A cliché about filmmakers who are deemed auteurs is that they “make the same film over and over”: they return obsessively to a particular theme or a relatively small set of motifs, they stick to a particular style, which becomes their authorial trademark, etc. The example of Michael Winterbottom turns this understanding of an auteur upside down. With every new piece, he decidedly made different films: from adaptations of Victorian classics to urban SF dystopia, from thrillers about serial killers to documentaries criticizing the ‘war on terror’. With twenty-three features and documentaries made between 1992 and 2014 he is not only the most fruitful European maker of our time, but also the most versatile and elusive in terms of style. However, for all his apparent stylistic inconsistency, Winterbottom actually consistently explored the relation between reality and its cinematic representation. His retrospective at the Sarajevo Film Festival 2014 is a testimony to this continuous re-examination.
As this “Tribute to...” is not exhaustive, let us underscore here an important segment of Winterbottom’s oeuvre that will not be included: his penchant for adaptation of literary works, often classics. Particularly significant ones include JUDE (1996), an adaptation of the controversial critic of Victorian England, Thomas Hardy. This adaptation of Jude the Obscure is also the most conventional one, at least when compared with Winterbottom’s subsequent adaptations of Hardy: THE CLAIM (2000) transposes The Mayor of Casterbridge to the American West, in a contemporary, raw-and-gritty Western pattern, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles was transposed to India in TRISHNA (2011). Scenes of ruthless violence made THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) a ‘literal’ adaptation of Jim Thompson’s crime novel and Winterbottom’s most controversial film, whereas TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005), his arguably most highly appreciated adaptation, was an experiment that re-assesses and subverts the usual definition of for-the-screen adaptation. This is no surprise, since due to its extreme digressiveness, Laurence Sterne’s classic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does not have a story that can be ‘filmed’ easily. Hence, Winterbottom made a film about digressiveness itself: just like Sterne’s hero attempts to write his autobiography, but fails as he is too absorbed by his own thoughts, Winterbottom’s film heroes try and fail to adapt Stern’s novel for the screen.
Winterbottom’s earliest film to be included in this retrospective is his fourth film, WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (1997). Generally unenthusiastically received by the critics, this film remains very important when looking at this director’s entire oeuvre, since in it, for the very first time Winterbottom confronts fact and fiction, history and its film/media presentation. The film is often reproached as a cliché about a British reporter who rescues an abandoned girl from the besieged Sarajevo, adopts her and she continues to live in Britain; there have even been accusations about distorting historical facts and exploiting the Bosnian tragedy. However, such criticism ignores the fact that for Winterbottom, the story about a reporter and an orphan was just a pretext for exploring the nature of media representation: how to present reality adequately under conditions of radical societal crisis, what is the status of truth in media and arts, what is the specific feature of the documentary...? Winterbottom tackles these questions through a formal procedure: the film is a collage of feature and documentary/archival footage. Moreover, Winterbottom warns that the relationship between reality and its media/arts representation is indeed a political question of the highest order. Media images of the war in Bosnia are inseparable from the rejection of the West to see this war as a political problem. The siege of Sarajevo is, thus, among other things, a symptom of the debacle of Western policy, radically de-politicized in the 1990s, following the alleged ‘end of ideologies’ when pacifism, deprived of its political sting, gradually diluted into humanitarianism. It is no accident that the film opens with a Van Morrison song (the soundtrack also includes the hippie standard “Eve of the Destruction”, as well as The Rolling Stones), whereas the last sentence we hear in the film is that by the British diplomat David Owen: “Don’t dream a dream!” Politics leaves no more room for dreams and utopia; it is reduced to hard-core pragmatism and realpolitik.
The issue of the relationship between reality and its presentation also marks his 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002), a film about Tony Wilson, the Manchester TV journalist and music promoter who managed the Factory Records music company and the (in)famous Hacienda club. Presenting Wilson’s collaboration with bands such as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, the film follows the history of British music from punk to rave, but unlike most other films that re-create an era, this film does not purport to be an authentic historical account. Winterbottom juggles authentic events and fiction, history and myth, real and fictitious personalities; at that, his characters often speak directly to the audience, thus removing the ‘fourth wall’ and challenging themselves the question of accuracy of events unfolding before us – which they participate in the film and which may have happened in reality. Tony Wilson – in a fascinating rendition by Steve Coogan – even explicitly paraphrases the famous journalist credo from Ford’s Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” This celluloid monument to the legend of Manchester, its rock and club scene, and Wilson as its most enduring icon, is thus an inspired essay about the very nature of the film medium as an inextricable knot of the authentic and the fictitious. The film also includes an impeccable soundtrack - Winterbottom’s passion for music is one of his trademarks – and this was accidentally the last full-length feature film where the DoP was the veteran Robby Müller, a regular collaborator to authors such as Wenders and Jarmusch.
That same year, Winterbottom made IN THIS WORLD (2002), a film about two Pashtun boys who illegally migrate to Britain. Jamal and Enayat leave a refugee camp in north-western Pakistan, where his families had fled from Afghanistan and where the two boys were born; the camp was originally built during the Soviet invasion of their homeland and the most recent refugees arrived during the US attacks in the ‘war on terror’. An unsafe migrant route, drawn out in crime and human suffering, takes the boys across Iran, Turkey and Italy; although they do manage to reach Britain, they are arrested in order to be deported back to Pakistan. Although the story, the protagonists and the central societal phenomenon differ radically from those depicted in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, in IN THIS WORLD Winterbottom again re-examines the film-reality-fiction triangle. This time, instead of a playful collage of feature, pseudo-archival and archival materials, he creates a film which is stylistically homogenous, but which nonetheless creates dilemmas regarding its category: a documentary or a feature? Jamal and Enayat (just like all other protagonists) are refugees playing themselves, the shooting locations are authentic, as is the actual route used for smuggling people. On one side here are structured dialogues and directed scenes – to an extent; on the other side there are improvisations and adaptation to the circumstances on location. Where does the feature end and the documentary start – or the other way round? How does one define the authentic in a film with a fictitious journey and real-life refugees? And is there any value in drawing such lines between the real and the directed in a medium such as film? THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (2006, co-directed with Matt Whitecross), another collage of feature and documentary material, re-activates these questions yet again, focusing on the purposeless abuse of prisoners whose guilt has never been established in the most famous political dungeon of the 21st century.
Although 9 SONGS (2004) and EVERYDAY (2012) are distant from the manifestly political problems, there too Winterbottom explores the paradoxical relationship between the real and the fictitious. 9 SONGS became his most controversial film for a very simple reason: he dared to ask the question in the sphere of sexuality and its film presentation. The film is a sequence of memories by Matt, a British researcher in the Antarctica, of his relationship with Lisa, an American woman: nine scenes of sex alternate with nine songs that Lisa and Matt listen to in concerts by bands such as Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, and Primal Scream – here again Winterbottom proves himself a to be connoisseur of modern rock. However, the most opinion-upsetting was the fact that the scenes of Lisa and Matt, i.e. actors Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley, having sex were, in fact, authentic, making it the most sexually explicit British film to-date, and including it into the canon of hard-core art film. But what distinguishes Winterbottom from his contemporaries who have also included authentic sex scenes into their films (Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier, Patrice Chéreau, Gaspar Noe, John Cameron Mitchell etc.) is his radical departure from the narrative: the film was made with no script so that, according to Winterbottom himself, it would underscore the impression that actual love and sex bring no stories of their own: “Being in love, there is no narrative. It's how you feel, not what you are saying. You either are or are not in love at any one moment.” And it is this absence of a narrative – and not the explicit sex scenes – that make the most radical element of 9 Songs: because of the rigorous replacement of the narrative with continuous repetition of elements that do not purport to tell a grand story, but rather to encompass a moment (hence the title song reference), J. Hoberman marked the film as a ‘structuralist musical’.
But if love and sex tell no stories, doesn’t the same apply to reality as such? The world around us is neither a story nor a drama, but rather a chaotic collection of events, emotions and impressions that film can only speak about, though not necessarily and not conventionally: in straightforward, carefully organized narratives, where every detail is carefully placed, with the exposition-climax-denouement formula. The film language is much richer than the mainstream filmmaking usually admits it to be and should not be subjected to the imperative of storytelling. EVERYDAY (2012) is one of Winterbottom’s recent experiments that shows exactly that. The outline is simple: after Ian ends up in prison, his wife Karen makes ends meet and deals with the growing pains of their four children. Although seemingly incompatible with the incendiary combination of sex and rock ’n’ roll, EVERYDAY and 9 SONGS share their repetitiveness, a focus on the moment and a shift in form. The film comprises five episodes about prison visits to Ian, shot over several weeks with a year apart, over a total period of five years. Non-typical in terms of mainstream film production, this procedure has undoubtedly been inspired by Michael Apted’s famous documentary TV serial 7 UP, which followed the development and the road to maturity of a group of British boys and girls, taping interviews with them over a period of seven years (starting from 1964). Although Winterbottom’s film is not a documentary (the characters and the story are fictitious; Karen and Ian are played by professional actors Shirley Henderson and John Simm), it is nonetheless – just like IN THIS WORLD – permeated by the documentary verism, most contributed by the appearance of the actual Kirk brothers and sisters (they even use their real names in the film, just like Jamal and Enayat before them). And it is the process of Shaun, Robert, Katrina and Stephanie growing up, shot in slow rhythm, year after hear, that creates one of those elements of film language that mainstream productions omit or ignore for the love of the conventional narrative.
The SFF Tribute to Michael Winterbottom is a concise illustration how stubbornly and in different keys, using unconventional formal procedures and experiments, this author reminds us that films are not just stories about the world around us, but also reflections about their own nature.