Mike Figgis uncut

Digital democracy and the death of Hollywood

Mike Figgis

You might have missed it (it was only a little thing, after all) but the director Mike Figgis gave an interview to the NS two weeks ago about the future of film. It ends with what is perhaps my single favourite quote from the arts pages - if not ever, then certainly of the last year or so:

Simple question: what's a cinema? Is it the Rex or the Odeon, with bad sugar-laden food on sale in the lobby, a place you don't really want to hang out in for long afterwards? Or is it a club, an interesting space you've converted to show films?" All you need now is a half-decent projector, a couple of decent Bose speakers and whatever you want for your source. It can be a Quicktime film. It can be a tape, or a DVD, depending on how high your quality needs to be. Or it can come off your hard disk. So, what's a cinema? And do you have to own it?

Figgis, if you don't know, directed a few (just about) conventional Hollwood films - including Leaving Las Vegas and Miss Julie - before delving into all manner of forward thinking projects; experiments in digital film, setting up the industry website Shooting People and generally working to turn cinema into an everyday, democratic art form rather than a product we're supposed to just sit back and consume. When I spoke to him, he talked about way more than I could fit into the NS pages, so here is a choice extract from the transcript:

NS: Does the current economic crisis present an opportunity for film-makers?

Figgis: I know that most artists I've spoken to in all genres recently have all welcomed it. There's an attitude that maybe we can clear out some of the detritus. It's quite interesting recently, in a number of newspaper articles, critics have started to express real dismay at the latest crop of films. It's like lines have been crossed, in terms of bad taste and the desire to shock for the sake of shocking.

NS: What films in particular do you mean?

F: This trend of, let's say, juvenile American male fart-wank-and-sex-obsessed films.

NS: Films in the vein of American Pie, that sort of thing?

F: Yes, that used to be a mildly amusing offshoot of what was on offer. It's now become the mainstream. And when you talk to studio executives, you can see that it also reflects their taste, which tells us something about the kind of people who are running the studios and writing - when someone like Judd Apatow is described as "the smartest guy in Hollywood", by which they mean the richest, then you know things are not in great shape.

NS: Perhaps this is why Hollywood is now reported to be in decline?

F: The buzzword in Hollywood is "3D" - like that's going to save the planet from extinction. Like that's going to save the industry! Why don't you consider just making a decent film for an option?

Hollywood has sadly never been capable of seeing innovation as anything but an aberration from the norm. When I made Leaving Las Vegas and shot it on 16mm, no-one inside the industry was prepared to take that as an option. Now of course they're all bitching "we're going to lose film, we're going to lose film". And now finally they're looking at super 16 as a viable way of saving some aspect of film making on celluloid.

NS: Does the Hollywood system act as a barrier to democracy - both in the art and the ideas expressed?

F: It's interesting what's happened, it's almost like the way pollution takes place. There's always some form of pollution, you can have good pollution or bad pollution, so let's say somewhere around the 1940s you suddenly have this really interesting pollution of eastern European refugees, who were so often members of the avant-garde, turning up in Hollywood doing a bit of writing, a bit of composing, a bit of directing, and you get pretty highbrow mainstream culture coming out of films. I mean, those avant garde ideas taking place within the Hollywood system would be unthinkable now. For the last 15 years, slowly the eyebrow has been descending.

You could do an interesting thesis, starting with Fatal Attraction, where for the first time, what the audience said was taken seriously. And not just seriously but in terms of statistics - and you can bend any statistics. And I remember being party to these kind of audience comment screenings.

NS: But defenders of Hollywood would say taking comments from the audience is democracy. Is it?

F: But it's dumb, because they ask the wrong kind of questions. Eg, "did you like this scene?" and the audience say "no I didn't like that scene", so the studio takes take it out. But of course you wouldn't like a scene where someone is dying, for example, because it's really uncomfortable.

If you re-phrased that to ask "were you uncomfortable in this scene but do you think it's important to the film?" you might get a different answer. But the speed at which these naysayers always interpret the evidence means you end up making bad films.

NS: Is there a movement in film that gives you a particular hope for the future?

F: Yeah I would say the Third World, which is the large part of the planet where they're only just starting to have access to the stuff now. There are all kinds of interesting ideas about how it can be made part of an educational and learning and teaching tool as well. And how if people were truly innovative, people like Google and Mac and so on, that access to education through these tools is really not such a huge challenge.

It's something I'm now actively concerning myself with. So I would say there are hopes for an unsullied new approach to film making, which like many things in our culture is going to come from China, or it's going to come from the Third World, it's not going to come from the phoenix of the Hollywood ashes.

The problem in America is that it's so corrupted that young independent film-makers who win the audience award at Sundance have already got their eye on the Hollywood big bucks. And the independent film movement in America is like the poor cousin to the mainstream. Everyone sees it as a stepping stone to get into the mainstream and the big bucks.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood