Gilbey on Film: The projectionist's power

The relationship between directors and cinema technicians.

The projectionist has final cut, or so the saying goes, so it's surprising that more reverence isn't afforded this lowly god, this puppeteer of light, this minimum-wage illuminator. Just as with any higher power, the only time some of us even think about the presence of the projectionist is when things start to go wrong -- when the actors have their heads relegated abruptly to the bottom of the cinema screen like casualties of the woman-sawn-in-half trick, or when the image acquires a blurriness that can't be blamed on a vaselined lens. Some doubting Thomases even cast aspersions on the extent of the projectionist's skill, and ask whether he or she is really that indispensable after all -- a shocking example of impertinence and disrespect (although a former projectionist I met recently admitted he used to set up the reel before nipping outside for a pint).

Digital projection has arguably diminished the projectionist's standing even further. But June was altogether a good month for reminding ourselves that the unseen figure in the room above our heads is vital to our viewing experience. Correspondence came to light from four leading filmmakers who took it upon themselves to address in comradely tones the man or woman in whose hands their work rests ultimately. You can, after all, be one of cinema's leading visionary auteurs (and three of the four letter-writers are just that), but if the projectionist isn't on-side, you may as well have left the lens cap on.

It was always well known that Stanley Kubrick would visit cinemas where his films were playing, in order to check that the equipment was up to scratch, or that the auditorium's glossy walls were not throwing distracting reflections into the viewer's field of vision. Here is a letter from him to projectionists sent out to accompany prints of Barry Lyndon in 1975. David Lynch had some unique advice to offer any cinemas screening Mulholland Drive -- his homely tone (beginning the letter "I understand this is an unusual request yet I do need your help" and signing off "Your friend, David Lynch") is characteristic; you can read his letter here along with similar letters from Terrence Malick concerning his forthcoming film The Tree of Life, and, slipping to the bottom of the prestige scale in one almighty leap, Michael Bay on his third Transformers movie (though the wonder will be if anyone notices anything to do with the quality of projection amidst that picture's visual and aural cacophony).

There's also a rather good post over at CineRobot on the subject of projectionist in movies -- Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Philippe Noiret in Cinema Paradiso, that sort of thing. It's a good list, to which I would add Robert Joy, getting busy in the projection booth with Madonna at the end of Desperately Seeking Susan, and the poor unnamed soul in the grim Chilean comedy Tony Manero who is beaten to death by an audience member aggrieved to find that Saturday Night Fever has been replaced by Grease. A gross overreaction, yes, but you take his point.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis