Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
'It's as if they were telling me that my movie didnt exist!' Film-maker Charles Teton's plaintive protest raises a disturbing fear.
Did Sight & Sound discriminate against a new British film?
Dark Summer is an independently produced and financed British feature film, shot in Liverpool. In November 1993 it was screened at the 37th London Film Festival. Presenting it in the Program Booklet, Festival Director Sheila Whitaker praised it thus: 'Another fine example of independent film-making in the regions providing a portrait of life outside the metropolis.' Since then, Dark Summer has been an official selection at a further nine film festivals, twice in competition. Film maker Charles Teton has been hailed as one 'to watch out for in the future' (Variety), and as 'one of the up and coming film-makers of the new generation' ('Moving Pictures', BBC 2).
As an institution the BFI seems to be supportive of Charles Teton. He tells me that Ben Gibson, Head of Production, is looking forward to seeing, his next script, and that Wilf Stevenson, Director of the BFI, responded positively to Dark Summer.
Sight and Sound, which is supported by the BFI has advertised a comprehensive reviewing policy: 'Full credits, a synopsis and an in-depth review for every feature film released in London.'
Perhaps one of Charles Teton's greatest achievements was to obtain UK distribution for Dark Summer. The enterprising and innovative Robins Cinema chain booked it at its cinemas throughout the country, and for screening at the BFI's Regional Film Theaters in areas where the Robins chain is not active. Not surprisingly, everybody expected a review, in Sight and sound preferably to coincide with the film's opening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London's West End. Nothing doing!
Not surprisingly, Charles Teton was puzzled. He wrote to Philip Dodd, the Editor of Sight and sound, to find out why his film was not being reviewed.
He then sent a copy of his letter to Wilf Stevenson, and received a response which, despite its sympathetic tone, contains an analysis of what it means for a film to be 'in distribution which reads as if it had been dictated by Humpty Dumpty: 'When I use a word... it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.' (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass): 'As it happens, Sight and Sound reviewing policies are currently under review, but at present are to cover any film "in distribution". This is not to be decided by adding up the number of venue's at which the film is screened, nor is it a matter of being distributed by one of the majors. Clearly, at any moment there are a great number of films circulating in Britain, in addition to those "in distribution". There are films which play around an ever increasing number of film festivals; there are the ICA Projects, which are different from the films the ICA distributes; there are films screened by exhibitors (say the Prince Charles and its chain); Institutes such as the Goethe screen films and organize tours around the country; the National Film Theatre does likewise. In addition, there are re-releases of films that were inadequately documented on their original release.'
Despite the confused and misleading account of BFI policy in Wilf's letter one is left with the hope that the attitude to Dark Summer is the result of some squabble within the BFI, some lunatic outburst of inter-departmental pique. The alternative, a Sight and Sound reviewing policy which excludes films like Dark Summer, is too chilling, too ominous for British independent film makers and distributors.
Stop Press: 'Happy Ending!'
On 1O November, Charles Teton telephoned to say that he'd learnt that Sight and Sight now planned to run a review of Dark Summer.
Nice and Tidy!
It's a rule I leant in school!
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule!
The Three Penny Opera.
Bertolt Brecht & Marc Blitzstein.
Vertigo has absolutely no pretensions to a comprehensive reviewing policy. However, by this time we had decided that someone would have to do Sight and Sound job for them, so we prepared our own review of Charles Teton's film. As our cultural and critical agenda is radically different from that of Sight and Sound, we have decided this may still be of some interest to our readers. - Editorial Board
.....Written, produced, directed, photographed and edited by Charles Teton. Dark Summer is more enjoyable on second viewing than on first. Initially one is disappointed by the slight story, and by performances which, though adequate, are neither particularly revealing nor particularly touching. Moreover the treatment of the break-up of the relationship between Jess and Abe, the young couple who are the film's central protagonists, is too perfunctory to be moving or memorable. Thus when Abe, having discovered that Jess has left him, buries his head in his hands and asks 'Why.... Jess? Why me? .....Why me, Jess", the viewer is less likely to share his despair than to wonder at the introduction of a whole new set of psychological narrative and dramaturgical possibilities in the final shot of the film. These are weaknesses which one suspects Charles Teton would to some extent acknowledge. Certainly he feels that one thing he learnt from making the film was the difficulty of combining the roles of cinematographer and director. It is, indeed, the look of the film together with the rhythm of the cutting, which makes it more attractive and interesting on second viewing. Teton's chosen editing strategy stirs memories of Ozu, in that it eschews camera movement, and sometimes makes use of what are effectively still life shots. However, when Ozu cuts in one of his characteristic series of still life compositions, much of the emotional resonance which results is derived from the viewer's awareness of human absence or distance: the spaces shown are full of the traces of human activity, even when empty of human beings. Moreover, they are located as part of a rich filmic texture, and juxtaposed with passages which are full of complex dramatic interactions, albeit ones articulated with such subtlety and delicacy that even the slightest gesture is meaningful. In Dark Summer, however sequences in which Teton distances himself from the articulation of dramatic interaction dominate to such an extent that his still lives, though often beautifully composed, lack emotional resonance. Certainly Teton does have an eye for striking compositions, and on a purely visual level these work effectively with his style of editing. Moreover, his Use of the Cinemascope frame is often compelling pictorially, justifying his assertion that a great city like Liverpool deserves the wider canvas provided by this format at. Unfortunately, however, he not consistently able to give a sense that his protagonists are really part of this city. Too often they seem to be placed alone in a guidebook composition rather than being revealed as part of the living texture and space of their urban world. Even when the location is bleak, the effect communicated tends often to be one of artifice rather than desolation. It's not just by using closer shots that characters are given depth and complexity, made dramatically interesting. It's also by placing them in a living context, a social and emotional space in which their interactions can be acted out. This is something Teton seems to aspire to only occasionally. Nevertheless Teton remains a courageous young film-maker whose meager resources contributed, for good or ill, to many of his important production and aesthetic choices.
Michael Dampier is a film historian.
SIGHT AND SOUND
Liverpool. Abe, a young black man, works at a scrap metal yard, along with Jess, daughter of his boss Alan. Without Alan knowing, the two begin to date. In his spare time, Abe boxes on an amateur basis, with some success. He reaches the north-west finals but loses a close bout, after which a visiting boxing manager tries to interest him in fighting professionally. After Alan catches Abe and Jess kissing in his office. Abe is dismissed. Jess leaves with Abe, moving into his flat. While she secures work as a barmaid, Abe is unable to find another job and takes up the offer to turn professional, receiving a small advance.
Jess discovers she is pregnant and she and Abe set about preparing the flat for the baby's arrival. Abe continues to train hard. Jess miscarries and Abe abandons training to stay at home and tend her. Jess is mired in depression but keeps her feelings to herself. Abe becomes frustrated at her lack of communication. He loses his first professional fight when his manager sets him up against an opponent likely to beat him, the manager collecting on a bet made against Abe. Abe returns home to find that Jess has left him.
Dark Summer does not offer much in the way of a story. Little happens, and what does is, in fictional terms, routine. The style, however is anything but routine. First time director and co-writer Charles Teton shoots in Cinemascope and absolutely refuses to move his camera.
The temptation when reviewing the fixed-camera style is to see necessity at work - a limited budget, for instance, or lack of experienced operators (Teton also acts as cinematographer). Nonetheless, the result is a highly coherent, controlled manner which betokens at the very least a cool weighing-up of resources and an exemplary exploitation of them. Dark Summer has a documentary feel: characters come to the camera, walk into the frame: and the dialogue is very flat. And yet, there's no attempt to achieve an intimate portrait. Liverpool is as prominent as any of the characters, the camera often lingering on a body-free landscape. Or else Abe, out training, runs into a frame and is embedded in the background, dwarfed by the vestiges of the city's industrial past. At such moments the film is fly-on-the-outside-wall, as if trained on a place rather than on people, capturing a general decay, the stillness only broken by Abe's running. The soundtrack from Augustus Pablo complements the images, its steadily insistent reggae carrying an undertow of melancholy.
Teton has taken great care in composing each frame. With outdoor shots, his photography picks out patterns in apparent disorder, finding, for instance, harmony and poise in the mess of machinery and scrap in the yard. The use of Cinemascope only reinforces the sense of watching something carefully constructed. (In this choice, at least, Teton's hand was not forced: using Cinemascope was very much an aesthetic decision.) Dark Summer might aspire somehow to reflect 'real lie' but Teton makes it clear that it does so in a highly stylized way. Ultimately, the film suffers perhaps from its own rigor, a rigour which comes to resemble monotony. But as a sustained exercise in a style, it's an impressive debut. - Robert Yates.
You're young, Black and passionately in love with your white Girlfriend. Then you discover that your about to become parents ;and your life seems to be complete. But your lover's dad is a racist, you're out of work, and besieged by a myriad of old and confusing emotions. Somehow you're going to have to make it through a distinctly "Dark Summer".
Dark Summer is the name of the critically acclaimed feature film directed by Independent film maker Charles Teton and staring newcomer Steve Ako as Abe. Shot entirely on location in Manchester and Liverpool, Dark Summer's budget could better be described as "frayed lace " than shoe string. But though the film was short on cash, the acting skill, of the cast weren't. Also, 24-year old Steve had the knack of being in the right place at the right time, or at least he knew a man who was. "I was an amateur boxer at the time and my trainer went on holiday to Ireland. " he recalls. "On the return ferry journey, he met Charles Teton who mentioned that he was interested in making a film about a Black boxer living in Liverpool I was called in for an audition which amongst other things consisted of me going through a training exercise in the gym. "
It was a part he was obviously made for, given the rigorous exercising in one of the scenes of the film his character has to do so many push ups it makes you tired just watching.
Today he's at Drama School, not having had any formal drama training before the film. "As a Black person it's really important that I do well, " he says. "I'd like to make more films, I'd like to make a living from it, but I'm glad that I have my trade as a steel fitter to fall back on. Script writing is an arena that I'd like to experiment with: a Black Jesus would be interesting why is the portrayal always white? I see myself taking roles that make political statements. "
So, what does he think of Dark Summer? "It's a Iaid back film. If you're particularly interested in cinematography, you'll definitely enjoy it. It doesn't fall into the "Indiana Jones " genre of strenuous physical action. And it's challenging -if you like lots of dialogue, to be "lead by the hand " through a film, then this isn't for you. I'd categorize it as a "think " film where interested audiences can empathize with the characters. "
Good luck seems to be following the. young actor. When Dark summer was screened at the last London Film Festival, a casting director was in the audience. "When I got home to Wigan my agent called me and asked me to come right back. I had to go off to the London Weekend Television studios because a production company was interested in doing a biography of former heavyweight champ John Conteh. The fact that I'm a boxer, a Scouser and bear more than a passing resemblance to him stands me in good stead. It's a project that I really am looking forward to, although it's early days at the moment, and the script hasn't been written yet! "
With Ghanaian and Sierra Leonian heritage, and possessing a very strong Black identity, Steve is quick to point out that he does have an established life, independent of amateur boxing rings and film sets. He also intimates that art often imitates life.
"I'm in a mixed relationship my girl friend Angela and I. have been together for nine years Angi's over the moon for me; (they were in the same class at school) she's really supportive and proud of me. " As for the possibilities of recognition he has his feet where they should be.
"I still use toothpaste and toilet paper! " Hear that, Hollywood? - Yemi Maye
"A Punchy boxing film".
Sports enthusiasts who love the cinema have always found it hard to find a good boxing drama film. The last one of note was 'Raging Bull', starring Robert De Niro, in 1980's, which was a classic. British made boxing films tend to lack authenticity, partly because-they are woefully underfunded. But occasionally, a boxing film comes out that packs a good punch and 'Dark Summer' does just that. It is set in Liverpool and tells the tale of the lost innocence of two youngsters, Jess (Joeline Garner Joel) and Abe (Steve Ako). They meet and fall in love when she starts work at her father's scrap metal yard, where Abe works as a mechanic. At night Abe fastidiously trains to better himself as an amateur boxer. Their relationship, and the fight scenes, make fascinating viewing. The ring action is arguably the best ever recorded - some of it is real championship footage.
BIRMINGHAM FILM FESTIVAL
Charles Teton's modest yet very likeable debut feature is to be admired for refusing to fit into any of the critical pigeonholes assigned to recent examples of British independent film-making. Indeed, it could be argued that it's the film's apparent contradictions and sense of mismatch that are it's main source of interest. Shot on a shoestring budget (though luxuriously filmed in Widescreen Technovision) and set in a harsh yet strangely beautiful Liverpool, it's an inter-racial romance in which love is thwarted not by racism or other social ills, but by fate.
Abe (Steve Ako) is a young black man who works as a mechanic in a scrap yard and harbours dreams of becoming a professional boxer. He begins an affair with his boss's daughter, Jess (Joeline Garner-Joel), and the film sketchy the ups and downs in their relationship over the summer months. Totally unremarkable, you might think, but the surprise of the film has to do with the way in which Teton's beautifully composed images, and touching sympathy for the quiet dignity of his characters manage to avoid the trap of dour British realism. - Ralph E West
BRITISH FILM BLOSSOMS
Who says the british film industry is dead? Dark Summer shows the cynics where to get off. Charles teton, a young man from Liverpool begged and borrowed to make the film - a simple urban love story, a tale of lost innocence between Jes (Joeline Garner-Joel) and Abe (Steve Ako). It follows them through one long summer of struggle and acheivement, love, death and ultimately failure which is not so much a choice they make but one fate throws on top of them.
The two leading roles are played by newcomers who are now pursuing careers in film and TV. Joeline was only 15 when she was cast and is now screen-tested as a presenter for a pilot music programme. Steve is being screen tested for a LWT production of the life of Liverpool boxer John Conteh.
The film is on release from Friday opening at the Prince Charles Theatre, Leicester Square, London and then through the independent cinemas nationally.
The soundtrack is also available on CD and LP format and is called 'Rebel Rock Reggae - This is Augustus Pablo', on Heat Beat Records.
This is not some flash Hollywood production with special effects to wow you but the Hollywood with all its money has produced enough turkeys to show us that money is not everything. The quality of the film counts for a lot. If we don't get out there and support small films like Dark Summer then we have no-one to blame for the demise of the British film industry but ourselves