Films From...

Fantastic films from all corners of the globe.

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Back In The USSR

On December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was officially born, and from the beginning it was agreed that cinema's mass appeal made it the ideal tool for spreading communist ideology across the union's eight million square mile.

Director, Dziga Vertov's experimental documentary, Man With A Movie Camera (1929) is still famous for the range of techniques it invented. His newsreel series Kino-Pravda also laid the foundation for socialist realism, a theory which linked a realistic style with the ideals of communism. This soon came to be the dominant style of Soviet cinema and, in 1932, was even enshrined in law.

The early years of the Soviet Union also spawned another of cinema's great pioneers, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein made his name glorifying the revolution with films like the fantastically inventive Battleship Potemkin (1925) and 1928's rousing October, and his montage technique cutting together short scenes or images to create meaning - is still fundamental to the language of film.

But government interference could also be a check on the creativity of filmmakers and films which didn't parrot the state's message were either censored or refused release outright. After Stalin's death in 1953, this censorship was relaxed slightly allowing for the release of two great films exploring the horrors of WWII, Grigory Chukhari's Ballad Of A Soldier (1959) and Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (1957), which won the Golden Palm at Cannes.

Kalatozov also capitalised on the opportunity provided by communism's global expansion to make the 1964 film I Am Cuba celebrating the Cuban revolution. Unsuccessful on release, I Am Cuba was rescued from oblivion by the praise of noted American directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and is now considered a landmark in cinema history.

By the sixties, the grip of socialist realism had loosened enough to include the beautiful and often surreal work of Tarkovsky. His 1965 film Andrei Rublev was finally allowed a release after heavy editing in 1971 and in 1972 he went on to make >Solaris, the Soviet's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, his autobiographical film The Mirror, in 1975, and the dream-like sci-fi Stalker (1979), before leaving the USSR for good in 1982.

This period also produced some wildly inventive children's films, including Treasure Island (1970) Aladdin's Magic Lamp (1966) and Jack Frost (1964). Combining stories from around the world with a sensibility that's peculiarly Soviet, these films remain an exotic treat for young viewers, several decades after they were made.

Black British Cinema

The growth of Black British cinema took place at a time when traditional ideas about class and politics in the UK were being fiercely challenged and debated and the way people thought about black Britons' identity was changing. This meant that many black British films told very different stories in which the characters stood for different ideas about what being British meant.

Pressure the 1976 film by the Trinidadian director Horace Ove is widely credited with being UK cinema's first real look at the Black British experience. The film boldly deals with issues such as police brutality and institutional racism and provides an insight into the problems faced by Tony, a Black British school leaver. Now seen as a classic, when it was first released the the film was judged to be too critical of the police in its dealings with the black community - and was effectively put in storage for 2 years as a result.

Burning An Illusion by Menelik Shabazz also provides a nuanced and powerful portrayal of a young black woman named Pat rediscovering her identity in South London in the 1980s. By having Pat as its main character, the film brilliantly shows how her anger at the racist treatment of her boyfriend causes her to become more politically aware of the "institutional racism" prevalent in 1980s London.

Horace Ove's 1987 film Playing Away uses the game of cricket and shows how it can serve as both a racial flashpoint and source of conflict with sometime farcical consequences. The film highlights the inevitable culture clash that takes place when the residents of a small, affluent, picturesque village in Suffolk invite a West Indian cricket team to participate in a match in order to highlight the village's ''Third World Week."

The documentary film-maker Saul Dibb draws some fine performances from a predominantly young black cast in Bullet Boy. It's a cautionary tale of two young brothers living in London and the film turned out to be a platform for Ashley Walters from the hip-hop/grime combo So Solid Crew, who would subsequently go on to have a diverse acting career in mainstream and independent cinema. Bullet Boy expertly shows the claustrophobic world that is so common in many of Britain's inner cities while also exploring themes of revenge, friendship and loyalty.

A Way of Life by film-maker Amma Asante is the most recent addition to the list of Black British cinema and unlike it's mostly male directed predecessors, it has a very different feel as it examines the psychological effects of racism on young people who feel trapped by their surroundings. It's a poignant tale of a young white teenage mother who becomes mixed up in the hostile, openly racist surroundings of a broken community in South Wales. It provides a powerful argument about the way racism feeds into society highlighting the lack of opportunities many young people have while trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

Iceland

There's a new movie out in cinemas this week that comes out of one of Europe's smallest but most creative movie industries. It's a thriller called Jar City (15) and it takes place in the country of Iceland, the home of its director Baltasar Kormakur. Set in the capital city of Reykjavik, it's a movie that's suitable only for our older FILMCLUB members, but it's also a darkly entertaining one  and one that for many people could double as an introduction to the country where it was made.

Located just 500 miles north of Scotland but often looking like another planet completely from the UK, it's a place of geysers, glaciers, snow and volcanic ash  and one that is famous for having produced the ancient stories of the "Icelandic sagas".

So it's probably not surprising that one of the movies to come out of the country lately is another ancient tale  Beowulf and Grendl, a spectacular re-telling of the historical legend in which Iceland's incredible landscape plays a starring role.

But in recent years, Iceland has also been recognised as a modern European country. So for a more up-to-date portrait, you can check out Cold Fever, a charming "road trip" in which a Japanese businessman travels across the country to perform a family ceremony  or Noi Albinoi, a drama about a teenage outsider who lives in the west of the country in the shadow of a huge glacier (a mountainous mass of ice and snow).

And Iceland has also become famous in the last few years for the great musicians that have come out of the country. Indeed, two of the best have also been involved in movies. In the controversial Dancer in the Dark, for instance, singer Bjork stars as a good-hearted woman in a small American town in the 1960s who suffers a terrible injustice.

Meanwhile, the acclaimed Icelandic band Sigur Ros are the stars of Heima, a documentary about a tour of venues in their home country. But they and their music do share the screen with another amazing presence  the jaw-dropping scenery of Iceland itself.

Central Africa

Abouna

Entrenched in devastating recent wars, the time to think about making films - let alone the means - has been out of reach for most citizens in Central African nations. Their creative abilities have more often been channeled into music – and recent documentary release Benda Bilili! traces the story of one of its most popular bands, the rumba and blues-inspired Staff Benda Bilili.

Shot over five years by French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye and brimming with energy and life, the film follows the band from their roots playing among the homeless in the most dilapidated parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, to global recognition touring music festivals. The group’s success is all the more inspiring given four of the seven of its members, who had struggled just to survive living in cardboard boxes on their city’s streets, are paraplegic.


While the band’s name loosely translates as “look beyond appearances”, just seeing them perform is thrilling. One despite his disability is an amazing break-dancer, while former street kid Roger extracts soulful sounds from an instrument home-made from just an empty tin. Another imaginative solution to obstacles sees them rehearsing in Kinshasa Zoo – the only quiet place they can find to practise their powerful songs about overcoming life’s trials.


One film director from the region who has made it is the acclaimed Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, who’s now based in France but is from Chad, and still shoots his movies there. His melancholic 2002 film Abouna, stunningly set against Chad’s sun-dappled landscape, is about brothers Moussa and Aguid, who wake one morning to find that their father has walked out on the family. After they start misbehaving, their despairing mother packs them off to a strict Koranic school, where they plot their escape – until the eldest falls for deaf girl Khalil.


Haroun’s latest drama A Screaming Man, scheduled for release in May 2011, also deals with family tension and a sense of loss. Set against the backdrop of civil war, it focuses on an ageing former swimming champion, Adam, who works as a pool attendant at a fancy hotel. When new owners take over he’s forced to give up this job - a humiliation only made worse when he finds his own son Abdel has replaced him.


Central African films may be few – but the emotional power of these suggest it’s a region for movie-lovers to keep a keen watch on.

American Coming of Age Movies

No one does coming of age quite like Hollywood. Proms, graduation, cheerleading, football rallies these all-American rites of passage might be miles away from our everyday experience but they are brought to life time and again onscreen.

The best ones are timeless like 70s classic The Last Picture Show, an age-old tale of two best friends who fall for the same high school sweetheart creating a snapshot in American history, whilst capturing the universal agonies and ecstasies of approaching adulthood.

New to FILMCLUB, fascinating documentary American Teen holds a mirror up to familiar high school movie types the jock, the geek, the outsider, the popular girl and sees how the real class of 2009 measure up. They bear an uncanny resemblance, begging the question how far are these teens playing the roles they see acted out in their favourite films? Two other great movies with a quirky spin on the high school experience are the hilarious Rushmore whose hero Max, a child prodigy and serial troublemaker, simply refuses to be pigeon-holed and Donnie Darko, another cult classic which incorporates time travel, apocalypse and gigantic rabbits into the teenage realm.

But how about the slightly trickier territory of negotiating the real world when the high school bubble finally bursts? In the funny, offbeat Ghost World two high-school graduates (including a young Scarlett Johanssen) find they've outgrown the withering sarcasm which worked so well on their classmates. Another left-field look at coming of age is brilliant new release Wendy and Lucy. The hugely talented Michelle Williams stars as Wendy, a young woman living hand to mouth as she travels from her home in Indiana to find work on a fishery in Alaska. By casting a sympathetic eye on the harsh realities facing the nation's youth, the film stares the outdated myth of the American dream square in the face.

Sometimes returning home proves as problematic as leaving it, as we see in another new release Rachel Getting Married. Ann Hathaway plays Kym, a recovering addict, who comes home for her sister's wedding to finds the family tensions of her teenage years still bubbling close to the surface. It offers a comi-tragic look at strife between the generations, like 1960s touchstone The Graduate. Starring a young Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, who moves back home after college and gets seduced by a friend of his parents', the film's tagline ran: 'This is Benjamin. He's a little confused about his future'. Coming of age may be confusing, but it's endlessly watchable.

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