, and so it does. Despite kicks from horses, despite awkward falls off grown elephants, the tears are always held behind the scenes, and ringside they always put on their firmest smiles and their best performances. Only once do the cameras capture the facade crumbling, when in a moment of jealous fury Patrick calmly walks up to Merrylu and starts sniping at her as she sells programmes to the audience. The scene is caught in medium shot, in the hub-bub of the audience, but far away enough to not be caught by the mics. In this closed and mute drama the tensions of their unresolved relationship play out, unguarded and illcitly performed in the sacred space of the ringside. This riveting scene is the death of all lingering romantic notions still held onto by their parents, and marks the start of the film’s final act as the families professionally break from each other.

MerryluCassellyDocfestCircusDynastyThe drama sails extremely close to the winds of soap opera, but as the filmmaker himself stated in the Q&A after the screening, he did everything he could to downplay the story’s melodrama. His care in this regards is thankfully evident in the finished product, as the film avoids caricaturing either villains or victims. The story ends on a departure, and an emotional note for love lost and familial ties broken. The romance the film holds for its young couple, for the history of the circus, and for the future troupe that could have been persists throughout, yet its strength ultimately lies in the emotion it chooses it temper rather than the story it might have chosen to exploit.

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Looking Forward to Doc/Fest 2015

Doc/Fest, it’s been a good while. 8 Years in Sheffield gave me more than ample opportunity to get to know you, heck I even remember when you still went by the more austere name of The Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One year as a volunteer, two years covering it for the Steel Press, and plenty more besides just stuffing myself with brilliant docs. A move away from the city and some absurdly-prohibitively-exhaustingly expensive rail fares have kept me away of late, but that’s not to say I haven’t missed you.


Then something really quite special gets announced: my old boss is putting on the world premiere of The Greatest Shows on Earth. Which is to say an archive doc built wholly on materials from my archive alma mater. Directed no less by the Icelandic gent behind one of my favourite films of last year, and scored by an Icelandic duo who are also no mean shakes. Well I really liked their first album at least. An all-singing all-dancing multimodal spectacular at Sheffield City Hall you say? Well maybe that rail-fare bullet is just going to have to got bit, because I sure as shit ain’t going to miss that show. When Prof. Vanessa Toulmin decides to put on a show then you do well to clear the schedule and book early. On Sunday she will be repeating her famed inaugral lecture as part of Doc/Fest, and the show of her Twenty Performing Wonders is quite the sight to behold, not least for the chance to see the deeply uncanny Dancing Pig (1907) on the big screen.

DancingPigTerrifiesSheffieldBut hauling myself up to Sheffield for a long weekend of Doc/Fest is an exciting prospect, and while I will only be able to get a whiff of all the festival has to offer, there are a couple of films high on my hit-lists. On the back the Greatest Shows opening gala there runs an invisible strand with a carny theme of sorts, and I’ll be doing everything I can to catch them. A thumbnail sketch of Circus Dynasty paints it as a Romeo and Juliesque story of two young proteges of rival acrobatic clans coming together in a frought romance. How that plays out in a documentary remains to be seen, but I’ll be hoping for some breathtaking feats at the very least. The story of Tyke the Outlaw Elephant also looks like an intriguing one, being the archive re-telling of the American circus elephant that went crazy, killed it’s trainer, before rampaging through a city. The staged execution of colossal caged beasts is a spectacle that goes back to Thomas Edison’s notorious film, and as morbid a draw as the doc’s tragic conclusion is I’ll be interested to see how the story is spun. Maybe a land-based Blackfish is on the horizon?


As an unimaginative sort I’m also drawn towards the Swedish productions which have been accepted to the festival, and perhaps most noteworthy of those is The Confessions of Thomas Quick, the serial killer that never was. A highly peculiar story of Swedish jurisprudence, Thomas Quick was the boogey-man of my youth: he who killed dozens and was sent down for a long time. Only it turned out Mr Quick’s only sin might have been a hyperactive imagination, being a mentally unstable fellow who for reasons unknown was more than happy to accept the blame for countless crimes he might not have committed. A justice system all to eager to close these cases took his word without following due process, and over time did it actually come out that Mr Quick might have been telling porkie pies. The story was an absolute sensation in Sweden, but struggled to break into the international press, so it will be interesting to see how these documentary makers repackage this story for a new audience.


Being a huge fan of Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 I’m more than a little excited for the doc Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A political movement that was meticulously captured by a terrified media, and tracked by an even more obsessive CIA, the cause was lionized and demonized in inequal measure. Being a subject that could either fall over into fawning imbalance, or into cold detached objectivity, there are plenty of pitfalls for the film to traverse so I’ll be going in with certain trepidation, but holding out hope for what could be a promising doc.


Beyond that my eye’s been caught by a few odd films and the keywords that leap out about them: The Russian Woodpecker [Chernobyl, subjective], Containment [non-documentary, maybe extra-terrestrials?], Beyond Zero [Bill Morrison, WW1], Best of Enemies [Gore Vidal, pitbull politics], Good Girl [Norwegian, depression, performance art], Scrum [rugby, and rugby], Death of a Gentleman [India, cricket], Addicted to Sheep [sheep, and sheep], and somewhere out there there’s a short doc about Henderson’s Relish. That’s more than twice what I might be able to manage during my two and a half days out of six at the festival, but I’ll be having a crack at trying to blog about as much as I can muster. Sincerely hoping I might stumble across something brilliant that I can share with those who care to read about it. So come on Sheffield Doc/Fest, you’ve had good form in the past, don’t let me down this time.

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Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

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