Privideniye, kotoroe ne vozvrashchayetsya/ The Ghost That Never Returns (USSR, 1929) Abram Room

August 31, 2008 at 12:56 am

Like his famous Tretya meshchanskaya/ Bed and Sofa (1927), this 66 minute-long silent film by director Abram Room (1894-1976) is an existential drama disguised as a saga about the proletarian struggle. The Ghost That Never Returns (1929) presents a lonely and insecure individual who is challenged to act more heroically than he is prepared to, but who constantly questions his confidence and loyalties.

The film is set in an unnamed South American country. Jose Real is a labor leader who is sentenced to life in jail. But even though he is safely kept behind bars, the guards are not satisfied and look for an opportunity to get rid of him. So they plot to assassinate him by staging an escape. As someone who has already served ten years, Jose is eligible for a day of liberty in order to visit his family. The prison officials plan to send him on this visit and ensure that he is killed during that day. In order to achieve their goal they send an experienced executor to trail Jose. The rest of the film consists of convoluted series of moves and chases amidst impressively rugged landscapes, at the end of which Jose manages to get back home (in spite all obstacles), to see his little son and his wife, and to reconnect with his fellow-communists who are about to begin a strike. Not a single man who has been sent off to such a day of freedom has ever returned to prison, usually because he would have been killed by the guards. But not Jose — he does not return either, but it is because he turns into a phantom of liberty. Protected by his comrades, he comes to lead the looming strike.

The depiction of South American life and landscape in the film appears convincing. There are some avant garde sets representing the prison, reminiscent of sets used by Fritz Lang in Metropolis (I thought of links to Fritz Lang’s aesthetics of the time more than once while watching the film). The film is based on the writing of Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), a French writer who had moved to Russia in 1918 and who closely sympathized with the Bolsheviks (he also authored biopics on Trotsky and Stalin). There is proficient camera work (by Dmitri Feldman who later on worked primarily in the context of Armenian and Georgian cinema), at moments reminiscent to the visual experiments of Vertov just a few years earlier, using multiplication of the image to create psychologically tense effect. The original music score (by A. Shenshin) is truly impressive.

The DVD, by Bach Films, contained an interesting bonus: The 1908 short feature ‘Stenka Razin’ by Vladimir Romashkov, a rare visual treat produced by A. Drankov’s studio. Less than ten minutes long, the film tells the story of a group of freewheeling outlaws and a kidnapped Oriental princess, whom they throw in the Volga at the end of the film. It is shot interesting tableau-like settings and is one of the earliest surviving Russian films.

The film is released with French intertitles only and can be purchased from the French Amazon site.

© Dina Iordanova
31 August 2008

Aerograd (USSR, 1935), Alexandr Dovzhenko

August 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

Yet another rare film I got the chance to see at the Cinematheque in Bercy in Paris earlier this year, Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935). It was not full of airplanes and futuristic imagery as the name (Aero City) had led me to expect, and it is most certainly not a ‘futuristic adventure story’ as the Wikipedia article claims, but rather a social film that reflects the situation in the far East of Russia in the mid-1930s and is pretty much in line with the official political line of the Soviet government at the time.

The film is set in the middle of the Siberian forests, where Russian and Chinese ethnicities co-exist side by side and intermarry, and comments on a contemporary political situation. The local community is on the brink of civil war, split between a group of Starovery (Old Believers) who, chased away by the Bolshevik revolution, have migrated to this remote location from more central parts of Russia and the community of other locals, who are loyal to the Bolshevik government. The tensions are fueled by the fact that a group of Japanese-led saboteurs have entered the territory and seek to incite the Old Believers to rebel against Soviet power. Most of the six saboteurs are intercepted and killed, but one of them, a samurai, has managed to hide and is now engaged in subversive activities. He is helped by a local man, Vassiliy, who hides him. Soon thereafter, however, Vassiliy is exposed as traitor. The protagonist of the film, Stepan, who is Vassiliy’s friend since childhood, is charged with the task of executing his best friend. Other difficult decisions need to be made as well; by the end of the film the local men, Russian and Chinese fighting alongside each other, have managed to deal away with the rebels. They have secured the piece that is necessary for the next generation, to enable them fulfilling the dream of proudly building Aerograd, the city of their dreams. The glorious construction will be led by Stepan’s son, the pilot.

Here is a video clip which shows the confrontation between the protagonist’s on (the only pilot in the film), the Japanese saboteur, as well as an interesting Old Believer character, whose loyalties are split.

I found two aspects of this film particularly interesting. First, the clear suggestion that Japanese aggression was expected and depicted as imminent. Secondly, the interesting portrayal of the split within the community of Old Believers. It is known that in the latter part of the 1930s significant parts of the community migrated to Manjuria; after the end of WWII they were again forced to migrate further, ending up on the other side of the Pacific, scattered around localities in South America and the west of Canada.

One of the film’s cinematographers is Eduard Tisse, known from his work with Eisenstein. Many amateurs took part in the shots as extras, local people who otherwise would probably never be in a film. The multi ethnic cast reflects the multicultural nature of the Soviet society, especially of these parts of Russia; it is an aspect that often escapes us and needs to be recognized more centrally, especially in the context of other important films that tackle the Soviet expansion into Asia, as seen in films like Pudovkin’s Potomok Chingis-Khana/Storm over Asia (1928) and Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1935), an important colonization which has been highlighted in numerous post-war films as well (e.g. in Andrey Konchalovsky’s Perviy uchitel/The First Teacher, 1966). Reportedly, Aerograd, which also played in the US at the time, was on the Top Ten list of favorite films of Elia Kazan; it also figures on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of 1000 essential films.

Aerograd is a dream city which will be built on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, only one of the protagonists is flying, a pilot who is always smiling and who drops home only from time to time (like when his Chinese wife has given birth to a baby boy). A young Chukche man travels hundreds of miles, determined to shed off his nation’s isolation and join the new life. It all ends up with a view of the glorious sun coming out of the sea; the socialist realist ending shows proud dreamers, gathering on the shores of the Pacific from all parts of the vast Soviet Union. They are committed to building Aergorad, which now becomes synonymous with the future of the country. It is only at the end of the film that the depiction of flying takes prominent place, with a spectacular skydiving show and under the accompaniment of glorious music, as seen in this clip.

The film, with no subtitles, is available to view at
http://www.archive.org/details/aerograd.

© Dina Iordanova
29 August 2008

Evolution of Representing Migration in Turkish Film

August 27, 2008 at 12:57 am

Migration often brings with it the experience of disturbance and pain, and narrative films have usually focused on the exilic aspects of passage and resettlement. Changing places has traditionally been looked upon as something undesirable and traumatic. Take, for example, the films about the westward migrations of Turks. The anxiety linked to village-city migrations is explored in Turkish social realist masterpieces such as Halit Refig’s Gurbet Kuslari/ Birds of Exile (1964), in Zeki Ökten’s Sürü/Herd (1978, a film scripted by Yilmaz Güney), and in Ali Özgentürk’s At/Horse (1982).

The fear of venturing into the unknown territory of the Western metropolis are the subject of Tunç Okan’s Otobüs/The Bus (Sweden/Turkey, 1976), telling the story of a group of migrant workers who end up abandoned and robbed of documents and money in the center of Stockholm. Tevfik Baser’s 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland/ 40 Square Meters of Germany (West Germany/ Turkey, 1986) tells the story of the virtual imprisonment of a Gastarbeiter’s bride. The shocking scorn faced by poor migrants trying to penetrate into ‘Fortress Europe’ is tackled in Xavier Koller’s Journey of Hope (Switzerland/Turkey/UK, 1990).

All these films can be seen, in one way or another, as antecedents of the new Turkish German migrant cinema, which has its best-known representative in Fatih Akin with his Head On/ Gegen die Wand (2004) and Edge of Heaven/ Auf der anderen Seite (2007). Yet it was only the new aptitude of its diaspora-raised directors, who gracefully rose above the acrimony and, rather than scrutinizing segregation and xenophobia that forcefully reinforced the points of all earlier films on migration and displacement, moved away toward new thematic territories. What the new wave of Turkish German cinema did was to acknowledge the dynamics of new migratory realities and to depict, without complaining, a fully tolerable and adequate human condition where ethnic otherness has become a lasting feature of life and where one-dimensional identities, previously stubbornly maintained, are suspended in favor of enduring changeability.

© Dina Iordanova
27 August 2008

Time of the Gypsies: Punk Rock Opera, Emir Kusturica, 2007

August 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

On arrival in Paris in March earlier this year, I almost immediately came across large posters in the metro, advertising the extended run of Kusturica’s rock opera version of his acclaimed 1989 film Time of the Gypsies. There were only a few days left to go see the spectacle, but when I inquired I realized that I was not really prepared to spend the 75 Euro for the ticket; I did not think it would be worth it. As I did not go to see the live show, I cannot really judge if I was right in my decision to skip it. Eventually, however, I bought the DVD recording of the same show and have now watched it. It is available from FNAC and Amazon in France, in a French subtitled version. There is no evidence that this punk opera has played elsewhere, but this may change.

The forty-five strong team behind the opera is as follows: The music, much of which relies on recycling traditional Romani folk songs (including the famous Ederlezi), is credited to Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic (a.k.a. Dr. Nele Karajlic), and Stribor Kusturica (the director’s son who has been authoring the music for most of his father’s recent films). The libretto is by Dr. Karajlic, and the score is performed by The No Smoking Orchestra and by The Garbage Serbian Philharmonics. On the DVD the performance is listed as using the Romani language (‘Tsigane’) but in fact there was singing in a variety of languages, including English and Serbian. Closely following the plot of the film, the show was disappointing in the degree to which it was being pedestrian: the score was more than mundane at moments, the singing mediocre for the most part, the acting overdone, the mise-en-scene crowded, the colours too bright; the cast was exuding forced excitement that lacked in endearment.

I personally believe it is a pity to see the wonderful Time of the Gypsies and its magic realist imagery of recycled into such brash inferiority. But then, it is the director’s right to exploit his material in ways that he sees fit. And the material is all here: Flocks of ducks cross the scene, cardboard boxes move around, flying brides and ascending protagonists abound. All of Kusturica’s trademark iconography is mobilized for the enjoyment of his dedicated French fans who enthuse at the appearance of each one of these familiar images. In case this is not enough, there are also dwarfs and soap bubbles. Occasional scenes from the film (e.g. the magnificent river vista from Perhan’s first dream) are used on the background, projected on the stage with the image of the actor currently playing Perhan, superimposed on it (with his sweet looks, this one is miles removed from the bespectacled charm of the late Davor Dujmovic, who played in the original film).

In the context of viewing the DVD, I could not help thinking yet once again that the continuous close collaboration with Dr. Nele Karajlic is Kusturica’s biggest liability of recent years. The history of the friendship between the two can be traced back to Sarajevo over nearly three decades, and is rooted in the contex of the ‘surrealist’ punk group of which the director was part back in his native town (see Top Lista Nadrealista, 1984). Dr. Karajlic, a rock musician, resurfaced as a pillar of Kusturica’s creative entourage after the director’s much publicized split with acclaimed composer Goran Bregovic (who has since pursued a successful international career with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals). Dr. Karajlic, who authored the music for Black Cat,White Cat (1998), is the driving force behind the No Smoking Orchestra and behind many of the noisy and portentious commercial ventures to the marketing of which Kusturica has lent his name over the past several years (concert tours, CD releases, etc.). In the punk opera Dr. Karajlic appears in the role of Ahmed, the Godfather, which he squanders with unconvincing stage presence, obtuse acting, and ghastly singing in heavily accented English — all these skills applied intentionally in an evidently sound effort to sicken and put off.

The accompanying ‘Making of…’ documentary shows Kusturica and Dr. Karajlic bickering over the idea of an ‘opera’, with Kusturica defending it and Dr. Karajlic, a dedicated punk rocker, disputing it. They end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where each one of them leaves a little note with a wish. Kusturica wins and the opera materializes. The rest of the documentary shows various stages of the preparations and the rehearsals. It also includes a shot featuring a long line of people who are queuing in front of the Bastille Opera, allegedly to get themselves tickets to the event. Well, it is a known fact that the French evidently still like Kusturica, even though some comments made by my French acquaintances suggested that his latest feature, Promise Me, has prompted some cooling down even among his most hard-core fans.

© Dina Iordanova
24 August 2008

The film Time of the Gypsies (1989), a largely unavailable masterpiece, has finally been released on a DVD in France (unfortinately, it only has got French subtitles). You can buy it through the link below. See also my book, Emir Kusturica (London: Britsh Film Institute, 2002).

UMP Plc: Investing in Bollywood II

August 21, 2008 at 12:01 am

UMP Plc is is an Indian media and entertainment company with global operations. It is involved in producing films in Hindi and other Indian regional languages, in co-producing with Hollywood, in animation and gaming, as well as in global distribution through various networks and across platforms. It is the company behind recent box office epic hit Jodha Akbar (2008), the acclaimed Rang De Basanti (2006), Mira Nair’s America-set The Namesake (2006) and M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent offering The Happening (2008). The driving force behind most projects of is producer and company director Ronnie Screwalla, one of India’s film entrepreneurs that has been enjoying high profile internationally, even if with occasional controversies involved.

Registered on the Isle of Man, the UMP Plc is the holding company of UTV Motion Pictures (Mauritius) Limited and related to the Mumbai-based UTV.* It floated about 23% of its value on London’s AIM in July 2007 with the ticker UTVM, trading in US dollars. With shares priced at US $2.90 each, the IPO raised capital of US $70 million gross (US$65.7 million net); it allowed the company to reach market capitalization of $302M. The company then changed its name to UMP Plc. in February 2008.

Prior to the AIM admission, UMP was the wholly owned subsidiary of UTV Software Communications Limited (UTV India), a media and entertainment company with interests and subsidiaries in the US, UK and South-East Asia engaged in TV content production, motion pictures, interactive (animation & gaming), broadcasting, advertising production, multi-language dubbing and post-production.

According to Investors Chronicle (January 2008), house broker Jermyn has forecast cash profits before tax of £21m for full-year 2008, and predicts compound annual growth of 40 per cent up to 2010, with a target price of $4.50. A more recent IC article (14 August 2008) is also optimistic, listing several bull points for UMP: high-growth Indian film industry; strong industry relationships, and successful overseas expansion. The bear points, however, include the lack of financial history and tightly held shares.

Having traded now slightly over a year, UMP Plc.’s shares have moved between $3.50 and $1.85 at their lowest point, and at the moment of this writing are at $2.25. The market capitalization in August 2008 is at $263.34M, with 117.04M shares outstanding. The Highlights of the company’s first and only so far Annual report (2007-2008) set the revenue at $40 million, the net profit after tax at $16 million, and the EPS at 0.158.** The statement on shareholding indicates that 77% of the 104,137,931 shares are owned by Promoter and Promoter Group while public shareholding stands only at 23% (24,137,931). Of these, the largest public shareholders include Amoeba Capital Asia Fund 3,448,276 (3.3%) and Deutsche Bank AG, London (3.3%). In addition, during the company’s annual meeting in August 2008, a Special Resolution was passed, which authorizes the directors (without the need for further sanction) to allot and issue up to 21,000,000 ordinary shares of US$0.05 each to such persons and on such terms as they think fit and to grant options to various persons performing services for the benefit of the Company; an arrangement that is to be revisited at the next annual meeting.

Like other Indian players, UMP is working on expanding its interactions with Hollywood, and it has done quite well so far. They have clearly shown that they do not intent to stick to the Bollywood recipe; the general pattern in their work so far has been to make Western style pictures while capitalizing on connections with the large Indian diaspora (writer Jhumpa Lahiri, directors Miar Nair and M. Night Shyamalan, etc.) It has acquired rights to distribute Miramax’s library in South East Asia. Building on the recent success of films such as Jodha Akbar, UMP claims to be among the top 20 distributors operating within the US. They also claim to be the only Indian studio to have projects with major Hollywood studios. Indeed, they co-produced Mira Nair’s The Namesake (which was distributed internationally within the art house circuit) with Fox Searchlight and, with 20th Century Fox, M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) starring Mark Wahlberg in which UTV reportedly invested over $27 million (about half of the film’s $57M budget). The Happening was hyped up as the most high profile Hollywood co-production by an Asian studio but on release it was considered to have underperformed in comparison with other Shyamalan films (it still made its budget two and a half times over). Most recently, UMP was engaged with the production of a low-budget Hollywood film ($2 million), Ex-Terminators, a Texas-based dark comedy starring actress Heather Graham. There has also been talk of an agreement with Hollywood actor Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment to produce two more Hollywood films. Having also co-produced Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife (2007), the UMP are clearly prepared to move on to become a Hollywood player.

Besides Ronnie Screwvala (50) who is also the founder of the UTV Company, UMP’s other directors include Andrew James Carnegie (44) a specialist in corporate finance and CEO of the media advisory firm India Media Partners Ltd, Charles Vanderpump (58) a financial specialist who acts as a director of various Isle of Man-based companies, and the CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur (33) who has prior experience in advertising, marketing, PR and corporate communications from Newscorp’s Star Network television operations in India, Middle East and Hong Kong. Carnegie and Vanderpump are also on the board of directors of UTV Mauritius, and hold respectively 90,000 and 10,000 shares in UMP.

So what is my two minutes narrative on what I think of UMP as a possible investment? Hmmm… On the one hand it looks promising. It is a company that clearly aims to expand by going beyond the narrow Bollywood niche and seeks to enter more dynamic relations with Hollywood and diversify. Energetic Ronnie Screwalla is most likely a plus. Unlike the IFC, the UMP is clearly looking beyond the typical Bollywood formula for entertainment, and thus it has better chances for growth.

On the other hand, however, the lack of transparency is staggering. The volume at which this stock is traded is small, with little liquidity. The target price of $4.50 sounds over optimistic to me. The authorization to issue a 21 million extra shares at a fraction of the share market price is worrying, it would likely impact the capitalization and the cashflow. A search for Indian Media Partners on the Internet produces only a log-in portal with no public information or an accessible site whatsoever. Less than 25% of the shares are publicly traded, which means that shareholders have next to no say in the affairs of the company and cannot possibly influence the way it is run.

Unlike the Indian Film Company the shares of which have never risen beyond the price of their IPO, the UMP has seen a rise of $0.60 or nearly 22% at their highest point. On the other hand, UMP’s EPS after a year of trading stand at $0.158 which compares negatively with the EPS reported by the IFC at 3.56p. But at the end of the day, it comes down to accountancy standards, and it is difficult to judge where only one annual report is available for each company so far. Neither company pays dividend.

According to information from Investors Chronicle’s, UMP comes out ahead of other Indian film related companies due to its advancement in diversifying its operation, and this indeed may be the case. Over a year the shares have made a loss of -23.5% ($2.95; -$0.68) but there have been shorter term gains of +8.10% over 3 months ($2.10 ; +$0.17) and of +4.37% over 6 months ($2.17; +$0.10). This suggests that if timed correctly, an investment in UMP could be profitable. Only it is difficult to say what impacts the timing for purchase into this company, as there seems to be no clear link between their films and the share price: the shares have tumbled by more than 35% precisely during the period when their most profitable film up to date (Jodha Akbar) was enjoying the biggest ever release given to an Indian film in February 2008.

Thus UMP may be a good purchase for insiders who would get the tip when to buy but not for retail investors.

© Dina Iordanova
21 August 2008

* Related companies: UTV Motion Pictures (Mauritius) Limited is an India-based global movie operation which was incorporated in the Republic of Mauritius on 12 October 2004 and houses the movie production business of the entire UTV group. UTV-Mauritius initially carried on the business of movie distribution in regions outside North America, UK and India; however, it has recently acquired the rights to exploit Bollywood, Hollywood, Indian regional language and animation movies throughout the world. The Mumbai-based operation, UTV India, began as a television content company in 1990 and has developed into an integrated entertainment content production and distribution company with three business streams: content (movies and television), new media (animation and gaming) and broadcasting. It is an established corporate entity in Indian movie making and it is listed on the NSE and the BSE. In the financial year ended 31 March 2006 it had gross revenues of Rs 2,130 million (approximately $48 million).

** According to the IC’s January 2008 article, the meantime, UMP expects to generate $250m in gross box office revenues in the 2008-2009 financial year.

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

August 19, 2008 at 12:24 am

I recently guest edited a special issue of Film International on Film Festivals, which has just been published as Issue 34 (Vol. 6, issue 4). It features articles and interviews on the international festival circuit, authored by contributors who are based in Spain, South Korea, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, Germany, the US and Norway. The journal is available for sale at Borders bookshops; in the UK it is priced at £3. It can also be purchased on-line from the Intellect at http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/ or by e-mailing orders@intellectbooks.com


Opening Night at Pusan IFF; photo courtesy Kay Armatage.

Here is the Table of Contents:

Dina Iordanova. Editorial.

Sergi Mesonero Burgos, A Festival Epidemic in Spain.

Marijke de Valck, “Screening” the Future of Film Festivals? A Long Tale of
Convergence and Digitization.

Soo Jeong Ahn. Re-imagining the Past: Programming South Korean Retrospectives at
the Pusan International Film Festival.

Kay Armatage. Screenings by Moonlight.

Kay Armatage. Sidebar: Traveling Projectionist Films.

Jeffrey Ruoff. Ten Nights in Tunisia: Les Journées Cinématographiques de
Carthage.

Julian Stringer. Genre Films and Festival Communities: Lessons from Nottingham,
1991-2000.

Peter Stanfield. Notes Toward a History of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1969-77.

Erika and Ulrich Gregor. An Interview with Dina Iordanova: Every Time the Curtain is Going Up, We are Hoping and Longing.

Bjørn Sørenssen. Le giornate del cinema muto: Pordenone.

Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1999, Russia) Aleksandr Sokurov

August 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I had purchased this DVD in Paris earlier in the year, but only watched it now, probably prompted by the news of the death of the author who, even spending years in the Gulag, lived to be 89.

This is yet another one of Sokurov’s pensive and masterful documentaries that manage to come really close to the person that is being interviewed. At moments one really wonders how does Sokurov manage to make his subjects behave in a way as if there is no camera nearby. The silent observation of the writer working in his study, the close ups of his hands while editing, the quiet light of his home, it all looks as lived, not filmed. The most remarkable part of the film, however, is the one shot outdoors, during a walk Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn take outside of the writer’s datcha near Moscow, through the woods, visiting the site where a lighting recently stroke, split and burned a giant old tree.

The film, commissioned by a Russian TV channel and shot in 1999 consists of two parts of about 90 minutes each, thus the total comes to slightly over three hours. The first part s called The Knot (Uzel) while the second is entitled simply Dialogues. At the time of these interviews Solzhenitsyn is about eighty years of age, but his mind is remarkably agile and his judgement is swift; he has strong opinions on many issues. He talks a lot about writing and literature, about aspects of the Russian language, and about many of the most important Russian writers, from Gogol and Dostoyevski through Plekhanov and Karamzin, to present-day Valentin Rasputin or emigre Nabokov. Themes of politics are touched only in passing, but there is lots of convesation about religion, historical fate, national identity, guided by the director’s subtle questioning. Sokurov pays exquisite attention to the writer’s working environment, his need of quiet and light, his love of nature. The writer’s wife is also interviewed about their three sons, life in America and the activities of the foundation they run to help victims of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn talks about his own origins, his parents and grandparents and his early life and beliefs, war time experience, surviving the Gulag, the exile in Kazakhstan.

It is all placed in a framework of a voiceover narrative that the director provides himself, on the background of various photographs related to stages in Solzhenitsyn’s life. The film is richly textured also because the director interweaves references to his own work, like his breakthrough The Lonely Human Voice (1987), clearly revealing to what significant extent Solzhenitsyn’s work has influenced his own formation. Even though there is no footage from his remarkable Days of Eclipse (1988), a film about existential displacement that, accidentally, is shot in Kazakhstan (the place of Solzhenitsyn’s internment), things that were said in reference to the writer’s time in the Kazakh steppe fully resonated with the haunting imagery found in this most memorable work of Sourov.

Dina Iordanova
13 August 2008

The Indian Film Company (IFC): Investing in Bollywood I

August 6, 2008 at 10:39 am

I believe that the market for Indian film is significant and have been interested in investing in some of the companies that recently listed at AIM in London. When I tried to research, tough, I realized that most of the writing I see on these companies seems to be done by financial journalists who have very little knowledge of (nor interest in) the actual product that these companies produce/distribute and almost no understanding of the dynamics of the specific market for this type of filmed entertainment. Quite often I found myself disputing things that journalists claimed, simply on the basis of my closer familiarity with Bollywood product and my interest in the transnational exposure of this cinema over the years. This made me to want to carry out my own scrutiny on the publicly traded companies, a matter on which I am planning to write a series of articles, especially as I see that the coverage on these matters is on the increase with new developments that bring Hollywood and Bollywood closer together.

Today I am looking at The Indian Film Company.

The Indian Film Company seems to have been created especially for the purposes of trading at LSE’s AIM market, where it listed in June 2007 for an IPO placed at 100p, which allowed it to raise about £55 million (£53mil. after adjustments). Since then prices have been moving between 93 and 44p. The current market capitalization is below £30m and the stock sells at 52.7 p on August 6.


Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif in Welcome.

The company, which is engaged in film production, is registered in Guernsey and has subsidiaries in other off-shore heavens such as Cyprus and Mauritius (Film Investment Managers Ltd). Chairman is well-known Bengali film director Shyam Benegal and CEO is Sandeep Bhargava. Over 21% of the shares are owned by 47-year old Raghav Bahl, one of the company’s directors and an Indian media mogul, linked to Network 18 and Studio 18. The IFC is part of a complex conglomerate of companies: It is linked to Viacom 18, a joint venture with Sumner Redstone’s Viacom (VIA), which has been in in existence since May 2007. The other arms are Network 18, a conglomerate of media and filmed entertainment companies, and the film-focused Studio 18. The company does not have employees but outsources all the work. It seems that they mostly have investment in production (with a portfolio of just below 20 films) and not so much stake in distribution.

The catalogue of Studio 18 includes several blockbusters, all starring the up-and-coming megastar Akshay Kumar (who the IFC does not appear to hold on a contract), often relying on the interest in stories involving cultural transplantation between India and the West. Their first hit was the jingoistic Namastey London (2007), followed by box office hit Welcome (2007), which climbed up to a third place on the list of top-grossing Bollywood films last year. The much-anticipated Singh Is Kinng (2008), co-produced with Australia, is about to open on 8 August 2008 and promises very good box office potential, with significant hype created in advance.

IFC’s first annual report was released on July 24, 2008 and is available from the company’s web-site. It reveals that the main planned area of activity is to acquire, co-produce, or produce more of the same type of films and keep exclusive worldwide distribution rights to these. The reported revenues for the first year are £11.45 million, the profit – £2.18 million, the EPS – 3.56, and the P/E – 21.8.

The company’s own estimate of the size of the Indian film market worldwide is at £1bn annually, growing at 16% per annum.

Investors Chronicle covered the IFC twice. In January 2008 it made a recommendation for a speculative buy, when the price was at 76p, but then later in the year, in July, the same analyst said that shares were actually fairly priced at 60p. At the moment of this writing shares are at 52.70 (August 6).

In assessing the IFC, I could not help remembering Peter Lynch‘s recommendation to try to come up with a two minute-long narrative on the reasons for which you would like to buy into a certain company. In this particular case, I could not really deliver a narrative which would make a convincing case for buying into the IFC. My narrative contained more reservations than exciting promises. The company is mostly engaged in production, it is not clear how they relate to the major distribution players in a field where it is distributors and not the producers that call the shots. The films that the IFC is engaged with are films of blockbuster potential yet they are also films of limited appeal as they are typical products of formulaic Bollywood that is yet to be seen crossing over and capturing audiences beyond NRIs (Non-Resident Indians). Thus while the market may be sizable, it is also self-contained, and it is highly unlikely that these films would sell successfully in territories without substantial Indian diasporic presence. It may well be that with the release and potential success of Singh Is Kinng we will see a temporary leap upwards in share price. But on the long run I see investing in this company as a risky proposition.

© Dina Iordanova
6 August 2008

Osceola (GDR, 1971) Konrad Petzold

August 3, 2008 at 11:00 am

Osceola was one of the great films of my childhood, a prime example of the action-adventure cinema that was produced for the needs of viewers within the communist East bloc and of the specific transnational set-up of film production of the period.

Starring Yugoslavia-born Gojko Mitic, who showcases the best abs east of the Iron Curtain, the film’s story is loosely based on the real historical figure of 19th century Seminole leader Osceola and features the resistance that his followers, comprising of Seminoles and Black slaves, put against their White masters in Florida. The film’s politically correct ‘socialist realist’ plot is fully in line with the ideology of the time: the suppressed proletarian classes (which in this case are represented by the suppressed racial and ethnic minorities) manage to see their shared interests, identify their common enemy, and put up resistance in united fashion. A secondary, less overt, message of the film is to keep alive the consciousness of the wide-spread racism and discrimination that supposedly still prevail in disguised form in the South of the United States. Most importantly, in contrast to the traditional Western where the protagonists are usually low-class white settlers, the film positions Indians and the Blacks in the core of the action.

Osceola is entertaining and engaging, even if it appears somewhat slow if judged by today’s standards for an action-adventure, as it lacks the fast pacing and dynamic cutting that characterize the Hollywood action films of the same era. The film, however, manifests an extremely important feature of the cinema of the communist period: Productions that were perceived as having a wider audience potential and that could be marketed across the shared market of the East bloc were made in transnational fashion (thus transnationalism in production was as prevalent here as it was in the West, even if not a more persistent feature). How is this illustrated in the specific case of Osceola, a co-production between the GDR, Cuba and Bulgaria? First of all, in the range of shooting locations, which are chosen and showcased in a way that successfully replicates the approach of classical Westerns, featuring breathtaking vistas and spectacular landscapes. Scenes requiring lush valleys punctuated by tall palm trees are shot in Cuba while the scenes showing village life are made at the Boyana Studios in in Bulgaria (most likely using already existing sets that were adapted from other productions). Similarly, other Gojko Mitic native Indian-themed films have been made in co-production as well and shot in Romania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, and so on.

The cast of the film illustrates the transnational approach particularly well. Gojko Mitic in the lead role of Osceola is a transplanted Serbian; the actor still lives and works in Germany, where he enjoys a significant cult following. Besides the German actors, key roles are assigned to Romanian Iurie Darie and to Bulgarian actresses Pepa Nikolova and Iskra Radeva. The two black men are played by Almamy Soumare and Boubakar Toure (who, credited as Touré Beubacar, also played in the 1970 DEFA production Signale, a film that featured an even wider transnational cast of actors from over ten different countries, mostly from the Second and the Third world). The performance of Toure is competent and comelling, but I have not been able to establish any further information on his career path. Maybe he was one of the young people from the Third world who were sent to the East bloc to get subsidized higher education? He may have played in Osceola but may have been pursuing a different career path and may have become a doctor or an engineer later in life. Or maybe he was educated as a film professional and, having returned to his African country, may have become a filmmaker in his own right. If this is the case, information about him is still to emerge on the IMDb.

© Dina Iordanova
3 August 2008

From Bollywood to You Tube

August 1, 2008 at 12:54 am



Below is the text of the Press Release that the University’s Press office did on the occasion of the large Leverhulme award I recently received.

From Bollywood to YouTube, an academic at the University of St Andrews is to investigate the ways in which non-mainstream film reaches the masses.

Professor Dina Iordanova, St Andrews’ first Chair of Film Studies and a leading international authority in her field, will receive a prestigious grant from The Leverhulme Trust to carry out the study “Dynamics of World Cinema: Transnational Channels of Global Film Circulation”.

The innovative project will examine the circulation of global cinema by comparing the four main channels: the system of global Hollywood, the international film festival circuit, various alternative production centres like Bollywood as well as internet-enabled channels such as YouTube.

Professor Iordanova said, “We know a lot about Holywood’s global operation, and we have all sorts of box office data and charts on them. But we know next to nothing of the other side of the equation, of those films that are not in the blockbuster sphere, that are distributed via less visible channels but are still popular.

“In the course of our study, we will establish how much money non-Hollywood films actually make and are likely to reveal that they enjoy a growing domestic and international commercial success.

“The study will examine the phenomenal growth of film festivals around the world and will assess if they indeed have become an independent distribution circuit. We will also explore the film distribution for ethnic minorities (for example, Bollywood imports), and reveal that it is an operation of astonishing commercial success.

“Finally, we will also assess the impact that new internet-enabled channels such as YouTube, online forums and download sites, have on the changing dynamics in world cinema.”

The £240,000 grant will allow Professor Iordanova to undertake the pioneering two and a half year investigation into the ways film travels nowadays to reach a growing and increasingly diverse community of viewers that are interested in getting more specific content than the blockbuster playing at the cinema around the corner.

She explained, “What makes us distinct in relation to earlier studies is that we will correlate all those diverse strands of film circulation that are extremely active nowadays but somehow remain below the radar. By putting all information into comparative perspective and by revealing patterns of interaction, we will show the real dynamics of world cinema. We expect to bring to the attention traditionally ignored aspects that will undermine the view of Hollywood’s undisputed global dominance.”

Originally from Bulgaria, and having worked in Canada, the US, and England, Professor Iordanova’s background is in philosophy and aesthetics. Soon after acquiring her PhD in 1986, she realised she needed images to come along with the theoretical concepts. She made a profession out of her habit of seeing a movie a day, and switched to the new field of film studies in 1993. Today, she has numerous publications on in international cinema to her credit. She has recently edited a special issue of Film International dedicated to film festivals, and is now working on a book chapter about recent Asian epic cinema.

She continued, “This is a radically interdisciplinary project, which brings together transnational film and media studies, globalisation and diaspora studies, political economy and humanistic scholarship. Given the Trust’s interest in major issues of contemporary culture, The Leverhulme was the best organization to fund it. We are truly grateful for their recognition.”

Professor Stuart Cunningham from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, a leading specialist in the area of creative industries, is co-investigator on this unique and innovative project. He will spend a month in St Andrews during the second phase of the research. Two post-doctoral fellows, one from Hong Kong and the other one from New York City, are joining the team set to start work in October.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Professor Iordanova is available for interview on di1@st-andrews.ac.uk or at 01334-467-474 (by appointment).
Her current work is showcased at www.DinaView.com

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:

IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACTS BELOW.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, Mobile: 07730 415 015 or Email: fa12@st-andrews.ac.uk
Ref: Leverhulme film 240708
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