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Its authenticity and veracity made it a historical document.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…
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.
Welcome to the new home for Movie Masterclass – all news and updates on projects will be posted here. We’ve brought our archive over from the old site, so you should be able to find archive content here.
If you find something not working, please let our admin know.
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.
On June 13 2013, we posted an introduction to Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG at the National Film & Television School.
At the time the question of the use of clips was not clear and we chose not to risk infringing copyright.
We now include clips under the conditions of ‘Fair Dealing’ in the UK, or ‘Fair Use’ in the US.
So we are here with the first, ‘Revisit’ to Movie Masterclass introductions.
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.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (Dir. Lewis Milestone 1930 – based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque) was shown during a season curated by Christopher Nolan to celebrate the release of his new film ‘Dunkirk’, as a film that is a major influence on his work.
Chaired by David Somerset, Kevin Brownlow and Mamoun Hassan discussed the film before a live audience following its screening at the National Film Theatre, BFI Southbank, 6 July 2017.
Kevin Brownlow is the acknowledged authority on the films and history of silent cinema. His first book, ‘The Parade’s Gone by…’ (1963), was transformative in our understanding and appreciation of that era. Satyajit Ray called it ‘one of the most important film books of our time’. Brownlow is the author of many outstanding books and documentaries, and, with Andrew Mollo, he wrote and directed two of Britain’s most controversial political films: ‘It Happened Here’ and ‘Winstanley’. In 2010 Brownlow was awarded an honorary Oscar – ‘For the wisdom and devoted chronicling of the cinema parade’.
Mamoun Hassan is a producer, director, screenwriter, film executive, teacher and deviser of C4’s innovative ‘Movie Masterclass’ series. Most recently he was co-writer on Andres Wood’s ‘Machuca’, Chile’s most successful film, and screenwriter on Andres Wood’s ‘La Buena Vida’, a winner of the coveted Goya Award.
This event took place through the determination, commitment and passion of David Somerset at the BFI.
The recording of the event was marred by the failure of the close up camera.