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Terence Davies relives Liverpool memories in Copenhagen

November 2016

British Council was delighted to support Terence Davies' trip to CPH PIX in Copenhagen, in conjunction with the festival's retrospective of his films.

Liverpool-born film veteran Terence Davies hosted a masterclass at the city’s Cinemateket in conversation with Michael Bo of Politiken, before introducing his latest feature A Quiet Passion, based on the life of Emily Dickinson.

To kick off the Nov 7 event, British Ambassador to Denmark, Dominic Schroeder, warmly welcomed Davies and referred to the director as one of the UK’s most treasured filmmakers with a unique ability to capture the English soul. Particular attention was drawn to Davies’ early films such as his trilogy in 1984 and The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives.

The writer/directer later discussed these films with candid honesty. For the next hour, the audience became privy to Davies’ happy and troublesome memories of home in working-class Liverpool during the 1950s, often relayed with his trademark humour.

While his own fame has grown over the decades, Davies explained that at heart he remained an intensely sentimental and romantic man who lived a somewhat isolated existence in order to fulfil his creative purpose.

Stimulation and inspiration was found in what might be deemed the most ‘miserable’ of art, as much as the Great American Songbook, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, the Hollywood greats of the Golden Age, the BBC’s Shipping Forecast and even the Danish 19th-century painter of lonely interiors, Vilhelm Hammershøi.

For Davies, the struggle of the individual started when he was a young boy experiencing the hardship of working-class family life in Liverpool during the 1950s, whilst realising that he was gay in a world where the word ‘homsexual’ was rarely used.

Living in a household dominated by a violent father only deepened his need for a mother who became the true love of his life, as much as a longing to use the cinema to escape reality through other people's stories. It was a childhood that led to Davies feeling that he was old before he was young.

Throughout the conversation, Davies resorted time and again to describing how the opening scenes of his films drew on his own experience as one of ten siblings. Yet he was insistent that his films spoke universally through themes of reminiscence and the past, the struggle of the single man against societal constraints, forgiveness and acceptance. He loved the poetry of the ordinary, he said, and although England of the 1950s has little colour, in so many other ways it was so rich. But for Davies such an elegiac quality was still a most British phenomenon.

One piece of advice that Davies insisted young filmmakers absorb was the use of autobiography to tell a story. In doing so, Davies advocated following one of two rules: drive a narrative by taking one person’s point of view; or become an omnipresent narrator. In both cases, however, if a film was not believed by an audience during the first two minutes then it was time to reconsider and reapproach.

This was the first time a Davies retrospective of this size had been presented in the Nordic countries.

As CPH PIX Festival Director Jacob Neiiendam said, "Terence Davies proved to be just as brilliant, honest and emotionally gripping a speaker, as he is a filmmaker. We couldn't have asked for a better introduction to our full retrospective of his great films."

In the screening of A Quiet Passion that followed the masterclass the audience was reminded that Davies, once again, was drawing on his own life experience to draw out common themes between himself and Dickinson.

While Dickinson was part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community her life was also one led in relative isolation in order to satisfy her a unique creative need.