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Documentaries give viewers something to ‘Listen to’ at film festival

The latest installment from the 17th Annual Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival took place on Feb. 17 at the Flavin Auditorium in the Isenberg School of Management building.

The auditorium was sparsely decorated, with only one poster advertising the festival and a woman flipping through informational pages on an overhead projector. The seats were half-filled; the audience made up mostly of students clutching assignment papers with film buffs sprinkled throughout the seats. Though the event was advertised as a festival, the Multicultural Film Festival came across as more of a class, albeit an entertaining one, complete with a brief lecture and a screening of two rather academic documentaries: “Listen to Britain,” directed by Humphrey Jennings, and “Of Time and the City,” directed by Terence Davies.

The festival began with an introduction by Michael Walsh, a professor born in England and educated both in his home country and here in the United States. Hailing from the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., Walsh has chaired cinema departments at various universities. He gave a detailed historical background of both “Listen to Britain” and “Of Time and the City,” as well as the time period and setting of each documentary.

Walsh regarded the two films as pieces of art from different schools of thought: “Listen To Britain” comes from a school of social realism – looking at the world as it really was at the time of the film – whereas “Of Time and the City” is more of a memorial – a romantic film that looks at a world that’s been lost to time.

In his introduction, Davies referred to “Listen to Britain” as England’s “first great visual poem,” and the documentary did indeed come across as cinematic poetry.

The film contained little-to-no dialogue, instead focusing on the sounds and sights one heard and saw in England during the time of the Blitz: The roar of a tractor in a field of wheat accompanied by the whine of fighter jets overhead; young people dancing in tight circles around a dance floor to popular jazz music, the music unable to take the stress from their faces. The black-and-white documentary described peoples’ lives as a struggle to maintain a hold on the ordinary, while the unordinary intruded everyday in the form of tanks in the streets and sirens overhead. 

“Of Time and the City” examined the Liverpool of Davies’ youth as it declined in stature throughout the 20th century. In his introductory lecture, Walsh described Liverpool as a financially successful port city that made its fortune largely off the slave trade in the 19th century.

Walsh compared Liverpool’s eventual decline to the decline of the American city of Detroit; both cities experienced economic depression when faced with deindustrialization.

In filming “Of Time and the City,” Davies took a lot of inspiration from “Listen to Britain.” Davies’ film focused heavily on basic sights and sounds one would see around Liverpool during the decades after World War II. A key difference between the two films was Davies’ narration of “Of Time and the City;” he overlays the visual and auditory experience of Liverpool by telling the story of his own childhood and of the lives of other, archetypal Liverpudlians.

Growing up as a Catholic, homosexual man in a conservative neighborhood lent Davies a set of challenges that paired well with the images of a challenged city: building after building with chipped paint and broken windows, empty playgrounds and shuttered storefronts. Davies’ narration was interspersed with quotes by poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and James Joyce, lending the documentary an air both academic and artistic.

Both documentaries remained true to the theme of this year’s Film Festival, “Cinematic Cities.” Though the atmosphere was decidedly too academic to be considered festive, the event was an informative and moving look at some of England’s history and urban scenery.

Lindsay Orlov can be reached at lorlov@student.umass.edu.

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