Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

Rewind and fast forward

Sessue Hayakawa in The Man Beneath

Sessue Hayakawa in The Man Beneath

Published in the Holland Times, March 2010


This April two Amsterdam film festivals celebrate the past and then drag it, kicking and screaming, into the present.


1915: the heyday of silent film. Which Hollywood actor is making housewives swoon and commanding $5,000-a-week? Unless you are an ardent fan, it might take a while to guess that the answer is Sessue Hayakawa, Japanese matinée idol and the first non-white Hollywood star. When, in 1957, Hayakawa was Oscar-nominated for his role in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, few remembered his early fame. Many of his films are now presumed lost, but the EYE Film Instituut has tenaciously tracked others down. Hayakawa films will feature prominently in the EYE Film Instutuut’s 4th Biennale, based at the Filmmuseum and commencing on the 7th April 2010.

When the last remaining copy of Hayakawa’s His Birthright (1918) was discovered in a private collection in Haarlem, the Instituut was delighted; despite the fact that several sections of the film were missing. Undeterred, EYE asked theatre-maker Michel Sluysmans to create a brand new performance based on the incomplete movie. “I watched the film, developed a concept, wrote the play, and then began rehearsing with the actors and the musician,” says Sluysmans. Rather than trying to emulate what the original director might have had in mind, they aimed to create something new: “I was not interested in the original script. I thought it was much more interesting to watch the film and imagine what might have happened.” For the same reason, the actors were not cast to resemble Hayakawa or the other original performers, and their approach was irreverent and playful. “The actors sing, talk, make sounds, do voices for the film. The musician plays banjo, mandolin, slide guitar,” Sluysmans explains, resulting in a dialogue between screen and stage.

Together with films from the Instituut’s archive, the Biennale features more brought over from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), which is collaborating on programming. This year’s event focuses on the blurring of boundaries: Dutch and American culture; film, music, poetry and art; cinema, club and concert. Showings are planned for different locations, and each features live accompanying performance. Opening night will see a tale of life in Soviet Russia The Man with the Camera (1929) scored by Michael Nyman, known for his work with Jane Campion (The Piano) and Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, his wife and her Lover). Films are scheduled for the BIMhuis with a live jazz soundtrack, and Paradiso to the accompaniment of Turkish-gypsy-dub group Baba Zula.

Composer Martin de Ruiter has written a new score for another Hayakawa piece, the story of doomed intercultural love The Man Beneath (1919). By training a musician rather than a film buff, de Ruiter finds silent movies interesting: “Every genre that exists now existed then”, he explains, “but you have to make a transition of these 80 or 90 years. Sometimes you have to do strange things, put new music underneath, give more rhythm or pace than there is; and sometimes just go along with the film.”

The Man Beneath’s new score features percussion, harp, concertina and bandoneón, an accordion-like instrument mostly used in tango. The strange combination is deliberate: a Japanese actor plays an Indian character; action takes place in Scotland and India, but filming took place in the US. Reacting to these tensions, de Ruiter explains, “I’ve tried to choose the instruments to get an idea of these places. The percussion comes very much with Hayakawa. Then because it starts in Scotland there’s a Celtic harp. And as it’s drama, it’s always fun to have a lot of strings.”

This is not a re-score because “there is no original score”. Silent films were screened in cities, but then went out on tour. “The further from the towns, the more the orchestra got smaller, until it was just a single violin. Orchestras had a library of pieces, for love scenes, chase scenes. Thursday morning, the film would come, the director would see it once, choose the pieces and put them on the music stands, and then in the evening the orchestra would arrive and start to play.” It was live scoring every time.

The atmospheric pieces from the early days of cinema, refreshed by contemporary collaboration, contrast with the brand new films being screened at the 26th Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. But, while the films are new, there’s a nod to past glory – or infamy – in the Retro theme. Aspiring film-makers are given the chance to make their own retro movie and upload it to YouTube ahead of the festival, with the most-watched videos to be given cinema screenings. The theme coupled with the competition’s utilisation of an online video platform recalls the fact that cinema is experiencing a pull in two different directions; to hark back to the past – to film-stock and more ‘traditional’ techniques – or to move forward with and embrace digital technology.

The films to be screened, however, do not suggest angst about the industry so much as savage criticism of the world around us. Film-makers from around the world – with Serbian and Hungarian directors prominent – will compete for recognition at the Festival.  This includes the Silver Scream Award, decided by public vote, and the jury’s choice, awarded the Black Tulip.

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang from Serbian director Mladen Djordjevic has shades of ‘70s hippie-trail road movie, but in fact looks set to be a biting, hardcore satire on porn industry, and on Western perceptions of civil-war-era Serbia. Hungarian Transmission by Roland Vranik offers a differently bleak portrait, set in a world where communication has broken down and life becomes consequently disjointed and bizarre. Island of Dreams by 26-year-old Japanese director Tetsuichirô Tsuta is a black-and-white homage to socially engaged thrillers of the 1960s.

Winning at the Festival would place the directors in the company of Tomas Alfredsen who’s Let the Right One In won two of the three main awards last year and went on to critical acclaim. Whether or not their films draw on the past, all the directors, hoping to make a lasting impact, will surely be looking to the future.

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