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
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, its theme racism, its attitude defiant and vigorous,
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Its authenticity and veracity made it a historical document.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.
Don’t be too impressed by the
grand title of the organisation. The NFFC had been formed in 1950 and had part-financed
500 features in its first ten years. By the late 1970s the corporation had been
hard hit by cuts, and the stream of films had been 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, when
it came to 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
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 at the Corporation). 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
‘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 shifting. ‘Gregory’s girl’ might be Dorothy the girl footballer,
Gregory’s ideal, but two others also claim to be Gregory’s girl: his young sister,
Madeline, and Susan, the girl who 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…
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
The Lady with the Dog will screen on Monday 13 May at 2.00pm in NFT I at the BFI Southbank.
Mamoun will introduce the film and there will be a Q&A at the end.
You won’t find many adaptations of books or plays in anybody’s list of Ten Best Films. Francis Coppola’s two-parter of Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather might figure and also Satyajit Ray’s trilogy of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, where it is difficult to know where the book ends and the film begins. But where are the other great writers: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, Ibsen, Melville, George Eliot…? So often we get illustrations of bits from here and there and dialogue, lots of it. Adaptation can be an inspiration but also a burden – a burden of responsibility to the original. Films need to break free, as in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Howard Hawks’s liberties with Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.
Books and films are more than plot, character and dialogue. To my mind, one of the most successful adaptations, where the book and the film are one, where the film is the book and the book is the film, is the 1960 realization by Soviet director-screenwriter Josif Kheifitz of Anton Chekhov’s great short story The Lady with the Dog. The original is only 17 pages long – no longer than a film treatment.
Kino Lorber Repertory and new distributor Seventy Seven are
releasing BABYLON in the US next month. The film opens at the BAM Theatre in
Brooklyn on 8 March, in Los Angeles on 15 March, and more widely after that.
Forty years ago I backed my first film as managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation [NFFC]: that film was BABYLON. The Board members were invited to take a leap in the dark. The BBC had developed the script but had passed on it; the British Film Institute Production Board under Peter Sainsbury had rejected it. BABYLON was a first film for the director; it had no stars, a wholly unfamiliar cast, dialogue and accents that required subtitles in parts, as if it were a foreign film – which of course it was to most people; it was violent, and it had no distribution guarantee or co-investor. I recommended we invest 83% of the budget: anything less would not get the film made. It was unheard of. Historically, the NFFC offered 30% at most. Further, a couple of years earlier the NFFC had invested in Anthony Simmons’s BLACK JOY, described by a critic as a ‘lightly ironic clash of cultures comedy’. The auguries were not good.
The script of BABYLON was co-written by Martin Stellman and Franco
Rosso. There was no producer attached, but Franco and Martin had Stephen Frears
in mind as director. I knew Stephen and admired his work, but the script was
uniquely authentic, born out of Martin’s and Franco’s direct experience of the
lives of black youth in south London. I thought Stephen would make a fine film,
but it would perforce be a foreign correspondent’s view. Although neither of
the two scriptwriters had directed a feature before, I suggested that one of them
should direct it. Franco became the director and Martin the associate producer.
Chris Menges agreed to shoot the film and Gavrik Losey joined as producer. The
Board finally agreed my proposal.
The first five minutes of the film will tell you why I backed
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We have digitally restored the original ‘Some of the Palestinians’ – a 55-minute documentary directed and edited by Mamoun Hassan when he was stationed with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Lebanon in 1974.
The film opens with a day in the life of Dr Murad, a Palestinian doctor appointed by the UNRWA to look after the health of the Palestinian people in a Syrian refugee camp. It progresses to a recently bombed camp in Lebanon to the West Bank, via Jordan.
The crew members and in Lebanon, the cinematographer, were Palestinians working in UNRWA’s Audio Visual Division, the rest of the film was shot by Ernie Vincze, the distinguished British documentary and feature cinematographer.
The final section presents a somewhat more acceptable picture of Palestinian life supported by UNRWA-sponsored humanitarian projects in women’s education and art in Ramallah. This last section was not directed by Mamoun, he explains why…
I landed in Beirut with my wife and young family on 19 April 1974 to take up my appointment as Head of Films Branch, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). A leftist leader had been assassinated in South Lebanon the previous day and that event is regarded as the start of the civil war. A few days later I drove down to Nabatieh Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon to film the consequence of Israeli bombing. The camp had been obliterated. A few days later I filmed the effect of bombing in Rashidieh, a camp further down the coast near Tyre.
The brief was to document the services – Housing, Education, Health, Rations – that UNRWA offered the Palestinian refugees. My immediate boss and chief of the AV division was the legendary Myrtle Winter-Chaumeny (writer, photographer, sailor, dancer); the director of Information was John Defrates, the bravest man I have ever met, who was a Navy pilot in the icy waters near Vladivostock during WWll. I was given a fairly free hand but editorial control rested with UNRWA. What I saw in South Lebanon and elsewhere gave me the form of the film: the experience of life in the camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – but not the West Bank because Israel refused me entry. Myrtle filmed that sequence.
So the story is about war in Lebanon; life in one the oldest camps near Aleppo established in 1948; work in Baqa’a in Jordan which accommodated thousands of fleeing refugees after the 1967 war; and education in Ramallah.
Mamoun is keen for people to view this film. It is a timely reminder that UNRWA’s humanitarian work is not done, despite the decision of the US administration to cut $300 m from its planned annual contribution to the UNRWA budget in 2018.
“Since I made this film, everything has changed for the worse for the Palestinian people. The locations for the film are now war zones or something very similar. The tragedy continues.”
The restoration was made from an answer print of the edited film. This version did not have English subtitles for spoken Arabic. By referring to the only other known copy – a print held at the National Film Archive – we were able to transfer the subtitles exactly as they appeared on the film, which was invited to the London Film Festival in 1976.
In Chile a piece of legislation is progressing through parliament, the Ley Machuca, the Machuca Law, which will make it mandatory for every school, public and/or private, to make a percentage of places available to girls and boys from the shanty towns and slums.
Why Machuca? At the centre of Andres Wood’s vastly successful Machuca is a friendship between a middle-class boy, Gonzalo, and Pedro Machuca, from a shanty town, who meet in Gonzalo’s Catholic private school following Allende’s policy of sending kids from the slums to private schools. Of course, after Pinochet’s coup, Machuca and kids like him were thrown out.
Machuca is one of Chile’s most successful films. In just over a decade since its release it has become a classic and is on the syllabus of most schools, colleges and universities in Chile. It is even included in the UK’s A-level Spanish syllabus. But the Machuca Law is something different. At a time when Politics and Media have become the same thing, Machuca has escaped beyond the media. It promises to influence the lives of thousands of children and their prospects thereafter.
We are pleased to announce that Mamoun has been invited to appear at the first El Gouna Film Festival (CineGouna Springboard) in Egypt, as one of the ‘Mentors’.
The challenge of helping Arab filmmakers develop their projects is a daunting, and exciting, challenge over the duration of the festival which takes place from 22nd – 29th September at the exclusive Red Sea resort region of El Gouna.
CineGouna Springboard is a celebration of the rise of Arab Cinema, with the hope that “the interactions of our platform will not only provide financial reward, business and cooperation, bit also creative feedback and insight, with the goal of advancing the visions and aspirations of the film projects themselves.”
Although it has been a while since the release of the magnificent Criterion box set of ‘The World of Apu Trilogy’, it is worth reflecting on some of the the responses to the ‘extra’ Mamoun contributed to the set.
The Criterion forum Chris Galloway wrote: ‘We next get a piece on the trilogy, featuring the former head of the BFI, Mamoun Hassan. Entitled The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look, it features Hassan offering a rather thorough examination of the trilogy as a whole, giving detailed analysis of Ray’s framing, how he introduces characters, the flow of editing, and how the visual language of the films can be broken down into “sentences and paragraphs.” He goes through each film, talking about particular scenes and sequences. It’s lengthy at 43-minutes but found it a very strong scholarly supplement that does make up somewhat for the lack of commentaries, an item that I’m surprised is missing from the set.’
Brian Tallerico on RogerEbert.com : “”This is Ray’s first film, and it is amazing.” So says Mamoun Hassan in a fantastic, detailed examination of “The Apu Trilogy” included in the amazing array of special features on the Criterion release. Hassan, the former head of the British Film Institute, breaks down the movies beat by beat, with such attention to detail that you further appreciate the filmmaking in new ways.”
Peggy Earle of HamptonRoads.com cited Mamoun’s extra as the ‘best extra’ in the collection. “Mamoun Hassan, former head of the British Film Institute, gives a fine overview of the trilogy, Ray’s directorial style, and the significance of the three films. He points to Ray’s ability to show emotions with no dialogue, and urges viewers to “give themselves up” to the films. “Ray had ambiguity. And that’s why we participate in his films. He’s given us room to interpret.””
Jake Cole for Slant magazine – “For a deeper dive into the films themselves, a 43-minute analysis from filmmaker Mamoun Hassan is so minutely observed that even actors’ body language and orientation to the camera is fodder for discussion.”
It is always nice to be appreciated, and we must acknowledge the work of Abbey Lustgarten of Criterion, who worked with Mamoun on the extra with amazing focus, crafting it into the final product.