EIFF 2013 Documentaries: “Natan” and Other Home Truths

If cinema really is, as Jean-Luc Godard said, truth at 24 frames per second, it becomes intriguing to discover films which seek to open up a discourse on the nature of fact versus fiction and how reality is represented within forms of image, whether created, self-invented or imposed and then forgotten. Three fascinating films in this year’s EIFF programme attempt to seek out how fiction can be sculpted from reality, whether desired or not.

Mark Cousins’ “A Story of Children and Film” seems on paper to be a fairly straightforward document of how children have been portrayed within cinema, as well as being an addendum to his epic masterpiece “The Story of Film: An Odyssey”. The inspiration for Cousins came from observing through the camera his young niece and nephew, Laura and Ben, playing in his own front room. Only Laura and Ben are contained within this locked-off frame, through which they seem to exist in their own microcosm where the only adult intervention comes from Cousins’ voice and the headless body of their grandmother wandering through. This sets Cousins thinking about how cinema represents the tiny incidents of childhood which celebrate universal truths.

While we return to Laura and Ben playing in Uncle Mark’s film throughout, Cousins’ cinematic essay is mainly depicted by an outstanding selection of clips from 53 films in which childhood is a predominate theme. From “E.T.” and “The Night of the Hunter” to lesser known examples of world cinema such as “Long Live the Republic” and “Kowboy”, Cousins strings his thesis together with ease, a particularly sublime transition displaying how adults are seen through childish eyes cutting from an old Tom and Jerry cartoon to Lynne Ramsay’s “Gasman”. I’m not sure I agree with Cousins’ outcome, that cinema itself is a child. If so, then right now it’s having a particularly stroppy adolescence, but this is not to detract from the sheer delight of this film.

Fresh from adolescence, the protagonists in Jeanie Finlay’s “The Great Hip-Hop Hoax” are the determined Dundee duo of Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain. Having met at college, they decided to be the future of hip-hop and duly headed to London for an open audition in 2002, only to be openly mocked for their heavily Scottish-accented rapping and sent away with the horrific phrase “Rapping Proclaimers” ringing in their ears.

Filled with righteous indignation, Boyd and Bain decided to take on the music industry on its own foul terms and reinvented themselves as Californian skate-punk kids Silibil ‘n’ Brains, in doing so becoming the frenzied talk of the London scene and the quarry of grasping agents and labels desperate to have the new Eminem. The dream, and deception, turns sour very quickly for Boyd and Bain, both of whom were determined to party hard while never once letting their fakery drop (barring a highly amusing evening with Daniel Bedingfield at The Brits). Hugely enjoyable viewing, while proving Hunter S Thompson’s old maxim about the music industry (“...a cruel and shallow money trench...”) was totally accurate.

More trickery comes in David Cairns and Paul Duane’s exemplary “Natan”. Yet this was far from how the mysterious figure of Bernard Natan would have wanted it to be. Now barely remembered, beyond the rambling accusations of pornography historians, and slandered throughout his last ignoble days, Natan was a contemporary of, and ultimately competitor to, Charles Pathe in early 20th century French cinema. Setting up a variety of home-made studios throughout the 1920s’, Natan proceeded to build a mini film-empire which sought to be the equivalent of Hollywood’s output, and to keep French cinema French, one might say. Yet his Romanian roots would bring strength to his enemies, with Natan going on to suffer a terrible downfall and final humiliation.

Cairns and Duane’s terrific film pieces together the few scraps of knowledge that remain about Bernard Natan, through interviews with his granddaughters and a plethora of film scholars, in an attempt to sift through the corruption and sleaze which embroiled him, both during his life and since. A must-see for anyone interested in social and cinematic history, “Natan” prises apart a shadowy and dark period in a French film industry which was beginning to feel the chill fingers of fascism creeping towards it.

“A Story of Children and Film” screens at 6.15pm on Saturday 29 June at Filmhouse.
“Natan” screens at 8.30pm on Saturday 29 June at Filmhouse.