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.
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
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…
Mamoun was very pleased that the screening of Iosif Heifitz lyrical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog was shown in the larger NFT 1 at the BFI Southbank. It is over 20 years since this classic film has been shown. The packed audience were moved to applause after the screening, and showed their appreciation to BFI programmer David Somerset for arranging this rare opportunity to see this masterpiece of Russian cinema.
We will be sharing the filmed discussion held after the screening shortly.
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.
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Three years ago, the BBC polled critics across the world to identify the greatest 100 American Movies, followed by Films of the 21st century and Comedies.
Finally, the spotlight fell on ‘Foreign’ films – those not made in the English language. 209 critics from 43 countries took part.
The results were not a surprise to Mamoun, who has given and recorded masterclasses on and introductions to many of the films on the list, particularly the first three.
Above all, Mamoun has given masterclasses on The Seven Samurai in many different countries: from Sydney in Australia to Zimbabwe in Africa; the UK, Greece, Denmark, Norway and Bosnia in Europe; Mumbai in India; Colombo in Sri Lanka; Havana in Cuba; Santiago in Chile, South America; and in California, where the masterclass was given in three different venues (UCLA Extension, CalArts, The Psychoanalytic Centre for California).
A 65-minute version (edited from a four-hour session) was recorded for Channel 4’s series Movie Masterclass. Kurosawa productions acquired the licence for the Channel 4 programme, which was screened on Japan’s NHK.
10. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) 9. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) 8. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) 7. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963) 6. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) 5. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) 4. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) 3. Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953) 2. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948) 1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
In the top twenty foreign films are Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955) and The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966).
Mamoun has contributed a 45-minute videoto Criterion’s amazing restoration of The Apu Trilogy.
Mamoun produced The Battle of Algiers for C4’s Movie Masterclass, and he presented it as a masterclass at the BFI Southbank. The film was one of more than 25 films that he has presented at the European Film College, including Ozu’s Tokyo Story and de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
Masterclasses and introductions can be accessed on Vimeo.