Fans want to memorialise every wookiee and cranny. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jon Spira's Elstree 1976: memorialising the unseen performers in the first Star Wars

Jon Spira's forthcoming documentary Elstree 1976 focuses on the Star Wars cast members time forgot: from voice-artists to extras and wookiees.

I’m feeling excited about the new Star Wars film. No, not Episode VII, which will continue the franchise beyond the end of Return of the Jedi—though my hopes for that were raised once I heard that the dead hand of George Lucas was not being allowed anywhere near the steering wheel. (JJ Abrams, the Lost creator who did a splendid job of rebooting Star Trek for cinema a few years back, is in charge.) An idiosyncratic cast list (Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis) has also made the prospect of Episode VII marginally more enticing, though I would still draw the line at the word “excitement.” We 1977ers, who saw the first Star Wars film on its release, and then experienced in adulthood the betrayal of the most recent trilogy (beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace), are a hard bunch to placate. We hold grudges.

The Star Wars movie that I’m really looking forward to, though, is a documentary called Elstree 1976, which is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign to raise £30,000 toward the costs of post-production. The target has already been met, so the film’s future is looking bright; you can see an early trailer, and read details about the project here.

Unlike other Star Wars documentaries, this one focuses on the unseen performers in the margins on the set of the first film: the extras and bit-players hidden behind Stormtrooper masks and alien faces in the Cantina, or under Rebel helmets with their faces turned just slightly away from the camera. Some of these are known to us already—such as David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in body (though not voice) in the first three Star Wars movies, and had also starred in A Clockwork Orange and become famous as the Green Cross Code Man.

But many of the subjects of Elstree 1976 (so named because of where Star Wars was made) are barely even household names in their own streets. If the trailer is anything to go by, the director Jon Spira has coaxed warm, revealing and sometimes melancholy reminiscences from people who have found themselves defined by their involvement, however tangential, with a pop-culture phenomenon. The mood seems to be Rosencrantz and Guildernstern in Space.

Spira has form in this field. His previous documentary was Anyone Can Play Guitar, a film about the Oxford music scene which displayed a similar fondness for the names destined to be footnotes to footnotes if they weren’t omitted altogether. Although bands like Radiohead, Supergrass and Ride appear in the movie, the focus shifts to the ones who never quite made it: your Talulah Gosh, your Unbelievable Truth. Star Wars cast members who feared they might never get their due can at least rest easy. Their stories are now in the hands of a filmmaker who specialises in a tender kind of cultural restitution.

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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem