989 (121). Toute une nuit / All Night Long (1982, Chantal Akerman)

Screened November 29 on YouTube (thanks to Gina Telaroli for the tip) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT Rank #975  IMDb


In a way it makes sense that Chantal Akerman's 1982 masterpiece is (for the moment) available on YouTube, because it resembles a fan video compilation of dramatic scenes from the movies, stitched together in one ecstatic montage.  Instead of ripping them from her DVD collection, she's reshot them in her own beloved Brussels. By my count we're looking at 55 dramatic encounters, embraces and separations involving 75 nameless characters, usually in couples, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, arranged in loose chronology from anticipatory dusk to weary dawn. It's a puzzle-form film that practically begs to be re-watched and broken down by geeks to find patterns and beguiling inconsistencies - like when a woman checks into a hotel in one scene only to be seen running into the same hotel a few scenes later. Many characters resemble each other in appearance and dress (women in blue dresses, men in white shirts) such that they all bleed into each other - only upon close observation does one realize that only a few characters reappear, and mostly near the end.

This convergence of the universal and the specific is but one of the film's several paradoxes. With it's actors' balletic movements, rushing up and down streets and stairwells, pushing and pulling their partners in bars and bedrooms, it's a musical, except  without music (save the recurring clacking of heels, as irresistible as fate). It depicts a city teeming with human life, energy, lustful passions, yet nearly every figure seems touched with lonely desperation even in their moments of consummation.  Or the way the characters move and speak like automatons following pre-programmed behaviors to express their most selfish desires. Love and lust, so exciting in an isolated moment, so banal in the context of human history, a script that essentially has never changed.

For me, this dialogue between love in the movies and in real life is the film's most beguiling paradox. These fleeting scenes of romantic union and dissolution somehow embody both the larger-than-life drama of movie climaxes (and cliches) and the quotidian pleasure of everyday people-watching. Because these sublime encounters are devoid of the larger narrative granted to movie characters, they become as anonymous as people embracing on the street. The thrill of the movies aren't just on screen, they're everywhere around us, if we have the eyes to see them. This movie grants us that gift.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of Toute Une Nuit among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Berenice Reynaud, Sight & Sound (1992) Helmut W. Banz, Steadycam (2007) Peter Korte, Steadycam (2007) Jim Jarmusch, Premiere: The 1980's Best (1989)


Chantal Akerman said good-bye to minimalism with this 1982 feature, which finds its model less in Michael Snow than MGM musicals. A hot summer night in Brussels is covered in brief narrative fragments centered on couples coming together or breaking up; as the film continues, it acquires an almost choreographic sense of rhythm and space. A real pleasure to watch, though Akerman doesn't skirt the darker implications of this dance of desire.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader


Chantal Akerman presents a structurally challenging, yet emotionally honest, understatedly humorous, and visually compelling choreography of motion, rhythm, and passion in Toute une nuit. Using short takes, minimal dialogue, and fragmented narrative, Akerman distills the visual narrative into the brief, yet essential moments that define the spectrum of human interaction: separation, attraction, reconciliation, reunion, intimacy, absence, rejection. Filmed as a narcoleptic journey through a sultry and languorous evening in summertime Brussels, Toute une nuit becomes a subtle and relevant validation on the singularity of human existence - a chronicle of the irrepressible passion and vitality that lay beneath the surface of an alienating urban landscape.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School


Akerman, the mistress of minimalism, has made her own midsummer night's sex comedy, with a superabundance of stories and a cast of (almost) thousands. The film shows an endless series of brief encounters that take place in Brussels in the course of one delirious, torrid June night, with the twist that each relationship is condensed into a single moment of high melodrama - the coup de foudre, the climax of passion, the end of an affair - with the spectator left to fill in the fictional spaces between scenes. Each couple compulsively plays through the same gestures, each mating rite is a variation on the same theme: repetitions which Akerman uses both as a rich source of comedy and as a device to show erotic desire as a pattern of codes and conventions. Marrying the pleasure of narrative to the purism of the avant-garde, this is her most accessible film to date.

- Time Out


In Toute une nuit Akerman displays her precision and control as she stages the separate, audience-involving adventures of a huge cast of all ages that wanders out into Brussels byways on a hot, stormy night. In this film, reminiscent of Wim Wenders and his wanderers and Marguerite Duras's inventive sound tracks, choreography, and sense of place, Akerman continues to explore her medium using no conventional plot, few spoken words, many sounds, people who leave the frame to a lingering camera, and appealing images. A little girl asks a man to dance with her, and he does. The filmmaker's feeling for the child and the child's independence can't be mistaken.

- Lilian SchiffFilm Reference.com


Toute une nuit continues the theme of solitude, as it follows the monotonous sexual encounters of one particular night, as sugested in the film's title. Couples do not get together in All Night Long. Marsha Kinder describes the challenges posed by this film:

"By denying us a single unifying story, by frequently pitting word against image and non-verbal sound, by discouraging us from identifying with any of the anonymous characters, by denying us a single unified subject position... Toute une nuit makes us change the way we read a film."

Gwendolyn Audrey FosterIdentity and memory: the films of Chantal Akerman. SIU Press, 2003. Page 3.

Chantal Akerman's work has a dry, cumulative intensity. Extended takes, fixed frames, and a resolutely frontal camera position efface the conventions of analytic editing; precise and repeated framings are coupled with a consistent focus on single characters and an insistence on time. In the 1970s films, single protagonists propel the narrative through visible displacements (Je tu il elle, 1974, Meetings with Anna, 1978) or increasingly charged stillness (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975). This premise is reversed in the '80s work - in Toute une nuit (All night long, 1982), for example, whre Akerman's narrative, though still predicated on accumulation, is spread over multiple episodic threads, as characters couple and decouple according to a logic of the romantic - through longing, sexual desire, boredom...

In Toute une nuit, Akerman passes from the minimalist narratives of her earlier films to her later, idiosyncratic use of the movie-musical form - a natural outgrowth of her attention to the rhythms of gesture and dialogue, and to her transformations of them into an antinaturalistic choreography of concreteness. "No links except a musical one, with recurrences and ruptures," says Akerman of Toute une nuit's fragmentary structure...

Ivone Margulies. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday. Duke University Press, 1996. Pages 171-172


Toute Une Nuit exemplifies her fairy tale wish granting on a grand scale. As in the other films, extremes of hunger and appetite, need and excess, too-much and not-enough retrain our senses. Avant-garde filmmaker Anne Severson once made a film of animals running, culled from archive footage, to satisfy her own childhood hunger to see more jungle every time the Hollywood camera returned to Ava Gardner, or some such colonial-abroad star, wiping sweat from her brow. I can imagine Akerman indulging the same hunger for the archetypical movie embrace, that mad dash into (or out of) each other's arms in the cathartic moment of numberless Hollywood or French movies of the thirties. Enter the fairy tale. Akerman stacks her film with these embraces - and virtually nothing else- so that they are totally stripped of psychological definition and narrative meaning. The embraces become, like many of the actions in her films, very nearly existential. They have no meaning beyond their visual literalization. And yet, having given up the expectation of emotional drama, the viewer is rewarded with a semblance of a post-modernist musical in which the tableaux, rhythm of shots, exchanges of looks, even falling of glasses, become a choreographed and scored performance played to the hilt. The film turns itself inside out, embodying a critique of romance and the musical genre all at once.

Akerman adds an extra layer to her metacinema by seeding her films with jokes and references to earlier work. In Toute Une Nuit, Akerman's own mother smokes a cigarette as her daughter cries "Mama on the soundtrack, in a simultaneous invocation of News from Home and Rendez-vous d'Anna's pillow-talk sequence.

B. Ruby RichChick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Duke University Press, 1998. Page 172.



Another beautiful insomniac's journey from Chantal Akerman. Narrative is La Ronde fractured, spun out of dozens of fragments of personal dramas not quite intertwining over a humid, languorous night in oppressively impersonal Brussels. A woman meets her lover in a bar while another couple looks on from a nearby table, separated until a tentative embrace breaks through the symmetry of the frame; a trio splitting leads to another couple dancing around a jukebox in a deserted restaurant; another middle-aged couple decides to go out while a woman packs up her things and takes off while her husband sleeps, and so on into dawn. Huddling actors and non-professionals (the only recognizable one is Aurore Clément, Anna in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna), Akerman grids out a panorama of aching city dwellers stepping into and out of apartments, hooking up or barely missing each other, a rendezvous kept and then broken, each and every affair marinated in its own flavor of heartbreak. Her Brussels is a democratically alienated center, with young and aged, straight and queer, local and immigrant soaking in the heat and suffering through the mysteries of human interaction with delicate variations of an ongoing plaintive murmur ("Come with me. No? ... I don't think we still love each other ... Keep me from drinking. I am scared.") Akerman's framing and panning are as severe as in her previous films, yet the duration of her shots is lighter, more elastic, reflecting the ephemeral feel of the passing fancies she captures -- a notion expressed in the closing passage with sublime consequences for Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis, Clément dreamily swaying with her lover through a reverse tracking-shot down a corridor while in the soundtrack their romantic Italian chanson battles it out with the disembodied honking of cars implacably ushering in the early morning, and reality.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

Although Toute Une Nuit is not as personal as Akerman’s most powerful films, her methodic filmmaking, sly humor, and obsession with relationships is firmly on display in her pseduo-conceptual work.Toute Une Nuit, like most Akerman films, contains minimal dialogue, and slowly tracks over two dozen characters as they move around urban Brussels passionately connecting with one another, if only for brief moments. It is hard to imagine Richard Linklater’s great film Slacker working, or even existing, without Chantal Akerman. While Toute Une Nuit is still only available on VHS, it is worth seeking out (and can be found on Amazon for under $5!) It is a good introduction to Akerman’s work (although I think News From Home (1977) would be the best introduction) and has quietly thrilling aspects that have become part of Akerman’s signature voice.

James HansenOut 1


Instead of a safely potted narrative plant, Äkerman gives us a plethora of seemingly random narrative shoots. These bits of life reflect how we experience our own lives. Characters are let go of for a while and picked up again. While her husband soundly sleeps, a woman noisily packs her bag right on the bed and leaves him, goes to a hotel, but returns home at dawn defeated, gets back into bed just in time for the ringing alarm clock to presumably awaken her, as well as him. For years I took exception to this artificial aspect, this miniature story, but now I find that it underscores by contrast the different method of the rest of Äkerman’s formally rigorous yet open-ended film.

- Dennis Grunes

The odd adventure in filmmaking is worth savoring because of its uniqueness, its lingering hypnotic effect, the artistic way all the brief encounters reach a melodramatic moment and in the delicate manner Miss Akerman tells her amorous narrative in an experimental film style. Miss Akerman plays with the same theme for each couple, as the repetition offers both a mix of sad and happy moments. It's surprisingly an accessible film (at least for her), and combines a sense of absurd humor with the erotic. Not a great film, but one that catches your attention.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews


The yearning for romance and for the romance of the ordinary is a central ingredient of her work, but the most remarkable moments in her films are those in which her other, demonic impulses rebel against this fantasy. Emblematic in this respect is the ending of Toute une nuit, an insomniac's movie about insomniacs, in which a couple's lovemaking is gradually smothered, and all but obliterated from our attention, by the hectoring sounds of early-morning traffic outside. The tortured aggressiveness of such a moment is finally what her filmmaking is all about--her cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions and brutal sounds being hammered into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood all seem like pussycats.

Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990


IMDb  Wiki

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Profile Page for Chantal Akerman:

"At the age of fifteen Chantal Akerman saw Godard's Pierrot le fou and realized that filmmaking could be experimental and personal. She dropped in and out of film school and has since created short and feature films for viewers who appreciate the opportunity her works provide to think about sounds and images. Her films are often shot in real time, and in space that is part of the characters' identity." - Lillian Schiff (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"Belgian-born director who makes long, often tedious, but sometimes hypnotically watchable arthouse films in which the camera's concentration on scenes for a long period of time can turn the viewer's pleasure into discomfort, interest into boredom or disinterest into perception. A unique film-maker, she continues to alternately baffle and fascinate her audiences." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"Independent filmmaker noted for her minimalist narratives and static visual style...Her films, often dramatically vague and nearly plotless, typically seek to explore human emotion and character through unorthodox cinematic means. Although she is admired by serious critics, her films are barely accessible to general audiences.." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress--a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.

On the other hand, paradoxically, there are few important contemporary filmmakers whose range is as ruthlessly narrow as Akerman's, formally and emotionally. Virtually all of her films, regardless of genre, come across as melancholy, narcissistic meditations charged with feelings of loneliness and anxiety; and nearly all of them have the same hard-edged painterly presence and monumentality, the same precise sense of framing, locations, and empty space. Most of them are fundamentally concerned with the discomfort of bodies in rooms. (Akerman is basically geared toward interiors, which may be one reason her latest feature, Food, Family and Philosophy, set mostly in exteriors, is not one of her strongest. The fact that virtually all of Window Shopping, her musical, is set inside a shopping mall sets up an interesting ambiguity about whether one is inside or out--until the shock of the ending, when the film finally moves out into the open air.)

If I have a reputation for being difficult, it's because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.

--Chantal Akerman

A yearning for the ordinary as well as the everyday runs through Akerman's work like a recurring, plaintive refrain. It is a longing that takes many forms: part of it is simply her ambition to make a commercially successful movie; another part is the desire of a self-destructive, somewhat regressive neurotic--Akerman herself in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, and The Man With a Suitcase; Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman; Aurore Clement in Les rendezvous d'Anna--to go legit and be like "normal" people. Je tu il elle and Les rendezvous d'Anna both feature a bisexual heroine who wants to either resolve an unhappy relationship with another woman or to go straight; in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, Jeanne Dielman, and The Man With a Suitcase, the desire to be "normal" is largely reflected in the efforts of the heroine simply to inhabit a domestic space.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990


Akerman's defiance of cinematic conventions - not just the faster takes but the intrusive soundtracks, the constant visual fidgeting, the tendentious editing - has something liberating about it. Her approach, characterized by extreme restraint, makes you aware of just how manipulative, even bullying these conventions can be, though we rarely give them a second thought.

Her own slow style discourages the suspension of disbelief, allowing the mind time and space to roam, to contemplate, to question. Of course, her style can also frustrate. Akerman toys deliberately with our desire to know more, to see more, to glean a plot or grasp what is going on. Her strategy can make you resentful, but it also creates tension.

- Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe, June 8 2008

What has made Chantal Akerman such an important part of world cinema has been her ability to raise, across a wide variety of forms, common questions that touch the core of both cinematic aesthetics and feminist political practice. The flexibility she has exhibited over the years should confirm her status not as a progressively more compromised filmmaker, but as an artist committed enough to ask questions in different idioms, instead of piously relying on one (supposedly) politically or aesthetically purified form, as so many members of both the political and romantic avant-gardes have.

- Jerry White, "Chantal Akerman's Revisionist Aesthetic." From Women and Experimental Filmmaking, edited by Jean Petrolle, Virginia Wright Wexman. University of Illinois Press, 2005. Page 47.


969 (111). Song of Ceylon (1934, Basil Wright)

screened May 23 2009 on British Film Institute Region 2 DVD (courtesy of Cindi Rowell) TSPDT rank #930 IMDb Wiki

Ever since Robert Flaherty aimed his camera at an Inuit named Nanook, the documentary film has had to contend with its multiple and often conflicting functions: as an authentic representation of reality, as a vehicle for conveying ideology, as a work of art.  While many documentaries of the past may seem quaint on all three fronts through today's eyes, they are no more problematized than contemporary works. As a distributor of contemporary Chinese documentaries, I see these issues figuring as prominently in many of the films I review as in works dating back 75 years, whose presumptions towards objectivity or sophistication belie prejudices in perception, culture and aesthetics. Such a work is Song of Ceylon.

Conceived under the supervision of British documentary godfather John Grierson as a propaganda piece for British commercial tea interests, Song of Ceylon all but transcends its colonialist industrial premise. It's a bona fide work of art that celebrates the lives and values of native Sri Lankans while actively questioning the impact of the tea industry on their way of life. The film is blessed with an uncommonly musical sense of editing rhythm, lyrical camera movements that are rare for documentaries of any era, and best of all, a dense soundtrack that mixes native songs, nature sounds and industrial noise into what could work as a stand-alone audio drama.

At the same time, the film can't fully overcome its thoroughly Western orientation even as it attempts to celebrate its subjects and critique the colonial forces threatening to alter their culture. The problems can be summed up in the selection of a British travelogue text from 1680 to serve as the film's primary narration. It's a poetic attempt to connect the way of life captured on film to an idea of an eternal Eden, to which the colonialist forces of commerce play antagonist. But the notion itself is a sentimental fiction that projects a romantic view of native life rather than letting it speak on its own terms (this despite having a man with a South Asian accent read the British text as a play for authenticity). The four-part narrative begins and ends with a cinematic tribute to Buddha, presented as an Oriental analogue to Christ for introducing spiritual civility to a land of pagans; again, another projection of Western meaning upon Eastern forms. In its attempts to critique the prejudices of Western colonialism only to arrive at new ones, the film becomes what may be the first work of neo-colonialist cinema.

But there's no denying the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking on display, especially the third section, which takes documentary into a political and artistic dimension that's years ahead of its time. It's a dense montage that juxtaposes the imagery of the Sri Lankans laboring in various capacities against the sterile geometries and clanging electronic transmissions of a trade office coordinating their efforts. The incongruence of these two worlds - bodily vs. bodiless work - is so jarring that Eisenstein couldn't have done a better job articulating the alienation of labor in cinematic terms.

All in all, Song of Ceylon is a rare film whose aural and visual rhythms and textures fully immerse the viewer into a singularly cinematic experience, regardless of its relationship to the reality being represented.

WATCH SONG OF CEYLON in its entirety on YouTube:


The following votes were counted towards the placement of Song of Ceylon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Colin Young, Sight & Sound (1962) Edgar Anstey, Sight & Sound (1982) Kumar Shahani, Sight & Sound (1992) Paul Rotha, Sight & Sound (1982)

No mere documentary, Song of Ceylon (originally released in England in 1934) has been described by some observers as a meditative experience and by others as "innovative, lovely, lasting." With the utmost respect (and a refreshing lack of "white man's burden" condescension), director Basil Wright offers a fascinating study of the Ceylonese people, their day-to-day existence and their ages-old customs. Of special interest is the film's emphasis on Buddhism, as manifested in the country's ancient sunken temples. Amidst this reverent splendor is an undercurrent of sadness, as the film shows how the West had already begun to commercialize Ceylon. Without taking anything away from Basil Wright, who not only directed but handled all the cinematography, it must be noted that Song of Ceylon was the brainchild of John Grierson, better known as "The Father of the British Documentary." It is currently available in video as part of a collection of Grierson productions, including Drifters (1929) and Industrial Britain.

- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Made by the GPO Film Unit and sponsored by both the Empire Tea Marketing Board and the Ceylon Tea Board, Song of Ceylon is one of the most critically acclaimed products of the documentary film movement. It was hailed at the time of its release by author and film critic Graham Greene as a cinematic masterpiece, and received the award for best film at the International Film Festival in Brussels, 1935.

The film is a sophisticated documentary, notable for its experimentation with sound. It features crucial input from Alberto Cavalcanti, who helped with the soundtrack, as well as composer Walter Leigh, who experimented in the studio to create a number of sound effects.

The film's soundtrack was carefully put together in a studio because technical limitations precluded the ability to record synchronised sound. Leigh constructed a number of 'exotic' sounds, reflecting ceremonial practice and interweaved them with anthropological narration. At times these sounds are disconcerting in the way that they are used: gong sounds, for instance, are treated and manipulated to increase their harshness. The most striking use of experimental sound occurs in the third section of the film, which depicts the effects of telecommunications systems on the native lifestyle. A montage of industrial sounds and electronic waves are mixed together, creating an expressive, yet rather dissonant, sense of the encroachment of modernity.

The third section of the film is the most disconcerting of the four sections and initially contrasts with the other sections. Yet overall the film is structured in a 'circular' manner, emphasising that continuity can occur despite the onset of an initially alien way of life.. The first two sections focus on native rituals and working practices, always stressing the Sinhalese in relation to their natural environment. The modernity of the third sequence initially implies that nature and tradition are endangered by advanced industrialism, but in the last section we return again to the natives partaking in another ceremony, while industrial sounds become merged with the 'traditional' sounds.

Ultimately, then, Song of Ceylon imparts the message that nature and native traditions can coexist harmoniously with modernity. The film proposes a benign, rather than ruthless, message of progress, stressing the benefits of technological innovations. At the end of the film, the camera pans over palm leaves, while a gong sound is also heard, reprising images and sounds featured at the start.

- Jamie Sexton, Screen Online

One of the finest achievements of the British documentary movement was Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, which has been called the world's finest example of lyrical documentary. The film's theme, as its producer John Grierson described it, is "Buddhism and the art of life it has to offer, set upon by a Western metropolitan civilization which, in spite of all our skills, has no art of life to offer."

Graham Greene, reviewing the film when it played as the second feature in a London art theatre, described it as having an "air of absolute certainty in its object and assurance in its method." He singled out shots of birds in flight as "one of the loveliest visual metaphors I have ever seen on any screen." Wright later said that he had seen the birds at the end of a day's shooting, when the light was practically gone; he made his assistant unpack the cameras and get out the telephoto lens, though at the time he had no idea how the shots would be used.

Song of Ceylon

The film's narration was taken from a book written by Robert Knox in 1680, which Wright had discovered by chance in a store window. At the last minute, Wright inserted four titles which prescribes the film's symphonic structure: "The Buddha," "The Virgin Island," "Voices of commerce," and "The Apparel of the Gods." The first section, extremely slow, follows pilgrims up a mountainside to pray. The second shows the daily life of the people. "Voices of Commerce" juxtaposes two systems of labor, with the sound track ironically quoting British stock market prices and the arrival and departure times for ships while Ceylonese natives gather coconuts and tea leaves by hand. The last section returns to the religious and cultural life as it had been lived by the Ceylonese people centuries before the arrival of the British.

Not everyone responded favorably to the film's poetry and beauty. Variety's reviewer called Song of Ceylon "a shade too arty," despite its "splendid camera work." John T. McManus, in the New York Times, attributed the film entirely to John Grierson (without mentioning Basil Wright's name) and seemed bothered by what he called the film's "basic aloofness." He objected not so much to the film ("beautiful job. . . striking in photographic values. . . painstaking in composition and montage") as to its approach. "It certainly deserves the prizes it has won, but there are prizes it could not win," McManus concluded. The same could be said, however, for any film which, like Song of Ceylon, is one of a kind.

Basil Wright summed up his feelings about the film in this way: "I think Song of Ceylon is the work of a young man exposed for the first time to an oriental as opposed to occidental way of life, and to a very impressive and convincing oriental religion . . . . Without any question it's the only film I've ever made that I can bear to look at." Wright directed or co-directed some 25 other documentaries (including the celebrated Night Mail, with Harry Watt, and World without End, with Paul Rotha). He was also author of many film articles and reviews, as well as two books—The Use of Film and The Long View.

Cecile Starr, Film Reference.com

Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright the principal creator, is one of the accepted masterpieces of documentary. Sponsored by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board (Ceylon today is Sri Lanka), it is first of all remarkable in being so fully and freely a work of art while doing so little to sell the sponsor's product, perhaps even subverting its main goals. It may be even more remarkable, within the body of early British documentary, as a highly personal work, which, furthermore, emphasizes matters of the spirit. It is a moving hymn to a native people, their work, their ways, and their values in conflict with imposed requirements of modern commerce.

Formally, in aesthetic terms, Song of Ceylon is the most complex and sophisticated artwork of British documentary of the 1930s. Though it contains exquisite images of a golden time and place, not unlike those of Flaherty's Samoa in Moana, Wright's discovered Eden has a discordant note accompanying it.

The commentary is drawn from a 1680 book on Ceylon by the traveler Robert Knox. It provides an appreciative description of traditional life, which we see and also hear in reverberating gongs, native music, and rhythmic chanting to the dancing. In the third sequence, entitled "The Voices of Commerce," the discord erupts. Images of the indigenous and traditional are here accompanied by deep whistles of seagoing freighters, Morse code beeping on the wireless, English voices dictating business letters and listing stock market quotations. This medley of sound, plus a musical score suggesting an Eastern modality composed and conducted by Walter Leigh, was supervised by Cavalcanti. In addition to Wright's principal role, Leigh, Cavalcanti, and Grierson, to one extent or another, were all involved in the creation of the whole, which can astonish and delight audiences as much today as it did when first shown.

- Jack C. Ellis, Betsy A. McLane, A New History of Documentary Film. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pages 66-67

“The anthropological text is performed both like a musical score and a theatrical ritual….The film engages the viewer in the cinematic body as spectacle…” Trinh T. Minh-ha, Discourse, Quoted in Women Make Movies

Song of Ceylon is the first great realization of the classic documentary texts of the 1930s. Exemplifying a new form of expression, it announces a period of experimentation that would produce the movement's most interesting films. The film is extraordinarily complex, much more complex than one could anticipate from a young filmmaker working within a newly formed and largely amateur production unit. In 1933 Wright, by his own admission, was still a neophyte in many respects, and, like the genre itself, open to a variety of experimental tendencies. Wright explicitly recognizes two crucial influences: the work of American documentarist Robert Flaherty and of Brazilian/French filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, both "marginal" innovators who, in the early 1930s, conserve the spirit of experimentation apparent in their earlier silent films.

Song of Ceylon is also complex because it embodies the political contradictions the documentary movement assumes by its position within the British state apparatus. On the one hand, the British documentarists identified themselves as socialists with a "socially progressive outlook"; on the other hand, they worked within a conservative state bureaucracy that demanded restraint and self-censorship. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that Song of Ceylon is, in many ways, a dissonant text, the locus of conflicts of an ideological nature. Moreover, Song of Ceylon, commissioned by the EMB and the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, raises the colonial question: how are British filmmakers to position themselves with regard to British exploitation of its colonies?

- William Guynn, "The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon" Published in Documenting the Documentary, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Pages 83-84.

Once a routine entry on lists of the all-time ten best films, Wright’s Song is rarely sung anymore for its perceived chauvinism, although Wright may be ironically undercutting chauvinistic notions voiced in the late seventeenth-century text (by Robert Knox) that the film’s narration draws upon. Everyone agrees that the film is lyrical.

The opening tests the possibility of Wright’s irony. Ceylon’s “dark forest,” which the narrator (quoting Knox) says existed “since ancient times,” plants the land and its people in the symbolical “darkness” of ignorance, backwardness. But the accompanying tracking shot through forest is most striking for shafts of intense sunlight! The narrator proceeds to describe natives as making themselves “prostrate to the Devil” at night; but the accompanying image of grotesquely masked figures dancing in fire-lit darkness is sufficiently fantastic to suggest a dream, one perhaps lodged in the “civilized” Western mind that, we cannot help but note, presumes a literal belief in the Devil! In any case, the narration explains that Buddhism replaced such devil-worship as the film moves from night to day and from gaudy, pulsating closeups to orderly long-shots. We suddenly realize that the devil-dance is a performance, a reconstruction.

- Dennis Grunes

Song of Ceylon shows the land, people, and their customs, and most important of all, integrates many aspects of Singhalese life into the film, so that one is left with an impressionistic, but also seemingly accurate, picture of a foreign land. In accomplishing this, it also manages to avoid the cliches and predictable juxtapositions of the travel film genre. Technically, it makes significant advances in the use of combined dissolves, superimposition of visual images, and counterpoint sound. Altogether, it is a film of refined composition, restrained impact, yet rare power.

- Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Published by Indiana University Press, 1992. Page 93.

Song of Ceylon won enthusiastic plaudits at the London Film Society and went on to successful theatrical showings. Perhaps the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was delighted with it: the film put the Board on record as fervently admiring the Ceylonese and their culture. It made clear the role of tea as an imperial link. To others it may have suggested exploitation. Without question, the film made the rising British documentary movement known throughout the world.

- Erik Barnouw, Documentary: a History of the Non-fiction Film. Published by Oxford University Press US, 1993. Page 93.


Wright attempted in Song of Ceylon to give expression to the distinctive texture of modern life. In so doing, he created a symphonic poem. For he sought not only to uncover the different rhythms of the modern world, but to explore their interconnection through the construction of a complex whole. As the film's title suggests, Wright took a village in Ceylong as his focus; but in celebrating its rhythms of spiritual and material life, he revealed, simultaneously, its existence within an extended world of trade and commerce. Moving effortlessly between inside and outside, past and present, rural and urban, religion and commerce, the village and the world, Wright weaves together overlapping, intersecting and cross-cutting currents. As one critic wrote: '[Song of Ceylong] is a very important attempt at creating a picture of an entirely strange life, from the native rather than the foreign point of view, and to express the tempo of that life in the texture of the film itself.' The formal inventiveness of Song of Ceylon, the skillful use of the new medium of sound as a counterpoint to visual sequences and text, thus mirrors the complex and fluid world which Wright evokes through the substance of the film itself.

Wright's concern with complexity and movement in his 1935 work may be considered as a continuation of the tradition associated with the European and Soviet film-makers, such as Ruttman, Cavalcanti, Ivens and Vertov. During the 1920s, this group established a new genre, the city symphony. It was uniquely cinematic, and the use of montage represented a profound rejection of conventional forms derived from a literary aesthetic. Taking the city as a focus, these film-makers gave expression to the modernist fascination with speed, movement, machines, structure and process; and, for them, the cinema was an integral part of this new industrial, mechanised world. The camera itself moved as a machine, and as an advanced scientific instrument it could transcend human limitation. Cinema was celebrated as an industrial product, at the site of both production and consumption; the complex social relations embodied in cinema mirrored the characteristic features of the modern age.

But Song of Ceylon also marked a new departure in the tradition of the city symphony, not least because its centre was not the city per se. Although the film's formal qualities and construction owe much to Berlin - Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman), The Bridge (Ivens) or A Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov), its distinctive feature is the humanism of its vision. For, in important ways, Song of Ceylon echoed the poetic humanism most associated with the work of Robert Flaherty. If, on the one hand, the city symphony films were criticised because the people in them were turned into mere cogs in a vast industrial machine, objectified and dehumanised by an omniscient camera eye, the limitations of Flaherty, on the other hand, stemmed from his refusal to address movement or change at all. Wright, however, achieved a new synthesis, fusing the romantic lyricism of Flaherty with the intellectual brilliance of Ruttman.

- Anna Grimshaw, The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pages 127-128

It is not difficult to discern the traces of Flaherty and Cavalcanti in Song of Ceylon; the film is in fact full of photogenic effects which recall their work: 1) framing - the selection of position and angle - that results in special compositional effects; 2) manipulation of light and shadow for studied effects of comparison or contrast; 3) expressive use of superimpositions and dissolves; 4) camera movements which are either repeated or protracted so that they take on a self-conscious rhythm; 5) editing that brings out the poetic quality of a scene or links phenomena in unexpected, but visually coherent, associations...

By its musical title, Song of Ceylon evokes the symphonic documentary, with which it shares several textual problems. The unity of place is even more nebulous in Wright's film than in the symphonic documentary - most of it takes place "somewhere" in Ceylon. Moreover, the linear concept of time is suspended, since one of the concerns of the film is to evoke the timelessness of traditional Ceylonese life. Finally, the film abandons the notion of the individual human agent. The "actor" may appear in a cluster of shots showing a specific action - we see several views of a young man climbing a palm to harvest coconuts, for example - but he never reappears beyond the confines of the sequence. Consequently, there is little sense of continuity of action as performed by individual human agents.

In Song of Ceylon, editing is truly an art, since it demands the conspicuous intervention of the "filmmaker" who articulates shots on the basis of paradigms that are not already given and that the text must work to establish. Song of Ceylon, like symphonic documentaries, makes use of a complex visual rhetoric to link the shots in figurative or conceptual relationships. Continuity is often established through the artifice of form: repetition of camera movement, repetition of motifs, repeated dissolves. To the extent that they are liberated from narrative necessity, images are opened to other principles of association and therefore to other kinds of meaning. In the closing sequence of Part I, for example, figurative comparisons between the motifs are suggested through the formal device of a consistently moving camera. We see birds taking flight, Buddhas erect and reclining, and progressively more open landscapes - images that do not suggest a coherent physical place but transcendence, an ascent toward the divine. In Part III, which describes colonial exploitation of Ceylonese labor, the visual track is structured conceptually through a series of oppositions between the traditional and the modern, represented in alternating sequences: a segment describing the harvesting of tea by manual labor, for example, is followed by three shots of industrial machinery. This conceptual dissonance also occurs within certain sequences: an ocean liner appears as an unexpected insert within a sequence showing the harvesting of coconuts; inversely, an incongruous elephant disrupts a sequence devoted to describing commercial telephone and telegraph communication.

Song of Ceylon thus produces a grand rhetorical opposition between the realm of the divine, nature and unalienated labor on the one hand, and the crass realm of colonial exploitation on the other. Ceylonese life, as the film represents it, constitutes in this regard an admirable resistance to the debasing effects of colonial exploitation. The Ceylonese emerge, in their photogenia, as idealized beings, particularly in the film's third part, "The Virgin Island." They are in tune with the elements: a young boy's bathing takes on an ecstatic, ablutionary character; a fisherman casts his net into the sea as his son applauds from shore, his expressive hand abstracted in close-up against the sky. The motions of work produce vivid kinesthetic effects - the stages of the potter's work are sensitively observed and analytically edited. The painterly composition of the shots suggests their harmonious plenitude: fisherman repairing their nets are set out in depth against the background of their beached boat, the sea, and the sky. Moreover, this kind of aesthetic effect is meant to communicate a political dimension, for, as the voice-over informs us, labor remains a noble occupation among the Ceylonese, to whom wage-slavery is unknown: "But husbandry is the great employment of the country, and in this the best men labour. Nor is it held any disgrace for men of the greatest quality either at home or in the field if it be for themselves. But to work for hire, with them, is reckoned for a great shame, and very few are here to be found who will work so." Indeed, work is seen as a shared social activity, and, the film suggests, the Ceylonese make little distinctions between work and leisure. Women wear radiant smiles as they grind the grain, children fulfill the serious social obligation of practicing traditional dance, the fisherman casts his net over his son in a playful gesture of fatherly affection...

In Song of Ceylon we see the Art of National Projection caught in fundamental ambivalence. Commissioned as a work of propaganda to present positive images of the British Commonwealth, the film produces instead an ecstatic evocation of a paradise nearly lost. Rather than discovering in the world of commerce and its colonial outposts new representations of humanness and beauty, Song of Ceylon produces a critique of the whole enterprise of National Projection, stigmatizing the British presence as callous and exploitative. However, Song of Ceylon also reveals another basic ambivalence, this time toward the subjects it claims to represent. In "speaking for" the Ceylonese, the film reduces them to silence. It appropriates their images and subjects them to the distortions of exoticism. They become, in effect, terms in a discourse of protest against the reality of social relations in the industrial era.

- William Guynn, "The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon" Published in Documenting the Documentary, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Pages 90, 91, 92, 94, 97-98.


Understandably, not all of the short films present are in excellent condition. Time hasn’t been too kind to many of the prints and even more so to their soundtracks. Yet the BFI should be applauded for the transferring of these materials and, indeed, for making them available to the DVD buying public (ignoring the fact that other labels, such as Panamint, have been issuing GPO discs – and videotapes – for a number years). As such whilst we must cope with hissing soundtrack (my only major complaint as sometimes this can become overbearing) and damaged film stock, the clarity and contrast of the imagery is never less than superb and we can feel comfortable that we are seeing these films in the best possible condition. Needless to say original Academy aspect ratios are adhered (without the unnecessary use of window-boxing the image, thankfully) as are the intended mono soundtracks. Hard of hearing English subtitles are also available on each of the films where applicable, and they similarly find their place on the additional material.

Though only two extras appear on the disc, both are welcome inclusions. The first, On the Fishing Banks of Skye, is a 1935 production directed by John Grierson and believed to be his last such credit. It’s featured amongst the extras firstly owing to its extremely rare nature and secondly because it doesn’t quite live up to his previous Drifters and Granton Trawler, both of which did much the same job. That said, the presence of Grierson himself as narrator ups the interest value as does the fact that many of us will be seeing this short for the very first time. The other addition is an intriguing little promo reel for the GPO Film Unit, featuring newly filmed material with the intention of giving us a look behind-the-scenes, as it were (though it’s far too tongue-in-cheek for that), plus fleeting looks at some of their productions. The fact that many don’t actually feature on this particular volume gives it the added quality of whetting our appetite for future volumes, which quite frankly can’t come soon enough! As already noted, there’s also the 76-page accompanying book which is easily the equal of that included in the Land of Promise boxed-set and can’t help but make the overall price of this package seem an absolute bargain. All told, a superb collection.

- Anthony Nield, DVD Times


I took a documentary class taught by Basil Wright who did “Song of Ceylon”. That really gave me a sense of direction. I remember having a conversation with Wright and he explained to me how he made “Song of Ceylon”. He told me you have to focus on a subject and always treat it with dignity and humanity. It was something I needed to hear. “Tell your story” is what he said.’

- Charles Burnett, interviewed in The Guardian

The humanitarian poet of the British documentary movement, Basil Charles Wright was born into a wealthy liberal family in Sutton, Surrey, on 12 June 1907. After attending Sherborne School he studied classics and economics at Cambridge University. Intending to become a creative writer, he fell under the spell of Europe's advanced cinema and began to make amateur experimental films with his own camera. In London his interest in the aesthetics of film-making was fed by screenings at the Film Society.

Impressed with one of Wright's efforts, John Grierson hired him in November 1929 as the first recruit at the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit; they remained lifelong associates. Initially Wright edited existing footage to fit EMB purposes, most elaborately in Conquest (1930), designed to show industrial technology's role in the development of North America. Russian montage habits influenced the cutting, though better indications of Wright's mature work appeared in films made from his own material: The Country Comes to Town (1931), a hymn to food manufacture in the countryside, and O'er Hill and Dale (1931), documenting the lambing season on the Cheviot hills. In The Long View, his history of cinema, Wright used as an epigraph Grierson's phrase 'All things are beautiful if you have got them in the right order', and these modest films - observant, precise yet lyrical - launched Wright's own search for the most perfect order, the most beautiful things.

In 1933, the year when the EMB film-makers metamorphosed into the GPO Film Unit, Grierson sent Wright to the West Indies and Ceylon to shoot material for packaging into promotional one-reelers. In Windmill in Barbados (1933) especially, evocative photography blended happily with fluid editing and authentic sounds, though the aesthetic triumph masked Wright's struggle, here and elsewhere, to puncture the official line by criticising colonial exploitation. The trip to Ceylon, with John Taylor as assistant, duly generated its own one-reelers, but the principal outcome was The Song of Ceylon (1934), Wright's most acclaimed and personal film: a four-reel symphony of images and sounds, forged from the director's newly-born passion for the Orient and the Buddhist religion. The four sections evoke Sinhalese life and culture in images photographed and edited with immense finesse, shaped within a montage-driven circular structure inspired by the magic circle of the Buddhist mandala. The film is also notable for its complex soundtrack, recorded in close collaboration with the composer Walter Leigh, brilliantly juggling native and Westernised music, spoken commentary, and the shivers of reverberating gongs in unexpected, disjunctive combinations of sound and image.

If Wright had found 'the right order' in The Song of Ceylon, the order proved difficult to recapture in films with less exotic subject-matter. As his career developed, he became increasingly sucked into producing, never his favourite task, though he made vital contributions to major films, including Night Mail (d. Harry Watt, 1936) and A Diary For Timothy (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1946). In 1937 he formed the independent documentary unit Realist Films. The first year's crop included Wright's Children at School (1937), a three-reel report on state-supplied education in Britain, its facts and analysis enlivened by the director's sensitive eye and the camerawork of A. E. Jeakins, henceforth a regular collaborator. The Face of Scotland (1938), made for the Films of Scotland scheme, avoided pretty scenery-gazing for a poetic treatment of hardy lives and a challenging environment.

Writing, lecturing and administrative work kept him from directing during the Second World War. He produced official propaganda films through the Grierson-dominated Film Centre and, following earlier experiences with World Film News, helped found and edit Documentary News Letter, the movement's chief mouthpiece during the 1940s. After briefly serving as supervising producer at the Crown Film Unit, in 1946 Wright founded International Realist - a name in line with his strong conviction in cinema's power to spread understanding. Waters of Time (1951), his first major post-war film, made with Bill Launder for the Festival of Britain, looked no further than the Port of London; but its mastery of its topic was typical, along with the balance between lyric poetry and practical fact. World Without End (co-d. Paul Rotha, 1953), a survey of UNESCO's work in Thailand and Mexico, proved less visually appealing but better fitted the International Realist template. In his remaining output, Wright's love of Greek culture inspired Greece The Immortal Land (1958) and a shorter survey of Greek sculpture. The Stained Glass at Fairford (1956) surveyed a Gloucestershire church's medieval windows, while A Place for Gold (1960) celebrated the craft of its sponsors, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. All imparted their material crisply, sometimes poetically, though with little sign of the creative heat that had generated The Song of Ceylon - the masterpiece made when Wright the artist had not yet given way to Wright the public servant. In retirement, Wright gathered his experiences and knowledge into his personal history of the cinema, The Long View, published in 1974. He died in London on 14 October 1987.

- Geoff Brown and Jamie Sexton, Screen Online

Many thanks to Kathryn MacKenzie for her assistance with this entry on Song of Ceylon