Archive for the ‘IDFA’ Category

Silent House (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir.: Farnaz Jurabchian, Mohammadreza Jurabchian; Documentary with Nassrin Mirsadeghi, Houssein Mirsadeghi, Mohammad Mirsadeghi; Iran/France/Canada/Philippines/ Qatar 2022, 100 min.

A striking Art Deco villa in Tehran becomes ‘silent witness’ to four decades of Iranian history in a revealing new documentary from the sibling filmmakers who grew up there during the Islamic revolution and beyond.

Farnaz and Mohammadreza Jurabchian spent nearly their whole lives in a palace once owned by Esmat Dowlatshahi, the fourth and final wife of Reza Shah Pahlavi (although the marriage was never officially recognised). The property came into the family when their grandfather, a local trader, decided he had to possess it. His own passion for photography was soon shared by his daughter Nassrin, and later by his grandchildren who would eventually become independent filmmakers, honing their craft in and around their impressive family home.

Silent House unfolds entirely within the confines of the villa, its proximity to the Shah’s official residence, the Sa’dabad Palace, restricted the cameras from roaming further afield. But the family story speaks volumes painting a colourful picture about their life and times. Enriched with personal reflections and archive material from TV and film, the doc provides a potted political and social history of post 1979 revolutionary Iran across three generations.

Their grandmother made her home comfortably on one floor of the building surrounded by gardens and a brood of cats. Growing up the daughter of a wealthy and religious family, she was married off at only thirteen to a much older, middle class, man who put an end to her studies and ballet lessons: “He was mean and treated me like dirt. He beat up any man who looked at me – and he was unfaithful”. But the couple lived there together for fifty years and had six children.

Her daughter Nassrin is an enterprising, over-achiever. But her own husband’s sudden death in the north of Iran forced her to become a single parent. Undeterred, she was soon finding ways to keep the family coffers replenished by turning the tennis courts into a country club. But despite her industriousness, her own mother wanted her younger brother Hossein to take over the running of the house until Nassrin found herself back in control after he was conscripted into the Iran-Iraq war. Hossein came back shell-shocked and suffering from severe PTS and soon cloistered himself in a cottage in the garden, where he later died.

Nassrin had meanwhile joined the 1979 revolution, even taking baby Farnaz with her to meetings where she wore army fatigues and taught her to sing revolutionary songs. Many houses were confiscated by the regime, and Farnaz’ grandfather had to buy back his house for the second time, forcing him into bankruptcy. He died shortly afterwards, of grief.

Nassrin had by now turned herself into a filmmaker and bequeathed a camera to her children. Her father’s funeral, a stately affair attended by all the local traders, is her personal cinematographical tribute to the family’s history. The house then underwent extensive renovations and Nassrin turned it into a film studio – with the fixtures and fittings providing the props. It made a perfect set for many feature films, with the family appearing in bit parts – “everyone in the house became part of the film set”. In 2005 it provided the location for Masud Kimiai’s feature The Command and later Ziaeddin Dorri’s The Pahlavi Hat series. The siblings then started to make their own short films.

Ever ambitious, Nassrin moved on to education, becoming director of the PBO Kindergarten in charge of 144 children and over 2000 employees. During the Iran-Iraq war, Nassrin had banned TV for her children, preferring them to watch light-hearted dramas such as The Sound of Music. Soon they were real cineastes. And while their mother was developing an interest in running for President during the 2009 elections, civil was breaking out, and Farnaz was encouraged to leave Iran.

 

In Montreal, Farnaz decided to enrol in film school rather than study engineering. “But whenever I wanted to shoot something, I had visions of home”. Meanwhile Mohammadreza had stayed in Tehran and was studying  photography. The siblings (and their cameras) were re-united in the villa when their mother’s eldest brother Mohammad arrived. He had left Iran forty years previously to live in the UK.

A family wedding is the last hurrah for the palace, their grandmother died shortly afterwards in her late eighties. The siblings film her non-stop during the last days of her life; “that was all we could do for her”. During her funeral, the cats roamed freely throughout the property, finally making a home for themselves in the house. Nassrin gives in to the demand of the rest of the family to sell. And prospective buyers are filmed, looking round a house where in 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin once carved up the world.

DoP Mohammadreza Jurabchian’s camerawork certainly improves during the long Gestalt period. Personal and political events interweave seamlessly, the mood is melancholic in this unique combination of social history and personal tragedy, as well as happy times.

The authorities in Tehran felt so threatened by the feature they refused to allow the directors and producers to attend the screening at the IDFA in Amsterdam on its world premiere. Another case of Iranian censorship taking the country backwards rather than forwards into the 21st century. AS

IDFA | INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2022

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

Paradise (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir/Wri: Alexander Abaturov | DoP Paul Guilhaume | France, Doc, 91′

When it comes to wildfires the spectacle of a roaring blaze in the middle of a snowy landscape does not normally spring to mind. But climate change has recently played havoc in the northern hemisphere, as filmmaker Alexander Abaturov discovers in his cinematic ethnological portrait of Siberia where sweltering heatwaves and drought are a new phenomenon.

Paradise opens with a smoozy rather seductive opening sequence as the camera glides softly over frosty rooftops and sweeps down onto a reflective scene picturing a little girl saying her prayers with the words: “Tell me, Sacred Mountain, do you see the whole Earth from here?”.

In 2021 alone, fires burned 19 million hectares in Russia, and for first time ever ashes blew to the North Pole.  Back down to earth in the heart of the ‘taiga’ lies the village of Shologon where and the natives are adopting a zen approach to dealing with the exceptional circumstances. By nature a peaceful people their calm collaboration contrasts with the – hardly surprising – inflammatory reaction we have come to expect from the recent outbreaks, but the Siberian stance is certainly novel, and makes for a reflective and contemplative look at how these chilly lands are fighting fire – not with fire – but with collaborative calm. 

In the distance billowing smoke heralds the incendiary arrival of trouble. A group of firefighters make their way on open trucks to the root of the problem through sparse woodland. There is no blaze to speak of, just a smouldering scarlet-tinged landscape and the locals name it ‘the dragon’ as they quickly retreat back to base to report their findings and regroup.

Without a formal fire service or governmental aid they are forced to rely on mutual and community support.  Helicopters supply water to assist in quelling the outbreak and the final scenes, filmed in slow-burn close-up, take us right to the centre of the blaze creeping like a seething living carpet of flames through the undergrowth.

What impresses here is the way the firefighters work serenely and methodically to put out the blaze. Making use of an evocative soundscape scored by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, Abaturov’s sophomore documentary morphs into a surreal and dreamlike meditation as humans battle the elements, almost beyond them, and ‘The Dragon’ is tackled and finally laid to rest. MT

IN COMPETITION | INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2022 | 9 – 20 November 2022

 

The History of the Civil War (1921) IDFA

Dir.: Dziga Vertov; Documentary; USSR 1921, 94 min.

Exactly hundred years after The History of the Civil War was shown in a Komintern meeting in Moscow, Dziga Vertov’s historical document of the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), – believed to have been lost, apart from a twelve-minute footage – screened at IDFA, having been fully restored by Russian film historian Nikolai Izvolov, who also plans to bring back Vertov’s masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera to its original glory.

Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) is the father of modern documentary filmmaking. Using the camera as an observer, and structuring the film in the editing room, he revolutionised the genre, paying as much attention to small details as well as constructing an overview. The History starts with a sequence of devastation: decimated bridges, destroyed railway stations, burning oilfields and exploding munition factories. ‘The White Terror’, enemies of the 1918 Revolution are responsible, they range from anarchists to feudal landowners. Trotsky ends the sequence with the promise that the newly founded Red Army “Will answer the White Terror with the Red Terror of the Revolution.”

The fight back starts with the disarming of the Anarchists in 1918 Moscow. The captured opponents are (mistakenly) not afraid of their fate. In a garage, machine guns are readied, a cat strolling nonchalantly among the deadly hardware. The HQ of the counter revolutionary forces is to be found in the Spasski monastery. Comrade Nicolai Kazadanov is in charge: he poses narcissistically in front of the camera. Other Soviet military leaders liked to be seen as ‘intellectuals’, their writing desks piled high with books.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Navy deals with their own Kronstadt uprising, among the sailors we see a well dressed woman, looking into the horizon. Comrade Innocenti Kozhevnikov is in charge of a partisan unit crossing the border into Czechoslovakia. Kozhevnikov would be one of the first victims of Stalin’s purges, murdered in 1931. The defeat of Cossack general Miranov is celebrated, and the general is pardoned after the original death sentence. The ‘Makhno’ movement assists the “the young and inexperienced soldiers of the Red Army” to win the battle for Kazan. Political commissar Timofei Mikhailov is pictured in earnest discussions, he would be another of Stalin’s victim in 1928.

We watch a revolutionary Muslim unit and Trotsky greeting a revolutionary Czech unit. The leader of the Soviet Perm front is Grigori Zinovev, shot after a show trial in 1936. The Denikin front is commanded by Yakov Swerdlov, who died “suddenly of TB” in 1919, but had a city named after him by Stalin, the mastermind of this deadly irony. In between the many meetings of military officials at the different fronts, British ‘monster’ tanks are captured by the Red Army, who “would learn soon to operate them”. Meanwhile, at the Baku front Ivar Smilga (executed by Stalin in 1937), and Sergei Ordzhonikidze (driven to suicide by Stalin in same year – but getting a State Funeral), are being honoured for their bravery.

At the Caucasus Front, Sergei Kirov and Konstantin Mekhonoshin are unaware of their fates.  The former will be shot by a jealous husband in 1934, the latter executed 1938. At the front fighting the reactionary Baron Vrangel, Kliment Vorishilov and Red Cavalry founder Semyon Budyonni, are the lucky ones, both will survive Stalin’s massacre of the Old Bolshevik guard. At the very end, Trotsky, general Tukhachevski and Grigory Petrovski, who would sign the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, take the parade of the victorious army. Petrovski, who helped his master with disastrous collectivation experiments, is the the only one who would survive Stalin, with Tukhachevski murdered after a show trial together with seven other old Bolshevik military leaders.

The filmmaker Vertov would never have believed his masterpiece would one day indict Stalin for the murder of these military leaders who fought for the national base, from where he murdered millions. Ironically, Stalin manages to keep a low profile throughout, only appearing briefly in an uncovered scene. Vertov turns out to be one of the lucky survivors – had the documentary survived, Stalin would have taken his revenge on the filmmaker for not hailing him as a war hero.. AS

INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2021

Flee (2021)

Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen | With: Daniel Karimyar, Fardin Mijdzadeh, Milad Eskanderi, Belal Faiz | Denmark, Animated drama, 90′

Based on real events, this noirish gay awakening story blends new beginnings and past trauma in an involving and surprisingly poetic way, the delicately drawn animations notching down the rawness of a harrowing escape for the central character whose real identity is kept confidential.

Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen calls his friend Amin but only discovered the true horror of his backstory years after they met. Amin is a refugee from Afghanistan who escaped Kabul during the the 1980s and is now safely settled in Denmark in a relationship he never dreamed possible.

Rasmussen recounts his friend’s adventures through a series of animated events and interviews in a way that draws us into his world as we experience the horrors from Amin’s own perspective. The conflict that caused his family to leave their home and suffer at the hands of the authorities on their way to Europe is not news to any of us but it is brought to life here in an alarming way that brings a sobering perspective to the refugee crisis that’s still unfolding every today. Being gay was a further hurdle that Amin had to overcome in this bracingly tense adventure. MT

IN CINEMAS and EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZON HOME FROM FRIDAY 11 FEBRUARY 2022 | NOMINATED FOR THREE OSCARS

May God Be With You (2021) IDFA 2021

Dir: Cleo Cohen | Israel Doc

Cléo Cohen’s directorial debut is a highly personal exploration of her own identity as the granddaughter of Jewish Arabs who emigrated from Tunisia and Algeria to France during the 20th century.

In the intimate confines of the family homes Cohen plays devil’s advocate, questioning the time honoured subject of Jewish identity and the relationship between Arabs and Jews in the Maghreb. What emerges is a generational conflict, as well as a very subjective view of the past from the older generation’s perspective.

Cohen starts with a provocative bon mot in the opening titles which manages to ruffle a few feathers back home: What is the shortest joke in history?: “A Jew met another Arab.” When defending the Arabs’ view of history she is told: “Defend the Arabs and you’ll see what happens to you”. When she answers back: “the worst massacre of Jews took place in Western, Christian Europe” a swift reply comes: “If the Arabs were organised, they would have done the same to us. Cleo does not feel Jewish at all when her grandma Denise tells her “the Arabs got what they deserved.”

In an attempt to gain context she then speaks to Richard Cohen (to whose memory the film is dedicated) former lawyer for the FLN in Algeria. He nods, too weak to answer in full. And Daniel Shebabo is equally frank: “The French got the Jews on their side during the wars of Independence in the Maghreb – separating them from the Arabs via the Cremieux Decree, which made Jews French overnight in 1960. I still remember the pride my mother felt. It caused some confusion with other Pied-Noirs, but my mother said we are Pied-Noirs. My family never mingled with Arabs.”

Denise Houri, is firmly in the Jews’ camp and considers herself ‘in exile’ from her native Tunisia. “It was hard finding ourselves in another country. But we can’t go back, the old country won’t be the same any more. Memories stay still in time. You are often disappointed if you go back. Alain went, he sent photos”. Nevertheless, Cleó is planning to visit Oran in Algeria. Denise is hard-line when it comes to Cleó’s duty regarding her own (as yet unborn) children: “You will be the guide for the people of Israel, on their behalf. You must pass that on to your children. Transient Jewish identity is a value. They should never marry an Arab. I practice my religion at home. Cultural blending is not a good idea.”

Daniel Shebabo talks about the thorny issue of identity: “Identity is never a foregone conclusion. It can always be undermined by yourself or others. I am re-assured by being Jewish, but I do not distance myself from others. The more you are re-assured, the better you can accept others with different identities. In Tunisia I mainly lived with Muslims.”

The director wanders around Denise’ flat, resting in the huge bath tub, and reading Albert Memmi’s classic of 1957 ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized” from his perspective as a French-Tunisian writer of Jewish origins. She reflects that “Arabs are not just Tunisians, there are Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Jewish Arabs too. We are not Muslims, but we are Jews with an Arab culture and identity. Our mother tongue is Arabic, but we are Jews. I am an Arab by culture, but not a Jewish Arab.”

A highly personal feature which nevertheless touches on ideological conflicts, not only between Jews and Arabs, but also within the Jewish communities themselves. An important film that attempts to shed light on the complex the issues surrounding cultural and religious identity, antisemitism, racism and colonialism. AS

SCREENING DURING IDFA 2021 | INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2021

In the Billowing Night (2021) IDFA 2021

Dir: Erika Etangsale | France, Doc 50′

In her delicately atmospheric meditation on identity and colonial origins Erika Etangsale uses silence, a soft ambient soundscape and an impressive editing technique as an affective distancing mechanism in expressing the ongoing feelings of disconnection felt by her Creole father, offering  insight into French social history enriched by evocative personal photos and original footage.

Originally from Reunion, he still feels a strong connection with his island birthplace in the Antilles, and a deep pain in the his soul, flushed with anger, that only softens when he eventually returns to the place of his birth as a much older man. As a teenager he was only too happy to come to Metropolitan France (during in the 1960s-1980s Bumidom2 initiative), where he worked for thirty years, never thinking of going back despite finding himself uprooted from his friends and family, at a time where France was experiencing the same social and economic turbulence as his native Reunion. Marrying Erika’s mother, from Macon, brought a certainly stability. But now in retirement he is affected by strange dreams that Erika herself shares with her father, whom she describes as “a man of few words”.

Shot between Reunion Island and Mâcon, In the Billowing Night, is an attempt to understand and connect with her cultural background through the story of her father who has buried the trauma of his uprooting. And perhaps the dark, unsettling dreams are his way keeping the past alive but also working through the trauma. The past is certainly reanimated in a melancholic cinematic rumination that fuses black and white archive footage of the volcanic islands with vibrant images of exotic flora and fauna, contrasting with scenes of violence in the streets of both locations. A valuable, living memory of slavery, turmoil and unrest that still resonates throughout Europe in the post-colonial present.

INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2021 | 17 – 28 NOVEMBER 2021

A Thousand Fires (2021) IDFA

Dir.: Saeed Taji Farouky; Documentary with Thein Shwe, Hwte Tin, Zin Ko Aung; France/Switzerland/Netherlands/Palestine; 90 min.

The day to day life of a family in the Magway region of Myanmar, home to the largest number of unregulated oil fields, vividly contrasts the past and the present. Myanmar – the former Burma – was once best known for its paddy fields but nowadays farming provides only a minimal income in this shift from agrarian to industrial lifestyle.

Thein Shwe and Hitwe Tin are a married couple who, like thousands of others, followed the oil-rush. now eking out a meagre living from their ‘home-based’ production of less than a barrel day. Even though this is still more profitable than working the fields, the work is just as gruelling and unpredictable. And although rigs are machine-powered: ropes and wheels drive the piston – the operation is controlled manually, like in the 19th century, before drilling became industrialised. And the oil reserves are rapidly running out.

The opening sequence is a flaming blaze of fire setting alight a landscape full of derricks and make-shift huts. Clanging, humming and banging fills the air, mud and oil are everywhere, and humidity makes the work even more arduous with Thein Shwe constantly covered in grime. But the future doesn’t exactly look promising with the parents still doing the manual work, while their three teenage children were supposed to bring financial relief through their education. But they’re not much help on that front. One of the sons Zin Ko Aung still lives at home but is unreliable, having left High School without a degree he’s now drifting between the pass and the future although one of his qualified college friends earns good money as manager of a textile company.

Thein Shwe is highly critical of Zin but realises that the teenager should make the best of his talent for football. The local Soccer Academy coach offers him a place and his parents drive him there. But the Coach then tells  Zin “to cut all ties with his family”.

Meanwhile the couple resort to their Buddhist faith and Fortune Tellers who offer a comfort of sorts: Thein Shwe being told not to be greedy. A somewhat scary ritual ‘Feed the Dragon’ is connected to their work environment.

Farouky keeps his distance and even avoids social commentary. What we see is the parents’ abiding love for their offspring – a universal theme that never changes. The old-fashioned 4:3 format creates an intimacy connecting us all with it common threads. Shot by the director with a vibrant colour palette and wonderful night sequences, when absolute peace replaces the clamour of the day, A Thousand Fires is unremarkable but moving just the same. AS

INTERNATIONAL DOC FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM | 17-28 NOVEMBER 2021| Locarno Critics’ Week Winner – Marco Zucchi Award 2021

Zinder (2020) IDFA

Dir.: Aicha Macky; Documentary with Sinya Boy, Bawo, Ramsess, Americain, PGG; Mali/France/Germany 2021, 85 min.

Nigerian writer/director Aicha Macky grew up the former leper’s quarter of Zinder, Niger’s second biggest city on the border with Nigeria. It’s a Godforsaken land-locked place where corruption is rife and education and opportunities are few, especially in the backwater of Kara-Kara where Islam holds sway but is hardly a civilising influence, the young men get by resorting to a gang culture and violence.

So it’s left to the women, and one brave soul in particular, to find out what’s gone wrong. Macky talked to those left behind by society, who only know violence as a means to change their lives. Her film is another shocking testament to depravity and disillusionment.

Two men on a motorcycle: on a mast a flag with a drawing of Adolf Hitler emblazoned with Swastikas. These two are joining their friends for a body-building session, explaining that “Hitler is the name of a guy from the USA”. The group might not know their history, but they are proud “because nobody is crossing the gangs of Kara-Kara”. The main enemy are the police: “I pray for Boko Harem, to come and f…k the cops”. Progress in there world sees knuckledusters replacing belts as their main weapons. Gangster movies influence their behaviour and they are proud of their scars.

Some have chosen a profession, like Idrissa Sani Malam, who ‘drives’ a sort of rickshaw taxi and is particularly proud of a scar left by a woman, “we were lovers, or I was at least a regular client.” Sex traffickers are part of the territory, their victims are girls as young as 15. Even women in the “Red Light district” are not protected, least of all by the police: They have not found the perpetrator who had slashed a woman’s throat three month ago. One way or the other, most of them end up in prison, a notoriously sordid place, where the men queue to use squalid latrines.

Meanwhile, Salissou Cikara visits a friend waiting for his trial and blaming ‘snitches’ for his fate. Cikara then goes home to his pregnant girlfriend, whose ultrasound costs the earth: 3000 Francs for the ultrasound, 9500 Francs for a blood test, and that’s not the end of the story. The civilised world has brought medicine, but at a price.

Bawo “has done a lot of bad things”. Like kidnapping girls in short skirts and abducting them into make-shift rooms “where we emptied ourselves into them. If they screamed, we put our hands over their mouths. We were breaking them in, with knives. Over time, they got used to it and became one of us. Reggae music plays all night as we smoke weed and take Tramadol.”

There’s always someone to blame for societal breakdown. This time it’s the ‘foreigners’  for stealing the country’s minerals. Ramatou Ma Main – Ramsess for short – is a hermaphrodite who gets by smuggling gasoline in daring night raids, hunted down by federal custom agents. Rumour has it that the gasoline smuggled into Niger actually belongs to the state of Niger. And votes on election days are rather cheap, 2000 Francs does not go far. Then Cikara has a brain wave: they will give up crime and form a security organisation – but this costs money. So the gang goes and works hard in the nearby quarry, but worse is to come, and Cikara dreams on. DoP Julien Bossé takes us to the centre of the action, his incredible footage particularly of Ramsess’ last raid and confrontation with the custom officers feel like a violent action thriller but this is a real life. Aicha Macky goes where her male director colleges would not dare to go: unflinchingly into the heart of darkness. AS     

ALSO SELECTED FOR CPH:DOX | PREMIERED AT VISIONS DE REAL NYON 2021 | NOW SCREENING AT IDFA 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

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

 

 

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

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

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream | Ne Croyez surtout pas que je hurle (2019) ***

Dir.: Frank Beauvais; Documentary, France 2019, 75 min.

Frank Beauvais’ debut documentary is nearly impossible to categorise: best described as an Avantgarde diary chronicling the filmmaker’s seven-year exile from Paris and his life in a village in Alsace: which is set entirely against snippets from hundreds of films, particularly B-movies and horror pics. Admittedly I could only identify Carpenter’s Christine and Von Stenberg’s American Tragedy. They sometimes illustrate Beauvais’ melancholy comments, or elaborate on them. A little like reading Houellebecq, and watching self help movies. But Just don’t Think is very much an acquired taste: you’ll either love it or hate the pretentiousness of it all.

Beauvais also has credits in the music industry and now works as a festival organiser. He moved from Paris to the village in Alsace to be near to his mother. It also provided a new beginning after a failed love affair. Admittedly, he doesn’t much care for his new neighbours: he accuses them of being reactionary and self-righteous. This criticism applies very much to his father, who he hasn’t really seen since his teenage years and who he ends up looking after when he falls ill. The evenings see them sitting together in stressful silence, so Frank shows him Gremillion’s The Sky is Yours, with Charles Vanel, a paternal figure his father admired. Unfortunately, Beauvais senior has a seizure and dies in front of his very eyes.

Apart from this traumatic event, nothing much happens: Frank watches about five films a day, and feels sorry for himself. He spends the summer of 2016 in Paris and decides to move back there in the October. It the meantime he has filled his place with books and vinyl and has to offload it all. A work trip to visit two directors in  Porto proves a downer: .He had chosen the waltz from Deer Hunters for the project and learns on the same night about Michael Cimino’s death. Soon Abbas Kiarostami dies, increasing the anxiety attacks of the filmmaker. The 2015 terrorist attacks only make him angry: “The media exploits them with the opportunism of grave diggers”. Beauvais admits, that he is using “films as bandages”, and his mind set is reflected by readings of Aragon. But when ever it comes to people he was close to, Frank distances himself. A young boy, with whom he had a relationship at the beginning of his Paris exile, collects the cat they cared for, and Beauvais only comment is that the last hug they share confirms their split was the right decision. As for the cat, he has forgotten her after a week.

Beauvais shares a lot with JL Godard: aloofness and certain editorial preferences, which remind of the master’s Historie(s) du Cinema. Like Godard, Beauvais has got lost in the movies, and even in Paris he might not manage to get out of it and find himself. He is the prisoner of his obsession, and prefers watching to personal engagement. His austerity manifests himself in the countless images of bloody horror images, which he views with frightening detachment. But there is much to be admired in this tour-de force, particularly the encyclopaedic collection of cinematographic images corresponding to his emotional turmoil. AS

SCREENING DURING IDFA 2019

You Think the Earth is a Dead Thing (2019) | IDFA 2019

Dir: Florence Lazar | Doc 61’

Parisian born filmmaker filmmaker Florence Lazar follows her award-winning documentary Kamen: The Stone (2014) with a revealing expose of one of the last vestiges of colonialism.

She discovers that the soil on the Caribbean island of Martinique is plagued by the monoculture of industrial banana plantations and poisoned by the use of the insecticide chlordecone. This is just one of the many far-reaching impacts of the slave trade on human history is on agriculture and horticulture. While the French plantation owners on the Caribbean island of Martinique had their gardens laid out in Versailles style, their enslaved workers continued their tradition of using medicinal wild herbs, which grew in hedges on the periphery of the “habitations.” The plants were known as rimèd razie, or “hedge remedies.”

Nowadays these herbs represent one of several resources through which the people of Martinique counter the health and ecological ravage caused by the use of pesticides on the banana plantations, which cover a quarter of the land.  . In line with natural resources and informed by centuries of tradition, generations of locals fight to resist pesticides and rebuild a sustainable relationship with their environment, while unearthing the pervasive and toxic legacy of colonialism.Another form of resistance is being led by farmers who are reclaiming uncultivated lands to grow indigenous vegetables, guided by expert local knowledge and without any industrial pesticides.

While pruning, chopping and harvesting the plants, local farmers explain, with extensive historic knowledge of the post-colonial era, how difficult it is to preserve biodiversity. These lively interviews alternate with more poetic and tranquil scenes of the island’s lush greenery, and of the cause of the problems: the dangling bunches of bananas, wrapped in plastic packaging. Once again plastic becomes the antihero of our contemporary world and the villain of this informative look at communities desperate to survive and flourish in the 21st century.

IDFA Competition for Mid-Length Documentary

INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2019

Sheep Hero (2018) **** Visions de Reel 2019

Dir: Ton van Zantvoort | Doc, 81 Holland

Being a shepherd sounds an idyllic existence. But the bucolic opening scenes of Ton van Zantvoort’s gorgeously cinematic arthouse documentary soon give way to the harsh realities of modern herding as a profit-making business.

The film’s focus is traditional herder Stijn Hilgers who starts of with a romantic view of life, enjoying the peace and freedom that comes with caring for a flock of sheep, as one of the last remaining sheepherders in the Netherlands. We see him waking up in the morning mist as he heads out for another day in the flower-strewn summer meadows. But his idealism soon clashes with the difficulty of being a modern freelance entrepreneur. Confusingly, the next scene sees him in a spacious living quarters, with a partner and child (and a hair cut!) as they furiously crunch numbers to see if they can eke out another year in this precarious, but ancient trade.

Along with many people nowadays who give up lucrative jobs to enjoy the freedom of self-employment in cottage-style businesses, Stijn’s freedom has come at a price. Ironically, he has had to strive year after year against mechanisation, competition, lower farm subsidies and administrative hurdles. When he then sets off to Utrecht to discuss his main grazing contract, he finds out it will not be renewed following year, seeing him risk bankruptcy or worse. And he now has a growing family to support.

So is there really such a thing as freedom as a shepherd. Apparently not. Even when you’re unafraid of hard work. Stijn’s world is now dominated by market forces and arcane laws. And you can see the gradually irritation creeping into his expression as he unwillingly transformed into a modern entrepreneur, taking not only his wife and sons with him, but also his parents as well. There are moments of humour as Stijn is forced to herd his entire flock through a neighbouring village to the consternation of locals who bombard him with complaints about sheep turds. This engaging documentary shows how a man’s fight to makes a success of his life somehow turns into a Kafka-esque nightmare as the freedom of the early scenes give way to nights of the dark soul-searching in his external and internal struggle to survive. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | 5 -13 APRIL 2019

 

Cause of Death (2018) *** IDFA 2018

Dir.: Ramy A. Katz; Documentary; Israel 2018, 79 min.

On the night of March 5th 2002, a gunman opened fire in a restaurant near Tel Aviv’s Maariv Bridge. Police officer Salim Barakat, who was nearby, brought the gunman down only to be found dead next to the killer. Director/producer Ramy A. Katz (Freeflow) researches the death of the Druze policeman, following his brother Jamal on his search for the truth.

The verdict was that Salim died from a knife wound to the throat. But after visiting a memorial ceremony for Salim, held every year in the police precinct for the tenth time, Jamal begins to question the official version. He discovers that the emergency ambulance’s doctor called in that night, reporting that his brother was “murdered by gun shots” and contradicting the official diagnosis of throat slashing. We watch a video where the main witness, middle-aged Willys Hazan, claims to have shot the attacker, after slashing Jamal’s throat. He is on a drip in a hospital bed, praising Salim, but admitting that the police officer was actually the terrorist. Then Jamal, a trained investigator, meets the head of the National Centre for Forensics, and tells him about the contradictions. The director is concerned l, and questions why no autopsy was performed; asking Jamal to have his brother undergo an exhumation  –  but Jamal’s religion does not permit such an option. Jamal also confronts the chief of Police who asks him to “let his hero brother rest in peace” – the same answer Jamal gets from Hazan, whom me meets twice. Breaking down, Hazan finally concedes, that “this would not have happened had Salim been an Israeli”. Finally, tracing down the staff of the restaurant, who were on duty on the fateful night, Jamal gets the answers he was originally searching for.

This is not just a document of Jamal’s investigation, but a testament to his coming to terms with grief – and his shattered belief in the righteousness of the law. The more he learns, the more his world crumbles. In the end he has not only lost his brother, but what he called his ‘extended family’,the police officers at the station where Salim served. There are some poetic moments, particularly when Jamal talks about his belief in reincarnation that persuades him that Salim has been reborn, and that his soul now rests in the body of a young boy in primary school. Moving, passionate and gripping, Katz takes a candid approach to his narrative, letting the audience make up their mind about the social implications of this cover-up. AS

SCREENING AT IDFA 2018 |

 

 

Los Reyes (2018) **** IDFA 2018 | Special Jury Award 2018

Dir: Ivan Osnovikoff, Bettina Perut | 88′ | Doc Chile 2018

Santiago streetlife plays out poignantly through a pair of canny canine caretakers in this wry and filmic foray to the capital’s largest skatepark.

LOS REYES have got it sussed. A black Labrador (Chola) and a Collie Cross (Football) are literally kings of all they survey. With shady trees and water sprinklers to cool the midday heat, they can play away from traffic in this public playground they consider their own. There’s always an odd ball or two to keep them amused, But don’t welcome motorbikes or the rubbish cart, and howl at the fire engine.

Limpidly shot on the widescreen and in intimate often minute close-up, there’s lightness of touch to this graceful and upbeat slice of city life: every twitch of a tail, every tweak of the cheek signals the dogs’ reaction to the human activities nearby. Meanwhile random male conversation is overheard from passers by. Some of it quite startling. But the kids can rest assured that their macho confessions are safe with these trusty tenants of the capital’s microcosm. On wet days they have a contingency plan – a kennel retreat by the rubbish bins. But it’s not all easygoing between the two of them. When Chola tries to hump a discarded old duvet, Football goes mad.

The film derives its subtle humour from the banal disdain of the dogs’ expressions as they tolerate the trivial and sometimes bawdy adolescent banter, shrugging off the intrusion of wildlife and a couple of donkeys who dare to cross their territory. But when uncertainty looms for the future of this canine couple, some welcome female chitchat lightens the mood. Just like humans, dogs don’t need to talk to communicate with their loved ones, but even in Santiago de Chile’s paradise park, every dog has its day. MT

WINNER | IDFA Special Jury Award for Feature-Length Documentary | 2018

 

 

Hamada (2018) *** IDFA 2018

Dir.: Eloy Dominguez Seren; Documentary; Sweden/Germany/Norway 2018, 88min.

Director-writer Eloy Dominguez Seren (No Cow on the Ice) raises the profile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in this vibrantly passionate documentary shot mainly in the Tindouf refugee Camp in Algeria.

In 1975, when Franco was on his last legs, Spain gave up some North African colonies, and Morocco (300 000 citizens entered the old colony) and Mauritania claimed the territory. However, they did not concede self-government to the Sahrawis, as they were mandated by the UN. The resulting conflict between Morocco and the refugees in their own country lasted for over forty years, with Morocco bombing the Sahrawis with Napalm in 1976, causing a humanitarian crisis as the homeless and afflicted fled to Algeria.

HAMADA follows teenagers Sidahmed and Zaara in their fruitless search for work in the self-governed camp. Sidemeh is rather a restless young. He makes some money repairing cars and radios but finds the work unsatisfying. He also lacks patience, and efforts to teach Zaara to drive soon run out of steam. He’d really like to emigrate to Spain, like everyone in the camp. But this seems like a pipe-dream and none of the others have managed to get a Visa, and Spain does not recognise the SADR or his passport. Zaara can’t get a stable job either and has no qualifications, although she is certainly better educated than Sidameh, who only knows one European country (Spain). Zaara seems more intelligent.

So Sidameh starts to plan an illegal passage to Spain, with his friend Tasalam. Meanwhile the more down to earth Zaara focuses on a potential marriage partner chatting things through with her friends. Both girls are emancipated, and expect their future husbands to leave them in peace, to live their own lives. Zaara still wants to be taught to drive, seeing this as a vital asset in the job market. Sidameh finally sells his car to finance his passage to Spain. When he eventually sets off, the convoy of cars he is travelling in, gets stuck in the desert. And the grass is far from green when he reaches his destination. Homeless and without any proper qualifications, contacts or viable work skills he seems surprises that he is treated with disdain.  Instead of focuses on his own failings, he blames his racial identity: “people make you feel inferior, just because you are an Arab”. Clearly the grass wasn’t greener. Zaara has a better and more philosophical frame of mind and soon finds this leads her to improve her chances of success. And with the help of her kind friend Tasalam, she even learns to drive.

Seren’s observational study certainly succeeds in bringing this forgotten conflict to our attention, letting the teenagers speak for themselves. The local climate and primitive conditions make life tough and extremely challenging. Sidameh is seen rebuilding a house for a family of eight, whose home has collapsed during the rainy season. Spain becomes a much longed for dream destination and their all obsess about finding this ‘Holy Grail’.  But these down-trodden people also reflect on their past: when one of them finds a fishing rod in an abandoned house, it soon emerges that the Sahrawis once made a living from fishing, before being forced into the central plains of the arid desert. MT

WORLD PREMIERE | IDFA 2018 | 15 NOVEMBER 2018

Manu (2018) *** IDFA 2018

Dir: Emmanuelle Bonmariage | Doc | Belgium | 92′

Alzheimer’s is a one of the great human tragedies of modern times. Obliterating personalities, relationships, families, it strikes without warning, often inflicting the most talented and leaving a trail of misery and sadness in its wake. No one escapes its fatal curse.

Belgian filmmaker Manu Bonmariage was 76 when he succumbed. During his career he  made over eighty documentary films, contributing a vast body of work to the landscape of Belgian cinema and television (including the French-Belgian TV show “Strip-Tease”) and establishing himself as a memorable feature of the country’s wider cultural fabric. Sensitive and highly creative (“the camera is my mistress, I like to feel her in my hands”), he co-films here with his director daughter to record their fraught, deteriorating relationship in this painful love letter to his creative past. Manu also serves a socio-political history of Belgium during his lifetime, even recording the time he got stuck down a mineshaft!. This haunting collage of memories, reminiscences, upbeat archive footage (a New York sequence set in the 1960s is one of the most vibrant), medical meetings, musical interludes and cathartic exchanges cannot fail to sadden and amuse. Manu is an endearing and unsettling tribute that will resonate with those involved with the affliction and keen cineastes who remember Manu’s work. MT.

SCREENING DURING IDFA 2018 | INTERNATIONAL PREMIERE | COMPETITION FOR BEST FIRST APPEARANCE | Sunday 18 Nov)

The Border Fence (2018) **** IDFA 2018

Dir: Nikolaus Geyrhalter | Austria | Doc | 112′

Brenner Pass, Alpine border, spring 2016: the Austrian government announces the construction of a border fence expecting a shift of the refugee routes to Italy after the Balkan route is closed. The Austrian residents seem to fear the fence as much as the influx of refugees to their homeland. Two years later, the fence is still rolled up in a container. History took another route.

This gave Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter reason enough to go to the region with his camera and explore the mood there. Surveillance and border fences have long been themes in his work (Abendland, 2011), along with the delicate balance between humans and their environment (Homo sapiens, 2016). What was originally seen as a welcome from Austria soon switched to a crisis that has swept through Europe like a forest wildfire. Everyone feels challenged to protect their homeland (or heimat, as the Austrians put it). “As the first refugees, we were impressed by the welcome culture of Austria. But at some point in the reporting a switch was put”. This subtle change meant that suddenly these people became unwanted. Europe’s solidarity during the world wars was finally put to the challenge.

A short conversation in the toll booth is one of the many absurd scenes in the film: border functionaries air their negative feelings about the ‘refugees’ and migration, while going about their duties solemnly dispensing a 9 euro toll ticket every 30 seconds. In the nearby hillside, two male hunters talk about their experience with refugees on the so-called ‘Green Brenner’ borderline during the winter months, and admit to feeling sorry for the scantily clad travellers who are totally unprepared for the climate and thick snow. These human encounters are often forgotten or buried in the abstract political discourse. Meanwhile the local police try to carry on with their commitments. It’s a thankless task and one that clearly compromises them, trapped between the humanistic angle and their duty to their country. There are no winners here. Everyone tries to put forward their opinions delicately without appearing racist. But the protesters are not silent. 

Elegantly framed and filmed in long takes, Geyrhalter remains the calm observer, distancing himself from the madding crowd, muting their anxiety and anger with placcid detachment, yet still retaining a humanistic feel. THE BORDER FENCE makes for a contemplative experience, allowing the audience space and time to process this European crisis. Geyrhalter’s documentary is a study in atavistic fear and human behaviour at its most base. And while many are vehemently opposed to the crackdown on migration, others feel threatened: “Be my guest – but don’t take over my home”.  MT

IDFA COMPETITION FOR BEST FEATURE-LENGTH DOCUMENTARY | International premiere Tuesday, 20 Nov)

The Other Side of Everything (2017) ****

Dir/Writer: Mila Turajlic. Serbia. 2017. 100 mins.

Like most people who have been driven to their knees and learned how to survive their troubled history, the Serbians are tough cookies. And none more so than the indomitable a professor (who is also her mother) in Mila Turajlic’s engrossing documentary. THE OTHER SIDE OF EVERYTHING illuminates turbulent times in pre-World War II Serbia when Tito’s communists countermanded her family’s spacious central Belgrade apartment, and forced them to share their home with two other families.

Srbijanka was a tiny girl when Tito came to power in 1943. But the experiences of her childhood have made her a strong-willed and independent thinker who cuts to the chase with salient truisms such as: ” You don’t believe how it all can begin….until it begins.”. Her views and experiences are enriched by fascinating archive footage and news reels of the Tito years in a film that won Turajlic the main prize at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival in 2017.

When the communists took over, the internal doors of her apartment were locked back and have remained so for more than 70 years. Serbia is a country that has never really recovered from this shocking era. It’s the sort of place where the Census-taker asks ordinary citizens searching questions like: “Have you had links to terrorism? What about genocide?”.

But it’s the personal story of its stoical matriarch that actually makes this potted history of Yugoslavia and Serbia over the past hundred years, so engaging. And it soon emerges that the casually dressed and amiably ‘bolshie’ raconteur actually took an active part in the eventual downfall of creatures like Slobodan Milosovic.

The rather opulent apartment bears witness to Srbijanka’s upmarket background of enlightened intellectuals and professionals. Her grandfather had involvement with the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes that later became known as Yugoslavia. Sadly, because Srbijanka was not a Communist, she was unable to study Law, but she later became a Mathematics professor at the capital’s University and worked hard to promote pro-Serbian interests. Like so many parents who have experienced terrible political regimes, she warns her daughter to be watchful and sceptical (Mila remains off camera). Yet Mila has her doubts, and this gently probing film marks their expression throughout. The Other Side serves as a worthwhile tribute to the valiant woman at its core, and to everyone who has risked their lives to make their world a better place. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 9 NOVEMBER 2018  | IDFA 2017 REVIEW | Best Feature-length Documentary Winner 2017 | SCREENINGS IN YOUR AREA

 

A Woman Captured (2017) ***

Dir.: Bernadett Tuza-Ritter; Documentary; Hungary 2017, 90 min.

Bernadett Tuza-Ritter (Cinetrain: Russian Winter) has certainly achieved something remarkable: her documentary about a Hungarian woman enslaved by an ordinary family is not only moving, but Tuza-Ritter can claim that her film really changed the life of the central character.

We meet Marish, a dishevelled woman of 53 (who looks thirty years older) being woken up early in the morning so she can feed her employer’s menagerie of animals in a backyard of the family home. And this is Europe. Marish has been held in captivity by her boss Eta for over eleven years. Her youngest daughter Vivi escaped the draconian demands of Eta, and lives nearby in the comparative safety of a state orphanage. Without holidays or any time off, Marish is permanently on call to her boss who lives a life of leisure. Tasked with housekeeping and the care of three unruly children, Garish also has to work a daily shift in the factory, giving her boss the monthly wage of 550 Forint to cover her “lodging and food”. Eta makes money out of Marish whenever there is a chance, and insults her into the bargain.. The filmmaker was forced to pay the mercenary Eta 300 Forint a month to gain access to film film Marish – and only under Eta’s strict auspices: Tuza-Ritter was not allowed to film the regular beatings Marish is subjected to in this miserable household. Tuza-Ritter phones the police, but is told that they are unable to take action. In Hungary domestic abuse can only be prosecuted where the victim is related to the aggressor.

To add insult to injury, Marish gets the blame when Eta’s kids break her favourite wine glasses; even the dog Lola is treated with more respect and care than this dejected female servant. Finally, Tuza-Ritter helps Marish to escape to a safe house in a city 200 km away from her tormentor. Although the filmmaker maintains a detached but decent attitude during their nighttime escape from the eta’s premises, Marish is still convinced that she will be betrayed. But when the woman confesses that her real name is Edith, and that Marish was her slave name, we realise that a psychological barrier has been broken. Soon Edith is re-united with her daughter Vivi, who is expecting a baby.

That slavery is alive and well in the EU came as a shock to the director, and will also horrify the audience. Both the police and the social services seem completely unfazed by this parlous situation. What is missing here is an enquiry as to why Marish became a slave in the first place? Marish doesn’t wear chains, so what exactly quantifies her “being held a slave”?  Clearly from the way she talks and behaves, there are indications that Edith has always suffered from low self-esteem and it soon emerges that she has a history of colluding with powerful figures in her life, allowing them to dominate her. She does not appear to have been locked up or in Eta’s house, or indeed, prevented from escaping, so she has clearly ‘acquiesced’ on some level to her imprisonment and cannot therefore technically be classified as a slave. But without knowing anything about her early childhood or upbringing these are only assumptions. It would appear she is just a victim of circumstance who has allowed another human being to take advantage of her for too long.

Tuza-Ritter’s camera is the witness of Edith’s ordeal, and the intimate images are often frightening: Edith is not even allowed to sleep in her own bedroom, but on a couch in the hallway. She is isolated, with no friends or contacts nearby. She is, literally, kept in the dark. A Woman Captured is a brave document, a unique achievement, because the filmmaker took action, when nobody else cared. But whether it’s a testament to modern slavery is questionable. Tuza-Ritter achieves an intensity akin to a Grimm’s fairy-tale, with Eta as the evil witch. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 27 OCTOBER 2018 | IDFA REVIEW 2017

The Deminer (2017) ****

Dir.: Hogir Hirori (Co-director Shinwar Kamal); Documentary with Fakhir Berwari; Sweden/Iraq 2017, 83′

This is one of the few films has the audience in an emotional grip that lasts long after the credits have rolled and having watched Hogir Hogir’s  documentary about Colonel Fakhir Berwari, who defused thousands of explosive devices in a wartorn Iraq, one is left with admiration – but also with a feeling of huge inadequacy, however misplaced.

Fakhir Berwari, a Kurdish father of eight, was a man with a mission, or better, an obsession: he wanted to save as many lives as possible, and when he was demobbed by the Iraqi army after he losing a leg in an explosion, he became morose. Only after DAESH started its terror regime in and around his hometown of Dohok, did he find his equalibrium. And he joined the Kurdish Peshmerg army in 2014. Attaching a simple prosthesis to his stump allowed him to do what he was best at: defusing the deadly legacy of DAESH, using his bare hands to rip the mines apart, and de-activating the boob-trapped bombs in the houses with a pair of pliers and a wire cutter.

The filmmakers got access to video material from Berari’s son Abdulla, who found a cache of tapes in his father’s briefcase. These documents are from the time when Fakhir was a major, serving in the regular Iraqi army, learning his craft, being christened “Crazy Fakhir” by the American allies, whilst he disposed of bombs and mines left by supporters of the by now executed Saddam Hussain. To quote Abdulla “These tapes are action movies, but for real”. They are filmed by either Berwari himself, or his closest assistants – and capture the assault that occurred when the car carrying Berwari and his team is thrown into the air, like a toy. There are other near misses, and the tension becomes more and more unbearable, convincing that there will be no happy-end.

The DAESH troops who plant the deadly weapons, wear black, and one is immediately reminded of the Nazi black-shirts in their SS uniforms. To mine the houses of civilians is an act of pure evil, blowing them up with a signal from a mobile. But ordinary life goes on for the Berwari family: in between these rescue missions, Fakhir is phoned by a creditor, who demands payment. Then he defuses a mine, which would have blown up the whole street. It is difficult to sum up The Deminer – which won the Special Jury Price at the Amsterdam IDFA in November 2017 – so overwhelming are the images, comment is redundant. Perhaps, the joyful expression on Fakhir Berwari’s face, after re-joining the army in 2014 and returning to his mission, is the best way to remember him. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE from Friday 27 April 2018

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion and Disco (2017)****

Dir.: James Crump; Documentary with Antonio Lopez, Juan Ramos, Corey Tippin, Karl Lagerfeld, Jessica Lange; USA 2017, 90 min.

James Crump (Black White + Gray) pays homage to one of the most original fashion illustrators of the last century: Antonio Lopez (1943-1987), who, together with his creative partner Juan Ramos (1942-1995) revolutionised not only the way fashion designers and illustrators worked together, but how they discovered models like Jerry Hall and Grace Jones, who might otherwise have never become world famous.

Meeting at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in the 60s, and pair set up shop in a studio above Carnegie Hall. Antonio was the extrovert artist, Juan the “art director” who stood behind his creative partner to provide structure and ideas. Although both men came from Puerto Rico, the were products of their unique New York milieu: Antonio grew up in Brooklyn and Juan in Harlem. Max’s Kansas Hotel and Hotel Chelsea feature heavily here. As does Andy Warhol who was a rival for a long time, before he exchanged portraits with Juan.

Their social ‘sets’ were strictly separated, with the exception of Donna Jordan. One could not think of more different characters: Warhol, the observer who waited until a situation developed, and Lopez, who worked for hours feverishly, needing only his muses like Jessica Lange, Patti D’Arbanville and Grace Jones (to name a few) for inspiration – and Juan for “editing”. Lopez brought fashion to a new level: streetwise, sexy and extravagant. At a time when counter-culture exploded these were heady times: the LGBT movement was new on the scene, and the Vietnam War brought millions of protesters onto the street. The bi-sexual Antonio was a “sex machine”,  changing partners on a regular basis, but often staying friends. His relationship with Jerry Hall – the two even got “married”, was one of the most enduring.

In 1969 Antonio and Juan moved with their entourage to Paris, where they worked with Carl Lagerfeldt, an intimate enemy of Yves-Saint Laurent. The duo helped Lagerfeld to establish a pret-a-porter culture, signalling the end of the classical fashion industry – particularly the mannequins, who had hardly moved on the catwalk, walking at funeral pace. Antonio’s fashion models danced like disco queens. Racial taboos were broken too: Pat Cleveland was perhaps the first ever black super model.

Given access to Lopez drawings, photographs, 8-mm and 16-mm films by the designer’s heir, Paul Caranicas, Crump has realised the fantasy of his teenage years in rural Indiana, “when Lopez magical life and milieu aroused me to no end and made me fantasize about the early 1970 in New York and Paris”.

With music by Donna Summer, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes, this feature is a hell of a ride: the dawn of a new style of living, the innocence of this first generation, who challenged gender as well as art, their innocence and unawareness of the future would bring Aids, and both Antonio and Juan would become victims. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE FILM FESTIVAL | GENERAL RELEASE 30 March 2018

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017)

Dir: Lili Fini Zanuck | Writers: Stephen “Scooter” Weintraub, Larry Yelen | Music Biopic | 213′

Fans of Eric Clapton will certainly know the facts behind the ’god of guitar’s’ eventful life. In her flawed but emotionally penetrating rock-doc, Lili Fini Zanuck’s poignantly conveys the years of heartache behind this fated and fêted musician.

London UK : PATTIE BOYD ATTENDS THE UK PRMEIERE OF “ERIC CLAPTON : LIFE IN 12 BARS” JANUARY 10TH 2018. (CREDIT : JAMES GILLHAM / STILLMOVING.NET)

Lili Fini Zanuck and Eric Clapton are longterm friends and collaborators: He provided the score for her feature Rush, back in 1991. And despite the use of a meandering, counterintuitive narrative to tell his, often tragic, story with its ill-judged epilogue feeling more like a cheesy commercial for Clapton’s current project rather than a fitting finale, the study is mostly thorough in its breadth and depth, chronicling the life story of an Englishman who has suffered, been severely tested and has come up trumps.

Life in 12 Bars is an ironic title given Clapton’s years of alcoholism, so let’s hope this is refers to his mastery of the guitar, an instrument that was to be his muse, his whipping boy (we are shown how he uses it as anger therapy), and his saving grace throughout his life. The film opens with a fabulous account of Clapton’s early childhood, his artistic reveries and discovery, aged 9, that his mother had abandoned him: he was brought up by his grandmother Rose Clapp. We learn how Clapton turns his disappointment and rejection into developing his musical technique from his teens to his involvement in blues-based and psychedelic groups. The Yardbirds and The Cream years are covered in compelling depth, and Zanuck shows how Clapton did his bit for the blues, and was headhunted by Mayall who got him playing for the Bluesbreakers. He even moved in to Mayall’s home with his family.

But Zanuck and her writers Weintraub and Yelen tend to gloss over certain aspects of his career – probably out of respect to friendship – and it’s Clapton himself who owns up to his behavioural shortcomings as an introvert who couldn’t relate to women but became obsessed by one of them, Patti Boyd, during her mariage to George Harrison. So although the film goes into almost forensic detail on some aspects of the story, other years are befuddled – almost as if in an booze-fuelled haze – such as his career as a solo recording artist which gave rise to a several salient albums. Pattie Boyd merely serves the narrative as a flirtatious cypher who cannot make up her mind between him and George – while he is yearning for her love, howling at the moon for her to leave George, which she eventually does, but by then too much damage has been done for them to make a go of things. Talking faces are almost entirely absent to give context to this period of his life, particularly his closest friend, Ben Palmer.

London UK : JOHN BATTSEK, JOOLS HOLLAND, LILI FINI ZANUCK, ERIC CLAPTON AND CHRIS KING ATTEND THE UK PRMEIERE OF “ERIC CLAPTON : LIFE IN 12 BARS” JANUARY 10TH 2018. (CREDIT : JAMES GILLHAM / STILLMOVING.NET)

Zanuck has a cinematic way of conjuring up the days lost to booze and drugs in Hurtwood, Clapton’s country house in the depths of Surrey. But his romantic affairs take on a rather hazy anecdotal feel, the story often flipping back and forth – and there’s a curious bit where Zanuck suddenly goes back to his mother’s second rejection of him, arriving from Canada with her two latest children, and this comes towards the end of the story, father than at the beginning, where it would have clearly better informed us of The emotional arc that coloured his career. Clearly this fundamental rejection was going to lead to a lack of trust and vulnerability issues that would go on to jeopardise any kind of lasting romantic attachment. But it’s these years that are so movingly conveyed by Zanuck, showing Clapton heartbroken over Boyd after dedicating Layla to her, and retreating into a ‘safe’ world blunted by drugs and alcohol. But there’s much to enjoy here in this freewheeling trip back to a rich and vibrant musical era. And it’s heart-warming to see how Clapton has finally managed to overcome his demons, albeit circuitously, and despite a rather cheesy ending which actually has the strange effect of making the legend seem less interesting than he appeared to be at the beginning of his career. MT

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 12 JANUARY 2017

 

 

The Red Soul (2017) | IDFA 2017

Dir.: Jessica Gorter; Documentary; Netherlands 2017, 90 min.

Nearly 65 years after the death of Joseph Stalin, director/co-writer Jessica Gorter (900 Days) asks citizen of the Russian Federation the question if Stalin was a tyrant or a saviour. The response is illuminating, sad and relevant.

Current polls put Stalin and Putin on top of the popularity pole in the Russian Federation: the former is mostly defended by older people, who see the Stalin era as the highlight of Russian world dominance. Even when confronted with the legacy of the Camps, an old woman literally spits at the interviewer: “When two men in our factory came back from the camps, they were strong like bulls. Look at today’s youth – they are weak and pale”.

Overall the majority still sees Stalin as a creator of strength and stability. Even the father of a young man who died after his meth-lab caught fire, blames the lack of discipline under the post-communist regime for the death of his son. He is joined by many who equate Stalinism with a time without drugs, prostitution and harsh but just sentences for criminals.

The ones who who mourn the victims of the Great Terror, tell harrowing stories: An order from Moscow KGB asked the authorities in Leningrad, at the height of the Great Terror in the late 1930s, to shoot six hundreds people. The proud answer was quickly delivered to the Moscow HQ of the security services: the quota was doubled, and 1200 citizens met their death. Today, the supporters of the Stalinist terror bemoan the existence of bank accounts, which were not needed in those days. Stalin, so one of his defenders, “was unselfish and wanted nothing for himself.”

People who are trying to keep count of the forgotten names of the million of victims get very little assistance from the current government. And those who try to identity the corpses in the mass graves like in Severodvinsk, make very little progress: in 23 years of digging around in the mass graves of 20000, only 83 bodies have been identified. Two elderly women are standing near a street in the city of Severodvinsk, which was built by prisoners. They show the filmmakers the exact place where they watched their mother in the long columns of inmates, who where marching to work. School children in the same city talk today about their parents and grandparents who are either proud of the achievements of Stalinism, or bemoan the dead members of their families who died in the camps.

Two sisters in St, Petersburg talk about how their parents were denounced by a family member to the KGB and arrested. Their father did not survive, but when their mother returned to the family ten years later, she blamed nobody: it was simply the way of life. And the sisters have internalised this: they are very worried about “having slandered Russia with the story of their parents. We don’t want it to come back to us like a boomerang. It is, after all, our country”. The major consensus for the young historians, gathered in the Crimea, is “that we cannot judge this era. Pride and Pain are equal”.

Gorter and DoP Sander Snoep excel in showing the harrowing images of the mass graves, and the sites of the old camps. It will never be known how many Russians, among them many ’believing’ communists, have died during Stalin’s terror. The fact that even at the beginning of the 1960, fifty-three Camps existed in the old USSR, is proof of the vast number of victims. But today, Stalin and his system is still defended by too many – supported by a government which is more interested in creating a new Russian Nationalism than defending the victims of the past – or the fledging democracy of the present. AS

SCREENING DURING IDFA | 15 November – 26 November 2017

Golden Dawn Girls II (2017)

Dir.: Harvard Bustnes; Documentary; Norway/Finland 2017, 91′

Harvard Bustnes’ portrait of three women whose men are leading politicians in the neo-fascist Greek Golden Dawn Party, is illuminating, but also very frightening. The trio exemplifes good PR in motion as they work tirelessly, using all the tricks in the book to convince and cajole – not only the filmmaker, but also the Greek electorate – into believing that their party is the victim of corrupt democracy, while hiding the fact that they want to replace democracy with a Fascist state, built on the Nazi model.

Eugenia (Jenny), Dafni and Ourania represent three generations of woman: Jenny is the wife of Greek MP Giorgos Germenis, a former metal bassist and baker, who was rewarded for 18 years of service to the party with a seat in Parliament in the 2012 elections. Jenny is a platinum blonde, whose no-nonsense approach could give her a successful career as an estate agent. Dafni is the white-haired mother of fellow MP Panagiotis Iliopoulos. She plays the role of the family carer, rallying her grandchildren in on the act, as they run around with toy weapons. Even a priest and friend of the family, joins in the game of throwing grenades.

Dafni accuses the government of perpetrating a national genocide: “The government wants us to disappear, like the Incas. One day, there will be no more Greeks. But we have the blood of the old Greek heroes in our DNA”. Nevertheless, even on TV, she is able to formulate what will happen next with their political enemies: “We will drink their blood with a straw after the elections”. When the left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas is murdered by a crowd of Golden Dawn supporters, neither Jenny, Dafni or Ourania want to discuss the incident. Ourania is a postgraduate psychology student, animal lover and Disney fan, the Little Prince is one of her favourite book. She is the daughter of founder and party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, who finds himself in jail with the majority of the Golden Dawn MPs, after weapons are found in their HQ. But she finds nothing wrong with party member Ilkias Kasidiaris, who still supports the Colonel’s Fascist dictatorship (1968-1974), and hits a woman member of the Communist Front three times in the face during a life TV debate, having assaulted another woman from the Radical Left. The Golden Dawn women get very active during the election campaign of 2014, since most the men are in jail. But after their release, the trio step back from the front line, retreating into the shadows of their husbands, fathers and sons.

Only once do the women show their true colours– after watching marching party members singing “Communists, you will be turned into soup” and “Fuck the Jews”. Asked by the director, who they hold responsible for the Greek crisis, the old chestnuts come out: “The Protocol of Zion. It is a universal conspiracy. The Jews change the government, even in America.” After being reminded, that Obama is not Jewish, the conspiracy theories go on “The Jews choose people, give them money and trap them with blackmail, and use them as puppets”.

DoPs Lars Skree and Viggo Knudsen follow the rapidly changing locations, and often get a little glance in, after the door is shut, because some Party meetings are off limits. Bustnes tries to the very end, to get a disclaimer from the women, but they will never admit that they or their men are Nazis, even though video and photographical proof is there. To the end they play the game of denial, seeing themselves as victims. It goes without saying – Golden Dawn Girls is a disturbing look at modern politics. AS

SCREENING DURING IDFA 2017 |

The Distant Barking of Dogs (2017) | IDFA 2017

Dir: Simon Lereng Wilmont | Denmark| Doc | 90′

The Distant Barking of Dogs is set in Eastern Ukraine on the frontline of the war where in the spring of 2014, an armed conflict erupted between the government and pro-Russian separatists. After almost a year of widespread fighting in the eastern region of Donbass, a young boy survives with his grandma in the village of . Poignant and poetic, the film follows 10-year-old Oleg day to day life as he gradually loses his innocence beneath the pressures of war, rather like the character in Ivan’s Childhood. 

As locals gradually leave the village for safety, Oleg and his cousin Yarik play in the ravishing rural pastureland, often strewn with the detritus of conflict. Hnutove is fast-becoming a ghost town and we are made acutely aware of the importance of human relationships, and how vital the constant reassurance of people and animals is for emotional wellbeing, as Oleg and his grandma Alexandra – who have nowhere else to go – are thrown together. Oleg (who mother is dead) must grow up quickly in a world threatened by the challenges of hostility and privation. And although the boy rises to the occasion, his generation of young Ukrainian children will clearly bear the scars of war for many years to come.

Behind the rough and tumble of play, there is always a unsettling feeling of doom and Lereng Wilmont delicately dramatises how the kids are actually living in a war zone, where death lies in wait at every turn in a conflict that shows no sign of abating, despite the often calm and bucolic surroundings, As the film wears on the tone becomes more bleak as the kids inspect a handgun by belonging to a local teen called Kostya. A disturbing scene shows them shooting at frogs in a well, and later Oleg is scuffed by a passing bullet.

There is a close intimacy to Lereng Wilmont’s camerawork illustrating just how babyish these children still are, their little faces and staring eyes hardening as they confront scenes that would mortify most adults. We feel for these tiny souls alone in the face of evil. A fitting folkloric score sounds gently in the background, punctuated by occasional bomb blasts. This is a resonant and evocative documentary that sheds light on the deeply human experience in contemporary war zones. MT

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS | IDFA 2017

 

 

 

The Rebel Surgeon (2017) | IDFA 2017

 Dir/Writer: Eric Gandini | Doc | Sweden | 52′

Director, writer and producer Eric Gandini is known for exploring aspects of our highly evolved Western society, first through his documentary debut The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) that delves into the existential black holes in the Swedish lifestyle, and now with his latest documentary The Rebel Surgeon where he takes the debate further by comparing the Swedish medical system with that of a still developing country of Ethiopia, through this slim but heart-warming story of a maverick orthopaedic surgeon, Erik Erichsen.

We hear how Dr Erichsen became so disillusioned by Swedish bureaucracy that he dropped out and moved to the East African country to work as a general surgeon, with his Ethiopian-born wife and partner Sainnat. Amongst the tropical lushness of this magnificent part of the World, he finds professional fulfilment (some might say “playing God”)  as never before, rescuing lives in a small field hospital in the small community of Aira and with very limited resources – there is neither money for, nor access to, decent equipment, so he must be enterprising and creative in his methods. He works with a small domestic drill, plastic strips, jubilee clips, bicycle spokes and fishing lines: he even uses a woman’s hair slide during prostate surgery, and performs life-changing operations on the sick and wounded patients from all over the region. Ethiopians have a tough and uncompromising life but they never die alone, unlike most people in so-called ‘civilised’ societies. Here Erichsen exchanges bureaucracy for a heavy patient list – each person gets a few minutes – but they are grateful as only three doctors are available for every 100’000 inhabitants. Dr. Erichsen and his wife work full on to clear their load, but their work is 100% treatment and diagnostic-based, rather than computer or admin-orientated.

Made on a low budget, and none the worse for it, Gandini’s  film makes for compelling viewing, enriched by images of the magnificent verdancy of the region’s tropical landscapes which contrast starkly with horrific nature of the medical cases presented and the gruesome surgical procedures that follow. Erichsen clearly loves his work and the adulation that comes from his patients, but his dry sense of humour and pragmatism also provide laugh out loud moments, along with some wincing. There is space to reflect on how extreme material hardship is in no way linked to emotional poverty; clearly these rural Ethiopians are a stoic bunch who accept their prognoses without flinching, and who look after each other and are eternally grateful for the Swedish doctor’s help, often returning to visit once they are cured. It’s not all good, but death is part of life for these people, and they appear to accept their fates philosophically, if nothing can be done.

It is easy to see why Erichsen finds the work in Ethiopian so satisfying. Here his opinion is unchallenged (except occasionally by his wife) and he is bound by few rules, hailed as a hero, and gets to make all the decisions. In Sweden  he is challenged not only by the system, but also by the patients themselves who are exacting and whose expectations of life and medical treatment available are extremely exacting, Erichsen insisting that the mindset of the Swedes is far worse than the material poverty of Ethiopia.

After his decade long tenure in Ethiopia, Erichsen must return to life in Sweden, which he does with a heavy heart. And we are left contemplating the future of his Ethiopian surgical team who will battle on without him. Meanwhile, life will never be the same for Erichsen and his wife back in the Northern Europe, but every cloud has a silver lining, as we discover in the finale.

REVIEWED AT IDFA | NOW PREVIEWING ON FESTIVALSCOPE | PENDING DISTRIBUTION

The White World according to Daliborek (2017) | IDFA 2017

Dir: Vit Klusak | Writer: Vit Klusak, Marianna Stranska | Doc | Czech Rep | 90′

Czech documentarian Vit Klusak turns his camera on white racist supremacy for his latest documentary which is shot through with the same dark humour as his debut Czech Dream, although this shocking expose leaves a bitter taste in the mouth despite its hilarious moments.

In the Czech Republic lives Daliborek, a pasty-faced larded lump of a man who, at 37, still lives with his mother, abusing her verbally and occasionally even physically, asking her to “stand to attention” in front of his friends.

Although Daliborek raises some laughs with his outlandish behaviour throughout, we titter in sheer disbelief rather than out of genuine pleasure, a feeling of sickness replacing any genuine mirth, in the aftermath to this alarming film. Klusak is entirely dispassionate about his subject, who is clearly more of a super-sized bully than an outright threat. But when Daliborek joins his like-minded friends, it’s easy to see how any form of extremism can quickly get out of hand and threaten democracy, or lead to mass violence –  genocide even – as we have learnt from the past.

Giving full rein to this nutter on the big screen serves to make us in no doubt whatsoever about these characters who exist in society and are to be pitied and demeaned rather than feared, as long as they live securely in within their families; although the startling epilogue to the doc poses more concern.

Daliborek regularly rants on youtube with tuneless misogynist and sexually explicit songs that garner hundreds of views per clip. Meanwhile, his vampish mother Vera is in denial as she desperately dates online and posts fluffy photoshopped pictures of herself on Facebook. As the film gets underway, she has formed a relationship with another racist man. Daliborek’s bedroom is a sight for sore eyes: Neo-Nazi flags deck the walls along with supremacist crosses. But when he meets (an equally overweight) girl, he totally respects her prudishness and refusal to have sex, even after the couple have dated for several months. Clearly he’s no psychopath.

You have to pinch yourself at times while watching this bracingly rampant stuff; it could easily be a well-scripted spoof. And liberals and minorities will be calm in the knowledge that Daliborek’s life is actually rather sad and monotonous. He doesn’t even get to have sex with his girlfriend.

Eventually Vera’s boyfriend and Daliborek start to bond during their karate afternoons in the nearby park, both men demonstrating their tough-guy moves chopping bricks – or not. This is certainly thought-provoking stuff and absolutely compelling to watch, although Klusak never really gets to the bottom of why Daliborek has become so outrageous, given his humdrum life in a bland provincial village with hardly any crime, or immigrant population. He does not even bother to vote in the local elections. So clearly, he must have reached his point of view out of sheer boredom and lack of direction.

The final ‘epilogue’ is tragic and really raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. During a family visit to Auschwitz, Daliborek tries to go out on a limb and deny the holocaust in front of a survivor, who has just given frank and open talk about her experiences. MT

SCREENING DURING IDFA | 15-26 NOVEMBER 2017

I’m Fat (2017) | IDFA 2017

Dir: Halit Levy | Doc | Israel | 53’

Tel Avivi filmmaker and counsellor Halit is obese and she feels defined by it despite her humour, appealing personality and talent evident in this colourful documentary which she made and narrates herself. She’s happy in her body, and of being a lesbian in love with her life partner Chen, but fat is something you cannot hide – it’s the ultimate taboo, the elephant in the room. I’M FAT is a straight-talking and illuminating film exploring in the issues surrounding obesity today.

The problem is clearly visual, like baldness but unlike sexual identity or even infertility – that are not readily apparent until you delve deeper – fat is literally in your face, and can’t be disguised.

Halit does not feel diminished by her state but she is clearly bugged by it enough to express how it affects her life and describes her journey towards change. Through talking with various therapists what comes to light is fascinating and also tragic: in Halit’s case sexual abuse as a child could be the root cause of her condition, it left her with a deep-seated need for control and self-protection.

I’M FAT is well made and absorbing putting its points across simply and clearly as it debates the questions raised. Reuven Brodsky’s camera gets out and about in the seaside capital offering a rich flavour of the vibrant modern metropolis that is Tel Aviv. The documentary’s psychological insights will be of interest to all audiences helping society as a whole understand the complex issues that often lie behind obesity and at just under an hour it doesn’t overstay its welcome with a positive and convincing finale. MT

SCREENING DURING IDFA | 15-26 november 2017

 

 

Freedom for the Wolf (2017) | IDFA 2017

000e7cce-4e74-4bbb-8f41-64a5dcf00047Dir.: Rupert Russell; Documentary; Germany/USA/Hong Kong/India/Japan/ Kuwait/Tunisia, 89 min.

First time director/writer Rupert, son of the great Ken Russell, shows a rather frightening political reality emerging worldwide: the demolition of democracy as we know it, as a system which allows alternatives and protects minorities. It is replaced by nationalism and religious tyranny, always serving the titular Wolf: the elite, only a percentage of the population, which varies from country to country.

The “Occupy Movement” in Hong Kong, which started in 2014, was protesting against the Chinese government’s subversion of democracy, nominating 12 candidates from which the citizens of Hong Kong could choose their nominal leader – nominal, because who ever was chosen, would put China’s interests first. The movement was mainly supported by students, and was quite successful in blocking the streets of the centre city with mass sit-downs, the occupants living in tents. The movement faltered when taxi drivers and shoppers begun to organise against their restricted ‘freedom’ to drive and shop. This is the result, of the majority of the middle-class Hong-Kong population having a rising living standard, so they abandoned the movement, they had supported at the beginning.

In Tunisia, the government of Moncef Marzouki, ruling between 2011 and 2014, has been replaced by a more authoritarian regime. The reason was mainly that the Marzouki government, which was born from the ‘Arab Spring’, did not provide economic progress; on the contrary, prices for foodstuffs – such as canned tomatoes – went up drastically. Now, under the leadership of President Beji Caid Essebsi, prices have still not come down, but there is a new intolerance rising: cartoons of the Prophet, or dancing sparsely dressed in public, are punished with jail, and the Education Minister, who had tolerated these basic expressions of freedom, was censored for “sleeping on the job”. One of the interviewed is sure that “the less economical growth, the more people want to strengthen the religious ideology”. And the laws of the current Muslim government of Tunisia are the proof.

In India, President Narenda Modi, won his election in 2014 on the back of a religious campaign. “2000 years ago, there were no Christians, 1400 years ago there were no Muslims. There were only Hindus in Rome and Mecca”. And even when in office, his party inflamed the political war between the religions – 80% of the Indian population is Hindu – with scare stories: Muslim families train their men to seduce Hindu girls, giving the youngsters new motor-cycles and nice clothes. And when the Hindu girls have born them eight Muslim children, they are sold into slavery. Six month before the election in 2014, Hindu’s provoked riots, in which over 600 Muslim and 240 Hindus were killed. But again, the middle-classes are profiting here, with more spending power, whilst the rural population is suffering, because the government is forcing them to sell their land for minimal prices to corporations.

In Japan, the police had resurrected a law from 1940, which forbade dancing. Secret policemen infiltrated clubs, and charged the young clients with the offence, which would carry a punishment of one million Yen and six months imprisonment. Only a vigilant judge prevented the cases going to court. And finally, in the USA, after Trump’s win in last year’s election, illiberal trends continued. The police now has a huge arsenal of weapons at their disposal, creating a windfall for the weapon industry: among them grenades, chemical weapons, armoured vehicles, missile launchers and even nuclear weapons. And the whole election process has been undermined after the Supreme Court delivered in 2010 a landmark ruling regarding Campaign finances (Citizens United vs FEC), allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts supporting the campaign of their chosen candidates. Before this ruling, there were two parts of the election process: the primaries, followed by the election itself. But now, about 0.2 % of the population, the super-rich, decide which candidates they will support, making it impossible for outsiders to outspend them. It is one of the ironies of Trump’s victory that the majority of the small business donors who supported his campaign, will be the losers, since the interest of the big corporations will be certainly served by the Trump administration.

Freedom for the Wolf paints a dark picture: worldwide democracy, promising diversity, is replaced by a global wave of ill-liberal policies. Interests of the few are converging against freedom. Nationalism and religious bigotry are on the front foot, and tolerance has been replaced by consumerism as a leading goal. Russell has created a fine film that would make his father proud. Cleverly he ensure that younger viewers will be not to be put off by too many “Talking Heads’ – he has used imaginative cartoons to liven up the viewing. AS

FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF HAS ITS EUROPEAN PREMIERE AT INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM FROM 15 – 25 NOVEMBER 2017

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