A Look at the Unsung Heroes of Cinema

in 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Yael Shuv

Film festivals are by nature the best showcase for films about films, and the Rotterdam film festival had quite a few of them, shedding a light on a variety of topics and characters, all connected to the love of cinema in one way or another. Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itself – a feature length montage of clips from horror films of all eras – presented the director’s musings about fear and cinema. Andreas Horvath’s creepy documentary Helmut Berger, Actor offered a portrait of the Europeans star as an old abrasive man, completely lost in his own narcissism, nurtured during his long lost days as an icon of gorgeous decadence. The film, which finds Berger living in a stuffy and shabby apartment yet behaving like a monarch, was hard to watch, yet one couldn’t turn away – like witnessing a train wreck in slow motion. Hugo Emmerzael’s short video essay about the cinematic image of Berger – shown before the film which was screened as part of the Critics’ Choice section – supplied an interesting introduction and put the film in context. A very different view of the power of stardom was offered by Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris VS Communism. This audience favorite told the story of the underground culture of watching smuggled VHS tapes of Hollywood action films in communist 1980s Romania. According to the film, these often mindless, openly anti-Communist and poorly dubbed films were seen as representing the spirit of freedom and inspired their viewers to revolt.

Three of the most interesting and endearing films in the bunch were dedicated to unsung heroes of the cinema – craftspeople who are rarely if ever given their due. Daniel Raim’s charming Harold and Lillian: a Hollywood Love Story tells an absorbing story about a backstage power couple, whose major contributions to decades of cinema went mostly uncredited. Before he became an Oscar nominated art director (for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and for Terms of Endearment) Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who worked on many ground breaking productions, among them Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The film makes a strong point for Michelson’s drawings serving as the basis for some of cinema’s most famous mise-en-scenes, such as Mrs. Robinson’s leg shot in The Graduate. Harold sometimes collaborated with his wife Lillian, who ran a film research library, and was responsible for the design accuracy of numerous films, such as the girls’ underwear in Fiddle on the Roof. As the title promises, it is also a beautiful love story, candidly told by the witty Lillian, who also offers a fascinating glance on what it was like to be a working woman and a mother of an autistic child in the conservative era following WW2.

Peter Flynn’s nostalgic documentary The Dying of the Light, dedicated to the lost craft of film projection (as all movie theaters have switched to digital projection that doesn’t demand the same kind of skill), is strangely reminiscent of holocaust films in the way it collects testimonies from aging witnesses before it’s too late. But it is much more fun to watch, because the memories are mostly happy. Most movie goers have only rarely become acquainted with the people in the projection booths, and that only happened when there was something to complain about. So it is gratifying to meet the projectionists who tell their stories and find that theirs was a labor of love. Learning their craft in the booth itself as apprentices to projectionists who learned in the exact same way, and working on very old machines that were built to last, many of them are very aware of their direct connection to the pioneers of cinema. One of the projectionists, David Kornfield, also serves as a film historian who tells and demonstrates the not too many changes in the evolvement of the machines. Other projectionists tell very colorful stories about the experience of spending hours on end in a secluded overheated projection booth making sure that the show goes on.

Another dying craft caught the eye of director Florian Heinzen-Ziob in his documentary Original Copy. This delightful ode to Bollywood looks at Sheikh Rehman, one of the few remaining painters who still paints huge movie posters to be hung outside an old Hindi movie palace in Mumbai which is facing potential demolition. As Rehman tells it, he can make a bad film (only one song, little action and lots of dialogue) into a box office success just by his seductive images which sell the film to the ticket buyers. In one particularly memorable scene, he describes how the whole plot of a certain Bollywood film – characters, conflict, love story, battles and all – is represented on his canvas.

Just like the vocations described in Harold and Lillian and in The Dying of the Light, Rehman’s expertise is not taught in schools, and can only be acquired through apprenticeship. He himself is seen instructing a young painter. These traditions, which are an important part of cinema history, are now disappearing, and only cinema can make sure that they will not fade from memory altogether.

Yael Shuv