Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: John Akomfrah on Stan Tracey

This is the third in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

John Akomfrah is an enormously respected filmmaker and artist whose documentary films include critically acclaimed titles such as THE NINE MUSES and THE STUART HALL PROJECT. Born in Ghana, he was educated in London and Portsmouth and went on to co-found the Black Audio Film Collective, which BFI Screenonline describes as having the…

objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.

One film on his CV which is sometimes overlooked is a beautifully crafted portrait of one the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, made for BBC Four in 2003. STAN TRACEY: THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH JAZZ is an affectionate and insightful exploration of Tracey’s long and prestigious career and receives a rare showing on the big screening as part of a Stan Tracey gala closing night event at the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival. As well as the screening itself, the evening will also feature a live performance by the Stan Tracey Legacy Quartet, led by Stan’s son, the leading British drummer Clark Tracey, and featuring player who all have a close association with the late pianist.

In an interview conducted via correspondence I asked John Akomfrah how he felt about this special screening of his film.

I’m absolutely over the moon that the film’s been chosen for the gala event of the first Herts Jazz FILM Festival . And especially thrilled that it will be followed by a live quartet performance led by Stan’s son Clark.

Stan was a great man, a formidable player and a fantastic composer. And any chance to honour him has my absolute support. I’m only sorry he’s not here to bask in the truly deserved limelight one more time.

I wondered how John had come to make a film on Stan.

Stan’s Under Milk Wood album was the first record I bought from the old Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the RARE AS HEN’S TEETH section I believe. So it cost me quite a bit! I had heard it months before at a friend’s and it blew me away: the lyricism, the unusual sonorities of the performers on the album, like Bobby Wellins. The whole album had this quintessentially British feel and that was my first exposure to that tone, that ‘local ambience’. After years of listening to jazz from all over the planet, it really spoke to me, spoke eloquently about this place (Britain ) and how we inhabit it.

That was in the 80’s and I decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to do something on him.

All of John’s films have a distinct visual style. How did he come to choose the particular look and structure of the Stan Tracey documentary?

Well, I had time to think about it! In a way, all the films are pretty much defined by the qualities one senses or gets from the subject itself.

Any one who knew Stan will tell you he was one of life’s gentle souls, really quiet, charming and very relaxed.But underneath that too, one sensed this steely determination, this overwhelming desire to do things his own way. So, I knew we had to find a form and a structure that spoke to those qualities. And an approach that will be unique for that film. Happily, all my instincts paid off.

I asked John what he is currently working on and was delighted to hear that he is returning to jazz, in the form of an important early jazz player.

I am in the middle of another long gestating piece on another hero, Buddy Bolden.

Now that will be worth looking out for!

The special Stan Tracey gala evening will take place on Sunday 2 October. Tickets are available here.


Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS


This is the second in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

This classic American film noir was directed by a Scotsman best known for his comedy masterpieces made at the Ealing Studios – THE LADYKILLERS (1955), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), and WHISKY GALORE (1949). The darker tones discernible in Alexander Mackendrick’s British films became the dominant motifs of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). The sharply observed portrayal of a megalomaniac newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the press agent with precious few principles, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), proved too dark for contemporary audiences but is now regarded as one of the great films of the genre and one that is still relevant today.

Gary Giddens, in his Criterion Collection essay, says:

Audiences in 1957 did not go to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movies to find the characters they played steeped in a disdain that also defiled venerable commonplaces of American life, from brotherly love to dogged ambition, not to mention newspaper columnists, cigarette girls, senators, the police, and all that glittered along the Great White Way. So they stayed away; this was the year of the hits The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Sayonara—big, colorful productions with heroes, or at least guiding lights, and Aesopian morals. Their loss is posterity’s gain. Sweet Smell of Success is a true classic. The passing of half a century has deepened its manifold pleasures.

The pairing of Curtis and Lancaster turned out to be a masterstroke. Cinephilia and Beyond piece says:

Tony Curtis had to fight really hard to get the role… The problem was that Universal Studios didn’t want to lose its star, an actor the audiences have known and loved from costume adventure epics. Sweet Smell of Success is a far more serious film—an urban drama, with unscrupulous, deeply ambitious characters scheming to make a living in the unforgiving world of showbusiness. What Universal feared ultimately came true: Curtis was sensational in Mackendrick’s film, forever shattering the image Universal so pedantically polished over the years. Paired on screen with the domineering presence of Burt Lancaster and an impressive role from Susan Harrison, Curtis brought Ernest Lehman’s novelette to life with dazzling fortitude.

Michael Brooke, in a piece printed in the superb new Arrow Academy blu-ray release, sums up the film well:

…A masterpiece, one of the most ferociously clear-eyed studies of the seamier side of American journalism and the cult of celebrity attempted either at the time or since, and the most cinematically flamboyant quasi-portrait of a major media figure since Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941)…

The atmosphere of the film is shaped by James Wong Howe’s remarkable black and white photography and enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score and the inclusion of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Gary Giddens again:

 The film’s music is another source of enchantment… The period from 1957 to 1965 was the golden age of jazz, or jazz-influenced, movie and TV scores. Suddenly, music directors with a background in jazz and even true jazz composers were taken on by the studios: John Mandel, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Van Alexander, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Andre Previn, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and others, plus great jazz improvisers, who appeared in nightclub scenes or soloed invisibly on soundtracks. The composer and conductor on Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein, though not a jazz composer, figured prominently in this movement. Raised in Manhattan’s upper class and taken on by Aaron Copland as his protégé, Bernstein began scoring films in 1951…


In this picture, instead of using a big central theme…, he employed a series of short, expressive cues that complement the on-screen music performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton’s group was known for combining a laid-back West Coast jazz style (he had initially come to prominence as the drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) with advanced harmonies, assertive rhythms, and the highly unusual instrumentation of cello (Fred Katz), flute (Paul Horn), and guitar (John Pisano). Bernstein preferred massed brasses and shuffle rhythms, which contrasted agreeably with Hamilton’s lightly astringent approach.

Included in Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Films of all Time’ poll of 2012, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is as fresh and hard hitting today as when it was released.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS will open the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on 16 September 2016. Details of the screening can be found here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival – flyer and promo video with a rather special soundtrack

The flyers for my film festival have arrived and I’m very pleased with how they’ve turned out. A big thank you goes to Sally Stray who designed the wonderful logo, and Kay Hill who designed the leaflet as a whole.

Jazz Festival Leaflet A5

I’ve also put together a quick promo video which features a Stan Tracey Quartet backing track (with Clark Tracey’s kind permission). The track is taken from the 2009 Senior Moment CD, made when Stan was a young 82. It’s a track which Peter Bacon described at the time as:

…a catchy, Caribbean-tinged, joyful tune that could have been written by Sonny Rollins, and the saxophonist is doing nothing to dispel that thought. The pianist launches into a solo of exuberant high and low end keyboard conversation, before the saxophonist returns to work a sure-footed and nearly manic display of melodic happiness. Meanwhile the rhythm team buoys them all along, the bass solo takes the theme of enjoyment on and the drummer carries it through. And then it’s back to the head. The whole thing seems to be over in less than a minute, though it has lasted more than five. That’s what happens to time when you are having fun. The tune is Triple Celebration, and Simon Allen is on saxophone, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Clark Tracey on drums. And, of course, this whole widely beaming, overflowing with joy and good vibes thing is masterminded by our favourite grump, Stan Tracey, on piano.

I believe this was the first time the incredibly talented Simon Allen appeared on a Stan Tracey recording. Tony Hall says of Allen’s playing on this CD:

He has all the technical proficiency of his American counterparts, but sounds so much more human and emotional than most. He’s equally strong on all his horns, with his alto particularly impressive.

You can check out more about this amazing player on his website, and just check out this video!

Which reminds me a little of another star of the film festival – Buster Keaton – and his short The Playhouse, where he plays multiple characters.

TUBBY HAYES: A MAN IN A HURRY: Interview with the film’s producer Mark Baxter 


Tubby Hayes 72dpi

This is a #HJFilmFest related post. The new Herts Jazz FILM Festival takes place at Welwyn Garden City Cinema on 16-18 September 2016 with a special gala evening on 2 October. It will showcase compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the #HJFilmFest will bring you classic Hollywood film noir, silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

A MAN IN A HURRY is the excellent new documentary about the prodigiously talented British saxophonist Tubby Hayes. During his all too brief life, Hayes created an astonishing body of work that still inspires musicians today. This film not only deals with the many achievements of this legendary player but brings to life the rich culture of 1950s, 60s, and 70s London. It is narrated by actor and Hayes fan Martin Freeman.

The film’s producer and fellow Londoner, Mark Baxter, is also a well respected author. He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the film.

Mike O’Brien: Mark, why Tubby Hayes and why now?

Mark Baxter: I fell under the spell of Tubby in the early 80s when investigating the world of jazz. I would have been 22/23. I joined Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club as a member and saw plenty of great acts there over the years. I then spent hours and much money in Ray’s Jazz Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue and first checked out the usual suspects, Miles, Coltrane, and Chet Baker and then got tipped off on to British players , Tubby among them. I just fell under the spell of him , Phil Seamen, Ronnie Ross, Stan Tracey etc…

I kept saying that one day I’d write a book on Tubbs (I have had 9 books published so far, so have a career in that world too) but then found out Simon Spillett was well into writing his book, ‘The Long Shadow of the Little Giant‘ so I decided to make a documentary instead, despite having no idea how to. This was in late 2012. I decided we’d aim for what would have been Tubby’s 80th year in 2015. Thankfully I found our director Lee Cogswell when we worked on a separate job together.

MO’B: Was Simon Spillett – a fantastic sax player himself and quite a favourite of the Herts Jazz Club – involved from the start?

MB: I knew Simon’s name well from the internet searches I had done on Mr Hayes, so knew he would be the font of all knowledge on the subject. So I’m emailed him and then we went to interview him at home. We all got on well, so he kindly gave us a lot of his research notes to help with the project. His help was invaluable.

M’O’B: How did you manage to cover so much in only 55 mins! How did you approach editing your material, and was anything left out that you wish could have been included?

MB: Haha. Well, from very early on whilst doing the research and writing the script, I just knew Tubby was living at a break neck speed and that gave me the title – A Man in a Hurry – which then sort of set the tempo of the film. In all honesty, we had a very limited budget, so had little choice as to the length of the film, we just couldn’t afford to use any more footage, though we had plenty of other unseen , or rarely seen, concert film that we had to leave out as we ran out of many. Lee did a great job on the editing and spent many hours refining that and that shows in the finished product.

MO’B: I like the way you contextualise the jazz world within the wider culture, particularly London culture. Was this always an important element?

MB: I found Tubby first of all when I was deep into the world of Mod. I lived that life for a few years, the clothes, the scooters and the clubs, so was well versed in the world of Modernist and always felt Tubby was at the forefront of that in the late 50s and that was something I wanted to explore in the film. A lot of the people who are in the film and who are around my age (53) have a similar view on Tubby’s part of that particular story.

MO’B: One of the things which I learnt from the film was the extent to which Tubby was a household name. What did you learn from making this film?

MB: At the start I only really knew his music, so nearly all of his personal life was new to me and it was fascinating to explore that and find out more. That is the thing most people say to me after seeing the film, that they simply didn’t know what a big star he was. They are amazed to be honest. It just shows that some people can slip though the cracks

MO’B: How long do it take to make the film and what difficulties did you have to overcome?

MB: In total it took about three years, with the research and writing up a working script. The major obstacle was finding the money to make the film as we couldn’t get any help from TV land or any funding from elsewhere to be honest. Myself and Lee worked for free on the job and it became a total passion project, we just HAD to finish. Some really good mates and my old mum, gave us the money to make it and it’s therefore quite emotional for me, every time I watch it.

MO’B: I see that Paul Weller and Martin Freeman are both executive producers of the film (and Martin also narrates): how did they come to be involved?

MB: I know both of them personally and of course we have a shared love of the ‘Mod’ world, so spend far too many hours discussing shoes, but they are always looking forward and looking for the next project, so they are always asking what I’m up to. A few years back, I mentioned Tubby and they checked his  music out, so knew I was in the process of making something on him. I asked Martin to be interviewed for the film, but he said no, because he felt he didn’t know the subject well enough, but said if you get it made, I’ll narrate it.

This was said well before The Hobbit and Sherlock took off, so it then became a mission to get  a few hours in his diary a few years later, to get his vocals sorted and onto the film. It was great to have him aboard. As for Paul Weller, he was so supportive from the kick off, and made a few phone calls for us to get us into locations and line up some interviewees. A pair of the finest gents I’m privileged to know.

MO’B: How has the film been received?

MB: Beyond our wildest dreams to be honest. I won’t lie, it was very stressful in getting it made in time and then released, so in the end we were just glad to get out there. The good people at Proper Jazz picked up the distributing of the DVD and they have done a great job. When the feedback and reviews started to come our way, well, we were delighted. We have also teamed up with Simon Spillett to do a ‘Tubby double act’ so to speak, where the film is shown at a venue/club or cinema and then Simon plays a Tubby set with his quartet. We have had some great nights with it. We have also introduced people to the music of Tubby which has been a nice bonus to it all.

MO’B: The Herts Jazz FILM Festival is all about bringing music and film together, including live accompanied silent film. What films with a jazz connection have inspired you?

MB: Good question. ‘Jazz On A Summers Day’ by Bert Stern was a massive influence on me early on and I love that film to this day. I also watch ‘Round Midnight’ by Bernard Tavernier as often as I can and I’ve always got time for ‘Let’s Get Lost’ by Bruce Weber. Such a life lived by the Baker.

MO’B: Is there a question which you’ve been surprised was never asked in interviews about the film?

MB: Ha! ‘Would you do it all again’ would be a good one. I should say no really, but I think I probably would…

TUBBY HAYES: A MAN IN A HURRY will be shown in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on Sunday 18th September 2016.

Interview with Joanna Hogg


Photo: Toby Miller

Recently I had the opportunity to interview British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, someone I greatly admire. She was incredibly generous with her time, genuinely engaged and thoughtful in her answers, and patient with my questioning. A lovely, inspiring woman.

The full transcript of that interview has been published in Take One and is reproduced below.

An an audio extract from the interview was included in Cambridge 105’s radio show Bums On Seats.

Joanna was in Cambridge as the first Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Cambridge. Details can be found here.

For two weeks in May 2016, renowned British filmmaker Joanna Hogg was the first Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Cambridge. She presented a series of talks, a sequence of film masterclasses for students at the University and she also attended Q&As following screenings of all her feature releases as well as a programme of her early shorts at the Arts Picturehouse.

Joanna began as a photographer but soon became fascinated by the moving image and making her own Super 8 films, initially on a camera lent to her by none other than Derek Jarman. She attended the National Film School and her graduation short, CAPRICE, starred a then unknown Tilda Swinton. She went on to work in television for some years, directing episodes of programmes such as Casualty, London’s Burning, and East Enders.

She directed her first feature UNRELATED which was released in 2008. It immediately attracted critical attention, described by Derem Malcolm as “without doubt…one of the best, and most original, British films of the year. It received a number of awards including the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize.

Her second feature, ARCHIPELAGO, was released in 2010 and was described by Dave Calhoun as confirming “Hogg as a daring and mischievous artist, and a major British talent whose next move will be intriguing.”

EXHIBITION was her third feature and released in 2013 and was described by Kate Muir as a “brilliantly austere and intimate portrait of a marriage”.

Along with Adam Roberts, Joanna setup A Nos Amours, a “screening collective…dedicated to programming over-looked, under-exposed or especially potent cinema.” From 2013-2015 they screened a complete retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films.

Joanna kindly agreed to give an interview before a Q&A which was given after a screening of EXHIBITION at the Arts Picturehouse.

The interviewer was Mike O’Brien, with a supplementary question asked by Toby Miller, who also recorded the interview.

We would like to thank Joanna for talking at such length and with such enthusiasm after a long day teaching at the University.

Mike O’Brien: I read somewhere that you had an early interest in Hollywood musicals and European fairy tales.

Joanna Hogg: (laughing) I don’t remember talking about European fairy tales (though I’ve always liked them) but when I was 12/13 I loved Frank Sinatra – he was my pin-up rather than Donny Osmond – and I also loved Gene Kelly and tap dancing. I used to tap dance as a child. So I did have a background of loving the Hollywood musical but that went away when I was 19/20.

My tastes changed a lot – I became a photographer for a brief time, a couple of years or so before film school, and I started to discover filmmakers, particularly British ones in London. Derek Jarman’s films, for instance – very different from the Hollywood musical! – his Super 8 films particularly, made me think there was a possibility that I could make films too. The idea of just picking up a Super 8 camera and trying to make a home movie, but with a different eye. There was also Chris Petit – I was particularly inspired by RADIO ON which I think came out in 1979, I think I saw it in 1980.

At that time I was taking photographs in the North East, Sunderland, mostly black and white photographs, and also starting to conceive a film that would have been in black and white set in that very depressed part of the world. I was fascinated by the dying shipbuilding industry – after Thatcher got in in ‘79 that part of the country was very depressed. What took me up there was an artist called Ron Haselden and another called Bill Culbert, they invited me to take photographs of an exhibition they were having in a gallery in Sunderland. We stayed up there for a couple of weeks and I looked around and was really inspired. I took a lot of photographs and talked to many people; I went to a lot of working men’s clubs and immersed myself in the place. In fact, after the exhibition opened and I was no longer needed to record the show I stayed up there longer and also made a number of trips from London. I was very interested in this place and started to write a story.

I think it was probably that project that got me into film school because they liked the social realism aspect – I was very inspired by Ken Loach, particularly KES – I think they liked the approach and the idea that I was interested in that kind of filmmaking, and also my photographs. I didn’t really have much to show in terms of finished films – I think now when people get into film school they are showing really professional level, very competent films, while all I had was a rather scrappy Super 8 film [by the artist Ron Haselden]. So that’s what I was into at that point in time, but then, once at the film school, I revived my interest in the Hollywood musical and also discovered Powell and Pressburger. So I went off in a different direction.

MO’B: How was it for you at film school? Did you feel comfortable there? Was it the sort of place you were looking for to learn your craft?

JH: I was very excited to go there, very happy to get a place. I think I probably would have had a much easier time if my tastes hadn’t changed once I arrived. If I’d stuck with the social realism and the black and white project, and done other projects like that, I think the tutors would have understood that approach. When my ideas started to change they didn’t come on the journey with me. I don’t think they understood that I could hop from one approach to another. I remember I had a number of meetings with the Heads of Department at film school. It would always be a struggle after that point, when the ideas started to change.

But there were always one or two tutors who I found understood me a bit better and there were very good things about that time, but it was also challenging, and I remember sometimes I’d think I might have fared better in an art school atmosphere, where you could freely experiment more. I think they felt that once I’d embarked on the journey of ideas I was already pursuing before I went to film school, that I should stay on that path. They always wanted to be sure of how something was going to work out. For me, that didn’t seem to be the point of being at film school or art school; it’s about experimenting, failing… There’s nothing wrong with failing or making a mistake; actually that’s a really good time to do it, rather than pretend you are somehow already in the film industry. There was this idea that you were put through quite a tough time in film school in order to help you survive in the industry outside. I don’t think I really understood that. It depends on what kind of films you want to make, anyway.

MO’B: When you came out of film school were you disillusioned with that industry? Did you have a clearer idea of where you wanted to go?

JH: Having successfully rebelled while at film school and made the films that I wanted to make, there was a point after leaving film school where those voices – saying you need more experience in certain areas, or these ideas are too frivolous, or whatever it was – these finally got to me and I remember thinking I should go and get some experience in television. That I should work on the ground and be a jobbing director for a bit. Get more experience working with actors and working with somebody else’s script, and all of that. So I had this idea that I had to prove myself somehow – I don’t know what happened to the rebellious streak at that point. And once I started working in television it was very difficult to hop off, because it’s nice work and you’re getting paid regularly. It has its small pleasures.

MO’B: How long were you working in television?

JH: They finally let me graduate in about 1987, because they didn’t like the film I made as my graduation film –

MO’B: – Is that the film with Tilda Swinton in?

JH: – Yes, I’m also showing that at the Picturehouse… It was a long time before I was able to graduate, and then from that point I worked in the industry up until about 2003. Quite a long time. When I see an interview with Tarantino, or somebody, and he’s saying he’s thinking of retiring after making 10 films, or whatever, I think I can understand that. I haven’t made 10 feature films – and I’m not about to retire by the way –

MO’B: – Good!

JH: – but I feel like I’ve been directing all my adult life.

MO’B: How did you find directing in television?

JH: I fitted in OK. Sometimes I enjoyed it. In a way, I forgot about self expression, so I got into delivering what was asked of me, working well with the crew I was given. Sometimes I was given the cast and had to work with them, or sometimes I had to convince a cast that I could cut the mustard, so to speak. I remember doing London’s Burning and they hadn’t had a woman director doing that before, and it was a cast that had been doing it for years, so I knew I was going to go into this situation and have to prove myself, prove that I could do it. I actually enjoyed that challenge. Having to go into a new job and having to make things work, that was fun in a way.

MO’B: Your rebellious spirit was channelled into dealing with these challenges, then?

JH: Unfortunately, they were maybe challenging at the time, but not really interesting from an ideas point of view. They weren’t furthering my own approach and developing my own voice as a filmmaker. Maybe it made me more determined to do that, afterwards.
MO’B: So during this television period were you still watching and being inspired by films?
JH: It’s hard to remember the details, but when I sometimes look back at a diary from during that time I’m surprised that I was still passionate about cinema. Actually, during that time, on and off – because you don’t always go from one job into another one – I was developing films alongside work whenever I could. Crucially they weren’t films that I was writing myself, I was working with other writers, and sometimes collaborating with another writer, but I wasn’t yet – before UNRELATED came about – writing my own work.

MO’B: I’m interested in film culture at that time… There’s said to have been a much healthier, film repertory cinema, and greater opportunity to see, on the big screen, more obscure, more eclectic films. Is that what it was like?

JH: Yes…the golden time, as far as I remember, was the early/mid Eighties. That was when I experienced repertory cinema in London at its absolute height, it was fantastic. There were so many cinemas which have since disappeared: there was The Academy on Oxford Street, of course there was The Scala, there was The Paris Pullman, there was The Minima…they were all over the place. You had such a choice of where to go and what to see. You could go to an all night screening of 1900 at The Gate in Notting Hill…Double bills, triple bills, all nighters were a regular, normal thing back then.

Jumping forward just briefly, that was what inspired Adam Roberts and I to set up A Nos Amours in 2011. We were thinking back to that wonderful golden time of repertory cinema, and felt that now it’s very difficult if you’re a young film student or you are just interested in cinema, it’s very difficult to go and see certain films in the cinema. Students now are not experiencing films in that way any more, they’re watching them on their laptops or even their phones, so we felt, as filmmakers, we could do something; not try and revive how it was back then but do our own little bit to try and put cinema back where it should be.

MO’B: What’s the response been to A Nos Amours?

JH: It’s been really positive.

MO’B: Good audiences?

JH: Yes, and for films that are very little known and films that are not considered easy to get an audience for.

MO’B: What have been the highlights?

JH: I suppose our most ambitious project so far has been showing the entire works of Chantal Akerman over two years. We decided that rather than pick a few of her films and show them over a weekend – a typical retrospective – that we would actually mark each month with another film. She made a lot of films, which people don’t realise, and some really wonderful things that are never seen. So it was the idea of doing a retrospective in a very slow way, in a way that you could actually digest the work as it was shown, in chronological order.

At the same time it made us aware, and it also made Chantal herself aware, of the state of her archive. There were films that we showed where the print wasn’t very good. We would put English subtitles on some things that didn’t have them already.… I think, hopefully, that we’ve done a bit to help the state of things in terms of what she has now sadly left behind, since she died at the end of last year. It was a big work and now we’re taking a bit of a pause after that. Prior to that we showed a lot of other films, a lot of Tarkovsky, we were showing a lot of male directors actually, so we thought we would redress the balance.

MO’B: There has been much talk recently about the under-representation of women directors. What do you feel about that situation? Have you found it a difficult industry for women filmmakers?

JH: For me personally I had more difficulty when I was working in television, in terms of male attitudes, male crews; the challenges of being a woman director and having a lot of guys around and experiencing some difficult moments with that. Since I’ve been making my own films, I’m able to choose who I work with. So I choose the crews very carefully and I avoid scrupulously that very male, very macho industry attitude that I experienced in television. But I know, particularly for women with bigger budgets where they don’t have so much control, I’m sure that industry attitude can easily show up. And aside from that it’s the percentage of women who are directors – they’ve been doing a lot of research recently – in a way it’s not surprising, but it’s shocking that the percentages aren’t better. So, there are probably many things to be done… More young women have to be encouraged into the industry.

MO’B: And more films by women shown?

JH: Yes, more films shown and then more people in powerful positions hiring women and not having a prejudice about women not being able to handle certain subjects.

MO’B: A theme that has come out of this interesting retrospective of your films at the Arts Picturehouse, is that your filmmaking style is very particular and very unusual in many ways – certainly very different from television. So how did that transition from television to film come about? Was there anything that sparked the decision to finally make a feature film?

JH: There were definitely a number of things. One of them was the last television job that I did, which was directing an East Enders Easter special. It wasn’t like a regular episode, it was an hour long or something, which we shot in Wales and where one of the characters was explored in greater depth. During this production, which had a lot of positive things about it, I remember being on set and thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could be working on something that I had written, that was about personal ideas and feelings. That was one thing. There was also a tiredness at the end of all the television that I’d done, with me thinking maybe I won’t do any more directing or maybe I won’t make films. And various personal things – I did a creative writing course, I started painting… There was a lot of creativity reignited at that point, around 2003.

MO’B: Did that experience in television directly affect the way in which you decided to make your first film, UNRELATED?

JH: It’s never that simple – not that you are suggesting it’s simple – there were so many factors that went into why that film was shot in that particular way. Some of it was discovered during the making of UNRELATED… I discovered through the shoot certain things that I liked doing, which I didn’t know that I liked doing. How I liked working with actors, how I didn’t like having a script that was too set in stone, that I liked a certain fluid way of working, that I wanted to shoot in chronological order. The fixed camera, that came out of being interested in gesture and how people move….it probably goes back to my love of watching Gene Kelly tap dance, you’d have a wide shot and you’d see a full figure moving about in the frame. I don’t think I thought about it too much, it just happened that way. I suppose, yes, it was in some ways a reaction to what I’d been doing in television.

MO’B: Did UNRELATED start out as a script or a treatment?

JH: It started off as a script, as a pretty conventional looking 100 page script. Heartfelt but conventional. Then it quickly changed as we were shooting. I realised I wanted to rewrite things. I also wanted the actors to say things in their own words. By the end of the process I realised that next time around I didn’t need to go in with this volume, I could actually write something different, that I could tailor it to what I knew I would need when I was shooting.

MO’B: You’ve talked elsewhere about how your characters are conceived by yourself but change as a result of what the actors, professional and non-professional, bring to the table.

JH: Yes, very much. I realise the limitations now of what you write on the page. Unless you already have an actor or non-actor in mind when you’re writing, it’s really a process of letting go in a way. You have a particular idea on paper and then gradually they have to take a different form, and I believe the cast bring an awful lot to it and by choosing them you are saying I would like you to put some of yourself into this.

MO’B: In view of this fluid approach, how do you keep a shape and arc to the film?

JH: That’s a really hard thing to describe but it just happens. It’s having a plan but then being quite free within that plan somehow. I don’t know how it happens… I write as I go along, so I’ll notice things and I’m always working in the evenings or weekends (if we’re lucky enough to have a weekend off), so I’m constantly adapting to what I observe. Afterwards, I sometimes talk with my editor Helle [le Fevre] about this, and she’s remarked that all the films somehow end up being quite like the document we started off with, the original plan. Even though it seems that we veer off in so many different directions along the way, there is a clear map.

MO’B: I think it was in relation to ARCHIPELAGO that you said the film came together in the edit. Part of your style is to shoot a lot and keep the camera running. Are you comfortable with this because you have confidence that you can shape things in the editing?

JH: Yes, but just to say it’s not always like that. The process isn’t so clear and repetitive. There are scenes where the take doesn’t last very long and then there are scenes where the camera rolls for much longer. I want to resist defining how I work, it’s not the same for every scene. Particularly from an actor’s perception it’s challenging for them, because they are sometimes in front of the camera for much longer than is comfortable. With certain scenes that duration means something and then other scenes it doesn’t. Each scene, like each film, I develop in a different way depending on what it is, but there are some things where it’s one take and it’s three minutes. Other times its half an hour and in the time I’m looking for something that I haven’t yet found. I’m confident that rather than cutting and starting again that it will go through a stage of maybe being very awkward, or maybe I want that awkwardness, and then become something else.

With ARCHIPELAGO what I did quite a bit …. I don’t like rehearsing before we shoot, we’ll start shooting straight away, so the rehearsal is being shot. This is very common, a lot of filmmakers do this, I’m not unique in that. So the first take will be very loose, they can walk wherever they want to walk. Then gradually I’ll refine it. It might also start off with the characters saying a lot… I remember a number of scenes, particularly a couple I’m thinking of that were with Edward, played by Tom Hiddleston, and Edward’s mother, played by Kate Fahy, where they were talking a lot to begin with and by the last takes it was being done silently. Sometimes I’ll go too far, it will become almost stylised from where it began, which was very loose and spontaneous. It’s interesting to make that journey.

MO’B: What surprises me about the process of developing the scenes as you go along is that the framing is so precise. Is the frame refined along the way?

JH: Again, it varies, but it will be more likely that the frame starts out that way. The actors aren’t aware enough of the frame so have to be reined in; I’ll say if you go past that point you’re out of shot. So then the whole thing gets contained. Sometimes that edge thing can be quite nice, which is why I don’t want to say to begin with that you can only go so far, and I don’t like that thing of putting marks down because everyone becomes a bit rigid. With certain shots you have to do that, but with those group scenes I don’t. They’ll learn over the first couple of takes where they can be to be contained in that frame. I would say that the frame is pretty much set early on. Ed Rutherford [cinematographer on ARCHIPELAGO and EXHIBITION] and I will have discussed it beforehand, about the architecture of the room and about containing as much as possible in one image. We were going for a particular aesthetic in that film.

MO’B: The sense of place seems very important in all the films and perhaps most so in EXHIBITION. Is the place itself part of the inspiration for a film, as much as the characters?

JH: Yes, to begin with almost more. Where I’m going to shoot a film is almost the first thing that is decided. Not even where I’m going to shoot it but where and what I’m going to write a film about. The place is absolutely key. I can’t analyse why that is, but I feel a sense of place, I get attached to places very easily. If I’m somewhere for just a few days… I’ve been in Cambridge for nearly 2 weeks and I’ve got used to my room. I feel every time I leave a place that I’ve got to know, there’s a little sadness. I’m very aware of place in terms of memory, places I was happy as a child, those places remain.

Actually, with ARCHIPELAGO, that was a place I knew as a child and had strong connections with. Having that familiarity with the place is really important. I don’t just choose places that I like the look of, that I objectify, that are locations. They’re not locations to me, they really are places with a lot of feeling and memory attached.

MO’B: Will that spark the story then? Or is it the other way around, there are stories you want to tell and you find the place that resonates with you?

JH: That’s interesting. I think with UNRELATED I’m very clear that the place was the first thing. I had a number of different stories set in that place in Italy before the story of Anna came about, so I was looking for something in that place. With ARCHIPELAGO the place came first as well. I’d been developing another idea in another part of the UK and then I knew that the story I was developing in this other place I didn’t want to do for certain reasons. I was thinking of something else and I’m pretty sure the Scilly Isles came to mind before this island came to mind, before the family. Probably quickly, hand in hand. And then EXHIBITION, the idea, the sense of place, leaving a place after a long time, I was playing with those ideas anyway, but I also got to know the house through knowing the architect. I think in all three cases, the place has come first.

MO’B: Do you already have the place in mind for your next film?

JH: It’s more difficult with the next film because it’s set over a much longer time span, it’s set over 5 years. So there are a number of places but I’ve got some ideas of how to create some sort of coherence in terms of place.

MO’B: In all of your films, the offscreen presence is very important, both action outside the frame, but also voices, telephone calls, the rich sound design. What has led to that approach being so distinctive a part of your filmmaking?

JH: That’s a harder one to answer. Actually, with ARCHIPELAGO I tried to film the big argument that takes place upstairs. I realised that there is something too precise and on the nose about seeing it and also something alienating about seeing an argument which doesn’t give you the sense of potential violence. It’s about imagination I suppose, that’s what I’m interested in, letting the audience fill in some of the gaps I create – not saying everything and not seeing everything – there’s some power in that.

All the time there are sounds going on, like we just had people talking out there, we didn’t see them, but I could imagine them, I think I like that. I don’t want to paint every leaf… (Laughing) That’s a terrible analogy!

MO’B: We just watched the beginning of EXHIBITION and the sound tells so much of the story – the chair moving in the room above… Do you have that sound design in mind when you are filming those scenes or is the sound design a later process of further development?

JH: With that particular sound of the thunderous chair above D’s office, I had the idea already when I was writing the film. I was interested in all the sounds you hear, and what you can imagine, when you are working in an office near to someone. That idea was already there and I was already thinking about what one remembers of a place. In places I have lived through my life I can remember sounds; I remember a flat I lived in at one point and the lift that went up through the whole block made a particular noise. I can hear that noise, I can tune into it right now, so those things make a big impression. For me, memory is a lot about sound.

MO’B: You’ve described the soundtrack as like a musical score. Does it feel like you are producing a musical score?

JH: It did with EXHIBITION, less so with the others. With ARCHIPELAGO it felt like we were one step away from that. Jovan Ajder – who’s the sound designer I work with – and I had a lot of fun with EXHIBITION. Actually, watching it with you just now, standing at the back of cinema listening to the beginning of it – I don’t sit and watch my films after I’ve finished them – brought back the pleasure of creating that sound track. We had a number of weeks mixing. Sometimes, if you are lucky, certainly with lower budget films, you might get a week or possibly 10 days. We kept pushing it and pushing it – we needed so much time because it became so complex. My justification to the producer, who was saying we can’t extend it anymore, was that actually what we’re doing is making music here. It’s not just doing the usual sound mixing; there’s a musical factor and that’s why it’s taking so long, the detail of it. Jovan and I felt that each time we got it to one stage we just kept wanting to push it and refine it. In the end we were both pretty happy with it but there were stages along the way where we weren’t. I can remember we screened it and listened to it in a particular theatre and it would just sound wrong. We would be constantly writing notes of the changes I wanted to make, aware that at any moment time would be up. Luckily it worked out.

MO’B: Why don’t you watch your films?

JH: Because they’re exhausting to make and so much goes into them. When you’re editing you have to watch it over and over again and you get tired of it really. I’d rather just put energy into the next thing. Crucially, I find it very difficult watching one of my films with an audience. Someone only has to rustle a crisp bag for me to feel anxious that they’re not enjoying it or bored. It’s fraught with all that, so I can’t sit and enjoy it with an audience unless it’s somebody else’s film.

MO’B: Part of the joy of this retrospective is seeing how the films are similar in some ways but also very different. They seem to moving in a certain direction: there seems to be a greater use of dream elements in EXHIBITION; there have always been ellipses in the narrative but much more so with each film. Do you see that direction of travel yourself? Is that something you are interested in exploring?

JH: It was something I really wanted to push, actually. I felt with EXHIBITION, given it was about selling a house and the memory of a place you’ve lived in, I thought this is a film in which I can start to work with different levels of reality. I quite consciously wanted to work with dreams, memory, and so-called reality; kind of mix them up and create a story that’s less linear. I felt the other two films were incredibly linear. I was pushing myself into an uncomfortable zone because it comes more naturally to me to be more chronological and logical – you start at the beginning and you end at the end. In this I forced myself to explore more and it’s made me want to take some of those ideas further.

MO’B: The dreamlike elements are interesting because they’re not a dream as such, it’s very ambiguous as to what they are, which is somehow more potent than a conventional dream scene.

JH: That was really thought about and thought through; not to have the comfort or discomfort of a dream sequence, exactly as you say, not quite knowing where you are and what’s happening and what isn’t happening, and what’s in someone’s mind. It was fun to play with that.

MO’B: You say you worry about watching your films with audiences. Do you think about that when you are making the film, because they seem so clear in what you want to achieve and the particular way in which you are going to get there? Do you worry about what the audience is going to think of what you are doing when you are creating it?

JH: No I don’t, thats the lucky thing. It’s not that I don’t care, of course I care, but I know I’m not going to make a better film as a result of worrying about the audience. It’s better if I’m more single-minded about it and not distracted by that. Of course sometimes when I’m writing I think, oh the critics will get their knives out. You have these thoughts but I try and disperse them because they’re not helpful.

MO’B: An interesting thing which I noted when listening to the Q&A’s, which have been fascinating, is that there seems to be a growing confidence in letting the ‘chaos’ happen – those problems, uncertainties, and changing directions that happen in making a film – and actually enjoying the chaos and finding a creative stimulus in it. And knowing that you can deal with it, that it’s not a problem. Do you find that to be the case?

JH: If we compare it with when I made UNRELATED, definitely. Also, at the same time, I remember when I went from UNRELATED to ARCHIPELAGO I felt a certain pressure, I thought about what’s expected of me for the next film. You’ve got something to live up to, possibly, and that can become difficult.

It’s not just me on my own, it’s a collaboration with everyone else, and what’s great is that a lot of my collaborators have travelled with me, so we’ve gone on the same journey – and that gives everyone confidence, and it’s wonderful because we all understand each other much better. I’m sure there will be some day when, for instance, I can’t have Stefan, the wonderful production designer I work with, because he’s busy on something else, but so far we’ve gone on this journey all together. I feel it’s important not to forget that it’s not me on my own.

MO’B: Do you find you have a kind of shorthand with these collaborators?

JH: Yes, definitely. What changes more than the crew is obviously the cast, I’m not always working with the same cast. I find there is always at least a week, or maybe two weeks, of a new member of the cast who hasn’t worked in this way before, there’s always a little bit of a challenge to convince them that it’s going to work, that I’m going to be there for them and support them and I’m not going to make a fool of them. You’ve got to gain each other’s trust, so it’s not that it’s always that comfortable each time with the same people because there are always new people. As I say, particularly with cast members, if they’ve been working in a different discipline – maybe working in theatre where they’re used to a lot of preparation, a lot of rehearsal – to be thrown into the pit, so to speak, with none of that support of rehearsal, I’m sure it’s very intimidating. But then it usually works out.

MO’B: Does the training in television help with technical aspects of directing such as having to deal with short shooting times if you have to?

JH: Yes, I can definitely pull that out of the bag if I need to. And I was used to working with a lot of different personalities in television and sometimes I had an actor say I’m not going to do this scene or I’m not going to do this programme – there’s a lot of convincing one has to do. I learnt a lot of people skills when I was directing television, but also if I’m told by a producer that you’ve got half an hour to shoot this scene, I can pull it out of the bag.

MO’B: Looking at themes in your work, we’ve already talked about the importance of place, but your films also have a thread about family units and outsiders. Is that something that’s always been interesting to you?

JH: I find it harder to talk about themes because those sort of interests and ideas come naturally somehow and I don’t think about them objectively. If I’m asked what kind of films I make, if I’m meeting someone who’s never seen any of my films before, I always find it very hard to describe.

Often the perception is that because I’m a woman that I make documentaries, and they are always a little bit surprised when I say it’s fiction. That happens so often.

MO’B: Really?

JH: I find it very difficult to respond, and my recent response has been around family, and that I’m interested in family dynamics, but I don’t think that really reveals very much. Any tips are welcome on how to talk about my work! This encapsulating what I’m interested in and the kind of films I make, I find almost impossible.

MO’B: They always seem very English to me, but I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s something about the sense of anxieties around social conventions, which are at the heart of those great scenes you create.

JH: I don’t think that’s surprising, but it’s difficult for me to see that or see what it is. You have your interpretation of it, it doesn’t surprise me that there’s a Britishness about it, but that’s not what I’m striving for.

MO’B: So, what are you looking for when you are shaping the film in the last edit stage?

JH: Extremely good question. That last edit stage is very difficult, I hate it because you’ve got to fix the film at a certain point. I always dream when I’m editing, and Helle and I both feel this, we’d like to both take a long break and come back to the film and see what we’ve done. You always have to finish very quickly and you can’t ever stand back and look at what you are doing.

Again, it’s without thinking about the audience in a sense, I don’t do lots of screenings for friends and I don’t want lots of opinions. It’s not because I don’t care what other people think. It’s the opposite in a way, I don’t want to get confused myself, I want to keep a very clear instinct about what it is. So it’s about being very instinctive and trying not to force the story too much, let the thing breath a bit but then not too much. It’s such a balance of things, so I don’t think I could sum up what that is, it’s very complex at that point because there are so many things going on.

And then one’s seen the film so many times its hard to trust oneself. At the same time you have to, and that’s why I don’t want to show too many people, I don’t want lots of chatter in my head. I just want to be able to see it and feel like it’s got a life of its own and that there’s something there that people will get caught up in.

MO’B: When you’ve got the finished film, you don’t want to over analyse it?

JH: No, I think that’s for other people to do that.

MO’B: Do you get frustrated if other people have radically different views of your film than you intended?

JH: No, actually, I don’t mind that, and it can be interesting, it can be surprising sometimes because I’ve had responses that I don’t recognise, that are really very different to what I intended. I’m not judgemental about that, I expect that to happen, particularly when I’m encouraging the audience to use their imagination. They will create a shape for themselves and it will be very personal to them.

MO’B: I read about you saying that you always check to see if the emotional heart of the film is still there. Is that part of this instinctual side, that there is some sort of emotional heart running through the film?

JH: Yes, and I think sometimes I’m more successful with that than other times and I’m aware, in terms of emotional response, that it varies from person to person. But also I can see the different emotional maps of each film.

MO’B: What drives you to make the next film?

JH: Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll finish a film and I actually don’t know what the next thing is going to be. There’s a funny thing that’s happened with each film, that while I’m finishing off that film – it happened with UNRELATED, ARCHIPELAGO, and EXHIBITION – and I’m still working with Helle on the edit, or might be starting to work with the sound design, that I’ve already formed what I’m going to do next. I think that’s some kind of safety mechanism where I don’t want to let go of the film that I’m working on, that’s coming to an end, so I want to grip on to what the next thing’s going to be.

I haven’t really thought about it but I think in every case I’ve gripped on to something that hasn’t then materialised. Then what happens is I go into a bit of a downer after a film because it’s such an intense thing. I find it very difficult trying to let go of the project and I’m trying to live my life, but I don’t like that time afterwards, because there’s been so much going on and now my brain’s got too much time to think. Then after this false phase -I don’t know what you call it, maybe it’s like a phantom pregnancy – then gradually, but it might take months, I’ll start to get the beginnings of the next thing. That takes a while and I don’t know the point at which it takes hold. It might be the place, the sense of place that we talked about, that I think, yes, I’m going to set the next film in this place, and then the story comes about from that.

I don’t want to talk too much about the new project, but it’s come about just thinking about being a filmmaker, what it was like when I first started being a filmmaker, and then developing an idea for a relationship between a young woman and an older man. That’s all I’ll say at the moment, but that hasn’t happened quickly. That’s where I’m really trying to find the heart of what it is and the motor of the story. I have found that now with this new project but it’s still got a way to go.

MO’B: And you’ll look to keep true to that heart, that inspiration as you go through the film, no matter what the changes are? That’s the impetus?

JH: Yes, that’s the impetus and I have to keep reminding myself what that heart is. I write a lot in notebooks and sometimes I find myself writing the same sentence, it might be a couple of months on, it’s almost like an affirmation that this is what this next film is about, this is the underlying idea.

It’s true to say that it has taken me some time developing this new one since EXHIBITION, it’s been the longest gap between films and it’s very frustrating on one level, on the other hand this new film is more complex so it needs more time to develop.

MO’B: Is all the funding set up?

JH: Quite a bit of it is. The BFI have been very supportive and I’ve been developing it with them. And the BBC are really supportive as well. We still need to find more money but it’s looking OK.

MO’B: It fascinates me, the instinctual part of the filmmaker. Critics will talk about what is intended by the filmmaker, but when you hear filmmakers talk they often say they don’t exactly know why they may have done something in a particular way, that sometimes the film is a process of finding out what they intended. Do you find you’ve discovered more by the end of the process?

JH: Definitely. Lots of things materialise and it can be in the form of casting, so an actor or non-actor takes on the character or brings in ideas which hadn’t occurred to me. There are so many things that happen, some be chance, some by design. It’s so interesting that a piece of work, and it’s not just my work, can be analysed by someone else, and there can be ideas found or connections made by that person who’s viewed the film and some of that is intended by the filmmaker, some of it’s by chance. I think in a way it is about some kind of channelling you do as a filmmaker and your collaborators with you, you’re channelling an idea and once you’re fully in the groove of that idea then all sorts of things float around and associate and connect. That’s how magic happens and that’s how all sorts of associations are made.

MO’B: You’ve edited all you films with Helle. What is that process like? Do you sit down together and work on the material? Do you already have an idea of how you are going to edit it at the start, or are the decisions made as you work through the film?

JH: Sometimes we have ideas of what we do but the reason I like working with Helle is that she’s very instinctive herself, has fantastic instincts, and she’s not judgemental at all. I’ve worked with editors in my tele days who will criticise actors, say terrible things that are really unhelpful. Judgement just shuts a door immediately, whereas Helle and I both like leaving doors open and being more receptive. It doesn’t mean we are open to anything but it means that we will let the thing breath. Then we might rein it in later on.

But to begin with she’s just taking in the performances, the situations, and the story, and what’s really nice is that Helle doesn’t start editing on set when we’re shooting. Actually she and I both like it that she starts working on her own, starts looking at the material on her own, and then we’ll look at it together as well later on. She doesn’t become part of the gossip of the shoot, so she doesn’t see the actors off set or having a fag, whatever, she sees them for the first time as fictional beings. So she’s not part of that messy stuff that’s not really about the film itself.

MO’B: Does that help you to step away from all the memories of what happened around the filming?

JH: It helps me that she hasn’t been part of that, I really like that. So we’re in a completely new space and I don’t really refer to the shoot, we just talk about what’s in front of us.

MO’B: Do you talk mainly about technical issues, or is it more about the emotional journey of the film?

JH: We talk on all sorts of different levels and what I try to do – I’m not very good at this – I try to give Helle space without me, but that’s always difficult, it’s very difficult for me to keep away.

Sometimes there’s a geographical thing, because Helle is now living in Copenhagen. When we were editing EXHIBITION she was living in Berlin, so sometimes we’d be communicating from afar. Then we’d have chunks of time together. In a way I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing that sometimes she was able to be in her own space for the material. And then it helped me also because I wasn’t looking at the material all the time, so one of us could be a bit more objective.

MO’B: You’re the first ‘filmmaker in residence’ at the University of Cambridge, how has that experience been for you?

JH: This is going to sound like some publicity for the University of Cambridge, but it’s been an incredibly exciting opportunity, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s had so many different aspects to it: I’ve taught two master classes, one last week for a couple of hours and one this morning, talking to mostly PhD students and MPhil students, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve talked a lot about my process and it’s hopefully been good for the students. It’s also been interesting for me to hear some of their thoughts and also to be thinking about what I’m doing in relation to this new project. Then the screenings here at the Picturehouse in Cambridge – I haven’t watched the films, as I said, but the Q&As have been interesting.
It’s just been really inspiring to be in Cambridge and meeting a lot of different people, obviously people interested in film but also interested in lots of different disciplines. I feel very settled in, I’m really enjoying it and I don’t really want to leave.

And it’s going to be very positive for my new film, it’s having an impact being here, I’ve been discovering things that actually connect with my story. So it’s a great thing to do before I make a new film.

MO’B: Has it been strange talking about your films? Have you learnt things yourself that you hadn’t realised about your films?

JH: I have a little bit… I just want to mention John David Rhodes who runs the Centre for Film and Screen here, it was fantastic that he invited me and he’s been a really wonderful host and I’ve had really interesting conversations with him and talking about my process has been interesting.

However, I’m a bit frustrated because I want to a make my next film and I worry the more I talk about my process that somehow all that will be left is me talking about my process and I won’t make any more films. It’s hard not to be a bit self conscious about it and it’s hard not to think, am I talking more about what I do than actually doing it.?”

But I do say, and I really mean this, being here I’ve had some really interesting conversations, and students, fellows, academics pointing out a book that I could read or a film that I haven’t seen, just all sorts of things that have been really inspiring… There have been some really valuable interactions which will positively feed into the new project.

Toby Miller: Going back to something earlier, I picked up on something you said, that you had seasons of very many male directors before you’d had the Akerman screenings. I was just curious as to whether you think there was a reason for that. There was a lot of fuss recently with the Criterion Collection and people realising what a tiny minority of female directors they had on their lists. Where there is a lot of criticism of how Hollywood works, or how movie studios work, in terms of male / female dominance, is that true with the way the critics have treated film history in that a lot of female directors – some, obviously Akerman and others have their place – but is it unfairly balanced?

JH: Definitely. I’m not congratulating ourselves on doing the Akerman season but in the UK a lot of people who are interested and knowledgeable about film were not aware of her huge body of work. So it is about increasing awareness. I can’t answer all the reasons why we chose certain films by male directors.

Our name A Nos Amour comes from the Maurice Pialat film of that name because that was the first film we screened. We then got very interested in Soviet cinema, there were and are female directors in Russia that we tried and failed to get a couple of films of. We got into a bit of a Tarkovsky groove, because we wanted to show MIRROR, STALKER, SOLARIS… One of the reasons we showed STALKER was because Geoff Dyer had written a book called ZONA about the film. This book had come out and no one in London or the UK were showing STALKER. Geoff brings out this book and no one’s showing it – Adam and I thought this is an obvious thing we should do. We had a sell-out screening at The Curzon Bloomsbury and that galvanised us for other events and they just happened to be male directors.

There are a lot of amazing films by women, and wanting to represent women filmmakers was one reason why we wanted to focus on Akerman for two years.

MO’B: Finally, where do you see A Nos Amour going? Are you thinking of more complete retrospectives or picking individual films?

JH: We just need a rest right now! Both of us have got films to make. A Nos Amours can eat up a lot of time, particularly for Adam who’s been shouldering a lot of the responsibility. It’s just important to have a pause – I think that’s a good thing – and then only show things that we’re really passionate about and where we’ve got a really good, interesting idea.

Girl on Girl: Reel Women, Taking Over The Cambridge Film Scene

This gives an excellent overview of the work done by local co-operative Reel Women. They represent what is so inspirational about a quiet revolution taking place in cinema exhibition: where people passionate about a greater diversity in film are coming together and introducing audiences to a rich and rewarding culture that can be so easily drowned out by the oppressive uniformity and over-simplicity of much in the mainstream sector. Their aim is not to sell you something, but to share and enthuse.

The dominance of the white, male, middle-class voice in cinema and elsewhere impoverishes us all, not least the white, male, middle-class audience. Mark Cousins calls cinema the ’empathy machine’. Just as women want to have their voices heard, to see their stories represented on the big screen, we men also want to hear those voices, to be enriched by a multiplicity of perspectives.

It’s been such a great pleasure to collaborate with the wonderful Reel Women on the Mania Akbari season mentioned in this article. If you are able to come to Cambridge on the 25-27 April, why not support their excellent work, and see some fantastic cinema at the same time!

Picture Post 16: Circus People

I love the way this this painting plays with a tension between harmony and separateness. The composition and the beautifully balanced range of blues draws you in. Even the starkly contrasting reds are balanced at either side of the painting. Yet the more you look at the individuals, the less part of a group they feel. Their expressions are fiercely independent and little seems to unites them. There seems to be no connection. Yet the painting brings them together in a warm unifying embrace.

Inside Michael Randall's Studio

MR 504 Circus people, oil on canvas, 1060x1370 1990s, unsized

MR 504 Circus People, oil on canvas, 1060 x 1370 1990s.

This large scale painting features a group of circus performers from Romania. Perhaps surprisingly, the inspiration was a small black and white photograph, the date is uncertain. The colour in Michael’s sketches for this work (see selection below) was established from the beginning.

View original post 35 more words

Mania Akbari and some special Cambridge screenings


Mania Akbari and Bijan Daneshmand in a still from 20 FINGERS

There is a scene in the film ONE.TWO.ONE which is so brilliant in its conception and execution that it takes my breath away. I wish that every film student would carefully examine its construction and try to understand how an apparently simple static camera shot can be so richly textured, so simple yet full of elegance and poetry.

Mark Cousins describes it in his essay which accompanies the Second Run DVD and which takes the form of a letter addressed to the Iranian director:-

The second scene in your film, the locked off shot in the bank…reminds me of Italian Renaisance art. As you know, in your scene we are in a waiting area in a bank. We’re staring at three chairs, behind which is an automatic door which opens and closes as people come and go. Your camera doesn’t move but the actors do, our eyes do, our minds do. People leave the seats and others come along. The woman on the left talks about alligators and snakes. The guy on the right thinks she’s a bit odd and makes phone calls. There are constant references to the spaces behind and beside and beyond the camera. Conversations and people slalom around each other and, as they do, they set up story points and characters that will recur. The scene is like a chess game…It most resembles a Christian triptych altarpiece. Your shot is divided rigorously in three. People look ahead, as they do in Catholic art, but they also sometimes glance at each other, engage for a moment, or gesture inwards, as in the tradition of the sacra conversazione. Your film is a sacra conversazione…: interaction within a formal grid. What a grid.

This scene is a masterclass in story-telling and scene development: where the off-screen action contributes to what’s on screen; where the eye is cleverly directed to different parts of the scene as it unfolds; where the narrative is constantly shifting in unexpected directions. It’s also funny, poignant, and absolutely riveting.

Mark Cousins compares the style to that of other directors who favour long takes and says:-

Shots of five or ten minutes are central to your filmmaking… As seconds turn to into minutes and then more minutes in the films of Jansco, Tarr and Feher, we start to feel dread, fear, power, as if a balloon is being blown bigger and bigger and will, at any moment, burst. I feel this tension in your films, …a sense that anything could happen at any moment, that good times are a respite, especially for women.

The director he is talking about is Mania Akbari.

On 25-27 April 2016, she is coming to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge to show three of her feature films: LIFE MAY BE (co-directed with Mark Cousins), 20 FINGERS, and ONE.TWO.ONE. This mini season is presented by community cinema Screen St Ives and film collective Reel Women.

Who is Mania Akbari?

She first came to prominence as the lead actress in Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece TEN. She subsequently became a highly regarded filmmaker, artist, and writer in her own right with her films being screened at festivals around the world and receiving numerous awards.

In a 2013 piece, when Mania had a major season of her work shown at the BFI Southbank, Tom Seymour said:-

Entirely self-taught, she has made five feature-length movies – each made in near secrecy, on tiny budgets – in 10 years, while also working as a photographer and painter.


During production of her … film, From Tehran to London (originally titled Women Do Not Have Breasts), members of her crew were arrested by Iranian authorities for supposedly filming without official permission. Scared she too might be imprisoned, Akbari fled Tehran for London. “I left the country of my birth with grief, fear and frustration,” she says in her native Farsi. “But I was alienated and isolated. I could not get permission to make my films, or to get my films seen. I still love Iran. I am still fascinated by it. It gave me my creativity. But I had to leave.”

Her beautifully crafted cinema is:-

…rivetingly human: pitiless, potent studies of domestic strife, and of the fight for happiness – and domination – in sexual relationships. Take off their headscarves and Akbari’s women could be social workers in Sheffield or hairdressers in south London, talking wearily about the struggle of working motherhood and love eroded by intimacy.

Her first feature, 20 FINGERS, is a fine demonstration of how her formalism of approach allows for a subtle yet powerful examination of the complexities of relationships. Mark Cousins writes:-

20 Fingers was a revelation. Some of its long takes were as complex as the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas.

Dorna Khazeni, writing in Bright Lights says:-

It is composed of seven vignettes, shot in video and transferred to film, in which the same two actors … represent seven different couples engaged in intimate conversation…For the most part, the frame is close and tight, and it is only the audio track, with its ambient noises of what lies outside the frame, that lets us see the greater world, the public context in which the couples’ private life is unraveling…


The film’s strong suit is its ability to turn the relationships inside out in the course of one parenthetical conversation. 20 Fingers presents its characters stripped bare of all their masks and defenses and in moments of extreme intimacy. The picture here is complex and worrisome, the struggle for dominance within a couple universal, the Iranian setting and characters notwithstanding. At the second screening, more than half of the twenty-odd questions were asked by non-Iranians who saw the film as relevant to their own experience of intimacy…


In each conversation, we watch the relationship head into uncharted waters. There is an innate reticence. It’s easier to just stay on the surface. But there is also a sense of danger that grows with each line of dialogue. Swirling somewhere inside the maelstrom of conflicting motivations and desires revealed by the dialogue, the question that hangs, as if it had been asked and the film were the answer to it, is “What is love?”

ONE.TWO.ONE. takes a more linear approach to its narrative while still retaining a carefully structured, stylised, and intimate approach. The film was included in Little White Lies’ “100 Great Movies By Female Directors“, where David Jenkins says:-

The sub-theme of female empowerment in that film [Abbas Kiarostami’s TEN] is carried over to Akbari’s own remarkable 2011 directorial project, One. Two. One., which charts the slow but steady reintegration of a woman back into society following an acid attack to her face. Playing out in a series of careful, doleful, conversational vignettes, Akbari refuses to make this a film which accepts women as second class citizens, instead placing the focus on femininity, beauty and body image.

Once again, the framing, camera movements, and use of space in the film are as important to the narrative as the excellent performances. In an interview with Josh Slater-Williams, Mania says:-

The architecture and mise-en-scène within a space is very important to me. When I’m creating my frame, I really want it so that when each frame is seen the audience can imagine the space surrounding it themselves. The way that I’m creating the mise-en-scène within each frame, I’m trying to, every second, break the theatrical boundaries that people are seeing. In my view, I actually feel that it’s more like performance art than a theatrical performance. It’s as if I create a space for every single character and they come and perform within that space and share something with their audience, and then they leave.

Her most recent feature, and the first to be shown in the Arts Picturehouse mini season, is LIFE MAY BE. This film marks a change for Mania because she co-directs with Mark Cousins. Andrew Pulver writes in the Guardian that:-

Life May Be is an enterprising double film, couched in the form of a series of video letters – the letter being another favourite Cousins device – between him and Iranian actor-director-artist Mania Akbari. Commissioned to write the sleeve notes for a DVD release of Akbari’s directorial debut 20 Fingers, Cousins’ contribution (in the form of a letter, unsurprisingly) triggered the dialogue between them…


You also get a clear sense of how Akbari works her life experiences into her creative work.

Interestingly, in an interview she gave to publicise the season (an audio extract of which can be found on the Bums on Seats radio programme site, while a full written transcript is available on the Take One site) she says:-

I noticed a giant leap forward when I started my film correspondences with Mark Cousins for LIFE MAY BE. When I was watched the film, I realised my voice has changed…Now I realise that I hear different things, and am curious to know what has changed in me. And then I realise that this is a voice which has found freedom of expression, but is sadder, is lonelier. It’s a voice which is carrying memories and dreams. These memories are not easy ones…

This film is a fascinating creative and philosophical dialogue between the filmmakers and for Mania, a poignant personal exploration of her experiences as a woman, both in Iran and here. Harriet Warman captures the essence of the film well in her review for Cine Vue:-

Akbari reveals her vast knowledge and precise narrative technique by making the combination of poetry, personal recollection, documentation and journalistic curiosity seem both effortless and deeply moving…


Both filmmakers therefore combine the personal and the political, demonstrating that each perspective is essential to the other in the work of an artist, and it’s the ways in which Akbari is inspired by Cousins’ enthusiasm and ideas that is so exciting in Life May Be. Having read Cousins’ pronouncement that she is to Iran what Virginia Woolf was to England, Akbari’s first pilgrimage to Woolf’s home proves to be the spark that ignites a much deeper personal reflection on her own body and representations generally, of the flesh – can Akbari, who was told her body was a “nuisance” all her life – discover the joy of unveiling that Cousins’ has, and what will this tell us about exposure generally, both physical, and as Life May Be attests, between two creative souls?

In his review of LIFE MAY BE in Take One, Jack Toye says:-

We transcend into the hearts and minds of two filmmakers representing their thoughts on love and the visible/invisible parts of the body, and become privy to an intimate correspondence between two greats of contemporary world cinema.

The same could be said of the three films being presented in the Arts Picturehouse season: they are an ‘intimate correspondence’ between themselves, over time, in different forms, a creative discourse which is playful, insightful, and beautifully expressed, and all created by a ‘great’ director of ‘contemporary world cinema’.

Don’t miss your chance to see these films on the big screen.

Stories, empathy and THE PEARL BUTTON [Patricio Guzman, 2015]


The poetry of Patrico Guzman’s latest cinematic essay – THE PEARL BUTTON – reminds me of Grant Gee’s superb film PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD), itself about W.G. Sebald’s book THE RINGS OF SATURN.

The film retraces a walk through Suffolk taken by the book’s author, and mirrors the discursive nature of the narrative in its own approach to the journey – a conscious use of digression, repetition, aural/visual layering, and the discovery of chance connections which find unexpected significance.

A different kind of wandering journey –  despite it’s apparent waywardness, a carefully planned one –  is described in another book, which I recently finished: THE FARAWAY NEARBY by Rebecca Solnit.  It’s a journey via tales: trying to understand and come to terms with the troubled relationship with her mother, Solnit explores stories and incidents, labyrinthine in their metaphorical interconnections, taking in subjects as disparate as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, leprosy, Antarctica, Napoleon, and decaying apricots.

The importance of stories has cropped up before in this blog; Solnit describes them as:-

…compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.

However, we must also be wary:-

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.

Grant Gee’s film, and the books by Sebald and Solnit, lead me back to THE PEARL BUTTON. Guzman’s beautiful language of film navigates its path via metaphorical connections that stimulate the intellect, touch our emotions, and unlock our imaginations.  It is the cinema of engagement, what Mark Cousins calls the ’empathy machine’.

As Solnit writes:-

Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones. You see someone get hurt…and you feel for them. You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it, often in terms of your own experience, until it becomes vivid to you. Or you work harder and study them to imagine the events you don’t witness, the suffering that is not on the surface. It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you—your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations—films, printed stories, secondhand accounts—you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though, one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

Guzman, with his gentle, soft-voiced narration (surely the Chilean equivalent of the mellow toned voice-overs of Mark Cousins), together with striking imagery and sound design, weaves together a cinematic poem that opens our minds to new stories and possibilities.

The central question of THE PEAL BUTTON (as in his other films) is how do we connect with our past and face up to what happens.  As light was the dominant metaphor in his previous film – NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT – so water is the central images of THE PEARL BUTTON.  The film begins with a tiny drop of 3,000 year old water trapped in a block of quarz, and then moves to the stars and atmosphere, and the seas and rivers around Chile.  Water holds secrets but also reveals the past – as when the drowned body of one of the disappeared from the Pinochet regime is discovered.  Water links other stories: the indigenous peoples whose lives were so bound up with the rivers and sea; the tale of Jemmy Button who was taken to Europe to be ‘civilised’; the horrors of the Pinochet era; and the personal loss of Guzman’s brother who was swept out to sea.

The accumulation of poetic associations is incredibly moving.  Hearing the almost lost spoken language of the indigenous peoples becomes as evocative and relevant as a Bach partita.  Loss and pain and joy become so close you can touch them.

At one point, a large thin map of Chile is rolled out on the floor.  The camera is only able to capture it as a whole from a high vantage point directly above.  Guzman remembers that he never saw a complete map of his country is school – it was so long it had to be split up into regions.  The film’s poetry helps to bring together some of the Chile’s historical and cultural fragments, to speculate on broad themes without reducing the complexity to a trite simplicity.  It offers a different narrative.

It asks us to think and feel, to expand our imaginations, and to find empathy.



The galleries echo with call and response, from war to war, place to place. The sounds recall last breaths and death rattles, slow exhalations. As much as distant wars, fallen armies and martial music, it is hard not to think of other musics, other times. It is impossible not to think of the soaring, melancholy sounds created by Miles Davis and Albert Ayler. A bass ophicleide from Munich recalls the slurs and growls of the trombonist Roswell Rudd.

Adrian Searle’s dramatic description of Susan Philipsz’s WAR DAMAGED MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS at the Tate Britain vividly expresses the profound effect this installation can have on the visitor.

Searle again:

Sounds are calling down the 86m-long Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, from 14 speakers mounted high on the walls. Otherwise, the space is empty.

You can’t predict which speaker will next come to life with plangent, mournful music. Each of the speakers plays fragments of the Last Post, performed on brass and woodwind instruments all mangled by war. Sometimes it’s a sharp bugle note, sometimes a sonorous gasp, sometimes a noise like wind in a drainpipe.

It was not the juxtaposition of sounds with damaged relics of war which initially so moved me and drew me back time after time, but the mournful quality of those sounds interacting with that vast space.  It seemed that they gave the space a strange enveloping physical presence that was a paradoxical weightless substance.

I could never stand still in that long, high domed gallery.  I had to walk around, hearing and feeling the sounds – mostly single notes; occasionally two notes blending in an unexpected harmony – as they were played from random speakers, points near and far.  The sounds both defined the space, filled it, and the space gave them life.

The backstory of the instruments creating the sounds enriches and intensifies the melancholy mood of the piece.  The notes become like ghostly visitations from the past.

Dr Linda Schädler conveys some of the effect of Philipsz’s work in her exhibition essay:

She is able to evoke a feeling for the past. It is a feeling of mourning for the lost ones triggered by a rearranged song composed in the eighteenth century and played with instruments that are historical remnants, or rather: indexical traces of the past. In Philipsz’ work, the sound clearly becomes an echo not only of a bygone age but also of the feelings of a past epoque… Without hearing words or explanations, the spectator is touched and moved by the sheer presence of the hesitant and vulnerable tones. Nevertheless, there is not only an audible frame of reference to the belligerent past. We can hear the tones in the here and now of the Duveen Galleries – a place with a tragic past too. The Duveen Galleries suffered severe damage during the Second World War, when a bomb hit the building and brought down the gallery roof in 1940.

Space is clearly a major inspiration for the artist as Rhiannon Starr explains:

As a child, Philipsz sang in a local Catholic choir with her sisters, and as a teenager she joined a militant-socialist African choir. However, Philipsz doesn’t read or write music, never having undertaken formal training. Instead, she studied sculpture at the University of Dundee and then at the University of Ulster in Belfast. ‘I was making sculptures that explored inner body space,’ Philipsz says. This fostered an interest in the physicality of singing, such as the way the diaphragm expels breath from the lungs. ‘I also began to think about the physicality of projecting my voice out into a space and filling that space with sound,’ she explains.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough.  Unfortunately it ends on 3 April, but if you are in the vicinity, make sure you catch it.

Here is a short video taken by a visitor:

Here is Philipsz talking about a very similar but smaller project:-

Further details about the exhibition are here.  It was commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.