Sunday, July 21, 2013

The 2013 London Indian Film Festival

Monsoon Shootout


Perhaps Amit Kumar's film should have been called Monsoon Standoff. When naïve young cop Adi (Vijay Varma) corners his suspect in an alleyway, the film slows down to a standstill, and from this tense confrontation, the narrative branches off in three directions. Adi has Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in his sights and staring down the barrel of his gun, but he hesitates for a crucial moment as his mind races through the possible outcomes of his actions. Kumar's screenplay allows us to see what happens if Adi lets Shiva escape, if he kills him, or if he takes him into custody, and while this Sliding Doors-style approach is undeniably schematic and gimmicky, the director uses it to find moral complexity in his story. No matter what course of action Adi takes, somebody ends up getting hurt, as the ripple effect from the battle between cop and criminal impacts upon each character's friends and relatives in unexpected ways. Monsoon Shootout was in development for the best part of 10 years, with Kumar claiming that the convoluted nature of his narrative structure was the main reason behind that long gestation period. Bearing that in mind, presence of apparent character and storytelling inconsistencies that one would expect to be ironed out in revisions is baffling, but they don't get in the way of the film's powerful dramatic pull. Kumar's direction is slick and propulsive, and he rattles through his three stories in under 90 minutes, although perhaps a bit of breathing space could have afforded more time to Adi's love interest Anu (Geetanjali Thapa), who is something of an afterthought. As the lead, Varma is solid but unmemorable, failing to invest his standard-issue "idealistic rookie in a corrupt unit" character with much colour, but there are great performances to be found elsewhere in the picture. Neeraj Kabi and R. Balasubramanian are compellingly duplicitous presences as Adi's no-nonsense boss and the local slumlord respectively, but the film is comprehensively stolen by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose vivid inhabitation of the hatchet-wielding psychopath Shiva has a vivid, explosive quality that energises the whole film. Monsoon Shootout is handsomely crafted, with some great location work, and Rajeev Ravi's cinematography is superb, particularly in the beautifully lit night scenes, when he makes a virtue of the torrential rain.

B.A. Pass


The entry for B.A. Pass in the festival brochure draws comparisons with The Graduate, and it's easy to see why, but Ajay Bahl's film takes the older woman/young man dynamic down a much less comedic road. Mukesh (Shadab Kamal) is a student forced to live with relatives after the death of his parents, which brings him into contact with Sarika (Shilpa Shukla), a friend of his aunt's whose husband is also his uncle's superior. When Sarika invites Mukesh over to run some errands, his aunt and uncle are only too happy to be of service, but no sooner has he entered her home than she's taking advantage of the startled youth. Bahl wastes little time in setting the wheels of his plot in motion. Soon Sarika is educating her young companion in the ways of lovemaking and then – after he has been sufficiently trained – she starts pimping him out to her friends, all of whom are happy to pay for his talents. B.A. Pass is one of the most chaste sex-driven films you'll ever see – all such encounters keep breasts covered and lower regions carefully blocked – but Shukla's sultry, commanding presence is enough to infuse the film with an erotic charge all by itself. The film is never quite as gripping when she's off screen, although one scene in which Mukesh is hired to comfort a lonely widow is quite touching. Bahl clearly wants to make a film noir and all the elements are there – the femme fatale, the evocative score, the inevitable corruption of the protagonist. The film could have used some more of the visual ingenuity that Bahl displays in the climactic scenes, when the neon lighting gives it a nightmarish quality, but Bahl's direction is generally smart and confident, and  he has produced a classy adaptation of Mohan Sikka's The Railway Aunty (which you can read here).

Shahid


The true story of Shahid Azmi is an extraordinary one. As a young man, he and his family suffered violent persecution at the hands of Hindu mobs, and he reacted by enlisting in a militant training camp in Pakistan. After having a change of heart, he escaped the camp and returned to Delhi,  where he was arrested on anti-terrorism charges and thrown into jail. This was the start of his life's unexpected second act, as he used his time behind bars to study the law, qualifying as a lawyer and dedicating himself to defending poor people whom he believed to be wrongly accused of terrorism. In 2010, he was working on behalf of Faheem Ansari – accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks – when he was gunned down in his office, which is the incident that opens Hansal Mehta's film. With Raj Kumar Yadav giving a very convincing performance in the title role, Mehta takes a sober and stately approach to Shahid's tale, although some of the superfluous material that does little more than swell the picture's running time could have easily been lost. Shahid does show admirable attention to detail, most notably in how much it depicts of its lead character's court cases, which are given a substantial amount of screen time. At times, these courtroom exchanges threaten to bog the film down, but the conviction of the cast and the sense of authenticity that Mehta brings to them ensure that they are mostly very effective. Shahid is a stirring and often very moving film about the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even if it means you might have to pay the ultimate price.

Tasher Desh


I've now seen two films by Qaushiq Mukherjee – who prefers to be credited as Q – and I still have no idea what to make of him. I found his last film Gandu to be energetic but ultimately exhausting, and while Tasher Desh is nowhere near as aggressively confrontational as its predecessor, it does confirm that Q is more a creator of images than much of a storyteller. An adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's play, Tasher Desh something to do with a group of noble characters living in a crumbling palace whose conversation revolves around their desire to fly, and their tale is intercut with shots of a man wandering through a train station talking to himself. The film's title card appears 45 minutes into the movie, and it seems to indicate a shift in focus, with something resembling a coherent story beginning to unfold in the film's second half. Now in striking colour, Tasher Desh becomes the story of a mysterious island populated by inhabitants named after playing cards. These people entirely lack human emotions, a state which is challenged by the arrival of characters from the first half of the film, whose expressions of desire and freedom sow the seeds of a revolution. That's about all I can tell you, because narrative coherence is not exactly Tasher Desh's strongest suit. Most of the time it resembles a series of music videos loosely stitched together, but there's something invigorating about Q's extravagant visual sense, which recalls directors like Ken Russell and Tony Scott. His editing tricks can be aggravating, but his sense of colour is frequently dazzling and the film possesses enough gorgeous imagery to make up for its shortfalls in content – even the film's subtitles are beautifully crafted. I don't know how readily I can recommend Tasher Desh or not, but I certainly liked it a lot more than Gandu, and I'll keep an eye out for whatever it is that Q is planning on unleashing next.

The 2013 London Indian Film festival is currently taking place at venues around London.

Friday, July 19, 2013

In the House (Dans la maison)

The films that François Ozon has made in his career have been marked by an eclectic range of wildly divergent styles, but perhaps he is never more interesting than when he is looking at the nature of storytelling itself. His 2003 film Swimming Pool was the story of a writer whose holiday experience seems to mirror the trajectory of her mystery novel, and In the House is a more comedic spin on similar themes. The two central characters in the film are storytellers, one of whom is frustrated by his lack of literary success and the other who is exploring the limits of his talents, and In the House allows us to see the fruits of their unlikely collaboration.

The film is adapted from a Spanish play, but Ozon has moved the action to France, where Germain (Fabrice Luchini) teaches literature at a secondary school. His students are mostly apathetic and he spends his evenings disappointedly marking their mediocre work, but one piece of writing catches his eye. 16 year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) uses the assignment "What I did on the weekend" to write about his relationship with fellow student Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), describing how he has long desired to see inside their comfortable home and spend time with this apparently perfect family, and how Rapha's invitation to help him with his maths homework gave him the opportunity to do so. Germain reads Claude's composition to his wife Jean (Kristin Scott Thomas), and both characters' curiosity is piqued by Claude's final line, "To be continued..."

That line hooks the viewer just as easily as it hooks Germain and Jean. Ozon gives us Claude's tale in instalments, as the teen insinuates himself ever deeper into this family's lives, becoming besotted by the "middle-class scent" and seductive curves of Rapha's mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Both Germain and Jean profess discomfort with his revelations, but they do nothing to stop it; in fact, Germain begins encouraging his student. He starts prompting him to develop his characters and themes, to take different stylistic approaches, and to do more to intrigue and excite the reader. Claude responds by telling an increasingly dangerous and salacious story. The previously milquetoast teacher even resorts to stealing a maths exam for his protégé, to ensure that his opportunities for further explorations of the home are not interrupted. Throughout all of this, we're never sure how much of what we see is real, and how much is simply the product of Claude's imagination. Is he really sharing his experiences with us, or are we all the victims of one big con?

Ultimately, that's not the point. Ozon is far more enamoured with the process of setting up his puzzle and playing with audience expectations than he is with answering any questions. In the House allows Ozon to explore themes of voyeurism, class envy and obsession, but above all else it has the feeling of being little more than a crafty and sly exercise in storytelling. The characters that Claude writes about are never fleshed out into figures that are worth taking an interest in as anything other than props in the game, which leaves the film feeling a little hollow. The characters we spend more time with are a shade more interesting thanks to the finely calibrated performances, but the story exerts no real emotional pull; we remain at a slight remove as we watch Germain and Jean get drawn inexorably into Claude's vortex.

There's much to enjoy here, though. Ozon's direction is precise throughout, and he displays unerring judgement in the way he switches between reality and fantasy, even mixing the two modes late in the film when Germain pops up in Claude's scenarios to direct the action. The director is clearly having a lot of fun with his frequent namedropping (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Pasolini, even Barbara Cartland) and his digs at the pretensions of modern art, as seen in Jean's ludicrous gallery, and an alert audience will likely have a lot of fun too. Whether that sense of joie de vivre will last up to the very end of the film – by which time the director has rather overburdened his narrative with dramatic happenings – is harder to say. In the House is a film that's full of storytellers, but between them they can't quite conjure a satisfying ending.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mea Maxima Culpa on the BBC

Last month, BBC4 screened Alex Gibney’s exceptional documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. I’m a great admirer of Gibney’s films and his exploration of abuse within the Catholic church is one of his most impressive and important achievements to date, so I was thrilled to see it getting its British television premiere on the BBC. However, I was surprised to see the film scheduled for a 90-minute slot when the film that had screened at both the London Film Festival and at cinemas around the country earlier this year had been 107 minutes long. It seems Mea Maxima Culpa had to be cut down in order to be shown as part of the BBC’s Storyville strand, but failing to show this film in its entirety angered and disappointed me, and when I complained about the BBC’s actions on Twitter the response showed I was far from alone.

I emailed Storyville editor Nick Fraser to get his perspective on the situation, and he responded this week. Our exchange can be seen below. (Note: After sending this initial email I had the opportunity to meet Alex Gibney, and during our conversation he confirmed that he had overseen the Storyville edit.)

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From: Philip Concannon
To: Nick Fraser

Hi Nick

I was delighted to see Alex Gibney's film Mea Maxima Culpa in the BBC4 schedules tonight but I was surprised to see the film running from 10pm to 11:30, as I was certain that the film I saw during last year's London Film Festival was much longer. When I checked the BBFC website my suspicions were confirmed, as Mea Maxima Culpa was 107 minutes long in cinemas.

I know that the BBC have sometimes cut feature films for their Storyville strand in the past, but I have never really understood the rationale for it and I have always found the practice infuriating. With a film like this, however, I was shocked and angered more than ever before, as I think Mea Maxima Culpa is one of the year's most powerful and important films, and to deem 17 minutes of footage irrelevant from a film of this nature seems like an insult to me. Would the BBC cut 17 minutes from a fiction film that didn't fit neatly into their schedules? I doubt they would, but the narrative of Mea Maxima Culpa is as thoughtfully constructed as that of any fiction film, with the painfully honest interviews and eye-opening footage being integral to the extraordinary story of corruption that it reveals. All of this leaves me with a number of questions.

If Mea Maxima Culpa really has to be part of the Storyville strand (I don't know why it can't stand alone), then why must a time limit of 90 minutes be so rigidly enforced? Who had the responsibility for the deciding where to cut, and was the director Alex Gibney given approval of the edits? Is it really so inconceivable that a film could run on BBC4 from 10pm to 11:50, and for the nature documentary following it to start a little later? Why bother showcasing one of the most vital films of the year if you aren't going to display it intact? Does such an act indicate a widespread lack of respect for film at the BBC, or is it only documentaries that would be treated in this way?

I have long argued that the BBC should show more intelligent, important and provocative cinema in prime-time slots on its channels, and it greatly saddens me to see what happens when they finally do so.

I would appreciate a response to my questions.

Thanks for your time.

Phil

From: Nick Fraser
To: Philip Concannon

Dear Mr Concannon,
I am sorry you felt cheated when you viewed a shorter version of MEA MAXIMA CULPA. In fact the cut was made by Alex and his editor. We felt that a 90 minute version would work for us and they were happy to make one. Many film-makers will not cut their films but Alex isn’t one of them. We have shown several of his films and I think all of them were shortened slightly. Sometimes he made the cut, sometimes I did.
As for why the film was shown in the STORYVILLE series, my answer would be – why not? STORYVILLE has become a brand and a device – we use STORYVILLE to show international non-fiction. And we are proud of STORYVILLE. Most film-makers are happy to see their work showcased in this way.
I hope this answers your questions.
With best wishes,
Nick Fraser
Editor, STORYVILLE

From: Philip Concannon
To: Nick Fraser

Hi Nick

Thanks for getting back to me. I still find the practice of cutting documentaries for television broadcast unnecessary and troubling, but I appreciate you taking the time to answer some of my questions.

Phil

From: Nick Fraserhttps://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gif
To: Philip Concannon

Well, I can see your point. But many docs - not Alex's perhaps! - are too long. Try watching as many as I do. I wrote a pamphlet which you can download at the Reuters Institute of Journalism website. N

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Although I was glad to receive a response to my email, this conversation didn't answer a lot of my questions about the BBC's attitude to films, which still leaves me feeling very uneasy. On a related note, I attended a panel discussion at the BFI last night that focused on the issue of television’s treatment of film, both in terms of the features being broadcast and the programmes based around them. This is a subject that I care about deeply, and it seems to me that an incident such as this Mea Maxima Culpa situation lies right at the heart of that issue. Storyville has done some great work in bringing a wide variety of documentaries to the BBC, but surely the form is not being afforded the respect it deserves when an award-winning film from one of the most prominent documentarians working today is deemed too long for television audiences.

Mea Maxima Culpa can be purchased on DVD here.

Nick Fraser’s Why Documentaries Matter can be downloaded here.

My interview with Mea Maxima Culpa director Alex Gibney can be read here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

King Mob and Iain Sinclair present 70x70


Iain Sinclair turned 70 years old this year, and to celebrate he has given a gift to us all. Over the course of the next year, 70 films selected by Sinclair will be screened across London. Each of the films in the programme has appearing or been referenced in one of Sinclair's books, and together they comprise one of the most eclectic and exciting repertory cinema programmes to grace London in some time. Highlights include a free screening of Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse trilogy, a double-bill of Douglas Sirk films and an epic weekend at the ICA devoted to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15½-hour TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz.

There are films in this programme that I have wanted to see for years. Godard's King Lear, and Dennis Hopper's The last Movie are both ultra-rare screenings that I'm determined not to miss (I'm still angry at myself for missing a London screening of The Last Movie in 2008), and I've long been curious about Barney Platts-Mills' Bronco Bullfrog. On top of this, there are also so many of my old favourites that I'm delighted to have the opportunity to see on the big screen again or for the first time – Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, In a Lonely Place, Le mépris and It Always Rains on Sunday to name a few. Finally, there are a number of intriguing performances dotted around between screenings, such as a 24-hour radio broadcast of Orson Welles' Mr Arkadin on Resonance FM.

The 70x70 season runs from July 17th 2013 to June 8th 2014, and full listings can be found here. Start adding these dates to your diary now. Some of these opportunities won't come around again for a long time.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

"I think it's human nature that we will always want to keep secrets, and it's also human nature that we will always want to leak them." - An Interview with Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney's latest film is called We Steal Secrets, and it couldn't be arriving in cinemas at a more appropriate time. As Edward Snowden remains on the run from the US government, the questions raised about government surveillance and public privacy in Gibney's film feel strikingly pertinent. We Steal Secrets tells the story of WikiLeaks through the rise and fall of Julian Assange and the moving case of Bradley Manning, and Gibney finds a compelling path through this complex material with typical intelligence and skill. It's another excellent documentary from one of the most consistent and prolific filmmakers working today, and I met Alex Gibney recently to discuss it.

Ever since We Steal Secrets was first screened it seems you've been coming under attack from WikiLeaks and Assange loyalists. What has that been like for you? Were you prepared for such a backlash?

I guess I should have been prepared for it because I'd seen it. In fact, when I visited Julian and had this extended 6-hour negotiation, he was busy preparing this long letter attacking a Channel 4 documentary. What I wasn't quite prepared for was the piling on from people who desperately need Julian to be a kind of pure, unalloyed hero, and therefore any criticism of Julian is seen as an attack on the ideals of transparency. I think Julian likes to put himself in that position and one of the things that the film is about is that we shouldn't allow Julian to put himself in that position. You know, nobody's perfect, certainly not Julian, and we shouldn't mistake the man with the mission.

I think the film shows both his virtues and his flaws.

Right, I agree with that, and that's the other thing. The criticism doesn't engage with the fact that a lot of the film is a pretty romantic vision of him.

So does the film reflect how your own perception of Julian altered, because you were making it as these events unfolded in real time?

I was making it in real time and my perception changed, but we decided to integrate my change of perception into the context of the film. There are somewhat unsavoury aspects to Julian's character that you see early in the film that then come back to haunt us later. It's clear as a result of his legal case in Australia that he doesn't like to be held to account. The policeman who interrogated him said he always felt he was a martyr, that he never liked to accept responsibility for what he had done. He hates being held to account even though he loves holding other people to account. Well, later on I think that becomes a real problem for him. When the Swedish episode crops up I think that becomes an opportunity to look at how his unwillingness to be held to account becomes a kind of perversion of the very ideals of the organisation.

I guess the irony is that WikiLeaks would never have achieved such status without someone like him at the helm, but it was his status that was eventually its undoing.

I agree with that, Daniel Domscheit-Berg for one would ever have been the kind of charismatic figure to attract all of this attention to WikiLeaks. When Julian is sitting in a makeup chair in the film and he says "The organisation has to have a face, I wish it didn't have to have a face" – I'm not sure I believe that last statement, by the way – I do sense there was a problem there. He needed to present a face, he was a good one, he attracted a lot of attention and interest, but over time I think Julian began to assume that he and the principles of WikiLeaks were one and the same. Therefore, if you attack him for whatever reason you are attacking the principles of WikiLeaks.

In the film we see your unsuccessful attempts to get an interview with him, but in hindsight do you think the film is stronger because of this failure? Perhaps an interview with him might have dominated the story too much?

I don't know if he would have dominated it too much, but I think by the time I came upon Julian Assange, which was after he had become hugely famous, he had become very much a celebrity and he was presenting a kind of celebrity face to the world. Now, there may be others who can capture a more intimate version of Julian Assange, but I'm afraid he was at that time a pamphleteer, a propagandist, and he was not interested in showing any kind of insight into his own thinking or his story. I fear, based on my meetings with him, that the interview would have been long, ponderous and speechy.

I guess the lack of an interview with Assange also gave you the opportunity to shift the focus from him to Bradley Manning.

Well that to me was the big bonus, and I think that's why the film did become better. By not having Assange's interview, Bradley Manning emerged, and Bradley Manning really is the hero of the film, not Assange.

I think a lot of people who go to the film for Julian Assange will come away from it thinking about Bradley Manning.

Correct, I hope that's right.

There's a surprising emotional impact from watching his text conversations with Adrian Lamo unfold on screen.

This was the biggest leap of faith we made creatively in the film. We wondered at the beginning, how do we represent Bradley Manning's chats? Initially we thought we had better get an actor to read them, because that's the only way it could be successful, but then we thought that was wrong, it was dead wrong. What was so essential about those chats is the way that information was conveyed, i.e. via text. It was someone sitting alone in a room, texting somebody they don't even know, and sharing their most intimate personal details with them. We felt that we should embrace that, and luckily we were working with this company Framestore – you know, they did the special effects for Harry Potter and so many other things – and we said, please take this journey with us and let's keep discussing how to present this stuff. Those chats in particular ended up being the simplest things but actually they were the most complicated thing to render. We just couldn't get them right, in the rough cut they were just white text on a black screen, but we wanted something that conveyed the idea that you were inside in the internet, and to be both digital and human at the same time. They came up with a process that was at once digital and analogue, they photographed images from a TV set to give it an analogue quality in addition to the digital quality, and that's how we came up with what we ended up with. It's a subtle thing, but I think it's important.

It's a good time to be reminded of what an extraordinary story Bradley Manning's tale is. A troubled individual given access to all of these secrets, he's betrayed by Adrian Lamo, and now he's on trial where it seems they're going to hit him as hard as they can.

Right, it's unbelievable. They're trying to hit him as hard as they can and I think they're trying to hit him in a very reprehensible way. His lawyer did a rather brilliant thing, which is to plead guilty to the technical charges of leaking, because after all let's admit that Bradley Manning did break an oath in the military. He's a soldier who took an oath to protect these secrets and he leaked them. It's interesting that Manning – as opposed to Assange – is willing to be held to account, but he said don't hold me to account for spying, I'm not a spy. I didn't leak these materials for financial gain, I didn't leak them to a foreign power for some unique political advantage, I leaked them to the world because I want to make the world a better place. They're trying to say he's aiding the enemy and there will be a lot of testimony about how stuff he leaked ended up on Osama bin Laden's computer. Well, I'm sure a lot of articles from The New York Times and The Guardian ended up on Osama bin Laden's computer.

Do you think he's being used as an example to warn others what will happen if they cross the government in this way?

Yes, they're trying to do what the British Navy used to do – "Hoist the wretch," you know, hang him on the yardarm for the rest of the crew. I think they're also trying to divert attention from the lies that they're telling, but that I think will ultimately fail.

One part of the film deals with that, when it shows the US reaction to Julian Assange. They made the story all about him, saying he had "blood on his hands," etc. and that distracted from the content of what he leaked. Can you see a similar thing happening with Edward Snowden, where the story is now all about this young man on the run and people have stopped talking about what he exposed?

It's a tactic being repeated, but I think in the case of Julian Assange it's unfortunately a tactic that he helped the US government achieve. I think if he had been more conservative and a little bit more careful with redactions, the US government would have had a much harder time separating him out from The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. So he made a mistake; they corrected it by the time of the Iraqi War Logs, but he made a mistake because that's what the government is always going to do. In the case of Snowden, in a way it's understandable from Snowden's perspective, he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in jail and he assumes that things will not go well in an American courtroom. At the same time, one of the most admirable things about Snowden when he first came forward was that he said, "Actually, I'm not going to hide, it's ok to disclose who I am because I'm willing to face the music." Now, by being on the lam in the transit area of a Moscow airport, he has distracted in a way from the very things he was trying to expose.

The responsibility also lies with the media not to get distracted from the meat of the story.

Well, yeah, it does. This gets into the territory that I'm interested in, which is where people say we shouldn't follow personal stories and things should only be written about institutions – well, really? How many stories would we read if it was about "Citizen 5259B who said this," right? I think we're human beings and we're interested in human stories. The problem becomes when governments and those who sometimes oppose governments end up having to present duelling narratives, and it's all about who gets to tell the best story.

We Steal Secrets is a study of human nature in many ways.

Yes, it's about human nature but I would also like to say that We Steal Secrets is about human beings and it's about institutions. It's about both, and you can't do one without the other.

This idea of total openness and freedom of information that WikiLeaks was aiming for, do you think that's something feasible and attainable, or is it our human nature that will deny that?

I think it's human nature that we will always want to keep secrets, and it's also human nature that we will always want to leak them. It's all about the balance, and I think one of the reasons you're seeing so many leaks now is because things are out of balance. Governments and corporations are keeping far too many secrets. As a result, leakers are pressure valves allowing those secrets to pop up. If governments and corporations would keep fewer secrets then I suspect there would be fewer leaks.

The government wants to have it both ways, though. Revealing no secrets of its own while spying on its people.

Correct. The title of the film is We Steal Secrets, and that's said by Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA. It sets the whole story in context, because governments are guilty of stealing secrets all the time – and by the way, they're guilty of leaking secrets all the time. They do it, but they don't want citizens to do it. It gets to a territory of rough justice, that's what this world is about. Who has the moral high ground? Who can tell the better and compelling story?

Rather than being a film that originated with you, this project was pitched to you by Universal. Did that affect your process or the way you approached it in any way?

I was nervous about it initially, but one of the things they did – and they did it for a pretty good reason – was that they gave me final cut. They gave me final cut so I could go to anybody who participated in the film and said, "Guess what, by contract I have final cut. When you're talking to me you're not talking to Universal, you're talking to me." To their credit, that's what they did, and frankly they were great. They were not intrusive at all. Marc Shmuger as a producer was a fantastic creative force, helping to shape the story. There was no corporate agenda in that sense, they just wanted to tell a good story that would hopefully be compelling and people would watch.

I guess it must have been good to have the support of a major studio when the smear campaign started as well.

I guess so, but at the end of the day...you know, it's funny you should say smear campaign because of course Julian Assange accused everybody of running a smear campaign against him in the Swedish episode. But at the end of the day, fine. Run a smear campaign, go for it. It's all about dialogue. What has disappointed me about the smear campaign is that it's just that, it's a smear campaign. It's not much tethered to rational argument. It has as much to do with religious faith.

And much of it has come from people who haven't seen the film.

Yes, in many cases people haven't even seen the film. They've read the annotated transcript but the annotated transcript doesn't include any of Bradley Manning's words, so what is that? I read a recent review by Robert Manne, who is actually in the film, an Australian academic, he takes as gospel some of the things that Julian says in the annotated transcript. Look, it's all about trust at the end of the day, there's a lot of things that Julian says in the annotated transcript that is inaccurate. As a filmmaker, the other thing that kind of pisses me off about the annotated transcript is that people aren't seeing the movie, they're reading a  transcript. I didn't make this to make a transcript, I made a film. Even filmmakers like John Pilger and Oliver Stone criticised the movie by reading a transcript. So the next time Oliver Stone makes JFK, should I just go and read the transcript?

That's the weird thing about it, because Oliver Stone went through a similar experience on JFK so surely if anyone is sympathetic to your situation it should be him.

I think his thought process is simple, which is Julian is good and the US government is bad, and anything that criticises Julian is bad.

When you take on these enormously complex, sprawling subjects, how do you find a clear narrative line? What's your way into a story?

One of the things that helps me is to come up with a kind of genre that will be applied in cinematic terms. Enron was a heist film, Taxi was a murder-mystery, and We Steal Secrets is a spy thriller. So that gives you a clue about how you're going to approach it. But at the end of the day, we had a three hour and thirty-minute cut on the first go-round, so you have to keep on shrinking the story in ways so, just like writing a screenplay, everything folds in on itself. Something you choose here about a character has to pay off later on, and you have to keep that in mind as you keep shrinking the story down, so you pay more attention to story and narrative than themes. At the same time, if you end up getting the story right, you can be pretty complicated around the edges, knowing that people are going to follow the story, and that allows for a lot of nuance, ambiguity and thematic detail that you otherwise wouldn't get.

We talked about how this story was unfolding as you made it, and it many ways it's still unfolding. How did you know when it was time to finish the film? Was it hard to let it go?

It was hard to let go but at the same time we recognised that things were going to go on and on and on. So the question was, at what point could we come to an end that felt satisfying in the context of our narrative? Once Julian entered the Ecuadorean Embassy we figured that was it. Now we had the two key protagonists both in prison and that seemed like a good place to end the story, so that's what we did.

Finally, I know you've been working on the Lance Armstrong film for a long time.

Since 2008.

I understand that film is nearly finished, is that right?

We just locked reel four today. Sony Classics will release it and I think it will be in festivals in late summer, early fall. I'm proud of that one. I think it has turned out pretty well.

We Steal Secrets is released in UK cinemas on July 12th.

The Passion of Joan of Arc at Union Chapel


After being feared lost for so many decades, Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc has become a staple on the repertory cinema scene. I've seen the film numerous times and on almost every one of those occasions the film has been presented with a different musical accompaniment – electronic music, classical pieces, orchestral scores or even just a single pianist improvising to on screen events. Dreyer famously intended that his film be screened without any musical accompaniment, but his extraordinary masterwork has invited such a brilliant and eclectic variety of compositions, with musicians being inspired by the film and its legendary central performance.

The latest artist to set The Passion of Joan of Arc to music in Irene Buckley. Her score received its premiere at the 2013 Glasgow Film Festival, where it was performed in the city's cathedral, and now it is coming to London for a special event at Union Chapel. This screening will mark the restoration of the chapel's 19th century organ, with Organist James McVinnie participating in the performance of Buckley's score. The Irish composer’s has used the text and the structure of the Requiem Mass to create an evocative new work scored for soprano, organ and electronics, and a sample of her work can be seen below.



The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest films ever made. Dreyer's depiction of Joan's last hours, her trial and her death, offers a spiritual and emotional experience that few – if any – other films can come close to matching, and it features a heart-wrenching performance from Renée Maria Falconetti that will never be forgotten by anyone who sees it. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a miracle of filmmaking. It is a work of art that stands alone, continually challenging us, moving us, inspiring us, and inviting us to study a face that seems to express the essence of cinema itself.

The Passion of Joan of Arc will be screened at Union Chapel on Wednesday July 17th at 8:45pm. Tickets cost £15, and can be purchased here.