Wednesday 6 January 2010

Andrea Arnold (b. 1961 in England)

Andrea Arnold has won an Academy Award for her short fim WASP, which we have the opportunity to watch during our first class at the Film Directing 4 Women course.

I can honestly say that WASP is nothing short of exceptional - regardless of the award.

Arnold manages to portray her characters without any pity or judgement. The hand held camera moments (nothing like Dogma, if not better done) keep the action, and the characters feelings up front. And the harshness and grittiness of contemporary society and its entrapments are exposed in a style of filming that makes documentaries look partial and outdated.

This is a fine example of the potency of fiction as an medium to express life in greater veracity than documentaries.

The following article is an interview with Arnold by Danny Leigh from The Guardian newspaper (Oct 2006), during the release of her first feature Red Road (made two years after WASP). Her second feature "Fish Tank" was released last year to great acclaim.

'I like darkness'

Andrea Arnold is aware she will for ever be the woman who said "bollocks" at the Oscars. The glorious moment came at last year's ceremony, where her film Wasp was nominated as best live action short. She was, she recalls, sick with nerves at the thought of having to make a speech. When she was announced as the winner, clutching her statuette, she declared to the assembled beautiful people and a billion live TV viewers that the victory was, in short, the dog's aforementioned.

Dartford-born Arnold - affably upfront, quick to grin, red-blonde hair down her back - winces at the memory. "I've thought a lot about how that got out of my mouth," she says, "and the truth is, it was just the most honest expression I could find for how it felt. The whole scenario was so bizarre, so removed from real life, that it was a way of making the moment mine. No one else was going to say it, were they?"

This is true. Yet, not for long is she likely to remain best known for her profanity (or, for those who spent the 1980s watching kids TV, as a former presenter of various Saturday morning programmes). At 45, her film-making is now getting attention, with her debut, Red Road, cementing her status as one of British cinema's brightest new lights, particularly after winning the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes.

A startling Glasgow-set drama of obsession and revenge, Red Road centres on an operator of the city's myriad CCTV cameras - emotionally disconnected until a face from the past appears on her screens. Thereafter, her life spirals into a welter of illicit surveillance that finally leads her to Red Road, the grimly iconic clump of tower blocks on Glasgow's northern frontier, scheduled for demolition but still, for now, a brutalist monster on the skyline.

With its jittery images and free-floating paranoia, the film could have simply been a techno retread of Rear Window. But, among the eerie freeze-frames and grainy knee-tremblers, something far more original emerges - infused with the tension of a thriller, but also depth and complexity.

Animated on almost any other subject, Arnold becomes sober when she talks about her film. Mindful of how the press "muddle things", her words come carefully. "I try and be truthful. With endings, beginnings, the million choices in between. To me, that's the point of it all, making those choices honestly. Black coat or brown? Naked or dressed? Films are all about decisions, and that's what I love." She hesitates. "I mean, I hate watching mine afterwards, because they're full of moments that didn't come off, but I love the trying."

Indeed, one of Red Road's most impressive qualities is its sense of identity - although her career is still in its early stages, the film instantly seems like an Andrea Arnold movie - her signature being keeping the story vice-tight while conjuring a succession of haunting images from the most unlikely sources (a beery party in a barren flat, a lava lamp accompanying a fearsomely raw sex scene).

This is all the more remarkable since it wasn't entirely hers to begin with. Red Road is the first of three films made at the behest of The Advance Party, a Danish project inspired by the mercurial Lars von Trier, who challenged Arnold and two other new directors to create films with the same group of characters. Flattered by the approach and intrigued by the concept, Arnold says she relished developing her characters from the outlines provided by The Advance Party, then folding them into her own story. It was, she says, "invigorating".

When she agreed to take part, Arnold was simply the maker of three shorts little seen outside the festival circuit, although Wasp - the striking tale of a single mother on a Kent estate attempting to woo back an ex - attracted serious acclaim. Now, post-Oscar, Red Road has stirred expectations, with the world as interested in her as her movie. After leaving school in the late 1970s, Arnold worked as a dancer on TV shows including Top of the Pops. Soon she was presenting children's knockabouts Number 73 and Motormouth. None of this appears in the publicity accompanying Red Road. There's no embarrassment about her former career; it's just that, fatalistic about the public's response to her films, she's almost phobic about their gaze falling on her. As soon as the subject is raised, she looks as if a large, pointed stick has been brought into the room: "I'm uncomfortable with it. Yes. I am. Obviously, I want people to know about the film - I just don't get why anyone would want to know about me." She laughs and hugs her knees to her chest.

Dutifully, she details her activities after quitting TV in the early 1990s - "I went to film school, I had my daughter, I wrote" - before making the short films that would eventually lead to one of cinema's slower, weirder overnight success stories. She is, however, not having much fun recounting this. I tell her it's strange that someone with her background should be leery of the spotlight. She looks at me like I've picked up the pointed stick and jabbed her in the ribs.

"It was a long time ago," she says. "I was very young. I was 18 when I got my first TV job. I'd just moved to London, and I was never comfortable with it. I loved drama and dance at school, so I thought I'd love TV - but it just made me horribly self-conscious." Dancing, she says, should be "pure escape" - dancing on TV was not. Presenting was worse. "Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful I did it, because essentially I was paid good money to have a laugh. But the older I got, the more uneasy I became. The whole time I'd been writing, just putting down ideas, until eventually I thought, maybe I shouldn't do this any more - maybe I should do that."

Relief colours her face when the conversation returns to Red Road. It's funny, she says, but when foreign journalists talk to her about the film, they assume she's invented the massed cameras above Glasgow, that this must be some sci-fi concoction rather than everyday Britain. Yet, for all the Orwellian overtones, her film stresses that the people monitoring us aren't fascist snitches - they're underpaid drudges calling ambulances for stabbing victims.

"When I started my research, I was very worried, and I've certainly heard a lot of unsettling stories about CCTV. But the people I met watching the screens were the kind of people you see in the film. That was the truth of it, so it was important to reflect that. Nothing's ever simple, is it?"

Nothing's ever simple - it could be a subtitle for the whole film. Broad strokes aren't Arnold's bag. Moreover, for all the creeping alienation that has seen Red Road compared to Von Trier and Michael Haneke, maker of the acclaimed Hidden, it shares little of their cynicism. A misanthrope she is not. To her, people screw up, but judgment is a mug's game. "That's just how I feel," she says. "Dramatically, I like darkness, I like conflict - but I don't see the world as defined by them. And why would I pretend to? That's not who I am."

She starts talking about shooting in Glasgow, unfamiliar to her beforehand. Filming around the deprived Red Road, she was all too aware this was someone else's home. "It's something that's dear to my heart, trying not to descend on an area and take it over. Film crews are incredibly invasive. I mean, a car went past us one day, and the guy shouted out, "You bunch of fannies!" And all I could think was, 'He's right. Look at us. We are a bunch of fannies.'"

She shakes her head: "Again, nothing's simple. The thing about Red Road is, everyone who sees the film says it looks terrible. Nightmarish. But to a lot of the people there, it's not so straightforward - they grew up there, raised their families there. It's hard sometimes to put anything that complex across, but you've got to try. You've got to try and present the truth, haven't you?"

There's a pause. Then she smiles: "Whatever that is."

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In this blog I intend to do some historical justice to the many, many women who have contributed with their genius, creativity, adventurous spirit, nurturing - amongst other qualities - to the apparent linear and male dominated prescribed notion of History. This is just the beggining.