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BAFTSS  June 2012

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Subject:

Obituary: Pau Willemen

From:

Chris Berry <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Chris Berry <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 8 Jun 2012 05:35:08 +0100

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Dear colleagues

Many of you will have already heard the sad news of Paul Willemen's death
on 13 May this year. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has kindly contributed this
obituary and tribute:

Paul Willemen
1944 – 2012


Paul Willemen, who died last month after a long struggle with cancer, was
a pioneering figure in the revolution in thinking about the cinema that
began in the 1970s. Born and brought up in the Dutch-speaking part of
Belgium, he came to London in 1968. There he became part of the group of
people centred around the BFI Education Department and the Society for
Education in Film and Television who were exploring new approaches to the
cinema and teaching about film. Teaching film didn’t interest Paul that
much but the cinema did, and so did theorising about it. A passionate
cinephile (unlike some of his fellow theorists), his canon of tastes was
broad, stretching from the exploitation eurotrash of Jesús Franco to
Hammer Horror to the comedy of Frank Tashlin to the melodramas of Douglas
Sirk to Max Ophuls and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The respectable side of
Hollywood did not appeal to him, nor on the whole did European art cinema.
He was a fierce champion of oppositional forms of cinema, starting with
the radical British independent film groups in the 1970s and 1980s. But he
never saw things in a narrowly British or even European frame. He was
quick to adopt the term “Third Cinema”, coined by the Argentinians Octavio
Getino and Fernando Solanas to designate an area of practice opposed both
to Hollywood and European art cinema, and extended it from its original
Third World application to cover oppositional film-making in the
capitalist  metropoles, notably that of the African diaspora. The complex
phenomenon of Indian cinema (never, in his mind, reducible to “Bollywood”)
also fascinated. him. His collaboration with Jim Pines on Questions of
Third Cinema (1989) was followed by one with Ashish Rajadhyaksha which
lead to their joint Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1994).

In matters of film theory, he shared with his colleagues on the journal
Screen in the 1970 an early interest in the Russian formalists of the
1920s, notably Roman Jakobson and Boris Eikhenbaum. This was followed by a
tortuous relationship with the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan most
evident in his 1974 study of Raoul Walsh’s 1947 Western Pursued. The
relationship became less tortuous in later years but it left him with an
abiding sense that theories are most valuable when practised in a broadly
Lacanian way to open up important problems to which there is no easy
solution. By the time“theory” became institutionalised in Anglo-American
academia in the 1980s his interest in film theory had become whittled down
to a handful of issues.that seemed to him politically important. What
seemed to him important, and why, at different points in his career can be
gleaned from his collected essays, published under the title Looks and
Frictions in 1994.

In the 1980s Paul separated himself from Screen to devote himself to
Framework, a magazine which was more theoretically open minded and where
he could develop his internationalist political agenda. From 1976 onwards
he held various posts at the BFI, where he earned a proper salary and was
able to continue with writing and editing. But he never felt comfortable
in an institutional seting and  compared himself to Scheherazade in the
Arabian Nights, spinning yarn after yarn to delay his execution. When the
axe fell in 1995, he succumbed  to the lure of academia, occupying posts
first at Napier University in Edinburgh and then at the University of
Ulster in Coleraine, returning to London in 2008. He was still the
familiar figure in black leather jacket with a black beard and black
tobacco (Gauloises or Gitanes) always to hand. But he had mellowed
slightly, his beard was going grey and eventually he gave up cigarettes,
causing him to put on weight. He remained a committed contrarian. The last
time I saw him was shortly after his return to London, when he publicly
laid into me for some insipid judgements in my book on the cinemas of the
1960s. I would not have had it otherwise.

Paul will be sorely missed, first and foremost by his wife Roma and
daughter Nikki and his close friends and colleagues, but also by all those
who value strongly dissident voices in a conformist world.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
6 June 2012

**

Chris Berry (Interim Secretary, BAFTSS)
Professor of Film & TV Studies
Dept of Media & Communications
Goldsmiths, University of London
New Cross, London
SE14 6NW
0207-919-7565
0207-919-7616 (Fax)

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