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Astra Film Festival

Astra Film Festival 2007

Portrait Michael Yorke

ASTRA FILM FEST 2007 celebrates the work of Michael Yorke in a special program.

Television is arguably one of the central institutions of democratic public life. In a world where government is achieved by public deliberation and reasoned debate, we need institutions that foster a culture of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.

Most anthropologists, like many other intellectuals, have traditionally taken a rather sniffy attitude towards television, the most popular medium of information and entertainment in our age. But this standoffishness is peculiar from a profession whose proclaimed task is the study of human unity in diversity and diversity in unity. If one of the sacred tasks of television is to allow the public circulation and airing of the ever greater diversity of cultural, social and ideological currents in our societies, then surely anthropology has a role to play?

What kind of compromises have to be endured by a filmmaker? What are the challenges faced when bringing an erudite and complex understanding into a populist medium? And still, what sorts of opportunities arise?

There is no better person explore the answers to these questions than Michael Yorke, award winning film maker and anthropologist. After a hugely successful career as a professional photographer, Michael began formal anthropological training and fieldwork among a tribal population in India (PhD at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, “Decisions and analogy: political structure and discourse among the Ho tribals of India,” in 1976). Since then he has spent the past twenty five years producing nearly a film a year for transmission on British Television.

Michael is well aware that his latest career has taken him away from the ‘cannon’ of anthropological film making strictu sensu. Commissioning editors demand ‘urgency’ from the films they show and not all the films that are worth making demand our attention for that sort of reason. But Michael Yorke has found a way to meet some of the demands of both worlds, or to find a space where both worlds can meet. From his early acclaimed film Dossers on London’s homeless – this was made at a time of huge economic upheaval and welfare reform when a veritable tent city with over a thousand inhabitants had taken over one of the most beautiful squares in the heart of the legal establishment near the city – through to his most spectacular venture, the Kumb Mehla series on Channel 4 which brought the largest religious festival on the planet into the homes of millions of British viewers, he has demonstrated that ability to explore the leanings of the hearts of others that is at the heart of any anthropological project. In the portrait program we will present his film Dust and Ashes about the Kumb Mehla, made for BBC2 series, "Under the Sun". One of his most succesful films made for BBC in India is the award winning Eunuchs: India's third gender (and it will also be screened in this portrait program).  As a producer/director of BBC documentaries about remote cultures he has tried to do what many professional anthropologists do in their work: try to understand and to describe, and to present a culture in a complex way. His work has reached audiences that most academics cannot even dream of approaching directly.

British television today is in a desperate condition and in blind, panicked retreat from its historic mission to provide a springboard for the kind of complex, surprising and troubling material that is the basis for serious public deliberation in a democracy.
Michael has, like many others, found a sanctuary from this increasingly absurd and self-parodic world, and has started making independent documentary films (his latest film Holy Man and fools represents this new direction of his work in our program). Talking about this film he explained that he tried to be free of the constraints that arise from having to entertain a mass audience; "this would allow me to do what I truly want to do: to give a voice to indigenous people". At the same time he is teaching a new generation of young would-be film markers the skills of classic documentary production, most recently at a Marie Curie and Sony sponsored event in Astra Film Studio, Sibiu. The huge demand for such courses offers some hope for the future of television when the current generation of commissioning editors, who have in brief - with only one or two precious exceptions - sold their soul to the devil, are replaced by younger stars hungry to renew a media that sustains public life and not private envy and desire.

Television is made by program and film makers. At a time when there is both a far greater access to the means of production of film and a far narrower understanding of ‘what goes’ among television managers and editors it is worth to pause and consider how one generation of film makers shaped the medium.



Director: Michael Yorke
Country: U.K.
Year: 1983
Length: 52
An intimately observed portrait of Mick and Martha, two homeless and vagrant alcoholics living on the streets of London and their friends who live in the park opposite Waterloo station. After living with them for 3 months Michael Yorke and his camera crew were given intimate access to the economics, survival strategies, emotions and traumas of a group of people who have been rejected by, and reject, the values of respectable society.
This is a harsh and deeply emotional film, that was shocking when it was made, and contained so much bad language that the BBC took over a year to decide whether to transmit it.


Dust And Ashes

Director: Michael Yorke
Country: U.K.
Year: 1990
Length: 50
Every 12 years in India, on the banks of the River Ganges, over 50 million Hindus gather for the greatest pilgrimage in the world – The Maha Kumbh Mela. This film follows the story of three devotees coming from distant corners of the subcontinent – famous holy men and ordinary farmers.
This film observes the complex and deep sense of devotion that binds the Hindu religion into one community and one philosophical tradition as 12 million people, on the main day, all rush to take a holy bath in the sacred River Ganges at the symbolic point where it joins the Jamuna River on a special conjunction of astrological forces. The Maha Kumbh Mela pilgrimage is an ancient gathering for all the ascetic wandering monks and holy men of Hinduism – the sadhus. This film explores their social organization and the meaning that they find in their austere and disciplined lifestyle.


Eunuchs: India's Third Gender

Director: Michael Yorke
Country: U.K.
Year: 1992
Length: 52
Kirian is a homosexual living in India, who wished he had been born a woman. In order to change his gender he joined the traditional Indian sect of the Hijras, or Eunuchs, and had himself castrated. Shardabai is the traditional Empress Eunuch of Rajasthan. She rules over 105 eunuchs in her territory and is considered to be holy and deeply respected by all who meet her as an ascetic who has overcome the dichotomy of being neither male nor female. She has risen above and beyond the oppositions of gender and the traumas that come with this. She is considered both wise and a holy woman – the keeper of a esoteric knowledge and power. In a society where gender roles are strongly polarized, India is one of the few cultures that has traditionally given people who neither men nor women a high status. The Hijras of India were once wealthy and respected by the royal courts as entertainers, dancers and guardians of the royal harems. But today these ancient beliefs and customs are dying. Today, Rehmat Guru, who lives in Mumbai has to live by renting out her fourteen eunuchs as prostitutes in the slums of the city. The film explores an ancient and esoteric tradition with great intimacy. We discover the private motivations that lead many Indians to undergo the traumatic and dangerous complete removal of their genitalia.


Holy Men And Fools

Director: Michael Yorke
Country: U.K.
Year: 2005
Length: 72

The story of two Hindu sadhus, Uma and Vasisth Giri, one a Swedish woman, the other a 29 year old Indian. Together they go on a pilgrimage of self-discovery into the high Himalayas to the source of the River Ganges, searching out the saints and mystics of Hinduism. They meet a sadhu who has not spoken a word for 12 years. They spend days living in the caves and huts of reclusive ascetics. After 27 years of searching Uma finally discovers the spiritual master she has always been searching for.