A new direction

Do the recent deaths of four icons of 20th-century art-house cinema spell the end of the auteur? Of

The visionary directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died at the end of July but, contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere, cinema did not die with them. The tenor of the responses to this terrible double whammy exhorted us to do more than simply mourn the passing of two artists. We had, apparently, reached the end of an era. We would never see their like again. The concept of the auteur was gone for good. Reading such pronouncements, you would be forgiven for thinking that Michael Bay had invaded Poland and soon we would all have nothing to watch but Transformers.

Granted: in a literal sense, something has fallen away. Bergman and Antonioni were among the last of that generation of film-makers whose work underpinned art-house cinema as we know it today - that is, as an art form that values chiefly the cinematic expression of ideas and emotions, and demands intellectual participation from the viewer. Two other pioneers, Sembène Ousmane (Xala, Moo laadé) and Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, A One and a Two), have also died in recent weeks, contributing to a general pessimism about the state of world cinema. With this in mind, we might find it a good idea if we all do what we can to ensure that nothing nasty befalls Werner Herzog in the immediate future.

Though neither Bergman nor Antonioni had exactly fallen from favour, both had slipped down the "Best Of" lists by which reputations are increasingly judged: in the last Sight and Sound poll, from 2002, Antonioni's highest showing was for 'avventura (1960) at number 19, while Bergman came in at 27 with Wild Strawberries (1957), far behind films by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu. It may be that the various species of Bergman film split the vote: just because you cherish Summer With Monika (1953) or Fanny and Alexander (1982), that's no guarantee that you won't recoil from The Virgin Spring (1960) or Cries and Whispers (1972). As for Antonioni, I like to think that his relatively poor showing in the poll can be attributed to the sense that his films are difficult - as if there were anything wrong with that. I recall seeing 'avventura and Red Desert (1964) as a teenager, and experiencing for the first time the realisation that some films existed not merely to be enjoyed, but to be weighed up, grappled with, and possibly overwhelmed by.

What a mistake to claim those days are gone, however sad we might feel about the passing of individual directors. The essentially forward-looking Bergman and Antonioni would be mildly appalled at the idea that their deaths had closed the door on a particular strain of film-making. Bergman was 89 when he died, Antonioni 94, yet old age had not diminished their desire to remain alert and alive to the persistent potential of cinema. Bergman made it his business to keep abreast of modern film, shipping prints of the latest releases to his personal cinema in a converted barn on his island retreat of Fårö. When I visited the Swedish Film Institute in 2003, Katinka Faragó, a close friend and colleague of the director, told me: "He sees every single metre of film shot in Sweden, and as much of what's made in the rest of the world as he can. And he's never shy of encouraging younger film-makers." Among latter-day titles that the master considered masterpieces were the 1998 Show Me Love (aka Fucking Åmå), by his countryman Lukas Moodysson, and François Ozon's Under the Sand (2000). Lars von Trier and, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg were also recipients of his lavish praise.

Antonioni's work rate inevitably slowed after he suffered a stroke in the mid-Eighties. And his final short film, included in the portmanteau Eros (2004), was stilted and scarcely indicative of his best work (unlike Bergman's 2003 swansong Saraband). But, as early as 1982, he had displayed an admirable sense of perspective and optimism about cinema, and his place in it. "Of course, I'm just as worried as anyone else about the future of the cinema as we know it," he said in Wim Wenders's documentary Chambre 666. "We're attached to it because it gave us so many ways of saying what we felt and thought we had to say. But as the spectrum of new technical possibilities gets wider, that feeling will eventually disappear. There probably always was that discrepancy between the present and the unimaginable future. Who knows what houses are going to look like in the future? The structures we see when we look out of the window probably won't even exist tomorrow . . . All our contemporary structures will disappear. It won't be quick or straightforward, but it will happen, and we can't do anything to prevent it. All we can do is try to adjust to it."

The structures of which he spoke look pretty sturdy to me. It's more a case of being inundated with evidence of the enduring spirit of Bergman, Antonioni and their contemporaries than having to hunt for it. Antonioni's influence is palpable in the work of Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle in Heaven) and Todd Haynes (Safe), and in Gus Van Sant's extraordinary trilogy of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Robert Bresson has inspired exceptional work by the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont. Indeed, it is not out of the question that the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where David Cronenberg's jury awarded most of the prizes to the Dardennes' Rosetta and Dumont's 'humanité, will be seen as some kind of defining moment (Dumont's picture had the advantage of being roundly booed, a reaction reserved for Antonioni in his heyday, which bodes well).

And how can anyone feel despondent about cinema when Wong Kar-Wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aleksandr Sokurov, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Michael Haneke and Pen-ek Ratanaruang are all in regular employment? Or when Mahamat-Saleh Har oun's wonderfully wise Daratt is out in British cinemas, with Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley also opening here this month?

Jeremy Paxman may have been playing devil's advocate when he put it to a dumbfounded Richard Eyre on Newsnight just after Bergman's death that the Swede "was hardly big box office", but his glib observation is inadvertently illuminating. When we watch Bergman, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Fassbinder or Andrei Tar kovsky, we are liberated from such crass considerations. Bergman himself discovered real liberty only while making his most revolutionary film, Persona (1966). Many years later, he wrote: "For the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success . . . when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." So, here's to wordless secrets, and to those directors still capable of touching them.

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.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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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