UDVFF 5: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – Interrogations and Alternatives

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the fifth program of our Virtual Film Festival, which offers a weekly watching schedule of moving image works available for free streaming, and curated by our expert contributors. Previous programs can be found here. Next week’s program is ‘Buried in Song’, curated by Noah Rosenberg.

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As always, links to all of the films and supplementary materials referenced can be found in a table after the program notes.

by Ruairí McCann


In the past week I have been dwelling on a long nourished bedbug of mine. The impetus was a quote from the critic Phil Coldiron that I recently came across while researching for another piece:

“One of the enduring problems of the cinema is that André Bazin’s answer to the question, “What is it?” is so convincing that he was able to pass off an ontology of one of its modes, namely realism, as a sufficient description of the whole.”

Coldiron’s overall point is more complex than what I have just copy and pasted, and a great multitude of masterpieces have been made in the pursuit of realism. But one troubling result of this dominance is that combined with the primacy placed on social engagement, it becomes the only valid mode of documenting the lives and struggles of the working class, the rural poor, minorities and anyone and everyone disenfranchised. It can lead to assumptions about such lives that not only are set to screen free of interrogation but are seen as absolute when the filmmaker believes that they are not working through an aesthetic framework (with its own qualities and limits like any other) but reality captured unfettered.

I: Interrogations

The first three films I have chosen are all shorts and hew, to varying degrees, to a realist imperative and yet they also chafe at such a designation. In the spirit of the James Agee and Walker Evans book whose title I’ve nabbed, all three films, whether implicitly or explicitly, test the limits of realism and the ethics of the usually one-sided exchange between artist and subject, the eye and its apple.

First we have Oidhche Sheanchais (1935), the first Irish language film. Legendary documentarian Robert Flaherty drafts a short ethnographic record of the Irish rural poor, specifically those of my home province of Connaught but uses as its basis, artifice, and as the subject, fiction.  

Next is an early short from Khalik Allah, one of the most interesting filmmakers of this century. Urban Rashomon (2013), where the divide between image and sound, between Allah’s portraits of his down’n out friend Frenchie and the filmmaker’s own ruminations, become a space for both him and an audience to reflect on the ethics of the representation at play.

And last is Vever (for Barbara) (2018) an exegesis of an unfinished film. Footage shot by the late great Barbara Hammer during a trip to Guatamala in 1975 is used as a catalyst for a telephone discussion between Hammer and director Deborah Stratman on using film to explore unfamiliar landscapes and to escape hegemony. All accompanied by the cello score from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) alongside the words and drawings of its maker Maya Deren, another filmmaker for whom cultures unlike her own would become an increasingly important and complex concern.

Vever (for Barbara)

II: Alternatives

The second programme offers alternatives instead of interrogations. A double bill of working class expression and depiction, both of which are filtered through modes and tones that fly in the face of liberal bourgeoisie views on what is acceptable when it comes to depicting life at the bottom of the economic totem pole.

First up is Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) a rare and wonderful example of filmmaking as a collective. For the past decade, Kawali, an impoverished neighbourhood in Uganda’s capital Kampala, has been fertile ground for genre cinema. Martial arts movies whose limited means and funds are overcome through director Nabwana I.G.G.’s film sense, the pugilistic skills on show, their wild and woolly humour (provided by the ‘video joker’, a running explicator and commentary that is like a latter-day benshi) and their passion and commitment to all-hands-on-deck productions.

On the other hand, Tobacco Road (1941), is a Hollywood production. But one captained by John Ford, whose background as an immigrant bartender’s son who grunt worked his way into the director’s chair is a reminder that—racial and gender discrimination not withstanding—the profession of a Hollywood director has and can rope in collars of many colours, rather than just white. The film itself occupies a strange place in Ford’s rich and rolling corpus. It is generally agreed among his appreciators that his run from 1939 till his last film in 1966 is extraordinary, though this film is widely seen as one of the few hiccups along the road. Even many of the most committed Ford scholars, such as Joseph McBride and Tag Gallagher, have little to nothing complementary to say about it. The reason being that it has in abundance the aspect of Ford that people tend to prefer in small doses; his comedy, which is at once crude, rueful and unabashedly sentimental.

Tobacco Road is the most extreme and unrelenting example of this slice of Ford, unmediated by other elements. While for others it may be too much, I for one can take in spades. Though not set in Ireland or concerned with its diaspora, its self-mockery and self-stereotyping – equal parts cruelty, kindness and all around bad taste – is an accurate caricature of the humour native to Irish lower-middle to working-class life. At least how I have experienced it. 

In other words, I present to you the truth and the light; kung-fu and John Ford.

TitleYearFilmmakerRuntime Supplementary Material
I: Interrogations Necessary Means
Oidhche Sheanchais1935Robert Flaherty11
Urban Rashomon2013Khalik Allah21
Vever (For Barbara)2018Deborah Stratman12
II: Alternatives
Who Killed Captain Alex?2010Nabwana I.G.G.68
Tobacco Road1941John Ford84

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Fim Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie and Berlin Film Journal.

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