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_ Visions in blue

Chris Newby, director of impressive UK feature Anchoress, talks to Alan Morrison.

Now that European co-productions are becoming a credible means for climbing out of the stagnant pools that bog down the British filrn industry. we can expect French. German and ltalian names to appear on the credits of English language films with increasing regularity. So it is perhaps surprising that one of the first artistically successful co-productions was made by the British Film lnstitute’s production department along with Belgian talent and money. Anr‘ltoress has its basis in a real event. in which a medieval teenage girl who claimed to have seen visions ofthe Virgin Mary was sealed up in the walls of her village church. in Judith Stanley-Smith and Christine Watkins's script. however. the story of Christine Carpenter becomes an engaging metaphor for the awakening of adolescent sexuality and the Church‘s abuse of power.

‘The Church is always using its language and the Bible for misogynistic reasons and ways of controlling people who don‘t quite fit in.‘ argues director Chris Newby. here making his feature debut after a string of critically acclaimed shons. ‘The filtn is about the power struggles that are going on between the pagan and Christian religions. between the mother and the Priest. It‘s a kind of tug-of-war, really. with Christine in the middle. But what happens when she goes into the cell is entirely the opposite of what the Church would have liked: she was

_ Fish tale

l iorgot to ask John Sayles whether he

was a Sinatra ian, but ‘My Way' could well be his theme tune. An acclaimed novelist turned screenwriter oi sophisticated schlock (Piranha, The Howling), he’s been scripting and

directing movies his way ever since

1980’s seli-iinanced $60,000 Return 0i The Secaucus Seven pre-empted The Big Chill in the 603 survivors’

reunion stakes. llopping irom genre to

genre throughout the last decade or so, his gift ior snappy dialogue and broadly liberal concerns has swerved

irom Llanna’s 1982 lesbian coming-out :

story to Harlem-set sci-ii in The Brother From Another Planet (1984), and latterly included more outwardly political projects like the trenchant union rights saga Matewan (1987) and the state-oi-the-art address City 0i Hope, which completed a ' retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1991 .

All this has assured his position as the godiather oi American

giving them a spiritual equalibrium she was the anchor of the ship but instead her sexuality develops and she embraces her body. One of the things about the Church is that it sees the

5 female body as a source of evil; the

it's perfectly capable of wickedness.’ With its unusual selection of actors -

former punk singer Toyah Willcox

gives her best-ever screen performance

as the girl‘s mother, Julie T. Wallace

provides a familiar face as one ofthe

villagers. and Eugene Bervoets (star of

= the original Vanishing) slips the odd bit

' of French or Flemish into his dialogue

Am.-lmress could have fallen into the

trap of many a Euro-pudding. However.

i the mixed accents actually work to the film‘s advantage. giving it an

otherworldly atmosphere that is

5 heightened by the blueish tint added to

the black-and-white images. For all that

§ this marks Anchoress as a distinctively European film. Newby‘s rendering of

3 14th century English village life would 1 not be out of place in a western prairie.

’1' .4

John les: ‘hinny, intelligent and accessible work’

i i independent illm but, as soon became J clear when he recently visited Britain

I. to promote his latest oiierlng, Passion

i Fish, it still leaves him scrabbllng

: around for iinanclng irom one movie

I to the next. ‘lllght now I’m broke,’ he 1 shrugs, with a disarming honesty that ! typliies his public statements. ‘The

9 film is very much about the conflicts of f celebrating the body and the notion that


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Anchoress: ‘each irarne has its own visual beauty'

Citing John Ford as a major influence on the production design. he has invented a community whose sense of remoteness is increased by the solitary nature of each ‘homestead‘. where acres of rippling wheat separate neighbour from neighbour.

‘The Church is always using its language and the Bible ior misogynistic reasons and ways oi controlling people who don’t quite fit in.’

Although Newby studied at the Royal College of Art (and before that. at the Polytechnic in his home town of Leeds). his approach is quite unlike other painters-tumed-filmmakers. His desire was always to make films; he calls his early drawings ‘surrogate films' and describes a childhood spent making multiple stacks of flip-books that acted like intricate storyboards for complete movies. To him. art colleges

last couple oi movies haven’t done that well, and none oi the eight or nine movies l’ve done have really gone

platinum. What I have is a track record '

that’s very good in some ways, in that l attract top actors and technicians because they think my stuii is good. But as iar as iinanciers are concerned, they see me as a guy who’s had a lot oi chances at bat and lightning still hasn’t struck.’

it critical acclaim translated directly into box oiiice receipts, however, Sayles would be reaping iinancial rewards at a positively Spielbergian rate. Many commentators rank him among the top echelons oi American moviemakers, yet his iunny, intelligent and accessible work seems to exist at some remove irom the popular taste - something that the excellent Passion Fish makes great play with. lnlured in a car accident, TV soap star Mary McBonnell’s troubled and uneven progress towards recovery, helped along by past-haunted nurse Alire Woodard, otters a direct contrast to the iatuous resolutions oiiered by the malnstrearn pulp in which she’s been plying her trade.

‘0ne oi the things the movie’s trying

and film schools are useful principally as ‘facility houses'. the means by which an aspiring filmmaker can get his or her hands on the necessary equipment.

'I love medieval books. but I didn't want to re-create medieval paintings on the screen.‘ he argues. ‘l have a bit of a problem with painters who then try to make films look like a painting. I can't see the point in that: a film should be a film. I have a general principle that what you see within the outline of the screen is reduced to what is essential: if [just wanted a tree and a man. you would see a tree and a man. I used just the fundamental things. the image and no peripheral baggage.‘

Each frame of Anchoress does indeed have its own visual beauty. but whereas Peter Greenaway’s powerful images in The Baby OfMar‘mt distance the audience from the similar subject matter religious profiteering from human weakness and superstition - Newby draws us in with a plot that works well on emotional and allegorical levels.

‘1 think we‘ve all been an anchoress in our life.‘ he suggests. ‘we've all had hermitage moments when we go away i to think. When i was a teenager. I would go to my room for sanctuary. and if any of my family touched

I anything there. I didn’t like it. When I originally read the script. it was

; ambiguous whether she was

schizophrenic or simple she actually

l heard voices and my problem with

that is that it took away her power. The

; problem with films like The Song Of

5 Bernadette is that you‘re never quite

, . * sure whether she s a bit strange or not.

In order to get empathy from the audience for Christine, I thought you i had to really feel she was making a

E choice from a free world.‘ Anchoress opens at the Edinburgh Film/muse on Friday 24 and the

Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday I.

g to be aware oi,’ agrees Sayles, ‘ls

; people’s desire to have an easy

I answer and not slug through things. To be able to place someone right away, to resolve a conilict that’s not resolvable in a hall-hour television slot. Mary’s character May-Alice is an exile irom the mass culture oi the soaps, but it’s still coming at her through her TV. it’s only when she turns oii the set that she’s able to appreciate what’s around her.’

Yet as a iilmmaker, you can’t just turn it oil in the same way. The work still has to get distributed and , promoted within that mass media ior it '7 to gain any kind oi proiile. .

‘I think I want my work to be about it, - but not necessarily oi it. What I do in illm isn’t just a case at another burger at McDonald’s, it’s more like opening a iunky little restaurant that becomes a cool hang-out. One week you do 0a|un iood, the next week you do something else. But it’s all done on the understanding that most people aren’t going to eat there.’ (Trevor Johnston)

Passion Fish opens at the Glasgow Moon and Edinburgh Cameo on Friday


The List 24 September-7 October l993 17