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:

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

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.

DEEPER READINGS

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.

REVIEW OF ADDRESSING THE NATION: THE GPO FILM UNIT COLLECTION VOLUME ONE DVD

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

ABOUT BASIL WRIGHT

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

Best of the Decade Derby: The Best Romantic Comedy of the Decade...

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001, Pedro Costa) It's true. It's hard for me to think of a film from the 2000s that's as worthy of carrying the mantle of The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby, much less one that's as intimate and perceptive a depiction of married life, as this deceptively simple and often surprisingly funny documentary which chronicles the edit sessions of the world's most renowned directorial couple. I'd like to claim to be the first person to make this clever connection, but Ryland Walker Knight has already pointed it out in his thorough write-up of the film:

This is a film about film, of course, but it understands film as a conversation—about searching, about understanding—as an opportunity for philosophy, we might say—and how all these elements build a working picture of marriage, too. It’s Costa’s version of the romantic comedy. And it works.

Ryland would probably know better than I would, since he's all up on Stanley Cavell. It's not that the film is structured as a Cavellian comedy of remarriage. Even better, it may be the first film structured around the rhythms of film editing sessions, both on micro and macro levels: the contentious back-and forth debates from shot to shot, leading to breaks tuned either to relief at the completion of the scene or frustration at a momentary impasse, then reconvening to the editing deck for more cuts and conversations among illuminated images in the swallowing darkness. Love and film as endless conversations (which brings to mind Before Sunset, another favorite I plan to revisit).

At the risk of inviting embarrassment, I dare say that following the rhythms of this film invites comparison between editing and multiple rounds of love-making: two people in the dark, working out their technique, giving and taking, breaking off and starting again.  This observation is less embarrassing than some I made upon my initial viewing of the film. I can't believe I didn't give this film its full due back then; it probably had something to do with my general ambivalence towards the films of Straub-Huillet, only one of which, The Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, I truly love. I couldn't begin to comprehend their most famous work, Not Reconciled, were it not for the video I made with Richard Brody, aka the badass of neo-realist theory. He also has a lucid brief review on Costa's film.

When I first watched this film, I had problems with Straub's long-winded, far-ranging monologues on film theory, especially as the mostly silent Huillet was slaving away at the Steenbeck. This certainly does not follow the 30s screwball model for dialogue that equipoises male and female voices and verbal wit. But, again, old models may need to be set aside to appreciate what's special about this dynamic. Huillet's power lies in her general silence, which makes the moments that she does speak amount to explosions of forceful necessity. (Particularly memorable is the second round of editing, when Huillet lashes out at Straub: "After all this time we've been editing films together, how come you still don't have the discipline? An acrobat relying on you to jump would fall on his face at every attempt!" (I also love how Huillet calls her husband out by his last name, as if they were together on a sports team or military unit.)

Straub's talk-talk-talking is one half of the equation, the other being Huillet's rigorous embodiment of practice. It's no surprise that Straub makes the assertion in the clip embedded above, that "First there is the idea, then there is form," since he is stuffed with ideas. But it's Huillet who takes these ideas (as well as her own) and applies them to every cut with her own hands. And as tempting as it is to separate the two (and by this I mean both the two concepts and the two practicioners), they are inextricably linked. Regardless of which comes first, ideas and forms need each other. And in over 40 years of working together Straub and Huillet developed such a unique approach to fusing ideas with forms that I have to wonder how much of it is exclusively understood between just the two of them. The film subtly brings up this feeling of isolation wrought by a fierce commitment to one's artistic ideals: we see them present their films to an audience of roughly a dozen people scattered in a sea of empty chairs. They are seen in two shots, the only two shots that show people other than Straub and Huillet.  Their art is a solitary world, and, in Costa's film, one that dwells mostly in darkness, but forcefully asserting itself into the void with Straub's philosophical pronouncements and Huillet's decisive cutting. The rigor and conviction they demonstrate is what I find extremely humbling as I consider my own practicies and principals as an editor, filmmaker, even a critic.

To hear Straub talk about it, with fierce eloquence, to the handful of people in front of him at a screening, is genuinely moving:

I've survived in a world in which the life of the artist in the open air was somewhat difficult, especially when you wanted to do what Cocteau described as: "Nourish that for which you are criticized, it's your real self." We see ourselves as privileged all the same. Because in a world in which 90% of the people have a job they're not interested in, we've been able to do a job we're interested in, and to do it the way we wanted to, and not the way others wanted us to do it, thus changing it.

Huillet, in possibly her longest monologue in the film, makes the same point with even more anecdotal eloquence, in accounting for why they made the film whose editing sessions Costa is documenting:

Sicilia!, it was love at first sight and we wanted to do it. Because in '72 when we were looking for locations for Moses and Aron, which we shot in '74, we travelled 30,000 km at a snail's pace. And during the search, one day, we were on a bridge and we said to each other: "What a strange smell, not unpleasant but very strong. What is it?" And so we had a look around and saw hundreds of kilos of oranges lying in the riverbed below. That stuck in our minds, and when we read the beginning of Conversazione in Sicilia, it came back to us as an extremely strong memory... It was also worth it for the oranges!

Then there's the story of how they met, which makes for the single warmest moment in the film, a dialogue truly worthy of a romantic comedy:

JMS: When we met in 1954, I was attending the Lycee Voltaire, but only for eight days. DH: Three weeks. JMS: Was I? Well, three weeks. Then I left... DH: You didn't. You were told it would be better to leave... JMS: I was kicked out. I was even told why. I knew too much about Hitchcock and that disturbed the class. I was watching her from a distance. We weren't sitting that close to each other. I didn't know her. I was just watching her. And every time she uttered something, the others would ask me - why me? - what she'd said. I had to translate. It was taken for granted that I understood. DH: And did you understand? JMS: Ah! That's a mystery! One will never know. They must have noticed that I had fallen madly in love at first sight, and so they thought: he must understand what she says.

Another thing that struck me watching the film this time around, that made it all the more personally poignant, is how much Straub and Huillet remind me of my grandparents, at least how they used to be: my grandfather's love for talking and telling stories, while my grandmother would interject some clarifications or annotations, call and response style, while busily doing housework, peeling vegetables or cooking dinner at the stove, her own version of Huillet's Steenbeck. I last visited them in January, when I took this photo.

That's my younger uncle in the middle, and on the right my grandfather, who turns 90 this July. He spends his entire day in that chair by the front door as he has for the last 15 years - if you dimmed the lights his stoic pose would fit perfectly in a Pedro Costa movie. My grandmother on the left, setting dishes at the table, one of the few things she can do these days.  I was shocked to find my grandmother already in a mild stage of Alzheimer's, a development that no-one in my family had informed me of. Unable to remember how to cook, or do any of the household activities, she paces around the room in the same workaholic housewife state as she has for decades, only now she forgets what she was pacing for. But even though my grandmother no longer recognizes me or remembers my name, she can still interject her own details to my grandfather's stories; those behaviors are hard-wired after so many decades of telling the same stories.

My grandfather now does the cooking and cleaning for my grandmother; I wonder if Straub now does his own editing since Huillet passed away from cancer three years ago. After first watching Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? I was amazed to think that Straub is continuing to make films on his own - looking at this film you would wonder if it were possible. Maybe Straub was right after all: it starts with having the idea, and with that the form more or less takes care of itself.

It's not a stretch to call Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? the most illuminating film on editing I've ever seen. I admit I haven't seen many other such films; I'm sure Murch would be especially valuable. But I doubt that there are other films that really give you a sense of what it's like to be editing a film, putting you through the full duration of the editing process, how it's a mix of grueling tedium peppered with brilliant revelations, and when it's really good, you get to understand your own thought process, deeply and intimately, especially in relation to your editing partner. It is very much like a love relationship, full of conversations, effusive proclamations, all out arguments and conciliatory compromises. And in the end, there may be as much or as little to show for it other than that you've been through something. In this regard, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is one of the great love movies of our time.

Best of the Decade Derby: What's the Best Documentary of the Decade? (Two Case Studies)

I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of "best of the decade" status - the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema - at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning - aesthetic, cultural and historical - the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn't take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke's haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners' bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai's incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director's inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke's fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film's middle stretch, Jia's deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke's attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell's excellent essay reconsidering the definition of "documentary film" published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis' The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn't entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis' erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis' compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period - once you get sucked in, it's hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007's The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people's inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace "positive, progressive freedom" without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: "A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything." Swap the first "society" with "filmmaker" and you get an idea of what Curtis' films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis' films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that's the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people's desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis' other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn't engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings' repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it's like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis' other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I'm convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis'  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image - sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled "societally conscious" is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can't tell if he's an actor or not. It's those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia's Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I've seen:

Capturing the Friedmans The Century of the Self The Gleaners and I Grizzly Man My Architect Los Angeles Plays Itself S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine Useless When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I'm sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with - I still haven't finished watching Wang Bing's lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I'll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.

Video Essay for 923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer) with commentary by Vadim Rizov

Vadim Rizov is a contributor to The Village Voice, The House Next Door and Nerve, and co-host of the Lichman and Rizov "Live" at Grassroots Tavern podcasts.