Archive for the ‘empire’ Category

Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

I have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.

It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.

I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.

My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)

When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.

On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.

I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.

Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.

Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait 😉 inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…

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Sons and Daughters

ryan’s daughterTook my dear ol’ mum out for her birthday a couple of evenings ago to see David Lean’s film ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, screened in 70mm at BAFTA in Piccadilly. When I got to the ticket desk there was a good looking actress there whose birthday it also was. That was probably the first hint that my biorhythms were in fine fettle that day. The next clue was when we were handed two glasses of champagne as we walked in. It turned out that 25th March was also the birthday of David Lean – and this year is the centenary of his birth. So we walked in to a special reception with booze, nosh and some interesting faces dotted around the room. I should have made a better fist of pretending “I knew that” and having been so organised as to have arranged especially for fine champers, fancy fish cakes and famous faces. Among them were Peter Lean (David’s son) and Sarah Miles, Ryan’s Daughter herself.

Just before Sarah Miles arrived, I’d been unwittingly sitting beside one of her best friends and talking to my mum about how Ryan’s Daughter is my other half’s most loathed film. Why she gave me the middle name Diplomacy I’ll never know. I did a good one last year with Nicholas Hoult of Skins and About A Boy fame. I’d been reading the first scripts for Skins and was blown away by them. I was speaking at a 4Talent do for Raw Cuts at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road and Nick was also talking, being a real supporter of the NSPCC. “You’re shooting Skins down in Bristol aren’t you? Awesome script. Let me guess who you’re playing… Is it the nerdy one? [Sid]” “No.” “Ah, right, so it must be the devastatingly handsome one. [Tony]” Note to self: Never ask: are you Australian? (ask Are you a Kiwi?). Never ask: are you an American? (ask Are you Canadian?). Ask: are you the devastatingly handsome one?

Any way, she really does loathe the film. So did much of the audience and the critics at the time from what I understand. Lean didn’t make another film for 14 years in the wake of Ryan, so stung was he by its poor reception. If you look at it from an Irish point of view, it is on the dodgy side. The Irish in the movie range from a dribbling retard, to a black leather clad gun runner, to a priest with Republican sympathies and a bottle of Jamesons tucked away in his dirty black soutane, to a treacherous father with verbal diarrhea to a silly adulterous girl. But I think it was always the drooling John Mills that really irked her.

So I went in ready to enjoy in widescreen the scenery of the West Coast I love so much (as captured by Freddie Young) but to scoff at the story and characterisation. Producer [Absolute Beginners, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game] and boss of the National Film School Nik Powell introduced the film, followed by a nice anecdote from the lead actress highlighting the contradictoriness of Lean’s character (he told her off for throwing away a sliver of soap from his hotel room which had “a good three days left in it” and then bought her a Lamborghini a few weeks later). It must have been the weirdest experience for Sarah Miles watching her 29 year old self up in 70mm widescreen – she told me she’d never seen the film before except on video, she doesn’t like watching herself – at the age of 67. It was enough of a momento mori for the rest of us. Ryan was written by her late husband, Robert Bolt, who passed away in 1995. The film started with an overture of the musical soundtrack with the curtains still closed. At three hours thirty it had an intermission. So very much a blast from the cinematic past. The thing was I couldn’t help myself – shagging in the bluebell woods beside the burbling brook, rescuing rebel arms from the crashing waves, padding barefoot across the beaches of Dingle – I was suckered, I came out feeling I’d just watched something romantic and epic and Technicolor from a bygone age.

Lean was the prime-mover behind the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He gave half of his huge royalty shares on Bridge over the River Kwai and Dr Zhivago to help get the Academy up and running. (He didn’t bother including Lawrence of Arabia as the studio had told him it would never show a profit – dontcha just love creative accounting a la Hollywood.) So Lean was the first Chairman of the Academy and a life-long supporter, very keen on film retaining its “dignity” through proper screening in well equipped public auditoriums.

The cherry on the (birthday) cake – the birthday, BAFTA, biorhythm thing that seemed to be conjoining on the day – was that, unbeknownst to me (I found out the next morning) the nominees for this year’s BAFTA TV Craft Awards had been announced during the day and Big Art Mob was nominated in two of the three interactive categories, on top of its nomination the week before in the BAFTA TV Awards. It’s up against Dr Who, X Factor, Spooks, BBC iPlayer, Kate Modern and Bebo among others so pretty much a shoe-in 😉

Craft was very much Lean’s background having emerged into directing via editing. He cut for Powell & Pressburger during the war, as well as for Noel Coward on In Which We Serve. His first writing credit was for adapting Coward’s This Happy Breed which starred the marvelous Robert Newton under Lean’s direction (his solo directorial debut). There was nothing remotely televisual about Ryan’s Daughter. It was steeped in the craft and love of cinema. No better way to celebrate a birthday.

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

Two Sevens Clash

bob marley

Exodus: Movement of Jah people

1977
Bob Marley recorded Exodus in punk London (he referred to London as his “second home”). He took refuge in the city after having been hit by a bullet the previous year in a politically motivated assassination attempt. The record was released on 3rd June 1977.

1947
The ship Exodus 1947 sailed from the small port of Site near Marseilles on 11th July 1947. On board were 4,515 immigrants from post-war Europe, including 655 children. It was heading to British Mandate Palestine.

As soon as it left French territorial waters British destroyers shadowed it. In the wake of the Second World War, the British had severely restricted immigration to Palestine and eventually decided to stop illegal immigration by sending ships running the gauntlet of the British patrols back to their port of embarkation in Europe. The first ship to which this policy was applied was the Exodus 1947.

We know where we’re going
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our Father’s land

On 18th July 1947, nearing the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and illegally boarded it. Two immigrants and a member of the crew were killed defending the vessel, bludgeoned to death, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa and the immigrants were deported on prison ships back to France at the suggestion of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (better known for his role in establishing the NHS).

Men and people will fight you down

1977
The Exodus recording sessions, produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, took place in two west London studios: a converted Victorian laundry at the back of Island’s headquarters in St Peter’s Square, Chiswick, and the Basing Street studio, a former church in Notting Hill.

The nightly recording sessions were attended by a sizable rotating posse including the young members of Aswad and their manager, Mikey Dread (who I saw perform with The Clash at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town); Delroy Washington; and Lucky Gordon (of Profumo Scandal notoriety). Journalist Vivien Goldman remembers the sessions as being recorded “in a mood of exuberant creativity”.

1947
At Port-de-Bouc in southern France the Exodus passengers refused to disembark and remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heatwave – this despite a shortage of food, the overcrowding and dreadful sanitary conditions. The French government refused to co-operate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany. These people were mostly survivors of the concentration camps and Nazi German persecution.

So we gonna walk – all right! – through the roads of creation
We the generation
Trod through great tribulation

They were shipped to Hamburg, then forcibly disembarked and transported to two camps near the German port of Lubeck on the Baltic Sea.

World public opinion was outraged by the callousness of the British behaviour and the British were forced to change their policy. Illegal immigrants were no longer sent back to Europe, but instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.

Open your eyes and look within…
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?

The escorting British soldiers never returned to their units in Palestine. The ordeal had such an impact on them that a near mutiny erupted among them. The British army decided not to press charges and closed the matter quietly.

The events convinced the US government that the British mandate of Palestine was incapable of handling the issue of post-war Jewish refugees and that a United Nations-brokered solution needed to be found. The US government intensified pressure on the British government to return its mandate to the UN.

1977
Throughout the recording sessions, Bob continued writing songs – Exodus itself emerged quite late and, as Vivien Goldman recounts, “there was a fizzing excitement around that track from the moment it was first laid down.”

Many of the musicians were exiles. Beyond their Jamaican roots was the urge to return to Africa, a desire central to Rastafarian belief. Bob and the Twelve Tribes (a Rasta organisation to which he belonged) were actively exploring the possibilities of land made available by Haile Selassie in Shashamane, Ethiopia.

Goldman recalls: “When the night came to finish the Exodus track, the Basing Street studio was alive with excitement. From the start, the song had its own impetus … at four o’clock in the morning a moment hit when the whole room knew that this one was it.”

1947
Within a year, over half of the original Exodus 1947 passengers had made another attempt at emigrating to Palestine – most found themselves detained in camps in Cyprus. One witness describes the DP (Displaced Persons) Camps on Cyprus thus: “a hot hell of desert sand and wind blowing against tents and tin Nissen huts, a hell circumscribed by two walls of barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka”.

Eventually, after the events around May 1948, the majority of the Exodus exiles made it back to Israel.

Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!

2007

Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness

Kurtz

Senegal, West Africa – two years before the turn of the 20th Century. A French military expedition sets out from Dakar for Lake Chad in November 1898 with a view of unifying all French territories in the region. The mission involves 50 Senegalese infantrymen, 20 cavalry, 30 interpreters, 400 auxiliaries and 800 porters – well over a thousand men led by nine French officers.

In command was 32 year old Captain Paul Voulet and his adjutant Lieutenant Julien Chanoine. Voulet was the son of a doctor and Chanoine the son of a general and future Minister of War.

Their orders were on the vague side: to explore the territory between the river Niger and lake Chad, and put the area “under French protection”. The Minister of Colonies said: “I don’t pretend to be able to give you any instructions on which route to choose or how you are to behave towards the native chieftains”.

When the expedition reached Koulikoro on the Niger, it split in two. Chanoine led most of the column overland across the 600-mile meander of the river, while Voulet travelled downriver with the rest of the men to Timbuktu.

As Chanoine progressed overland he found it increasingly difficult to find provisions for his large column in the arid landscape so he started raiding the villages along the way. He ordered that anyone trying to escape was to be shot. Adding to these troubles, a dysentery epidemic broke out – by the end of the first two months the mission had lost 148 porters to the disease.

Voulet and Chanoine were reunited in January 1899 at Say, the easternmost post in French Sudan (now in Niger). The column by then was 2,000 men strong – far more than their supplies could sustain. The pillaging and killing grew to match.

On 8th January 1899 the village of Sansanné-Haoussa was sacked. 101 people were killed. 30 women and children were taken prisoner in retaliation for the wounding of two soldiers.

At the end of January the mission left the river Niger for the semi-desert territory to the East.

Around this time, one of the officers, Lieutenant Peteau, told Voulet that he had had enough and was leaving. Voulet dismissed him for “lack of discipline and enthusiasm.” Peteau wrote a letter to his fiancée detailing the atrocities that he had witnessed. His fiancée contacted her local Deputy, who sent her letter on to the Minister of Colonies, Antoine Guillain. On 20th April 1899 orders were issued from Paris to arrest Voulet and Chanoine and have them replaced by the governor of Timbuktu, Lieutenant-Colonel Klobb. (Of particular concern to the French government was that Voulet was operating in Sokoto, an unconquered territory which under the Anglo-French agreement of June 1898 had been assigned to Britain). Klobb immediately set out from Timbuktu with a force of 50 fifty men.

Back in Africa, Voulet was meeting considerable resistance from the local queen, Sarraounia. At Lougou on 16th April his column suffered its biggest set-back to date – a battle in which 4 men were killed and 6 wounded. Voulet took his revenge. On 8th May, in one of the worst massacres in French colonial history, Voulet-Chanoine slaughtered all the inhabitants of the village of Birni-N’Konni, killing hundreds of men, women and children.

Klobb followed the trail of destruction left by the mission – an infernal path of burned villages and charred corpses. Trees where women had been hanged. Cooking fires where children had been roasted. Severed heads on stakes. The remains of those expedition guides who had displeased Voulet – strung up alive in such a position that the feet went to the hyenas and the rest of the body to the vultures.

After a pursuit of over 2,000 kilometres, Klobb caught up with the Voulet-Chanoine expedition just beyond Damangara near Zinder (in present day Niger). On 14th July – French Independence Day – Klobb confronted Voulet at Dankori. In full dress uniform and with his Légion d’Honneur medal pinned to his chest, Klobb approached the renegade Voulet alone. Voulet kept telling him to go back and ordered two salvos to be fired in the air. When Klobb addressed Voulet’s men, reminding them of their duties, Voulet threatened them with a pistol and ordered them to open fire. Klobb fell, wounded, but still ordering his men not to return fire. This final order was cut short by a second burst of fire which killed him.

That evening Voulet informed his officers of the clash. He stripped off the decorations on his uniform and proclaimed: “Je ne suis plus français. Je suis un chef noir. Avec vous, je vais fonder un empire” [“I’m no longer French. I’m a black chief. With you, I shall found an empire.”]

The officers were less than enthusiastic. Their negative reaction spread to the troops. Two days later an informer told Voulet that the men were about to mutiny. Voulet and Chanoine assembled the troops. They shot the informer in front of them all for informing too late. Voulet harangued the soldiers about their duty to obey their leaders, at the same time shooting at them. The Senegalese returned fire, killing Chanoine, but Voulet escaped into the darkness.

The following morning Voulet tried to re-enter the camp, but was blocked by a sentry who refused to let him pass. Voulet shot at him but missed. The sentry returned fire and ended the story of the Voulet-Chanoine mission.

An enquiry initiated by the Ministry of Colonies back in the mother country closed in December 1902, concluding that Voulet and Chanoine had been driven mad by the dreadful heat of Africa.

[This story was first brought to my attention some years ago by my good friend Marcelino Truong in Paris.]

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