Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Polish Prayers (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir.: Hanka Nobis; Documentary; Switzerland/Poland, 2022, 84 min.

Like many countries nowadays Poland is deeply divided largely due to the erosion of what are often seen as ‘traditional’ values. For her first feature documentary, premiering in this year’s IDFA, Hanka Nobis spent five years following a group of young men who have formed “Brotherhood”, an association that champions Catholicism, nationalism, Pro-Life and celibacy before marriage. Her findings are illuminating as well as shocking.

In ‘survival camps’ in the countryside, the men club together to provide a united front against the LGTB community and the pro abortion lobby. After a year with the group Nobis decides to focus on Antek, who is now twenty-five years old.

Antek comes from a background where strict conservative ideology is at heart of family life. And yet his family is divided, his parents are divorced and Antek and his little sister celebrate Christmas in two households. It almost feels like Antek has sought refuge in the “Brotherhood” and retreated into its misogynist standpoint. Another group member rails against “his castration”, and “misses the time when men could look after women”. Finally, he posits, “even women are not happy today, because nobody looks after them”. Weirdly his mother, a physician, seems to endorse his membership of the Brotherhood.

Some weekends are spent in the rural setting where the members prepare for a ‘war’ they believe is inevitable. Antek has a gun, which, he is proud to admit, only cost him 500 Zlotys. But he’s not much of a shot. His other group activities involve heckling during LGBT and Pro-Choice marches. The Brotherhood’s banners proclaim: “Homosexuals are often Paedophiles”, but they avoid physical violence for fear of reprisals.

Then love arrives for Antek when he meets Weronika, and his picture of the world – and his place in it – starts to change. He tells a Brotherhood friend, that “he has doubts about believing in God”. Weronica makes him happy without the need for his Catholic faith”. And even though the couple eventually split up, Antek changes his mind about becoming a priest. Finally, his new fiancée is able to convince him to march under the ‘Rainbow flag of Love’. But when his mother pays him a visit, he takes the flag down. Later, his mother expresses her disappointment about him leaving the Brotherhood: “You were always so responsible as a teenager, that’s the reason why we let you leave home”. The final credits roll on a split screen, one half showing Antek playing the guitar, at peace with himself.

DoP Milosz Kasiura uses his hand-held camera to capture the instability of Antek’s life. And in some way the director’s inexperience works to her advantage in painting a portrait of uncertainty: Antek is also at the beginning of his metamorphosis and an accomplished filmmaker might have glossed over the raw and fractious undercurrents of change. Polish Prayers may lack polish, but it’s certainly a compelling debut. AS

POLISH PRAYERS | IDFA 2022 | World Premiere | 14 November 2022

Lynch/Oz (2022)

Dir.: Alexandre O. Philippe; Documentary with Amy Nicholson, Rodney Asher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, David Lowery, Justin Benson, Aaron Morehead; USA, 108′

Swiss born director Alexandre O. Philippe has created a niche for himself with a clutch of informative film essays exploring late twentieth century American Horror cinema in Memory: The origins of Alien, Hitchcock’s shower scene in 78/52 and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. With LYNCH/OZ he takes a look at David Lynch, arguably the world’s most enigmatic living director, with the help of seven filmmakers and one film critic.

Told In six chapters the film goes back through the annuls with extensive clips from The Wizard of Oz and comes to a definitive conclusion: That David Lynch is completely obsessed by this “Dada picture” of Hollywood, directed by Fleming in 1939, the same year he finished Gone with the Wind.

David Lynch is well-known for not wanting to discuss any of his films. But when asked if Wizard influenced him – he replies: “Not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Wizard of Oz“.

Billowing curtains feature heavily in the Lynch archive, so it seems appropriate that each segment of Philippe’s documentary opens and closes with plush green drapes. Critic Amy Nicholson kicks off proceedings which her chapter entitled “Wind”, highlighting the many connections between Wizard and the Lynch oeuvre. There are the ruby slippers (Blue Velvet and the Twin Peak series); the man behind the curtains who (re)appears in Mulholland Drive; Dorothy (sic) Vallens in Blue Velvet and the wind – which captions this chapter – in Eraserhead.

But the focus is on two worlds where the Lynchian protagonists alongside Dorothy and her re-incarnations exist side in a parallel universe: reality and fantasy. Like Lolita, who was forced to live in two disconnected hemispheres: that of the schoolgirl and the mature man’s lover, Mullholland Drive is perhaps he best example of this dichotomy. We watch an ingénue grow into a mature woman and actor, but at the same time, the traumata brought on by the chaos that surrounds her, prevents Lolita from really growing, forcing her to adjust to an alien world of grown-ups in the film business. Meanwhile her friends’ delusions are a state of induced schizophrenia.

David Lowery, in chapter V (“Judy”), wants to save Dorothy and Judy Garland, one of the many doppelgängers that inhabit the Lynchian universe. Garland’s personal tragedy being pre-played in Wizard. In chapter IV (“Maltitudes”), director Karyn Kusama discusses reality and transformation, seen when The Yellow Brick Road morphs into Lynch’s Lost Highway. John Waters is his usual sardonic self, talking about his friendship with Lynch and their parallel careers in chapter III (“Kindred”). And Rodney Asher (“Membranes”, Chapter II), is still fixating on his feature Room 237 and its relationship to Kubrick’s The Shining, trying to expound his thesis of original and remake in general discussion.

The Peter Pan syndrome is mentioned, both in connection with Lynch himself and the Dorothy character. And the evil witch in Wizard is compared to Kurtz in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, him being both wizard and witch, his own destructive doppelgänger.

Some try to make Wizard into a film noir, but it is all genres rolled into one: Musical, thriller, comedy, horror and Sci-fi. Corruption couched in suburban perfection is the overriding theme in the Lynch cycle, and best showcased in the Twin Peaks series. Lynch tries to liberate Dorothy in Twin Peaks:The Return. But Garland was an unhappy Wendy in the adult world of her Peter Pan universe, crushed by the Neverland pirates of the film industry. A happy home-coming only happens in the movies.

DoP Robert Muratore and editor David Lawrence manage the treasure trove of clips and material seamlessly. LYNCH/OZ is a labour of love, and a gratifying compendium of film history. AS

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 2 DECEMBER 2022

All that Breathes (2022) Grierson Award BFI London Film Festival

Dir: Shaunak Sen | India, Doc, 91′

In New Delhi nature is adapting far more intuitively to pollution than humans according to this visionary documentary that embodies the stealth of the animal kingdom.

All That Breathes works on three levels: as a melancholic, dreamlike meditation on the vital synergy that exists between all living creatures; as an eco-doc exploring the worsening effects of pollution and climate change in India; or simply, as a human story about two brothers working together to make the world kinder and more humane.

Living in an increasingly violent and overpopulated capital city, Mohammed, Nadeem and their friend/co-worker Salik dedicate their spare time to a home-based mostly self-funded organisation called Wildlife Rescue. For the past two decades they have rehabilitated kites and other birds of prey in the cramped conditions of a makeshift clinic. Key to the relevance of kites is that Muslims believe feeding them will bring some kind of religious reward or sawab.  Since the brothers started the clinic in 2003 the situation has got worse and their patient list is constantly growing, consuming more of the brothers’ time and impacting on their own family wellbeing.

Director Sen creates an evocative portrait from the opening scenes that see ants, mice and rats scurrying around under the neon-lit night skies of Delhi oblivious to the looming violence and public unrest that rages, on a daily level, in the background. Meanwhile, landfill sites are invading the landscape, rivers are drying up and monsoons are worsening causing flooding that brings sewerage out into the open. “Delhi is an open wound, and we are tiny a band-aid” says Nadeem.

The air is becoming so heavy with chemical pollution and smog that birds are tumbling from the skies and often literally crash into one another as they hover over landfill sites, scavenging for food. Crucially, many chemicals are not fully tested for their environmental impact and these birds act as a monitor for toxicity – rather like the famous ‘canary in the coal mine’ back in the Industrial Age. But the brothers have no time for chemical testing and analysis as they face a growing list of avian patients. Cinematographer Ben Bernhard creates a woozy poetic bird’s eye view of a city intoxicated by its own chemical brew. His camera also allows us intimate close-ups of the kites, vulnerable but beady-eyed on the operating table.

Swooping between the real and the surreal Shaunak Sen invites us to gaze at the beauty of the animal kingdom and the ugliness caused by humans, in this decadent apocalyptic world, and draw our own conclusions. MT

Fledglings (2022) Locarno Film Festival 2022

 

Dir.: Lidia Duda; Documentary with Zosia, Oskar, Kinga; Poland 2022, 82 min.

A specialist boarding school in Poland explores how blind and visually impaired the children gain strength and confidence from supporting each other in Lidia Duda’s surprisingly stylish first feature that serves as a warm tribute to both staff and patients.

Zosia, Oskar and Kinga are barely out of nappies when they find themselves separated from their parents and in the care of Ewa, a strict but gentle nurse who is only satisfied when they do their best to interact in the new surroundings. Oskar is learning to play the piano but Zosia is still finding her feet away from the family home. On a speaker-phone she listens to her mother wishing her ‘sweet deams’. Sensitive to noise, Zosia finds the other kids challenging, particularly Oskar who shouts a lot.

Surrounded by toys and learning aids – the swings turn out to be difficult to master – the children also use a sort of typewriter with buttons for every letter, to learn to write. Zosia is more concerned with her mother who: “has to work, she could not come to visit, she has to earn money”. Zosia pleads with Oskar not to clap “you can clap after school, but otherwise you’ll get us expelled. You have to learn not to sleep in class”. Suddenly, Zosia is alone with no friends to play with: “I need a hug”. she cries. But despite Oskar pushing her Zosia admits that she does like him.

In this religious institution the children are taught that “God loves us all”. Oskar seems to respond, telling Zosia he loves her, but she is not so sure of him and really just wants to see her parents, desperate for them to visit: “I am in a bad mood today. I miss Kinga and Dad”. At a meeting for the whole school, Zosia is chosen to recite a poem by a well-known author. The results are impressive. But the day after her uncle and aunt finally managed to visit, Zosia complains: “Yesterday I had a bad day, a really tough day.”

Zosia finally learns to play the piano, and she and Oskar enjoy a role-play with teddy bears, the kids pretend to be doctors curing them. One bear is told he has to stay in bed for three years (!). After recovering from a emergency visit to hospital, Kinga’s birthday provides a welcome break for the kids with Oskar accompanying the celebrations on the piano, Zosia touching his shoulder gently as he turns to stroke her face.

These children are forced to grow up early – and relying on verbal communication has made them advanced for their age where speech is concerned in a world that will remain a mystery to them forever, in many ways. As a result their role-plays become very complex and mature. With sensitive black-and-white images from DoPs Wojciech Staron and Zuzanna Zachara, Fledgings is endearing but never sentimental in showing that the struggle for a non-visual identity is tough but enormously satisfying. An impressive first feature and a special achievement in every way. AS

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | SEMAINE DE LA CRITIQUE LOCARNO 2022 

Only in Theatres (2022)

Dir.: Raphael Sbarge; Documentary with Greg Laemmle, Tish Laemmle, Robert Laemmle, James Ivory, Roberta Grossman, Cameron Crowe; USA 2021, 95 min.

Arthouse cinemas are facing tough competition from the likes of streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime. But one Los Angeles chain is still thriving after thanks to the pioneering spirit of its owners, the Laemmle family.

US director Raphael Sbarge chronicles its fight for survival against the odds for the new  generation of Laemmles, who (still) own the much-loved 84-year-old chain in Los Angeles. Founded by German-Jewish emigrants Max and Kurt Laemmle in 1938 – they were nephews of Hollywood tycoon Carl Laemmle – the cinema chain fought off the threat of closure from dwindling audiences during the Covid-19 epidemic.

Founders Max and Kurt followed their uncle Carl from New Jersey to California after Thomas Edison insisted on all film production companies using his patent. Any producers who refused had cameras and other film-making equipment smashed to pieces; the police were unable to intervene. Capitalism was tough, it was the survival of the fittest.

Today’s Laemmles: CEO Greg, his father Robert (the president), Greg’s wife Tish and their triplet sons Gabriel, Nadav and Ezra, are fighting a different battle of survival. Since the early 1950s the various outlets, headed up by their marquee theatre “Royal”, has specialised in European Arthouse fare from Bergman, Resnais and Godard. The Laemmles enjoyed a certain monopoly on the foreign market as Hollywood productions dominated the LA cinema scene.

Streaming started to take great chunks out of audiences, and the profits; rather like the advent of TV seventy years ago. Laptops and iPads threatened the very existence of the Arthouse scene. Director James Ivory, one of many filmmakers, critics and film historians – among them Roberta Grossman and Cameron Crowe – is adamant in not wanting his films to be streamed: “If anyone told me they’d seen my films online, I would say ‘Oh no!'”

For months during the second half of 2019, CEO Greg Laemmle mulled over the possibility of selling the family business. His father Robert and wife Tish watched him getting more and more depressed. But finally, on Christmas Day, Greg told a delighted audience he had decided against selling. A few months later Covid-10 led to the closure of all cinemas in the state of California. The doors would not open again until March 2021. Greg and Tish had to sell their LA house and move to Seattle, Washington. They were also forced to put two cinemas up for sale to finance the remainder of their outlets, This ‘victory’ has certainly taken its toll on Greg – the responsibility to carry on the family tradition is a tall order for anybody who values quality above the profit margin, particularly in the materialistic world of the United States.

Only in Theatres is passionate but never sentimental. The battle of art versus commerce is fought out in the open with DoP Matt Kubas’ handheld camera being a witness to this war for the ‘soul of cinema’. A informative piece of living film history. AS

ONLY IN THEATRES PREMIERED AT THE GALWAY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Ithaka (2021)

Dir.: Ben Lawrence; Documentary with John Shipton, Stella Moris, Ai Weiwei, Vivienne Westwood, John Pilger, Nils Melzer; Australia/UK 2021, 104 min.

The contraversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (*1971) is the subject of this new documentary that takes the first lines of the titular 1911 poem by Greek writer Constantine Cavafy as its motto: As you set out for Ithaca /hope that your journey is a long one/full of adventure, full of discovery”.

Assange could not have asked for more: his discoveries are the stuff of nightmares, and the revenge of the governments he exposed has landed him in Britain’s High Security prison Belmarsh where he has languished for the last three years, actually managing to marry while in captivity: quite a feat for most people, particularly those accused of rape. Anyone who saw Laura Poitras’ hagiographic biopic Risk (2016/7) will have made up their minds about Assange’s persuasive powers where women are concerned, but Lawrence casts no judgement here, keeping his distance. An extradition order from the USA is pending, with British home secretary Priti Patel only too willing to oblige.

We meet Assange’s wife, the lawyer Stella Moris, at the unveiling of a statue of her husband in Geneva in November 2021. “I am here to remind you that Julian isn’t a name, he isn’t a symbol, he is a man and he is suffering”.

The couple have two young children, both conceived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange stayed between 2012 and 2019. There is CCTV footage from the embassy, showing Assange and Moris, the former skate-boarding in his room. A guard warned Moris that the footage was to be sent to the US secret service every fortnight – Moris stopped visiting Assange. She also learned there were plans to poison her husband. The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Nils Melzer said “Torture is a tool used as a warning to others. It’s most effective when inflicted in public. In Julian’s case it’s about intimidating everyone else”. In this particular case it was Chelsea Manning, ex-US officer, who blew the whistle on Afghan war crimes by the US Army, and went to prison, to avoid talking about Assange’s part in the operation after she found out that Assange was depressed, and suffered a ‘mini’ stroke in Belmarsh Prison.

The time at the embassy coincides more or less with the Swedish Justice system accusing Assange of sexual assault, a charge bought forward by two Swedish women in 2010. In 2019 the case was dismissed, due to the long intervening period since the original accusation.

Besides Moris, Assange’s main defender is his father John Shipton (76), who travels the world in search of a positive solution to the case, neglecting his own five-year old daughter in Australia. John stepped out of Julian’s live when he letter was three, but re-entered when John was in his early twenties. John is tired, so much time is lost for him and his daughter Severine. He likens Lawrence to “Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor”. “He keeps burrowing away”.

On January 10th 2022, the UK High Court ruled Assange could be extradited to the USA, overturning a Lower Court ruling from 2021. On March 3rd of this year, the High Court refused Assange permission to appeal. On June 17th 2022 Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary, approved the extradition order. Two weeks later Assange and his team appealed against the extradition order. The war in the Ukraine has led to strong statements in the western media. It is perhaps helpful to remember that one of the WikiLeaks posted on 12.7.2007 concerned the killing of journalist Namir Noor-Eidsen and Saeed Chmagh, who were shot dead from the air by a US helicopter.

A strong score by Brian Eno helps to round off this passionate plea for a man who, according to Melzer, “never wanted to be in the spotlight”. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8 July 2022

McEnroe (2022)

Dir.: Barney Douglas; Documentary with John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Patty Smyth; US/UK 2022, 104 min.

This new documentary about sporting (anti)hero John McEnroe overcomes the limitations of the genre in the same way as breakout hits Senna and Amy. US Writer/director Barney Douglas certainly mines the incendiary potential of his subject matter tennis icon John McEnroe (*1959) who never needs an excuse for his tirades and tantrums on and off court. Old age eventually mellows the star of Centre Court, after 37 psychiatrists, cocaine and countless affairs failed to do so.

John McEnroe won his first Grand Slam at the US Open in New York in 1979, age twenty, by defeating fellow New Yorker and best friend Vitus Gerulaitis; only five years later he would win his last and seventh Grand Slam title on the same ground, beating Ivan Lendl. He retired in 1992 from playing singles, but the question is: what happened in the intervening eight years.

The answer is not an easy one, even though McEnroe confesses: “I may be slightly on the spectrum”. Yes, he was one of the many high-functioning autism cases, always looking for perfection – for himself and others. And when both fell short, he exploded. But there is more to it: namely his relationship with his father John Patrick senior, who was for a long time his manager. When McEnroe junior wanted (needed) a father more than a manager, however successful, he sacked him, creating a lifelong rift. John senior was one of many fathers of his generation who proclaimed truthfully to love their offspring – but were totally unable to show it. Towards the end this father vs son struggle became bitter, with John junior blaming his father for the early death of his mother Katherine (of cancer in 2017); death also claiming her husband in the same year.

John’s marriage with Tatum O’Neal (1986-1994) did not help either – John was not prepared to take second place when it came to their media attention. Gaining custody of the three children from the marriage, his daughter sided with her mother. His 1997 marriage to vocalist Patty Smyth is more peaceful and produced two daughters, Ann and Ava, who also contribute their version of their father’s troubled existence. Björn Borg, who became a close friend after both men retired, and Billie Jean King, tell the story from a sporting point of view. After his retirement in 1992, John pursued the career of a musician, something he had planned with Gerulaitis, who died of carbon-monoxide poising at the age of forty, leaving a big hole in John’s life.

At the end of the day, there are many reasons why John McEnroe did not achieve the long lasting success of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, who all are still winning at the wrong end of thirty: so far 20+ single titles. Even Pete Sampras has doubled John McEnroe’s record with fourteen grand slams titles; McEnroe not even ranking among the first fifteen of the all time Winners’ List.

DoP Lucas Tucknott really excels in the nighttime visuals in Queens where McEnroe stalks his old stamping grounds, asking and answering some of the questions that still haunt him. Rather like the ‘Flying Dutchman’  he will never really find a peaceful harbour from life’s emotional trials. McENROE, very much an American tragedy: gruelling competition, failed parenthood and the loneliness of a life so long without any real emotional awareness. “My greatest failing – my lack of empathy”, he confesses in the dark shadows of Queens.AS

OUT ON 15 JULY 2022

Fashion Reimagined (2022) Tribeca Film Festival 2022

Dir: Becky Hutner | Doc, 92′

Every now and again comes a really eye-opening documentary and one that changes your mind about our impact on the world we live in.

And Fashion Reimagined is one of those films. Not a particularly interest-sparking title, so you may flip over it, particularly if fashion is not your thing. Becky Hutner, who directed and produced it, raises the profile of one of the most wasteful and polluting industries today: that of fashion.

Fresh-faced designer Amy Powney is the rising star in the London fashion scene and the woman who has pioneered a sustainable way forward with her cult label Mother of Pearl . English country girl Amy grew up with a passion for drawing and soon discovered the devastating environmental impact of her industry on the globe. On winning the coveted Vogue award for the Best Young Designer of the Year (2017), which comes with a big cash prize, she decided to put the money towards creating a sustainable collection from field to finished garment, and in doing so transform her entire business.

The film follows her often tortuous progress in pioneering a way forward. But her personal revolution soon led to a ground-breaking societal change. The collection made its premiere at London Fashion Week in 2018 under the name “No Frills.” The mission was to make No Frills an organic, traceable line of clothing that uses minimal water and chemicals, is socially responsible, and considers animal welfare, particularly the painful process of ‘mulesing’ where sheep are mutilated to prevent infection, just for the benefit of the wool trade.

You may never think twice about buying fast fashion on the Highstreet or online – perhaps a few summer outfits from Zara or teeshirts and jeans from Uniqlo or The Gap. What could be simpler? Yet the garment trade has one of the most destructive carbon imprints with its wasteful use of water and poisoning toxic chemicals. And not to mention the mountains of used clothes that end up in landfill clogging our landscape even further.

Amy’s journey to source wool and cotton from ‘ethical’ was not easy. With her business partner Chloe, she travelled to Pedro Otegui’s family farm in Uruguay, known for its impeccable animal welfare and traceable products to the origin, and to Isko: a denim mill in Turkey certified by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). Denim is one of the pernicious products in its use of water and chemicals. And this segment is arguably the most revealing a part of the documentary and also adds an interesting travelogue spin.

Amy soon realised she had a lot to learn about how the garment industry operates: it’s not just about sourcing, carding and spinning from one location: the raw material travels thousands of miles from start to finish, once again taking its toll on the planet, not to mention the plants and animals involved. English wool is not as soft – nor as white – as that sourced in Uruguay, for example, and this gives the film its educational slant, not to mention some magnificent scenery and some dramatic tension in the process.

Eventually Amy pulls through with a fabulous collection, and plaudits from fashion luminaries such as Katharine Hamnett, the UK’s first sustainable designer, who provides an opportunity to talk about the reinvention of the fashion industry during London Fashion Week, providing a hopeful trigger for change in the industry and some real interest from buyers around the world. With her label Mother of Pearl, Amy has pathed a way forward for a kinder industry and less waste and agony for animals and the environment. So time to think twice when we next head to the High Street for that shirt that may be chucked away after a year to make space for yet another new set of clothes for this season. MT

TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

The Princess (2022)

Dir.: Ed Perkins; Documentary about Princess Diana; UK 2022, 106 min.

Hot on the heels of Spencer, The Crown and the musical Diana, THE PRINCESS does not promise or deliver any new insight into the life and tragic death of our much loved, Princess of Wales. Instead Ed Perkins pieces together a documentary made up exclusively of television news footage and public records, once again showing the Diana we have seen in the media and watched on TV for over 40 years – 25 of them after her death in a Parisian car crash. This is a digest of what was fed to the general public – rather than a feast of new information revealing the truth what really happened.

When the TV camera spotlight first fell on Lady Diana Spencer, it was 1981, she was an innocent twenty year old nursery teacher;  Prince Charles a well-travelled, sophisticated 32 year old prince. They harding knew each other, let alone loved each other, as the first TV interview shows. The media version of what happened next was “The Fairy Story”. In the midst of social and political turbulence, a fairy story was badly needed. But the fairy tale ended when Prince Charles, even after the birth of his first son William, continued to lead the life of a bachelor – including his adulterous affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who was also married and a mother of two.

Much later, in the scandalous TV interview with Martin Bashir,  Diana spilt the beans: her own romantic affairs; the self harm; Bulimia; and a suicide attempt. Now the second phase, a “Soap Opera” was to begin. A collision between the royal family, representing traditional values, and Diana’s 20th Century lifestyle was played out before a public. A Disney movie perhaps, but nothing to do with the fact that the couple had never been in love in the first place. The so-called heart-break was the base the relationship was built on. Once again the British media drove the narrative forward, as it still does today, serving the public with what it thought they wanted, rather than the real truth of the matter.

Writer/director Ed Perkins (Tell me, who I am) and his editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira have certainly cobbled together a hoard of information but for whose benefit? Certainly not the ones who have worshipped “the princess of the people”, who was clearly at the cash cow for everyone who benefitted from her tragic story. Perhaps the best use of this documentary is as material for media students – as an example of reality television of the worst kind. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 30 JUNE 2022 FOR A SPECIAL ONE NIGHT ONLY EVENT ACROSS THE UK/IRELAND

 

Benedikt (2022) Visions du Réel 2022

Dir: Katrin Memmer | Doc, Germany 72’

In her first feature documentary filmmaker Katrin Memmer was influenced by Germany sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s concept of ‘resonance’ where the notion of listening and responding to nature makes for a rewarding experience as the pace of life is gradually speeding up without making us any happier or more content. 

The focus is Benedikt who has spent his whole life in the German Palatinate forest where he lives off the land. The difference is that Benedikt rarely sees a soul apart from his sheep and bees. From bottling honey to raising his hand-reared stock – the skinning of one is not a moment for animal lovers to relish – the bearded, long-haired farmer is totally alone and self-reliant. Painstaking and backbreaking jobs must be undertaken every moment of the day in the basic and largely non-motorised farm but there is a satisfying rhythm to these repetitive chores all dealt with methodically and single-handedly, and they are captured on Super 8 often in closeup in a delicately washed out colourscape of muted shades of green and beige. 

Some jobs are predictable such as jointing a lamb carcass for sale at the market, others more unexpected such as the flame drying the honey combs done with a blow torch, presumably to sanitise them. And although Benedikt has got most tasks down to a fine art you can see how mayhem could suddenly descend without his capable husbandry – and presumably this is where ‘resonance ‘ comes in, particularly where honey harvesting and clipping sheep hooves is concerned. The only time his temper frays and involves a ‘phonecall is when dealing with an awkward tyre which refuses to fit on its wheel. 

There’s also something surreal about this cleverly assembled largely wordless haptic exchange where people and animals communicate and interact through the sense of listening and touch. Benedikt is memorable and pleasantly auteurish study of one man’s life amid nature and animals in a modern day homestead throughout the year. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | NYON, SWITZERLAND 2022

Navalny (2022)

Dir.: Daniel Roher; Documentary with Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaya, Dasha Navalny, Zakhar Navalny; USA 2022, 98 min.

When Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher (Once were Brothers) met Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, they had different agendas in mind. But the poisoning of Alexei Navalny (*1976) on 20.8.2020 in the Xander Hotel in Tomsk, changed everything. Suddenly Roher was sitting opposite Navalny to discuss a film that could be his epitaph. And it may still be for the dissident politician who is currently languishing in a Russian penal colony on bogus charges.

Navalny had led two different political organisations – “Russia of the Future” and the “Progress Party” – and neither were permitted to run in the 2018 Presidential Elections on account of “Corruption charges” as well as accusations of “Embezzlement”, according to Putin controlled jurisdiction.

But Putin and the FSB (a new name for the old KGB) were not finished with Navalny. Agents of the FSB poisoned his boxer shorts with the nerve agent novichok (known as LP9 (Love potion No. 9) in the FSB handbook. On the flight from Omsk to Moscow Navalny suffered convulsions. His life was saved by an emergency landing in Omsk where he was treated in hospital and Roher and his crew met the dissident and his wife Yulia. They declined to be photographed preferring to maintain the image of a strong and healthy politician. A few days later, Novalny was flown to Berlin for further treatment, where the novichok diagnosis was confirmed. The recovering Navalny could only laugh about the attack: “How stupid, they can’t be so stupid”. But they were.

At home in his Black Forest retreat Alexei, his family and the film team discovered with the help of hackers, the names of the four FSB operatives involved in the assassination attempt. In late December, Navalny put a call through to them, impersonating a leading officer of the FSB, wanting to discuss “what went wrong” during the ‘operation’. The first three agents declined to talk to Alexei, one even pointing out he knew the real identity of the caller. But the forth member, Konstantin Kudryavstev, was only too willing to talk, and confessed that without the emergency landing in Omsk, the victim would have died. A few hours more in the air, without help and the antidote “would have done the trick” according to Kudryavstev. “He is dead, the poor man is dead”, exclaimed Alexei after the end of phone conversation.

On January 17th 2021, Navalny was back in Moscow. At Vnukovo airport, huge crowds gathered, to welcome back their hero and his family. The authorities quickly diverted the plane to Sheremetyevo, and even though supporters crowded round the disembarking politician, the authorities prevailed, and Alexei was arrested on arrival.

His original punishment for the alleged embezzlement and contempt of court was two years and eight months, but since then Putin’s regime has come up with a nine-year sentence, to be served in a maximum security prison. All the organisations Alexei belonged to, have been declared “extremist” and are therefore illegal. Despite all this, Navalny started a hunger strike, only ending when he was on death’s door. After the start of the Ukraine invasion by Russia, he sent out messages from the penal colony, condemning the war.

DoP Niki Walti uses his often handheld camera to great effect, particularly in the scenes when Alexei engages with the corrupt FSB agents. Perhaps, Roher could have forced Navalny more on the extreme nationalist, part of his coalition. But overall his film is a great coup: audience bearing witness to living history: to a man’s courage, and the cowardliness of the murderous organisation known as the FSB. Echoes are already sounding in Ukraine on a daily basis. A remarkable document. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8 APRIL 2022

A Taste of Whale (2022) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir: Vincent Kelner | Doc 85′

The Faroe Islands archipelago is one of the safest places in the world, but not for its community of whales. Each summer several hundreds of pilot whales, members of the dolphin family, are slaughtered in the green fjords to provide food for the islanders. In his feature debut French TV director Vincent Kelner uncovers some surprising angles in exploring this emotive practice known locally as the ‘Grind’.

Jens Mortan Rasmussen has eaten whale meat for most of his life and feels privileged to have grown up in the Faroe Islands: there are no big cities and surrounded by vast open landscapes he enjoys the ability to source his own food from nature. We first see him slicing through a massive chunk of whale meat proud that he has killed the animal himself – one of the 60-90 whales he has so far slaughtered to feed his family. Trying to do it as quickly and as humanely as possible he sees no difference between killing whales, sheep, or battery chickens – who suffer the worst conditions during their short lives – for subsistence. And put this way, he certainly seems to make a point.

Since the 16th century, whale meat and blubber has been a traditional form of nourishment in these remote Danish islands, and most Faroese grow up eating the rich source of protein several times a week. But the islanders do not kill or eat larger whales, and even push them to safety if they stray into more shallow waters, and we see Rasmussen actively helping out when some of the large whales become stranded due to sonar difficulties. Runi Nielsen claim to film the slaughter so that study slaughter methods and try to improve on them.

Faroe Islanders are fiercely protective of their language, culture and history and take great exception to any interference in their way of life, especially from the Sea Shepherd activists who feel passionately opposed to whale slaughter: predominantly vegetarians and vegans, they are actively opposed to animal slaughter, not only in the Faroes but everywhere else in the world. They believe pilot whales to be sentient and sophisticated beings capable of referential communication, and should be allowed to roam free under animals rights protection believe the mammals. Their presence on the islands is a viewed as a menace by the Faroese who claim their new improved methods of slaughter are so much less cruel than they used to be, with improved weapons and less damaging fishing hooks. The islanders feel there is a lack of integrity in the way their country is being portrayed as knee deep in the blood of whales while elsewhere animals are routinely slaughtered humanely (or not, in the case of Halal). A spokesperson for the Shepherds feel that Faroes, a self-governing archipelago, and part of the Kingdom of Denmark, benefit from free trade agreement with the European Union, although they chose to remain outside so they could maintain control of their fisheries, and indulge in whale killing, which is actually illegal in the rest of Europe. Other animal rights organisations are also joining the defence of whales. Maybe it’s the way the whales are rounded up and hunted down ‘en masse’ in a blood-bath massacre that is so upsetting to outsiders.

Scientist Pal Weihe points out that whales are the top of the ocean’s food chain and their health is reflected in the state of the ocean’s polluted water. He claims that the pilot whales also contain high levels of toxic chemicals particularly ethyl mercury and this, according to recent studies, has had a detrimental affect on the brains of the islands’ children. The Islanders are not recommended to eat more that 250 grams of ‘Grind’ per month and startling evidence seems to point to an end to the practice of whale hunting, if not now, certainly very soon. For the time being whalers continue to eat poisoned meat as an act of tradition despite clear indications that it their health.

With its striking visual imagery and breathtaking widescreen images of this remote part of the world A Taste of Whale serves both as an ethnological portrait of a community in flux and informative look at the way animal cruelty is viewed as the world moves towards sustainable practices. Kelner presents a balanced portrait of a controversial topic and the final moments of the film are really hard to watch if you are opposed to animal cruelty.MT

NOW SCREENING AT CPH:DOX 2022

Hide and Seek (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir.: Victoria Fiore; Documentary; UK/Italy 2021,85 min.

In the back streets of Naples’ ‘Spanish Quarter’, Entoni dreams of Gomorra. First time filmmaker Victoria Firore follows into teenaghood charting his descent into juvenile prison.

Entoni is just ten when we see him burning down Christmas trees and other petty crimes with his older friend Dylan. His grandmother Dora, is no stranger to crime, a former member of the Camorra she provides the key to Entoni’s past, forced into a life of crime when her husband went to prison. And so did her daughter Natalie when Entoni’s father was given a long-term sentence. Like father like son, crime is endemic in the local community, normal territory for these boys. For Dylan and Entoni this is par for the course. “Boys without fathers grow up angry”, according to Dora. Entoni’s younger brother Gaetano is only too willing to take on the mantel of crime – as we discover in the post credits.

Young Entoni already has a reputation: “Don’t bring Entoni here, he will hurt you”, is the word on the street. A local mother blames the movies: “They copy what they see in  films.” On the radio, a serious voice talks about taking the guardianship away from parents who are involved with the Mafia. Meanwhile Dora does a Tarot to predict Entoni’s future, and the future is not bright.

In a disused jail, Dylan and Entoni talk about their favourite film, surprisingly Titanic. Dora reflect; “We sin, because we have to survive”. Her husband told her he was on drugs when Natalie was seven months old. Stealing was her only way to survive, her husband dying in jail. He had some form of cancer, and when Natalie saw him for the last time, he was like a skeleton, and she was never the same again. Watching a procession, Entoni muses,” in ten years I will be twenty-two and married”.

To avoid Nisida juvenile prison, the authorities decide to put Entoni in a reform school – But Entoni has no intention of staying: “when put him into a reform school before, he was back home earlier than we were”, comments Natalie. Entoni seems to prefer the  countryside to the city, and there are some shot of him wandering around looking vaguely calm. During a visit to his father’s prison, he waves his bandera frantically. But his imprisonment in Nisida comes earlier than expected, setting the tone for the rest of his young years. Is seems the die is cast for these boys: “We are the kids from the Quarter, to hell with everyone else. Prions are always with us. Entoni is always with us.”

Fiore, who grew up in Naples, maintains her distance never sensationalising the boys’ sell-induced tragedy, conveying the inevitability of it all in a lowkey empathy but never sympathy. AS

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX | UNTIL APRIL 3, 2022

The Treasure of His Youth (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir.: Bruce Weber; Documentary with Paolo di Paolo; Silvia di Paolo, Marina Cicogna, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini; USA 2021, 109 min.

US director/co-writer Bruce Weber (Let’s Get Lost) re-discovers one of Italy’s most influential photographers: Paolo di Paolo, born in the small town of Larino, in 1925. He photographed all the stars of Italian post-war cinema from 1949 and 1968: Anna Magnani, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophie Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Pier Paolo Pasolini, to name but a few. But had it not been for Giuseppe Casetti, the owner of the Maldoror bookshop in Rome, Paolo’s archive would have never seen the light of the day, let alone two major exhibitions.

Paolo di Paolo, vivacious as ever in his mid 90s, still has the train ticket from Larino to Rome where he would study philosophy, his “escape” back in 1949. Growing up during twenty years of Fascism such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway had also escaped him until then, along with US music. Joining ‘Il Mondo’, a magazine founded by Mario Pannunzio in 1950, he fell in love with the camera, in this case a ‘Leica’. Pannunzio was an excessively intellectual editor-in-chief, his staff joked that the magazine had more authors than readers.

For Pannunzio, photos told a story, they were an autonomous narrative. The magazine became the training ground for great photographers, every shot had to be “like a piece of theatre”. Paolo’s coterie included the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and the writer Alberto Moravia. Actress Anna Magnani, whose son had polio, set di Paolo a strict set of rules for their sessions. Pier Paolo Pasolini became a close friend, his photo of the director at the tomb of Gramsci is one of the iconic images of Italian political history. There is a visit to di Paolo’s old friend, the film producer Marina Cicogna, who produced, among others, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour and Pasolini’s Teorema. Cicogna, who lived for over twenty years with the actor Florinda Bolkan, recounts how Pasolini was well aware of the ‘death wish’, before his murder in Ostia. The poet and director was deeply religious, and could not accept his homosexuality in this context. Bernardo Bertolucci reminisces about first meeting Pasolini on a Sunday afternoon at his parent’s front door. He took Pasolini for a thief and locked him out before telling his father he had a guest. Both filmmakers look back with laughter at the memory.

Silvia, ii Paolo’s daughter, now looks after her father’s archive and runs his life, freely admitting how difficult he can be. She sets up a Zoom call with fellow photographer Tony Vaccaro, from the same generation, who grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, becoming a war photographer, before later settling for fashion photography. “The smell of our homes is still in our nostrils” comments Di Paolo.

The end is impromptu and not at all what Weber had in mind: di Paolo gains access to the backstage photography at the Valentino Couture fashion show in Paris’ Place Vendome. The 94-year climbs onto a step ladder to take photos, feeling invigorated by the experience he expresses a desire to live in Paris: He was back in the saddle after given up in 1968 when ‘Il Mondo’ was forced into liquidation and TV took over the newspaper media agenda, di Paolo turning his attention back to philosophy and history.

Treasure is a rhapsody in black and white: somehow di Paolo’s photos and the archive images from TV and newsreel fail to coalesce aesthetically with DoP Theodore Stanley’s own shots in the trip back to Larino. But the film clips from the “Golden Age” of Italian cinema round up a bravado lesson in film history. Exciting and informative. AS

NOW SCREENING DURING COPENHAGEN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Vilnius International Film Festival – 24 March – 3 April (2022)

Vilnius IFF will be the first international festival to actively boycott Russian film with the focus of this year’s 27th edition firmly on the recent petition from the Ukrainian Film Academy. Day Zero – on March 23rd – will be dedicated to the latest crop of features and documentaries from the besieged European country. With Lithuania now welcoming hundreds of thousands Ukrainian refugees – and adding children’s films to the line-up – there will free screenings to entertain all ages.

Five films in particular will highlight Ukraine cinema and will open this year’s celebration on 23 March 2022:

BAD ROADS  Dir: Natalya Vorozhbit (image above)

Lithuania knows a thing or two about staying silent. That silence ended on 23 August 1989 when two million people across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia formed a human chain: the Baltic Way. Seven months later, on March 11 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence.

MARIUPOLIS  Dir: Mantas Kvedaravicius

Daily news reports have shown the devastation of this Ukrainian sea port. In his sophomore feature Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius centres on ordinary life and happenstance in a community unaware that 2022 would bear witness to a tragic loss of life and destruction.

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS  Dir: Simon Lereng Wilmont (main image)

Set in Eastern Ukraine town of Hnutove, on the frontline of the war, the film follows a year in the life of 10-year-old Oleg who lives with his grandmother. As his friends gradually leave the village we witness the gradual erosion of his innocence amid the constant pressure of the unfolding conflict.

 

ATLANTIS  Dir: Valentyn Vasyanovych

Ukraine’s Valentyn Vasyanovych would go on to win a slew of awards for his first feature that highlights the camaraderie and resilience that has been the life force of this year’s Russian invasion. It sees a soldier suffering from PTSD befriending a young volunteer and hoping to restore peaceful energy to a war-torn society.

MY THOUGHTS ARE SILENT Dir: Antonio Lukich (image above)

Vadim, a sound engineer, has decided to emigrate from Ukraine to Canada at the age of 22. But before he leaves he must undertake an unusual assignment: to record the song of a very rare bird native of the Transcarpathian mountains of Ukraine.

As part of the European Capital of Culture celebration in the city of Kaunas, the festival will build a one-off theatre for a special screening of Laurynas Bareiša’s PILGRIMS (Venice, Best Film Orizzonti 2021) in the village of Karmelava where the film was shot. Vilnius IFF’s industry program Meeting Point Vilnius (MPV) also disinvited Russian projects in line with the festival’s boycott. Instead It will dedicate a special Ukrainian day to its program on April 1 with panels on political, institutional and film industry levels. The Vilnius Film Festival is supported by the Lithuanian Film Centre, co-funded by the Lithuanian Council for Culture, Creative Europe MEDIA Programme of the European Union, Vilnius City

DAY ZERO | VILNIUS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | LITHUANIA 

 

The Hermit of Trieg (2022)

Dir: Lizzie MacKenzie | UK Doc, 79′

In these days of social media and lives in the fast lane Lizzie MacKenzie’s debut documentary is a breath of fresh air.

It’s all about Ken Smith, a 70 year old loner who has spent the past four decades in a log cabin he built overlooking Scotland’s Loch Treig. Growing up in Derbyshire, Ken had a accident in his mid-20s that would change life forever. A random attack left him with critical injuries: he would never walk or talk again. But Ken refused to give up and eventually he regained his mobility and some power of speech in another lease of life. Travelling to Canada he trekked to the forests of the Yukon where the peace and solitude convinced him to head for the most remote corner of Britain on his return.

Still reasonably fit and active he enjoys the tranquility of the open countryside. The cabin has no gas, electricity or running water but Ken has adapted to the lores of the natural world living off fish from the loch and growing his own vegetables. He must also acknowledge that old age and death may come sooner than expected but is this such a bad thing in the days of overpriced care homes and endless medical intervention?.

A simple story of self-determination and sustainability develops into a visionary film about living life within the bounds of nature and embracing our fate. MT

SCREENED DURING GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL

 

 

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Dir: Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson | US Doc, 118’

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is the subject of this dynamite documentary from Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson ‘proudly’ showcasing that musical celebration of Black culture, fashion and history.

Back in the day – and we’re talking about the Sixties (and even the 1920s, 30, and ’40s) – everyone loved Black music, not because it was Black but because it was rhythmic, soulful and cool. But maybe that’s because I had a father who hummed, danced and played on the piano those heady tunes from Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and more.

Soul followed on in the same effervescent way, the syncopated jazz of his era becoming the sinuous and sensual soul of my student days: music from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Marvyn Gaye, Mahalia Jackson and the Supremes.

Thompson revisits this darkly glamorous era in a New York concert that coincided with the much higher profile of Woodstock just down the road. Now that was my brother’s territory: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Joni Mitchell. The Harlem affair somehow got buried under the weight of Woodstock, but why, when the music was just as fabulous – I never thought about ‘Black’ music – just music I liked…and I would been there like a shot given the opportunity…years later.

In Harlem’s Mount Morris 300,000 – mostly Black- fans gathered to enjoy a series of free ‘gigs’ and Thompson has assembled a treasure trove of archive footage that tethers the era to the present with just a smattering of talk heads that enrich rather than diminish the musical experience. MT

OSCAR WINNER FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | BEST DOCUMENTARY EE BAFTAS 2022 | NOW IN CINEMAS

Nelly and Nadine (2022) Berlinale, Panorama Dokumente (2022)

Dir/Wri: Magnus Gertten | with Nelly Mousset-Vos, Nadine Hwang, Sylvie Bianchi, Anne Coesens, Bwanga Pilipi | Sweden/Belgium/Norway 2022, 92′

A year in the making, Magnus Gertten’s sumptuously beautiful documentary is as much a love story as a testament to holocaust survival for two women. Nelly Mousset-Vos was a spy working against Nazi Deutschland and Nadine Hwang brought refugees over the border into safely.

Nelly and Nadine met each for the first time at Christmas in 1944, in Ravensbruck concentration camp. They would come across each other again after liberation and would stay together for the rest of their lives.

Today, Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie unveils her grandmother’s surprising story in a collection of revealing images. The photographs, Super 8 footage and audio recordings as well as the poignant diary entries, recall her grandmother’s lesbian love affair with fellow concentration camp inmate Nadine. Like many relationships back in the day the explicit nature of their love was glossed over by the rest of the family and even close friends. But it soon becomes clear that it was far more than just a friendship.

With Gerrten’s lyrical compositions and artful editing Nelly’s story gracefully reveals its secrets, her granddaughter Sylvie uncovering more and more detail and exposing some surprising home truths. The archive material also sparks memories for Sylvie herself that go some way to explaining her mother’s behaviour and her deep understanding of the nature of love, but also her bouts of melancholy that emerged after the war. Many survivors chose not to talk about their wartime lives to loved ones and this extraordinary film once again confirms the saying “a picture tells a thousand words”. MT

Magnus Gertten wins Jury Award | TEDDY AWARDS 2022, one of the most prestigious queer film awards in the world | BERLINALE PANORAMA DOKUMENTE 2022

1341 Frames of Love and War (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir: Ran Tal | Israel, Doc 82′

The career of renownd Israeli photo reporter Micha Bar-Am (1930-) is the subject of this new documentary from Ran Tal who makes use of the copious archive material, cleverly counterposing images of love and war as the film title expressively suggests.

Stark and staggeringly powerful in its simplicity each frame tells a story for Micha Bar-Am who admits (in voiceover): “not everything is worth remembering, sometimes you have to forget and move on”. As Micha takes us through 1341 iconic photos that form the bulk of his life’s work, his wife Orna, the assiduous curator of his archive, or one of his sons chips with comments or questions, and inevitably voices are often raised. Micha explains how as a young man it felt entirely natural just to grab a camera, some clothes and a rucksack and set off to capture Israel in 1960s and 1970s. after arriving there as a small boy of six.

A native German speaker Micha Bar Am spent his early childhood in Berlin under the name of Michael Anguli, and later moved to Israel. His family were never close or emotionally expressive, but he was happy to be there with them and Israel soon became his natural home, as it is for all Jews from the Diaspora: “I never felt like an immigrant and wanted a Hebrew name”. So soon he became a Zionist and took the name he still has today. After 20 years of reportage in Israel Micha returned to Germany where he became ‘an emissary at a dramatic point in time for the nation’ taking part in some scientific projects for the government.

Away from Israel his images took on a freer dimension, “the reality wasn’t so intense” – a swan in a park, people enjoying a picnic or a trip to the mountains, or a kibbutz`. Back in Israel his photos were more serious: a fire engulfing an office building in Tel Aviv; IDF soldiers guarding a checkpoint. One of his first photography awards proved that success can come out of someone else’s tragedy. The still showed army officers holding up a little girl who had been kidnapped and drowned in the river by her neighbour.

He would go on to document the history of Israel with his camera, including Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, The Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The 1967 war had given him a chance to cut his teeth at combat photography yet these images are accompanied by a light-hearted folk song about Rabin and Nasser. The Yom Kippur War also gets its moment with the terrible symmetry of the bodies of POWs bound and gagged and thrown into a ditch. Although he was not proud of these images, he knew it was his duty to record them: “you seek out danger to feel alive”. Another image shows a brief moment of triumph when an Israeli flag waved for five minutes in history over the Dome of the Rock; another sees a soldier wearing a string of bullets just like a prayer shawl that, on later reflection, seemed to represent religion and power, Micha grew to hate the image, along with one picturing desperate refugees carrying their suitcases away from their homeland.

These carry the same emotional freight as the birth of his son Barak in 1967, Orna is seen during labour (with baby Barak) and these intimate pictures were the first of their kind to published in a newspaper in Israel. The scenes are accompanied by cries and a heartbeat. Barak later complains of his embarrassment when the images were shown on television. But Micha was intensely happy at creating life, rather than capturing war or death in his lens. In stark contrast, the ‘bananas’ crater moment’ was a low point for him. The tortured images of ambushed PLO fighters lying dead in the road, made him feel ashamed: “it’s an ugly sight….of the hunters and the prey”. 

Lighter but no less meaningful shots picture Marlene Dietrich in a cafe in Tel Aviv’s Dizengof Street, and a high school trip across the mountains where Micha expressed his love for his new girlfriend Orna “by carrying things”. But behind the scenes, son Barak regrets the lack of family life when growing up, recalling how his father was often irritable rather than warm or emotional – his parents lived for their work and never had a family holiday, “you raised children incidentally as you rushed along”. A sentiment that most creative people will be familiar with. Orna complains that her husband never stopped taking photos even when he came home: “I tried to salvage the family-focused footage from the work-orientated stock, but eventually gave up”. But whether documenting family life or the horrors of conflict, Israel is always in the background, a land without peace. MT

1341 FRAMES OF LOVE AND WAR is supported by yesDOCU.

SCREENING DURING BERLINALE 2022

Waters of Pastaza (2022) Berlinale Generation 2022

Dir: Inez T Alvez | Doc, 62′

Deep in the Amazonian rainforest between Ecuador and Peru, a community of kids live in harmony with nature learning through play and collaboration rather than formal education in this hypnotic first feature from Inez T Alvez.

The banks of the Pastaza River is home to exotic wildlife monkeys and birds that provide a wordless ambient soundscape to an ethnological portrait of a world on the cusp of change. In this remote natural setting children are left to their our devices to develop self-reliance seemingly and discover the world for themselves seemingly without parental intervention.

Dressed in the lightest of clothing and protected by rubber boots the indigenous Achuar children make their way along the river and through the jungle armed only with machetes surviving on a variety of fruit, fish and whatever they can lay their hands on. What a shame then that despite their outward vestiges of poverty and simplicity, they also rely on smartphones to keep them apace with the 21st century. Seems like the whole world – however remote – is now in touch with technology. Is this wonderful thing or another inexorable march towards progress. MT

BERLINALE 2022 | GENERATION

 

Kinoteka Polish Film Festival | 9 March – 3 April 2022

KINOTEKA celebrates its 20th Anniversary back on the big screen.

From 9th March to 3rd April 2022, the festival showcases the latest Polish films along with some vintage cult classics at the ICA and BFI Southbank and at Edinburgh’s prestigious Filmhouse cinema, and enjoy a selection at home on BFI player too.

Amongst the highlights are Jerzy Skolimowski’s IDENTIFICATION MARKS: NONE’, Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar nominated THE YOUNG LADIES OF WILKO; Andrzej Żuławski’s cult science fiction masterpiece ON THE SILVER GLOBE and Agnieszka Holland’s potent political period piece FEVER

 

The Closing Night film at the BFI Southbank, will be the UK premier of the newly restored 1924 black and white silent FORBIDDEN PARADISE (1924) directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring his Polish muse, Pola Negri as a luminous Catherine the Czarina accompanied by la live score specially composed by Marcin Pukaluk.

 

NEW POLISH CINEMA

The Opening Night film, Agnieszka Woszczyńska’s award-winning thriller SILENT LAND (2021) Also headlining this strand of New Polish Cinema is Poland’s OSCAR hopeful LEAVE NO TRACES, (2021), Jan P. Matuszyński’s award-winning story of police brutality in communist Poland set in 1983. Other films in this strand include 25 YEARS OF INNOCENCE (below) a huge box office hit in Poland. SONATA, the inspirational, true story of a deaf pianist which won the Audience Award and Best Debut Actor at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival. 1970 is a compelling documentary looking at political unrest during that time when a series of strikes and riots took place against the communist government in Poland. The film draws upon archival photography, recently-discovered telephone conversations and stop-motion animation to give a new understanding of what actually happened and why. This screening will be followed by the Q&A with director Tomasz Wolski.

SPECIAL SCREENINGS AT JW3

JW3 is to screen two outstanding and incredibly powerful films during the Festival. Ryszard Brylski’s THE DEATH OF ZYGIELBOJM  the true and little known story of the tragic fate of Szmul Zygielbojm, an exiled Jewish political activist who committed suicide in London in 1943 to draw attention to the plight of Jews in Europe. Seen through the eyes of a child called Tomek, Konrad Aksinowicz’s moving and raw BACK TO THOSE DAYS at his life with an alcoholic father, who eventually destroys his family life and childhood.

Full details on all of the films taking part in the Festival and a link to book tickets can be found on Kinoteka’s dedicated website:-https://kinoteka.org.uk/

 

The City and the City (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir.: Christos Passalis, Syllas Tzoumerkas; Cast: Alexandros Vardaxoglou, Vassilis Kanakis, Angeliki Papoulia, Niki Papandreou, Vasillis Karaboulas; Greece 2022, 96 min

Actor and director Christos Passalis (Dogtooth) and Syllas Tzoumerkas (A Blast) get behind the camera for this incendiary expose revealing in six scenarios how Greece was complicit in the genocide of thousands of Jews from the city of Thessaloniki during the German occupation of the Second World War.

Even during the war the repression of Greek Jews was not a new thing: it started in 1927 with the foundation of the “Nationalist Union of Greeks” (EEE) and their newspapers that set out to fight the Jewish community for the low paid jobs. “Separate Jews from the Natives” was one of their slogans. “The Jew must go” – this one became reality under German rule; teaching the Jews a lesson was the edict of the times: “Jews must learn to do things with their hands other than counting money”. And “The time has come, for the yellow star people to pack their bags and go”.

Jews were lined up and put into the Baron Hirsch ghetto, whence they were deported to the death camps. Early in 1943 Sarina writes an imploring letter to her son Maurice, who has taken refuge with relatives in Athens. Concerned for his wellbeing she says: “Dear Maurice, we are all confined in the ghetto. This all seems to be the work of an experienced sadist. What we fear most are the deportations. Some trains have already left. On the day of the deportation, people burn money, documents and furniture. They abandon their whole life.”

Epanomi, 29 km from Thessaloniki, serves as a transit camp for the city’s Jews. Some are executed, others sent to German camps and a few are released after ten days. In an interlude, we watch the burial of Sarah, Sarina’s home help, who was treated like a daughter. Nina (Papandreou) is told to stop her brother chanting. Normality is soon replaced by reality. The 500-year old Jewish cemetery of the city, housing half a million tombs, is demolished by the Germans with the help of the local Christians during the second year of occupation. The broken marbles of the graves are used for the re-construction of several buildings, among them the St. Demeter cathedral. The bones of the dead are ground into sand for construction sites. In 1950, after litigation, the administration of the State of Greece builds on the top of the ruins of the Jewish cemetery the new part of the Aristotle University. In 2014 the government installs a memorial stone at the University campus.

Only 4% percent of the Jewish population will survive. Nina’s (Papandreou) report from the Hirsch ghetto: “Arriving at the Hirsch Ghetto, we are pushed into a room with German soldiers. They lifted our skirts, stripped us naked and used their fingers to probe our privates for hidden jewellery. This included my ten-year old sister. When they found nothing, they started slapping my mother. Hasson, one of the Orologas brothers, cut her hair with a pen knife, injuring her scalp. The son of our local butcher got so angry he tried to kill Hasson, but he failed and was shot on the spot. My mother was put into a cell under ground, we never saw her again. Our Rabbi, 70-year old, had to clean the ghetto with a broom for a whole day.”

After liberation, Hasson was executed, but the bigger names survived. In 1957, Max Merten, the butcher of Thessaloniki, visited Greece and was arrested. After eight months he was let go, the West German government had offered a loan. SS Captain Dr. Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s ‘right hand’ died peacefully in 2010 as consultant to Syria’s Hafez el-Assad.

After a dreamlike meeting between Nina and Mauricein the old city, we learn that the city’s brothels had been destroyed after the war. Some of the business was done in the old railway station of Stravrapouli, where  the Pavlos Mecas camp had been.

The last part is a surrealistic collage that sees one of the surviving members of the family trying to get government compensation, meanwhile, on the beach, the last peaceful years of Sarina’s family play out with a competition to find the ‘most moronic’ winner of a fancy dress event.

Reality bites again: In 1943, after the deportations ended, thousands of Jewish businesses were again sequestered, snapped up by local entrepreneurs and state institutions. After the war, hundred sought the return of their property. Not even half of them were successful, the main reasons for denial were “Abandonment by the former owners” and “the lack of death certificates for the victims in the death camps”.

Cinematically brilliant and thematically relevant The City and The City once again proves that the Holocaust was not an isolated event. Before, during and after WWII Jews were the victims of state-organised pogroms, supported by a majority of the population who they thought were their neighbours and friends. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | 10-20 FEBRUARY 2022

 

Terra que marca (2022) Berlinale | Forum 2022

Dir: Raul Domingues | Portugal, Doc, 66′

I often wonder why some indie filmmakers stumble with such convolutedly arcane ideas when less is always so much more. With a strong story and a beautiful way of presenting it the rest will soon fall into place as Raul Domingues illustrates with his enchanting debut feature, an ethnographical portrait of nature entitled Terra Que Marca (Striking Land). 

The affirmative circle of life goes on year after year in a small corner of rural Portugal where two people develop an ongoing relationship with nature transforming a barren plot of land in Casal da Quinta into a gift that keeps on giving, cumulatively, as the years roll by.

 

It’s often said that people don’t own the land – it owns them. And that’s true. People return year after year to places that draw them in to an emotional bond that strengthens as time progresses. Domingues bases his narrative on a fable relating to a piece of land that came into his family generations ago and perpetuate a feeling that this land must be nurtured and cared for.

Time is of the essence and Domingues is in no hurry to tell his story dictated by the rhythms of nature, he creates a perfectly balanced structure. Senses, images and sounds blend as the year unfolds from Autumn right through to the end of the second year where the burning down of vegetation provides the ash and minerals to fertilise the loamy soil for the next year’s growth, helped along by a healthy presence of earthworms to mix and aerate the earth.  

Soon the robin redbreast makes his appearance along with some sheep and a clutch of chickens, all taking part in this thriving ecosystem. Grass grows, beans, apples and corn on the cob will flourish along with courgettes, barley, potatoes and maize for bread and polenta. Flowers in the shape of lilies, mallow and roses play their part, producing the pollen for the bees to do their stuff and the season draws to a close again as the orange trees yield a bumper crop weighing down the branches almost to the ground as they multiply in the following autumn.  

Relying on an ambient soundscape, Domingues acts as his own DoP and editor in this magical meditation on the comforting power of nature. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | FORUM STRAND

Love it was Not (2020)

Dir.: Maya Sarfaty; Documentary with Helena Citron, Roza Citron, Frank Wunsch; Israel/Austria 2020, 86 min.

Israeli writer/director Maya Sarfaty builds on her award-winning graduation short film The Most Beautiful Woman (2016) with this ‘impossible love’ story that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau  between Helena Citron, a Slovakian Jew, and one of her captors, Viennese SS Unterscharführer (Sergeant) Franz Wunsch. Although the title suggests otherwise, witness reports from seven close female camp survivors claim ‘he loved her to the point of madness”.

And somehow Sarfaty helps, however involuntarily, to cement this statement. True, Wunsch, born in 1922 like Helena, was a sadist who beat male prisoners to death and helped at the infamous ‘Rampen’ selections. But he also risked his life to save Helena and her sister Roza (1932-2005) from certain death, literally storming into the corridor leading to the infamous “Shower Rooms” to free Roza, although he could not save her two children, much to Helena’s chagrin.

Helena and Roza were amongst several thousand Slovakian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942, before the Death Camp was fully functioning. The women helped with the demolition of older buildings and many were killed during the TNT explosions, where they were literally at the ‘coal face’. “We had become animals, ready to push our best friends to the front, just to survive ourselves”.

Helena first met Franz Wunsch on his birthday when he asked the women prisoners to sing a song in his honour. Helena chose the titular German hit song “Liebe war es nie” (Love it was Not) and Franz politely asked her for an encore. This was the beginning. Soon afterwards Helena caught typhoid, which was usually fatal, but Wunsch instructed the camp medics to look after her, and she recovered.

In an interview in 2003, Wunsch shares his memories of Dr. Josef Mengele who warned him “we are all going to be persecuted’ and promised not to denounce Wunsch, who had been wounded at the front and walked with a limp before being assigned to guard duty in Auschwitz. He found himself in active service again after the camp internees were sent on a death march. Helena and Roza were amongst the few who survived.

After the end of WWII Wunsch tried to pursue the relationship, but his letters were ignored and eventually he gave up. In 1972, Helena, who had emigrated to Tel Aviv in Israel, got a letter from Wunsch’s wife, pleading her to come to Vienna, where her husband was on trial for murder. “I know the two of you had been close, and I want you tell the court about it”. Under pressure to stay put, Helena still made the journey to Vienna and told the court about Wunsch’s crimes, but also how he saved her sister’s life. Wunsch was acquitted, the jury members, in an interview, claimed to have been on his side. “It was difficult in Austria to get a guilty-verdict in cases of concentration camp guards” said the state prosecutor of the Wunsch inquiry, very much resigned to the fact.

Wunsch’s daughter Dagmar also has her say, indignant that her father wore a medallion with two only photos: that of Helena and himself. “It should have been Mutti’s photo” says Dagmar, visibly upset. Bizarrely Franz Wunsch cut Helena’s face out of one of the photos, and superimposed it onto that of another woman, adding himself into the collage to make out they were just ordinary lovers in real life.

Artists Shlomit Goper and Ayelet Albeuda assemble a multilevel 3D photo montage together with the cuttings of Wunsch superimposed on the reality of the death camp. DoPs Itay Gross and Ziv Berkovich have taken great care filming the survivors, two of them having died before the feature was released. Helena Citron died in 2007, Franz Wunsch two years later. Their relationship in the hell of Auschwitz was a sort of ‘follie a deux’, unimaginable in the real world, rather like the death camps themselves. AS

FROM 26-28 January 2022 | JW3 Cinema LONDON NW3 | HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

 

Boris Karloff: The Man behind the Monster (2021)

Dir: Thomas Hamilton, Wri: Ron MacCloskey | With Caroline Munro, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephanie Powers, John Landis, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Sara Karloff | US Doc, 99′

Ron MacCloskey has poured 23 years of his life into this comprehensive 99 minute romp through the life and times of Boris Karloff, directed by co-writer Thomas Hamilton and based on the 2010 biography ‘Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster’ by Karloff’s official biographer Stephen Jacobs.

Enlivened by copious clips and archive material, the film takes us through the early years of Karloff’s debut in the 1920s, his breakthrough as Universal’s ‘monster’ Frankenstein during the 1930s and ’40s, up until to death in 1969, after a dazzling career as one of the icons of horror cinema – along with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Vincent Price.

Although best known for his ‘monster’ roles Karloff was also a fully fledged actor of stage and radio: his mellow bass voice, saturnine looks and striking bone structure lending itself well to a multitude of characters. Far from just a sinister, terrifying screen presence Karloff also exuded masterful integrity, and even managed to be vulnerable in many of his horror roles, notably in Frankenstein itself where as a creepy but kindly creature he is befriended by seven-year-old Maria (Marilyn Harris) who he subsequently throws into the lake.

A little top heavy on talking heads: the most entertaining here are Joe Dante, John Landis, and Roger Corman although a laconic Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Plummer also have their say sharing their extensive knowledge on the subject of Karloff’s career which spanned 150 films. Clearly Karloff made a big impression on his audiences; daughter Sara waxes lyrical with gratitude to her father’s considerable fan base: memorabilia and personal letters continue to flood in, 50 odd years after the actor’s death.

Film-wise most intriguing of Karloff’s appearances are in The Black Cat (1934), The Body Snatcher (1945) Isle of the Dead (1945); Howard Hawks prison thriller The Criminal Code (1930) and George Schaefer’s made for TV version of Joan of Arc, The Lark (1957) in which he stars as Bishop Cauchon alongside alongside Eli Wallach, Basil Rathbone and Denholm Elliott.

The Man Behind the Monster serves as a vigorous and definitive tribute to Karloff himself and traces back through the history of horror cinema in the early part of the 20th century, and although production values could have been stronger, the meat on the bone is certainly enjoyable. MT

NOW ON SHUDDER

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)

Dir.: Peter Middleton, James Spinney; Documentary narrated by Pearl Mackie; UK 2021, 114 min.

Writers/directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) have tried with co-writer Oliver Kindeberg to explain the dualism between Chaplin’s professional and personal identity without the use of “talking heads”. A great idea but a flawed one – as it turns out – what we get instead is Pearl Mackie’s incoherent narration (Pearl Mackie) that takes the form of a “flow of consciousness” over-didactic commentary, without any inner artistic logic. The directors have also taken on more than they can chew. How do you do justice to an icon like Chaplin in under two hours? – his life deserves a mini-series. Middleton and Spinney do their best but the time factor makes mistakes unavoidable.

It begins in 1916, the first height of Chaplinmania. Across the US a hunt for the real Chaplin is on, whilst Chaplin-look-alike contests are very popular. The idol itself, Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London in 1889, his drunken father soon made a runner, and Charlie had to witness his mother succumb to mental illness. The room in Kennington was re-created later in The Kid. A female voice tells us that the woman – played by an actor in one of many re-enactments -, is Effie Wisdom, who in an interview in 1983 – she was 92 years old at the time – talks about the late 19th century, when she used to play with Chaplin in the alleys, the latter promising to never forget her.

Chaplin joined Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, who later toured the US. Chaplin was a man of the Vaudeville theatre and considered film work beneath his aspirations – until the producers trebled his salary. In a 1966 “Life Magazine” interview he explains the haphazard creation of the ‘Tramp’ personality in February 1914: discarded costume parts of his own, the boots of a college and Fatty Arbuckle’s pants. But behind the camera Chaplin left nothing to chance. In City Lights he drove everyone mad with a 534 days long chase for the perfect pivotal take. Extended clips from The Kid, Gold Rush and Modern Times lead to The Great Dictator, when Charlie finally talks. Chaplin’s sad 1952 expulsion from the USA, J Edgar Hoover and Hedda Hopper combining, is not given enough space, the documentary comes to life again in the Swiss exile, with interviews with the children Chaplin sired with Oona O’Neill, who was seventeen when she met the 52-year old – a rather common age gap for Chaplin’s relationships with women. Jane and Geraldine speak of the loneliness their mother must have suffered, because their father was cool and distant. “I imagine it would be lonely being the wife of Charlie Chaplin”.

All the so-called revelations about Chaplin’s personal life were known during his life time, leaving the re-enactments of his work as director/writer/composer/editor as the most enjoyable elements. Paul Ryan is Chaplin age 58, Jeff Rawle portraits the 77-year old maestro. DoP James Blann finds just the right aesthetic for the dramatisations, whilst composer Robert Honstein’s aggressive score underlines the directors’ gutsy approach for a “kaleidoscopic documentary collage”, which is another way of admitting to a lack of structure. Still, there is so much archive material, new and old, that everyone will find something to enjoy. AS

ON RELEASE IN UK and IRELAND FROM FRIDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2022

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (2021)

Dir.: Brent Wilson; Documentary with Brian Wilson, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Jason Fine; USA 2021, 95 min.

Do we need another Brian Wilson documentary? I Just Wasn’t made for These Times and Love & Mercy have already told his story, but the billion or so the super-fans will always ask for more. And The Beach Boys were America’s answer to The Beatles, back in the day, they epitomised an era and their harmonies are almost as divine – so yes, we do!.

Director Brent Wilson (no relation), veteran of music docs like Streetlight Harmonies, has tried the linear angle, confronting the images of the ‘Beach Boy’ founder with today’s survivor of schizoid-affective and bi-polar disorders, who enjoys being on tour again, even though the hallucinatory voices still haunt him – and have done for the last 60 years – when he is performing, in spite of all the medication available.

‘Rolling Stone’ editor Jason Fine, a close friend of Wilson, drives the megastar composer/singer round his favourite haunts, sadly only getting monosyllabic answers to his leading questions. Brian is very much in the shell he has created to survive. And there is more that enough pain for anybody to deal with, let alone a highly-strung artist.

There is the Hawthorne home of his childhood, where his father Murry (who died in 1973) played sadistic games while managing the bank with Brian and his brothers Carl (who died of lung cancer in 1998) and Dennis, who drowned in 1963. The two then visit the house Brian shared with his wife Marilyn, and their two children Carnie and Wendy.

They even take in the darker times: The “Malibu Prison” where Brian spend the 1980s under the influence of psychiatrist Eugen Landy, whose infamous 24-hour therapy led to a total inter-dependency, and was only solved when Landy started to mingle in the music business. Landy too was responsible for Brian breaking up with Melinda Ledbetter, but the two then married after Brian’s ‘release’ from Landy – the couple have adopted six children, and Melinda still works hard as Brian’s business manager. Brian insists today “that Landy saved me”.

Music-wise there is extensive time devoted to the iconic “Pet Sounds” and SMiLE, that came into being in  the mid-1960s and finished thirty years later. There are few revelations, the bitter chapter of Brian’s relationship with fellow Beach Boy Mike Love is nearly brushed out of the picture. Only once the mask of self-defence slips, when Brian tells Jason “I have not talked to a real friend in three years.” At the Beverly Glen Deli, where Brian and Jason stop for lunch, Brian devours his ice cream sundae with almost childlike enjoyment: and its with this same soulful devotion that he plays the piano (again) for an audience who adores him. Oh yes, about the surfing: “Yeah, Dennis surfed, I never learned it”.

The movie poster says it all: the young Brian looking over the shoulders if his older self at the piano. But this is not a psychoanalytical study, but a love letter to the music of Brian Wilson. As Bruce Springsteen says of “Pet Sounds”: “The beauty of it carries a sense of joyfulness even in the pain of living. The joyfulness of an emotional life”. AS

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE | UK and Eire

The Weald (1997)

Dir.: Naomi Kawase; Documentary; Japan 1997, 73 min.

Returning to the settings of her first feature film Suzaku – which won her the Camera D’Or in Cannes in 1997 – Japanese writer/director/DoP/editor Naomi Kawase travelled to the Yoshino mountains and the nearby village of the same name to explore a lifestyle that is fast disappearing.

Getting old is certainly no fun, but we all known that, and Kawase’s worst fears were confirmed by several of the villagers interviewed in this remote rural backwater. Regret is the overriding emotion and many of the elderly talk of their desire to be young again or even reincarnated: so what’s new, apart from maudlin pipe dreams of becoming wealthy in this wished for new life?

Obviously the nuclear family is important in small communities and that brings both positives and negatives in terms of responsibility and self-determination: One man had to care for his frail mother, who later suffered from dementia. He shares photos and letters from a bride whose life he never shared – they broke up without even kissing. His hopes of re-incarnation obviously focus on meeting his lover again in a future life. Kawase somehow grants his wish, morphing his old face into the old photograph of a young and handsome man. Another man still mourns the death of his teenage son who died in a motorcycle accident, the father wishing they had lived in the city where the boy would not have needed a motor cycle to get around.

Contentment does exist here. One woman admits she misses someone to cook for, but but in the same breath confesses “I don’t know the meaning of life. I am satisfied to live everyday peacefully”. A man on crutches, completely dependent on others, does not want any film “wasted” on him; “keep it for something important” he tells Kawase, before simply stating “I wish I were dead”.

Using the Super-16mm format, Kawase achieves real intimacy, even if some of her subjects avoid close-ups. When the camera roams around in the surrounding countryside the effect of the trees swaying in the wind creates a feeling of horror that echoes early German expressionism.

Kawase’s work is an acquired taste and The Weald is another film from her distinctive archive, certainly fitting a director who drove her mother mad as a child by insisting on being taught to live like a hermit. AS

NOW FREE ON DAFilms.com until 23 January 2022.

Dear Pyongyang (2005)


Dir.: Yonghi Yang; Documentary; Japan 2005, 107 min.

In this intensely personal documentary Osaka born writer/director/DoP Yonghi Yang explores her father’s blind loyalty to North Korea.

It’s a long running story of exile and displacement. Yang was born in 1964 in Osaka, her parents were members of the North-Korean leaning Chongryun movement, who fought for a re-unification under the rule of Kim Il Sung, rather like their counterparts in the Mindan movement in Japan, Koreans who fought for the South, and wanted their country united under capitalist rule. Both movements each had about 100, 000 supporters, a small percentage of the Korean population which had been brought to Japan under Imperial rule.

Yonghi had three older teenage brothers: Kono, Kona and 14 year-old Konmin. They were fully integrated into Japanese society; Kono loving classical music and strong coffee. But in the early 1970s their parents packed them off on the ferry to North Korea, the Stalinist paradise Kim Il Sung had in mind. But Yonghi was left behind with her parents, trying to please them. In 1983 she visited North Korea for the first time as part of a youth delegation. Instead of spending time with her brothers, she and her friends were ferried around the country on a ‘cultural tour’ of monuments erected in honour of the wise leader.

Returning home, Yonghi soon find out that her parents had supported her brothers and their growing families with regular food supplies and other packages of ordinary consumer goods, which were unavailable in North Korea. Meanwhile the director’s father, a staunch supporter of the authoritarian leadership clique in the titular Pyongyang, lectured his daughter about staying true to the values he had espoused all his life – but only too glad to enjoy her financial generosity at his birthdays’ and other holidays. For his 70th birthday, the trio went on another ferry pilgrimage to the North, were Yang senior was the celebrated guest of honour, wearing all his medals and extolling the regime to all and his sons and many of their friends who were also received financial support from their parents from Japan. Eventually Yonghi put her foot down and her father agreed to her becoming a South Korean national. But his allegiance to Kim Il Sung never swayed, Yonghi’s mother claiming: “Beliefs get stronger, the longer you hold them”.

The personal and the political clash head-on here, the dualism occasionally becoming unbearably tense. At one point Yang senior puts on his medal-adorned jacket and announced: “I had no choice”. The director remained close to the sibling, and her niece Sona (leading to her subsequent 2010 feature Sona, the other Myself 2010) but was banned from visiting North Korea. AS

YAMAGATA: EXCLUSIVE SHOWCASE OF JAPANESE DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING ONLINE FOR FREE. | The complete selection will be available entirely for free on DAFilms.com from January 17 – 23 at this link: https://dafilms.com/program/1126-made-in-japan-yamagata-1989-2021

 

 

Lynx (2021)

Dir/Wri/DoP: Laurent Geslin | Swiss/French Doc, 82′

In the heart of the Jura mountains, a raucous call resounds through the forest. The perfectly camouflaged Eurasian lynx creeps through the trees in search of a mate. After its release into the wild, cinematographer Laurent Geslin has spent the past few years tracking the daily life of this elusive and endangered beast as it forms a new family in the remote Alpine region that stretches between France and Switzerland.

In this full length feature documentary, a follow-up to Geslin’s pursuit of the London-based urban fox, the award-winning cinematographer enchants us with poetic almost Disney-like wonder in his self-narrated study that softens the act of killing without ever sentimentalising the subject matter, making it feel entirely in keeping with the delicate ecological scheme of things as the lynx goes about its seasonal struggle in often hostile terrain.

This is Northern Europe so the Alpine fauna is familiar to most of us but somehow magical and enchanting in Geslin’s limpid lens: owls, stoats, woodpeckers, eagles and mountain goats are so daintily captured in their natural daytime habitat or in the moonlight of starry time-lapsed nights that there are none of those awful ‘lookaway’ moments when the lynx – or any other animal – takes out it prey, as it inevitably does to survive. The feline’s only natural predator seems to come in human form: poachers are still active despite being illegal, and cars are getting faster. Absolutely mesmerising. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 17 JANUARY 2022 | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

The Danish Collector: From Delacroix to Gauguin (2021)

Dir: David Bickerstaff | UK ART Doc

A private collection of modern art including works from Delacroix, Monet and Gauguin forms the subject of this latest documentary from David Bickerstaff, best known for bringing international art exhibitions to the big screen.

The Danish Collector: From Delacroix to Gauguin shows how a self made man and his savvy wife saved a treasure trove of priceless paintings from the ravages of war in Europe by transferring them to neutral Denmark.

Wilhelm Peter Henning Hansen (1868-1934) rose from modest beginnings to amass a fortune from the insurance business. At the age of 25 he bought his first painting, Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (1903) exploring changing light and fog in the haze of industrial development, and by 1912 Hansen’s French realist and impressionist collection was well under way as he set out to acquire twelve works from each of his chosen artists mapping the development of Impressionism from its origins and early influences of Ingres and Delacroix. These included paintings by Sisley, Pisarro, Monet, Corot, Corbet and Renoir and works by female Impressionist painters Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales.

When war broke out in 1914 he capitalised on the conflict by sending the paintings to his wife Henny in Denmark where they were housed in a specially designed country house in Ordrupsgaard (near Copenhagen). He later joined a consortium of middle-class Danish collectors whose aim was to bring outstanding French art to Scandinavia during in a wave of Civic pride.

Accompanied by an occasional score of strings and more romantic vibes, Bickerstaff’s agile camera lingers over the detail – particularly lovely is Manet’s 1882 ‘Basket of Pears’ – as well as giving a broad-brush approach to the works in their various settings, interweaving informative on-screen interviews from relevant curators.

Eschewing a straightforward narrative the style here is to gather together the various specialists and then give them free rein to talk about their own research and insights. This gives the doc a random, freewheeling yet highly informative quality as the curators go off on their different tangents.

After an intro from London’s Royal Academy chief Axel Ruger we swing into the gallery where Bickerstaff takes us on a fleeting tour of the exhibition, double hanging reflecting the way Hansen hung the pictures in his own home, whetting our appetite for what is to follow.

Anna Ferrari takes over telling us how Henny Hansen realised that the works acquired by her husband were becoming increasingly becoming valuable amongst collectors, and shipping them back to Denmark. The couple were particularly keen on Monet’s ‘garden’ period and Sisley’s landscapes paintings that mapped a journey down the Seine, with smoking chimneys charting the burgeoning industrial era, his ‘September Morning’ (1887) shows leaves tussling in the fresh breeze, with the sky dominating. The film travels from London to Paris, the cradle of the Belle Époque, with its experimental artist scene, and then on to Denmark where Ordupsgaard’s curator Anne Brigitte Fonsmark enlightens with a tour of the house and its specially designed Danish furniture complimented by flower arrangements gathered from the lavish gardens, and the recently added extension by the later Zaha Hadid.

Art historian Professor Frances Fowle makes the most impact with her amusing stories about the illustrious women Impressionist collectors namely the Welsh sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies who built up the country’s largest and most important series of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the 1920s and bequeathed it to the National Museum of Wales, and Kentucky philanthropist Berthe Palmer (and her husband Potter) whose collection now forms the core of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist collection. MT

NOW ON DVD

The Story of Film: A New Generation (2021)

Dir/Wri: Mark Cousins | Doc, UK 160′

A decade after The Story of Film: An Odyssey, comes Mark Cousins’ latest deep dive inquiry into the state of filmmaking in the 21st century. The Story of Film: A New Generation, sees Cousins focus on the past decade in a fascinating reflection on world cinema from 2010 to 2021. The film opens with Joker and Frozen showing the transformative power of the medium and its ability to bring stories from the desperate and disenfranchised on the world stage. Cemetery of Splendour (2015) features heavily in this exploration of recurring themes and emerging motifs, from the evolution of film language, to technology’s role in moviemaking today, to shifting identities in 21st-century world cinema.

Cousins’ research is encyclopaedic as he confidently talks us through a staggering array of films – not just from the last ten years but reconnecting to examples that demonstrate connections with the past that have influenced filmmakers of the present and future. Rather like fashion and architecture, cinema is an eternal reimagining of what has gone before marking out trends and themes only to reinvent them to appeal to a new generation, weaving in historical touchstones such as Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter as the world responds to its environment.

Plundering the archives for those iconic features there is everything from Jonathan Glazer’s visually and thematically groundbreaking Under the Skin to reworked upstairs/downstairs satires such as Parasite and Us which explores the dark and light sides of the human psyche through the an invasion thriller. In With films like Lover’s Rock and Moonlight Cousins identifies films, filmmakers and communities under-represented in traditional film histories, with a particular emphasis on Asian and Middle Eastern works, as well as boundary-pushing documentaries and films that see gender in new ways.

The streaming age has taken us from ‘cinema on show’ to ‘cinema on demand’. Cousins tracks the latest trends of the digital age with viewers calling the shots, a trend accelerated in the light of the recent pandemic. He looks forward to the future but what remains is a recurring motif that drives cinema forward: our profound desire to escape and travel beyond the ordinary, or see ourselves reflected through the medium of the silver screen as we are transported to a place of wonder and euphoria. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 17 DECEMBER NATIONWIDE

 

Ailey (2021)

Dir.: Jamila Wignot; Documentary with Alvin Ailey, Judith Jameson, Carmen de Lavallade , Robert Battle; USA 2021, 90 min.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT), remains pretty much a mystery in this lyrical portrait of the dancer and choreographer – a black, closeted gay man. Cicely Tyson called him the “Pied Piper of modern dance”, and when Ailey received his award during the Kennedy Honours ceremony in 1988, ironically presented by Ronald whose policies had punished the gay community.

In her first outing as solo writer/director, Jamila Wignot works with Ailey archive interviews often as a commentator, escaping the ‘talking heads’ malaise which blights many documentaries. Alvin Ailey was born in 1931 in rural Texas, he never met his father, but his mother worked on the cotton fields and as a cleaning lady for white homeowners. In 1941 they moved to Los Angeles where their relationship became the corner stone of Alvin’s psychological world for the rest of his life. Later, when he suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and was institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, it was his mother who took him home and looked after him. Alvin was very protective of his mother, right to the end, when he made his doctor sign the cause of his death as a result of a blood disorder, so that she would not be stigmatised by him being a victim of AIDS.

Ballet was for Ailey a form of escape, he was captivated by the Ballets Russes Monte Carlo and Catherine Dunham even though his football coach at High school tried in vain to interest him in the sport. Alvin was taught by Martha Graham, among others, and founded the AAADT in 1958 at the age of only twenty-seven, after having moved to NYC, where he replaced Lester Horton as choreographer at his last engagement.

Perhaps Ailey’s most famous ballet, “Revelations” (1960) was called a “re-enactment’ of life, a mixture of passion and sorrows” by members of the ensemble. In 1970, AAADT was nearly bankrupt, and the Foreign Office sent the ensemble on a tour of Asia and Europe. They were extremely popular, particularly in Stuttgart (Germany) “where the sell-out crowd hollered and stomped, like they had an orgasm”. The audience called the troupe for 80 curtain raisers. But Alvin remained an enigma even for his closest collaborators, he was just another person when he left the building after performing. His work was sometimes criticised for not being political enough in the wake of the rising Civil Rights movement, but he answered “that his protest was on the stage, not the streets”.

Further successes were “The River” (1970) and a year later, “Cry”, a birthday present for his mother, and a solo performance for Judith Jameson. There is interesting footage from an interview of Alvin with Harry Belafonte, where they discuss race integration, which for Alvin did progress too slowly. After the death of close collaborator Joyce Trisher, he was shocked and honoured her with “Memoria” (1979). But the experience in Texas stayed with him forever: after successful performances in Paris, he claimed that he could not adjust to such different experiences, and left. He soon returned with “Fever Swamp” (1983). Alvin Ailey spent the last days of his life on a sofa, watching his troupe rehearse.

Apart from archive footage and Newsreel snippets, Wignot uses rehearsals by the new artistic director, Robert Battle, of “Lazarus” by Rennie Harris, to celebrate 60 years of the AAADT, with Masazumi Chaya, another co-director of the company, also commenting on the continuation of Alvin Ailey’s work.

AILEY flows like a dream, languid and indulgent. Perhaps Alvin Ailey was too much of a contradictory personality to have everything revealed in one feature. But Wignot has achieved enough, to make us curious to get to know him better. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND from 7 JANUARY 2022

Val (2021)

Dirs: Leo Scott and Ting Poo | US Doc 104′

The thing about Val Kilmer is his silly humour. It shines out in this warm biopic of an actor who struck gold commercially but still wants to make it in the arthouse world. Now in his early 60s, a glittering past is behind him, a cancer survivor clinging on cheerfully despite a robotic voice like Stephen Hawking, he still smiles radiantly. A shadow of his former self but his spirit is strong and full of positive energy for the future. And once you get used to the voice you realise he’s much the same as he ever was: just older and wiser – and more philosophical.

In Val, directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo use a hotchpotch of videos and snapshots mostly taken by Kilmer himself: an actor and writer but most of all a big human whose love for life and his family radiates through the 40 years of archive footage in a documentary that takes us from his childhood years in California to the Batman years for which he is most famous, and beyond. His latest project – a tribute to Mark Twain – is still ongoing and clearly fascinates him. 

The film starts with him playing around in his trailer with Rick Rossovich during the making of Top Gun, his complex character comes out in another scene where he’s filming John Frankenheimer on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Ordered to stop filming Kilmer carries on regardless. The director had threatened to walk out and so Kilmer bargains with him to stay and the camera continues rolling.

A training at New York’s Juilliard school has clearly instilled a strong sense of quality in his work. And this is probably the root cause of his reputation for being ‘difficult’. He was billed for the main role in the 1983 production of “The Slab Boys,” a Broadway hit play, Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon later pulling rank for the main parts. His creativity went on to be stymied by the commercial system that ultimately offered little by way of freedom to express himself, and this theme sets the tone for an entertaining portrait of a real man, rather than just a jobbing player of parts. This is why his story remains one of success rather than failure, despite the decrepit guy in the picture. Loss is a big theme: his marriage and divorce from Joanne Whalley affected him badly, and obviously the cancer diagnosed in 2015. But he soldiers on making us laugh with an infectious humour in this feelgood movie. 

Batman was a personal disaster for him weighed down by a heavy costume and hardly able to breathe, let alone speak. It crushed his performance and he signed out after one go at the Caped Crusader: “every boy wants to be Batman, but not play him”.

The Top Gun episode was a blast with much fooling around off set, sealing his reputation:“For the rest of my life I will be called Iceman by every pilot at every airport I ever go to.” he comments from his Malibu beach hideaway. But he wanted more than fame. Inspiration was really his watchword. In a bid to work with Kubrick and Scorsese he sent them audition tapes but nothing came of it. His force of personality projected him forward for choice roles but he didn’t always get them. Willow was another disaster but the The Doors would be special and he honed his performance again and again, even wearing the leather trousers in an obsession that ultimately cost him his marriage. 

Family intervenes throughout the film: particularly his sadness over his brother Wesley who died in a jacuzzi accident in his teens. And his mother was a big influence and he reminisces over her in some tearful sequences. Although his father was a big business man Val ultimately had to bail him out. His faith Christian Science also figures strongly and clearly gives him the strength to pursue his artistic projects. He may have fallen from the pantheon of stardom but seems to have found peace with his kids and a boundless enthusiasm drives him forward to the future. MT

NOW ON RELEASE

Every Single Minute (2021) Made in Prague Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Erika Hanikova; Cast: Documentary with Misco, Lenka and Michal Hanuliak; Czech Republic/Slovakia 2021, 80 min.

A new documentary looks at the merits and drawbacks of a controversial Czech educational system through one couple’s experience with their own son.

Czech writer/director Erika Hanikova (Nesvatbov) takes a year in the life of Misco Hanuliak and his parents Lenka and Michal. The couple opts for the rather dogmatic approach of the Kameveda (Comprehensive Multi-Developmental Education of Children) based on the success of founder Pavel Zacha, who managed to get his when son into the famous American National Hockey League (NHL) – a rare exception for a non-US player.

We meet Misco, who is still barely out of nappies when his parents fill every minute of his day with sport: ice-hockey, tennis, basket ball, BMX cycling, all forms of athletics and fitness training The Hanuliak home is a paradise for the sport obsessed, with plaques bearing the platitudes “Home, Sweet Home” and “Family, were life begins, and love never ends”. hanging over doorways. Bilingual Lenka, is a full time mother and coach, running around with a stop watch, checking her son’s progress in the various activities. Michal runs a business but still finds time to ‘coach’ Misco who has no friends, and only has time for the Kamevada obsessed members of his family

Whilst Lenka shows her son affection, this is usually coupled with him breaking just another record. The couple is strangely reserved with each, all conversation targeting Misco’s progress: more a work relationship than a love affair. Misco is certainly indoctrinated by his parents: at a visit to his grandparents he says “yack” to chocolate and “Yummy” to a carrot offered, whilst his grandfather congratulates him on his stance, telling him, that he won’t end up with a big belly like he himself.

Every obstacle can be overcome, with Lenka giving a good example, driving – to just another sport’s venue – in spite of a very high temperature. Even a visit to a beach is used for Misco to break another record. When the latter tells is mother, that he has seen a tramp fishing around in the bins of their apartment block, Lenka uses this as a didactic opportunity: The man has certainly not trained and worked enough, so he has nothing to eat. But if Misco trains and works hard, he will be able to buy himself everything he wants.

DoPs Simon Dvoracek and Lukas Milota adopt a “fly on the wall” approach with Erika Hanika staying a non-judgemental observer. A sad fate awaits Misco – and the many other children of this cult-like organisation which robs them of creativity and a identity thanks to a misguided group of parents, trying to give their children the success they never had, by making them into little “Stepford” acolytes. AS

MADE IN PRAGUE FILM FESTIVAL | LONDON 2021

Cow (2021)

Director: Andrea Arnold | UK Doc 94′

Andrea Arnold returns to her native Kent for a first documentary feature that follows the daily life of a best-loved farmyard animal, the Cow. An intrusive almost wordless look that starts with the birth of a female calf to Luma, a long-lashed beauty with a glossy black and white splodged coat. Hooves first, the baby emerges and all we see is an enquiring eye looking round at the world in amazement, Luma wiping a lustrous tongue round her baby’s fluffy ear. But mother and calf are soon parted, the calf is taken away to the plastic teat of the farmer’s bottle. Dairy cow Luma will then be milked mechanically for our own consumption til the end of her life.

Cow has echoes of the 2012 shocker Leviathan where Lucien Castaing Taylor and Vanessa Paravel took an intense arthouse gaze at commercial fishing through the eyes of the fish themselves. Gunda took a similar wide-eyed approach: A human attempt to see things from the animals’ perspective. Here the cow becomes our friend and the human a cruel, opportunistic and exploitative interloper. When the black bull arrives to do his business, Luma carries on unimpressed. The only moment of bliss in her life is grazing in the bucolic peace of the summery Kentish meadows, chewing buttercups and lush grass in the moonlight. Overhead a plane comes into landing its lights flashing like an alien spaceship in her natural world.

The mass production of milk is big business but Arnold doesn’t bore us with the facts or figures, or even talking heads. The only heads here are furry bovine ones, and muddy bottoms caressed by swishing tails. Bemused, bewildered and beguiling the cows look out in wonder at a world of exploitation. And when Luma’s calf disappears into a plastic pen with a plastic teat, Luma moos loudly in protest as the two are parted. And as each of her calves is born Luma becomes more and more protective, or at least that’s what we hear from a disembodied human voice. Clearly cows have feelings too. But here she merely exists to produce milk – gallons of it – and that repetitive diurnal task is what leads us to the film’s shockingly blunt finale. MT

Andrea Arnold’s first feature documentary COW in cinemas on demand from 8 April 2022.

 

Getting Away with Murder(s) (2021)

Dir.: David Wilkinson; Wri: David Wilkinson, Emlyn Price | Documentary with Philip Rubenstein, Benjamin B. Ferencz, Fritz Bauer, Donald M. Ferencz, Jens Rommel; UK 2021, 175 min.

Yorkshire born director David Wilkinson (Postcards from the 48%) has co-written and produced a unique, sober and frightening report on Holocaust murderers that have somehow avoided prosecution. How did it happen? How did the executioners of six million Jews get away it? Only one percent of the million or so perpetrators were actually brought to justice.

On his mission to uncover the truth Wilkinson has travelled the globe interviewing Nazi-hunters and survivors, horrifying clips from the camps make for testament of utter contempt for retribution that begs the question: what would the US government have done had the Nazis decimated the entire State of Maryland? And how would the British government have reacted, had the entire population of   Yorkshire lost their in the same way? Surely, the rate of successful prosecutions in both cases would have run into double-figures.

The (West) German government and the Allies played their part by turning a blind eye to the atrocities The victors all fell out, starting a Cold War which saw the USA, Great Britain and France freeing already convicted war criminals who would then see active service against the USSR. From the late 1949 to the mid 1960s the West German government was led by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who in 1934 had begged the Nazi Interior Minister Frick to have his state pension restored: “I have always treated the NSDAP properly, against ministerial instructions. I allowed the NSDA to meet in the city sports ground, moreover I allowed the Party to hoist up the Swastika”. His plea was successful. As Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Adenauer surrounded himself with a cabinet that included Hans Globke, author or the Nuremberg laws of 1938 for the Nazis. Theodor Oberländer was Minister for Refugees and had been a member of the SA, having participated in the Hitler putsch of 1923, and had been directly involved in the plans to exploit the occupied countries in Eastern Europe. In 1965, Adenauer was replaced by Ludwig Erhard who had the dubious honour of being a member of the Nazi “Arbeitskreis für Aussenwirtschaftsfragen (AAF)” along with Ludger Westrick, Karl Blessing and Hermann Josef Abs. All played a major role both in Nazi Germany and the FRG,

But the government of the time merely reflected the view of the German population: war criminals lived on at liberty, often without having to change their names. Some even returned from exile in   South America to bury their dead: Dr. Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death” was a prime example, having ‘selected’ Jews on the ramps of Auschwitz for his infamous experiments. Reunited with his family in Switzerland in 1956, he returned to his birthplace in Günzburg/Bavaria in 1959, for his father’s funeral. Everyone in the small town knew that he was present – apart from the police. Mengele died of a stroke swimming in Sao Paulo in 1979, aged sixty-seven.

German justice actually made it extremely difficult for Nazi war criminals to be prosecuted, as Benjamin B. Ferenc, Chief prosecutor of the 1948 trial against the members of the Einsatzgruppen explained: German law did not allow retrospective interpretations of any criminal action, which meant that since it was lawful to kill Jews, Communists, gays and Roma in Nazi Germany, one had to prove, that the accused acted “in a way beyond the legal (!) requirement” – for example showing more than average brutality or indulged in extra-curricular actions. It was a reasonable defence to clam the Jews were the enemies of Germany. In many trials in Germany and Austria, witnesses were asked for the exact time when the atrocities took place – as if any camp inmate had a watch. Defence lawyers hunted down the witnesses, and the population in many towns joined in. Thus the trials became more a second punishment for the Jews and other victims, than for the perpetrators themselves. Even though, the names of Fritz Bauer and Jens Rommel, both having been in charge of the Central Agency for the Prosecution of Nazi Criminals in Ludwigsburg, should be mentioned – Bauer gave the Mossad a tip off about Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina, because Bauer believed his trial in Germany would not serve justice.

The number of major war criminals who got away it is long: Walter Rauff, who designed the specialised carriages where 100 000 victims met their deaths, fled to Chile, were he died in 1984 aged seventy-seven. Karl Jaeger, Nazi Colonel, carried out the murder of Lithuanian Jews, his diary showed that he killed over 100,000 men and women, of which 4273 were children. In the 1965 Sobibor trail in Germany, the main defendant Alfred Ittner was convicted of the murder of 68 000 Jews – his punishment was seven years in prison. Johanna Altvater, a mere secretary, killed Jewish babies, throwing them out of the window. She was never prosecuted and died aged at the ripe old age on 84, in 2003.

Dr Herta Oberweiler was responsible for the deaths of thousands of children who lost their lives as a result of her sepsis “research’. She was sentenced to twenty years prison, later reduced to five. After her release, she actually got her licence back, and it took years for her to struck off the register. Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s deputy, responsible for the murder of over 100,000 Jews, got the death penalty in absentia in France, but fled to Syria, where he advised the government on torture methods, dying in his late 90s. Herberts Cukurs, the “Butcher of Riga”, was not so lucky. He was responsible for killing 30 000 Latvian Jews. In a macabre incident, Cukurs asked an old Jewish man to rape a young Jewish woman, and then shot all Jews who looked away. He fled to Brazil, where he was killed by Mossad agents in 1965, aged sixty-four. But in 2014, a musical was produced in his home town, showing him as a hero.

The British government’s role in all this is rather shameful. Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was asked by the Bulgarian government in the early 1940s, to allow over ten thousand Jews, threatened by the Germans, to emigrate to the British Protectorate of Palestine. Eden refused, and all Bulgarian Jews were murdered subsequently in Treblinka. Later, the UK Government clamed to be too broke, to contribute to the 1948 trial against members of the murderous Einsatzgruppen. Even though the trial went ahead, few of Einsatzgruppen were prosecuted. After the war, the UK became a safe heaven for Nazi war criminals; and Wilkinson visits places in Oldham and Selby, were many had hidden, a map showing that the perpetrators managed to settle throughout the UK. Philip Rubenstein, former director of the All Party Parliamentary War Crime Group, was instrumental in changing the law to allow for Nazi prosecution in the UK. He reports, that since 1943 Civil Servants were actively employed in avoiding Nazi prosecution, claiming that it “smelled of laws made by the victors.” Needless to say, the Holocaust is not on the main curriculum in UK schools.

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER(S) is an epochal work, much more than a feature documentary. It is disturbing and asks grave questions of our judicial system? AS

ON RELEASE in UK CINEMAS FROM 1 OCTOBER 2021

 

Eagles of the Fleet (1952)

Dir: Lesley Selander | Cast: Sterling Hayden, Richard Carlson, William Phipps, Keith Larsen, Phyllis Coates | US Doc 83′

The opening credits and martial music seem rather grand to be bearing the infamous name of poverty row purveyors Monogram Pictures – now moving (for them) upmarket and soon to rebrand themselves Allied Artists – by whose standards this production by Walter Mirisch (who later gave us The Great Escape) obviously represented a prestige project.

Those with a knowledge of US military aircraft will as usual have a great time pointing out all the mismatched aircraft footage (just as trainspotters never tire of pointing out that the rolling stock is all wrong in any film with a railway setting); but the 16mm Kodachrome film shot by enterprising wartime cameramen was already proving a gift that keeps on giving, of which this early production was an early beneficiary, aided by Cinecolor photography by Harry Neumann and art direction and editing by David Milton and William Austin that reasonably unobtrusively blends the original footage with studio work and scenes actually shot on the USS Princeton.

The names of Sterling Hayden and Richard Carlson gave a strong hint as to what to expect, and sure enough we get the usual conflict between granite-faced by-the-book disciplinarian Hayden and nice guy Carlson who comes to appreciate the wisdom of Hayden’s anti-charm offensive on the new boys (who include a youthful-looking William Schallart in a surprisingly substantial early role as ‘Longfellow’).

The film holds your attention for the most part, although Marlin Skiles’ music increasingly emphasises exhilaration rather than grim determination on the part of the flyers; and I did find my attention starting to wander during the final twenty minutes when the excitement was supposed to be at its height.@Richard Chatten

 

Django and Django (2021)

Dir.: Luca Rea; Documentary about Sergio Corbucci with Quentin Tarantino, Franco Nero, Ruggero Deodato; USA/Italy 2021, 80 min.

Italian director/co-writer Luca Rea (Cacao) pays tribute to compatriot director Sergio Corbucci (1926-1990), who, with Sergio Leone, dominated the short era of the Italo-Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Corbucci, who made 63 feature films, is usually shunned by mainstream critics, even though he directed huge box office successes with Adriano Celantano and Toto, as well as the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer Western comedies. Quentin Tarantino is the main source, leading us through Corbucci’s career in seven chapters.

Sergio Corbucci, like Leone, started out as a film critic, and via screen writing became an assistant director. In 1959 Leone and Corbucci worked for Mario Bonnard in The Last Days of Pompei and their valuable contribution set them both up for a great future, even though both Sergios’ insisted the glory belonged to Bonnard alone. Tarantino maintained that Corbucci’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ were a settlement of his scores with Fascism, since the young Sergio grew up under the Mussolini dictatorship and WWII. He even had the ‘honour’ – as a member of the Fascist Youth Choir – to be five feet away from Mussolini and Hitler he visited Rome. Corbucci’s villains rode roughshod through all his features as sadistic, misogynist and racist monsters, in love with spilling blood – particularly the one of innocents.

Romulo and Remo (Duel of the Titans) 1961 was Corbucci’s first attempt to show a prototype of the violent men which would later dominate his Westerns. His first, Minnesota Clan (1964) was shot in the same year as Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood. The shooting of Django (1966) didn’t go to plan: all the horses bolted, and nobody was sure which of the film lots they were shooing on. Nevertheless, the Kurosawa-inspired revenge story (nearly all Corbucci Westerns fall into this category), “was the most violent film, before Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch came along in 1969″.

Corbucci’s Mexican Revolution trilogy of The Mercenary (1968), Companeros (1970) and What Am I Doing in the Middle of a Revolution (1972) is perhaps his most popular, but the most violent by far is The great Silence (1968). The role of Gordon, the mute avenger, was meant for Franco Nero but he decided to go to Hollywood, making an angry Corbucci cast Jean-Louis Trintignant. Klaus Kinski acted the sadistic killer Tigero, who survives, whilst Gordon is killed. Shot in an eerie, snowy landscape, The great Silence also featured another re-occurring theme of the Corbucci’s Western: the cowardly citizens of the hamlets, who would rather obey the repressor than take the side of the avenger. “It feels like Corbucci is taking a swing at John Ford. The latter’s films show the town building and solidarity of the citizens, whilst Corbucci’s folks are rather meek and cowardly”. One of Corbucci’s last Western was Sid & Jed (1972), a Bonnie and Clyde story set in a Western milieu.

Tarantino offers a clever solution to an unsolved riddle in Django. When the titular hero arrives, we see him laying flowers on the grave of a certain Mercedes. Tarantino conjures up an explanation, in which Django is a soldier who has fought the Confederates, and now returns to give a keepsake to Mercedes, the wife of his black friend who was killed in the war. He then encounters the hooded KKK, who have done away with the black population, and are targeting the Mexicans. All set in Missouri, where slavery was not abolished.

Filmmaker Ruggero Deodato, once Rossellini’s assistant, who worked with Corbucci on 13 films, gives insight into the director’s work, as do many private videos sharing some hilariously funny and candid incidents during shooting. They also show a director who certainly enjoyed his work, and who was always ready for a good laugh – even at himself. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX | Premiered at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Victory of the Faith | Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl | Germany, Doc 64’

One gets a sense of déjà vu all the way through this trial run for Triumph des Willens, as so many of its images were deliberately recreated by Leni Riefenstahl a year later for the more famous film, which also reuses Herbert Windt’s music; although sadly there is no zeppelin in Triumph des Willens.

In addition to being almost exactly half the running time of the interminable ‘Triumph’, it’s the mismatches and the occasional moments of spontaneity that makes Der Sieg des Glaubens the more endurable of the two films. The presence throughout of Ernst Röhm is naturally the most remarkable feature; usually at Hitler’s side but otherwise not unduly prominent (the film overall contains mercifully far less speeches – and marching – although there do seem to be rather more shots of Goebbels this time round).

After years of being accustomed to seeing the aerial view of the threesome of Hitler, Himmler and Lutze (Röhm’s tame replacement as head of the SA) approaching the Ehrenhalle in ‘Triumph’, the sight of just Hitler and Röhm giving the salute comes as a jolt. The presence of Vice-Chancellor Papen (soon to be sidelined by the Führer until collared by the Allies in 1945 and brought back to Nuremberg as one of the defendants) reminds us that this is still very early days for the New Order, and Riefenstahl occasionally cuts to a suitably overwhelmed looking Italian delegation.

 

 

image coutesy of @wikiwand.

Two amusing moments depicting the Führer caught slightly off-guard are early on when he immediately thrusts a bouquet of flowers two little girls have just presented him with in Rudolf Hess’s direction; and the unaccustomed slouching posture he adopts while the leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, attempts to quieten them down so that he can begin his address.@Richard Chatten

 

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (2020)

Dir.: Kristina Lindstrom, Kristian Petri; Documentary with Björn Andrésen, Robine Roman, Annike Andrésen, Jessica Vennberg, Miriam Sambol, Margareta Krantz, Ryoko Ikeda; Sweden 2021, 93 min.

Swedish directors/writers Kristina Lindstrom (Palme) and Kristian Petri (Sommaren) explore the blighted life of actor/musician Björn Andrésen (*1955) who shot to international fame in 1971 as the blond youth Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice.

The remainder of the young man’s life resembles a Greek tragedy after a world-wide advertising campaign based on Andrésen’s androgynous image inspired, among others, Japanese Manga writers Ryoko Ikeda, sealing  his fate. But What’s crucial here is that Visconti ‘owned’ the image of the under-aged actor via a copyright agreement for three years.

Björn was the fifth of six actors Visconti tested in 1970 in Stockholm for role of Tadzio, the nemesis of gay composer Von Aschenbach, in the novel of the same name by Thomas Mann. Visconti intended to direct the movie for the big screen, having been obsessed by it for a long time. Paradoxically Visconti somehow got away with being a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party and a very wealthy aristocrat. He was openly gay (exceptional in Catholic Italy after WWII) and his film crew consisted mostly of members of the the same sexual orientation.
At the screening test, Visconti made Björn strip to his pants, making the teenager highly uneasy.

Visconti emerges a stern and authoritarian figure, issuing an edict: nobody could even so much as look at Björn. Meanwhile the director touted the teenager around at gay nightclubs during the film’s shoot in Venice, where – acceding to teenager “the waiters looked at me as if I was a particular rare food which they would devour at any time”.

Miriam Samboli was engaged by the production company to look after Björn as a governess, helping him with his homework, and Casting Agent Margareta Krantz. Word had it that Visconti was completely smitten by Björn:”Whenever he was with Björn, his whole body came alive.” The media circus gathered speed in 1971 after Death in Venice had its premiere in London with The Queen and Princess Anne in attendance. The festival in Cannes, a few few months later, made the young man into a worldwide star. He was particularly famous in Japan as the first ‘Western Idol’, and made some music records. Next came Paris, where a certain Mr. Durant paid Björn 500 francs a month as pocket money, and rented a flat for him. “I had never any of my own money during my travels round the world”.

But Björn still had his education to think about and at school the boys sneered at him for his ‘femininity’: “I only had to snap my fingers and ten girls would come running – I never learned the social skills to communicate with the other gender”.

Björn Andrésen amassed credits for 16 TV films and series (40 TV episodes), as well as eleven feature films. He had asked not to be cast in the “Tadzio” mould, because he wanted to escape the gay image. It goes without saying he never gained the same attention as he did in 1971.

But it would be wrong simply to blame the Visconti episode for Bjorn’s post 1971 career, there were clearly aspects in his childhood that contributed to his lack of ongoing success: Björn never knew his biological father and his mother Barbro, a writer and painter, committed suicide. We watch him in a heart-breaking scene with an archivist who shows him the police report of Barbro’s suicide. His sister Annike Andrésen, the siblings were born in the same year, and daughter Robine Roman, paint a picture of a haunted man who never came to terms with fame. But the worst was still to come: Björn’s son Elvin died, nine months old, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He is convinced he died “because I loved him not enough, I was not up to it”.

The present sees him with supportive girlfriend Jessica Vennberg, who helps Björn clean his flat and fight off an eviction order from a Housing Association. A an adult he cuts a shy figure, hiding behind masses of hair: clearly not wanting to be seen.

DoP Erik Vallsten follows Björn Andrésen’s journey with a respectful distance: Here is a man so much hurt by the past  he is a whisper away from disaster, totally lacking agency or self determination. Lindstrom’s biopic echoes an uneasy silence, captured with empathy in this diligent and dignified portrait. AS

NOW ON BBC IPLAYER

All Things Bakelite (2018)

Dir.: John E. Maher; Documentary about Leo Hendrik Baekeland, narrated by Adam Behr; USA 2018, 59 min.

Everything you needed to know about the origins of plastic is here in John E Maher’s watchable docu-drama that sheds a light Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), the Belgian born inventor of Bakelite, which under its common name, Plastic, has dominated our lives since 1907.

Plastic is a dirty word nowadays, but it was hailed as a miracle back in the day when Baekeland first invented the substance. His biographer, Carl Kaufmann, and even a flamenco dancer sing his praises, Mark Ferreira, re-creating dramatised insight into the genius who was not keen on other people.

Born in Ghent, Baekeland married Celine Swarts, the daughter of his professor at the town’s university. But instead of following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, he emigrated with his wife to the USA in 1889. The couple would have three children, two of which survived their childhood. An inventor at heart, Baekeland struck gold first by coming up with a new photographic paper in 1893, the rights of which were bought up by the Eastman company making Baekeland independent and ready for the big step forward in 1907.

Bakelite was a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, but Baekeland “hit a wall, like his competitors, but he found a door”. The original mixture was too sticky to be formatted, and it took Baekeland 680 attempts to find a solution for its adaption in all forms possible. Radio, telephone, cars – all mass-produced articles soon relied on the new invention. Others copied Baekeland, and only in 1923 did a judge gave him he sole right for the production of the new formulary.

Baekeland was in love with cars, he even got a speeding ticket for driving at 30 in a 20 mph zone. But behind the scenes, he was an anxious, lonely and nervous man, just the opposite his wife, a socialite who loved to give parties. Her husband felt safest on his yacht, where he spent hours on his own: “He was not a people person”.

But Bakelite would soon find its way into Hollywood: art-deco design dominated the features of Busby Berkeley, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the invention of the first Baby Monitor in 1937. In 1940 Bakelite was the foundation for the first Hawaiian guitar, which was played later on SNL. But crucially the film points to the inevitable downside: plastic is not bio-degradable and will be with us forever – even if, in the future new components make it more eco friendly.

That hydrogen bombs also have a use for Bakelite, is another irony and makes a quote by Kaufmann particularly poignant: “Plastic is the finest and worst expression of mankind”. Baekeland, who was nocturnal in his habits, often feeling like a ‘wandering ghost’, leaves us with pithy food for thought, a Professor of the History of Design at Pratt Institute exclaiming “the heart of Bakelite is the American soul”.

Short and to the point, Maher uses archive material to make his points, his re-staging of Baekeland life is not always successful, and his admiration for chemistry as a whole is obviously questionable. Still, we get to know the man who left us with a major long-term problem, by solving all our daily needs. AS

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS WORLDWIDE

Joy Womack: The White Swan (2020)

Dir.: Dina Burlis, Sergey Gawrilov; Documentary with Joy Annabelle Womack, Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov, Masha Beck, Elizabeth Shockman; USA 2021, 91 min.

A culture of bribery and corruption in Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet provides the cut and thrust of this new documentary, seen through eyes of Prima ballerina Joy Womack.

Born in 1994, Womack grew up in California and Texas, even though she is ethnically Russian. At the age of 15 she left her family and went to train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2009, later becomeing a member of the Bolshoi Ballet proper – quite an achievement and a ‘first’ for an American. But she would resign in 2013 when the scandal became public, later joining the Kremlin Ballet Theatre Moscow where she performed the leading role in ‘Swan Lake’ and other iconic parts in the repertoire.

Told in a series of flashbacks that culminate in her performance in ‘Swan Lake’ at the Kremlin Ballet Theatre – the film is a hotchpotch of episodes  in Womack’s life: there are highlights of her training and rehearsals, and her close relationship with ex-partner Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov. Two biographers, Masha Beck and Elizabeth Shockman are the main commentators, often rather too gushing in style giving the undertaking a hagiographic flavour. Training to be a dancer is gruelling and psychologically stressful: at one point Womack needed complex and expensive surgery after dancing with a fractured foot, just because no understudy was available. Fortunately her church provided the financing for her operation, because her family had gone bankrupt.

Most dancers suffer from weight problems, and Joy is no different. Weighing at one point only 38 kg, she developed an eating disorder, along with many of her colleagues. One point of contention between Joy and Nikita, also a dancer, was her total commitment to work. Womack is clear about her goals in life: “More work is good, no compromises. I train at the gym, practice my yoga, run a bible group and attend church. I could not do all this if I was still with Nikita. Many things make me into a better dancer and a better person. For me, works comes first, and I consider it impossible to combine work and personal life”.

Sadly, Nikita, now a choreographer, has to accept she’s married to her work with almost religious devotion. But it wasn’t a happy decision and she misses him: “He does not understand it, he is heartbroken. My heart aches for him.” When she left the Kremlin Ballet Theatre for a position in Seoul, she was adamant to burn no bridges: “Moscow will be always my home, I think of it as a base”.

Structurally flawed due to its confusing non-linear timeline – makes this a confusing to watch, but Womack herself is very much a documentary filmmaker’s dream: outspoken and always willing to take centre stage, she is a force of nature to be reckoned with, even if her underlying need for entitlement is sometimes grating.

Lively and action-packed throughout its running time, this portrait of a woman bulldozing herself through life, taking no prisoners is impressive. AS

OUT ON 19 JULY 2021

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958) Curzon

Dir.: Bert Stern, Aram Avakian; Documentary with Theolonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Chico Hamilton, Chuck Berry; USA 1959, 85 min.

This documentary of the Newport Jazz Festival that took place at Freebody Park, Newport, Rhode Island in July 1958 is the only directional credit of fashion photographer Bert Stern; also one of three credited cameramen of Jazz. (His co-director Aram Avakian is best known for helming End of the Road (1970), which got a X-rating for showing an abortion).

Jazz is a lively interactive blast from the past, the crowd are major players in an event that captures the heady atmosphere of a free-wheeling and jubilant world on the cusp of the 1960s: the best was yet to come in this brave and promising new era. Of course, behind the scenes Behind Vietnam was raging and the filmmakers make a conscious decision not to include the mayhem caused by an influx of black citizens into the luxury enclave of Rhode Island. But they are big players as musicians and onlookers enjoying the pleasant July seaside resort.

The music is very mainstream, even by standards of the late 1950s. Looking at the list of omissions by the filmmakers – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington with his band, and Mary Lou Williams – it becomes clear Jazz was meant to appeal to the widest audience possible. Still, it works, mainly because the lack if commentary, just the voice of emcee Willis Connover. The directors drift around the harbour too where yachts were competed in trials for the ‘America Cup’, adding a salty maritime edge to the sultry Southern singers. Their camera catches the Hamilton Quintet rehearsing in a nearby house, after which cellist Nathan Gershman plays Bach’s Cello Suite number one – just for himself.

Having said all this, there is a towering cast of musicians, dominated by female artists – Louis Armstrong (joyful as ever) and his “All Stars”, Anita O’Day (Sweet Georgia Brown), Dinah Washington (All of Me), R&B star Big Maybelle and Mahalia Jackson. At the beginning we get only a short glance of Theolonious Monk, playing “Blue Monk” with his trio, totally immersed in playing the piano, oblivious to what was going on around him. Chuck Berry enjoyed great applause for his version of “Sweet little sixteen”, even though it was originally a rock hit. But the night belonged to Mahalia Jackson, whose “The Lord’s Prayer” ran into Sunday morning.

The audience is shown intimately, not just a decorative backdrop, but a real participant. Some are serious devotees, others have brought their children and even babies to boogie along. A vicar and fan with his own 8mm camera are also on show. The consensus was to give the impression of a united nation, helped along by a decade of affluence. But the undocumented police interference was a sign of things to come. The near future would bring the murders of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and the slaying of Martin Luther King amongst a growing Civil Rights movement. So looking back Newport 1958 appeared like a beacon of hope, in a world now lost for ever. We are left wondering how many of the earnest young citizens went on to the streets in the 1960s, protesting against the Vietnam War.

The film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 and the restored copy is much more than a Jazz documentary: A snapshot of a nation just before major turmoil would jumble the pieces leaving nothing in its place any more. Only the jazz survived. AS

A 4K RESTORATION ON CURZON | 30 AUGUST 2021

 

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac (2021)

Dir.: Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur, Biggie, Pam Brooks, Russell Poole, Faith Evans, Greg Kading, Bernard Parks; USA 2021, 105 min.

Director/writer Nick Broomfield provides the sequel to his own documentary Biggie & Tupac (2002) about the founder and CEO of LA’s Death Row Records Suge Knight. Back in 2018 Knight was sentenced to 28 years in jail for the voluntary manslaughter of fellow music producer Terry Carter, CEO of Heavy Weight Records on 29.1.2015 in Compton, California.

The two had been friends; the same can be said about Knight’s relationship with the murdered Rappers Biggie and Tupac. Knight’s incarceration loosened the tongues of many witnesses, and opened up new avenues, including the involvement of the LAPD.

Suge Knight, born 1965 in Compton, Cal., was raised by his mother, keeping him away from the gang violence of the area: he was not allowed to play with certain groups and later had a college career as a footballer, followed by a short stint with the NFL team LA Raiders in 1987. Two years later, he began his career as music producer, which led to his founding of Death Row Records.

The company was soon involved in the Bloods versus Crypts gang warfare which overshadowed the music business along with the ultra violence and abusive lifestyle of his star performers. Substance abuse also featured heavily. Rapper Tupac Shakur was born in 1971 East Harlem to parents who were members of the Black Panther organisation. When he was jailed in 1995 for sexual offences, Knight paid his bail and added Tupac to his DRR stable a year later. Friends of Tupac (amongst them the producer Pam Brooks) remember how prison had changed Shakur: he was no longer interested in the progressive politics of his parents, but indulged in extreme behaviour: the henchmen of DRR even had women fighting each other, watching the proceedings like dog fights.

After Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had left DRR, Shakur was the victim of a shooting in September 1996 in the aftermath to watching a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. He died six days later. Biggie’s drive-by murder a year later in LA, again was credited to Knight, even though some members of DRR claim Tupac had a relationship with Faith Evans, Biggie’s wife.

But LAPD officer Russell Poole (1956-2015) was convinced that two of his colleges from the LAPD, Rafael Perez and David Mack, were involved in the shootings of both men. Poole died of a heart attack, after fighting in vain to uncover the guilt of the two officers. Mack was a former middle-distance runner, participating in the World Championship, but later became a bank robber and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison, until his release in 2010.

Even LAPD Police Chief Bernard Parks admitted to the involvement of the two officers. Meanwhile, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, claimed the LAPD knew the identity of her son’s murderers at the 20th anniversary of his death: A photo of three people, all clad in the red of the Blood gangs, features the daughter of LAPD chief Bernard Parks. It had since disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Last Man Standing is a like an old fashioned who-done-it, with the background of sex and drugs fuelling an over-the-top atmosphere. DoP Joan Churchill adds a certain sense of realism, but Broomfield’s pursuit of the truth still feels very much like fiction. A roller-coaster ride of a very deadly music business. AS

WORLD PREMIERE SCREENING + EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH NICK BROOMFIELD | HOSTED BY TREVOR NELSON | IN CINEMAS ONE NIGHT ONLY 30TH JUNE  | TICKETS:WWW.LASTMANSTANDING.FILM
| ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 2ND JULY

Bernstein’s Wall (2021) TriBeCa 2021

Dir: Douglas Tirola | Wrs: Leonard Bernstein, Douglas Tirola | US Doc, 101′

“the artist can change the world but he can’t necessarily do it through his art” 

Leonard Bernstein became a household name for his ground-swelling score of modern Broadway classic Westside Story. In those days to be a twenty-something Jewish immigrant conductor was unheard of. But Bernstein was determined to bring music to the mainstream and it was this democratisation of his craft and the arts in general that made him his place in history.

Bernstein came from a non-musical background in Boston. His father – whom he described as a cold, authoritarian tyrant  escaped Italy on an ocean-liner and settled in Brooklyn to ply his trade as a fishmonger.

Directed by Douglas Tirola and narrated by the composer himself in modulated engaging tones, Bernstein’s story unfolds in a didactic but fascinating way, enlivened by a wealth of personal photos and archive films – and of course, audio footage in a rich musical score. In these vivid scenes Bernstein comes across as an inquiring free-thinker, his lustrous dark curls framing an opened-faced sensual masculine beauty that only got better as the years rolled by.

Cultural ambassador, artist, teacher, and philosopher, the musician’s gift to the world was his ability to bring classics to everyday audiences who would mostly see his prodigious passionate outpourings on the television during the 1950s when he was known for his CBS arts series Omnibus in 1954.

Although classically trained Bernstein developed an eclectic interest in all kinds of music, jazz and opera blurring the lines between class and culture sealing his reputation as an iconic figure whose talent would unify, engage and entertain.

Training at Tanglewood, Bernstein would soon gravitate from Boston to New York where he took to the conductor’s podium with ease and aplomb wafting aside his radical background with charismatic determination, thanks to his supportive mentors Serge Koussevitsky and Aaron Copland.

Romantically it was plain-sailing for the affable family-orientated conductor who fell for Chilean American actress Felicia Montealegre, snippets from their early love letters rendered in graceful black and white graphics. Soon he had a son and a daughter and needed to support them all. From modest beginnings in Carnegie Hall, The New York Philharmonic beckoned in 1958.

Bernstein’s way of engaging his audience was to give a rousing introduction to his dynamic stage performances – offering an entente cordiale in Russia, or laced with a political agenda at home – but always brimming with a febrile physicality as his quivering body conveyed his excitement and passion for music via the orchestra to the audience: “music keeps me glued to life even when I’m depressed”.

Tirola adds political and social footnotes. Felicia, a keen pianist and obedient fifties wife, saying all the right things, yet clearly sharing her husband with another muse, music itself. But also a burgeoning yen for men – an episode which is discretely conveyed in those same black and white graphics. And Felicia admits his confused sexuality clouded their marriage of 27 years although it was undoubtedly happy and fulfilling for a time, his homosexuality is never explored.

Politics and leftist activism takes centre stage during the Kennedy years as Bernstein increasingly warms to his role as conductor for social change, using his reputation and art to promote peace, equality and racial harmony. In Alabama he is seen joining fellow jazz musicians in a peace rally, and visiting Jerusalem to give a rousing speech on the Mount of Olives. And there snaps from his well-publicised and misinterpreted soiree in support of the civil liberties for the Black Panther party – leading to Tom Wolfe’s coining the derogatory phrase “radical chic”. This all caused a vicious backlash on the Bernsteins and a storm of critical hailstones in 1970 his subversive stance drawing suspicion from Richard Nixon.

The film coming to a satisfactory close with footage of Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony in East Berlin in 1989 as part of the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To mark that reunification, he rewrote part of Friedrich Schiller’s text for the “Ode to Joy” movement, and had the choir substitute the German word for “freedom” in place of “joy.”

Tirola’s warm but not hagiographic approach allows for an enjoyable and immersive look back at the conductor’s fascinating life. Of his own musical choices Bernstein talks glowingly of Beethoven although his West Side Story work is almost entirely absent, apart from a few visuals. We are left with the impression of a genius but never a showman, a true artist absorbed and taken over by his obsession – a true conductor if ever there was one – music was the lightening bolt that set Bernstein’s life on fire. MT

Tribeca Film Festival | JUNE 2021

 

 

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (2021) TriBeCa Film Festival 2021

Dir: Laura Fairrie | US Doc 96′

Success came to Jackie Collins beyond her wildest dreams. Despite negative vibes from her father and sister, the actress Joan Collins, she proved that women can make in bed – and in board room – coining the aspiration phase “Girls can do anything” and giving women supreme sexually agency to enjoy their own escapist fantasies not just on the page but on top of the sheets – or anywhere they chose.

This warm and witty portrait of the best-selling author -who books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide – shows how steely determination and iron resolve eventually made her the toast of Hollywood, sending her rocketing into stardom in the 1990s with a string of raunchy chic-lit page-turners mostly centred on the “dangerously beautiful” sexually liberated Italian-American femme fatale Lucky Santangelo, the character in her most successful paperback ‘Hollywood Wives’. Jackie was also the self-styled author of her own life and chic outward persona. Guarding a secret world behind her well-penned pages, she remained positive in the face of multiple setbacks not least the suicide of her first husband Wallace Austin while her mother was dying of cancer. She would follow in 2015.

Growing up in leafy Hampstead the daughter of a Jewish showbiz agent Jo Collins and his Christian stay at home wife, family played a major part in Jackie’s life, according to director Laura Fairrie. The youngest of three children – her older brother and sister provide informative ballast along with her three voluable daughters and a clutch of close friends and colleagues (amongst them Tita Cahn, wife of Sammy). According to her big sister Joan – who frequently damns her with faint praise – Jackie was always quietly scribbling away in a diary as they enjoyed a glamorous party scene where she joined Joan in late 1950s Hollywood, and these notes would form the basis of her characters, Lucky was the one she aspired to most.

Jackie Collins’ paperbacks were the first to have shiny, gold-embossed covers (now so commonplace in airport booksellers) setting them apart from the usual fare, they looked glamorous and enticing. And while Fairrie’s film is rich in the ruminations of friends and family, what jumps out ahead of the crowd are the startling double-standards at play at the time (and nothing has really changed). Women claim – by the sheer number of books sold – to enjoy the sexually-charged escapes that would later feature in films like The Stud (Joan neatly writing herself into the picture as the main star, as her own career flagged). But on-stage Q&As show the complete opposite, with women castigating her openly with their comments: one opines: “your books are absolute filth”. To her credit Jackie is seen listening thoughtfully, never coming over as strident or outspoken, always perfectly poised and graceful. One amusing sequence sees hackneyed romantic novelist Barbara Cartland having a pop at Jackie, who looks on incredulously. Another less appealing scene shows how Jackie was mercilessly set up on a British chat show with an audience populated by puritanical prudes.

Although Jackie never made it into acting the film shows how she used her experiences observing the Los Angeles celebrity circus and it was Lerman who encouraged her  to finish her first book, The World is Full of Married Men, and agreeing to move the family to Los Angeles when Collins set out to crack the American market.In her own coterie of Hollywood jet-setters: Roger Moore is curiously seen making obscene gestures behind Jackie’s back during a drinks soiree but her second marriage to Tramp owner Oscar Lerman proved to be happy, fulfilling and supportive, paving the way to sealing her success in Hollywood.

The success story is only marred by Jackie’s own tragedy that she seems to have kept to herself and suddenly looms up from nowhere, according to her daughter Tara, possibly indicating a lack of self esteem at her innermost core, feeding into those early memories of feeling ‘less than’ and “a big fat lump” next to Joan. But

It was both a tireless work ethic and her survival instinct that kept Collins writing through her grief when Lerman died of prostate cancer in 1992. An extended engagement followed, to L.A. businessman Frank Calcagnini, described by her daughters and other intimates as like a gigolo character from one of her novels. “A gambler, a drugger, an alcoholic and an abuser,” is what Tita Cahn calls him. His death from a brain tumor nonetheless was another blow. When Collins herself was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, she took a leaf out of the book of her father, who decades earlier had responded to her beloved mother’s cancer diagnosis by declaring: “We don’t use that word.”

The film’s account of Jackie’s final weeks, when she kept her illness almost entirely to herself, is quite affecting. There’s poignancy in Joan’s recollections, as well as those of business manager Laura Lizer, of a lunch at the Ritz Carlton where Jackie informed her sister of her condition. During that farewell trip home to London, she also appeared on an ITV chat show, looking gaunt but still full of spirit, just days before her death. She went out promoting her work and keeping her sorrows private.

Fairrie doesn’t attempt to rewrite history and make a case for Collins as an underappreciated literary genius. But she paints a stirring picture of a gifted storyteller and a brilliant female entrepreneur, who shrugged off the cultural snobbery and the misogynistic backlash sparked by her “scandalous” work and laughed all the way to the bank.

hanging out with Michael Caine and Sean Connery and making her friends with the powerful wives of studio bosses such as Barbara Davis and Tita Cahn who refer to her as “their best friend”. MT

Tribeca Film Festival | New York | JUNE 2021

 

Men Who Sing (2021) Sheffield Doc Festival 2021

Dir/Wri: Daryl Williams | UK Doc 77′

The Welsh are well known for their singing. And this charming story about an elderly Welshman’s choir in the town of Rhyl on the Denbighshire coast, makes it World Premiere at this year’s Sheffield doc festival.

Director Dylan Williams is best known for his award-winning documentary debut Men Who Swim (2010), and this thematic sequel turns out to be another poignant love letter – this time to his father. Not the closest pair, the two are reunited when the widowed 90 year old announces he’s selling the family home “while he’s still able”. Naturally this is a wake up call to ‘only child’ Dylan, who promptly makes his way back from his home in Sweden where he has lived for the past twenty years.

Almost entirely in the Welsh language this is, unsurprisingly, a tuneful and light-heated biopic, making great use of its green and pleasant coastal settings in the former industrial town in North Wales, known for building the airbus, and this is where most of the choir men have been gainfully employed. Now retired they have found cosy camaraderie in this local choir, and inspiration from their feisty choir-mistress Ann)

But most of the men are now mostly in their eighties, and a much needed recruitment drive to find new singers to boost their dwindling numbers makes up the other main strand to the narrative, along with the important need to keep practising, improving and entering competitions, adding an element of drama to the storyline. Men Who Sing is not just a another tribute to a filmmaker’s father, this is a well-structured and watchable portrait of a choir, and a generation of men soon to be lost forever in the industrial heartlands of North Wales. MT

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2021

The Savior For Sale: The Story of Salvator Mundi (2020) Sheffield Doc Festival 2021

Dir: Antoine Vitkine | France Doc 95′

Controversy has long surrounded this emotive work of art purportedly by Leonardo da Vinci. Like a beautiful woman, many men have struggled to win her and have succeeded, but then been deceived or outwitted. But the ‘Salvator Mundi’ represents more than just a depiction of Christ, it has a deeper resonance thanks to its title: ‘Saviour of the World’ capturing the zeitgeist of our fragile planet, that resonates beyond Christendom.

Best known in France for his TV outings: ‘Magda Goebels, First Lady of the Third Reich’ (2017) and ‘The President and the Dictator: Sarkozy-Kadafi’ (2015), journalist, writer and director Antoine Vitkine explores the painting’s eventful journey from discovery to oblivion so exposing the vagaries of the international art market. This is a lushly mounted sinuously-scored thriller, its twists and turns revealing some of the most powerful players in the art world, and those making money out of them. It’s a tale of backbiting, greed and hype that shows how leverage from a handful of key players can transform a virtually valueless piece to a painting commanding millions the following day in the hurly burly of market credibility.

From the opening scenes The Savior For Sale bristles with intrigue and skulduggery transporting us into the hushed homes and yachts of the super-rich from Paris to New York, London to Monaco. A masterpiece in investigative journalism the film’s cut and thrust only adds to its allure, showing how the ‘Salvator’s’ attribution to the legendary old Italian master would see its value rise to stellar heights, becoming “the most expensive – and coveted – painting in the world”.

Modest yet deeply resonant its depiction of a serene Christ – not unlike that of the Mona Lisa – the painting’s route to success comes courtesy of a fascinating group of protagonists whose roll-call plays out like a game of Cluedo. There is “The Expert” Martin Kemp; “The Dealer” Warren Adelson; “The Journalist” Scott Reyburn; “The Oligarch” Dmitri Rybolovlev and his Swiss right-hand man Yves Bouvier. Belgian art specialist Chris Deacon also makes his case, and soon the Saudis wade in with their billions. The aim is to prove that Leornardo was the painter, not simply his studio, and there’s a great deal to be gained – and lost – financially in the process. MT

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2021

The Lost Leonardo (2020) TriBeCa (2020)

Dir: Andreas Koefoed | Cast: Dianne Modestini, Yves Bouvier, Robert Simon, Alexander Parish, Warren Adelson, Luke Syson, Martin Kemp, Frank Zöllner, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Jacques Franck, Evan Beard, Kenny Schachter, Jerry Saltz, Robert K Wittman, Alexandra Bregman, Georgina Adam, Alison Cole

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival offers a treat for art lovers, especially those following the fortunes of “The Salvator Mundi”. Not just one but two documentaries explore the buzz surrounding the most expensive painting ever sold (at $450 million), claimed to be the work of the legendary artist Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Lost `Leonardo goes behind closed doors to dish the dirt on this ‘civilisational masterpiece’. Whereas Antoine Vitkine’s The Savior for Sale (2021) took a jaunty thriller approach to the picture’s authenticity and provenance, and its journey to acquiring that stratospheric price tag, the Danish director Andreas Koefoed takes a deep dive into the artful world world of art marketing and explores possible outcomes for the work which disappeared after being brought by a Saudi prince (surely a sacrilegious acquisition as Islam forbids any depiction of a prophet) and is now purportedly languishing in a secret location, or possibly back in the care of Yves Bouvier the world’s richest freeport owner.

Dividing into a series of Parts (I,II & III), the story is steeped in greed, one-upmanship and secrecy. The Lost Leonardo reveals how vested interests became all-important, and the painting itself almost secondary. Once again with almost the same players as Vitkine’s film, the story relies on a high profile array of compelling interviews illustrating how the work of art went from the discreet world of old masters to take on celebrity status as a ‘trophy piece’ thanks to Christie’s cunning marketing strategy. Bidders were required to transfer a percentage of the funds into a ‘goodwill’ sealed account to show their good intentions. And the bids came in thick and fast – possibly from entire countries rather than individuals, finally closing at $450 million.

But the fake tag still lingered. Art Critic Jerry Saltz was one of the painting’s main detractors, as was a stream of – mostly ignorant – twitter followers to the viral stream the Christie auction attracted. But the painting’s careful restorer Dianne Modestini stands by its authenticity, and Jean-Luc Martinez (president of the Louvre Museum) has confirmed it as a work by da Vinci in the museum’s catalogue.

As the documentary moves further away from the painting and its provenance, and more into the world of billionaires, it is revealed how vested interests are more relevant than the truth, in a film that studies each aspect of the art world and increasingly contemplates the religious, moral and ethical issues implicated by such a resonant painting.

A sinuous score by Sveinung Nygaard drives the story forward to the final – surprising – denouement in a film that is really more about social politics and one-up-manship than art history. MT

Tribeca Film Festival 2021

 

The Silent Enemy (1930)

Dir: H P Carver, Wri: W Douglas Burden | US Doc 84′

The makers of this dramatised documentary, following in the footsteps of Nanook of the North (1922) about the Ojibway Indians, returned after spending a year in Northern Ontario. They brought with them 25,000 feet of silent footage shot by the veteran Hollywood cameraman Marcel Le Picard. By the time the footage had been made into a feature, silent film had long since become a thing of the past.

Before Paramount could release it, The Silent Enemy had to be transformed into a part-talkie through the addition of a short opening speech to camera by Chief Yellow Robe – who had played Chetoga in the film – along with a synchronised organ score.

As usual the villain of the piece is the witch doctor, and as previous reviewers have commented some of the scenes must have been staged for the makers to have been able to have had their cameras in precisely the right place at the right time; and some of the wildlife is extremely roughly treated (including a couple of extremely cute bear cubs that the hero has just orphaned) in a way that would draw screams today from the American Humane Association, amongst others. The title by the way refers to hunger. @Richard Chatten

Blind Ambition (2021)

Dir/Writers Warwick Ross & Rob Coe | Australia, Doc 96′

Driven by relentless optimism and a passion for their craft, four Zimbabwean refugees become South Africa’s unlikely top sommeliers, competing for the coveted title of ‘World Wine Tasting Champions’ as Zimbabwe’s first ever wine-tasting team.

Blind Ambition is a colourful and lively documentary cutting a dash through the stuffy, privileged world of the wine-tasting with its refreshing spin on South Africa’s storied winelands. Upbeat in tempo in its early scenes, the fractured narrative style gradually sobers up as it reflects on the sommeliers’ backstories of poverty and disadvantage back in their beleaguered homeland. Luminaries Jancis Robinson add insight and credibility to the film boosting its potential for a mainstream audience. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 12 AUGUST 2022 | World Premiere TriBeCa Film Festival 2021.

 

Mosley: It’s Complicated (2020)

Dir: Michael Shevloff | Doc, 82′

For most people the name Mosley is often synonymous with Fascism. And Sir Oswald Mosley’s son Max (1940-) – who has died age 81  laboured all his life to overcome his unfortunate family connection, and done a decent job of it with his tireless charity work and successful Formula One racing career. He went on to use the Formula 1 brand to promote road safety both on the track and on the road with Euro ENCAP. But his life is not without scandal and setback.

Tall and elegant, Max Mosley certainly cuts a suave dash in this documentary portrait that chronicles the qualified barrister’s often controversial life and times as the former FIA president and at the head of F1’s governing body from 1993 to 2005, and who now holds the Legion of Honour.

US Director and producer Michael Shevloff teams up with TV producer Alexandra Orton in an even-handed, no holds-barred approach to the story of Mosley’s career and his efforts to raise levels of road safety all over the world. Mosley has cooperated with the filmmakers but this is not an authorised documentary.

The focus here is obviously motor racing but those not interested in Formula 1 will be watching with a beady eye on the emerging private life of this high profile figure born into an illustrious family: his aristocratic mother Diana was one of the Mitford sisters and a ‘Bright Young Things’ during the 1920s and his politician father formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932 for which he was interned during the Second World War, is now a character gracing the BBC’s Peaky Blinders (season 5).

The fearless lawyer presents an inscrutable persona with his fine manners and dapper mien but one cannot help musing about certain elements that emerge from the engaging narrative: Mosley’s spats with Italian racing supremo Flavio Briatore; his penchant for sex parties (admittedly in the privacy of his own home); his landmark victory over the News of the World who tried to put a Nazi spin on their story; his contribution towards the Leveson Inquiry; and the tragic death by overdose of his son Alexander. Despite all this you can’t deny his affable appeal, although his steely stare suggests subversiveness and a strong resolve. Married to Jean since 1960, he is also close friends with billionaire businessman Bernie Ecclestone, another former racing driver who built his empire around broadcasting the sport.

But back to motor racing, and petrolheads who will find this a fascinating watch particularly as Hugh Grant, David Ward, Alan Parr, Gerhard Berger, Jean Todt and Charlie Whiting also add their two penny worth. But former Ferrari team principal Marco Piccinini puts in all in a nutshell “His brain has the most powerful acceleration…but some problem with the brakes”. And Hugh Grant agrees: “I wouldn’t want him as my enemy”. When all is said and done, you come away from the film with a positive impression of a man who was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Someone who has tried to improve certain standards of modern life and challenge the gutter press and who clearly had strong friendships despite his detractors – Hugh Grant, who appears in the documentary on the subject of privacy, recently described Max in a Tweet as “very bright, very kind and very, very brave”. MT

Mosley: It’s Complicated will be in UK Cinemas from 9th July, and on Digital Download & DVD/Blu-ray from 19th July. The DVD / Blu-ray can be pre-ordered through Dazzler Media.

 

The Human Factor (2021)

Dir.: Dror Moreh; Documentary with Dennis Ross, James Baker, Aaron David Miller; USA 2019, 106 min.

Israeli documentarian Dror Moreh (The Gatekeepers) takes a look behind the scenes of the US-led peace mediations between Israel and Palestine, revealing failure on an epic scale, starting under the administration of President Herbert W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker.

The wake up call to pursue his documentary project coincided with the assassination of one of the main protagonists of the peace process, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by an orthodox religious fanatic at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on 4th November 1995, also Moreh’s birthday.

When Bush senior came to power he inherited a new world order: the Cold War had ended in 1991, leaving the USA as the only world Super Power. But President and his Secretary of State still faced unsurmountable difficulties. Baker was known for “getting things done”. He succeeded in getting Israeli and Arab state leaders around the table – a first – but that is as far as it got.

The major part of this documentary is devoted to the efforts of the Clinton administration who felt they had a real chance of success. Mediator Dennis Ross (still affected emotionally by Rabin’s murder) and his chief assistant Aaron David Miller really felt they had the bit between their teeth during some positive years of negotiation but they couldn’t bring things to a satisfactory conclusions. There were two elections in 1992, as Baker stated, “the first one was won by the ‘right’ person, Yitzhak Rabin”.

November 1993 saw Bill Clinton beat George H. Bush to the presidency, which meant an exit for James Baker. Miller was of the opinion that peace could never be achieved between two sworn enemy states at war since 1948, and using the word “peace” would always doom the process to failure.

The preparation for a meeting between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the US mediators was farcical, the Arafat team were filmed watching the US Soap ‘Golden Girls’ on TV. When Arafat and Rabin first got together on September 13th 1993, most of the meeting was taken up with ironing out the many pre-conditions set by the two men: Rabin agreed to shake Arafat’s hand (whilst keeping him away with his other hand), in exchange Arafat had to forgo his uniform and his gun. In the end he wore a Safari suit and promised not to kiss Rabin.

The body language between the two leaders spoke of their mutual distrust. But by 28th September 1995, when both men signed the “Oslo B Agreement” this had all changed. In a a speech at the reception, Rabin called “Arafat close to being Jewish, for excelling in Israel’s national sport of speech-making”. A month later Rabin was dead. His successor, Shimon Peres, lost the election to ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu (Likud) who was not interested in any long term settlement. In 1999, Ehud Barak’s Labour Party came to power. A general like Rabin, he withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon and gave the Clinton administration new hope, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal weakened his credibility, and he only just avoided empeachment.

Barak stated openly that he was negotiating in the spirit of Rabin. At the Camp David Peace talks in 2000, he pushed for Arafat to sign over control of the largest Mosque in Jerusalem to Israel – which would have led to a Fatwa being placed on the Palestinian leader. Arafat later wrote to Clinton, calling him ‘a great man’, but Clinton’s response was that he “felt like a failure, because you made me one”. The American negotiators, many of them Jewish, believe in hindsight, that they acted more like lawyers for the US government, viewing the world “as they wanted it to be, not like it really was”. Failure continued to dog the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama who were both complete non-events when it came to a peace settlement. Donald Trump did no better, and actually poured oil on troubled waters particularly on the West Bank.

Moreh ends on a sober note, stating that the demonisation of the enemy has led to growing intolerance. According to Amos Gitai, Arab children associate Israelis with a gun culture, some of them never even seeing a Jew without a weapon. And both sides still claim the right to military intervention. The martyr death of Yitzhak Rabin seems, sadly, to be in vain. AS

IN REAL CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 28 MAY 2021

Sunflowers (2021) Exhibition on Screen

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Prod: Phil Grabsky | UK Do

Exhibition On Screen is a series of documentary portraits of painters and their iconic works. It goes behind the scenes at major galleries and museums offering insight from experts and curators and dramatised scenes that bring the artists to life.

David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky have already highlighted the letters and paintings of Van Gogh. This time the focus is on his famous paintings of sunflowers and how they inspired the artist to create a series of pictures that have become synonymous with the Dutch master and his tragic and extraordinary life. The image of the Sunflowers nowadays stands alongside the Mona Lisa as one of the best known and best loved images around the globe.

Van Gogh’s broad brush strokes and vibrant colour palette embody his passionate and intense nature in a prolific and struggling career that was partly funded by his brother Theo, whose letters to Vincent form part of an earlier film by the director duo (Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing) and Van Gogh in Japan. Other films focusing on the Dutch master are the animated 2017 drama Loving Vincent with Helen McCrory, and Maurice Pialat’s drama Van Gogh 

Here the focus is on the sunflowers that inspired five related paintings. These bold and honest flowers that embody beauty, strength and vulnerability somehow grew in significance. The weed-like crop native to the arid fields of France, Italy and Spain, became the subject of a work of art now worth millions of pounds. In the same way, the flowers connect with Van Gogh’s simple and soulful nature and his struggle to find meaning through his art that still resonates deeply with audiences today.

World authorities on Van Gogh’s work provide valuable insight amongst them Louis Van Tilborg from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Chris Riopelle from the London’s National Gallery who take us behind the scenes to reveal the complexities surrounding the five famous depictions of the Arles Sunflowers from collections in London, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Munich and Amsterdam.

Meanwhile actor Jamie de Courcey (from A New Way of Seeing) again fleshes out the artist in dramatised sequences that attempt to show Van Gogh’s innermost thoughts about what the flowers really meant to him. MT

Sunflowers is released in cinemas across the UK from 8 June, including Curzon, Everyman, Odeon, Picturehouse, Showcase, Vue and independent cinemas. Find your nearest cinema at exhibitiononscreen.com

Lobster Soup (2020)

Dir: Pepe Andreu, Rafael Moles | Iceland, Doc 95′

A strong sense of community is what makes cafe society so successful in the small coastal town of Grindavík on the southern peninsula of Iceland. Before the Bryggjan Cafe came into existence life in the coastal village revolved around nothing but fishing. Then local net-making brothers Alli and Krilli casually decided to set up a bar in the downstairs premises of their business.

It all started with a coffee machine, the genial couple freely admitting they knew nothing about running a cafe – or even coffee, for that matter, back in the day. But gradually with tables and chairs, the place took shape as a cosy meeting place, locals bringing the odd picture or a pack of cards to make them feel at home. And the Bryggjan cafe was born.

Lobster soup was a speciality of the house and soon became the main attraction, offered one night a week, and eventually everyday, due to popular demand. Grindavik’s only cafe is now the place to meet and have a drink and put the world to rights, a welcome refuge from the brutal elements: biting winds and driving snow. The Bryggjan Cafe is also the shipping port’s cultural centre offering a venue for poetry readings and singalongs and giving the locals a chance to wile away long winter evenings: it helps that more or less all of them grew up nearby.

As Alli and Krilli shoot the breeze with the locals and tourists alike, what emerges is a potted history of the region showing how dramatically life has changed in this small corner of Iceland. The influx or tourists and the introduction of quotas is part of the reason why, but surprise eruptions from the nearby volcano adds an elements of danger, threatening their daily existence, along with the unwanted arrival of the US military. Despite all this, outsiders are drawn here by major attractions of the Blue Lagoon and the proximity of a nearby international airport. Iceland has become a wealthier nation as a whole and more integrated into the rest of Europe as part of the EEA.

But former fishermen Alli and Krilli have the future to think about now their net-making business is in decline so they need to take the establishment onto the next phase of its existence. The brothers are not getting any younger, and Alli’s wife would like to get back to her family in Rekyavik. An offer to sell forms the dramatic turning point of this engaging look at a thriving maritime community, vibrantly brought to life here by Spanish filmmakers Jose Andreu Ibarra & Rafa Molés. They act as their own DoPs to create a real sense of the hostile landscape and the bleakness of the great outdoors thats contrast with the warmth of the Icelandic people who have managed to combine the best of both worlds: a strong and traditional sense of community with a decent economy boosted by tourism. MT

Lobster Soup | San Seb premiere | Visions du Réel | Bergamo Film Meeting

Wall of Shadows (2021)

Dir/Wri: Eliza Kubarska | Polish Doc 98′

As Buddhists, Sherpas are very respectful of spirituality of their mountain habitat as we discovered in Jennifer Preedom’s award-winning documentary Sherpa. Their habitat of the Himalayas has long been exploited by an increasing number of tourists who they depend on for their livelihood, offering expert knowledge of the unique mountain range in return. But recently things have got out of hand with tourists expecting an increasingly luxurious experience that has led to overcrowding of the region that often results in tailbacks and risk-taking.  

The focus here in Wall of Shadows, that took a prize at the Bergen International Film Festival in Norway, is once again the intrinsic spirituality of this visually stunning but highly treacherous part of the world, where the weather can change in minutes leaving climbers stranded and in danger.

The film takes place in Nepal’s Kumbhakarna Mountain, the 32nd highest in the World and an outlier to Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak with some highly challenging weather conditions and steep ascents. This is home to a Sherpa family who agree, against their better judgement, to take some experienced climbers who push the guides to uncomfortable emotional limits in order to reach the top. The Sherpas continually voice their concerns, but equally realise they won’t get paid if they don’t complete their contract, forcing them between a rock and a hard place. Meanwhile the Sherpas are clearly uneasy but continue to pray to the mountain spirits.

Their clients are three leading alpinists, the outstanding Polish climber Marcin Tomaszewski and two-time winners of the climbing Oscar (Golden Ice Axe) Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergei Nilov from Russia, take part in the expedition on the eastern face of the mountain which, at 7,400 metres, is one of the most difficult challenges in alpinism today. This is the first time they’ve worked as a team and tensions start to emerge surrounding their different strengths and weaknesses.

DoPs Piotr Rosolowski (who also co-wrote the script) and Keith Partridge conjure up a real sense of awe in the majesty of the locations making this feel like a spiritual journey while at the same time a highly dangerous one. Barbara Toennieshen creates a sense of slowly building tension with her clever editing which never cuts corners in allowing the unique serenity of the place to beguile the audience. To this day, Kumbhakarna’s East Face (7710m) remains unconquered. MT

The film is the third collaboration between director Eliza Kubarska and producer Monika Braid and is a Polish-German-Swiss co-production. MT

IN CINEMAS in the UK and Ireland on Friday 22nd April 2022.

 

Some Kind of Heaven (2020) digital release

Dir: Lance Oppenheim | US Doc

A life of eternal holidays beckons in a Florida retirement complex in the opening scenes of Lance Oppenheim’s  thought-provoking first feature.

Days of sun-drenched relaxation by the pool or a round of golf before cocktails with other mature singles – 130,000 to be precise – all sounds ideal at first, but we all know the reality is quite different. And so does Lance Oppenheim who has made a series of shorts exploring the world of leisure and here digs deeper in his complex exposé of the Florida retirement community who on the surface appear to be thriving in their golden days of freedom.

A sunny place for shady people is how Somerset Maugham described the Cote d’Azur. And South Florida seems to be the US equivalent. A cheerful opening sees well-preserved residents frolicking in palm-fringed paradise. But gradually the clouds gather and the tone grows almost sinister as Oppenheim reveals the truth behind The Villages idyl. Party time gradually descends into a nauseating round of chipper chat-up lines as seedy gold-diggers and petty criminals bask ill-disguised in dapper sombreros, perma tans and Pierre Cardin sportswear, blonde brush-overs barely ruffled by the sultry breeze.

And it doesn’t come cheap. The Villages’ brochure boasts a 401K price tag for this idyllic existence. Most denizens have traded in their urban lifestyles for this semi-tropical resting place – so there’s going back to normality however jaded the guilded cage becomes.

Marriages forged for decades can finally take a turn for the worse, and it’s the women we sympathise with, rather than the men: Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years, but now find themselves seeking counselling as Reggie turned to cocaine to make his newfound ‘bliss’ bearable. The judge calls him “the rudest person he has ever met” during his court hearing. You feel for Anne as she calmly hopes for the best, patiently talking Reggie through another day.

Barbara is another appealing character whose soulful expression speaks of tragedy back in Boston where she was widowed, and now works full-time in The Villages, hoping to find a soul mate. 81-year-old man-child Dennis is clearly not the answer. Currently living in an illegal camper van on the grounds he hopes to find a rich widow, a ‘nurse and purse’to see him through his final stretch. The Villages is simple a microcosm of real life but the sun shines nearly every day and the garrulous are never lonely.

Some Kind of Heaven is a stomach-sinking experience, a salutary warning that sunny climes and social clubs are not the answer to most people’s dreams. As Anne puts it, all we really want is someone to cherish and respect us, who listens to our thoughts, and cares.

Oppenheim never ridicules his protagonists despite the modern trend of belittling the elderly. There is beauty here in the souls and faces of these people and it shines through clearly, particularly with Barbara who gives a moving reflection of her childhood, or Anne whose gentle eyes belie her tortured tale. Dennis does eventually find a pleasant companion who inadvertently exposes him as two-faced and shallow without really knowing the truth behind his orange tan.

Some Kind of Heaven is quite simply an unforgettable documentary debut that speaks volumes about the final chapter in the human condition. It shows that even though the flesh is weaker, beauty still shines through in Anne’s sensual disco dancing or Barbara’s poetic take on her complex past. MT

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 14 MAY 2021

Les Enfants Terribles (2021) Visions du Reel 2021

Dir.: Ahmet Necdet Cupur; Documentary with Zeynep Cupur, Mahmud Cupur, Nezahat Cupur, Ahmet Cupur; Turkey/Germany 2021, 92 mins.

Taking the title from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film adaptation of Cocteau’s play this reflection on the past is also a study of a family fighting tradition – and each other – in a world that has seen so many changes.

First time director Ahmet Necdet Cupur is back home in the village of Keskincek, twenty years after freeing himself from the stifling family set-up in south eastern Turkey. Three year’s in the making, the film revisits a bitter domestic battlefield: his brother and sister-in-law on one side; his old-fashioned parents on the other. Nothing changes, or so it seems.

Starting in January 2018 Ahmet makes contact with his sister Zeynep and her audio description of what’s going on with her parents hits a raw nerve: “Keep on writing, you have shown me exactly how your life is”. Now he’s back in situ with a camera to film the goings-on. Teenage Zeynep works in a cloth factory in the nearby city of Antalya but feels too young to be married off by her father who keeps her earnings for himself, whilst mostly loafing around all day. Her dream is to study and go to university, a plan, which both her parents object to, because she is a female.

The family is in a mess and forced to marry the kids off for financial reasons: brother Mahmut was made to marry Nezahat, so as to secure her dowry (known as a ‘mahr’), but the two have never slept together, Mahmut preferring a certain Birsen, whom we never meet. Meanwhile his rather has been trying to unlock his son’s mobile, to check what’s going on.

Mahmut is no spring chicken having already held down a job in Kuwait. But the family Imam Hüseyim Cupur, won’t grant him a divorce on any grounds. And now the village gossipers are out in force wondering if he is ‘a real man’. Zeynep is fully aware that the woman is always at fault in Turkish divorce proceedings, even her own mother won’t support her.

Election Day arrives and the whole family is forced to vote for the father’s choice.  Zeynep is particularly annoyed, since this candidate has been in office for donkey’s years and hasn’t made any changes for the better. She takes it all out on her religious mother :”You say, you are old and wise. But you are not, you have never read a book in your life”. But the complaint falls on deaf ears: “Good created us to live here, in our home. And the only book I am going to read is the Koran”.

Ahmet’s involvement certainly a certain tension in the family dynamics  – never has “the fly on the wall” been closer to the action. The tone is hyper-aggressive, with both parents and children vowing to kill each other. But in the end,

But despite the conflict, things do eventually move on for both kids, Ahmet delivering a positive, if not ‘happy’ ending. The young generation is slowly taking over: religion and patriarchy are on the back foot. Ahmet’s debut is a vociferous and direct testament. AS

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE COMPETITION | VISIONS DU REEL | NYON | SWITZERLAND | Shared Special Jury Prize Winner 2021

 

 

Bellum – The Daemon of War (2021) Visions du Reel 2021

Dir.: David Herdies, Georg Götmark; Documentary with Bill Lyon, Fredrik Bruhn, Paula Bonstein, Aisha Lyon, Sweed, Karolina Bruhn; narrated by Johannes Anyuru; Sweden/ Denmark 2021, 87 min.

War is in the DNA of humans, always has been. The Romans were masters of conquering countries on more than one continent. Their motto was “War pays for itself, so soldiers do not need to be paid, there is always plenty to plunder”. Statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was an early warmonger, ending his speeches in front of the Senate for years with the call for war: “Anyhow, I am of the opinion, that we should destroy Cartago”. After a few years, his peers got the message and the African city, capital of a kingdom, was indeed conquered.

This essay film from Swedish director duo David Herdies and Georg Götmark traces the history of war, present and future: veteran war photographer Paula Bronstein delivering some cruel images from Kabul.

But amidst the doom and gloom AI scientist Fredrick Bruhn has a surprisingly upbeat theory about the end of armed conflict, and US veterans Sweed and Bill Lyon are the living examples of survivors of the recent outings of the US war machine.

Not that far from Los Alamos in New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team developed the first nuclear bomb in the State of Nevada (his prophetical warnings open the feature) is the location of the US Army’s Drone Operations and Training Base – AFB. Demonstrators with placards protest outside the gates, while veterans Sweed and co, cheer on every car leaving or entering the compound, making fun of the demonstrators. “I bet she borrowed the baby”, comments Sweed on a mother carrying her child.

Later we listen to Sweed and his friend Bill Lyon talking about their active service experience that destroyed people rather than buildings. In training, the drones attacked the simulated town of Kandahar, creating the atmosphere of an arcade game. The images are not just circles any more, but human forms, the intention is to blur the lines between the lines between practice and real actions. But for the veterans, the question is just survival: “When your compound has been hit, you are either dead, or you go back to sleep. For most people this is crazy, but I loved it. It was boring when you get home.”

Meanwhile Bronstein shows the photos of the Kabul victims she asks a boy to give her a smile. He refuses. Paula explains” I want to put some beauty into my photos, some life. To make the victims human. Meanwhile AI developer Fredrik Bruhn is hopeful about the future: “We are twenty years away from the point, when a computer can build the next generations of AI himself, he will replicate human brains, but goes much further than the 500 billion synapses of our brains. I do not see that we can have a world without war, as long as humans are in control. But robots do not have our DNA inheritance, they do not need to act like us. In the end the question will be about human existence, or the survival of digital humanity.

Bellum is perhaps too complex for its limited running time. But it certainly shows the existential question flagging up the need to write humankind out of the script. The documentary is dedicated to Bill Lyon, who, like Sweed, passed away. AS

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM COMP | VISIONS DU REEL 2021

The Last Shelter (2021) IDFA

 

Dir.: Ousmane Samassekou; Documentary; Mali/France/ Germany, 2021, 85 min.

Malian director Ousmane Samassekou has filmed random travellers from all over North Africa in a transit home in Gao, near the Sahara Desert. Most have come a long way, the nearest from the Malian capital of Bamako which is 496 km away – and some as far away as Burkina Faso. Their common goal is Algeria, a stepping stepping stone away from France and Italy where there are magic money trees and streets of gold. The reality is migrant camps and years of misery.

The Caritas –  House of Migrants caters for mostly young people whose aim is to cross the desert, however reluctantly, to their families in Bamako or more far-flung destinations. Many of the girls and women have spent time in captivity and have been raped. Yet they travel on regardless, risking it all. One 16-year old girl talks about the usual teenage pipe dreams of becoming a celebrity, an actress or a boxing champion. Far from this reverie is the reality of road blocks, where they often robbed on the money to pay the people smugglers taking them over the border. They’d have been much safer staying at home with their families.

Esther doesn’t want to share details of her relative, ashamed that she has not made it to France, even though her family has given her money to support them from Europe. So her dreams are largely built on wild ideas from unrealistic parents who are simply living in the cloud cuckoo land of social media, and she is caught in an invidious trap. Another young woman had ended up in captivity, and only thanks to a benevolent older woman, has been released – but she still wants to try again to get to Europe from this Sahara’s hostile terrain and treacherous sandstorms.

Mariko, an older man, begs staff not to send him to Bamako where they will give him injections which make him sleep all the time. Another young woman was sold by the man who was supposed to be looking after her. Endless stories from Sahara crossings are told: “You die without warning. No matter why, they shoot us like chickens.” The staff warns them over and over again: “Your dreams and illusions make you feel clever, but you will not reach your destinations, it is better to have a job at home, than to dream of abroad.”

Made on a shoestring budget, The Last Shelter could do with a re-edit. But the rawness of the material lends itself to some structural inadequacies, a more polished version would only mask the terror these migrants have been through – and, worse, want to risk all over again. Their lives are so far removed from the dream of the places they want to reach – they think that wearing the logo teeshirt of a millionaire footballer from Barcelona and Arsenal – will transport them on a magic carpet to that lifestyle. They as well might try and reach Mars. AS

|CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD Winner – Main Competition
|DOK.fest Munich (5-13 May) | NOW SCREENING DURING IDFA 2021 | 17 – 28 November 2021

A Man and A Camera 2021 | CPH:DOX 2021

Dir.: Guido Hendrikx; Documentary; Netherlands 2021, 64 min,

“What are you doing here? Why are you filming me?” is exactly the reaction you’d expect if you rang someone’s doorbell and randomly pointed a camera at them without any permission. But this uncontrived candid camera approach also throws up some unexpected results.

But this exactly what Dutch director Guido Hendrikx did in his observational documentary that sees him wandering around a small, unnamed town in the Netherlands, candid camera at the ready when doors are opened. The film also works as a fascinating exploration of front doors, many of them works of art.

The reactions of the homeowners in not unexpected. One person threatens quite reasonably to trash his camera, another one attempts it un successfully. Somebody wants to know “is there a deeper meaning” – apparently not. The man with the camera is told by one rather stoic man, who lets him into his house, where he carries on filming, ” he should be aware that the police may take an interest in him, you know, there are group chats, and one may get frightened”. His grandchildren are certainly not afraid.

In the town square we watch two female police officers looking at their mobiles, but no action is taken. Another couple lets him into their home and he keeps filming, whilst coffee is prepared. Gradually people let him into their homes, and their hearts as the film becomes a surprising arm’s length confessional: The wife tells him “I’ll only work for another three weeks, then it’s over. I’ve worked for the same employer 31 years. My husband was laid off two years ago, because of his age, that’s not nice, is it?” But when she goes into the kitchen, she tells her husband: “Keep an eye on him, yes”.

Soon our cameraman is becoming part of the wallpaper for several of his subjects, gaining their confidence as he inveigles himself into their lives. The soon to be pensioners are a case in point. The grandfather is also unfazed by the filming, asks the filming guest to “Leave me a note if you go, and tell me why you were here”. Left alone, the cameraman films the family leaving as Leonard Cohen’s ‘Going Home’ ends a rather enigmatic feature.

At heart we are all social animals in the right conditions. A Man and A Camera is another example of how people often accept unconfrontational intrusion in their lives, taking things a step further than their voluntarily offerings shared on social media. This uninvited guest here offers an opportunity for people to unburden themselves, a non-religious confessional, almost, once a level of trust has been established. Given the placid, unquestioning nature this unsolicited interloper, people are only to happy to let him into their lives. Hendrikx observational film makes insightful impact as an informal social study. He observes and we observe too – no questions asked, or explanations needed. AS

SCREENING AT CPH:DOX | 21 April – May 2021

CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD – Main Competition

Pariah Dog (2020)

Dir.: Jesse Alk; Documentary with Kajal, Milly, Subrata, Pinku; Canada/US/India 2019, 77min.

This homage to the stray dogs of Kolkata is the first feature documentary from US Canadian director Jesse Alk. The decaying glory of the former capital of the Raj provides an evocative setting for his labour of love, and  possibly the saddest film of the year. Alk (whose father Howard, directed The Murder of Fred Hampton 1971) influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Paris Spleen’ a hymn to the street dogs of Paris, who inspired his poetry.

The Indian Pariah dog, aka South Asian Pye dog, has been forced out of its native habitat leaving nowhere left to go in the squalid backwaters of grandiose post-colonial decay: shoeless children play on a riverbank, a man urinates against a wall while a little girl disco dances, oblivious. Shot on the hazy waterways of the coastal delta or at night under velvety street lights where goats are herded through waterfronts and slums, Uber-Drivers dart like ghosts from another cosmos.

But Pariah Dog is more about the four souls who help strays survive. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the dogs are their raison d’etre and their extended family. Artist Pinku tools wooden sculptures by day and drives a taxi at night to pay the bills. A gentle, philosophical man he lives for his menagerie of dogs, a parrot, a rabbit and a monkey, all sharing a decrepit hovel not big enough to swing a cat. Meanwhile Subrata is possibly the first yodelling rickshaw driver. His efforts to raise money with his dog-themed songs are laudable and touching, but his pleas for animal welfare donations fall on deaf ears, so he resorts to street leftovers to feed his grateful pack of hounds. In 2013 he took part in a Bengali TV show, fading posters the proud testament to his moment of glory. Later in the film he transforms into a canine troubadour encouraging others to care for “humans, animals and plants”.

Two women make up the foursome: Milly and her helper Kajal come from different castes of Hindu society, often falling out over their rules of engagement. Millly is a highly educated disillusioned romantic whose husband left her in her decrepit family pile. Of Japanese-Russian descent, she pleads poverty: her land has been taken over by squatters but the authorities couldn’t care less. Kajal lives nearby in a hut the size of a kennel. Devoted to her strays, maimed by passing cars or unkind people, she cares for them until they die, burying them with a yellow garland, a sign of Hindu respect. A supreme love for life and the vulnerable has struck a chord with their feelings of dispossession, carrying these desperate women through ructions and reconciliations, their dignified street marches to raise awareness of animal welfare are to be admired.

For dog lovers, some of the footage is too difficult to watch. Alk conjures up enough poetry in his images without resorting to sentimentality, maintaining a dispassionate eye in this cruel metropolis of 15 million where only the fittest survive. In this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ the spirit of Mother Theresa still survives.

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON TRUESTORY

No Ordinary Man (2020)

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt | US Doc

The story of jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-89) is seen from the perspective of his sexuality rather than his musical talent in this new, experimental documentary from Canadian filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt (who is trans). They see Tipton as a trans trailblazer, a jazzy gender bender. But his common-law wife Kitty Kelly claims never to have realised he was a woman. And it didn’t end there. Another three ‘wives’ under his belt and three adopted kids later, this trans legend still had everyone fooled almost everyone.  And who really cared when he played the piano so divinely and was always ready to improvise when another musician dropped out.

By way of background, Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914 and was raised by an aunt in Alabama, but later adopted Spokane, Washington as his home. Tipton had shown a keen interest in jazz but was barred from joining the all-male school band at Southwest High School. But perseverance paid off and he eventually developed a serious musical career as a ‘male musician’ by concealing his female form and calling himself Billy Lee Tipton in the early 1930s. By 1940, Tipton was living as a man in private life as well in public.

But rather than sensationalising the reveal of his being transexual, the filmmakers’ focus here is laudably Tipton’s legacy as a ‘transmasculine’ icon, inspiring the lives of many. During his lifetime he was successfully all things to all people: Kelly claiming. “Billy Tipton was a man in every sense of the word,” – “he was the best husband anyone could have dreamed of” adding “He will always be a man. He will be nothing more than a man” to a stunned audience in one of Oprah Winfrey’s chat shows.

Enriched by archive material, newspaper clips and excerpts from Stanford professor Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 biog ‘Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton’, this is an intellectually bracing film informed by a welter of authoritative talking heads, most poignantly Tipton Jr.  Amongst them is also author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein who asserts “there was no such thing as a trans man back in the 1980s. But one can hardly blame Billy for embracing the idea that being a ‘man’, rather than a woman, would path the way to success in the music business (or any business) back then. Had he stayed cisgender we may never have enjoyed his brilliant contribution to the world of jazz. Tunes like “Please Don’t Be that Way”.

Susan Stryker, a filmmaker, author and professor of Gender and Woman’s Studies comments on the rampant transphobia of the 1980s, hardly surprising when even nowadays the whole idea of trans sexuality still has some people run, screaming for the hills. But no-one has any proof that Tipton, who began presenting as a man from the ago of 19, made any fuss about his conception of gender identity, one must assume he just got on and did it, joining the party with so many other artists of the era who freely indulged their queer sexuality while being married to ‘women or men’.

What makes this film so innovative is the filmmakers’ framing device that sees a group of talented trans-masculine actors auditioning for the main role in a putative Tipton documentary, taking their cues from the (offscreen) directors in order to perform Billy at pivotal moments during his career – such as his first meeting with Duke Ellington, and so on. This offers them a collaborative springboard to then voice their own experiences and impressions of trans-masculinity with reference to Tipton – a very popular device nowadays – but not if you’re just yearning for a straight up biopic of the legendary musician himself, which hasn’t been done before.

No Ordinary Man does fall into the trap of allowing judgement of the past to be made by today’s standards, with a double time line – twenty years after the Middlebrook biog, and another nearly ninety, since Billy first put on masculine garb. We are living in a hyper-sensitive age where there are so many differing viewpoints and so many platforms available to give these varying stances voice, it’s almost impossible not to offend. But in this instance the film provides pithy insight into the trans experience, widening the debate for those affected by the issues, and offering worthwhile insight into how trans stories are often framed from the cisgender viewpoint – all in a meaty 83 minutes. Poignant also to that Tipton junior is able to hear more about his famous forebear. Well made, engaging and powerful. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE 2021

 

 

 

Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (2020)

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland | Cast: David Frost, Dick Cavett, Voices of Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto; USA 2021, 96 min.

Apart from in chat shows few people have actually heard the real voices of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams but Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons sound realistic in this enjoyable documentary about the friendship between two of the most charismatic personalities in American 20th century culture.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is a dab hand at as a documentary filmmaker having already showcased the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland (her grandmother-in-law). And here she brings the forty-year long relationship between Capote (1924-1984) and Williams (1911-1983) into focus – whilst private secrets are spilled, Vreeland never falls into the trap of sensationalism, the overall structure is enlivened by TV interviews of both men by David Frost and Dick Cavett.

courtesy of Getty Images

Capote and Williams both grew up in the South and had troublesome and relationships with their overbearing fathers, turned to books early on as a way to escape, and had a life-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. They met when Capote was sixteen, and spent most of the years between 1940 and and 1960 enjoying Spain, Italy, France and Morocco with their respective partners: Williams with the actor Frank Merlo (1921-1963) and Capote with the author Jack Dunphy (1914-1992). Truman says, that their relationship was purely “an intellectual friendship”, which did not hinder either of them from making bitchy remarks about the opposite’s spouses.

Courtesy of the Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Capote’s first success came with ‘Other Voices, other Rooms’ in 1948, three years after Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’, which was followed by ‘A Street named Desire’. It may come as a surprise that Williams, who confessed to being “just terribly, terribly over-sexed”, did not have his first (heterosexual) affair before 27, having taken up masturbation only a year earlier, before consummating his first gay affair aged 28 with Frank Merlo.

Truman was blunt about his sexuality stating that it would have been easier to have been a girl, but “I was homosexual and I had never any guilt about it what so ever. I was the only character who was beyond the pale. I didn’t care”.

Williams, assuming rightly, that he would be judged by the many feature films based on his plays, regretted that censorship ruined many endings, even to the point of negating what had gone on before. Capote felt let down by the producers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s claiming he had been promised Marilyn Monroe, his first choice, as Holly Golightly. But they “cheated”, and “cast Audrey Hepburn, who was not right for the part, because Holly was based on a real person, and she was very tough, unlike anything Hepburn was”.

The docu-feature film of Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about two drifters who murdered a Kansas family, “scraped me right down, to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me. I had been a stable person. Afterwards, something happened to me”.

The 1970s and 80s saw both men in decline, Williams complaining he never had a positive review after 1961. “Everything went wrong, private and professional, and ultimately my mind broke”. They died within 18 months of each other. Getting together for the last time at a party a few weeks before William’s death, the latter asked Capote “Where will we meet again?”. To which Truman answered “in paradise”.

Overall Truman & Tennessee does feel like a very private affair, dominated by the revealing ‘conversations’ of these literally giants who lived and breathed through for their writing. DoP Shane Sigler integrates the still photos, feature film clips and the TV interviews into an aesthetically convincing form, with Vreeland showing enough empathy with her subjects, bringing their Icarus-like careers into perspective in this cinematic catnip for literary lovers. AS

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is available on Dogwoof on Demandand other platforms from 30 April.

Main image credit: At Sotheby’s 1978 Globe Photos/Media Punch/Shutterstock & Tennessee Williams courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Impossible Project (2021)

Dir.: Jens Meurer; Documentary with Dr. Florian Kaps, Oskar Smolokowski, Slava Smolokowski; Austria/Germany/UK 2020, 99 min.

The Digital age may be upon us but humans are still analogue. Austrian documentarian Jens Meurer (Public Enemy) has chosen sides and this bid to champion and hold on to everything analogue is quietly amusing and informative.

Paradoxically Meurer was responsible for the very first digital entry at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2002. His 99 minute uninterrupted digital shot for Alexander Sukuorow’s Russian Ark (2002) was filmed on Sony Cine Alta HDW-F90.

Science and politics dominate and in keeping with his sentiment everything is shot on 35mm film (Arricamera), even the score by Haley Reinhart was recorded direct onto vinyl. In 2008, whilst techno-freaks were celebrating the first i-Phone, Dr Florian Kaps, a former biologist, known as Doc, was invited to Enschede (Netherlands) to the closure of the last Polaroid factory.

Instead of last rites, the Doc proscribed a resurrection somehow managing to scrape together 180 000 Euro to keep the factory going. And while he persuaded the workforce to co-operate, the first products were rather disappointing. Even if their artistic value was cool – the forty minute development time was certainly not. The machines did work again, but the chemicals and formulas for the development of the famous instant photos had been lost. Doc was unperturbed, and the worldwide community of Analogue fanatics helped as much as possible.

Kaps was not allowed to use the name Polaroid for a long time, and called the enterprise ‘Impossible’, with its HQ in Berlin. Meeting the New York based photographer Oscar Smolokowski and his investor father Slava, turned out to be a poison chalice for the Doc: the duo helped to launch a fully functioning Polaroid revival (in 2018 over one million films were sold), but the Doc had the same fate as Steve Jobs: he had to leave the company, the reasons not really explained.

Undeterred, Kaps soon found a new project, the Viennese Grand Hotel Moleskine, build in 1900. At the end, Haley Reinhart and the Sascha Peres Orchestra perform in the presence of the Doc in the restored hotel ‘Ball Saal’ – directly recorded for Europe’s largest Vinyl company, contributing to a yearly sale of 300 million vinyl records in 2019.

Even though Meurer introduces some polemic: “Digital is not real, it’s just a simulation of reality”. There is something to be said for regaining the use of our senses, all five of them – not just the two that are digital, but also taste, smell and touch because they make us happier and healthier”. Overall there is enough humour and self-deprecation in coming to terms with the fact that humans are the most analogue beings on the planet. AS

NOW ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS

Groundswell (2020) Earth Day 2021

Dir.: Johnny Goran; Documentary with Mark Ruffalo, Nuala McNulty, Olivia Mitchell, Kate Ruddock, Joe McHugh; ROI 2021, 80 min.

Activist and filmmaker Johnny Gogan’s Groundswell explores how Ireland banned the practice of fracking (releasing oil or gas from shale rock) and how Northern Ireland still faces a prospect that has led to tremors, and poisoned water in NE Pennsylvania, where fracking is common.

Gogan guides us through his powerful film showing what is possible with direct action on the ground from his base in Fermanaugh. Political campaigner Nuala McNulty started the fight against fracking in Northern Ireland after the Irish Parliament, the Deil, had given licenses for exploratory drillings to Canadian company Tamboran Resources, whose agent Tony Bazley promised that no chemicals would be used in the process.

Jamie Murphy from ‘Love Leitrim”, remembers the police action in the Northern Irish fight against Shell, one of their slogans was “Farming, not Fracking”. Later a moratorium was reached in the Deil, pending the feasibility study into gas mining in the licensed areas near the border. The area was still suffering confrontations during the “Troubles”.

Arlene Foster, a staunch Fermanaugh activist and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, had an ambiguous relationship with fracking that drew criticism from the Irish border population. Meanwhile Gogan visited campaigners in NE Pennsylvania where diagnosis of cancer had almost doubled in the population, particularly in young people indicating a clear correlation with the fracking activities. The Good Energies Alliance Ireland (GEAI) joined the fight, as did Friends of the Earth: “Fracking is leaving more carbon footprints on the planet than coal.”

A Private Members Bill to legislate for the banning of fracking was introduced in the Deil, but was a victim of the General Election in 2016. Finally, a motion was passed in October 2016, to ban the import of gas gained from fracking, the only bill of its kind in the world. Nevertheless, not all is won: we listen to ex-president Trump announcing that the EU is planning to import fracking products, and in June 2019 Tamboran Resources was given permission to explore for Shale Gas in Northern Ireland – the decision of the restored NI executive is pending…

Gogan’s detailed chronicle is a laudable testament to the fight but instead of appealing to heart and minds, it often bogs the audience down with too much detail, names and organisations making Groundswell a valuable insider documentary rather than for mainstream entertainment. AS

Groundswell will be released on Friday 16th April, ahead of Earth Day 2021 and will be available via the Modern Films virtual cinema platform. It will screen theatrically later in the year.

 

 

 

Tove (2020)

Dir: Zaida Bergroth | Finland, Drama | 100′

This drama about Moomins creator Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is as enchanting as her hippo-like cartoon characters that are celebrated by kids and adults all over the world.

Finnish filmmaker Zaida Bergroth brings the Finnish bisexual artist to life in this delicately sensuous and affecting biopic that showcases her unconventional loves as much as her talent as an author, artist and creator, played here by a captivating Alma Pöysti and scored by evocative soundtrack of tunes from the era from jazz to swing, Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing being the musical motif throughout with Stefan Grapelli and Edith Piaf enlivening the Parisian sequences of the early 1950s.

Eeva Putro’s gracefully paced script focuses on the immediate aftermath to WWII in a discretely decadent Helsinki where Soviet bomb raids fail to spoil Tove’s fun at lively cocktail parties where champagne continues to flow during illustrious soirees. Home is a stylish bohemian milieu where Swedish is spoken. Tove is often put down by her renown but competitive sculptor father (Enckel), although her graphic artist mother (Kajsa Ernst) adores and encourages her creative potential.

Later at art school Tove is nudged by her father towards the more highbrow artistic expression of painting, but prefers illustrating and doodling cartoons for a subversive magazine, and this is where she will eventually make her name and earn a meagre living. All this creativity naturally spills over into amorous encounters. Soon Tove is involved with a married politician (Shanti Roney as Artos Wirtanen) and a wealthy female client Viveca Bandler (Kosonen) in dizzying sexual encounters, both leaving her troubled and unsatisfied as she seeks solace in her art. Bergroth keeps the tempo romantically-charged and touching rather than tortured or soul-searching. Artos eventually proposes but Paris beckons promising other opportunities on the horizon as well as a reunion with the past.

This is such a wonderful film about female creative and sensory expression made more so by its gentle, often handheld, camerawork in Helsinki and Paris – DoP Linda Wassberg often uses that atmospheric technique of fading out the scenes in slow-mo to an echoing soundtrack lending emotional depth and a dreamlike quality to the narrative leaving us contemplating what has gone before and appreciating the intensity of Tove’s artistic and emotional truth. MT

On release from 9 July 2021

Lost in La Mancha (2020)

Dir.: Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe; Documentary with Terry Gilliam, Amy Gilliam, Nicola Pecorini, Lena Mossum; UK 2019, 84 min.

After more than 20 years and multiple setbacks, Terry Gilliam finally got his dream project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, to the big screen. This is the story behind the project that started with Lost in La Mancha back in 2002 and has now been remastered.

With production costs halved from the original budget of 32 million dollars, and minus Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradise and Jean Rochefort  Rochefort (who had to leave because of illness) – a tornado destroyed some equipment and rain changed the colour of the sand from the earlier scenes. Then John Hurt, who was to play Don Quixote, was diagnosed with his fatal cancer. 

It’s good to see DoP Nicola Pecorini, costume designer Lena Mossum (who had kept all the designs from the original shoot) and PD Benjamin Fernandes back together again with Gilliam – they celebrate after shooting day seven: none of the cast had ever made it thus far. Fulton and Pepe decide on a rather sombre tone. After freely admitting to the two of them: “I don’t actually like making films”, and I have done the film too often in my head, is it better to leave it there?” One has to respect his sheer perseverance, a quality that is often more valuable these days than talent.

And in the 2018 interviews he talks about the ageing of Quixote: “An older man, with one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be.” And about himself: “Did I get to change the world? Gillian looks, quite reasonably, irritated during the shoot, not helped by a kidney problem that required him to move around with a bag of blood, draining from a catheter, strapped to his leg. Even when it all comes together in the last day of shooting, Gilliam is vehement: “this is my last film. Then there’s a great void ahead of me, and that scares the shit out of me”.

Lost in La Mancha is padded out with clips from Gilliam’s successful features Brazil, Time Bandits and Baron Munchhausen; and the endless comparisons between Gilliam and Quixote become tiring. Interviews on the subject, given by Gilliam since 2000, give the feature even more of a disjointed feeling: There is so much to say about the filming of The Man who killed Don Quixote but with neither Driver nor Pryce having their say, much remains untold. DoPs Lou Pepe and Jeremy Royce succeed in showing the film within a film: their lively camerawork is certainly a reason to watch it. 

The ending is rather elegiac: a still of with Gilliam taking the applause at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where the premiere was beset by legal controversy over the rights, The Man was screened at the Closing Night, is possibly the best way to remember this documentary – but somehow it feels like Terry Gillian deserved more. AS

Now on release

My Father and Me (2021)

Dir.: Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Maurice Bloomfield, Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill, Barney Bloomfield; UK 2019, 97 min.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Marianne & Leonard – Words of Love) has created a loving portrait of his father, Britain’s pre-eminent industrial photographer Maurice (1916-2010), Despite their ups and downs what shines through here is a genuine warmth and filial respect My Father also serving as a social history of the British working class since the end of WWII.

Maurice’s photos and Nick’s creative output makes this an especially enjoyable father and son portrait: Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010) started his working life on the floor of the factories in Derby where he was born. Taking a degree in photography at night school, he became the chronicler of the excellence of British production, be it Phillips Nuclear Power or Rolls Royce – his brilliantly-crafted photos showed a glamorous, even romanticised image of the workplace, with the craftsman in midst of his products.

Maurice was a contentious objector in WWII and remained a pacifist all  his life, but he was still able to see the positive factors in life and work. In 1947, he married Sonja Lagusova, a Jewish emigrant from Czechoslovakia, who had lost half her family in the Nazi concentration camps. She hardly ever talked about her Jewish identity and Nick, born in 1948, only learnt the stark facts that had traumatised his mother for life, in his twenties. In Derby, Maurice’s parents had already picked a local girl for him to marry and were nonplussed at his choice of Sonja,  relations between them never recovering. Nick, like his father, was not a good student at all, he was expelled and later went to boarding school. Afterwards, he joined his father on his photographic tours around Britain’s factories, and had his first crush on Maurice’ assistant Barbara. Nick’s grandfather Gogo worked on the film about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he and his daughter were somewhat critical of Maurice’s rather optimistic attitude towards society and life in general.

Nick’s work, on the other hand, shared the more critical attitude of his mother’s side of the family. “My Dad and me were competing for Sonja’s approval”. Meanwhile, Maurice tried hard to “unlearn’ his working class accent, his first studio was located in the grounds of the  Lady Crossfield’s estate; he even met the Queen. The gulf between father and son widened after Nick married fellow documentarian Joan Churchill (now divorced), the couple have a son, Barney. Their documentary Juvenile Liaison (1976), about an eight-year old boy who stole a toy pistol, and is then shown the inside of a jail by a policeman who frightens the child with dark stories, was banned for thirty years, and could even then only be shown to criminologists.

Maurice did not accept that his son had a different outlook on society, after the private showing of Tattooed Tears (1982), he simply left the screening room without saying a word. After Sonja died at the age of 59 of skin cancer, Maurice fell into a long depression. Father and son reconciled in the wake of Maurice finding a new life with Suzy, who re-kindled his lust for life, taking on painting, and losing his inhibitions. The family saga ends with Maurice, Nick and Barney (who is one of the DoPs of Father) sitting happily together on a bench “talking about nothing in particular”.

The writer/director combines the generational conflict with a short history of how Britain changed from the hopeful new beginnings of 1945 to the social divisions that now face the country. Unfortunately, we are still far away from the reconciliation and mutual acceptance of the three generations of Broomfields. AS

The V&A museum will host a Q&A screening on 4 November of Nick Broomfield’s MY FATHER AND ME exploring his relationship with his father, photographer Maurice Broomfield, to tie in with a display of photographs and book Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime opening at the V&A on 6 November.  BBC Four will also air the film in November and stream on BBC iPlayer. More info below and V&A info here – Link

 

     

Eye of the Storm (2020) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Anthony Baxter | UK Doc 78 mins

“In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king” Desiderius Erasmus

James Morrison (1932-2020) was one of Britain’s finest Scottish landscape painters and a founder member of the Glasgow Group of artists. A new documentary set to premiere at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival paints a lively and amusing portrait of the painter himself and his vision of climate change that became his focus in the final years of his life when failing eyesight putting an impressionistic spin on what many regard as his finest work. Apart from offering insight into the painter’s substantial body of work and methods, this is the fascinating story of his greatest challenge. With his eyesight failing, one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters attempts one final masterpiece.

Hooking us in with its climate change credentials Eye of the Storm offers much much more. Entertaining and enjoyable, this artist’s impression of our changing world, also works as a mini Scottish travelogue, brought to the screen by Anthony Baxter (You’ve Been Trumped) who shows how the laid back and likeable character was inspired to paint Glasgow’s shipyards, and the countryside of Scotland, France and South Africa, and a series of works reflecting the impact of climate change after travelling to the Arctic. The artist had long be fascinated by the changing face of his native Scotland and the countryside in general was an issue close to his heart.

In his bright and airy studio the tousled haired Morrison shares his horror of not being able to paint – his eyesight dwindling – in the build up to a retrospective of his work in The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. His watercolour Green Valley (1972) will feature, amongst other works, in an exhibition dedicated to Angus landscapes. He began to paint the Angus outdoors in the 1970s ‘The Rolling Landscapes of Angus (1973). The following decade would see him moving to the north-west Highlands where he befriended a number of local artists, including the renowned figurative painter Joan Eardley. Yet even his famous landscapes avoid human presence:”I don’t want people, they seem an irrelevance to what the landscape is about”.

After studying art in Glasgow under David Donaldson, who taught him a technique of using a spent match (struck on his shoe heel) to get a head start on his life drawing classes, quite literally starting from a top down approach. Then after consciously moving away from the leftwing vibe of his early fellow painters in Glasgow. Morrison describes how he became increasingly drawn to painting the city’s built environment – some areas which no longer exist – and these sequences are enlivened by archive footage of tenement demolition, along with animated drawings and inter-titles featuring quotes from Cezanne, and pictures of Matisse.

In 1960 a move to the ancient East Coast town of Catterline (Scotland’s answer to St Ives with its artist community led by Joan Eardley) saw Morrison being drawn to seascapes with the fishing boats a frequent subject, a painting from the era ‘East Coast Fishing Boat’ (1962) describes in monochrome detail the magnificent fishing vessels which had already done decades of service in the unforgiving North Sea.

In 1971 Morrison found himself moving down the coast to teach at Dundee’s wellknown Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where he made the next twenty years of his life about opening the horizons for those learning to paint, rather than setting a curriculum. During these exciting years, Morrison gave his students as much scope as possible. And it was in Dundee that he started painting ‘en plein air’ like the original impressionists, with their famous technique of getting the paint straight onto the canvas, after painting out the white, and without preparatory sketching. His hands on approach included mixing his own paints and stretching his own canvases, and it’s here that we get an impromptu visit to the famous French paintbrush shop Sénnélier in Paris.

His first visit to the Arctic came about after he met a biologist, Dr Jean Balfour (who suggested he should paint there), and these sequences are beautifully brought to life by Catriona Black’s animations and archive footage of Morrison at work. The documentary reaches its finale with a sense of anticipation as the artist goes ‘into the eye of the storm’ with his much anticipated, triumphant final work.

Talking heads include Catriona Black who animated key moments of Morrison’s life for the film, his art historian son Professor John Morrison, and the Montrose writer Dennis Rice. MT

EYE OF THE STORM is released in virtual cinemas from 5th March 2021 

McManus Gallery, Dundee

The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iorram | Boat Song (2021) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Alistair Cole | UK Doc 96′

The first ever film in Scots Gaelic and none the worse for it, the native tongue – which has possibly only a year to live in its native setting – adding considerable atmosphere and poignancy to this impressionistic and informative portrait about fishing past and present before globalisation, climate change and Brexit decimated the stock. This film will certainly be meat ‘n bread (and possibly fish?) for dear old Nicola Sturgeon who is very much the poster girl for her country’s fishing industry. Livelihoods are at risk, not to mention the Scottish cultural heritage.

Back in the good old days fishing was the main industry up in the Western Isles around Barra, Vatersay and Cape Wrath, over a hundred miles North of Glasgow where the film screens at this year’s festival. The inhabitants of the islands today are observed on land and on water going about the business of fishing, while the ghostly voices of their ancestors tell stories and sing songs about life at the mercy of the sea.

In the mid-20th century, with the advent of portable sound recording, researchers started visiting the Outer Hebrides to preserve the voices of the islands for future generations. These were the first recordings to capture the oral history of Scottish Gaelic culture which stretches back thousands of years, and once covered the whole of Scotland, but now survives mainly in the island communities off the west coast.

Iorram is a second feature documentary for Alistair Cole whose work explores the link between language and the environment, as here where the evocative seascapes of the Outer Hebrides light up every frame. Music and fishing go very much hand in hand with being a sailor, songs and shanties keeping up the spirits and camaraderie during long or arduous forays into the blue yonder, and award-winning folk musician Aidan O’Rourke provides the film’s entrancing soundscape. Interestingly the word for rabbit sounds similar to the Spanish ‘conijo’.

Gaelic was once spoken across most of Scotland, but sadly Scottish Gaelic has now only around 11,000 habitual speakers, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, according to a recent study by the University of Highlands & Islands. Ironically, interest in Scots Gaelic is booming, with Gaelic schools flourishing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and world interest in learning the the language has come via the internet and a ‘phone app (Duolingo has more than 560,000 registered learners worldwide signed up to Scots Gaelic).

Alistair Cole works as his own DoP to create stunning 4k observational footage of island life today. While the sailers prepare their creels to set out for the lobster and langoustine catch, and these action sequences are combined with imaginative land and seascapes captured on the widescreen. Meanwhile the film’s narration is composed of archive sound recordings of Gaelic speakers in the Outer Hebrides from the 1940s to 1970s reminiscing about the past when fish were so plentiful that the boats were often out all summer, and the locals time on land was spent busy with the harvest and looking after livestock. Holidays were never even considered, let alone taken. Other filmed footage shows local woman going about the meticulous preparation of the prized catch destined for restaurants all over Europe and these contrast with the lilting voices of the past sharing magical tales of fairies, mermaids and patron saints of the islands keeping the folklore alive.

Over the past decade, the School of Scottish Studies Archives has digitised and restored these recordings. Cole has selected the most emotional and lyrical voices in exploring the often fraught relationship between the fishing community and the stormy Atlantic Ocean.

World Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 28th 2021, followed by a virtual UK theatrical release from March 5th 2021 via the Modern Films ( in collaboration with key independent cinemas across the UK, and other partner organisations.

 

 

 

Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht | Day of Freedom (1935)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl | With Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler | Germany, Doc, 28′

As we approach the much awaited days of freedom the renowned German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was focusing on a Day of Freedom of another kind. Tag der Freiheit marked Riefenstahl’s third and final visit to Nuremberg for the rally of September 1935. Although she would doubtless have preferred for it to have  remained missing; the film resurfaced in the 1970s to further challenge her claims of being present at the rallies merely as an impartial observer.

The early 1930s saw her limbering up to film the 1936 Olympics, and both the photography and editing of Tag der Freiheit mark considerable advances on its ponderous predecessor Triumph of the Will; and watching this bellicose display of military machismo it’s again extraordinary to reflect that a woman was directing it.

Subtitled ‘Unsere Wehrmacht’ (‘Our Wehrmacht’), the emphasis is this time squarely on the armed forces rather than the NSDAP, and the film was shrewdly sneaked into cinemas as part of the supporting program for the popular costume drama Der höhere Befehl – thus ensuring plenty of people saw it – as well as screened it in schools until 1938.

The ‘freedom’ to which the title refers to here is from the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles, the disarmament clauses of which had been denounced by Hitler the previous March and which are here shown being brazenly flouted by an aggressive display of military might with cutaways to the Führer looking on in approval. (The fellow with the monocle on Hitler’s left is the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Werner von Fritsch, later forced to resign on 4 February 1938 following trumped-up accusations of homosexuality by Himmler and Goering.) Exactly where all the bullets and shells supposedly being fired are ending up within the confines of the zeppelin field on which it was staged is alarmingly unclear. For the sake of the spectators and the aircraft shown being fired at, hopefully they’re all firing blanks.

Triumph of the Will had begun with the arrival on the tarmac at Nuremberg of a lone private plane carrying Germany’s new saviour. Tag der Freiheit by contrast ends with the sky filled with military aircraft flying in formation (including a swastika), soon to be deployed in the Rhineland, which showed the direction in which the new Germany was now decisively and irrevocably moving. Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AS A BOX SET

Against the Tides (2019) VOD

Dir: Stefan Stuckert | UK Doc 87′

Let go of what’s stopping you. Let go of the doubt. 

Extreme swimming fans and psychologists, this is for you. Professionals go one step further and call long-distance sport ‘challenge’ swimming, and Beth French is a pro. Some may call her a fanatic. She is certainly courageous and comes across as extremely plucky and high-active in this Stefan Stuckert’s griping documentary that follows the self-employed, self-funding single mother of one as she takes on the Oceans Seven – a mammoth swimming challenge that could cost her life. It takes in seven terrifying open sea channels across the world, from New Zealand and Hawaii to Japan and Northern Ireland. And Beth will tackle them all in one year.

The sea between Northern Island and Scotland (for one) is certainly no walk in the park. One of the coldest stretches of water in Europe, it is fraught with marine craft not to mention marine life: if the tankers don’t get you the jelly might. And then there’s the inclement weather, tides and currents. During the endurance course she will be followed by a small boat and a canoe.

But there’s more to Beth than just swimming. And soon we begin to understand what motivates to seek out extreme and often dangerous challenges in the water. And it seems that a childhood illness that left her in a wheelchair is the key to her – some may say, fanatical – obsession with endurance swimming.

But that’s not all. Beth believes her young son could also be on the autistic spectrum, but it can’t be easy for a little child to live in constant fear of its only parent dying tragically albeit doing what she loves best. Beth obviously reassures her boy that everything will go according to plan, but she is so driven and single-minded her son takes a back seat, much to the concern of her mother at home in Somerset. Her support buddy Martin eventually parts company with Beth and leaves during the trip.

Beth lavishly shares her thoughts and feelings throughout the feature yet always remains a detached and unreachable character who clearly needs to prove herself, push herself ever harder, an enigmatic soul who seems haunted by a need to keep running, and Stuckert never really gets under her skin. There is clearly a family back story here but are left in the dark experiencing only the emotional fallout rather than the root of the trauma. It’s a shame that Beth never opens up fully about the past. This is a striking and intriguing film but one that leaves so many questions still open.

AGAINST THE TIDES IS ON DEMAND IN THE US/UK from 1st March 2021

UK iTunes link:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/against-the-tides/id1552700437

US iTunes links

Against the Tides – iTunes pre-order

Against the Tides – AppleTV pre-order

 

 

The Lesson | Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2021 | 18-26 March 2021

Dir: Elena Horn | Germany, Doc 60′

It is often said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. At the age of 14 every school child in Germany is taught about the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. Filmmaker Elena Horn returns to her hometown in rural Germany to follow four of these children as they first learn about the Holocaust.

Five years in the making (2014-19), the film touches upon important social and political issues including the resurgence of the far-right, xenophobia, the fractured, disparate collective memory of National Socialism, and the surprising lack of intimate knowledge of the younger generations on the subject.

Screening at this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL the documentary opens as the camera pans over the summer countryside where a girl from a village in West Germany (where not much has changed since 1932) recalls talking to a tall, dark athletic American after an evening out with college friends. He turns to her and says: “your grandparents killed my grandparents” this was her first meeting with a Jewish guy and she was 21.

Screening during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the documentary goes on to explore with archive footage and clips from the contemporary German classroom how despite the perceived exemplary educational system, new generations are growing indifferent to their nation’s dark past and unwilling to apply the lessons learned to the realities of today. Filmed against the backdrop of changing political scenery during five years of production, in Germany and across the world, the film subtly suggests the urgency and importance in tackling the uncomfortable modern reality of truths therein. MT

Elena Horn is a young German filmmaker who started her career as a media psychologist researching the framing effects in the news coverage of the Iraq War in the US, Britain, and Sweden. Today she is working as a story producer for ZDF, WDR, SKY and SPIEGEL TV Wissen. Elena’s films focus on questions around education, migration, working culture, love, and ethnic conflict, employing visual inspirations from the world of music and dance. As a director, Elena is a fellow of the Logan Non-Fiction Program in New York. Her short documentary Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince, co-directed with Alessandro Leonardi, earned the “Best Short Documentary Award 2019” at the Sedona Film Festival. Currently Elena is working as a director for ARTE, a French-German culture channel.

SCREENING DURING HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021

ALL FILMS AVAILABLE TO SCREEN 

 

MLK/FBI (2020)

Dir.: Sam Pollard; Documentary with Clarence Jones, Charles Know, James Comey, Donna March , Beverly Gage, Andrew Young; USA 2020, 104 min.

Seasoned documentarian Sam Pollard takes a deep dive into the FBI’s surveillance on Dr Martin Luther King (1929-68) in this searing study  proving that systemic racism is still alive and kicking in the USA today.

Enriched by newly released material, Pollard’s findings are inspired by David Garrow’s book ‘The FBI and Martin Luther King’ and cleverly put together by editor Laura Tomaselli and Benjamin Hedin.

There’s still more to this story because the actual wire tapes of the FBI surveillance of MLK won’t be be released until 2027 – but what emerges is a fervent obsession with the subject on the part of the FBI’s director Edgar J. Hoover (who headed the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972). It tells how the cross-dressing Hoover invested at least as much energy in the Civil Rights leader’s political activities as in his sexual conquests.

Hoover directed William Sullivan (for ten years the chief of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Operations) to wire tap King, not only at home, but during his hotel stays on the campaign trail throughout America. Hoover wanted to probe MLK’s extra-marital affairs to discredit his leadership and his campaign. He and his G-men used the white man’s prejudice with Black male sexuality, to denigrate ‘Black Men’ as animalistic beasts, endangering the sexual purity of white women and the racial integrity of the white race as a whole. This racist pathology, as shown in Griffith’ Birth of a Nation, is still alive today, with White Supremacists storming the Capitol on 6th of January. Back in the 1960s, all polls showed the popularity of Hoover’s agenda: the majority of the nation wanted him to defeat King and his movement.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, made him a household name, Hoover and MLK met only once, in November 1964, but sides reported the meeting as amicable, although many supporters on both sides, had a different opinion. Even though MLK was instrumental in the 1956 Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Strike, the FBI did not pay special attention to him back then. MLK only emerged as a one to watch, at least for the FBI, in 1963, when he led the March to Washington and the events of that same year in Birmingham (Alabama)  when Governor Wallace, a supporter of KKK, provoked an uproar.

It was unfortunate that one of MLK’s closest advisers, the NY lawyer Stanley Levison, who had faced HUAC trials and was supposed to help communist front organisations, gave Hoover the excuse to build King up into a “Black Messiah” figure, who wanted to destroy the USA with the help of the Communists. Footage of McCarthy-era Hollywood films Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) show a real paranoia since the CPUS hardly played any real role in the political arena.

But Hoover and the FBI declared, that Black men and women were particularly suggestible to Communist propaganda. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, authorised the FBI wiretapping King and his inner circle. This led to the discovery of King’s extra-marital affairs.

In 1964, President LB Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and MLK was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace, meanwhile Hoover sent ‘salacious’ material to King’s wife Coretta Scott King suggesting her husband consider suicide before Hoover made the material public – including a sort of ‘hit list’ of his sexual conquests.

The FBI’s actions did not stop with wire-tapping: they had two very influential sources in the MLK campaign who reported back daily on his moves. One was Ernest C. Withers, the “un-official” photographer of the Civil Rights movement, who worked for the FBI for 18 years. Then there was James D. Harrison, who gave the FBI all details of MLK’s personal and political assignations.

In 1965 protests against the Vietnam War become more numerous in the US and President Johnson is quoted as saying “we can’t be defenceless”, while accelerating the USA involvement in the war. King meanwhile was engaged in Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), which led to the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the March to Washington in March 1968.

King was very much against the Vietnam War, but he was also aware of a need to support President Johnson. He broke his silence after 18 months of deliberations, stating “silence is traitorous”. At the same time, in March 1968, Sullivan began preparations for “Rape Allegations”, which were supposed to be made public.

On 4th of April 1968 MLK was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. The perpetrator James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder, even though many questioned how Ray could have acted alone, with the area swarming with FBI agents.

MLK/FBI leaves a bitter taste particularly in the light of the current political situation in the US after the storming of the Capitol. White Supremacis violence threatens the existence of a democratic USA. With the Republican Party hell-bent on destroying the very Constitution, their former President Trump was supposed to be guarding just please supremacist supporters happy, the nation has clearly reached a point when, 43 years after Martin Luther King’s murder, racism is threatening the country in an even more existential way. AS

DOGWOOF RELEASES THIS BAFTA-LONGLISTED DOC TO DVD and BLURAY on 22 FEBRUARY 2021

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021) Dogwoof

Dir.: Rodney Asher; Documentary with Nick Bostrom, Erik Davies, Emily Pothast, Chris ware, Jeremy Felts, Philip K. Dick; narrated by Baffy Visick; USA 2021, 108 min.

After analysing sleep paralysis in his Shining spin-off Room 237, director Rodney Ascher has taken on a much grander project: convincing us that everything on this planet is the work of super-advanced computers who have built this super Matrix, perhaps for the enjoyment of equally advanced creatures to watch us earthlings toil on in his never-ending soap opera – a little bit like The Truman Show on an universal level.

To this avail he has summoned four eye-witnesses who have come to believe that humankind is at the mercy of programmers, and who write the narratives we call ‘life’. These ‘believers’ of a world in the permanent process of simulation are suitably dressed, face and torso transformed into video-game avatars, in front of a webcam. A fifth witness, Joshua Cooke could not be present since he is serving a prison sentence until at least 2043 for killing his parents – a result of his obsessions with the Matrix series. But at least he can warn others with this bizarre life story.

The simulation theory is not that new: Plato and Descartes are among many other creative souls who believed in the theory of sleeping humans whose whole lives are just computer-assisted dreams. Here a vast network of AI forms the background of all our life stories, including the vast army of non-player characters. It all feels like a secret message from some liberated creatures – Jehovah’s witnesses or other religious cults who have studied the vast conspiracy so you can eventually join them. But like all religions it’s a question of belief. Nick Bostrum, a Swedish academic, sounds most anchored in some form of reality: “We are not in, what ‘believers’ call, a ‘base reality’ but “in one of countless simulations, its inhabitants have been programmed”.

Much time is given to SciFi writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), author of Blade Runner fame , who had written 44 novels (the majority being adapted for feature films) and 17 short story collections. He visited his disciples in Metz, France in 1977 and gave a talk about the counterfeit worlds in his novels.

This how he describes his obsession with these worlds: “My fictional work is actually true, particularly the novels The Man in the High Castle, and Flow my Tears, The Policeman said. Both novels are based on fragmentary, residual memories of such a horrid slave state world.”

Dick also claims to have remembered past lives, and a very different present life; confessing these mystical experiences occurred after dental surgery in 1974. He goes on: “We are living in a computer-programmed reality, and we only realise this when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs. Those alterations are felling like a deja vue. An alternative world branched off”.

All complex stuff, but fascinating if it appeals to you. There is much more: Elon Musk and the Mandela theory among others, but we will have to wait until we find out who is in charge of this giant conspiracy. Until then we’ll have to make do with our status “ALIVE BUT NOT LIVING”. AS 

NOW ON WATCH DOGWOOF.COM

Landscapes of Resistance | Pejzazi Optora (2021) Heart of Sarajevo

Dir.: Marta Popivoda; Documentary with Sofija Sonja Vujanovic, Ivo Vujanovic; Serbia/ Germany/France 2021; 95 min.

Sonja was one of the first female partisans in Serbia and helped lead the resistance in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Her exceptional journey is the subject of this revealing documentary from Serbian director Marta Popivoda and her co-writer and Sonja’s granddaughter, Ana Vujanovic.

Sonja comes across as a kindly old lady living in her small flat in Belgrade with her cat for company. Ten years in the making the film is brought to life by Marta and Ana’s diary entries make during the shoot along with animated drawings of Sonja’s forced travels in a bleak landscape that further convey a picture of authenticity, Popivoda avoiding any archive material.

Bookended by partisan songs Sonja tells her life story which begins when she was expelled from school for being a member of a Communist Youth Organisation. Her parents would not take her back, so she eloped to Belgrade with boyfriend and fellow comrade Sava, and a forged passport (she was a minor) which allowed them to get married. Joining the Partisans early, Sava becoming one of the first victims of the Nazi occupiers. Sonja was shielded by the men during outbreaks of fighting, but she was no shrinking violet, later killing an SS officer.

Ana’s diary shares the story of a march in Belgrade to celebrate International Women’s Day, once a holiday in socialist Yugoslavia. Reflecting with Marta, Ana admits they looked an odd crowd. Some teenagers asked them what we were doing, then answered their own question: “these fags are celebrating something again”. Later, the two emigrated to Berlin, the diary talking about the clean face of capitalism, whilst the bleak and dirty reality has been banished to the Balkans.

Ana and Marta share their doubts with Sonja, who makes a clear distinction: “It was not the Germans, but the Nazis who butchered us”. Sonja later fleshes out her story in the Banjica camp where she was tortured with a horse whip. After the Gestapo interrogated her in Belgrade, she was then isolated in a small dark cell before being taken to Auschwitz. On their way, they saw Poles making the sign language for gas, so they thought they were going to a processing plant. After a three-day journey they were forced to stand in the sun’s glare all day waiting for a fate that Sonja narrowly missed as she was invited to organise a military resistance group. This involved teaching how to build Molotov cocktails and cut the wires of the electric fence which surrounded the camp. The story of her narrow evasion is riveting and matches any ‘boys own’ war escape story. She was finally saved by Russian troops, Sonja asking them if they were Tito partisans, ready to join the Red Army. The officer laughed: “Why do you want to join the Red Army, the war is over”.

DoP Ivan Markovic lets the images of the open landscape speak for itself, contrasting the hopefulness of nature with the horrible ruins of Auschwitz. We do not see very much of Sonja, long sequences play out in silence. This is an emphatic ‘Trauerarbeit’, dedicated to Sofija Sonja Vujanovic, who died aged 97 on 5.5.2019 – and of the 108 women deported from the camp of Banjica. AS

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | ? Marta Popovida won the Heart of Sarajevo 2021 for the best documentary #27 thSFF

The Dissident (2020) Bfi player

Dir: Bryan Fogel | Wri: Mark Monroe, Bryan Fogel | US Doc, 119′

Academy Award winner Bryan Fogel’s latest doc dives into the ghastly murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

It offers a comprehensive and sobering an account of the execution as one could possibly imagine. Fogel won an Oscar for Icarus (2017), a look into the Russian sports doping scandal, and has now assembled this immersive investigation in an impressively short amount of time; Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but one feels no stone was left unturned in researching and conveying the story in grim horror. As the crime famously implicates the Saudi ruling family at the highest levels, there will be a keen interest in this riveting work across the globe.

Anyone who follows world events knows that Khashoggi, a member of the Saudi royal family who had moved to the United States and wrote for The Washington Post, went into the consulate early in the afternoon on the date in question to obtain a marriage licence. But he never came out. The Saudis denied, delayed and dissembled as long as they possibly could, but finally had to admit that Khashoggi had died on the premises. This resulted in great embarrassment for the royal family and diplomatic distancing by many countries, at least for a while. Eventually 11 men were tried in Saudi Arabia, with three acquitted, three others sentenced to prison terms and five given the death penalty.

Fogel’s investigation is vigorous, thorough  and comprehensive. It centres first on one of Khashoggi’s closest friends, fellow dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Montreal in a state of near paralysing fear of being tracked down by Saudi agents. We then meet Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside the consulate all afternoon for him to come out. Both of these intimates stand as living testament to their friend’s resolve, the wages of exile and the high anxiety all too plausibly connected with any opposition to the all-powerful ruling authorities.

The Dissident is cut and scored like a dramatic Hollywood thriller, making impressive use of suspense-engendering editing techniques, mystery-building music and other devices to tease out all aspects of the drama, with the entirely reasonable objective of drawing in viewers who might otherwise not readily watch a political documentary. There is absolutely nothing lost with this technique, especially as the film tends to its essential business of revealing the nature of the Saudi regime and its refusal to countenance any dissent.

In a shrewd and discreet way, the film casts a bigger and stronger net as it progresses. References to other comparable events in the Arab world, such as those in Egypt some years before, are useful, as are comments about liberation movements in other countries. It charts the sacrifices made in becoming an outsider in middle life after having so long been an insider in an insular country. And there are extraordinary random sights, such as the crown prince’s commercial-sized private plane being accompanied by six fighter jets flying alongside when he travels.

Building his case as shrewdly as a skilled lawyer, Fogel finally, and shockingly, offers conclusive evidence that Khashoggi was treated like “a sacrificed animal,” cut up with a bone saw after apparently having been suffocated. The deep penetration of the Saudis’ surveillance and, especially, their hacking of private phones and computers, is brought to startling light; it even compromised Jeff Bezos. Especially impressive are the statements by United Nations special rapporteur Agnes Callamard in which she accused the Saudi government of “premeditated extrajudicial killing by high-level authorized agents.”

This is a documentary both tragic and poignant, not to mention maddening – in that only a few acolytes, rather than the perpetrators themselves – will pay for the crime committed in Istanbul. The evidence is all here for the world to see. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | AMAZON PRIME | premiered at Glasow Film Festival 

 

The Bee Gees: How Can you Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

Dir: Frank Marshall | Wri: Mark Monroe | Musical Biopic |  HBO Documentary Films

In this new biopic on HBO Frank Marshall takes on a mammoth task in charting the rise to fame and fortune of the legendary brothers Gibb. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart shows how three guys from Manchester via the Isle of Man and Australia went from crooning popular ballads to the pulsating falsetto phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever, as the ‘Kings of Disco’. The band were active for several decades generating one hit after another – over a thousand, including 20 No. One Hit singles – across a wide variety of genres.

In all started when brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb made up the trio taking over from The Beatles. The Bee Gees were Britain’s answer to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, writing, harmonising and performing their own repertoire of songs and folksy ballads that included: Massachusetts, Words, and I’ve Just Gotta Get a Message to You. They had big hair and big teeth to match, and megawatt smiles.

A simple low budget disco hit of 1978 was the turning point of the ‘boys’ career. Masterminded by their producer Robert Stigwood and starring a snake hipped John Travolta, it captured the imagination of the New York press and set fire to a sizzling string of chart-topping, best-selling hits that had everyone jiving. Suddenly we were all rocking a Kevin Keegan haircut, and wincingly tight Satin trousers (the girls drawing the line at hairy chests). The Bee Gees music was percussive and dance-worthy but always deeply tuneful and their harmonies were made in heaven.

After a brief sashay through the 1960s and early 1970s, the film dedicates most of its running time to how band’s music achieved its famous sound after the producers arrived in the wake of the disco fever. We hear from Eric Clapton  whose input proved vital in moving the brothers to America in the mid 1970s and whose band Cream was also managed by Stigwood. Stateside they discovered a revitalising vein of creativity. Producing gurus Karl Richardson, Arif Marden (Atlantic Records), and Albhy Galuten emerge as the major musical facilitators behind the scenes providing engaging insight, particularly for those unfamiliar with their talents, and that included the lesser known band member Blue Weaver.

Barry Gibb is now the sole survivor of the Bee Gees and provides a thoughtful spokesman for the family’s eventful trajectory. From his home in Miami he comes across as a sensitive soul seemingly unaffected by superstardom, and reflecting poignantly on a past touched by the bitter rivalry of his younger (twin) brothers Maurice and Robin. Another clan member in the shape of Andy enabled the band to generate teenage fans with his own material, but he sadly lost his battle with addiction at only 30 (in 1988).

Enriched by interviews and archive footage, the only missing element is the romantic counterpoint so familiar in musical biopics (where were the groupies, the wives and the lovers? only Maurice’s first wife Lulu appears in interviews). The only surviver Barry Gibb emerges a unexpected musical hero who is still musically active and was awarded a Knights Batchelor for his services to the industry in 2018.

Surprisingly The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is the first feature length doc about the band. An intensely enjoyable experience the film contains some cracking musical performances, and there’s much to discover about the brothers’ tremendous output even before they sang one falsetto note in their disco days and beyond. An ideal collectors item, then – to be revisited time and time again for the sheer dynamism of this musical archive. MT

NOW ON SKY DOCUMENTARIES | 13 December 2020 | DVD and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD | 14 December 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Hall (2020) ****

Dir.: Fred Wiseman; Documentary; USA 2020, 272 min.

Fred Wiseman, who turned ninety this year, proves he is still a force to be reckoned with directing, writing and editing his latest – 45th – feature documentary that sees him back in his birthplace of Boston, where he started his career with Titicut Follies in 1967, a Mental Hospital for the Criminal Insane, just outside the city limits.

City Hall explores another Boston institution whose mayor Marty Walsh is the first major protagonist in any Wiseman feature. Walsh is very much an antipodean of the current 45th president of the USA, whose supporters Wiseman had portrayed recently in Monrovia, Indiana. City Hall is in the same vein as Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, another functioning body of civic administration. City Hall is not as dramatic as Near Death (about Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital), it is optimistic in tone, unlike many  Law and Order (1969) or Welfare (1975) which were openly derisive: Wiseman clearly believes in the power of these institutions (unlike the current president), but he is unclear as to how this power is wielded and who benefits in the end.

In City Hall, he shows both sides of the coin in micocosm: there is the story of two Bostonians arriving at the Town Hall to complain about their parking tickets, expecting to be sent packing – but pleasantly surprised when their complaints are upheld. But there’s also the other side of the coin: at a forum where local government members discuss racial bias relating to the allocation of contracts among Boston businesses, a minority business man is appalled at the decision, and a study is needed to confirm this.

There is humour and passion – much more so than in Wiseman recent outings: a joyful registry office wedding ceremony between two women is really moving, Wiseman overcoming his cynicism of his early fare, and demonstrating that ordinary people can make a difference. On a funny note, when Walsh gives a speech at the Greater Boston Food Bank about general levels of insecurity, the Boston ‘Red Sox’ mascot Wally (the team had just won the Baseball World Series of 2018) sneaks up behind the mayor, presenting his green Monster identity, a rather overfed Wally.

Not that this newfound optimism is universal: In a long, nearly twenty-minute sequence, the proprietors of a planned Marijuana Dispensary in Dorchester, one of the poorest parts of the city, are confronted by residents who show open mistrust at the developers’ promises. Obviously, this business would attract unsavoury elements of society, and since one of the main shopping centres is nearby, the elderly and vulnerable are deeply concerned and unconvinced by the Dispensary representatives’ promises of new jobs – marijuana growing is one opening.

There is one wonderful shot of a trash compactor crushing everything from matrasses to a gas barbecue installation. One can imagine Wiseman looking at this scene with the wonderment of a little boy. On the other hand, a building inspector takes a tour of a condominium under construction in a neighbourhood on its way to gentrification. Looking out of the window, and admiring the panorama of the impressive waterfront, he admits that the wonderful view will soon be obscured by the construction of other condos.

As always, Wiseman excels in the editing room, so John Davey’s images are in just the right places to tell his story. When not being entertained by the city hall goings on, we can contemplate the magnificent panoramas of a city which blends the traditional brown-stone with glass and steel, cutting edge design with poverty row, in the vast melting pot that is Boston. City Hall symbolises all the the social contradictions in Maryland’s capital which are slowly healed by the mayor and his team. AS

IN CONSIDERATION | BEST DOCUMENTARY at the GOTHAM AWARDS January 2021 | Venice Film Festival 2020

 

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) **

Dir.: Kirsten Johnson; Documentary with Richard Johnson, Kirsten Johnson; USA 2020, 89 min.

US documentary filmmaker and FEMIS graduate Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) has directed – as well as co-written and co-produced – an usual escapist style movie that imagines the death of her father Richard Johnson MD, a psychiatrist born in 1932.

Upbeat and innovative it may be as a piece of entertainment, but as a documentary the film’s title is misleading – Mr. Johnson is still alive and kicking, albeit suffering advanced dementia – which sees the interests of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and the dutiful daughter probably collide. However stunning the outcome, questions should be asked.

There is much to admire in this father/daughter ‘co-production’, the family history is fraught with sadness and poignancy, Kirsten’s mother suffered dementia and died in a care home, a move she resisted vehemently. As a devotee of several memory theories, this illness seems all the more tragic. Kirsten shows us a short video and has to confess that “After thirty years of being a filmmaker, this is all I have left of my mother”. Kirsten’s grandmother was killed on the day of her daughter’s graduation, sitting next to her on the passenger seat of her car. Kirsten muses about the impact this accident had on her own mother’s life.

Growing up in California Kristen would spend every Saturday of in church, her parents were passionate Seventh Day Adventists – the religion forbade, among other things, cinema visits. But when her father took her to Young Frankenstein (1974), she was hooked for good.

Taking her father plus crew on the road, they visit Loma Linda, California, where Dr. Johnson meets up with his college sweetheart, (another Adventist). Both discuss the subject of death, and feeling comforted by their belief in the resurrection. Which leads us to another major part of the feature: Heaven, realised in a colourful sequence where the”deceased” psychiatrist gets to have his cake and eat it, quite literally, as Jesus washes his feet.

A move to New York is inevitable as Dicks’ condition deteriorates, and most of us with empathise with his regret over selling the memory-filled family home. But he is philosophical and accepts his new life in the spare room of Kirsten’s flat, her husbands, and two children live nearby.

Once in the city, Kirsten (and her stuntmen) try their very best to enact Dick’s spectacular deaths – being hit by a metal fan unit falling from great height is one, falling down a steep wooden staircase and cracking his head open (with ample blood-spill) is another, but the scenario involving a knife and copious blood is possibly the most shocking, Dick freely admitting the pain was worse than his heart-attack thirty years previously.

These scenes might be impressive in their own way – and we learn a lot about how stunts work – but they do disturb Richard, and undoubtedly those affected (for me it brought back memories of finding my blood-soaked mother lying dead on a wooden floor, her scull fractured in twenty places). Let’s just remember that Dick is suffering from the disorientating effects of dementia and all the impairments involved.

We then watch an ambulance pull up and witness Dick’s cardiac arrest – or so we are led to believe. At a ‘funeral’ and 86th birthday celebration friends and patients pay their respects with tearful speeches in a packed church. One woman recalls her final meeting with the Doc, when he ‘forgot’ the recent death of her own husband (“The loss of memory is a great loss”). A close friend blows a Jewish ram’s horn in a pitiful goodbye, before he breaks down sobbing, unable to continue. Meanwhile Dick is alive and well and gleefully watching proceedings from a ‘peephole’ in the Vestry.

All this raises serious issues, Apart from these gruesome ‘serial’ deaths poor Dick is subject to during the shoot, there is the ethical question of how much the filmmaker must manipulate reality in order to pull off the ‘comedy’. As her father Dick is was certainly anxious to please her, and is totally under her power, desperate to avoid the same fate as his wife.

But you can’t help feeling Dick has been hoodwinked in some way, and that Kirsten has played with the audience’s emotions, making a mockery of the term documentary – which even at its best is hardly an objective art. Despite all these concerns, Dick Johnson is Dead is not a morose movie with its tour-de-force of compelling images but one that raises some serious issues, particularly regarding filmmaker responsibility. This is a slick and glibly amusing film but one that pokes fun at life-limiting illness. Rather like the blindfolded man whose disorientation raises a titter amongst his amused bystanders, Johnson’s film is a frivolous piece of escapism, but if we laugh, do we laugh in shame?. AS

DICK JOHNSON won the Special Jury Award for Innovative Non-fiction Storytelling at SUNDANCE 2020 

 

 

 

Muranow (2020) **** Jerusalem Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Chen Shelach; Documentary; Israel 2020, 70 min.

This haunting documentary debut from Isreal’s Chen Shelach, explores the traumatic past and present of Warsaw’s Muranow, once home to 200,000 Polish Jews before their lives were destroyed in the ghetto, the largest in the nation state that was ‘Greater Germany’. The vast majority were deported to Treblinka death camp where they were murdered in broad daylight.

But Muranow also tells another tale: of the Jewish uprising that took the ghetto by storm – and of those who live there today, still  traumatised by the ghosts and demons of their past – but who still deny their fellow citizens collaboration with the Germans.

And the ghosts and demons are still very much alive, according to one flat dweller whose refurbished property adjoins the Muranow cemetery. She claims no one will drink her tap water because the ground below the pipes still contains traces of Jews who lost their lives in the tragic years between 1938-1945.

Only two of buildings have survived the war and Muranow’s subsequent urban regeneration: One houses the Warsaw University’s Psychology department which once was the SS HQ. The other is St. Anne’s Church, where the SS hid paintings and other valuables looted from Jewish homes. Researcher Mattan Steffi contrasts old archive films and photos with today’s modern version of Muranow. The current Polish inhabitants of the quarter are well aware of this gruesome and guilt-ridden past. When interviewed they hide behind lame excuses – even though one of them moved out to Gdansk for two years on account of the ‘ghost’ in his flat – whom he Christened Rachella. Another woman bought a Menora, to fight off the ghosts “from a lost civilisation”. The existence of the ghetto is a taboo subject in schools.

The modern worlds collides too: A Lebanese baker tells about his family’s flight from the Middle-East war zone to Warsaw – and is shocked to learn that he’s actually living on the Nazi genocide victims’ bones.

Then there are the young Zionists from Israel, who visit the bunker where the Jewish Uprising’s victims committed suicide. They are proud of their slaughtered ancestors “you died with pride, so we can fight with pride for Israel”. A commentator is rather forgiving of this failed analogy: “Young people always need a story with a Happy-End.” The Polish authorities work hard to create an image, picturing Jews and Poles as victims of the Nazis alongside each other.

There are demonstrations in Muranow, but these only show how the Holocaust has been hijacked for a new Polish Nationalism: “Poland for Poles only” sing these neo-fascist on Muranow’s highway and byways. Meanwhile bookshops stock titles such as “Zombie Jews Living in the Underground”. Muranow’s new residents are often “sad about what happened to the Jews, but not so sad as to move away” – many still benefit from this Jewish legacy, and live in fear of the Jewish returning to reclaim their land and property.

One collective tries to recreate the Muranow old town with the help of 3D films, creating parallel versions of the old and the new. One writer is making a film about this Ghetto between 1940 and 1945 using a German 16 mm camera dating back to 1935. Mattan Steffi ‘feels’ the bodies under the pavement. The director and writer claim the guy ” is crazy in the head” – but are proud of his obsession with the past nonetheless.

With DoP and producer Micha Livne delivering stunning images of the old and the new, this is a perfect passion project. The saddest point is perhaps the Poles collective denial of what happened. It seems they’ve learnt nothing from history. People never learn. The ghosts and demons are possibly their own projections of a guilty conscience. No one can escape their history – no matter how hard they try.  AS

JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

Radiograph of a Family (2020)

Dir/Wri: Firouzeh Khosrovani | Doc, Iran, Norway, Switzerland 82′

Firouzeh Khosrovani’s prize-winning documentary chronicles her early life against the background of Iran’s revolutionary recent history.

Delicate and deeply moving – sorrowful even – Khosrovani’s fourth feature is a tragic love letter to a childhood and early adulthood blighted by the growing distance between her parents largely due to the revolution and her mother’s religious fundamentalism.

With its resonant cultural and political touchstones, Radiograph is an compelling and elegantly assembled collage of memories and photographs, narrated by actors and describing the simple joy of her parent’s early days together in Geneva: her father Hossein was training to be a doctor in Switzerland, inviting her mother Tayi to join him there in the early 1960s.

Recorded on Super 8 footage, ten years before the filmmaker’s birth, it tells of a couple who fell in love but whose aspirations turned to dust as the silent shadow of revolution gradually spread into every aspect of their life together, eventually threatening the stability of the family. What stands out is deep sadness and regret, rather than anger or bitterness, and we feel for Firouzeh and her broken dreams.

Switzerland is home to many Iranians and Hosseini had chosen to study medicine in the thriving cosmopolitan lakeside city of Geneva. The hard-working radiographer was able to offer a good life to his much younger wife when she arrived from pre-revolutionary Tehran. For a timid young girl Tayi certainly knew her own mind, praying to Mecca while her husband preferred to meet his urbane friends in glamorous bars and listen to music. Eventually Tayi used her new pregnancy and back problems as the kicker to return home, persuading Hossein to move back to Iran where she was delighted to be reunited with her friends and growing family.

In the 1960s Tehran was a sophisticated, thriving metropolis where the middle classes enjoyed summers by the Caspian Sea and winters on the ski slopes. But once the Shah was toppled things changed, and from then on Tayi became increasingly drawn to her religion.

Khosrovani’s enlivens her portrait with family photographs picturing her parents’ early days in Geneva before moving back to Tehran on the birth of their first child named Firouzeh (herself). Back in Iran, Tayi questions Hossein’s lack of prayer routine as she pursues Islam with growing fervency and self-determination, rejecting her husband’s way of life and even tearing up the family photos and snaps, which the director has since pieced together for her film.

Both visually and narrative-wise Khosrovani uses her family home in Tehran as a recurring motif and the feature’s fulcrum. What starts as a comfortable and soigné home soon becomes the sober backdrop to her mother’s strict religious beliefs: her parents’ elegant bedroom adorned with her father’s favourite piece of modern art (a female nude) soon morphs into a spartan single room where reflection and prayer are the order of the day, a long table accommodating her mother’s new friends, the proponents of the oppressive Islamic regime. “The revolution entered our house,” the director recalls, as her heavily veiled mother is pictured requesting the whereabouts of her Quar’an.

Radiograph is a deeply subjective view of a child’s fond memories projected into an adulthood full of anguish and sadness, that still lives on today. No matter how much happiness and contentment we find as adults, our early childhood experiences will always colour our future. Khosrovani maintains a non-judgemental approach to her parents throughout her film. And although she never condemns her mother, maintaining a neutral acceptance of her beliefs, it is clear that her father embodies her hopes and dreams. Bonds of sadness and regret can often be more resilient that those of shared joy. In the end acceptance is one form of contentment. MT

NOW AT THE DOCHOUSE Radiograph of a Family | World premiered at IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam, where it won the main prize for best feature

 

 

Red Penguins (2019) ****

Dir.: Gabe Polsky; Documentary with  Steven Warshaw, Tom Ruta, Howard Baldwin, Victor Rikhonov, Valery Gushin, Alimzhan Tokhtakhonov; USA/Germany 2019, 79 min.

Russian émigré Gabe Polsky (Red Army), now working from the USA, offers a cautionary tale about a time when Russian hopes were high after the fall of Stalinism, and US entrepreneurs believed that doing business with their newly liberated partners would be easy and profitable.

Nothing could be more from the truth – as it turned out. Directing, writing and producing this remarkable and hilarious true story Polsky spills the beans about the “Red Penguins”, a Russian ice hockey team taken over by American financiers. If you remember, in his previous outing Red Army, the key to Russian success lay in ‘working as a team’. Read on.

The film kicks off with the two owners of the NHL (National Hockey League) team Pittsburgh Penguins, Tom Ruta and Howard Baldwin, who were in charge between 1991 and 1997. Back in the early 1990s, many world class ice-hockey players of the former USSR were snapped up by NHL teams. Meanwhile, the sport itself, like nearly everything in Russia, was in the doldrums. Finding investment was the easy bit – Michael J. Fox soon signed up and agreed to finance a takeover of the old Soviet Army team by American owners.

What happened next is told mainly by Steven Warshaw, who was the ‘Red Penguin’s’ Marketing Executive Vice President. He was appalled by the parlous state of the famous “Ice Palace” arena which was anything but palatial: the executive boxes were full of homeless people; the Plexiglas round the rink was splintered – and in the basement there was a strip club.

Alexander Lyubimow, a famous TV journalist, introduced Warshaw and his team to old hands like general manager Victor Gushin who wanted to help with the rebuilding of the once famous crew. But marketing whizkid Warshaw and the US investment team saw the operation less as a sporting venue, more as a marketing opportunity to transform the team into the greatest show in Moscow.

The ladies from the basement were confined to cages where they entertained the crowd by ‘stripping off’. New outfits and logos (smiling Penguins) were rolled out on TV, and finally coach Victor Gusev brought together a team which was at least presentable. But the girls weren’t the only ‘come on’. Bears dressed up as waiters serving ice cold beer to the over-excited punters, and one of the players actually lost part of his finger – clearly the bear was not amused by his antics. But young people loved the circus atmosphere, and advertising did the rest.

Meanwhile back in the USA, Disney became interested in the project, Michael Eisner planning a marriage of Mickey Mouse with the Russian ice hockey team (he later denied contact with the “Red Penguin’s” team). But when Russia fell into chaos after President Yeltsin bombed his own parliament, the collaboration naturally fell apart. Steven and his co-workers were called in to see the Minister of Defence, Alexander Baranovsky, former head of the CSKA sport club, and this meeting confirmed who was really in charge.

On 1994, the owners then took the team on a tour in the USA, but the results were very disappointing. Back in Russia, the Mafia was responsible for 40% of the GDP. Camouflaged as taxmen, they also approached Warshaw who claimed “they were ready for them to steal several hundred dollars, but they took a million.” It was all a little bit like the feature film Sudden Death, shot in the Pittsburgh home of the original Penguins, where a whole crowd is taken hostage.

The fate of the endeavour was finally sealed when Disney cut all ties, Five people involved in the operation were brutally murdered: the team photographer, one of the players, the assistant head coach, a Russian Hockey Federation employee and one of the most high profile personalities of the era TV journalist Vladislav Listyev (who was shot dead on March, 1st, 1995). Warshaw got away with a damaged thyroid.

The film plays out as a farce, DoP Alexey Elagin giving the narrative development a jerky intensity with his handheld camerawork. Polsky later laments Putin’s steady rise to power, as a helpless Yeltsin stood on the sidelines. Red Penguins is a masterclass in power-grabbing, highlighting a moment in history when the Kremlin and the KGB took the opportunity to manoeuvre themselves into the seat of power. Capitalism, bribery and murder was all part and parcel of the new order. AS

BBC Storyville | Monday 7 December 10pm | BBC iPlayer

 

 

   

iHuman (2019) **** | CPH:DOX 2020

Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei, Doc, Norway Denmark 99′ 
One of the major challenges of our times is how the global community is going to deal with artificial intelligence (AI). Who will control this technology? Has the train left the station, never to be stopped? An unsettling new documentary from Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei explores these issues in the same way as his film Play Again investigated the positive impact on the natural environment of kids development.
iHuman studies the benefits of AI in increasing our potential for the greater good, but crucially also highlights its negative aspects. And there’s no turning back. AI development is hurtling forward with tech companies affiliated to the defence industry and algorithms in law enforcement enhancing existing biases. Once we allow the use of such powerful technology to assist us, the brakes are off: AI is like raising a new offspring: eventually we cannot control everything it does. One day it will be in charge. And this has frightening but seemingly unavoidable consequences.
Hessen Schei has gained impressive access to a variety of leading influencers and they present a wide range of views, from tech optimism in Jurgen Schmidhuber “the father of AI,” to more cautious voices like technology journalist Kara Swisher, human rights lawyer Philip Alston, and Shalil Shetty from Amnesty International. Animated computer graphics visualise a polymorphous, self-developing structure with ever-greater autonomy guiding us forward. Computer scientist and psychographic specialist Ilya Sutskever is one of the most helpful and persuasive talking heads. He is working on how computers can max out our problem-solving abilities while ensuring they share the same goals as us. Computational Psychologist Michal Kosinski is another ‘good guy’. He sees his goal as protecting people against the risks of how algorithms are reading their most intimate motivations.
By 2025 each person will produce 62 gigabytes of data per day. And this information is increasingly being used by the vast tech companies to manipulate each of us in our lifestyle choices: how we live, vote, and even who we chose to date. And this is one of the downsides of everyone getting to have their say on social media. As social animals who enjoy interacting with one another we have chosen the path to our own potential downfall. We have all become hooked to a high performance ad machine in the shape of Twitter, Google and Facebook. Shouting for our various teams has become an enjoyable and addictive pastime, and gradually the world has become more and more polarised, our majority views encouraging others to blaze the trail. Eventually we will become obsolete, unable to finance our lives – with mass employment the result of computers taking over.
The Police and the military are also tracking in an effort to manipulate us but also – they say – to protect us. Their highly advanced systems are set up to predict and track potential criminals from early on in their lives, using algorithms. In the future their intervention and high level surveillance equipment will kick in more and more intensively so as to clamp down on the potential for crime. In the military the use of so-called  unmanned systems are actually autonomous lethal weapons to be feared because they could easily turn against those programming them.
Combining her informative talking heads with convincing data and an eerie soundtrack, Hessen Schei gives us plenty of food for thought in this well-paced and good-looking documentary. And the takeaway is positive: Ai has actually forced us to re-examine what it really means to be human. We have created it, now maybe it can re-create us. MT
The film is screening for 8 weeks from 10 December via independent cinemas including Broadway Nottingham, Chapter Cardiff, kinokulture Oswestry, Rich Mix London and Rio Cinema London. Cinema listings can be found here: https://www.modernfilms.com/ihuman

Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

Dir.: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel | Doc; USA 2013, 85 min.

A nanny makes history in this fascinating film that was also one of the most popular documentaries in the year of its release. It’s not often than one finds a genius by accident, furthermore a genius who did not want to be discovered and who hid her art from everybody: but this is exactly what happened to the Chicago neighbourhood historian John Maloof, when researching photos to illustrate a history about his local district in 2007, and obtaining a box of photos from a nanny called Vivian Maier.

Ms Maier died in 2009, aged 83, just when Maloof began to collect all her work (over 100 000 negatives, 27 000 roles of film, audio tapes and 8mm and 16 mmm films) consisting of mainly street photography from the rougher parts of the “windy city”. Her photos are now shown all over the world; the work of a rare talent who hid from the world. Having discovered Maier’s work, Maloof began to research Vivian Maier’s life: this film is the result of his detective work.

Vivian Mayer was born in 1926 in New York, but her French mother and Austrian father (who soon cleared off), moved to a village in the French Alps, where Vivian was educated, before moving back to Manhattan in her mid-twenties. There she worked in a sweat-shop, before moving to Chicago in her early thirties where she was employed for the rest of her working life as a nanny. Maloof has found over a hundred of her ex-charges and their memories are mostly positive (some paid her rent in old age), but a few talked about her temper, or her style draconian discipline. But most remember being dragged by Vivian into the slums of the city where most of her photos were taken, though the more bourgeois quarters, where she lived, are also represented. Maier was an artist first and foremost: when one of the children she was looking after was hurt in a car accident, Vivian took photos of the injured child whilst the mother, rushing on to the scene of the accident, was relieved that it was not the family dog who was injured.

Vivian, who features in many of her photos taken with a Rolleiflex twin lens camera (which she always carried with her), was a tall, imposing woman. But in contrast, to her physical appearance, psychologically, she was very fragile. She was extremely shy, sometimes not even wanting to give her real name, calling herself V.Smith. Some of her former charges remembered that she was very hostile towards men in general, and speculated that she might have been abused as a child.

Looking at the photos it is clear that Vivian identified with the underdog in society, finding a split-second where photographer and subject become emotionally engaged. The same can be said about Maloof and his subject: this documentary is a labour of love, one obsessive collector researching another. The interviews are very informal and lively, and Maloof obviously shares his love of Chicago with Maier. Kafka asked for his writings to be destroyed, and we can thank his friend Max Brod for disobeying him – Maier never wanted the acclaim she is getting now posthumously, and we have to thank John Maloof for discovering her style. History repeats itself sometimes in strange ways – but then, Vivian Maier was in a way very much a stranger on this planet. AS

Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny by Ann Marks  | 
Atria Books £28 pp368

 

 

     

 

 

The Parallel Street (1962) **** Mubi

Dir: Ferdinand Khittl | Wri: Blodo Bluthner | Germany/Czechia, Doc 82′

The limited number of people who have seen Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) – extravagant fiction structured as a documentary – will experience a sense of déjà vu watching Die Parallelstrasse, which may – repeat may – be an ethnographic documentary structured as fantasy.

Not for the feint-hearted, The Parallel Street is one of the most enigmatic experimental films of the New German Cinema, produced by GBF, and dealing with subjectivity and objectivity in the medium.

We are addressed at the outset by the minute-taker (Friedrich Joloff) on the third and final night of some sort of symposium shot in jagged black-&-black that recalls the silent films of Fritz Lang (and the behind the camera footage of Clouzot & Picasso in Le Mystère Picasso), for which those under examination have been enjoined to hand in their watches and to submit to various forms of classroom discipline; a process of which he informs us that the final upcoming 90 minutes will be the last in the lives of those on the panel. We are also informed that this process is an endlessly recurring one in which the minute-taker sadly looks on in apparent resignation as panel after panel meander their way through the material in the limited time available; forever missing the fact (staring them in the face) that the files in front of them actually refer to themselves. The committee resembles a ship heading for the rocks while the crew debate the course to take: an appropriate analogy, as much of the documentary footage depicts ships and the sea.

It seemed to me some sort of allegory of the brevity of human existence, and of peoples’ dithering preventing them from resolving their lives in the tragically limited time available to them. The meat of the film – literally in the case of File 269, which includes extensive footage shot in a slaughterhouse – consists of colour travel footage shot by director Ferdinand Khittl and his cameraman Ronald Martini during two extensive expeditions around the world in 1959 and 1960; framed by what may be some sort of celestial inquisition like the one in Outward Bound (1930).

The documentary sequences (perhaps deliberately) are as difficult for the viewer to assimilate in one sitting – especially if you don’t speak German and are trying to follow the subtitles – as the panellists are evidently finding it, because the exotic imagery and the density of the minute-taker’s commentary are throughout simultaneously competing with each other for your comprehension. Plainly a film that calls for repeated viewings. Unless it isn’t. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON MUBI

 

Sing me a Song (2020) ****

Dir.: Thomas Balmès; Documentary with Peyangki, Ugyen Pelden, Pemba Dorji; France/Germany/Switzerland 2019,101 min.

In a follow-up to an earlier documentary, French director Thomas Balmes returns to a village in Bhutan to explore the impact of modern technology on a once-sheltered society.

Ten years ago French director/DoP/producer Thomas Balmès had visited the remote village of Laya at the foot of the Himalayas. Electricity was coming to the village, and everyone was excited, including eight-year old Peyangki, a monk, who became the star of Happiness. Ten years later, Balmès returned to Laya for Sing Me a Song, probing what TV and internet had done to the village, and Peyangki in particular.

We start with footage from Happiness, with Peyangki frolicking in the fields and looking forward to the electrification of the village but, at the same time, being adamant it would not interfere with his religious study in the monastery. We cut to the classroom of today and see all the monks, including Peyangki, emerged in prayers – but when the camera pans out again they are all stuck into their mobiles, the chanting just enough to cover the din of the devices.

Peyangki, who has now found an admirer in Pemba Dorji, a young monk about the same age as Peyangki was in Happiness, is “moving away from Buddha”. Like his fellow monks he is sold on the internet, particularly WeChat, which opens their world to female companionship. When visiting the local market, the young men find a basket with plastic weapons and start a hilarious war game, with firecrackers replacing life ammunition.

Sadly neither Peyangki’s teacher, not his mother can stop the young man from leaving the monastery for the capital Thimpu where his ‘girlfriend’ Ugyen Pelden is pictured singing with three other young females in a bar. Peyangki has made enough money by selling medical mushrooms (which he has harvested with his sister) to start a new life with Ugyen, who – unknown to the monk – already has a baby daughter from a previous marriage, and plans to emigrate to Kuwait, leaving her daughter behind.

Peyangki is taken back by all this, and Pemba, who has been sent by his teacher to convince his older friend to return to the monastery, is forced to return home alone. Peyangki is consoled by one of the other singers who fills him with positive thoughts, but for Peyangki the world has come to an end

The message of this delightfully poignant coming of age story is clear: devices which help us to connect, can easily tear us apart and destroy our sense of self and alter our identity. Peyangki feels obligated to join modern and his nativity leaves him unprepared for the Pandora’s box, and is unable to rediscover his innocence. The reaction of his fellow monks, their easy way of dealing with consumer goods as well as armed conflicts, show the regressive nature of the online world, where everything is levelled out to mean more or less nothing. For Peyangki, who had once been called the “re-incarnation of a Lama”, the choice is clear: the safety of isolation or the unstructured life of an empty gratification in a world where everything is replaceable at a moments notice, including the people closest to you.

Happiness won a cinematography award at Sundance. The results of this return odyssey are less positive although equally beautiful in their visual allure, the immaculate scenes in the monastery contrasting starkly with the hustle and bustle of the  urban environment. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s One World International Human Rights Doc Film Festival. AS

On Demand from 1 January 2021

The Salt of the Earth (2014) **** Mubi

wimDir: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado |Writer: Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | Doc Biography, 110′

This biopic of famous Brazilian photographer and philanthropist, Sabastiao Salgado, manages to be both illuminating and moving. Directed (and narrated) by Wim Wenders (pictured left at the Cannes premiere) and Salgado’s son Juliano, what starts as an harrowing and dramatic set of photographs from Africa and beyond, soon becomes a narrative with a truly inspiring and heart-warming conclusion, adding real weight to the story of this fascinating and creatively-driven man, now in his seventies.

From war zones in Ruanda and Bosnia to the deepest Amazon, the often shocking images show tremendous compassion, and a desire to connect with his subject-matter. As is often the case for the creatively committed, Salgado’s son Juliano received little attention as a child as the photographer  travelled the World, while his wife Leilia, archived and published his works, setting up exhibitions from home and organising financing and funding. There are shades of the late Michael Glawogger to his searingly shocking images and a touch of the David Attenborough to his work with his animals. A peerless tribute to humanity and the animal kingdom. MT.

CÉSAR 2015 WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY | NOW ON MUBI 

Athlete A (2020) **** Netflix

Dir.: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk | With Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jessia Howard, Jamie Dantzsher; US Doc 2020, 104 min.

Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Audrey&Daisy) get behind the camera for this worthwhile documentary that chronicles the ongoing sexual abuse of members of the USA Gymnastic team. The person responsible was none other that their trusted team physician Dr. Larry Nassar, who got a custodial sentence of 121 years in 2017 for molesting over a hundred young women. The feature is shot from the perspective of the investigating journalists of the Indianapolis Star, whose efforts are the basis for this documentary.

But the inquiry also uncovered complaints against 54 coaches were made during a course of many years. The President and CEO of USA Gymnastics , Steve Penny (who resigned and awaits trial), helped to cover up the abuses – and he was not alone. But if there is one weak point of the documentary, it pins the entire blame on Penny as the evil mastermind – in reality the whole organisation has to take the rap for the systemic abuse.

The account of survivors make heart-breaking listening: there is Maggie Nichols (the titular Athlete A, named so after her complaint which was followed by blackballing her); Rachael Denhollander; Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard, their stories telling not only the actual abuse but the cover-up which went on for over a decade. Dantzscher states she was so proud of being an Olympian, but after Nassar abused her during the games in 2000, she associated the Olympics with this vestige of shame.

But this is also a story of the Cold War: Until the end of Stalinism in 1989, gymnasts from the Warsaw pact countries had dominated the sport. In 1981, Bela and Marta Karolyi, Hungarian-born coaches of the Romanian national gymnastic team (along with their choreographer Geza Poszar) defected to the USA. They had been responsible for the success of Nadia Comaneci among others. The Karolyis installed themselves in a training facility near Huntsville, Texas, which closed in 2018. They have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. There is a clip in Athlete A, with Marta Karolyi (who retired in 2016) admitting her awareness of  Nassar’s abuse at the “Ranch”. Poszar admitted the method of working with the young athletes “was total control over the girls.” Coaches, not only the Karolyis, abused the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically: they were slapped, and told that they were fat.

The norm for female gymnasts was to be 5.4 feet and anorexic. Poszar also claimed these method were acceptable in Romania – and obviously in the USA too. The gymnasts in the Huntsville were isolated, parents were not allowed to visit, the gymnasts were forbidden to phone friends or relatives outside the facilities. Former USA National Team gymnast Jennifer Sey (one of he co-producers of the feature), author of “Chalked Up” talked about merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders and above all, the dream of Olympic Gold. The line between coaching and abuse gets blurred, Athletes were often forced to compete in spite of serious injuries. We watch Kerri Strug winning a Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics despite a severe ankle injury. But medals meant good business for the USA Team and their CEO Steve Perry.

Perhaps the most saddening statement comes from one of the victims: “Dr. Nassar was the nicest grown-up in the camp”. This most damning sentence calls for a complete reassessment of the next gymnastic competition in the sporting calendar. Shot with a lively camera by Jon Shenk, Athlete A is  another eye-opener: the perverted drive for Olympic medals, reducing young women to “little girls” to be objectified and abused, is just another example of the male gaze and its horrifying consequences, finally emerging after decades of cover-ups. AS

WINNER OF THE US CRITICS AWARD 2020 | coming to NETLIX

Mayor (2020)

Dir.: David Osit; Documentary with Musa Hadid; USA/UK 2020, 89 min.

Mayor is clearly a passion project for David Osit. So much so he co-produced, directed, co-edited and even filmed this engaging documentary that  follows the real-life political saga of Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Ramallah, during his second term in office.

Ramallah is about ten miles from Jerusalem and surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements and soldiers. Most of the people who live there will never have the chance to travel more than a few miles outside their home, which is why Mayor Hadid is determined to make the city a beautiful and dignified place to live in. By Western standards these people are impoverished, most – included the Mayor – do not even have a TV in their homes. So Hadid’s immediate goals are to repave the sidewalks, attract more tourism, and plan the city’s Christmas celebrations. His ultimate mission: to end the occupation of Palestine. Rich with detailed observation and a surprising amount of humour, Mayor offers a portrait of dignity amidst the madness and absurdity of endless occupation while posing a question: how do you run a city when you don’t have a country? 

Hadid comes across as an affable middle-aged man, married with two children, he is particularly proud of his moustache. He is also a mischievous diplomat who enjoys football. During a local match he is asked by some kids if he is “for Fatah or Hamas”, he answers that Al Fatah does not exist any more, and “so we have nobody to liberate us”.

Like most of his supporters he is hoping for an independent Palestinian State, but until that is achieved Hadid is more interested in giving his city a good image around the world. And this needs planning and careful consideration. How should they style the city? Discussions begin with local councillors and a logo is created: “WeRamallah”, featuring in huge letters round the city, where the mayor particularly enjoys hanging out at the “Cafe de la Paix”, opposite his office in the modern Town Hall.

When President Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, back in December 2017, also promising to move the American embassy there, rioting broke out in the West Bank. Clearly there was opposition to any US presence, let alone intervention. Today nothing has much changed. The filmmakers accompany Hadid to the edge of the town where the fighting between emboldened Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth still rages. Sometimes the clashes become a little bit too close for comfort. Despite the animosity there will still be a Christmas tree in the city centre – some people campaign for a slogan that lights up with “Jerusalem is our Capital”. Once again, Hadid will have to compromise between municipal services and political messages.

Hadid’s work is never done, and involves ongoing compromise between the townspeople and the Israeli forces. Meanwhile mixed messages come from abroad: Hadid reads a statement from US Vice-president Pence who wants to protect Christians in Palestine. Hadid wishes he could just bring about continued peace, and end occupation. Meanwhile, Prince William visits Ramallah and makes a conciliatory speech, asking for the normalisation of the situation. But back in Whitehall, celebrations for a Hundred Years of the “Balfour Declaration” are underway, as if there is anything to celebrate in the former British Mandate. And there are more contradictions: while Hadid can visit Washington DC, Oxford and Bonn (Germany) to talk about the situation at home, he cannot visit Jerusalem or the nearby coast.

In the midst of the mayhem some younger members of his staff are having another celebration of sorts: “They can put us in a slum, but we still can have a party”. Finally, there is a major confrontation with Israeli troops, who use teargas outside City Hall and make arrests in the Cafe de la Paix”, before everything peters out. The following morning, the debris is cleared away, and in the evening fountains play light games with the music rousing a celebration of hope in a land where conflict has always been the watchword.

Mayor is a humane feature that tells a human story, trying to see the conflict from a purely humanitarian angle. Hadid is a great advertisement for compromise and hope: he is a steady lighthouse in a turbulent sea. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JANUARY 2021 |

The Exit of the Trains (2020) DocLisboa

Dir: Radu Jude, Adrian Cioflânca | Doc, România 175′

Screening as part of the So Many Stories Left Untold strand in DOCLISBOA’s 18th Edition (14-20 January, 2021), this essay film directed by Radu Jude and first timer Adrian Cioflânca makes use of extensive archive material to reflect on the Romanian genocide of June 26th, 1941, in the town of Iasi, near the Moldovan border. It’s a gruelling testament to man’s inhumanity towards his neighbour, and makes for grim viewing not least for its rather overlong treatment.

The pogrom lasted four days and wiped out most of its  Jewish male population. Although occupying German forces had a hand in the tragedy the main perpetrators were actually locals who looted their Jewish neighbours’ property after killing them.

Jude opts for a similar, minimalistic style to his 2017 essay film Dead Nation  to chronicle this sudden outbreak of wartime ethnic cleansing. Playing out as ‘an exhibition of the dead’, a voice-over commentary by relatives or neighbours of the victims accompanies the grim images. There are also witness reports of the few who survived. The final segment shares an array of photos of the pogrom itself, shown in chronological order.

The heat of that June morning in 1941 was in stark contrast to the chilling events that would unfold in the Eastern Romanian town. Jewish citizens were assembled in front of the police station where they were beaten and kicked, some were shot. Later the perpetrators sent women and children home,  deporting the men in airtight cattle trains (150 per sealed waggon) to Podulloaiei, or Targu Frumos, whence the few survivors were taken to the labour camp of Ialomita.

The witnesses reflect on their next-door neighbours’ role in the genocide, their focus was to steal from the victims, stripping them of their flats, jewellery and money, having already exhorted money for failing to fulfil clemency appeals. Some of the photos are gruesome: particularly the face of a Mr. Lehrer, who was slaughtered right in front of his shop. One women was ordered by the authorities to pay a military duty for her soldier son, even though he had been killed. She was forced to sell her only means of livelihood – a Singer sewing machine. Most of the victims died of asphyxiation: “He died of his injuries and lack of air”. It’s a chilling mantra that resonates with the mass suffering going on today.

Survivors talk about the hours endured with the bodies of the dead or dying, before any escape was possible. The trains were transformed into mortuaries and some of the images are particularly harrowing. Finally, we see a photo of a ‘normal’ passenger train which stopped during the mayhem. It shows the carriages with bodies bundled together, like wood or bricks, before a mass burning – only a few were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Targu Frumos.

The Exit of the Trains is far more than a mere documentary: it is a witness report of how humans suddenly lose their humanity and descend into depravity. What sort of people put petrol into water bottles, then charge inflated prices to revel in the pain and slow death of their captives. AS

DOCLISBOA | 2021 | SO MANY STORIES LEFT UNTOLD | Berlinale 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

76 Days (2020) **** VOD

Dirs: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous | Wri: Hao Wu | Doc, 2020 China, 91′

Not as hard-hitting as you would imagine, and in some ways faintly amusing given the repercussions that would follow, this cinema vérité snapshot of the first COVID outbreak takes us back to Wuhan, China where it all began, the rest of the world still blissfully unaware and innocently going about its business.

In a Wuhan hospital a woman cries out in anguish as the body of her father is hurriedly sealed in orange plastic by a group of hazmat-suited medics who then hurtle back through the corridors to deliver the toxic bundle into a waiting black van.

Towering skyscrapers dwarf a twinkling ambulance racing over the massive bridge that straddles the vast Yangtze river (think Golden Gate without the glamour), as the city is plunged into a hush-hush yet draconian lockdown, marshalled citizens falling into rank as they meekly obey the eerie tanoyed announcements to ‘stay in their homes’.

Wuhan is a major industrial city in Hubei province, Eastern China, but the scale of the crisis in the four hospitals where the doc was filmed, by director Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) and reporter Weixi Chen, takes on an intimate yet respectfully buttoned-down detached community atmosphere. You never see a medic’s face, such is level of PPE, yet the (mostly old) patients stay wrapped in their own colourful padded jackets as they are tucked up in bed and told to sleep – almost like kids – and referred to as ‘grandma, and grandpa; the middle-aged sufferers; aunty and uncle.

Although the grief and panic is feverishly palpable there is a ordered and kindly feel to proceedings as patients’ personal possessions – in China that means mobile phones – are wiped down with alcohol and placed in plastic bags. There is no triage system here: this is a close up and personal system where the medics themselves deal face to face with the oncoming stream of stricken public who rattle the door handles of hospital’s modest entrance, demanding to be seen first: “Any vomiting or diarrhoea?, Okay – let him go first, he’s limping” says the matron.

The documentary began shortly after the January 23rd lockdown in Wuhan, the filmmakers maintaining a strictly observational eye on the unfolding crisis. There are moments of dark humour surrounding an old fisherman – the doc’s main protagonist – who has found his way into the system and can’t seem to find his way out, although he appears to be suffering from dementia rather than Covid, judging from his candid take on events. The doctors keep forcing him back into his room, telling him to wear his mask ‘properly’: “What a way to treat a person” he laments fractiously. Later he has decided to stay: “Not bad – free food and medicine here, where I come from is so backward”.

Apparently the shoot inside public hospital facilities wasn’t government-sanctioned. Hao was researching a project for an American network, who then abandoned the story when Covid went global, but he continued his own filming using  reporter Chen (and his colleague chose to remain anonymous). They have created this raw and immediate take on an outbreak that purportedly originated in Wuhan’s wet markets in the vicinity of the hospitals, and would result in the death of millions worldwide – not to mention the economic, social and political repercussions.

No doubt there will soon be a ‘Covid’ genre – we have already seen a Belgian outing: I Am Not a Hero and Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, and there are more to come. The filmmakers formally requested that none of the hospital staff be mentioned or identified “to avoid any potential government interference with the film”. The only possible clues to their identity are available in the delightful drawings that were sketched in marker pen on the medics’ PPE gowns, and they possibly included their names (if you can read Mandarin).

In early April 2020, 76 days after the crisis erupted the Wuhan lockdown is lifted, and air raid sirens mark a gloomy tribute to the dead, masked citizens stopping to pay their respects in the streets, where some are visibly moved to tears. Their government clearly didn’t have the same respect for the World’s wider community in their bid to play down the crisis. But amongst these locals a strong sense of civil cooperation and commitment to a common cause is admirable and poignant. MT

ON RELEASE in the UK | VOD 22 January 2021

 

 

 

Mother (2019) Locarno

Dir.: Kristof Bilsen; Doc with Chutimon Sonsirichai (Pomm), Elisabeth Röhmer, Maya Gloor, Walter Gloor; Belgium 2019, 82 min.

People are living longer but not always enjoying a healthy or happy old age in Western Europe. Kristof Bilsen tackles the alarming truths behind our care home crisis in his heart-breaking documentary that sees a Swiss family sending their mother across the world to live out her final years with perfect strangers.  

But before you jump to condemn them, just consider this. Many Thai women come to the UK each year to enjoy the benefits of our strong economy that allows them to make a living by offering their unique talents as masseuses and alternative health professionals. Their kids are left with their extended families back in the East, and see their mothers only one or twice a year. Meanwhile UK care homes charge extortionate amounts of money just for bed and board ( BUPA charge a basic £100,o00 per annum in central London), while bosses cream off the profits and pay their care staff a pittance. Many of them are not trained carers, and are unable to communicate adequately with older residents due to their poor English skills. Often they have little aptitude or interest in their badly paid jobs. It’s a critical situation that seems to indicate that this Swiss family could be doing their mother a favour, and even saving her money, into the bargain.

In Thailand, Pomm looks after Alzheimers patients from German-speaking countries in the Baan Kamlangchay hospice near Chiang-Mai. Her own three children are looked after by her husband and extended family. She too is badly paid but infinitely more compassionate, working an eight hour shift, with another job to make ends meet, her relationship with her husband is strained.

In this tranquil sanctuary, Swiss citizen Elisabeth Röhmer is in the final stages of Alzheimers, but Pomm remembers when she loved to do the crossword and helped the carers learn English. After Elisabeth’s death, Pomm will be responsible for Maya, a mother of three from Zofingen in Switzerland. Her husband Walter and three daughters Joyce, Sara and Tanya are struggling to find suitable care for grandma Maya, so the clinic in Thailand seems the best solution. ”It would be selfish to keep her here so we could see her all the time. She gets much better care in Thailand”. And this true because Maya, like Elisabeth before her, will have three carers working round the clock.

Once she arrives with her family in Thailand Maya takes time to settle down in her new environment, awoken by exotic birdsong on her first morning. She is clearly not as happy about the move as the Gloor family would have us believe as they share their last Christmas together far from home. On a boat trip, they discuss how to say goodbye to Maya. Super 8 mm family films show a younger Maya in happier times. Back home in Switzerland, the Gloors Skype Maya who is still affected by their departure but adapting to her new circumstances.

So is there such a difference between East and West? Clearly in the Far East there is far more respect for adults, their wisdom and experience is highly valued both by the family and society as a whole. This extends to the process of dying as we saw in Locarno winner MRS FANG. It seems like a double whammy when elderly members of the family lose their dignity and need our care and patience while they remain critical, controlling and difficult, as in the case with dread diseases such as Alzheimers. Their dehumanisation process is disorientating, their loss of dignity strangely infantalises them in the eyes of those who once looked up to them and respected their seniority. We expect to look after our kids, but not our parents. And England has now become a child-centric culture, where children have become the objects of desire, admiration and wonder. Rather than wise elders we puts the young on a pedestal, as was seen recently in the case of Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg.

Bilsen remains objective in his fascinating and thought-provoking film, Pomm reflecting that her job has shown her the difference between rich and poor. Really? Maya has three care givers because the Swiss family can afford it, yet the carers in both countries are badly paid. The difference is that over here in the UK the care is poor even when you throw money at it; clearly compassion cannot be bought and that is reflected back in the attitude we have regarding the elderly, who also are our elders. Pomm wonders (as do we all) what will happen to her if she becomes a victim of Alzheimers. Who will care for her? All over the world we are relying on others to care for our loved ones because we are too busy looking after ourselves. MT

LOCARNO WORLD PREMIERE | AVAILABLE ON VOD ITUNES, AMAZON & GOOGLE | 11 JANUARY 2021

Epicentro (2020)

Dir.: Hubert Sauper; Documentary with Leonelis ArangoSalas, Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, Janet Pena Semunat, Hans Helmut Ludwig, Oona Castilla Chaplin; Austria/France 2020, 108 min.

This new documentary portrait of Cuba from Oscar nominated Hubert Sauper explores the post-Castro era pairing everyday life with an essay on the power and myth-making in cinema. Through his conversation with children, a sex worker and an actress, he shows a Cuba still dependent on tourism, even though some of the values are contrary to the revolutionary movement of “26th of July”.

Ten year-old Leonelis Arango Salas is the star of the show: she explained the 1902 “Tafft Agreement”, which gave the USA the use of the naval base of Guantanamo (!), one of over 900 military bases worldwide, where the American flag is raised, including the Moon. She also elaborates on the sinking of the battleship USS Maine by the Spanish – in reality, the ship sunk because of an explosion in the boiler room but the US used the incident to shoot reels of film showing their soldiers killing Spanish troops who had occupied Cuba for centuries. The boy also shows us the sinking of the ‘Maine’, restaged in a bath tub with lots of cigar smoke. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders”, soldiers who fought on behalf of USA in the Cuban War of Independence, were very much ‘Trojan’ horses only interested in replacing the Spanish. And the cinema covered the myth: Media Tycoon Randolph Hearts (on whom the hero of Citizen Kane was modelled) wrote to Roosevelt: “You furnish the war, we furnish the information”.

A sex worker is, not surprisingly extremely disillusioned, regales us with the revelation that all US presidents look the same, be it T. Roosevelt or Trump: “Faces of people who like war and wealth.” Tourists come here for sex, men or women: “Gringas come here looking for black dicks”. And in her own experience, sex workers are just like slave: “I am a piece of meat, when they say do it doggy-style, I go “wow wow”. But she still wants to go to Disneyland and meet Brad Pitt.

In one of the few modern malls, Leonelis and her friends admire a pencil, costing over 2000 US dollars. Her hospital worker grandmother earns just four dollars a week. Even with Sauper’s help, they cannot calculate how long she would have to work to buy this simple writing instrument. Hans Helmut Ludwig, a middle aged tourist from Bavaria, visits a ballet school where he claims the free tuition is very professional. He compares Cuba today with a theatre set: tourists come to participate in a parallel universe full of illusions which will soon disappear. A utopia, never realised.

A street fight between a young girl and her mother is a brutal spectacle. Later we see mother and daughter watching Chaplin in The Great Dictator. “This is my grandfather” the girl tells Sauper. “You are Hitler’s granddaughter?” The girl can not stop giggling: “I am Charlie’s granddaughter”. Her mother, Oona Castilla Chaplin looks calm and collected as she accompanies her daughter and friends on the guitar,.

Epicentro is about reality and film, utopia and dystopia, and the American dream, with its “corrupted ideals and success forged in lies”. Like Robert Altman’s’ Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the truth is not welcome, particularly during the 200 year celebrations. Sauper hits hard, as he did in We Come as Friends when the Sudanese people complain “even the Moon belongs to the white man”. Maintaining a freewheeling and detached approach during his conversations on home-grown politics, the message is clear: Havana is anything but its translation: Heaven. AS

SUNDANCE GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER | WORLD CINEMA

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2020)

Dir. : Ric Burns; Documentary with Oliver Sacks, Kate Edgar, Bill Hayes, Paul Theroux; USA 2019, 114 min.

The final six months in the life of eminent clinical neuro-psychologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) are the focus of Ric Burns’ immersive biopic. Filmed in the Sacks’ Greenwich village home and taking its title from his New York Times essay of February 2015, penned on discovering he was dying with terminal cancer, this warmly enjoyable portrait reflects Sacks’ compassionate nature as well as his courage.

Sacks appears to make a graceful exit from this world; writing, talking and loving to the end. Not that the doctor’s life had always been so harmonious and well-structured – on the contrary – his homosexuality and extreme shyness, which he blamed on his prosopagnosia (Face blindness), a neurological defect which some of his patients shared.

Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Cricklewood, London in 1933, he was destined to become a medical doctor: both his parents were members of the profession, so were two of his older brothers. Oliver was his mother’s favourite but when she found out he was homosexual (at the age of 18), she declared “I wish you had never been born.”

Oliver and his brother Michael had been evacuated during the Blitz to a boarding school in the Midlands where both were bullied and beaten. Michael was so disturbed he developed full-blown schizophrenia. Oliver was physically strong, but very timid, and on his 18th birthday let his parents know his plan to move to the USA. In San Francisco and LA he found a life very different from that in repressive London. Achieving a weight-lifting record from his body building he also became addicted to  amphetamines and his BMW motorcycle. His sex life was a disappointment: he constantly fell for straight men and after a birthday encounter in 1963 at the Hampstead Ponds, on a short-lived return to London, he turned celibate for 35 years.

Back in the Bronx Sacks’ life hung in the balance during a fellowship at the Albert Einstein College. And by New Year’s Day 1966, came the realisation his drug habit had to go. In its place came writing. Seeking the help of psychoanalyst Leonard S (the two where still “getting there” by the end), the late 1960s saw him working at Beth Abraham Hospital, where he discovered the beneficial effects of a dopamine replacement drug (L-DOPA) on victims of the encephalitis lethargica pandemic of the 1920s. His patients recovered and shared their experiences during “Lock-Ins”.

Unfortunately, Neurology had acquired a bad name largely as a result of the widespread practice of lobotomising difficult young schizophrenics, but Sacks’ work with kids in this area was too subjective and therefore regarded as ‘unscientific’. In 1973 he was sacked for criticising the practice of putting troublesome young patients suffering from Schizophrenia into solitary confinement.

But his book on EL, entitled ‘Awakenings’ was not well-received, and his colleagues shunned him. To make matters worse, he had written it during a rapprochement with his mother, who then died during a trip to Israel. So disturbed was he at her loss that he injured his leg during a hiking accident (an obvious act of self-harm/suicide) and it took him years to regain his full mobility. This was made worse by his relationship difficulties – homosexuality was a crime, and even an admittance would mean the end of a career. Prison terms and chemical castration were common punishments. (Ironically Penny Marshall’s 1990 film version of Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, was nominated for three Oscars).

In 1982 Sacks met the editor Kate Edgar, who became his mother surrogate: organising not only his writing output but running his day-to-day life. Sacks output was prolific: his books are always centred around neurological topics, like the aforementioned Prosopagnosia, which he tackled in “The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat” and “Egnosias”. His love for music was the main theme in “Musicophilia”, “The mind’s Eye” is a research into the brain recognition process of seeing moving images, where a neurological disorder can slow down our recognition process to a slow motion tempo.

Sacks was an explorer of the mind, observing and empathising with his patients, he became completely at one with them during the treatment process. He considered the hierarchical structures which dominate medicine to this day as deleterious to the profession.

DoP Buddy Squires close-ups of Sacks dominate the feature, with Burns keeping proper distance from his subject – apart from at the end, when he chronicles his late-life relationship with NY journalist Bill Hayes, whom Sacks met in 2008. This story of an outsider who became the part of a professional mainstream tainted by decades of patient mistreatment is an enjoyable and informative watch. AS

NOW ON release in Cinemas

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

James Erskine’s documentary about one of the greatest jazz legends of all time pays exuberant tribute to its focus: Billie Holiday. Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915, she would go on to enjoy a career spanning 47 years. Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence echoed through her plangent vocal style and sensual ability to manipulate phrasing and tempo. What lives on is her extraordinary talent in singing the blues through these unique recordings.

Erkine bases his impressionistic film on a stash of recording interviews by the late Washington based writer Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who dedicated eight years during the ’60s and ’70s to her informative book about Billie Holiday. And these interviews and recordings breathe new life into our knowledge of a talented jazz singer who rose to fame in the Harlem of the 30s and 40s and lost her life at just 44 after several decades of heartache.

Heartache is a soulful motif that floods Billie’s repertoire with 30′ tunes ‘If You Were Mine’ and “You Let Me Down” with band accompaniment from Count Basie, Teddy Wilson or Artie Shaw. But there were also more upbeat tunes about love such as “I’m Painting The Town Red to hide a Heart that’s Blue”. And the lively ballads “Twenty Four Hours a Day”; ‘Yanky Doodle Never Went to Town’. and the chirpy “Miss Brown to You” with Teddy Wilson’s wonderful orchestra (from the album ‘Lady Day’).

Through Linda’s recordings Erskine shines a light on a time fraught with poverty, misogyny and racism where women certainly got the rough end of the deal particularly in the music business. Billie inhabited these times with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men – and women, using drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Living in the fast lane also took its toll: “We try to live one hundred days in one day”. Her story was a sad one, recorded here for the first time from the other side of the microphone – through the memories of those who knew and loved her.

Harsher memories contrast with the warmth of these tribute echoing the exuberance of those early days of jazz, and the darker times – we hear from a vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York. But the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie, pursuing her day and night throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. “Wasn’t she entitled to have a Cadillac?” says drummer Jo Jones. But often Billie couldn’t even get service when dining in a restaurant. After leaving the Count, she was a black singer in a white band. Eventually she served time for drug abuse but on her release still filled Carnegie Hall with queues round the block.

Erskine doesn’t hero worship or quail away from controversy surrounding  the ‘false memory’ of many talking heads, reflecting how time can alter the perspective. Linda Lipnack Kuehl doesn’t let her interviewees off the hook, demanding they justify their recollections. A case in point is Jo Jones’s strident claim that producer John Hammond sacked Billie from Count Basie’s band for not sticking to the blues. Hammond vehemently claims the sacking was for financial reasons.

What emerges is the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her art and this comes across in visceral archive footage – particularly of ‘Strange Fruit’ – and live recordings that celebrate this timeless singer whose talent will never diminish.

It eventually becomes clear that one of her biggest fans was Linda Lipnack Keuhl who was there throughout her career, feeling a close affinity with Billie and her struggle to succeed, despite their different backgrounds at a time of racial segregation and strife. As Linda points out – the musicians were black but the critics, agents and managers were white. Thanks to Linda’s inquisitive style of journalism this tribute to Billie comes alive. MT

BILLIE is available, on demand, from 13th November on BFI, IFI, Curzon Home Cinema, Barbican. There is a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival and it will be available to buy on Amazon and iTunes on 16 November.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BILLIE HOLIDAY | Volumes 1,2,3 accompanied by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra. 

‘Til Kingdom Come (2020) IDFA 2020

Dir.: Maya Zinshtein; Doc with Pastor William Boyd Bingham IV, Yechiel Ecksyein, Yael Eckstein, Pat Robertson, Pastor John Hagee; Israel/UK/Norway 2020, 72′.

Maya Zinshtein and her writer Mark Monroe take an in-depth look into the unlikely bond between Evangelical Christianity and the Jewish State in America.

This is represented by US organisations CUFI (Christians United for Israel) and The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCT). The relationship between President Trump, who relies heavily on Evangelic Christians, and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose key support comes from orthodox, radical Settlers in Israel, had triumphant results: Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and declared in January 2020, that Israel could not only legitimately hold on to everything they conquered in war but also occupy the Palestinian West Bank, “because it says so in the Bible”.

We meet Pastor William Boyd Bingham IV in the forest outside the small community of Binghamtown, Kentucky. Here just over a third of the population barely surface the breadline and child poverty stays at 49%. The Pastor takes out an automatic weapon and starts shooting practice. No doubt which side he is on: “We are the people who brought Donald Trump to power, and he pushes our agenda.” Like his father and grandfather, he is part of the evangelical Church and an active member of the IFCJ. The organisation was founded in 1963 by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and is now led by daughter Yael. The fellowship has donated over a million USDs to good causes in Israel. Naturally, the focus is the young – he even calls it indoctrination -, who are told that “Jews are better than us, and you need to except that.” His viewpoint rides roughshod over the Scriptures standpoint that Jesus will re-appear in Jerusalem, leading to a seven-year war and finally the battle of Armageddon witnessing the destruction of all but a few Jewish believers who must then join Christianity. 

Higher up the food chain, Evangelicals like Vice President Pence and Foreign Secretary Pompeo are less concerned with biblical texts, but ‘real politik’. Meanwhile nearer home, at the banquet of ‘Friends of the IDF’ in the Beverly Hill Hilton, casino magnate and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson saw the IFCJ donating major funds to the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). Meanwhile,  President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Lara Friedman, claims that the state of Israel has written off all Jews in the USA who oppose Trump and his policies.

This detail-laden documentary adds further grist to the mill of donations to Jewish causes to the detriment of Palestinian ones.  On a visit to Israel with his flock, the gun-toting Pastor Bingham IV opines: “There has to be more accessibility for the church in politics. That’s God’s plan”. He is thankful Yael Eckstein pays his church a visit as she swings through streets where shops and houses are boarded up. Meanwhile, on the Church-funded Radio WMIK, an announcer is appalled “that bombs were thrown near to children… in Israel”. 

In this sobering and depressing Zinshtein and Monroe show a bleak picture of funding and support – the bleakest part focusing on the  Kentucky Bible Belt who dream of eternal redemption. AS

CHICAGO FILM FESTIVAL  2020 | IDFA 2020        

Dear Werner – Walking on Cinema (2020) Seville Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Pablo Maqueda; Documentary narrated by Werner Herzog; Spain 2020, 80 min.

Spain’s Pablo Maqueda travels in the footsteps of Werner Herzog in this filmic foray that serves both as a tribute to the veteran’s 60 years in filmmaking and a study of the touchstones that brought it all to life.

The documentary is based on Herzog’s own diaries (Walking on Ice) that chronicle a winter journey in 1974, when the veteran filmmaker grabbed “a jacket, a compass, and a canvas bag of essentials” and set out on foot from Munich to Paris to visit his friend Lotte Eisner who was on her last legs – but in the end survived another decade.

The writer, critic, co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise and ‘mother’ of New German Cinema was seriously ill, and Herzog hoped if he reached her apartment in the rue des Capucines, Eisner would recover and continue to be a fountain of knowledge for him and other young German filmmakers. The trip was a success on all fronts.

Dear Werner takes the form of a prologue, seven chapters and an epilogue, Herzog re-wrote some of his diary records, and narrated. “The book started out as a simple travel itinerary which led me deeper and deeper into Herzog’s filmography. Then I realised there was a film, in a sense, that wold talk about me through him and his cinema”. Maqueda echoes Herzog’s own doubts (he first features were slaughtered by the German press), when saying, “by making this film, I aimed to encourage and motivate my fellow filmmakers not to despair and to keep walking”. 

In “Cave of forgotten films”, Maqueda explores a real cave, imagining it as the setting for one of his own stories. He also chances upon in a huge listening device and a ski-jump hill – neither associates well with the nature-orientated images which dominate the film. Suddenly we see bears roaming around, only to discover they are actually behind the fences of a nature resort.

After crossing the border to France, Marqueda visits the War Cemetery in Charmes, and later monuments to Jean d’Arc. A chapter on Eisner’s history follows: she had to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power, but ended up nevertheless in a Camp in France, whence she fled. The future director of the Cinematheque Henri Langlois asked Eisner to hide some valuable German expressionist and Russian revolutionary films in the countryside, fearing their destruction. This meant Eisner had to refrain from lighting fires during her ordeal, the nitro material being highly inflammable,

When Herzog arrived in Paris a fortnight before Christmas 1974, he was so elated he asked the recovering Eisner to: “Open the window, from these last days onwards, I can fly”.

Dear Werner is a love letter to the German veteran and the cinema he represents. Maqueda comes over as a diligent pupil, sometimes waxing hagiographic about his idol – but then, so was Herzog when it came to Murnau. Maqueda presupposes his audience is as knowledgeable as he is about Herzog’s canon. And those new to the party may well miss some allusions. Otherwise, Dear Werner – dedicated by the director to Maqueda’s partner and producer Haizea – is a worthwhile journey. AS

SEVILLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

Downstream to Kinshasa (2020)

Dir.: Dieudo Hamadi; Documentary; Democratic Republic of Congo Belgium France, 90 min.

Twenty years ago a violent civil war raged in the Congo and was fought out between Rwandan and Ugandan forces, who supported the two Democratic Republic’s factions. Over four thousand Congolese lost their lives in Kisangani alone in a war that ignited in June 2000 and became to be known as the Six-Day war.

Acting as his own DoP, experienced documentarian Hamadi zeros in on the domestic detail and the wider issues arising from class structure which leaves a particularly brutal legacy in this post-colonial world. This is a place where life-changing injuries still haunt the victims: double amputees like Mama Kawale and Mama Bahingi, and quadriplegic Mama Kashinde have managed to make their days bearable by playing wheelchair basketball. The atmosphere is intense, and every shot at the basket counts: this is no feeling of competition except with themselves, and their individual scores bolster self-confidence.

Hamadi is familiar with the territory having grown up during the massacre. The victims of Kisangani’s war were thrown naked into mass graves, as one of the survivors recalls: “we are walking on corpses”. The survivors have clamoured for nearly twenty years for compensation from the Central government – in vain. Their plight and pain is never diminished, in fact it gets worse, and club together to select a delegation to travel downstream on the Congo river to the capital Kinsasha, where they will demand justice from government officials and their MP.

Intercut with the documentary are scenes from the Agit-Prop theatre of the survivors, which uses music and short scenes to bring home their message. Two simple boats are hitched together, and the delegation team buys food for the journey from vendors on little boats. Arriving in Kinshasa, the positive carnival atmosphere of the journey changes into disappointment when delegation is banned from accessing the government building. Their local MP is not there to engage with their concerns because of the approaching election. So they are put their time to good use raising awareness of their plight with brightly coloured banners – spelling mistakes corrected – before installing themselves in peaceful protest only to be drenched by torrential rain. It’s a pitiful sight, and we feel for them. Eventually they will have something to cheer about when the unsupportive president of the Republic, Joseph Kabila, is replaced by Felix Tshisekedi in the 2018 December elections. But Kabila leaves a legacy, allowing him to select the incumbent Prime Minster. In an elliptical ending, we return to the lively streets of Kisangani, with the delegation walking proudly with their heads high.

Downstream could be called a Road-Movie but that seems too trite a description for this pilgrimage of humanitarian relief and Hamadi reflects this in his poetic and lyrical visual treatment. Eschewing a sentimental approach as all times, Hamadi never victimises the survivors, but triumphs in their fighting spirit kept alive by their exuberant theatre work and their courageous journey to the capital. AS

DOWNSTREAM TO KINSHASA (EN ROUTE POUR LE MILLIARD) won the Golden Dove at the 63rd edition of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film DOK Leipzig, as well as the Prize of the Interreligious Jury | 
ON RELEASE ON MAJOR PLATFORMS

I Am Not a Hero (2019) *** Raindance Film Festival 2020

Dir:Pablo Diaz Crutzen, Stijn Deconinck and Robin Smit | Doc, Belgium 

I Am Not a Hero offers a Belgian perspective on the Covid19 Crisis and a serene view of fighting the disease from the experience of the medical staff at the Belgian Centre of Excellence of the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels.

Filmmakers Pablo Diaz Crutzen, Stijn Deconinck and Robin Smit explore the pandemic from the March 2019 lockdown until the situation was well under control in late May. Probably not the most popular release at London’s Raindance Film Festival this November, the film nevertheless offers a contrast of sorts given the lessons learnt as the UK and other major European countries face some kind of renewed lockdown this Autumn.

Not surprisingly Belgium experienced the same issues as Britain, and one of the nurses erupts in total rage with her comments intended for the Belgian government: “Where are the masks and equipments they promised? How can we work in these conditions? Why are the aprons now so thin?” Yep, sounds familiar.

We witness a nurse speaking to the family of a very sick patient who has spent most of her treatment lying face down – hence the marks on her face – the situation looks optimistic, but it’s still early days.  Another nurse shares a grim experience of having to deal with the body bag of a patient who died alone without their family – or anyone – for comfort.

Belgium is rather like Britain where hospitals are staffed by multicultural nurses and doctors who nevertheless all get on like a house on fire. And the atmosphere is for the most part cheerful if soberly so. The main commentator here is a ‘bubbly’ Moroccan nurse Meryem –  who describes how she copes with having a growing family to look after, and the need to spend a few days with them now and again to keep everyone happy. There is also a pleasant consultant called Fabio who comments encouragingly. “Most of the patients eventually pull though” Those we do see (although faces are hidden) are white, middle-aged men.. But there is also an in-depth chat with a plump, white nurse who describes her symptoms as a dry cough, loss of smell, and she undergoes a really painful nasal swab.

Fabio does allow the family of a dying patient to visit in the final hours of life. And this is particularly difficult to watch as Fabio organises another visit for a man who will certainly die that night. He has been in the hospital for a month and the shock of his deterioration is clearly hard to accept for his nearest and dearest. Belgium is one of the few countries that have allowed these humane visits.

Filmed on the widescreen as the camera hovers over the hospital and impersonal close-ups on the ward and in the morgue, I Am Not a Hero is always respectfully – the focus is a random hand or the fleeting glance of a wheelchair going into an ambulance ensures discretion. As we leave Fabio and his team, the worst of the crisis is over with a jubilant patient leaving the ward and later arriving home, a little shaky but walking on air.

Maryam feels she has enforced her commitment to her profession and is looking forward to going back to ‘normal’. Sadly that ‘normal’ time is still to come as we face the Winter with our unwelcome visitor from China. MT

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

 

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ****

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with Marion Stokes; USA 2019, 87 min.

Director Matt Wolf (Teenage) has created a immersive portrait of Marion Stokes (1929-2012): socialist organiser, civil rights activist, librarian, TV presenter and archivist. Of  her many achievements is a collection of recorded American TV News programmes, spanning the years from 1977 to her death. This valuable reference is an achievement that will keep her name alive as long as TV history is being made.

Stokes’ personal history is as uncommon as her prodigious output: she was given up by her mother for adoption and later traced her birthmother to learn that now had brought up a family after Marion had left. A child of the big Depression, the memory of poverty never left her: her first husband testifies to her membershop of the USA Socialist Party, which he calls “a very unattractive organisation”. This, and the fact that she was a civil rights campaigner, cost her the librarian job. Nevertheless, Stokes was anything but a victim or martyr, with her future husband John Stokes (from a family of ‘Old Money’ in Philadelphia), she hosted a local TV programme researching, among other topics, the way news shows were produced.

Her relationship with her own son Michael Metelits (from her first marriage) was frosty, as were her feelings for John Stokes’s own kids from his first marital relationship. For many years she couldn’t forgive Michael for lacking her intellectual rigour. One of John’s daughters relates how she had to sneak up secretly to talk to her father who later begged her not to mention their meeting.

Marion and John led a more and more secluded life, helped by a chauffeur, an assistant and a nurse, who all spoke highly of Marion. The couples’ huge flat in a luxury apartment block on Ritterhouse Square, a prime location, was soon too small to house the 40,000 books even more tapes the couple collected – they rented multiple flats to cope with the overflow. Strangely enough, Marion was a great fan of Steve Jobs, talking about him like he where her own son. She also bought Apple shares when they were valued at only USD 7.00, and collected all 192 Apple computers from the very beginning of ‘The Classic’.

Long before Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump coined the term ‘Fake News’, Marion had already cottoned on to the questionable coverage of the Iraq/Iran wars. But it was not only the main stories that fascinated Wolf: “Ultimately it was things we were not looking for, that were most interesting”. Such as a 1998 story, of 84-year old Rose Martin, who was buried in her white Cevrolet Corvair. 

It took over fifty volunteers to catalogue the 70 000 EP (extended play) tapes with Marion’s comments on the spine giving a clue for the Google spreadsheets. This is a stunning documentary. Keiko Deguchi has done a superb editing job, and Chris Dapkins and Matt Mitchell’s talking head images are one of the better ones. Marion Stokes died on the day the school massacre of Sandy Hooks (Connecticut) unfolded on TV – luckily, accordingly to her son, she died before the news showed the grim images. AS

NOW ON RELEASE.

    

 

Leap of Faith (2019) ****

Dir: Alexandre O Philippe | Doc, 105

Leap of Faith, a lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on The Exorcist, explores the uncharted depths of William Friedkin’s mind’s eye, the nuances of his filmmaking process, and the mysteries of faith and fate that have shaped his life and filmography. The film unpacks Friedkin’s filmmaking process focusing here exclusively on The Exorcist, a mystery of faith inspired – according to Friedkin – by Dreyer’s 1955 drama Ordet

Already well known for his documentaries 78/52 and Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe jumped at this opportunity of a cosy fireside chat with the iconic director who describes himself of instinctive “one-take kind of guy” who has always relied on his gut reaction and spontaneity to make a film. Spontaneity interests him more than perfection. And this was particularly the case when it came to creating The Exorcist which he calls a ‘chamber piece’ rather than a horror movie.

Friedkin grew up with his parents in a one room apartment in Chicago where he was taken by his mother to see Clifford Odet’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944). A lowly postboy, he wanted to discover more about cinema. But the film that propelled him into a career in film was Welles’ Citizen Kane.

By the early 1970s he had already become a successful director when he happened to  read William Peter Blatty’s paperback The Exorcist. Friedkin describes wanting to make the book into a movie against all odds – it seems the whole film popped into his mind fully formed from the novel but Blatty’s script was a fractured narrative with flashbacks. The singleminded Friedkin describes how he had what Fritz Lang once called “sleepwalkers security” about the script. He knew he wanted to tell a straight ahead realist story, just like the book.

The introduction is the underpinning to the whole piece and takes place in ancient Niniver, Iraq. At some point in the town’s early history the citizens had all been beheaded along with the statues and this tragic event sets the tone for the story, the director following his instincts throughout the shoot. Another crucial factor in deciding Regan’s behaviour was an incident during his Chicago, childhood when a local girl was decapitated, her body cut up and thrown into the garden. An ancient medal found in the sands becomes the McGuffin, a significant device providing the motivation for what happens next.

Music had an overriding influence for Friedkin in the The Exorcist. But he wanted to avoid a score that drove the plot forward, and chose instead to soundscape that slowly builds into a powerful force. An overriding sense of dread that stays throughout, starting with a the lowkey opening in Iraq and ending in a quiet crescendo. Father Merrin’s premonition had to be an instinctual moment that the audience has to sense. The supernatural in our midst. An ordinary girl slowly becomes a demon. This “Expectancy set” describes how the audience comes to the cinema wanting to be scared from the outset.  Bernard Herrmann was top of the list score-wise but was quite rude about the film. “If you know St Giles Cripplegate’s organ that would be a great inspiration” said Herrmann, who by now was living in London. But what the film needed was music that “felt like a cold hand on the back of your neck” – he found it with a score made up by composer Lalo Schiffer. But that didn’t work either and drowned the subtleness of the early scenes. The score was left untouched, and they haven’t spoken since. Friedkin wanted more of a Brahms lullaby. Then Mike Oldfield then came along.

Friedkin’s use of subliminal cuts and sounds makes the movie into an experimental sound museum. Old colleague Ken Nordine was called on to create Regan’s demon voice – it needed to be a male/female voice of the kind that Mercedes McCambridge had used in the Western (Johnny Guitar/1954). She used a concoction of heavily booze, eggs and cigarettes to produce an un-God-like sound which brought about the required timbre.

Casting was another complex matter that took some time to get right. Max Von Sidow had a problem getting the intensity to play Father Merrin because he didn’t believe in God, although he had played a convincing Jesus in George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  In the end he played Merrin as an ordinary man because his acting skill came from understatement rather than histrionic emotion. Blatty, who has studied for the priesthood and then dropped out, was desperate to play Father Karras but then Jason Miller stepped forward and he just embodied the priest, although he was a non-pro. Stacey Keach had been signed to the role but was immediately dropped, his contract settled in full. The Reverend William O’Malley was another non-pro perfect for the role as Father Dyer because he understood the territory. Friedkin often shot a gun in the air to achieve the right facial expression from his actors – John Ford and George Stevens also regularly used these techniques. Although he claims this kind of ploy was never needed with a great actor. Lee J Cobb, who played Lt Kinderman, was one.

Friedkin talks a great about ‘rosebud moments’ and ‘grace-notes’ during this engaging documentary which draws on his wide taste in culture and art. Regan’s makeup was inspired by the Belgian surrealist Ensor’s paintings of masks. Magritte is also an influence, the artist’s Empire of Light giving the film its iconic image.Moments of truth such as in Cartier Bressons’ photos and Caravaggio’s tortured figures were also an inspiration. Friedkin’s way of lighting the sides of his character’s faces was taken from Vermeer and Rembrandt. Particularly Vermeer’s View of Delft in 17th century. He describes the scene with the white-robed nuns walking by as one the grace notes in this otherwise grim film. Grace notes are the lovely things you remember forever, and are more significent than the larger events.

Just like Kubrick’s Obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey, so the silver medal appears to various characters in the film including Father Karras and Father Merrin, along with a constant subliminal theme of ascension throughout the film. Karras is a figure with an inner torment of his own: taunted by guilt about his mother and his fears for the loss of his own faith, he is the tragic hero of the piece. The Father gives up his life for the life of the young girl. He jumps out of the window taking the demon with him, having invited it into his own body, even though suicide is against the Catholic Church (an idea that departs from the book), and remains an ambiguity in the film. Blatty insists that the devil comes out of his body again before Karras leaps out of the window. He then confesses to Father Dyer at the end but Friedkin is still unhappy about this dilemma, considering it the only flaw in the film.

It seems neither Blatty not the director are convinced about the ending. “Life is so ambiguous and that’s why my films are” he claims. This informative documentary ends with Friedkin reminiscing on life and his visit to the Zen garden in Kyoto where he found peace and a series of rocks surrounded by raked gravel. “The rocks represent continents that will never come together. We are in this World alone, completely separate from each other. Driven to tears he sites this as one his grace notes. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 29 August – 7 September 2019

When the Earth Seems to be Light (2015) **** Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Dir.: David Meskhi, Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze; Documentary, Georgia 2015, 76 min.

A clash of cultures is the subject of this evocative Georgian film screening at Lisbon’s annual documentary festival DocLisboa. It seems nothing has  changed five years down the line. In fact most people say tribal warfare is on the increase – particularly in our capital cities –  as Covid19 continues to weaken the fabric of society, polarising black and white, left and right, even old and young. When The Earth Seems to be Light looks at how tough it is to be liberal-minded in Tbilisi today.

Prominent Georgian artist and filmmaker David Meshki has got together with a bunch of other creative types and his fellow directors Tamuna Karumidze and Salome Machaidze to explore the ways they all feel pushed to the margins of a society where there is apparently no middle ground between the glory days of communism, or the dog-eat-dog version of modern capitalism.

There are some extremely disturbing images, among them Orthodox priests leading a violent demonstration against the LGBT community. “Our tattoos are our dairies” says another “beatnik”. “You tattoo what you feel, what’s important for you at the moment”. They are existential in their approach, and would have more at home in the St. Germain of the 1950s. Yes, sometimes Molotov cocktails are thrown, but concrete is usually the target. Its all very volatile, with fireworks and computer noise exploding at the same time. The questions are the usual ones, about God, freedom and the meaning of it all. But the experience is deeply personal: some feel bullied because of their hair styles, apparently Georgians cannot except people who look different. The majority still hankers after a life under Soviet rule when outsiders were officially persecuted by the state. Ironic to see older people demonstrating, fighting the young ones. Somehow there is a huge capacity for mass violence – Stalin and Beria are not yet dead here in Tbilisi.

Earth has a unity of of aesthetics and contents. There is an eerie and airy quality to the images, and a no-nonsense approach to the questioning. Somehow it seems to be a clash between the Middle-Ages and a hoped for utopia: Georgia emerges a nation looking backwards with intolerance, the outsiders celebrate a life of hope and despair in equal parts. A well-paced and fine collective work that resonates even more so today. AS

DOCLISBOA | GEORGIAN RETROSPECTIVE 2020

 

   

Hoop Dreams (1994) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Steve James; Documentary with Arthur Agee, William Gates; USA 1994, 172′.

A sporting dream based on basketball spawned this multi-award winning documentary about two becoming NBA stars.

Hoop Dreams started life as a thirty-minute documentary short for first time director Steve James. But after nearly five years of shooting and two years of editing 250 minutes the running time grew into nearly three-hours.

Arthur Agee and William Gates were fourteen year old Afro-Americans living in different housing projects in the West Garfield neighbourhood in Chicago. Their flair for the basketball that saw them beating their elders and competitors captured the attention of a scout who ‘encouraged’ them to enrol at St. Joseph’s, a middle-class (and therefore nearly completely white school) in a leafy suburb.

The star pupil there was Isiah Thomas an NBA legend. It took the two boys three hours a day for the roundtrip (something quite normal in the US unlike here). But it turned out Arthur was not as promising as they had hoped, so the school literally throw him out in the middle of the academic year, his now estranged parents being unable to pay their part of the school fees, so Arthur had to join his local community school.

William, on the other hand, found a wealthy sponsor in Mrs. Wier, who helped with his family’s finances. No such luck for Arthur, whose parents Arthur sen. (‘Bo’) and Sheila had split up, his father spending seven months in prison, selling drugs on the open-air playground where Arthur often played with his friends. When Sheila lost her job as nursing assistant, electricity and gas in the home was turned off. So the filmmakers decided to help out.

Gene Pingatore, the team’s basketball coach at St. Joseph’s, turned out to be a bully and particularly so towards William who suffered two serious knee injuries, nearly ending his career. Curtis Gates, Williams’ older brother, had been an outstanding player himself, but was called “un-coachable”. He would be shot dead just after the turn of the century. Bo, Arthur’s father, also was murdered in 2004.

Not surprisingly, Sheila was thankful that Arthur was still alive and able to celebrate his 18th birthday. For William, St. Joseph more than supportive: they ‘massaged’ his academic grades so he could attend Marquette University. Arthur too reached university level at Arkansas State, after a detour via the Mineral Area College. Neither men would play in the NBA, though William came nearest in 2001. After training with Michael Jordan, he missed his trial with Washington Wizards because of a foot injury. He is now a Pastor and Youth Team coach in Texas, Arthur does community work in Chicago, funding himself with the USD 200,000 bursary the producers gave each of their subjects after the surprise success of the documentary.

Watching Hoop Dreams, you can understand the Americans’ fixation for ball games of all sorts. Spectators become hysterical in their thousands, and on a scale that far surpasses anything we’ve come to appreciate in Britain. Hoop Dreams could be called the first reality doc: not a second has been wasted on Hollywood structures – a reason, the feature was boycotted by the Oscar jury for Documentaries. The three filmmakers capture the essence of the American Dream: sport and music as an escape from the poverty trap. Sadly, drugs and poverty are now the only release for the huge majority who fail to reach the promised land. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

Dedube The Last Stop (2017) **** Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Dir.: Shorena Tevzadze; Documentary, Georgia 2917, 100 min.

An old couple losing their little shop to a world they don’t understand anymore is the focus of this documentary debut from Georgia’s Shorena Tevzadze.

Dedube was once the last stop on the Tbilisi underground, giving life to a thriving market suburb that opened in 1966. Today the train hardly stops, relegating Dedube to a backwater. Nico and his wife Tsitso pour all their enthusiasm into a store euphemistically called the ‘Veterinary Pharmacy’. Unable to move with the times – they basically sell next to nothing as the stock is now out of fashion: bits and bobs that used to be sought after are pretty much relics from the Soviet era. Tsitso tries to make a bit on the side offering blood pressure tests, and then selling remedies against hypertension, even when the readings are normal. But a customer asking for poison to kill his dog is sent away with a flea in his own ear: “I am a doctor, not an executioner”. Taking life easy is what he’s always done in Dedube’s fast lane: “A simple bite to eat, then a rest to escape this hectic environment”. Nearby a small TV blasts everything from sports to politics non-stop.

Nodar, a local singer, riffs on the dwindling decline with plaintive ballads on his classical guitar. Hoping against hope that things will one day get back to normal “Everything changes, but not Nico”. The shop next to the ‘pharmacy’ has installed an ATM, but this latest ‘mod con’ makes no odds as hardly anyone uses it. Lili, a street vendor, pops in several times a day to moan about the lack of business. Finally, Nico (“I don’t care about the next life”) has to acknowledge defeat and dismantle the place – nobody wants to take anything, not even for free. He puts the shop up for rent and leaves his former ‘paradise’ with the streets flooded and the ATM still unused.

The strength of this documentary lies in the quiet observation of everyday trivia: every last object has a story and a quaint fascination for Nico and Tsitso, they resemble children they never had. Nico hoped patience would help him to survive, but contact with the outside world faded day by day. Tevzadze’s snapshot of a changed world and the loss of identity is pitifully tragic, verging on magic realism. Thoughtfully captured and full of sad humour this intricate portrait of a fading world is a paean of immense quality and a tribute to the lost store holders of Dedube. AS

DOCLISBOA | GEORGIAN RETROSPECTIVE 2020

 

  

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance (2020) *** Raindance Festival 2020

Dir: Khadifa Wong

Khadifa Wong’s life experience as a dancer informs her lively if over-talkie debut feature about the origins of jazz dance.

Celebrating its international premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, the film traces the roots of this expressive and iconically American dance form from its early history in the 19th century and through to the current day. And it all start during slavery – wouldn’t you know? Back then it was a vital form of protest, not just a way of expressing enjoyment. Well that certainly makes it a topical film with the current Black Lives Matter month in full swing.

Wong’s ground-breaking documentary also offers a political and social chronicle of the times, alighting on more weighty issues of racism, socialism and sexism while offering up a passionate and thought-provoking musical biopic.

The dancer and director has delved into the archives enlivening her film with cuttings and news footage. Over fifty experts offer up their valuable insight from choreographers to teachers and dancers themselves so it does occasionally feel overwhelming to have so much knowledge and opinion in the space of less than two hours. But the movement and dance elements are what really makes this a winner and Matt Simpkins’ camerawork captures the essence of bodies gyrating to great affect.

Curiously enough it was white men in the shape of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole who really emerged as the forerunners of the form. And one of the most engaging talking heads, dramaturg and choreographer Melanie George shares her thoughts about why these luminaries were so influential while Black innovators were often lesser known. And she discovers that their ability to codify  the various forms of jazz dance with Hollywood and Broadway that gave it a different profile that took it above and beyond its roots and origins. The lesser-known artists also have their say, Frank Hatchett, Pepsi Bethel and Fred Benjamin Wong amongst them – although none is particularly famous to mainstream audiences.

Wong cleverly makes the point that jazz dance was actually a pared down version of the tribal form of communication for many Africans, and particularly slaves, enabling them to express themselves with their bodies in highly syncopated, exaggerated and meaningful ways – almost like silent film – relying on strong facial and body language – to make their feelings known. The Pattin’ Juba and Cakewalk were both dances that originated in the plantations of the Deep South where enslavement relied heavily on this kind of vital communication for protest, or even survival.

Eventually jazz became more sophisticated and sinuous moving through the bebop and hard bop years and we start to recognise names such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. There is also some impressive clips that show James Brown and Little Richard and really convey the seriousness of their political message – they were not just merely there to entertain.

A documentary about dance expression should always focus primarily on the dancing, and this is the only slight criticism that one can level at Uprooted. Wong has done so much research for her deep dive into the subject seems to focus on talking and commentary over movement and music. When we see Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele doing their stuff the film comes alive — so their stories of segregation and racial alienation seem all the more poignant. There is a fascinating piece about Patrick Swayze’s mother Patsy, being the only white dance teacher in Texas to allow Black children into her school. If there’s one talent those entertainers have it’s the ability to move their bodies in magnetic and beguiling ways. And Black dancers have it in spades. MT

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 28 OCTOBER – 7 NOVEMBER 2020

Being a Human Person (2020) ****

Dir: Fred Scott | Doc with Roy Andersson and his team, 90′

The Swedish auteur Roy Andersson (1943-) looks back on his life and his filmmaking style in this enjoyable first feature from TV/commercials director Fred Scott.

Made during the run-up to About Endlessness that won Best Director at Venice in 2019 Being a Human Person is Roy Andersson in a nutshell and perfectly describes a filmmaker whose deadpan tragic-comedies give dignity to people who have not been that successful in life: boring husbands, bland businessmen, the socially challenged or deeply unattractive. In other words, these people could be any of us or just those who have lost their way or become bored of their humdrum existence: the dentist tired of his squeamish patients, the clergyman who has lost their faith in God ( the priest in About Endlessness). Andersson sees himself in everyone of his characters – by his own admission – vulnerability and insecurity are the themes of his films, and constantly spill over into his creative process as he as he feels his way intuitively through what is possibly his last project with long-standing collaborators who have grown accustomed to absorbing the daily stresses and strains of the project. His is not an intellectual style but resolutely intuitive, and that means changes are inevitable. A scene that feels fresh and punchy on shooting may lose its clout in the rushes later that day. 

Looking like an affable twinkly-eyed Steve McQueen in archive footage shot after his breakout first feature A Swedish Love Story won awards at Berlinale 1970, he claims to have been “disgusted” by the film’s success. Now 76, Andersson has lost none of his gently genial charisma as he moves gingerly round the spacious central Stockholm townhouse acquired in 1981. “Studio 24” remains the headquarters of his daily filmmaking activities. Watching the world go by is a favourite pastime, as is eating in the Italian pizza restaurant opposite which is now home to his proudly-won Venice Silver Lion. 

But who is the man behind the enigmatic smile? Something tells us all is not well in Andersson’s world. His staff are not the only ones who have noticed a lack of energy and his increasing reliance on alcohol (“to avoid boredom” opines the director). Andersson freely admits to his penchant for a few drinks. It makes him more calm and docile to work with according to his staff. But do we detect a twinge of existential angst? A dose of rehab is on Andersson’s mind, but he gives up shortly after treatment has started, coming back energised with the realisation that About Endlessness will be probably be his final feature – and he wants it to his best. 

Making films is emotionally and physically exhausting. But he fears losing his daily raison d’être. His daughter Sandra appears to give a much-needed nutritious lunch (it’s worked already! laughs Anderson as he knocks back a bright green smoothie). She describes a love-filled childhood in a rented flat seaside flat in Gothenburg, while friends lived nearby in grand houses: “He found it stimulating to be the underdog”. She reflects. Meanwhile, family photos show an extremely affectionate father doting on his kids, and although it emerges his own father suffered longterm depression, no mention is made of Andersson’s own romantic life. “There’s enough material there for another film” says director Fred Scott. 

Being a Human Person is a masterclass in the Andersson way of filmmaking. Every feature consists of a string of tableaux, each one taking around a month to build, painstakingly by hand. The actors then perform a series of scenes shot by a static camera. Andersson describes them as short ‘film poems’ about life for ordinary people in scenarios that often give rise to iconic deadpan humour. The ‘greige’ aesthetics in immaculately rendered claustrophobic, airless settings feature ashen-faced characters glum, resigned or on the verge of tears. 

As an artist he continues to be appalled and dismayed by his fellow humans’ wrongdoing to humanity itself. This preoccupation is the focus of his “Living Trilogy” with its universal themes of compassion and connection, composed of Songs from the Second Floor (2000); You, The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) . His short film World of Glory (1991) speaks of the unmitigated misery of ordinary life, but his most controversial work Something Happened (1993) was later withdrawn. 

Fred Scott offers up an affectionate and illuminating tribute to Roy Andersson that will hopefully encourage those bemused by his films to revisit them with greater insight. His collaborators are clearly fond of him despite his clever way of maintaining artistic control. And although Andersson emerges a man who feels deeply for humanity, Scott never really gets under his skin, his subject is clearly keen to keep his secrets intact:“You are a prisoner of your own mentality and that can be very hard sometimes” is all Roy Andersson will reveal. MT

IN CURZON | CINEMAS FROM 16 OCTOBER 2020

Totally Under Control (2020) ****

Dir.: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger; Documentary with Rick Bright, Robert R. Redfield, Eva Lee, Alex Azar, Nancy Messonier; USA 2020, 124 min.

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger got together with a bunch of scientists and US government politicians to try to work out how the Covid19 pandemic wreaked so much havoc in the US, with over 8 million infections, at the time of writing.

Back in January before the world was engulfed by the virus US President Trump was heard to say “Its just one person coming in from China”. By the end of that month Alex Azar, Secretary of State for Health and Human services claimed: “the national testing programme is up and running”. But it was not.

Trump refused to believe the scientists and called the CDC (Centres for Disease and Prevention) a “Deep State” site attempt to undermine his re-election chances. Its director, Robert Redfield had a history during the Aids crisis, calling for abstention and a strictly religious approach to the pandemic. Eva Lee director of the Centre for Operations Research in Medicine and Health Care at the Georgia Institute of Technology, developed a programme called Real-Opt using algorithms to predict the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile in South Korea testing was already well under way resulting in only 300 casualties from the pandemic. Asian countries were accustomed to using masks, and non compliance meant heavy fines. The American approach saw the refusal to wear a mask as a patriotic duty. The death rate soared, the USA representing 20% of global victims on this planet, in a total citizenship of just 4.23 %. 

The Trump administration had meanwhile got rid of the Pandemic Crisis Group set up by Obama. Returning from India at the end of February, Trump insisted the US was in a prime position. At  Stadium packed with 100 000 he wooed the crowd with open arms, and went on calling the pandemic a hoax:”only fourteen cases were known”. Nevertheless, a special Covid unit under the leadership of Vice-President Pence (who had encouraged cruises and visits to Disneyland) was formed. It consisted of Dr. Deborah Birx, a scientist and diplomat. She has stayed the course within the Trump circle, making compromises all the time, whilst Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, has clashed with Trump on more than one occasion. 

Trump insisted that tests would provided for all US citizens but the reality was very different: it was not just the Test Programme, which was handicapped by the lack of available testing material, PPE equipment and respirators were also short in supply, with fierce competition between the various states to secure specialised equipment after the government had sold millions of masks to China at the beginning of the pandemic. Countless health workers and first responders paid with their lives.

Trump fought hard to avoid a lockdown, but pressed too early for a re-opening: “We are not a country which was built for a lockdown, we do not let the cure be worse than the problem”. Trump replaced civil servants with business men, and fired no fewer than five Inspector-Generals. The president also indulged in “miracle cures” like hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medicine which was promoted by the Rasputin-like figure of Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. After Trump had taken the drug (“A gift from God”), Dr. Birx was asked by reporters to verify this – her answer was “its frustrating, it will rain for three days”. Whistle-blowers like Dr. Nancy Messonier of the CDC, and Max Kennedy (grandson of Robert) helped uncover government secrets such as the too early release of a vaccine in time for the election on November 3rd.  

Shot by DoP Ben Bloodwell (and many others) with protective covering between Talking Heads and camera, Totally under Control has nothing particularly new to bring to the party, but chronicles a disaster that cost many their lives. The end is poignant and full of poetic justice: a day after the feature was finished, President Trump caught the virus, but lived to tell the tale. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 23 OCTOBER 2020 

   

  

        

 

 

The Painter and The Thief (2020) ****

Dir: Benjamin Ree; Documentary with Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene; Norway 2020, 102 min.

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree follows his Sundance award-winning portrait of chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a documentary of a very different kind showing how bitter conflict can be resolved through art.

It all starts in 2015, when small time criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland and an unnamed accomplice stole two large paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo gallery. They were caught on CCTV, escaping with the rolled up canvases. Nordland was arrested and charged for the theft of ‘Swansong’ and ‘Chloe & Emma’, worth about 20,000 Euro. Particularly striking was the way the thieves took their time – removing a hundred or so nails to liberate the artworks – a task which would take over an hour. In court, Kysilkova asked Nordland why he stole her paintings, to which he answered simply “because they are beautiful”. He claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of a four-day heroin trance. Kysilkova, a striking woman in her mid-thirties, asked to paint Nordland in ‘retribution’ for his crime.

This was the beginning of a close relationship of ‘Seelenverwandschaft’, a form of congenial understanding of two seemingly very different people. We learn about Nordland’s fight against drug dependency as a result of his mother leaving with his two siblings, leaving him to contend with an emotionally cold father. Becoming a respected carpenter he then feel prey to drugs abuse and prison. His upper body is heavily tattooed, with an inscription reading “Snitchers are a dying Breed”. When Nordland saw his portrait he cried like a baby, so overwhelmed that somebody saw him worthy of a portrait. “I do not deserve to be happy”. Barbora also painted him with his girlfriend, who left him after he bought heroin on the way to Rehab.

Nordland and Barbora are polar opposites yet their relationship develops against the odds, clearly brought to each other by some sort of soul connection through which they also learn a great deal about themselves – including their respective inherent attraction to dangerous habits. They are like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by the adult world to fight for themselves in a threatening environment. The dark wood is a good symbol for a world both don’t fully understand.

Sentenced to one year in Halden prison, Nordland distance from Barbora’s feels somehow therapeutic for them both. But the re-discovery of one of her paintings ‘Swansong’, (hidden by Nordland’s partner in crime in an underground labyrinth) fills her with ecstatic happiness.

Rees and fellow DoP Kristoffer Kumar produces images of ethereal beauty, particularly in the shots showing Barbora painting in a trance-like state. What started as a ten-minute short film develops into a profound exploration of two survivors, who accidentally find a way to each other. AS

In cinemas 30 October 2020 | Winner – Sundance 2020 – Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling

 

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Gero von Boehm | DoP: Sven Jakob-Engelmann | 89′

Gero von Boehm dives deep into the life and work of maverick German fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) for a second look.

Back in the 1980s I was a great admirer of Newton’s cutting edge gaze at the female – and male – form. After a photographer boyfriend told me “you look like a Helmut Newton model” I was determined to track down this controversial man and learn more about him. Then I remember standing on the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin and watching glamorous leather-clad ladies of the night pass by all stern and supercilious with their whips and red lips. Clearly these proud professional were Newton’s disciples. And this warm tribute celebrates the subversive side of the genial provocateur who was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Berlin during the edgy Weimarer years.

Enlivened by fascinating insights from Newton himself along with his Australian wife June and numerous collaborators Gero von Boehm’s Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful discovers a man who loved women and gave them the confidence to show their bodies off in a way that was empowering, seductive and even darkly humorous – even dangerous. By the end you may have a different view of his innovative approach, considered by some to be exploitative. Look again.

Once of Newton’s challengers was feminist writer Susan Sontag, who is seen sparring with him on a French chat show calling him out on his penchant for shooting naked women (mostly in high heels) in objectified scenarios, but the disdainful expressions or steely glint in these women’s eyes tells a different story, and despite their nakedness they are proud potent Amazonians who glare out at the viewer,  and this is his talent to amuse. It was also one that earned him a great deal of money enabling him to winter in California’s luxury Chateau Marmont for over 40 years until his tragic death in January 2004.

Ironically his famous models heap him with praise. Isabella Rossellini – who considers herself a feminist – waxes lyrical about her friend recalling a famous portrait he made of her with her then-partner David Lynch. his approach seems to expose latent truths in the female (and male) psyche, after all we are all animals who love to dominate or occasionally be overpowered in the right circumstances.  And this is the essence of the sizzling sexual chemistry behind his photos. Another glowing account comes from Charlotte Rampling, who has more than a twinkle in her eye looking back on the smouldering naked portrait that helped launch her career around the time of The Night Porter.

Von Boehm then delves into Newton’s past: he was 13 when Hitler came to power, a time when Leni Riefenstahl’s athletic images of women in rigorous exercise formations were everywhere to be seen. In Australia he met his wife to be and major collaborator, June, who went on to be his art director, while honing her own craft behind the camera. It was a successful love and business partnership akin to that of Charles and Ray Eames.

Coming across as affable and also vulnerable, Newton plays up his ‘naughty boy’ image in front of the camera and seems like the sort of guy who would be charming and easygoing company. But Boehm keeps a distance from his subject in an enjoyable foray that never attempts to eulogise or condemn. Clearly Newton had a well-developed erotic imagination but his love and devotion to his wife is a clear indication that, at heart, he was a decent if decadent man. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 23 OCTOBER

 

 

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

The sheer exhilaration of live music is one of life’s pleasures. And Oliver Murray conjurs up the vibrant spirit of Jazz in this documentary tribute to a man who was always “gracious, inviting and free to share his ideas with everybody” in the words of American record producer Quincy Jones. This is the story of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Soho’s storied jazz club in London.

Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was an English jazz tenor saxophonist who played alongside some of the most famous figures in the world of Jazz in a small basement location in London’s Frith Street in the heart of Soho.

Once described as a “very nice bunch of guys”, Ronnie was all things to all people, everyone describing a different side of his charismatic personality. And Murray saves the darker side for the final chapter of this layered biopic. Scott grew up in a working class Jewish family in the East End of London where he trained on the saxophone just like his father before him, founding his iconic jazz club in 1959 and unintentionally creating a den of cool and a meeting place for luminaries of the jazz world and their aficionados.

Still going after 60 years, Ronnie Scotts is now a household name, inextricably linked to the word Jazz, the current manager (and talking head) Simon Cooke has been keeping the place going for the past 25 years. Owned by theatre impresario Sally Greene and the entrepreneur Michael Watt since 2005

Fascinating archive footage forms the background to a later interview with Ronnie – taking us through the history of his East and West End childhood and early adulthood in the 1940s where he became a dance-band saxophonist (like his father) and then falling in love with Bebop and learning his Jazz style on board oceans liners bound for New York. Here he discovered Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and eventually, sailing back to London, he dreamed up the idea of his own jazz club – he would be the star-power – starting the evening in compare mode with a series of dry jokes – his fellow musician Pete King was the business brain. The idea came together with the aspiration to provide keen musicians with the first ever place to perform in Gerrard Street (just round the corner), although Americans were forbidden by the Musician’s Union to play in English venues. This made the financing complicated because only the Americans bought in the money. This led to a long-standing feud with the UK musician’s union.

Five bob (UK shillings) was the charge for the Saturday ‘all-nighter” and there was generous hospitality shown to regulars and those who worked there. Later the club moved to bigger premises at 47 Frith Street and welcomed the likes of Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan, and even Van Morrison all of whom perform in the clips that Murray interweaves into this lively biopic.

Scott was the frontman while macho straight-talker King took care of the business. Their close relationship was likened to a marriage, by King’s wife Stella, who describes Ronnie as a complicated man who, unknown to friends and fellow musicians, suffered from low moods that he shook off by playing his music. And bankruptcy was often round the corner, Ronnie recalling the bailiffs being on site one time even pricing up the piano while the show went on. Ronnie often gambled away the takings but he was also the life and soul of a place fondly remembered here by those who enjoyed it over the years amongst them Mel Brooks, music journalist John Fordham, Ronnie’s daughter Rebecca, and his various wives and partners Mary Scott, Francoise Venet, and others who help flesh out the complicated artist he was.

But the unique feel of the place and Ronnie’s soulful charisma dominant this jubilant often deeply poignant biopic about a man with a vision, and a club that still attracts crowds as never before and will hopefully carry on. MT

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

Frida Kahlo (2021) DVD and Digital



Dir.: Ali Ray; Documentary narrated by Anna Chancellor; UK 2020, 90 min. 

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) had more than her fair share of set-backs in a short life marked by tragedy: after suffering from polio as a child, her heart was set on becoming a doctor. Eventually a life-changing accident in Mexico City proved the making of her as Mexico’s most well-known figurative artist.

Helmed by Ali Ray, Frida Kahlo takes a deep dive into the cultural history of Mexico in an engaging and informative study that starts in turn of the 20th Century Mexico City where Kahlo was born into a professional family of Germany heritage. Inspired by Renaissance art and European Avant-garde Kahlo channelled her pain (caused by a road accident) into portraits of family and friends, painted from her bed, with a special easel suspended from above.

The straightforward narrative chronicles a life marked by Kahlo’s dedication to finding an artistic outlet to her feelings as a semi-invalid in need of constant surgical intervention to manage her afflictions. Her paintings explore post-colonial gender, class and culture at a time where her country was experiencing seismic shifts in its transformation away from Hispanic influences and back to Mexico’s native roots in magic realism and folklore. She was the first painter to depict a miscarriage (her own), and, as a devout Catholic, she even painted herself as the baby Jesus cradled in the arms of Mary.

Kahlo’s relationship with wealthy, political activist and painter Diego Rivera marked a significant turning point in her life in1928. Both were members of the Communist party and they married a year later – Rivera was 20 years older – to form a union that would be influential but turbulent for the rest of her life. Crucially it also meant that Kahlo was able to afford the hospital treatment that would keep her going. Despite his obesity Rivera was a flagrant womaniser – even sleeping with Frida’s younger sister and close confident. “I had two accidents in my life, the tram and Diego. He was by far the worst”. She reflected later in life.

Kahlo may have been avant-garde in her outlook, but styled herself as a traditional Tijuana woman and painted in the naif style of the ‘Mexicanidad’, a romantic nationalism which adopted motifs from the pre-colonial era. In the early 1930s the couple moved to San Francisco where Rivera – as part of the Muralista movement – took on an assignment to paint the walls of an industrial plant with historical murals, a mammoth undertaking that would later see the couple move to Detroit and New York. But while Rivera worked, Frida tried to have a family. Her 1932 work “Henry Ford Hospital” was considered the first painting to feature a miscarriage, an attempt by the 25 year-old Frida to process the shock. She continued to paint expressing her inner trauma using symbolism and iconography which bordered on the surreal. Andre Breton being entranced by her style, even though Kahlo herself never used any categorisation for her work.

Frida yearned for Mexico and their eventual return saw the couple housed in separate dwellings, connected by a bridge where they could visit each other at will. It was at this time that Rivera took up with Kahlo’s younger sister, and the disappointed Frida turned to expressing herself through religious tableaux painted on copper and zinc – but not in the traditional form of an icon: one painting: “My Nurse and I” (1937) depicts her as the baby Jesus, and Maria as a Mexican woman. “The Two Fridas” (1939) is a split-personality portrait, whilst “Self-portrait with cropped Hair” (1940) is about her androgynous self, not surprisingly since she had affairs with women as well as men during her chequered sexual career. Her increasing alcohol intake, and Diego’s affairs with high profile lovers, led to a divorce in 1939, but they would remarry a year later.

Kahlo only had two solo exhibitions in her lifetime (the last one in 1953, just before her death). In 1938 her paintings were part of “Magic Realism”, an exhibition in Paris, where Picasso gave her critical acclaim. In Kahlo’s final years her paintings became more and more graphic in their depiction of trauma. “A Few Nips” shows a prostitute being murdered by her pimp, and “The broken Column” (1944) is a self-portrait, her body in a corset, her spine held together by bandages. “Self-Portrait with Thorn Neck Lace and Hummingbird” (1940) shows her with a monkey and a black cat – a semi-religious portrait which again is a role reversal of gender roles. Perhaps her most complete painting is “The Love embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and and Senor Xolotl “(1949), a quasi-religious panorama in which Frida holds the adult Diego like a baby in her arms.

Ray’s filming technique show the paintings at their most vivid and clear, but the academic Talking Heads become too intrusive: Anna Chancellor’s concise narration offering adequate insight, the paintings speaking for themselves. Kahlo’s work and personality elude any academic approach – her life and work defied categorisation as a unique expression of life experience couched in the enigma of an extraordinary woman who succeeded against the odds. AS      

FRIDA KAHLO: RELEASED ON DVD, DOWNLOAD & STREAM ON 22 FEBRUARY

I Am Woman (2020) ****

Dir: Unjoo Moon | Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald | Biopic Drama 116′

There are two iconic feminist anthems that stand out in the memory: one is Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, the other is I Am Woman.

Written and sung by the not quite so famous Seventies singer Helen Reddy, her theme tune nonetheless comes from a place of calm confidence. Is not strident, desperate or defiant but sure of its positive message. Yes, I am a woman but I’m also warm, approachable and secure.
Of course Reddy – played here by a fabulously feline Tilda Cobham-Hervey – was an accomplished artist who made a number of hit records during the late 1960s and 1970s. And Unjoo Moon’s fond but enjoyable rags to riches debut biopic shows how she made it from nowhere to become one of the most popular singers of her generation.
Her story starts in 1966. The mother of a 3 year girl Tracey, she arrives in New York from Sydney hoping for a recording contract from a major music producer who immediately patronises her in a film fraught with the ingrained prejudice of the era: “you really flew over from Australia all by yourself?” He denies her a contract claiming the trend is for male bands  “the Beatles are all the rage”. Trying to make her way, she is later denied equal pay as a nightclub singer on the grounds of her status as an illegal alien. But she is not deterred. And with Emma Jensens’ script painting her as a purring lowkey diva, Cobham-Hervey’s Reddy has to figure out how she can keep her canny charisma and move on from being just another talented female vocalist to an assertive, no-bullshit ballbreaker – just like a man – to get to the top. But the Seventies is the era of the singer-songwriter (with a selection of gracefully performed numbers featuring here, dubbed by Chelsea Cullen) so Helen has come to America at just the right time.
Based on Reddy’s own memoirs The Woman I Am, Moon and Jensen do their best to tether the feature to the current upswell of gender parity issues. But it’s not only fame and success as a female Reddy has to conquer but also several tricky relationships, not least her budding romance with potential agent Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who becomes Helen’s second husband, putting his own life first along with the other high level clients in his portfolio, mostly notable being the rock band Deep Purple. The two form a feisty partnership Jeff spurred on by his wife’s calm determination to pioneer her gently feministic easy listening style. The couple are now living in California where Reddy has bought a poolside mansion with cash.
Meanwhile, the ego-driven Jeff is proving a handful and needs to be managed with an iron fist. Reddy’s other key relationship is with her compatriot Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who is making her way in music journalism and is known for the first rock encyclopedia in 1969. But both these relationships will falter: Jeff turns into a belligerent, megalomaniac coke head running through all the couple’s money, and Lillian dies of an asthma attack.
The film’s focus is very much Reddy’s invidious relationship with Jeff but fails to examine why the singer stuck to easy listening style in a career that was successful (Angie Baby, I don’t know How to Love Him and Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady) but never really had a narrative arc of its own or a progression beyond her female-centric ballads. We do see her attempting to break into the Jazz style she had always been keen on, but this desire is stymied by Jeff and her advisors who control her activities to secure their own profits. And the sheer will and perseverance of making it anyway must have taken up most of her emotional energy, with two children to rear and a mercurial misogynist husband and manager to deal with.
Dubbed “the queen of housewife rock” by Alice Cooper, Reddy is clearly a symbol of female empowerment but more in the style of Phyllis Schlafly than her fellow chanteuses of the era Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon or Carol King. Cleverly the film never comes across as women’s lib story – and in a one certainly doesn’t get the impression Reddy was a ‘bra-burner’, more as a tribute to a woman whose talents as a singer is showcased in Cobham-Hervey’s sinuously stylish performances that make her really appealing to watch and listen in the film. Yet looking back on her music as a teen of that era Reddy was never on the radar as being remotely ‘cool’ or ground-breaking in the style Mitchell and Simon.
Superbly lensed by Oscar winning DoP Dion Beebe, the film’s final scenes therefore come across as an afterthought and tonally out of kilter with what has gone before. That said, this minor flaw does nothing to detract our enjoyment of Cobham-Hervey’s performance that carries the film through with an astonishing tour de force of grace, poise and fervent femininity. MT
IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (2020) ****

Dir.: Halina Dyrschka, Documentary with Iris Müller-Westermann, Julia Voss, Josiah McElheny, Johan af Klint, Ulla af Klint; Germany 2019, 93 min. 

The life of abstract artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) – who purportedly created the first abstract work in 1906 – is the subject of this impressive first feature from German director Halina Dyrschka.

Painted out of art history by male supremacists, it shows how the pioneering Swede was creating colourful visionary works – inspired by her interest in Theosophy – five years before Kandinsky, who is supposed the first in this field – the dubious circumstances of which add a controversial twist to this informative arthouse documentary.

They tens mainstay IV (1907)

When Hilma af Klint died at the age of nearly eighty-two, she left 1200 paintings and 26 000 pages of diary to her nephew Erik, with the clear proviso that nothing should be sold from a body of work that would only be exhibited twenty years after death, because she felt the world was not ready for her groundbreaking ideas. She was dead right – the first major exhibition had to wait until 2013, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm having refused to take her paintings as a gift from the Hilma af Klint Foundation during the 1970s. 

In 1882, at the age of twenty af Klint was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she set about successfully creating traditional portraits and landscapes earning substantial sums. At the Academy she met Anna Cassel, the first of four women who would join her in the collective The Five (De Fem), the others being Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Matilda Nilsson. But there was another more spiritual side to her life and she was actively involved in Theosophy, participating in séances, a normal pastime for middle class Avantgarde intellectuals at the turn of the century.

Theosophy was the only spiritual movement which allowed women to be ordained as priests, teaching the oneness of all human beings. Af Klint’s interest in the theories of fellow Theosophist Madame Blavatsky led her to geometrical paintings where: “the pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”  

In 1908 Af Klint met up with her longterm friend Rudolf Steiner, but her abstract work made little impact on the Swiss anthropologist. He would later show her paintings to a fellow Theosophist Kandinsky who claimed his 1910 “Untitled” to be the first ever abstract work ever produced. Nobody will ever know if af Klint’s paintings had influenced  Kandinsky.

The Ten Largest: Adulthood No 7 (1907)

Steiner’s rejection of her work led to a four-year-long creative block for af Klint, lasting until 1912. Her confidence had been battered, but her work on the Temple series carried on and was prodigious, counting 193 paintings divided into sub-series. One theme gave rise to massive canvasses in a series entitled, ‘The Ten Largest” (1907) describing the various stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age etc).

Clearly af Klint’s work is still an influential creative force over a hundred years after her first foray into the art world. Looking at Warhol’s quartet of Monroe paintings, we find an exact duplicate in af Klints’s oeuvre, showing four identical portraits of an elderly woman. The experts and the film’s Talking Heads agree: Art History has to be re-written to find a place for Hilma af Klint, a courageous woman who only unveiled her abstract talent once during her lifetime: at ‘Friends House’ in London, 1928. AS

IN CINEMAS from 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020) *****

Dirs: Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes, Keith Scholey | UK Doc 83′

Eco-documentaries too often rely on just their worthwhile subject matter to carry them through. A Life on Our Planet is not only thematically important but also impressively crafted and entertaining with a positively uplifting final kick.

It all begins and ends in Chernobyl showing how the Ukrainian social utopia became a nuclear bomb site, and is now teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation – humans are nowhere to be seen. Then dear old David emerges from a ruined building with a stark warning: Nature will eventually take over the planet, do we humans want to be there or not?

Candid, relevant and revealing, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is a powerful first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature since the last time a comet destroyed all lifeforms, before the Holocene ushered in the wonderful world we all know. And this will happen again, for many of us within our lifetimes. But there is a way forward. And it’s not just about plastic bags.

Now nearly 94, Attenborough reflects back on his extraordinary life as an naturalist exploring the remote and wild corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for all of us to see and enjoy. And he does reflect on the devastating changes that are still unfolding in subtle and troubling ways. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Neither is A Life on our Planet a worthy or ‘ticking off’ rant but a fascinating testament to the magnificence surrounding. There is a tangible and sustainable way forward to continue living in harmony with nature and making the most of life in our amazing world. MT

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: A LIFE ON OUR PLANET WILL PREMIERE IN CINEMAS ACROSS THE GLOBE ON 28TH SEPTEMBER FEATURING AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION WITH SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH AND SIR MICHAEL PALIN.  IT WILL BE RELEASED ON NETFLIX GLOBALLY THIS AUTUMN. attenboroughfilm.com

 

Capital in the 21st Century (2020) ****

Dir.: Justin Pemberton; Co-Dir.: Thomas Piketty; Doc with Rana Foroohar, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama; France/New Zealand 2019, 102′ 

Justin Pemberton makes economics anything but dry in his thrilling – and frightening – screen adjunct to Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book. Brisk and entertaining like a filmic history lesson, some 400 years are condensed into a palatable mouthful that lacks somehow the depth of the page.

The New-Zealander has raided the archives enlivening Capital in the 21st Century with TV clips as well as graphics and archive footage of newsreels, financial ‘experts’ adding their pennyworth in a bid to clarify the mess we are in. According to Piketty – who also appears as a talking head – nothing has changed since the 17th century when feudalism ruled and the medium life expectancy was seventeen. So what does that tell you?

Feudalism saw one per cent of the population own seventy percent of land. Back then the only way of earning a living (apart from servitude) was itinerant farm work. In films terms, the world was like just like Elysium (2013), where a charmed few lived in splendour and the rest in grinding poverty. The French  Revolution tried to break the mould but the real change came with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century when machines took over the manual work but the power structure was the same: workers being in hock to their employers (who took all the risks), strikers ending up in jail.

Many Europeans emigrating to North America for a new start soon discovered that hard land-based work was still the order of the day, the small family unit unable to compete with land-owners, who bought in slaves and exploited them on the cotton fields of the Deep South. Meanwhile Europeans were out colonising and exploiting the natural resources of the newfound territories, finding unchallenged markets for their products and building fortunes and empires into the bargain.    ,

European workers’ resentment  increased between 1870 and 1914, while an emerging Middle Class got used to a new term: fashion. In the US meanwhile, the class struggle was much more vicious, employers hiring their own militia, backed by a Federal Army who quelled many strikes. The outbreak of World War I channelled class envy into a national identity, the aftermath saw the suffragettes making inroads into male dominance with their fight for the right to vote.

Pemberton then leads us through the more erratic midsection of the documentary which deals with the 20th domination by banking power, nationalism, Depression, war, the welfare system and workers rights. Working class lives improved immeasurably during the late 1950s when prime minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed: “You’ve never had it so good”. He was probably right. The establishment of a Welfare State led to a vigorous middle class which would become the backbone of society, but that backbone has since been severely tested by an erosion of values that has polarised society, particularly now as the gulf widens again between rich and poor. Since the 1970s Oil Crisis, middle class income has sharply declined in the US, where ‘stagflation’ soon became the order of the day.

In the 1980s, President Reagan dismantled the welfare state, and Wall Street and Main Street diverged: what was good for the City and the big corporations (with Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas of trickle down economics) was not seen as a benefit to Main Street with its mainly family-owned small businesses. The US was suffering from competition from Japan and Europe, and Reagan’s battle cry “to make America great again” created a war against trade unions, and native workers disgruntled by a growing number of immigrant labourers. With the slogans like “Greed is good” dominating, more deregulation was supposed to facilitate a “trickle down” of wealth, which never happened. The result is that the bottom 90% of the population has suffered a loss in family income, and the real wages (purchasing power) are on a level last experienced in 1960.

The credit boom, another contributing factor of the 2008 crash, camouflaged a dire situation: since 1970 wages have increased for 90% of the population by 800%, but for the top ten percent the increase in capital was 2000%. This has led to the Super Rich not re-investing their capital in production, but in keeping their wealth in an endless loop, where the same people buy and sell capital commodities, bringing a 4.5% average return. This compared with 1.6% return on investments in industry or other productive enterprises.

When all is said and done, the super rich will always be able to employ the best legal advice to fight their way out of taxation. In 2015, Google Alphabet had made a profit of 15.5. billion USD – offshore in Bermuda. shell companies and numbered accounts for the Elite keep them free from punitive taxes.

Meanwhile, new technologies create new jobs. More than ever ,individuals are setting up companies and gaining financial freedom and clout. But when robots replace humans, humans will slide down the pecking order. Vehicle drivers now make up the second largest group of people in employment. With the advent of the driverless car, what will eventually happen to them?

So the outlook is grim. But it always was. The rich will always be rich, and the poor will always be poor, but the disadvantaged have more opportunities that ever before. Pemberton includes a psychology experiment that exposes a sinister side to human nature suggestive of a positive mind set that also comes into play.

The consequences can only be controlled politically. But who will be controlling capitalism? Certainly not the middle classes, if their erosion continues. The film tries to end on a positive note: “Creating a more equal society is possible from a technical standpoint”. But in reality we all know this is unlikely to happen due to the inherent flaws of human nature. AS

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS | 25 SEPTEMBER 2020

                                               

Bird Island (2019) ***

Dirs: Maya Kosa, Sergio Costa | Doc, 60′

The healing power of nature offers therapy for a young man recovering from cancer in this quietly fascinating second feature by Maya Kosa and Sergio Costa.

Antonin (played by an actor) has retreated to Bird Island’s Ornithological Rehabilitation Centre in Genthod in Geneva where he gradually recuperates by helping injured birds to get back on their own feet before being released into the wild. The docudrama shows how rats bred to feed the birds of prey ironically become predators themselves when several escape into the aviary injuring their feathered friends who are then put down.

A series of slow static camera shots taken from a distance and in intimate close-up combine with a subtle palette of earthy greens and blues and an ambient soundscape make this restful and calming film despite its leisurely pacing. This is also the affect it has on Antonin himself who drifts into a comatose state while watching Paul go about his business which involves killing a rat. At one point Antonin actually falls asleep on one of the work counters, in another he literally falls like a felled tree when walking across a field.

Some scenes may upset those uncomfortable with dissection and animal euthanasia (we watch a bird slowly succumbing to chemical death) and this lends a unsettling touch to this increasingly surreal documentary that drifts into the realms of soulful philosophy in considering our own fragility as humans beings in the context of these delicate yet highly evolved and intelligent creatures. MT

NOW ON VOD | Premier FID MARSEILLE 2020

 

 

Space Dogs (2019) ** mubi


Dir.: Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter; Documentary with voice over by Alexey Serebryakov; Germany/Austria 2019, 91 min.

Writers/directors and producers Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter cobble together a rather meaningless documentary featuring long shots of rather scruffy dogs on Moscow’s contemporary streets. Making up more than seventy minutes of the running time, the seemingly unstructured images are edited in an unsatisfactory montage with clips from USSR spacecraft history, with a focus on experiments with dogs and turtles. The combination of the two central strands is rather tenuous, and a pretentious voiceover by Alexey Serebryakov is not always helpful.

Laika was found roaming the streets of Moscow where she was captured and sent into Space, never to return. In November 1957 she started her journey, circling the earth, before dying. In contrast, the US Space programme used a chimpanzee, captured in Cameroon, and named Number 65. He survived his journey but found himself back on Earth in a zoo in Washington DC where he was lonely having got used to human company. Number 65 died overweight and of liver failure. To bring the message home, we are shown a couple of humans in Moscow dressing a chimpanzee called ‘Buh’ like a waiter, for a performance in a nightclub. More clips from the USSR Space programme show returning dogs having an ECG and being comforted by the female medical staff. More up to date clips show dogs savagely killing a toy cat, the voice-over extolling their heroism. When two turtles approach a dog, we are informed the pair were supposed to be the first creatures from Earth, orbiting the moon. But the Soviet space capsule drifted from its calculated course, and the turtles floated through space, “hopefully finding a new world in another universe”. It all culminates with cute puppies in front of their rather ramshackle den. Above them a nightingale sings, but its warning is too late: humans put poisoned meat in front of the puppies’ den.

The mythical comments do not fit the images of the rather ordinary, scruffy dogs whose surroundings are squalid, to say the least. DoP Yunus Roy Imer succeeds in makingmodern Moscow look like a provincial town on its last legs – not just the dogs. The directors’ premise is vague. What are they trying to establish: Animal cruelty? Animal bravery? A missed opportunity. AS

NOW ON MUBI

Notturno (2020) Mubi

Dir: Gianfranco Rosi | Italy, Doc 90′

Notturno is cinematic but too enigmatic in its broad brush impressionist study of everyday life in the war-torn Middle East.

Italy’s leading documentarian Gianfranco Rosi has spent three years filming life behind the battle lines in his latest film in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Endowed with his signature poetic gaze but lacking a formal narrative that made Fire at Sea so compelling, Notturno is essentially a collection of filmic episodes that drift from one to the next exploring the corrosive effects of the ongoing conflict on ordinary people. Wartime is clearly the theme behind these vignettes but without any point of contact we are left imagining, guessing and wondering rather than gaining worthwhile insight into the hapless lives, makes Notturno a largely dissociative and unsatisfying experience although some may enjoy its more freewheeling approach. And his camerawork is stunning.

The war serves as a latent but corrosive and destabilising presence for the local Libyans, Iraqis, Kurdistanis and Syrians who try desperately to keep their world together when all around them combat rages on. No finger is pointed at the perpetrators although ISIS is mentioned several times when a veiled and tearful mother takes a call from her frightened daughter.

The film opens to the rhythmic marching of soldiers in a training base, in the distance the thud of bombs and ammunition is heard as distant flames flare up in the night sky – whether they are explosions, or oil refineries is uncertain. A troupe of camouflaged female fighters let their hair down and relax drinking tea after their day is done. Five children settle down for the night on the floor of their main room where their mother will then wake the eldest at the crack of dawn to go hunting with an older man who pays him to spot flying prey. Another hunter drifts peacefully around his boat amid rushes and ducks oblivious to the danger, he carries a gun but the only gunshot is heard in the far distance. Each of these studies is revisited in finer detail.

The most disturbing segment explores the naive drawings made by children in nursery school. These feature black-masked men, torture and beheadings rather than innocent depictions of their parents, pets or playtime. A psychologist listens to their thoughts and recollections about being roused by ISIS to be tortured and witness the death of adult prisoners. The images are often sublime in contrast to the sorrowful subject matter.MT

TO ACCOMPANY NOTTURNO MUBI IS SCREENING A COMPLETE RETRO OF GIANFRANCO ROSI

The Splendour Of Truth: The Cinema Of Gianfranco Rosi, starting in February. Boatman (1993), Below Sea Level (2008), El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), Sacro Gra (2013), and Fire At Sea (2016) are an unconventional account of life on the margins, starting where the news headlines end.

Sacro GRA – 22 February
Fire At Sea – 23 February
Tanti Futuri Possibili – 22 February
Boatman – 5 March
Notturno – 5 March
Below Sea Level – 10 March
El Sicario, Room 164 – 17 March

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020)

Dir.: Lili Horvat; Natasa Stork, Victor Bodo, Bennett Vilmanyl, Peter Toth, Andor Lukats, Julia Ladanyl, Linda Moshier; Hungary 2020, 95 min.

Natasa Stork plays a woman who gives up her shiny life in America to return home to Hungary in Lili Horvat’s enigmatic counter-migration movie. 

 

Natasa Stork is fortyyear old neuro-surgeon Marty Vizy who leaves a glittering career in New Jersey to start a new life when she falls for a colleague at a conference. Vizy had put all her energy and talent into her profession in a 24/7 week of total commitment. The new man in her life, Dr Janos Drexler (Bodo), promises to meet her a month later at the Pest end of Liberty Bridge in Budapest. But when she gets there he is nowhere to be seen and later insists he has never even met her. 

What could have been daft or pretentious is made intriguing by this stunning lead performance that lifts the feature out of the mundane and into a sinuous psychological game of cat and mouse.    

Marta is a very sober woman – in spite of her coup de foudre – and determined to get to the bottom of Drexler’s change of heart she continues as arranged back in Budapest (at the same hospital as Drexler) her new colleagues, especially the elderly Dr. Fried (Lukats), suspecting some kind of personality disorder, rather than the more simple explanation that she’s been ditched. Even her psychiatrist (Toth) doubts her version of events.

Her only close contact in Budapest is her friend Helen (Moshier) who helps her to rent a flat. But soon Drexler and Marta start trolling each other openly in the city in an intricately choreographed waiting game, Marta growing increasingly jealous of a young blonde woman who seems to be close to Drexler.

In her immaculately crafted sophomore feature Horvat brings all the ends together in the final ten minutes, with Marta changing from hunted to huntress. DoP Robert Maly puts an idyllic spin on Budapest, not quite an ad for the city but along those lines. But Stork steals the show, hard-edged and soulful in equal measure. The running time is just right, anything longer would have toppled the poetic structure of this modern fairy-tale. AS

Curzon announces the release date for Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time – On Curzon Home Cinema – 19th March | premiered at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | VENICE DAYS

Nocturnal (2019) ***

Dir.: Nathalie Biancheri; Cast: Laura Coe, Cosmo Jarvis, Sadie Frost, Amber Jean Rowan; UK 2019, 86 min.

Nathalie Biancheri gets off to a great start as a filmmaker with this appealing indie drama that really benefits from Michal Dymek’s imaginative visuals, but the narrative’s ambitious underlying conflict is let down by an underworked script.

At the titles suggests the film plays out mostly at night in a small English coastal town where sixteen-year old Laurie (Coe) has recently arrived. Her emotional is far more difficult to handle than would have us know. An experienced athlete she is now running middle-distance at club level, but even professional life sees her as an outsider. Her mother Jean (Frost) seems uncomfortable too. Meanwhile she crosses paths with Pete (Cosmo) a 33-year old decorator in an unsatisfactory relationship with Jade (Rowan). Pete is a drifter who avoids any commitment, but falls into a laid back friendship with Laurie. But Laurie wants more, and when Pete re-coils – the long telegraphed -secret is out. When Pete moves to Rotterdam, Laurie is left to pick up the pieces, and her mother is unable to make her realise what has actually happened.

Biancheri and her co-writers rely on atmosphere and enigma to make up for their undeveloped script: skimming over characterisations to pack it all into into 86 minutes. We only get to know the bare essentials about the main trio, most is left unsaid. There is no real introduction to the characters, and whilst we very soon cotton on to the secret, there is no dramatic arc, because the building blocks are missing. Jean is particularly under-sketched, and there’s no explanation as to why she is so cold to her daughter. We are left with a great atmosphere, the nights are full of shimmering lights and the desolate amusement pier is captured with enticing allure. But this cannot make up for a script needing much more work. AS

IN CINEMAS AND CURZON WORLD FROM 18 SEPTEMBER 2020

      

 

Max Richter’s Sleep (2020) ****

Dir.: Natalie Johns; Cast: Max Richter, Yulia Mahr; The American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Grace Davidson (Soprano), Emily  Brausa (Cello), Clarence Jensen (Cello), Isabel Hagen (Viola), Ben Russell (Violin), Andrew Tholl (Violin), Max Richter (Piano, Keyboards Electronics);  UK 2019, 99 min.

Director/writer Natalie Johns offers up a unique experience with the filming of the first outdoor performance of composer Max Richter’s eight hour long grand scale epos SLEEP in LA’s Grand Park in July 2018.

The composition was published by Deutsche Gramophone in 2015, and since performed at in-door arenas including The Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Sidney Opera House and London’s Barbican; and was also produced by BBC R3. 215 pages of sheet music are testament of the first open night performance in front of 560 listeners/sleepers in their numbered cots.

German-born British composer Max Richter (*1966) and his partner in love and art Yulia Mahr comment on the history of the piece and this particular performance. Richter, who came up against the Classical Music establishment, finances his albums, heavy on synthesisers, like ‘Memoryhouse’ and ‘Songs from Before’ with over fifty film scores, the later being Ad Astra by director James Gray.

Richter calls SLEEP a work in the Lullaby tradition, and points to Indian music for over-night settings and the 1960ies Flux experiments. For the first seven hours, the music is mostly southing and very structural, but with the sunrise, the last hour is more vigorous, high-frequency, rather like a not so gentle alarm clock. Purple-ambient light dominates at this phase. Richter explains that SLEEP “should be seen as a piece which could work as a holiday reality from our data-saturated world”. Thus “the people sleeping are the story”. He emphasises that SLEEP “should not be listened too, but experienced, like a landscape one is in”. Which makes sort of sense, since Mahler seems to be one of the influences on Richter’s music.

Soothing and ethereal, the music brings out the best in the audience: there are back-massages and help with yoga exercises. One male member of the audience even writes a note to his partner: “Alice, I love you, and I am sorry that I am so often a shitty partner”. A French woman is rather more morbid: “Very strong, we almost felt death coming”. Overall, one has to admire the musicians, being on stage such a long time, only interrupted by a few breaks for drinks and sustenance.

DoP Elisha Christian takes much credit for her “light games”: always finding new angles to put the music into images, flitting from the sleeping audience to the panorama shots of LA. Particularly impressive are the slow transitions from night to day. Overall SLEEP is very much an elitist experience, a sort of quiet protest. Neuroscientists, who feature briefly appear, support the composer, who wants his music “to re-connect people, who have been lost in modernism”. Having said all that, with the average attention span being three minutes these days, an eight-hour experience might not be such a bad thing after all – elitist or not. AS

IN UK CINEMAS ON 11 SEPTEMBER 2020

 

   

  

Final Account (2020)

Dir: Luke Holland Doc, UK 90’

British filmmaker Luke Holland goes the other side of the fence in this definitive documentary that plunders the memories of German Second World War veterans involved in Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Final Account is a candid film that pulls no punches in its trenchant expose of German and Austrian wartime veterans – both men and women. And although the director maintain his distance – his grandparents lost their lives in the camps; what emerges is startling and often depressing.

Blue-eyed witnesses now in their 80s and 90s reminisce over their joy and excitement at being part of the Hitler Youth Movement that allowed them to indulge in a variety of sports such as swimming and athletics that had previously been denied them during the early 1930s in Germany.

But others even ended up engaging in sports of a more gruesome nature when they decided to join in Hitler’s ethnic genocide and become direct participants in the horrors of the prison camps. What emerges is not always palatable to watch and several interviewees continue to deny the gravity of their actions in the name of their country, whether through selective amnesia or embarrassment.

Twelve years in the making and enriched by footage and photographs from the personal albums of those involved Final Account is a vital and worthwhile addition to the Holocaust canon. But the casual denial and abdication of responsibility of those who took part in the Wehrmacht, or SS, will be a bitter pill for most viewers to swallow.

Most Germans claim to have been carried along on a wave of nationalistic pride, or were ‘just obeying orders’. Others state allegiance to the Hitler’s view that German Jews were becoming too successful and clicquey. One ex SS office is honest enough to admit that he didn’t particularly care when hundreds of synagogues were burnt down on Kristallnacht in 1938. Another man, pictured in his farm, explains he didn’t hesitate to telephone the police when his Jewish neighbours tried to hide in his barn to avoid capture, bringing to mind the ‘banality of evil’. Another man remembers a childhood song about “Knives sharp enough for Jewish bellies”. He now admits to be shocked at the memory. A group of women in a care home cast their mind back to the smell of burning and black smoke billowing from a nearby furnace, while they gleefully enjoy coffee and biscuits.

These are tragic recollections superbly edited by Stefan Ronowicz in a film that never descends into sentimentality or melodrama – just a stark and sober revelation of human indifference. MT

NOW ON RELEASE

Coup 53 (2019) joins the Rotten Tomatoes 100 percent club

Dir.: Taghi Amirani, Documentary; UK/USA/Iran 2019, 118 min.

Director/co-writer Taghi Amirani (Red Lines and Deadlines) fled Iran as a teenager and brings his life experience to bear in this detailed examination of the British/American coup of 1953, which brought down the government of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minster Mohamad Mosaddegh (1882-1967).

With the help of editor Walter Murch (Godfather), who is credited as co-writer, Amirani has plunged the archives to piece together the events of August 1953 which still reverberate not only in the region but all over the world.

The suggestion that Mosaddegh was a communist was not far from the truth. And the British and American propagandists certainly concurred with this line of thinking. Apart from being a staunch nationalist, Mosaddegh was a member of the royal Qajar dynasty, a much older Institution than that of his opponent Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi, whose father had forcefully overthrown the Qajar dynasty in 1925. In the eyes of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, Shah Raza, of the house of Pahlavi, was an upstart. Mosaddegh had studied law in Europe and went on to nationalise the oil industry which was run by the Anglo-Iranian Oil company (AIOC) back in 1951.

News reels show the company’s tearful British employees leaving Iran. In reality, Mosaddegh had asked them to stay. But Britain and the USA did not want a functioning oil industry run by Iran: they organised a world-wide boycott of Iranian oil on the world market. When this plan did not work out, British Prime Minister Churchill and US president Eisenhower met in 1953 and decided to get rid of Mosaddegh during a coup. Organised by CIA chief Allen Dulles (brother of US foreign minister John Foster), and executed on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of President T. Roosevelt) and Britain’s Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iranian branch of MI6, the so-called operation Ajax was not always plain sailing. Only after Tehran’s police chief Mahmoud Afshartous, a staunch supporter of the Prime Minister, was abducted, tortured and murdered by General and Prime Minister Fazlollah Zahedi, did the coup look like succeeding.

One reason for the remaining question marks lay with Shah Mohammad Raza Pahlavi himself. He had fled the country and retreated to a luxury hotel in Rome with his wife Soraya, and continued to live his previous life of privilege, albeit in exile. His twin sister, Princess Ashhraf, was much more wily and helped the plotters actively. It was Kermit Roosevelt who made the difference in the end: he organised a “spontaneous” popular uprising against the Prime Minister, paying just 60 thousand US dollars for his rented mob. Mosaddegh was put on trial and ended his life alone under house arrest and in solitary confinement for the last fourteen years of his life.

There is a particular British transcript to the affair: In 1985 a TV production of End of the Empire interviewed some participants of the 1953 Coup, among them Norman Darbyshire, who, according to the transcript of the interview, was very open about his contribution. But he never appears in the finished documentary. The quotes used for the interview were neatly cut out and seemed lost – before an anonymous person sent the missing lines of Darbyshire’s interview to the Observer. Amirani landed his own coup, letting Ralph Fiennes read the incriminating sections.

Coup 53 allows us to imagine what could have happened in the region if democracy in Iran had been allowed to flourish. Today we are still confronted with the clerical-fascist Islamist regime of Iran –  belated vengeance for the Coup for oil. AS

REAL-LIFE THRILLER COUP 53 JOINS THE 100% CLUB ON ROTTEN TOMATOES 

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL review 2019

Venice Film Festival 2020

The first physical film festival since Coronavirus VENICE returns to its origins with a bracingly auteurist competition line-up that shines the spotlight on Arthouse masters and brazen new talent From Europe, Asia and South America.

Championing female filmmakers and fraught with exciting news films from veterans Lav Diaz, Fred Wiseman, Andrey Konchalovsky, Orson Welles and Amos Gitai the 77th Venice Film will take place on the Lido from September 2-12.

Among the regular auteurs selected are Chloe Zhao (Nomadland),  Nicole Garcia (Lovers),  Michel Franco (Nuevo Orden), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife Of A Spy), Malgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again, co-dircted by Michal Englert) and Gianfranco Rosi with his latest documentary Notturno

Buzz-worthy British films include Roger Michell’s The Duke, with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren; and Luke Holland documentary Final Account, both playing out of competition. The Critics’ Week selection also includes The Book of Vision starring Britain’s Charles Dance and Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special starring James Norton and produced by a UK/Romania/Italian team.

The festival opens with Daniele Luchetti’s Lacci, the first Italian film to open the celebrations fr quite some time. Festival director Alberto Barbera describes it as: “an anatomy of a married couple’s problematic coexistence, as they struggle with infidelity, emotional blackmail, suffering and guilt, with an added mystery that is not revealed until the end. Supported by an outstanding cast, the film is also a sign of the promising phase in Italian cinema today, continuing the positive trend seen in recent years, which the quality of the films invited to Venice this year will surely confirm.”

Competition

Nomadland (US) (above) | Dir. Chloe Zhao

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards) embarks on a road journey across America in the latest from The Rider director Chloe Zhao

Quo Vadis, Aida? | Dir. Jasmila Zbanic

And Tomorrow The Entire World (Ger-Fr) | Dir. Julia Von Heinz

The Disciple (India) | Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane

Never Gonna Snow Again (Pol-Ger) | Dir. Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert

Notturno (It-Fr-Ger) | Dir. Gianfranco Rosi

Gianfranco Rosi poignant love letter to Lampedusa (Fire at Sea) won him an armful of awards including the Golden Bear at Berlinale 2016. He is back in Venice, where he won the Golden Lion in 2013, this time turning his documentary camera on Syria.

Padrenostro (It) | Dir. Claudio Noce

Miss Marx (It-Bel) | Dir. Susanna Nicchiarelli

Italy’s Susanna Nicchiarelli won the Orizzonti Award in 2017 for her dazzling drama Nico 1988

Now in the main competition with an all star British cast she explore the life of Eleanor Marx daughter of the infamous Carl.

Pieces Of A Woman (Can-Hun) | Dir. Kornel Mandruczo

In his first English language film the Hungarian director who made his name with White Dog explores the emotional journey of a woman who has lost her child.

Sun Children (Iran) | Dir. Majid Majidi

The Tehran based director has already won plaudits for best script, production design and film for his latest drama that tackles the subject of child labour.

Wife Of A Spy (Jap) | Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A Japanese wife is saddled with the sins of her husband in this painterly portrait set in 1940s Japan from Kiyoshi Kurasawa (Creepy).

Dear Comrades (Rus) | Dir. Andrey Konchalovsky

The Russian director known for Postman’s White Nights (2014) and Paradise (2016) returns to Venice with his latest, a political drama based on real events in Novocherkassk 1962 when Soviet troops seeking to cover up mass labour strikes opened fire on workers and one in particular Lyudmila (Yuliya Vysotskaya).

Laila In Haifa (Isr-Fr) | Dir. Amos Gitai

Lovers (Fr) | Dir. Nicole Garcia

Pierre Niney, Stacy Martin and Benoit Magimel star in this Noirish Parisian drama that sees a woman fall for her ex while on holiday with her husband.

Nuevo Orden (Mex-Fr) | Dir. Michel Franco

Franco loves exploring the psychology behind human relationships as he does here again in this latest that sees a high-society wedding gatecrashed by unwelcome guests.

The World To Come (US) | Dir. Mona Fastvold

Physical and emotional privation gives rise to a surprising love story in Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold’s drama set in an US East Coast frontier town during the 1850s.

Le Sorelle Macaluso (It) | Dir. Emma Dante

In Between Dying (Az-US) | Dir. Hilal Baydarov

Out Of Competition – Drama

Lacci (It) – Opening Film | Dir. Daniele Luchetti

Mosquito State (Pol) | Dir. Filip Jan Rymsza

Night In Paradise (S Kor) | Dir. Park Hoon-Jung

The Duke (UK) | Dir. Roger Michell

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren lead a cast of Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin for this British drama based on the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961.

Assandira (It) | Dir. Salvatore Mereu

Love After Love (China) | Dir. Ann Hui

Mandibules (Fr-Bel) | Dir. Quentin Dupieux

Lasciami Andare (It) – Closing Film | Dir. Stafano Mordini

The Human Voice (approximately 30’) is a loose adaptation of the original stage play by Jean Cocteau, directed by Pedro Almodóvar and featuring Tilda Swinton as ‘the voice’. It tells the story of a jilted woman (Swinton), hoping her lover will get in touch. This is Pedro Almodóvar’s first time shooting in English. Alberto Iglesias composed the score.

One Night in Miami by Regina King

Set on the night of February 25, 1964, the story follows a young Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) on the night her defeated Sonny Liston to win the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Clay – unable to stay on at the venue because of Jim Crow-era segregation laws – instead spends the night at the Hampton House Motel in one of Miami’s historically black neighbourhoods, celebrating with three of his closest friends: activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. The next morning, the four men emerge determined to define a new world for themselves and their people. In One Night in Miami, Kemp Powers explores what happened during these pivotal hours through the dynamic relationship between the four men and the way their friendship, paired with their shared struggles, fueled their path to becoming the civil rights icons they are today.

Out Of Competition – Documentaries

Sportin’ Life (It) | Dir. Abel Ferrara

Crazy, Not Insane (US) | Dir. Alex Gibney

Greta (Swe) | Dir. Nathan Grossman

Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams (It) | Dir. Luca Guadagnino

Final Account (UK) | Dir. Luke Holland

Looking at the other side of the coin, Holland cobbles together interviews from those Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust.

La Verita Su La Dolce Vita (It) | Dir. Giuseppe Pedersoli

Molecole (It) | Dir. Andrea Segre

Paolo Conte, Via Con Me (It) | Dir. Giorgio Verdelli

Narciso Em Ferias (Bra) | Dirs. Renato Terra, Ricardo Calil

Hopper/Welles (USA) | Dir. Orson Welles

Yes, another documentary about Orson Welles – can there ever be too many? This unscripted one captures a conversation between the maverick multi-talented Welles and the ingenu filmmaker Hopper that took place in 1971 over dinner, shooting the breeze over politics, personal issues and, or course, filmmaking. Made available courtesy of The Other Side of the Wind (Venice 2018) producer Filip Jan Rymsza.

City Hall (USA) | Dir. Frederick Wiseman

Out Of Competition – Special Screenings

Princesse Europe (Fra) | Dir. Camille Lotteau

30 Monedas – episode 1 (Spa) – series | Dir. Alex De La Iglesia

Orizzonti

Apples (Greece-Pol-Slovenia) – Opening Film | Dir. Christos Nikou

La Troisième Guerre (Fra) | Dir. Giovanni Aloi

Milestone (India) | Dir. Ivan Ayr

The Wasteland (Iran) | Dir. Ahmad Bahrami

The Man Who Sold His Skin | Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania

I Predatori (It) | Dir. Pietro Castellitto

Mainstream (USA) | Dir. Gia Coppola

Genus Pan (Phil) | Dir. Lav Diaz

Zanka Contact (Fr-Mor-Bel) | Dir. Ismael El Iraki

Guerra E Pace (It-Switz) | Dirs. Martina Parenti, Massimo D’Anolfi

La Buit Des Rois (Ivory Coast-Fr-Can) | Dir. Philippe Lacote

The Furnace (Aus) | Dir. Roderick Mackay

Careless Crime (Iran) | Dir. Shahram Mokri

Gaza Mon Amour | Dirs. Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser

Selva Tragica (Mex-Fr-Ger) | Dir. Yulene Olaizola

Nowhere Special (It-Rom-UK) | Dir. Uberto Pasolini

Listen (UK-Port) | Dir. Ana Rocha De Sousa

The Best Is Yet To Come (China) | Dir. Wang Jing

Yellow Cat (Kazakhstan-Fr) | Dir. Adilkhan Yerzhanov

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2-12 SEPTEMBER

Vision Nocturna | Night Shot (2019) ***** FID Marseille

Dir.: Carolina Muscoso Briceño; Documentary; Chile 2019, 80 min.

Pain, Rage and Acceptance: the various stages of rape. Chilean first-time director/co-writer and DoP Carolina Muscoso Briceño has dared to go where very few have gone before her: having been a rape victim almost a decade ago while studying at the Film School in Santiago, she has since made a film diary of her life still rocked to this day by the rape trauma. Intercut with her reflexions on the assault – and not only her own experience – Night Shot is a testament to gradual liberation.

“Rape victims are ashamed of what happened to them. The first thing that mobilised me was to break with that shameful legacy and to think of a way of exposing it to cross that barrier” says the director.

Everyday life go on, in various formats. Her experiences about the attack itself and the bureaucratic engendered are set mostly against a black background. On the beach near Santiago, Carolina became separated from her friends, and came across Gary. The two decided to go for something to eat nearby, but on the way he raped her. “Afterwards I did as he told me. I stayed motionless in the bushes. He said he would kill me if I followed him. I cleaned the blood off my face, picked up my ripped shirt and headed for the highway”.  The distress was further compounded by her father’s comments when he picked her up in his car: “a friend of mine got raped by her father. That’s much worse.”

Carolina went to a hospital, and was examined two hours after the rape. But the Catholic female doctor was against offering her a morning-after-pill, on the grounds of being against aborton “on principle”. What follows adds insult to injury and later Gary Raul Lopez Montero categorically refused any connection with Carolina. “I never knew anybody called Carolina. I met no one that night. I have a one-year-old daughter, I deny any involvement in this event” His brashness compared with Carolina’s answers still under the influence of the rape, made the DA drop the case.

Eight years later, Carolina makes another attempt to get justice, seeking advice from her lawyer friend Slvio who describes recourse as an uphill struggle for the victim, particularly where they refused to complete  hospital tests and seemed to lack conviction about their own role in the matter. Chile’s systemic structure of ‘justice’, in which the rape victim had to prove the guilt of the attacker, is common in most countries. Carolina’s first psychologist had told her “You are in the middle of an emergency landing”, and whilst she talked, Carolina imagined the different ways of falling.

Later Silvio has even worse news: The time limit for prosecution of rape is usually ten years, but since Gary was a minor at the time of the attack, the limit is just five years. Carolina eventually returns to the scene of the crime: “To be back feels like a big fire, this fire accompanies me, as well as the feeling that Gary is right here. That nine years later, he never has left this place”. She films and photographs the terrain, and is asked by a rider on horseback, why she is taking the photos. Her response is candid: “I am recording this place here, because something has happened here. Yes, here in Papudo. A long time ago, seven or eight years.” The rider asks: “Something good or bad”. Caroline’s answer is “good and bad”, before stating that she did not know her feelings are ambivalent. and: “I don’t know why I think I’ll find the wallet I lost that day”. Breathtakingly honest, Night Shot is an absolute masterpiece of form and context. AS

FID MARSEILLE 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION.

Homeland (Domovine) (2020) **** FID Marseille

Dir.: Jelena Maksimovic; Cast: Jelena Angelovski, Trifonas Siapalinis; Serbia 2020, 63 min.

Jelena Maksimovic is inspired by her own life experience in this feature debut, a lament about loss but above all, a feminist reckoning dedicated to the filmmaker’s grandmother Elina Gacu (1928-2017), evacuated from civil wartorn Greece to what was then Yugoslavia, now North Macedonia.

The stark winter setting makes this all the more foreboding: A car approaching a wild mountainside, a young woman behind the wheel, a banal, romantic song on the car stereo. Not the best of welcomes for the ‘homecoming’ of someone who has never set foot in her country before.

The changing seasons mark a year’s stay in this village, and her growing unfulfilled longing to find a place which connects to her grandmother who has lived here since being exiled from her homeland during the Civil War (1946-1949), the first proxy war of the global Cold War.

This young woman is a visitor but not a tourist, wanting to claim something of the place for herself. Fragments of war of are everywhere: in fortifications, ruined houses and the reminiscences of old men who recall partisans coming from the mountains to fight government troops before vanishing back into their hideouts.

The woman befriends a restaurant owner, they cook together, he and his friends perform an old folk dance. But for the most part she tries to connect with the inhospitable terrain where animals are her only friends.  Hidden traces of the combat are everywhere. Finally, after so much silence she breaks into a final poetic outburst, accusing the men of bringing warfare to the place and repressing women. She claims the trees in the woods are the only true communists, and mourns the fate of her grandmother.

DoP Dusan Grubin makes an unobtrusive foray into this melancholy setting  – his harrowing panorama shots are just a foretaste of what is to come in a paean to lost identity. The main unnamed character is a victim of fragmentation and alienation: her trial to find anything like home is hampered by the silence around her. The past is the past – whatever the partisans stood for – or whatever the war was about. Her grandmother is a bridge to this past and will lead her back to herself. Homeland is for every soul searching for a place to call their own, moored somewhere in their dreams. AS

FID Marseille | 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

Shady River | Rio Turbio (2020) *** FID Marseille

Dir.: Tatiana Mazu Gonzalez; Documentary Argentine 2020, 81 min.

Amongst the wealth of stories coming out of South America at the moment is this unique and visually arresting first feature unearthing an alarming history of exploitation and repression in a Patagonian mining town.

Argentina’s Tatiana Mazu sets a combative tone to her documentary essay which takes the form of seven books, and shows a woman with rifle (the director herself?), ready to push back against old stories of witchcraft. Clearly these are a feisty bunch who don’t take kindly to a macho culture where women were forbidden to enter the underground labyrinth, which is ironically ‘female’ and talks in a women’s voice

The mine was run until 2002 by Sergio Taseli, a local asset stripper, who embarked on several high cost local projects such as the Roca-Belgrano Sur Railway, which were never completed, Taseli collecting his share of the profits beforehand.

But accidents do happen, and we see the photos of the victims. In 2004 fourteen miners died underground after a collapse. Children play amongst the wreckage in old 8mm family films, and Mazu makes use of plans, etchings, drawings, and blueprints to add grist to the grim story. It also emerges she once built a bomb with her chemistry set, intending to create havoc with the establishment.

Then there is the story of Clara who had a sex change operation, and went on to study electro mechanics. After graduating she could only find work as a secretary in the mining company offices. Nowadays, she is one of the few women working underground. But the exploitation continues: after a strike, the leaders were dismissed, and the rest of the workers had to take on their work load.

The oppressive nature of the mine is reflected in deadly silence and stark images, both In colour and black-and-white: Nature Was raped and it’s jewels torn away, crevices appearing everywhere, dark lakes and endless rows of pre-fabricated huts. There are shades of Tarkovsky in the water and the dour surroundings where industrial waste proliferates. Editor Sebastian Zanzotera takes credit for the montage of striking images that lead us into a maze of death and patriarchy.

Mazu takes us to a hidden world, far away from everything, where the newsreel images of Buenos Aires or a Miss Argentine competition seem to be from another universe all together.

FID Marseille 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

The Fight (2020) **** VOD

Dir.: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres; Documentary with Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, Joshua Block, Chase Strangio; USA 2020, 96 min.

Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres (the former two already well-known for Weiner (2016), take a look inside battles faced by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via four cases that had particular impact on the road ahead in American politics.

There was a time when ACLU members were called “Fellow travellers”, a derogative term used by presidential candidate HW Bush in 1988 with great success against his democratic opponent Michael Dukakis. Today the ACLU is seen as a bastion against the Trump government. The ACLU has filed 147 (!) cases against the Trump administration, including the infamous Muslim travel ban.

According to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of ACLU, the core support of the organisation dates back to the Nixon era.  ACLU is seen as “cool” today, donations have rocketed since Trump took over in 2017 from three million USD three million to nearly 120 million, whilst the membership has almost reached two million. Not that this matters much to Dale Ho, one of the lawyers we will follow on the day of the judgement: “We are just several floors in a building in New York, we cannot keep the government with all its resources at bay. ” He calls for more volunteers and donations. Meanwhile the ACLU task force is taking phone calls, many accusing them of being pedophiles. ACLU has also come under fire for supporting the members of “alt-right” to demonstrate in Charlottesville, where a counter-demonstrator Heather Heyes was killed by a car driven by ‘white supremacists’. Romero points out that already in 1977, the ACLU defended a Nazi rally in Skokie (Ill.). Back then the demonstrators were not armed, or defended by the President of the USA.    

The finale is at judgement day in the four show cases. ACLU Deputy Director and team veteran Lee Gelernt, is – like the rest of the crew – exhausted. Gelernt has taken on the government in a family separation case, claiming the Trump administration had withheld constitutional rights from the plaintiffs, causing harm for both parents and children. Gelernt’s brief conveys the emotional impact of it all to the Supreme Court judges. Clearly breaking up undocumented immigrant families has caused untold grief going forward and there are emotive scenes of family reunion after the verdict is delivered. Joshua Block and Chase Strangio have been picked to challenge the Trump government on the Transgender Military ban.

The Trump administration subsequently banned any new recruitment of LGTB members into the army. “The guy never gives up” sighs Block. This labour of love is the perfect birthday present for the  ACLU’s centenary. And hopefully, our five heroes, and the rest of the two-and-half floors in New York, will be less busy come January 2021. AS

ON DEMAND FROM 31 JULY 2020 COURTESY OF DOGWOOF FILMS               

Cannes Classics | Festival de Cannes 2020

In the Mood for love by Wong Kar-wai twenty years after, À Bout de souffle and L’Avventuraturn 60, great filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Federico Fellini, Bertrand Blier, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha, Lino Brocka), Tilda Swinton’s first major role in a science fiction film, Muhammad Ali meets William Klein, rediscoveries from the Festival de Cannes ‘60, ‘68, ‘73 and ’81, the first color fiction of Chinese cinema, an unknown masterpiece from Sri Lanka, a Serbian comedy, the new wave of Russian cinema, from yesterday’s cinema to today’s world with the first film by Melvin Van Peebles and a stricking documentary on women from Brittany, a landmark film about Charlie Chaplin, an exceptional portrait of actor John Belushi, Bruce Lee revisited and a celebration to great Italian actress Alida Valli, here is Cannes Classics 2020.

In the Mood for Love (2000, 1h38, Hong Kong) by Wong Kar-wai

The 4k restoration of the film made from the original negative was lead by Criterion and L’Immagine Ritrovata under the supervision of Wong Kar-wai. In the Mood for Love, by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, made its lead actor Tony Leung win the Male Interpretation Prize.

French theatrical distribution: The Jokers Films, date of release: December 2, 2020.

Actress Tilda Switon in her first big screen role to pay tribute to film director and film theorist Peter Wollen. It will be the rediscovery of a rare work.

Friendship’s Death (1987, 1h12, United Kingdom) by Peter Wollen

Presented by the British Film Institute (BFI). The 4K remastering by the BFI National Archive was from the original Standard 16mm colour negative. The soundtrack was digitised directly from the original 35mm final mix magnetic master track. The remastering was undertaken in collaboration with the film’s producer, Rebecca O’Brien and cinematographer, Witold Stok.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) (1967, 1h27, France) by Melvin Van Peebles

Presented by IndieCollect and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The restoration of The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) was funded by a grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The original film elements were found by the IndieCollect team during its inventory of Melvin Van Peebles’ New York apartment and storage facility. To create the restoration, the IndieCollect team used a 5K Kinetta Archival Scanner to digitally capture the 35mm Interpositive of the American version and combined it with elements scanned from the French version. Color grading and restoration were completed in-house by Oskar Miarka, and the titles were recreated by Cameron Haffner. Sandra Schulberg translated the French dialogue and new English subtitles were created.

Lyulskiy dozhd (July Rain / Pluie de juillet) (1966, 1h48, Russia) by Marlen Khutsiev

Presented by Mosfilm Cinema Concern. Source material: negative. 4K digital restoration. Restored by: Mosfilm Cinema Concern. Producer of restoration: Karen Shakhnazarov. Year of restoration: 2020.

Quand les femmes ont pris la colère (1977, 1h15, France) by Soizick Chappedelaine and René Vautier

Presented by Ciaofilm. The film was scanned in 4K and restored in 2K from the original 16mm negative. Image works carried out by ECLAIR Classics and by L.E.DIAPASON for the sound under the supervision of Moïra Chappedelaine-Vautier with the support of the CNC, the Cinémathèque de Bretagne and the Région Bretagne.

French theatrical distribution in 2021. DVD / Blu-ray release by Les Mutins de Pangée and in VOD on Cinémutins in 2021.

Préparez vos mouchoirs (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs) (1977, 1h50, France) by Bertrand Blier

Presented by TF1 Studio and Orange Studio / CAPAC. 4K Restoration from the picture negative and the French magnetic soud track, supervised by Bertrand Blier. Digital works carried out by Eclair laboratory in 2019.

Hester Street (1973, 1h30, USA) by Joan Micklin Silver

Presented by Cohen Film Collection. The primary source element for the restoration of Hester Street was the original 35mm camera negative. Brief sections of duplicate negative, in particular the opening title sequence with burned in titles, were cut into the original negative in order to produce the original release prints. 4K scanning and restoration work was carried out by DuArt Media Services in New York.

Ko to tamo peva ? (Who’s Singing Over There? / Qui chante là-bas ?) (1980, 1h26, Serbia) by Slobodan Šijan

Presented by Malavida Films. Restoration from the picture and sound negative. Scanning: Arriscan. Supervision: Slobodan Šijan with Milorad Glusica. Sound restored by Aleksandar Stojsin.

French theatrical distribution: Malavida Films, date of release :  October 21, 2020.

Prae dum (Black Silk) (1961, 1h58, Thailand) by R.D. Pestonji

Presented by Film Archive Thailand (Public Organization). 4K Scan and 4K Restoration from the original 35mm negative (preserved by Film Archive Thailand). Restoration made and financed by Film Archive Thailand and Thai Ministry of Culture. Mastered in 4K for Digital Projection.

Zhu Fu (New Year Sacrifice) (1956, 1h40, China) by Hu Sang

Presented by Shanghai International Film Festival and China Film Archive. 4K Scan and 4K Digital Restoration from the original 35mm image negative and sound negative (preserved by China Film Archive). Restoration made by China Film Archive. Co-financed by Shanghai International Film Festival and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Mastered in 4K for Digital Projection.

Feldobott kő (Upthrown Stone / La Pierre lancée) (1968, 1h25, Hungary) by Sándor Sára

Presented by National Film Institute – Film Archive – Hongrie.

The 4K digital restoration was carried out as part of ‘The long-term restoration program of Hungarian film heritage” of the National Film Institute – Film Archive. The restoration was made using the original image and sound negatives by the National Film Institute – Filmlab. The Digital grading was supervised by Sándor Sára. Collaborating partner: Hungarian Society of Cinematographers.

Neige (1981, 1h30, France) by Juliet Berto and Jean-Henri Roger

Presented by JHR Films. First 4k digital restoration submitted by JHR Films with the support of the CNC et de l’image animée. The restoration was carried out at L’Image Retrouvée laboratory in Bologna and in Paris.

French theatrical distribution: JHR Films, date of release: spring 2021.

Bambaru Avith (The Wasps Are Here) (1978, 2h, Sri Lanka) by Dharmasena Pathiraja

Presented by Asian Film Archive. 4K film and sound restoration was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata using the sole-surviving 35mm film positive. The raw and restored 4K scans, a new 35mm picture and sound negatives, and a new positive print of the restored version of the film have been produced and are preserved by the Asian Film Archive.

Bayanko: Kapit sa patalim (Bayan Ko) (1984, 1h48, Philippines / France) by Lino Brocka

Presented by Le Chat qui fume. First 4k digital restoration submitted by Le Chat qui fume. Scanning made at VDM laboratory and restoration carried out by Le Chat qui fume in Paris.

French theatrical distribution and Blu-ray / UHD release: Le Chat qui fume, date of release: February 2021.

La Poupée (1962, 1h34, France) by Jacques Baratier

Presented by the CNC. Sound and image digital work of restoration executed by the CNC and carried out by Hiventy. Follow-up by the CNC and supervised by Diane Baratier. Digital restoration made from 4K scans of the original negative. A 35mm print from the digital restoration was released. French distribution: Tamasa Distribution.

Sanatorium pod klepsydra (The Hourglass Sanatory / La Clepsydre) (1973, 2h04, Poland) by Wojciech J. Has 

Presented by Polish Film Classics. 4k Scan and 2K restoration carried out by DI Factory and the reKino team by keeping the guidelines of DOP Witold Sobociński (this restoration is dedicated to him) who could eventually achieve the image he wished to obtain in 1973. Artistic supervision: cinematographer Piotr Sobociński Jr. Right-owners: WFDiF.

French Blu-ray release: Malavida Films, date of release: May 2021.

L’Amérique insolite (America as Seen by a Frenchman) (1959, 1h30, France) by François Reichenbach

Presented by Les Films du jeudi. Restoration carried out at Hiventy: 4K scan – 2K restoration from the original negatives.

Deveti krug (The Ninth Circle / Neuvième cercle) (1960, 1h37, Croatia) by France Štiglic

Digital restoration in 2K presented by Croatian Cinematheque – Croatian State Archives with the support of Croatian Audiovisual Centre. Restoration performed by Ater and Klik Film studios in Zagreb, Croatia.

Muhammad Ali the Greatest (1974, 2h03, France) by William Klein

Presented by Films Paris New York and ARTE. First digital 2K restoration from the original 16mm negative scanned in 4K carried out with the support of the CNC. Image works were carried out by ECLAIR Classics and by L.E.DIAPASON for the sound.

SCREENING AT CANNES and at the FESTIVAL LUMIERE LYON

Maserati: A Hundred Years Against All Odds (2020) **

Dir: Philip Selkirik; Documentary with Carlo Maserati, Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio; Germany 2020, 89 min.

Unlike the sleek and streamlined vehicle in question this new documentary is a dreary journey through detail weighed down by a monotonous voice-over and too many backseat talking heads.

Maserati originates from Bologna where brothers Alfieri, Ettore and Ernesto had a fight on their hands to keep their legendary company on the road, surviving thanks to take-overs by Orsi, Citroën, Fiat, even sharing the same owners as arch rivals Ferrari. Henry Ford II was keen on producing Maserati models for the mass market in the USA – rather like he was with Ferrari and the late British GP driver Stirling Moss talks about “spare girls and spare cars”, before lauding the Maserati as the best car he has ever driven.

Philip Selkirk does his best occasionally enlivening his film with archive footage of races such as Nuvolari’s triumphs in 1930s. But the focus seems to be company politics: and we learn that Maserati will soon be re-united with old rivals, made possible by the forthcoming merger of PSA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Group) and Peugeot /Citroën/DS/Opel and Vauxhall. Maserati has not driven in F1 for 50 years, unlike Mercedes or Ferrari.

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s comments dovetail into the avalanche of technical data. Selkirk bills the Fascist movement in Germany and Italy as “just a change in politics”, mentioned in passing between the more glorious successes of the Maserati “Trident” car: The symbol of Neptune’s powerful weapon was adapted in 1920 as a company symbol, copying the spear of the Fountain of Neptune statue in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, before the factory was moved to Modena. Unfortunately for Maserati, the brand’s trident symbol has recently been closely associated with far-right organisations such as ‘For Britain’ and fascist groups such as Trident Antifa.

Maserati is hard work, as one critic put it, “make sure of adequate food and drink supplies”. Intended as a doc for mainstream audiences Maserati somehow misses the Zeitgeist of our times – by a mile and more. It’s more likely to please diehard fans of the brand or petrol-heads. AS

AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 20TH JULY, DVD & DIGITAL RENTAL FROM 27THJULY

Spaceship Earth (2020) **** VOD release

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with John Allen; USA 2019, 113 min.

Larger and much stranger than life, director/producer Matt Wolf (The Marion Stokes Project) has followed the eight ecologists, who, in 1991, were locked into Biosphere 1, a glass dome in Arizona, to live under conditions aping those on Mars. Animals and plants thrived, but it was not so much the conditions inside, but the human disconnections outside that clouded the experiment in controversy. Still, for a documentary that takes its time – exactly one hour – to get to the main event, Spaceship manages brilliantly to keep us enthralled.

In all starts in San Francisco in 1966: young Kathelin Gray meets a much older John Allen, whilst reading René Daumal’s ‘Mount Analogue’, Allen promises her much more than books, and together with other enthusiasts, they found the travelling theatre group Theatre of All Possibilities. Deciding that Frisco has become too commercialised, they take roots (literally) in New Mexico, living on the land, guided by the Synergy principle, naming the ranch after their motto. Later they built a ship, called the ‘Hereclitus’, naming it after the man who left his privileged life to live in harmony with everyone on earth. They met Burroughs, and adored Buckminster Fuller. Unlike most commune dwellers, they worked very hard, for little profit. But Allen, who had a sense of capitalist reality and soon found a helping hand in form of Ed Bass, a billionaire, who bought a hotel in Kathmandu for the collective, before bankrolling the Biosphere 2 dome.

The eight people, looking rather strange in their red astronaut suits were Roy Walford, Jane Poynter. Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone from Essex, Abigail Alling, Mark van Thillo and Linda Leigh. The hermetically sealed three-acre paradise of plants and animals suffered an overdose of CO2 (and  therefore a lack of oxygen), which led Dr. Walford come to the conclusion he would have to eat even less thanks to the low levels of oxygen , and could live for another 120 years. Soon oxygen was pumped in, but it degraded the scientific data. Jane Poynter got her finger stuck in the hay cutting machine, and had to leave for the hospital – coming back with an extra bag – another no-no according to the rules set up before. Media and scientists called the ecologists a ‘cult’, the grass grew limp and tempers frayed. Afterwards, Bass invited a young Steve Bannon (yes, that Bannon!), straight from Goldman Sachs, and this meant the end of the Bass/Allen relationship.  

Spaceship Earth reaches a melancholic conclusion: the founder members, John Allen and Marie Harding, – who have since married – among them, sit around a table amid an air of nostalgia. All of them have kept to the good life of the synergy days, and have stayed out of the commercial rat race, which now includes bio products and anything ‘alternative’. Watching them, we get keen sense of how far away from their heydays we have moved. DoP Sam Wootton underlines feeling of loss with his camerawork which mirrors the archive footage of the original group. To think that something as repulsive as the rip-off Bio-dome made millions at the box office, breaks your heart. AS

ON DEMAND | 10 JULY 2020 |

 

Kubrick by Kubrick (2020)**** KVIFF 2020

Dir.: Gregory Monro; Documentary with Stanley Kubrick, Michel Ciment, Malcolm McDowell; France/USA 2020, 72 min.

Seasoned documentarian Gregory Monro (Michel Legrand: Let the Music play) unpacks more gems, this time the focus is legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Kubrick by Kubrick sees Monro teaming up with French film critic Michel Ciment and enriched by interviews with the maestro and stars: Malcolm McDowell, Sterling Hayden, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall amongst others.

In the wake of Kubrick memorabilia docs Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and Filmworker Gregory, Monro goes for the jugular, with the help of Michel Ciment (who wrote a seminal book about Kubrick in 1982). Probing for the meaning behind the films. What emerges is a dry witted perfectionist; a keen intellect whose craft was everything.

Ciment (“Kubrick tolerated me for while”) started his 20+ year relationship with the interview-shy New Yorker in 1968, after writing a major article about Kubrick, the first one in France, in Positif in 1968. Kubrick had by then moved permanently to live in England: first Elstree/Borehamwood, near to the studios, then in 1978 to Childwickbury in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, where he edited his films, surrounded by his third wife Christiane Harlan (niece of NS-director Veit Harlan), three daughters and countless cats and dogs. He literally run the film world from his house. Legend has it that Kubrick was a control freak, but actors contradict this strongly: he often came unprepared for the day’s shooting, actors writing their own lines. McDowell defends the maestro’s spontaneity, claiming it the key to true creativity. Kubrick has the last word: “It’s where the ball bonces on the set, that’s where opportunities arise”. 

Peter Sellers came up with the idea of Dr. Strangelove’s ‘independent arm’ rising for the Nazi salute. And Malcolm McDowell claims the choice of Singing in the Rain, was his in Clockwork Orange. Shelley Duvall, driven to tears by Kubrick on the set for The Shining, is quoted: “After a while, an actor would get dead inside – for maybe five takes. But then, they’d comeback to life, and you’d forget all reality other than what you’re doing.”  Which does not mean, that Kubrick the perfectionist didn’t exasperate his collaborators. “I like to get things right, and this can lead to personal conflict, which isn’t popular”. Sterling Hayden complains bitterly about the soul-destroying effect of repetitive takes. But Kubrick got what he wanted on the occasion: “the fear in your eyes, that’s what I’m looking for”. Composer Leonard Roseman (who conducted the Barry Lyndon score) told Kubrick after the 105th take: “We are dealing with an insane person. You have driven everyone crazy.” And even though Kubrick watched 100 hours of documentary footage of the Vietnam war, he still insists, “that one of the things that characterises some of the failures of 20th century art, is an obsession with total originality. Innovation means moving forward, but not abandoning the classical art form you’re working with.”    

In the end, Monro has to conclude that Kubrick’s films are, for the most part, about war and violence. The field of corpses in Paths of Glory or Spartacus are just some examples of human slaughter, but war or conflict can also be on a personal domestic level as experienced in The Shining and Lolita. There’s clearly ambiguity about the violence in Clockwork Orange, as McDowell concedes: “You are not supposed to be rooting for them, but…”.

So Munro comes away with more questions than answers to his film’s pivotal question: What are Kubrick’s film about?. From his early days as a photographer and as a novice filmmaker (Killer’s Kiss), he was obsessed with boxing, his love of the sport is documented by shots of an entranced young Kubrick. And chess which, he claims, taught him patience and discipline.

We end, quite aptly, with 8 mm films of Kubrick’s childhood with his younger sister (Al Bowlly singing ‘Midnight, The Stars and You” from The Shining), and his home life in leafy Hertfordshire, a recreation of the Royal Court’s afterlife scenes from 2001 as a doll-house set provides the leitmotif, rounding up a fascinating portrait of a filmmaker who was – to a large extent – all brain, but could never totally conceal the tough New Yorker beneath. AS

The 55th Karlovy Vary IFF will take place in 2021. Meanwhile Karlovy Vary IFF is organising KVIFF at Your Cinema showcase | SCREENING DURING KVIFF | 4 JULY 2020 

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2019)

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky | Doc 87′

In her latest eco-documentary Baichwal finds a breath-taking way of showing how humans are destroying the planet. We started off with good intentions, and admirable causes: Carrara Marble gave us the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s David, but now it mostly provides bathrooms. Teak from the forests of Southern India provided us with oceangoing boats to fight off the Spanish Armada. But enough is now enough. Our burgeoning populations have created an insatiable need for raw materials. This cycle of pillage and endless destruction has overtaken production: our seas are nearly empty, our woods and forests increasingly bare, this untold environmental depletion is even taking its toll on the air we breath.

Rather like Michael Glawogger did in his time, Jennifer Baichwal (Watermark) and her team travel all over the world’s far flung corners to highlight the bizarre and the intriguing. Breathtaking images make us stare in disbelief, mesmerised by the sheer scale, beauty or  dreadfulness of it all. In Russia’s most polluted city, huge mines produce smelted metal used to construct machinery that plunders more minerals from the earth. Germany makes mammoth machines weighting thousands of tons, capable of tearing down a church steeple in seconds to provide space for more mining activity (known as Terraforming, apparently). In the arid salt flats of the Atacama Desert neon-green pools of lithium brine desiccate in the punishing glare of the sun. The batteries will power our electric cars. A doom laden narration from Alicia Vikander feels redundant, anyone can understand the implications of this sinister story without making it even more dour.

So despite some alluring photography Anthropocene offers no positive angles, and we are left feeling hopeless and helpless. Once we built a civilisation, now we are tearing it all apart. MT

ANTHROPOCENE | NOW ON VOD

 

Let it Burn | Dis a era due me via Chorar (2019) *** Mubi

Dir.: Maira Bühler; Documentary; Brazil 2019, 81 min.

In her remarkable documentary Brazilian filmmaker Maira Bühler follows the residents of a hotel turned hostel for crack addicts trying to put their lives together again.

The original title Tell Her That She Saw Me Cry is actually much more suitable. What we are really dealing with here is a domestic drama about lost souls whose emotions are so raw that they can only be released in forceful, often self harming, ways often counterproductive to their recovery. In 28 rooms on 7 floors, 107 residents live out their grim existence in the centre of Sao Paulo. Not that we see very much of Brazil’s capital – only the noise of passing trains reminds us of the vast metropolis outside and the brutal streets where hope was decimated long ago for these hapless inhabitants in their lost ark of social abandonment. But at least a den of iniquity is preferable to the jungle outside.

A trade mark of today’s Brazilian documentary style is the obsession with detail combined with an objectivity that captures an out-pouring of emotions often frightening to witness. A man shouts into his phone, desperately declaring his love for a woman who might not even be listening – but his cri de coeur is at the same time proof of him being alive. A lonely woman in a deserted dormitory waits for a lover who might never return. The longing for company is what keeps the majority of the tenants alive. The camera searches out the human links and reveals little groups clinging on to each other for survival. An aching love song reminds us what this is all about: love, however fleeting, is vital for survival.

The social gulf between film crew and their subjects is enormous. But when the crew has installed a tripod in the lift and starts filming, one woman reveals to the director that she is completed uneducated. But even though there is an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism, the woman never prevents the camera from intruding into her misery. The strength of the film is that it allows ambiguity to develop without letting fragility and vulnerability mask the gradual humanisation. Sadly, this last chance saloon of salvation has now been shut down as part of the cutbacks in psychiatric support instigated by President Bolsonaro’s far right government. AS

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2019

 

Carmine Street Guitars (2018) ****

With Rich Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly2018 | CANADA | Doc | 80′

This genial music biopic explores the laid-back vibe of Carmine Street Guitars, a little shop in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village that remains resilient to encroaching gentrification.
Custom guitar maker Rick Kelly and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted instruments out of reclaimed wood from old hotels, bars, churches and other local buildings. Nothing looks or sounds like the classic instruments they have created with loving dedication. The film shoots the breeze with Rick and his starry visitors who treat us to impromptu riffs from their extensive repertoires and talk about how much they treasure this village institution and its reassuring presence as a little oasis of calm in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of the music business.
Rick’s pleasant banter with these lowkey luminaries is what makes this enjoyable musical therapy for fans and those who have never heard of the guitars, their craftsman or those who have commissioned and cherished the hand-made instruments since the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch, to name but a few. A small gem but a sparkling one. MT
STREAMING ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 26 JUNE 2020

Sisters with Transistors (2020) Bfi player

Dir.: Lisa Rovner; Documentary narrated by Laurie Anderson; France 2019, 85 min.

Paris based writer/director Lisa Rovner looks at the women pioneers behind electronic music in a lively new documentary. Sisters With Transistors shows how women opened up new avenues of creativity, despite prevailing male attitudes at the time  to these talented musicians having to wait a lifetime to hear their own compositions on the airwaves.

The honour of being first goes to Lithuanian born Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Trained as a violinist at the conservatoire, she then took up an early synthesiser style instrument. We watch her in the garden of her New York house in 1934, with the sound artist Aura Satz commenting how Rockmore describes her art  allowing “the self-created sound to change the music”.

British composer Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) was also an early pioneer working in the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop, surrounded by electronic generators, producing music via a TV monitor, culminating in a structural version of ‘white noise’. In her own living room she worked with huge radios, up to two meters high. At Oxford, she was part of just ten percent of female students. The Nazi bombing of Coventry, and the London Blitz, inspired her to a new world of sounds. Equally, the CND marches inspired her to compose music “from the Cold War”. But her greatest and most lasting achievement is the eerie, a-tonal intro-music for Dr. Who, a series starting in 1963. 

Daphne Oram (1925-2003), co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, composed prolifically: Amphitryon 1958, Private Dreams and Public Places – both pieces evoking Huxley’s SciFi novels. Oram worked with paint on the glass plates, which distributed the music onto the tape recorder. Her Birds of Parallax is a sort of dance music and shown with a newsreel film clip of ‘modern’ dancing’.

Eliane Radigue (*1932) grew up near Nice airport, her music was based on the very different sounds the planes made. She created a sound stage, which became a musical universe. Working as an assistant to composer Pierre Schaeffer in an otherwise male-only crew, she was told by a co-worker “How nice it is, to have you in the studio, it smells good”. At the end of the 60s when working with Pierre Henry, Radigue discovered the feedback technique, by “finding the sweet spot between a speaker and a microphone, making the sound evolve.” She called it “Sonic propositions”. 

Meanwhile, in 1952, in New York’s Greenwich Village, electronic composers Bebe Baron (1926-2008) and her husband Louis wrote the music to Belle of Atlantis by Ian Hugo and Anias Nin. In 1956 they composed the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet, but the musicians union fought successful against a credit on the feature – they had to be happy with being mentioned as “Electronic tonalities” contributors. 

Pauline Oliveros (193-2016) was a lesbian, a revolutionary and a composer of electronic music in 1950s San Francisco which was, at the time, nearly as conservative as the rest of USA. But, it was also a time, when some artists wanted to be not like anybody else. Having been given a tape recorder for her birthday in 1965, Pauline went on to make a career as a composer, starting with’ Bye, bye Butterfly’, a Japanese influenced ballet. Many composers had in common “They they were ghost riding on different frequencies”, as Mayanne Amacher put it.

All these women had to fight simply to stay alive, Wendy Carlos (*1939) is the exception. Invited by a very young David Letterman to appear on his show, she amazed him with her music producing equipment that saw her becoming arguably the first woman to secure lucrative commercials, and a staring role in Hollywood production of The Incredible Shrinking woman“.   

Rovner returns to Eliane Radiguet, who was interviewed in 2018 in Paris, listening to some of her music for the first time. “Thirty, forty years ago, it would have been impossible for musicians to play my music. I am hearing it for the first time. In the past, if often thought, I was crazy”.

In her impressive debut, Rovner wisely avoids the talking heads approach that can often spoil the integrity of a documentary, interweaving her film instead with informative historical newsreels and fascinating archive footage. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

  

 

Please Hold The Line (2020) **** Sheffield Doc Festival 2020

Wri/Dir: Pavel Cuzuioc | Doc, Austria 86′

The past and the present collide in this darkly amusing deep dive into the human side of the digital age. And each are as complex as the other according to Pavel Cuzuoic, whose third documentary works on two levels: As an abstract expressionist arthouse piece and a deadpan social and political satire. What emerges is a priceless look at a society in flux in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. The old fights with the new, refusing to give in.

Pavel Cuzuoic started his film career as a sound recordist notably for Nikolaus Geyrhalter in Earth. Essentially a series of episodes involving human experiences with the internet and telephony, this is an expertly edited atmospheric film that proves that human contact is still king. The digital age with its pretensions to slimline and simplify our connection with a wider experience often fails. Our most enriching and successful exchanges are still one to one with each other. A pile of cables in a server farm is just as messy as the chaos of human existence. And this dichotomy provides a rich thread of humour that runs through this informative film like an internet cable.

It opens in a server farm in Cricova, Moldavia, where deft and blue-coated women operatives are seen silently pushing buttons and twisting wires, a picture of quintessential Soviet efficiency. We meet the field technicians – one is Oleg who works for Ukraine’s telephone monopoly – patiently going about their work in domestic environments where they are often greeted with bewildered and flummoxed customers who enrich the film with their illuminating social commentaries in Kyiv, Ukraine, Buzău County in Romania and the seaside resort of Tsavero in Bulgaria.

Please Hold The Line is not concerned with ‘digital natives’ but the elderly and those dependent on technology to stay in touch with the wider world, but also depressed by the often Kafkaesque nature of red tape involved. While the operatives work away quietly to restore their networks ( customers take centre stage to discuss their wider concerns about easy of connectivity. An Orthodox Russian priest shares his views on Genesis “in the beginning was the word” to enforce his feelings about our online world; housewives discuss their horror at the cheapening of life brought on by the internet, citing local murders of young women and babies. There is even a hiccoughing cat. MT

WORLD PREMIERING AT SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2020 

 

On the Record (2020) **** Streaming

Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering | Cast: Drew Dixon, Si Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw | USA, 96′

More #MeToo stories, this time from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering whose controversial new documentary puts the spotlight on women who have come out to denounce hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The focus here is Drew Dixon.

This is the filmmakers’ third foray into #MeToo territory and Drew Dixon takes centre along with  two other victims – out of twenty – who have filed sexual assault and rape charges against record producer and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The incident became a news story before the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers, withdrew from the project she had fostered for a long time, thus destroying any chances of it being acquired by Apple+. The reasons are very opaque: there were threats from Russell, film critic and Ava DuVernay allegedly told Winfrey, that the documentary did not accurately flesh out the hip-hop world of the setting. Finally, Winfrey decided “there were inconsistencies in Dixon’s story that gave me pause” and the feature had been rushed to appear at Sundance. What ever the true reasons for Winfrey’s jumping ship, HBOmax won the screening rights for what turns out to be a worthy companion to Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable.

Drew Dixon (*1971) is the daughter of former Washington DC mayor Sharon Pratt and went to Stanford University. Becoming a record producer for Def Jam, a label led by mogul Russell Simmons, was her dream job. She overlooked the fact that Simmons would often come into her office, showing his member. In a milieu where the culture of celebrity “bad-ass” men was celebrated, Simmons’ behaviour did not seem to be totally out of place. Dixon became an A&R executive, responsible for the soundtrack of the 1995 documentary “The Show”, helping to build the careers of Method Man among others, whom she later paired with Mary J. Bilge. It all came crashing down for Dixon, when Simmons invited her to his apartment after a party. He appeared naked with a condom and asked her in a very harsh voice “to stop fighting”. Later, the writer Sil Lai Abrams would report a similar incidence with Simmons. After leaving Def Jam, Dixon worked for Clive Davis at Arista, but CEO L.A. Reid started to harass her. Out of spite, to destroy her career, he passed on signing a new talent, a certain Kanye West. Dixon left the industry all together, and it took her until 2017 to pen an article in the New York Times, to make the public listen to her story.

There are two issues which make the case of the three black women appearing on the documentary (Dixon, Abrams and Jenny Lumet) complex: until now, any public critique of the black community, by fellow blacks, is seen by the majority as treachery – helping the enemy, ie. the white majority. Secondly, black women still feel excluded from the #MeToo movement. Dixon claims she felt enormous pressure to denounce somebody of the standing of Russell Simmons. It took her twenty years – being alone with her trauma – to overcome the barriers.

As for Simmons, he decided not to appear in the documentary but send a written statement, issuing countless denials of he false accusations: “I have lived an honourable life as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anybody”. In 2018 he nevertheless emigrated to Bali, Indonesia, a country which has no extradition arrangement with the USA. Reid too repudiated all allegations. He left his position as CEO of Sony Epic, and raised 75 $ Million to form a new company. Drew Dixon has recently gone back to the drawing board with a new career in the music business, working from her flat. AS

ON STREAMING PLATFORMS FROM 18 JUNE 2020 | Available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon Video, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Dogwoof, Google Play, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Media, YouTube

 

Camagroga (2020) **** Sheffield Doc Fest 2020

Dir/Wri: Alfonso Amador, | Doc, Catalan, Spain, 111′

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Spanish milkshake “horchata de chufas” this is a simple story well told. By the end we know everything there is to know about the tiger nut.

Spanish filmmaker Alfonso Amador’s lush cinematic tribute to the humble ‘chufa’ glows with local colour – as much a piece of social, political and agricultural history as it is a pictorial guide to how the crop is grown, nurtured and finally turned into a Vitamin E rich snack or foodstuff in the village of Alboraya in the fertile region of “La Huerta (the orchard) near Valencia. Originally a small farming community, the region has expanded in recent years with the Valencia’s development as a metropolitan city. La Huerta was originally cultivated with irrigation canals at the time of Spain’s Moorish invasion, and its fertile soil later provided food for the Roman armies who occupied Iberia. Nowadays this fertile plain is divided into three areas bordered by the Mediterranean Sea.

The film, co-scripted with Sergi Dies, follows the tiger nut growers, particularly Antonio and Inma Ramon, as they work their way through the farming year starting with Winter (Inverno) and ending with Autumn (Tardor). Elegantly captured on the widescreen and in vibrant personal close-ups, most of footage is silent but occasionally a pithy dialogue breaks through in Valencian dialect, very close to Catalan: to discuss lunch (sometimes a lavish get together, or simply a sandwich and swig of local wine) or past methods of growing or – on a broader canvas – the reasons why and how the world has impacted on this small but indomitable farming corner of North Eastern Spain, that continues to produce fine vegetables – particularly artichokes and potatoes – thanks to its rich soil, fine weather and near maritime climate. The tiger nut crop is alternated with onions.

One elderly farmer has been involved in tiger nut farming all his life – since the age of 8 – and shows us his trusty equipment that includes a dung basket and hundred-year old shovel. But women take part in the growing too. Another farmer who works land tirelessly with this wife, explains his life’s work to his grandson: “La Huerta catches you, and there’s nothing more beautiful, because you live the land, you live life”. Tiger nut farming even has its own vocabulary: “Sao” refers to the ideal state of soil humidity for planting. The definition of plowing is “the art of unravelling the earth”.

Sadly, as a result of mass globalisation the farmers are struggling to survive because all the added value there was when the goods used to be sold at market has now dissipated. The large corporations have taken over and stock pile the tiger nuts, choking prices, and thus taking the profit margins. Migrant workers are useful but don’t have the same inherent sensitivity towards crop cultivation and handling as the locals. There is also talk amongst the locals of the land being sold to build a large commercial shopping centre – the idea being of creating more jobs. Pressure groups are encouraging locals to gather together and protest against this commercialisation but sadly time marches on. Camagroga is a sombre but dignified portrait of a struggling community: as the old generation dies out, a new one emerges keen to till the soil of their ancestors, and continue their heritage with the slogan: “Land for those who work on it”. MT

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL | INTO THE WORLD STRAND | JUNE 2020

 

 

 

 

Seasons in Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger (2016) *** MUBI

Dir.: Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton; Documentary/Essay with John Berger, Tilda Swinton; UK 2016, 90 min.

To call the novelist, art historian, painter and poet John Berger a Renaissance man is for once no hyperbole. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, and in the same year was the main contributor to the influential BBC series “Ways of Seeing” – at a time when television tried to edify audiences rather than anaesthetising them.

Berger, who died in January 2017, aged 90, also wrote film scripts during the mid 1970s, notably for the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le milieu du Monde, Jonah who will be 25 in 2000). He left London for good in 1973 to spend the rest of his life in the French mountain village of Quincy in Haute-Savoie. Seasons is an omnibus edition of four short films that illuminates his way of thinking.

The first sequel, “Ways of Listening”, directed by McCabe, was shot in 2010 when Tilda Swinton (who wrote the script) visited Berger in Quincy just before Christmas. It is a discourse about friendship and art. Berger and Swinton not only share a birthday (34 years apart) and place of birth (London), but also fathers who had been active soldiers, fighting in WWI and WWII respectively – and would never talk about their experiences, in spite of being severely wounded. While Swinton peels apples for a crumble, Berger sketches her. They also talk about his “Bento’s Sketchbook” to explain the workings of his mind – a deeper diver into this would have been welcome!.

Christopher Roth’s second part “Spring” is mainly a discourse about humans and animals – no surprise, since Berger’s work is often centred around the relationship between the two. Some of Berger’s texts on the subject are read out, and we see samples of his TV work. But the episode is very much coloured by grief: Berger had recently lost his wife of nearly forty years, Beverly, to cancer and Roth’s mother had also died. Feeling like a collage, “Spring” is the most emotional chapter of the quartet.

“A Song for Politics”, directed by McCabe and Bartek Dziadosz (also editor and cinematographer of the other parts and director of the Derek Jarman Lab, which co-produced Seasons), consists mainy of a black-and-white TV style discussion between Berger, McCabe, and the writers Akshi Sing and Ben Lerner, about the plight of today’s Europe. Berger bemoans the fact that a society which only exists “to do the next deal” lacks historical input. They agree that old-fashioned capitalism is dead, But a discussion is needed about what has replaced it. There are rousing songs from the early years of the 20th century when ‘Solidarity’ was the slogan. Ironically, Berger states, “solidarity is only needed in Hell, not in Heaven”. Paradoxes and contradictions are flying around, and it’s no surprise the come to no conclusions.

“Harvest”, directed by Tilda Swinton, is filmed in Quincy and Paris – Berger had to move for health reasons to the French capital where he would later die. Swinton takes her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor to Quincy, to meet Ives, Berger’s son of his marriage with Beverly. There is a resonance from “Ways of Listening”, as far as father/son relationships are concerned, Ives being an artist. But it is also a tribute to Beverly who planted a huge raspberry garden, the children enjoy the fruit “giving Beverly pleasure”. In Paris, Berger, in spite of his frailty, is keen on teaching Honor how to ride a motorbike, whilst her mother looks on in horror. But “Harvest” feels like a long goodbye between Berger and Swinton: not sentimental, but deeply felt.

Seasons is proof that you only need some existential ‘old-fashioned’ ideas, and a mini-budget to produce something worthwhile. In spite of its small faults, this essay/documentary makes the audience curious – and if it ‘only’ encourages us to find out more about the work of John Berger, it has fulfilled its purpose. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS

Stolen Fish (2020) **** Sheffield Doc Fest 2020

Dir: Gosia Juszczak  | With Abou Saine, Mariama Jatta, Paul John Kamony | Documentary – Wolof/English – 2020 – 31 min
The Chinese are fuelling the migrant crisis in Europe by fishing in Gambian waters according to this illuminating documentary debut from Poland’s Gosia Juszczak.

 

In the smallest country of continental Africa, Gambia, fish are now being caught and processed by Chinese corporations and exported to Europe and China to feed animals in industrial farming. As a result, Gambians are being deprived of their primary source of protein while overfishing is depleting marine ecosystems. The film follows three Gambians who share the sea’s bounty. Or they did up to now. Increasingly they are being forced into poverty due to overzealous fishing from Chinese boats that fail to respect the ecosystem. The Chinese have pumped finance into the country but this allows them to take the lion’s share of the fish for their factories, forcing prices up for the average Gambian because the fishermen who traditionally sold to the markets are now servicing the factories, of which there are now 50 in West Africa. Only when the factory quota is full, can the fisherman sell their catch to the locals who then sell to the markets.

The main habitat for marine fish is naturally the sea. But one young fisherman explains how the fish actually breed in the long inland Gambia River which flows throw this sliver of a country that benefits from a lengthy Atlantic seaboard, rather like Chile. The Chinese have found a way to bring their boats right up to the shallows, formally the exclusive domain of the local fisherman, capturing not only mature bonga, red snapper or catfish, but also the stock in their early stage of life with nets that also do not allow turtles, dolphins and other mammals to escape, a practice that is ecologically unsound for all marine creatures.

With a population of only 2 million Gambia has one of the highest rates of irregular migration towards Europe. But “taking the backway” or migration, is by no means an answer nowadays.  Many Gambians have drowned in the perilous crossing to Europe, or been captured by patrol boats and kidnapped by nefarious gangs or the police, and sent back before they reach the safety of the shores. So they must fight for survival eking out an existence with what’s left in the diminishing fish stocks in this narrative that very much reflects back on the global fishmeal industry and how it impacts on the lives of local people in one of the poorest areas of West Africa.

Gosia Juszczak films with an artist’s eye capturing the lush colours of this beautiful sea-faring country, surrounded by Senegal and often referred to as “The Smiling Coast” with its pleasant climate and contented people. MT

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2020 | IN THE WORLD STRAND

 

 

Influence (2020) *** Sheffield Doc Fest 2020

Dir/Wri: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille. Doc, With: Tim Bell, Ron Leagas, John Hegarty, Phumzile van Damme, Nigel Oakes, Mark Hollingsworth, David Wynne-Morgan, Marianne Thamm, Sergio Bitar, Ascanio Cavallo, Pablo Zalaquett, José Antonio Kast Rist, Ralph Mathekga, FW de Klerk, Stanley Greenberg, Chester Crocker, Ketso Gordhan, Johann Kriegler, Andile Mngxitama, Alex Goldfarb, Paul Bell, Meirion Jones, Haider Jraidan, Joel Harding, Kirsten Fontenrose, Francis Ingham | Doc, 107′

The late advertising and PR supremo Timothy John Leigh Bell is the subject of this brisk and enjoyable documentary that soon sinks under a weight of detail. South African journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille use a clever framing device that sees Bell being interviewed for a radio station as the discussion widen out enlivened by archive footage and ample talking heads – but there’s just too much to take in for those unfamiliar with the territory.

If only Sir Tim Bell could have written the script. He comes across an uncomplicated and amusingly laconic character, glancing amiably over horn-rimmed glasses, cigarette permanently on the go, a man who you’d want on your side. And whose biggest coup in the early days of his career at Saatchi & Saatchi was working on the “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign that helped Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher win the 1979  general election. Bell and his associates soon worked out that winning elections and campaigns of all kinds is not down to ‘luck’ but a scientific skillset that interprets how the audience will respond, therefore creating a workable weapon: “It wasn’t about what you said, it was all about the audience”. And this is one of Bell’s most salient legacies.

He co-founded PR company Bell Pottinger in 1988, and was later famous for frosting up the relationship between the West and Putin through a simple but telling hospital bed ‘photo of the poisoned Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko. This establishes the truth that a picture is worth a thousand words. But that’s far from end of the story.

The exposé jumps around quite a bit eventually spinning off in all directions intoxicated by the complexities of the task it takes on. After dealing with Bell’s work on British politics, the thrust moves on to South Africa to explore Bell Pottinger’s role in unethically firing up racial unrest under President Jacob Zuma, influenced by the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger was hired to dispel and change the mood there and cocked it all up. Ironically a grass roots social media campaign in South Africa reacted against the influence of the British PR film. The resulting fallout led to the company filing for bankruptcy and Bell resigned in 2018.

The self-made spin doctor spins his own image with his direct approach to dealings, possessing the confidence and clarity of vision that many of us envy and even admire. He was paid to put a positive facade on the profiles of nefarious characters – amongst them Saudi arms dealers and autocrats such as General Pinochet – but his success in the end contributed to his own downfall. Barristers represent arch criminals everyday and get off Scott free. But when the press and public rise up against you your days are numbered. Ironically Sir Tim was foisted by his own petard – despite being brilliant at the task he took on.

Bell – filmed here before his death in August 2019 – puts up a good argument and a plausible one, and some of his arguments are plausible. But the directors have taken on more than they can chew. In the end their forensic approach encumbers their attempts to make a digest about the fascinating times we live in. We are left with an unpalatable fact: Perception is increasingly more important than the truth. MT

SCREENING AT SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2020 | NOW ONLINE.

 

 

 

 

Pearl of the Desert (2019) **** Krakow Film Festival 2020

Dir: Pushpendra Singh | Doc with Moti, Nijre and Anwar Khan Manganiyar |  India/South Korea | 82′

A young Indian boy from the lower caste Muslim Manganiyars is forced to sing traditional songs in celebration of his masters in this simple but enchanting ethnographical documentary from sophomore filmmaker Pushpendra Singh (The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs). 

The Thar Desert is vast region to the North of the Indian subcontinent, a natural barrier between Rajasthan and Pakistan’s Sindhi province which forms a vibrant natural backcloth to this fascinating coming of age story of oral history driven forward by its haunting ballads that tell of love, life and hardship (“Oh opium, you made me sell my jewellery”). The Manganiyars Muslims are a people well-known for their folk music which is handed down through the generations and supported by wealthy local Rajput benefactors (jajmans) in caravan towns. Although traditionally Muslims, these troubadour singers often tour around to perform during Hindu festivals invoking the Hindu God Krishna at ceremonies for birth, death and marriage.

Singh follows a straightforward narrative structure interweaving her film with delightful hand-drawn inter-titles that explain the origins and activities of these ancient people who also play instruments such as the bowed Kamaicha; a hand drum or Dholak, and a Khartaal or type of Indian castenet. The instruments are described in the film’s second act which also introduces dancing that feels dervish-like in style. The final act sees Moti leaving his village and travelling to make a studio recording for an Australian radio programme covering a music festival. He has finally found a ‘stardom’ of sorts in these celebrity-driven days.

The crux of narrative surrounds the Manganiyars status as ‘beggars’ a title that sits badly in today’s climate and humiliates young Moti, the central character, despite the pride he feels in his singing and in his cultural traditions. But there is no bitterness here as the Manganiyars feel a natural compulsiveness to sing and can use their vocal skills and treasured heritage to earn decent money and support their families. Singh works with DoP Ravi Kiran Ayyagari to create a vivid and lyrical cinematic gem that is informative, enjoyable to watch and beautiful to look at, its nighttime scenes in the desert are particularly alluring. MT

PEARL OF THE DESERT won the GOLDEN HEYNAL for BEST DocFilmMusic | KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 31 MAY – 7 June 2020

 

 

An Ordinary Country | Zwyczajmy Kraj (2019) **** Krakow Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Tomasza Wolskiego; Documentary, Poland 2019, 53 min.

Polish writer/director Tomasza Wolskiego (Gold Fish) has created a devastating and filmic portrait of the work of the Stalinist Security Services and the Citizen’s Militia in Poland in the 1970s and 80s.

Enriched by found footage from the agencies, it paints a sombre snapshot of everyday life: we are not talking here about people being victimised or wanting to overthrow the system – far from it, the sins are purely those of the flesh brought on by their persecution complex and neurosis.

The footage, shot in black-and-white, bears witness to state operatives busy recording and arresting with a self-importance associated with some massive nationwide conspiracy. This paranoia  is transferred to ordinary people inducing misplaced feelings of guilty, and even shame for crimes not even contemplated. Hunter and hunted often look the same, particularly when the agents try to turn their victims into informers – in 1989 the number of officers in the two services was 24 000, the number of informers 90, 000. In a way, this was like a pandemic, slowly eating up more and more of the population. 

The pathetic nature of it all is best seen in the case of an ordinary house wife whose husband works for Ocean Sailing, and is accused of illegal dealings in foreign currency. Whilst the woman is interrogated, another officer tapes the conversation, his co-worker trying to trip the woman up: he wants to know the exact price she paid for a radio, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and a fridge. Not getting anywhere, he switches his focus the price of meat, the number of loaves of bread, the amount of butter and margarine consumed. He then announces pompously that conversation is being recorded “and will be used as evidence in the case of prosecution.” Switching tack, he asks her how much her husband earns. Did he have a foreign exchange supplement? How much? When the woman pleads ignorance, the interrogator gets indignant: “Come on, you are a house wife, you know the figures”. Finally, he gets to the main question: “How much did you get for the blouses?”. When the woman insists she has no need for blouses because she has everything at home, he gives up for the moment: “You sold nothing and have everything at home. Fine. Thank you”. 

Then there is the case of diplomat caught in flagrant for two-timing his wife. Polaroid photos of crumpled bed sheets are brought out to indicate “intimate purposes”. The officers record their conversation with the diplomat in his flat, the kitchen door is plastered with pornographic images, under the bed old “Playboy” and lesbian magazines. “But we come here to you like friends. If you are with us, we will take care of you. We’ll take care of everything, to keep you safe. From your wife in particular. We should make a deal. We are aware of your contacts in Germany and America. They are looking for links to Solidarnosc. Help for help. We close your case” After promising not to ruin his career but make it flourish, the deal is struck.: “I, the undersigned will help the Polish Special Service. I will keep this fact strictly confidential”. Then: “Put a dot there, and start with a capital letter”. Afterwards he is released with a final warning: “We do punish ignorance.”  

The overall impression is that of great sadness: more or less innocent people are coerced into becoming informers, or face long prison sentences for minor offences. But the real culprits are not the men or women, phoning relatives abroad for haemorrhoid medication because the shelves are empty in Poland, but a State who treats its citizens as criminals, for simply wanting to survive.

This is a paradise for Kafkaesque officers, who spend their days denying others the smallest of pleasure in this grey morass of officialdom. Meanwhile, faceless bureaucrats at the top let loose an army of petty policemen, posing as a ‘service for the people’. Ironically these weasels are as much victims as those they persecute, denying others a soul, having lost their own. AS

KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL | BEST FILM NATIONAL COMPETITION 2020 

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

This is Not a Movie (2019) **** Canada Now | Curzon Home Cinema

Dir.: Yung Chang; Documentary with Robert Fisk, Amira Hass; Canada/Germany 2019, 106 min.

Canadian director/co-writer Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) creates an energetic portrait of British war journalist Robert Fisk (*1946), who has chronicled conflict zones from Northern Ireland to the Syrian atrocities. After more than five decades in the field, and now living in Beirut since 1976, Frisk is seven times winner of the British Press Award’s International journalist of the year.

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly romantic drama Foreign Correspondent, was the kicker that started Fisk’s fascination with journalism. Growing up in Maidstone, Kent, he is fluent in Arabic after working in the devasted cities of Syria and the occupied West Bank. His father was a soldier in the Great War and refused to execute an enemy soldier “the only action my father undertook, with which I could identify”.

After starting with the Sunday Express he later changed to The Times, which he left after the Rupert Murdoch takeover, and has now found a home at the Independent, covering wars for the digital edition. Fisk interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times between 1993 and 1997. In the first article, he called Bin Laden an Anti-Soviet mountain warrior on the road to peace. The “mountain warrior” must have been impressed by the journalist, because he tried to convert him to his cause. Fisk also covered the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, when the Israeli Army turned a blind eye to the Falange soldiers who massacred Palestinians in refuge camps. On the ‘phone to his current editor, Fisk has to explain why he made the reference in his report. Losing his patience, Fisk tells the man he should look it up on Google and try to make the connection.

Director Chang is as much a purist as is Fisk. When asked in an interview about his position in the question of film versus digital, he admits:”there is a grain, a quality and a depth to the image that is unmatched in digital video.” Some images were shot in 16mm by DoP Duraid Munajim, but did not make it into the final cut. But the still photos shot during the production are in 35 mm.

Fisk has always challenge the objectivity of “balanced” journalism, his viewpoint is visible throughout his work when he tries to interrogate all sides of the conflict. Whether in Homs, Aleppo, Douma or Palestine, he “is neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. In contrast to the mainstream media, he gives voice to the unrepresented. Both Chang and Fisk share a passion for travelling, and being taken out of their comfort zone. The dirctor is full of admiration for his older counterpart: “We started when Fisk was around seventy-two. But he is still active, still thinking and still writing incendiary articles and cracking forward-thinking stories. This had to be an active story.” AS

HEADLINING CANADA NOW | CURZON HOME CINEMA | 12 JUNE 2020

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

La Frontière de nos Rèves (1996) | A Bridge to Christo | Tribute (1935-2020)

Dir.: Georgui Balabanov; Documentary with Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Anani Yavashev; Bulgaria 1996, 72 min.

In his thought-provoking biopic, Bulgarian director Georgui Balabanov (The Petrov File) portrays two very different brothers who have been living apart for 26 years on the opposite sides of the iron curtain. Christo (1935-2020), who died on 31 May 2020, travelled abroad to become an celebrated environmental artist and his actor brother Anani Yavashev, who deeply regrets his wasted years in Bulgaria under Stalinist censorship. Two destines embody the hopes and illusions of two different worlds.

Balabanov’s documentary flips between Gabrovo, the village where the brothers grew up, and the Paris flat Christo shared with Moroccan born Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. Both not only share the same birthday (13.6.1935), but a passion for art, while understanding that their work is transient – apart from one installation, the 400k oil barrels at Mastaba, all their projects have vanished: the wrappings of the Berlin Reichstag and the Pont-Neuf Bridge as well as The Gates of Central Park in New York.

The busy Paris flat, with Jeanne-Claude chain smoking whilst organising their projects, is in great contrast to Anani’s inertia shared with his artist friends. The Sofia theatre they called home for decades is being torn down and even if they are not too fond of their memories, it is still their past lives, which are bulldozed to the ground. Anani could never play Lenin, since he was “politically not trusted”. The brother’s father Vladimir, a former business man, was imprisoned at the beginning of the Stalinist regime of terror, for “sabotage”. As an old “Class Enemy” he took the punishment for a drunken worker, who burned the cloth production for the whole week. His sons were suspects too, Anani got into drama school only with the help of a benevolent friend in the bureaucratic system.

1957 was the year of decision for Christo, who went to Prague and was smuggled in a locked train-compartment to Vienna. The rest is history – but Anani and his friends, paid heavily for their compromise with the system. Modernism in all art forms was tantamount to treason, painters and playwrights had to smuggle progressive elements into their work – hoping all the time that the censors would overlook it. But they are also honest enough, to admit they had a free reign in their private lives: long, passionate nights are mentioned. One feels sorry for this resigned bunch, and can sympathise with their plight: it comes as no co-incidence that only a few escaped the artistic prisons of the Soviet Block: risk-taking is seen as a virtue in the West either – human nature is preponderantly opportunistic.

Shot in intimate close-up by DoP Radoslav Spassov, La Frontiere is very much a celebration of artistic work represented by Christo and Jeanne-Claude – and a “Trauerarbeit” for the lost souls who staid behind, sharing with others the loss of artistic identity. AS

Tribute to Christo who died in May 2020

The Epic of Everest (1924)

Wri/Dir/Prod: Captain John Noel | UK Doc, 87min

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s failed attempt to climb Everest in 1924

There’s a moment during The Epic of Everest that really reflects the powerless of human endeavour when faced with the magnitude of nature: As three tiny insect-like creatures totter over a snow-caked precipice of solid ice and gradually disappear from view, the total insignificance of man versus the mountain finally dawns. What sheer folly to think that these men could conquer a force of nature dressed flimsily in tweed jackets and plus fours almost 100 years ago but, of course, North Face puffas didn’t exist then.

1924_Everest_expedition_group_photo copy

Captain John Noel accompanied Mallory and Irvine on this third attempt to conquer the magnificent Himalayan peak using the most powerful lenses of the day to produce jaw-dropping photos and ethereal time-lapse sequences that are testament not only to the dangers of the snowscape but also the spiritual splendour of this deeply spiritual part of the world. To add context, Noel captures footage of the megalith of Rongbuk monastery (where they are told that the expedition is fated not to succeed) and the local people of the world’s highest town: Phari-Dzong, who never wash from birth to the day they die, when they are ‘hacked to pieces’ on a slab of stone. They seem cheerful enough.

Despite restoration by the BFI National Archive, the photography naturally feels dated in comparison with recent mountaineering films such as Chasing Ice and The Summit but what Captain John Noel has captured here is the extreme sense of loneliness and isolation of the vast expanses. Filming the lead party up to two miles away, thanks to the clarity of visibility, they look like tiny dots on a hostile landscape often shrouded in swirling mists and eerie legends of local Tibetan folklore.

Heights mean nothing to those of us who stay happily at sea level, but when we hear that sherpas carved up to 2,000 steps in the ice on some of the ascents, the extreme arduous nature of the expedition finally hits home. On the day of his birth, a tiny donkey was forced to walk 22 miles and collapsed in sheer, sleepy exhaustion after his first day of life. These bare facts really put this extraordinary venture into human context that can be appreciated.

The Epic of Everest is accompanied by Simon Fisher Turner’s atmospheric ambient soundtrack featuring cowbells, Tibetan music and vocals gradually turning more sinister and haunting as the expedition unfolds. A moving and peaceful tribute to our courageous men. MT

THE EPIC OF EVEREST IS NOW free ON BFI PLAYER marking TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM. 

Journey across the planet’s most challenging terrain in this ode to exploration and endurance on film, accompanying TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, season at BFI Southbank continuing throughout January.

On 5 January 1922 the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Marking this centenary and that of Britain’s first attempt to summit Mount Everest, this collection tells a connected story about human endurance, our relationship with and impact on the natural world. The birth of film collided with exploration’s heyday as a competitive sport, source of national pride and beacon of scientific discovery. This free curated archive collection includes early film records of expeditions to Everest and the Arctic and beyond to remote regions of South America and South Asia. Many of the films are part of the extraordinary Royal Geographical Society collection, preserved by the BFI National Archive.

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/to-the-ends-of-the-earth

 

Outside the City (2019) **** Digital/DVD release

Dir: Nick Hamer | UK Doc 82′

In his lavishly filmed documentary Nick Hamer meets a group of Trappist monks in the Leicestershire monastery of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. He talks to them individually about their lives, thoughts and prayers. The Cistercian Abbey is a closed community that has seen its numbers dwindle since the early decades of the 2oth century. Now there are only 30 monks in residence.

Although the film subverts our expectations about spirituality, the main focus is the monks’ desire keep their community thriving and viable. And to this end they have converted their dairy farm into a brewery, a traditional monastic occupation which has been successful enough to ensure the abbey’s survival. Their beer is called Tynt Meadow, and is sold as ‘English Trappist Ale’, Helped by Belgian brewing advisor Constant Kleinemans it has become a successful craft beer.

The inspirational tenet of the Cistercian monks is simplicity. Life in a monastery is not an escape route from the world. Apart from running the monastery and brewing, the monks lives are spent in deep contemplation, silencing their minds and stripping back their own desires and thoughts and offer themselves to God in prayer. Not to be confused with meditation that has as its focus green fields, beaches or or the next holiday: the monks are taught to empty their minds so as to make room for God’s presence. Their existence is enriched by the simplicity of their lives and not their material wealth.

Death is not a sad end but a joyful culmination of their existence, and everything they have learnt and given to others through prayer. Two monks actually die during filming and their passing is a peaceful and contented occasion. By the end of Hamer’s film we have learnt that the monastic life is not about suffering or deprivation but a journey towards fulfilment and acceptance of themselves and their selfless commitment towards the world as a whole. And Hamer conveys this convincingly in this spare and dignified documentary. Being a monk is about achieving the highest form of life. MT

ON DVD and DOWNLOAD from 8 June 2020

 

Mike Wallace is Here (2020) ****

Dir.: Alvi Bekin; Documentary with Mike Wallace; USA 2019, 90 min.

Director Alvi Belin (Winding) has avoided hagiography in his biographical documentary of  CBS-TV journalist Mike Wallace (1918-2012). Equally a political history lesson as well as a course about changing Television habits in the USA, Alvi Bekin throws light on the professional and personal career of Wallace, who was only overshadowed by Walter Conkrite and Edward Murrow in his metier.

 Wallace began his career in 1939 at CBS Radio with game shows like Curtain Time, which featured heavy advertisement by the show’s sponsors. After his return from war duty, he switched to the new medium of TV, where he made a name for himself in Night Beat (1955-57). It was followed by the Mike Wallace Interviews, which lasted the following two years. In 1959 he had his first great scoop, interviewing Malcom X of Nation of Islam – the latter being very much aware how much his life was in danger. In the early 1960ies, Wallace made a living mainly from advertising – ironically some ads featured Parliament Cigarettes. After the death of his eldest son Peter in Greece, Wallace decided to stay clear of ads, and become a serious journalist. After a stint on the CBS Morning News (1963-66), he created and stared in 60 Minutes, the show that made him a household name in the USA; which he only left after 37 years, aged eighty-four in 2006.

This new documentary opens fittingly with Wallace engaging with (the then) Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and haranguing him over his interview style. O’Reilly claims it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. “If you don’t like me, you’re responsible”.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: Wallace was keen to point out Larry King’s failure as a husband (seven divorces), but was very defensive when interviewed about his own marital woes.

The line-up for Wallace interview partners is long and features such heavyweights as Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvatore Dali, Vladimir Putin, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Rod Serling, The Great Wizard of the KKK movement and a soldier named Paul Meadlo, who was a participant in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The Ayatollah Khomeini is caught in an interview asking for the removal of President Sadat of Egypt: “He has betrayed Islam. Sadat is a traitor to Islam and I want the people of Egypt to overthrow the traitor, because that is what you do with a traitor”. Some month later Sadat was assassinated by his own soldiers, marching at a parade in front of him. Then there is a young (and handsome) Donald Trump, telling Wallace “if nobody fixes the USA, there will be nothing of the USA left, or the world”. But he strongly denied any interest in entering politics.

In 1995, a 60 Minutes episode was cancelled, after the producers clashed with Dr. Wigand, when he defended the tobacco industry over claims about smoking causing cancer – with Wallace perhaps in denial about his earlier ads for smoking. And then there is Vladimir Putin, wishing “Americans all the best”, after having denied that journalists in Russia are under threat. He also stated, that “the opposition to his government is a force”. It ends in a very poetic way, with Wallace and Arthur Miller walking in nature, the playwright answering Wallace’s question about posterity: “How will people remember me? As a decent guy, that would be fine. Work is natural like breathing. Work for that little moment of truth”.

The whole documentary is based on TV and newsreel clips, with Wallace being the central focus, but not in an overwhelming way. Bekin shows respect, but does not overdo it. It is worth mentioning though that Wallace admitted in a Rolling Stone interview in 1991 that for several decades he was part of a sexual harassment campaign which included snapping open the bras of female staff members. AS      

 RELEASED ON VOD ON 29 MAY 2020    

The Dead and the Others (2018)| New Brazilian Cinema | Mubi

Docudrama | 114’ | Brazil/Portugal

Brazilian cinema is entering a new era in the wake of the country’s unprecedented political turmoil. Several new films are now available online along with this look at the Directed by Palme d’Or winner João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, The Dead and the Others is a haunting docudrama based on their experiences of living for nearly a year in Pedra Branca, a village inhabited by the indigenous community of the Kraho people in Northern Brazil. The Kraho very much want to continue their way of life and traditions in their rural community, striving to be self-sufficient. Their plight connects with a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the world.

Fifteen year old Ihjãc has been suffering from nightmares since he lost his father and in the opening scene he walks through the rain forest in the light of the moon. A distant sound of chanting comes through the palm trees. His father’s voice calls him to the waterfall. It is now time to organise the funeral feast so his father’s spirit can depart to the village of the Dead and mourning for him can come to an end. Although his baby son Tepto was born in the local hospital, Ihjãc still spends most of his life with his family in the remote forest and although the village elders are urging him to fulfil his duty to undergo the crucial process of becoming a shaman, Ihjãc escapes back to the local town to avoid the transition. There, far from his people and culture, he faces the reality of being an indigenous native in contemporary Brazil.

With its themes of loss, displacement and cultural identity this eerie and woozily impressionistic piece that has a poignant urgency in its message, glowingly conveyed in vibrant, high contrast cinematography. MT

NEW BRAZILIAN CINEMA | UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY PRIZE 2018 | LET IT BURN

Climbing Blind (2019) *** BBC iPlayer

Wri/Dir: Alistair Lee | Doc UK 70′

Climbing Blind is essentially a film about scaling impossible heights, physically and metaphorically. It follows the awesome bid by blind Englishman Jesse Dufton to climb the stratospheric Old Man of Foy, one of Britain’s tallest and most awkward sea stacks, a tower of rocky sandstone that soars 137 metres above the Orkney Archipelago in Scotland. Although Jesse is blind, he was ably assisted in this endeavour by his life partner and human ‘guide dog’ Molly.

Climbing Blind is the second feature length documentary from Alastair Lee who won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival for this impressive exploration of human courage. Lee has made something of a career out of his climbing documentaries both for TV and on the big screen. Working as his own DoP and producer, he is adamant to point out that as the filmmaker his input is merely observational –  he does not get involved in the ascent itself. Lee’s first two film projects focused on mountaineer Leo Houlding and his climbing adventures: The Asgard Project (2009) sees him attempting to scale Mt Asgard, deep in the Arctic, and Lee’s 2014 mid length doc The Last Great Climb follows the Houlding’s adventures scaling Ulvetanna Peak in Antartica.

Here for the first time, Lee works with a visually challenged climber. Jesse states that his main drawback in scaling The Old Man, is not being able to plan, ironically, rather than not being able to see. Detailing the ascent of this vertical sandstone rock pillar, the film reveals how the impressively sanguine and down to earth Jesse leads the climb, assisted by his sight-partner Molly, who follows with verbal encouragement, a rope length below.

But what starts as a film about climbing slowly develops into something much more meaningful to n0n-climbers: the challenge of simply living life as a blind person. “Crossing the road is far more dangerous than climbing” claims Jesse, whose daily hurdles include buttering his own toast and getting the honey in the right place, something that most of us wouldn’t even think about. “Climbing is where I’m in control” he states. His parents also make an appearance describing the early years of Jesse’s life, after discovering their son was suffering from a rare eye disorder that would only deteriorate.

Climbing Blind shows the indomitable power of human mind to defeat seemingly impossible impediments, against all odds. Lee’s impressive camerawork pictures the stunning seascapes of the Scottish Coast and its rugged and inhospitable terrain. Jesse Dufton states categorically: “I’m not disabled; I’m blind and able”. MT

ON BBC iPlayer

Human Rights Watch Festival 2020 | Now Online


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is about documentaries and dramas that celebrate courageous people and those affected by Human Rights issues in their countries – which this year include: Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Guatemala, Germany, Iran, Macedonia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, the United States, and Vietnam. Ten of the 14 films selected for this 24th edition are directed by women.

In this latest online London Edition nine (out of 14) films will be streamed to UK audiences from 22 May until 5 June and each film has a live Q&A webinar discussion scheduled. For anyone wanting to get that festival feeling of watching a film followed immediately by a discussion, the festival has recommended timings to start streaming each film title, details here:

https://ff.hrw.org/london-digital-edition. Otherwise there is also a handy list of the free live Q&A’s here:

https://ff.hrw.org/venueinfo/london-digital-edition

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

Shot entirely on three mobile phones, MIDNIGHT TRAVELER follows the traumatic journey of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili as he and his family escape across Europe from their homeland. It is not their choice to flee, and they are not doing so on economic grounds. Hassan’s life is in danger from the Taliban due to a fatwah.
Indigenous rights come under the spotlight in Claudia Sparrow’s doc MAXIMA which has been a favourite for audiences all over the festival circuit. It tells the story of Máxima Acuña (winner of the 2016 environmental Goldman Prize) a free-spirited and courageous woman who owns a small, remote plot in the Peruvian Highlands near another owned by one the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. The charismatic and indomitable Maxima is determined to preserve the rights of the locals in this stunning natural environment. (not in online selection)
China’s now-defunct ‘one only’ child policy has left millions of single women under immense social pressures to marry quickly, or be rejected by society. This crisis is explored in depth through the lives of three women in Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s LEFTOVER WOMEN (2019) that won the Best Director and Editing prizes at the Tel Aviv documentary festival DocAviv last year.

When she was 12 years old, the actress and filmmaker Maryam Zaree found out that she was one of many babies born inside Evin, Iran’s notorious political prison; Maryam’s parents were imprisoned shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. BORN IN EVIN cuts to the chase with an appealing and lyrical approach that sees Zaree confronting decades of silence in her family to understand the impact of trauma on the bodies and souls of survivors and their children.

As witnesses of the genocide of over 200,000 indigenous people, the Mayan women of Guatemala act as a bridge between the past and present in César Diaz’ Caméra d’Or-winning debut drama, OUR MOTHERS which follows Ernesto, a young forensic anthropologist who is tasked with identifying missing victims of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. While documenting the account of an elder Mayan woman searching for the remains of her husband, Ernesto believes he might have found a lead that will guide him to his own father, a guerrillero who disappeared during the war. (Not in selection)

Rubaiyat Hossain’s impressive debut drama, MADE IN BANGLADESH, is the final film on Friday, 20 March. Best known for her 2011 film Meherjaan (2011) the director draws on her own life experience as a women’s rights activist, shining a light on the oppressive conditions in the clothing industry through the story of Shimu and her efforts to create a trade union against all odds. The screening will be followed by an in-depth discussion with Rubaiyat Hossain and special guests.

The films are streaming through CURZON HOME CINEMA and the cost is £7.99 for the majority. The Q&As are free.

 

Hector Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (2019) ****

Dir: Barbara Paz | Doc, Brazilian 75′

“What do you have to do to become a movie director? You have to know how to tell a story. And for that, you have to live”.

Brazilian actor and director Barbara Paz honours her husband Hector Babenco (1946-2016) with this cinematic love letter to his final days in Brazil.

Taking as its appropriate opening score Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a film)’ this is a lush and woozy widescreen affair that solemnly luxuriates in the couple’s tenderness for each other through excerpts of home videos and private photographs, but also explores their close collaboration work-wise, Paz a keen disciple in learning the tricks of the craft that have served her so well, Babenco a patient and softly spoken instructor teaching his wife about camera lenses and depth of field, and lacing his knowledge with amusing anecdotes.

A hagiographic approach is always going to be the danger when making a film about someone you admire, and when love is also involved there is a clear need for perspective. But Paz pulls it off in this charismatically poignant piece that won Best Documentary on Cinema at Venice Classics in 2019. At the same time her admiration shines through in testament to his unique talents and varied output, together with his dreams of being the next Luchino Visconti: well he will certainly go down in film history, but for different reasons.

Although Babenco avoids facts and chronology, by way of background Hector Eduardo Babenco was born into a Jewish family in Buenos Aires, his parents were of Polish/Ukrainian origin. Best known for his Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman (Out of Africa (1985) took the award); Babenco’s work raised awareness of the human plight in Brazil with the Sao Paulo set Golden Globe winner Pixote (1981), that sees a young boy abandoned in the streets, and Carandiru (2003) an impassioned drama about AIDS in the renowned prison in the Brazilian capital, which spawned a TV series. An accomplished documentarian he also made films about the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi and the Brazilian bandit Lucio Flavio whose crimes in Rio de Janeiro captured the public’s imagination in the early 1970s.

Paz enlivens her film with footage of Babenco going about the set of his autobiographical last film My Hindu Friend (2015) where Willem Dafoe plays a dying director during his final hospital days, and she also pictures him there during treatment for cancer, expressing his determination to eat well – avoiding hospital food – and preferably with some friends sharing Capirinhas, roast beef and salad.

Thematically rich the film also dives into universal experiences: the intimacy of loving moments captured on camera; the comfort and joy of friendship; and death, which Babenco had already come to terms with by the time his life was over, due to a previous brush with cancer at 37:  these thoughts are interweaved with dialogue from his films to produce a seamless and intensely personal biopic that shows a man not only at the height of his talent, but also at one with himself. MT

SCREENED DURING VISIONS DU REEL 2020 | NYON SWITZERLAND

Tell Me When I Die is heading to DOK.fest München (6-24 May) | Jeonju International Film Festival (28 May – 6 June 2020)

https://youtu.be/bVbqlvVy-90

Magic Medicine (2018)

Dir/Writer: Monty Wates | UK Doc | 79′

In 2012 a team of medical researchers explored what would happen if psilocybin was given to long term depressives.

Four years in the making, Monty Wates’ intriguing documentary chronicles the progress of the first ever medical trial offering the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms to three volunteers suffering from clinical depression. We also meet the pioneering staff running the trial.

The hope is that this controversial substance will have the power to transform millions of lives, by scrambling and re-setting the brain’s function and enabling patients to identify what happened, to process it and, crucially, to move on. As David Lynch put in the recent biopic The Art Life (2016) “there has to be a big mess, before something can change”. The main setback has been government controls that strictly limit human testing.

Monty’s ground-breaking film reveals what happens when each of the candidates undergoes a supervised “trip” in a darkened room. During the short procedure, each is taken back into the deep recesses of their childhood to unlock trauma that has affected their lives and caused them to suffer deep sadness, impinging their ability to function at an optimum level. One of the trail volunteers had felt rejected and unwanted by his father, another was lost in a state of insecurity waiting for others to tell him what to do. The third feels generally worthless in his life.

Wates adopts an observational approach and a linear narrative, always maintaining a humanistic approach to the subject matter. With deeply moving footage of the “trips” the patients experience, this intimate film is an absorbing portrait of the human cost of depression, and the inspirational people contributing to this unique psychedelic research. The results are remarkable, varied and often lasting, suggesting the treatment is positive. So far. And certainly more effective than with conventional drugs. But whether the substance will be licensed for general use remains to be seen. MAGIC MEDICINE is an instructive, absorbing and fascinating piece of filmmaking. MT

A 2021 study led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), found that the drug can be safely administered in up to six patients using doses of either 10mg or 25mg.

 

Rachmaninoff: The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) ****

Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′

Tony Palmer’s extensive documentary about the one of the world’s most loved composers(1873-1943) is a vibrant memoire, enlivened by musical interludes, ample archive footage of his life and times in Russia, Sweden and the United States where he finally died in 1943, unable to return to his beloved homeland: “a ghost wandering forever in the world”.

Playing out as a long autobiographical letter to his daughters Tatiana and Irina, voiced by Gielgud in slightly sardonic but wistful tone, the film covers the composer’s life until his final months in New York. But it starts at a low point, with the Rachmaninoff family leaving Russia in 1917, escaping from the Bolshevik devastation of Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) set for musical adventures in Stockholm, and thence to America. Desperate about leaving his homeland, the composer also felt at a low ebb creatively: “Nowadays I am never satisfied with myself, I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow: I almost never feel that what I do is successful”.
Quite the opposite: Rachmaninoff would become a celebrated figure, but a very private man, who would tell interviewers: “if you want to know me, listen to my music”. Avoiding the intellectual approach, his wanted his music “to go direct to the heart, bypassing the brain”. Remembered by his niece, Sofia Satina, as a happy, tall, elegantly dressed gentleman who loved his Savile Row suits and driving his car, although he was never wealthy, and ironically ended his days as a concert pianist playing for money until his fingers were literally bruised, to maintain his family during gruelling tours of the United States, which he hated: “now I play without joy, just mechanically”. His friend Igor Stravinsky remembered him in those times as “a six-foot scowl”.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Moscow to a musical family, taking up the piano from the age of four and gaining a place at the Conservatoire whence he graduated at nineteen, having already composed several orchestral and piano pieces. Although he dreamed of the Mariinsky Theatre, his philandering father broke the family up and Rachmaninov started his career with family in Moscow where he became friendly with Tchaikovsky, the last of Russian Romantics, and the two formed a close friendship. But the composer was always most at home in the small town of Ivanovka, where he spent his summers as a young boy, and his grandson is seen returning here in an exhaustive sequence that pictures the refurbished family home – a fairytale blue and white wooden clad affair (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) during celebrations to honour the musical legend. It was in Ivanovka that local folkloric musicians became a big influence on the young composer’s, along with the Russian Orthodox chants. He is also know for his fugal writing, which is even more of a throwback to the classical era.
It took Rachmaninoff until the late 1890s to free himself from his friend and idol Tchaikovsky. He is best classified as a neo-romantic, in the style of Bruckner and Mahler, but in reality he is much closer to Elgar. The distinguishing feature of intra-tonal chromaticism runs through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s work. He is also known for his widely spaced chords, used in the Second Symphony ‘The Bells’. But towards the end he was less concerned with melody, his emotional and impressionistic style is best experienced in the 39 Etudes Tableaux, which is a deeply affecting rollercoaster.
The other important contributor to the film is conductor and composer Valery Gergiev (Widowmaker) who is seen at work in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. It was Rachmaninoff himself who said that his life had been ‘a harvest of sorrow’, and Tony Palmer certainly brings that poignancy to bear in this deeply affecting film that brings the spirit of Rachmaninoff alive. MT
https://youtu.be/43dF4wg0r2o
NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (2016) **** Streaming

Director | Cinematographer: David Bickerstaff | Producer: Phil Grabsky | 93min | Documentary | UK

IMG_4205 copy

The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ was the first of its kind to display paintings by artists inspired by gardens. Using Claude Monet as a starting point, the exhibition explored the major role of gardens in the development of art and painting from the 1860s through to the threshold of modernism in the 1920s. This colourful documentary brings the pivotal study to life visiting many of the gardens featured and also offers further insight and context from leading lights of the world of art and garden history.

Director David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky are known for their art documentaries on Goya, Van Gogh and Renoir that add a another dimension to the artists and their paintings, bringing their vibrant creations to the screen and allowing their works to travel and gain context through the valuable insight of art curators, experts, even members of the artists’ families.

Painting the Modern Garden shows how Monet was not only a talented painter but also a horticulturalist who took inspiration from nature describing his garden as his “most beautiful masterpiece”. He owed “having become a painter to flowers”, using colour, form and latterly stripping things back to just light and reflection to give an impression of what he really saw and experienced.

FullSizeRender-2 copyBickerstaff’s agile camerawork flits from sumptuous groupings of vivid, herbaceous perennials to gloriously discordant drifts of annuals and their painted representations in the works of Pierre Bonnard, Paul Klee, Gustave Caillebotte, Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent, Camille Pisarro, Emil Nolde, Joaquin Sorolla, Berthe Morisot, Jacques Tissot, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse (to name but a few but only one Englishman!). He finally alights on the talking heads: the Royal Academy co-curator Ann Dumas explains how during the 1860s private gardens became a visual pleasure and a sanctuary for the family, rather than just a source of food; celebrity garden designer Dan Pearson explores how Singer Sargent (left) and Monet conveyed their understanding and love of raising the plants to their artistic impressions of them, particularly seen in Monet’s zinging portrayal of flame rust day lilies, and Singer Sargent white asian lilies. An Art Historian and Professor shows how many different species were being discovered in the Orient, bringing a new dynamic vitality to classic plant pairings in garden designs. The cheeky head gardener at Giverney tells how Monet favoured clashing colours (planting purple with orange accentuates the vibrancy) in contrast to England’s ‘old-fashioned’, classic harmonious schemes – he obviously hasn’t visited many English gardens and in particular those at Great Dixter by the pioneering writer and designer Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) who with his head gardener Fergus Garrett, whose stock in trade was strident yellow with fluorescent carmine, and other striking contrasts. is at pains to point out that gardening and horticulture is often denigrated as an applied craft along with knitting or basket weaving, whereas, infact, it is a living and changing interactive art – as much as we plant and plan, nature offers a constant source of surprise, each year and season bringing up unexpected variations and results, in many ways similar to painting and filmmaking even architecture: we design but the infinite alchemy of the elements often throws up a result which is both pleasing and rewarding.

Key 108 copy copyThe second act of Painting the Modern Garden gets out and about in the gardens themselves, visiting Monet’s garden at Le Pressoir, Giverny; German Impressionist painter Max Liebemann’s lakeside garden on the banks of the Wannsee in Berlin; Emil Nolde’s garden in Seebüll (Northern Germany) – there are cutaways to Nolde’s intense impressionist works showing how he literally daubed the paint on the canvas to illustrate the boldness of his poppies and dahlias; Joaquín Sorolla’s garden in Madrid which influenced his ethereal work with light and shadow; Henri le Sidaner’s garden in Gerberoy, Picardy – we also meet his relative who explains how le Sindaner’s ‘intimist’ painting was based on the atmospheric light in his garden which echoed reflection and informed his work. This gorgeous travelogue showcases the gardens at their most resplendent.

FullSizeRender-1

The final section of the documentary hones in on Monet’s later years to illustrates how he designed and planted his borders specifically as a source of inspiration for his impressionism. Rather than portraying the garden and individual studies of it, he focused obsessively on light and reflection (left). He sourced newly discovered exotic cultivars of nympheas (bright pink and yellow) that he acquired (‘all my money goes into my garden’) and grew in his excavated lake from the mid 1890s until his death in 1926. The film offers a panoramic view of the remarkable 42ft Agapanthus triptych; a vision of light, suggestive colour and reflection and the most evocative of all his works (seen together for the first time and borrowed  from three different museums) that perfectly evokes the ‘oceanic’ state – a feeling of limitlessness where we are at one with nature. This is the perfect climax to a study that progresses from Renoir’s figurative portrait of Monet in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873 to the broad brush impressionism that occupied the final decade of his Monet’s life. Painting the Modern Garden initially feels like a glossy an advert for the exhibition, but in analysis it offers far more: a worthwhile and engaging filmic tribute to the world of 19th garden art and the fascinating history and people that informed and shaped it. MT

PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN: MONET TO MATISSE is at RA.ORG.UK

Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

 

 

 

A Machine to Live In (2020) **** Visions du Reel

Dirs: Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke | Doc, United States, 87′

It was the French architect Le Corbusier who coined the phrase ‘A Machine to Live In’ to describe his own designs. Now a new film about Brasilia explores the human angle of living in a city: this vast, manmade capital of Brazil, its capital city since 1960, built in a thousand days. They describe their work as a “sci-fi providing a complex portrait of life, poetry, and myth set against the backdrop of the space-age city of Brasília and a flourishing landscape of UFO cults and transcendental spaces.

Chiefly designed by Oscar Niemayer, and laid out in the shape of an airplane, its wings the wide avenues flanking a massive park, the cockpit is Praca dos Tres Poderes, named for the three branches of government surrounding it. Brasilia is a city that offers extraordinary cinematic potential, not only in its utopian architecture but also its functionality. But there are downsides to the modern buildings.

Chicago-based filmmakers Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke (Jettisoned, Natural Life) have created a mystical portrait this modern metropolis, carved out from the jungle, its architecture full of glimmering white, featureless obloids that invite the most adventurous theories. Looking like a set made for SF adventure, the filmmakers do capture its surreal splendour by being shooting in widescreen 4K RED RAW.

Re-inactions and quotes from Niemeyer; the Jewish writer Clarice Lispector – who interviewed the architect – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and Cult founder Tia Neiva are woven into a hallucinatory landscape that could have spun off from an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars. The footage mixes old fashioned technologies and state of the art aesthetics such as gimbals, drones, helicopters, 3D LIDAR scanning and geospatial mapping. “The camera perspective will mechanically rotate, spin and float among the architecture as if it were itself an alien craft – or, perhaps, the mind’s eye of an architect”.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) writes: “Brasilia is an altered state of consciousness; a pseudo hallucinatory perception; a complex, vivid dream like images – sometimes with halos around light, leading to a loss of vision. And: “Brasilia is artificial: it is the image of my insomnia, it is haunted; it is an abstract city.” Part of this read to students in Esperanto. When Gagarin visited Brasilia he said: “I feel as if I stepped on the surface of another planet, not earth.” No wonder the followers of Tia Neiva (1926-1985), ride their Hell’s Angels bikes around, since Neiva’s cult Vale do Amanhecer (Dawn Valley) is very much alive, as are the memories of Neiva herself, who came to fame as the first female truck driver in Brazil. 

Zielke speaks of “building a cosmology of signs, fragments of literary and historical texts work their way into interviews, fictive tableaux, featuring temporal architectural sculptures situate themselves in ‘real scenes’ and historical encounters are enacted by participants in the film. voice-overs are doubled to reveal multiple identities and captions are manipulated to reveal multiple perspectives.” 

Then there are moments of pure surrealism: A white horse wanders into a parking lot. The face of current Brazilian president Bolsonaro appears on the body of Niemeyer. The crew has visited Brasilia every summer for eight years to gather footage, establishing connections with local groups. This makes the hybrid feature very personal. During an interview, Zielke said, that they collected enough material for three films. Even though, the information presented is overwhelming to say the least. 

DoP Andrew Benz’ images are unique: Looking like a Martian outpost, Brasilia is defined by massive concrete domes, swooping aluminium spires, pyramids and super-blocks, which seem to repeat themselves ad absurdum. A dazzling as a trip on LSD, A Machine to live in is a mixture of nightmares, making Science Fiction look rather banal in comparison ordinary.AS

Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke are award-winning international filmmakers, cinematographers, and editors. Goldstein and Zielke work collaboratively on social documentary projects: from examining hybridized healing practices in the Northern Andes (La Curación), to children in American prisons (Natural Life), to critical explorations of history and somatic memory (The Jettisoned). Their films have been presented internationally across several major festivals, conferences, and classrooms. Goldstein and Zielke’s work as directors and cinematographers has been selected and awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, the Festival Black Movie de Genève, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Hot Springs Documentary Festival, the Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec, the Festival International du Documentaire et Rencontres sur la Biodiversité et les Peuples, Hot Docs Digital Doc Shop, Globians Doc Fest Berlin, and many others. AS

STREAMING DURING VISIONS DU REEL | April – May 2020

Trailer | A Machine to Live In | Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke

National Gallery (2014) **** Streaming

Dir.: Frederick Wiseman

Documentary; France/UK/USA 2014, 181 min.

To call Frederick Wiseman a documentary filmmaker is somewhat absurd: for over four decades he has been telling stories about mental institutions; boxing halls; hospitals; ballet companies and universities. And this former teacher does all this without the classic tools of documentary filmmaking: voice-overs, talking heads, interviews and all form of identifiers are missing from his work. Instead the emphasis is on process: he is peeling off layer after layer. Therefore NATIONAL GALLERY is about art: its process, its mystery. But it is also about money
Wiseman has spent 12 weeks in the museum, the camera wandering freely through the institution, coming up with 170 hours of film but only three of them ending up in the final cut. One could say that cutting is his form of editing.

The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square houses mainly art from the 14th to the late 19th century. Its director, the art historian Nicholas Penny, is seen at budget discussions trying to define the role of the museum in regard to the public (expectations versus elitism) and, rather mundanely, discussing how to take advantage of the fact that the London Marathon ends at Trafalgar Square and that the façade of the museum would be used for a video projection.

Wiseman does not only stay in the building itself: He films Greenpeace activists putting up a banner from the roof of the building; “It’s no Oil painting”. With the ‘o’ in “oil’ looking like the Shell logo. It is clear that the banner refers to Shell’s drilling in the Antarctic and its support for the NG’s “Rembrandt: The Late Works” exhibition. With regard to matters financial, the director mentions that the money from the foundation collection of the museum was a donation by J.J. Angerstein, whose money was mainly made from his slave trading activities in Grenada.

It is difficult to choose the most impressive story in this engaging film, but amongst the most memorable is the one about a group of visually impaired patrons, sliding their fingers about an embossed reproduction of Pissaro’s “The Boulevard Montmarte at Night” (1897) whilst the curator explains all the details of the painting. Next is perhaps a psychological interpretation of Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah”, when the guide asks the audience to “imagine, how one would feel in Delilah’s place, having successfully fulfilled her spying mission and taken all the power away from Samson, after pretending to be in love with him”. A rather delicate question, indeed. Next a reminder of immortality: we are made full aware that many of the portraits in this museum were commissioned by the rich and powerful to achieve some form of immortality. In front of a Dutch table painting we hear that whilst the lobster has been long dead, the drinking horn has survived to this day.

On a more technical level, there is much to discover about the limits of restoration: a ghostly image on a Rembrandt portrait shows that another painting, perhaps a portrait of the same person, had been started before on the same canvas. But the restorer makes it clear that whatever his changes may be, the next person to restore the painting can start from scratch, because he simply has to take the varnish off. The intricacies of framing are endless, certainly it is an art form in itself. The many ‘Turner’s” on show allow us to  connect with Mike Leigh’s latest feature on the artist (Mr Turner) and finally, two ballet dancers performing in front of a Titian painting make a fitting climax to this remarkable three hour film which should be savioured at your leisure over a good bottle of wine. AS.

ON Mubi from 8 May 2020 | INTERVIEW

Tony Driver (2019) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Ascanio Petrini; Documentary with Tony Driver; Mexico/Italy 2019, 73 min.

Another Travis Bickle comes to life here in this documentary debut from Ascanio Petrini. Playing out with all the pomp of a Hollywood movie, it tells the story an Italian immigrant who reached his promised land of America as a child, only to be sent home after a life of petty crime and misdemeanour.

Pasquale was born in Bari in 1963, and emigrated with his family in 1972 to Chicago. There he became Tony, marrying Susan and having two children. After the break-up of their marriage in 1999, Tony joined his sister in Yuma, Arizona, where he re-invented himself as a taxi driver under the name of Travis Bickle. Money was short and he moonlighted as a ‘guide’, helping Mexican’s to cross the border. In 2012, an arrested led to the discovery that he had no American Citizenship, he had just kept renewing his Green Card for the past forty odd years. The authorities gave him a choice: imprisonment in Arizona, or expulsion from the country of his dreams. He chose the latter, ending up in the Adriatic town of Polignano a Mare.

There is not really much documentary in this feature, more a re-telling of Tony’s story – and his overriding desire to get back to the US and shed his Pasquale identity for good. There are a few secondary characters of note, such as the priest Gaetano. The film crosses the limits of documentary more than once: there is a scene where Tony phones his sister in Yuma, and we see both heads talking. But it fits in well with the bizarre story of a man who is by all intents and purposes, an American, but has to live like an Italian – at least until 2022 when he is legally allowed to re-enter the country. Tony does not belong to a country with laws – his America is that made of the movies. In a way, he has been written out the script. His memories are framed in shots belong to the cinema of Hollywood. The colours could be from any Wenders movie shot in the US – after all, the German director was also a foreigner who tried to become an American. Suddenly, we are in a Mexican border town, where Tony buys the outfit for his illegal re-entry. A taxi brings him near to the border wall, a much tougher cross than eight years earlier. There are mention of immigrants making the US great, and then Tony runs towards what can only be a chimera, accompanied by Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. 

Tony Driver is an absurdist dream: a fusion of two personalities which are artificially divided: Tony being the hero of his own movie, in denial about the reality of a situation he will fall victim to all over again. There are also shades here of The Last Picture Show, even though DoP Mario Bucci’s have more contrast than the washed-out black-and white photography of the Bogdanovich feature. But we know who will be the loser in this cinema vs. reality race – Tony is a latter day Wile. E Coyote. AS

VISIONS DU REEL 2020  

The Calm after the Storm **** | Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo; Documentary with Victor Gaviria, Marcela Jaramillo; Columbia 2020, 72min.

Colombian filmmaker Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo confronts her childhood and her famous filmmaker father, Victor, in her documentary debut which she scripted, filmed and co-edited.

Mercedes worked as her father’s assistance during the shooting of his final film La Mujer del Animal (The wife of the Animal). Gaviria senior is the only Columbian director whose films have been shown at Cannes Film Festival.

Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo always wanted to get out of the shadow of her famous father: in spite the pleas of her mother, she studied film at Buenos Aires, and worked there after graduation as sound designer. But the pull of the family proved too strong, when she agreed to assist her father in his latest feature La mujer de Animal (2016). On her return to her home, she finds that her mother Marcela, an anthropologist, has left her room untouched, which comforts Mercedes. The Calm is actually two films in one: there are the sequences of shooting La mujer, and the home videos her father shot of her, her brother Matias and mother Marcela. And then there is the diary of her mother, for her yet unborn daughter. “It sounds, like I was her only confidant”. Victor is known for his realism, and using non-professional actors. The story of La mujer is of Marguerita, who lives in the neighbourhood, but does not want to give an interview to Mercedes: Marguerita, who had been kidnapped and raped by “the animal’ at eightenn, is fearful, that the actor, who portraits her tormentor, might bring back the bad spirit of him, even though he died long ago. Marguerita’s role is taken by Natalia Polo, a nursing assistant, who gives up her job, to concentrate on filming. Tito, a bus driver will feature as the villain. It is obvious, that Mercedes is horrified of the rape scene between the main protagonists, whilst her father is directing with calm, taking about the size of the lenses he will use in the next shot. Natalia is often found crying, and Victor sends her away from the set. Mercedes: “Marguerita’s suffering rekindles in every woman’s body”. It rains during the first six days of shooting, and cast and crew get ill – apart from Victor. Next is another violent scene, a sex orgy, where sex workers are brutally raped and beaten. Victor uses real sex workers from Berrio Park, and the lads are from the tough neighbourhood. Mercedes has to close her eyes, but keeps listening. When Mercedes is alone with her mother, she wants to ask her about the diary. “I want her to take my fear away, talking to her. But she only asks, if the catering at the set is ok. I just answer it – to calm her”. In an old home video, we watch Mercedes, called Mechi, being bullied by her father into writing a story for school. Mechi refused, telling him, that a scorpion has bitten her. From her mother’s diary: “Only twenty days left until your birth. You are going to have a very special dad. Even if we have our problems, as you will find out soon. He is very sensitive, always meeting lots of people when he is not with us, because other people need him too. I hope you are optimistic, I was not. You give me strength  to keep on fighting for our love. I loved your father too much, I am always afraid of losing him, you can’t live like this”.  The principal photography for La mujer is over, and Victor discusses with his daughter, that he was well aware of the fact, that the cast used Clonazepam with alcohol, to get over the trauma of acting. “The mixture is so strong, you don’t remember the next day what you have done at all”. From the home videos we learn, that the Tooth Fairy is called ‘Perez the Mouse’ in Columbia – but young Mercedes is not fooled: “Its not true, its Mom and Dad who give me the presents.”. Merceds tries in vain to talk with her mother about the diary. “What would she say to me? That living with a man is not easy. But life must go on”. Thinking back to the shoot and her father: “He finds it easier to direct violent scenes, than to direct Natalia.” Her brother Matias, Mercedes films an ugly spat between macho father and son, is generally not fond of being filmed: “Life has to be lived, before its being filmed”. And a last thoughts about the rape scene:” The contradiction of filming a rape scene being the privileged gender. And a film set full of men. Yes, talk about gender violence in a country suffering from a war.”

Never didactic, the director tries always to keep distance, but it is not easy to keep the distance with your family. A calm, but moving reflexion on gender and filmmaking. AS

VISIONS DU REEL ONLINE 25 APRIL           

Davos (2020) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Daniel Hoesl, Julia Niemann; Doc; Austria 2020, 100 min.

Austrian director Daniel Hoesl and co-director/writer Julia Niemann have visited Davos – but not only for the World Economic Forum (WEC), which is staged every year in the Swiss town, but mainly to understand what makes it the Swiss resort tick, outside the circus-like meeting.

First we learn something about Davos and culture: a museum’s guide shows a painting of the Swiss town by the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, talking about the modernity of the place with its flat roofs, we also hear in a voice-over about another artist with Davos connections: the German writer Thomas Mann, who published in 1925 his novel Der Zauberberg, the same year Kirchner painted his picture. And the townsfolk of Davos were unhappy about the novel, on the ground of it depicting Davos as a world wide as a retreat for the sick.

Next we witness the still birth of a calf in a cow shed – we will meet the cattle farmer, Bettina more often later. We than witness a meeting of councillors, who deal with asylum seekers; one of them, Ali, is in danger of being deported and has been arrested by the police. Afterwards, first contact with the WEC is made in a meeting of the organisers, who listen to questions from the locals. The organisers are proud to announce that the WEC meeting will bring 60million Swiss Francs into the town’s coffers and 94 M SF into the Swiss economy. One participant points out that hardly any social progress has been made in the last thirty years, whilst their security budget has risen astronomically. But the speaker for the WEC is polite, and hopes “that you will discuss and pass the budget for the next six years.”

We meet Bettina and her husband again at the Davos Cattle Show, where the referee explains to the knowledgeable audience, why the winner has been chosen. Meanwhile, in the Davis tourist office, the editorial board discusses the next magazine: only two pages have not been filled, and one member makes a bad joke about “what if nobody dies?”

Outside in the snow, British and Swiss parliamentarians enjoy slalom races, the Swiss, not surprisingly, being the clear winners. In the kitchen of a major hotel, the waiters complain, that they have to drink with guests all night to keep them happy, whilst sitting on the floor, eating their meal. Bettina complains at a meeting with other cattle farmers, that the price they get for the milk is hardly worth the work involved.

Then the big day comes, and the guests arrive in the congress hall where a seminar, “A day in the life of a refugee” is one of many attractions. Outside, protesters take a dim view of the meeting’s slogan: “Davos is a place for dialogue”, and President Trump bears the brunt of their disgruntlement. They hold up placards with slogans such as: “Dictators get free aperitifs, while their people starve at home.”

In the hall, the organisers are being asked some serious questions: Why has the number of women participating in world economics dropped in the last year? The shops of the Arcade have been transformed into showcases for countries: Poland claims to be the “Can-do Nation”, there is a Ukrainian Fashion Show and a Thailand Night. When the WEC is over, these nation showcases go back to normal shops, food halls and fashion houses. Nothing has changed in the wake of the Summit, and we return to Bettina, who has to sell all her animals, and leaves in tears. She visits another public meeting, where the history of the town is celebrated, with music and a special sort of wrestling, which was depicted on another Kirchner painting in the Davos museum.

Davos is a film that grows more and more intriguing as it plays out: the small details make you curious, and Bettina’s fate adds dramatic tension, the visiting dignitaries paling into insignificance. DoP Andy Witmer is a successful fly on the wall, taking in the significant with the banal. Davos reveals the reality behind the facade, giving  voice to the people who live there every day. AS

VISIONS DU REEL | NYON, SWITZERLAND 2020

Wolves at the Borders (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Martin Pav | Doc, Czech Republic 78′

Wolves are back in the Czech Republic. And their return is causing ructions in the rural population. In his no holds barred look at the social history of man’s relationship with beast, filmmaker Martin Pav examines whether wolves still have a place in a world where drought and climate change is already wreaking havoc on the farmers particularly the vast forested areas of the Czech Republic. Wolves are, at least, a threat that can be controlled.

From an ecological point of view wolves have as much right to exist as humans, but as a voracious predator of livestock, and humans too – if given a chance, they are posing a serious threat now that their numbers are once again growing.

Not everyone is in agreement over how to tackle the wolf issue. Jan Sefc, a livestock farmer, shows how his flock of sheep is being depleted by wolves, as he throws a armful of maimed dead lambs into a rubbish bin. The wolves don’t eat the new borns, they just maul them to death, adding insult to the injuries inflicted. The problem is how to protect them. How do you build a shelter for 3000 sheep? And they don’t only kill lambs and sheep, deer are being heavily predated. “Tt’s like having a pedophile in a kindergarten” he says. For now he manages to keep the wolves at bay by monitoring the area in his truck, but he can’t be there all the time. Mayor Tomas Havrlant supports his view and is determined to gain the support of the government in this growing concern.

But conservationist Jiri Malik takes a different view, and is more concerned with water conservation in the region, seeing drought as the main enemy of farming and food production. He argues water is key to the survival of crops and the next generation. He is working on ways to improve irrigation.

Wolves have been predators in the Czech Republic since the Benedictines first arrived in the 13th century with the motto: “Pray and Work” (Ora et Labora). Records tell of attacks on humans, and the Monks civilising effects allowed the local population to protect themselves with barriers at a time when folklore was dominated by tales of wolves, synonymous with the Devil. The only punishment back then was to be cast out into the wilderness. Gradually wolves were almost entirely exterminated by the mid-18th century.

But they soon found their way back. In Czechia and neighbouring Poland and Slovakia wolves were still being culled up until the 1970s, when they were shot during the hunting season, and still harboured a fear of humans. These legendary beasts can grow to six feet tall, and now, like the foxes in the Britain, they have started to challenge man. Their population is growing again and the farmers are angry. So the Mayor has decided to file a suit against the State to gain protection for the farmers and the local economy, and encourage young people to stay in the region.

Jiri Malik feels that anything that encourages beauty, diversity, stability of an ecosystem: such as wolves, is good. Anything that goes the other way, is bad. Why don’t the farmers guard their sheep, like shepherds did in ancient times?. And this is very much the view of small-holder Lenka Stihlova who takes the wolves side of the dilemma arguing for a modus Vivendi with the animals.

With its sinister occasional score of strings and measuring detached approach, Wolves at the Borders presents a convincing case for each side in this age-old endeavour: how to live in harmony with the animal kingdom. MT

VISIONS du REEL 2020 | STREAMING

 

 

 

Fish Eye (2019) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Amin Behroozzadeh | Doc, Iran, 70′

The debut feature-length poetic documentary by Iranian filmmaker-composer Amin Behroozzadeh follows the biggest industrial fishing boat in Iran, the Parsian Shila, whose objective is to catch 2,000 tons of tuna fish.

Fish Eye is a sombre meditation on commercial fishing that looks at the human and ecological sides of the trade, in a similar vein to Leviathan (2012) and Dead Slow Ahead (2015) that sees the strenuous peril of traditional fishing give way to a mechanised almost mesmerising daily grind for those involved aboard this behemoth of the seas. Although the film depicts the cruelty and harsh conditions of the job, the men on board enjoy a low key camaraderie, often joining each other in prayer. But there is also loneliness as the ‘sailors’ are parted from their families for weeks, even months.

But the filmmaker is also tuned in to the activity of the fish themselves, and how nature is affected by this activity. Following in the footsteps of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, there is a mourneful aspect to Fish Eye but none of the fear and enormity of Leviathan – this is more low key affair that pictures individual tuna and ray as they flounder on the deck gasping for a final breath in images that are deeply affecting and sometimes difficult to watch. And as Behroodzeh casts off in the poignant final scenes accompanied by an evocative occasional score, a pod of dolphins is seen joyfully leading the ship on its way to more culling. A sad but thoughtful study of 21st century fishing and in anonymous manpower involved. MT

FISH EYE  won the TRT Documentary Prize at last year’s SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL | NOW SCREENING AT VISIONS DU REEL | NYON, APRIL 2020

Kombinat (2020) *** Visions du Reel (2020)

Dir: Gabriel Tejedor | Doc, 2020, Switzerland, 75′

A remarkable wide screen opening sequence shows the mighty industrial heart of Russia, the main town of Magnitogorsk in the South Urals and home to the Kombinat, one of the largest iron and steel works in the country. 

But Gabriel Tejedor then narrows his gaze onto the human story behind the billowing pipes and red hot furnesses. That of the locals who live here, and the wider social implications, asking the question: What makes us stay in a place that is potentially detrimental to our health and livelihood?.  The focus here is a family who live in the shadow of the vast industrial complex whose rhythm has dictated their lives from generation to generation, socially, economically and politically. Work in the factory is gruelling and dangerous, requiring heavy protection from frequent electric shocks. 

But the toxic nature of the surrounding environment also has a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of this family and their relatives. And it seems this plant also dominates their leisure time. Lena and Sacha live with their little daughter Dasha. Lena teaches the salsa lessons suggested by the factory. And this helps Sacha to dance away his problems and forget the pressure of work. Meanwhile his brother and his wife are hoping to move to Novosibirsk in Siberia, to escape the heavy pollution that is causing their daughter neurological problems. 

Over the seasons, Gabriel Tejedor (Rue Mayskaya, VdR 2017) paints a portrait of this new generation of workers and young parents whose living conditions seem to be inevitably determined by the Kombinat and State capitalism which feels much the same as Communism in its extreme control of citizens. Not as insightful or darkly amusing as Vitaliy Manskiy’s documentaries about modern Russia such a Pipeline, or Motherland, Kombinat is nevertheless a thoughtful and upbeat snapshot of today’s Russian working class and what it means to belong to a place.MT

VISIONS DU REEL | International Feature Film Competition 2020

https://youtu.be/KL6EhLpjgKY

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Sascha Schöberl | Germany, Doc 84′ 

The cult of beauty and celebrity coalesce in this deeply unsettling documentary that looks at Beijing-based plastic surgeon Dr Han and his permanent quest for perfection, not only for himself but for his clients. The film once again connects to the narrative of live-streaming, a big business in China, as we saw in Present, Perfect (2019) the Tiger Award winner at Rotterdam last year.

In her sophomore feature, German filmmaker Sascha Schoberl makes no judgement on Han’s own self-focus. This is not a case of a little nip and tuck here and there, done discretely for women of a certainly age. Dr Han’s patients are young slim, and business orientated, and their surgery is plain for all to see.

Live fashion photos of the Dr Han in various natty outfits decorate the walls of his practice. In the firmament of China’s burgeoning plastic surgery industry, he is a star. Nor does the director question his unusual professional approach, allowing a roomful of spectators to attend the and record the live surgery on their mobile phones. The patient, a young Chinese model who undergoes the procedure without general anaesthetic, has given permission because this is all part of the process of monetising live-streaming, And it cuts both ways. The participants all garner something from the process, although why the camera looks at the patient’s face rather than the operation itself, is unclear. Clearly her stoicism – and tacit endurance – adds to the compelling nature of the footage. 

But beyond achieving beauty, girls in China are really looking to make money from the process of improvement surgery. And this is made possible and achievable thanks to Chinese massive social media platforms WeChat and Weibo who attract millions of followers to experience the surgery – live-streamed from the operating theatre to art fairs via fashion shows, and the private homes of this vast nation – they will use their mobiles not only as a form of contact and entertainment, but also to finance their lives. 

Drone footage hovers over Beijing’s vast tower blocks in the opening scenes as the camera descends on Dr Han’s substantial headquarters in the centre of the Chinese capital. Dr Han goes through his spiel encouraging and mentoring as the women congregate to attend the breast enlargement operation for a young flat-chested model whose sole aim, apart from achieving her desired breast size, is to create a platform where she can showcase her assets and make money from garnering followers on social media. The only slight criticism here is a lack of backstory: who are these girls, what are their personal stories, and how about some more clarity on Dr Han?

The procedure completed, the good doctor is not relieved that things have gone well, and that the patient has emerged fit and fulsome; he is clearly dismayed not to have attracted more followers, just click bait. Meanwhile, the enhanced model is pouting happily in her white bed holding a bunch of flowers for her followers delights, having been forced to look chipper throughout the procedure, her face having being filmed continuously by another woman encouraging her to smile, despite her nervousness.

Being a woman is highly competitive business all over the World, as increasingly so. Intelligence and personality are clearly not enough, and surgeons like Dr Han have cottoned on these women’s susceptibility and panders to their vanity and insecurity. A compelling film that questions beauty as a simultaneously essential yet vain element of society in the era of selfies. MT

Visions du Reel 2020 Online | April – May 2020, Nyon, Switzerland 

 

Mimaroğlu: Robinson of Manhattan Island (2020) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Serdar Kökceoglu; Documentary with Ilhan Mimaroglu, Güngör Batum, Rüstem Batum; Turkey/USA 20219, 76 min.

Serdar Kökceoglu is a composer and filmmaker whose first feature is a vivid portrait of fellow Turkish composer, filmmaker and artist Ilhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012), a leading composer of electronic music.

Structured in three chapters and using a dreamlike soundscape and evocative visual style the documentary recounts how Mimaroğlu emigrated from Turkey to the USA in 1959, spending the rest of his life in Manhattan as a composer and all-round artist. Mimaroğlu gradually develops into a diary of contemporary music-making in Manhattan in the late twentieth century. But equally important was his relationship with his wife Güngör Batum, whom he married in 1959 back in Istanbul. Both were idiosyncratic in their life style, but, as she said “We were like one person”.

After finishing law school at Istanbul University in 1949, Mimaroğlu had already made his name as a music critic. Later awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he went on to study musicology under Paul Henry Lang at Columbia University. He would also work for the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre with Edgard Varese and Vladimir Ussachevsky. For Mimaroğlu,, cinema and music were one and the same, his compositions were “like collages, similar to editing a film”.

One of the highlights were his collaboration with Fellini for Satyricon. Working at Atlantic Records in the 1970ies, with Freddie Hubbard and Charles Mingus among others. Mimaroğlu founded his own label, Finnadar Records. German electronic visionary Karl-Heinz Stockhausen was one of his heroes, as was Jean Dubffet, who published Mimaroğlu’s own jazz compositions like ‘Tract A: A composition of Agitprop Music for Electromagnetic Tape’. Under his own record label, he met pianist concert pianist Idil Biret in 1972, the two of them working together for ten years, producing nine albums. After Finnadar Records folded in the 1980s, the composer stepped away from music and focused on street photography and films.

Mimaroğlu was always aware of status near the margins: “I am a composer, that’s one suicide. On top of it I am contemporary composer. And a composer of electronic music – and I compose political music.” He never wanted to go to a conservatoire in Turkey, “because they might teach me the wrong things”. And even in New York, he was critical of the places of higher learning: “University is a self-serving institution. This whole country, being the graveyard of culture, its universities being its mausoleums.” For him, music was alive, he collected tapes for sleeping from sounds of daily life. He compared himself to a preacher in the Sahara, nobody listening to him. “Even if they do, they fail to figure out what I was talking about”. He made a short film about people walking in slow-motion into a mall, past a poster which he had created, showing the MacDonald’s label with the inscription “Mc Lenin”. Like his friend and music critic David Toop said “his records were almost like Graffiti, that’s why he later became interested in Street Photography – the absolute immediacy.” And music writer Evin Ilyasoglu gave the feature its title” I think, he was mad, that people did not understand him. The Robinson of Manhattan. That’s why he was so pessimistic.” He felt that everyone was out to shoot contemporary composers. “Don’t shoot us, we are just innocent bystanders. When I am confronted with Mozart and Elvis, the question is, whom do I shoot first, its a matter of priority: Business or pleasure. And: “Do you think that I am paranoid in this respect? If so, there is a reason for it: Strauss Elvis, Mozart, all in the same bag”.   

The third chapter concentrates on Güngör Batum, who had to branch out into business during her husband’s middle age, “becoming a left-wing artist and a business woman at the same time”. She was shattered at his death, living in denial of it for the rest of her life. “Shortly after losing him, I thought I could only manage the world with a new perspective. Because we had been really close, supported each other in every way. I had to work out how to live without him. The hardest period of my life”. Her son Rüstem, whom she left behind when she left the USA, talks abut the couple’s relationship:” When my mother had guests, Ilhan would just come into the room for a moment, would not greet anybody and leave the room. He was an anti-social person. I could not bond with him, only our relationship with cinema kept us going. He watched some films ten times. They were the polar opposites. He always lived in an apartment at Columbia university, where he always returned for the night.” After having spent many years on the balcony of her NYC apartment, Güngör Batum re-emigrated to Istanbul, reconstructing her life out of memories. In Istanbul she talked to friends about “Ilhan coming soon to join her in Turkey. “Than we can all meet together”. As Rüstem said, his mother had a way of deny certain occurrences in her life. So, for her it was “like living still with him, but by myself.”  

With wonderful archive material, partly shot by the composer himself, this a real art history lesson. DoP Levent Türkan avoids too many Talking Heads, and concentrates Instead on conjuring up a palpable Cinematic essence of the man. A truly unique documentary about music and relationships, with Mimaroğlu having the last word: Old composers never die. They just turn into index cards”.   AS

Burning Lights International Competition | ON VISIONS DU REEL | NYON SWITZERLAND | APRIL- MAY 2020

Deux Fois (1969) *** Centre Pompidou Streaming

Dir: Jackie Raynal | Doc, France 64’

A member of the Zanzibar group, formed in 1968 around Sylvina Boissonas, Olivier Mosset, Philippe Garrel, and Serge Bard, Jackie Raynal (1940-) made her first film Deux Fois Twice during a nine-day trip to Barcelona in 1968. Having worked with Éric Rohmer and Jean-Daniel Pollet), this sophomore experimental documentary expresses an inescapable disenchantment in the aftermath to the cataclysmic events of May 68.

The film would go on to garner the Grand Prize of the Young Cinema Festival of Hyères (that focused on independent cinema founded in 1965), Twice was shot in a few days in velvetyblack and white by DoP Andre Weinfeld.  Sylvina Boissonnas financed the project, along with many of the the Zanzibar group’s activities.

In Deux Fois actressJackie Raynal takes on her new role as filmmaker to produce a “film almanac”, or a “notebook of wanted or organized haikus”, in the words of the historian of experimental cinema Dominique Noguez.

Essentially its lack of dialogue speaks volumes, although Raynal narrates the first sequence, focusing our gaze on the atmosphere and intensity of the protagonists’ feelings conveyed by body language. “Spectators are offered a series of actions reduced to their registration in the space of the shot and the duration of the projection, a set of time blocks, juxtaposed in a deceptive simplicity”.

Film critic Louis Skorecki called it “one of the strongest and most enigmatic films” ever made. It is while trying to interpret this enigma that we can also find, in the film, “a feminist manifesto and the unfinished diary of a love story”, to use Jackie Raynal’s words.

 

https://youtu.be/yxid5anKOOg

Picture of Light (1994) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Peter Mettler | Doc, Canada, 87′

Narrated in his smooth Canadian drawl Peter Mettler’s meditative melancholic essay film often serves as a maudlin stream of consciousness reflecting on and questioning the relationship between art, nature and technology. “So many of us nowadays experience life only through the experience of others: At the beginning of life there was only the real thing. Now there is media that records, regurgitates, dictates and expresses. We know what is, by what is represented”. And although this seems like a truism, it is an apposite and sad reflection on the human condition.

Floating over surreal images as he sets out on a dreamlike odyssey to film the Northern Lights in the extreme outer regions of Canada’s magnetic North. “Photography is a surrogate for real experience”, he opines. So what we are about to see will never be as good as the experience itself, obviously, but we get a good feel for Northern Canada and its astonishing silent remoteness as the snowbound vastness melts into the mauve horizon. But the following morning after he arrives at his destination in Churchill (Manitoba) the Canadian boreal forest dark pine tree outlines give way to whiteness and a freezing 120 kilometre per hour wind.

Canada is a vast open country that allows humans to be themselves in its wild and spectacular landscapes, and its space that respects the individual. The Inuit have 170 words for snow and ice. Their language has adapted to reflect the unique textural diversity of their frosty environment.

The only protagonists are individuals trying to convey into words their experiences of seeing the Northern lights– describing the phenomenon variously as mysterious, ghostly, mystical even. This is an impressionistic study that relies on an eerie soundscape of echoes and whistles as it records, often though superimposition and reflection the slowing nature of time in the region. One Inuit tells how he travelled over 200 kilometres barely realising the distance until he returned without his toes, having forgotten his snow knife when his skidoo broke down.

Peter Mettler offers a rare and palpable glimpse into the magnetic North. “In a whiteout the last person will always walk in circles to right, often less that a thousand metres from home”. Facts and images are strung together with impressions and feelings to offer a valuable but largely inconclusive arctic travelogue. Mettler leaves plenty of silence for us to gawp at his awesome images. A luminous if disquieting documentary. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | APRIL – MAY 2020

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy (2019) **** Now on iTunes

Dir.: Elizabeth Carroll, Documentary with Diane Kennedy; USA/Mexico 2019, 82 min.

In her informative feature debut Elizabeth Carroll celebrates the British chef and cookbook supremo Diana Kennedy, a 97-year-old widely regarded as the world’s authority on Mexican cuisine. Standing barely five feet tall with a cut-glass English accent, Diana is the author of nine cookbooks and has spent the last 70 years exploring and documenting the many and varied regional cuisines of Mexico. It’s clear from the outset her ferocity is borderline: “if her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania.”

Diana is a force of nature, living entirely in harmony with all things natural. She designed and built her ecologically sustainable property outside Zitácuaro, Michoacán in 1974, where she continues to cook, recycle rainwater, use solar power, and grow her own vegetables, coffee, and corn. She was decorated with an Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government in 1982; received a Member of the Order of the British Empire for strengthening cultural ties between Mexico and the UK in 2002.

An inspirational figure she is always on the lookout for natural ingredients at the wheel of her Nissan pick-u truck she zips through the Mexican countryside or shops in markets near her  home in Zitacuaro, Michoacan, where she grows her food ingredients organically.

The film’s title is the same as one of her nine cookbooks, and is also a very apt description of the gruff nonagenarian who sets the agenda for everyone: “People who want to live here have to realise they have to live with nature”. Her eco drive never stops: she has campaigned against the bleaching of table clothes in restaurants and the gentrification of the market in nearby Oaxaca is certainly not to her taste: “Before it was all more natural and untidy. And tasty.” 

After the war she went to the USA and Canada, before meeting her husband Paul P. Kennedy, the foreign correspondent for the NY Times in Porto Prince, Haiti. In 1957 they went to Vera Cruz, and Diana became inspired by the recipes of Josefina Velazuez de Leon. She wanted to be more than a housewife, and Craig Clayborne, Food editor of the NY Times from 1957-1986, helped to establish her. In 1965, Kennedy became ill, and they moved to New York for his treatment. After his death in 1967 – she never married again – Diana became depressed, and only her Mexican cooking classes, as featured in the NY Times, kept her spirits up, whilst actors and writers were her dinner guests in the restaurant. All this fired her up for the future and eventually he decamped down south to Mexico City in 1976. She now has “boot camps” for aspiring cooks in her house, and shows that she is not a very forgiving teacher. Nowadays she is a harsh critic of contemporary:  “The more we are connected electronically, the less we are united”. And she is as sober about herself as she is with others: “When I am blind, or can’t cook or eat any more, than I am out”.

But Carroll has managed to make Diana and her life’s story into an entertaining and upbeat experience – not only of food. DoPs Paul Mailman and Andrei Zakow have contributed with vibrant and refreshing aesthetic which gives Nothing Fancy a story book background. AS

AVAILABLE ONLINE FROM 2 MAY 2020 | COURTESY OF DOGWOOF | iTUNES 

 

ONLINE AT DOGWOOF
                               

The Russian Woodpecker (2015) **** Now on Prime Video

RUSSIANWOODPECKER_still2_FedorAlexandrovich__byArtemRyzhykov_2014-11-20_05-25-34PMDirector: Chad Gracia 80min | War Documentary |

In his darkly informative documentary Chad Gracia has found and an amusing interpreter in the shape of wild-haired Russian artist Fedor Alexandrovich who does his best to enlighten with a potted history of Ukraine from the hungry thirties of to the Chernobyl conspiracy and culminating in the Maidan uprising in Ukraine. But his story reveals a troubling secret.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, rightly awarded Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema at Sundance this year, refers to the telegraphic pecking sound made by a transmitter that had been in operation since the Cold War days in 1976, as an early warning system. The “Duga” was a low frequency device that worked by grabbing information and then bouncing it back to base thanks to the Earth’s shape. A Russian speaker, American-born Gracia allows Alexandrovich, a Chernobyl survivor himself, free rein to expound his conspiracy theory on why the  reactor blew up (or was detonated in his view) in 1986, causing lethal and widespread damage. Flighty and fleet of foot, Feodor whisks us through his Iron-Curtai controversy incorporating his own family memoir of being radiated by strontium at the age of four – but he wears this experience patriotically as a badge of honour. In a fortuitous natural twist, it emerges America was protected from the Duga, a massive mesh of secret military ironwork, by the Northern Lights. Remarkable footage shows the frighteningly vast metal transmitter surging up, maniacally victorious, over the surrounding forests.

Fedor is convinced that the Duga was connected to the Chernobyl disaster and he sets off with Gracia, and his friend and cinematograapher Artem Ryzhykov, to investigate the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. The place is full of mangled metalwork, broken glass and overgrown buildings and Fedor sees fit to strip naked at this point as he fashions himself as part of the scary scenery, shooting his own film in the process.

Later, Fedor, Chas and Artem chat informally to elderly Soviet scientists, military men and Communist Party faithfuls, filming some of them clandestinely, and discover that the Duga was actually a failure due to its vast cost which ran into the billions. Feodor hatches his theory round the premise that the Chernobyl reactor was blown ‘on purpose’ by the Russians in 1986 so as to destroy the Duga radar, in an attempt to cover their error.  At this point Feodor becomes emphatic and almost beligerant as he expounds his tenuous theory while Ukrainian secret police make ominous threats against him and his family, at which point he attempts to renege on his claims and is seen fleeing the country. It does seems that the Russian are still very much feared by the Ukrainians. There are scenes shot during the Independence Square protests, which were gradually dispersed by Russian troops. Some of the footage is extraordinary showing the Russian riot Police in action, fires blazing, and flashbacks to Fedor patrolling the Duga naked in his suit of plastic cladding. Artem himself is shot and nearly killed during the protests but is later speaks to the camera claiming: “it was a peaceful protest” before he breaks down in tears.

Gracia manages to inject absurdist humour into this melancholy and disturbing documentary but this is raw, real and compelling filmmaking. Feodor claims: “Ukraine is just the first step in the re-birth of the Soviet Union – the second step is World War III”. During the riots we learn that 100 protesters were shot dead. And in a hair-raising final scene we see Fedor tuning it to his radio system: After 23 years of silence, the Woodpecker signal has returned to the airwaves and been traced to the heart of Russia. MT

ON PRIME VIDEO

 

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (2013) *** Streaming with Q&A

Dir: Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin | Cast: Mariya Alyokhina, Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. | 90min  Documentary, Russian

Three young women face seven years in a Russian prison after an explosive performance at Moscow Cathedral in 2012

Along with Andrei Gryazev’s Tomorrow, Pussy Riot furthers the dialogue on freedom of speech and the individual in the Russian Federation with this stirring and well-crafted documentary.  Even if you don’t like the band’s particular brand of music: a blend of early British Punk Rock with jazzed-up ecclesiastical overtones, you have to give the Pussy Rioters top marks for raising awareness of the country’s current social and cultural climate.

Opening with an apposite Bertholt Brecht quote, this snapshot of modern Moscow kicks off with one of the trio, Nadya Kolonikova, airing her feelings in a pleasant and gentle way about the cause she fervently espouses, stating candidly that her hatred of Putin stems from his overzealous nationalism on the World stage. Meanwhile on the Church stage in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ, the band sport brightly coloured ‘fluor’ balaclavas. They look like jokey bank-robbers but their only crime is violating the Church’s dress code, genuflecting with guitars and offending local worshippers with their insulting riff, along the lines of “Occupy Red Square”; and “Rid Us Of Putin”.  This leads to forcible arrest.

The film has an experimental feel: A handheld camera yields dizzying footage of the streets of Moscow intercut with timelapse sequences of the skyline at night, contrasting with the drab interiors of the court room and the detention centre where the girls are taken on their arrest in February 2012.  The tone of the piece is calm and inquiring rather than dramatic or subversive and interviews with the girls and their families are measured and informative without a hint of bitterness or anger.  Nadia speaks softly and convincingly of her plight and love for her father.  He decided to support her musical talent and gives insight into her rebellious streak, hinting at his divorce from her mother as possible grounds for her need to seek recognition in this way: it’s a portrait of a loving and affectionate dad.

To Western eyes there’s nothing scandalous about these girls in hooded balaclavas rampaging around with guitars, albeit in a Church. It all rather feels like a storm in a teacup. What is serious though is the image that emerges of modern Russia as an old-fashioned society full of traditional and draconian figures and a repressive legal system that forces petty criminals to give their evidence from within metal cages in the city court rooms, while outside frenzied protesters chant slogans for freedom amid the whirring of cameras from the Press pack . For his part, in dour interview mode, Putin claims he has a duty to protect the views of the orthodox mainstream. As a result, two of the girls are sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony.

In a flash of glamour, Madonna wades in to Moscow to lend her support or maybe just to garner publicity for yet another physical transformation: it’s difficult not to be cynical but it feels as if the Russian Federal Republic, from a human rights perspective at least, is still hiding behind a rather dishevelled ‘Iron Curtain’ of sorts, despite its pretensions as a 21st century World power. MT

Watch Pussy Riot – A Punk Player on BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, Youtube, iTunes, or Google Play.

Then watch the DocHouse Q&A with co-director Mike Lerner here.

PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER TOOK THE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE AT SUNDANCE 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017)

Dir: Sara Driver | Doc | US | 78′

Sara Driver’s first documentary Boom for Real is a lively loose-limbed look at the high octane force of nature that was Jean-Michel Basquiat – arguably one of America’s most mercurial and influential artists of late 20th century, whose work is now more valuable than ever, a painting selling for USD 81 million in Christie’s New York in May 2021.

Under a pseudonym SAMO (which was originally the duo of Basquiat and Al Diaz) Basquiat was barely out of his teens when he sprang to fame in the Lower East Side art scene by means of sharply sardonic graffiti epigrams that were posted on school walls – US Bansky-style, announcing his critical talent to amuse, for want of a gallery to sponsor him. And it’s through Basquiat’s prodigious teen and twenty-something output that Sara Driver chronicles the early days of hip hop, punk and street art, brought to life with sparky commentary from his friends and collaborators. With its choppy editing style and blitzy soundtrack, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat  sketches out a life pulsating with vim and vitality that soared like a meteor but would eventually crash and burn in New York’s Neon nightclubs and graffitied backwaters.

Chipping in with wit and repartee there is Jim Jarmusch, Fab 5 Freddy, and Patricia Field who offer intimate access to Basquiat’s electric personality and creative energy and the effect it had on the contemporary art scene. This impressionistic documentary catapults us right into the era, picturing the pivotal sociocultural switch from the 70s to the 80s. Driver invigorates her film with a plethora of paintings, posters, audio recordings, original film and archive footage.

Intriguing and entertaining, Driver’s film captures the free-wheeling, chaotic intensity of a time in history where she was also a protagonist working as a director in her own right, and an actor featuring in Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Despite its rather scattergun approach, actually working to its advantage, Boom for Real is chockfull of insight and pithy commentary, conjuring up the sporadic nature of this drug-fuelled creative geyser.

Serving as the perfect companion piece to Celine Danhier’s Blank City (2010) Sara Driver’s doc further fleshes out that Neo-expressionist era, with a highly personalised and first hand testament to a time of gritty uncertainty – danger even – when the New York’s power structures and politics where artistically critiqued by the clever creative genius of this legendary wild child. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Hockney: A Life in Pictures (2014)

hockDirector: Randall Wright | 113min   UK Biopic

“We grow small trying to be great”.

Born in a tightly-terraced house in Bradford, the fourth of five children, David Hockney’s early memories were of darkness and claustrophobia. It was a happy and aspirational childhood with his strong mother and a father who encouraged him not to care about what the neighbours thought, and fired his imagination and enthusiasm for the world outside with regular visits to ‘the pictures’.

Randall Wright’s portrait of the artist is as ambitious and upbeat as Hockney himself, enlightened by archival material and enriched by cine footage from Hockney’s family collection. Spanning a career that started in local art school and the RCA as a popular and gently opinionated maverick, it shows how he was associated with the Pop Art movement of the 60s, abstract expressionism and figurative work, and is now considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, and the most expensive living artist when his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures (1972) was sold at Christie’s for 80 million dollars under the hammer in November 2018.

Kicking off with the usual talking heads who share their fondness for the artist contemporaries and American pals (Ed Ruscha who fleshes out a picture of a philosophical thinker, capable of amiable friendship, lively wit and occasional bouts of introspective loneliness: “I think the absence of Love is Fear”). After a sexually and artistically explorative spell in 1960s New York (his blond hairstyle was the result of a Clairol advert on TV), Hockney gravitated to California spending many years developing his technique with acrylics in bright colours, a fascination with the spacial qualities of water and swimming pools led to his most famous work: A Bigger Splash (1967) – the splash took seven days to paint.

Friendships with Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachandry feature heavily during these years along with a love affair for Peter Schlesinger, an art student who also posed for him and followed him back to London where Tchaik Chassey designed a lateral apartment for the couple in Kensington. Embarking on a series of portraits for friends and relatives, we also meet Celia Birtwell who appeared with Ossie Clark in his other well-known figurative painting, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970/71).

Continually broadening his artistic horizons, Hockney also stresses the intellectual side of art as opposed to photography: “the longer it takes to put (an image) together, the more representative it becomes of time and space”. Hockney also developed an interest in Opera due to his gift of synesthesia, an ability to see bright colours when listening to music. His iPad paintings are possibly his most innovative work with landscape, developing and exploring a spacial awareness unique to painting and allowing us to chart the development of his paintings from the first marks  “the way we depict space and the way we behave in it are different – wider perspectives are needed now”.

Filled with serenity, insight and gentle humour, Randall Wright’s biopic overflows with information, facts and fascinating footage, packing in every subtle nuance of this remarkable creative force in just over two hours.  We are left with a feeling of pride and admiration for our national figure who is as charmingly appealing and strangely naive and this colourful legacy. MT

HIS LATEST EXHIBITION entitled THE ARRIVAL OF SPRING 2020 IS NOW SHOWING AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY IN LONDON

HOCKNEY: A LIFE IN PICTURES IS ON DVD

 

 

The Church (2020) *** Streaming

Dir: Anat Tel | Anat Tel, Naom Amit | Israel, Doc 52′

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is more than a place a worship for many Christians, it is also a spiritual and physical home according to this wry new documentary from Israeli provocateur Anat Tel (Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim).

Concise and pithy, this colourful film is narrated on camera by Samuel Aghoyan, the Superior of the Armenian Church, who takes us through a potted history of his own arrival as a child in the Holy City, and gives a sardonic take on the internecine tiffs that add spice to the daily life of this legendary ecclesiastical HQ sitting proudly in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Today the Church also serves as the main office of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, while control of the place itself is shared among various Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for over 160 years, and some for much longer. The main denominations partaking in the property are the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodoxy and Armenian Apostolics, and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodoxy, Syriac Orthodoxy and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, who have actually been given the bum’s rush, and are now relegating to the roof.

According to traditions, dating back to at least the fourth century, the building houses the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he was buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. According to the history books, Jerusalem has had a chequered and controversial religious past. But eventually 260 years ago, the English were back in town and set up ‘The Status Quo’, an understanding between religious communities that must be respected across the board.

The upshot of this agreement is that each of the six denominations has a two-hour slot in which to conduct their services, leaving the poor Ethiopians to do their stuff on the roof. The iron key to the site is held by two Muslim families, who argue the toss about who is the real custodian: each day a smiling, besuited Muslim makes it his duty to open the doors, and as soon as he does, the onslaught begins, as worshippers are seen fighting their way towards the entrance. Meanwhile, Jonny, an Arab Christian policeman, is responsible for making sure things go according to plan. Enriched by vibrant camerawork, this is a lively and lyrical look at the latest modus Vivendi in this ancient monument to Christianity. MT

Now streaming on Go2Films

 

 

 

Marta Meszaros | Retro | Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Márta Mészáros occupies a unique position in Hungarian and world film history. The director, Kossuth and Prima Prize laureate, winner of awards at the Berlinale, Chicago, Cannes and many other international film festivals, is in herself a historical legend. Together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larisa Shepitko e Věra Chytilová, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.

She is the first Hungarian woman to be awarded a diploma in film directing, she has dedicated her movies to depicting the lives of women (their identity, deviance, female rebelliousness, erotic intimacy and Hungarian history of Stalinism), and her directorial debut attracted global attention.

Even as a young child she had struggled with being orphaned, with hunger and the vicissitudes of history. She was born in Budapest in 1931. Her father, the avant-garde sculptor László Mészáros, in fleeing fascism moved the family to Kirgizia, where on the outbreak of World War II he fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Her mother also died. She was placed in a Soviet orphanage and only returned to Hungary after the war.

Between 1954-56 she studied at the film academy in Moscow and until 1968 she made Romanian and Hungarian documentaries. These autobiographical motifs inspired the Diary series that garnered considerable international acclaim.

Diary for my Children (Naplo Gyermekeimnek) Hungary 1983, 106 min.

Hungarian writer/director Marta Meszaros (*1931) chronicles a decade of Hungarian social history (1947-1958) in this autobiographical trilogy of just under six hours, where she is represented by the teenage character Juli. Meszaros actually made a fourth feature, Little Vilma (Kisvilma – az utolso naplo) in 2000, which runs along similar lines but its realisation differs from the original format. Of the three Diary for my Children is by far the most impressive, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its making. The colour versions of Diary for my Lovers and Diary for my Mother and Father, descends into simplicity, with Meszaros losing her objective documentarian’s viewpoint. All three parts were shot by DoP Nyika Jansco, her husband Miklos Jansco’s son from a previous relationship before their marriage which lasted from 1960 to 1973.    

In 1947, teenage Juli (Czinkoczi) arrives in Budapest from exile in Moscow to stay with her foster mother Magda (Polony), and her grandparents (Pal Zolnay/Mari Szemes). Magda is a member of the Communist Party, courageously opposing Nazism and Stalin, but recently her opinions of the Communist set-up have softened. Most of her friends have mixed views about her political affiliations. Old friend Janos (Nowicki) disagrees with her stance, her flatmate Judith Kardos (Margitai) more or less supports her. Juli’s mother died during the war, and her sculptor father had been imprisoned during one of the purges in the late 1930s. So she takes a dim view of Stalin, suspecting he may have had a hand in her father’s ‘disappearance’. The dynamic of these relationships forms the rich backcloth to this intimate character study.

Juli idolises Janos as a father figure. In her dream sequences, Janos actually becomes her father, working in a huge quarry. Much later, when Janos is married to Ildi (Bansagi), she also is the same person as her mother in Juli’s dreams. Not one for school, Juli does steals Magda’s cinema pass and discovers the classics: She identifies with Greta Garbo in ‘Mata Hari’, and make a fancy dress of her idol. But Juli has a harsh side, treating her boyfriend meanly by refusing to sleep with him. Janos gets arrested for “sabotage” in the factory he is working in, but he buys his freedom, denouncing a co-worker – and also relying on Magda’s help “for the sake of the old days”. Finally, Juli is thrown out of the school and has to work in a factory before she moves out of Magda’s flat, to live with Janos and his son (Toth), who has to spend his days in a wheelchair.

Diary for my Lovers (Napok Szerelmeinnek) Hungary 1987, 141 min.

Diary for my Lovers starts in 1953 and explores her sexual forays in Moscow. Juli has gone back to school and is chosen (with some help by Magda) to study economics but then has a change of heart, talking the Russians into letting her swop places with a young Hungarian whose dream to be an economist gives her the opportunity realise her own wish to become a filmmaker. At film school she meets the glamorous actress Anna Pavlova (Kouberskaya), who has a relationship with an older and senior party functionary. She also discovers how her father met his fate and angered by the revelations she decides to go home when the  1956 revolution breaks out in Hungary, despite becoming emotionally close to Janos and his son. Back in Budapest Magda has joined the security forces is nearly lynched during public unrest.  by the revolting citizens. Ildi asks Juli to flee to Vienna with Janos “and keep him there.” But they end up in Budapest.

Part three, A Diary for my Mother and Father (Naplo Apamnak, Anyamnak) Hungary 1990, 119 min.

This begins with a New Year’s Eve party in Magda’s flat, celebrating the end of a traumatic 1956. Magda and the Party have regained power after the Russian invasion, and Juli, who is working for the newsreel section of he Party, comes to blows with her mother. Janos is now part of an independent worker’s union in the factory, and convinces his co-workers not to give in to the regime, and continue their strike. But this all ends in a gruelling drawn-out tragedy

Meszaros combines the opposing forms of documentary and fiction, the film’s aesthetic and narrative becomes a notion of film as art, entertainment and record. The quasi documentary style and the inclusion of archive footage is a clear reflection of earlier Meszaros films. And this is all conveyed in the subtle acting performances, which remind us of Rossellini’s work in Italian Neo-Realism. We become attached observers, looking in from the outside as flies on the wall catching snippets of conversation at the dinner table, when working conditions in the factories are discussed, before Juli escapes into her dream world. There is a quietly devastating sequence with Juli sitting alone in the room after her grandfather has scolded her for bring up the story of her father’s tragic disappearance. A recurring dream imagine her father in the quarry; and we even get a glimpse of her as a child – her voice echoing as she calls for her father. Lacking a family in the traditional sense, she invents her own: as one where only Janos will discuss the past. Juli’s real world is the cinema.

Zsuzsa Czinkoczi gives an astounding performance considering she was only fifteen-years old when the film was shot. She dream-walks through the six hours, never putting a foot wrong. Subtly evoking tone and pace, and her life and circumstances change. Anna Polony’s Magda is a study in ambivalence. Both she and Juli somehow need each for a time: Juli to get to film school, Magda to repress her guilt regarding the death of Juli’s father. But they start out more or less on an even footing: life choices see them move farther apart. The truth here is that any totalitarian regime – rather like a religion- is extremely demanding of its believers, Magda becoming someone she didn’t set out to be. The only way out is total emotional rejection of the status quo, which Juli achieves in the end – but not before she entertained the idea of a silent truce with the system.

Whilst Meszaros always refused to be called a feminist, she was one of the first women directors who won major awards, and she was the first ever female filmmaker to win the Golden Bear in Berlin 1975, for Adoption. AS

MARTA MESZAROS RETROSPECTIVE | BERGAMO FILM MEETING 2021 | AVAILABLE FREE ONLINE WITH KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON UK |

  

   

 

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words (2019) London Fashion Week

Dir: Reiner Holzemer | With Sandrine Dumas, Pierre Rougier, Lidewij Edelkoort, Cathy Horyn, Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfield  | Doc, 90′

Early on in his transformative career elusive clothes designer Martin Margiela cottoned on to the fact that anonymity and exclusivity meant power in the fashion world. During his career Margiela reinvented with his innovative designs and revolutionary shows; never compromising on his vision. After abruptly leaving fashion in 2009 he is now regarded as one of the most influential designers of modern times. Reiner Holzemer’s (DRIES) film presents a never-before-seen, exclusive look inside the creative mind and vision of Martin Margiela.

This frank and fascinating new biopic is the third film to scope out the life of the 62-year-old Belgian maverick whose vision turned the tables on high glamour to offer a softly deconstructed version of Rei Kawakubo’s Avantgarde label Comme des Garçons.

We don’t meet him but we do get to see his graceful hands moving swiftly on the pattern cutting table (“I liked his hands,” comments one model, “When he dressed you backstage it was with finesse.”). Meanwhile his soothing narration conveys a slightly insolent, provocatively subversive figure. Margiela gives a reason for this reclusiveness, and we discover it was not a sales ploy: “Anonymity, for me, was a kind of a protection — that I could work. And the work was hard. And that I had nothing on my schedule, like all the appointments one can have with press. I’m not against those appointments. But I could not cope with them. They would bring me out of my balance.”

Using the usual talking heads approach combined with archive footage of the shows and the models, seasoned fashion documentarian Holzeme conveys Margiela’s subtle thoughtfulness as he prepares for the “Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009” exhibition, a 10-year retrospective that took place in the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris.

Born on the 9th of April 1957 in Leuven, Belgium, Martin Margiela remembers watching his dressmaker grandmother cutting patterns and then making them up. She was the most important influence in his life, but he also impressed by the Courreges models at a show on TV in 1966 – they wore opaque white glasses and white toeless boots with a white cotton summer dresses and that captured the young Margiela’s imagination. Attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp he graduated in 1979 just a year ahead of the design collective known as the  ‘Antwerp Six’ which included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. From the early 1980s he developed his distinct concept and vision and after a spell with Gaultier’s mentoring (“Martin you don’t realise you have a style and a taste, and you should stick with that taste for your future”) he went on to found the ready to wear label Maison Martin Margiela with fellow Belgian Jenny Meirens in 1987.

The first show in 1989 embraced the label’s deconstructed aesthetic, taking place in an abandoned kids’ playground in the suburbs of Paris where fashion luminaries mingled with ordinary locals hanging out and cheering in a rock concert ambiance (echoed here by a offbeat soundtrack by the Belgian rock band dEus). Margiela models wore heavy make-up and messy hair and were heavily scented with Patchouli when they took the catwalk.

Rather than concentrating on intricate couture and exquisite fabrics like Dior and St Laurent, he focused on the look and image and the message he was sending out to his fans: One iconic design involved photographing a garment in black and white and then printing the flat image directly onto the fabric to achieve a tromp l’oeil look. Another was his cloven hoof “Tabi” high-heel boots. Often he shot black-and-white cinema verité-style short films to showcase his collections.

Margiela put the counter-culture on a pedestal and made it cool. But the often violent reaction against his rebellion was another factor that sent him behind closed doors, shunning the press and avoiding interviews. In this way his anonymity became vital to his work, helping him to retain his integrity of vision which he felt would be dissipated by negative reactions if he allowed the outside in. In the end, his lack of a public persona became irreverent because of the strong message of his work. Other standout shows would see his models wearing masks or with wigs covering their faces giving them a ‘back to front look’ that somehow evoked insularity. Garments were often fashioned from bits and pieces of socks made into tailored garments. The silhouette was long and wide at the bottom, with a focus on the shoes. “When you look at the shoulders and the shoes, they dictate the movement of the body, and that’s what I’m interested in.”  Mixing second hand clothes with new designs – his 1991 collection involved long dresses often worn coat-like over teeshirt and jeans, and left open at the back.

Paris allowed him to experiment and be free. Rather like Prada’s little red tag, the calling card of Margiela’s brand was the invisible label framed by four whites stitch marks. Margiela would enjoy working with a number of fashion houses, one in particular was the supremely classic house of Hermès where he was creative director for six years from 1998. Seeing the big picture, he went to the essence of the brand and managed to create something unique but at the same time classically elegant; balancing grace, comfort and timelessness in subtle tones and hues.

During the 1990s the label generated a keen celebrity following of Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Amanda Peet and there were flagship boutiques in Los Angeles. But he suddenly stepped back claiming he had drifted away from his focus: “By the end, I became, in a certain way, an artistic director in my own company. And that bothered me, because I’m a designer. I’m really a fashion designer, and a designer who creates, and I’m not just a creative director who directs his assistants.” His abrupt parting with the brand in 2008 meant he was unable to say goodbye to his collaborators and contacts. And this film is another tribute them.

Today Margiela paints and sculpts and continues to live in solitude. But the takeaway from this informative film is his response when asked if he is done with fashion. The answer is a firm’No’. MT

ON DEMAND COURTESY OF DOGWOOF

 

 

Crazy, Not Insane (2020) ***** CPH: DOX 2020

Dir: Alex Gibney | With Forensic Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis MD, Richard Burr, Park Dietz, Catherine Yeager; USA 2020, 117 min.

What happens in the brains of serial killers? Oscar winner Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, examines the facts and the psychology of murderers based on research by forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Ontov Lewis, in this chilling but sober film about criminal psychology.

Professor Dorothy Otnov Lewis, forensic psychiatrist and lecturer at Yale and NY university, is best known for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a phenomenon she continues to question since coining the term in 1984. Her work with serial killers Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy brought her to the conclusion that DID was the result of brain dysfunction, abuse in childhood and psychotic paranoia.

Otnov Lewis is a lively and voluble medic who makes this comprehensive study engaging and enjoyable despite the gravity of the subject matter. She describes how brain dysfunction affects the frontal lobes responsible for controlling  (among other things) our emotional responses and empathy. Injury of this vital part of the brain leads to impulsiveness, poor judgement and emotional liability. Together with childhood abuse and a tendency to paranoia, this is, as it turns out, a deadly combination. 

By way of background she describes going to kindergarten during WWII her main concerns were not being picked last for team games and her disappointment that Hitler’s suicide robbed her of insight into the motives for his genocidal politics, and she later eagerly followed the Nuremberg trials. A career as a Freudian analyst seemed the logical next step. But her studies at Yale School of Medicine led her via New Haven Juvenile Court and saw her running a clinic specialising in the neuro-psychiatric characteristics of young people in Long Lane School, a detention facility for violent juvenile offenders in Middleton (Connecticut). This experience changed her mind. She worked with the neurologist Professor Martin Pincus, a collaboration they continued at NYU, where they had access to Bellevue Hospital prison.

An interview with CBS TV in 1983 focused on children who kill and brought her into contact with a lawyer defending two juvenile children on death row. Lewis and Pincus interviewed all the death row inmates in Starke/Florida. Among them was Lucky Larson (not his real name), who was sentenced to die for hacking his two victims to death. Tests revealed his frontal lobes had been injured. In course of their investigation, Lewis and Pincus uncovered that Lucky’s mother had started sexually abusing him when he was six. His jealous father became violent with his son. But despite this revelation the jury in his re-trail still found him guilty. Lewis’ only consolation was his inability to see the reality of his situation: his frontal lobes had been disconnected from the rest of the brain.

Lewis had more success in trial with Arthur Shawcross, a notorious serial killer. He was saved from the electric chair in November 1990, thanks to Lewis’ intervention. Shawcross, whose mother bit his penis when he was young, said in an interview with Lewis “I am here, but I am not really here. I am fighting with myself. I am two people doing something bad.” Lewis used the MRI of his brain for her defence, but the prosecutor’s forensic witness Park Dietz, a medical bigwig who Lewis would continue to cross horns with during her career, tried to destroy her testimony.

Then there was the case of Johnny Frank Garrett, 17 years old, who had murdered a nun. He was a schizophrenic whose brain damage led to seizures. Lewis and the defence asked for clemency, but the states of Florida and Texas were in competition to secure the most death penalties. The Texas governor basically washed his hands off the case and let the Clemency Board decide. The result was a 17:1 vote for execution.

The Clinton administration was in power at the time and the president had already shown in his home state of Arkansas that he was tough on crime. Although there were some counter demonstrations against the executions, the majority literally celebrated the perpetrators’ deaths. Arcade games featured executions on the electric chair, where a dummy was put to death by the player for 25 cents. It is interesting in this context, that Lewis would interview Ben Johnson, the travelling executioner, who was also a part-time electrician. He proudly told Lewis about his grandson’s encouragement in his work: “Zap them, Grand Pa.” Strangely enough, Lewis is much more concerned about the little children sitting on his lap (“I will get accused of molestation”) than the nineteen people he had executed. Johnson states candidly that he had no nightmares, but the paintings he did after every execution show a tortured soul.

Dorothy Lewis was the last person Ted Bundy spoke to just before his execution on 24.1.1993. Bundy had made a performance of his trial, and everything he said was seen as a part of his grandstanding. But in her interviews with Bundy, Lewis discovered that Bundy’s grandfather Sam had been a violent person and an pornography user. Bundy’s grandmother had depression and his own mother, Eleanor Louise had taken “pills” to abort the boy. Bundy spent two months in an orphanage before his mother united him with his siblings. Ted run away from his violent grandfather, and there were rumours that Sam was his biological father, which DNA tests proved to be wrong. When Lewis got a collection of love letters from his wife, she found out that Bundy had signed some of them with ‘Sam’, the name of his grandfather. Bundy told Lewis that “in late Winter 1969, this ‘entity’ reached the point were it was necessary to act out. The ‘entity’ takes over the basic conscious mechanism of the brain and more or less dictates what’s going to be done. It was unobtrusive at first, something that sort of grew on me. It began to visualise and phantasies’ about more violent things. But by the time I realised how powerful it was, I was in big trouble.” He had become his grandfather, and while the public was celebrating his execution Lewis, who never wanted the perpetrators she interviewed to be released, lamented “how much could we have learned from Bundy had he been allowed to live. But we have gone back to the Middle Ages, burning witches.”

Gibney has made this dark chapter in America’s history even grimmer by incorporating 2d, and 3d black-and-white animation which pictures Lewis sitting on both the electric chair and outside the death chamber, looking into her Alter Ego’s eyes. Lewis is also seen painting in stark black strokes the Hell, her patients inhabited. DoP Ben Bloodwell makes this a disturbing masterpiece enriched by Lewis’ gracious presence. AS

CPH:DOX 2020 and on HBO DIGITAL TV in certain territories. 

    

        

 

Bitter Love (2020) *** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir. Jerzy Sladkowski. Poland/Finland/Sweden. 2020. 86 mins.

Russian couples pack their emotional baggage for a romantic voyage on the Volga in this entertaining but tonally offbeat curio from Polish filmmaker Jerzy Slodkowski (Don Juan).

Essentially a series of disparate encounters between its often disillusioned characters, Bitter Love tests the temperature of love in contemporary Russia and finds it either troubled or rather buttoned down, particularly where the men are concerned. The women are full of disillusionment but remain chipper and ever-hopeful of redressing the emotional balance or finding love again, even though the past has often given them a kick in the teeth, on the feelings front.

Sailing down the languorous waters of Russia’s most famous river aboard the appropriately named ‘Maxim Gorky’ riverboat, this upbeat documentary is as realist as it can be in scoping out romantic possibilities for a shipload of modern Russians, from all ages and walks of life, who we first meet setting off a cloud of coloured balloons each containing an ardent wish.

In the singletons corner there is Oksana (or Xenia) a middle-aged disillusioned romantic who shares her woes with Yura a bulked-up bodyguard type who actually turns out to be a bit of a softie, strumming his guitar and crooning like a troubadour. There is also petite Yulya who makes a bid for taller, older mate but soon has second thoughts.

Not all are footloose and fancy-free: it falls to an earnest young singer and her pianist playmate to set the tone musically with their classical accompaniment. Meanwhile, another older couple in a longterm relationship, Sacha and Lyuba, are clearly entering troubled waters – and even the odd set-too – threatening to rock the boat, both literally and metaphorically, but also adding a spark of humour to this river-bound odyssey of lost souls.

Apart from an interlude on dry land, or sand – as it turns out to be – this is a mostly close-up affair that pictures its protagonists in restaurant tete-a-tetes or in the intimacy of their cabins, but there’s a stagey artifice to these encounters that somehow doesn’t make them ring true, despite their earnestness. Compelling stuff nevertheless. MT

CPH:DOX 2020 | ONLINE IN CERTAIN TERRITORIES

Songs of Repression (2020) Dox Award | CPH:DOX 2020

Dir: Estephan Wagner, Marianne Hougen-Moraga. Doc, Denmark 90′

Few stories from the Pinochet era are more tragically sinister than that of the Colonia Dignidad in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Here a German community suffered years of abuse in thrall to  a cult of religious fanaticism that wreaked a reign of terror and some of the worst atrocities of the Chilean dictatorship.

Villa Baviera couldn’t be more idyllic in its mountain freshness in contrast to the events that took place behind closed doors. Filmmakers Wagner and Hougen-Morgaga have adopted a novel but restrained approach to illuminating this little known episode of terror, calmly and thoughtfully opening the door to understanding how those affected have gradually come to terms with their past. The directors spent just over a year filming with this stricken community of around 120 surviving inhabitants and perpetrators, who suffered under the draconian regime of Paul Schafer for over three decades from the early 1960s to the late 1990s.

What emerges is sometimes difficult to believe. To all intents and purposes this rural idyll seems the perfect place to live with its glorious climate and lush mountain setting. Residents are surrounded by the beauty of the Chilean countryside where they spend their days gardening and even bee-keeping. There is also a care home for older residents. But behind the scenes they reveal experiences that are beyond belief involving beatings, abuse both sexual and verbal, and forced participation in singing songs that glorify their lives in the Villa Baviera, rather than demonise them.

The thrust of Songs of Repression is on the present rather than the past: there is no archive footage, although we do discover how Schafer was eventually dealt with. The filmmakers focus on  the regime’s effect on its inmates and how their psychological well-being was warped and destroyed by the gradual trauma and abuse. They are only now starting to recuperate after years victimisation, Anger and disappointment replaces fear and oppression, and the idea that sex is actually an expression of love rather than of violence and hatred.

Not everyone there is completely outraged by what happened, some still foster the idea that Pinochet was actually misguided and misled. And this human individuality of response in the face of tragedy is what ultimately makes Songs of Repression so remarkable and ground-breaking as a documentary testament to the past. MT

SONGS ON REPRESSION WON THE DOX PRIZE at CPH:DOX 2020 

 

A Shape of Things to Come (2020) **** CPH:DOX 2020

Dirs: Lisa Marie Malloy & J.P. Sniadecki. US. 2020. 77′

A Lone Ranger of the worst type is how best to describe the unappealing main character in Malloy and Sniadecki’s unsettling documentary that sees a heavily bearded, raddled man living an isolated existence in the Sonoran desert, his only companions his dogs.

With its prescient themes of self-sufficiency and even social distancing this borderlands Western shows how possible it is even in the 21st country to survive as a hunter gatherer far removed from society, a telephone, vehicle and electricity the only mod cons at your disposal. The filmmakers adopt a slowing-burning and detached approach to their subject shying away from any formal narrative and letting the camera drift around following Sundog through his day. Meanwhile a growing tension gradually leads us to believe this intriguing ethnographical portrait will have a more sinister outcome than the one it started out with — Sundog emerging merciless and triumphant having shot a wild boar and leaving it to bleed out in a grim death, clearly not wanting to waste another bullet on the dying animal.

The Senoran desert is a dangerous place to live and full of snakes and poisonous insects, Sundog harnesses a desert toad and milks it for its bufotenin, a tryptamine derivative which when dried and smoked causes psychedelic trips lasting around an hour. He cackles, belches and makes strange whooping noises as he goes about his business – and we also see him doing his business. Later he shares he feelings about his lifestyle in a caustic, slightly embittered tone: “Outwitting the US government and avoiding people I have no affinity for is a win-win situation”. There are occasional glimpses of the US surveillance towers, evidence of big brother monitoring his idyllic wildlife existence. But a coiled snake continually seen lingering in the grass could shape up to be equally intrusive.

What happens next leaves us in no doubt about Sundog’s general disdain for mainstream culture, and the lyrics of a song he sings along to give a clear indication that he has possibly left some emotional baggage behind to seek solace in the wilderness. The film ends leaving us slightly unsatisfied hinting at doom but never delivering the final sting.

Known for his Locarno Golden Leopard nominated The Iron Ministry and El Mar La Mar which he directed with Joshua Bonnetta, Shape Of Things is an intriguing film and beautiful to look at with its striking desert scenery captured by Sniadecki and Molloy who also act as their own editors and composers of the film’s haunting electronic soundscape. Sundog is like the snake in the grass, simmering quietly but ready to strike at any moment if provoked in this compelling walk on the wilder side of life. MT

SCREENING DURING CPH: DOX 2020

 

 

Själö – Island of Souls (2020) **** CPH: DOX 2020 Special Mention

Dir: Lotta Petronella | Wri: Seppo Parkinnen, Lotta Petronella | Doc, Finland 78′

On a remote island in the Baltic Sea a longterm mental asylum has been transformed into a research centre for the study of local floral and fauna, particularly insects. Although devoid of human inhabitants, the place is still haunted by the souls of the women who were incarcerated within its walls, particularly those who fist arrived in 1624 suffering from leprosy, and then a hundred years later when the institution housed a variety of lunatics and the mentally disturbed.

Finnish filmmaker Lotta Petronella brings her fine art training to bear in her third documentary feature that plays out like a haunting thriller making affective use of hyper vibrant visuals and indie composer Lau Nau’s eerie soundscape to tell the story of the island’s troubled past. Arriving there in the depths of winter like some ancient mariner over the icebound sea to the south of Finland she soon discovers that the former asylum is a place with vast archives that reveal a repressed and terrifying history that emanates from letters written but never sent by the women who suffered and died there. While a young scientist is collecting samples of insects and discovering their story under the microscope, Petronella makes her own forensic study of the patients’ records to gain insight into the human element of this remote place. He finds a hidden past that permeates the fabric of the building as the archive come alive revealing their macabre past.

Själö in a restrained but profound study in memory and how history is created and shaped both by those that lived through it and their descendants. Some memories are over-glorified while others are buried and erased from the history books simply because of the nature of their existence. And this is particularly relevant in this island with its strange and disturbing past. “It is a place that makes you contemplate structures of power, science, lunacy, the ecological disaster and the soul, all at the same time. It is haunted by its past until one accepts that the ghosts are there to remind and challenge us to ‘see’ and sense the hidden memories.”
Petronella’s films have been shown internationally at film festivals, art galleries, and broadcasted widely. Her latest film LAND WITHOUT GOD (2019), a collaboration with the artists Gerard Mannix Flynn and Maedhbh McMahon, is an intimate portrait of a family coming to terms with decades of institutional abuse and the impact it still has on their lives. The film celebrated its international premiere at Docs With our Gravity, Warsaw in 2019. HOME. Somewhere (HEM. Någonstans, 2015) shot in the middle of the Baltic Sea, premiered at Docpoint Film Festival Helsinki in 2015 where it was named a highlight by Indiewire. Her first documentary film SKÄRIKVINNOR (2008) was successful both with critics and audiences and was shown on numerous television channels and film festivals. Her work has been supported by the Finnish Film fund (SES), Art Council of Finland (TAIKE), Art Council of England, KONE foundation and Finnish-Swedish Art Council.
 SJÄLÖ – Island of Souls received a Special Mention from the NORDIC:DOX Jury at CPH:DOX CPH:DOX 2020 

State Funeral (2019) Mubi

Dir: Sergei Loznitsa | Doc, Ukraine

Ukrainian Director Sergei Loznitsa shows how the Russian Communist dictator Joseph Stalin still held his citizens in thrall at the mammoth funeral to commemorate his death. State Funeral concludes Loznitsa’s historical trilogy that started with The Event and was followed by The Trial.

Sixty six years after his death Stalin still exerts a cultish fascination in the West. According to the Yale Professor of History Timonthy Snyder, Stalin killed more people (including Ukrainians) than Hitler killed Jews – 27 million were murdered and 15 million starved to death during his regime (mentioned in the film’s end credits) – but he is still revered by many who espouse Communist ideals in contemporary society.

Expressing a strong opinion is not Loznitsa’s style. He merely ponders the aftermath of one of modern history’s bloodiest dictators with this sombre and dignified documentary that makes used of Danielius Kokanauski’s cleverly edited archive footage to reflect the extraordinary pomp and ceremony that continued for four days and brought the Russian nation to a complete standstill as it wallowed in a sea of mass mourning, the droning voice of the loudspeakers recounting the grim details surrounding the father-like Stalin’s demise.

There is a bizarrely hypnotic quality to this wordless documentary that mesmerises for over two hours as we contemplate the massed crowds moving like silent waves around the casket covered with a shroud the colour of dried blood, known as ‘Kremlin Red’. We can make out the dictator’s children Vasily and Svetlana amongst the morass of floral tributes. Clearly they were numbed by the shock of their father’s sudden death on 5 March 1953 after a massive stroke, in his mid seventies.

Officials are seen relaying the casket on a bier surrounded by a forest of blood and bandage coloured flowers, the lid is removed to reveal the waxy face of the embalmed Stalin as a silent sea of mourners drifts by to the solemnity of a symphony orchestra and massed choir. The restrained remembrance ripples out into the countryside beyond Moscow where millions gather to pay their respects.

After three days of mourning the casket is finally closed and taken on a horse-driven vehicle to Red Square where it will remain on longterm display in the Lenin mausoleum until it is finally sealed in the walls of the Kremlin, eight years later.

The final act is one of inflated speeches and puffed up orations. Nikita Khrushchev is one of the speakers, he would go on to succeed Stalin as first secretary of main Communist Party Committee. Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrentiy Beria are also in attendance. Loznitza once again triumphs with this remarkable endeavour that exerts a mysterious power over the audience, captivating despite a 135 minute running time. MT

NOW ON MUBI

Nails in My Brain (2020) *** Cinema du Reel 2020

Dir: Hilal Baydarov | Doc, Azerbaijan 2020, 80 min.

Azerbaijani director and writer Hilal Baydarov also acts as his own editor and DoP in this introspective self-reflection on art and particularly God. Wandering around a house, possible his birthplace, he narrates the piece in the form of seven chapters and one epilogue, exploring the story of his life and his close relationship with God.

In chapter One, titled Questions, Hilal recalls being about twelve when the first ‘nail’ entered his brain after he forgot put the gas off leaving for school, managing to avoid an explosion by opening the window on his return. But one question remains with him: Why did God let him live? In 9th grade he falls in love with Jala because she was all dressed in black due to the death of her parents. His love for her grows even more when she admits to being unmoved by her mother’s death – until she was driven to tears by the final ‘photo she was carrying. Hilal can relate to this: after his grandfather died he felt no sorrow, but when he found his old watch he admits to breaking down and comes to the conclusion that he loves Jala less than the sadness she represents.

In chapter two, “That girl from Sarajewo”, Hilal falls in love with a stranger, following her into the tram, but getting off when he realises that his staring is attracting unwelcome attention from the other passengers. He tells her about the time his Maths teacher made him stand on one foot in front of the class because he could never answer the questions. He knew all the answers but actually got off on being punished. “I was the teacher, not her – I felt like a God” he exclaims – and he believes his love of Maths comes from these experiences.

In Chapter Three “The Love of Living” (quite a contradiction) begins his intimate dialogue with God, which continues to permeate the rest of the feature. Hilal admits to being impressed by a series of suicides going on in his village. At least somebody has dared to do something outrageous, which he himself bailed out of, due to cowardice and lack of conviction. He puts this all down to his fear of Hell, and admits he would have killed himself if God had really desired his death.

Hilal also dreams about being on the way to his execution, loving every moment, particularly the last one when the crowd around him screams loud when he dies. But Hilal does not share the same thoughts of his fellow humans: he only makes a brief visit to his sick cousin in hospital. On the train back, he is unmoved by the images of previous film (Where the Persimmons Grow/2019), when he sees a father counting the rent money over and over again, desperate in case he is short. Finally in the epilogue title “I am not a prophet” he comes to the conclusion Eve was the first painter. Because Adam had invited guests to dinner and they all looked the same, whereas Eve painted them as individuals. “Don’t be the oracle of Baku”, he concludes, “for me, filming is just a way of cowardice”.

Although this sixth outing from the Azerbaijani filmmaker is often laborious and verbose, patient viewers will find it ultimately rewarding, enriched by its lyrical mournfulness and the sumptuous images of the abandoned village. Sometimes the camera rests on a window, with the rest of the frame black. Halil nails pages from books onto the wall, and then sets them of fire. Hilal evokes a spirit of abandonment, which is underlined in his ramblings about God and film. AS

CINEMA DU REEL | FREE ONLINE

               

      

Celle Qui Manque (2020) *** Cinema du Reel 2020

Dir.: Rares Ienasoaie; Documentary with Ioana Ienasoaie; France 2019, 

Romanian born director/DoP/Sound designer Rares Ienasoaie has created a very personal feature documentary: having not met his sister Ioana for twelve years, he tracks her down living   in a camper van, eking out an existence from detritus, a drug addict for most of her life.

 “One day, I felt alone and I thought of my elder sister Ioana”. Ioana has not really disappeared, she travels because she wants to be forgotten. But Rares really misses her and takes his camera along on her nightly odyssey. Twelve years is a long time, even for siblings. It soon emerges her most recent relationship has come to an end – one of many endings. Ioana does read her correspondence but always finds a way to avoid contact. She loves the stories Rares tells – as long as they are kept in a mythical past. The present belongs to drugs and her dog. Ioana’s recalls being jealous at fourteen, and wanting a sporty man like her friend. She is thirty now, and does not even know what sporty means. Something she did not get – like everything else. When Rares asks her about the future the answer comes quickly: “I hope I will be still myself.” Whatever that is, because Ioana has to admit her drug dependency keeps her from having a real identity: they have put her life on hold pause. “I know, drugs are stopping me from being free”. Some of her friends have overcome their dependency on replacing it another drug, that of sexual elation. But love is not for her. “You think you are in love, and the other person is laughing at you. But with drugs, you are always aware of it – you self-destruct, but there is no chance of rejection”. The past always, the past: “The past defines us, if you don’t deal with it. I realise that I have not gotten over it: I still see myself as fat and ugly, even though I am not any more. But I don’t feel good”. 

Most of the shots are taken in the back of the camper, the only light being Ioana’s headlamp. It comes as a shock when we suddenly move to a daytime shot down by the seaside. Another Ioana emerges, and suddenly there is colour. Rares is gradually trying to persuade Ioana to visit her family, their parents in particular. But Ioana is reluctant: “I’ll never feel ready, because I’ll never be able to put things right again. It not neutral territory” When Rares reminds her that Blicourt is not her childhood home, she refuses to accept it. “Only Compiegne, that’s the only place I feel comfortable”. When her brother insists that her parents definitely bought Blicourt for them, Ioana gets angry: “They can’t believe we wanted children. No grandchildren.” Rares plays down a putative meeting: “We won’t say anything, we’ll just say you’ll come and see them. We’ll pretend everything is fine. I can’t pretend I have no sister, I am an only child. I feel like the ungrateful son”.

The Missing One finally comes to a conclusion on the beach with the dog running around, swimming happily. Ioana leans against a rock. Nothing is spared, the darkness of the camper van shrouding everything in a mournful guise, Ioana going more backwards than forwards. Like a Becket play, everything stripped to the essential gloom. AS

42nd CINEMA DU RÉEL 2020 Paris France | 13-22 March 2020

The Ponds (2018) Netflix

Dirs: Patrick McLennan, Samuel Smith | UK Doc | 76′

“If you can face the water at 5 degrees, you can face anything”  

Hampstead is still reeling from the unauthentic romcom that took its name in 2017. So hurrah for this  documentary that reflects the real Hampstead, London’s hilly heartland and home to 320 hectares of woods and pastures. Hampstead Heath also has several fresh water ponds where all year round visitors can wallow and frolic or simply just swim.

The Ponds is Patrick McLennan’s debut as co-director/producer along with Samuel Smith, and he also wrote the script. Drone footage captures the changing seasons chronologically, beginning with early Spring. We meet regulars Dan, David and Jim who extol the virtues – and rigours – of this open air communal bathing experience. There are even some local swimmers in their 80s who consider it a must for their health and social life – even though at times the water is a spine-tingling 2 or 3 degrees. But the endorphin rush is addictive and life-affirming.

From the 1880s these ponds were regulated for the local community. Tom is part of a hard core of 60 or so bathers who take a dip at least once or twice a week in the chilly brackish waters. He considers it his place of ‘religious’ worship. From the 1920s local women got their own segregated pond which is regarded by the female regulars as a spiritual place to reunite against life’s hardships, and maintain confidence in their bodies – even though they may not even know each other names. And although the men’s ponds see more nude swimmers, some female interviewees gives us a flash of their assets, just to be going on with.

Tom forms the connective tissue of the film with his eventful life story. He sees his swim as a chance to disassociate from the “silliness of life”. This was particularly important when he was nearly killed in a road accident in Oxford Circus. Another regular Carrie, has battled cancer and found the Ponds invaluable for keeping her hope alive. And she doesn’t get so many colds!

Oliver completely fell in love with the Heath and its ponds and when his romance finished. He felt bereft moving back to Camberwell. He now returns to the Heath every day. Another keen bather suffers from degenerative blindness and describes how his daily fresh water exercise is a life-saver.

Whilst the older swimmers talk of the spirituality, social and health benefits of pond swimming, the young express their joy of escaping the city to enjoy the open air with their friends in the heat of the summer. It’s a melting pot for rich and poor, old and young, gay and bisexual, families and singles. David now prefers the open-air freshness to his local gym experience and he’s incorporated his workout into his swimming time. In his youth he even used to wear a weighted vest to improve his strength and endurance.

Made on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, The Ponds is a graceful and cinematic documentary that shows how the trend for fresh water swimming can provide a bonding experience, enriching and supporting the local community. The film ends on a high note at the end of the season – with a competitive swim for Christmas. Keeping up with the zeitgeist, some locals air mixed feelings about trans-gender bathing, but a more burning issues is why the women’s pond has no diving board. “We want to bounce ourself in”, said one feisty female. I’ll second that. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

The Two Sights (2020) An Da Shealladh **** Cinema du Reel 2020

Dir: Joshua Bonnetta | Canada, Doc | 90′

Canadian filmmaker Joshua Bonnetta follows his 2017 documentary El Mar la Mar with this equally beguiling film about the phenomenon of clairvoyance, or second sight, in the Western Isles. The film also explores clairaudience, the supposed faculty of perceiving, as if by hearing, what is inaudible.

In the Outer Hebrides locals feel there is little distinction between Heaven and Earth. This untrammelled part of the British Isles is locked away from the buzz of the 21st century, its gentle emptiness, wide open seascapes and luminous cloud formations coalesce to create the ideal setting for all things surreal and inspired by unstructured consciousness, allowing the present to be sustained by the past and offering the locals a portal to their folkloric and linguistic heritage.

The Two Sights opens with the distant figure of Bonnetta silently positioning his microphone on a grassy coastline, subtly introducing the film’s main theme. Bonnetta’s delicately glowing 16mm images then provide the bewitching backcloth to a series of mysterious and ghostly tales voiced by local islanders (in Scottish Gaelic and English) recounting inexplicable sounds and enigmatic sightings that presage the passing away or continuing presence of their friends, animals and loved ones. Some claim the gift of second sight is passed down through families and generations, and now mourn its slow disappearance.

There are stories of dog skeletons, drowned villages, and family members passing away; although songs, silence and the shipping forecast are just as at home here. But like any great collection, the elements are less important than the underlying theme: the closer we are to nature, the closer we are to understanding the universe and how the past and present form a continuous loop uniting our souls forever as we pass visibly, and then invisibly through time.

The Two Sights is both captivating and compelling with its eerie beauty: a lulling ambient soundscape and breathtaking landscapes draw us into a story so ephemeral it could easily drift away in the foggy dusk of these atavistic islands. Bonnetta’s restrained approach avoids sensationalism in conveying the palpable otherworldly plane that exists beyond the six senses transporting us into a dimension that is mysterious and meaningful but not necessarily tragic or malign.

The only diegetic sound is provided by a group of local Scottish gospel singers led by a man with a smooth baritone who later manages to mingle his voice with nearby birdsong, lending a vaguely humorous twist. Wandering round this remote corner, Bonnetta adds further ethnographical texture with random sequences: a lonesome bagpipe player lends a tune and some peat cutters gossip as they unearth the island’s ancient form of fuel. “Sight by eye, sight by ear, two sights that ripple and flow together.”Bonnetta adds another muted but unforgettable film to his repertoire. MT

CINEMA DU REEL | 42nd DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL | 13-22 MARCH 2020

iHuman (2019) **** | CPH:DOX 2020

Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei, Doc, Norway Denmark 99′ 
One of the major challenges of our times is how the global community is going to deal with artificial intelligence (AI). Who will control this technology? Has the train left the station, never to be stopped? These are some of the issues tackled in an unsettling new documentary from Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei whose Play Again investigated the positive impact on the natural environment on kids development.
iHuman explores the benefits of AI in increasing our potential for the great good, but crucially highlights its negative aspects. And there’s no turning back. AI development is hurtling forward with tech companies affiliated to the defence industry and algorithms in law enforcement enhancing existing biases. Once we allow the use of such powerful technology to assist us the brakes are off: AI is like raising a new offspring: eventually like a real child we cannot control everything it will do. One day it will be in charge. And this has frightening but seemingly unavoidable consequences.
Hessen Schei has gained impressive access to a variety of leading influencers to debate her premise and they present a wide range of views, from tech optimism in Jurgen Schmidhuber “the father of AI,” to more cautious voices like technology journalist Kara Swisher, human rights lawyer Philip Alston, and Shalil Shetty from Amnesty International. Animated computer graphics visualise a polymorphous, self-developing structure with ever-greater autonomy guiding us forward. Computer scientist and psychographic specialist Ilya Sutskever is one of the most helpful and persuasive talking heads. He is working on how computers can max out our problem solving abilities while ensuring they share the same goals as us. Computational Psychologist Michal Kosinski is another ‘good guy’. He sees his goal as protecting people against the risks of how algorithms are reading their most intimate motivations.
By 2025 each person will produce 62 gigabytes of data per day. And this information is increasingly being used by the vast tech companies to manipulate each of us in our lifestyle choices: how we live, vote, and even who we chose to date. And this is one of the downsides of everyone gets to have their say on social media. As social animals who enjoy interacting with one another we have chosen the path to our own potential downfall. We have all become hooked to a high performance ad machine in the shape of Twitter, Google and Facebook. Shouting for our various teams has becomes an enjoyable and addictive pastime, and gradually the world has become more and more polarised, our majority views encouraging others to blaze the trail. Eventually we will become obsolete unable to finance our lives with mass employment the result of computers taking over.
The Police and the military are also tracking in an effort to manipulate us but also – they say – to protect us. Their highly advanced systems are set up to predict and track potential criminals from early on in their lives, using algorithms. In the future their intervention and high level surveillance equipment will kick in more and more intensively so as to clamp down on the potential for crime. In the military the use of so-called  unmanned systems are actually autonomous lethal weapons to be feared because they could easily turn against those programming them.
Combining her informative talking heads with convincing data and an eerie soundtrack, Hessen Schei gives us plenty of food for thought in this well-paced and good-looking documentary. And the takeaway is positive: Ai has actually forced us to re-examine what it really means to be human. We have created it, now maybe it can re-create us. MT
SCREENING DURING IDFA | 20 November – 1 December 2019

The Green Fog (2018) **** Now on Vimeo

Dir.: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson; USA 2017,63 min.

Guy Maddin’s’ love letter to San Francisco and Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a montage of clips from features shot in around the Californian coastal city: around one hundred or so – no new material was filmed. Aesthetically, Green Fog settles somewhere in between Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and another Maddin/Johnson collaboration, Forbidden Room from 2015. There’s no real narrative to speak of, but Green Fog will appeal to those who like their film history served with a dizzy twist of the insane.

Oblique and opaque, Green Fog shows an overbearing obsession with Hitchcock: morbid and melancholy, we follow Scottie and Judy on a drive through the city, morphing into a hell-raising ride, where love turns to disillusionment. Novak and Stewart are played by various actors: Faye Dunaway, Susan Saint James, Gina Lolabrigida; Anthony Franciosa and Dean Martin. As one actor melds into another, one forgets that they look different in this headlong rush, on foot and in automobiles, as they’re drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge and oblivion.The film’s quotes range from the thrilling (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) to the downright bizarre (Confessions of an Opium Eater of 1962 and So I married an Axe Murderer of 1993), via obscure gems such as Obayashi’s Take Me Away! 1978, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The common thread is their Vertigo locations; if not directly then metaphorically. The titular fog, which saturates Judy from the neon street sign, re-appears throughout: under water, most menacingly in a hospital corridor. And there are even in the clips from The Great Fire, – which was started by a film fan no less.

Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism is celebrated in many scenes, from surveillance rooms, to men gazing at the screens, unsure of their targets – rather like Rock Hudson, on being quizzed “what are we looking for, Sir?” by a tape operator, to which Rock retorted: “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything”. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco are frequently found in their search for more contemporary perpetrators. Green Fog is a ghost story, a collage of landscapes and rooms (echoing Un Chien Andalou) which are haunted by loss and death, their doom underpinned by a Hermannesque score from Jacob Gavchik. Despite of the gravity of it all, Maddin still manages to be playful and impish throughout. AS

NOW AVAILABLE ON VIMEO

 

No Kings (2020) **** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir.: Emilia Mello; Documentary; Brazil/USA/Luxembourg 2019, 88 min.

150 miles away from Rio de Janeiro live the Caiçara people, trying to uphold the inheritance of their ancestors from Japan, Africa and Europe in the Atlantic rainforest. Nature rules supreme here, and Brazilian first time director/writer/producer/DoP Emilia Mello has caught the spirit of the local inhabitant who live between ocean and rainforest, treating nature which the respect it deserves.

Mello mixes freely with both adults and children encouraging them to treat her like everyone else – and the kids have particularly taken this to heart: Lucimara and Marisol are two girls just under ten, and they certainly keep Mello busy: Lucimara introducing her to the art of crab collecting, and not always successfully. But later Lucimara becomes more friendly, asking Emilia to be one of her sisters, since the filmmaker is an only child – a concept which surprises the little girl.

Then there is Ismail José Costa, father of many, and trying to get out of the shadow of his father, who is a religious leader. Ismail is proud to br “the only person who challenges God. The only thing this King can do to me, is kill me. But after I die, I won’t feel fear. People often ask God to free them from the demons, but I don’t need either.” Aline da Costa is expecting her second child, and goes by bus to the Women’s Clinic in Ponta Negra. Here she is criticised for having missed two appointments, but she is only interested in the gender of the baby – and happy when she learns that it is another girl.

After the villagers have carved out a canoe from a tree, everyone helps to drag it over a fragile bridge from the woods to the ocean shore. Lucimara is not happy with the attention Emilia gives this undertaking and shouts “Emilia, film us here”, pointing to her sister Marisol, who is playing with her at the rocks near the ocean. Mello also undertakes three journeys on the fishing boat, where Ismail is the captain, and talks to her about his relationship with his wife. He has written a sort of  poem with the title ‘Just give me Love’ which is a reflection on their relationship which has grown stronger, after a stormy beginning.

Luiza’s turbulent sixth-birthday party symbolising the life of the villagers between modernity and tradition, makes for a strong final segment.

Unfortunately, the Caiçara people are not the only indigenous minority in the rain forest threatened by the new extreme right-wing government of President Bolsonaro. The army has evicted many who have fought against the loss of their land, and the feature is dedicated to the victims who have already lost their lives trying to keep their inheritance alive.

Mello’s free form, very much in the style of Jean Rouch, echoes the lifestyle of the Caiçara people. No Kings is unique in its poetic lyricism, and a reminder of just another loss of an ancient culture to the greed of the profit-orientated white race. AS

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX | ONLINE 2020 | Copenhagen, Denmark 

   

 

In Touch (2018) *** Kinoteka

Dir.: Pawel Ziemilski; Documentary; Poland/Iceland 2018, 61 min.

Pawel Ziemilski finds an ingenious way to tackle the timely topic of distance relationships in a challenging new documentary which won the main prize at IDFA in 2108.

Since the 1980s, the Polish town of Stare Juchy (Old Blood) has seen its population dwindling with most of the young moving to Iceland, of all places. Desperate to stay in touch, those left behind resort to electronic methods of communication. And Skype seems to be the most popular. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Gradually a different modus vivendi takes hold as the emigres adapt to their new environment, become influenced by the change of language and social set-up. Most of them will never return.

But In Touch goes beyond a study of citizens chatting to relatives and friends on a screen. Ziemilski records images of the landscape in both locations and then literally projects the footage via electronic means onto a vast canvass, a sort of moving art installation that keeps the communities in touch with each other, and their environment – rather like google Earth on a grandiose scale. Ziemilski can even project absent family members into a life-size Easter meal, or show a distant daughter painting her mother’s nails in another country. A goalkeeper on the Polish pitch tries to save shots not only from the Icelandic strikers, but also from opponents elsewhere. Sounds amazing? But – and it is a big but – the whole concept fails to convince because we never find out exactly who we’re dealing with, or how they feels about the situation. Brief, subjective, person-related information would have been so much more effective than just pictures: Greta putting her Icelandic co-workers down, telling her friend in Stare Juchy that she went for a job interview at the airport, and hoping she’ll get the job “since only Icelandic girls seem to be working there”.  

The sheer variety of these visual devices is extremely impressive, opening up new ways of enabling interaction by reconfiguring the conception of spaces, and exploring the topic in formally imaginative ways. But the concept is undermined by the plethora of sub-approaches, which often reduces the outcome as pure gimmickry.

All very imaginative in theory, but the human interaction feels impersonal and lacks real  intimacy. In Touch would work far better in the formal confines of an art gallery where visitors could drift in and out. As a cinematic experience it is often too limited by its formalism, which strangles the human touch. AS

Showing 24 March @ 8.30pm at the ICA as part of KINOTEKA | The Polish Film Festival in London, Kinoteka.org.uk

  

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2020) ***

Dir: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders | Doc, US 120′

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is an award-winning TV and feature documentarian known for raising the profile of the BAM and LGBTQ+ community, most notable through The Black List: Volumes 1-3.  Here he turns his camera on this fiercely proud black American writer (her own words) who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 best seller Beloved which inspired Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film of the same name. Morrison bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

More an atmospheric distillation of Morrison’s warm and wise spirit than a straightforward fact-filled biopic, we meet the Ohio-born Morrison (who died last year at 88) talking straight into the camera about her slow-burn struggle for recognition as a writer inspired by her God-fearing father, who paved the way with his own writings. This illuminating film is enlivened by adoring talking heads, Graham Willoughby’s lush visuals of sunsets and archive footage notably of the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Sweden. MT

UK and Ireland release 6 March 2020

Aether (2019) **** Visions du Reel 2019

DIR: Rûken Tekes | Doc, Turkey 82′

Time is up for the past in Hasankeyf. This ancient town in southeastern Turkey, declared a conservation area in 1981, is now at risk of being flooded due to the completion of the controversial Ilisu Dam.

Many have known exile, but to lose an entire homeland forever without trace is an unimaginable tragedy. But that is what will happen to the 20,000 or so inhabitants who will be displaced forever, torn from their roots by the project. In her debut feature, Rûken Tekes uses a lightness of touch to raise the profile of this eco-tragedy, distilling the unique mysterious essence of this ancient city doomed to disappear forever.

With over 12,000 years of rich history behind its location in the valley of the Tigris River, in the Kurdish part of Turkey, Hasankeyf will soon sink beneath an artificial lake, in order to allow for the construction of the hydroelectric dam. Tekes doesn’t try to explain the details of this annihilation but instead creates a space in which the spirit of the place can express itself in its final months. A space that transcends time and reveals the natural cycles of creation, and destruction that lie at the heart of the film.

History transcends mere words and explanations. So her portrait is a dialogue-free sensory one told through a series of exquisite widescreen tableaux vivants accompanied by an ambient , Tekes reflects on the meaning of a past so primordial and unimaginable to our modern eyes we can only watch with awe and wonder as the images unfold the ambient sound of birds and nature enhancing an experience that feels otherworldly yet very much connected to this unique place. This is a remote corner of the earth where centuries of inbreeding has taken its toll on those who have struggled to survive. A death mute woman expresses her tangible disdain for the project in the only way she is able, her lack of words enhancing the emotional pain expressed in her whole body. Another mute man attempts with sign language to convey his feelings about the movement of strategic monuments to another location so that the future can take over. Some resort to playing folkloric music, or even performing ritualistic dances.  Others just sit silently in bars, their facial expressions signalling deep sadness and disappointment for their forthcoming loss. Rather than listing the treasures that will soon be lost, the film transmit a palpable sense of doom as the heavy machinery arrives in silence in preparation for the translocation. But soon whirring engines signal the start of construction. Aether is a delicately drawn, awe-inspiring love letter to loss. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | 5 -14 APRIL 2019

Push (2019) ****

Dir.: Fredrik Gerrten; Documentary with Leilani Farha, Saskia Sassen, Roberto Salvino, Michael Müller, Joseph Steglitz; Sweden, Canada, UK 2019, 92 min.

Swedish writer/director Fredrik Gerrten (Bikes vs Cars) explores the urban housing crisis in his latest film which won the audience award at one of Europe’s major documentary festivals CPH:DOX last year.

It centres on one of the UN’s Housing Reporters Leilani Farha who sets out to investigate and implement one of organisation’s basic Human Rights tenets: to be housed adequately and affordably. What emerges is a fight between David and Goliath. Farha relies on the help of local political figures to stem the tide against a housing market which excludes more and more citizens in urban centres all over the world, making it impossible for them to remain in their chosen environment. 

The global property market is worth a cool £ 176 Trillion – more than twice the worldwide GDP. Farha tries to have a meeting with one of the giants of international properties, the Private Equity firm Blackstone. They were one of the main beneficiaries of the financial crisis of 2008, and spent about £ 7.75 billion buying up properties around the USA. One of these projects was in Harlem, were Farha interviews a tenant who spends 90% (2920 $) of his income on monthly rent. But this being a global economy, Blackstone has reached out as far as Sweden, where it is the biggest private owner of low-income housing. Farha visits an estate in the university city of Uppsala, where Blackstone is “upgrading” – the net result is that tenants will not be able to live in their properties any more. Shades of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me are apparent, when Blackstone cancels the meeting with Farha, wishing her a “productive time in New York.”

It would be wrong to condemn companies like Blackstone for the housing market crisis. Sociologist Saskia Sassen blames the whole of financial sector, “selling something they do not have, having invented brilliant instruments facilitating the move into other sectors”. Economist Joseph Steglitz explains that “companies do not want inexpensive real estate. They want to pay as much as possible to be able to hide more money.” Because offshore money does not always come from the Royal Family and the like, but from profits in the drug and slavery market. Italian author Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah), under police protection and riding in a bullet proof car explains how offshore companies work in laundering money: “You buy things with legal money – restaurants, hotels, houses – then you sell those properties to your companies in a tax heaven. If you want to bring your dirty money back into your country, you simply buy it from yourself at a much higher price than you paid”.

It is not surprising that London is one of most sought after cities for such schemes. The empty houses and office blocks are not loss-making – on the contrary, even without much maintenance their rising value offsets any lack of rental income. One of the 2019 projects on Blackstone’s book is to buy up the properties from what was once Network Rail. Under the railway arches in central London there are 5200 rental units, mainly small businesses and entrepreneurs. 

Local authorities in Barcelona and Berlin try to stem the flood, deciding not to sell any properties.  Farha talked with Michael Müller, mayor of Berlin and a bakery owner in Kreuzberg. Both were adamant they would fight, but the baker had to put up prices to compensate for the rent rise of over 600 Euros a month – and although he knows his customers might comprehend his situation –  but they too have a budget.

Push illuminates some controversial issues in a meaty film enlivened by location shots as it travels round the globe. The conflict between rights and profits is uneven, and Farha might have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights law on her side, as quoted in the International Covenant on economics, Social and Culture Rights of 1966. You can read up on it. AS

https://vimeo.com/324962587 

ON RELEASE FROM 28 FEBRUARY 2020 

     

Speer Goes to Hollywood (2020)

Dir/Wri: Vanessa Lapa | Doc 97′

Vanessa Lapa follows her expose on the life of Heinrich Himmler The Decent One with another illuminating Nazi portrait, this time of ‘Hitler’s architect’, ally and facilitator Albert Speer.

The Israeli filmmaker’s project came into existence via a chance meeting in a hotel which, on further examination, uncovered an eye-watering treasure trove of archive news footage, audio sources and photographs most of which have never seen the light of day until the present day.

In Lapa’s film Albert Speer (1905-1981) comes across as a cultured but rather narcissistic character who enjoyed a glamorous and comfortable existence as the Third Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production in the final years of the Second World War (1942-45). Hitler had wanted to be an architect himself but hadn’t the talents that Speer clearly possessed, so he used the charming and debonair designer as a conduit for his own ideas in constructing the built environment of his Nazi regime. Speer’s subtle charisma saw him through the Nuremberg Trials, convicted but bizarrely escaping the death sentence, this high-ranking official is pictured on the steps of the prison, after serving a two decade sentence, without a shred of remorse but with the victorious words: “See, I’m still good-looking after 20 years”.

During his confinement Speer re-imagined his life and re-wrote his own story claiming not to have been responsible for the overseeing of the gas chambers that led to Third Reich’s worst horrors. He also penned his 1970 best-selling memoir ‘Inside The Third Reich’ which captured the imagination of Hollywood. But on later scrutiny his self-whitewashed story emerged as ‘fake news’, according to the indomitable Lapa who sets out to debunk his version of events in this sleek, compelling and utterly fascinating film.

And not before time. Speer’s specious story is clearly ripe for re-examination. This suave and sinister man still remains unchallenged nearly forty years after his death. Lapa choses a buzzy and effective narrative device to showcase her study: Speer’s 1971 meetings with Jane Birkin’s brother, the scriptwriter Andrew Birkin (apparently a protégé of Stanley Kubrick) who was selected by Paramount to scope out the narrative for a putative film which was later abandoned, largely due to British director Carol Reed’s dubiety. Their informal discussions add subtle but sensational context to the photos and archives, as do the ‘fireside chats’ with Reed who offers his own critique on Speer’s version of the events as the two British film pros plough through 40 hours of Birkin’s recordings with the Nazi, in preparation for his script.

Reed is clearly sceptical, pouring scorn on Speer’s glib technique of painting himself as another ‘decent one’ despite his nefarious Nazi activities that led to the deaths of millions, not to mention the slave labour of the concentration camp victims who were used and abused in Hitler’s efforts to rebuild Berlin. On an equally sinister note, it also emerges that many of these high-ranking officials slipped off the radar and were re-deployed in other parts of the world where their specialist knowledge gleaned in the field of forced euthanasia (Aktion T4) became invaluable.

The film flips between the mind-boggling discussions between Birkin, Speer and Reed; the extraordinary recordings inside the courtrooms of the Nuremberg Trials; the archive footage on parade with the Nazis featuring Hitler and his henchmen, not to mention Albert Speer at leisure with his wife Margarete Weber in their soigné country villa. MT

PREMIERED AT BERLINALE 2020

 

 

 

Running on Empty | Jetzt Oder Morgen (2020) **** Berlinale

Dir.: Lisa Weber; Documentary with Claudia, Daniel Gabi Gerhard, Marvin; Austria 2020, 89 min.

Video games and mobiles have had a corrosive effect on one Austrian family. Lisa Weber follows them as they struggle to make ends meet drowning in debt and an addiction to TV and computer devices which dictate the daily lives of this dysfunctional bunch.

Four years in the making the film centres around twenty-year old Claudia and her son Daniel (five), who live with Claudia’s mother Gabi and her brother Gerhard in a cramped Vienna apartment. Running on Empty is all about  over-whelming interdependence, the four characters have simply lost the plot and any kind of initiative, mentally or physically. Gerhard and Gabi are obese sofa-loungers who are either stuffing their faces with junk food, or burying them in their devices. Even the cat lolls around comotose.

Claudia has split with Marvin, Daniel’s father, who is looking for a flat for the family. Claudia has no secondary school certificate, having left school when pregnant with her son. They all live off welfare, fighting about the distribution of their spoils. Claudia is slim, and her brain is more lightweight, as she sinks in debt. When the siblings discuss emigration, Claudia questions why Muslims get a Christmas bonus when they don’t believe in God. Gerhard is a little more politic, not wanting a re-run of fascism. Hoping to celebrate his birthday in a posh restaurant, he is disgruntled about his mother and sister showing no inclination to finance it. The only car he will ever drive is the racing version on his console. Daniel’s fifth birthday ends with his parents having an row.

This is a torturous watch largely due to the family’s near catatonic way of life. Weber and DoP Carolina Steinbrecher are literally in the faces of their protagonists, who do not seem to mind: they are oblivious of anything and seem to spend their days sleeping or ‘chilling out’, a rolling camera doesn’t make any impact of their lack of decorum. Running on Empty is a decadent study of total stasis: A group of people who have given up on life, just vegetating along, letting the world go by, and they survive on state handouts. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020   

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) **** Berlinale Special

When Lambs become Lions (2018) | ****

Dir: Jon Kasbe | Doc | US

When you fight to survive in the vast arid plains of East Africa life is tough. In his deeply affecting feature debut, award-winning filmmaker Jon Kasbe (Heartbeats Of Fiji) explores whether human life in Northern Kenya is more valuable than that of endangered species. The subject of poaching is certainly an emotive issue that strongly divides the nation’s inhabitants, many of whom are deeply opposed to the illegal practice on moral grounds. But the lucrative trade goes on.

This is the latest in a series of conservation-themed features that started with Blackfish, The Cove and last year’s Trophy. Stunningly captured on the widescreen and in intimate close-up the film contrasts Kenya’s natural beauty with the less palatable aspects of animal slaughter, that takes place not for food but for trophy hunting. And the animals do not die a quick death but a long, drawn out and painful one due to being inexpertly shot or poisoned with venomous arrows. The film’s atmospheric score adds gravitas to the melancholic episodes where Asan silently contemplates his doubtful future. And these sequences contrast with the high-octane nighttime forays into the bush to locate victims and escape the rangers’ onslaught.

Kasbe’s non-judgemental thriller unspools with a growing dramatic tension as it moves stealthily between the lives of two men: an unlikeable ivory trader (X), and his ranger nemesis Asan, who is also his cousin. The glassy-eyed macho X boasts of making a successful black market business selling ivory. As he swaggers around chain-smoking defiantly and invoking ‘Allah’, he claims not to do the killing himself. Hot on his tracks is Asan and his fellow government employed rangers who are heavily armed with rifles and threaten the poachers with their zero tolerance approach. But rangers have little to gain financially from their work, although many feel sadness for the elephants’ plight. Heavily armed with automatic rifles they also have an axe to grind against the government claiming they have not been paid two months’ wages due to an administrative error. Meanwhile, the poachers make a lucrative living. X’s sidekick Lukas posits the powerful adage “if we do not hunt we will be hunted”. The pressure to earn a pittance is also putting a strain on Asan’s marriage and growing family, and he fears he may have to go back to the petty crime of his youth. 

Although poaching is a blot on the landscape, so is the plight of the people who inhabit this impoverished region. President Uhuru Kenyatta confiscates and burns all illegal ivory stashes claiming – on a television programme – that “ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants”. Meanwhile X and Lukas watch silently desperately wishing they could lay their hands on the truckloads of bounty destined to be destroyed by the government’s crackdown. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Garage People | Garagenvolk (2020) *** Berlinale 2020

Dir.: Natalija Yefimkina; Documentary; Germany 2020

Natalija Yefimkina’s first feature documentary is a bleak look at human survivors in the remote landscape of northern of Russia. Still toiling on long after the end of the Soviet Union, they are treated like the industrial scrap they collect: the mining industry which was once the only employer in the region but has more or less vanished, the work force living in garages at the foot of the mountain, trying to make a living amidst the post-industrial landscape. 

These garages, not a single one occupied by a car, are falling to rack and ruin like everything in the vicinity of the old mining shafts. Gas pipes poke out like medieval weapons, vestiges of a warworn past.  Scrap is collected and sold on, an old bus dragged along with a tow truck, later the two men in charge will take the roof from the bus, laughingly calling it a cabriolet.

Survival is the name of the game in this bizarre setting. Victor, an old man of 73, has dug five floors under his garage using only a shovel and a bucket. Victor has been grafting away since the age of 27, his own son just a little boy. Most of his friends have now drunk themselves to death, leaving Victor to tell his lonely story. Nothing left but to move to the ugly city nearby, dominated by the Prefab housing, to live with his wife Tatiana. “Your garage life is over”, she tells him. Victor will die in 2018, followed a year later by Tatiana, who died of liver cirrhosis having worked most of her life in the mines. Vitalik, who had the idea of creating a roofless bus, dies in 2018, just 36 years old. His closest friend was president Putin, the two met via his portrait on the wall and had long discussions about the meaning of life.

Then there is Pavel, a middle-aged icon maker. The priest visits him to commission a special icon. Pavel promises to deliver, and later we watch the priest return to collect the icon intended as a  gift for the CEO of what is left of the mining company, the director, in turn, supporting the church financially. Amazingly, there is a fledging band in all this squalor. John, Lena and Ilja L. make music in one the garages, the first two dream of a life in St. Petersburg. When they have gone, Ilja is depressed, but still goes on writing poetry. Sergej, producing dumb bells from the metal he scavenges, is suffering from progressive Parkinson’s, but goes on working. And then there is Roman, the success story of the community, raising broiler chickens and making a good living from the birds. In a restaurant called ‘Behind the Polar Cycle’, Roman meets Julia, and they fall in love, finding happiness against all odds. But for most of them it’s a grim existence, Viktor’s sums his life up in these poignant words: “I am digging in the dirt like a worm”.

Yefimkina and DoP Axes Schneppat  showcase the dreadful conditions without resorting to talking head overkill. The only of change comes in the shape of snowfall capturing the melancholic atmosphere of overriding gloom in this despondent post apocalyptic backwater.  AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020

Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture (2019) ****

Dir.: Stephen Bennett, Documentary with Mark Fallon, Dr Stephen Reisner, Moazzam Begg, Francis McGuigan; UK 2019, 89 min.

In 2020 the UN Special Reporter on Torture, Prof Nils Melzer, publishes a dossier on psychological torture to the UN Human Rights Council. Prof Melzer cites Eminent Monsters as being a key motivation in his research.

Scottish born psychologist Dr Ewen Cameron (1901-1967) first came under scrutiny during the Nuremberg trials, where he and two colleagues were invited to investigate the mind of Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolf Hess, who was later sentenced to a life sentence. This seems absurdly ironic, considering Cameron’s next step in the 1950s was to set up a treatment programme of Sensory Deprivation for his patients, which included enforced comas, LSD injections and “sleep cures”. These either deprived patients of sleep, or forced them to sleep much longer than needed. The programme was called MKULTRA Subproject 68 and was financed by the CIA and the Canadian government in Dr Cameron’s Allan Memorial Institute. The results were later published as Kubark Counter Intelligence Interrogation Manual.

Surviving relatives of Cameron’s private patients describe the victims of his therapies as “having completely lost their personalities”. Val Orlivow’s husband had to sell their house, Cameron insisting on her need for more private and expensive therapy. At a secret meeting in 1957, a British representative of the MOD, a scientist from the Canadian Defence Board and the co-ordinator Donald Heather, met to publish a paper for the CIA based on Cameron’s research to assist the US government in training soldiers to resist torture by their communist captors. Students were used as guinea pigs in the re-enaction. NKUltra, another name for Cameron’s study, was then used to interrogate communist soldiers and agents. The total cost of the programme was over a million dollars, literally in the name of  torture – although it would help to win the Cold War.

In 1963, KUBARK became the fully fledged ‘go to’ psychological torture manual of the CIA. The British Army used the techniques, complete with horrendous helicopter noises, strobe lights and a special punishment for captured IRA prisoners (including Francis McGuigan, Liam Shannon and Brian Turley); it involved leaning against a wall. In 1971 the ROI took the UK to European Courts, accusing them of torture. In 1978 the court returned the verdict that the prisoners had not been tortured, “but their treatment had been inhuman and degrading”. The same verdict, by majority vote of six to one, was reached in 2017.

Thanks to whistle blower Dr Stephan Reisner, the practice of US torture in the interrogation centre in Guantanamo Bay and other secret sides all over the world had been revealed. The “Enhanced Interrogation Experience” included “waterboarding” and ‘special’ psychological terror. One of the Guantanamo prisoners, who was released after 14 years without  a charge, remembers that the CIA put a continuously screaming woman next door to his cell  The interrogators told him it was his wife, and they would rape her if he refused to confess. Moazam Begg, another prisoner on the Cuban island, wanted to be killed after the interrogators used their strategy of “demonstrated omnipotence” against him.

The American Psychologist Association (APA) played a poor part in all this, whitewashing their members, who had worked form the CIA. Even though there has been some sort of repudiation of the programme, one psychologist said “that we are one terrorist attempt away from a repeat of the torture interrogations”. Popular TV series like “24” have legitimised torture in the minds of the broad public.

Naomi Klein can be quoted that “MK Ultra was not about mind control and brainwashing, but a design for a scientifically based system for extracting information from ‘resistant’ sources. It laid the scientific foundations for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method”. The 1978 and 2017 verdicts of the European Court of Human rights have legitimised these techniques.

Eminent Monsters starts with Ronald Reagan’s voice over on one of his pictures, where he warns us in this film that ‘the baddies will prevail’. How right he was – for once. AS

BAFTA-winner Stephen Bennett’s extraordinary debut feature documentary about Scotland’s notorious psychiatrist Dr Ewen Cameron and his role in the darkest program of psychological experimentation in modern history on release nationwide from 16 February

https://vimeo.com/313860363

Glasgow Film Festival 2020 | 26 February – 8 March 2020

Glasgow is Scotland’s creative capital. Famed for its Art Nouveau architecture and home to the Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and National Theatre of Scotland, the Clyde-side metropolis throbs with artistic vibes and plays host to one of the UK’s leading annual film festivals. Across 12 days GIFF2020 will screen 9 World premieres, 10 European premieres, and 102 UK premieres.

There will be a chance to see World premieres of Sulphur & White, and Flint, Anthony Baxter’s water-themed follow-up to You’ve Been Trumped Too. And fresh from the international film festival circuit is Justin Kurzel’s latest thriller The True History of the Kelly Gang, award-winning Spanish Western Luz, The Flower of Evil, and Igor Tuveri’s stylish 5 is the Perfect Number adapted from his graphic novel and featuring Italian megastar Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty).  

Documentary wise: Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes takes us back through the archives to revisit the iconic American novelist, while Nanni Moretti’s Santiago, Italia (left) explores the Italian role in rescuing exiles out of Chile after Pinochet’s Coup d’Etat.  Michael Paszt tells a story definitely stranger than fiction in his feature documentary Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro, which follows a professional wrestler juggling dual roles of running Lucha Libre AAA in Mexico and parenting his teenage daughter. Meanwhile Billie aims to be the definitive documentary on Lady Day herself, featuring never-before-seen interviews with those who knew one of the world’s greatest jazz singers

Classic films to look out for are Tarkovsky’s sinister masterpiece Stalker (1979) and Richard Fleischer’s cult Sci-fi thriller Soylent Green (1973) starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson. There is also a chance to revisit two classics directed by women: Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 comedy Merrily We Go to Hell and Nietzchka Keene’s Bjork-starring fantasy fable The Juniper Tree (1990). Both shot in luminous black and white.

Women filmmakers will be also championed in Mark Cousins’ 2018 epic homage to the history of female talent: Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. This groundbreaking 14-hour documentary is narrated by Tilda Swinton and Jane Fonda and takes place in five instalments (main pic). And celebrated photographer Susan Wood will talk about her life behind the camera in Susan Wood: A life in Pictures (left).

The festival will open and close with UK premieres of films directed by women – Alice Winocour’s Proxima starring Eva Green as an astronaut preparing for a mission to the International Space Station and Beanie Feldstein’s star turn in the big screen adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s blockbusting memoir How to Build a Girl, directed by Coky Giedroyc.

Glasgow Film Festival closes on International Women’s Day with a celebratory showcase of female talent – with every film screened either directed or written by a woman or starring a female lead.

Glasgow Film Festival | 28 FEBRUARY – 8 MARCH 2020

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Midnight Family (2019) ****

Dir.: Luke Lorentzen; Documentary with Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Josue Ochoa; Mexico 2019, 81 min.

Mexico City has a population of 9 million people; there are fewer than 45 public ambulances to service them. Luke Lorentzen’s observational feature documentary follows the Ochoa family who operate a private, for-profit ambulance which competes with other private emergency services for patients and a livelihood.

Shot on 85 nights over three years, Midnight Family is an emotional rollercoaster ride: three members of the Ochoa family drive their private ambulance through the hazardous streets of Mexico City, their professional label is Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT). The city council has designated just 45 ambulances for a metropolis of nine million. The reward for the private ambulances is meagre or even non-existence, the work dangerous, to say the least.

Juan, seventeen, is the real head of the family as his father Fer suffers from high blood pressure and is unwilling to cut down on food and soft drinks. Little brother Josue is only nine, and would much rather go on these eventful night forays than attend school (who wouldn’t). But Juan keeps a tight rein on him. The dysfunctional system dictates that these private ambulances can only go out, if no public ambulances are available. Even though the competition is fierce, ambulances race each other dangerously to be first at the scene of the accident. Midnight Family has a lot in common with the Romanian film When Evening Falls in Bucharest 

The police make things difficult: they either hang about waiting for bribes from the EMTs, or simply to ask for equipment to be updated before the crews are allowed to work. But payment is not guaranteed: many of the victims’ relatives cannot pay at all, others complain about the service, and pay only a pittance. Police, EMTs and private hospitals (who pay the ambulances for every patient delivered) are interdependent, they fight like dogs for the lion’s share of the business – with the EMTs at the bottom end of the heap.

Juan keeps the family together: he organises the shopping for the meagre meals, negotiates with the police and the victims’ relatives and chats amicable with his girlfriend Jessica on his mobile. One cannot believe that Juan is only seventeen, his braces are the only clue. The sheer pace of it all has ruined his father’s health, and the fear is that Juan might suffer the same fate.

The highlight of Midnight Family is the scene where are severely injured young woman is rescued. She fell from a fourth floor flat and suffered traumatic brain injuries. Father and son shout at cars and buses to get out of way, they give each tips for the short cuts, while the woman’s mother sits catatonic in the back. Lorentzen has dedicated the documentary to her daughter, who did not survive.

Bu the end, the audience is as exhausted as the Ochoa family. They are trying up to make up for a non-existent health-care system, being short-changed themselves in the process. But the way Juan is keeping family and job together deserves our admiration. Midnight Family is a nightly tour-de-force, a documentary film-noir, another They Rode by Night. It makes us cherish our own NHS even more. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

  

 

 

 

Berlinale 2020 | Competition titles Announced

Carlo Chatrian announced his first Berlinale competition line-up describing it “quite dark’ with a glittering array of “earth-shattering, and intimate stories” to screen from 20 until 1 March 2020.

The 70th edition opens with French Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger YearThe  film depicts the small New York City literary world of the 1990s with humour and verve. Sigourney Weaver, the three times Oscar nominee plays the author’s literary agent, based on a memoir by Joanna Rakoff portrayed by Emmy-winning Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell).

This year’s slate of Golden Bear hopefuls features heavyweight regulars and prodigious female directing talent in the shape of Orlando’s Sally Potter, who brings a story of existential angst starring Javier Bardem and his onscreen daughter Elle Fanning; Berlinale regular Kelly Reichardt with her latest, a period drama First Cow that has Toby Jones wondering around the countryside (as he did in By Ourselves). Then there is Swiss duo Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond who direct Nina Hoss in My Little Sister; Argentina’s Natalia Meta with The Intruder and finally from the US Eliza Hittman with Never, Rarely Sometimes, Always. The prolific Hong Sang-soo is back with The Woman Who Ran featuring his current muse Kim Minhee. Berlinale heavyweights Benoit Delepine, Philippe Garel, Malaysia’s Tsai Ming-Liang, and Cambodia’s Rithy Pan will also be in town.

Elsewhere in the programme there is documentary graces the line-up programme includes 18 films from 18 countries with 16 world premieres as well as one documentary form.
The line-up of the Berlinale Specials features Vanessa Lapa’s documentary about the Nazi architect’s time in the US; Speer goes to Hollywood. . Four more titles have been confirmed. You can find these films following the list of the Competition.

Competition

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Germany / Netherlands
by Burhan Qurbani
with Welket Bungué, Jella Haase, Albrecht Schuch, Joachim Król, Annabelle Mandeng, Nils Verkooijen, Richard Fouofié Djimeli
World premiere

DAU. Natasha
Germany / Ukraine / United Kingdom / Russian Federation
by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel
with Natalia Berezhnaya, Olga Shkabarnya, Vladimir Azhippo, Alexei Blinov, Luc Bigé
World premiere

Domangchin yeoja (The Woman Who Ran)
Republic of Korea
by Hong Sangsoo
with Kim Minhee, Seo Younghwa, Song Seonmi, Kim Saebyuk, Lee Eunmi, Kwon Haehyo, Shin Seokho, Ha Seongguk
World premiere

Effacer l’historique (Delete History)
France / Belgium
by Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern
with Blanche Gardin, Denis Podalydès, Corinne Masiero
World premiere

El prófugo (The Intruder)
Argentina / Mexico
by Natalia Meta
with Érica Rivas, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Daniel Hendler, Cecilia Roth, Guillermo Arengo, Agustín Rittano, Mirta Busnelli
World premiere

Favolacce (Bad Tales)
Italy / Switzerland
by Damiano & Fabio D’’Innocenzo
with Elio Germano, Barbara Chichiarelli, Lino Musella, Gabriel Montesi, Max Malatesta
World premiere

First Cow
USA
by Kelly Reichardt
with John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone
International premiere

Irradiés (Irradiated)
France / Cambodia
by Rithy Panh
World premiere / Documentary form

Le sel des larmes (The Salt of Tears)
France / Switzerland
by Philippe Garrel
with Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub
World premiere

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
USA
by Eliza Hittman
with Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
International premiere

Rizi (Days)
Taiwan
by Tsai Ming-Liang
with Lee Kang-Sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
World premiere

The Roads Not Taken
United Kingdom
by Sally Potter
with Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney
World premiere

Schwesterlein (My Little Sister)
Switzerland
by Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
with Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland, Isabelle Caillat, Moritz Gottwald, Urs Jucker
World premiere

Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil)
Germany / Czech Republic / Iran
by Mohammad Rasoulof
World premiere

Siberia
Italy / Germany / Mexico
by Abel Ferrara
with Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Cristina Chiriac
World premiere

Todos os mortos (All the Dead Ones)
Brazil / France
by Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra
with Mawusi Tulani, Clarissa Kiste, Carolina Bianchi, Thaia Perez, Alaíde Costa, Leonor Silveira, Agyei Augusto, Rogério Brito, Thomás Aquino, Andrea Marquee
World premiere

Undine
Germany / France
by Christian Petzold
with Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
World premiere

Volevo nascondermi (Hidden Away)
Italy
by Giorgio Diritti
with Elio Germano
World premiere

Berlinale Special

“This section provides a platform for films that captivate a wide audience. We call them ‘moving images’ because they move audiences with their expressiveness and their brilliant and courageous performers. The gala premieres fulfil the desire for the stars, glitz and glamour that is part of every big festival. Berlinale Series offers an insight into new forms of storytelling while Berlinale Special presents itself as a forum for debate and discussion and builds bridges between the audience and cinema,” comments Carlo Chatrian, Artistic Director of the Berlinale.
The following four films complete the programme of this year’s Berlinale Special. In total, 20 films from 19 countries, among them 15 world premieres, will be shown in the section.

Berlinale Special Gala at Berlinale Palast

Onward
USA
by Dan Scanlon
with the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong
International premiere / Animation

Berlinale Special Gala at Friedrichstadt-Palast

Curveball
Germany
by Johannes Naber
with Sebastian Blomberg, Dar Salim, Virginia Kull, Michael Wittenborn, Thorsten Merten, Franziska Brandmeier
World premiere

Berlinale Special at Haus der Berliner Festspiele

DAU. Degeneratsia (DAU. Degeneration)
Germany / Ukraine / United Kingdom / Russian Federation
by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya Permyakov
World premiere / Documentary form

Speer Goes to Hollywood
Israel
by Vanessa Lapa
World premiere / Documentary form

BERLINALE 2020 | 20-29 FEBRUARY 2020

 

Quezon’s Game (2019) *** Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Dir.: Matthew Rosen; Cast: Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Gallion, David Bianco, James Paoleli; Philippines 2018, 127 min.

This bio-pic chronicles the final years of President Manuel L. Quezon (1878-1944), who helped to rescue 1200 Jews from Europe and gave them a home in the Philippines. Despite an over-emotional approach and the slight manipulation of historical dates, Matthew Rosen makes an important contribution to the history of the Holocaust. Few of us were aware of Quezon’s mission, which was cut short in 1941 when Japan invaded Quezon’s country, the latter spending his last years in exile in the USA, where he died from Tuberculosis.

Quezon (Bagatsing) is shown as a reformer and humanist, who, upon learning about the plight of German and Austrian Jews, set in motion a rescue programme, putting him at odds with President Roosevelt and Congress, who then rejected a rise in the quota of Jewish emigrants to the USA. Quezon’s action is particular courageous, since the Philippines were (until 1946) part of Commonwealth of the USA, and de facto a colony. Quezon was helped by a young Dwight Eisenhower (Bianco) and Roosevelt’s political associate Paul McNutt (Paoleli). Help also came in the from of a Jewish lawyer, Alex Fiedler (Gallion) who (together with his brother Herbert) found a way to get the exit visas into the hands of the waiting Jews, before the death camps made escape impossible.

Meanwhile, Quezon’s wife Aurora (Alejandro) and daughter Baby (Alejandrino), who would go on to be assassinated in 1949, provide the dutiful supporting cast. It also emerges that the real Quezon was quite a lady’s man and, so much so that “Aurora had to seek refuge in prayers” (according to her biographer). Even though Quezon was sixty when the film starts, Rosen casts a much younger actor to play his part, Bagatsing portrays the president as a Dandy who coughs  non-stop.

There are some inconsistencies: It is hardly likely that Eisenhower would have been posted to a regional backwater like the Philippines just five years before Operation Overlord. Also, the bookends of the feature, showing Manuel and Aurora watching newsreels from the liberation of the death camps (Manuel whispering, like Schindler, that he did not do enough) is hardly credible, since Quezon died in the of August 1944. 

But whatever the machinations of writers Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen, Manuel L. Quezon was a beacon of light of light in a dark time – much more than his American counterparts: Democrats and Republicans both condoned segregation; Jews, People of Colour and Dogs were advised by signs not to enter restaurants and other public places, and the Statue of Liberty was an empty symbol long before Donald Trump. Quezon’s Game might be aesthetically questionable at times, but it it does not detract from its importance.AS

IN HONOUR OF HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY | 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. 

  

Phases of Matter | Maddenin Halleri (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Deniz Tortum; Documentary; Turkey 2019, 71 min.

In this unusual documentary, three years in the making, Turkish director Deniz Tortum also acts at his own DoP. It sees him returning to the place he was born, the Hospital Cerahpasa in Istanbul which is now threatened with closure. His father is still working as a doctor and so the film works as a sort of long goodbye.

Phases of Matter is not an easy watch and certainly not for the squeamish. There is enough blood and guts going on to make horror fans happy, although this is clearly a serious and heartfelt paean to medical history. Phases is primarily about everyday life in the hospital, the little events that make everything tikitiboo. It starts with a female doctor prescribing a shedload of drugs for a bed-bound patient, the nurse taking it all down in detailed notes. The medic then reads aloud from a book on the patient’s bedside table – it’s as if it were a love poem. In another ward a group of doctors discusses the use of Excel – not everyone was able to use the spreadsheet for diagnostics back then. Meanwhile next door, a girl has accidentally swallowed a needle and the medical team are examining her – trauma surgery.

The camera remains in the theatre where a middle aged man is undergoing thyroid surgery. The doctors are concerned about the organ weighing in at one kilogram –  a normal thyroid would be just a tenth of this – 100 grms. The surgeon’s knife veers too near the thyroid, a colleague sarcastically uttering “poor patient”, but there is not much empathy to be felt. Surprisingly everyone is smoking, particularly the men. One of the top surgeons complains about his team’s lack of preparation for key-hole surgery: “Have you forgotten everything about the surgery preps, my beauty?”, he berates a nurse. Another snapshot showcasing a lack of political correctness that has become so vital nowadays. But this was back then.

In the corridors of this eminent medical establishment cats sleep lazily on chairs. A man who has given the last six years of his life to working in the morgue claims the pets makes patients feel more comfortable: Life, according to him, can best be described as a journey from the safety of the womb into the threatening world; the joy of living and then the relief of death: no more bills to pay, “no coup, no war, just peace”. The finale sees the hospital closure as a philosophical scenario that plays out in black and white. It ends in the pathology department, where dimming fluorescent light makes for an eerie denouement.

With the use of Sensory Ethnography and other ultra-modern devices from the Istanbul University Faculty of Medicine, Phases perfectly illustrates the chasm between between the instruments of healing and the humans who use them. Medical advances but also social changes – and not always improvements. An innovative and unique poetic essay about healing and the healers themselves. AS

ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 2020  | Bright Future Main Programme 

 

 

Bitter Chestnut (2020) *** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

Dir: Gurvinder Singh | Wri: Gayatri Chatterjee | Drama, 100′

Bitter Chestnut is an intimate, authentic coming-of-age story that sees a teenager torn between a steady traditional life in his village in the Himalayan hills of Himachal Pradesh and the bright lights of modern Delhi. Another local man tried his luck down in the city but soon returned bankrupt.

Kishan is pleasant and hard-working in Gurvinder Singh’s film that successfully incorporates a lowkey drama with documentary style footage of locals going about their everyday life which is very much a communal affair: the women discuss childbirth and weaving methods, while the men are busy building houses and working in the fields – although these activities are not gender exclusive. Kishan seems to come from a more educated family, his grandmother owns the local  Cloudoor Cafe which Kishan runs while also preparing her food. She teaches him English, a language she speaks daily with her close friend in Delhi.

Meanwhile Kishan remembers when the village was burnt down by a fire when he was only six. He is still haunted by the memory, but those who lost their houses in the blaze have never got back to normal. It takes 12 trees to build a wooden house but due to the danger of fire, village houses are now built of concrete, which is not so comfortable or warm. The proud owner of a designer-style beanie and the latest mobile phone, Kishan is also versed in local folklore and knows why the chestnut got its bitter taste. The fruit of the Kaunach tree, these chestnuts were cursed when one fell on the head of a woman who was cleaning her scalp. No washing can get rid the fruit of its bitterness. Likewise the locals believe that no one can change their fate. Later Kishan is seen asking advice from the local soothsayer who tells him to go away.

Singh works with local, non-professional actors, and is maintains his distance from the debate about migration to the cities being an existential threat to traditional village communities. Kishan is placid despite his curiosity about life in the developed world. He is still deeply rooted in his village, and knows that moving to Delhi is not without its risks from the stories of prison and abuse he hears from returning friends. Kishan’s family try to talk him out of his plans to go there. His fate is clearly still in the balance. MT

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

Meanwhile on Earth (2020) MUBI

Dir: Carl Olssen | Doc, Sweden 71′

Clinically and with precision, a pine coffin is loaded onto a carrying device that takes it into the funeral parlour. Meanwhile a black limousine glides through the leafy suburbs of Swedish suburbia and a mortician puts the final touches to a corpse while listening to the weather forecast predicting rain. The banal fact of life is that death is a high tech business here in Sweden. Efficient, designer led and elegantly crafted as is Carl Olssen’s wry and timely look at the business of death

When we die, there are practicalities that need to be taken care of before our time among the living is finally over. Carl Olsson offers a factual and artfully framed overview of Sweden’s contemporary funerary industry in his calm and cinematic documentary that makes every step enjoyable and informative. Straightforward, fixed camera positions and placcid, symmetrical compositions satisfy our curiosity as a process that is rarely discussed and is still taboo in most European countries. Essentially a series of vignettes set to a cheerful upbeat occasional score, the film pictures every ritual and the routine procedures that accompany the transition. A bit more about what actually happens to the dead bodies would have been welcome. One bizarre scene pictures dozens of redundant funeral bouquets – all red and white – laid out in a gravelled area, brings sense to the familiar and sensible phrase: “family flowers only”. These will no doubt end up in the tip. Another meaningless job for these chipper funeral workers.

For those who work to make the process seamless, death is just a job. Banter is jovial and often irreverent as they go about their business, rehearsing music to accompany the service or discussing last night’s dinner or their family dogs, while they dig graves. These ordinary moments are interleaved with scenes of the elderly still going about their daily lives – or what’s left of them ; playing bingo or eating lunch. Meanwhile of Earth avoids sentimentality or pathos. Yet there are also moments of calm contemplation in this thoughtful and informative portrait of our final exit from this world. MT

NOW ON MUBI | ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 

I Was Here (2020) ***

Dir.: Nathalie Biancheri, Ola Jankowska; Documentary; UK 2019, 83 min.

Starting off as a state of the nation inquest after Brexit, directors Nathalie Biancheri (Nocturnal) and Ola Jankowska (The Estuary of River Cuckmore) have collected the viewpoints of ordinary Britain’s around the country. Whilst the B-word was never mentioned, the answers given to questions like “Would you be a good stand-up comic” or “what makes you most happy” show a nation very much looking inwards.

Family and work are by far the most common topics of importance, particularly the fear of illness and death. There are surprises too, when one of the women playfully shows off her Reality TV show personality, playing a gig like a professional. Some of the men are particularly awkward; most of the women are far more articulate. At one point, participants were asked to share their sleeping habits, with often hilarious results. The actual shoot took around six months, with a longer editing phase to follow, when the rough cut of 220 minutes had to be trimmed.

Perhaps the most impressive example was that of a retired female GP, whose brain literally gave up after forty years of care for community. She left “a clean desk” behind, and seemed very much at peace with herself? I WAS HERE needs to be seen, because the impressions will vary from spectator to spectator. This is a highly subjective undertaking, the contrasting stories will evoke individual reactions and reflections. Not so much a conventional documentary, but a Pandora’s box of often flabbergasting one-person shows. Be interesting to see similar undertakings from different nations. Think they may reveal this is a class debate rather than a national one. AS

SCREENING AT THE ICA 22 JANUARY 2020

 

Bergamo Film Meeting 2020

BERGAMO FILM MEETING is back for its 38th edition running from 7th March until Sunday 15th in the alpine region of Lombardy. 

This year the focus is on Europe with Europe, Now!João Nicolau (Portugal), Rúnar Rúnarsson (Iceland) and Danis Tanović (Bosnia and Herzegovina) will attend the jamboree showcasing a retrospective of their entire oeuvres. The three filmmakers are known for their ability to picture the turmoil of those who find themselves at the coalface of generational issues, or torn by the complexities of socio-political conflicts – and often with dark humour.

Boys & Girls. The best of Cilect Prize, showcases a selection of graduation films from the European film schools participating in the CILECT program, and by Europe, Now! Film Industry Meetings, a brand new and all-European industry section – scheduled on 13th and 14th March – intended as a Networking Platform for European festivals, markets, training programmes and those seeking funding in a more professional and international perspective.

Also up for grabs are 7 Italian premieres that will screen in the Competition-Exhibition section; 15 documentaries in the Close-Up section; a retrospective dedicated to Polish director, screenwriter and actor Jerzy Skolimowski, one of the world’s most prominent and original figures in contemporary cinema; a tribute, accompanied by the exhibition Gwen, le livre de sable, to master animator Jean-François Laguionie; the passing of the torch between BFM and Bergamo Jazz; the Kino Club section, for young viewers; along with a diverse array of previews and events made possible thanks to the support of local cultural institutions and commercial entities. MT

BERGAMO FILM MEETING | 7 -15 MARCH 2020

#AnneFrank: Parallel Stories (2019) **** Holocaust Memorial Day

Wri/Dir: Sabina Fedeli/Anna Migotto | Italy, Doc 95′

Italian filmmakers Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto (Father Lenin e i suoi fratelli) commemorate the life of Anne Frank with a parallel portrait of the young diarist. Helen Mirren reads excerpts from her diary. Meanwhile five female Shoah survivors, about the same age as Anne, talk about their experiences and the fight to keep memories alive.

Mirren is filmed in the claustrophobia of a re-constructed room where Anne Frank lived in hiding for over two years, before her arrest and consequent deportation on 4th of August 1944 to Westerbrook transit camp. To break away from the cramped domestic setting, these readings play out to a background of filmed sequences of a woman (Martina Gatti) travelling around Europe to create a sort of video diary of Frank’s life with some rather corny observations. By far the most important part are the interviews with three Croatian Holocaust survivors including Arianna Spörenyi; the sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci; as well as fellow survivors Helga Weiss from the Czech Republic and Sarah Lichtsztein-Montard, who escaped from the Parisian Velodrome round-up, were she was incarcerated on 16th July 1942.

Weiss kept her own pictorial diary in Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp – her father encouraging her to draw only what she could see. Terezin was a special camp in many ways: The Nazis used the old fortress to gather Jewish artists and scientists together – even asking the well-known Jewish film director Kurt Gerron (ex-UFA) to make a propaganda film (The Führer gifts the Jew a City), showing the Jews living a live of cultural relaxation, while the poor German citizens were suffering from Allied bombing raids. When the fake documentary was eventually aired worldwide, Gerron and his family were already dead, murdered in Auschwitz. Worse, the Germans convinced a Red Cross delegation on site, that Terezin was a sanatorium after all. Anne Frank and her older sister Margot were deported from Westerbrook to Auschwitz and thence to Bergen Belsen, where both died of Typhus in February 1945. They are buried in a mass grave.

Fedeli and Migotto are rightfully critical of contemporary Italian politics: “refugees are drowning on our coasts”, but they fail to mention the Nazi collaborators in the Holland where more than 100, 000 men joined the Waffen-SS and became active soldiers for the Third Reich. 

DoP Alessio Viola’s images convey the incredible loss and the struggle of these survivors who have difficulty sharing the trauma with their own children about life in the camps. Padded out with some redundant detail, #AnneFrank is nonetheless a moving portrait of a young women who was robbed of a creative life by a unique and monstrous death machine – feeding off the ongoing Anti-Semitism which continues to spread through Europe and elsewhere. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 27 JANUARY 2020 | HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY 2020 

 

 

Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

In his final year as creative director Bero Beyer recently announced the 2020 line-up for the 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) including the 10 films selected for the Tiger Competition. Known for its edgy arthouse bias, this year’s film include Kim Yong-hoon’s South Korean crime drama Beasts Clawing at Straws; Arun Karthick’s Nasir, a portrait of theHindu-nationalist province of Tamil Nadu; and Jorge Thielen Armand’s drama La fortaleza, set in the jungles of Venezuela.

The festival also features the Big Screen Competition and the revamped Bright Future Competition, the fifth theme programme Ordinary Heroes and a special screening of David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) with a live musical score by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The festival opens on the 22 January 2020 with Joao Nuno Pinto’s period drama Mosquito, exploring a Portuguese soldier’s adventures in Mozambique during the First World War, and close on 2 February with Marielle Heller’s Oscar contender A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that revisits the popular children’s television personality Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) through his meeting with skeptical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).

The Tiger competition will be judged by a panel composed of Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), Visions du Réel artistic director Emilie Bujès, South Korea-born American filmmaker Kogonada (Columbus), Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak (Dirty God) and Indonesian artist Hafiz Rancajale.

The Big Screen Competition features nine films including Danish filmmaker Malou Reymann’s A Perfectly Normal Family; Eden from Hungarian filmmaker Ágnes Kocsis (who made Pál Adrienn) and Argentinian auteur Marco Berger’s El cazador (Young Hunter) which stars End of Century’s Juan Barberini

The Bright Future Competition, comprising a selection of 15 feature-length debuts, includes Liang Ming’s Pingyao film festival award-winning Wisdom Tooth, and feature debuts from Russian filmmaker Artem Aisagaliev’s (Babai) and Bolivian Diego Mondaca’s Chaco.

The 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam | 22 January – 2 February 2020

340846 tiger%20competition%20slow 6a4fdc original 1576672004

Images from the Tiger Competition selection

Tiger Competition

Beyer said: all the films in Tiger Competition radiate a strong sense of personal urgency and cinematic relevance, fuelled by boundary-pushing directorial visions.”

All films selected for Tiger Competition 2020:

El año del descubrimiento, Luis López Carrasco, 2020, Spain/Switzerland, world premiere

Beasts Clawing at Straws, Kim Yonghoon, 2020, South Korea, world premiere

The Cloud in Her Room, Zheng Lu Xinyuan, 2020, France/China, world premiere

Desterro, Maria Clara Escobar, 2020, Brazil/Portugal/Argentina, world premiere

Drama Girl, Vincent Boy Kars, 2020, Netherlands, world premiere

La fortaleza, Jorge Thielen Armand, 2020, Venezuela/France/Netherlands/Colombia, world premiere

Kala azar, Janis Rafa, 2020, Netherlands/Greece, world premiere

Nasir, Arun Karthick, 2020, India/Netherlands, world premiere

Piedra sola, Alejandro Telemaco Tarraf, 2020, Argentina/Mexico/Qatar/UK, world premiere

Si yo fuera el invierno mismo, Jazmín López, 2020, Argentina, world premiere

The Tiger jury consists of Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, artistic director of Visions du Réel Emilie Bujès, South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada, Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak and Indonesian artist, curator and filmmaker Hafiz Rancajale.

340848 big%20screen%20slow 6d784a original 1576672007

Images from the Big Screen Competition selection

Big Screen Competition

The Big Screen Competition, part of IFFR’s Voices section, features nine films which, according to IFFR programmers, deserve to hit the big screen after the festival. A jury consisting of five audience members picks the winner of the VPRO Big Screen Award. This film gets a guaranteed theatrical release in the Netherlands and will be broadcast on Dutch TV by VPRO and NPO.

All films selected for Big Screen Competition 2020:

El cazador, Marco Berger, 2020, Argentina, world premiere

Eden, Ágnes Kocsis, 2020, Hungary/Romania, world premiere

Énorme, Sophie Letourneur, 2019, France, international premiere

The Evening Hour, Braden King, 2020, USA, international premiere

Fanny Lye Deliver’d, Thomas Clay, 2019, UK/Germany, international premiere

Mosquito, João Nuno Pinto, 2020, Portugal/France/Brazil, world premiere

A Perfectly Normal Family, Malou Reymann, 2020, Denmark,world premiere

Synapses, Chang Tso-chi, 2019, Taiwan, international premiere

A Yellow Animal, Felipe Bragança, 2020, Brazil/Portugal/Mozambique, world premiere

340847 bright%20future%20slow 55567e original 1576672005

Images from the Bright Future Competition selection

Bright Future Competition

The Bright Future Competition comprises a selection of 15 feature-length film debuts, screening in world or international premiere. IFFR’s competition for first-time filmmakers presents a variety of innovative, cutting-edge and promising discoveries from all over the world. The Bright Future Award is chosen by a jury of three film professionals.

All films selected for Bright Future Competition 2020:

Babai, Artem Aisagaliev, 2020, Russia/USA, world premiere

Chaco, Diego Mondaca, 2020, Bolivia/Argentina, world premiere

Los fantasmas, Sebastián Lojo, 2020, Guatemala/Argentina, world premiere

Fellwechselzeit, Sabrina Mertens, 2020, Germany, international premiere

For the Time Being, Salka Tiziana, 2020, Germany/Spain/Switzerland, international premiere

I Blame Society, Gillian Wallace Horvat, 2020, USA, world premiere

Moving On, Yoon Dan-bi, 2019, South Korea, international premiere

My Mexican Bretzel, Nuria Giménez Lorang, 2019, Spain, international premiere

Ofrenda, Juan María Mónaco Cagni, 2020, Argentina, world premiere

Panquiaco, Ana Elena Tejera, 2020, Panama, world premiere

A Rifle and a Bag, Isabella Rinaldi/Cristina Hanes/Arya Rothe, 2020, India, world premiere

Sebastian springt über Geländer, Ceylan-Alejandro Ataman-Checa, 2020, Germany, world premiere

The Trouble with Nature, Illum Jacobi, 2020, Denmark/France, world premiere

Truth or Consequences, Hannah Jayanti, 2020, USA, world premiere

Wisdom Tooth, Liang Ming, 2019, China, international premiere

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 22 JANUARY – 2 FEBRUARY 

No Fathers in Kashmir (2019) ****

Dir.: Ashvin Kumar; Cast: Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Ashvin Kumar, Shushil Dahiya, Natasha Mago, Abdul Rashid; UK/India 2019, 108 min.

Oscar-nominated writer and director Ashvin Kumar (The Forest) is well known for his active support of Kashmiri independence. Claimed both by Pakistan and India, the region has recently lost its autonomous status inside India, and is now governed with an iron fist by the nationalist Indian government who is fighting militants in the region, often sponsored by Pakistan. But this is really a proxy war between Hindu nationalism of India and Muslim annexation orientated Pakistan – with the local population caught between the two nuclear powers.

The film centres in sixteen year old British Kashmiri teenager Noor (Webb) who is wedded to her mobile like most of her generation, and lives with her grandparents in a Kashmiri village. Her mother Zainab (Mago) is trying to convince her missing husband’s parents to sign his death certificate so she can marry politically well connected Wahid (Dahiya). Said husband was arrested by the Indian army and never returned home. Noor has fallen for the slightly younger Majid (Raina) whose father has also disappeared. Noor, unaware of the tensions in the village, challenges her grandparents and mother, wanting to know more about her father’s fate. Zainab finally manages to get the old couple to declare their son dead –  Wahid helps by offering to secure them a good pension – but then Noor strikes up a friendship with a Arshid (Kumar), who seems to be collaborating with the Indian army, and at the same time hiding militants from the authorities. 

There is a telegraphed solution to it all when Arshid tells the village teacher Kharbanda (Rashid) that his son. along with his fellow fighters, were “just revolutionary romantics. What kind of freedom would this have been for Kashmir without the Muslim faith?” Noor pushes on, and talks Zaina into a nighttime trip into the mountains bordering Pakistan where the political prisoners like her father had been interrogated. When they are captured by the Indian soldiers, the adults’ lies unravel – in spite of Noor’s release – thanks to the powerful Wahid.

Kumar, also co-editor and co-producer, needed crowdfunding for this project and also had to be sanctioned by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, more or less a censorship agency. He directs with great skill but his script is an awkward mix of coming-of-age love story and political rant. There are just too many programmatic speeches. Neither Noor nor Majid are really at an age to be spouting these moral lessons, and particularly not Noor, who is a total stranger. DoPs Jean Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme make good use of the overpowering landscape all captured impressively on handheld cameras. Overall, No Fathers is more worthy than convincing, but held together by a brilliant cast. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 24 JANUARY 2020

 

Midnight Traveler (2019) ***

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache (2018) Prime

Dir: Pamela B. Green | Writers: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon| with Jodie Foster, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Julie Delpy, Agnes Varda, Ben Kingsley, Michel Hazanavicius, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, Gale Anne Hurd, Andy Sandberg, John Bailey, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Marjane Satrapi, Anne Fontaine, Peter Farrelly, Jonathan Glickman, Mark Romanek, Kevin Brownlow, Kevin Macdonald, Geena Davis, Pierre William Glenn, Jan-Christopher Horak, Glenn Myrent, Serge Bromberg, Howard Cohen, Valerie Steele, Jean-Michel Frodon, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Janeane Garofalo, Jon M. Chu, Mark Stetson, Anastasia Masaro, Dino Everett, Stephanie Allain, Claire Clouzot, Anthony Slide, Cecile Starr | US Doc 103′

Pamela B. Green’s fast-moving and fascinating first film chronicles the life of one of cinema’s early pioneers and female filmmakers, Alice Guy-Blaché

Green started her own career as a title sequence director and that very much comes to the fore in this well-crafted and informative documentary that uses a wide variety of visual effects to enliven a collection of old photographs and drawings, including Guy-Blaché’s own film archives (The Cabbage Fairy (1896) is a particular delight), and even interview footage taken just before she died in her early 90s. There are a few too many random talking heads making this often feel bitty. Some don’t have anything to say beyond admitting they had never heard of the French director, but it could well have been condition of funding that each contributor had their ‘say’.

Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) was born in Paris and would go on to make over a 1,000 films, including silents and those with sound (which she pre-recorded), although many of these were attributed to men. Clearly luck played a big part in her success: women in the late 19th century were – on the whole – housewives and mothers. But Guy-Blaché had dogged perseverance along with her talent, working as a secretary for inventor Leon Gaumont – considered a plum job at the time – she was there when the Lumiere Brothers first set their apparatus running on everyday life in their local town of Lyon.

Narrated by Jodie Foster, the film (funded through Kickstarter) charts the early days of cinema from Paris to New Jersey and California before going back to Europe, tracing an art form where women seem to be very involved, much more so than nowadays, possibly because commercialisation hadn’t quite taken hold of the cottage industry: films were still considered the domain of the female chattering classes and kids. Something to keep women amused while men were doing more important things.

But the film’s co-writer Joan Simon and curators and historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Claire Clouzot offer the most salient contribution to the film, outlining the cultural significance of Gay-Blaché’s contribution, including the invention of synchronised sound. Above all, she was a highly inventive pioneer who just happened to be a woman, and whose talent and perseverance is celebrated in this valuable feature debut. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Present. Perfect (2019) ***

Dir: Zhu Shengze. USA/Hong Kong. 2019. 124mins

Live-streaming in China is big business. The severely disabled, wheelchair-ridden and low-paid have finally found a nifty way of making an extra yuan. Sharing their everyday lives on the internet brings them an income as well as garnering support and emotional inter-dependence. It works both ways as the streams establish a mutually beneficial connection.

Present.Perfect makes for compelling viewing – up to a point. It’s a strong premise but the execution is flawed.  What initially seems intriguing to watch eventually becomes tedious. And by the end the doc does its worthy subject matter a disservice, playing out as a laborious and repetitive slog, without any kind of narrative or real explanation. Zhu Shengze made the film from more than 800 hours of filmed footage taken from an output of 12 ‘anchors’ (sharers of their footage) over a period of 10 months. Tighter editing would have made the film more pithy and enjoyable. What we do learn is that 2016 was apparently “Year Zero” for live streaming – and now the industry has expanded exponentially. In 2017, over 422 million Chinese shared streamed films on the internet. But it’s not all doom and gloom, content-wise.

The segments from each showroom are often overlong, and the content can be extremely dull, made more so by the black and white camerawork. Do we really want to watch a woman’s gruelling trip down the road – wheel-chair bound, while she stares pitifully into the camera? Or a physically challenged guy do his washing? And then there’s a man showing his wounds bleeding, clearly he’s into self-harm. But clearly these Chinese audiences do, and they’re prepared to pay for it, finding comfort in these banal everyday lives fraught with trauma (Eastenders, anyone?). Besides the obvious need for recognition, fostered by all types of social media, there is the loneliness and alienation out there, and the streamers have tapped into this rich vein of income, benefiting in more ways than one from the comfort-seeking connection with others. Our hearts go out to the ‘anchors’ but most of us don’t need to experience their pain to understand their suffering. despite their cheerful perseverance. But that’s not the point. For those who become invested in their daily struggle to survive, the film tells a valuable story. One of mutual support, and even entertainment. Distances in China are vast and many peoplelive alone in remote locations miles away from any form of social contact. These ‘anchors’ are actually their keeping them on the straight and narrow, emotionally at least.  

Other anchors have used the streaming device as a way to drum up business. A case in point is a farmer keen on branding his particular form of labour as ‘agritainment’. There is a bored crane driver, who invites us to visit him way up in his cab that towers above a vast building site. Another, a woman, is tooling away at making men’s underpants. She shares the trials and tribulations of her love life with all her followers, as she peddles away at her gruelling work. The more you watch the stories the more you understand how compulsive the experience becomes in providing a vital support system for those reaching out from the desperation of their own lives. In the end, the banal almost becomes beautiful; providing comfort and consistency: we need never be alone. MT

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | ICA CINEMA from 24 January.

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER AWARD WINNER  2019

Lucian Freud: A Self-Portrait (2019) ****

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Writers: David Bickerstaff/Phil Grabsky | With: William Feaver, James Hall, Tim Marlow (RA Artistic Director 2014-19, Jasper Sharp, Curator, Kunthistorisches Museum Vienna | Andrea Tarsia (Head of Exhitibitions RA) | Doc, 85′

“I wanted to shock and amaze” says Lucian Freud in faintly-accented English. Sitting in his workshop where he fought, struggled and experimented tirelessly with his craft – Freud was well into his eighties when he died in 2011 – the renowned Berlin-born portraitist is an intense and furtive figure in the early scenes of this new biopic by David Bickerstaff. The filmmaker’s previous subjects have included Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet. Co-written by Phil Grabsky, the doc interweaves filmed interviews with Freud in his final years, with the usual talking heads approach. Curators and specialists add valuable insight, although a few of the contributors bring little to the party.

The former artistic director of the Royal Academy Tim Marlow takes us round Lucian Freud’s first and only exhibition at the London gallery (until 26 January 2020). Although Freud is seen as a modern artist his work is very much connected to that ‘old master’, painterly tradition of Titian and Rembrandt: Few modern artists have explored the human body with such intensity, and such determination. Of course, he was a gambler, a playboy and a bon viveur, but few artists spent as much time in their studio as Lucian Freud. The RA’s Andrea Tarsia explains how he pitted his developing style against his personal life, scrutinising himself as much as his subjects. His single-minded passion focused on self-portraiture as much as on those his was painting:. “Everything is a self-portrait”. Often his subjects are not even named: what mattered more to him was the immediacy of the situation, the spontaneity of the gaze. Accompanied by a jazzy score the doc conveys the energy and charisma that seems to spin off each hypnotic portrait, even a small canvas can dominate a room.

Born into an eminent but non-religious Jewish family on the 8th December 1922, Lucian Freud’s father was an architect and the youngest son of the analyst Sigmund Freud. The middle son of three, Lucian was his mother’s favourite and as such he was deeply resented by his brothers. His biographer William Feaver (The Lives of Lucian Freud) reports how as a popular teenager he was taken by surprise when the family came under scrutiny by the authorities and had to move to London in the autumn of 1933. He was sent to the progressive Dartington school where he developed an interest in plants and horses, and thence Bryanston whence he was expelled for mooning in Bournemouth High Street, on a bet. A stone sculpture of a horse secured him a place in a London art school in 1937 but this was also short-lived. Eventually Freud fetched up in what he told his parents was “the only decent art school” of the time run by Sir Cedric Morris in East Anglia. Subversive to the last, Freud once again disgraced himself and “burnt the school down”.

But Morris had by this time instilled some discipline into the 18 year old Freud and he produced his first work – a tight and rather flattened oil painting simply entitled ‘Self-portrait,1940′. An ability to draw was the first step on the ladder and led to commissions for various book covers but impetuosity led to Freud joining the Navy for a spell. Returning to London he shared a St Johns Wood flat with fellow painter John Craxston who introduced him to an influential circle of friends. For nearly ten years he and John experimented with architects sample pots producing glossy-looking abstracts and portraits.

In the early 1940s Lucian Freud moved to the more seedy area of Paddington and settled down to a more committed painting style, ‘Man With a Feather’ (1943) was exhibited at his first solo show at London’s Lefevre Gallery. Now in his early twenties, women fell for Freud’s mesmerising allure and powerful presence, and he was able to navigate his way round English society marrying Kitty Garman. But he made a hopeless husband; although he could be sensitive and sociable, focusing on you with an intense gaze, he could also be callous and cruel.

In Paris in 1946 he met Picasso and soon realised the dedication that painting required. By now he was using oils and honing his style of self-portraiture, his face creeping into the frame with surprise, suggestion or a quizzical expression that calls to mind the ‘fourth wall’.  ‘Still Life with Green Lemon’ was a case in point, painted during a visit to Greece in 1946. Ostensibly these were self-portraits – Freud’s face only just intruding into the edges of a work dominated by another subject – he was already displaying the prickly illusiveness that was to become his style. ‘Startled Man’ (1948) ushered in a period of clean, conte-work. This is an extremely accomplished drawing that really flaunts his capabilities. ‘Sleeping Nude’ (1950) and the surrealist ‘Interior at Paddington’ (1951) were actually hyper-realist paintings. By this time John Minton had become a friend, and Freud had also met and painted Francis Bacon. His marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood saw her being incorporated into various works, and she appears in bed in his self-portrait ‘Lucian Freud, 1949’ which was exhibited at the Venice Biennale that year. She left him four years later due to his infidelities. Like most artists Freud wanted his life to be his work, and it was impossible for him to be committed to any woman. His only focus was himself and whoever he was painting at the time.

A sensuality entered the artist’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960 where an emphasis on touch starts to appear. This is most noticeable during a trip to Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye when he painted a Flemish style portrait on a small scrap of copper. It sees him putting his finger on his lips and was the start of this sensuous awareness. The 1960s also marked a switch to hog-hair brushes with ‘Man’s Head’ (1963) and the restless associated portraits, smooth backgrounds allowing the face to stand out. Although Freud admired Francis Bacon’s style of working in a gestural way, his own work increasingly gained a more structural, almost architectural element, as he slotted colours together with pasty brushstrokes, trying to make the paint tell the story.

The film’s focus then switches from Freud’s own work to visit Amsterdam where he often visited the Rijksmuseum to study Rembrandt and understand his approach. Back in London at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, the film shows how Freud’s portraits  actually hold and dominate the room. ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ (2004) was a canvas that required exactitude, the sitter under as much pressure to perform as Freud himself. This portrait of art critic Martin Gayford offers further evidence of the Freud’s obsession with detail. The relationship was intense and required the sitter to be totally committed and, crucially, to return to the studio for sittings that went on several times a week for at least a year. But during this time Freud engaged in avid conversation: highly entertaining he was a raconteur who was as focused on the sitter as he was in himself. But Freud was certainly not an expressionist painter.

Lucian Freud’s large 1993 self-portrait is defiant – he was 71, but still emanated power and excitement; his greatest fear was losing his mind, but he was also concerned about his physical vigour. ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995) sold in 2008 for 33.6million dollars – the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Freud carried on painting voraciously until his death on 20 July 2011. He was 88. “Being with him was like being plugged into the National Grid for an hour” said one sitter. “Freud was one of the great European painters of the last 500 years. He’s one of those big figures across the centuries, rather than representative of an era or a movement” says Tim Marlow. “Tradition is a big word but Lucian challenged tradition constantly”. Jasper Sharp adds him to a list that goes back to Holbein; Durer; Cranach and Rembrandt. And he goes on: “Freud gives that list a little shuffle, making us look at Rembrandt a bit differently and Holbein a bit differently through his eyes, and through himself”. And that is a remarkable achievement for any artist. MT

LUCIAN FREUD: A SELF PORTRAIT | ON RELEASE FROM 14 JANUARY 2020 | SEVENTH ART PRODUCTIONS | ROYAL ACADEMY LUCIAN FREUD 

Top Films of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

The past decade has seen independent film grow from strength to strength: Arthouse theatres are now more sophisticated than ever, offering lush surroundings and state of the art facilities. Streaming services Netflix and Amazon have also broadened the reach of mid-budget films to a wider audience who are now able to access films without paying expensive ticket prices: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in the comfort and your own home.

Here is another selection of art house gems from across the decade from 2010 to the end of 2019.
AMOUR (2012)  Michael Haneke, Austria
Surviving well into old age – or not dying – has become a timely topic in the past decade as our parents’ and grandparents’ generation live well into their nineties and beyond thanks to medical science and a lean wartime diet. Michael Haneke conveys all this with grace and subtlety in his Cannes Palme d’Or Winner which saw Jean-Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva united once again (since their 1959 Last Year in Marienbab) in this spare and understated portrait of enduring love, commitment and companionship.
PARADISE TRILOGY (2012-13) Ulrich Seidl, Austria 
Ulrich Seidl’s lays bare the human race and all its foibles in this darkly amusing and often tragic trilogy of studies, Paradise: Love (2012); Paradise: Faith (2012); Paradise: Hope (2013). With wicked humour and a sinister twist, Seidl and his long-time collaborator, Veronika Franz, have tapped into a raw nerve of the female psyche with three interlocking stories based on Odon von Horvath’s 1932 play ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. The “Paradise” trilogy eloquently and provocatively probes the trans-generational experiences and differing concerns of a contemporary Austrian family of three women: a young girl, Melanie; her mother, Teresa and aunt Anna Maria. These focus on teenage issues, sex and religion. The first in the trilogy, Paradise: Love, follows Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), a voluptuous but matronly blonde in her forties who has disappeared below the search radar of most men on the local dating scene. When she heads off to Kenya for a much needed blast of sun, her prospects seem to improve.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM | Morgan Neville, US (2013)

Winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015, it’s clear to see why Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom (2014) was triumphant as a compelling, heartwarming and unaffected exploration into the fascinating world of backing singers. From the contentiously salacious vocals on Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’, to the graceful arrangement of ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers, backing vocals are integral to our enjoyment of music across the decades. Having spent years in the shadows of some of the finest, most prominent recording artists of all time, now the likes of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love are given the platform to shine, and showcase their unique, and somewhat breathtaking abilities.

THE GREAT BEAUTY |  Paolo Sorrentino, Italy (2013)  

The heart and soul of Italy leaps off the screen in all its beauty and decadence in this cornucopia of delights. Paolo Sorrentino’s sensual Italian overload transports us to Rome for a paean to pleasure and pain, gaiety and melancholy seen through the eyes of writer and roué, Jep Gambardella, played exultantly by Sorrentino regular, Toni Servillo (The Consequences of Love). This is possibly Sorrentino’s best film, a satire capturing the essence of his homeland’s beauty and culture with an appealing and bittersweet languor that was first experienced in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  and now in the context of the 21st century.

WINTER SLEEP (2014) Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or Winner is, in spite of its considerable length, a densely discursive and often confrontational portrait of human fallibility. Even though it takes place inside a claustrophobic hotel, the outdoor scenes are riveting, set against the background of the majestic mountains. Men are usually out of touch in all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, and in WINTER SLEEP, his new anti-hero Aydin (Bilginer) is no exception. An ex-actor, Aydin sees himself as an enlightened feudal lord; spending his days in the hotel where he writes a daily column for the local newspaper. Ceylan pays homage to Bergman and Bresson in the long, vicious arguments between Aydin and his wife and sister, the camera catches the protagonists in shot/contra-shot movement, the close-ups showing the hurt on the faces of the women, who are treated with contempt and often impudence.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014) |  Jonathan Glazer, UK

Glazer developed Under the Skin for over a decade; he and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell pared it back from an elaborate, special effects-heavy concept to a sparse story focusing on an alien perspective of the human world. Most characters were played by non-actors, and many scenes were filmed with hidden cameras. With a total worldwide gross of £5.2 million, Under the Skin was failed at the box office. With its timely themes of migration, sexual politics and safety, it received critical acclaim, particularly for Johansson’s performance, Glazer’s direction, and Mica Levi‘s score. It garnered multiple awards for its groundbreaking visual allure and was named one of 2014’s best films by several publications. It ranks 61st on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st century.

Indiewire ranked it the 2nd best film of the 2010s.

POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS (2014) | Andrey Konchalovsky, USSR

The best work happens in the quieter, contemplative moments of this reflective fable from  Russian master Andrey Konchalovsky. A moving scene captures a village elder’s funeral, where the community talk of the “socialistic romanticism” of her era, a time unlike, apparently, a present Russia in which their humble roles in society seem almost obsolete. Why should Russians pay humble fishermen in rural villages for their fish, rather than modern, faceless dragnet fishing, as one sequence depicts? And as the young Timur is wont to say to Aleksey, “do we need postmen when we can email?” Konchalovksy’s art reveals a beauty to a rustic life that is being lost – as if this is the last chance to witness this kind of small-town life. If it is, Konchalovsky has crafted a beautiful record of this world.

THE ASSASSIN (2015) | Hsiao-hsien Hou, Taiwan

Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou’s spectacular drama is a graceful and sumptuously composed masterpiece – in the true sense of the word. Hou brings a sense of uncompromising formal brilliance to the wuxia material. THE ASSASSIN is a work of spiritual resonance and historical importance, but it is also exquisite. Set during the Tang dynasty, the story opens as a young girl (played by Shu Qi) undergoes training to be an assassin. But her female sympathies stand in the way of her killing instinct, and after failing an important mission she is sent back to her hometown. Some time later, she is again tasked with killing an important governor (played by Chang Chen) who questions the Emperor’s authority. The task involves a moral twist: not only is the governor her cousin, but also her first love.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015) | Ciro Guerra, Colombia

Colombian writer|director Ciro Guerra’s third feature is a visually stunning exploration to a heart of darkness that brings to mind Miguel Gomes’ Tabu or Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde or even Nicolas Roeg’s Belize-set drama Heart of Darkness (1993).

Serving as a backlash on organised Religion and Colonialism, the film’s slow-burn intensity has a morose and unsettling undercurrent that threatens to submerge you in the sweaty waters of the Amazon River whence its token German explorer, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) meanders fitfully in search of a rare and exotic flower with restorative powers.

FIRE AT SEA (2016) Gianfranco Rosi, Italy 

Gianfranco Rosi’s spare yet absorbing documentary offers an important and non-judgemental portrait of the immigration crisis facing Southern Italy, where both immigrants and islanders are given ample weight in story of their struggle to survive. Pictures can tell a thousand words and that’s the way Rosi leaves it: we must draw our own impressions and conclusions from this poignant human story.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) Paul Thomas Anderson, US

This is arthouse drama at its best. Exploring the negative impulses of love, it is a delicately drawn tale about man’s fear of  losing control to a woman. The man in question, a fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is captivated by a young woman’s grace and charm but refuses to let her into his business life, which is really his heart and soul. She remains tough but loving – the perfect replica of his beloved mother, tempting him but paradoxically also repulsing him. Day-Lewis remains adamant as the tortured artist, every subtle nuance of his adamance flickers across his face in a subtle display of petulance. Day-Lewis gives another remarkable performance this time as the classic gentleman artist delivered with finesse and his idiosyncratic  allure. His economy of movement is admirable capturing the feline grace of Federer and the innate style and sardonic humour of Cary Grant. When his resistance is lowered by a bout of illness, Reynolds’ reveals a deep weakness for his mother (whose ghost appears to him in her wedding dress) and her power is magically transferred to his assistant Alma, who then gets to wear the trousers – immaculately tailored – of course. MT

BEST INDIE FILMS of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

Best of the Decade | 2010-2020

ALPS (2011)  Jorgos Lanthimos, Greece

After Dogtooth, Jorgos Lanthimos comes up with an even more bizarre take on human frailties. Alps is the name of a hospital group who offer suffering relatives a unique service: they will impersonate the deceased for a while, enabling the families to come to term with their loss. Needless to say, that this causes a whole host of complications. There is an anarchic wildness at play here, which makes Alps much original than Lobster. which was to follow. Lanthimos crafts an absurdist play, very much in the tradition of Aragon and the early Bunuel.

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (2019)

Hu Bo’s one and only film is a true masterpiece. The Chinese director committed suicide before the end of the shoot after falling out with the production company over feature’s running time. Equally sad and poignant it plays out like Balzac’s ‘comedie humaine’, Hu Bo keeping the elliptical narrative going, always coming up with new plot-twists for his four characters to meet under new circumstances in their urban backdrop. Chao Fan’s camera pans relentlessly through the jungle of hideousness, the environment echoing Bela Tarr’s vision of dystopia.

THE WOMAN WHO LEFT (2016)

Filipino filmmaker Lab Diaz follows his four hour Silver Bear winner A Lullaby to a sorrowful Mystery, with this opaque revenge drama that clocks in at 226 minutes and bagged the main prize at the Venice Film Festival of the same year. Diaz once again focuses on his wartorn and impoverished homeland with echoes of Metropolis, early Eisenstein works or Mark Donskoy’s first part of his Gorky trilogy My Childhood. The main character Horacia walks the nightly streets like Murnau’s phantom. The glacial pacing contributes to a nightmarish atmosphere, the blackest of noir. Horacia uses different names for herself, indicating that her personality is splitting. We see the shadow world she moves in, out of her POV: the focus becomes more and more blurred, particularly during a scene at the beach. Once again, the past takes over the present, destroying Horacia’s identity. For those who have never experienced Diaz’ work, his magnetism is difficult to convey: we are literally drawn into the narrative for the entire running time.

LEVIATHAN (2014) USSR

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman strikingly composed  political drama affirms a sense of existential hopelessness. The characters’ vulnerabilities, and the sense that their homes offer inadequate sanctuary are a recurring theme in Zvyagintsev’s work.  Leviathan references the Book of Job and indicate government corruption through figures such as Boris Yeltsin. Everywhere is a profound sense of moral loss. A real Russian Noir where the victims are without hope or redemption.

SON OF SAUL (2015) Laszlo Nemez

The young Hungarian director’s debut is a tour-de-force of suffering. Set in a nameless concentration camp, it features Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) as a Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz death camp in October 1944. Sonderkommandos were units of Jewish prisoners forced to perform grisly tasks on their own dead, knowing very well they too would be executed in due course.  Shot totally from the perspective of his main character Saul, Laszlo Nemez accomplishes a frightening directness. Everything is happening right in front of our faces in this journey into the darkest hell.

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST – Claude Lanzmann, France

The documentary takes its title from the main protagonist: Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), who was the third and only surviving “Jewish Elder” “of the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt). Nothing can compare with the role of a “Jewish Elder”, a position invented by the Nazis in camps and ghettos to divide the Jews by making the Elders do much of their dirty work. The Elders were permanently in conflict with the German authority and their own people. They were mistrusted by their own and despised by the Germans. And most of them went to the gas chambers themselves. After including Murmelstein’ story in Shoah, Lanzmann decided, that his story should be told at length in a separate film. Murmelstein was sent to Terezin in 1942, just after the city had been cleared of their Czech inhabitants. Terezin was meant as a Ghetto for the elderly, many German Jews “bought” their places in this “retirement” town from the Nazi authorities, paying with their savings. It turned out to be a death camp like all the others: over 33 000 Jews, mostly elderly, died there, apart from the 88, 000 deported to the Gas chambers. Lanzmann works with the same rigour as always: the devil is in the detail.

ZAMA- (2017) Lucrecia Martel, Argentina

Written and directed by Argentine Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), Zama is an adaptation of a Latin American classic by Argentinian novelist Antonio di Benedetto, who was imprisoned and tortured during his country’s Dirty War in the 1970s. Influenced by Dostoevsky the film’s hero Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), had a lot in common with his Russian literary counterpart.  The action takes place in the sun-baked South American pampas during the last decade of the 18th century. Zama is an officer of the Spanish Crown, stranded in this backwater for what eventually becomes the rest of his life. Llamas and other livestock wander blithely across the streets, the bumbling corruption unfolds to a backcloth of Guarani folk who watch on dispassionately. The governor wears a shrivelled trophy – a pair of ears – which we are told –  belonged to a master bandit, who has recently be executed. But later, Zama will learn at his cost, that the bandit is alive and well. Zama is part horror, part magic realism, a wonderful mixture of images and symbols.

ALL OUR DESIRES (2011) Philippe Loiret, France

Directed by Philippe Lioret (I Am Alright) and based on a non-fiction book by Emanuel Carriere (Other Lives but Mine), this is an emotionally taxing feature that sees a young judge (Marie Gillain) facing up to an incurable disease and mounting a widescale case against a financial body that exploits the poor. Despite potential melodrama Loiret offers a spare and restrained treatment with brilliant performances, Lyndon playing, as always, the calm stalwart of the underprivileged. One of the most admirable yet gruelling films of the decade.

FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER (2014) – Rüdiger Suchsland, Germany

Suchsland, inspired by Siegfried Kracauer, explains – in a sleek 2 hours – how the Geman cinema of the Weimarer Republic prepared the country for Hitler and the Nazis. Suchsland follows the thesis of Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), a German film critic and journalist, friend of Benjamin and Adorno, who in his psychological history of the German film with the same title as the film (published 1947 in emigration in New York) – which is still the most well known German film-history book. In his documentary debut Suchsland traces the correlation between screen action and the psychology of the defeated German masses. According to Kracauer, “M” was Lang’s first serious film for over a decade. Together with von Sternberg’s Blauer Engel (1930) and Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1931) by Piel Jutzi: these three films marked the end of any serious critique of the right in the Weimarer Republic in films, whilst Pabst Westfront 1918 (1930) at least tried a pacifistic view of WWI, and Kuhle Wampe by Dudow (after a script by Brecht) showed a communist alternative to fighting unemployment. But the “National Epic” was soon back: The Last Company (1930) by Kurt Bernhardt; Der Schwarze Husar (Gerhard Lamprecht 1932), Prussia (Carl Froehlich 1931), Gustav Ucicky’s York (1931) and the never-ending five “Frederikus Rex” films with Otto Gebühr in the title role. And it was no accident that the list of films premiered in 1933 included many titles, which were produced before January 30th 1933, like the U-boot film Morgenrot by Ucicky. Kracauer/Suchsland prove, that all of Germany at the time was at least subconsciously aware that the most dangerous psychopath would soon take the position of the director of the asylum called Germany.

FOXTROT – Samuel Maoz, Israel

Samuel Moaz follows up on his brilliant Lebanon with an even more impressive feature: Foxtrot is a story of bereavement and denial of guilt, played against the background of a middle-class Jewish family in Tel-Aviv.
 Michael Feldman (Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafne (Adler) live in a spacious, expensively decorated apartment, which feels like a five-star hotel suite. When they learn about the death of their soldier son Jonathan (Shiray), Dafne faints, whilst her husband is cold and aggressive, even kicking the family dog, who wants to console him. But the Feldman family is only a cypher for many Israeli families in a country, which is at war for nearly 70 years. “This is war, and shit happens in war” says the Israeli general to the soldiers after another needless killing. Maoz captures the absurdity of this permanent war in hilarious scenes at the roadblock, mixing phantasy with reality, and contrasting the hell of war with the cool and sober apartment of the Feldman family: the two levels, at home at once in one country, have seemingly nothing in common. But it is the denial of those at home, which makes Israeli soldiers kill and being killed for over forty years. Sombre and without illusion. AS

BEST OF THE DECADE 2010-2020

 

QT8: The First 21 Years (2019) ***

Dir.: Tara Wood, Documentary with Zoë Bell, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Lee, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Christoph Waltz; USA 2019, 120 min.

It has been said that 21 years defines the career of an artist. And Tara Wood, who co-directed 21 Years: Richard Linklater (2014), has used this premise to define a new documentary about Quentin Tarantino’s first eight films.

Her idolatrous approach echoes that of the legends who have ranked around Tarantino’s meteoric rise from video archives clerk to multi-million dollar director whose features are a cultural event – no less. This film is full of the love Tarantino’s collaborators feel for the maverick director, put simply by James Wood : “it’s just fun to work with him”.

Directors are well known to be strict taskmasters  but QT8 also gives a palpable sense of the ebullient passion the Tennessee born filmmaker brings to his work. His natural charisma inspires his actors to enter into the spirit of their characters with extraordinary freedom and verve, while managing to maintain a strict ‘no nonsense’ approach on set.

Tarantino fills his scripts with multiple ways for his actors to interpret their roles. A case in point was the opening monologue for Inglourious Basterds recalled by Christoph Waltz who played the nefarious Nazi Colonel Landa with great gusto, very much defining Tarantino’s approach: “If you just love movies enough, you can make a good one”. Or eight.

Adulation or controversy are never far away. When a new Tarantino masterpiece hits the cinema screens, the box office figures usually prove him right: QT is a genius, and Wood will have us all repeating it. Strangely enough, the only missing person in this phalanx of admirers is the director himself – he is his own toughest critic. Wood also explores how ideas get off the ground particularly with reference to the script/story origins for True Romance and Natural Born Killers. We hear how Harvey Keitel arrived to pick up the script for Reservoir Dogs, which led to Cannes – and then straight to Pulp Fiction and Cannes again. A neat transition indeed. But to compare this boyish blood and guts artist with the combined talents of French Nouvelle Vague legends, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Rivette, is really stretching it a bit. 

Wood goes on as if Tarantino’s career was only ever plain sailing. No mention of the mega bust-up with Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary or Natural Born Killer producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, which led to a brawl in a restaurant. Or the serious car accident on set which damaged Una Thurman’s neck for life – an event which only gets  a three second mention in QT8 – wonder why she didn’t show up?. Then there is Tarantino’s over-fondness for the N-word, to which black director Spike Lee took offence. Wood ordered a character assassination by Jamie Foxx, obliterating Lee – without Lee having the right to respond. The extensive but entertaining eulogy is mostly centred around the sets, with clever animation flicks by Brad Greber and Shane Minshew keeping the tone light.

Apart from his love for people of colour, Tarantino is equally fond of women and should be celebrated for creating strong, feisty female roles. When the Weinstein scandal broke, Tarantino cut all ties with the producer, even though he was a major shareholder in the production company (‘The house that Quentin built’). Wood tries her best in the last six minutes to avoid any serious questions. Wood and QT8 were, at one point, in a legal battle over the Weinstein Company right’s to distribute the documentary – the battle itself and how it was solved is never mentioned. This latest development has to be factored in to the whole tableau. Wood’s accusation of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal acts sound righteous but unconvincing – and somehow feel tacked on as a crowd-pleaser in this otherwise rip-roaring romp through the Tarantino canon. AS

IN CINEMAS, ON DVD, BLURAY and DIGITAL HD from 13 DECEMBER 2019

 

 

Kingmaker (2019) ****

Dir/scr: Lauren Greenfield. US. 2019. 100mins

Known for her legendary appetite for shoes – 3000 pairs at one point – Imelda Marcos certainly uses them to ride roughshod over her own people. Lauren Greenfield reveals her steps to power in this eye-popping biopic exposing the gilded lifestyle of the politician and one time First Lady of the Philippines.

The Kingmaker is the latest of Greenfield’s studies of entitlement that began with The Queen Of Versailles and Generation Wealth. Clearly Marcos is a character with delusional as well as narcissistic traits, capable of styling her own persona to serve a flexible narrative. Greenfield goes back to basics to examine how this entitled 90 year old antiheroine and her husband Ferdinand first robbed their nation of its riches, and now are now shamelessly re-tracing their steps to come back to power.

Marcos takes centre stage showing us round her opulently vulgar apartment, showcasing her wealth. We learn how she quickly bagged Ferdinand using him as a vehicle to step into power as the backseat driver of a regime that instigated martial law. Now in the driving seat herself, since his death, she is busily working on her son’s path to the vice-presidency, the next step will be clear.

Condescending and manipulative she is also prides herself of her fake largesse: handing out “candy for the kids” in the shape of gifts for charities and the poor. But this cuts both ways,  barely compensating for the misery she and her husband have doled out in spades. Meanwhile the Philippines is still languishing in the third world with Rodrigo Détente waiting in the wings to be president. The Kingmaker is a detached but delicious dive into the mind of a modern day machiavellian, delivered with sleek aplomb by a filmmaker at the top of her game. MT

IN CINEMAS NOW

Welcome to Sodom (2018) **** WatchAUT 2019

Dir.: Florian Weigensamer, Christian Krönes; Documentary; Austria 2018, 90 min.

Austrian directors/writers Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes are attracted to radical material, that brings to mind the work of their compatriot, the noted documentarian Michael Glawogger (1959-2014)  Their first film A German Life, explored the life of  104 year-old Brunhilde Pomsel, Goebbels stenographer. Here they have chosen something completely different but just as fascinating.  Near the Ghanaian capital Accra is Agbogbloshie a swampland, where 250 000 tons of first world electronic dump is ‘recycled’ by about 6000 women, men and children.

The title refers to the biblical place, and Agbogbloshie is certainly making its name proud. The ground itself is unsafe, it sucks people in – after all, it’s a lagoon. Starting with a close-up of a chameleon, emaciated goats and cows roam the wasteland, where ancient dump trucks discharge old computer monitors, TV sets, fridges, printers, mobiles and cars. The mostly teenage work force are looking for aluminium, copper or zinc, anything they can glean with their self-made magnets, working away with crude mallets to break down the chassis. When they have collected enough material they take it to the dealer, who weighs their collection, before trying – usually successfully – to cheat them, reducing a meagre payment even further. Woman and girls are used as water carriers, they too inhale the poisonous dirt, the earth squelches, their health gradually deteriorates. To take their mind off things there is rap music, and even a newspaper, the ‘Daily Graphic’. And oddities, like a make-shift funeral parlour selling some expensive coffins that nobody on the site can afford to buy. A gay Jewish man from Zimbawe sells used water packets.

But there is a sense of pride among the detritus: a teenage boy declares “it’s rubbish for them, but we are the best re-cyclers”. But the common goal is to make it to France, or anywhere in Europe, “and be somebody”. Only few would admit that “this place eats up your life very fast”. Flies and filth are everywhere as the sulphur clouds hang heavy on the air. Cholera and malaria are the inevitable outcome.

Sodom makes for grim viewing but the directors avoid making this a depressing documentary, and some of the artfully framed scenes have a strange appeal, such as those when the men are burning down the metal pipes. The film plays out almost like a poem to industrial waste, dumped from all over the world. But the well-crafted images fit well with the narrative, and the sophisticated sound design conjures up the spirit of those who work in this Armageddon. There may not be much hope here; but you watch in stark  admiration, and a certain sense of shame that your next new gadget or smart phone will eventually end up polluted this dystopian hell hole and the people who spend their short lives dedicated to its daily grind. AS

WatchAUT | 13 -15 DECEMBER 2019 | Picturehouse Cinema W1       

WatchAUT | Austrian Film weekend 13 – 15 December 2019

London’s Picturehouse Central will play host to a weekend of Austrian cinema from 13-15 December 2019. WatchAUT provides a glimpse of the world as perceived by the current generation of Austrian filmmakers. 
 
The festival opens with a special gala preview of LITTLE JOE, director Jessica Hausner’s foreboding tale of genetically modified flowers starring Emily Beecham (a role that won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival), Ben Whitshaw and Kerry Fox. Emily Beecham and Kerry Fox are both due to attend and take part in a post screening Q&A.
 
Festival titles focus on today’s hottest issues including the environment, women, and migrationOther acclaimed Austrian features to watch out for include multi-award winning STYX followed by a Q&A with director Wolfgang Fischer, plus other female-focused films THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET and MADEMOISELLE PARADIS. The documentary programme comprises CHAOS, a compelling story of three Syrian women exposed to war, while EARTHWELCOME TO SODOM and THE GREEN LIE explore the many environmental issues that afflict our planet.
watchAUT | 13 -15 DECEMBER 2019

Aquarela (2018) *** Venice Film Festival 2018

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky | Doc | UK | 89’

A picture tells a thousands words when it comes to climate change. And this new eco doc on the subject literally drenches us in water in its mission to drive the point home. Aquarela is  the aquatic version of Jeff Orlowski’s remarkable Chasing Ice (2012).  delivering its vital message with any dire warnings or preachy dialogue. 

Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky has shot hours of footage aiming, in a structureless but gloriously visual way, to portray the global tragedy of climate change. His vehement eco doc demonstrates how the havoc caused by the melting ice-cap in the Arctic Circle  cascades down to provoke events in Siberia’s Lake Baikal; Angel Falls in Venezuela and tornado strewn California, as nature and humanity clash in a monstrous eco-war. Put simply: while man is slowly destroying nature, the planet is hellbent on destroying us.

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard works with the latest high-tech stabilisation equipment and waterproof cameras at a rate of 96 frames per second, and these HD images record the gushing, cascading floods of glaciers, magnificent ice mountains, crashing icebergs, crumbling glaciers, tumbling waterfalls and fierce waves that mercilessly bring to mind Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea. 

Accompanied by a pounding electronic score that lends a certain chaotic gravitas, there are moments that will remain seared to the memory. The film would work more effectively with a clearer narrative arc and tighter editing despite its slim running time And although some of the sequences are over-played –  this is an engaging and informative film. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Sorokin Trip (2019) *** Russian Film Week 2019

Dir: Ilya Belov | Doc with Vladimir Sorokin, Russia, 90’

Director Ilya Belov (Brodsky is Not a Poet) and writer Anton Zhelnov have painted a lively portrait of prolific Russian underground artist Vladimir Sorokin (*1955), who has markedly calmed down since setting fire to Soviet literary tradition and building his own world on its ashes. He now lives in Moscow and Berlin, hugging trees and believing in God.

Sorokin who grew up outside Moscow, had the misfortune to be the only student in his class whose parents had a higher education. He was physically bullied, but refrained from retribution. His emotionally cold father had mental health issues,, his mother trained as an engineer but retired at 35 due to ill health. Sorokin first published in a newspaper: ‘For the Workers in the Petroleum Industry’. But he went on to make his living illustrating books, and was one of the leading figures of Soviet Underground culture. Like many students all over the world, he skipped lectures and enjoyed provoking the authoritarian Soviet establishment, which fell for his stunts, which were nowhere near as radical as the Underground scene of New York. 

Sorokin draws most of his inspiration from Fine Art, and is an accomplished painter. His first publicised book was Ochered (The Que) in 1983; his most famous novel Den Oprichnika (Day