PRINT November 1977

Edinburgh: The Film Festival Remodeled

VENICE, IN 1936, WAS THE SITE of the first film festival, created by Benito Mussolini as a way to promote tourism. Mussolini’s child propagated quickly. Today, 41 years later, approximately 280 film festivals are held annually throughout the world. There is a saying among veteran festival-goers that the first thing a country does when it achieves independence is to establish an airline, the second thing, a film festival. Many festivals, including those at Venice and Cork, are financed by tourist boards. At its beginning then, Mussolini set the precedent for the film festival’s consumer orientation.

Added to tourism, and often eclipsing it, is the notion of the festival as a marketplace for exhibiting and distributing new work, to say nothing of securing future contracts and production money. Cannes is the largest market, with five separate festivals showing hundreds of new works held simultaneously for two weeks each May. Last fall festivals in London and Chicago each screened approximately 80 feature-length programs. The New York Film Festival, in contrast to these, offered surprisingly little, with 18 features and one program of three short films, all shown twice in the 17-day event. In all of them the showcase/marketplace atmosphere prevails, perpetuating the myth of the movies as spectacle or fantasy—and the glamour of celebrity appearances. This discourages any hard, critical, intellectual look at cinema—whether in regard to its history, its evolving forms and new directions, or its political, economic and artistic functions.

In fact, festivals such as New York, by coming in the fall, pick over film offerings from Cannes and Berlin and other larger festivals scheduled earlier in the year, preserving the myth of the movies by showing safer and safer films as time goes on. Instant spectator and reviewer approval then come at the expense of difficult work; controversial films of an avant-garde nature that take chances and are not designed for a mass audience are virtually eliminated. Hence the viewer remains the passive and uncritical consumer of prepackaged products.

An alternative to this Mussolini prototype can be found in the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which celebrated its 31st year from August 21st through September 3rd. Edinburgh’s goals are twofold; it is a showcase/marketplace for new commercial work and retrospectives of known, along with little-known or neglected, directors, but it also offers difficult independent and avant-garde work and serious intellectual considerations—emphasizing film as more than a mere entertainment, diversion and commodity. In its very early years Edinburgh held conferences on realism and neorealism. These were dropped for about 20 years, but then renewed and radicalized in the 1970s. In 1972 the Edinburgh Film Festival presented the “Women’s Event,” a three-day conference with screenings; in 1975, a week-long “Brecht Event”; the following year, two special programs—the first week, “Psychoanalysis and the Cinema,” stressing Lacanian ideas, and the second, an “International Forum on the Avant-Garde Film.” This year, taking cues from current French debates over history, a week-long conference was held on “History/Production/Memory,” consisting of panels and presentations of papers, followed by small working group discussions and related screenings. For the last two years an annual periodical called Edinburgh Magazine, devoted to the conference topics, has replaced earlier publications that since the late ’60s accompanied the retrospectives of auteurist directors.

In the festival’s two weeks of 94 film programs there were some 80 features, with the rest of the scheduled times given over to programs of shorter films. Besides the “History/Production/Memory” event, the publicized highlights were: a complete retrospective with seven features and five shorts by the West German Wim Wenders (known in the States for Kings of the Road); three films by Ula Stockl, a West German feminist whose work had never before been seen outside Germany; and a tribute to Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgian artist who died last year, with a 45-minute program of his films in conjunction with a show of Marcel Broodthaers Editions in an Edinburgh gallery. Three Marcel Ophuls documentaries were also shown, as Ophuls was a guest lecturer for the television festival, held during (but separate from) the film festival. And the “History” event itself included, among other material, a retrospective of six films by the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, and a number of 1930s British independent and documentary films. Some of the British films were made under the tutelage of the grand-père of British documentary, John Grierson; others, only recently rediscovered, were done by various leftist groups, such as the Progressive Film Institute under Ivor Montague, who had studied with Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union.

Outside of the “History” event a substantial number of documentaries was shown, ranging from the nuts-and-bolts informational, to agit-prop, “solidarity,” and analytical. However, none evidenced any particularly radical formal preoccupations, such as a work which has received considerable attention in and outside of Britain, and which had been shown at Edinburgh in 1975—The Night Cleaners, made by the Berwick Street Collective in London. As it happened, the most interesting of the documentaries did relate very well to the question of history—for example, an American work, Children of Labor, 1977, made by the CD Workshop in Boston. Its subject is the remarkable and, until now, virtually unknown history of the large socialist and communist Finnish-American working-class communities which settled in the United States in the late ’teens through the early 1930s. Their dreams and disillusionments, their goals and conflicts, are related through rare footage, stills, business promotional films and present-day interviews.

John Heartfield—Photomontagist, 1976, by the West German filmmaker Helmut Herbst, is about more than the German Dadaist Johann Herzfelde, who anglicized his name and made his art one with his political life. It also attempts to face up to “What Is to Be Done?” in terms of leftist art-making today, using Heartfield’s life and work as an example, illustrated by his anti-fascist photomontage work, his graphic processes, and rare footage from the Nazi period. This film was refused a predikat (a government subsidy through tax concessions and other benefits) on the grounds that its artistic value is reduced to “little more than propaganda-appeal.” It lacks (according to the German Federal Film Evaluation Board) “an artistically motivated sense of proportion,” causing it to be “distorted to far too great an extent by a preconceived ideological position in the events of the period.” Yet several festivals—including the Berlin International, Berlin’s Forum of Young Film, Oberhausen and Edinburgh—came out with a statement supporting the film. John Heartfield took a prize at Oberhausen, while its director, Herbst, won the German Film Writers Guild Prize for the best short film of 1976. While the film perhaps lionizes Heartfield, it does not romanticize him and is thus unusual as a film about an artist. Perhaps its greatest weakness is that it sometimes tends to collapse his art solely into its anti-fascist significations and the uses to which it has been put.

If John Heartfield—Photomontagist is an important film about an artist, Before Hindsight, 1977, is an important work for the analysis and research it brings to the problem of point of view in newsreels and documentary films. This British film, directed by Jonathan Lewis, analyzes questions of objectivity, truth in factual reporting and truth in the presentation of balanced views. It makes its carefully researched point through British newsreels and documentaries and rare leftist footage from the 1930s, combined with contemporary interviews with a number of men who were at that time employed in various parts of the film industry. Before Hindsight shows how the rise of Nazism and Fascism and the events leading to World War II were presented, supporting British isolationism by the “selection” of facts, with editorializing and self-censorship (Nazi violations of human rights were almost completely ignored on the British screen prior to Britain’s entrance into the war).

This year’s range of popular commercial entertainment work included fewer American films than in past Edinburgh festivals. The Canadian Outrageous, 1977, Richard Benner’s first film, is a well-done and often comic work on gay and drag life which is also a family romance in contemporary style. Exploitation-violence films such as the American Assault on Precinct 13, 1977, directed by John Carpenter, and the low-budget Martin, 1977, a modern version of the vampire tale, with an added twist of reflexivity, made by George Romero (director of the cult film Night of the Living Dead), appeared as well.

There was also a group of commercial films appealing to smaller audiences. Included were works by Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the Senegalese Ceddo, 1977, by Ousmane Sembene, several low-budget independent American works, such as Local Color, 1977, by Mark Rappaport, and Jon Jost’s just-completed Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Dead End) and his 1976 Angel City. Also shown was René Allio’s Moi, Petit Rivière . . ., the second French film in two years to be based on the documentation, collected by Michael Foucault in book form, on the 19th-century French peasant who murdered his mother, brother and sister and while in prison wrote down 50 pages of testimony about it. The film has been the subject of much debate in France, with Foucault and others, and was included in the “History” event.

The avant-garde showings also had much less American work this year, principally because less new and interesting work has been produced recently. A 1977 work by the Midwestern filmmaker James Benning, 11 X 14, was shown; it has already received screenings in museums and showcases in New York and across the country. And the already mentioned program of Broodthaers films was included. There was the disappointing Vera Baxter, 1976, by Marguerite Duras. On the other hand, there was the long-awaited Fortini/Cani, 1976, by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (who are perhaps best known in the U.S. for their Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach, 1968, and Moses and Aaron; 1975). Another eagerly awaited film was News from Home, 1977, by Chantal Akerman, the young Belgian director now working in France. However, after her 1975 Jeanne Dielman, with Delphine Seyrig, which caused a sensation in Paris but is still seldom shown in the States and remains legendary here, News from Home seems much less satisfying. The Belgian Pierre, 1976, directed by Jan Decorte (who appears as the son in Jeanne Dielman), is a most pleasant find with a clear debt to Akerman’s film. It’s Me by the Dutchman Franz Zwartjes is an intense, close-up chronicle of performance, obsession and narcissism. There were also two particularly interesting new British works, Malcolm Le Grice’s Blackbird Descending (Tense Alignment) and Riddles of the Sphinx by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen.

Malcolm Le Grice, one of the better-known members of the English avant-garde, is connected with the London Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and has been working for 10 years on abstraction in film and on multiple screen pieces (he also writes on film). In his most recent work Le Grice has been directing his attention to narrative. In Blackbird Descending (Tense Alignment) Le Grice constructs a piece of narrative; then, through a series of systematic maneuvers, analyzes it—repeating the scene from different angles and distances, through the points of view of different participants—for changes in space and time. After exhausting the rigor of these procedures, he moves into various traditional codes of shooting and editing the scene, in styles suggestive, for instance, of expressionism and romanticism, and then proceeds with the self-reflexive, emphasizing the materials of the film in negative and superimposition and revealing the camera and camera set-ups. In 110 minutes Blackbird Descending moves from the most external, detached and objective, to the most subjective and arbitrary modes of shooting and composing narrative. While an interesting and important didactic film in terms of its “work on representation,” Blackbird Descending is often academic and pedantic in its relentless and self-evident procedures.

The other English work at Edinburgh, while concerned with the critique of narrative and with systems of representation, seems to avoid the problems which arise from Blackbird Descending’s rather plodding procedures. Riddles of the Sphinx is Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s second film. Wollen is best known for his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, and Mulvey has also written on film. Their first film was Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, 1974; while an interesting theoretical film, it suffers from problems of academicism and pedantry that are not unrelated to the difficulties in the Le Grice work. The subject of both works is women’s issues.

Riddles uses the mythology and history of the Sphinx to explore the concept of motherhood. The Sphinx represents mystery, enigma, the unconscious mind, in contrast to Oedipus, who stands for the conscious mind, logic, order and the line of patriarchy. The film is divided into seven parts; its narrative, in the center and longest part, is filmed in 13 360-degree panning shots. This narrative treats the personal problems of a woman who, since her separation from her husband, must now work, and the political and personal problems involved with day care for her small child. The panning camera, sometimes shooting at a low angle, knee- or waist-high, tends to fragment the view, yet the fragmentation is curiously contradicted by the continuity of that very movement The camera distances one from involvement with the woman’s individual story, but at the same time draws one to the essentials—issues of motherhood and day care—while also presenting emotional and affective images and sensuous surfaces. The film thus takes up the politics of form and content, conscious of the tension of ambiguity and contradiction. Stylistically, one sometimes senses the influence of Yvonne Rainer on Riddles of the Sphinx.

Fortini/Cani also treats the politics of form and content, as do all of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. The film is austere but beautiful to look at; and as is always the case with Straub and Huillet’s works, extremely demanding, requiring many viewings. Straub claims it to be the first “cinematographic essay.” That seems a large and peculiar claim, as other films have used the essay form by way of direct address of speaker on- or off-screen, or else they have used certain kinds of documentation, such as the photograph, for photo-cine “essays.”

One is inclined, at least on one viewing, to see Fortini/Cani more as poetry than as essay. Straub bases the claims for the essay form on the address of poet Franco Fortini reading on- and off-screen from his own work. While the writing in question is autobiographical and political, the mellisonant quality of Fortini’s Italian (even though one may take in only the cadences of his speech pattern and have to read the English subtitles), in combination with certain images, often pushes one into the imaginary rather than the discursive. Yet the tensions in the film do always return one to political reflections. Fortini reads from his own texts on his anti-Israeli position in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, his anti-fascist stance, and his Italian-Jewish petit bourgeois childhood.

Jean Narboni speaks of Fortini/Cani as the third part of Straub-Huillet’s “Jewish Triptych,” preceded by An Introduction to an Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene by Arnold Schoenberg (1972) and Moses and Aaron (1975). He points out that in different ways they all deal with “fascism and racialism, or rather racialisms, segregations maintained by civilized societies, neo-fascism with an outward democratic cover . . .”1 The meaning of most of the images—the ways in which the long takes are composed and shot and their relationships to the Fortini text—only becomes evident after several viewings. Often Fortini is present delivering his text, filmed at different angles and distances. In a long silent section in the middle of the film a camera pans slowly over the Apouanian Alps; Straub has made a point of remarking, in a note on the film, that the Apouanian Alps were a “center of resistance and of the massacres of 1944.” Brechtian distance is rigorously maintained in Fortini/Cani, as it is in Straub and Huillet’s work in general.

In another way, and finally less radically but somewhat surprisingly, Ceddo, the Senegalese film by Ousmane Sembene, is also built on a formal distancing. One says “surprisingly” in light of Sembene’s earlier work, such as Mandabi. At first glance one may think of Straub-Huillet, but one is also reminded of the Hungarian Miklós Janscó, whose political allegories are totally choreographed both in terms of his performers and his camera moving in long takes, acting on and recording the scenes. They may, in fact, be influences on Sembene, but in the end the resemblances are only slight. Ceddo is an African word from the Pular language meaning “people from the outside.” The film is set in West Africa in the 17th century. Ceddo were various African peoples who refused to take up Islam or Christianity and held onto their own African religious practices. For their refusal many were killed or traded away as slaves in exchange for weapons as the slave trade increased hand-in-hand with religious and political colonization. The film centers on a Ceddo tribe, which, after much loss, finally defeats the Imam and his Islamic forces through the acts of its princess. There is much formality in the scenes; gestures are quite stylized, sometimes almost choreographed. The film concentrates on several subjects: the power play by the Imam and his small entourage; the king and his court converted to Islam; the Ceddo—who have kidnapped the princess to express their opposition to the King’s conversion of their tribe: and the powerless Catholic priest as observing witness on the side, with his one African convert silently teamed up with the only other white, the slave trader. Ceddo is distanced insofar as there is no individual involvement with the characters on screen; the players, their actions and speech are directed solely and with intensity toward the religious-political conflict. The narrative distancing is esthetically and formally enforced through the film’s architectonics, which stress horizontality and flatness. “How often does one see an anti-Islam film?” a friend remarked to me after the screening. And, it should be added, one with such formal and stylistic interest.

We have seen anti-American expressions on film before, but not quite like Perfumed Nightmare, 1976–77, a first film by Kidlat Tahimik of the Philippines. It chronicles the disillusionment with the American dream of a young Philippine taxi driver from a small village who has been reared on the “Voice of America,” and who is founder and self-appointed president of the Werner von Braun Fan Club. Tahimik himself plays the driver. The simplest actions and often broad humor are laced with irony. Perfumed Nightmare stands out quite markedly from the sophisticated and often elegant formal strategies of the works already described, yet, in common with the last three, there are overt political concerns. It is shot with a self-conscious naiveté: a sometimes shaky camera, a home-movie look, crude editing, the lack of sync sound, and Tahimik’s voice-over as jitney driver—all work to the advantage of the narrative of a young man who becomes disingenuous in order to go back home. Stylistically, one thinks, for instance, of certain of Jonas Mekas’s diaristic films, with their naive and at the same time cultivated look, or of what was referred to as the “Underground” in the United States in the early to middle 1960s (like Ron Rice’s Flower Thief, 1960, with Taylor Mead). Such are useful comparisons up to a point, but what is perhaps most interest-ing about the film is that one is actually hard pressed to judge it on its own merits. It is an anomaly: a first film coming from a country virtually without filmmaking (in fact Tahimik commented that there is only one Steen-beck editing table for the entire country); it is formally crude for both real and artificial stylistic reasons, so that the film’s form and content thrive on the ingenuous—but an ingenuousness possible only because it is self-conscious. Perhaps the only way actually to evaluate this film will be on the basis of Tahimik’s future works, for now one doesn’t know quite where to place it. Perfumed Nightmare won three prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and has been invited to a number of other European festivals. It will be interesting to see its reception in the States, if and when it arrives.

At the “History/Production/Memory” conference a paper was given, “Ideology of the Decline of the Cinema.” It was a curious presentation with a confusion of which its author, John Ellis, seemed unaware. According to Ellis, the general assumption that the cinema in 1977 is in decline is based on, and measured against, 1930s memoirs, statistics, and popular recollections of a kind of “golden age” Hollywood—the “Dream Factory.” But this nostalgic view presupposes cinema today to be a homogeneous institution, i.e. the same now as then. However, cinema is an institution with specific signifying practices which change over time. Instead of being in a state of decline, the cinema, according to Ellis, has a changed social place and is today a diverse field of practices, with Hollywood genres and realistic modes of representation—those more homogeneous aspects—now much more within the domain of television.

Apart from Ellis’s apparently only recent discovery of, and interest in, something other than mass entertainment and Hollywood film, a confusion exists in his argument insofar as he merges categorically different issues. As a business and industry—and partly because of television—cinema has suffered a decline, but this decline is economic and with it go the auras of a “golden age.” However, that cinema has changed or that Ellis now sees marked diversity in its practices doesn’t deny the fact of economic decline. These two issues, both different and important, bring one back full circle to film festivals and to Edinburgh in particular.

Hollywood 1935. The cinema was only 40. Avant-garde practices in France, Germany, the U.S. and the USSR in the 1920s had already begun questioning homogeneity, yet of course as one looks back there are the stars, glamour, spectacle, simple story lines to fulfill all fantasy, in a word, popular entertainment dominating most recollections of the cinema. Venice 1936. It was only logical that Mussolini cash in with his fascist film industry on what could be well packaged and consumed in the form of the film festival as he conceived of it. But now cinema is over 80 and oppositional, alternative practices to the mainstream are more and more present. Edinburgh is unique among festivals in responding to the changes by focusing on theory as well as practice, asking questions about the roles of critic and audience, investigating various forms of film and new theories and methodologies to throw light on recent as well as older film. In its history concentration, this year’s event set out to examine three areas. The first is history in cinema, the actual uses to which history is put in newsreels and documentary as well as in dramatic re-creations for the popular memory. The second is cinema in history, that is, the way in which cinema has influenced events within the larger scope of culture and society. Last is history of the cinema, which refers to the writing of historical accounts about the cinema. It was stressed that cinema is something other than a series of memoirs and empirical givens in a chain of causal events to be revealed from the past; as one speaker put it, “the past does not equal history,” but history is a “discourse about the past,” “a present operation on the past.” As the conference suggested, these “discourses” and “operations” must closely examine modes of representation and how ideology functions in shaping representations, looking at film from past and present which takes on the problematic by dealing with conflicts and crises of representation. By rediscovering work which has been pushed aside and forgotten, and by reexamining other bodies of film in new ways, cinematic history will be rewritten to be read over time in its heterogeneity of articulations. There were finally no answers, although many many questions were posed.

Increasingly, Edinburgh is gaining a reputation as a festival where there gathers a community that loves film and at the same time cares deeply about actively engaging in intellectual dialogue about it. If one responds to the claim that cinema is not a homogeneous field composed solely of codes of transparent representations designed to lose the viewer in fantasy and escape in a popular art of the simplest and broadest common denominator, but that it is instead a “diverse field of practices” ranging from mass-appeal work to film for small and varied audiences with intellectual and radical artistic concerns—then one must ask why there are not other critically and intellectually engaging film festivals, such as Edinburgh, which combine theory and practice and refuse to operate on the nostalgia of Hollywood and the 1930s. When will we have one in the United States? The need is clearly present. When in this country will film be taken seriously as an art on a level with painting or sculpture rather than as a mere diversion, a side show off the main tent?

Regina Cornwell writes film criticism and teaches film in New York.



1. Jean Narboni, “There,” Cahiers du Cinema, No. 275, appearing in translation in Edinburgh Magazine ’77, p. 33.