Simran Hans is the film critic for The Guaridan’s Observer New Review and has written reviews for Little White Lies, BuzzFeed, Daze, The Fader, Sight and Sound, Pitchfork and many more.
Why do different critical voices matter?
At the moment (and especially here in the UK), things feel really stale. There’s not a lot of space for voice, and it feels like a film’s 'marketability' and proximity to a news hook have started to define both its value and the conversation around it. A lot of publications are commissioning criticism around clickbait-y, SEO-friendly headlines, and tagging articles and essays to broad and often facile generalisations, instead of engaging with the text at hand. It’s a really depressing, narrow way of thinking and talking about art. It’s that, or the super traditional stuff, which is frequently smug, dry, rote, and riddled with platitudes. A lot of established voices genuinely think of themselves as gatekeepers, which probably means they’re a little too comfortable in their positions of power. I’m really not into the idea that critics are intermediaries between the audience and the art. Good criticism should, in theory, bring the reader closer to the art.
I think the only way to disrupt this is by having a wide range of views and voices. And I do mean views as well as voices – obviously it’s important that criticism isn’t just made up of straight white cine-bros, but it’s also not moving the conversation forward if women and people of colour are replicating the confirmation biases that underpin the way films are often written about. Consensus will be the death of criticism. Without a range of perspectives, there’s no tension in The Discourse, and without that tension, criticism is flattened into a publicity tool rather than something that’s important or useful in and of itself. Different ways of seeing (and looking) matter.
What inspired you to be a critic?
As a teenager, I imagined I'd grow up to write about politics, not movies! I always wanted to be a writer, but never thought I'd be a critic. In fact, I’m still slightly uneasy using the term ‘critic’ to describe myself.
I’ve always read criticism with interest, but have long felt alienated from ‘critics’, few of whom seemed to be looking at the same bits of movies as I was, and even fewer who looked like me! The prerequisite expertise (not to mention the need to show off that expertise within the reviews) required by the job also seemed intimidating and off-putting to me. Which is not to say I don’t think film history and context aren’t relevant – they are – but I resented this idea that movies exist in a vacuum, in a universe of other films sealed from the outside world.
But I still wanted to write about cinema. So, I did it anyway. I’m constantly trying to acknowledge the gaps in my knowledge while also finding other ‘ways in’ that don’t hinge on intertextual references and/or auteurism. I’m interested in a film’s worldview; in looking at its formal qualities to figure out what it’s doing, who it’s talking to, what it’s trying to say. I’m not interested in re-inscribing a predetermined ‘take’ about whether it’s Good or Bad or trying to come up with a definitive reading. Be the critic you want to see in the world, is what I’m getting at!
What films are you excited about right now?
Josephine Decker's new film Madeline's Madeline, which I saw at the Berlinale earlier this year, contains the most visceral, truthful mother-daughter relationship I've seen on film in forever, and is doing brilliant, inventive things with form. Her cinematographer Ashley Connors is a genius. I’m also fascinated by what this film has to say about the slippery ethical problems of creating intimacy with collaborators, and asking them to bring their own experiences to a given project. Without wanting to spoiler the film too much, I think it’s pretty bold of Decker to implicate herself like that.
What “hidden gem” do you think deserves more attention?
The films of Ngozi Onwurah. Coffee Coloured Children (1998), The Body Beautiful (1991), White Men Are Cracking Up (1996) – all brilliant. She’s part of a legacy of black British filmmakers who came out of the 80s and 90s, in direct response to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Yet, when we talk about black film, we don’t talk about them (and we talk about her even less). Her 1995 film Welcome II the Terrordome was the first independent black British feature film to get a cinema release, but to only discuss her in that context makes her seem like a relic – like a piece of history that’s been fossilised, when actually, she’s a filmmaker who is still very much alive.