Top Welsh directors: Karl Francis

Photograph of Karl Francis

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Karl Francis (1942-)

A miner's son from Bedwas, Gwent, Karl Francis has been a prolific and courageous film director and writer for more than 30 years, regularly addressing - often in a forthright, passionately partisan way - social and political concerns in Wales.

Francis made a firm impression on critics with his deeply felt, unsettling low budget cinema feature, Above Us The Earth (1977), focusing on the closure of the Ogilvie Colliery in the Rhymney Valley.

Production photograph featuring Karl Francis on a film shoot. Image courtesy Karl Francis.Production photograph featuring Karl Francis on a film shoot. Image courtesy Karl Francis.

It reveals the shutdown's full impact on the community while remaining rigorously objective, allowing the union's national leadership and local officials their say, while presenting issues largely through the eyes of ordinary miners with conflicting views on the importance of keeping the pit open or accepting tempting compensation offers.

Francis' follow-up The Mouse and the Woman (1980), based loosely on a Dylan Thomas prose-poem and set around World War One, deals with class issues through the inevitably abortive relationship between a feckless coalowner's wife and a miner (Dafydd Hywel). The film contains memorable scenes but the targets are too diffuse, the poetry not fully integrated.

More successful was Giro City (1982), with Glenda Jackson and Jon Finch as television journalists seeking to reveal local government corruption on land deals in Wales, and striving to obtain an uncensored screening for an exclusive interview with an IRA leader. The film, tense and assured, gains from Francis' experience of the media, with its censorship obstacles and pressures to compromise.

Production photograph from Giro City, courtesy Karl Francis.Production photograph from Giro City, courtesy Karl Francis.

Ms. Rhymney Valley (1985) also impresses, as a study of a community in the throes of the 1984/85 Miners' Strike but riven by gender conflict, as male local pit leaders opt naively and insensitively for a women's beauty competition to fundraise, to the dismay of women campaigners in the Miners' Support groups.

The film, with its uneasy mix of documentary reality and fictionalised episodes, has problematic elements but the script's leavening of humour is a saving grace, together with Francis' ability to present the charismatic key opponents, Charmaine Nind, fiery granddaughter of a former miners' union leader Bill Nind, and Abe Roberts, an old guard sexist dinosaur, with understanding and sensitivity.

Francis' Boy Soldier (1986), though it attracted criticism for graphic violence and suggestions of ill-treatment meted out in British military prisons, fulfilled all the promise of Above Us The Earth, as Francis examines class, national and language issues through the plight of a Welsh squaddie serving in Ireland with the British forces and made the scapegoat after a killing. The boy's relationship with an Irish girl, though fated, convinces him that his loyalties may lie more with the 'occupied' Irish communities than with his English military 'superiors'.

Production photograph from Boy Soldier, courtesy Karl Francis.Production photograph from Boy Soldier, courtesy Karl Francis.

Francis also gained accolades for Streetlife (1994), made for TV but released into cinemas on 35mm. It drew an astonishingly rich performance from newcomer Helen McCrory as a jilted single mother on a drug ridden south Wales housing estate. The film's emotional power helps compensate for storyline improbabilities at the climax.

Francis' attempt to break into the international market with One of the Hollywood Ten (2001) foundered due to contract and financial disputes with producers.

The film probes the impact of Hollywood's post-war anti-Communist campaign on 'blacklisted' couple, director Herbert Biberman and his actress wife Gale Sondergaard, who defied their ban by making the New Mexico mining film Salt of the Earth (1954).

Francis' film, containing a riveting cameo from Angela Molina, openes uncertainly but grows in conviction with scenes of Biberman's unorthodox methods for protecting a movie which landed international prizes against all odds.


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