Ertegun Movie Nights, Hilary Term 2018

It’s 7pm on a Tuesday evening at Ertegun House, and while most scholars are concentrated on diligently finishing up their day’s work, we are busily setting up the week’s movie screening. The house is quiet, save for our back and forth shuffling from the kitchen to the seminar room, arranging seats, setting up the projector, laying out food, wine and non-alcoholic alternatives. One by one scholars and alumni hop out of their offices toward the ‘movie room’ (otherwise known as the seminar room next to Jill’s office), attracted by the smell of oven-baked Franco Manca pizza and the cultural, prodding entertainment to be had.

The thought for our movie screenings had serendipitously arisen for both of us just a couple of weeks before the end of Michaelmas term 2018 (namely the first term in the Oxford calendar), and we felt that our House in Oxford would enjoy and benefit from a bi-weekly movie night centred on exchange between East Asian and European (viewed as broad regions) modern cinema of the last three decades or so. We felt that for Ertegun scholars this would be a more relaxed horizon-broadening experience through the medium of film, a nice way to come together in an informal setting within our home and build up our knowledge of contemporary film. Our aim was to introduce important, land-mark films, and through them explore current and past issues, with relevance to Ertegunites’ work and backgrounds.

The films we chose, while brainstorming over ice cream and an affogato at an establishment of our neighbouring Little Clarendon street, were the Chinese, beautiful Still Life (三峡好人) by Jia Zhangke, the German/Austrian The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) by the all-provoking Michael Haneke, the Japanese An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味) by the revolutionary Yasujiro Ozu and the Italian, poetic One Hundred Steps (I centro passi) by Marco Tulio Giordana (which we ended up not screening this year due to unforeseen circumstances, but will bring to Ertegun next year).

The first film we put on in the house, Still Life, was a 2006 Chinese docu-fiction directed by Jia Zhangke. Jia has been known for presenting life of the underclass in towns and small cities, “the insulted and injured” in contemporary Chinese society. He was at first an underground filmmaker in the post 1989 China, a society under strict ideological control, before winning international awards and becoming a state approved director in 2004. Still Life was the winner of The Golden Lion Award for Best Film at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival. The film was shot in Fengjie, a riverside town with two thousand years of history, which was nevertheless condemned to be destroyed and buried underwater to make room for the Three Dam Project. The story is rather simple. It is made in two lines: a man came to Fengjie to find the wife he “bought” years ago, and a woman came there to find her disappeared husband and to find a solution for her unhappy marriage. In the film there are impressive scenes of the “disappearing” town, set during the real demolition of Fengjie, with ruins, abandoned factories and other buildings being blasted. Apart from capturing vivid details of the ordinary people’s life in town, Jia Zhangke uses a poetic film language (with the use of long takes and surreal scenes), enabling the audience not only to think about the living condition of people in that small town in China, but also human existence in a broader sense. As Still Life is a film that forms an important part in Lin’s dissertation, she was excited to share more of her discovery of this director’s work with other Ertegun Scholars.

The second film we screened was The White Ribbon (Palme D’or Winner at Cannes and Best Foreign Picture at the Golden Globes 2009) and it really shook most of us to the core. The film is described by its director, Michael Haneke, as narrating a tale, ‘about the roots of evil.’ It portrays life in the quiet streets, within crowded village meetings and primarily inside the homes of the inhabitants of the fictitious Northern German village of Eichenwald (‘Oakwood’) just before World War I. It follows the dark and mysterious accidents that occur just before the first modern large-scale war’s outbreak. After two hours of black & white, dark, thought-provoking and increasingly drilling cinema, it took us all a few minutes to shake off the film’s controversial events. As we chowed down the last bits of pizza an interesting discussion followed. For some of us, the realization that ‘evil’ or ‘bad deeds’ can sometimes, if not frequently, not have only one but very many directly or indirectly associated culprits, as the film hinted at towards its finale, was stunning to comprehend in such a visually clear and dexterous way as Hanneke’s unfolding story-tale. For others, the story was just a picture of what the world can be and is like. The film found opponents and proponents, created vibrant discussion, brought about thoughts to re-think in future, and made for an intellectually stimulating and for some paradoxically calming end, following Haneke’s intensity, to our whizzing, busy academic days.

In week 6 we watched An Autumn Afternoon, a 1962 film directed by a Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. This is also Ozu’s last film, a beautiful, gentle yet melancholy drama film showing a father’s complex feeling about his daughter, who is considered (at that time in Japan) to be in the right age to get married. Ozu has a sensitive yet restrained film language. He pays attention to detailed human emotions and presents them in a calm yet illuminating way. This film not only enables the audience to have a glimpse to the post war family life in Japan, but also shows Ozu’s eastern aesthetics that is very refreshing especially for viewers from the west. In the film there are things that Ozu would rather not say, or not express to the full, known as his ‘ellipses’, which encourage the audience to think about what Ozu means, or release their own imaginations. The way Ozu places his camera is also very special: like many other Ozu’s films, the camera is placed at a low level. This is known as ‘tatami shot’, and it creates the effect of having viewers in the scene, like sitting on a tatami mat, witnessing what is going on of the story. The slow-paced, loose structure of the film, as well as the uncomplicated story simply about family life, creates a calming and relaxing atmosphere, and was especially curing and soothing for scholars who are going through stressful days!

We loved the movie nights this past year because they brought about a new homey and calm yet also buzzing feeling in the House, as Lin pointed out following the second screening. The House is our office, our lunch space and our home, because it is the place where we can find many of our closest friends. The movie nights added to this: they created a coziness and brought that warmth, along with relaxing yet exciting cultural nourishment for our heads (and physical nourishment for our bellies) at the close of an Oxford day. This calm buzz that one often finds at home in the evening has stayed with us. The movie night also creates the space for scholars to talk, have a drink, and get to know each other better, as well as inviting some friends from outside Ertegun to join in, share our films and make friends. We look forward to more in following Oxford terms, as both of us are staying on for our DPhils, and hope to introduce fellow scholars to films from more regions and cultural backgrounds, including Greek, Syrian, Irish and more. We would love to keep this tradition going, bring new scholars to this event, welcome them to share their favourite films, and have many more lovely movie nights in our House.

Nefeli Piree Iliou and Linqing Zhu