Case Study: Petrov’s Flu & Accessible Foreign Language Cinema

With support from BFI, Matchbox worked with Sovereign Films to make their recent release of Petrov’s Flu accessible to Deaf and Blind audiences

The number of “foreign-language” films released in the UK has risen more or less year-on-year in the last 20, from 96 in 2001 to 346 in 2019. Parasite‘s historic 2020 Oscar win (with Bong Joon-Ho’s widely reported exhortation to overcome the “one inch tall barrier of subtitles”), seemed to signal a seachange in general audiences’ acceptance of subtitled cinema. Netflix and social media have helped to standardise the sight of subtitles with mainstream audiences while, internationally, the idea of employing same-language subtitles to improve literacy has gained traction.

At the same time, non-English language films still represent a small fraction of the UK box office, and exhibitors coming out of a pandemic have to navigate an increasingly homogenised slate of US franchise blockbusters, dwindling resources and narrow margins for error. To succeed, non-English language films also have to engage with some deeply engrained assumptions and prejudices (on both sides of the box office desk) around subtitled screenings.

Theatrical quad poster for Petrov's Flu. Features photo montage of man in profile with multiple items "exploding" from his head, including a Christmas tree, a knife and a bus
Sovereign’s theatrical poster for Petrov’s Flu

A subtitled screening, meanwhile, is not necessarily an accessible one. Just because a French film has subtitles, doesn’t mean audiences who generally rely upon descriptive subtitles (AKA captions, SDH or HoH) to enjoy cinema on equal terms will have anything like the same experience as a general audience.

I used to settle for watching films with English subtitles, and in the case of foreign language films, I would sit through the entire screening hoping that there wasn’t any English dialogue, and if there was, that I wouldn’t miss an essential plot point. It wasn’t until I started watching films with descriptive subtitles and attending captioned screenings that I realised how much I was missing out on, how much more information I was getting from descriptive labels, the presence of which drastically enhance my viewing experience and enjoyment. I was especially frustrated with the release of A Quiet Place, a groundbreaking film that spotlights deafness and sign language, as almost all of it was in English subtitles due to the characters’ use of sign language, so it was accessible for people who don’t know ASL. But it wasn’t accessible for Deaf audiences as there wasn’t any descriptive labels and there wasn’t English subtitles for the very few lines of English dialogue. The provision of descriptive subtitles makes my viewing experience an equal one, an experience that I don’t have to compromise on.

Charlotte Little, Access Consultant (Matchbox Cine)

Nevertheless, Deaf audiences are regularly excluded from non-English language cinema, whether that’s at physical screenings (where English language films are often, however understandably, given precedence in already niche slots), on VOD (where technical restrictions can mitigate full access measures, if not block them entirely) or on disc (often the last refuge for access). While dedicated programming strands and regular screening slots can ensure Deaf- or disability-focussed programming is accessible to audiences, the wide world of cinema is often frustratingly withheld.

The reasons are often complex, but the barriers to access usually can be delineated according to 1) budgetary restrictions 2) extremely tight schedules 3) a fundamental gap in knowledge and 4) perceived or real technical restrictions. We’ve found that Matchbox can be of use with all four of these elements, leaving the basic will to make improvements the final variable. Happily, most distributors and exhibitors do have that will, even if, due to some combination of the other variables, they’ve not been able to deliver accessible screenings.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s Russian-language Petrov’s Flu is the second project in an ongoing collaboration we’ve developed with one such, UK-based distributor, Sovereign Films. Beginning with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, 2021), continuing through Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021) and, most recently, Theo and the Metamorphosis (Damien Odoul, 2022), we’ve created descriptive subtitles and sometimes audio description for their releases – access materials that can then be used in various contexts – theatrical, VOD and/or disc. Sovereign’s releases are mostly non-English language (or have multiple audio languages, as is the case with Memoria). Our work with Sovereign, particularly on Petrov’s Flu (the release of which was supported by BFI’s Audience Fund, awarding funds from the National Lottery) is good model for how independent distributors can work with access providers to develop access materials.


A QUICK ASIDE ON TERMINOLOGYwe advocate for the term “descriptive subtitles” when discussing access materials made for films. There are essentially two categories of subtitles, and only one universally useful distinction. On one hand, you have “subtitles”, which contain only dialogue (whether it’s translated into English from another language, or simply transcribes English dialogue). On the other, you have “descriptive subtitles” which also contain descriptive elements such as sound effects [Petrov coughs], speech identifiers [Petrova] and music labels [Breezy accordion music]. Descriptive subtitles are also variously known as captions (open or closed), Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH), Hard of Hearing (HoH). Part of the problem with “captions” is that it is often used interchangeably with subtitles, leading to confusion at every possible stage – in planning and discussing accessibility, managing film materials, advertising screenings, etc. We prefer “descriptive subtitles” because it’s clear, removes ambiguity and simply denotes what the file is, rather than who it’s supposedly for (bearing in mind the majority of viewers using subtitles are not Deaf, nor hard-of-hearing; they are also widely valued by viewers for whom English is not their first language and neurodivergent audience members). NB there are further subtleties, particularly regarding file formats and when discussing various different contexts, but the least confusing and most fundamental dichotomy is subtitles vs descriptive subtitles.

Screengrab of two subtitle files opened in TextEdit. Timecodes and dialogue are present on the left-hand file; Timecodes, dialogue and descriptive elements are present in the right-hand file.
Petrov’s Flu Subtitles (left) vs Descriptive Subtitles (right)

To illustrate the difference between subtitles and descriptive subtitles and to explain the inadequacies of a basic English subtitle file for access purposes, non-English language films are very useful. For example, the basic subtitle file for Petrov’s Flu (above, left), which translates all of the Russian dialogue (and all the Cyrillic text on-screen) into English, contains 1,841 subtitles. The descriptive subtitle file (above, right), which adds all the elements in order to make the film accessible, contains 2,285 subtitles, an increase of 19.4%. The intention is to give as equal an experience as possible, and those additional 444 subtitles are essential in that regard. To understand the potential shortfall, we only have to imagine a film with the last reel missing, or with 1/5 of the screen obscured throughout.


Sovereign engaged Matchbox to produce access materials (both descriptive subtitles and audio description) for the release of Petrov’s Flu. As is relatively typical, there was a short amount of time to produce those materials, so that they could be packaged with the theatrical DCP. Often, local distributors are given either pre-packaged DCPs, ready for screening, or versions of the film with their local language subtitles already burned-in. Distributors are faced with the choice to re-package the DCPs (provided to them by sales agents) at often significant cost (labs often charge excessively for each additional subtitle file), on top of the production of the access materials themselves. Access materials, which, it should be said, are not often packaged with the films when they are sold (which does make some amount of sense for international titles – a French film, for example, will sometimes be delivered with French descriptive subtitles but not English). Meanwhile, distributors’ delivery schedules are often extremely narrow – they may take delivery of a film just weeks before their DCP must be finalised for release, or even for a planned festival screening, meaning the access materials need created and approved in a very narrow window (and, with already narrow margins, it can be hard to justify the expense of creating a new DCP for a theatrical release if you’ve created one weeks or months earlier for a festival screening, but sans access materials because there wasn’t time yet to complete them).

Photograph from set of Petrov's Flu, with a sepia tint. Three men sit in back of van, one (bald) pours a drink. The cosy van is festooned with rugs, flowers and other decorative elements
Filming Petrov’s Flu in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday December 10, 2019. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times)

Luckily, we had recourse to a “clean” version of Petrov’s Flu, with no burned-in subtitles. Sovereign also could give us access to various deliverables from the production, including a music cue sheet, which helped us to make full and accurate access materials. We then created a suite of files for use in various contexts – a full descriptive subtitles file, for use with the theatrical DCP (and any subsequent disc release) and a DS-only file, designed to work around the basic English subtitle file. The DS-only file removes some of the additional elements that clash with the basic file – for example speech identifiers, or sound effects that would otherwise be merged with the dialogue-only subtitles. (NB It’s possible to create a file that simply raises those clashing subtitles to the top of the screen – useful when making an accessible DCP from a video with burned-in subtitles – but most online contexts can’t support the requisite HTML code in the sidecar file, rendering them ineffective at best, at worst leaving the code visible to the viewer).

This latter is a necessarily compromised file, of diminished effectiveness, but it’s a necessary evil (for the moment), since many online platforms either can’t support multiple subtitle files (meaning the basic English file takes the only slot) or don’t support “sidecar” (read: separate, optional) subtitle files at all. This latter is the case for some VOD platforms which viewers commonly cast to their televisions – if subtitles are required, they must therefore be burned-in/hardcoded (a permanent part of the film’s image) and, again, the basic English file usually takes precedence.

In terms of audio description, it’s relatively uncommon for non-English languages films in theatrical distribution. Since AD scripts need to incorporate any on-screen text, including subtitles (which must be voiced along with the descriptions of visual information), AD is more likely to be produced against dubbed version of films. It means a film like Petrov’s Flu, as long and verbose as it is, presents a particular challenge. Dubbing an entire feature is still prohibitively expensive for an indepedent exhibitor, releasing into one market (a little more economical for Disney+ or Netflix, who coincidentally report that international audiences increasingly prefer dubbed films to subtitled ones). Truthfully, creating AD for Petrov’s Flu was a mammoth task for our scripter and our voicer, who are generally adept and well practiced at creating and delivering concise and effective descriptions. We can be confident, though, that we didn’t cut corners to deliver the file.

I’d love to see SDH subtitles become the norm on foreign films. It’s just good practice and I hope more distributors do this.

Will Mager (writer, director, producer)

We’ve been able to help Sovereign navigate all these potential complications to ensure their releases are as accessible as possible and to produce theatrical quality materials with very tight turnarounds. The key word their for us, for Sovereign and for audiences is “quality”. We’re determined that our subtitles help to create an equal experience for everyone potentially in attendance – bearing in mind that the Deaf audience itself isn’t monolithic, but encompasses people deaf from birth, those that have become deaf, hard-of-hearing people, those whose first or preferred language is BSL, etc – including a fully-hearing audience. Cinema is essentially immersive and communal and, rather than compartmentalise audiences, the hope is to bring them together.

That’s not possible with sub-par subtitles, or with unproved and unreliable technology that makes Deaf and/or disabled audiences the problem. As advocates as well as practioners, we’re focussed on making sure the materials we produce are the best quality and that they meet the expectations of the audience, rather than the bare minimum to qualify as access materials – e.g. lyrics are transcribed wherever necessary and possible and untranslated, non-English dialogue is transcribed wherever possible (if a film-maker has chosen not to translate non-English dialogue, instead of simply labelling [He speaks Spanish], if we’re able to, we’ll transcribe it, “Los subtítulos son geniales.”). As all good subtitlers do, we go the extra mile in our research to confirm spellings and phraseology, to identify needle drops and source official lyrics.

As with all our work, regardless of the context, the materials we make for Sovereign are made to the best professional quality, so audiences can be confident that their titles meet those standards while exhibitors can rely upon the materials to be present (and to present correctly). With the materials available – and crucially prepared for every context – audiences can begin to expect upon the provision being there without them asking for it.

Matchbox & Sovereign’s panel discussion on Petrov’s Flu and accessibility for non-English language films

Cinemas and other exhibitors can also make useful changes (while avoiding unfortunate mis-steps). Ensure your accessible screenings are listed and advertised prominently and correctly. Don’t lump simply subtitled screenings together with accessible screenings on your website’s “accessible” screenings page, or in your reporting – that means when you boast about the percentage of accessible screenings in your programme, it’ll be entirely accurate. Be confident and informed when engaging with your general audiences – challenge assumptions, including your own. Your general audiences may generally swerve “open-captioned” screenings, but that’s because they have the choice, and perhaps because they’ve had bad experiences of subtitled ones – they may even, as has been evidenced, wrongly believe open-captioned films screen with no sound. Educate staff, both customer-facing and behind the scenes of the value and requirements of accessibility, as well as the correct terminology, in order to avoid unnecessary barriers to access (such as when access materials are not requested from distributors, or if they are, they’re advertised incorrectly).

The truth is people will watch a film with subtitles in, even if they don’t realise it straight away. After all, the highest grossing movie of all time is Avatar, a film where over a third of its dialogue is in Na’Vi… which is subtitled.

Film Stories

There is a massive potential audience for accessible screenings of all stripes, but the main obstacles to developing it are consistency in quality and general availability. Audiences’ trust needs to be earned before they will reliably turn out for accessible screenings – and not just the (if they’re lucky) one a day, scheduled during work hours. Meanwhile, mainstream audiences are arguably largely untested in their tolerance for more accessible screenings. As practioners and advocates, all we can do is help to break down those barriers to access – all that remains is the will to finally sweep them away.

Sean Welsh


Petrov’s Flu will be released to VOD on Monday 27th June.

For more information, check sovereignfilms.co.uk, or follow Sovereign Films on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

“Jesus Christ, Dirty Harry & Billy the Kid walk into a bar…”

Naoto Yamakawa’s cult classic The New Morning of Billy the Kid “conjures together a motley crew of Eastern and Western archetypes”. For our online screening, we made a handy primer…

To call Naoto Yamakawa’s The New Morning of Billy The Kid an unconventional Western would be to severely downplay the stramash of archetypes Yamakawa knowingly deploys in his dreamlike film. From the title, combining references to Bob Dylan’s New Morning (1970) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973) which Dylan scored and starred in, the film pulls together multiple threads of cultural references from all directions. We’ve assembed this (incomplete!) primer to aid your viewing of our online programme, which runs 3rd-5th December 2021. Images courtesy of Naoto Yamakawa.

Billy the Kid
aka Henry McCarty, William H Bonney (1859-1881) | An orphan at 15, dead at 21, Billy the Kid found fame as a murderous outlaw and gunfighter of the American Old West. A pop culture figure for over 100 years, he’s appeared in numerous books, comics, films, stage shows, songs and video games. Played by Hiroshi Mikami.

Black and white photography: Two men, a sailor and a police detective, sit at a table on a balcony. The sailor looks down through binoculars, the detective smokes a cigarette.
Harry Callahan (Yoshio Harada), right, in The New Morning of Billy the Kid

Harry Callahan (Created 1971) | Debuting in Don Siegel’s neo-noir Dirty Harry, Inspector Harold Francis Callahan is a fictional character and protagonist of a five-film series concluding with 1988’s The Dead Pool. Played by Yoshio Harada.

Marx-Engels (Karl Marx, 1818-1883; Friedrich Engels, 1820-1895) | German philosophers and co-authors of The Communist Manifesto. Marx’ tomb bears the inscription, “Workers of all lands unite”. The latter’s motto was reportedly, “Take it easy.” Played by Rokkô Toura.

Monument Valley | Monument Valley, located on the Navajo Nation within Arizona and Utah, has been featured in many forms of media since the 1930s, most famously the ten films John Ford made with John Wayne, including Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956).

Genichiro Takahashi (1951-) | Novelist and co-writer of The New Morning of Billy the Kid. The film draws upon his written works Sayonara, Gangsters (1982), Over the Rainbow (1984) and John Lennon vs The Martians (1985), among others. His oeuvre draws inspiration equally from low- and high-brow culture. Played by Genichiro Takahashi.

Black and white photography: Three men stand closely together in a bar: a sailor, a bandit and a soldier.
Harimau (Junichi Hirata), centre, in The New Morning of Billy the Kid

Harimau aka Tani Yutaka (1911-1942) | Yutaka was a bandit known as Harimau (“Tiger” in Malay), attacking Chinese gangs and British officers and giving away what he looted to the poor, making him a local hero in Malaya, now Malaysia. He was also a secret agent for the Imperial Japanese Army, sabotaging the British war effort in the run up to World War II. Played by ​​Junichi Hirata.

Jesus Christ (c 4 BC-30/33) | Son of God. Played by Akifumi Yamaguchi.

Jishu Eiga | Japanese phrase to describe DIY or self-made films, usually with no budget, funded and produced outside of the commercial industry. Prominent directors Sôgo Ishii, Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto cut their teeth with jishu eiga films. 

Sasaki Kojirō (1575-1612) | Prominent Japanese swordsman and long-time rival of Miyamoto Musashi, who defeated him in a legendary duel. Played by Makoto Ayukawa.

Mitsuharu Kaneko (1895-1975) | Japanese poet known as an anti-establishment figure, who during the Second World War deliberately made his son ill so he would not be drafted.

Black and white photography: A swordsman smiles against a cloudy sky
Miyamoto Musashi (Takashi Naito) in The New Morning of Billy the Kid

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) | Japanese swordsman, philosopher, strategist, writer and rōnin. Miyamoto became renowned through stories of his unique double-bladed swordsmanship and undefeated record in his 61 duels. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) drew inspiration from Miyamoto for Seiji Miyaguchi’s character Kyūzō. Played by Takashi Naito.

New Morning (1970) | The 11th studio album by Bob Dylan, of which the original Rolling Stone reviewer said, “I’ve never heard Dylan sounding so outrageously happy before.”

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) | Revisionist Western directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring (in a supporting role as “Alias”) and scored by Bob Dylan. Billy the Kid was played by Kris Kristofferson, who said of his director, “One of Sam Peckinpah’s regular stunt men put it very well. He said, ‘Sam likes to be surrounded by chaos.'”

Composite image of magazine cuttings: a Photograph of a director holding a script in front of an actor dressed as a cowboy; an excerpt from an article*; a credit: "TONY RAYNS"

*"Beyond its inevitable ration of new British TV-financed features, the festival offered three non-British world premieres, and it seemed characteristic of Edinburgh that no great drums were beaten for any of them. Yamakawa Naoto's The New Morning of Billy the Kid, from Japan, is a brilliantly sustained comedy that conjures together a motley crew of Eastern and Western archetypes and has them shoot it out in the ultimate saloon gunfight. Almost entirely studio-shot, it uses the resources of the sound-stage with a mastery to compare with the heyday of the 1930s, but to glitteringly modernist ends."
The New Morning of Billy the Kid featured in Tony Rayns’ coverage of Edinburgh festival for Sight and Sound (London, Vol 55, Iss. 4, Fall 1986, p222)

Tony Rayns (1948-) | A writer, curator, programer and tireless champion of film, one of Mr Rayns’ key specialisations is Asian cinema. Rayns was an early champion of Yamakawa’s films and one of the only writers to celebrate his work from the outset. Rayns was also involved in the creation of the film’s original English subtitles (since lost), in collaboration with Director Yamakawa, and now has very graciously worked on our 2021 subtitles.

Sgt Sanders (Created 1962) | Sgt “Chip” Saunders, played by Vic Morrow, was the co-lead character in Combat!, a US TV show (1962-1967). The show depicted the lives of a US platoon fighting its way across Europe during World War II. Played by Zenpaku Kato.

Popeye & Olive Oyl (Created 1929; 1919) | Characters of Thimble Theatre, later Popeye, comic strips. Olive Oyl was a main character for 10 years before Popeye’s 1929 appearance, sequentially becoming his girlfriend. Both are able to gain superhuman strength from eating spinach. Played by Katsuhiko Hibino and Kyoko Endoh.

Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) | Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union as General Secretary of the governing Communist Party and as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. His 18-year term as general secretary was second only to Joseph Stalin’s in duration. Played by Katsumi Asaba.

104 (1953-2015) | Japanese telephone directory enquiries number. Played by Akio Ishii.

177 | Japanese telephone weather service, dial to hear the weather forecast for the upcoming three days. Played by Hozumi Goda

Black and white photograph: A young woman sits in a chair, looking off to the right-hand side.
Charlotte Rampling (Kimie Shingyoji) in The New Morning of Billy the Kid

Charlotte Rampling (1963-) | English actress and model, known for her work in European arthouse films in English, French, and Italian. Played by Kimie Shingyoji

Bruce Springsteen (1949-) | American singer, songwriter, and musician with over twenty studio albums. Played by Masayuki Shionoya

Tatum O’Neal (1963-) | American actress who is the youngest person to ever win a competitive Academy Award, winning at age 10 for her performance as Addie Loggins in Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973) opposite her father, Ryan O’Neal. Played by Aura Lani

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (Published 1969) | A science fiction infused anti-war novel, articulating Vonnegut’s experiences as an American serviceman in World War II through protagonist Billy Pilgrim. Namesake of Master’s bar. 

Naoto Yamakawa (1957-) | Film director and professor at the Department of Imaging Art, Tokyo Polytechnic University. Yamakawa began to create his own films after becoming a member of the Cinema Research Society while studying at Waseda University. 

Zelda (Active 1979–1996) | One of Japan’s first all-girl bands, playing new wave, punk, pop, post-punk, and later, reggae. Played by band members Sachiho Kojima , Sayoko Takahashi, Tomie Ishihara and Ako Ozawa


The New Morning of Billy the Kid is available to watch worldwide from 3rd December to 5th December 2021 only, via Matchbox Cine’s online platform.

The New Morning of Billy the Kid is presented by Matchbox Cine as part of BFI’s Japan 2021: Over 100 years of Japanese Cinema, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. bfijapan.co.uk

We’re leaving Glasgow

After 10 years of hosting film events all around Glasgow, we’re moving to Bristol

After ten years (and a particularly busy most recent five), Matchbox Cineclub is leaving Glasgow and relocating to Bristol.

For at least the next three years, we’re going to be based in Bristol. We’ll be back every so often (we have at least one Glasgow event planned in 2021), but mostly we’ll be in Bristol, and we don’t yet know what that’ll mean for any IRL events.

This weekend (3rd-6th September, 2020), we should’ve been hosting Weird Weekend III at CCA Glasgow. 2020, cursed year, should’ve seen our cult film festival level up to a much bigger festival. Our plans and even programming for it have been underway since before last year’s festival. Those plans had to be scrapped, rethought, redeveloped, revised and the scrapped again. We accounted for postponement, downscaling, hybrid approaches and completely online versions, but it just wasn’t meant to be this year.

We will be doing more online programming, like our Tales From Winnipeg online-only season, and Weird Weekend will certainly return in some form. But we also want to take some time to rest (we’ve also subtitled 250+ films in the last two months) and regroup, for the first time in several years.

We’ll be handing over the reins of Scalarama Glasgow year-round planning and delivery too (let us know if you’re interested in being involved with that!), and we’re very glad to look around and see so many great independent film exhibitors in Glasgow – folks like Backseat Bingo, Cinemaattic GlasgowPity Party Film ClubQueer ClassicsRed Thread Film ClubSouthern ExposureTrash cinema, Unmellow MoviesVenom Mob Film Club and many more. Hopefully they’ll all be back screening films before too long.

We want to say a very big thank you to everyone who has supported us over the last 10(!) years in Glasgow, particularly CCA GlasgowThe Old HairdressersFilm Hub Scotland, all our fellow exhibitors, to everyone that’s come to one of our events and, most of all, to those of you who’ve come to several.

It’s very strange to be planning to leave like this. We would’ve loved to host a farewell screening or just had some drinks in a big room, but none of that’s possible. Maybe, with no rooms to set, A/V to prep, bands to soundcheck, bookings to find, tickets to take, guests to entertain, merch to sell, last-minute social media to do, etc, etc, we’d have finally properly prepared an address for the audience, rather than busking some last-minute jibber-jabber. But then probably not. Hands up if you’ve already seen this one.

We love Glasgow and we’ll miss you very much.

Sean + Megan x


This website is full of stuff, interviews, articles, etc, and will become even more active now. You can find our archive of posters and event photographs on Flickr and our trailers and video content on Vimeo and YouTube. Zines, posters and merch are on sale in our shop, matchboxcineclub.bigcartel.com. 

You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram.

And you can keep up-to-date with our mailing list here: eepurl.com/duX1R9

Illustration: Vero Navarro, as commissioned by Matchbox Maw Linda Dougherty (Christmas, 2019)

Interview: Guy Maddin on autobiography, Euripedes + Cowards Bend the Knee

Ahead of our Tales from Winnipeg season, which features Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee, with Ela Orleans’s new score, Cathy Brennan spoke to the director about the project

In 2017, we commissioned Ela Orleans to write and perform a new score for Guy Maddin’s 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee. It was a connection suggested by journalist Brian Beadie, a dream project for Ela and, it turned out, a dream come true for Guy. For our first online programme, Tales from Winnipeg, we’re thrilled to present the film with Ela’s studio recording of the score for the first time, and delighted to have Guy’s participation – he’ll introduce the film and joins Ela for an hour-long In Conversation afterwards. Before that, Cathy Brennan spoke to Guy to get his thoughts on the film’s origins.

Cathy Brennan: In your 2002 interview with Robert Enright, you said you thought that Cowards Bend the Knee might be your last film. Given how prolific you’ve been in the years since, how have your feelings about the film evolved?

Guy Maddin: Wow, I don’t remember saying it would be the last film. I tend to be self-pitying and melodramatic, so I probably just say that before every film. What I say now has evolved into “I’m going to make this as if it’s my last film.” In other words I’m going to give it my best shot and hope that it represents  what I’ve been trying to do all these years in the best possible way.

I can barely watch any of movies as they age because they represent the work of someone I no longer am. It’s embarrassing, it would be like watching yourself struggling with some things that you’ve long ago since learnt how to do. A lot of people wouldn’t be that comfortable with having non-filmic work put on public display a couple of decades after they’ve made it.

I’ve always viewed my films as inventories of errors rather than an accumulation of accomplishments. There’s a couple of exceptions: I like watching The Green Fog, a movie we made in 2017. We actually watched it with audiences a few times . And I’ve watched Cowards Bend the Knee now maybe five times over the last 18 years and been quite proud of it, actually.  

There’s a few things I’d change;  the  first six-minute chapter gets off to a bit of a slow start, but, then, once it gets going, I’m very proud of it. I remember the feeling I had while I made it. I felt like I was really in a zone, you know, where every time I pointed my camera I found something worth shooting. I made plot connections in my head as I was shooting. It was a real frenzy of creativity and I just made this  humble 62-minute long feature. To make it in five very short work days -really just half days-was something I’m very proud of.

Like I say, it just came out in one piece there’s so many autobiographical elements in it I could just assemble my cast of characters and keep them all handy at all times and then start putting them through their uninhibited motions, their disinhibited emotions based on real life events. I dunno, I wish I could make all my films like that.

I followed up by making another silent film that also played with live musical accompaniment Brand Upon The Brain. And that came out in one piece as well but just not quite as insanely. It’s more of an epic and it’s much longer. This one [Cowards] really felt as crazed as I was when I lived the events.

Maya Lawson & Katherine E. Scharhon in Brand Upon the Brain (Guy Maddin, 2006)

I wanted to ask a bit about your working relationship with Ela. How did it start? What are your thoughts on her score for Cowards, and do you have a favourite section in it?

I love the whole score. Ela may have a different version of this but I think she just asked if she could make a score and I said “yeah” and then she sent me her work as it progressed. I think she just worked through it in order or at least that’s how I got it – Chapters 1 through 10, in script order from her.

I’m very grateful for her opening, the chapter 1 score because I basically just DJ’d the original movie with old classical music chestnuts and the piece of music I had put in there before was so dreary. The opening six minutes felt like 20 minutes and felt like just a list of character names to be memorised for a test, or something like that. She just came up with a piece that brought it to life much more. It didn’t change the visual content, but it sure seemed like it did. It quickened the pace of the cutting. The pure exposition clumsily conveyed by me in that chapter was just made more pleasurable to assimilate, made it seem more part of the story rather than just exposition shovelled down the throats of the viewers. So, I’m most grateful for that.

I love the way she keeps shifting gears and even when she brings vocals in at one point which surprises me and which comes as a really welcome surprise. I don’t think I really thought of a favourite section, but I’ve just kind of marvelled at her sense of pacing and how she changes it up. I often think in baseball metaphors, so I don’t know how useful that is for you over there [in the UK], but just the way a pitcher is more successful if he changes speeds and location and curves each pitch in the idea is to keep the variety coming. So, in Ela’s case, I just like the way she startles the ear every few minutes and it just feels right. She’s got a really strong intuition for it.

I hesitate to use the word, because it sounds so corporate but there’s this great synergy between Ela’s score and your film. I believe you you mentioned in that 2002 conversation about the atmosphere, while filming  Cowards, being very mischievous, and I sort of detect that same sense of mischief in her score, particularly with sound effects. I think there’s one bit dressing room and Dr Fusi just smacks one of the players on the butt and there’s a cartoon “thwack” sound.

Some of the sound effects came over from the original soundtrack, but she was smart enough to keep them, another she deleted, and then others she created herself and I think she created that one. I dunno, she’s just she’s just really on the right wavelength, that’s all I know.

I’ve had other alternate scores done for this very movie, actually. It’s been really interesting comparing them, but Ela really comes closest. Not closest, Ela is a true collaborator. I was going to say she comes closest to getting what I’m up to but, no, it’s more than that. A collaborator’s actually supposed to make you look better, and she does do that.

It’s kind of like you know Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock not that I’m Hitchcock. It’s just you can feel when Bernard Herrmann’s score in Vertigo was actually making the movie way better, and I love that. but I just think of it as a collaboration among all of its makers and you can feel the with Ela in that first chapter. She really gets the movie going off to the start that I failed to supply. I remember an anecdote about Vertigo where Hitchcock handed the reel where Jimmy Stewart is just driving around for 10 minutes in front of rear screen projection. And he [Hitchcock] just handed it to Herrmann and said, “This reel is all yours,” you know, something to that effect. It feels good to make a movie, knowing you can just hand something off to somebody and know they’ll make you look better.

My version of synergy is, every now and then, I come up limping and have to hand it off to Ela and I know she’ll haul me out of the trenches and across no-man’s-land in spite of all the mustard gas and deliver something that looks a lot better than my carcass.

That’s really sweet.

Oh, yeah.

Cowards Bend the Knee with Ela Orleans score poster (Illustration by Marc Baines, 2020)

If you don’t mind. I just wanted to shift the little bit to talk about about the Winnipeg Film Group. The documentary Tales From was kind of a whistlestop tour of the history of the group.

I haven’t seen it, you know? It’s strange. I’m in it, I think, but I was scared to watch it. I can’t stand watching myself.

You were in it for about five minutes and come across very well, if I may say so. I just wanted to know a bit more about the role that the film group had on the production of Cowards specifically.

Right. I don’t remember them having much to do with Cowards. Let’s see, I owned the cameras. I had about six Super 8 cameras just in case one broke down, I’d keep five spare Super 8 cameras in the boot of my car and whenever one wound down I’d run out and go get another one. I own the light I think we only used one light most of the time we might have rented a few lights from the film group and as a member I got cheap rates – $10 a light a day or something like that.

Since making Cowards, the film group have taken to distributing it and they’ve been very good about that. But I remember making the film almost secretly. I was in pre-production on another film at the time in 2003  I shot The Saddest Music in the World which was a much bigger budgeted movie. It was $3.5 million then. Still small I guess but the biggest I’ve ever had. and Cowards Bend the Knee was $5,000 to build a few sets and to get the film stock purchased and processed. My producers on Saddest Music in the World would have been very upset to know I was working on another project so during pre-production I would sneak away for the greater part of five days in a row and shot Cowards Bend the Knee. And, so, no-one really knew about it other than the cast members of Cowards and and then some of them later appeared just a few weeks later in Saddest Music in the World.

It was 18 years ago that I shot it  in like October or September 2002 so there are  snow plows just out of frame all the time. There’s some real hockey ice and a nearby hockey rink that we went to on the very first morning and shot off all the hockey, so slightly out of script order and then went back and shot all the dry land stuff in this snow plow garage. I don’t recall anyone noticing and I would have meetings about Saddest Music in the World that I would have to hop in my car and drive a few blocks over to the other studio to make Cowards and then come back and keep shooting Saddest Music. Of the two, I loved making both those movies , but I really love the outlaw aspects of making a movie on the sly. Normally you think of guerrilla filmmaking you think of hiding from the police and not using permits and and running from one suspicious person to another out on the streets, but I covertly went into the snow plow go up and was hiding from no police officers at all. I even insured the movie shoot in case  someone fell to their deaths at the Winnipeg Arena. So it was legitimate that way. I just didn’t want my producers the other film to know so in that way it’s a strange form of guerrilla film-making. Another example of how sketchy and sneaky I am sometimes for no reason when I could have just been straight up and said, “Hey, I’m shooting this thing, please permit me to miss a few hours of work in this other place.” Instead, I had to prop up a dummy that looked like me in my office of this other shoot and set it off so I could make my escape Alcatraz-style.

The secretive nature of the production fits that underworld, psychological aspect of Cowards, like the salon/bordello and the secret wax museum.

I think everything everything fitted but that just repressed the whole endeavour and seemed to make it even more urgent and more explosively powerful when I did let spill on some really humiliating confessions. because the movie is nothing if it’s not a big ejaculation of shameful reminiscences and ejaculations were far better for being shot illicitly.

I just want to picture it back to the Film Group. This is a bit of a selfish question, but when I was watching the documentary I found myself making a list of films and film-makers to watch.  Are there any young filmmakers working at the group now whose work you’re excited by?

Yeah, I haven’t seen much lately, but I know Matthew Rankin has made a feature recently called The Twentieth Century, which a lot of people loved. I’ve seen the shorts made leading up to it and I really like them and so I would say that one’s worth a look among the new ones.

I also like Mike Merinec. He might be working just outside the film group. You know what film co-ops are like:people fall in love with each other and then there’s inevitably some kind of falling out. So Mike’s working may well have been made after a falling out or something. There’s often a board that’s at odds with the film-makers and all sorts of inner intrigue. Or people start sleeping with each other accidentally and grudges start to form and all sorts of stuff. That’s just sort of inevitable. It’s sort of like a rock band in that way.

One last question: your film films often hark back to the past. How do you think the meaning of that backward-looking perspective changes depending on how a viewer engages with the film? For example, if it was shown in a cinema or through an online screening like Matchbox are doing with Cowards Bend the Knee, where people may be watching on their phones or tablets.

Yeah, it’s beyond me, in a way. I kind of just made it the way I did. I started off in 16mm and always assumed I would move graduate to 35mm and then, God knows, maybe even 70mm Cinerama. Y’know, big budget Hollywood films. But I quickly stalled after getting a chance to make a film in 35mm in the late ’90s, a film I didn’t like at all, and so I wandered around in a desert for a few years.

Then one of my students, a guy named Decko Dawson, with whom I made a short film called Heart of the World which is shot in both 16 and Super 8. This student of mine had this film that just looked so cool and I just realised that 35mm and all the corporate sophistication that I was just starting to get whiffs of could be just ignored utterly. If I made a plunge back into the more primitive gauges of Super 8 where green and shadow, the tendency towards high-contrast imagery because it has an auto aperture on it, would just plunge me more into a kind of a mythic past.

Since the subject matter that interested me most was the dawn of my memory and even my prehistory, sort of a mythological figuring out of my earliest years or my earliest attempts at being sexual or ethical. Just those early primitive attempts at doing the right thing seemed almost Euripidean in their flaws and murkiness and timelessness somehow. I seem to be making exactly the same mistakes as characters in 2,500-year-old Euripedes plays and I seem to be making them with some atavistic connection to the darkest roots of such mistakes.

It just seemed like the lower the gauge, the deeper I punished myself into the very Earth, the depths of my most murky thought processes. The kind I guess when you’re just beginning and you’re just forming your lips into a hungry circle in the hopes you’ll be fed, to the slightly more sophisticated point where you’re lying to a friend to seduce his girlfriend.

It just all seemed to line up: the black and white, the wordlessness. I guess silent film is just one step closer to cave painting than talking pictures. They’re just images saying things. Now I do have intertitles with plenty of text and I’ve even thought recently about replacing all those with bright, crisp, new digital ones. But I like the way I shot the intertitles in that movie with the same kind of reckless spirit with which I shot all the humans acting things. It turns out they’re all out of focus, but I decided to keep them anyway because I felt this should come out in one piece. And so it did.


Tickets for Tales from Winnipeg are on sale via Eventive here.

An edited/alternative version of this interview appears in our Tales from Winnipeg zine (free for weekend pass holders, available to purchase separately here).

Keep up-to-date with the Tales from Winnipeg Facebook event page here.

The season is part of Film Feels Connected, a UK-wide cinema season, supported by the National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. Explore all films and events at filmfeels.co.uk.

The season is supported by Film Feels Connected, Film Hub Scotland and the High Commission of Canada in the UK. #CanadaGoesDigital

Matchbox Cineclub Online: How to Watch

If you’re joining us for Tales From Winnipeg, our first online screening season, we have a few helpful recommendations and information to help you fully enjoy your viewing expereince at home.

Matchbox Cineclub: Tales From Winnipeg is a limited online-only season in celebration of the Winnipeg Film Group, hosted on our new online platform, here. The programme, which features rare and exclusive work from John Paizs, Guy Maddin, Kevin Nikkel & Dave Barber, takes place over three days, 28th-30th August 2020. Festival passes are available here and single tickets are available via each film’s page, here. To help you get the best from the season, we’ve put together the following guide. If you can’t find what you need here, send us an email: info@matchboxcineclub.com.

1. We recommend using Google Chrome. We have found Firefox, Internet Explorer, Edge and Safari to be less reliable for streaming films.

  • To download Chrome on your computer or to get the latest update click here.
  • Or search “Google Chrome” in the App Store / Play Store if you are using a phone or tablet.

2. We encourage you to watch the film in full-screen mode by hovering your cursor over the video window and clicking the symbol that appears in the bottom-right corner (see below).

3. The stream is available in up to 1080p quality, which you can opt for by hovering your cursor over the video window and clicking the Resolution symbol, then selecting a resolution option (see below). Please note your internet speed may not accommodate seamless viewing at 1080p.

4. You can switch on SDH/captions/subtitles for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing audieneces, or French language subtitles, by hovering your cursor over the video window and clicking the “CC” symbol that appears in the bottom-right corner.

5. Issues such as looping and lagging are most often sorted by refreshing the page.

6. To improve the strength of your internet connection, try to limit the number of devices connected to the router you are using. We also recommend closing all other windows, programmes and apps on the device you are using to watch the film.

7. It can help to bring your device closer to your router if you find your internet connection is poor.

8. If the film unexpectedly stops playing, please check your internet connection and try restarting your router.

Tales from Winnipeg-specific guidance

  • To access each film, pass holders must log in with the email they booked with, click the “Buy tickets / use pass to unlock films” button on any film programme, and you will be able to use your pass to unlock it.
  • Before a film programme goes live, you can pre-order your ticket. Once it’s live, unlocking a film is immediate.
  • Festival pass holders have access to all content once each event goes live until midnight on Tuesday 01/09. 
  • Festival pass holders will receive a Tales From Winnipeg zine via post once they have emailed us their delivery address at info@matchboxcineclub.com
  • Your individual ticket booking gives you automatic access to all content in a film’s package  – you do not need to reserve any additional tickets for additional content such as short films, Q&As, introductions and live performance. 
  • Ela Orleans’ live performance will live stream from 6pm on Friday 28/08, and will be archived for viewing shortly afterwards. 
  • Feature films and other additional content, including short films, Q&As and introductions can be viewed in any order, once the event goes live. 
  • For further queries and troubleshooting please contact the Matchbox Cineclub team at info@matchboxcineclub.com

Festival Passes for Matchbox Cine: Tales from Winnipeg are available here and single tickets are available via each film’s page, here

Thanks to Cample Line and Alchemy Film & Arts for the work which formed the basis of this guidance

Matchbox Cine’s Tales from Winnipeg event is part of Film Feels Connected, a UK-wide cinema season, supported by the National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. Explore all films and events at filmfeels.co.uk

Supported by the High Commission of Canada in the UK

Matchbox Cineclub Online: Tales from Winnipeg

Matchbox Cineclub launch online and internationally with Guy Maddin, Ela Orleans and John Paizs exclusives

We are thrilled to announce our new online platform, launching with a trip to weirdest Canada with our inaugural programme, Tales from Winnipeg. Following our contribution to Glasgow Short Film Festival’s DIVE IN Cinema project, this marks a significant step for us into the world of screening films online. The four-day online event celebrates the output of the legendary, renegade Winnipeg Film Group, with exclusives from icons of cult cinema Guy Maddin and John Paizs. The season runs online at talesfromwinnipeg.eventive.org from August 28th to 30th, with a new film premiering each day and remaining available for the duration of the programme.

Tales from Winnipeg opens with Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee, presented with Ela Orleans’ director-approved re-score, commissioned by Matchbox Cineclub in 2017. Ela will perform a live set via Zoom before the film debuts. Guy Maddin will introduce the film, and joins Ela in conversation afterwards. John Paizs’ cult classic Crime Wave joins the line-up on Saturday, with the online debut of Toronto International Film Festival’s 2K restoration – the beloved film has never looked or sounded better. The 2017 documentary Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group debuts on Sunday evening, framed with an introduction and post-screening conversation with directors Kevin Nikkel and Dave Barber. All films in the programme come with brand-new, director-approved subtitles for D/deaf audiences.

The Tales from Winnipeg programme is full of specially-curated bonus content, in the form of pre-show reels, introductions, live performances, Q&As and short films. Matchbox Cineclub have also produced an accompanying print publication, featuring brand-new artwork by Paizs and Maddin, new poster illustrations by Glasgow-based artist Marc Baines, an exclusive interview with Guy Maddin, an article by Geoff Pevere on John Paizs and Crime Wave, and newly-commissioned writing by director and Winnipeg Cinematheque programmer Dave Barber.

Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee

Matchbox Cineclub programmer Sean Welsh says, “When the pandemic hit, like everyone else, we found our entire upcoming slate wiped clean. As independent exhibitors, we face a longer journey back to normal than cinemas do, since socially distant events are much less viable for us. At the same time, we can take the opportunity to explore all the new possibilities that online events offer, particularly in terms of accessibility and international reach. We’re very excited to present this first programme with optional captions/SDH throughout, and for the first time we can offer French subtitles on our feature presentations too. We’re also thrilled to work with some of our heroes, Guy Maddin, Ela Orleans and John Paizs, to present their work online for the first time in the best way possible.”

Weekend Passes, which grant unlimited access to all films, additional content and a physical copy of the print publication, are £20. Individual tickets to a single film for a limited period are priced on a pay-what-you-can-afford sliding-scale ticket from £0-8, with reference to Matchbox’s Sliding Scale Guide. The programme is available to audiences everywhere, with the exception of North America.


Tickets for Tales from Winnipeg are on sale via Eventive here.

Buy the Tales from Winnipeg zine (free for weekend pass holders) here.

Keep up-to-date with the Tales from Winnipeg Facebook event page here.

The season is part of Film Feels Connected, a UK-wide cinema season, supported by the National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. Explore all films and events at filmfeels.co.uk.

The season is supported by Film Feels Connected, Film Hub Scotland and the High Commission of Canada in the UK. #CanadaGoesDigital