Wednesday 11 December 2013

The Ultra-Viewers: "I don’t have expectations. I want to see something different."

It's well-known at Borderlines that there are festival-goers of prodigious appetite who reputedly and repeatedly watch over twenty films in the course of seventeen days. Many of them know each other and some of them like jazz too. I thought it might be instructive to seek them out. Blaise White lives very close to one of the smaller Flicks in the Sticks venues, Cawley Hall, Eye, near Leominster. He works for Concern Universal in Hereford.

Jo Comino: How many films, more or less, do you see in the course of one festival?

Blaise White: I would think up to twenty. I don’t think I saw so many this year but it wasn’t though lack of wanting to. So, yeah, I’d say up to a couple of dozen if the timings work out.

How do you plan for what you go and see?

We get the brochure and Maggie and I tend to go through our own brochure and we mark the ones we want to see.

Oh, so you each have your own copy?

Oh, yeah, yeah, we each have a personalised copy, we try and plan around are we going to go and see anything together. And if I can, I go on a weekend, on a Saturday say, and see four back-to-back at The Courtyard if they’re of interest. And then we’ve been down to Ross, that’s probably the furthest, or Ledbury, if there’s a particular film we want to see that’s not on anywhere else. We try and fit in as many around everything else that’s happening. And I always plan to take some leave but it never seems quite to work out. I’m probably going to work part-time next year so I should be able to see a few more. I like the idea of being able to go and see films at eleven o’clock in the morning, quite fun.

I go to the London Film Festival and watch films one after the other and sometimes you get two that are thrown together…

…so you get interesting contrasts. I remember going to see the one about the Mongolian horseman (The Eagle Hunter’s Son) on the plains, and then another one about some completely different location and you feel like you’ve travelled a huge distance in one day, being immersed in all these different environments.

The Eagle Hunter's Son
So what tends to appeal to you?

I have a slightly frivolous approach to everything: I’ll go for the less popular thing in the hope that it’s interesting. The mainstream films are always bland or tend that way because they’re appealing to a mass market so I like documentaries. You know the one about the nuclear store in Finland (Into Eternity)? It was a very interesting film but also a very interesting subject. I was really glad that I found out more about what’s actually going on. You think about the whole context. I’ve been involved with anti-nuclear campaigning, not lately, but since I was a student and the whole objection to nuclear power is that you can’t get rid of the waste and actually being reminded that somewhere in the remote wastes, deep underground there’s this kind of thing.

Into Eternity

Deadpan Scandinavian government officials are talking in a very matter-of-fact way, ‘Do we or don’t we put a warning sign outside? Because if we put a warning sign outside that might encourage people to be more curious whereas if we don’t put a warning sign outside, people might stumble on it by accident’. Then at the end they said something about how this was a huge project that amounted to a tiny fraction of waste in the world that needs to be stored or dealt with in some way. So that really crystallised the problem. I like it because it’s Finnish, it’s a different slant on that topic.

The other one was the Norwegian one about the train driver (O’Horten). I loved that because we’ve been on that train but it was just so wacky in an understated way! That really appealed to me. Things that are almost whimsical and not obvious and then having a foreign language film or a film with a foreign setting or foreign actors is interesting The Iranian one, A Separation, I really did want to see that because I’ve heard things about Iranian cinema but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Iranian film before. You have a particular sense of Iran from the news, that there’s a theocracy and discontent, ordinary people not being happy living under this very oppressive system and you got much more of a real sense of what life is like; you wouldn’t otherwise know what the challenges are. Seeing a drama played out in a totally foreign environment, that’s interesting.
A Separation
 Is there anything you’ve seen that’s confounded your expectations, in either a good or a bad way?

That’s a good question because that’s the point: I don’t have expectations. I want to see something different.

So you let yourself go on a tide… bring it on!

Yes, bring it on! The Tibetan film about the dog (Old Dog) you could say in a way that’s such a dull film, nothing happens, it’s all very slow, but it’s fascinating. It’s not something I’d go to see everyday but I think, right, I’m going to book out some time because I want to take a chance and go and see something that will be different and it did have a powerful impact but in a very slow way.

Yes, it was very methodical, this happens and then this happens…

Old Dog
Sometimes I get a bit frustrated because, with a film like that, I don’t really understand the characters, what they’re feeling or what their motivations are. Ultimately when you knew the old man was being stubborn there’s a kind of shock suddenly when you realise he’s strangling the dog. You go out really satisfied because you’ve got to think about this, what’s really happening, summing up this moral dilemma because he doesn’t want the dog to be traded. You could argue that he’s right or wrong. It’s kind of meaty and thought-provoking, I suppose.

There were a lot of people who were totally alienated by the dog-killing. 

It was shocking but I could understand why, I could understand the intention of the film. I thought it was an intelligent way of constructing the film, the plot or the story had real power but in getting upset about it, they missed the point.

I’m trying to think if there’s anything where I’ve thought, ‘No, I don’t get the point of that at all...’

‘…that was a waste of time!’

To be honest, I went to see Bicycle Thieves and it’s bigged up as THE film, and it didn’t have the immediate impact that I expected it to. I didn’t think ‘I can see why people rave about this film or why it’s so influential.’ I didn’t kind of get it.
Bicycle Thieves
It could be because it was of its time?

Revolutionary or whatever.

Have you been coming to the festival right from the start or did you catch on to it?

I don’t know, when did it start? Was it the nineties?

No, 2003.

I think we would have been coming right from the start in that case. For me it’s a real thing to look forward to after the wintertime. You think, this is a time of year I really look forward to because I know I’m going to have an interesting experience.

You go sometimes with Maggie when your interests coincide. Do you prefer going with somebody else or on your own?

I’m quite easy. I’m happy going on my own and going with other people, you can compare notes afterwards and talk about the films you’ve seen. And they’ll say, ‘Did you see so-and-so?’ They might recommend something you hadn’t thought about and you’ll still have a chance to see it. I think she (Maggie) said to me once, ‘You go and see all these films at the film festival but then you hardly go to anything during the year.’

Do you really not go to see much else during the year?

Not a whole lot, no. We go to the Hall here or Yarpole, we’ve been to Bodenham, Stoke Prior, Leominster Playhouse, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Odeon in Hereford. I rarely go to The Courtyard where I know there are quite a few films on and it’s partly because they tend to be more mainstream films, the latest thing, and if it’s a good film I know it’ll be on at Flicks later. Like James Bond, we did see Skyfall eventually, but it was quite a few months after it had done the rounds. I’m not a film enthusiast in the sense that I’ll make time to see films. The thing that I like is being able to see lots of films together also the fact that you get a huge range of different things, the oddball films or the foreign films that you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to see. And how many times do you ever get the chance to see a documentary?

Yes, that’s very true. On cinema release. I suppose in places like London documentary releases are becoming much more frequent but certainly round here…

Benda Bilili
We’ve been from work as well, because we’re dealing with international development and occasionally there are films like Benda Bilili, which was great. I thought I’m sure this is going to be a really fascinating film and it was and, there again, it was a documentary. And so I emailed round at work and said, ‘There’s this film, OK, we don’t work in the DRC but it’s about poor African communities and personal story and it’s got music.’ And I actually got people there, colleagues of mine who wouldn’t ever go to anything in the festival and I was really pleased that they came as a social event and got a lot out of it. I manage the finance team in the Hereford office and some of them are just accountants, they never travel to our programmes, a couple of them have got young children, so they don’t have first-hand experience of what it’s like working in Africa so I thought it’s a great opportunity for them to see that and it’s a great film, a great story.

I think we’ve got some African films in the forthcoming festival. One called Nairobi Half-Life

Did you watch films from an early age?

Yeah, I remember queuing round the block to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I grew up in Salisbury and the Odeon Cinema there is in this old Tudor house so I have this very atmospheric recollection that you go through this kind of timbered hall to get into the actual cinema and I vividly remember it was there for one night only.
Salisbury Odeon (from

I’m just remembering now that there was a Salisbury Film Society and we were studying Macbeth. Polanski’s Macbeth was on at the Film Club so we went as a school thing to see it – I was about sixteen – and I remember that having a big impact. And then for some reason we went to Don’t Look Now at the film society when it first came out, early seventies, and I think that was the first X-rated film I had seen and that put me off. It was quite scary and atmospheric. So a few of us got into going to the film society films, arty ones as well. And, oh yes, there was a film called La Grand Bouffe about people eating themselves to death. The Tin Drum, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, and a French film and there’s no dialogue in it and a guy who’s a painter, a dull industrial job, and he flips and turns into a caveman and his apartment into a cave and starts ululating and beating his chest.

Now I have some dim recollection of that. Was it with Michel Piccoli? (Themroc). 

Yes, there was this scene where they were having this demarcation dispute with two teams of painters are painting two sides of a set of railings and they get into a fight. So I suppose that’s where I got my taste for slightly offbeat foreign films when I was a teenager. Then as a university student seeing some films like that which I enjoyed.

Is there anything or any type of thing that you’d particularly like to see at the festival? We’ve shown quite a lot of classic films.

Casablanca at Shobdon Airfield
We went to see Casablanca in the hangar. That was a great idea, it made it an event. It’s one of those films you can watch anywhere and I love those 40s, Humphrey Bogart, film noir, Double Indemnity, type of films. Something Altman did, The Long Goodbye, in the seventies. I really like the breakfast films so that you can see four films in a day. I like classic films, foreign films, documentaries, art-house film, lesser-known films, low budget films, some animations.

I always think when the brochure comes out, 'Ooh, what’s going to be in there?' And I think last time I was disappointed; I was hoping there’d be some African films and there weren’t.

There was War Witch. Did you see that?

No I didn’t get to see that. There would probably be quite a few in the programme that I’d like to see but can’t get to. I suppose I’d encourage people at work to go and see the African films, make a social thing of it as well. I just enjoy the fact that I know there’s going to be a huge range of things to see, rather than particular things. Presumably you would always have a huge range of international films?

Oh yeah, I think that is something that is definitely part of the festival’s character.

I’m struggling to think, haven’t there been more defined strands or themes in previous years?

Yes, and we’re bringing that back.

If it’s a particular country or a particular subject, that’s quite nice. You think, well, I’ll go and see those three films because they all deal with related subjects.

Music films are another thing. One DVD I know is in there (cupboard) is Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme concert film with Talking Heads. Absolutely brilliant as a concert film, I’ve never seen anything better. And you had one about Glenn Gould.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
I’ve just got more into listening to Glen Gould playing Bach piano music. It wasn’t a great film or anything, just a mundane documentary but I think he’s a really interesting character and it was fascinating to find out more about him, why he gave up playing and the strange relationship he had with his concert promoter’s wife. I knew he had issues about his mental health but that was very fortunate for me because I had a particular interest in him so I remember going to the afternoon show and there were about 12 people. And I thought, ‘Sod everybody else, it’s great that Borderlines puts these things on’.

I think it’s very important that it does.

Sometimes I like sitting in a cinema with just twelve people more than in a huge crowd of people. But then there’ve been some like The Lives of Others, a cinema full of people, and you feel the impact the film has on everybody coming out. I really remember that one very clearly because it had such an impact. That was a situation where you want to feel that everyone feels emotionally punched in the stomach by this piece of drama.
The Lives of Others
I love it because I’ve had all sorts of different experiences, from something fairly obscure to something big and amazing, from comedy to drama, and then factual interest. Just going and spending a day in the Courtyard, some days, a Saturday, I’ve been there and watched two or three films and hardly seen anyone I know and still you get the atmosphere of people coming and going, but generally I’ll bump into people and say, ‘Ooh what have you seen? What are you going to see?’