IN THE MID 1970s, when the British Film Institute's Production Board started worrying about the non-distribution of the films it financed, applicants for the board's support were suddenly asked to specify how and where they expected their work to be seen by audiences. Simon Hartog, looking for backing for a film inspired by the French Utopian socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, gave the question its best answer: 'Project it on the Moon'. Sad to say, he didn't get the money.
Hartog was a unique figure in what passes for British film culture. He was a perennial outsider who spent most of his life dreaming up alternatives to the mainstream orthodoxies, but none the less took a serious academic interest in the political and economic structures of the film industry. He was also one of the very few British film-makers with an informed and passionate commitment to non-British cinemas, especially those of Africa, the Middle East and South America. And he was a lifelong opponent of censorship, the first British director to have a film screened in the 'Directors' Fortnight' at the Cannes Film Festival, and a consultant to the Frelimo government on setting up a state film industry in Mozambique.
He was born in England but schooled in Chicago from the age of eight, after his parents divorced. (His father, the late concert agent Howard Hartog, remained in London.) The risk of being drafted for Vietnam drove him back to Europe in the 1960s; he took a higher degree in politics at the LSE and studied film-making at the Centro Sperimentale (the Italian film school in Rome), where he met his longtime companion Antonella Ibba. He then acted in The War Game for Peter Watkins (playing the jumpy GI who triggers the nuclear strike) and fetched up as a producer/director for Panorama, making programmes on Ronald Reagan, the May 1968 evenements in Paris and censorship. But the programme's editors proved unreceptive to some of his other proposals and he soon left the BBC to go freelance.
His enthusiasm for independent film-making in the late Sixties coincided with the rise of the 'underground film' movement, and he became a founder-member of the London Filmmakers' Co-op, to this day the only organisation of its kind in the country that serves the needs of the independent avant-garde. But Hartog's interests were too broad to be limited by the hippie idealism that was all that powered the Co-op in its early days, and he took a wide range of other jobs, from researching a report on the possible nationalisation of the film industry for the industry union ACTT to helping me to edit the short-lived film magazine Cinema Rising.
In the late Seventies, after his stint in Mozambique, he was active in the pressure-group that campaigned for a genuinely independent and innovative Channel 4. The success of that campaign led him to join John Ellis in founding the production company Large Door Ltd, which made the channel's world cinema programme Visions: Cinema for three years.
Virtually all of Simon Hartog's work in the last decade was with or for Channel 4. One of his episodes for the Visions series, a programme on censorship and politics in Brazil, was the first Channel 4 commission to be banned from transmission by the IBA; it was finally screened last year in C 4's Censorship season, to which Hartog also contributed a programme on Dusan Makavejev's struggles against censors. He programmed seasons of Arab and African cinema for the channel and served as producer on a number of films, including my own New Chinese Cinema. His last film, shot during a respite in his battle against leukaemia and edited from his hospital bed, is a devastating expose of the role that TV Globo plays in sustaining a corrupt government in Brazil. Sadly, he didn't live to see its transmission.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content