Friday, October 30, 2009

Developing the board

Monday was a board development day. With new people on the board, it was important that we re-examined the role of the board in the company, and exploited its full potential. Jessica Stockford from Arts and Business agreed to facilitate the day. Her main remit is to work on governance in arts organisations, so we got lots of useful guidance on the duties of trustees, and the risks (!); but she was also very good at helping us to address our needs in developing the company. The scale of the projects we create now far outstrips the infrastructure, and we have to catch up. I think we have the right group of people to do that: the trustees are a very high-powered bunch, and they are very dedicated to what we're trying to achieve.

One thing which really surprised me was the emphasis placed on needing a written statement of our vision, mission and values. For a long time, I'd be tootling along, thinking that these things were self-evident. Clearly they aren't. If we're to focus the organisation, then everybody needs to know what it is we're trying to do. So - that's a first priority for me.

Two very useful meetings with potential funders. The Swedish Cultural Attache was very excited about the role of Teater Eksem in the Trilogy, and Creative New Zealand had lots of positive things to say about Origins. Apparently the report they received on it was one of the best they've EVER had!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Atom Egoyan and Warwick Thornton

On Friday night, I was at BAFTA, at the invitation of my old friend Atom Egoyan, to see his new film Chloe, and to listen to him deliver the David Lean Lecture. The lecture was filmed for a webcast, so you can see it if you follow the BAFTA link.

I've known Atom ever since we worked on Dr. Ox's Experiment at ENO, a full decade ago, and we've stayed in touch on and off ever since. He's somebody you can go back to, knowing they won't have changed in their friendship. He's also one of the most exciting and original thinkers, and brilliant film-makers / artists I've ever been lucky enough to encounter.

Chloe is, in some ways, familiar territory for the maker of Exotica. Julianne Moore plays a successful Toronto doctor, who becomes convinced that her husband is being unfaithful, and hires a prostitute to test him out. What's fascinating in this is the way in which different layers of fiction interact and begin to effect or become reality - fantasies and role-play turning into or creating truths. It's a clever game to play with a medium which, because of its photographic nature, we tend to take at face value. Atom exposes that. His world of performance as life and erotic tensions is something I've learnt from in terms of the Trilogy.

Saturday allows me the chance to meet another wonderful film director - Warwick Thornton. We screened his film Dark Science (scripted by David Milroy) as part of Origins, and now he's in London at the Film Festival, with his first feature Samson and Delilah. Samson and Delilah won the Camera d'Or at Cannes this year, and it isn't hard to see why. It's a painfully honest account of life in Aboriginal communities, touching on the poverty and violence, the petrol-sniffing, the exploitation of indigenous artists, the homelessness... and yet somehow still managing to feel life-affirming and ultimately hopeful. Warwick uses very little dialogue - and quite a proportion of what he does use is in Walipiri - but he employs an intense visual poetry and an incredible emotional engagement by the two teenage leads to move into a world of image, music and sheer intensity which is quite overwhelming.

Warwick is a large, solid Aboriginal man, with the self-deprecating humour characteristic of his people. Asked why there's so little dialogue, he recounts his own first teenage love, and his inability to speak to the girl. Asked about the actors, he simply says that he needed people who would be "with him" - people who came from the world he had experienced when he was young, and who had "done thirteen years of research on it". Their performances are hardly acting. Just living on screen - and telling us deeply uncomfortable truths.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chinese movies

I've been taking advantage of the London Film Festival to keep up my research on what's going on in contemporary Chinese culture. I saw two films at the ICA on Tuesday. The first, The Search, is from Tibet, and is interesting in a slightly academic way, as it deals with traditional theatre forms. It's about a director who is casting a film of the traditional opera Prince Drime Kunden. This is a fascinating legend, about a prince who gives away all sorts of things to the poor, including his own eyes. There's a lovely Jesus of Montreal-type moment when this is paralleled with modern medical donations (of which more anon) - but overall I found the film a bit underpowered, considering the depth of the culture and the magnificence of the landscape.

Feast of Villains, on the other hand, is an amazing piece of work. This is a very contemporary, urban film, about a young working-class man who is trying to get money to help his sick father be treated. He sells a kidney, illegally, and is ripped off by the dealer. What I found extraordinary was the degree of frankness with which this film, directed by the edgy indie Pan Jianlin, deals with some of the nastier aspects of contemporary Chinese society. The amorality on show is palpable - with criminal gangs and corruption in the system at every turn. It shows bribery, it shows insane bureaucracy, and even the "positive" aspects like increased wealth and glamorous bars are exposed as fronts for crime and prostitution. I had been worried that our productions might be felt to be showing too much of this - now I am far less concerned. If this film got past the censor, then our work, which is actually very positive about Chinese culture, shouldn't have any problem (in theory at least)! There's one moment when a criminal mastermind explains to his Japanese client that the government's human rights policy is making it much harder to get organs from executed criminals - and this is the only sign that the film comes from the supposedly repressive PRC. As so often, the Western view is proved wrong - or at least too simple.

But just because the film is edgy and honest didn't make it popular in China. I get talking to a Chinese film buff, who tells me "He got panned" (I don't think the pun was intended). Maybe it's not so much what the censor says, as what people want to believe about their society that counts. All the more reason why I need to make sure the Chinese characters are very sympathetic and recognisable, before we take them on complex journeys.

Oddly, the film which has so far reminded me most of our own work is actually from Palestine. Called Ajami, it's a brilliant interweaving of stories from Palestinian and Jewish families, full of surprising coincidences and moments of shock which make you realise how everybody in that society is locked in to a web of violence - whether they like it or not.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Roma of Edmonton

O Patrin did its final performance this morning at the Art Zone in Edmonton. And what a performance it was... The Art Zone houses a classroom for young Roma who don't have school places (why they don't have them was something I didn't discover). They come from Poland and Roumania, and there are interpreters in the classroom with the teacher. The youngsters all have a distinct Roma look, reminding me of Christopher Simpson when he played B in Double Tongue, and making the Indian origins of their people very clear, even after all the centuries. The girls wear long skirts, big earrings and have their hair tied back.

Although they had seen many puppet plays before (they apparently have these every week in the camp in Roumania), many of them had never seen live actors before. The English was something of a language barrier - though the Romany wasn't - but they seemed to understand very clearly what the play was about. Lots of this is down to Dan's physical approach to the direction, with the philosophical conflicts turning into real fights. When Rachel Drazek as Athalia enumerated the horrors perpetrated on gypsy people in the past, there was a real tension in the room. It was these people's families who had been victims of this forgotten holocaust. And the most extraordinary thing was that their response seemed to be gratitude to the actors for caring enough to tell the story.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Before Tomorrow

Tuesday night saw the screening of Before Tomorrow at Canada House, in association with Origins. It's an amazing film - the story of an old woman and her grandson, who are the only survivors of a plague that hits an Inuit community in the wake of colonial incursions. It's full of beautiful imagery, and amazing social and cultural detail. And it brings a rare and distinct voice into the cinematic world.

I was asked to introduce the film, which was largely an exercise in contextualising, since I didn't want to tell the story. I talked about some of the exciting developments in First Nations film, particularly in Canada, and the power of DV to democratise the medium. I also talked about ten years of Nunavut, and the amazing success of that side of democracy - the way in which the Inuit have shown a real ability to bring the open debate of the tribal council into the institutional world of the 21st century.

Otherwise, this week is having its ups and downs. We've realised that the Trilogy is not going to get the UK tour we had hoped for - the recession has hit touring really badly. So - we've had to pull out of the Manchester leg of the work. Very disappointing all round.

On the plus side, O Patrin continues to wow young people all over London, and to engage them with Romany and First Nations cultures. Click here for a link to the Resource Pack, which is full of fascinating info and great pictures!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Canada, the Arctic - Howard Barker

I've been at Canada House quite a lot this week. On Monday, I was talking about Origins at an academic conference on Aboriginal Studies. I think the idea was that I should be a bit of light relief at the end of the day, after all the academic papers. As it turned out, this meant I had very little time available - so I extemporised as best I could, saying I would try to be like a First Nations person and not let the pressure of time get the better of me. I managed to talk about the Theatre and Healing workshop at least, and to make the crucial point that Yves and Catherine had been very generous with the Huron-Wendat culture, and had shown ways forward to people from a very diverse range of backgrounds. This points to the fact that scholars studying indigenous people can't just watch them from the outside, or look at the problems in the society and history in a scientific way. We are implicated in this - and so we need the healing too. So we should be doing more than learning about these people - we should be learning from them.

Tuesday night took me back there to see Atanarjuat - one of the films in the series about the Arctic that Canada House is showing in association with Origins. It's an incredible piece of work: with an entirely Inuit cast and director (Zacharias Kunuk), and in Inuktitut with subtitles. Imagine the organisational feat! But more than that, it is completely a film that emerges from the specific culture and landscape of the Inuit. It doesn't give cultural information as information - you just come to realise certain assumptions and ideas through the narrative itself. So, when a woman commits adultery, the man's wife says to her: "He's your brother-in-law. You're not even supposed to speak to him, never mind sleep with him."

Wednesday night, by way of contrast, takes me to Riverside Studios to see the latest Howard Barker play, presented by The Wrestling School. Chris Corner, the General Manager, is an old friend (he's administered several projects for us), and he's on fine form. In fact, I'm amazed to see from the programme that the Arts Council has cut its funding to this company, and it is now living off a private benefactor. In terms of production values and acting standards, it has done them no harm at all. In fact, the production is probably the finest I've seen from the company. The play itself, Found in the Ground, is very much in the vein of Barker's recent work - clearly about the process of ageing, and the fight to cling on to a sexual energy which goes with that. Barker has always associated sex and death - and he does it particularly violently here. Much of the play feels very ritualised, which is in keeping with its subjects, and turns it towards installation art. But I felt it lost its way when Hitler appeared as a rather benign character, chatting about art, and there were a great many false endings. Still - he is always incredibly brave.

At Riverside, I met up with Susie Self, who is a singer and composer, and was in Nixon in China in Greece. She saw the Re-Orientations showing, and is very excited about it. She's interested in writing music for us, and suggests that she try and do a couple of substitute bits for Re-Orientations, just to see if it works. From such beginnings.....

Friday, October 02, 2009

More on Brussels

There was a round-robin email asking for comments on the Culture Forum, so I've put in my tuppence-worth. The comments are all at, but here's the gist of what I said. First of all, I quibbled a bit with the "speeches by experts" format: a conference should involve far more give and take. The panels had been selected by the organisers, so the great revelation of "we all agree" should not have been so surprising. I much preferred the open debate which characterised the Platform for an Intercultural Europe event in June.

Which said, the fact that the DG went to such trouble to indicate its support for a cultural agenda and for the integration of cultural policy across EU actions was extremely positive. I think Steve Green was right to compare it with the situation at national level. In Britain, at least, we remain poor cousins of people with "proper Jobs", an add-on luxury which entertains and flatters the "real economy". This is likely to get worse, not better, after the next election. So let's be grateful to Europe for this.

On the catering - by the way - the sandwiches were not the greatest, BUT the breakfast pastries were lovely and the tapas with wine before the wonderful concert was terrific. Oh, guess what - sandwiches are English - croissants are French and tapas are Spanish. Subtext, surely??