Chris Petit comes to the Rio

Still of the Chris Petit's film "Content" Photo: Courtesy of Chris Petit

The road movie maker Chris Petit has made a stop at the Rio Cinema in Hackney.

His latest film “Content” will be shown there on Saturday 21st May followed by  a Question and Answer session offering a further insight into his work.

“Content” can be seen as a sequel to “Radio On”, one of Petit’s most famous films. Dating from 1979,  it’s a road movie through Britain, capturing the zeitgeist of the time. The film subsequently gained a cult status.

East London Lines caught up with the director of “Radio On” and “Content”.

Petit says the motivation behind “Content” was a result of Channel 4 giving him the opportunity to do a film of his choice, and since “Radio On” had been released on DVD that year – in 2008 – he decided to do another road movie. The difference between now and then is that in 1979, the journey went from A to B and the character would meet people on the way. That isn’t the case here. The character travels through England, Poland, Germany and Texas, but there was “no plan”, as the director explains.

I didn’t go to Poland for the film, I just happened to do things there at that time. It was very unstructured in a sense, there wasn’t a clear idea at the beginning, where the film was going to end up.

Because of the 30 year span between “Radio On” and “Content”, Petit’s latest work provides a decent interval if one watches it in a retrospective manner as it shows what has changed – or maybe hasn’t:

It’s just to show you how the landscape looks like, to give you a feeling of what it looked like at that time.

Themes such as communication, correspondence and time play a major role in the film. The fleeting images from a car window are combined with poetic narration and lines such as Ian Penman’s  “a memory bank of other journeys”.

Despite the documentary style and Petit’s presence pushing the film forward, he doesn’t see it as an autobiographical film:

The only reason I put myself in is that I didn’t want to pay an actor.

Nevertheless, he decided to work with one actor: Hanns Zischler, who voiced Penman’s text. The way the collaboration came about was very informal:

I met him in Berlin and we have friends in common. It was just by chance.

Apart from the fact that there is a German actor in the film, Germany – and particularly Berlin – is strongly featured in the film,  and not necessarily by ‘chance’ as autobiographical elements slip through. Petit’s father was an Army Officer and his family frequently moved. As a result, Petit lived in Germany for over a year as a child.

Chris Petit started as a film editor for the magazine Time Out in the 1970s before he began making films. Inspired by the German director Wim Wenders, he made “Radio On” in 1979, and three years later, his film “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman” was shown at the Berlinale, Berlin’s International film festival. He has now made a total of 14 films; some of them, such as “London Orbital” in 2002, in collaboration with Iain Sinclair. Petit’s creativity is not only bound to films, he has also written novels. His books include “Robinson” (1993), “The Hard Shoulder” (2001) and “The Passenger” (2006). He has just finished “Area Code 2258”, which is about bureaucracy in the Third Reich.

History has always had a strong influence on Petit’s work. It’s therefore no wonder that the title “Content” refers to the noun, rather than the adjective. It actually derives from the idea of ‘death of content’, which is often associated with television. “Content” was made for Channel 4, as part of the channel’s  ongoing efforts to change the perception of television.

The original title was ‘Economy’, which nobody really liked. ‘Economy’, because of the way it has changed over the past 30 years but also the filmmaking process itself, which is quite minimal compared to 30 years ago.

This also applies to the music. True to the 21st century and the digital era, the music is electronic and created by the German musician Antye Greie. She produced a soundscape that goes well with the film.

To learn more about “Content” and its director you can grab the opportunity to speak to  Chris Petit during the Question and Answer session at the Rio Cinema in Hackney on May 21st at 3.45pm.

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