As a Somali girl she underwent the horrific practice. Now a new film tells how she risked her life to end it
Ifrah Ahmed refuses to let the horrific female genital mutilation she suffered at the age of eight define her. “I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be a voice,” says the 32-year-old campaigner.
She is one of the first women to publicly speak out about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia – a country where it is estimated that 98% of women have undergone the ritual – and now her journey from powerless victim to powerful role model has been dramatised in a film.A Girl from Mogadishu has just had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh film festival and will be released across the UK in cinemas later this year.
In the first 10 minutes it shows Aja Naomi King, who plays Ahmed as a 15-year-old girl, being violently gang-raped by Somali militants. After that, she makes the dangerous journey from Somalia to Ireland to seek asylum, too scared to question anything her male smugglers want her to do. Upon her arrival, a male gynaecologist examines her and tries to find out what has happened to her, but she has no words to explain it to the male translator, just tears. But then, about halfway through, with the help of other women, she starts to find her voice. By the end of the film, she is shouting about FGM in front of Barack Obama, making speeches at the United Nations and being praised by the president of Somalia.
For Ahmed, who has devoted her life to campaigning against FGM and was instrumental in bringing about the 2012 legislation banning the practice in Ireland, the movie was an opportunity to challenge how survivors of FGM are perceived. “I don’t want people to see me as a victim. I want people to see me empowering other women. I want to show people that whatever Somali women have been through, we can be strong and overcome it.”
She hopes that others who have suffered FGM will watch the film and feel less alone. “It’s hard for women to speak out about FGM. So when two young Somali women came up to me after watching the movie in Edinburgh and hugged me, and said: ‘Ifra, you are speaking for all of us,’ I felt so happy. I felt so proud.”
It took courage for her to open up to the film’s director and scriptwriter, Mary McGuckian. “It’s not easy, sharing your story with the world. But if it helps women to realise that this cutting is something we should talk about it.”
What happened when her grandmother held her down to be cut by her uncle in a small hut is told only in hints: a dirty razor covered in blood, the screams of a young child in intense pain. “It may be my story, but it is a story of many young women. Those are the people I am fighting for.”
She is now an Irish citizen but spoke to the Observer this weekend from Somalia, where she runs her own foundation lobbying the government to make FGM illegal. Last year she made a short documentary about a 10-year-old girl who bled to death after having her genitals mutilated. It went viral, and suddenly parents started taking daughters they had cut to hospitals, where Ahmed facilitated their medical care. “In the last year we saved 20 girls from bleeding. And we lost seven.”
She is determined to break the silence around FGM in Somalia, and runs community programmes to educate families. “When only women are in the room, they all agree FGM is a problem. But if there is even one man there they won’t speak out.” She hopes that by the end of the year, the Somali government will legislate to make it a criminal offence, so that families who practise FGM will face prosecution.
Much depends on the outcome of the government’s consultation with influential religious leaders, which is happening at the moment. “My hope is that before the bill goes to parliament, religious leaders will understand the issue and support the legislation.”
She knows how powerful her testimony can be in Somalia at such a time. “I can sit on TV, and talk about it. I can debate with the religious leaders and tell them my personal experiences.” She takes heart from the religious scholars who have seen her do this and then called her up to say: “We are behind you, and we will support you.”
But she is aware that not everyone in the country feels that way, and she is risking her life by living there. “There is killing and bombing and a lot of problems here. I could escape to Ireland, but every day what keeps me going is that I’m making a difference.”
She is not daunted by the scale of the problem she faces. The history of FGM in Somalia dates back over 400 years, and the film offers a little insight into the reasons women continue to cut their daughters. In a moving scene towards the end, Ahmed finally gets an opportunity to ask her beloved grandmother – who raised her from a baby – why she mutilated so many girls in their family.
“This is our tradition. Our culture,” says the old woman. “The morning after the wedding night, if the girl was not a virgin, her husband would dig a hole [outside the bride’s family hut] to signal she had not been cut.” These brides were then rejected and sent back to their parents, humiliating their family.
FGM is also viewed as a way of protecting daughters from terrible practices of their future husbands. “To keep her pure when he went away, she would be sewn up, so he would return to find her as if they were on their first night,” Ahmed’s grandmother tells her.
“I want this movie to travel the world,” says Ahmed. “I want to reach the decision-makers, the leaders and the young people, who are the future.” She is full of hope. “My hope is to raise awareness. What happened to me cannot be changed. My past is my past. But what I can do is change the future.
“Girls are being traumatised by FGM. Children are dying. I hope people will watch this movie and understand that this has to end.”
The first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Avengers: Endgame has to deal with the existential uncertainty and superhero vacuum created by the last episode
So what have we learned about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) from watching Spider-Man: Far From Home? For a start, it is clear that the studio isn’t keen to allow all of Tony Stark’s fascinating tech to die along with Iron Man. There are more cool Stark gadgets in this movie – from a new AI named Edith to that natty suit-building machine – than in most Iron Man movies. Even Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan seems to have been permanently transferred from the Iron Man films to Team Spidey, thanks to his budding relationship with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
Yet Robert Downey Jr’s absence as the genius inventor is palpable. Moreover, he is not the only one of Marvel’s big beasts to have gone missing, and there is a sense that the MCU will never be quite the same for these absences. Stark, Black Widow, Vision and Captain America are listed as deceased in an early scene – even if Captain America’s time-travelling jaunts mean he is probably not officially gone, just retired and super-wrinkly. Thor is off gallivanting through space with the Guardians of the Galaxy while Nick Fury, as that potent end-credits scene reveals, is on his own off-world jaunt. Even Peter Parker spends part of Far from Home doing his best to avoid being an Avenger, before getting inevitably dragged back in to the superhero game.
In this uncertain world in which most of the heroes are dead, retired or no longer give a damn, it is no surprise to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio raise his bowl-shaped head above the parapet. He is a disgruntled former Stark employee, leading a bucketload of other disgruntled former Stark employees, with an evil plan to convince the world that only he can save it from attack by mysterious Elementals from another dimension, and thereby fill the hero vacuum that has emerged since Iron Man’s death. This he does with the help of high-tech special effects, and the story that he himself also hails from another reality.
Set against this nefarious charlatan is Nick Fury’s apparent plan (with the help of Edith) to train Spider-Man up as Stark’s successor. Parker ends the movie with a new girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), a cool new suit, and the confidence to take advantage of Edith’s many powers. And yet, by the end of the mid- and post- end credits scenes, it seems he may soon find himself in a darker place than ever.
First up, the mid-credits scene, in which JK Simmons’s resurrected J Jonah Jameson – now an Infowars-style purveyor of fake video news, rather than the newspaper editor he was in the Sony Spider-Man films – destroys Parker’s reputation and reveals his secret identity with the help of dodgy video edited by Mysterio to show Spider-Man as a villainous aggressor in their final battle. Thanks to this, Parker will be a pariah in the post-Endgame MCU. The public are likely to see him not as the superhero Earth needs but as an evil interloper from another dimension who murdered the planet’s main hope of defending itself (Mysterio) against the next extraterrestrial invasion. It is a bittersweet twist that brutally undermines the main movie’s cheery finale.
In the post-credits scene, we discover that Fury had been impersonated throughout the film by shapeshifting Skrull Talos (Ben Mendolsohn), apparently with the former SHIELD supremo’s blessing. If so – and by this point it’s hard to know what to believe – then Fury himself is partly to blame for the entire Mysterio episode. By allowing the Skrull to take his place, he put Parker at risk and set in motion the chain of events that almost led to Mysterio’s plan coming to fruition.
And speaking of failures, if Tony Stark really felt it was a good idea to leave a teenager in charge of high-tech weapons of mass destruction (via the Edith sunglasses), could he not have built in a failsafe to avoid them being passed on to somebody else with a less precise moral compass? Did the late, great Iron Man not learn anything from his idiotic Ultron exercise?
Perhaps future films will see Spider-Man’s name cleared and his reputation restored. But the overall impression left by Far from Home, despite its ostensibly breezy tone, is of an MCU in which we can no longer trust anything we are told, where all the old certainties have been undermined and where, frankly, all bets are off as to what happens next. Wouldn’t you agree?
Sarfraz Manzoor was a teenager in Luton when he met a friend for life and discovered his musical hero. Now that fateful encounter is the subject of a major film
We were just kids. The first time I met Amolak was in autumn 1987. I was 16 and starting my first week at Luton sixth form college. My father worked on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory, my mother was a seamstress working from home and I was expected to get a stable, sensible job, have an arranged marriage and lead a quietly respectful life in obscurity. That isn’t how life turned out.
When I first ran into Amolak he had his headphones on, and when I asked what he was listening to he told me it was Bruce Springsteen. When I queried his music taste he told me Bruce was a direct line to all that was true in this world. He then handed me some cassettes and instructed me to educate myself. The music I heard changed my life. It first turned me into a confirmed Springsteen fan and it then inspired me to follow my dreams and become a writer – a journey I described in my 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park – and now I am a screenwriter of a film adaptation of the book.
Blinded by the Light is a rites of passage comedy drama directed by Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend It Like Beckham. Set in 1987, it revisits my teenage years and much of it is directly based on real events. One unlikely consequence of this is that my teenage friendship with Amolak has now been immortalised – not something either of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams.
My teenage friendship with Amolak has now been immortalised – not something either of us could have imagined
It was deeply weird the first time I saw Viveik Kalra, who plays my character, Javed, and Aaron Phagura who plays the Amolak character, Roops. It was in April last year and I was in west London to watch Gurinder film the scenes recreating my first meeting with Amolak. It was especially strange to see Aaron because he looked exactly like the teenage Amolak – the same double denim and the same Springsteen badges and T-shirt underneath his jacket. A London school had been transformed into Luton sixth form college – there was even a banner saying “Welcome to the Class of ’87”.
Much of the rest of the film was shot in Luton, sometimes using locations that featured in our real lives. There is a cafe called Greenfields located upstairs in what used to be known as the Arndale Centre. Amolak and I have frequented it since we were teenagers. I had written a scene in Greenfields, and when Gurinder was scouting locations I suggested she see the real place. One look and she was sold, which was how I came to be at her side in Greenfields watching Viveik and Aaron in the seats where Amolak and I sat as teenagers, saying dialogue I had written, based on things we used to say.
Two weeks ago, I sat with Amolak in a Soho screening room to show him the final cut of Blinded by the Light. When the film ended he was lost for words, and that is not a common occurrence. We repaired to a nearby bar, and once he had time to process it he told me that seeing the film had been one of the strangest experiences of his life. I had been telling him about my dream of turning the book into a film and he had read a draft of the screenplay, but to see it all on the big screen, with actors playing us, was overwhelming. He told me he was shocked by how much truth and authenticity I had been able to bring.
The constants in my life since I was 16 are Bruce Springsteen and Amolak … a friendship that has endured for 30 years
Having been a journalist and broadcaster who often writes first-person pieces, I am not much fazed when strangers approach me and assume they know me. Amolak does not work in the media but he has already become a minor celebrity at work. He told me that one colleague came up to him and, when Amolak mentioned their meeting was not until later, the man said he had just come over to meet “the film star”.
The film is not released until 9 August, but I have spent the past few weeks at preview screenings across Britain and the United States. One of the most common reactions is that people say they were touched by the depiction of the friendship of Javed and Roops, to the extent that people now tweet me to tell of the friend who was “their Roops” – the one who introduced them to a life-changing musician or band. My mate has become a noun.
At the very end of Blinded by the Light there are a set of stills. Among the ones that prompt the biggest cheers at previews are those of Amolak and me. There is one of us taken in 1990 in New Jersey on the Asbury Park boardwalk and another one, taken last, on set in Luton.
The two constants in my life since I was 16 are Springsteen and Amolak, and it is a source of great pride and pleasure to me that our friendship has endured for more than 30 years. These days, we are both middle-aged husbands and fathers but tomorrow night we will both attend the gala screening of Blinded by the Light with our wives.
When the lights dim and the film starts we will be transported back to that fateful autumn of 1987 when we were just kids.
Blinded by the Light is in cinemas from 9 August. Greetings from Bury Park, the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor which inspired the film, has now been reissued with a new afterword.
This retelling of the Neil Armstrong story has been eclipsed by superior studies of his historic lunar mission
ThisNeil Armstrong documentary feels like unrequired viewing coming so soon after two cracking moon landing movies: Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a character study correcting the myth of Armstrong as a surly recluse, and Apollo 11, the thrilling documentary made with colour footage of the mission found at the back of a filing cabinet at Nasa. By contrast with the latter film, Armstrong looks made for TV, filled with good ol’ boys from Nasa – elderly white men every one of them, who you suspect are still pining for the days of American life when men were men and women waited by the phone in headscarves.
Armstrong was an Ohio farm boy who grew up obsessed with airplanes and got his pilot’s licence before he could drive. He flew fighter planes in the Korean war; it gave him character and backbone, he said. It also acquainted him with death. As a civilian test pilot and later on Project Apollo, he risked his life and lost colleagues. Tragically, his daughter Karen died from a brain tumour, aged two. The film features upsetting home movie footage of Karen at home, her balance impaired, desperately unwell. Watching it, you realise how Chazelle prettified her illness in First Man.
It was Armstrong’s coolness of temperament, his unflappability, that gave him the advantage over the 30 men vying to lead Apollo 11. He was a straight arrow. On the moon, after making that legendary speech, he got down to the job of gathering samples: “We weren’t there to meditate. We were there to work.” His words are narrated here by Harrison Ford, all gravel on velvet – a smart move because poetic Armstrong was not. Interviews with his sons Rick and Mark are sensitively done; they admit that their dad wasn’t around much: “Mum was our unsung hero.” Janet Armstrong, interviewed before her death, is a formidable presence.
• Armstrong is released in the UK and the US on 12 July.
Producer highlights how making movies for Netflix is easier than finding funding for cinema releases
The UK is facing the loss of its independent movie business, leading film-makers have said.
They say that the financing model of the past 20 years is broken and that making Oscar-winning films such as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire has become all the more difficult. The film-makers believe that, while homegrown casts and crews are working instead on Hollywood and overseas productions, the increasing dominance of US online streaming platforms will drive up costs further and ensure that stars on whom they rely to attract crucial financing are even less available.
Last week, in a boost for the UK’s status as a centre for film and TV production,Netflix announced that it was setting up a permanent production base at Shepperton Studios, spending more of its $13bn (£10.3bn) annual production budget in the UK. The news came as Disney joined studios planning rival streaming companies with their own productions. Before launching Disney+, it has pulled all its content, including the Toy Story franchise, from Netflix in the US.
Andy Paterson, who co-producedThe Railway Man, the acclaimed second world war film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, said others would follow and that, although British film-makers were benefiting from the streamers, there was a limit to the number of subscriptions that the public would buy.
He predicted a “streamer war” that would take its toll on the independent sector.
Paterson said: “There’s going to be a massive war between those platforms over the next two years and then, inevitably, a consolidation. But, if during that time, we lose the independent film business in this country – which is going to happen unless we make big choices – then in three or four years’ time there will just be a few American-dominated platforms that control all creative content.
“We’re all making films and series for the streamers. We’re not for a second saying we don’t love that … It’s an awful lot easier to make movies for Netflix, where they pay for it, than it is to bring 50 different bits of money together to make The Railway Man. But, without some intervention to ensure that the indigenous films still get developed and made, you end up having a new set of studios dominating the world.
“I am passionate about producing, but I am horrified at the way this country develops and treats its producing talent. We’re becoming an industry focused only on servicing the colossal range of inward investment films and TV series attracted by the tax credit, the dollar and working here, or making the very low-budget films from emerging directors, which are really all the British Film Institute (BFI) and BBC Films can afford to do.”
He said the UK would look back within a few years on how it destroyed the independent film sector, depriving cinema audiences of original and diverse films in which the UK has always excelled.
He is calling for a shake-up of the industry in a world after the Brexit vote, where everything is changing, saying: “Are we going to let British creators just work for America?”
His concerns were echoed by Rebecca O’Brien, producer of Ken Loach’s films, who said: “I’m quite pessimistic for the independent sector at the moment.
“I certainly see a decline … The success of the inward investment business, which of course the industry is delighted to have, because it keeps strong employment is definitely a problem for the independent sector, who can’t pay so well.
“When you’re crewing a film, it’s really quite difficult to find people … People that we work with might be employed for up to nine months on a studio production and they have to commit to it because independent productions are rare … So it does begin to drill a hole in our ability to keep the sector going.”
Gabrielle Stewart, the managing director of HanWay Films, whose productions include Ralph Fiennes’s Rudolf Nureyev drama, The White Crow, said: “It’s a lot tougher right now.”
Beyond tax relief, which provides about 20% of a production budget if the entire film is made in the UK, British producers have traditionally competed for public funds from the BFIand BBC Films and for a UK distributor to put a substantial guarantee against UK revenues.
Paterson said: “£11m for BBC Films and about £15m for the BFI. These are pathetic numbers compared to the billions that Netflix and others spend. We don’t need to spend that level of money to compete because we’re really good at making films … Audiences want films in their cinemas that are not just more of the same.”
A BBC Films spokeswoman acknowledged that its budget was small, but said it was used judiciously, supporting both new and established film-makers.
Ben Roberts, the deputy chief executive of the BFI, said the independent film sector remained buoyant, with plenty of actors wanting to fit those productions into their schedules.
Noting “the incredible energy” of the inward investment sector, he said: “I’m naturally more optimistic. We see a lot of work coming into us as an open access funder every year. It would be a shame to paint a picture of negativity.”
The acclaimed director talks about his new climate-crisis zombie film, his unique look and why he’s taken to hanging out in the woods
Cuyahoga Falls is a middle-class suburb of industrial Akron, Ohio, a grid of leafy streets and comfortable homes bordered by the river. When Jim Jarmusch was a boy, he knew to steer clear of the water because, while the town might be placid, the Cuyahoga river was toxic. Pickling acids had stained it bright orange. Factory detergents had put a white froth on its surface. In June 1969, a spark from a train set the Cuyahoga alight and the flames jumped as high as a five‑storey building.
Fifty years on, Jarmusch remembers it well. “It was not a pleasant thing to happen,” he says with the droll understatement that has become his signature style. “In fact, if you’re looking for a metaphor of modern American life, it doesn’t get more blatant than having your local river catch fire.”
As a film-maker, Jarmusch likes to make movies about the world’s little details; about drifters and seekers and the rambling detours that add up to a life. It’s an area of interest that has served him well, from 1984’s meandering, monochromeStranger Than Paradise through to 2016’s soulful, meditative Paterson. But it’s hard to focus on the small pictures when the big one is so scary: when a river is burning or the whole planet’s aflame. He says: “It’s clear we’re living in an ecological crisis and the situation is getting worse and worse. We’re threatened by the denial of science and by corporate greed. If this is the path that we keep going down, then it is only going to lead to the end of the world.”
I first run into Jarmusch on the backstreets of Cannes in May this year, where his latest work, The Dead Don’t Die, opens the film festival as climate crisis protesters gather beside the Palais. A few weeks later I speak to him again on the phone at his house in upstate New York. He explains that while he maintains a bolt-hole in his adopted Manhattan, these days he prefers living out in the Catskills. He shares the house with his partner of four decades, the actor and film-makerSara Driver. “This is family time,” the 66-year-old says. “I guess you could say I’m up here to recover.”
The alternative view is that he’s hiding out in the woods; the silver fox of independent cinema lying low, gone to ground. If the apocalypse is pending, The Dead Don’t Die shows the way it might go, with polar fracking warping the planet’s axis, Trump-supporting racists spinning on their bar-stools, and an army of zombies shuffling up main street. Jarmusch keeps referring to the film as a comedy – pretty funny, plenty of jokes – but his sales patter carries a plaintive note. He knows the film is not as frothy as he meant it to be.
He sighs. “The tone is different from what I anticipated. It’s a whole lot darker than I imagined, especially the ending. I try not to analyse these things too much, but that’s reflective of the world we’re in; the looming environmental crisis just became more and more of a cloud. I was working on this film for two years, and during that time it was as if the planet was changing on an almost daily basis.”
Small wonder that the finished movie pulls in different directions and seems almost at war with itself. The tale sets forth as a jaunty, knowing deconstruction of the zombie genre, only to be caught in the crossfire of fatalism and despair. “This whole thing’s going to end badly,” warns Adam Driver’s small-town cop as the walking dead descend on Centerville, calling out for coffee and wifi, chardonnay and Xanax. The cast’s an amiable ragbag of Jarmusch’s buddies and collaborators. There’s Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, an undead Iggy Pop. Tom Waits co-stars as Hermit Bob, a rackety old recluse who lives in the forest and survives on squirrels and bugs. He knows what’s coming and accepts it with a shrug. “The world is fucked-up,” he informs us at the end.
The film was shot near Jarmusch’s home, around the neighbouring towns of Kingston and Fleischmanns. This ought to have made the production simple, but somehow did not. The schedule was a nightmare; they only had Driver for three weeks. On top of that, it rained constantly. The director came down with the flu and broke a toe on the set. “And then we had to rush to get the thing finished so that we could give it to Cannes.” I have the sense that he’s still trying to figure out what he’s made. “I mean, I wouldn’t have changed the film at all. But I would probably have had more time to think about just what I was doing. It slipped out of my hands like a little child on the riverbank.”
As a kid back in Akron, Jarmusch dreamed of slipping away, too. The place was too small, too conservative. Everyone worked for the rubber companies: his dad for BF Goodrich, his uncle for Goodyear, his neighbour for Firestone. His mum, Betty French, had been an arts reporter for theAkron Beacon Journal. She reviewed the young Marlon Brando in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire and covered the Hollywood wedding of Bogart and Bacall. But when she got married, she jacked in the day job and tucked herself away in a small upstairs office at home. Jarmusch remembers the sound of her picking away on an old Royal typewriter, turning out freelance articles for a local antiques magazine.
He credits his mother for sparking an early interest in art, music and film. But he also drew inspiration from a more lurid source. The “ghost-host” Ghoulardi was a costumed presenter who introduced B-movies on Cleveland’s JWJ-TV station. The Dead Don’t Die contains a Ghoulardi poster in homage.
“Well, he was a really important cultural figure,” Jarmusch explains, deadpan. “He had a TV show on Friday nights at 11.30 where he would show sci-fi, horror or monster films – mainly monster films. And he did all kinds of crazy stuff in between. He was this beatnik kind of guy with a goatee, dressed in a white lab coat with a fright wig, dark glasses with one lens missing. He used a lot of hipster catchphrases that were all made up. He’d explode model cars with cherry bombs and he had this early kinescopic effect where he would briefly place himself inside the film he was showing. So yeah, if you ask anyone who grew up in north-eastern Ohio in the 60s, we’re all familiar with Ghoulardi and his influence on us. I think Chrissie Hynde still has her original Ghoulardi T-shirt.”
He pauses. “You know who Ghoulardi’s son is, right?” As it happens, I do. Ghoulardi was played by a TV announcer called Ernie Anderson who would later father Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Magnolia, Boogie Nightsand Phantom Thread. “I’ve only met Paul once, and the first thing I said to him was: ‘Your dad was Ghoulardi!’ He kind of rolled his eyes about it, but I mean, come on, that was my young bohemian dream – a weird dad like Ghoulardi.”
Except why stop with Ghoulardi? Jarmusch is a pop-culture sponge. He soaks up pretty much everything and likes to quote Joe Strummer’s old motto: “No input, no output.” His films are made up of secondhand odds and sods, twisted to fit his own sensibility, possibly his own image. I tell him that they’re distinctive and stylish, sometimes to a fault.
“Well, style is very important,” he says, unperturbed. “It’s what Martin Scorsese says differentiates all film-makers. Style is the important identifier of someone’s personal expression.”
Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. But Jarmusch’s films seem expressly designed to test that maxim, turn it upside down. They glide over scenes that might form the centrepiece of a more conventional picture and salvage incidentals from the cutting-room floor. On his 1986 breakthrough, Down By Law, he rustled up a jailbreak drama that ignored the jailbreak. On the 1995 western Dead Man, he took a perverse delight in finding the most humdrum locations in Oregon and Arizona. At their best, his pictures are ruminative and poetic all-American stories that move with the unhurried pace of Asian arthouse cinema, or postcards from obscure places, complete with doodled footnotes. Reviewing 1989’s Mystery Train, Roger Ebert wrote: “The best thing about the film is that it takes you to an America you feel you ought to be able to find for yourself if you only knew where to look.”
Naturally, Jarmusch says, the films are a reflection of him. “I know I have a laconic approach, time-wise. I know I talk kind of slowly. I probably think kind of slowly. I like slow music. I like slow films. That’s just inherent. Godard said that every film-maker makes the same film over and over. That’s probably true in my case.”
Let’s talk about his personal style. That has remained a constant, too. Jarmusch’s hair began to whiten when he was in his mid-teens, round about the time that the Cuyahoga caught fire, with the result that he barely seems to have changed over the ensuing half-century. Compare a picture from the 80s with the Jarmusch of today and it’s hard to spot the difference. He has the same fine, handsome features, the same space-age quiff, the same dark charisma. In photographs, whether intentionally or not, he always appears to be striking a pose. It’s as though he views himself as a frontman for the pictures that he makes.
But the suggestion makes him snort. The surest way to prick his aura of pristine cool is to ask about his aura of pristine cool. “I find that a ridiculous idea,” he says. “My personal style, how I look and dress – I don’t consider that to be a part of my art. It reminds me of when I was starting out and people would say: ‘Oh my God, he wears black clothes and dyes his hair white and he makes black-and-white films. What a pretentious asshole.’ Whereas none of these things was related to me. My hair was prematurely white. I started wearing black as a teenager because I liked Zorro and Johnny Cash. And then suddenly in New York it was like: ‘Oh, he’s a hipster.’ That’s just hilarious to me.”
He thinks it over. “I mean, I suppose I’ve always thought from when I was a teenager that how you look and how you dress must reflect something about you. But I paid a lot more attention to it back then, when I was in Ohio, than I do now, because I just kind of stuck with it. I haven’t really changed.”
When he first landed in New York, he wanted to be a poet or a musician, whichever came easier. More than anything he wanted to immerse himself, reinvent himself, put as much distance as possible between himself and Akron. It’s tempting to compare him to Andy Warhol, another escapee from the rust belt, or F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, a gorgeous series of successful gestures. Actually, he says, Manhattan at the time wasn’t much prettier than Cuyahoga Falls with its poisonous river. This was 1977, the year of the blackout, the Summer of Sam; graffiti sprayed across the subway cars and the entire city on the verge of bankruptcy. But it was also a good time, a creative seedbed; the streets thrumming to the crosstown traffic of hip-hop and punk-rock.
“It was dirty, it was dangerous. It was everything I’d dreamed of. And you’d go out at night, and yes, you’d see Andy Warhol. You’d see Ornette Coleman walking by, carrying a fucking horn case. I met [experimental film-maker] Jack Smith on the street and he was pushing a baby carriage full of garbage for one of his shows. He gave me a business card that said: ‘Jack Smith – exotic theatrical genius.’ I met Nico on the street and she invited me to come and have tea with her at the Chelsea hotel. It was…” He can’t get the words out. “It was magical. It was amazing. It was – wow.”
Jarmusch’s early films were about men and women on the move. The fugitives out of Down By Law, the Memphis tourists in Mystery Train, the taxicab passengers from Night on Earth. Recently, though, his protagonists seem to be slowing down, circling towards rest, like the jaded Detroit vampires from Only Lovers Left Alive. In 2016, he ventured out to Paterson, New Jersey, the former home of the poet William Carlos Willams, to make what was arguably his simplest, most personal picture. Paterson spun the tale of a serene, bus-driving poet who folds the creation of great art into his daily routine. Jarmusch shot the film on location. He dragged his camera past the nail bars, pizza joints, factories and the river. Somewhere along the way, it struck him that Paterson, New Jersey, was a lot like Akron, Ohio – and that in making the film he was, in a sense, coming home.
Paterson garnered some of the best reviews of the director’s career. It was seen as heartfelt and pure; weightless and transcendent. The Dead Don’t Diehas prompted a more sniffy response. But that’s OK, Jarmusch insists. He knows his films have a tendency to split an audience. What some see as beautiful and strange others regard as artificial and contrived. He’s given up worrying about being misunderstood.
Jarmusch says: “Here’s the thing: the dilemma for all film-makers. The beauty of cinema is that you’re basically walking into Plato’s cave. You’re going into a darkened room and entering a world you don’t know anything about. You’re going on a journey and you don’t know what to expect.” He pauses. “But if you’ve written the script and raised the money and shot the film and then sat in the editing suite for six months, then you are not going to be able to walk into that world. That experience has been robbed from you. The result is that you can’t see the film that you’ve made. The interpretations of others are more valid than your own.”
Besides, he adds, if you stare long and hard enough at anything, you realise that pretty much every element is contradicted by another. That’s true of every movie; it’s true of every person. “Just look at me. I feel very strongly about the state of the planet. I find the actions ofGreta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion to be very moving. But I’m also making a film that’s intended as genre entertainment. I drive a fossil-burning vehicle. I use credit cards and plastic. So what do I do? Is it only black or white? Am I only part of the problem or part of the solution?” He doesn’t know, he’s at a loss. “I’m not for negativity. I’m not a fatalist. I’m for the survival of beauty. I’m for the mystery of life.”
I ask if he gets back to Ohio much these days and he says he doesn’t – there’s not much reason to visit. His mother died about a year ago; he had to go back then, to arrange the sale of her house. He adds that he still has a few close friends out in Cleveland, some of whom run the Blue Arrow record store. I ask how he feels about New York and he heaves a sigh. Change is good, by and large. He’s not nostalgic by nature. But it’s not the same place he came to as a weird kid with white hair.
“Actually I like it less and less,” he says. “New York gave me so much energy when I was young and I’ve basically been cashing it in ever since. The city is demographically less varied. There are lots of younger people whose values I don’t really understand – I guess they just want to make money and hang out with models. It doesn’t seem to be about expression and art, the way it used to be. Maybe that’s unfair, I don’t know. These days I prefer being out in the woods by myself.”
He’s sounding more like Hermit Bob by the second. Next thing we know, he’ll be eating squirrels and bugs. “Yeah well,” he shoots back. “The world is fucked up.”
The Dead Don’t Die is released in the UK on Friday
Xan Brooks’s top five Jarmusch films
1984: Stranger Than Paradise Jarmusch set out his stall with a delightfully lugubrious road movie of sorts, which sent three square pegs (jazz musician John Lurie, drummer turned actor Richard Edson, and Hungarian-born Eszter Balint) rattling across America’s round holes. Shot in black and white on a budget of $125,000,the film won the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes and pointed the way ahead for US independent cinema.
1989: Mystery Train The director’s fascination with US pop culture peaked with Mystery Train, a colourful Memphis portmanteau, paradoxically bankrolled with Japanese cash. The film’s winding course leads from the station to the dive bars to the insalubrious lobby of the Arcade hotel, where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s night clerk keeps a baleful eye on the foreign tourists.
1995: Dead Man The hidebound American western took on a strange and bewitching new form with Dead Man, a tale of manifest destiny turned in on itself, seeing visions on the prairie and sandblasted by Neil Young’s elemental guitar score. Robert Mitchum gave his career swansong as a corroded 19th-century industrialist, while Johnny Depp headlined as wonky William Blake, a runaway accountant with a bullet lodged beside his heart.
2014: Only Lovers Left Alive Jarmusch confesses that he’s always been more of a vampire man than a zombie fan. He loves their refinement, their beauty, their decadent nocturnal existence. With Only Lovers Left Alive (starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) he laid on a vampire film of his own, gliding around the exotic ruins of Detroit and trailing clouds of glory. Critics, inevitably, were keen to frame it as a thinly-veiled self-portrait.
2016: Paterson Each day, Adam Driver’s modest young bus driver sets off on his route. Each day, he writes pure, simple poetry inside his notebook. Paterson tells us that routine is important, that small is beautiful and that the creation of art is as natural as breathing. It’s a film that – to misquote William Blake – sees the world in a bus timetable and heaven in the tatty old streets of a humdrum industrial town.
A German boy who witnesses Nazi horrors grows up to become a painter in this overcooked but affecting melodrama
At a key early moment in German directorFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s acclaimed art-drama/suspense-thriller hybrid (which reportedly received a 13-minute standing ovation at the Venice film festival last year), a young boy confronted by a terrible sight holds his hand in front of his eyes. At first, we think he’s doing it to blot out the spectacle of his beloved aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) being bundled into an ambulance in Nazi Germany. But the truth is more complex. As young Kurt (a wonderfully wide-eyed Cai Cohrs) holds his palm a few inches in front of his face, we see what he sees – the hand coming into close focus, rendering what’s behind it slightly blurry. When his hand drops down, the awful truth beyond remains momentarily fuzzy – creating the impression of seeing at one remove. As the ambulance doors slam shut, Elisabeth makes eye contact with her nephew and repeats an instruction that has become her mantra: “Never look away…”
That phrase, which echoes throughout the film’s three-hours-plus running time, became the English-language title. It’s quite different from the German original Werk Ohne Autor (work without author), a phrase once used by critics to describe the works of German artist Gerhard Richter, whose early life inspired the story (though Richter has pointedly distanced himself from the film).
Yet the words “never look away” cut right to the heart of the matter; this is a story about seeing and not seeing; about looking and looking away – often at the same time. Whether it’s the grotesque operations carried out under a veneer of civility by Nazi doctor Carl Seeband (played with chilling detachment by Sebastian Koch), or the monolithic ideologies of fascism and communism against which budding artist Kurt struggles equally (if covertly), the film is centrally concerned with ways of seeing. That it should approach such an esoteric, thorny subject through the crowd-pleasing format of an overcooked melodrama is perhaps surprising, addressing, as it does, lofty aesthetic concerns through old-fashioned conservative film-making techniques. What’s even more remarkable is that it succeeds more often than it fails.
The film opens, appropriately, with an out-of-focus image of a Nazi-sanctioned “modern art” exhibition aimed to denounce “decadent” works in which “mental illness is elevated to a defining principle” by “people who see fields as blue, the sky as green, and clouds as sulphur yellow!” “Don’t tell anybody, but I like it,” whispers Elisabeth, as she and Kurt stand transfixed by a condemned Kandinsky. Soon, Elisabeth’s artistic temperament will result in her being sterilised and worse, damned by a flick of Professor Seeband’s sword-like pencil.
Years later, the adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) falls for fellow student Ellie (Paula Beer), which unwittingly draws him into the orbit of Seeband, whose past remains occluded. Having saved the unborn baby of a Russian officer (“Because I can,” he declares pompously, words that Kurt will, significantly, repeat), Seeband has escaped imprisonment and flourished in Soviet East Germany, nimbly swapping one authoritarian order for another – a point the film makes without resort to subtlety. As for Kurt, he progresses from sign writing to mural painting, producing supposedly uplifting portraits of workers wielding approved tools until a defection to the west finally offers him artistic freedom. But at what price? Having thrown off the shackles of the old order, Kurt finds himself becalmed, bereft of inspiration, desperate for direction – a new way of looking.
Never Look Away is Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature. After making his mark with the Oscar-winning Stasi-drama The Lives of Others, he co-wrote and directedThe Tourist, a lavishly empty romp in which Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie swanned around Venice to no one’s amusement but their own. With Never Look Away, released in Germany last October, the film-maker has regained his mojo, helming his second foreign language Oscar contender, which also earned a deserved nomination for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. While the direction may be deceptively unfussy, Deschanel does brilliant work bringing Kurt’s worldview to life, enabling us to understand his progress towards an artistic breakthrough, represented here by paintings conjured by (among others) Richter’s former assistant Andreas Schön.
A superbly affecting score by Max Richter (no relation) helps to negotiate the divide between the occasionally clumsy contrivances of the on-the-nose narrative and the aspirations of a populist movie that strives with some sincerity to celebrate the healing power of art. As that early shot suggests, it’s only by looking away that we can actually see the truth, using obfuscation to achieve clarity – albeit with added popcorn.
Future of city’s last single screen cinema, opened by Marlene Dietrich and frequented by David Bowie, hangs in the balance
The Paris Theatre has become one of New York’s cultural landmarks since it was officially opened by the actor Marlene Dietrich as a cinema for showing French films in 1948.
Down the road from Central Park and across the street from the Plaza hotel, it attracted queues around the block as the go-to place to watch arthouse and foreign language films and was known for showing the same movie for months on end.
In the early 00s it gained cult status with Sex and the City fans after Carrie Bradshaw declared it one of the best features of Manhattan life because “any night of the week you can go to Paris”.
Over 70 years later, even in the post-Netflix age, it remains a popular venue for film screenings and premieres. As the city’s last remaining single screen and the only movie theater with a functioning curtain, it has also become a rare relic of cinema’s heyday.
But now the future of the cinema hangs in the balance, according to industry insiders who warn it is at risk of imminent closure – with some saying it could close as early as this month.
City Cinemas, which runs the Paris Theatre, and landlord Sheldon Solow, who owns the building, declined to comment on the claims. City Cinemas, which runs several theatres in New York, recently tweetedthat it was “proud to operate” the cinema and that it would “continue to strive for ongoing operations at the Paris”.
But Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, which regularly showcases films at the venue, claims the rumours are true.
He said: “Through my contacts we found out Sheldon Solow has decided to close the theatre and we were shocked. He owns the building, he’s owned it forever and for whatever reason, no one can find out the reason why, he’s closing it.”
Currently the cinema is showing Pavarotti, a new documentary about the late opera star by Ron Howard, but no further films are listed on the “coming soon” section of the its website and no tickets are available to buy online after 11 July. Bernard said: “We’ve inquired about a number of films and they are not taking bookings.”
If the cinema closes, it will mark a blow for fans of the Paris, but also the overall health of New York’s cinema landscape, which has taken a knocking in recent years with the closures of the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema last year, and the Ziegfeld, another single-screen cinema, in 2016.
Like many businesses in New York, cinemas are often on 10-year leases, putting them at the mercy of the cutthroat world of New York real estate. Bernard said: “[The Paris] is a huge loss and it’s shocking for a city that has such a taste for specialised product. The venues continue to shrink.”
It’s also bad news for makers of specialised and foreign films, for whom venues like the Paris give a platform and might not otherwise have been given a chance. In the case of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, a gay love story starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet which became a box office hit, Bernard said the Paris was “an anchor for the rest of the country to see this movie was doing this”.
Theatre historian Joe Rosenberg, who successfully campaigned for landmark designation for Radio City Music Hall and 35 Broadway theatres, said it is difficult for single-screen cinemas to survive because they depend on a distribution model that no longer exists.
In the past, art films would start in single-screen cinemas like the Paris, where they would play exclusively, before moving on to others if they were a success. Now, he says, distributors prefer multiplexes because they can show films on multiple screens, and give them a longer shelf life.
“So it starts off in a large auditorium and then when the audience falls it goes into a medium-sized auditorium and then the small auditorium, but it’s still played in the same place for three to four weeks,” said Rosenberg. “You can’t do that in a single screen cinema … As soon as numbers fall off they have to give up the film and bring in a new film.”
Architecturally he said the Paris, which has 586 seats, is “understated and beautiful” and from a time period that very few cinema theatres were built. The disappearance of the Paris, he said, would be “a loss from the old days”.
Going forward, he believes the future of films is certain, but that of cinemas is not. “Motion picture palaces were hurt by television, theatre was hurt by talking pictures, Vaudeville was murdered by talking pictures. And now cinema is being hurt by streaming and Netflix,” he said.
Outside the Paris earlier this week, cinemagoers at an evening screening of Pavarotti were disappointed over its rumoured closure.
“Well, it’s classic New York, it’s been here forever,” said Paris regular Cameron Henderson, 38, an actor from the Upper West Side, when asked what he likes about the theatre. His partner, Peter Eskowicz, 37, added: “And it’s a one-screen theatre, there’s a balcony, it’s like seeing live theatre, it’s like going to a Broadway show, but seeing a movie. And the Ziegfeld [was the] same way, we saw so much at the Ziegfeld … Now this is really the only one.”
But Eskowicz admitted that despite his love of the Paris, ticket prices – $18 for adults – can be off-putting. “I love the theatre, but I look and I go, ‘$18 …’ I know it’s going to stream in the next six months.”
Paris regular Roberto Borgatti, 47, who works at a sports education website, said he is not holding out for the Paris’s neighbour at nearby Trump Tower to help. “Obviously Donald Trump, even though he’s just a few blocks away, isn’t going to save the place,” he said.
The new Spider-Man is one pair of clogs from full European bingo – further solidifying cinema’s ongoing pursuit of stereotypes
“Imay not know much but I do know that Europeans love Americans,” Peter Parker’s sidekick Ned tells him as they set off on their school trip. But if Spider-Man: Far from Home tells us anything, it’s that Americans sure love Europe, or at least the movie version of it, which tends to consist of tourist sights, sexually liberated women and little else.
Spider-Man resolutely sticks to the beaten track in terms of the sights. Venice is canals, pigeons, the Rialto bridge and masks. London is Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the Shard. And “Holland” (it’s clearly a set) is signified by a windmill, round cheeses, unpronounceable place names and a field of tulips. A pair of clogs and we could have had a full house.
Obliging females are also part of the Euro-bingo scorecard, it seems. In National Lampoon’s European Vacation, for example, the Griswolds’ teenage son Rusty dreams of legions of women lusting after him, just like Ned does. In reality, Rusty is mocked by French girls at the Eiffel Tower for wearing a silly beret, but he is later found by his dad in a nightclub with a prostitute. Wait, what?
Or perhaps Ned was thinking of EuroTrip, in which horny American teens come in search of casual sex and instead find gay Dutch S&M, predatory Italian men, Hitler jokes and Vinnie Jones. The nudist beach is full of guys like them, hoping to ogle some naked women (viewers, by contrast, get plenty to ogle at). Still, that’s getting off lightly compared to the sex tourists of Eli Roth’s Hostel, who seek cheap thrills in Slovakia, and pay a heavy, bloody, torture-porny price for their American ignorance.
British cinema is no better: from James Bond to The Inbetweeners (“It’ll be like shooting clunge in a barrel”), UK films love to portray the continent as a land of lusty stereotypes. French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, eastern European, but especially Swedish: from our prudish perspective they’re all more up for it than we are. So it is probably just as well, for their sakes and ours, that Peter Parker and Ned barely even speak to any Europeans on their trip, although the movie can’t resist throwing in a tall, blond Austrian woman who commands Parker to remove his clothes.
Perhaps the last word was on this topic was already had in 2002, in Roger Avary’s adaptation of The Rules of Attraction, which was broadly forgettable apart from one virtuoso, speeded-up montage of a character’s European vacation. It covers it all: London, Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, and countless other destinations; drugs, sex, parties and tourist sights – all of which our privileged narrator finds pretty boring. It is a genuine home movie of a two-week trip cut down to four giddily entertaining minutes. That’s really all we need.
INXS frontman’s genius is implied throughout Richard Lowenstein’s choppy documentary but never given the chance to speak for itself
Richard Lowenstein’s long-gestating documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence has finally arrived after a decade in the works. In a sense, the veteran indie auteur has been chipping away at the film even longer than that, since the early days of his career, having directed several music videos for INXS– the Australian rock band the renowned singer-songwriter fronted.
Lowenstein also helmed the endearingly scuzzy 1986 sharehouse drama Dogs in Space. This bong water-soaked, couch-crashing classic features a rare leading performance from Hutchence himself, with whom the director was friends. Lowenstein has describedMystify as an apology for not being there for the late musician, who took his own life in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997.
In this sense, then, it’s no surprise Lowenstein seems to struggle to determine the best narrative hooks with which to frame Hutchence’s story: a case, perhaps, of a film-maker being too close to his material. Mystify is a heavyhearted portrait of a highly talented and complex person, who soared to great heights and plummeted to dreadful lows. How much viewers will get out of it will depend (as is the case with most films about real-life musicians) partly on how much they admire Hutchence going in.
Loads of home footage, clips from performances and a wide range of interviews with people close to the subject make the film a must-see for lovers of INXS. Sadly, it pales in comparison with the director’s other documentaries – including the captivating Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard and the deeply engrossing Ecco Homo. The latter, which explores the life of another friend and collaborator of Hutchence, the elusive artist Peter Vanessa “Troy” Davies, was inventively framed as part detective story and part freaky eulogy, etched in the post-punk, drug-washed haze of Melbourne circa the 80s.
Davies was not a superstar like Hutchence, so Lowenstein’s challenge involved explaining why his story matters and what this man’s life signified in a broader cultural context. Those elements are lacking in Mystify. From its introductory moments, depicting Hutchence performing Never Tear Us Apart in front of an adoring crowd in a smoky, packed-out venue, there is a sense of reverence and implied genius that runs throughout the film.
Frustratingly, Lowenstein doesn’t let the musician’s genius speak for itself. The film includes snippets of many of his performances, but they are clipped and come and go quickly: a few moments on the stage here and there. I found myself regularly wishing that the director would slow down the pace and let these moments breathe, allowing the audience to savour Hutchence’s vitalising presence and charisma – and, of course, that bewitching voice.
Martin Scorsese included near-complete renditions of several songs in his Bob Dylan documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue. The effect was striking, like a kind of editing room equaliser: allowing rhythm and energy to be momentarily driven by the artist himself, rather than part of the more pressure-packed, chopped-up style of a film like Mystify – a film cut six ways to Sunday.
It finally hits its stride towards the end, when it obtains an interesting journalistic quality. There are some bold suggestions and talking points – including the possibility that Hutchence’s loss of smell (after experiencing brain damage) increased his sense of a loss of self. Exploring the musician’s relationship with Paula Yates, among several other turbulent aspects of his life, the director makes a point that these types of narratives are never clear-cut. That a person unravelling, in so many areas and with such devastating consequences, entails complex considerations and rarely – if ever – is there a single moral or cut-and-dried perspective.
Lowenstein also makes the bold decision to use audio from interviews with no accompanying images, dislocating what we see and what we hear. This approach has worked to striking effect in several films, including Senna and the electrifying Adam Goodes documentaryThe Final Quarter. But those films feel very different, more like comprehensively referenced visual essays than, a collection of deeply personal ruminations in a documentary that attempts to distil the essence of a person’s life and character.
When people close to Hutchence forlornly discuss aspects of his life and personality, viewers want to see their faces; we want to fully register their emotions. Interviewees include Kylie Minogue, who reflects on her and Hutchence’s romantic years pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle. Charming home footage shows the two lovebirds on a yacht and then holidaying in Europe, but in this film sadness is never far away. Minogue reflects with melancholy on Hutchence as a broken man, sobbing uncontrollably on all fours. Small but powerful moments, like these, are the ones that stay with you.