Thursday, August 23, 2007

GCSE Media Results

Today attention switches to GCSE Media Studies. Over the last few years, entries to GCSE Media have risen dramatically. Since media studies as a subject is not part of National Curriculum, examined courses at KS4 (14-16) in England and Wales have always suffered in comparison to the more market-led situation post 16. At A Level, some 4% of candidates take AS/A2 Film or Media Studies, but only around 1% take GCSE Media. This means that the numbers are significant, but don't as yet cause the same murmurs amongst traditionalists in education as the presence of A Level Media in the Top 10 subjects.

This year's results posted by the Joint Council for Qualifications show that in 2007 there were 66,425 candidates for GCSE Media, representing a significant increase on the 57,521 in 2006. In fact, according to the 'trends' report on the JCQ website, media studies shows a 15.4% increase in take-up. This makes it No 3 in the 'Top 10 subject increases', but since this table is topped by the relatively small numbers representing Additional Maths, media is still growing as fast as in 2006 when it was No 2. The champion is Statistics with an increase of 21% for a total of 82,000. It does look as if all the attempts to boost Maths are having some effect at both GCSE and A Level and this may deflect some of the predicted attacks on media. However, a little lower down the Top 10 increases are the three separate science subjects. There has been a clamour for a return to single science GCSEs because combined science does not seem to be 'stretching' students. Biology, Physic and Chemistry are, as a result of official promotion, growing by 4-5% a year, but this clearly doesn't match media studies which, without official sanction, is ahead of any of the single science subjects. I suspect that this will be picked up by commentators. It's worth remembering though, that media is still relatively small beer at this level. The main National Curriculum subjects each attract over 200,000 candidates. Religious Studies has been one of the recent success stories and it now attracts over 170,000.

In the next couple of years, Film Studies GCSE will make its appearance and will no doubt add a few more thousand. For the moment, more attention might be paid to the vocational alternatives. The new 'Applied Media' course has only been piloted in a few centres so far, but it has produced some results (300) so far. I was also intrigued to discover that a Journalism GCSE is offered by the Awarding Body in Northern Ireland, CCEA and this produced 170 candidates in 2007. BTEC results are not included in the JCQ press release, so I will report on these when I find them.

Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums

The second Naruse Mikio screening at the National Media Museum this week provided an interesting comparison with When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. The same two stars, Takamine Hideko and Masayuki Mori were the leads in Floating Clouds (Japan 1955) and the focus was again on a 'suffering' woman in a melodrama, but there were also some striking differences.

First Floating Clouds was shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1. Naruse does not have a distinctive visual style and the change of screen size should not be too significant, but for me the 'Scope film seemed much more coherent in its use of framing and composition. Floating Clouds was quite conventionally shot and perhaps it was the rather abrupt edits marking shifts in time periods (i.e. character's memories) that made it feel less coherent. Many of the scenes in small houses and narrow alleys in Tokyo were reminiscent of Ozu's Tokyo Story. However, where Ozu's camera often stays at the eye level of a child or someone kneeling on a tatami mat, Naruse simply follows the characters -- when they are in a traditional room, the camera is low level but at other times it rises with them.

Floating Clouds has the attention to social detail that I'm coming to realise is a Naruse trait. The story deals with a couple returning to Japan after the war has ended from their posting with a forestry team in Indo-China (presumably Vietnam). The misery of the Occupation and the struggle to survive economically and morally provides the context for an abortive romance. Unlike When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, written by Kikushima Ryuzo, responsible for many of Kurosawa's scripts, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by the very popular Hayashi Fumiko. In fact, Floating Clouds was the fifth Naruse film based on Ms Hayashi's novels. Perhaps then Floating Clouds is more like the norm for Naruse? When I got to see Late Chrysanthemums (Japan 1954) just a few days later, this naive assumption was soon discarded.

In the pub after the screening someone suggested that the film was 'Bressonian' and that seems like a good reference. Whereas Floating Clouds is a fairly conventional melodrama in terms of structure and presentation, Late Chrysanthemums, based on three short stories by Hayashi, is almost a pure character piece with little plot but a lot of opportunity to reflect on the lives of ageing geisha. Four women in early middle age, like four flowers whose bloom is fading, struggle to make ends meet. Or at least three of them do. The fourth has become a moneylender (and property speculator), but money can't buy her happiness and she is disappointed to find that men only want to borrow money. This film seemed linked, thematically and structurally, more to When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Once again, we get the detail of everyday life in Tokyo. If anything, there are even more scenes of money changing hands. Aesthetically, the film seems more fluent and coherent than Floating Clouds, which now seems much more of a genre piece.

The two earlier films did make me think about Ozu. They show ordinary families in ordinary settings (although Ozu's families are perhaps more genteel). There are plenty of Ozu railway scenes. Neither Ozu or Naruse got commercial releases in the UK in the 1950s and in retrospect it's not difficult to see why. Mizoguchi and Kurosawa offered films that were at once more 'exotic', more exciting, more expressionist and more obviously 'humanist'. Naruse's films do require an appreciation of the day to day nuances of Japanese cultural life. Late Chrysanthemums also refers to memories of Manchuria (and rather surprisingly, to the prospect of going to Korea) -- some knowledge of Japanese imperialism is required to fully appreciate these references. I'm not sure I would have appreciated Naruse when I was younger and when i was even more ignorant of Japanese culture.

I'm glad I saw these films and I'll look out for the DVD titles that are already published.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

National Treasures

Caught the end of this week's repeat of 'National Treasures' (Radio 4) - which pitched Canterbury Cathedral up against Damien Hirst's diamond skull for their national cultural value. Great prgramme and referred to programme two, where the Cutty Sark and the BFI national archive were discussed as worthy causes for public money.

On listen again, caught a fascinating programme about the value of the moving image against an ancient, preserved monument - the whole programme worth it to hear Terence Davies argue so convincingly and passionately about the value of filmmaking. It was a done-deal - BFI won hands-down.

The ability to access this archive now at the BFI is a fantastic asset - one perhaps to develop for dispersal on-line, or otherwise to benefit 'Our Friends in the North'?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Level Media results day

The 2007 A Level Media and Film results are available from the Joint Council for Qualifications on its website. The 2007 trends statement is also important to download.

My first impression is that the great expansion in numbers has now slowed down. Total entries for A Level Media/Film were 31,942 (an increase of 3.16%). This drops Media down the league table for 'increase in entries' from 2nd to 8th and should kill the comments about diverting students from Maths etc. In fact, Maths, Science and Spanish are the subjects with noticeable increases this year. AS Film/Media had 44,392 entries (an increase of 3.19% which didn't even get a mention in the Top 10 of subject increases).

At both AS and A2, Media/Film now accounts for 4% of all candidates. Females still outnumber males and they perform significantly better in terms of grades. At A Level the overall pass rate at Grade A for Media/Film is 14.1%, but for females alone it is 16.3%. Media continues to be a relatively 'hard subject' in terms of getting a Grade A.

Overall, Media/Film has moved up one place to Number 9 most popular A Level subject (changing places with Geography). Of all the 'new' subjects, Psychology is by far the most successful -- at Number 5 in the chart with 52,000 candidates.

What the current figures don't show is the split between Media Studies and Film Studies. It may well be that the increases relate more to Film than to Media.

The Applied A Level in Media has now reached A2 and there were 567 candidates (slightly more males) of whom 11.3% gained a Grade A. This is a far higher proportion than in other Applied A Levels, but overall Media attracted only 1.7% of entries. At AS numbers rose from 735 in 2006 to 912 and females were back in front and gaining more Grade 'A's. But at AS, only 1.8% of candidates took Media, down from 1.9% in 2006.

Communication Studies at AS/A2 is running at around o.3% of all A Level candidates, showing a slightdecline to 3,261 at AS and a very slight increase to 2,144 at A Level.

Pick 'n Mix

Two examples of interesting combinations of subjects from Blackpool & Fylde College (This is Lancashire website).

"Outstanding students this year included Leanne Hyland who gained A grades in Film Studies, Maths and Psychology as well as an A in A/S level Further Maths. Leanne is going to go to Edinburgh University to study Maths.

Lauren Martin came to the College from St Mary's High School. She gained an A in Psychology and B grades in Film Studies, Business Studies and General Studies. After a year out she is aiming to go to Lancaster University or Manchester University to study for a degree in Marketing Management or Business."

. . . more traditionally, this from 'Cambs Times': "Amongst the college success stories is Joshua Butler of Wisbech who achieved straight A's at A Level, in film studies, media studies, English language and literature. Joshua is intending to read film with English studies at the University of East Anglia."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tanzania and Nollywood

Yvone Cherry and Stephen Kanumba as the couple in She Is My Sister

There are only a handful of Tanzanian films produced each year and few of these are screened outside the festival circuit. As a consequence, I've never seen one. When the British had colonies in Africa their policy was to offer training in making documentaries and instructional films. One consequence of this in East Africa is a general lack of commercial, entertainment-based filmmaking. Something similar was also the case in West Africa, but in Nigeria and Ghana an alternative, highly populist, video cinema movement began in the 1980s. 'Nollywood' now claims to be the world's third biggest film industry after India and the US, with hundreds of cheap video films produced each year.

Nollywood has now spread to East Africa and I was fortunate to be given a VCD of a joint Tanzanian/Nigerian production entitled She Is My Sister (2007). This follows a previous joint venture Dar 2 Lagos (2007). I was given She Is My Sister because it is performed mostly in English. Most Tanzanian cultural products use Swahili but in this case three of the leads are Nigerian (as is the director) so English may simply have been more convenient. However, I'm not sure how that would affect the potential market for the film.

VCD is the preferred format for cheap film distribution in South and South East Asia and I've also noticed them in the Middle East, so it's no surprise to find films on VCD in Africa as well. The image quality on my computer is not great, but it is watchable. There are two discs in the box and the total film length is around 74 minutes with 6 minutes of trailers on Disc 1.

She Is My Sister is recognisable as a melodrama in terms of its plot and exaggerated acting style. To deal with the stylistic features first, there is little to say. The film is presented in a standard TV ratio of 4:3. There are a couple of establishing shots of streets in Dar es Salaam, but otherwise the film is composed in medium shot, like a television soap opera, with occasional close-ups and occasional tableaux to show characters in their surroundings as in the shot of the couple with their new furniture above. The overall style is quite constrained compared to the trailers for other productions. (The trailers are highly wrought with flash edits and zooms, but this may simply be a trailer style.) Overall, the camerawork and editing is competent, although some shots are held for far too long. (At the beginning of the film we have to watch nearly every passenger get off a long distance coach before we meet the first significant character.)

Far more interesting is the overall narrative. This is in part a universal morality tale. Melodrama has often been an important mode for exploring social relationships at times of major societal change -- such as in Europe in the 19th century. She Is My Sister focuses on a young woman, Rose, from a rural village who gets to university and then is able to get a job/open a business selling imported electronics goods. This all happens before the narrative begins and we see her return to her village where she finds her childhood sweetheart who she takes back to the city and introduces to her girlfriends. The 'country bumpkin', Danny, turns out to be very good at running the shop and before long the couple are married with a small child. Danny, played by Steven Kanumba who also wrote the script and seems to be one of Tanzania's successful young stars, also becomes very attractive to Rose's friend Flora. Flora is a repugnant character, an uber bitch played with relish by Nigerian actress Nkiru Silvanus. When she steals Danny, Rose's whole life falls apart.

The plot is very thin and there are few surprises. The only narrative device of note is the use of flashback so that at the beginning Rose's sister arrives in the city for a visit and discovers Rose no longer lives in a 'gated mansion', but is now in a squalid back street apartment. Rose then tells her the story . . . It is the elements of the narrative that are interesting. The rural/city contrast is often represented by an opposition of cunning v. authenticity and here the couple from the country are corrupted by the city lifestyle. The woman has an education, but she has been seduced by material gain and may lose everything when her man succumbs to the sophisticated woman. As in many of the Nollywood films, there is a second part to the story according to the title at the end of the film which warns us to "Watch out for She Is My Sister 2". Perhaps Rose fights back?

Tanzania is a poor country, but most of the action in this film takes place in a world of flatscreen TVs, gated houses, servants and expensively decorated rooms. There is clearly an aspirational lifestyle being offered. The film has an 18 certificate, but there is no overt sexuality or graphic violence. Perhaps the immorality alone is enough to get this rating? Tanzania has strong Christian and Muslim communities. I don't know if this has had an impact on certification. There is a hint of possible domestic violence, but nothing like what is evident in the Swahili language films trailed on the VCD in which violence, mainly, but not always, by men towards women seems to be a common feature. is a UK online seller of Nigerian VCD/DVDs.

A Level Media Results

As usual the same tired arguments about A Level Media Studies have been trotted out again in the last few days in the build-up to the release of the actual results. In the Guardian last week Peter Wilby wrote quite a sensible piece offering a refreshing view on the debate -- but was then deluged by bloggers representing the 'dumbing down' camp. Today the Daily Telegraph has had the nerve to repeat more or less the same story that ran in the Mail at this time last year with rent-an-education-quote Alan Smithers on 'soft subjects' like media studies.

This year I'm going to try to rebut at least some of the charges on behalf of the Media Education Association. The 'soft subject' charge is made against a raft of subjects. They are likely to be either potentially radical (sociology is still in this category and still being described as 'soft', just as it was in the 1970s) or possibly too 'vocational' like business studies. The prejudices come from traditionalists and those whose own educational background has involved either 'high culture' arts or 'hard sciences'. The charges have very little to do with any kind of evidence.

Media studies may be many things, but like most subjects it offers the opportunity for students to stretch themselves or to take an easier option and just pass the exam. The problem is really the exam system. The same people who think media studies is a soft option are also those who claim that students are all exam grade chasers. But this is contradictory logic. No student who chooses a course because they think they will get a higher grade would then select Media Studies at A Level, since the proportion of A grades is low compared to most traditional subjects. So, does that mean that students who choose media are the less 'street smart' students who don't know what they are doing? That could be true at AS, but they soon learn that it isn't a doss and many drop out before A2. We know that media students come from all kinds of schools and colleges and there are now enough of them (about 4% of all A Level students) to be confident that the media cohort is representative of the whole student population. There is a small percentage of students who don't consider taking media studies because the press, their school or their parents have attempted to put them off. Whether these students would get higher grades if they did take media studies is impossible to know. The truth of course is that the students who make it to A2 Media Studies are there because they want to be, because they enjoy the subject and think that it is relevant to their lives.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Lisa Ray and John Abraham in Water.

I finally managed to see Deepa Mehta's Water (Canada/India 2005) and I surprised myself by being quite moved by the film which deals with a clash between the tradition of widows being effectively imprisoned for the rest of their lives and the possibility of change in India coming from Ghandian political ideas. The focus of the narrative is a romance between a young widow and a law student and its impact on two other widows. My sense was that, despite the controversy which caused production in India to be stopped and moved to Sri Lanka and the film's subsequent success in gaining an Oscar nomination, the UK reviews were rather lukewarm. I remember enjoying Fire (1996), the first of the 'elemental trilogy', but also finding it a strange Indian/Western hybrid. I'm intending to watch Earth (1998) later this week.

Water, I was convinced, was an Indian film. I didn't research the film before I watched it so I wasn't aware that it had been filmed in Sri Lanka. However, I did get a sense during the screening of watching landscapes in South India rather than on the Ganges. Lisa Ray and John Abraham were new to me. I can understand some of the comments about the realism question. Both actors are very beautiful and their parentage (Ray is Indian/Polish and Abraham is Iranian/Indian Christian) means that they look exotic in an Indian setting. But really it isn't a problem and in a way their casting adds another level of meaning to any reading of the narrative. I was also surprised to be offered a selection of A. R. Rahman songs. At least one of these was mixed badly in the film print I watched, but overall they seemed to work.

The big issue, of course, is whether the film works in the same way in the West as in India. On IMDB, the Canadian reviews are generally excellent, partly pride in Canadian Cinema, partly a Western liberal response to the plight of widows in 1930s India, I guess. IMDB reviews and comments by Indians on the other hand are sometimes extremely negative. I attribute this to the obverse of the Canadian response -- a feeling that the filmmaker has somehow betrayed Indian culture/is not proud of Indian Cinema, but also from a Hindu perspective, the film is disrespectful of religious teachings. There is a great deal about the controversy over Water scattered across the internet and I don't particularly want to get embroiled in the politics of Hindu Nationalism. What interests me here is what the Indian critics have to say about the film -- as a film. I came across this blog, seemingly by an NRI/desi with deep knowledge of Indian 'parallel cinema', that offered a withering appraisal -- much of it focusing on aspects of the film requiring cultural knowledge. For instance, the spoken Hindi in the film is 'stilted' and doesn't convey any authenticity. Similarly, the saris are polyester, the taxis in the street are wrong, the costumes are wrong and so is the representation of Ghandi at the end of the film. The blogger is angry with the film on nearly every level, including what is seen as a crass use of quotes from Hindu writings. Overall, the blogger pines for the directors and stars of parallel cinema. Lisa Ray and John Abraham are criticised for their acting. I'm always worried by these criticisms since appraisal of acting styles is often highly subjective. However, I can see that the film would have been very different if Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had appeared as the two adult widows (the third widow is a child) as Deepa Mehta originally intended. (A report on the original shoot with an image of Azmi and Das is on this Bright Lights Film Journal page.)

I wish my knowledge of parallel cinema was more extensive, but I've seen quite a few and Water wouldn't stand up to a comparison with the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or of Shyam Benegal. There were moments when the scenario and some aspects of the cinematography reminded me of those earlier films (I think it's the second film of the Apu Trilogy from Ray, Aparajito (1956) which features the ghats of Benares) but overall Deepa Mehta's aim was different. Like Mira Nair, she is trying to make films about Indian culture for both a Western audience and a younger popular audience in India. And on this score, according to a number of Indian reviews, she seems to have succeeded. The film is: "Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful" as one young Indian blogger puts it. This doesn't negate the cultural criticism (and I did find more) and I think that is a weakness. On the other hand, shifting production to Sri Lanka must have been a nightmare and to manage to acheive what she has in the circumstances deserves support. To attract audiences to a consideration of social issues, even if it involves some misunderstandings is something Bollywood hasn't managed. Despite the criticisms some Indians seem to have supported Water as an Oscar contender (as the Canadian foreign language entry) over the Indian entry Rang De Basanti -- I guess I should see that soon and look at a comparison.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Takamine Hideko as Keiko, the Mama-san in a Ginza bar.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960, dir. Naruse Mikio) has just about everything I could wish for in a movie – a beautiful heroine presented in a B+W 'Scope melodrama in which she must make almost impossible decisions about how to gain her independence in patriarchal Japan. Whilst the story reminded me very much of Mizoguchi Kenji's suffering women, the milieu of early 1960s Tokyo was reminiscent of Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (also 1960) and Masumura Yasuzo's A Wife Confesses (1962). However, Naruse's mise en scène seems less expressionist -- or perhaps just more subtle than that of the other three directors. The compositions are careful and usually quite simple and the story is carried by the acting and the use of locations, costume and set design. What impressed me most about the film was the wealth of social detail.

Tokyo in 1960 seems on the cusp of the great leap forward towards the Japanese economic resurgence. The cars on the street are still American and in the bars the brands are British, French or American. Keiko's apartment is 'modern', but her family home in the suburbs by the river could still be part of 1930s Tokyo. The mixing of traditional and modern/Western costume, decor and food tells us a great deal about the characters. Keiko is always dressed traditionally ('conservatively', as she tells her mother).

The central premise of the narrative is that the 30 year-old widow Keiko is facing the reality of her situation as a popular hostess (in fact the senior hostess or Mama-san) of a bar in Ginza, Tokyo's entertainment district. Her options appear to be to set up her own bar or to marry one of her rich clients. She can't really afford to stand still. Everyone is struggling to make their way in the new world of potential prosperity, so whatever she chooses she will have to face the unpalatable consequences of her actions (e.g. other hostesses who have set up in their own bars have been driven to suicide by the economic pressure involved in borrowing money and repaying the interest). The social context is economically summed up in Keiko's voiceover in which she tells that at 11.30 each night, 15,000 women in Ginza leave the bars and other places of entertainment. The first-class women take taxis, the second-class take the train to the suburbs and the others go home with their clients.

There are two more Naruse films in the short season in Bradford. I can't wait.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Constructing TV?

I'm really not sure what to make of the current hysteria about 'faking it' on television. I can't decide whether this is an indictment of media educationists -- that there are still people out there that think that what is on television is 'real' -- or that it shows just how important universal 'media literacy' is. It's the latter of course. What the current controversy shows is not that television is 'dumbing down', but rather that no matter how 'media savvy' or sophisticated television audiences may appear to be, they don't reflect on what they watch with any critical distance. As regards what happens within the TV industry, I was struck by (66 year-old) Paul Watson (director of the programme on the couple coping with Alzheimer's) suggesting on Radio 4 that the mistakes in presentation were being made by "young guys with mortgages" desperate to get the ratings. He's probably right.

I can't really pontificate on the current range of programming that is under fire since I haven't seen any of the programmes in question. I'm not going to argue that this is because I have superior viewing tastes, but there is a cultural change taking place that I'm clearly not part of.