RIP Hector Babenko – Carandiru

The death was announced last week of Hector Babenko, the Argentine-born Brazilian film-maker. Best known perhaps for Kiss of the Spider Woman, possibly his most important film was Carandiru, a striking take on a Sao Paulo prison and the riots there which ended in the deaths of 111 inmates. Here’s the review I wrote for a prison charity magazine in 2004.


The ‘prison picture’ is a an old staple of cinema, usually offering a melodramatic, sentimentalised or extremely violent view of prison life that is often more concerned with audience pleasing than devotion to fact. Carandiru is all of these, but it also offers an astonishing glimpse into another country’s prison system. It is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to riots of 1992 in the state prison in Sao Paulo, in which 111 prisoners were slaughtered by state troopers, seen through the eyes of a doctor going in for the first time to run an Aids clinic inside.

To begin with the place can only be seen as a hell hole – squalid, dangerous and drug-fuelled, there is scarcely any officer presence there, but order, of a kind, is maintained by gangs. And yet order there is, and as we see more it becomes clear that there is a kind of self-regulating and almost tolerant society in there which does hold together and has many good points – prisoners organise themselves into working groups, run football teams, they choose their own cells and personalise them with many possessions so that some are little domestic palaces, studies or romantic love nests, (there are many transsexuals inside, and they often form partnerships, weddings even being performed). Babenko gives us splashes of intense colour and warmth for all these positives, contrasting with the dark and menacing austerity of most aspects of the regime.

But nowhere do the contrasts with the British prison system stand out so much as on Visits Day. The enormous prison yard is filled with beautifully shaded tables on which whole families eat elaborate picnics together which they have bought in, children hold a talent competition on a stage in the middle, prisoners walk hand in hand or dance with their sweethearts and wives or return to their cells for conjugal visits, ad hoc football is played between inmates and their sons and brothers, families with small children spend intimate times together in Dad’s cell… paradoxically this hell hole can produce a kind of paradise.

The price, of course, is the lack of security and therefore the accepted presence of drugs, and absence of any real control on violence – not a price one would want to pay, but still it is intriguing to look at a totally different take on imprisonment, and feel that perhaps our Northern European ways will always have something to learn from the most unlikely places.

Soon after this idyllic passage comes the ‘riot’, and its far bloodier putting down. Colours again flash and burn in a horrifying sequence that is both graphic and poetic and assaults the eyes and the emotions. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a stunning film full of ideas and images that stay with you for a long long time.

 Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 2004


Notes on Blindness/The Town Moor – A Portrait in Sound

Notes on Blindness Peter Middleton & James Spinney

When I consider how my days are spent… in this dark world and wide…’ (Milton)

In 1983 John Hull, a professor of Theology at Birmingham University, lost his sight completely after a succession of worsening eye problems. He began to keep an audio journal about his blindness, his changing emotions and his relationship with the newly unseen world round him. Also using a recorded extended conversation between John and his wife on the subject, this film takes us deep into his internal landscapes, bringing us as close as possible to the experience of being blind and also offering insights into time, memory and perception of the world.

John and his wife are portrayed by actors lip-synching the recordings, a method so delicately done that it is utterly convincing, and Dan Renton Skinner (can this really be Bosh from House of Fools?) makes a moving and credible but never pitiable John as he moves between the stages of acceptance and accommodation of his new condition. There the comfort of the of well-known surroundings and the marshalling of new ways to continue his work – the students and colleagues who learn how to communicate, the armies of volunteers who record textbooks for him – are a positive that energise him, but though he never seems to fall into that really deep despair we might expect, there are dark moments and a reluctance to move away from this comfort zone. A trip to see his parents in his homeland of Australia, reluctantly faced, is a double-edged experience. The family occasions work well, but he does not find any connection to his old remembered places without being able to see them, and is finally glad to return. Sometimes memory is more potent than reality, and watching this you realise how this is true for the seeing as well as the blind, actuality never quite living up to those blue remembered hills.

In the most striking and memorable sequence of the film (based on a short made by the same film-makers a few years ago) John speaks about rain, and how it brings out the contours of a landscape – in this case his garden – in a way nothing else does. It’s a visually beautiful piece of filming, enhanced by listening to the rain as it falls with new insight as to what we are hearing. For a while you will never listen to rain with the same disregard. If only, he ruefully says, it rained inside rooms to bring them to life for him in the same way, and the film obligingly moves into a surreal sequence of rain falling in his study, across his keyboard, over the furniture, with their different echoes and resonances. Dreams and imaginings feature a good deal. John can see in dreams, and the old familiar places and new unseen images are there for him while sleeping, including a striking and disturbing time when he has vivid and realistic dream of the daughter he has never seen waking him up.

Often fine-looking, but shot often in the half light of interiors, simultaneously dim and secure, it’s about so much more than one man’s blindness.

The Town Moor – A Portrait In Sound

Purely coincidentally, 20 minutes after seeing Notes on Blindness I crossed the landing of the Tyneside Cinema to their Gallery to ‘see’ Chris Watson’s ‘dark cinema’ experience.  Put together from recordings made throughout the day and night on Newcastle’s Town Moor, a huge partly wild open space right by the city, it is a reworking and expansion of a programme originally made for BBC Radio by Chris Watson, artist, musician, and veteran sound recordist. There are runners, thunder, wind, unidentifiable machines and motors, funfair and circus, happy people returning after a night out, shufflings and calls of unknown wildlife, the way sound subtly changes from day to night. With 3D ‘ambisound’ and complete darkness to make this an immmersive experience, it’s a perfect companion to the previous film. We listen as we’ve maybe never listened before, our minds trying and often succeeding to bring up matching images.

But is it truly a film? I might have enjoyed this as much hearing it in the darkness of my bedroom, but bringing it into the cinemagoing experience, sitting with strangers in the dark in an unfamiliar space makes it the strange hybrid of public as well as private experience that cinema is. Pity that health and safety dictates the necessity of the pesky emergency exit signs, and over the 40 minutes the screen area began to seep a little white light around its edges. For us, unlike for John Hull, light always gets in.

(Town Moor continues at the Tyneside till 24 July)

Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, July 2016

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (La mafia uccide solo d’estate)

Winner of several prizes including the European Comedy Film Award, this film was a sell-out when I saw it last March at the annual week of new Italian films in London, Cinema made in Italy. And now it’s finally arrived on limited distribution in the UK. A first feature from radio and TV satirist Pierfrancesco Diliberto (aka ‘Pif’), it’s constantly funny and finally deeply moving, triumphantly balancing laugh-out-loud humour with the tragedy of real events. His farcical but engaging everyman hero Arturo (played as an adult by Pif himself) is conceived on the day a famous Mafioso becomes mayor of Palermo, and thereafter his life intersects, knowingly or unknowingly, with key moments of the Mob’s increasing hold over the city and the whole island.

As a child (great performance by young Alex Bisconti) he’s so obsessed with Prime Minister Andreotti that at a fancy dress party he appears among the cowboys and fairy princesses dressed as the politician. That’s just the first of many physical gags undermining the pomposity of Italian establishment members with their feet under the Mafia table. As an ineffectual journalist Arturo’s career stutters, while Mafia atrocities and deaths of good men continue around him, much of it seen via actual film footage of the time.

But Pif’s target is not so much the Mob itself as the naïve and fearful population, decent people most of them, who turn a blind eye and allow it all to continue. The film’s title is a quote from Arturo’s well-meaning parents trying to console the little boy’s fears. But immature denial doesn’t survive the watershed moment of the assassination of the two judges, Borsalino and Falcone, who presided over Sicily’s ‘Maxi Trial’ which nailed several Mafia chiefs, and a Charlie Hebdo moment brings out the population onto the streets to confront their ‘cosa nostra’. For Arturo’s generation’s children, maybe, there will be no fudging or cover-ups. Speriamo.