” Film would be so much healthier with more voices, different stories” – There was a time when it was…

Speaking to Miranda Sawyer (The Observer, June 2020), Simon Pegg said, 

“The film industry would be such a healthier, more interesting place if there were more voices, different stories, different experiences. It’s so dominated by one particular voice and colour of face, it just perpetuates a bland mono-voiced cultural landscape.”

Incredibly,  almost fifty years have passed since Mamoun Hassan was appointed Head of Production at the British Film Institute. His agenda was to kick start exactly what Simon Pegg is still talking about now. He wanted to revitalise the pale and stale world of British film by introducing fresh untutored voices, mavericks, outsiders and stories of marginalised groups. Whether these films succeeded or failed at the time,  this period is worth revisiting.  A glance at the list of productions he helped bring to fruition during his tenure in national film production roles (1971 – 1984) reveals a moment in British film history when diverse voices and stories had a champion who didn’t believe in the status quo.

 Mamoun says

“What defined this whole period was the availability of government money combined with a drive to give a voice to filmmakers who had something different to say. Following the Hollywood hegemony was out. It had to be a good script. It wasn’t about ‘positive discrimination’. Black, brown or white, the idea had to be real and engaging with a true voice.”

 Instead of a ‘cool’ metropolitan London view of the UK, these films were set in vastly different locations –  from a mining village in Scotland to multiracial urban Walsall, from Civil War Surrey to 80’s sectarian Liverpool, from rural Suffolk and  Norfolk to inner-city Brixton and a Scottish New Town. Many of these were from inexperienced writers whom Mamoun encouraged to become first-time directors, because theirs were the voices that needed to guide the action. 

Head of Production British Film Institute

Bill Douglas’s Childhood Trilogy (Bill Douglas, 1972)
The French critics in
Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation considered the Childhood Trilogy as an important and original expression of cinema, contending that Bill was in the Pantheon of great British directors. Childhood and adolescence of a child born out of wedlock in a mining town in Scotland and later during national Service in Egypt.

Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow, 1975)
An evocation of the period following the Civil War in 17th century England and the emergence of one of the first Socialist thinkers who led the attempt by The Diggers to live as a free society. A movement sadly crushed by Cromwell. Directed by future Oscar winner, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo.

A Private Enterprise (Peter Kingsgate Smith, 1974)
An Indian immigrant trying to come to terms with English and also other Indians who try to integrate and also stay apart. The first film about the community from the Indian Subcontinent, Directed by twice Bafta nominated Peter K Smith and written with Dilip Hiro.

Requiem for a Village (David Gladwell, 1975).
Inspired by Akenfield by Ronald Blythe. A village community confronting a new age and haunted by previous generations and older ways. directed by David Gladwell, the editor of Lindsay Andersons’ if….

Moon over the Alley (Joseph Despins, 1975)
An unclassifiable musical film. Set in a Notting Hill house, threatened with compulsory purchase and its diverse residents: A german landlady, Jamaican family and an american youth. An Irishman struggles with holding down two jobs while dealing with his girlfriend working at a stripclub – all linked by two down and outs. The musical numbers came from Galt MacDermot who later composed the score for Hair in 1979.

Children (Terence Davies, 1976)
The first film from arguably Britain’s finest auteur – about a young gay boy in working class Liverpool, coming terms with prejudice and exclusion.

Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
A young Black Youth navigating 70’s London, belonging to neither black or white communities. The violence is not overt. Racism is expressed through exclusion in every aspect in society from school to employment. First feature by artist Horace Ove.

Managing Director, National Film Finance Corporation (1980 – 84)

Babylon. (Franco Rosso, 1980)
Racism, Reggae and the clash of cultural exclusion. ‘Can’t take no more of this’, as the song says. An explosive film that resonates even today. Directed by Franco Rosso, an Italian immigrant, written by Martin Stellman (a writer on Quadrophenia) starring an amazing generation of Black actors. Released 40 years ago. Played in 56 cinemas in the US 2019 on general release.

 Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth, 1981)
The script of this the brightest, most loved British film of the last 50 years was turned down everywhere before it was taken up by the NFFC and Scottish Television. Now a British comedy classic, it has provided the highest return on investment of any British film, with all profits returned to the UK.

Memoirs of a Survivor. (David Gladwell, 1981)
The first adaptation of Doris Lessing’s science fiction novel, adapted by prolific screenwriter Kerry Crabbe. An almost surreal film set in a broken British society, starring Julie Christie. 

When the Wind Blows. (Jimmy Murakami, 1986)
The animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ classic nuclear warning graphic novel, with music by David Bowie.

  The interview piece with Simon Pegg by Miranda Sawyer in the Guardian Observer can – and should be read here.

A conversation with Simon, who clearly shares a passion for the history of cinema would inspiring.

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Babylon Britain 1980/2020

Black Lives Matter 2020

The convulsions following the murder of George Floyd are a shock to America and to other countries world wide but the causes of this rage and anger are familiar and well known. Racism exists everywhere but its manifestation in the US is particularly vicious and deep-rooted in all sections of that society. The situation in the UK is not as encompassing, although some politicians and leaders feel no embarrassment or inhibition in expressing their violent prejudices and ignorance.

Babylon, Dir. Franco Rosso, UK, 1980

Forty years ago a group of filmmakers shared the experiences of mostly young black men in South London in the film Babylon. Babylon was the first film I backed as Managing Director of the National Finance Film Corporation. (In a previous role as  head of production at the British Film Institute I had backed two films on black life in the UK : Pressure  and Moon over the Alley)

US Cinema Release

Babylon was invited to the Cannes Film Festival and enthusiastically reviewed by all major British critics. It was also invited to the New York Film Festival, but then the invitation was withdrawn because of the fear that it might exacerbate racial tensions. However, it was released in 2019 in the US to amazing reviews in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the LA Times, Rolling Stone Magazine and elsewhere, treating it as though it were a current, not an archival, movie.
References
Movie Masterclass blog:
Press
The edited montage above is part of a series I have commissioned Sherief Hassan and Anies Hassan to produce. The aim is to produce a pictorial CV of films that I have been involved with as Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Editor, Teacher and Film Executive. The Babylon sequence was edited by Anies Hassan.

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‘La Strada’ and the neo-realism movement – a post-screening discussion at BFI Southbank Jan 2020

We are pleased to present Mamoun Hassan’s discussion following the 2020 London screening of Federico Fellini’s La Strada, (Italy, 1954). In his conversation with David Somerset of the BFI, Mamoun provides an insight into the national cinema known as Italian neorealism – a movement characterised by stories set amongst the hardships of post-war Italian society. Touching on questions around whether a film can be real, or is always artificial, Mamoun refers to the work of several other neorealist film-makers: Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini – Screenwriter, and Gillo Pontecorvo.

He also touches on their influence on the British ‘neorealists’ of the Free Cinema movement:  Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson.

An audience Q&A follows.

The film was shown at the British Film Institute BFI Southbank in January 2020. It was voted by the Director’s poll of 2012 as one of the greatest movies of all time. The edit is interspersed with some great clips of the master’s work – enjoy!

 

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Introduction to La Strada at the BFI Southbank

We are pleased to share the edited introduction to La Strada that Mamoun gave on the 6th January this year, which ended up being an introduction to Neorealist cinema past and present.

Erratum. Rome Open City was of course made in 1945 not 1948 as Mamoun said. Too many films, directors, dates…..

We intend on sharing edited highlights of the Q&A session that was held after the showing of La Strada which focussed more on the film itself.

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La Strada + Intro and Q&A with Mamoun at the BFI Southbank – 6th January 2020

Giulietta Masina in Fellini's La Strada

Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada

Mamoun kicks off the new year with a matinee of Fellini’s masterpiece La Strada as the first Seniors’ screening of the year.

We are planning to film the Q&A to make it available on this site after the event.

This is a Seniors’ paid Matinee, and tickets can be booked here.

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Araña at Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals

” Chile, the early 1970s. A violent far-right nationalist group is looking to overthrow Allende’s government. Amid the fervour of crime and conspiracy, group members Inés, her husband Justo and their best friend Gerardo pull off a political crime that changes the course of history. The shadow of betrayal kept them apart for 40 years until Gerardo decides to jumpstart the nationalist cause of his youth.

Now, Inés is powerful businesswoman with a reputation to protect. As the police monitor Gerardo and his growing home arsenal, she will do whatever it takes to keep him from revealing her dangerous political and sexual past.”

The scenario of Andres Wood’s latest film  ‘Araña’ (Spider) for 20th Century Fox Chile.

It’s our third collaboration (Machuca 2004, The Good Life, 2008) and this time, Andres asked me to be Creative Consultant. The premier international screening of Araña is at the Toronto festival (TIFF) on 6 September and its European premiere at the the San Sebastian festival on 24 September. Sorry I cannot be there to see it but I wish Andres all the best of luck for for the film in the “Latin Horizons’ competition.

Mamoun Hassan

Read more on the Variety website: https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/san-sebastian-horizontes-latinos-the-moneychanger-spider-chicuarotes-1203293556/Ines and JustoGerado at homeInes the beauty queen

Ines and Justo kiss

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Babylon screens at the BFI – An introduction

Following Mamoun’s introduction to Babylon in Calgary, he was invited to introduce it again at the BFI Southbank in London this July, as part of a coordinated series of events linked to ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now’ at Somerset House in London, which also included an event at the Jazz Cafe featuring a musical reworking of music from the film by members of the original cast/band. Mamoun was initially reluctant to revisit the film so soon, but chose, instead, to change his normal rule of not quoting or directly commenting on the impact of a film, as his own revisit to Babylon had been so powerful. We urge you to make your own voyage of discovery.

Filmed by Sherief Hassan
Edited by Sherief Hassan

Babylon can be purchased on Amazon in the UK here,  and on Amazon international/US here. Anyone wanting to own a restored Blu-ray copy, should follow the International/US link.

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Babylon Premieres in Calgary – with an introduction from Mamoun Hassan

During a visit to family in Alberta, Canada, Mamoun’s elder son, Sherief, in England sent the barely credible news that Babylon was to be screened in Calgary as part of the Riddim West reggae festival. The last and only time the film had been shown in Canada was at the Toronto Film Festival in 1980. Anies, Mamoun’s younger son, contacted the reggae festival’s organiser, Leo Cripps, and mentioned Mamoun’s connection with Babylon.  Leo graciously invited Mamoun to introduce the film.

Filmed by Anies Hassan and Eric Giesbrecht
Edited by Anies Hassan

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Babylon at 40 – Restored and Reborn in the USA

A brand new forty year-old British film, Franco Rosso’s Babylon, has been released in the USA to startling reviews. The film’s subject is black youths in south London, fun and fight jostle – its theme racism, its attitude defiant, its voice Reggae. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, and received very good notices back home. It played well, but some exhibitors feared its reception might be too exuberant – and demurred. The film’s importance was underlined when Lord Scarman, who led an inquiry into the Brixton Riots of 1981 which took place in the very streets seen in the film, asked specifically to see Babylon. Its authenticity and veracity made it a historical document. It was initially invited to the 1980 New York Film Festival but then was quickly banned for fear it would exacerbate racial tension. A very good film is always new, but what adds relevance to Babylon in 2019 is the furore around Green Book and BlacKkKlansman. The embers of resentment have been rekindled about who owns the stories of black life.

The history of the making of Babylon may add another dimension. It was mainly financed by public money, by the UK’s National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). In January 1979, I had just been appointed managing director. At my first Board meeting I proposed funding Babylon; my chairman, banker Geoffrey Williams, later said that Babylon was a multiple risk: a difficult and unfamiliar subject, a first-time director and a commitment of over eighty per cent of the budget as against the accustomed thirty per cent. I had no reservations.

The NFFC  was formed in 1950 and part-financed 500 features in its first ten years. By the late 1970s the corporation was hard hit by cuts, and the stream of films were reduced to a trickle of two or three features a year. Every decision became significant, every game a Cup Final. Worse was to come. Within months of my joining, the Labour government was ousted and the Tories took over. The incoming Tory films minister, Norman Tebbit, (now The Lord Tebbit CH PC) decided that £1.5m per annum, funded via a box office tax, should suffice – £1.5m a year for a population of 60m, that is 2.5p per person. What mattered to all governments was television. My friend and teacher, the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, used to say that, on cinema, the English were philistines. My chairman, Geoffrey Williams, while at a prestigious public (English patois for ‘private’) school, was discouraged from visiting the local cinema because that was ‘where one picked up communicable diseases’. Geoffrey, an inveterate cinemagoer, ignored the ruling and looked in rude health to me.

The writers of Babylon, Martin Stellman and Franco Rosso, did not originally have a director or a producer attached to the project. Martin was a former student at the National Film School, where I had been Head of Directing. I knew something of the script’s history – that it had been developed by the BBC, who had passed on it, as had the British Film Institute Production Board under Peter Sainsbury, where I had been head of production previously and, ironically, where the last film the Board had backed just before I left, was Pressure (1976) the first British black feature, written and directed by Horace Ove. The central figure of Pressure is a first-generation young black Brit, who does not fully belong in either the black or the white community. This is not the war zone of Babylon but a place where racism hides behind the everyday and is expressed through exclusion or diminution in all the areas that create communality and community: housing, education and jobs. Ironically – and optimistically – it is a white teenage girl who expresses her outrage of white racism. But there is police violence, possibly rogue: ‘The law is not concerned with you and your lot,’ says a plain-clothes officer during a brutal police raid of a legitimate political gathering.  Horace Ove said afterwards that his next film would not be a black film but a film.

Ghettos come in all colours, shapes and sizes. The Board also backed the first feature about the Asian community, A Private Enterprise (1975), directed by Peter K Smith and co-written with Dilip Hiro.  Set in the Midlands, it was neorealist in style and remarkable in its breadth, touching on the lives of a young entrepreneur who wants to fit in, strikers at a white-owned factory, a conservative older generation, nouveaux riches whose lives centre on shopping in Harrods, and semi-detached white liberals.

I never backed a film solely because of its ethnicity; it is others who did not back a film because of its ethnicity.

Franco and Martin were inclined to ask Stephen Frears to direct. I admired Stephen’s work, but I thought he would be a foreign correspondent. I proposed that either Franco or Martin should direct. It became Franco’s first feature. Franco and Martin knew the subject intimately. Franco, a documentary editor, was born in Turin, came to Britain when he was eight and lived in South London, where Babylon takes place. In fact, young black men played Reggae and their sound systems at the bottom of his garden and annoyingly kept his children awake at two and three in the morning. Martin, the son of Jewish immigrants, was screenwriter on Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979), and had worked as a youth and community worker in the area. Chris Menges (later Oscar winner for The Killing Fields and The Mission, and who had, memorably, shot Ken Loach’s Kes,) joined as cinematographer and Gavrik Losey, son of Joseph Losey, as producer. Through determination and ingenuity, Gavrik found the balance of the budget. The composer was the legendary Dennis Bovell, the lead Brinsley Forde, actor and founder of the Reggae band Aswad, and all the main actors, bar one, came from the black community. They did not act; they embodied their roles. Italian neo-Realism was a conscious reference for Franco – and the cast had escaped conventional training. The film was unusually physical for the time and for an English film.

The days of white western hauteur, sense of superiority and entitlement to speak with authority about and on behalf of just about everybody else are coming to an end. But the situation is not clear-cut.

There was controversy in the sixties when the Free Cinema middle-class directors (Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson) made films about working-class subjects: A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The screenwriters, however, were all working-class, at the top of their game: Shelagh Delaney, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey. Collaboration was key.

Or take Algerian public investment in The Battle of Algiers (1966).  This account of epic struggle and the creation of a nation was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and co-written with Franco Solinas, both Italians.  India, too, backed an outsider to tell the story of one of its founders: Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, was part funded by the Indian Film Development Corporation.  Also, significantly, Jack Lang, France’s minister of culture, approved Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director, to direct Danton, a historical figure and the voice of the French Revolution.

Creatively, the line should not be drawn between the outsider’s or the insider’s view – the line should be blurred or even fractured so as to surprise and illuminate. The watchword is authenticity – difficult to define but easier to recognise.

After Tebbit became our boss at the NFFC, we sat on our hands while we waited for him to decide what to do with us. When government, any government, announces a review, the outcome is either ‘deep-sea diving boots’ or ‘the blindfolds’.  In the interim, Tebbit appointed two new members to the Board. I was curious as to how he would react to the NFFC’s exceptional support of Babylon, which had been backed when Labour was in office a few months earlier. I did not have to wait long. I was summoned to meet a panjandrum from the elite of the civil service to learn our fate. We met in his office in a Georgian terrace house. The room had a high ceiling, tall doors, long windows and pale green wallpaper. It was more an eighteenth century salon than an office. He was courteous, offered me coffee and asked a few questions. Then he got down to business. It was to be the ‘diving boots’, to slow us down. Our budget would be cut. (I did wonder whether they wanted us to fail so that they could close the shop. If that was the aim, we were not cooperative – an NFFC-backed film participated at the Cannes Festival every year I was there and the Corporation put up 60% of the budget of £200,000 for Gregory’ Girl, which, it is reported, has grossed £25 million.) As I put my hand on the door handle to leave, he piped up behind me: ‘Mr Hassan, I take it you are going to back radical films and the like.’

Maybe he was thinking of Babylon. Or the films I had backed at the BFI.

‘Shouldn’t I?’ I asked.

‘Did I say you shouldn’t?’ he said.

‘No, you didn’t. I’ll remember that,’ I said.

I went back to my office and prepared for a siege. The next two films were David Gladwell’s adaptation of Doris Lessing’s novel Memoirs of a Survivor, scripted by Kerry Crabbe, and Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl. I did not see Babylon as a stand-alone film. Together, all three films were about young people in a changing world: hostile in one, shattered in another, and the last apparently normal but actually heralding a new era.. ‘Gregory’s girl’ might be Dorothy the girl footballer, Gregory’s ideal, but two others also make a claim Gregory’s young sister, Madeline, and Susan, the girl who (quite literally) brings him down to earth. The three girls are the dynamic centre. Artists see today but also see tomorrow coming.

The National film Finance Corporation was closed down in 1985, to be replaced, sequentially, by British Screen, The Films Council and The British Film Institute…

 

Copyright©Mamoun Hassan, June 2019 

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Landmark British films at the BFI Southbank – 19 July 2019

The release of Franco Rosso’s Babylon in the US earlier this year triggered a series of memories for me of cinema in the UK in the 80s.  The film received rave review in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The LA Times and elsewhere. They spoke of it not only as a piece of compelling entertainment but also as a social and political document, as relevant today as it was four decades ago. British reviewers and critics have chosen to ignore the phenomenon.

For a time now, the term ‘social realism’ as applied to British cinema has been one of dismissal or even contempt. It was just about OK if you added a prefix of ‘poetic’ or ‘neo’ before ‘realism’ – or, of course, if the film was foreign.  We seem too caught up with stories of murderous psychotics and their multi-various and exotic ways of slaughter, and endless series of the lives of our dysfunctional Royals Through The Ages.

Meanwhile Babylon and much else is falling apart.…

The British Film Institute  Southbank is screening:

PRESSURE
Dir Horace Ove

Friday 19 July 2019  18.10
NFT3 GA

Intro by Dr Elizabeth M Wiliams
Goldsmiths University of London

BABYLON
Dir Franco Rosso

Friday 19 July 2019 20.50
NFT3 GA

Intro from Filmmaker Mamoun Hassan

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