Devised by Mike Figgis, Co/Ma (Cooperative Marxists/Collaborative Masterclass) is a forum organised by the director where twenty of Europe’s brightest young actors and filmmakers were invited to a new film studio in Ljubljana, Slovenia to take part in a five-day experiment with writing, performing and directing that would result in the production of a film. With all of the participants selected by Figgis himself with an emphasis on supporting new Eastern European talent, the intention would seem to be similar to the self-imposed challenges Lars von Trier frequently indulges in, which is to take the young filmmakers out of their comfort zones, push the boundaries a little and make them think differently about the way films are traditionally made.
It’s a method that through its very nature of being experimental and not seeking a predetermined outcome, is a risky one, but as Lars von Trier’s various experiments testify through the (Dogme movement and films like The Five Obstructions and Dogville, it can often be a creatively invigorating and productive method. Figgis, a director who has himself done much to experiment and progress his craft and an early innovator with Digital filmmaking (Timecode), has been here before with Hotel and the results there were somewhat hit and miss. Consequently, Figgis warns his Co/Ma team at one of their initial meetings that with such experimentation comes the risk that the results will turn out to be complete crap. And with twenty creative people working together with no nominal leader or director, each of them seeking to assert their presence, the chances of the resulting film turning out otherwise are indeed slim.
The eventual choice of subject matter, one seemingly pushed by Figgis of a crap soap opera set in a haunted hospital, doesn’t help either. Figgis’s rationale is that since their film is designed to be made fast and be dramatically dynamic, the soap opera genre approach best suits their purposes for a masterclass, which is a fair observation and one that clearly in the hands of an imaginative director can be made into something that transcends the format. The problem is that it’s already been done by Lars von Trier and is called The Kingdom. The other problem with The Clinic is that it’s not left in the hands of one writer/director to manage, but becomes a collective group effort, each of them seeking to contribute and make their own mark, resulting inevitably in conflict with no-one being satisfied with the outcome – least of all the viewer.
Perhaps realising, as he stated up front at the start of the project, that there was never really any chance of anything original or creative being produced under such circumstances that would add up to a viable feature in and of itself, Figgis and the group evidently go for a post-modern approach, where the process is just as important as the results. In theory, deconstructing the traditional filmmaking process, blurring the lines between when the actors are acting for a mockumentary and when they are revealing themselves, should be an enlightening process for both the collective and for the viewer. In practice, it has all the depth and insight of an episode of reality TV, with raging egos craving their five minutes in front of the camera, participating in confessionals to the camera, breaking down into tears, fighting and arguing with each other as they play out the naff little tasks set for them by Mike Figgis’s Big Brother.
Rapidly edited and pulled together, the resulting film, for better or worse, was screened at the end of the week to a paying audience. We are told that as a result of the masterclass, the Co/Ma collective remained together and made a second feature which was already in post-production. That film doesn’t appear to have ever seen the light of day however, and realistically this Co/Ma masterclass film deserves the same fate. Undoubtedly, the participants have all learned something from the experience, but there is no reason to think that any viewer, even those interested in the filmmaking process, experimental film or even the work of Mike Figgis, is going to find anything here that hasn’t been achieved much more successfully elsewhere.
Co/Ma is released in the UK by Lionsgate. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
Shot on DV, documentary-style, some of it with the experimental night-vision cameras that Mike Figgis has employed before, the film doesn’t look like a standard film and can’t really be judged in those terms. As far as it goes then, the film looks pretty much as you would expect it to look, the image clear, sharp and clean, with no flaws, no artefacts or noticeable problems. The aspect ratio is variable, switching between full-frame and widescreen for documentary and film footage, so the transfer is necessarily non-anamorphic.
Even with the evident difficulties of documentary footage, round-table discussions and rapidly shot filmmaking, the audio remains clear throughout in the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix provided.
Since all the participants speak English as a common language, there are no subtitles provided. Even when some of the participants speak in their native language, subtitles are not provided, but Figgis confirms in the commentary that they aren’t intended to be translated in any case.
There is only extra feature included on the disc is a full-length Commentary by Mike Figgis, which is more than you would reasonably expect for a film which is more or less a making of in itself. It’s interesting to get his take on the purpose of the class and his thoughts on what is happening. He provides some information on the backgrounds of the participants, as well as how he got on with them, or not, as the case might be. Inevitably, there were many disagreements and conflicts, particularly among the writers and directors, which Figgis is happy to elaborate on. Perhaps surprisingly, he reveals that the behind-the-scenes meetings and discussion, which constitutes the majority of the film, were intended to be “mockumentary” in style, with the actors performing parts that weren’t necessarily themselves, blurring the lines between what is acting and what is real. In the event, I don’t think the nature of the workshop allows much acting to be improvised, and the conflicts and walkouts all seem quite real.
If Co/Ma achieves anything it’s in proving the case - should it not already have been self evident - that the idea of Marxist filmmaking as a collaborative enterprise isn’t a viable consideration where artistic temperament is concerned. I’m sure a director of Mike Figgis’s experience knew that when he started out the masterclass, but perhaps it’s a valuable lesson that needs reiterated to a new generation of filmmakers. The fact that the experiment takes place in Eastern Europe is perhaps coincidental, but it might also help understand why with the enlargement of the European Union creates such an administrative nightmare when all the member states have an equal voice, showing that there is no place in the practical modern business world either for such an idealistic social model. Of more immediate concern in business terms is the fact that, in the world of commercial filmmaking, there’s nothing here worth paying money to see.