In search of a theme

23rd November 1995 at 00:00
Robin Buss encounters tales of despair at an overambitious London Film Festival. The 39th London Film Festival followed the pattern of recent years. As well as the screening of some 200 new features from around the world, there were programmes of shorts, revivals of silent movies (including Nosferatu, at the Royal Festival Hall, with orchestral accompaniment) and discussions with leading figures from the world of cinema, including Sir John Mills and Pedro Almodovar.

Some of these were undoubtedly "events", but the festival itself wasn't: it has become too massive and eclectic. In an attempt to attract wider audiences, films were screened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Mall and in Leicester Square, as well as at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank. But different kinds of film went to different venues, giving the appearance of rival festivals.

The NFT, in the main, has kept the art-house and Third World movies (with the neighbouring Museum of the Moving Image showing archive films and programmes of shorts); the ICA hosts the avant garde; and major new American and European movies go to the Film on the Square. Since these Leicester Square films are destined for release (Mathieu Kossovitz's La Haine was in the cinemas before the festival ended), this is the high-profile end of the festival, pulling in the crowds. The festival now belongs to these viewers rather than the movie buffs. NFT members no longer even get a festival programme.

If strands or themes do emerge, it is by accident. I talked to Claude Lelouch, whose new film Les Miserables is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, but a story set mainly during the German occupation, which stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a modern counterpart of Hugo's Jean Valjean.

The film's theme is that there is good and bad in all of us, but Lelouch considers the average Frenchman's behaviour during the war "pretty rotten" - his father was Jewish, and the family's narrow escape from the fascist militia forms the basis of one episode in the film.

Fifty years after the end of the war, we have La Haine. Mathieu Kossovitz's film, made in black and white, describes the aftermath of a riot on a suburban housing estate. A rioter has been hurt and a policeman's gun has gone missing. It turns up in the hands of Vinz, a Jewish youth who hangs around with two friends of the injured rioter, a black and a North African. Vinz vows that if their friend dies, he will kill a policeman in revenge.

Even among themselves, the three engage in an almost unrelieved stream of insult and invective, packing their frustrations and aggression into every word they speak.

The subtitles, unfortunately, resort to an American slang which conveys none of the feel of the original and ignores references to Le Pen and other specifically French realities.

The language is not that of GCE A-level French; students will find this far more valuable as an insight into community relations in France, and the film is already an historical document, having caused disturbances when it was first shown. Its analysis of France as a society heading for unavoidable disaster may not be accurate - one hopes it is not - but it is an important statement on some of the country's current problems.

From across the Atlantic, Spike Lee's Clockers (which goes on release in February), is a comparable view from "the projects" - housing estates set up in the 1960s for Afro-Americans as they moved from the ghettoes to the suburbs. That was the theory: far too many have stayed on the launching pad of the projects where, according to Lee's film, black drug barons are the main providers of work.

At his press conference after the festival screening, Lee answered those who criticised him for not providing enough positive black role models. "I provide jobs I You have to be blind not to marvel at the cinematography of this movie - but what studio's going to give a 27-year-old black man (cameraman Malik Sayeed) a chance to film a movie like this?" The paradox of Lee's work is that it depicts a black community in despair, while itself standing as evidence of the growing power of black film-makers in America. "Every film I've wanted to make, I've made," Lee said. "And I've had final cut, too."

The ending of Clockers is upbeat, that of La Haine resolutely pessimistic - which is not to say they give an accurate measure of social and race relations in their societies.

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