Saturday, 28 August 2010


Seagulls only feature briefly in this landmark Flemish feature, which played at the 1956 Cannes Festival, but their presence provides an important metaphor. Our protagonist is a baby-faced vagrant who emerges mysteriously from the harbour in Antwerp, wandering the streets with little apparent purpose but to find sanctuary. Dressed in a dark body-length jacket, he cuts a sinister figure and many of the city’s residents distrust him based on image alone. During his travels, he manages to establish connections with a few women and a young Francophone orphan. As the city gradually warms to his presence, we learn secrets from his past, and how he ended up as he is.

Considering its aesthetic merits, it is a surprise to learn that this film was helmed by relative novices in the field. The lighting – sfumato in the daytime and chiaroscuro at night – adds great depth to the photography and mirrors the protagonist’s state of mind. Antwerp is more than just the backdrop, and the camera takes every opportunity to drink in its unique architecture – at one point the camera rises above rooftop level to present the city as a whole. Though the film is ultimately about the individual, a whole host of characters is featured to create an understanding of the protagonist’s isolation, and this makes his search for a sense of belonging so poignant. Suave but sensitive, Seagulls Die In The Harbour might not be a particularly vital film, but one would do well to file it under ‘hidden gems’.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Primate sees realist documentarian Frederick Wiseman hone his lens on the inmates of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre. A representative scientist explains the aims and outcomes of the organisation, describing the mating habits and relationships of the animals. Wiseman’s camera never intrudes or probes – the film could easily be seen as a pamphlet for the centre – but we learn a lot about the treatment of the animals just by watching wordlessly. A baby chimp, wearing a fresh nappy, is forced to hold onto a wire and a piece of cloth simultaneously while a scientist times how long it takes for her to fall. Experiments take place without description, and only the occasional observation is made.

Due to Wiseman’s direct style, it is often easy to watch his films without questioning them, but the focus of Primate means that the suggestion of animal cruelty is rife. Wiseman’s earlier Titicut Follies, which studies the residents of a hospital for the criminally insane, frequently comes to mind, particularly in what one is meant to take away from the film, but in Primates the subjects are unable to speak for themselves. In this respect, Primate elicits a stronger emotional response from the audience. The success of the film may be down to the fact that the humans featured do not feel that there is anything wrong with their way of working, meaning it is up to the viewer to raise the important questions. Horrific but unflinching, Primate is the objective documentary at its best.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


While out shopping, Laura fights with a fellow customer over a spotted bra, accidentally throwing her down the stairs in the process. Returning to her apartment, she decides to show off her glamorous new purchase to her flatmates rather than discuss the accidental murder, and their punny comments (“what a killer bra!” “it’s to die for!”) serve as unhappy omens. Lending the bra to flatmate Julie, Laura suddenly realises that her misdeed has not gone unpunished, and the killer bra lives up to its name, killing off her helpless friends one by one.

Yakov Levi is an independent filmmaker hailing from the Ukraine, a country not particularly known for its cinematic output. Levi calls himself out as a vehement John Waters fan, a fact which is abundantly clear when one sees his films. As schlocky and puerile as one could hope for, The Killer Bra is no different from any other no-budget laptop production – poor acting, terrible humour, Z-grade effects. With Waters’ films, the comedy lies in demystifying the taboo and making light of the disturbing. In his other shorts, Levi casts a grotesque old woman named Baba Alla as a lascivious babuschka, harking back to Waters’ beloved Divine. Her absence in this film drains it of all charm, the wackiness passed on to the props, as well as Julie’s irritatingly hyperactive boyfriend. The promise of underground films in the era of the internet is exciting, but The Killer Bra is not one of them. It’s a load of bollocks.


Best known for his marathon ultra-realist documentaries, filmmaker Wang Bing is representative of the ‘other’ face of China, and his most recent work Man With No Name epitomises this well. The subject of this film not only has no name, he is also ageless, voiceless and of unknown ethnicity. We follow this anonymous man as he goes about his daily duties, supporting his self-sufficient lifestyle on the very fringe of society. One moment, he is digging dirt on a wintry day, the next he is harvesting dung for fertiliser in summer. The man’s abode is a dingy cave of his own making, and while there is the odd echo of civilisation – a noodle packet is seen at one moment – his life is one of absolute solitude.

Though formally simple, Man With No Name is a complex work. We see the nameless man alone on screen, but his story is universalised by the mundanity of his routine, suggesting that there are many others like him. As in his earlier Tie Xi Qu and Crude Oil, Wang does not give his subject much provenance, forcing the audience to relate to him on a basic human level by participating in his lifestyle. It is easy to forget that Wang and his crew are present filming, testament to his artful restraint in the editing process as well as his direct, unpretentious dialogue with his audience. Perhaps dwarfed by the ambition of other Chinese ‘underground’ films, Man With No Name is nonetheless a vital film.

Monday, 23 August 2010


A young woman named Chiyo boards a taxi to Tokyo, leaving behind her family home in the countryside in favour of finding a job in the city. Following directions scrawled in her diary, she meets up with childhood friend Hisako who, under the new name of Shigeyo, has taken an unappealing job as a bar hostess, confessing that it was the only employment she could find given her rural upbringing. Chiyo heeds her advice, but after an unsuccessful jobhunt, she too finds herself working as a hostess in one of Tokyo’s poorer quarters. Here she learns about the broken dreams and relationships of her colleagues and the obstacles encountered by country girls in the city.

One of three films that Mikio Naruse made with his wife-to-be Sachiko Chiba in 1936, Morning’s Tree-Lined Street came at a time that Naruse began to notice a supposed lapse in the quality of his films, a problem he ascribed partly to his relationship with Chiba. In her role here as Chiyo, Chiba is vulnerable and uninitiated, and her trajectory is largely shaped by the vicarious experiences of the other characters. Though unconstrained by the ideals of home and family usually seen in his films, the film is an oddly personal document, and the elevation in visual creativity, which sees the camera outdoors as often as indoors, suggests a shift in Naruse’s state of mind. An extra scene of Chiyo’s family might have helped illustrated her disillusionment in the city, but the film succeeds elsewhere.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


Tochuken Kumoemon is a renowned actor whose arrogant reputation precedes him. He views the stage as his domain and does not give much consideration to the feelings of his colleagues, a fact that dutiful wife Otsuma knows all too well. She accompanies his theatrical balladry on the shamisen, but this collaboration appears to be the closest the two ever get. Alienated from romantic feelings, Tochuken pursues a young geisha with little consideration for the feelings of his wife or son. Even when Otsuma falls ill, Tochuken refuses to visit under the proviso that it would dismantle their relationship as performers were he to be seen tending to her as a husband.

Tochuken Kumoemon seems to refer to director Mikio Naruse’s own practice, an allegory about keeping one’s feet on the ground in the duplicitious world of theatre. Though not entirely indistinguishable for the audience, the film’s two realities often intertwine, hinting that the viewer is to see the film from Tochuken’s perspective, although he is hardly a sympathetic character. As in Naruse’s later Avalanche, the male lead carries the story, but it is the wife’s sufferance which is intended to resonate with the viewer. Unfortunately, too much effort is expended on profiling Tochuken before the true story begins, and his relationship with his son is scarcely described. There are still strong moments of drama, particularly as Otsuma struggles to get through to her husband, but viewed through the prism of the performer’s ego, they ultimately amount to little true emotion.

Monday, 16 August 2010

250 reviews! a very special post...

Looks like we made it…
– Barry Manilow

Today marks the 250th review of Celluloid Breakfast! Thanks again to everyone who visits the site, regardless of how often – you have given me the drive to keep going and to discover cinematic gems from all over the place. Lately I haven’t updated as frequently as I would like, but rest assured I will work on this, with particular focus on more recent films.

So what next? Well, you are more than welcome to read review #250, which discusses Med Hondo’s sharp-tongued Soleil Ô, but in celebration of this milestone, I have a very special post to contribute. Harry Dehal, director of independent low-budget feature Oceania (reviewed on this blog here) has graciously donated his time for an interview, discussing his film work and the future for independent filmmakers.

Let’s begin with your film Oceania. The story deals with two teenagers who are at odds with their home lives, and both seek some form of escape. This project was your first, and your tender age during the film’s production combined with the intimate shooting style suggest that it is a very personal piece of work. Would you say that making Oceania has given you your own escape?

I would not say it was extremely personal, insofar as all of us who were writing it were actually going off personal experiences – we were not for the most part. The personal touch that was there however was a lot of that teenage angst and that grim, depressed view of the world that a lot of (young) people tend to share at that age. I think a lot of us who did work on the film have cheered up a bit since then!

In a way then, the film is your send-off to adolescence?

That sounds reasonable. We were trying to film and create a world around the limits of our lives... We had our own homes and local neighborhoods to shoot in, so we tried to get as much bang for our buck in terms of drama. While I wanted to put our teenaged feelings out there, I also wanted the film to come across more seriously.

You open the film with a François Truffaut quote: “I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself”. Should cinema always be a fantasy?

Well I've always thought that the best films are those that bring to light the human condition and show reality, not fantasy, at its darkest hour. The types of films that make you feel angry, happy, fulfilled, disappointed, fearful, etc. Oceania was not one to fit in that category. Quite honestly, I dislike "fantastical" or fantasy films.

I should admit that during the time I was filming Oceania, I was very much into David Lynch amongst other directors, which may add into the fantasy element of the film.

There is definitely an illusory quality to the film which could be described as 'Lynchian'. I'm thinking in particular of the dream-like sequence where Steve drives through the night, which also harks back to Truffaut and the escapism of 400 Blows. Which other filmmakers had a strong influence on the production of Oceania?

I'm trying to remember. I know my biggest influences back then were Wong Kar Wai and the cinematographer he usually works with, Christopher Doyle. I think the cinematography and flow they produce together is phenomenal, so I really tried to focus my own photographical efforts with their style. I also recall my starting to follow Hou Hsiao-hsien with his film "Millennium Mambo" in terms of stylism and story. It's still a favorite of mine today. There was also the trilogy by Krzysztof Kieślowski… But I feel bad about dropping all those names, because my film doesn't come out nearly as meaningful as I would hope for it to be. At the time I was young and I was watching all these great directors and cinematographers and I was overwhelmed. I was trying to learn how to shoot my own film while also trying to make all those references. It was a unique learning experience, to say the least. Perhaps trying to juggle too many things at once. That's a common mistake, I've learned, for young filmmakers. To want to make references.

Do you feel then that these references detracted from the personal aspects of the film?

Well, because the film wasn't extremely personal to those of us who were making it, I'm not sure it was too negative of an effect. I think it was worst during the writing stages, where we wanted to incorporate a lot of references and "ah-ha" moments, which due to our crazy shooting schedule (filming was spread out and took about a year), never really panned out. There are still a few of those moments, but things ended up being more subtle. I still think references are important. So much has been done in film for decades, it's hard to be original, but I feel the biggest thing I've learned is that the strongest opportunity to be original comes in writing the story... which is something I'm trying to work on improving in the future.

In light of the current state of Hollywood, what is your opinion on remakes? Do they serve any purpose beyond making money?

Well, I shouldn't comment on Hollywood because I'm certainly not a part of that picture, and I don't have any experience there. As a cineaste, I have to say sometimes it bothers me that great films that may be foreign end up being remade. Examples include Shall We Dansu?, which is one of my all-time favorite Japanese films. It was butchered. In recent news, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is going to be remade. But if you want to see how mixed my feelings are about the state of remakes--David Fincher, of all American directors, will be remaking it. I've always regarded him as a genius of sorts, and I've loved his films since I was a child. (Though I did love the Swedish version as well and thought it was perfect. I wouldn't change a thing personally, but we'll have to see what happens).

At the very least, it should be interesting to see Fincher's take, given the positive reactions to the book and the film. How about the recent craze for 3D? Do you think it is possible for a 3D film to reflect adequately on the human condition, or is it just one big special effect?

I've actually avoided seeing any 3D movies. I remember reading a debate on the state of 3D and how Hollywood is trying to push it. A lot of people say it's because they can command higher ticket prices. A lot of other people rather-mockingly argue that the naysayers would have said the same thing about Technicolor or the transition to sound/talkies from silent films... I think it may as well be considered another tool. If a filmmaker is adept at pushing forward the story with 3D, I think that's great. One thing that does worry me is that the gap in technology ALMOST closed in the past 5 years. Independent filmmakers have suddenly been able to shoot on cameras costing anywhere from $1,000 USD to $10,000 USD which absolutely compete in terms of quality and picture with the big-boy cameras that Hollywood uses which start in the $100,000s. But with 3D, it will become yet another technology that is expensive and difficult for independent filmmakers to breach. It'll widen the technology gap a little. But that's only if it picks up in a more mainstream fashion and becomes the status-quo. Fortunately, I don't think that's going to happen on a large scale anytime soon. (Which is good. I think independent filmmakers love keeping that technology divide as small as possible!)

Continuing your point about the closing gap in technology... in addition to high-quality cameras becoming increasingly available to the public (the Canon 550D is a recent example which I'm personally trying to get my grubby student hands on), there is also the internet, which has clearly been of great use for you in terms of recruitment and gaining exposure. Do you think the internet will help to close the gap between the indie filmmaker and the Hollywood producer?

I think the Internet has changed things quite a bit. When we were filming a few years ago, we certainly used the Internet to recruit actors. And since Oceania did not get distribution, I ended up releasing the "DVD" version online and it's afforded me an audience I was never expecting. I think the number of downloads for the film is at the 25,000 mark as of now. I recall when we were filming, we would have been ecstatic if we could get even a few hundred to watch our little film. There are even more tools out there now. I'm sure you've heard of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo amongst other sites. They're basically "crowdsourcing" money to artists and helping raise money for projects. I feel like an old man because "back in the day," you had to work, go to school, take the bus, and still count on friends and family for money and donations, and you'd STILL go into debt and lose money to make your film. Which is what happened to me with Oceania. Nowadays you post your project online and you can raise upwards of $10,000 easily. I'm extremely jealous of that aspect. It would have made my life a lot more easier, and perhaps, the film a lot better had I not needed to worry about the money. But it's just another aspect of how the Internet is democratizing independent film. It's certainly a good thing. I'm not sure Hollywood or producers will get entirely cut-out of the scene--certain independent filmmakers have been saying that for decades now, but the Internet and new technology (like using DSLRs to shoot movies) is allowing more voices to be heard.

Are you likely to use a similar scheme in the future?

I was actually planning on using Kickstarter to raise money for my next film, but I'm still worried. It seems like a lot of people have beat me to it, and that things are getting saturated. I may still consider it in the near future for my next project.

Which is?

I've been planning and writing my "next project" since Oceania got out of festival play. So about two years now. It's supposed to be a drama about the Indian diaspora living in United States, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. I think one of the weakest aspects of Oceania was the story--it wasn't as personal and thorough as it should have been. For this next project, I am focusing on what I know, and this will be more personal and autobiographical, and I'm trying to use my experiences to craft this story.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it. How did you approach the distribution stage of Oceania?

I'm not entirely sure the film was distributable through traditional means. The film was intended to be 90 minutes in length, and we shot the footage, but in editing I cut it down to its current state, slightly under 60 minutes. So traditional means were out. At the time there weren't many films that were released legitimately through BitTorrent or other p2p methods online. So I assumed the best way to reach the widest audience possible would be to give it a fairly liberal Creative Commons license and allow people to share it… and so it went.

Was this how it came to the attention of Cinequest Festival?

Cinequest was a local festival. I was living in the Bay Area and they were a prominent festival, and they were really receptive of the film and were impressed that we were just a group of high school students who put it all together. We ended up screening, and we sold out our last night. We got a lot of people who enjoyed the experience (and even some who did not). But I don't think any Internet-related distribution method could replace that... just the question-and-answer sessions with the audience alone were memorable.

Harry, thanks a lot for donating your time, you've been a joy to talk to.

One last comment about the François Truffaut quote: "I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself" ... I should elaborate that it does tie into the film in a particular way, but one of the actual "personal" reasons I put it in was because at many times during my life, I've much preferred going to the cinema and getting lost in the film in front of me than with the details of my own life. There are of course, exceptions, but I think a lot of cineastes deal with this problem... This love for the cinema. I think it's because films have this magic to them – anything is possible.

Harry’s film Oceania can be downloaded from his website at


Shot and produced in France by Mauritanian expatriate filmmaker and actor Med Hondo, Soleil Ô has been variously described as the first African avant-garde film and the most significant film made about African émigrés. The abstract film essay, incorporating elements of melodrama and comedy, takes the form of a series of vignettes decrying the treatment of Africans in France. A character seeking employment is met with prejudice and derision from almost everyone, causing him to question the intrinsically French hendiatris of “liberty, equality, fraternity”. Another scene sees a circle of men seek divine forgiveness for speaking in their native tongues, suggesting they could only hope to be granted consideration by Christ once shed of their African identities.

From its bizarre animated opening to its darkly comic subversion of icons (crucifixes are converted into swords at one point), Soleil Ô makes no bones about its agenda and Hondo clarifies the importance of his message through subverting the gaze of the viewer. While the film designates itself as a pamphlet, the focus is more on the reconstruction of identity than the loss of it, and Hondo does not discriminate in his description of blackness. As Djibril Diop Mambéty was to later achieve with his surreal Touki Bouki, Hondo interprets film through the context of African oral storytelling, acknowledging that to recontextualise cinema for an African perspective is to reinterpret the medium. Satirical but fiercely humanistic, Soleil Ô is a film essay whose importance can never be overstated, and deserves a contemporary rediscovery.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


Jenny is a young woman from an impoverished background who works as a cleaner in various elegant residences in the city. While cleaning the stairs of a wealthy man named Eduard Reinhold, she receives an enigmatic invitation from him but decides against telling her proud parents. With the assistance of her sister, Jenny sneaks out of the house to rendezvous with Eduard, who takes her for a meal at a restaurant before inviting her back to his place. Returning home at dawn, Jenny is shocked to discover her family still awake, and the ensuing argument leaves her on the street. Seeking comfort and shelter from her wealthy lover, she is told that she is unsuitable to be seen on the arm of such a well-to-do man and, with no-one else to turn to, she takes on a series of sordid jobs before eventually committing suicide.

The word ‘poor’ in the title relates both to Jenny’s financial situation and her repeated rotten luck, and the lesson here is something along the lines of not giving into temptation, as Jenny finds herself even lower down in society than she had been before thanks to her spontaneous tryst. Legendary temptress of early cinema Asta Nielsen, star of Gad’s sensuous film The Abyss, portrays Jenny with appropriate gullibility despite being thirty at the time of filming. Though a mostly unremarkable film, (Louis Feuillade’s The Defect dealt with similar themes a year earlier), Poor Jenny does feature some interesting photography, particularly at its tragic climax.


A young schoolboy with prominent ears walks through the Paris streets. After he catches sight of a crudely drawn anti-Semitic propaganda poster, he unwittingly wills it to life, taking it on as a cynical sidekick named ‘The Mug’. Such whimsy is the language used by comic-book artist Joann Sfar as he portrays the story of Lucien Ginsburg, better known to the world as Serge Gainsbourg. The women in Gainsbourg’s life interact with this grotesque caricature as if it were still a part of him – until, that is, he settles down with English actress-singer Jane Birkin. Divorced from his alter ego, Gainsbourg’s work grows more fiercely political and his relationship crumbles, but a brief flirtation in a club appears to put him back in the right direction.

Though it certainly captures some of the essence of Gainsbourg’s haphazard life, Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) is a confusing extravaganza that rushes straight past emotion in order to keep the audience’s visual interest alight. Sfar might have been showing only the moments that Gainsbourg would have wanted to remember, but the film quickly grows frustrating as key moments in his life are compressed into ten-second shots. One doesn’t doubt that Gainsbourg must have had fond memories of his seduction of Brigitte Bardot, but for this affair to be given more screentime than his parents’ deaths combined seems almost disrespectful. An array of superb performances, helmed by Gainsbourg doppelgänger Éric Elmosnino, keep the viewer’s attention, but the film itself lacks the impact to leave an impression.

Monday, 9 August 2010


After a hefty season working at sea, Farrel takes his shore leave as an opportunity to revisit some home truths, travelling to Tierra del Fuego to meet his mother, with whom he has grown literally and figuratively distant. Once on land, Farrel traipses from bar to bar, his original mission apparently forgotten. The next morning brings with it a sense of purpose, and Farrel braves the snow and ice to travel to a community in the mountains where he finds his mother living with a man and a young girl. The relationships between the group are never expressly stated, and Farrel punctuates his sojourn with swigs of vodka to make the experience bearable.

Liverpool is an unusual project, eliciting an emotional response by deliberately not showing much emotion on screen. As with all of Lisandro Alonso’s films, the drama is implicit, and very little dialogue is used to convey Farrel’s story. It is only his dominant presence on screen that allows the viewer to begin to feel for him in his isolation. The title Liverpool, seen briefly on a keyring, is little more than a placeholder for emotion in the film, but is apt for Alonso’s intentions. Farrel never comfortably fits into the family ambience of his mother’s home – given the unpredictable nature of his life at sea, his visit feels merely like one stop of many. Alonso, as usual, does a wonderful job of carrying the narrative in the photography, but some viewers might need a lot of convincing.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Herr R. is an architect’s draughtsman, and the breadwinner for his wife and son. We see him living a purely functional existence, only managing to catch precious few moments of social activity in between his obligations with his work and family. The story flashes between brief scenes in Herr R.’s day, the only anomaly being a macabre check-up with the doctor. Rather than observing, the viewer is invited into the scene through the movement of the camera, which positions itself as another character, turning to face each speaker. Herr R. is very rarely seen alone, giving the impression that he never catches a break.

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? continues director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s earlier fascination with suburban stagnation and dehumanisation, and the anonymity of the protagonist’s name is no coincidence. In fact, little of Fassbinder’s film is a coincidence – Herr R.’s job in architecture, for example, relates to his destiny, as he is left to draw up plans for other people. Kurt Raab, who resembles Fassbinder himself, carries his character’s burden without ever externalising his emotions. The shooting style and mise-en-scène are unusually naturalistic for a Fassbinder film, although this may be linked to the rumours that collaborator Michael Fengler was the film’s true director. The deliberate monotony might be trying for uninitiated viewers, but nonetheless there is a decent sense of humour in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, and it would make a complementary companion film to Once Upon A Time There Was A Singing Blackbird.