Posts Tagged ‘CPH:DOX’

Kash Kash: Without Feathers We Can’t Live (2022) CPH:DOX

Lea Najjar / Germany, Lebanon, Qatar / 2022 / 90 min / World Premiere

Against the backcloth of their chaotic capital Beirut’s pigeon fanciers play the cruel sport of Kash Hamam. The object is to lure other players’ flocks into your own pigeon loft high above the capital. Catching a pigeon entitles you to butcher its wings with scissors, or feed it to the cats: “Because at the end of the day, it’s just animals, just birds”.

Lea Najjar’s lyrical impressionistic feature debut soars above Beirut’s skies to tell the story of a melancholic city and its beleaguered inhabitants still suffering shortages in public services and economic collapse for the past eighty years. But one thing Beirutis can control and master is the pigeon population, and they do so with the same cruelty they complain of receiving from the country’s ‘ruling classes’.

Radwan, a local barbar, has been raising pigeons since he was nine. Despite the rising price of grain he will still go on feeding and tending his birds from chicks, and throwing clementines at them to make stronger flyers, or even cracking whips and slings to scare them into flight from his loft. Kash Haman is a competitive sport but the camaraderie between the men is strong and supportive. In Syria (where the sport is banned because it is considered a form of gambling) the men claim the ‘Kashash’ are  prepared to kill over their feathered friends.

But behind the camaraderie lies a city in disarray. And the problem is the politicians “who pull the blanket to cover only themselves”, according to one fisherman as he navigates the city’s majestic shoreline under a skyscape of stratospheric apartment buildings and cavernous rocks. “If you go to other countries, everyone holds one flag. Here, every sect and party has their own flag”. His sons should be studying at their university but instead they are helping out with the catch. “Our Government does not take care of them” he claims.

Meanwhile Radwan’s little niece begs him to teach her the masculine art of Kash Hamam, but Radwan refuses: “you should be reading, or something”. Meanwhile his Armenian client at the barbar shop is pessimistic about the future of Lebanon. “No matter how much rouge and perfume an old woman wears, she’ll never be young again. Your country is old”. So Najjar doesn’t reach any enlightening conclusions in her film despite its beguiling beauty: the eternal conflict between rich and poor, politician and worker rages on as it ever did in another sad but stunning snapshot of the Middle East. MT

WINNER NEXT:WAVE AWARD 2022 | CPH:DOX COPENHAGEN

The Eclipse (2022) CPH:DOX 2022 | Winner Dox:Award 2022

Dir.: Natasa Urban; Documentary; Norway 2022, 110 min.

A memoire of war-torn Serbia seems even more relevant in the light of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. What happened in Yugoslavia is clearly not an isolated case: peace in Europe is much more fragile than we thought.

Natasa Urban – who has now settled in Norway – chronicles her memoire of war-torn Serbia between the two last eclipses, 1960 and 1999. A whole country vanished, being replaced after genocide and war by new states, based purely on ethnic composition – a result only made possible by brutal ethnic cleansing.

For the Yugoslavian-born documentarian, it was a reason to dissociate herself from her country. Serbia was the principal, if not the only, aggressor during the civil wars which cost over one hundred thousand lives, and one million refugees – all in the name of ethnic cleansing. Becoming a filmmaker in 2005 was not enough for Urban, she, like thousands others, left Serbia for exile “not only to change our existence, but to become some other people; this tells a lot about the country we left, and the sate of identity we tried to relinquish”.

ECLIPSE works on two levels: there is her father’s diary, retracing his steps to the  family’s previous homes where, in the end, he loads everything, including the ‘kitchen sink’ on the top of his car and leaves the heavily controlled militia zone. The other strand consists of Urban’s diary of interviews with family and friends in what is now Serbia.

Aunt Branislava has some tales to tell: Neighbour Dara dragged every postman through the door of her house, to do what you’d expect… On a more serious note, Branislava tells stories about militia soldiers who enjoyed killing animals sadistically. And when war broke out, they played football with the heads of their enemies. Slobodan Milosevic still loved violence after being elected president with a two-third’s majority; tanks killed demonstrators on the streets of Belgrade. And after the citizens of Vukovar voted to be part of Croatia in August 1991, Milosevic destroyed the city after a prolonged siege. The same city which had been praised for the high number of marriages between Serbs and Croats.

The clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church put oil on the flames campaigning for a Greater Serbia: “Wherever there are Serbian graves, there should be Serbian land”. One of Urban’s aunts claims that on the day, the state of Croatia was recognised by the world community: “Good luck to them, if they want it so much”. Her work colleagues got angry, shouting “Fuck you”, you are a Romanian minority, if you are not happy here, go to Romania. This is Serbia.” Even the aunt’s boss remained silent. In Novi Sad, Urban meets a girlfriend whose Croatian father had been beaten up in Vukovar by Serbians, because he was married to a Serbian woman. In the POW camp, both sides beat him up.

Nothing remains any more of the POW camp near Vukovar. People came in 1992 and transported the camp’s bricks to their own dwellings, to build extensions. There was even a weekend army: Bosnian Serbs, the ‘Chetniks’, who came to Bosnia over the weekend to share in the spoils of war. The director’s family meanwhile hiked up the mountains. “When we descended, we learned that Kraiina had fallen”. Natasa’s Dad is still questioning what went on. “I cannot understand why our troops had to kill in Srebenica.” Natasa, could not believe what she heard: “Dad, they killed over 8000 people in two days.” Natasa’s brother Igor never slept during the bombardments. Only when the empty planes returned could he fall asleep. His only link to the outside was the news on TV. But the NATO planes destroyed the nearby TV tower. He begged his parents to let him go to Vukovar, but they refused.

The last chapter is the titular solar eclipse of 11.8.1999. Serbian TV and media had warned the population to stay inside because the solar radiation was particularly harmful during the eclipse. Having planted this paranoia, the streets were deserted and people literally locked themselves in.

DoP Ivan Markovic follows both the travels of father and daughter with clear images of the impressive landscapes, and the citizens’ ruined souls. Natasa is asked by relatives “why couldn’t you say something good about Serbia, like mentioning the beautiful Obedska swamps or the Laguna book store”

Meanwhile, since 2012, Serbia has been ruled by former allies of Milosevic, who died three years before the trial verdict in Den Hague was passed. “This new circle of nationalism stops the painful process of the Serbian public addressing its involvement in the war crimes”. AS

WINNER DOX:AWARD CPH:DOX COPENHAGEN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

Dir.: Payal Kapadia; Documentary with the voice of Bhumisuta Das; India 2021, 99 min.

Indian director/co-writer Payal Kapadia, whose short films have been awarded numerous awards, returned to Cannes in 2021 with her first feature documentary A NIGHT OF KNOWING NOTHING, winning the “Oeil d’Or, Prix Documentaire” for best documentary film of the festival. Poetic as well as politically engaged, A NIGHT is a collage made from home videos, archival footage, CCTV recordings and scenes shot from mobiles.

The feature unfolds in an around the campus of the ‘Film and Television Institute of India’ in Pune where letters and a box of clippings and letters written by a female student, simply called L, who was writing to her boyfriend K. The love letters, soon became more and more politically engaged. K. had left the campus, and was literally imprisoned by his parents, for dating the lower cast L. Arriving back. he did not even speak to L, obeying his parents. Now L.s letters were written not to K. but “the man he could have been, or the one I loved once”.

The story dates back to June 2015 when the Modi government, after a landslide victory at the polls, took over all aspects of public life in India introducing their Hindi nationalism to the whole country including the Film and Television Institute. Gajendra Chauhan, who rose to fame in the 1980s as an actor in soap operas, was named the new director of the Film School, his only qualification was his rabid espousal of Modi’s politics. These involved raising tuition fee by 300%, which particularly hit Dalits (formerly Untouchables) and lower cast students the hardest.

The students called a strike which went on for several months. The Police were called in by the government, female students were threatened with rape by the police officers. Violence spilled over to other universities. L, voiced by Bhumisuta Das, edits the films of friends, before engaging more and more in the strike actions. The students’ main slogan was “Eisenstein, Pudowkin – we shall fight, we will win”.

Students graduated with a much different perspective than before the strike. They now had to find a way to make films for Dalits and lower class members, who were repressed by the Modi government. L writes: “We must make sure the ones who make the shoes for the rich, or harvest their food, have a voice”. It is obvious her own experience with her ex-boyfriend played a large part in her politicisation.

DoP and editor Ranabri Das create a dramatic arc showing the escalation of police violence, and the students’ reactions. Like L, many students had started out as proponents of art-house films, but the experience of state violence changed their outlook dramatically. Apart from K that is, L asking in one of her letters, “how could you be so strong when the police attacked, and so vibrant and in the meetings when you give in so easily to your parents”.

A NIGHT is a vibrant kaleidoscope of film styles and personal experiences which suddenly become entwined in the vicious circle of police brutality. L’s identity is changed by outside forces and she emerges no heroine, but no victim either. AS

I’m So Sorry (2022) CPH: Dox 2022

Dir: Liang Zhao | Doc,

Liang Zhao’s gracefully cinematic and quietly persuasive documentary depicts not just the devastation caused by nuclear accidents but also the emotional fallout of those affected by events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

In these days of dwindling power supplies the nuclear option is ongoing. According to the World Nuclear Association’s 2020 report there were still 442 reactors in existence, most are in the US, China and France and around 40 under construction. But Zhou departs from a dry scientific study to focus on the human and environmental cost and the eerie wastelands left by defunct nuclear sites. He also makes use of a Japanese figure that floats silently through abandoned power plants – if ever there was a scary device in an straightforward eco-documentary it is this one.

From the outset camera pans over the devastation caused by the nuclear power plants of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the silent ruins left behind by the population who fled the directly contaminated areas. Some, mostly elderly people with nowhere else to go, stayed on, enduring the devastation and emptiness both accidents have generated in an existence that stretches before them, alone in the universe. One old woman has spent the past thirty years completely alone in the Chernobyl decontamination zone, surviving off the land in a smallholding. Her approach is calm and philosophical: “Death takes everyone eventually, but they told us a load of nonsense, and sealed all the water wells. How can the water be contaminated, when it looks so clean”.

A menacing soundscape accompanies a slow-paced collection of stunning shots of  remote landscapes and ruined interiors recording a poignant memory of lives destroyed. Melted dolls with singed hair, and tiny ballet shoes lined up against a row of painted cots are all that remains of a nursery school. The deafening silence is the most powerful element.

Driving home his anti-nuclear message in a gentle way is so much more persuasive than the threatening approach of so many eco-docs. Zhao also invites us to question the absurdity of a situation where the nuclear power plant accidents led the affected areas. “Is it the past or the future?”.

Many disused nuclear facilities are now being painstakingly taken apart, and we see the gruelling efforts by a team in Germany forced to spend their days hosing down every inch and angle of the former steel monstrosity; “What one generation builds, the next with dismantle” comes the inevitable voiceover comment.

The film culminates in a sorrowful scene in Belarus, near the Chernobyl Exclusion Site, of a mother tending to her seriously disabled daughter “we weren’t told not to love when we moved here” she explains.  Sadly, I’m So Sorry has no positive message to offer her after showing us a Hell we have been part of creating. There is no bright future on the horizon or any hope in the near future.  Zhao Liang crafts a powerful anti- nuclear plea to the world, if only the world leaders would listen. MT

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Pawnshop (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir: Łukasz Kowalski | Doc, Poland

Poland’s largest pawnshop has moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts, but still cannot make a profit, largely down to a lack of business expertise by its eccentric owners Jola and Wisek.

Clearly their bizarre relationship captured the imagination of first time writer/director Lukasz Kowalski in his rather dubious and structureless undertaking. The pawnshop is clearly a labour of love for Wisek and Jola who puts fake Zloty notes cut from a magazine in the till in the pretence of hard cash. Often customers are asked to pay “what they want”. There are only 86 Zloty in the cash register at the time of filming.

In a shop boasting over 70,000 items there seems to be a preponderance of deer antlers and non-functioning electrical items, including a kettle that nearly exploded on a trial run. Crystal glass is also a great runner, so we are told; but the 19th century phone, many have an eye on, is not for sale at any price, it belongs to Wisek and he is keeping it. A look at the book section shows an abundance of self-help titles: ‘Medicine and Sex’, ‘Women and Sex’ ‘A new way of Sex’. Either the previous readers want to pass on the knowledge or gave up trying to improve their lives.

Customers ringing to complain about faulty goods purchased are given short shrift by Jola who tells them, in no uncertain terms, to repair the items themselves. When Wisek shows her a ‘mammoth tooth’, he has bought and hopes will bring in a healthy profit, the two nearly have a bust up. Next, there is some complaint about some welding equipment and Loya nearly burns the place down with a blow torch.

The shop assistants moan about their pay, or the lack of it. Jola expects gratitude for keeping them on in the current climate, but the workers are not impressed. Jola and Wisek have been together for eight years, but there is not much love left, Wisek claiming: “You only care about money, not feelings”. Jolanta, one of shop assistants, is so bored she starts trying on fur hats. They suit her, but on her salary, she could never afford them. Finally, Jola and Wisek come up with a marvellous new idea.

DoP Stanislaw Cuske does his best to make the dowdy subject cinematically appealing but with a long line of banalities and hardly any dramatic arc, he runs out of ideas. Kowalski was clearly intending to make a mockumentary about this sorry state of affairs but sails a bit too near to the wind in the current state of living crisis. AS

SCREENING AT CPH:DOX 2022 | SELECTED FOR THE DOC ALLIANCE AWARDS

 

Under the Sky Shelter (2022) CPH: DOX 2022

Dir: Diego Acosta | Doc, Chile 68′

The past collides with the future in this provocative pastorale shot in refreshing black and white. It follows Chilean shepherd Don Cucho on a sinuous almost sinister odyssey through the craggy wilds of the Andes mountains to the valley with his herd of over a thousand sheep, a few men and dogs. His journey is as atavistic as the hills and as well-worn, but Acosta’s inventive filming techniques and an edgy ambient soundtrack gives this a surreal and unsettling twist that makes the down-to-earth suddenly dangerous and otherworldly in the hostile terrain. Now is the time for the seasonal movement of the animals to pastures new. Once they reach the valley, the animals can graze at their leisure for the rest of the season.

Writer director Diego Acosta works as his own DoP on 16mm often viewing the herd from above as it flows like a remote and rhythmic river of moving objects or shape-shifting creatures surging along in outer space. Others scenes are straggly and fraught as the beasts struggle awkwardly through a rushing stream stumbling as they make their way up the hillside under a sultry sky peppered with stars.

There are languorous times too in the heat of the midday sun where clouds scud mysteriously into a silent sandstorm. Then winds whistle through the makeshift overhead canopy that protects the shepherd from the searing sun. But the night comes soon with its secrets and shadows and the Don lies down for the small hours til dawn. A clump of flowers takes on exotic guise in the moonlight, and a reverse flowing waterfall looks magical yet quite frightening – a simple idea but supremely affective in this dreamlike feature full of surprises and unusual juxtapositions, time-lapses, shifting lights and shadow-play. A yearly journey becomes meditative, mysterious and magnificent yet as old as time. MT

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Electric Malady (2022) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir.: Marie Lidén; Documentary with William Hendeberg; UK 2021, 85 min.

Radiation from mobile phones, electrical devices and pylons now affects around 3% of the World’s population, according to WHO.

In her first feature documentary Marie Lidén explores the condition through William Hendeberg, 40, who suffers from ‘Electro Sensibility’ and is forced to live in a special hut constructed by his father Jan, in the remote hamlet of Ekeby Björn, Närke, south central Sweden.

Only a decade ago William had a perfect life: he was writing his master thesis, having spent three years at university in Boras and Gothenburg. A gifted musician, he played in no less than four bands. Now he exists in a hut, like a Faraday cage, covering himself in blankets made out of cotton and copper threads to block the microwave radiation. And that’s not all. A special mosquito net also helps to dissipate out any other radiation. “I don’t want the camera so close”, he tells the film crew, “it makes it difficult for me to focus”.

William lives like a recluse. In the early days of his illness he used to venture out but now it makes him feel so unwell, he has stopped doing it. He listens to music, Sinead O’Connor is a favourite “I need music, it shakes the soul. I usually start with nice, happy music, then something more funky, ending up with punk. ‘Lindisfarne’, makes me feel good too. I put a cake tin over the CD player, so I don’t get too bad.” He points to a collection of tea caddies. “Me and my ex, Maria, we loved tea caddies”.

We watch a video shot by William himself in 2007, and another of him playing in a band. “I was so bewildered at first, but it was almost exciting for a while”. At that point he only went out into the radiation-free forest nearby, even though he loved the freedom of the city. But it made him too ill with burning and cramping pains in his forehead. He needed days to recover from his city trips. “Like having your head caught in a vice.”

When is all started, William worked in a library, standing in for his partner Maria who showed milder symptoms of the disease, particularly as a reaction to fluorescent light and the computer screen. “The counter in the library was fitted with a loop for the hard of hearing – this was the beginning. Three other people working there had the same symptoms”. He has had no contact with Maria for 18 months now, after she left the caravan they were living in she got married and had children. We watch a video, Maria cutting William’s hair. They seemed happy.

William has got used to darkness, even though he is addicted to colours, particularly green and red. As his father tells us, William has always loved Christmas. So his parents ‘visit’ their son with presents. They celebrate as if he was still a child. William knows his parents have cried a lot, they want the old ‘William’ back. And are hoping they can all go and visit his sister Alexandra in Karlskoga. One of his chief concerns is that people think he is exaggerating. Everyone just hopes he will recover one day.

Electro Sensitivity has not been acknowledged by the medical profession so William tries to soldier on, not wanting to upset his family. A herbalist has given him some relief: William can now stay up longer, and is more able to focus in his reading and writing. his autobiography is already underway, but he cannot write creatively. “I am still curious about life”. And has started to go out and about, even though it makes his symptoms get worse. He had a phone installed via fibre optic cable: “After 15 years I have a speaker phone. I can talk to somebody who is not here. It feels amazing. But I am still waiting for a miracle, to make me better slowly. I long to be out, in freedom”.

DoP Michael Sherrington uses the camera in a very sensitive way – the quality of the shot is always secondary to William’s condition. Maria Lidén has certainly raised awareness and understanding of this little known condition. Rather like lung cancer, as a result of smoking, and endometriosis, it took the medical profession many years to acknowledge their existence. Lidén approaches her topic without any frills or sentimentality in a direct and informative, but always empathetic approach. An eye opener, produced on a shoe-string budget. AS

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Outside (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir: Ohla Zhurba | Doc with Roma, Ukraine

Ukraine. A field of sunshine yellow. A boy runs laughing through the blossoms. Then back to reality. “We will defend Ukraine our homeland”. The Maidan uprising and molotov cocktails fly and vehicles blaze in the black smoke. The clamour is constant and 13-year old Roma is in the thick of it, a street sign serves as his shield against the encroaching onslaught. Then darkness.

Olha Zhurba’s feature debut follows Roma a street boy neglected by state and family who became a post boy for the Ukrainian revolution back in 2014. Seven years later he would be released from his orphanage into the adult world with nothing but a knife and a lighter. Virtually illiterate he drifts in and out of prison for petty crime to make ends meet. Bright-eyed, dark-haired and able-bodied Roma then shuttles from pillar to post looking for a ‘social dormitory’, somewhere to sleep. At last he gets his head down in a squalid bungalow with a friend (or maybe a brother) Kolia, in Yahotyn, on the outskirts of Kyiv where the police are constantly monitoring his movements on video surveillance cameras. But there are happier moments in the soft summer countryside when he meets a girl and sort of falls in love. But how can you love when your mother left you. And most of his time is spent looking for his mother, or at least her grave. Meanwhile police presence is like a silent doom bird, voyeuristic video surveillance tracking his movements on a 24-hour basis.

Zhurba makes use of a range of techniques to flesh out Roma’s backstory with flashbacks and a black screen accompanying his VoiceOver conversations back at the orphanage. Along with Volodymyr Usyk’s roving camera footage, Zhurba pieces together an impressionistic but ultimately tragic fractured narrative of survival for a opportunistic drifter who once had hopes of “getting an education and moving to America” but now rejects offers of work, scraping by as a bottom-feeder with nothing left to lose. MT

SCREENING AT CPH:DOX | COPENHAGEN DOC FESTIVAL | UNTIL 3rd April 2022.

They Made us the Night (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

Wri/Dir: Antonio Hernandez | Doc, with the Salinas Tellos | Mexico, 66′

Stories from Latin America continue to entrance not least this dreamy wonderful work of art marked by its lush tropical settings and fluid camerawork. It follows a Mexican family through their everyday life to reestablish themselves in Oaxaca on the Pacific Ocean after their lives were destroyed by Cyclone Dolores back in 1974. 

Animals are as much part of these people’s life as their fellow humans. And the Salinas Tello family are no different. We see young son Adonis talking to their livestock and pets and even riding the billy goat. Catholic by religion the Salinas Tello are Afro-Mestizo, a mixture of African, Native and European, and are fiercely proud of maintaining their identity through oral traditions involving bouts of intense communication, singing and chanting marked by ‘tonales’ (animal spirit links), devils and cyclones all in Spanish, their native language . Preparations are underway for a patronal celebration in the village, and, inevitably the family pig is slaughtered. Adonis asks questions but strangely gets few answers on this occasion. The band starts rehearsals complete with hornets, trombones and other wind and percussion instruments along with exotic costumes and bizarre masks drawing on local myths and folklore.

Antonio Hernandez achieves a perfect balance between Alonso Maranon’s sumptuous visuals, an exotic and often sinister soundscape created by Luis Ortega, along with the endless discussions to convey the togetherness of this cohesive, tight knit community where voluble dialogue seems to be the key to survival and wellbeing. MT

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX | FIPRESCI WINNER GUADALAJARA FESTIVAL 2021

 

A Taste of Whale (2022) CPH:DOX 2022

Dir: Vincent Kelner | Doc 85′

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW SCREENING AT CPH:DOX 2022

Hide and Seek (2021) CPH:DOX 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX | UNTIL APRIL 3, 2022

Into the Ice (2022) CPH: DOX 2022

Dir: Lars Henrik Ostenfeld. Doc, Denmark/Germany,  86′

The edge of a cavernous ice moulin is certainly no place to take a selfie, as we find out in this spectacular documentary from director and cinematographer Lars Henrik Ostenfeld. He accompanies three scientists to glacial Greenland in search of what the ice can tell us about the future of our world. The cinematic journey plays out like a thriller with a gripping climax and some tears along the way, and, predictably there is no happy ending 

Climate expert Jason Box, professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen and glaciologist Alun Hubbard are the three intrepid specialists who are risking their lives to gather vital data on climate change. Most of the research can be undertaken via satellite but nothing beats actually being there to experience the treacherous winds, icy wastelands and spiralling depths of the ice moulins, vast frosty holes stretching into oblivion below the surface. Ostenfeld’s endeavour is part of a project which serves not just as exploratory undertaking but also to raise awareness of the critical stage at which our world has now arrived. 

When it comes to scaling down into an ice moulin Alun Hubbard is certainly your man.  Beaming with confidence he is chipper about the descent and certainly puts our minds at rest as he bounces down 175 metres into the black void below. And Ostenfeld is quite relieved to hand his camera over to security expert Claus Kongsgaard the following day. Apparently the conditions are ‘too warm’ and too dangerous for the director to accompany Hubbard who admits to being happy should he lose his life in the process. 

Meanwhile, Jason Box is doing a  spot of yoga before measuring the rate of snowfall that in turn predicts the loss of pack ice below the surface. In a flimsy tent reinforced by ‘ice walls’ he hunkers down against the raging winds with his colleague Masashi Niwano. The two have trekked for 12 days in hostile conditions and decide they deserve another cup of coffee after gathering their vital evidence. 

Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen is triumphant as she holds up a block of ice which is 5000 years old. In her study to predict climate change over the past 100,000 years she is able to see how the ice has changed through its bubbles of carbon matter. These courageous souls certainly lighten their heart-sinking  findings in a documentary that makes ‘the science’ as clear as arctic water, and as chilling. MT

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX 2022 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW SCREENING DURING COPENHAGEN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Children of the Enemy (2021) CPH:DOX 2021

Dir: Gorki Glaser-Muller | Sweden, Denmark, Qatar | Doc With Patricio Galves, Clive Stafford Smith, Isabel Coles 95′

Like most stories coming out of Syria since the recent reign of terror this is a familiar one chronicling days of anguish amid political turmoil. Children of the Enemy centres on one man’s Kafkaesque journey to rescue his family and take them back to their homeland of Sweden. Meanwhile the Swedish authorities and even the media keep a low profile for fear of repercussions.

Chilean Swede Patricio Galvez cuts a tragic figure as shares his pain with filmmaker Gorki Glaser-Muller. Told simply, its tone of ongoing desperation being the focus, it tells how another unsuspecting victim – his nubile daughter – became radicalised and married one of Sweden’s most notorious ISIS terrorists.

After both were killed in the fight for a caliphate their children were left high and dry, lost somewhere in the Al-Hol prison camp in Northeast Syria. A moving phone montage on Patricio’s mobile phone is all he has left to identify the kids during his nightmarish 45 day recovery mission through Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile every minute could be their last. Days of desperation and disbelief add to the ongoing narrative of this ‘missing persons diary’ in a world that grows more and more hostile, less compassionate as allies and enemies become increasingly indistinguishable. MT

CPH:DOX | WORLD PREMIERE|  INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION  | COPENHAGEN DOC FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Lost Boys (2021) CPH:DOX 2021

Dir.: Joonas Neuvonen, Sadri Cetinkaya; Documentary with Joonas Neuvonen, Jani Raappana, Antti , Lee Lee, Thi, narrated by Pekka Strang; Finland 2020, 99 min.

It all started with Reindeerspotting-Escape from Santaland back in 2010. Its Finnish director Joonas Neuvonen turned out to be a drug dealer from a middle class background, and this fuelled the storyline for Lost Boys, a drug-powered tour of Thailand and Cambodia to celebrate the film’s success. Joining him were petty thief and addict Jani Raappana, and his mate Annti. Reindeerspotting co-writer Sadri Cetinkaya co-wrote the script.

Three months later Jani would be found dead in Phnom Penh. How he met his fate is still uncertain. Indications are he was murdered. Pekka Strang narrates, as the voice of Neuvonen, commenting from his cell. The trio were heavy users of ‘ya ba’, formerly known as yama, a potent mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine, also used as a horse drug, and favoured by soldiers, taxi drivers and sex workers.

Lost Boys chronicles their down-spiralling nightmare into Hell, a modern day, sordid version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The drug culture inevitably leads to debt, organised crime holds sway with death squads enforcing control. Sex workers are all part of the picture, the exploited leading their clients into the hands of the drug lords. Cambodia’s turbulent past has contributed to the country’s post traumatic stress disorder that started with colonisation and culminated with the Khmer Rouge. Sex tourism involving adults and children is now rampant throughout Cambodia. The country’s horrific history – past and present – plays out in a gruesome montage to the strains of La Marseillaise, as colonialism meets today’s sex tourism.

Neuvonen maintains his sole interest is in saving Annti and finding Jani’s murderer, but at the same he seems ambivalent about his mate, coming clean about the anti-hero of his first film: “I wanted him to vanish. I wanted him to die”. But will he be the only survivor of this trip to Hell?

Meanwhile Jani’s girlfriend Lee Lee and her friend Thi are compliant vessels for the sins of others and Annti is the victim of paranoid psychosis believing the nearby radio masts are there to stalk his thoughts and send the messages to a company called “Sky”.

What makes this quasi detective story so compelling is the way we’re led by its unreliable narrator in a non-linear narrative full of elliptical deceits imbued with hallucinatory visuals from dizzying handheld cameras. More than just a story, Lost Boys captures a state of mind – lies coalesce to cause the downfall of all three men whose paradise of sex and drugs leads them into a maze of death. Colour grading and editing sustain the scratchy edges of the documentary that floats in a woozy soundscape, leading us on a fractious journey as the men drift into a harrowing cul-de-sac. Lost Boys is a visual poem of the cruellest most nihilistic kind.

CPH:DOX | APRIL 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

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

Crazy, Not Insane (2020) ***** CPH: DOX 2020

Dir: Alex Gibney | With Forensic Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis MD, Richard Burr, Park Dietz, Catherine Yeager; USA 2020, 117 min.

What happens in the brains of serial killers? Oscar winner Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, examines the facts and the psychology of murderers based on research by forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Ontov Lewis, in this chilling but sober film about criminal psychology.

Professor Dorothy Otnov Lewis, forensic psychiatrist and lecturer at Yale and NY university, is best known for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a phenomenon she continues to question since coining the term in 1984. Her work with serial killers Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy brought her to the conclusion that DID was the result of brain dysfunction, abuse in childhood and psychotic paranoia.

Otnov Lewis is a lively and voluble medic who makes this comprehensive study engaging and enjoyable despite the gravity of the subject matter. She describes how brain dysfunction affects the frontal lobes responsible for controlling  (among other things) our emotional responses and empathy. Injury of this vital part of the brain leads to impulsiveness, poor judgement and emotional liability. Together with childhood abuse and a tendency to paranoia, this is, as it turns out, a deadly combination. 

By way of background she describes going to kindergarten during WWII her main concerns were not being picked last for team games and her disappointment that Hitler’s suicide robbed her of insight into the motives for his genocidal politics, and she later eagerly followed the Nuremberg trials. A career as a Freudian analyst seemed the logical next step. But her studies at Yale School of Medicine led her via New Haven Juvenile Court and saw her running a clinic specialising in the neuro-psychiatric characteristics of young people in Long Lane School, a detention facility for violent juvenile offenders in Middleton (Connecticut). This experience changed her mind. She worked with the neurologist Professor Martin Pincus, a collaboration they continued at NYU, where they had access to Bellevue Hospital prison.

An interview with CBS TV in 1983 focused on children who kill and brought her into contact with a lawyer defending two juvenile children on death row. Lewis and Pincus interviewed all the death row inmates in Starke/Florida. Among them was Lucky Larson (not his real name), who was sentenced to die for hacking his two victims to death. Tests revealed his frontal lobes had been injured. In course of their investigation, Lewis and Pincus uncovered that Lucky’s mother had started sexually abusing him when he was six. His jealous father became violent with his son. But despite this revelation the jury in his re-trail still found him guilty. Lewis’ only consolation was his inability to see the reality of his situation: his frontal lobes had been disconnected from the rest of the brain.

Lewis had more success in trial with Arthur Shawcross, a notorious serial killer. He was saved from the electric chair in November 1990, thanks to Lewis’ intervention. Shawcross, whose mother bit his penis when he was young, said in an interview with Lewis “I am here, but I am not really here. I am fighting with myself. I am two people doing something bad.” Lewis used the MRI of his brain for her defence, but the prosecutor’s forensic witness Park Dietz, a medical bigwig who Lewis would continue to cross horns with during her career, tried to destroy her testimony.

Then there was the case of Johnny Frank Garrett, 17 years old, who had murdered a nun. He was a schizophrenic whose brain damage led to seizures. Lewis and the defence asked for clemency, but the states of Florida and Texas were in competition to secure the most death penalties. The Texas governor basically washed his hands off the case and let the Clemency Board decide. The result was a 17:1 vote for execution.

The Clinton administration was in power at the time and the president had already shown in his home state of Arkansas that he was tough on crime. Although there were some counter demonstrations against the executions, the majority literally celebrated the perpetrators’ deaths. Arcade games featured executions on the electric chair, where a dummy was put to death by the player for 25 cents. It is interesting in this context, that Lewis would interview Ben Johnson, the travelling executioner, who was also a part-time electrician. He proudly told Lewis about his grandson’s encouragement in his work: “Zap them, Grand Pa.” Strangely enough, Lewis is much more concerned about the little children sitting on his lap (“I will get accused of molestation”) than the nineteen people he had executed. Johnson states candidly that he had no nightmares, but the paintings he did after every execution show a tortured soul.

Dorothy Lewis was the last person Ted Bundy spoke to just before his execution on 24.1.1993. Bundy had made a performance of his trial, and everything he said was seen as a part of his grandstanding. But in her interviews with Bundy, Lewis discovered that Bundy’s grandfather Sam had been a violent person and an pornography user. Bundy’s grandmother had depression and his own mother, Eleanor Louise had taken “pills” to abort the boy. Bundy spent two months in an orphanage before his mother united him with his siblings. Ted run away from his violent grandfather, and there were rumours that Sam was his biological father, which DNA tests proved to be wrong. When Lewis got a collection of love letters from his wife, she found out that Bundy had signed some of them with ‘Sam’, the name of his grandfather. Bundy told Lewis that “in late Winter 1969, this ‘entity’ reached the point were it was necessary to act out. The ‘entity’ takes over the basic conscious mechanism of the brain and more or less dictates what’s going to be done. It was unobtrusive at first, something that sort of grew on me. It began to visualise and phantasies’ about more violent things. But by the time I realised how powerful it was, I was in big trouble.” He had become his grandfather, and while the public was celebrating his execution Lewis, who never wanted the perpetrators she interviewed to be released, lamented “how much could we have learned from Bundy had he been allowed to live. But we have gone back to the Middle Ages, burning witches.”

Gibney has made this dark chapter in America’s history even grimmer by incorporating 2d, and 3d black-and-white animation which pictures Lewis sitting on both the electric chair and outside the death chamber, looking into her Alter Ego’s eyes. Lewis is also seen painting in stark black strokes the Hell, her patients inhabited. DoP Ben Bloodwell makes this a disturbing masterpiece enriched by Lewis’ gracious presence. AS

CPH:DOX 2020 and on HBO DIGITAL TV in certain territories. 

    

        

 

Bitter Love (2020) *** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir. Jerzy Sladkowski. Poland/Finland/Sweden. 2020. 86 mins.

Russian couples pack their emotional baggage for a romantic voyage on the Volga in this entertaining but tonally offbeat curio from Polish filmmaker Jerzy Slodkowski (Don Juan).

Essentially a series of disparate encounters between its often disillusioned characters, Bitter Love tests the temperature of love in contemporary Russia and finds it either troubled or rather buttoned down, particularly where the men are concerned. The women are full of disillusionment but remain chipper and ever-hopeful of redressing the emotional balance or finding love again, even though the past has often given them a kick in the teeth, on the feelings front.

Sailing down the languorous waters of Russia’s most famous river aboard the appropriately named ‘Maxim Gorky’ riverboat, this upbeat documentary is as realist as it can be in scoping out romantic possibilities for a shipload of modern Russians, from all ages and walks of life, who we first meet setting off a cloud of coloured balloons each containing an ardent wish.

In the singletons corner there is Oksana (or Xenia) a middle-aged disillusioned romantic who shares her woes with Yura a bulked-up bodyguard type who actually turns out to be a bit of a softie, strumming his guitar and crooning like a troubadour. There is also petite Yulya who makes a bid for taller, older mate but soon has second thoughts.

Not all are footloose and fancy-free: it falls to an earnest young singer and her pianist playmate to set the tone musically with their classical accompaniment. Meanwhile, another older couple in a longterm relationship, Sacha and Lyuba, are clearly entering troubled waters – and even the odd set-too – threatening to rock the boat, both literally and metaphorically, but also adding a spark of humour to this river-bound odyssey of lost souls.

Apart from an interlude on dry land, or sand – as it turns out to be – this is a mostly close-up affair that pictures its protagonists in restaurant tete-a-tetes or in the intimacy of their cabins, but there’s a stagey artifice to these encounters that somehow doesn’t make them ring true, despite their earnestness. Compelling stuff nevertheless. MT

CPH:DOX 2020 | ONLINE IN CERTAIN TERRITORIES

Songs of Repression (2020) Dox Award | CPH:DOX 2020

Dir: Estephan Wagner, Marianne Hougen-Moraga. Doc, Denmark 90′

Few stories from the Pinochet era are more tragically sinister than that of the Colonia Dignidad in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Here a German community suffered years of abuse in thrall to  a cult of religious fanaticism that wreaked a reign of terror and some of the worst atrocities of the Chilean dictatorship.

Villa Baviera couldn’t be more idyllic in its mountain freshness in contrast to the events that took place behind closed doors. Filmmakers Wagner and Hougen-Morgaga have adopted a novel but restrained approach to illuminating this little known episode of terror, calmly and thoughtfully opening the door to understanding how those affected have gradually come to terms with their past. The directors spent just over a year filming with this stricken community of around 120 surviving inhabitants and perpetrators, who suffered under the draconian regime of Paul Schafer for over three decades from the early 1960s to the late 1990s.

What emerges is sometimes difficult to believe. To all intents and purposes this rural idyll seems the perfect place to live with its glorious climate and lush mountain setting. Residents are surrounded by the beauty of the Chilean countryside where they spend their days gardening and even bee-keeping. There is also a care home for older residents. But behind the scenes they reveal experiences that are beyond belief involving beatings, abuse both sexual and verbal, and forced participation in singing songs that glorify their lives in the Villa Baviera, rather than demonise them.

The thrust of Songs of Repression is on the present rather than the past: there is no archive footage, although we do discover how Schafer was eventually dealt with. The filmmakers focus on  the regime’s effect on its inmates and how their psychological well-being was warped and destroyed by the gradual trauma and abuse. They are only now starting to recuperate after years victimisation, Anger and disappointment replaces fear and oppression, and the idea that sex is actually an expression of love rather than of violence and hatred.

Not everyone there is completely outraged by what happened, some still foster the idea that Pinochet was actually misguided and misled. And this human individuality of response in the face of tragedy is what ultimately makes Songs of Repression so remarkable and ground-breaking as a documentary testament to the past. MT

SONGS ON REPRESSION WON THE DOX PRIZE at CPH:DOX 2020 

 

A Shape of Things to Come (2020) **** CPH:DOX 2020

Dirs: Lisa Marie Malloy & J.P. Sniadecki. US. 2020. 77′

A Lone Ranger of the worst type is how best to describe the unappealing main character in Malloy and Sniadecki’s unsettling documentary that sees a heavily bearded, raddled man living an isolated existence in the Sonoran desert, his only companions his dogs.

With its prescient themes of self-sufficiency and even social distancing this borderlands Western shows how possible it is even in the 21st country to survive as a hunter gatherer far removed from society, a telephone, vehicle and electricity the only mod cons at your disposal. The filmmakers adopt a slowing-burning and detached approach to their subject shying away from any formal narrative and letting the camera drift around following Sundog through his day. Meanwhile a growing tension gradually leads us to believe this intriguing ethnographical portrait will have a more sinister outcome than the one it started out with — Sundog emerging merciless and triumphant having shot a wild boar and leaving it to bleed out in a grim death, clearly not wanting to waste another bullet on the dying animal.

The Senoran desert is a dangerous place to live and full of snakes and poisonous insects, Sundog harnesses a desert toad and milks it for its bufotenin, a tryptamine derivative which when dried and smoked causes psychedelic trips lasting around an hour. He cackles, belches and makes strange whooping noises as he goes about his business – and we also see him doing his business. Later he shares he feelings about his lifestyle in a caustic, slightly embittered tone: “Outwitting the US government and avoiding people I have no affinity for is a win-win situation”. There are occasional glimpses of the US surveillance towers, evidence of big brother monitoring his idyllic wildlife existence. But a coiled snake continually seen lingering in the grass could shape up to be equally intrusive.

What happens next leaves us in no doubt about Sundog’s general disdain for mainstream culture, and the lyrics of a song he sings along to give a clear indication that he has possibly left some emotional baggage behind to seek solace in the wilderness. The film ends leaving us slightly unsatisfied hinting at doom but never delivering the final sting.

Known for his Locarno Golden Leopard nominated The Iron Ministry and El Mar La Mar which he directed with Joshua Bonnetta, Shape Of Things is an intriguing film and beautiful to look at with its striking desert scenery captured by Sniadecki and Molloy who also act as their own editors and composers of the film’s haunting electronic soundscape. Sundog is like the snake in the grass, simmering quietly but ready to strike at any moment if provoked in this compelling walk on the wilder side of life. MT

SCREENING DURING CPH: DOX 2020

 

 

Själö – Island of Souls (2020) **** CPH: DOX 2020 Special Mention

Dir: Lotta Petronella | Wri: Seppo Parkinnen, Lotta Petronella | Doc, Finland 78′

On a remote island in the Baltic Sea a longterm mental asylum has been transformed into a research centre for the study of local floral and fauna, particularly insects. Although devoid of human inhabitants, the place is still haunted by the souls of the women who were incarcerated within its walls, particularly those who fist arrived in 1624 suffering from leprosy, and then a hundred years later when the institution housed a variety of lunatics and the mentally disturbed.

Finnish filmmaker Lotta Petronella brings her fine art training to bear in her third documentary feature that plays out like a haunting thriller making affective use of hyper vibrant visuals and indie composer Lau Nau’s eerie soundscape to tell the story of the island’s troubled past. Arriving there in the depths of winter like some ancient mariner over the icebound sea to the south of Finland she soon discovers that the former asylum is a place with vast archives that reveal a repressed and terrifying history that emanates from letters written but never sent by the women who suffered and died there. While a young scientist is collecting samples of insects and discovering their story under the microscope, Petronella makes her own forensic study of the patients’ records to gain insight into the human element of this remote place. He finds a hidden past that permeates the fabric of the building as the archive come alive revealing their macabre past.

Själö in a restrained but profound study in memory and how history is created and shaped both by those that lived through it and their descendants. Some memories are over-glorified while others are buried and erased from the history books simply because of the nature of their existence. And this is particularly relevant in this island with its strange and disturbing past. “It is a place that makes you contemplate structures of power, science, lunacy, the ecological disaster and the soul, all at the same time. It is haunted by its past until one accepts that the ghosts are there to remind and challenge us to ‘see’ and sense the hidden memories.”
Petronella’s films have been shown internationally at film festivals, art galleries, and broadcasted widely. Her latest film LAND WITHOUT GOD (2019), a collaboration with the artists Gerard Mannix Flynn and Maedhbh McMahon, is an intimate portrait of a family coming to terms with decades of institutional abuse and the impact it still has on their lives. The film celebrated its international premiere at Docs With our Gravity, Warsaw in 2019. HOME. Somewhere (HEM. Någonstans, 2015) shot in the middle of the Baltic Sea, premiered at Docpoint Film Festival Helsinki in 2015 where it was named a highlight by Indiewire. Her first documentary film SKÄRIKVINNOR (2008) was successful both with critics and audiences and was shown on numerous television channels and film festivals. Her work has been supported by the Finnish Film fund (SES), Art Council of Finland (TAIKE), Art Council of England, KONE foundation and Finnish-Swedish Art Council.
 SJÄLÖ – Island of Souls received a Special Mention from the NORDIC:DOX Jury at CPH:DOX CPH:DOX 2020 

State Funeral (2019) Mubi

Dir: Sergei Loznitsa | Doc, Ukraine

Ukrainian Director Sergei Loznitsa shows how the Russian Communist dictator Joseph Stalin still held his citizens in thrall at the mammoth funeral to commemorate his death. State Funeral concludes Loznitsa’s historical trilogy that started with The Event and was followed by The Trial.

Sixty six years after his death Stalin still exerts a cultish fascination in the West. According to the Yale Professor of History Timonthy Snyder, Stalin killed more people (including Ukrainians) than Hitler killed Jews – 27 million were murdered and 15 million starved to death during his regime (mentioned in the film’s end credits) – but he is still revered by many who espouse Communist ideals in contemporary society.

Expressing a strong opinion is not Loznitsa’s style. He merely ponders the aftermath of one of modern history’s bloodiest dictators with this sombre and dignified documentary that makes used of Danielius Kokanauski’s cleverly edited archive footage to reflect the extraordinary pomp and ceremony that continued for four days and brought the Russian nation to a complete standstill as it wallowed in a sea of mass mourning, the droning voice of the loudspeakers recounting the grim details surrounding the father-like Stalin’s demise.

There is a bizarrely hypnotic quality to this wordless documentary that mesmerises for over two hours as we contemplate the massed crowds moving like silent waves around the casket covered with a shroud the colour of dried blood, known as ‘Kremlin Red’. We can make out the dictator’s children Vasily and Svetlana amongst the morass of floral tributes. Clearly they were numbed by the shock of their father’s sudden death on 5 March 1953 after a massive stroke, in his mid seventies.

Officials are seen relaying the casket on a bier surrounded by a forest of blood and bandage coloured flowers, the lid is removed to reveal the waxy face of the embalmed Stalin as a silent sea of mourners drifts by to the solemnity of a symphony orchestra and massed choir. The restrained remembrance ripples out into the countryside beyond Moscow where millions gather to pay their respects.

After three days of mourning the casket is finally closed and taken on a horse-driven vehicle to Red Square where it will remain on longterm display in the Lenin mausoleum until it is finally sealed in the walls of the Kremlin, eight years later.

The final act is one of inflated speeches and puffed up orations. Nikita Khrushchev is one of the speakers, he would go on to succeed Stalin as first secretary of main Communist Party Committee. Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrentiy Beria are also in attendance. Loznitza once again triumphs with this remarkable endeavour that exerts a mysterious power over the audience, captivating despite a 135 minute running time. MT

NOW ON MUBI

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

Ecstacy | Êxtase (2020) **** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir.: Moara Passoni; Cast: Alice Valares, Gigi Paladino, Victoria Maranho, Sara Antunes. Susana Prizendt, Helena Albergaria; Brazil 2020, 75 min.

First time Brazilian director and co-writer Moara Passoni has used her teenage experiences with anorexia to create a luminous and inspiring self-portrait. Casting actors, who neither talk nor interact, the voice-over explores the deep despair she experienced via a character called Clara. The imaginative images by DoP Janice D’Avila imbue this with an otherworldly atmosphere where Clara is at the same time object and subject of her imagined reality. 

We first meet Clara before she is born, her pregnant mother taking part in a demonstration: “Clearly adrenaline has a bitter taste for a foetus”. But she wills herself to come out into the world. The narrative flips forward to her teenage years, the already emaciated Clara (Valares) running as if her life depended on it – which in a way is true. Revisiting her early childhood, when she and her mother are stopped by the police, Clara senses danger declaring: “As long as I keep an eye on my mother, nothing will happen to her. I can handle it”.

Soon afterwards her mother is elected a member of Parliament and they move to Brasilia. Clara gets lost in the Parliament building: “The maze swallowed my Mum.” There follows the usual experiences of teenage-hood including her first Catholic communion. Sexual exploration sees her ostracised by class mates and teachers for kissing her friend Maria on the lips. This puts an end to her religious education, and she starts full-time ballet classes, her story temporarily taken over by a young woman emerging from a school and explaining to passers-by “A girl collapsed right in front of me, like an apple from the tree”. That girl was Clara.

She then enters a surreal state of mind, imagining speaking to the dictator, whom she calls Egg. We learn her full name: Clara Beatriz Costa Rosetti. Obsessing over her nutrition, she imagines her food is sometimes mind-altering: “My mum is not allowed to touch my food. I have no doubt that she smuggles in calories.” As her anorexia worsen she exclaims “my arms and legs weigh a ton. Why can’t I have food for the soul, that leaves the body and flesh to one side”. The ballet teacher warns her: “If you don’t start eating, I won’t allow you to dance again”. By now Clara is so weak she starts to hallucinate, imagining her mother’s disembodied voice and her friends floating through the air, “as if they were nothing but bones”.

Falling into unconsciousness, she undergoes tests in hospital and is prescribed various forms of treatment: Lithium against depression, and electric shock therapy. The doctors warn her about her impending death, medical notes stating clearly: “Patient Clara, 15, was found semi-conscious. She weighed 29 kilo, her body temperature is 33 degrees. Her pulse is 33 per minute”. Creative exploration leads to a turning point in her life, a positive step forward in all the negativity.

Passoni was inspired by the works of Marguerite Duras. She has the same the passionate intensity as the French writer, creating a hell of her own making. Ecstasy is not easy to watch, there is so much pain, and self-destruction. But the intensity of the obsessional emotions has the audience riveted, sometimes against their will. AS

CPH:DOX 2020 | ONLINE 2020

 

  

No Kings (2020) **** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir.: Emilia Mello; Documentary; Brazil/USA/Luxembourg 2019, 88 min.

150 miles away from Rio de Janeiro live the Caiçara people, trying to uphold the inheritance of their ancestors from Japan, Africa and Europe in the Atlantic rainforest. Nature rules supreme here, and Brazilian first time director/writer/producer/DoP Emilia Mello has caught the spirit of the local inhabitant who live between ocean and rainforest, treating nature which the respect it deserves.

Mello mixes freely with both adults and children encouraging them to treat her like everyone else – and the kids have particularly taken this to heart: Lucimara and Marisol are two girls just under ten, and they certainly keep Mello busy: Lucimara introducing her to the art of crab collecting, and not always successfully. But later Lucimara becomes more friendly, asking Emilia to be one of her sisters, since the filmmaker is an only child – a concept which surprises the little girl.

Then there is Ismail José Costa, father of many, and trying to get out of the shadow of his father, who is a religious leader. Ismail is proud to br “the only person who challenges God. The only thing this King can do to me, is kill me. But after I die, I won’t feel fear. People often ask God to free them from the demons, but I don’t need either.” Aline da Costa is expecting her second child, and goes by bus to the Women’s Clinic in Ponta Negra. Here she is criticised for having missed two appointments, but she is only interested in the gender of the baby – and happy when she learns that it is another girl.

After the villagers have carved out a canoe from a tree, everyone helps to drag it over a fragile bridge from the woods to the ocean shore. Lucimara is not happy with the attention Emilia gives this undertaking and shouts “Emilia, film us here”, pointing to her sister Marisol, who is playing with her at the rocks near the ocean. Mello also undertakes three journeys on the fishing boat, where Ismail is the captain, and talks to her about his relationship with his wife. He has written a sort of  poem with the title ‘Just give me Love’ which is a reflection on their relationship which has grown stronger, after a stormy beginning.

Luiza’s turbulent sixth-birthday party symbolising the life of the villagers between modernity and tradition, makes for a strong final segment.

Unfortunately, the Caiçara people are not the only indigenous minority in the rain forest threatened by the new extreme right-wing government of President Bolsonaro. The army has evicted many who have fought against the loss of their land, and the feature is dedicated to the victims who have already lost their lives trying to keep their inheritance alive.

Mello’s free form, very much in the style of Jean Rouch, echoes the lifestyle of the Caiçara people. No Kings is unique in its poetic lyricism, and a reminder of just another loss of an ancient culture to the greed of the profit-orientated white race. AS

SCREENING DURING CPH:DOX | ONLINE 2020 | Copenhagen, Denmark 

   

 

The Men’s Room (2018) **** Krakow Film Festival 2019

Dir. Petter Sommer, Jo Vemud Svendsen, 75 min., Norway

This watchable award-winning tribute to male friendship and vulnerability positively glows with a lowkey charm so redolent of its Northern European origins, and so real it could never quite work as a drama, avoiding sentimentality and cliche to achieve something rare. 

It sees a group of 25 Norwegian men in their prime getting together every Tuesday to sing and drink beer. The joke is that they have promised to sing at each other’s funerals and it soon looks like the choir’s conductor will prove the first one to go. It turns out that one of them is diagnosed with cancer and the doctor has given him just a few months to live. Naturally he feels fine. But it’s roughly the time that the choir has to prepare for its biggest gig to date: a warm-up job for Black Sabbath before their concert in Norway 2016. . The countdown has started, and the cancer-stricken conductor and desultory band of ‘choirboys’ try to keep their spirits high with songs about the hardships of middle-age, while they also prepare to say farewell. Soft-peddling over their feelings for the opposite sex, their irreverent banter is always respectfully playful and well-received in this middle-class milieu of contemporary Oslo. The  mood is kept buoyant by their community singing that provides the vehicle for sharing their thoughts and opening up, joshing with each other as they do. Rarely has a film been so quietly amusing, and surprisingly moving. The Men’s Room goes straight to the heart and stays there. MT

KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL | 26 May – 5 June 2019

Chasing Einstein (2019) *** CPH:DOX 2019

Dir.: Steve Brown, Timothy Wheeler; Documentary with Barry C. Barish, Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss; USA 2019, 82 min.

In this user-friendly film Steve Brown and Timothy Wheeler celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity by probing deeper to challenge his long-held notion, and explore what actually constitutes gravity’s invisible ‘dark matter’.

With the help of a scientist, and no less than three Nobel Prize winners of Physics, they conclude it may take fifteen years before Einstein is proved right or wrong. Four institutions lead the research in to one of the greatest open questions about our universe: the largest particle accelerator LHC at CERN, the largest underground labs (XENON), the largest telescope arrays, and the LIGO gravitational wave detector. Satellites are also being employed to create a 3D map of the universe. And research is taking place on a global scale to prove if Einstein’s theory stands the test of time. In Leiden (Netherlands) Laura Baudis and Margaret Bower are in contact with Columbia University, another institute participating in the project. We watch scientists conducting field trips, the Atlas experiment and the Xenonit, an ‘unblinding’ instrument. Finally we see Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne receive the Nobel Prize for Physics in Stockholm in 2017.

It was Einstein himself who originally stated, “if a theory is not understood by a six-year old, it is not clear enough”, because “the eternal mystery of the universe lies in its comprehensibility”. When you consider this, the whole thing is pretty mind-boggling. But there is hope, as one of the scientists remarked: “if your idea doesn’t sound crazy to begin with, there is no hope for it”. 

So we must continue to wait with baited breath for the overall outcome. It may well emerge that we live in a totally different universe than the one we imagined.

CHASING EINSTEIN will have its CPH:DOX premiere on Saturday March 23 and a UK Premiere on Sunday 19th May, 1pm at Stratford Picturehouse

www.chasingeinsteinfilm.com

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