Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

We Are Russia (2022)

Dir.: Alexandra Dalsbaek; Documentary; France/USA/Russia 2019/21, 77 min.

The first feature length documentary by Russian-French director/co-writer, DoP and co-editor Alexandra Dalsbaek, is a study of a Moscow student group, protesting against the re-election of President Putin in 2018. Very much shot ad-hoc, but still able to catch the arrest of opposition leader Navalny (twice), this feels very much like a work in progress, even though it is the long version, shown at the DOCNYC in 2021, sixteen minutes longer than he original version from 2019.

The action revolves around Milena K. almost playfully leading her group in anti-Putin and pro-Navalny activities. Milena poses with provocative placards in front of the Duma building and the Lubyanka – as well as other residences of state power. “Sell your villas, and build roads”, is one of her slogans attacking Putin and his oligarchs. But the resonance of the mostly elderly public is is anonymous and negative: “What have you even done for your country” is one of the answers that echoes back to Milena and her agitator friends. For the older generation Putin is still considered the saviour of Russia. Milena’s boutique owner mother is afraid for her daughter and tries to persuade her to limit her activism. Milena’s friend Alexander, who works in Navalny’s election office, is beaten up over night by the police, and fined 400 Roubles after a court hearing. Kostya S is arrested with Navalny in January 2019, after he was “disqualified” from standing in the election, and had called for a boycott of the state controlled proceedings. Whilst Navalny was eventually poisoned and re-arrested after his return from Germany, Kostya is sentenced to three year’s house arrest. But in the end, the ‘election’ goes ahead and Milena makes a final attempt to show the proceedings are rigged by walking into a polling station, and claiming rigged ballots: the voting cards are not counted and just stuffed into mailing bags. Finally, at a major demonstration, Milena is arrested, along with over 16 000 others, but released after 48 hours.

The narrative’s lack of structure is compensated for by its sheer  sheer panache. Milena could well be the alter ego of the director, enjoying the political fight and sweeping away the restrictions of the past . WE ARE RUSSIA begs the question, has Russian youth stopped demonstrating since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Looks like the state forces could well have cracked down on insurrection. While Navalny languishes  colony what has become of Milena and her cause. AS

WE ARE RUSSIA on July 15 will also be playing for a week at the Bertha DocHouse cinema.

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

The River (2021)

Dir.: Jennifer Peedom; co-directed by Joseph Nizeti; narrated by Willem Dafoe; Documentary; Australia 2021, 75 min.

An impressive collection of river images coalesce with a mellow voice-over commentary by Willem Dafoe and music from the Australian Chamber Orchestra in this languorous companion piece to the director’s 2017 documentary Mountain.

We start in the recording studio where the chamber orchestra tune their instruments, and Dafoe looks for the right nuance of tone. Then we are literally thrown into the river, in this case a waterfall, where a canoeist struggles to stay afloat despite losing the paddles. A historical, philosophical and ecological journey ensues, the story of mankind and rivers, and how they shaped each other. The loosely formed narrative flows, oscillating between soothing and wild – just like its subject.

Feel yourself sinking into the languid images; Peedom and the five accredited DoPs filmed in 39 countries, and the result is the capture of natures’ glory, with a few ecological warnings thrown in: “It is always the poor who suffer most”, underlining images of a river polluted by plastic bottles and other industrial debris. “Rivers have shaped us as a species; they are the source of human dreams. Worshipped like Gods, humans dreamt of rivers, forces of live and death”. “But now, our Gods have become our subjects”, dams, and other irrigation measures show the changing relationship between men and rivers. Global networks of transport, connecting metropolis and their smaller brethren: “The world’s great cities all have a river at their heart”. There are mystical cloud plays, connecting the rivers to the firmament.

Rivers is a lesson in visual filmmaking, that eschews ‘Talking Heads’ telling its story visually, images are used as an argument, sometimes poetic, then again also “as wild as the river itself”. Humans rarely feature and only dominant in black-and-white archive material about the ‘taming’ of waterways. But the bursting of dams and other catastrophes show only too clearly that the power is reverting to nature. But still, “we share our fate with the rivers, we flow together”. Rivers very much follows the course Joris Ivens’ A Tale of the Wind.  Peedom is also neither reverential, nor does she agitate on behalf of environmentalists, but simply shows the beauty of ecology. The music composed by Willaim Barton, Piers Burbrook de Vere and Richard Tognetti is an integral part of the feature; editor Simon Njoo is able to harness the ebbing and flowing of the Rivers into a stream of images, into which the audience can lose itself: “Rivers change you, gradually and permanently”. AS

RIVER nationwide Q&A preview 16 March 2022 with Robert Macfarlane and Jennifer Peedom, on general release 18th March www.river.film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sanctity of Space (2021)

Dirs: Renan Ozturk, Freddie Wilkinson | US Doc, 101′

In this new documentary two climbers trace and film the steps of renowned photographer, cartographer, explorer and longtime director of the Boston Museum of Science, Bradford Washburn, who became obsessed with climbing after discovering its heath benefits.

Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson join fellow climber Zack Smith in this snowbound odyssey plotting their journey on a large photograph that Massachusetts-born Bradford had taken back in the 1930s. But Washburn’s dangerous historical quest with its impressive re-enactments rapidly take a back seat as Sanctity drifts into more personal territory for the three filmmakers who reflect on the fate of their climbing friends between 2007 and 2013. At this point the film becomes snowed under by two many voluble talking heads losing the thrust of the narrative as we zone out  overwhelmed by the magnificent mountains and the awe of nature. MT

IN CINEMAS SOON

 

Raphael Revealed (2020)

Dir: Phil Grabsky | Doc

Marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, director Phil Grabsky was in Rome with his camera to document the greatest exhibition that has ever taken place of the Italian master’s work. Raphael Revealed celebrates the life of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino on the big screen allowing viewers all over the world access to several hundred masterpieces, including paintings and drawings – over a hundred of which have been brought together for the first time.

Director and cinematographer Phil Grabsky has made a name for himself recording a series of major art exhibitions and adding value with informative commentary from experts – in this case Nicholas Penny, Tom Henry and Dr Angelamaria Aceto, of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – who bring the artists’ creativity to life for those unable to be there in person.

Raphael 1483-1520) is widely regarded as one of the three great masters of Renaissance Italy, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Mixing in eclectic circles from Popes to paupers his work reflects the diversity of 15th century society, not just through paintings but also in his skilful draughtsmanship of building design and architecture. Raphael also wrote poetry in his brief life of just 37 years.

Grabsky takes us on a tour of the exhibition itself interweaving vibrant shots of the paintings with outdoor vistas picturing Raphael’s forays to Florence and Rome as well as his his daily life in Urbino. The exhibition unfolds in reverse chronological order, starting in Rome, where he dies at the age of 37 – with a life-size facsimile of his tomb “built with cutting edge technologies” (which will later rest in his hometown of Urbino) – and then tracing his story back to Florence and Umbria.

Raphael honed his craft by drawing in pencil, a skill that enabled him to understand the intricacies of the human form and learn about spacial perspectives. His father was the official painter and poet of the Duke Montefeltro, and Raphael took over this role when he was still only a teenager on his father’s death.

At the age of 25 Raphael was commissioned to decorate the rooms in the Vatican where he spent the rest of life perfecting his skills not only as a painter but also as architect to the serving Popes, a role that allowed him to develop his artistic expression in sculpture, tapestry design and drawing in ink, charcoal, metal point and chalk.

During his lifetime Raphael also crafted two self-portraits and these bookend the exhibition – one from the Louvre, known as Self-Portrait with his Fencing Master (1518) and the other portraying the maestro as a young man.

Raphael Revealed also includes significant paintings from the Uffizi, Pinacoteca di Bologna and the National Gallery of Washington along with sculptures, tapestries and other works. The highlight for many devotees of the Italian artist are the portraits of the two popes hung together for the first time: Julius II from the National Gallery in London and Leo X with the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi from the Uffizi.

Along with Chopin, Mozart and the poet Shelley who also died in their thirties, Raphael’s incredible body of work puts him in the league of the world’s most revered creative geniuses. At his death he was still working on a graphic reconstruction of Ancient Rome  MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 12 OCTOBER 2021

Getting Away with Murder(s) (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE in UK CINEMAS FROM 1 OCTOBER 2021

 

Marceline. A Woman. A Century. (2021)

Dir.: Cordelia Dvoràk; Documentary with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Simone Veil, Judith Perignin, Jean-Pierre Sergent; France/Netherlands 2018, 76 min.

Cordelia Dvoràk’s biopic about the life of filmmaker and author Marceline Loridan-Ivens (1928- 2018) is an example of the triumph of opposition: Fourteen year-old Marceline Rozenberg was imprisoned in Bollène (Vaucluse) then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 13.4,1944, having worked with her father Szlama for the resistance. She did not only survive Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin (Theresienstadt), but became a filmmaker, working with her husband Joris Ivens (1898-1989) in Vietnam and China.

Loridan-Ivens was one of only 2500 French Jews who survived deportation, just under three percent of the total of 76 000 victims. After watching Loridan-Ivens signing copies of her auto-biography ‘Et tu n’es pas Revenu’, she meets co-author Judith Perignon in her Parisian flat, a cheerful place with flowers everywhere. This sets the tone of an upbeat documentary: the old Marceline talking to her young self. “Hunger, beatings, thirst. People die, and you instantly forget them. No soul is left. I can see her clearly, that little girl that is still inside me to this day. She is fairly shy”. Marceline met Simone Veil in Block 9, and the once Minister of Culture makes a (too) short visit.

After her liberation by the Red Army in May 1945, she returned to Paris where her mother “wanted her daughter to marry into Jewish families, have children and erase the past”. But “sexuality was a form of disobedience”, and Marceline, who never wanted children on her own, preferred to visit the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and sit in bistros to discuss the past and present. This is how she met documentary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, whose star she became in Cronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer) in 1961. It also led to a liaison with 18 year-old journalist Jean-Pierre Sergent, who was supposed to teach Marceline all about Philosophy so that she could prepare to study at the university. But the two became lovers and later filmmakers in their own right, having discovered that filmmaking was not that difficult. The duo was very much a supporter of the FNL, Marceline even carrying suitcases for the FNL. The result was the documentary Algeria Année Zero. Today, Loridan-Ivens is very critical of herself: “We thought the FLN was led by progressive militants, little did we know the majority had their roots in Islamic fundamentalism.”

She met Joris Ivens whilst watching his feature A Valparaiso. He was impressed by Marceline, sending her flowers, but then disappearing for months. When they met again, they stayed together until Ivens’ death. The couple lived like vagabonds, Ivens being “very macho” at the beginning, but Marceline “imposed her will on him.” The past suddenly becomes the present, when Mrs. Phuong arrives from Vietnam to invite Marceline for the 50th Anniversary screening of The 17. Parallel, the couple’s iconic Vietnam documentary, with Mrs. Phuong not only doing the translating, but was also offering technical support. Next for the filmmakers was China, then ostracised by the whole world, after their split with the Soviet-Union.

Joris and Marceline documented the last two years of the cultural Revolution in the 763-minute epic How Yu Kong moved the Mountains (1976), which was to be shown in twelve parts. With “The Band of Four” making a power-grab, Premier Zhou Enlai told the filmmakers to leave the country immediately. Jean Bigiaoui, who worked with the crew, gives a lively commentary on the (film)adventure. We watch clips from Franck Leplat’s 2015 documentary Marceline Loridan-Ivens racontant sou passage a la prison de Sainte-Anneavant (2015). Loridan-Ivens is, for once, very bitter on the commentary. She remembers singing for her father, whose cell was near to her own. But this sets her off into an angry monologue about “never forgiving” the perpetrators.

Marceline is the only Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor who returned to the camp and made her own feature film about her incarceration there: La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux (The Birch Tree Meadow) 2003. Anouk Aimée plays Marceline’s Alter Ego, who meets a German photographer and questions him about his motives for taking photos in the ruins of the camp. Marceline was not quiet satisfied with her effort: “The concept of a documentary was not enough, because I wanted a representation. I should have played myself.”

Marceline Loridan-Ivens died on 18.9.2018, six weeks after this documentary was finished. She wanted to be buried, even though it frightened her. “But everything is better than being burned”. AS

NOW ON TRUE STORY at all leading platforms | From September 17

All Things Bakelite (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS WORLDWIDE

The Silent Enemy (1930)

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

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

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

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

Wall of Shadows (2021)

Dir/Wri: Eliza Kubarska | Polish Doc 98′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012) Prime Video

Dir: Lauren Greenfield | US Doc 103′ | With Jacqueline and Davie Siegel

An instructive companion to The Grapes of Wrath and the South Park episode ‘Asspen’, in which the hunter becomes the hunted as – after becoming a billionaire pressuring ‘moochers’ into living beyond their means by investing in his timeshire holiday homes – ‘timeshare king’ David Siegel gets a taste of his own medicine following the financial crash of September 2008.

In The Grapes of Wrath (the novel, not the film), the bank is fatalistically described as ‘The Monster’, which must continue to be fed profits or it will die. Hence the mass evictions of honest, hard-working tenant farmers like the Joads so ‘The Monster’ can devour their assets. In 2008, the bankers who encouraged Siegel in the first place to overstretch himself financially are, instead of going to jail, shored up with taxpayers’ money and show their appreciation in an orgy of foreclosures and asset-stripping of their own victims to sustain profitability as usual.

David’s amiable trophy wife Jackie compares the bank to vultures circling her husband’s business waiting for it to die the better for them to devour its corpse. The modest little home of Jackie’s old school friend faces foreclosure even after Jackie gives her $5,000 to cover a debt that had started out at just $1,700; while David’s bank is putting the screws on him to surrender his own assets to them at knockdown prices.

Jackie initially seems remarkably unspoiled by her immense wealth, and remains seemingly stoical as her husband’s fortunes unravel and she is reduced to travelling by commercial airliner and shopping at Wall-Mart. But the visible deflation of David is painful to watch as for the first time he has to worry about meeting his electricity bill. (It usually takes financial reversals for people to start conducting themselves in an environmentally responsible manner.)

The almost comical lack of irony with which Jackie described the Siegels as “ordinary people like us” lays bare the sheer incomprehension of the 1% of how the 99% live, the political ramifications of which in a plutocracy like the United States include the casual vindictiveness its political leaders (and their paymasters like the Siegels) routinely display and enshrine in legislation against those less fortunate than themselves. (While Jackie stressed her “need” for the additional living space Versailles would have provided, in Britain the same year that this film was released the government of Old Etonian David Cameron introduced a punitive “bedroom tax” in the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 whereby council house tenants with any room considered “spare” automatically had their housing benefit docked.)

We see the reality of ‘trickle-down’ economics in the impact upon the Siegel’s vast army of employees and dependents all the way down the food chain in the fate of their pet lizard, who amidst the confusion is allowed to die of thirst. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Some Kind of Heaven (2020) digital release

Dir: Lance Oppenheim | US Doc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 14 MAY 2021

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

Pariah Dog (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON TRUESTORY

No Ordinary Man (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE 2021

 

 

 

Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (2020)

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

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

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

courtesy of Getty Images

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

Courtesy of the Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tove (2020)

Dir: Zaida Bergroth | Finland, Drama | 100′

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

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

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

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

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

On release from 9 July 2021

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

Dir: Elena Horn | Germany, Doc 60′

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

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

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

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

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

SCREENING DURING HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021

ALL FILMS AVAILABLE TO SCREEN 

 

MLK/FBI (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dissident (2020) Bfi player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Capote Tapes (2020) VoD

Dir: Ebs Burnough | With Dick Cavett, Kate Harrington, Lewis Lapham, Andre Leon Talley, Jay McInerney, Sally Quinn, Dotson Radar, John Richardson, Sadie Stein, Colm Toibin| US, Doc, 91′

“A society that is the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all: it’s a state of war” (Mark Twain), and this is the society of Truman – Lewis Lapham

Cinematic catnip for all voyeurs, this new documentary about Truman Capote plays out like a thrilling cocktail party.

A first film Ebs Burnough – who once served as social secretary to Michelle Obama – the broad-brush biopic chronicles Capote’s life and times with his novels forming the background to a glittering social scene that was his lifeblood, and in the end his downfall.

Burnough focuses on interviews conducted by George Plimpton, the most intimate and revealing coming from his ‘protege’ Kate Harrington (the daughter of his “manager” – and lover, as she later discovered), who later moved in with the Manhattan-based author describing him as “calm and nurturing”. He taught her the requisite social graces for operating in New York Society (“you can be a big deal in Boise, Idaho, but the only place that matters is New York”).

Harrington (a costumer designer on The Thomas Crown Affair) describes how the author rose early to write for three hours before embarking on gossip-fuelled rendezvous. There are pithy commentaries from literary luminaries Jay McInerney, Lewis Lapham and Dotson Radar and the late John Richardson (Picasso’s biographer), along with chat show host Dick Cavett (all looking smooth-faced and soigné) who wittily chart Truman’s progress from society darling and ‘court jester’ to social pariah whose writing eventually suffered from his inadvisable over-sharing of gossip, and substance abuse.

Many claim that his obsession with convicted killer Perry (In Cold Blood) was the source of his downfall, but Burnough persuades us that the grandes dames of NY eventually put the boot in to the diminutive blond writer with an extraordinary vocal delivery. In fact, Harrington describes his speech as so bizarre on first meeting him (as a teenager) that she was forced to run from the room for fear of laughing in his face. And the self-deprecating Truman was fully aware that he came across as “a freak”, proclaiming that people only laughed in his company out of sheer horror at his strange voice. It soon emerges that Truman thought little of the socialites in his midst, and harboured resentment over they way he was apparently treated as a “servant” (according to Lapham). These rumours partly led to the suicide of his mother Nina Faulk Capote (1905-54), despite the fact she herself had tried to terminate her prenancy (ref: Capote: A Biography/Gerald Clarke) eventually bringing him up in Monroeville, Alabama where Truman grew close to his childhood friend Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

But on a lighter note, this fizzing cocktail of a film is not meant to be the definitive Capote biopic but serves as an endlessly amusing tonic in these days of the ‘doom documentary’, adding frothy context to Truman’s literary works capturing the zeitgeist of the era in which they were penned.

The Capote Tapes is further enlivened by archive clips featuring Norman Mailer and Truman’s ‘best friend’ the socialite Barbara”Babe” Cushing Paley (whose husband William founded CBS Records) and there are quotes from his various novels, ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ (1948); ‘Breakfast in Tiffany’s’ (1958); his ‘non-fiction’ effort ‘In Cold Blood’ (1965) which gets the lion’s share of Burnough’s attention on the book front, which was considered pivotal to Truman’s emotional unravelling, along with the repercussions of published excerpts from the author’s unfinished work ‘Answered Prayers’ (published posthumously in 1987 in the US) which was substantially delayed by the infamous Black and White Ball of 1966 – more later – and also purportedly led to his downfall.

The film them flips back to detail the Truman’s assignment with the New Yorker hat would take him away from the rigours of keeping up with the ‘NY Joneses’ to spend six months in Kansas covering the murder case that would form the basis for his ‘non-fiction’ classic ‘In Cold Blood’. On the downside, it also led to his fascination with Perry making it difficult to maintain distance from his source material (an aspect that really jumps out in Douglas McGrath’s 2006 screen adaptation of the novel Infamous .

Burnough culminates his expose by fleshing out the events surrounding the divisive 1966 ball that Truman threw at the Plaza Hotel, publishing a list of those invited in the papers (so that no-one could pretend to have been invited that wasn’t). The gossip columns shared salacious secrets the socialites has shared with Truman  – Babe Paley never spoke to him again, much to his chagrin. So the exclusive party that was in part intended to provide source material for a book backfired on its precipitating the end of his writing career, . Jay McInerney comments, quite harshly, that from then on Truman became more a ‘talk-show celebrity’ than a committed author, and was assigned to a life of ‘drugs and disco hopping’ rather than consorting with New York’s beau mode. A rather poignant film but certainly one of the most fascinating you’ll see this year. MT

The Capote Tapes will be available at www.altitude.film and on all digital platforms across the UK and Ireland from 29 January.

Assassins (2020) VOD

Dir: Ryan White | US Doc 104’

In an extraordinary story of deceit and subterfuge Assassins travels from Pyongyang to Indonesia, Vietnam and Kuala Lumpur to investigate what really happened to Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un who lost his life nearly fours years ago.

This story of a public murder, filmed in the grainy footage of CCTV at Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13.2.2017 is as bizarre as it is mysterious. American director/writer Ryan White (Ask Dr Ruth) has chronicled the murder case and the ensuing trial, the upshot is no   cause celebre but a very human story, involved a calculating dictator and two ordinary women.

Photos show a middle-aged man in the airport hall, suddenly being attacked by two young women seemingly rubbing some substance into his eyes before running off, openly looking at the CCTV monitors. The man stumbles on and is taken away by airport security, the two women taking separate taxis back to the city. The victim was Kim Jong-nam. He would die twenty minutes after having been smeared with the deadly nerve gas agent VX. The two women are identified as Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (28) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (25), who would soon be arrested for the murder, facing a trial and a certain death sentence by hanging, if found guilty.

Kim Jong-nam (*1971), the oldest son of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, was seen as his eventual successor. But after a scandal regarding his visit to Disneyland Tokyo in 2001, his brother Jong-un took over the regime after the death of his father. Kim Jong-nam, who had renounced any participation in the government of his country, had survived at least two assassination attempts, one at Ferihegy airport in Budapest in 2009, another one in 2012.

Both women “assassins” came from a rural background, where the director visited their distraught parents. Doan had moved to the capital Hanoi, went to college and moved in search of fame to Kuala Lumpur, wanting to become an actress. Siti’s CV is much more dramatic: she had worked in a clothing factory in Jakarta, married the boss and had a daughter at age seventeen, which she lost to her husband after a divorce custody battle. She became a sex worker, still dreaming of fame. Both met a chauffeur called John who promised the women easy work: Video pranks, reminiscent of the “Jackass” trilogy. The payment of nearly 100 US Dollar was good, and preferable to sex work. What happened next is recounted by journalists Hadi Azmir (Bloomberg), and Anna Fifeld, chief of the ‘Washington Post’ in their Bejing office. The operation was masterminded by Mr Y, also known as Hanamori, and a chemist Ri Jong Chol, as well as the Godfather OJong-Gil, all members of the North Koran Secret Service. An airport employee Kim Uk Il was also part of the deadly plot, all operatives got away to North Korea, leaving the two women to fight for themselves.

Their mobiles did not contain any links to North Korea, just rather sad accounts of video pranks which were anything but professional. But the Malaysian government was only too happy to have found two scapegoats who fitted the bill. The trail began on 2.10.2017. The court judge was clearly biased, and Siti and Doan feared for their lives, but what happens next is hardly outlandish but certainly emotionally overwhelming.

DoP John Benam’s camera adds to the tension fly-on-wall camerawork, the ‘Talking-Heads’ often reduced by voice-overs. Although the outcome is positive it could have been quite the opposite. What is shocking is the audacity of the North Korean agents who blithely set people up for the death penalty, with scant regard for their human rights. “They treated us as if we were nothing” comments Siti, in a fitting last word. AS

VOD NOW AT WATCH.DOGWOOF.COM

 

City Hall (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

Radiograph of a Family (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Red Penguins (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Storyville | Monday 7 December 10pm | BBC iPlayer

 

 

   

The Parallel Street (1962) **** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

 

Sing me a Song (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Demand from 1 January 2021

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

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

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

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

CÉSAR 2015 WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY | NOW ON MUBI 

Athlete A (2020) **** Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINNER OF THE US CRITICS AWARD 2020 | coming to NETLIX

Mayor (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JANUARY 2021 |

The Exit of the Trains (2020) DocLisboa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Overlanders (1946) **** Talking Pictures

The reason for the docudrama approach stems from the original idea of making a propaganda film for the Australian government who knocked on Watts’ door looking for a well known director and a reputable studios – Ealing naturally fitted the bill, although the film was released after the war was over.

Mother (2019) Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epicentro (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDANCE GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER | WORLD CINEMA

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON release in Cinemas

Overseas (2019) Locarno 2019

Dir: Yoon Sung-a | Doc, 90′

It you are bored with the daily grind of working from home in these tedious Covid times then spare a thought for Filipino domestic workers in the Far and Middle East. In this startling expose of modern slavery that brings us up to speed on the acceptable ways of serving lunch to a Singaporean lady, or cleaning a lavatory in a Dubai household, there are some shocking revelations, tears and sadness for these young women who are often 0ver-worked and badly treated by their employers. But their training instructors urge them: “Never cry in front of your boss, it’s a sign of weakness and Filipinos are not weak”.

Overseas is the sophomore documentary of South Korea’s Yoon Sung-a, and makes for compelling viewing although it often lingers too long on each repetitive scene. There has been a long tradition of employing Filipino workers and these women are often treated as members of the family throughout Europe. But Yoon concentrates on those destined for the Middle and Far East where the working conditions are considerably more harsh, and employment laws less kind. Clearly the financial incentives to work abroad are worthwhile and makes sense, despite the hardships. Working mothers in the Far East are fully accustomed to leaving their kids with members of their own family while they pursue the financial incentives available overseas in order to provide a home of their own when they finally return retire.

Some of the workers are lucky, but many are made to work long hours in poor conditions: one girl talks of sleeping on the kitchen floor and being woken at 5am to start her day; another was constantly given orders even while eating her meals. There is also talk of sexual abuse in a household in the Middle East.

Overseas resonates with Davide Maldi’s recent feature The Apprentice that examines the service industry in Italy and the ongoing attitudes of those employed in the sector, while Lila Aviles has explored the life of a hotel worker in Mexico City in her darkly amusing, award-winning film The Chambermaid (2018). Throughout the Europe domestic workers are more in demand than ever with middle class families paying to having help at home – both parents are often out working and their adult (working) offspring are still in residence. In the Far and Middle East the class system is more rigidly in place but times are changing and these domestic workers are justifiably become more dissatisfied with their lot. These girls are caught in the crosswinds of change.

Yoon adopts a quietly observational approach to demonstrate how the collective experience of these women is broadly negative – yet is at pains to show that they are individuals rather than just a collective mass known for their placid and obedient nature. MT

NOW ON VOD PLATFORMS

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020) Apple TV

Dir: Werner Herzog | Doc 97′

Close encounters of the cosmic kind are the focus of Werner Herzog’s latest documentary as he joins up again with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (Into the Inferno) for a peripatetic odyssey into the world of asteroids and meteorites that could fall to Earth and one day destroy us. Captured on the pristine camerawork of Herzog’s

collaborator Richard Blanchard, whose wizardry makes this all the more astounding.

Arcane and sometimes darkly amusing in its fervent boy’s own adventure style of cosmology – you wonder whether Ulrich Seidl has been involved – this is another of Herzog’s mammoth undertakings and the protagonists get very excited about their subject, often waxing lyrical – in the case of the ‘Brothers of the Stone’: “meteorites have a meaning and it’s up to us to interpret what this is”.

Werner Herzog is obviously deeply worried but remains chipper while communicating his concern about this planetary devastation through a series of eager talking heads compered by Oppenheimer himself. There is Bavarian four-times cancer surviver Jan Braly Kihle (straight out of Im Keller), Jon Larsen, a Norwegian violinist with a penchant for cosmic dust (“Cosmic dust looks eternity in the eye, it is the oldest thing that exists on earth”); Brother Guy Consolmagno, a jolly Jesuit astronomer who heads up the Vatican Observatory; and Paul Steinhardt an expert in natural ‘quasicrystal’ whose field experience had hitherto not extended beyond the lawns of Princeton University but he bravely undertakes to locate and prove these crystals had actually been formed in space.

But the principle concern of Fireball is the exploration of things that fall from space, and the myriad artistic rituals and myths associated with these “visitors from darker worlds”. In tones that can only be described as conspiratorial and febrile, Herzog delivers a killer statement: “We do not know what in the future is coming at us, eventually destroying us” but “untold numbers are still on their way.”

Although Fireball may at first seem rather glib and ridiculous the film soon takes on a more contemplative vibe laced with moments of sheer joy and wonder – visually speaking. We visit no fewer than 17 of the planet’s most remote  geographic corners, not to mention university laboratories and  government facilities. In Mecca we experience the religious fervour when pilgrims are able to touch the famous Black Stone in the Kaaba (here Herzog relies on footage from ‘a believer’). In Mexico (where people believe that shooting stars transport the souls of the departed) we join a Mayan ceremonial procession featuring a fireball on the famous Day of the Dead. But most impressive of all are the sites where asteroids have actually wreaked palpable damage. An enormous crater in Australia has inspired local native aboriginal artist Katie Darkie to create some highly colourful paintings. And according to local folklore another 300 asteroid purportedly fell on a field in Alsace back in 1492. But the most extraordinary comes later.

Occasionally even Oppenheimer seems fazed by the boyish enthusiam of the experts, especially one who hands him a meteorite called ‘The Dog House’ that apparently fell on a dog’s kennel in Costa Rica (luckily the dog lived to bark again). Apparently heavier meteorites landed in the same region the ground underneath was totally destroyed and turned to glass: “if you were sitting there having a cup of tea, you would undoubtedly be turned to glass” he reflects joyfully. Elsewhere in the same Arizona facility, Oppenheimer gets rather flirty when he meets a highly attractive female meteor expert who giggles excitedly when he points out that some of the samples look like the work of Barbara Hepworth. “We’re all stardust – eventually”; she retorts, and at this point Herzog cannot help joining in the cheeky banter.

In a crater in Rajasthan – near to 11th century Hindu Temples — geochemist Nita Sahai comments that meteorites actually contain protein. “What do you think of Panspermia?” asks Oppenheimer rather sheepishly. Nita answers gamely that Shiva is a god of both creation and destruction in the Hindu religion.

Narrating, Herzog judiciously keeps a firm control on pacing, cutting away from experts who are getting over-excited. From India we move to Chicxulub Puerto on the Yucatan Peninsula, where the most cataclysmic asteroid hit ever occurred over 66 million years ago leaving a hole 30 kilometres deep. Although dinosaurs were destroyed in the event, mammals made it through the catastrophe and were able to regroup – although the crater was not discovered until the 70s.

What is certain is that “a big one is going to hit us fairly soon”. That’s the view of a couple of scientists in Maui who have got it covered when it comes to watching out for these ‘unwelcome visitors’, using telescopes equipped with the world’s largest digital cameras. Luckily NASA is also active in this regard with their Planetary Defence Coordination Office responsible for letting us all known when the moment of doom finally arrives.

Fireball includes footage from recent feature films picturing the arrival of unwelcome celestial visitors and a final sequence that sees Herzog back on top form as a master documentarian in a film that needs to be seen to be believed. MT

NOW ON APPLETV

 

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ****

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with Marion Stokes; USA 2019, 87 min.

Director Matt Wolf (Teenage) has created a immersive portrait of Marion Stokes (1929-2012): socialist organiser, civil rights activist, librarian, TV presenter and archivist. Of  her many achievements is a collection of recorded American TV News programmes, spanning the years from 1977 to her death. This valuable reference is an achievement that will keep her name alive as long as TV history is being made.

Stokes’ personal history is as uncommon as her prodigious output: she was given up by her mother for adoption and later traced her birthmother to learn that now had brought up a family after Marion had left. A child of the big Depression, the memory of poverty never left her: her first husband testifies to her membershop of the USA Socialist Party, which he calls “a very unattractive organisation”. This, and the fact that she was a civil rights campaigner, cost her the librarian job. Nevertheless, Stokes was anything but a victim or martyr, with her future husband John Stokes (from a family of ‘Old Money’ in Philadelphia), she hosted a local TV programme researching, among other topics, the way news shows were produced.

Her relationship with her own son Michael Metelits (from her first marriage) was frosty, as were her feelings for John Stokes’s own kids from his first marital relationship. For many years she couldn’t forgive Michael for lacking her intellectual rigour. One of John’s daughters relates how she had to sneak up secretly to talk to her father who later begged her not to mention their meeting.

Marion and John led a more and more secluded life, helped by a chauffeur, an assistant and a nurse, who all spoke highly of Marion. The couples’ huge flat in a luxury apartment block on Ritterhouse Square, a prime location, was soon too small to house the 40,000 books even more tapes the couple collected – they rented multiple flats to cope with the overflow. Strangely enough, Marion was a great fan of Steve Jobs, talking about him like he where her own son. She also bought Apple shares when they were valued at only USD 7.00, and collected all 192 Apple computers from the very beginning of ‘The Classic’.

Long before Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump coined the term ‘Fake News’, Marion had already cottoned on to the questionable coverage of the Iraq/Iran wars. But it was not only the main stories that fascinated Wolf: “Ultimately it was things we were not looking for, that were most interesting”. Such as a 1998 story, of 84-year old Rose Martin, who was buried in her white Cevrolet Corvair. 

It took over fifty volunteers to catalogue the 70 000 EP (extended play) tapes with Marion’s comments on the spine giving a clue for the Google spreadsheets. This is a stunning documentary. Keiko Deguchi has done a superb editing job, and Chris Dapkins and Matt Mitchell’s talking head images are one of the better ones. Marion Stokes died on the day the school massacre of Sandy Hooks (Connecticut) unfolded on TV – luckily, accordingly to her son, she died before the news showed the grim images. AS

NOW ON RELEASE.

    

 

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance (2020) *** Raindance Festival 2020

Dir: Khadifa Wong

Khadifa Wong’s life experience as a dancer informs her lively if over-talkie debut feature about the origins of jazz dance.

Celebrating its international premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, the film traces the roots of this expressive and iconically American dance form from its early history in the 19th century and through to the current day. And it all start during slavery – wouldn’t you know? Back then it was a vital form of protest, not just a way of expressing enjoyment. Well that certainly makes it a topical film with the current Black Lives Matter month in full swing.

Wong’s ground-breaking documentary also offers a political and social chronicle of the times, alighting on more weighty issues of racism, socialism and sexism while offering up a passionate and thought-provoking musical biopic.

The dancer and director has delved into the archives enlivening her film with cuttings and news footage. Over fifty experts offer up their valuable insight from choreographers to teachers and dancers themselves so it does occasionally feel overwhelming to have so much knowledge and opinion in the space of less than two hours. But the movement and dance elements are what really makes this a winner and Matt Simpkins’ camerawork captures the essence of bodies gyrating to great affect.

Curiously enough it was white men in the shape of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole who really emerged as the forerunners of the form. And one of the most engaging talking heads, dramaturg and choreographer Melanie George shares her thoughts about why these luminaries were so influential while Black innovators were often lesser known. And she discovers that their ability to codify  the various forms of jazz dance with Hollywood and Broadway that gave it a different profile that took it above and beyond its roots and origins. The lesser-known artists also have their say, Frank Hatchett, Pepsi Bethel and Fred Benjamin Wong amongst them – although none is particularly famous to mainstream audiences.

Wong cleverly makes the point that jazz dance was actually a pared down version of the tribal form of communication for many Africans, and particularly slaves, enabling them to express themselves with their bodies in highly syncopated, exaggerated and meaningful ways – almost like silent film – relying on strong facial and body language – to make their feelings known. The Pattin’ Juba and Cakewalk were both dances that originated in the plantations of the Deep South where enslavement relied heavily on this kind of vital communication for protest, or even survival.

Eventually jazz became more sophisticated and sinuous moving through the bebop and hard bop years and we start to recognise names such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. There is also some impressive clips that show James Brown and Little Richard and really convey the seriousness of their political message – they were not just merely there to entertain.

A documentary about dance expression should always focus primarily on the dancing, and this is the only slight criticism that one can level at Uprooted. Wong has done so much research for her deep dive into the subject seems to focus on talking and commentary over movement and music. When we see Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele doing their stuff the film comes alive — so their stories of segregation and racial alienation seem all the more poignant. There is a fascinating piece about Patrick Swayze’s mother Patsy, being the only white dance teacher in Texas to allow Black children into her school. If there’s one talent those entertainers have it’s the ability to move their bodies in magnetic and beguiling ways. And Black dancers have it in spades. MT

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 28 OCTOBER – 7 NOVEMBER 2020

Aalto (2020)

Dir: Virpi Suutari | Finland, Doc 103min

This comprehensive biopic about one of the greatest designers of the 20th century is both an affectionate tribute to the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and a touching love story. Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (1898-1976) and his architect wife Aino Aalto shaped the modern world of design through their cutting edge buildings, furniture, textiles and glassware in much the same way as America’s Charles and Ray Eames and even Britain’s Terence Conran.

Virpi Suutari digs deeps into the archives with her writer and award-winning editor Jussi Rautaniemi (The Happiest Day in The Life of Olli Maki) to take us on a cinematic journey into life of a man whose designs were boosted by rapid economic growth in Finland and encompassed the lofty Finlandia Hall in Helsinki and the practical Paimio Sanatorium. For over five decades, from 1925-1978, the Aalto modernist aesthetic gave rise to iconic creations such as the Beehive light-fitting (1959), and the 406 armchair (1939) which remain essential style markers for the conoscenti. And even if you couldn’t afford a house designed by the Finnish luminary you could at least have one of his curvy Savoy vases (inspired by a Sami woman’s dress). These timeless modern creations could be made on an industrial scale but still retained a sense of simple luxury rooted in Finnish heritage from sustainable local materials such as birch wood, and glass blown in the littala factory.

Finnish documentarian Virpi Suutari shows how Alvar and Aino were not only talented architects but also a popular and cosmopolitan couple whose designs would become classics, defined by their practicality and precision. The Savoy vase won the Karhula-littala design competition in 1936 and would go on to be an iconic and elegant everyday item.

The film then travels further afield to show how Aalto’s civic and private buildings have stood the test of time and still associate well with their natural environment, from the private Villa Mairea in the late 1930s, to a university in Massachusetts, a pavilion at Venice Biennale and an art collector’s house near Paris, these were not ‘starchitect’ projects sticking out of the places surrounding them, but elegant and practical “machines for living” that provided for every eventuality. Aino and Alvar co-founded their furniture design company Artek in 1935, Aino becoming its first design director with a creative output that included textiles, lamps and interior design with clear and simply style, and this made way for complete design package, from lighting to door handles.

Opting for a straightforward chronicle approach Suutari shows how Aalto first set up a practice in his home town of Jyväsikylä in 1921 working on schemes that followed the predominant Nordic classism of the time. Meeting and marrying Aino Marsio in 1925 was the turning point, personally and stylistically, and after the birth Johanna later in 1925 (son Hamilkar would arrive three years later) the couple set off for Europe to discover the Modernist International style. But the groundwork for the practice was founded in Functionalism, and the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium (1929-1933) was precisely that – providing a user-friendly and practical solution to healthcare (Aalto also designed most of the furniture with the famous Paimio chair devised to assist patients’ breathing).

From then on designs became more fluid with the increased use of natural materials and spatial awareness. The concept once again went from the outside inwards, with interiors and even small details such as fixtures and fittings all forming part of a cohesive aesthetic. One of Aalto’s main achievements was the invention of the L-leg system that enabled legs to be attached directly to the table, he also pioneered the practice of bending and splicing wood, leading to the curved look of the tables and stools. This also meant that furniture could be created on an industrial scale, through defined product lines that were also patented.


Aino and Alvar enjoyed a close partnership in work and in love, with Aino’s travels to source ideas for Artek often taking her away from home until her early death from cancer in 1949. During these times apart the couple kept in touch by a constant of letters, and these epistolary exchanges are woven into the narrative expressing a certain freedom that hints at an open marriage but also a healthy flexibility that helped to keep their relationship alive, according to Suutari’s take on events. This is a love story that brims with positive vibes, and clearly the couple drew contentment and creative energy from their secure family life and love for their children.

After Aino’s death, Alvar was not to be alone for long, he soon married young architect Elissa Makiniemi and the couple would go on to design a villa just outside Paris on their return from Venice. La Maison Louise Carre (main pic) was completed in 1959, for art collectors Olga and Louis who had rejected Le Corbusier deeming his concrete style too austere. Aalto again created a complete package for the couple, with garden design, garage and interiors (now open to the public since since 2007).

Enlivened by family photographs and plentiful archive footage, diagrams and painstaking research, Aalto is a pithy yet concise undertaking that will satisfy professional as well as dilettante appetites. We are left with an impression of the artists as warm, creative and compassionate individuals who would change the face of Finland not just for the few but for the many who continue to celebrate his design legacy all over the world. MT

www.alvaraalto.fi | PREMIERED AT CPH:DOX 2021

Being a Human Person (2020) ****

Dir: Fred Scott | Doc with Roy Andersson and his team, 90′

The Swedish auteur Roy Andersson (1943-) looks back on his life and his filmmaking style in this enjoyable first feature from TV/commercials director Fred Scott.

Made during the run-up to About Endlessness that won Best Director at Venice in 2019 Being a Human Person is Roy Andersson in a nutshell and perfectly describes a filmmaker whose deadpan tragic-comedies give dignity to people who have not been that successful in life: boring husbands, bland businessmen, the socially challenged or deeply unattractive. In other words, these people could be any of us or just those who have lost their way or become bored of their humdrum existence: the dentist tired of his squeamish patients, the clergyman who has lost their faith in God ( the priest in About Endlessness). Andersson sees himself in everyone of his characters – by his own admission – vulnerability and insecurity are the themes of his films, and constantly spill over into his creative process as he as he feels his way intuitively through what is possibly his last project with long-standing collaborators who have grown accustomed to absorbing the daily stresses and strains of the project. His is not an intellectual style but resolutely intuitive, and that means changes are inevitable. A scene that feels fresh and punchy on shooting may lose its clout in the rushes later that day. 

Looking like an affable twinkly-eyed Steve McQueen in archive footage shot after his breakout first feature A Swedish Love Story won awards at Berlinale 1970, he claims to have been “disgusted” by the film’s success. Now 76, Andersson has lost none of his gently genial charisma as he moves gingerly round the spacious central Stockholm townhouse acquired in 1981. “Studio 24” remains the headquarters of his daily filmmaking activities. Watching the world go by is a favourite pastime, as is eating in the Italian pizza restaurant opposite which is now home to his proudly-won Venice Silver Lion. 

But who is the man behind the enigmatic smile? Something tells us all is not well in Andersson’s world. His staff are not the only ones who have noticed a lack of energy and his increasing reliance on alcohol (“to avoid boredom” opines the director). Andersson freely admits to his penchant for a few drinks. It makes him more calm and docile to work with according to his staff. But do we detect a twinge of existential angst? A dose of rehab is on Andersson’s mind, but he gives up shortly after treatment has started, coming back energised with the realisation that About Endlessness will be probably be his final feature – and he wants it to his best. 

Making films is emotionally and physically exhausting. But he fears losing his daily raison d’être. His daughter Sandra appears to give a much-needed nutritious lunch (it’s worked already! laughs Anderson as he knocks back a bright green smoothie). She describes a love-filled childhood in a rented flat seaside flat in Gothenburg, while friends lived nearby in grand houses: “He found it stimulating to be the underdog”. She reflects. Meanwhile, family photos show an extremely affectionate father doting on his kids, and although it emerges his own father suffered longterm depression, no mention is made of Andersson’s own romantic life. “There’s enough material there for another film” says director Fred Scott. 

Being a Human Person is a masterclass in the Andersson way of filmmaking. Every feature consists of a string of tableaux, each one taking around a month to build, painstakingly by hand. The actors then perform a series of scenes shot by a static camera. Andersson describes them as short ‘film poems’ about life for ordinary people in scenarios that often give rise to iconic deadpan humour. The ‘greige’ aesthetics in immaculately rendered claustrophobic, airless settings feature ashen-faced characters glum, resigned or on the verge of tears. 

As an artist he continues to be appalled and dismayed by his fellow humans’ wrongdoing to humanity itself. This preoccupation is the focus of his “Living Trilogy” with its universal themes of compassion and connection, composed of Songs from the Second Floor (2000); You, The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) . His short film World of Glory (1991) speaks of the unmitigated misery of ordinary life, but his most controversial work Something Happened (1993) was later withdrawn. 

Fred Scott offers up an affectionate and illuminating tribute to Roy Andersson that will hopefully encourage those bemused by his films to revisit them with greater insight. His collaborators are clearly fond of him despite his clever way of maintaining artistic control. And although Andersson emerges a man who feels deeply for humanity, Scott never really gets under his skin, his subject is clearly keen to keep his secrets intact:“You are a prisoner of your own mentality and that can be very hard sometimes” is all Roy Andersson will reveal. MT

IN CURZON | CINEMAS FROM 16 OCTOBER 2020

Totally Under Control (2020) ****

Dir.: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger; Documentary with Rick Bright, Robert R. Redfield, Eva Lee, Alex Azar, Nancy Messonier; USA 2020, 124 min.

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger got together with a bunch of scientists and US government politicians to try to work out how the Covid19 pandemic wreaked so much havoc in the US, with over 8 million infections, at the time of writing.

Back in January before the world was engulfed by the virus US President Trump was heard to say “Its just one person coming in from China”. By the end of that month Alex Azar, Secretary of State for Health and Human services claimed: “the national testing programme is up and running”. But it was not.

Trump refused to believe the scientists and called the CDC (Centres for Disease and Prevention) a “Deep State” site attempt to undermine his re-election chances. Its director, Robert Redfield had a history during the Aids crisis, calling for abstention and a strictly religious approach to the pandemic. Eva Lee director of the Centre for Operations Research in Medicine and Health Care at the Georgia Institute of Technology, developed a programme called Real-Opt using algorithms to predict the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile in South Korea testing was already well under way resulting in only 300 casualties from the pandemic. Asian countries were accustomed to using masks, and non compliance meant heavy fines. The American approach saw the refusal to wear a mask as a patriotic duty. The death rate soared, the USA representing 20% of global victims on this planet, in a total citizenship of just 4.23 %. 

The Trump administration had meanwhile got rid of the Pandemic Crisis Group set up by Obama. Returning from India at the end of February, Trump insisted the US was in a prime position. At  Stadium packed with 100 000 he wooed the crowd with open arms, and went on calling the pandemic a hoax:”only fourteen cases were known”. Nevertheless, a special Covid unit under the leadership of Vice-President Pence (who had encouraged cruises and visits to Disneyland) was formed. It consisted of Dr. Deborah Birx, a scientist and diplomat. She has stayed the course within the Trump circle, making compromises all the time, whilst Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, has clashed with Trump on more than one occasion. 

Trump insisted that tests would provided for all US citizens but the reality was very different: it was not just the Test Programme, which was handicapped by the lack of available testing material, PPE equipment and respirators were also short in supply, with fierce competition between the various states to secure specialised equipment after the government had sold millions of masks to China at the beginning of the pandemic. Countless health workers and first responders paid with their lives.

Trump fought hard to avoid a lockdown, but pressed too early for a re-opening: “We are not a country which was built for a lockdown, we do not let the cure be worse than the problem”. Trump replaced civil servants with business men, and fired no fewer than five Inspector-Generals. The president also indulged in “miracle cures” like hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medicine which was promoted by the Rasputin-like figure of Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. After Trump had taken the drug (“A gift from God”), Dr. Birx was asked by reporters to verify this – her answer was “its frustrating, it will rain for three days”. Whistle-blowers like Dr. Nancy Messonier of the CDC, and Max Kennedy (grandson of Robert) helped uncover government secrets such as the too early release of a vaccine in time for the election on November 3rd.  

Shot by DoP Ben Bloodwell (and many others) with protective covering between Talking Heads and camera, Totally under Control has nothing particularly new to bring to the party, but chronicles a disaster that cost many their lives. The end is poignant and full of poetic justice: a day after the feature was finished, President Trump caught the virus, but lived to tell the tale. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 23 OCTOBER 2020 

   

  

        

 

 

The Painter and The Thief (2020) ****

Dir: Benjamin Ree; Documentary with Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene; Norway 2020, 102 min.

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree follows his Sundance award-winning portrait of chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a documentary of a very different kind showing how bitter conflict can be resolved through art.

It all starts in 2015, when small time criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland and an unnamed accomplice stole two large paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo gallery. They were caught on CCTV, escaping with the rolled up canvases. Nordland was arrested and charged for the theft of ‘Swansong’ and ‘Chloe & Emma’, worth about 20,000 Euro. Particularly striking was the way the thieves took their time – removing a hundred or so nails to liberate the artworks – a task which would take over an hour. In court, Kysilkova asked Nordland why he stole her paintings, to which he answered simply “because they are beautiful”. He claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of a four-day heroin trance. Kysilkova, a striking woman in her mid-thirties, asked to paint Nordland in ‘retribution’ for his crime.

This was the beginning of a close relationship of ‘Seelenverwandschaft’, a form of congenial understanding of two seemingly very different people. We learn about Nordland’s fight against drug dependency as a result of his mother leaving with his two siblings, leaving him to contend with an emotionally cold father. Becoming a respected carpenter he then feel prey to drugs abuse and prison. His upper body is heavily tattooed, with an inscription reading “Snitchers are a dying Breed”. When Nordland saw his portrait he cried like a baby, so overwhelmed that somebody saw him worthy of a portrait. “I do not deserve to be happy”. Barbora also painted him with his girlfriend, who left him after he bought heroin on the way to Rehab.

Nordland and Barbora are polar opposites yet their relationship develops against the odds, clearly brought to each other by some sort of soul connection through which they also learn a great deal about themselves – including their respective inherent attraction to dangerous habits. They are like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by the adult world to fight for themselves in a threatening environment. The dark wood is a good symbol for a world both don’t fully understand.

Sentenced to one year in Halden prison, Nordland distance from Barbora’s feels somehow therapeutic for them both. But the re-discovery of one of her paintings ‘Swansong’, (hidden by Nordland’s partner in crime in an underground labyrinth) fills her with ecstatic happiness.

Rees and fellow DoP Kristoffer Kumar produces images of ethereal beauty, particularly in the shots showing Barbora painting in a trance-like state. What started as a ten-minute short film develops into a profound exploration of two survivors, who accidentally find a way to each other. AS

In cinemas 30 October 2020 | Winner – Sundance 2020 – Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling

 

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Gero von Boehm | DoP: Sven Jakob-Engelmann | 89′

Gero von Boehm dives deep into the life and work of maverick German fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) for a second look.

Back in the 1980s I was a great admirer of Newton’s cutting edge gaze at the female – and male – form. After a photographer boyfriend told me “you look like a Helmut Newton model” I was determined to track down this controversial man and learn more about him. Then I remember standing on the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin and watching glamorous leather-clad ladies of the night pass by all stern and supercilious with their whips and red lips. Clearly these proud professional were Newton’s disciples. And this warm tribute celebrates the subversive side of the genial provocateur who was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Berlin during the edgy Weimarer years.

Enlivened by fascinating insights from Newton himself along with his Australian wife June and numerous collaborators Gero von Boehm’s Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful discovers a man who loved women and gave them the confidence to show their bodies off in a way that was empowering, seductive and even darkly humorous – even dangerous. By the end you may have a different view of his innovative approach, considered by some to be exploitative. Look again.

Once of Newton’s challengers was feminist writer Susan Sontag, who is seen sparring with him on a French chat show calling him out on his penchant for shooting naked women (mostly in high heels) in objectified scenarios, but the disdainful expressions or steely glint in these women’s eyes tells a different story, and despite their nakedness they are proud potent Amazonians who glare out at the viewer,  and this is his talent to amuse. It was also one that earned him a great deal of money enabling him to winter in California’s luxury Chateau Marmont for over 40 years until his tragic death in January 2004.

Ironically his famous models heap him with praise. Isabella Rossellini – who considers herself a feminist – waxes lyrical about her friend recalling a famous portrait he made of her with her then-partner David Lynch. his approach seems to expose latent truths in the female (and male) psyche, after all we are all animals who love to dominate or occasionally be overpowered in the right circumstances.  And this is the essence of the sizzling sexual chemistry behind his photos. Another glowing account comes from Charlotte Rampling, who has more than a twinkle in her eye looking back on the smouldering naked portrait that helped launch her career around the time of The Night Porter.

Von Boehm then delves into Newton’s past: he was 13 when Hitler came to power, a time when Leni Riefenstahl’s athletic images of women in rigorous exercise formations were everywhere to be seen. In Australia he met his wife to be and major collaborator, June, who went on to be his art director, while honing her own craft behind the camera. It was a successful love and business partnership akin to that of Charles and Ray Eames.

Coming across as affable and also vulnerable, Newton plays up his ‘naughty boy’ image in front of the camera and seems like the sort of guy who would be charming and easygoing company. But Boehm keeps a distance from his subject in an enjoyable foray that never attempts to eulogise or condemn. Clearly Newton had a well-developed erotic imagination but his love and devotion to his wife is a clear indication that, at heart, he was a decent if decadent man. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 23 OCTOBER

 

 

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

The sheer exhilaration of live music is one of life’s pleasures. And Oliver Murray conjurs up the vibrant spirit of Jazz in this documentary tribute to a man who was always “gracious, inviting and free to share his ideas with everybody” in the words of American record producer Quincy Jones. This is the story of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Soho’s storied jazz club in London.

Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was an English jazz tenor saxophonist who played alongside some of the most famous figures in the world of Jazz in a small basement location in London’s Frith Street in the heart of Soho.

Once described as a “very nice bunch of guys”, Ronnie was all things to all people, everyone describing a different side of his charismatic personality. And Murray saves the darker side for the final chapter of this layered biopic. Scott grew up in a working class Jewish family in the East End of London where he trained on the saxophone just like his father before him, founding his iconic jazz club in 1959 and unintentionally creating a den of cool and a meeting place for luminaries of the jazz world and their aficionados.

Still going after 60 years, Ronnie Scotts is now a household name, inextricably linked to the word Jazz, the current manager (and talking head) Simon Cooke has been keeping the place going for the past 25 years. Owned by theatre impresario Sally Greene and the entrepreneur Michael Watt since 2005

Fascinating archive footage forms the background to a later interview with Ronnie – taking us through the history of his East and West End childhood and early adulthood in the 1940s where he became a dance-band saxophonist (like his father) and then falling in love with Bebop and learning his Jazz style on board oceans liners bound for New York. Here he discovered Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and eventually, sailing back to London, he dreamed up the idea of his own jazz club – he would be the star-power – starting the evening in compare mode with a series of dry jokes – his fellow musician Pete King was the business brain. The idea came together with the aspiration to provide keen musicians with the first ever place to perform in Gerrard Street (just round the corner), although Americans were forbidden by the Musician’s Union to play in English venues. This made the financing complicated because only the Americans bought in the money. This led to a long-standing feud with the UK musician’s union.

Five bob (UK shillings) was the charge for the Saturday ‘all-nighter” and there was generous hospitality shown to regulars and those who worked there. Later the club moved to bigger premises at 47 Frith Street and welcomed the likes of Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan, and even Van Morrison all of whom perform in the clips that Murray interweaves into this lively biopic.

Scott was the frontman while macho straight-talker King took care of the business. Their close relationship was likened to a marriage, by King’s wife Stella, who describes Ronnie as a complicated man who, unknown to friends and fellow musicians, suffered from low moods that he shook off by playing his music. And bankruptcy was often round the corner, Ronnie recalling the bailiffs being on site one time even pricing up the piano while the show went on. Ronnie often gambled away the takings but he was also the life and soul of a place fondly remembered here by those who enjoyed it over the years amongst them Mel Brooks, music journalist John Fordham, Ronnie’s daughter Rebecca, and his various wives and partners Mary Scott, Francoise Venet, and others who help flesh out the complicated artist he was.

But the unique feel of the place and Ronnie’s soulful charisma dominant this jubilant often deeply poignant biopic about a man with a vision, and a club that still attracts crowds as never before and will hopefully carry on. MT

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

Frida Kahlo (2021) DVD and Digital



Dir.: Ali Ray; Documentary narrated by Anna Chancellor; UK 2020, 90 min. 

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) had more than her fair share of set-backs in a short life marked by tragedy: after suffering from polio as a child, her heart was set on becoming a doctor. Eventually a life-changing accident in Mexico City proved the making of her as Mexico’s most well-known figurative artist.

Helmed by Ali Ray, Frida Kahlo takes a deep dive into the cultural history of Mexico in an engaging and informative study that starts in turn of the 20th Century Mexico City where Kahlo was born into a professional family of Germany heritage. Inspired by Renaissance art and European Avant-garde Kahlo channelled her pain (caused by a road accident) into portraits of family and friends, painted from her bed, with a special easel suspended from above.

The straightforward narrative chronicles a life marked by Kahlo’s dedication to finding an artistic outlet to her feelings as a semi-invalid in need of constant surgical intervention to manage her afflictions. Her paintings explore post-colonial gender, class and culture at a time where her country was experiencing seismic shifts in its transformation away from Hispanic influences and back to Mexico’s native roots in magic realism and folklore. She was the first painter to depict a miscarriage (her own), and, as a devout Catholic, she even painted herself as the baby Jesus cradled in the arms of Mary.

Kahlo’s relationship with wealthy, political activist and painter Diego Rivera marked a significant turning point in her life in1928. Both were members of the Communist party and they married a year later – Rivera was 20 years older – to form a union that would be influential but turbulent for the rest of her life. Crucially it also meant that Kahlo was able to afford the hospital treatment that would keep her going. Despite his obesity Rivera was a flagrant womaniser – even sleeping with Frida’s younger sister and close confident. “I had two accidents in my life, the tram and Diego. He was by far the worst”. She reflected later in life.

Kahlo may have been avant-garde in her outlook, but styled herself as a traditional Tijuana woman and painted in the naif style of the ‘Mexicanidad’, a romantic nationalism which adopted motifs from the pre-colonial era. In the early 1930s the couple moved to San Francisco where Rivera – as part of the Muralista movement – took on an assignment to paint the walls of an industrial plant with historical murals, a mammoth undertaking that would later see the couple move to Detroit and New York. But while Rivera worked, Frida tried to have a family. Her 1932 work “Henry Ford Hospital” was considered the first painting to feature a miscarriage, an attempt by the 25 year-old Frida to process the shock. She continued to paint expressing her inner trauma using symbolism and iconography which bordered on the surreal. Andre Breton being entranced by her style, even though Kahlo herself never used any categorisation for her work.

Frida yearned for Mexico and their eventual return saw the couple housed in separate dwellings, connected by a bridge where they could visit each other at will. It was at this time that Rivera took up with Kahlo’s younger sister, and the disappointed Frida turned to expressing herself through religious tableaux painted on copper and zinc – but not in the traditional form of an icon: one painting: “My Nurse and I” (1937) depicts her as the baby Jesus, and Maria as a Mexican woman. “The Two Fridas” (1939) is a split-personality portrait, whilst “Self-portrait with cropped Hair” (1940) is about her androgynous self, not surprisingly since she had affairs with women as well as men during her chequered sexual career. Her increasing alcohol intake, and Diego’s affairs with high profile lovers, led to a divorce in 1939, but they would remarry a year later.

Kahlo only had two solo exhibitions in her lifetime (the last one in 1953, just before her death). In 1938 her paintings were part of “Magic Realism”, an exhibition in Paris, where Picasso gave her critical acclaim. In Kahlo’s final years her paintings became more and more graphic in their depiction of trauma. “A Few Nips” shows a prostitute being murdered by her pimp, and “The broken Column” (1944) is a self-portrait, her body in a corset, her spine held together by bandages. “Self-Portrait with Thorn Neck Lace and Hummingbird” (1940) shows her with a monkey and a black cat – a semi-religious portrait which again is a role reversal of gender roles. Perhaps her most complete painting is “The Love embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and and Senor Xolotl “(1949), a quasi-religious panorama in which Frida holds the adult Diego like a baby in her arms.

Ray’s filming technique show the paintings at their most vivid and clear, but the academic Talking Heads become too intrusive: Anna Chancellor’s concise narration offering adequate insight, the paintings speaking for themselves. Kahlo’s work and personality elude any academic approach – her life and work defied categorisation as a unique expression of life experience couched in the enigma of an extraordinary woman who succeeded against the odds. AS      

FRIDA KAHLO: RELEASED ON DVD, DOWNLOAD & STREAM ON 22 FEBRUARY

African Apocalypse (2020) ***

Dir.: Rob Lemkin; Documentary with Femi Nylander, Amina Weira; UK 2020, 88 min.

This new documentary sees Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ from the natives’ perspective. Oxford University student Femi Nylander goes on a real voyage of discovery to illuminate the bloody massacres in Niger at the end of the 19th century when the French government to unite the French colonies in West Africa backfired with tragic consequences and costing over 15,000 African lives.

Following in the footsteps of French officers Captain Voulet and his adjutant Lt. Julian Chanoines were tasked with unifying the colonies of what is now Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso, to fend off British colonial forces. After Voulet’s worst massacres in Birnin Konni, word of Voulet’s depravity and violence reached Paris, and Army Command sent Lt. Colonel Jean Francois Klobb to relieve Voulet. On Bastille Day in July 1899 Klobb confronted Voulet and was later killed.

Lemkin accompanies Nylander and his co-researcher and translator Amina Weira on their journey through West Africa, where they discover written material relating to Voulet’s massacres and his descent into madness, declaring: “I have become an African, and would be the King of Paris”. They also dredge up a tape recording from the 1970s narrated by an old women retelling the gory details, which was tantamount to genocide, and would land Voulet in front of the Den Hague Court.

Nylander feels like in outsider in the old Etonian world of Oxford, and he is also to made to feel a stranger once in Africa: his interviewees challenge him on his lack of empathy with the victims’ grand children. DoPs Claude Garnier and Shaun Harley Lee sustain a fly-on-the-wall presence, keeping a welcome intimacy; whilst their panoramic impressions of he river landscapes are of exceptional beauty. Lemkin’s attempt to integrate Nylander with his current BLM activities is not always successful, since the ‘retelling’ of the Conrad narrative can very much stand on its own. But the African images are much stronger than contemporary, middle-class dominated UK protest meetings, which feel anaemic in comparison. AS

SCREENED DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

 

    

I Am Woman (2020) ****

Dir: Unjoo Moon | Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald | Biopic Drama 116′

There are two iconic feminist anthems that stand out in the memory: one is Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, the other is I Am Woman.

Written and sung by the not quite so famous Seventies singer Helen Reddy, her theme tune nonetheless comes from a place of calm confidence. Is not strident, desperate or defiant but sure of its positive message. Yes, I am a woman but I’m also warm, approachable and secure.
Of course Reddy – played here by a fabulously feline Tilda Cobham-Hervey – was an accomplished artist who made a number of hit records during the late 1960s and 1970s. And Unjoo Moon’s fond but enjoyable rags to riches debut biopic shows how she made it from nowhere to become one of the most popular singers of her generation.
Her story starts in 1966. The mother of a 3 year girl Tracey, she arrives in New York from Sydney hoping for a recording contract from a major music producer who immediately patronises her in a film fraught with the ingrained prejudice of the era: “you really flew over from Australia all by yourself?” He denies her a contract claiming the trend is for male bands  “the Beatles are all the rage”. Trying to make her way, she is later denied equal pay as a nightclub singer on the grounds of her status as an illegal alien. But she is not deterred. And with Emma Jensens’ script painting her as a purring lowkey diva, Cobham-Hervey’s Reddy has to figure out how she can keep her canny charisma and move on from being just another talented female vocalist to an assertive, no-bullshit ballbreaker – just like a man – to get to the top. But the Seventies is the era of the singer-songwriter (with a selection of gracefully performed numbers featuring here, dubbed by Chelsea Cullen) so Helen has come to America at just the right time.
Based on Reddy’s own memoirs The Woman I Am, Moon and Jensen do their best to tether the feature to the current upswell of gender parity issues. But it’s not only fame and success as a female Reddy has to conquer but also several tricky relationships, not least her budding romance with potential agent Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who becomes Helen’s second husband, putting his own life first along with the other high level clients in his portfolio, mostly notable being the rock band Deep Purple. The two form a feisty partnership Jeff spurred on by his wife’s calm determination to pioneer her gently feministic easy listening style. The couple are now living in California where Reddy has bought a poolside mansion with cash.
Meanwhile, the ego-driven Jeff is proving a handful and needs to be managed with an iron fist. Reddy’s other key relationship is with her compatriot Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who is making her way in music journalism and is known for the first rock encyclopedia in 1969. But both these relationships will falter: Jeff turns into a belligerent, megalomaniac coke head running through all the couple’s money, and Lillian dies of an asthma attack.
The film’s focus is very much Reddy’s invidious relationship with Jeff but fails to examine why the singer stuck to easy listening style in a career that was successful (Angie Baby, I don’t know How to Love Him and Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady) but never really had a narrative arc of its own or a progression beyond her female-centric ballads. We do see her attempting to break into the Jazz style she had always been keen on, but this desire is stymied by Jeff and her advisors who control her activities to secure their own profits. And the sheer will and perseverance of making it anyway must have taken up most of her emotional energy, with two children to rear and a mercurial misogynist husband and manager to deal with.
Dubbed “the queen of housewife rock” by Alice Cooper, Reddy is clearly a symbol of female empowerment but more in the style of Phyllis Schlafly than her fellow chanteuses of the era Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon or Carol King. Cleverly the film never comes across as women’s lib story – and in a one certainly doesn’t get the impression Reddy was a ‘bra-burner’, more as a tribute to a woman whose talents as a singer is showcased in Cobham-Hervey’s sinuously stylish performances that make her really appealing to watch and listen in the film. Yet looking back on her music as a teen of that era Reddy was never on the radar as being remotely ‘cool’ or ground-breaking in the style Mitchell and Simon.
Superbly lensed by Oscar winning DoP Dion Beebe, the film’s final scenes therefore come across as an afterthought and tonally out of kilter with what has gone before. That said, this minor flaw does nothing to detract our enjoyment of Cobham-Hervey’s performance that carries the film through with an astonishing tour de force of grace, poise and fervent femininity. MT
IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (2020) ****

Dir.: Halina Dyrschka, Documentary with Iris Müller-Westermann, Julia Voss, Josiah McElheny, Johan af Klint, Ulla af Klint; Germany 2019, 93 min. 

The life of abstract artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) – who purportedly created the first abstract work in 1906 – is the subject of this impressive first feature from German director Halina Dyrschka.

Painted out of art history by male supremacists, it shows how the pioneering Swede was creating colourful visionary works – inspired by her interest in Theosophy – five years before Kandinsky, who is supposed the first in this field – the dubious circumstances of which add a controversial twist to this informative arthouse documentary.

They tens mainstay IV (1907)

When Hilma af Klint died at the age of nearly eighty-two, she left 1200 paintings and 26 000 pages of diary to her nephew Erik, with the clear proviso that nothing should be sold from a body of work that would only be exhibited twenty years after death, because she felt the world was not ready for her groundbreaking ideas. She was dead right – the first major exhibition had to wait until 2013, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm having refused to take her paintings as a gift from the Hilma af Klint Foundation during the 1970s. 

In 1882, at the age of twenty af Klint was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she set about successfully creating traditional portraits and landscapes earning substantial sums. At the Academy she met Anna Cassel, the first of four women who would join her in the collective The Five (De Fem), the others being Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Matilda Nilsson. But there was another more spiritual side to her life and she was actively involved in Theosophy, participating in séances, a normal pastime for middle class Avantgarde intellectuals at the turn of the century.

Theosophy was the only spiritual movement which allowed women to be ordained as priests, teaching the oneness of all human beings. Af Klint’s interest in the theories of fellow Theosophist Madame Blavatsky led her to geometrical paintings where: “the pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”  

In 1908 Af Klint met up with her longterm friend Rudolf Steiner, but her abstract work made little impact on the Swiss anthropologist. He would later show her paintings to a fellow Theosophist Kandinsky who claimed his 1910 “Untitled” to be the first ever abstract work ever produced. Nobody will ever know if af Klint’s paintings had influenced  Kandinsky.

The Ten Largest: Adulthood No 7 (1907)

Steiner’s rejection of her work led to a four-year-long creative block for af Klint, lasting until 1912. Her confidence had been battered, but her work on the Temple series carried on and was prodigious, counting 193 paintings divided into sub-series. One theme gave rise to massive canvasses in a series entitled, ‘The Ten Largest” (1907) describing the various stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age etc).

Clearly af Klint’s work is still an influential creative force over a hundred years after her first foray into the art world. Looking at Warhol’s quartet of Monroe paintings, we find an exact duplicate in af Klints’s oeuvre, showing four identical portraits of an elderly woman. The experts and the film’s Talking Heads agree: Art History has to be re-written to find a place for Hilma af Klint, a courageous woman who only unveiled her abstract talent once during her lifetime: at ‘Friends House’ in London, 1928. AS

IN CINEMAS from 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020) *****

Dirs: Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes, Keith Scholey | UK Doc 83′

Eco-documentaries too often rely on just their worthwhile subject matter to carry them through. A Life on Our Planet is not only thematically important but also impressively crafted and entertaining with a positively uplifting final kick.

It all begins and ends in Chernobyl showing how the Ukrainian social utopia became a nuclear bomb site, and is now teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation – humans are nowhere to be seen. Then dear old David emerges from a ruined building with a stark warning: Nature will eventually take over the planet, do we humans want to be there or not?

Candid, relevant and revealing, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is a powerful first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature since the last time a comet destroyed all lifeforms, before the Holocene ushered in the wonderful world we all know. And this will happen again, for many of us within our lifetimes. But there is a way forward. And it’s not just about plastic bags.

Now nearly 94, Attenborough reflects back on his extraordinary life as an naturalist exploring the remote and wild corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for all of us to see and enjoy. And he does reflect on the devastating changes that are still unfolding in subtle and troubling ways. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Neither is A Life on our Planet a worthy or ‘ticking off’ rant but a fascinating testament to the magnificence surrounding. There is a tangible and sustainable way forward to continue living in harmony with nature and making the most of life in our amazing world. MT

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: A LIFE ON OUR PLANET WILL PREMIERE IN CINEMAS ACROSS THE GLOBE ON 28TH SEPTEMBER FEATURING AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION WITH SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH AND SIR MICHAEL PALIN.  IT WILL BE RELEASED ON NETFLIX GLOBALLY THIS AUTUMN. attenboroughfilm.com

 

Capital in the 21st Century (2020) ****

Dir.: Justin Pemberton; Co-Dir.: Thomas Piketty; Doc with Rana Foroohar, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama; France/New Zealand 2019, 102′ 

Justin Pemberton makes economics anything but dry in his thrilling – and frightening – screen adjunct to Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book. Brisk and entertaining like a filmic history lesson, some 400 years are condensed into a palatable mouthful that lacks somehow the depth of the page.

The New-Zealander has raided the archives enlivening Capital in the 21st Century with TV clips as well as graphics and archive footage of newsreels, financial ‘experts’ adding their pennyworth in a bid to clarify the mess we are in. According to Piketty – who also appears as a talking head – nothing has changed since the 17th century when feudalism ruled and the medium life expectancy was seventeen. So what does that tell you?

Feudalism saw one per cent of the population own seventy percent of land. Back then the only way of earning a living (apart from servitude) was itinerant farm work. In films terms, the world was like just like Elysium (2013), where a charmed few lived in splendour and the rest in grinding poverty. The French  Revolution tried to break the mould but the real change came with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century when machines took over the manual work but the power structure was the same: workers being in hock to their employers (who took all the risks), strikers ending up in jail.

Many Europeans emigrating to North America for a new start soon discovered that hard land-based work was still the order of the day, the small family unit unable to compete with land-owners, who bought in slaves and exploited them on the cotton fields of the Deep South. Meanwhile Europeans were out colonising and exploiting the natural resources of the newfound territories, finding unchallenged markets for their products and building fortunes and empires into the bargain.    ,

European workers’ resentment  increased between 1870 and 1914, while an emerging Middle Class got used to a new term: fashion. In the US meanwhile, the class struggle was much more vicious, employers hiring their own militia, backed by a Federal Army who quelled many strikes. The outbreak of World War I channelled class envy into a national identity, the aftermath saw the suffragettes making inroads into male dominance with their fight for the right to vote.

Pemberton then leads us through the more erratic midsection of the documentary which deals with the 20th domination by banking power, nationalism, Depression, war, the welfare system and workers rights. Working class lives improved immeasurably during the late 1950s when prime minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed: “You’ve never had it so good”. He was probably right. The establishment of a Welfare State led to a vigorous middle class which would become the backbone of society, but that backbone has since been severely tested by an erosion of values that has polarised society, particularly now as the gulf widens again between rich and poor. Since the 1970s Oil Crisis, middle class income has sharply declined in the US, where ‘stagflation’ soon became the order of the day.

In the 1980s, President Reagan dismantled the welfare state, and Wall Street and Main Street diverged: what was good for the City and the big corporations (with Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas of trickle down economics) was not seen as a benefit to Main Street with its mainly family-owned small businesses. The US was suffering from competition from Japan and Europe, and Reagan’s battle cry “to make America great again” created a war against trade unions, and native workers disgruntled by a growing number of immigrant labourers. With the slogans like “Greed is good” dominating, more deregulation was supposed to facilitate a “trickle down” of wealth, which never happened. The result is that the bottom 90% of the population has suffered a loss in family income, and the real wages (purchasing power) are on a level last experienced in 1960.

The credit boom, another contributing factor of the 2008 crash, camouflaged a dire situation: since 1970 wages have increased for 90% of the population by 800%, but for the top ten percent the increase in capital was 2000%. This has led to the Super Rich not re-investing their capital in production, but in keeping their wealth in an endless loop, where the same people buy and sell capital commodities, bringing a 4.5% average return. This compared with 1.6% return on investments in industry or other productive enterprises.

When all is said and done, the super rich will always be able to employ the best legal advice to fight their way out of taxation. In 2015, Google Alphabet had made a profit of 15.5. billion USD – offshore in Bermuda. shell companies and numbered accounts for the Elite keep them free from punitive taxes.

Meanwhile, new technologies create new jobs. More than ever ,individuals are setting up companies and gaining financial freedom and clout. But when robots replace humans, humans will slide down the pecking order. Vehicle drivers now make up the second largest group of people in employment. With the advent of the driverless car, what will eventually happen to them?

So the outlook is grim. But it always was. The rich will always be rich, and the poor will always be poor, but the disadvantaged have more opportunities that ever before. Pemberton includes a psychology experiment that exposes a sinister side to human nature suggestive of a positive mind set that also comes into play.

The consequences can only be controlled politically. But who will be controlling capitalism? Certainly not the middle classes, if their erosion continues. The film tries to end on a positive note: “Creating a more equal society is possible from a technical standpoint”. But in reality we all know this is unlikely to happen due to the inherent flaws of human nature. AS

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS | 25 SEPTEMBER 2020

                                               

Final Account (2020)

Dir: Luke Holland Doc, UK 90’

British filmmaker Luke Holland goes the other side of the fence in this definitive documentary that plunders the memories of German Second World War veterans involved in Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Final Account is a candid film that pulls no punches in its trenchant expose of German and Austrian wartime veterans – both men and women. And although the director maintain his distance – his grandparents lost their lives in the camps; what emerges is startling and often depressing.

Blue-eyed witnesses now in their 80s and 90s reminisce over their joy and excitement at being part of the Hitler Youth Movement that allowed them to indulge in a variety of sports such as swimming and athletics that had previously been denied them during the early 1930s in Germany.

But others even ended up engaging in sports of a more gruesome nature when they decided to join in Hitler’s ethnic genocide and become direct participants in the horrors of the prison camps. What emerges is not always palatable to watch and several interviewees continue to deny the gravity of their actions in the name of their country, whether through selective amnesia or embarrassment.

Twelve years in the making and enriched by footage and photographs from the personal albums of those involved Final Account is a vital and worthwhile addition to the Holocaust canon. But the casual denial and abdication of responsibility of those who took part in the Wehrmacht, or SS, will be a bitter pill for most viewers to swallow.

Most Germans claim to have been carried along on a wave of nationalistic pride, or were ‘just obeying orders’. Others state allegiance to the Hitler’s view that German Jews were becoming too successful and clicquey. One ex SS office is honest enough to admit that he didn’t particularly care when hundreds of synagogues were burnt down on Kristallnacht in 1938. Another man, pictured in his farm, explains he didn’t hesitate to telephone the police when his Jewish neighbours tried to hide in his barn to avoid capture, bringing to mind the ‘banality of evil’. Another man remembers a childhood song about “Knives sharp enough for Jewish bellies”. He now admits to be shocked at the memory. A group of women in a care home cast their mind back to the smell of burning and black smoke billowing from a nearby furnace, while they gleefully enjoy coffee and biscuits.

These are tragic recollections superbly edited by Stefan Ronowicz in a film that never descends into sentimentality or melodrama – just a stark and sober revelation of human indifference. MT

NOW ON RELEASE

Coup 53 (2019) joins the Rotten Tomatoes 100 percent club

Dir.: Taghi Amirani, Documentary; UK/USA/Iran 2019, 118 min.

Director/co-writer Taghi Amirani (Red Lines and Deadlines) fled Iran as a teenager and brings his life experience to bear in this detailed examination of the British/American coup of 1953, which brought down the government of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minster Mohamad Mosaddegh (1882-1967).

With the help of editor Walter Murch (Godfather), who is credited as co-writer, Amirani has plunged the archives to piece together the events of August 1953 which still reverberate not only in the region but all over the world.

The suggestion that Mosaddegh was a communist was not far from the truth. And the British and American propagandists certainly concurred with this line of thinking. Apart from being a staunch nationalist, Mosaddegh was a member of the royal Qajar dynasty, a much older Institution than that of his opponent Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi, whose father had forcefully overthrown the Qajar dynasty in 1925. In the eyes of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, Shah Raza, of the house of Pahlavi, was an upstart. Mosaddegh had studied law in Europe and went on to nationalise the oil industry which was run by the Anglo-Iranian Oil company (AIOC) back in 1951.

News reels show the company’s tearful British employees leaving Iran. In reality, Mosaddegh had asked them to stay. But Britain and the USA did not want a functioning oil industry run by Iran: they organised a world-wide boycott of Iranian oil on the world market. When this plan did not work out, British Prime Minister Churchill and US president Eisenhower met in 1953 and decided to get rid of Mosaddegh during a coup. Organised by CIA chief Allen Dulles (brother of US foreign minister John Foster), and executed on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of President T. Roosevelt) and Britain’s Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iranian branch of MI6, the so-called operation Ajax was not always plain sailing. Only after Tehran’s police chief Mahmoud Afshartous, a staunch supporter of the Prime Minister, was abducted, tortured and murdered by General and Prime Minister Fazlollah Zahedi, did the coup look like succeeding.

One reason for the remaining question marks lay with Shah Mohammad Raza Pahlavi himself. He had fled the country and retreated to a luxury hotel in Rome with his wife Soraya, and continued to live his previous life of privilege, albeit in exile. His twin sister, Princess Ashhraf, was much more wily and helped the plotters actively. It was Kermit Roosevelt who made the difference in the end: he organised a “spontaneous” popular uprising against the Prime Minister, paying just 60 thousand US dollars for his rented mob. Mosaddegh was put on trial and ended his life alone under house arrest and in solitary confinement for the last fourteen years of his life.

There is a particular British transcript to the affair: In 1985 a TV production of End of the Empire interviewed some participants of the 1953 Coup, among them Norman Darbyshire, who, according to the transcript of the interview, was very open about his contribution. But he never appears in the finished documentary. The quotes used for the interview were neatly cut out and seemed lost – before an anonymous person sent the missing lines of Darbyshire’s interview to the Observer. Amirani landed his own coup, letting Ralph Fiennes read the incriminating sections.

Coup 53 allows us to imagine what could have happened in the region if democracy in Iran had been allowed to flourish. Today we are still confronted with the clerical-fascist Islamist regime of Iran –  belated vengeance for the Coup for oil. AS

REAL-LIFE THRILLER COUP 53 JOINS THE 100% CLUB ON ROTTEN TOMATOES 

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL review 2019

My Rembrandt (2020) *****

Dir: Oeke Hoogendijk | Doc, 97′

Oeke Hoogendijk (The New Rijksmuseum) once again delves into the art world in her visually ravishing new documentary that plays out like a thriller. Set amidst the world of the elite in a multi-stranded narrative that grows more exciting by the minute My Rembrandt is a story of art dealers, connoisseurs and collectors whose lives revolve around the sale and acquisition of masters old and new.

Hoogendijk certainly knows how to build suspense and has a good nose for a story. It also helps to be on first name terms with her illustrious characters: The Duke of Buccleuch; Dutch art scion Jan Six, Baron Eric de Rothschild; and billionaire philanthropist Thomas S Kaplan. She finds herself in a discrete Scottish castle, Champs Elysses apartments, and canal houses of Amsterdam where this fascinating film takes place. Ironically there’s not an ounce of avarice in the faces of these extraordinary collectors who are genuinely charming and pleasant. My Rembrandt is a seductive film with a surprising finale whether the subject is of interest of not.

We meet businessman and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan, who is a passionate Rembrandt collector who set himself the noble task of making these works available in the public domain and who has buying up canvases for the past few decades. Kaplan is an appealing man Kaplan who confesses to having actually kissed a Rembrandt portrait of a woman. Clearly well-connected he goes about his business amongst world leaders at media events connected to his pastime. The Duke of Buccleuch is more lowkey in his approach and we see him celebrating his looking his Rembrandt, Old Woman Reading, in the privacy of his sitting room. Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits helping him to select a safe place to hang the portrait in order to involve the old woman in everyday life as a true member of the family.

Meanwhile Baron Roschild is a kindly man who has reluctantly parted with two Rembrandts – the wedding portraits of Marten and Oopjen – which have been in the family for generations, in order to help his brother pay taxes. The sale of these masterpieces threatens to derail the entente cordiale between the Louvre in France and Holland’s Rijksmuseum as they each bid for paintings.

All these titbits are brought together by the work of Dutch art dealer Jan Six XI, the ancestor of a 17th-century art dealer whose portrait was actually painted by Rembrandt and stills hangs in the family home. The film opens with his discovery of an as yet unknown canvas by Rembrandt, and a second follows shortly after the first. Jan Jnr is not just a pretty face but a Rembrandt expert, and what he doesn’t know about the painter could be written on a Holbein miniature. Jan has also made a career out of the old master. He recently spotted both canvases at a Christies auction and snapped them up for a relatively low price. But he needs to prove these paintings are actually by Rembrandt and not just one of his disciples. And this is where Rembrand authority Professor Ernst van de Wetering comes in. The ‘Fake or Fortune’ twist then takes over as we are compelled to discover whether Jan has made a clever purchase or bough himself a proverbial ‘pup’. And the finale is spiced up by a fellow trader coming into the fray, accusing Jan of cheating him.

What is remarkable is that Rembrandt’s paintings have lost none of their appeal in the 350 years since his death. Collectors worldwide relish the Dutch master’s work. My Rembrandt offers insight into what makes the work of this Dutch master technically so extraordinary, and why people are so passionate about paintings in general. In her brilliant documentary Hoogendijk shows how the sober art world can be a source of drama and gripping plot twists. MT

ON RELEASE IN UK CINEMAS and ON DEMAND from  on 14th August.

Vision Nocturna | Night Shot (2019) ***** FID Marseille

Dir.: Carolina Muscoso Briceño; Documentary; Chile 2019, 80 min.

Pain, Rage and Acceptance: the various stages of rape. Chilean first-time director/co-writer and DoP Carolina Muscoso Briceño has dared to go where very few have gone before her: having been a rape victim almost a decade ago while studying at the Film School in Santiago, she has since made a film diary of her life still rocked to this day by the rape trauma. Intercut with her reflexions on the assault – and not only her own experience – Night Shot is a testament to gradual liberation.

“Rape victims are ashamed of what happened to them. The first thing that mobilised me was to break with that shameful legacy and to think of a way of exposing it to cross that barrier” says the director.

Everyday life go on, in various formats. Her experiences about the attack itself and the bureaucratic engendered are set mostly against a black background. On the beach near Santiago, Carolina became separated from her friends, and came across Gary. The two decided to go for something to eat nearby, but on the way he raped her. “Afterwards I did as he told me. I stayed motionless in the bushes. He said he would kill me if I followed him. I cleaned the blood off my face, picked up my ripped shirt and headed for the highway”.  The distress was further compounded by her father’s comments when he picked her up in his car: “a friend of mine got raped by her father. That’s much worse.”

Carolina went to a hospital, and was examined two hours after the rape. But the Catholic female doctor was against offering her a morning-after-pill, on the grounds of being against aborton “on principle”. What follows adds insult to injury and later Gary Raul Lopez Montero categorically refused any connection with Carolina. “I never knew anybody called Carolina. I met no one that night. I have a one-year-old daughter, I deny any involvement in this event” His brashness compared with Carolina’s answers still under the influence of the rape, made the DA drop the case.

Eight years later, Carolina makes another attempt to get justice, seeking advice from her lawyer friend Slvio who describes recourse as an uphill struggle for the victim, particularly where they refused to complete  hospital tests and seemed to lack conviction about their own role in the matter. Chile’s systemic structure of ‘justice’, in which the rape victim had to prove the guilt of the attacker, is common in most countries. Carolina’s first psychologist had told her “You are in the middle of an emergency landing”, and whilst she talked, Carolina imagined the different ways of falling.

Later Silvio has even worse news: The time limit for prosecution of rape is usually ten years, but since Gary was a minor at the time of the attack, the limit is just five years. Carolina eventually returns to the scene of the crime: “To be back feels like a big fire, this fire accompanies me, as well as the feeling that Gary is right here. That nine years later, he never has left this place”. She films and photographs the terrain, and is asked by a rider on horseback, why she is taking the photos. Her response is candid: “I am recording this place here, because something has happened here. Yes, here in Papudo. A long time ago, seven or eight years.” The rider asks: “Something good or bad”. Caroline’s answer is “good and bad”, before stating that she did not know her feelings are ambivalent. and: “I don’t know why I think I’ll find the wallet I lost that day”. Breathtakingly honest, Night Shot is an absolute masterpiece of form and context. AS

FID MARSEILLE 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION.

Homeland (Domovine) (2020) **** FID Marseille

Dir.: Jelena Maksimovic; Cast: Jelena Angelovski, Trifonas Siapalinis; Serbia 2020, 63 min.

Jelena Maksimovic is inspired by her own life experience in this feature debut, a lament about loss but above all, a feminist reckoning dedicated to the filmmaker’s grandmother Elina Gacu (1928-2017), evacuated from civil wartorn Greece to what was then Yugoslavia, now North Macedonia.

The stark winter setting makes this all the more foreboding: A car approaching a wild mountainside, a young woman behind the wheel, a banal, romantic song on the car stereo. Not the best of welcomes for the ‘homecoming’ of someone who has never set foot in her country before.

The changing seasons mark a year’s stay in this village, and her growing unfulfilled longing to find a place which connects to her grandmother who has lived here since being exiled from her homeland during the Civil War (1946-1949), the first proxy war of the global Cold War.

This young woman is a visitor but not a tourist, wanting to claim something of the place for herself. Fragments of war of are everywhere: in fortifications, ruined houses and the reminiscences of old men who recall partisans coming from the mountains to fight government troops before vanishing back into their hideouts.

The woman befriends a restaurant owner, they cook together, he and his friends perform an old folk dance. But for the most part she tries to connect with the inhospitable terrain where animals are her only friends.  Hidden traces of the combat are everywhere. Finally, after so much silence she breaks into a final poetic outburst, accusing the men of bringing warfare to the place and repressing women. She claims the trees in the woods are the only true communists, and mourns the fate of her grandmother.

DoP Dusan Grubin makes an unobtrusive foray into this melancholy setting  – his harrowing panorama shots are just a foretaste of what is to come in a paean to lost identity. The main unnamed character is a victim of fragmentation and alienation: her trial to find anything like home is hampered by the silence around her. The past is the past – whatever the partisans stood for – or whatever the war was about. Her grandmother is a bridge to this past and will lead her back to herself. Homeland is for every soul searching for a place to call their own, moored somewhere in their dreams. AS

FID Marseille | 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

Shady River | Rio Turbio (2020) *** FID Marseille

Dir.: Tatiana Mazu Gonzalez; Documentary Argentine 2020, 81 min.

Amongst the wealth of stories coming out of South America at the moment is this unique and visually arresting first feature unearthing an alarming history of exploitation and repression in a Patagonian mining town.

Argentina’s Tatiana Mazu sets a combative tone to her documentary essay which takes the form of seven books, and shows a woman with rifle (the director herself?), ready to push back against old stories of witchcraft. Clearly these are a feisty bunch who don’t take kindly to a macho culture where women were forbidden to enter the underground labyrinth, which is ironically ‘female’ and talks in a women’s voice

The mine was run until 2002 by Sergio Taseli, a local asset stripper, who embarked on several high cost local projects such as the Roca-Belgrano Sur Railway, which were never completed, Taseli collecting his share of the profits beforehand.

But accidents do happen, and we see the photos of the victims. In 2004 fourteen miners died underground after a collapse. Children play amongst the wreckage in old 8mm family films, and Mazu makes use of plans, etchings, drawings, and blueprints to add grist to the grim story. It also emerges she once built a bomb with her chemistry set, intending to create havoc with the establishment.

Then there is the story of Clara who had a sex change operation, and went on to study electro mechanics. After graduating she could only find work as a secretary in the mining company offices. Nowadays, she is one of the few women working underground. But the exploitation continues: after a strike, the leaders were dismissed, and the rest of the workers had to take on their work load.

The oppressive nature of the mine is reflected in deadly silence and stark images, both In colour and black-and-white: Nature Was raped and it’s jewels torn away, crevices appearing everywhere, dark lakes and endless rows of pre-fabricated huts. There are shades of Tarkovsky in the water and the dour surroundings where industrial waste proliferates. Editor Sebastian Zanzotera takes credit for the montage of striking images that lead us into a maze of death and patriarchy.

Mazu takes us to a hidden world, far away from everything, where the newsreel images of Buenos Aires or a Miss Argentine competition seem to be from another universe all together.

FID Marseille 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

The Fight (2020) **** VOD

Dir.: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres; Documentary with Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, Joshua Block, Chase Strangio; USA 2020, 96 min.

Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres (the former two already well-known for Weiner (2016), take a look inside battles faced by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via four cases that had particular impact on the road ahead in American politics.

There was a time when ACLU members were called “Fellow travellers”, a derogative term used by presidential candidate HW Bush in 1988 with great success against his democratic opponent Michael Dukakis. Today the ACLU is seen as a bastion against the Trump government. The ACLU has filed 147 (!) cases against the Trump administration, including the infamous Muslim travel ban.

According to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of ACLU, the core support of the organisation dates back to the Nixon era.  ACLU is seen as “cool” today, donations have rocketed since Trump took over in 2017 from three million USD three million to nearly 120 million, whilst the membership has almost reached two million. Not that this matters much to Dale Ho, one of the lawyers we will follow on the day of the judgement: “We are just several floors in a building in New York, we cannot keep the government with all its resources at bay. ” He calls for more volunteers and donations. Meanwhile the ACLU task force is taking phone calls, many accusing them of being pedophiles. ACLU has also come under fire for supporting the members of “alt-right” to demonstrate in Charlottesville, where a counter-demonstrator Heather Heyes was killed by a car driven by ‘white supremacists’. Romero points out that already in 1977, the ACLU defended a Nazi rally in Skokie (Ill.). Back then the demonstrators were not armed, or defended by the President of the USA.    

The finale is at judgement day in the four show cases. ACLU Deputy Director and team veteran Lee Gelernt, is – like the rest of the crew – exhausted. Gelernt has taken on the government in a family separation case, claiming the Trump administration had withheld constitutional rights from the plaintiffs, causing harm for both parents and children. Gelernt’s brief conveys the emotional impact of it all to the Supreme Court judges. Clearly breaking up undocumented immigrant families has caused untold grief going forward and there are emotive scenes of family reunion after the verdict is delivered. Joshua Block and Chase Strangio have been picked to challenge the Trump government on the Transgender Military ban.

The Trump administration subsequently banned any new recruitment of LGTB members into the army. “The guy never gives up” sighs Block. This labour of love is the perfect birthday present for the  ACLU’s centenary. And hopefully, our five heroes, and the rest of the two-and-half floors in New York, will be less busy come January 2021. AS

ON DEMAND FROM 31 JULY 2020 COURTESY OF DOGWOOF FILMS               

Villa Empain (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Katharina Kastner | Doc, Belg/France/Ger/ 25′

Katerina Kastner’s impressionistic documentary debut captures the essence of the Villa Empain, one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of Art Deco in Brussels. In 1930, at the age of 21, Baron Louis Empain commissioned the building of a private mansion in 55 acres on the prestigious Avenue de la Nation which was later on renamed as Franklin Roosevelt Avenue.

Using the finest materials available in those interwar years (marble, bronze and precious wood), the luxurious house consisted of four polished granite facades, surrounded by a large garden with a pergola and swimming pool. A collector and curator, Louis Empain eventually decided that the property was better served as a museum of decorative and contemporary art, and it was donated to the Belgian Nation in 1937. But the Second World War changed everything and the villa languished until 1943, when it was requisitioned by the German army, eventually becoming an embassy for the USSR in peacetime when Empain recovered his property in the beginning of the sixties, before reselling it in 1973. For nearly ten years it was rented to the TV channel RTL then falling to semi-rack and ruin during the 1990s. It was eventually saved by a wealthy family who set up the Boghossian Foundation in 2007, transforming the building into an East West cultural centre and guaranteeing the revival of its fortunes.

Shot in 16mm this is a sensual creation that resonates with the passage of time, showcasing the the house’s former glory through its trials and tribulations to its present reincarnation. The clever editing brings an eerie and fleeting sense of human presence drifting through the empty rooms and light-filled gardens where leaves swirl and valuable materials shimmer in shafts of sunlight. This short but ravishing documentary takes us on a dreamy distant journey to the coast where the family once enjoyed beach holidays in a space reflected by evocative fantasies and haunted by the war years. A century of memories recorded in a treasured place in time. MT

COMES TO MUBI ON 15 JULY 2020 |

Spaceship Earth (2020) **** VOD release

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with John Allen; USA 2019, 113 min.

Larger and much stranger than life, director/producer Matt Wolf (The Marion Stokes Project) has followed the eight ecologists, who, in 1991, were locked into Biosphere 1, a glass dome in Arizona, to live under conditions aping those on Mars. Animals and plants thrived, but it was not so much the conditions inside, but the human disconnections outside that clouded the experiment in controversy. Still, for a documentary that takes its time – exactly one hour – to get to the main event, Spaceship manages brilliantly to keep us enthralled.

In all starts in San Francisco in 1966: young Kathelin Gray meets a much older John Allen, whilst reading René Daumal’s ‘Mount Analogue’, Allen promises her much more than books, and together with other enthusiasts, they found the travelling theatre group Theatre of All Possibilities. Deciding that Frisco has become too commercialised, they take roots (literally) in New Mexico, living on the land, guided by the Synergy principle, naming the ranch after their motto. Later they built a ship, called the ‘Hereclitus’, naming it after the man who left his privileged life to live in harmony with everyone on earth. They met Burroughs, and adored Buckminster Fuller. Unlike most commune dwellers, they worked very hard, for little profit. But Allen, who had a sense of capitalist reality and soon found a helping hand in form of Ed Bass, a billionaire, who bought a hotel in Kathmandu for the collective, before bankrolling the Biosphere 2 dome.

The eight people, looking rather strange in their red astronaut suits were Roy Walford, Jane Poynter. Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone from Essex, Abigail Alling, Mark van Thillo and Linda Leigh. The hermetically sealed three-acre paradise of plants and animals suffered an overdose of CO2 (and  therefore a lack of oxygen), which led Dr. Walford come to the conclusion he would have to eat even less thanks to the low levels of oxygen , and could live for another 120 years. Soon oxygen was pumped in, but it degraded the scientific data. Jane Poynter got her finger stuck in the hay cutting machine, and had to leave for the hospital – coming back with an extra bag – another no-no according to the rules set up before. Media and scientists called the ecologists a ‘cult’, the grass grew limp and tempers frayed. Afterwards, Bass invited a young Steve Bannon (yes, that Bannon!), straight from Goldman Sachs, and this meant the end of the Bass/Allen relationship.  

Spaceship Earth reaches a melancholic conclusion: the founder members, John Allen and Marie Harding, – who have since married – among them, sit around a table amid an air of nostalgia. All of them have kept to the good life of the synergy days, and have stayed out of the commercial rat race, which now includes bio products and anything ‘alternative’. Watching them, we get keen sense of how far away from their heydays we have moved. DoP Sam Wootton underlines feeling of loss with his camerawork which mirrors the archive footage of the original group. To think that something as repulsive as the rip-off Bio-dome made millions at the box office, breaks your heart. AS

ON DEMAND | 10 JULY 2020 |

 

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2019)

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky | Doc 87′

In her latest eco-documentary Baichwal finds a breath-taking way of showing how humans are destroying the planet. We started off with good intentions, and admirable causes: Carrara Marble gave us the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s David, but now it mostly provides bathrooms. Teak from the forests of Southern India provided us with oceangoing boats to fight off the Spanish Armada. But enough is now enough. Our burgeoning populations have created an insatiable need for raw materials. This cycle of pillage and endless destruction has overtaken production: our seas are nearly empty, our woods and forests increasingly bare, this untold environmental depletion is even taking its toll on the air we breath.

Rather like Michael Glawogger did in his time, Jennifer Baichwal (Watermark) and her team travel all over the world’s far flung corners to highlight the bizarre and the intriguing. Breathtaking images make us stare in disbelief, mesmerised by the sheer scale, beauty or  dreadfulness of it all. In Russia’s most polluted city, huge mines produce smelted metal used to construct machinery that plunders more minerals from the earth. Germany makes mammoth machines weighting thousands of tons, capable of tearing down a church steeple in seconds to provide space for more mining activity (known as Terraforming, apparently). In the arid salt flats of the Atacama Desert neon-green pools of lithium brine desiccate in the punishing glare of the sun. The batteries will power our electric cars. A doom laden narration from Alicia Vikander feels redundant, anyone can understand the implications of this sinister story without making it even more dour.

So despite some alluring photography Anthropocene offers no positive angles, and we are left feeling hopeless and helpless. Once we built a civilisation, now we are tearing it all apart. MT

ANTHROPOCENE | NOW ON VOD

 

Family Romance LLC (2019) *** Streaming

Dir.: Werner Herzog; Cast: Yuchi Ishii, Mahiro Tamimoto, Miki Fujimaki; USA 2019, 89 min.

Werner Herzog is experimenting again and this latest feature gamely blends drama with a hybridised fiction and documentary. Based on Japanese company that hires out its founder to act as a stand-in to suit client circumstances is not particularly original, although a tongue in cheek humour shines through in some of the cameos. Yorgos Lanthimos did this much better in Alps (2011). Here Herzog somehow falls victim to his narrative’s ambiguity: We’re never sure whether this is social critique, or a hidden camera gag.

Yuchi Ishii is boss and main employee of his Family Romance LLF (Limited Liability Company). His first assignment is at Cherry Blossom time in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park where he is meeting twelve-year old Mahiro Tamimoto: hired by the girl’s mother, his remit is to impersonate her father. The Dad in question pushed off when Mahiro was very young, and her mother Miki Fujimaki needs Yuchi to replace him, on important occasions. But this is just one of Yuchi many gigs: a young celebrity-hungry actor then hires him with a posse of fake photographers to get her face into the newspapers; an elderly woman, who has won 180 000 Yen in the lottery, has wants him to create that same feeling of elation when she found out about her win. Yuchi is also hired by a railway employee to take a bollocking from his boss over the late running of a train – the humour here lies in the perceived loss of face for the worker. But when Mahiro arrives one day with an Afro-American toddler “who no one wants to hang out with” because of her “fire-burned face”, things becomes distinctly weird. And when Mahiro falls for ‘father’ Yuchi, her mother tries to have the him move in.

Herzog tries to be philosophical throughout this often awkward, often amusing oddity, but the episodes are simply too thin to invite deep reflection. When Yuchi visits a hotel run by AI service personnel (robots), we are reminded of Philip K. Dick, but the director immediately jumps to another of his numerous exploits. Herzog’s basic camerawork contributes to making this feel like a very minor work, along with Ernst Reijseger’s saccharine score. AS

VOD RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 3 JULY 2020

   

  

Let it Burn | Dis a era due me via Chorar (2019) *** Mubi

Dir.: Maira Bühler; Documentary; Brazil 2019, 81 min.

In her remarkable documentary Brazilian filmmaker Maira Bühler follows the residents of a hotel turned hostel for crack addicts trying to put their lives together again.

The original title Tell Her That She Saw Me Cry is actually much more suitable. What we are really dealing with here is a domestic drama about lost souls whose emotions are so raw that they can only be released in forceful, often self harming, ways often counterproductive to their recovery. In 28 rooms on 7 floors, 107 residents live out their grim existence in the centre of Sao Paulo. Not that we see very much of Brazil’s capital – only the noise of passing trains reminds us of the vast metropolis outside and the brutal streets where hope was decimated long ago for these hapless inhabitants in their lost ark of social abandonment. But at least a den of iniquity is preferable to the jungle outside.

A trade mark of today’s Brazilian documentary style is the obsession with detail combined with an objectivity that captures an out-pouring of emotions often frightening to witness. A man shouts into his phone, desperately declaring his love for a woman who might not even be listening – but his cri de coeur is at the same time proof of him being alive. A lonely woman in a deserted dormitory waits for a lover who might never return. The longing for company is what keeps the majority of the tenants alive. The camera searches out the human links and reveals little groups clinging on to each other for survival. An aching love song reminds us what this is all about: love, however fleeting, is vital for survival.

The social gulf between film crew and their subjects is enormous. But when the crew has installed a tripod in the lift and starts filming, one woman reveals to the director that she is completed uneducated. But even though there is an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism, the woman never prevents the camera from intruding into her misery. The strength of the film is that it allows ambiguity to develop without letting fragility and vulnerability mask the gradual humanisation. Sadly, this last chance saloon of salvation has now been shut down as part of the cutbacks in psychiatric support instigated by President Bolsonaro’s far right government. AS

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2019

 

Carmine Street Guitars (2018) ****

With Rich Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly2018 | CANADA | Doc | 80′

This genial music biopic explores the laid-back vibe of Carmine Street Guitars, a little shop in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village that remains resilient to encroaching gentrification.
Custom guitar maker Rick Kelly and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted instruments out of reclaimed wood from old hotels, bars, churches and other local buildings. Nothing looks or sounds like the classic instruments they have created with loving dedication. The film shoots the breeze with Rick and his starry visitors who treat us to impromptu riffs from their extensive repertoires and talk about how much they treasure this village institution and its reassuring presence as a little oasis of calm in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of the music business.
Rick’s pleasant banter with these lowkey luminaries is what makes this enjoyable musical therapy for fans and those who have never heard of the guitars, their craftsman or those who have commissioned and cherished the hand-made instruments since the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch, to name but a few. A small gem but a sparkling one. MT
STREAMING ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 26 JUNE 2020

On the Record (2020) **** Streaming

Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering | Cast: Drew Dixon, Si Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw | USA, 96′

More #MeToo stories, this time from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering whose controversial new documentary puts the spotlight on women who have come out to denounce hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The focus here is Drew Dixon.

This is the filmmakers’ third foray into #MeToo territory and Drew Dixon takes centre along with  two other victims – out of twenty – who have filed sexual assault and rape charges against record producer and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The incident became a news story before the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers, withdrew from the project she had fostered for a long time, thus destroying any chances of it being acquired by Apple+. The reasons are very opaque: there were threats from Russell, film critic and Ava DuVernay allegedly told Winfrey, that the documentary did not accurately flesh out the hip-hop world of the setting. Finally, Winfrey decided “there were inconsistencies in Dixon’s story that gave me pause” and the feature had been rushed to appear at Sundance. What ever the true reasons for Winfrey’s jumping ship, HBOmax won the screening rights for what turns out to be a worthy companion to Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable.

Drew Dixon (*1971) is the daughter of former Washington DC mayor Sharon Pratt and went to Stanford University. Becoming a record producer for Def Jam, a label led by mogul Russell Simmons, was her dream job. She overlooked the fact that Simmons would often come into her office, showing his member. In a milieu where the culture of celebrity “bad-ass” men was celebrated, Simmons’ behaviour did not seem to be totally out of place. Dixon became an A&R executive, responsible for the soundtrack of the 1995 documentary “The Show”, helping to build the careers of Method Man among others, whom she later paired with Mary J. Bilge. It all came crashing down for Dixon, when Simmons invited her to his apartment after a party. He appeared naked with a condom and asked her in a very harsh voice “to stop fighting”. Later, the writer Sil Lai Abrams would report a similar incidence with Simmons. After leaving Def Jam, Dixon worked for Clive Davis at Arista, but CEO L.A. Reid started to harass her. Out of spite, to destroy her career, he passed on signing a new talent, a certain Kanye West. Dixon left the industry all together, and it took her until 2017 to pen an article in the New York Times, to make the public listen to her story.

There are two issues which make the case of the three black women appearing on the documentary (Dixon, Abrams and Jenny Lumet) complex: until now, any public critique of the black community, by fellow blacks, is seen by the majority as treachery – helping the enemy, ie. the white majority. Secondly, black women still feel excluded from the #MeToo movement. Dixon claims she felt enormous pressure to denounce somebody of the standing of Russell Simmons. It took her twenty years – being alone with her trauma – to overcome the barriers.

As for Simmons, he decided not to appear in the documentary but send a written statement, issuing countless denials of he false accusations: “I have lived an honourable life as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anybody”. In 2018 he nevertheless emigrated to Bali, Indonesia, a country which has no extradition arrangement with the USA. Reid too repudiated all allegations. He left his position as CEO of Sony Epic, and raised 75 $ Million to form a new company. Drew Dixon has recently gone back to the drawing board with a new career in the music business, working from her flat. AS

ON STREAMING PLATFORMS FROM 18 JUNE 2020 | Available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon Video, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Dogwoof, Google Play, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Media, YouTube

 

Seasons in Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger (2016) *** MUBI

Dir.: Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton; Documentary/Essay with John Berger, Tilda Swinton; UK 2016, 90 min.

To call the novelist, art historian, painter and poet John Berger a Renaissance man is for once no hyperbole. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, and in the same year was the main contributor to the influential BBC series “Ways of Seeing” – at a time when television tried to edify audiences rather than anaesthetising them.

Berger, who died in January 2017, aged 90, also wrote film scripts during the mid 1970s, notably for the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le milieu du Monde, Jonah who will be 25 in 2000). He left London for good in 1973 to spend the rest of his life in the French mountain village of Quincy in Haute-Savoie. Seasons is an omnibus edition of four short films that illuminates his way of thinking.

The first sequel, “Ways of Listening”, directed by McCabe, was shot in 2010 when Tilda Swinton (who wrote the script) visited Berger in Quincy just before Christmas. It is a discourse about friendship and art. Berger and Swinton not only share a birthday (34 years apart) and place of birth (London), but also fathers who had been active soldiers, fighting in WWI and WWII respectively – and would never talk about their experiences, in spite of being severely wounded. While Swinton peels apples for a crumble, Berger sketches her. They also talk about his “Bento’s Sketchbook” to explain the workings of his mind – a deeper diver into this would have been welcome!.

Christopher Roth’s second part “Spring” is mainly a discourse about humans and animals – no surprise, since Berger’s work is often centred around the relationship between the two. Some of Berger’s texts on the subject are read out, and we see samples of his TV work. But the episode is very much coloured by grief: Berger had recently lost his wife of nearly forty years, Beverly, to cancer and Roth’s mother had also died. Feeling like a collage, “Spring” is the most emotional chapter of the quartet.

“A Song for Politics”, directed by McCabe and Bartek Dziadosz (also editor and cinematographer of the other parts and director of the Derek Jarman Lab, which co-produced Seasons), consists mainy of a black-and-white TV style discussion between Berger, McCabe, and the writers Akshi Sing and Ben Lerner, about the plight of today’s Europe. Berger bemoans the fact that a society which only exists “to do the next deal” lacks historical input. They agree that old-fashioned capitalism is dead, But a discussion is needed about what has replaced it. There are rousing songs from the early years of the 20th century when ‘Solidarity’ was the slogan. Ironically, Berger states, “solidarity is only needed in Hell, not in Heaven”. Paradoxes and contradictions are flying around, and it’s no surprise the come to no conclusions.

“Harvest”, directed by Tilda Swinton, is filmed in Quincy and Paris – Berger had to move for health reasons to the French capital where he would later die. Swinton takes her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor to Quincy, to meet Ives, Berger’s son of his marriage with Beverly. There is a resonance from “Ways of Listening”, as far as father/son relationships are concerned, Ives being an artist. But it is also a tribute to Beverly who planted a huge raspberry garden, the children enjoy the fruit “giving Beverly pleasure”. In Paris, Berger, in spite of his frailty, is keen on teaching Honor how to ride a motorbike, whilst her mother looks on in horror. But “Harvest” feels like a long goodbye between Berger and Swinton: not sentimental, but deeply felt.

Seasons is proof that you only need some existential ‘old-fashioned’ ideas, and a mini-budget to produce something worthwhile. In spite of its small faults, this essay/documentary makes the audience curious – and if it ‘only’ encourages us to find out more about the work of John Berger, it has fulfilled its purpose. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS

This is Not a Movie (2019) **** Canada Now | Curzon Home Cinema

Dir.: Yung Chang; Documentary with Robert Fisk, Amira Hass; Canada/Germany 2019, 106 min.

Canadian director/co-writer Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) creates an energetic portrait of British war journalist Robert Fisk (*1946), who has chronicled conflict zones from Northern Ireland to the Syrian atrocities. After more than five decades in the field, and now living in Beirut since 1976, Frisk is seven times winner of the British Press Award’s International journalist of the year.

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly romantic drama Foreign Correspondent, was the kicker that started Fisk’s fascination with journalism. Growing up in Maidstone, Kent, he is fluent in Arabic after working in the devasted cities of Syria and the occupied West Bank. His father was a soldier in the Great War and refused to execute an enemy soldier “the only action my father undertook, with which I could identify”.

After starting with the Sunday Express he later changed to The Times, which he left after the Rupert Murdoch takeover, and has now found a home at the Independent, covering wars for the digital edition. Fisk interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times between 1993 and 1997. In the first article, he called Bin Laden an Anti-Soviet mountain warrior on the road to peace. The “mountain warrior” must have been impressed by the journalist, because he tried to convert him to his cause. Fisk also covered the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, when the Israeli Army turned a blind eye to the Falange soldiers who massacred Palestinians in refuge camps. On the ‘phone to his current editor, Fisk has to explain why he made the reference in his report. Losing his patience, Fisk tells the man he should look it up on Google and try to make the connection.

Director Chang is as much a purist as is Fisk. When asked in an interview about his position in the question of film versus digital, he admits:”there is a grain, a quality and a depth to the image that is unmatched in digital video.” Some images were shot in 16mm by DoP Duraid Munajim, but did not make it into the final cut. But the still photos shot during the production are in 35 mm.

Fisk has always challenge the objectivity of “balanced” journalism, his viewpoint is visible throughout his work when he tries to interrogate all sides of the conflict. Whether in Homs, Aleppo, Douma or Palestine, he “is neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. In contrast to the mainstream media, he gives voice to the unrepresented. Both Chang and Fisk share a passion for travelling, and being taken out of their comfort zone. The dirctor is full of admiration for his older counterpart: “We started when Fisk was around seventy-two. But he is still active, still thinking and still writing incendiary articles and cracking forward-thinking stories. This had to be an active story.” AS

HEADLINING CANADA NOW | CURZON HOME CINEMA | 12 JUNE 2020

La Frontière de nos Rèves (1996) | A Bridge to Christo | Tribute (1935-2020)

Dir.: Georgui Balabanov; Documentary with Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Anani Yavashev; Bulgaria 1996, 72 min.

In his thought-provoking biopic, Bulgarian director Georgui Balabanov (The Petrov File) portrays two very different brothers who have been living apart for 26 years on the opposite sides of the iron curtain. Christo (1935-2020), who died on 31 May 2020, travelled abroad to become an celebrated environmental artist and his actor brother Anani Yavashev, who deeply regrets his wasted years in Bulgaria under Stalinist censorship. Two destines embody the hopes and illusions of two different worlds.

Balabanov’s documentary flips between Gabrovo, the village where the brothers grew up, and the Paris flat Christo shared with Moroccan born Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. Both not only share the same birthday (13.6.1935), but a passion for art, while understanding that their work is transient – apart from one installation, the 400k oil barrels at Mastaba, all their projects have vanished: the wrappings of the Berlin Reichstag and the Pont-Neuf Bridge as well as The Gates of Central Park in New York.

The busy Paris flat, with Jeanne-Claude chain smoking whilst organising their projects, is in great contrast to Anani’s inertia shared with his artist friends. The Sofia theatre they called home for decades is being torn down and even if they are not too fond of their memories, it is still their past lives, which are bulldozed to the ground. Anani could never play Lenin, since he was “politically not trusted”. The brother’s father Vladimir, a former business man, was imprisoned at the beginning of the Stalinist regime of terror, for “sabotage”. As an old “Class Enemy” he took the punishment for a drunken worker, who burned the cloth production for the whole week. His sons were suspects too, Anani got into drama school only with the help of a benevolent friend in the bureaucratic system.

1957 was the year of decision for Christo, who went to Prague and was smuggled in a locked train-compartment to Vienna. The rest is history – but Anani and his friends, paid heavily for their compromise with the system. Modernism in all art forms was tantamount to treason, painters and playwrights had to smuggle progressive elements into their work – hoping all the time that the censors would overlook it. But they are also honest enough, to admit they had a free reign in their private lives: long, passionate nights are mentioned. One feels sorry for this resigned bunch, and can sympathise with their plight: it comes as no co-incidence that only a few escaped the artistic prisons of the Soviet Block: risk-taking is seen as a virtue in the West either – human nature is preponderantly opportunistic.

Shot in intimate close-up by DoP Radoslav Spassov, La Frontiere is very much a celebration of artistic work represented by Christo and Jeanne-Claude – and a “Trauerarbeit” for the lost souls who staid behind, sharing with others the loss of artistic identity. AS

Tribute to Christo who died in May 2020

America as Seen by a Frenchman | l’Amerique Insolite (1960) ***

Dir.: Francois Reichenbach; Documentary with commentary by Jean Cocteau; France 1960, 90 min.

French writer/director/DoP Francois Reichenbach (1921-1993) made his name with a series of musical biopics, amongst them Serge Gainsbourg, Herbert von Karajan, Yehudi Menuhin and Mireille Mathieu. Chris Marker collaborates on this freewheeling travelogue with its delightful preamble by Jean Cocteau  that praises his homeland’s spirit of resistance.

The journey kicks off at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Franciso, where Reichenbach meets participants of the ‘Salt Route’, re-staged in Houston. Ordinary Americans saddle up horses and carts and re-live, for a few days, the experience of the founding fathers. The voice-over expresses how their Native Indians will live forever live in their hearts – a rather dubious statement. But Reichenbach really gets going with the next sequence, a photo shot on a beach in California where a couple of actors get really excited by their activities, “even beyond their remit”. This male perspective never comes to rest.

After a cursory visit to Disneyland (back then a far less technological experience) and a ‘Ghost Town’ in LA where extras from Hollywood pose with visitors, we visit a Rodeo in a prison where the winner will have his sentence reduced by a year – the runner-up will have three weeks ‘holiday’ from jail to spend with his wife. Then starts a nostalgic trip to American childhood, expectant fathers learning to bathe and feed babies in a three week course. When said babies have been born, we discover they have their own TV programmes in hospital. Hula-hop contests and various parades with children and adults, show a strict segregation, but the director turns a blind eye. Further on, boys under thirteen are taught to be impervious to their injuries at Soap-Box Derbies, toughening up the new generation.

But soon we come back to the sexy side of it all, visiting a school for striptease where young women learn the trade. A half-naked young  woman appears in a ad while the off-voice commentator states”this woman has an ordinary husband”. Reichenbach spends an awful long time at the beach where teenagers “discover their sexuality”. After a demolition derby, the feature takes us to New Orleans, where the carnival processions are strictly segregated: Black and White Carnival do not meet. Finally some unruly young men are seen in prison, following by a sequence involving their positive counterparts in a cult-like ‘Holy Rollers’. It all ends up in New York with its massive glass store-fronts, making Reichenbach wonder “if the US is not just a big shop with slogans” and fearing “that Europe might look the same in twenty years.” Clearly he wasn’t wrong!

Nothing prepares for the violence of the Kennedy or Martin Luther King assassinations, or the Vietnam War, which dominated the next decade. But thanks to Reichenbach’s uncritical approach, we start to appreciate the fault lines of a society which would explode not long afterwards. Forget the white-washing commentary, just take it all in with your eyes. Reichenbach offers a cinematic and valuable heads-up for what was to come. AS

ON RELEASE COURTESY OF ARROW | 1 JUNE 2020

Mike Wallace is Here (2020) ****

Dir.: Alvi Bekin; Documentary with Mike Wallace; USA 2019, 90 min.

Director Alvi Belin (Winding) has avoided hagiography in his biographical documentary of  CBS-TV journalist Mike Wallace (1918-2012). Equally a political history lesson as well as a course about changing Television habits in the USA, Alvi Bekin throws light on the professional and personal career of Wallace, who was only overshadowed by Walter Conkrite and Edward Murrow in his metier.

 Wallace began his career in 1939 at CBS Radio with game shows like Curtain Time, which featured heavy advertisement by the show’s sponsors. After his return from war duty, he switched to the new medium of TV, where he made a name for himself in Night Beat (1955-57). It was followed by the Mike Wallace Interviews, which lasted the following two years. In 1959 he had his first great scoop, interviewing Malcom X of Nation of Islam – the latter being very much aware how much his life was in danger. In the early 1960ies, Wallace made a living mainly from advertising – ironically some ads featured Parliament Cigarettes. After the death of his eldest son Peter in Greece, Wallace decided to stay clear of ads, and become a serious journalist. After a stint on the CBS Morning News (1963-66), he created and stared in 60 Minutes, the show that made him a household name in the USA; which he only left after 37 years, aged eighty-four in 2006.

This new documentary opens fittingly with Wallace engaging with (the then) Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and haranguing him over his interview style. O’Reilly claims it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. “If you don’t like me, you’re responsible”.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: Wallace was keen to point out Larry King’s failure as a husband (seven divorces), but was very defensive when interviewed about his own marital woes.

The line-up for Wallace interview partners is long and features such heavyweights as Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvatore Dali, Vladimir Putin, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Rod Serling, The Great Wizard of the KKK movement and a soldier named Paul Meadlo, who was a participant in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The Ayatollah Khomeini is caught in an interview asking for the removal of President Sadat of Egypt: “He has betrayed Islam. Sadat is a traitor to Islam and I want the people of Egypt to overthrow the traitor, because that is what you do with a traitor”. Some month later Sadat was assassinated by his own soldiers, marching at a parade in front of him. Then there is a young (and handsome) Donald Trump, telling Wallace “if nobody fixes the USA, there will be nothing of the USA left, or the world”. But he strongly denied any interest in entering politics.

In 1995, a 60 Minutes episode was cancelled, after the producers clashed with Dr. Wigand, when he defended the tobacco industry over claims about smoking causing cancer – with Wallace perhaps in denial about his earlier ads for smoking. And then there is Vladimir Putin, wishing “Americans all the best”, after having denied that journalists in Russia are under threat. He also stated, that “the opposition to his government is a force”. It ends in a very poetic way, with Wallace and Arthur Miller walking in nature, the playwright answering Wallace’s question about posterity: “How will people remember me? As a decent guy, that would be fine. Work is natural like breathing. Work for that little moment of truth”.

The whole documentary is based on TV and newsreel clips, with Wallace being the central focus, but not in an overwhelming way. Bekin shows respect, but does not overdo it. It is worth mentioning though that Wallace admitted in a Rolling Stone interview in 1991 that for several decades he was part of a sexual harassment campaign which included snapping open the bras of female staff members. AS      

 RELEASED ON VOD ON 29 MAY 2020    

The Dead and the Others (2018)| New Brazilian Cinema | Mubi

Docudrama | 114’ | Brazil/Portugal

Brazilian cinema is entering a new era in the wake of the country’s unprecedented political turmoil. Several new films are now available online along with this look at the Directed by Palme d’Or winner João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, The Dead and the Others is a haunting docudrama based on their experiences of living for nearly a year in Pedra Branca, a village inhabited by the indigenous community of the Kraho people in Northern Brazil. The Kraho very much want to continue their way of life and traditions in their rural community, striving to be self-sufficient. Their plight connects with a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the world.

Fifteen year old Ihjãc has been suffering from nightmares since he lost his father and in the opening scene he walks through the rain forest in the light of the moon. A distant sound of chanting comes through the palm trees. His father’s voice calls him to the waterfall. It is now time to organise the funeral feast so his father’s spirit can depart to the village of the Dead and mourning for him can come to an end. Although his baby son Tepto was born in the local hospital, Ihjãc still spends most of his life with his family in the remote forest and although the village elders are urging him to fulfil his duty to undergo the crucial process of becoming a shaman, Ihjãc escapes back to the local town to avoid the transition. There, far from his people and culture, he faces the reality of being an indigenous native in contemporary Brazil.

With its themes of loss, displacement and cultural identity this eerie and woozily impressionistic piece that has a poignant urgency in its message, glowingly conveyed in vibrant, high contrast cinematography. MT

NEW BRAZILIAN CINEMA | UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY PRIZE 2018 | LET IT BURN

Climbing Blind (2019) *** BBC iPlayer

Wri/Dir: Alistair Lee | Doc UK 70′

Climbing Blind is essentially a film about scaling impossible heights, physically and metaphorically. It follows the awesome bid by blind Englishman Jesse Dufton to climb the stratospheric Old Man of Foy, one of Britain’s tallest and most awkward sea stacks, a tower of rocky sandstone that soars 137 metres above the Orkney Archipelago in Scotland. Although Jesse is blind, he was ably assisted in this endeavour by his life partner and human ‘guide dog’ Molly.

Climbing Blind is the second feature length documentary from Alastair Lee who won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival for this impressive exploration of human courage. Lee has made something of a career out of his climbing documentaries both for TV and on the big screen. Working as his own DoP and producer, he is adamant to point out that as the filmmaker his input is merely observational –  he does not get involved in the ascent itself. Lee’s first two film projects focused on mountaineer Leo Houlding and his climbing adventures: The Asgard Project (2009) sees him attempting to scale Mt Asgard, deep in the Arctic, and Lee’s 2014 mid length doc The Last Great Climb follows the Houlding’s adventures scaling Ulvetanna Peak in Antartica.

Here for the first time, Lee works with a visually challenged climber. Jesse states that his main drawback in scaling The Old Man, is not being able to plan, ironically, rather than not being able to see. Detailing the ascent of this vertical sandstone rock pillar, the film reveals how the impressively sanguine and down to earth Jesse leads the climb, assisted by his sight-partner Molly, who follows with verbal encouragement, a rope length below.

But what starts as a film about climbing slowly develops into something much more meaningful to n0n-climbers: the challenge of simply living life as a blind person. “Crossing the road is far more dangerous than climbing” claims Jesse, whose daily hurdles include buttering his own toast and getting the honey in the right place, something that most of us wouldn’t even think about. “Climbing is where I’m in control” he states. His parents also make an appearance describing the early years of Jesse’s life, after discovering their son was suffering from a rare eye disorder that would only deteriorate.

Climbing Blind shows the indomitable power of human mind to defeat seemingly impossible impediments, against all odds. Lee’s impressive camerawork pictures the stunning seascapes of the Scottish Coast and its rugged and inhospitable terrain. Jesse Dufton states categorically: “I’m not disabled; I’m blind and able”. MT

ON BBC iPlayer

Human Rights Watch Festival 2020 | Now Online


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is about documentaries and dramas that celebrate courageous people and those affected by Human Rights issues in their countries – which this year include: Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Guatemala, Germany, Iran, Macedonia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, the United States, and Vietnam. Ten of the 14 films selected for this 24th edition are directed by women.

In this latest online London Edition nine (out of 14) films will be streamed to UK audiences from 22 May until 5 June and each film has a live Q&A webinar discussion scheduled. For anyone wanting to get that festival feeling of watching a film followed immediately by a discussion, the festival has recommended timings to start streaming each film title, details here:

https://ff.hrw.org/london-digital-edition. Otherwise there is also a handy list of the free live Q&A’s here:

https://ff.hrw.org/venueinfo/london-digital-edition

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

Shot entirely on three mobile phones, MIDNIGHT TRAVELER follows the traumatic journey of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili as he and his family escape across Europe from their homeland. It is not their choice to flee, and they are not doing so on economic grounds. Hassan’s life is in danger from the Taliban due to a fatwah.
Indigenous rights come under the spotlight in Claudia Sparrow’s doc MAXIMA which has been a favourite for audiences all over the festival circuit. It tells the story of Máxima Acuña (winner of the 2016 environmental Goldman Prize) a free-spirited and courageous woman who owns a small, remote plot in the Peruvian Highlands near another owned by one the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. The charismatic and indomitable Maxima is determined to preserve the rights of the locals in this stunning natural environment. (not in online selection)
China’s now-defunct ‘one only’ child policy has left millions of single women under immense social pressures to marry quickly, or be rejected by society. This crisis is explored in depth through the lives of three women in Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s LEFTOVER WOMEN (2019) that won the Best Director and Editing prizes at the Tel Aviv documentary festival DocAviv last year.

When she was 12 years old, the actress and filmmaker Maryam Zaree found out that she was one of many babies born inside Evin, Iran’s notorious political prison; Maryam’s parents were imprisoned shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. BORN IN EVIN cuts to the chase with an appealing and lyrical approach that sees Zaree confronting decades of silence in her family to understand the impact of trauma on the bodies and souls of survivors and their children.

As witnesses of the genocide of over 200,000 indigenous people, the Mayan women of Guatemala act as a bridge between the past and present in César Diaz’ Caméra d’Or-winning debut drama, OUR MOTHERS which follows Ernesto, a young forensic anthropologist who is tasked with identifying missing victims of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. While documenting the account of an elder Mayan woman searching for the remains of her husband, Ernesto believes he might have found a lead that will guide him to his own father, a guerrillero who disappeared during the war. (Not in selection)

Rubaiyat Hossain’s impressive debut drama, MADE IN BANGLADESH, is the final film on Friday, 20 March. Best known for her 2011 film Meherjaan (2011) the director draws on her own life experience as a women’s rights activist, shining a light on the oppressive conditions in the clothing industry through the story of Shimu and her efforts to create a trade union against all odds. The screening will be followed by an in-depth discussion with Rubaiyat Hossain and special guests.

The films are streaming through CURZON HOME CINEMA and the cost is £7.99 for the majority. The Q&As are free.

 

Hector Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (2019) ****

Dir: Barbara Paz | Doc, Brazilian 75′

“What do you have to do to become a movie director? You have to know how to tell a story. And for that, you have to live”.

Brazilian actor and director Barbara Paz honours her husband Hector Babenco (1946-2016) with this cinematic love letter to his final days in Brazil.

Taking as its appropriate opening score Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a film)’ this is a lush and woozy widescreen affair that solemnly luxuriates in the couple’s tenderness for each other through excerpts of home videos and private photographs, but also explores their close collaboration work-wise, Paz a keen disciple in learning the tricks of the craft that have served her so well, Babenco a patient and softly spoken instructor teaching his wife about camera lenses and depth of field, and lacing his knowledge with amusing anecdotes.

A hagiographic approach is always going to be the danger when making a film about someone you admire, and when love is also involved there is a clear need for perspective. But Paz pulls it off in this charismatically poignant piece that won Best Documentary on Cinema at Venice Classics in 2019. At the same time her admiration shines through in testament to his unique talents and varied output, together with his dreams of being the next Luchino Visconti: well he will certainly go down in film history, but for different reasons.

Although Babenco avoids facts and chronology, by way of background Hector Eduardo Babenco was born into a Jewish family in Buenos Aires, his parents were of Polish/Ukrainian origin. Best known for his Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman (Out of Africa (1985) took the award); Babenco’s work raised awareness of the human plight in Brazil with the Sao Paulo set Golden Globe winner Pixote (1981), that sees a young boy abandoned in the streets, and Carandiru (2003) an impassioned drama about AIDS in the renowned prison in the Brazilian capital, which spawned a TV series. An accomplished documentarian he also made films about the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi and the Brazilian bandit Lucio Flavio whose crimes in Rio de Janeiro captured the public’s imagination in the early 1970s.

Paz enlivens her film with footage of Babenco going about the set of his autobiographical last film My Hindu Friend (2015) where Willem Dafoe plays a dying director during his final hospital days, and she also pictures him there during treatment for cancer, expressing his determination to eat well – avoiding hospital food – and preferably with some friends sharing Capirinhas, roast beef and salad.

Thematically rich the film also dives into universal experiences: the intimacy of loving moments captured on camera; the comfort and joy of friendship; and death, which Babenco had already come to terms with by the time his life was over, due to a previous brush with cancer at 37:  these thoughts are interweaved with dialogue from his films to produce a seamless and intensely personal biopic that shows a man not only at the height of his talent, but also at one with himself. MT

SCREENED DURING VISIONS DU REEL 2020 | NYON SWITZERLAND

Tell Me When I Die is heading to DOK.fest München (6-24 May) | Jeonju International Film Festival (28 May – 6 June 2020)

https://youtu.be/bVbqlvVy-90

Jihad Jane (2019) **** Digital release

Dir.: Ciarán Cassidy | Doc with Colleen LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, Lars Vilks; ROI 2019, 94 min.

The fear of terrorism looms large.  And nowhere less so than America where isolated communities are particularly prey to online influences. In her first feature length documentary Irish director/writer Ciarán Cassidy shows how easily the disenchanted can be taken over by terrorism. Jihad Jane examines how two American women sought refuge on the internet – sucked into terrorist propaganda as a means of making something of their lives.

Colleen LaRose (*1963) is described by her former boyfriend Kurt “as a normal country girl”. How wrong he was. In actual fact, Colleen, from Pennsylvania, had been raped by her father since the age of seven. Running away at only thirteen, she found herself coerced into becoming a sex worker before marrying a ‘client’ two years later. Jamie Paulin Ramirez (*1979), from Colorado, has a less obvious history of abuse: she had been married three times, her first husband who she married when barely a teenager, was abusive. They became known as ‘Jihad Jane’ and ‘Jihad Jamie’, ‘the new face of terrorism”. Arrested in 2010 in Waterford, Ireland, they were given lengthy prison sentences. The ‘third’ man of the “terror cell” was an autistic teenager, Mohammed Hassan Khalid from Baltimore/Maryland. He was only fifteen at the time of his arrest – but fared not much better than then two women at his trial.

Their supposed victim was the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had ‘insulted’ Islam, by putting the head of the prophet Mohammed on a dog. Vilks seems to be a provocateur with the super-ego of a narcissist. He actually comes off much worse than the women: somebody who makes a living from gathering negative attention, much like the right-wing propagandists in the US media, who are being paid handsomely for their efforts.

Everyday life for Collen LaRose meant looking after her elderly mother and her partner’s ailing father. Not much time for romance. But on the net, Jihad promised both: marriage to a fighter and a life life with purpose, creating self-esteem for the first time. For Colleen the dream came true – even if it was short. She shared the fanatical beliefs of a man she met on holiday in Amsterdam – just a brief sexual encounter was enough to raise her self-worth, as she imagined herself punishing ‘infidels’ including Vilks, who had been targeted with a ‘fatwa’. And Jamie Paulin Ramirez took her six-year old son with her to Waterford to enforce said fatwa – but not before she married Ali Damache a day after her arrival, after meeting him in a chatroom. The personal and the political – so closely connected. No surprise then that LaRose grassed the plot to the authorities because the gratification was taking too long for her: like all would-be revolutionaries, she wanted action NOW.

There is a rather sad epilogue: although the documentary is set between 2008 and 2010, LaRose did not get a prison release until 2018. She is a Trump voter – after eight years in jail. “I’m somebody now”, she proclaims, clutching an armful of hand-knitted stuffed animals.

DoP Ross McDonald shows an impressive snowy Colorado, a welcome change to the ‘talking heads’. Cassidy’s portrait of evil is compelling and makes for an intriguing insight into middle America without denouncing LaRose whose life could have put to a better purpose than terrorism had she had a secure childhood. AS

ON ALL MAJOR PLATFORMS FROM 11 MAY 2020

https://youtu.be/iPVu1ukjkhA

The Overlanders (1946) **** Blu-ray release

The reason for the docudrama approach stems from the original idea of making a propaganda film for the Australian government who knocked on Watts’ door looking for a well known director and a reputable studios – Ealing naturally fitted the bill, although the film was released after the war was over.

Magic Medicine (2018)

Dir/Writer: Monty Wates | UK Doc | 79′

In 2012 a team of medical researchers explored what would happen if psilocybin was given to long term depressives.

Four years in the making, Monty Wates’ intriguing documentary chronicles the progress of the first ever medical trial offering the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms to three volunteers suffering from clinical depression. We also meet the pioneering staff running the trial.

The hope is that this controversial substance will have the power to transform millions of lives, by scrambling and re-setting the brain’s function and enabling patients to identify what happened, to process it and, crucially, to move on. As David Lynch put in the recent biopic The Art Life (2016) “there has to be a big mess, before something can change”. The main setback has been government controls that strictly limit human testing.

Monty’s ground-breaking film reveals what happens when each of the candidates undergoes a supervised “trip” in a darkened room. During the short procedure, each is taken back into the deep recesses of their childhood to unlock trauma that has affected their lives and caused them to suffer deep sadness, impinging their ability to function at an optimum level. One of the trail volunteers had felt rejected and unwanted by his father, another was lost in a state of insecurity waiting for others to tell him what to do. The third feels generally worthless in his life.

Wates adopts an observational approach and a linear narrative, always maintaining a humanistic approach to the subject matter. With deeply moving footage of the “trips” the patients experience, this intimate film is an absorbing portrait of the human cost of depression, and the inspirational people contributing to this unique psychedelic research. The results are remarkable, varied and often lasting, suggesting the treatment is positive. So far. And certainly more effective than with conventional drugs. But whether the substance will be licensed for general use remains to be seen. MAGIC MEDICINE is an instructive, absorbing and fascinating piece of filmmaking. MT

A 2021 study led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), found that the drug can be safely administered in up to six patients using doses of either 10mg or 25mg.

 

Rachmaninoff: The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) ****

Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′

Tony Palmer’s extensive documentary about the one of the world’s most loved composers(1873-1943) is a vibrant memoire, enlivened by musical interludes, ample archive footage of his life and times in Russia, Sweden and the United States where he finally died in 1943, unable to return to his beloved homeland: “a ghost wandering forever in the world”.

Playing out as a long autobiographical letter to his daughters Tatiana and Irina, voiced by Gielgud in slightly sardonic but wistful tone, the film covers the composer’s life until his final months in New York. But it starts at a low point, with the Rachmaninoff family leaving Russia in 1917, escaping from the Bolshevik devastation of Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) set for musical adventures in Stockholm, and thence to America. Desperate about leaving his homeland, the composer also felt at a low ebb creatively: “Nowadays I am never satisfied with myself, I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow: I almost never feel that what I do is successful”.
Quite the opposite: Rachmaninoff would become a celebrated figure, but a very private man, who would tell interviewers: “if you want to know me, listen to my music”. Avoiding the intellectual approach, his wanted his music “to go direct to the heart, bypassing the brain”. Remembered by his niece, Sofia Satina, as a happy, tall, elegantly dressed gentleman who loved his Savile Row suits and driving his car, although he was never wealthy, and ironically ended his days as a concert pianist playing for money until his fingers were literally bruised, to maintain his family during gruelling tours of the United States, which he hated: “now I play without joy, just mechanically”. His friend Igor Stravinsky remembered him in those times as “a six-foot scowl”.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Moscow to a musical family, taking up the piano from the age of four and gaining a place at the Conservatoire whence he graduated at nineteen, having already composed several orchestral and piano pieces. Although he dreamed of the Mariinsky Theatre, his philandering father broke the family up and Rachmaninov started his career with family in Moscow where he became friendly with Tchaikovsky, the last of Russian Romantics, and the two formed a close friendship. But the composer was always most at home in the small town of Ivanovka, where he spent his summers as a young boy, and his grandson is seen returning here in an exhaustive sequence that pictures the refurbished family home – a fairytale blue and white wooden clad affair (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) during celebrations to honour the musical legend. It was in Ivanovka that local folkloric musicians became a big influence on the young composer’s, along with the Russian Orthodox chants. He is also know for his fugal writing, which is even more of a throwback to the classical era.
It took Rachmaninoff until the late 1890s to free himself from his friend and idol Tchaikovsky. He is best classified as a neo-romantic, in the style of Bruckner and Mahler, but in reality he is much closer to Elgar. The distinguishing feature of intra-tonal chromaticism runs through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s work. He is also known for his widely spaced chords, used in the Second Symphony ‘The Bells’. But towards the end he was less concerned with melody, his emotional and impressionistic style is best experienced in the 39 Etudes Tableaux, which is a deeply affecting rollercoaster.
The other important contributor to the film is conductor and composer Valery Gergiev (Widowmaker) who is seen at work in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. It was Rachmaninoff himself who said that his life had been ‘a harvest of sorrow’, and Tony Palmer certainly brings that poignancy to bear in this deeply affecting film that brings the spirit of Rachmaninoff alive. MT
https://youtu.be/43dF4wg0r2o
NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (2016) **** Streaming

Director | Cinematographer: David Bickerstaff | Producer: Phil Grabsky | 93min | Documentary | UK

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The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ was the first of its kind to display paintings by artists inspired by gardens. Using Claude Monet as a starting point, the exhibition explored the major role of gardens in the development of art and painting from the 1860s through to the threshold of modernism in the 1920s. This colourful documentary brings the pivotal study to life visiting many of the gardens featured and also offers further insight and context from leading lights of the world of art and garden history.

Director David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky are known for their art documentaries on Goya, Van Gogh and Renoir that add a another dimension to the artists and their paintings, bringing their vibrant creations to the screen and allowing their works to travel and gain context through the valuable insight of art curators, experts, even members of the artists’ families.

Painting the Modern Garden shows how Monet was not only a talented painter but also a horticulturalist who took inspiration from nature describing his garden as his “most beautiful masterpiece”. He owed “having become a painter to flowers”, using colour, form and latterly stripping things back to just light and reflection to give an impression of what he really saw and experienced.

FullSizeRender-2 copyBickerstaff’s agile camerawork flits from sumptuous groupings of vivid, herbaceous perennials to gloriously discordant drifts of annuals and their painted representations in the works of Pierre Bonnard, Paul Klee, Gustave Caillebotte, Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent, Camille Pisarro, Emil Nolde, Joaquin Sorolla, Berthe Morisot, Jacques Tissot, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse (to name but a few but only one Englishman!). He finally alights on the talking heads: the Royal Academy co-curator Ann Dumas explains how during the 1860s private gardens became a visual pleasure and a sanctuary for the family, rather than just a source of food; celebrity garden designer Dan Pearson explores how Singer Sargent (left) and Monet conveyed their understanding and love of raising the plants to their artistic impressions of them, particularly seen in Monet’s zinging portrayal of flame rust day lilies, and Singer Sargent white asian lilies. An Art Historian and Professor shows how many different species were being discovered in the Orient, bringing a new dynamic vitality to classic plant pairings in garden designs. The cheeky head gardener at Giverney tells how Monet favoured clashing colours (planting purple with orange accentuates the vibrancy) in contrast to England’s ‘old-fashioned’, classic harmonious schemes – he obviously hasn’t visited many English gardens and in particular those at Great Dixter by the pioneering writer and designer Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) who with his head gardener Fergus Garrett, whose stock in trade was strident yellow with fluorescent carmine, and other striking contrasts. is at pains to point out that gardening and horticulture is often denigrated as an applied craft along with knitting or basket weaving, whereas, infact, it is a living and changing interactive art – as much as we plant and plan, nature offers a constant source of surprise, each year and season bringing up unexpected variations and results, in many ways similar to painting and filmmaking even architecture: we design but the infinite alchemy of the elements often throws up a result which is both pleasing and rewarding.

Key 108 copy copyThe second act of Painting the Modern Garden gets out and about in the gardens themselves, visiting Monet’s garden at Le Pressoir, Giverny; German Impressionist painter Max Liebemann’s lakeside garden on the banks of the Wannsee in Berlin; Emil Nolde’s garden in Seebüll (Northern Germany) – there are cutaways to Nolde’s intense impressionist works showing how he literally daubed the paint on the canvas to illustrate the boldness of his poppies and dahlias; Joaquín Sorolla’s garden in Madrid which influenced his ethereal work with light and shadow; Henri le Sidaner’s garden in Gerberoy, Picardy – we also meet his relative who explains how le Sindaner’s ‘intimist’ painting was based on the atmospheric light in his garden which echoed reflection and informed his work. This gorgeous travelogue showcases the gardens at their most resplendent.

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The final section of the documentary hones in on Monet’s later years to illustrates how he designed and planted his borders specifically as a source of inspiration for his impressionism. Rather than portraying the garden and individual studies of it, he focused obsessively on light and reflection (left). He sourced newly discovered exotic cultivars of nympheas (bright pink and yellow) that he acquired (‘all my money goes into my garden’) and grew in his excavated lake from the mid 1890s until his death in 1926. The film offers a panoramic view of the remarkable 42ft Agapanthus triptych; a vision of light, suggestive colour and reflection and the most evocative of all his works (seen together for the first time and borrowed  from three different museums) that perfectly evokes the ‘oceanic’ state – a feeling of limitlessness where we are at one with nature. This is the perfect climax to a study that progresses from Renoir’s figurative portrait of Monet in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873 to the broad brush impressionism that occupied the final decade of his Monet’s life. Painting the Modern Garden initially feels like a glossy an advert for the exhibition, but in analysis it offers far more: a worthwhile and engaging filmic tribute to the world of 19th garden art and the fascinating history and people that informed and shaped it. MT

PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN: MONET TO MATISSE is at RA.ORG.UK

Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

 

 

 

A Machine to Live In (2020) **** Visions du Reel

Dirs: Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke | Doc, United States, 87′

It was the French architect Le Corbusier who coined the phrase ‘A Machine to Live In’ to describe his own designs. Now a new film about Brasilia explores the human angle of living in a city: this vast, manmade capital of Brazil, its capital city since 1960, built in a thousand days. They describe their work as a “sci-fi providing a complex portrait of life, poetry, and myth set against the backdrop of the space-age city of Brasília and a flourishing landscape of UFO cults and transcendental spaces.

Chiefly designed by Oscar Niemayer, and laid out in the shape of an airplane, its wings the wide avenues flanking a massive park, the cockpit is Praca dos Tres Poderes, named for the three branches of government surrounding it. Brasilia is a city that offers extraordinary cinematic potential, not only in its utopian architecture but also its functionality. But there are downsides to the modern buildings.

Chicago-based filmmakers Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke (Jettisoned, Natural Life) have created a mystical portrait this modern metropolis, carved out from the jungle, its architecture full of glimmering white, featureless obloids that invite the most adventurous theories. Looking like a set made for SF adventure, the filmmakers do capture its surreal splendour by being shooting in widescreen 4K RED RAW.

Re-inactions and quotes from Niemeyer; the Jewish writer Clarice Lispector – who interviewed the architect – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and Cult founder Tia Neiva are woven into a hallucinatory landscape that could have spun off from an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars. The footage mixes old fashioned technologies and state of the art aesthetics such as gimbals, drones, helicopters, 3D LIDAR scanning and geospatial mapping. “The camera perspective will mechanically rotate, spin and float among the architecture as if it were itself an alien craft – or, perhaps, the mind’s eye of an architect”.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) writes: “Brasilia is an altered state of consciousness; a pseudo hallucinatory perception; a complex, vivid dream like images – sometimes with halos around light, leading to a loss of vision. And: “Brasilia is artificial: it is the image of my insomnia, it is haunted; it is an abstract city.” Part of this read to students in Esperanto. When Gagarin visited Brasilia he said: “I feel as if I stepped on the surface of another planet, not earth.” No wonder the followers of Tia Neiva (1926-1985), ride their Hell’s Angels bikes around, since Neiva’s cult Vale do Amanhecer (Dawn Valley) is very much alive, as are the memories of Neiva herself, who came to fame as the first female truck driver in Brazil. 

Zielke speaks of “building a cosmology of signs, fragments of literary and historical texts work their way into interviews, fictive tableaux, featuring temporal architectural sculptures situate themselves in ‘real scenes’ and historical encounters are enacted by participants in the film. voice-overs are doubled to reveal multiple identities and captions are manipulated to reveal multiple perspectives.” 

Then there are moments of pure surrealism: A white horse wanders into a parking lot. The face of current Brazilian president Bolsonaro appears on the body of Niemeyer. The crew has visited Brasilia every summer for eight years to gather footage, establishing connections with local groups. This makes the hybrid feature very personal. During an interview, Zielke said, that they collected enough material for three films. Even though, the information presented is overwhelming to say the least. 

DoP Andrew Benz’ images are unique: Looking like a Martian outpost, Brasilia is defined by massive concrete domes, swooping aluminium spires, pyramids and super-blocks, which seem to repeat themselves ad absurdum. A dazzling as a trip on LSD, A Machine to live in is a mixture of nightmares, making Science Fiction look rather banal in comparison ordinary.AS

Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke are award-winning international filmmakers, cinematographers, and editors. Goldstein and Zielke work collaboratively on social documentary projects: from examining hybridized healing practices in the Northern Andes (La Curación), to children in American prisons (Natural Life), to critical explorations of history and somatic memory (The Jettisoned). Their films have been presented internationally across several major festivals, conferences, and classrooms. Goldstein and Zielke’s work as directors and cinematographers has been selected and awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, the Festival Black Movie de Genève, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Hot Springs Documentary Festival, the Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec, the Festival International du Documentaire et Rencontres sur la Biodiversité et les Peuples, Hot Docs Digital Doc Shop, Globians Doc Fest Berlin, and many others. AS

STREAMING DURING VISIONS DU REEL | April – May 2020

Trailer | A Machine to Live In | Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke

National Gallery (2014) **** Streaming

Dir.: Frederick Wiseman

Documentary; France/UK/USA 2014, 181 min.

To call Frederick Wiseman a documentary filmmaker is somewhat absurd: for over four decades he has been telling stories about mental institutions; boxing halls; hospitals; ballet companies and universities. And this former teacher does all this without the classic tools of documentary filmmaking: voice-overs, talking heads, interviews and all form of identifiers are missing from his work. Instead the emphasis is on process: he is peeling off layer after layer. Therefore NATIONAL GALLERY is about art: its process, its mystery. But it is also about money
Wiseman has spent 12 weeks in the museum, the camera wandering freely through the institution, coming up with 170 hours of film but only three of them ending up in the final cut. One could say that cutting is his form of editing.

The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square houses mainly art from the 14th to the late 19th century. Its director, the art historian Nicholas Penny, is seen at budget discussions trying to define the role of the museum in regard to the public (expectations versus elitism) and, rather mundanely, discussing how to take advantage of the fact that the London Marathon ends at Trafalgar Square and that the façade of the museum would be used for a video projection.

Wiseman does not only stay in the building itself: He films Greenpeace activists putting up a banner from the roof of the building; “It’s no Oil painting”. With the ‘o’ in “oil’ looking like the Shell logo. It is clear that the banner refers to Shell’s drilling in the Antarctic and its support for the NG’s “Rembrandt: The Late Works” exhibition. With regard to matters financial, the director mentions that the money from the foundation collection of the museum was a donation by J.J. Angerstein, whose money was mainly made from his slave trading activities in Grenada.

It is difficult to choose the most impressive story in this engaging film, but amongst the most memorable is the one about a group of visually impaired patrons, sliding their fingers about an embossed reproduction of Pissaro’s “The Boulevard Montmarte at Night” (1897) whilst the curator explains all the details of the painting. Next is perhaps a psychological interpretation of Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah”, when the guide asks the audience to “imagine, how one would feel in Delilah’s place, having successfully fulfilled her spying mission and taken all the power away from Samson, after pretending to be in love with him”. A rather delicate question, indeed. Next a reminder of immortality: we are made full aware that many of the portraits in this museum were commissioned by the rich and powerful to achieve some form of immortality. In front of a Dutch table painting we hear that whilst the lobster has been long dead, the drinking horn has survived to this day.

On a more technical level, there is much to discover about the limits of restoration: a ghostly image on a Rembrandt portrait shows that another painting, perhaps a portrait of the same person, had been started before on the same canvas. But the restorer makes it clear that whatever his changes may be, the next person to restore the painting can start from scratch, because he simply has to take the varnish off. The intricacies of framing are endless, certainly it is an art form in itself. The many ‘Turner’s” on show allow us to  connect with Mike Leigh’s latest feature on the artist (Mr Turner) and finally, two ballet dancers performing in front of a Titian painting make a fitting climax to this remarkable three hour film which should be savioured at your leisure over a good bottle of wine. AS.

ON Mubi from 8 May 2020 | INTERVIEW

The Calm after the Storm **** | Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo; Documentary with Victor Gaviria, Marcela Jaramillo; Columbia 2020, 72min.

Colombian filmmaker Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo confronts her childhood and her famous filmmaker father, Victor, in her documentary debut which she scripted, filmed and co-edited.

Mercedes worked as her father’s assistance during the shooting of his final film La Mujer del Animal (The wife of the Animal). Gaviria senior is the only Columbian director whose films have been shown at Cannes Film Festival.

Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo always wanted to get out of the shadow of her famous father: in spite the pleas of her mother, she studied film at Buenos Aires, and worked there after graduation as sound designer. But the pull of the family proved too strong, when she agreed to assist her father in his latest feature La mujer de Animal (2016). On her return to her home, she finds that her mother Marcela, an anthropologist, has left her room untouched, which comforts Mercedes. The Calm is actually two films in one: there are the sequences of shooting La mujer, and the home videos her father shot of her, her brother Matias and mother Marcela. And then there is the diary of her mother, for her yet unborn daughter. “It sounds, like I was her only confidant”. Victor is known for his realism, and using non-professional actors. The story of La mujer is of Marguerita, who lives in the neighbourhood, but does not want to give an interview to Mercedes: Marguerita, who had been kidnapped and raped by “the animal’ at eightenn, is fearful, that the actor, who portraits her tormentor, might bring back the bad spirit of him, even though he died long ago. Marguerita’s role is taken by Natalia Polo, a nursing assistant, who gives up her job, to concentrate on filming. Tito, a bus driver will feature as the villain. It is obvious, that Mercedes is horrified of the rape scene between the main protagonists, whilst her father is directing with calm, taking about the size of the lenses he will use in the next shot. Natalia is often found crying, and Victor sends her away from the set. Mercedes: “Marguerita’s suffering rekindles in every woman’s body”. It rains during the first six days of shooting, and cast and crew get ill – apart from Victor. Next is another violent scene, a sex orgy, where sex workers are brutally raped and beaten. Victor uses real sex workers from Berrio Park, and the lads are from the tough neighbourhood. Mercedes has to close her eyes, but keeps listening. When Mercedes is alone with her mother, she wants to ask her about the diary. “I want her to take my fear away, talking to her. But she only asks, if the catering at the set is ok. I just answer it – to calm her”. In an old home video, we watch Mercedes, called Mechi, being bullied by her father into writing a story for school. Mechi refused, telling him, that a scorpion has bitten her. From her mother’s diary: “Only twenty days left until your birth. You are going to have a very special dad. Even if we have our problems, as you will find out soon. He is very sensitive, always meeting lots of people when he is not with us, because other people need him too. I hope you are optimistic, I was not. You give me strength  to keep on fighting for our love. I loved your father too much, I am always afraid of losing him, you can’t live like this”.  The principal photography for La mujer is over, and Victor discusses with his daughter, that he was well aware of the fact, that the cast used Clonazepam with alcohol, to get over the trauma of acting. “The mixture is so strong, you don’t remember the next day what you have done at all”. From the home videos we learn, that the Tooth Fairy is called ‘Perez the Mouse’ in Columbia – but young Mercedes is not fooled: “Its not true, its Mom and Dad who give me the presents.”. Merceds tries in vain to talk with her mother about the diary. “What would she say to me? That living with a man is not easy. But life must go on”. Thinking back to the shoot and her father: “He finds it easier to direct violent scenes, than to direct Natalia.” Her brother Matias, Mercedes films an ugly spat between macho father and son, is generally not fond of being filmed: “Life has to be lived, before its being filmed”. And a last thoughts about the rape scene:” The contradiction of filming a rape scene being the privileged gender. And a film set full of men. Yes, talk about gender violence in a country suffering from a war.”

Never didactic, the director tries always to keep distance, but it is not easy to keep the distance with your family. A calm, but moving reflexion on gender and filmmaking. AS

VISIONS DU REEL ONLINE 25 APRIL           

Camino Skies (2020) *** Digital release

Dir.: Noel Smyth, Fergus Grady; Documentary with Julie Zarifeh, Sue Morris, Terry, Mark Thompson; New Zealand/Australia 2019, 80 min.

Antipodian first time documentary filmmakers Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady set off with six of their countrymen and women for a 800 km pilgrimage from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The holy walk started in the Middle Ages, and for the last sixty years, 300 000 yearly tried to come to terms with God, after their lives took a change for the worse, by undertaking this mammoth hike.

Sue Morris is first up, seventy, the oldest of the half dozen. She is suffering from degenerative arthritis. It is short of a miracle that she manages to stay the course, only once taking a bus and a taxi ride. But her stoic appearance hides a deeply traumatised inner life – and the journey seems not to have given her any answers.

It is much more straightforward for Terry and his son-in-law Mark Thompson – the former wearing a vest, claiming the 1.6 million steps are for Maddie, the daughter of Mark, who died from complications of Cystic Fibrosis at the age of seventeen. While not wishing to grade suffering,  Julie Zarifeh (54), seems to be hardest hit: in less than a month she lost her husband and son – basically her life. This certainly a Via Dolorosa for her, and her grief is utterly compelling.

The participants seem not to be overly religious, it is more the self torture which appeals to them, most of them suffering from survivor guilt. One listens to ‘Black Sabbath’, without the directors mentioning it. Dogs, horses, donkeys, beetles, lizards and snails are being cuddled and stared at, much to their alarm. The participants visit hairdressers and bars, the women sometimes dancing together, the men more interested in drinking. Small stones on the paths play a major role: Julie re-arranges them into a heart form: ‘For Paul and Sam’. The arrival in Santiago de Compostela lacks any triumph – a rather sobering ending. For Julie, the journey goes on to Muxia, on the Coast of Death, near the ocean. There she climbs the rocks and empties the content of an urn into the waves.

Even at eighty minutes, Camino Skies overstays its welcome. There is only so much to watch, and the repetitiousness of muddy pathways and ordinary day-to-day activities detract from the real physical and emotional suffering of these modern pilgrims. Yet despite the potential offered by the dramatic locations Smyth’s images are often too bland to be cinematically engaging, the filmmakers’ lack of inexperience diminishing the overall impact of these traumatised souls on their journey to salvation. AS

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA FROM 8 MAY 2020 | other platforms TBC

                       

                                       

Wolves at the Borders (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Martin Pav | Doc, Czech Republic 78′

Wolves are back in the Czech Republic. And their return is causing ructions in the rural population. In his no holds barred look at the social history of man’s relationship with beast, filmmaker Martin Pav examines whether wolves still have a place in a world where drought and climate change is already wreaking havoc on the farmers particularly the vast forested areas of the Czech Republic. Wolves are, at least, a threat that can be controlled.

From an ecological point of view wolves have as much right to exist as humans, but as a voracious predator of livestock, and humans too – if given a chance, they are posing a serious threat now that their numbers are once again growing.

Not everyone is in agreement over how to tackle the wolf issue. Jan Sefc, a livestock farmer, shows how his flock of sheep is being depleted by wolves, as he throws a armful of maimed dead lambs into a rubbish bin. The wolves don’t eat the new borns, they just maul them to death, adding insult to the injuries inflicted. The problem is how to protect them. How do you build a shelter for 3000 sheep? And they don’t only kill lambs and sheep, deer are being heavily predated. “Tt’s like having a pedophile in a kindergarten” he says. For now he manages to keep the wolves at bay by monitoring the area in his truck, but he can’t be there all the time. Mayor Tomas Havrlant supports his view and is determined to gain the support of the government in this growing concern.

But conservationist Jiri Malik takes a different view, and is more concerned with water conservation in the region, seeing drought as the main enemy of farming and food production. He argues water is key to the survival of crops and the next generation. He is working on ways to improve irrigation.

Wolves have been predators in the Czech Republic since the Benedictines first arrived in the 13th century with the motto: “Pray and Work” (Ora et Labora). Records tell of attacks on humans, and the Monks civilising effects allowed the local population to protect themselves with barriers at a time when folklore was dominated by tales of wolves, synonymous with the Devil. The only punishment back then was to be cast out into the wilderness. Gradually wolves were almost entirely exterminated by the mid-18th century.

But they soon found their way back. In Czechia and neighbouring Poland and Slovakia wolves were still being culled up until the 1970s, when they were shot during the hunting season, and still harboured a fear of humans. These legendary beasts can grow to six feet tall, and now, like the foxes in the Britain, they have started to challenge man. Their population is growing again and the farmers are angry. So the Mayor has decided to file a suit against the State to gain protection for the farmers and the local economy, and encourage young people to stay in the region.

Jiri Malik feels that anything that encourages beauty, diversity, stability of an ecosystem: such as wolves, is good. Anything that goes the other way, is bad. Why don’t the farmers guard their sheep, like shepherds did in ancient times?. And this is very much the view of small-holder Lenka Stihlova who takes the wolves side of the dilemma arguing for a modus Vivendi with the animals.

With its sinister occasional score of strings and measuring detached approach, Wolves at the Borders presents a convincing case for each side in this age-old endeavour: how to live in harmony with the animal kingdom. MT

VISIONS du REEL 2020 | STREAMING

 

 

 

Fish Eye (2019) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Amin Behroozzadeh | Doc, Iran, 70′

The debut feature-length poetic documentary by Iranian filmmaker-composer Amin Behroozzadeh follows the biggest industrial fishing boat in Iran, the Parsian Shila, whose objective is to catch 2,000 tons of tuna fish.

Fish Eye is a sombre meditation on commercial fishing that looks at the human and ecological sides of the trade, in a similar vein to Leviathan (2012) and Dead Slow Ahead (2015) that sees the strenuous peril of traditional fishing give way to a mechanised almost mesmerising daily grind for those involved aboard this behemoth of the seas. Although the film depicts the cruelty and harsh conditions of the job, the men on board enjoy a low key camaraderie, often joining each other in prayer. But there is also loneliness as the ‘sailors’ are parted from their families for weeks, even months.

But the filmmaker is also tuned in to the activity of the fish themselves, and how nature is affected by this activity. Following in the footsteps of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, there is a mourneful aspect to Fish Eye but none of the fear and enormity of Leviathan – this is more low key affair that pictures individual tuna and ray as they flounder on the deck gasping for a final breath in images that are deeply affecting and sometimes difficult to watch. And as Behroodzeh casts off in the poignant final scenes accompanied by an evocative occasional score, a pod of dolphins is seen joyfully leading the ship on its way to more culling. A sad but thoughtful study of 21st century fishing and in anonymous manpower involved. MT

FISH EYE  won the TRT Documentary Prize at last year’s SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL | NOW SCREENING AT VISIONS DU REEL | NYON, APRIL 2020

Kombinat (2020) *** Visions du Reel (2020)

Dir: Gabriel Tejedor | Doc, 2020, Switzerland, 75′

A remarkable wide screen opening sequence shows the mighty industrial heart of Russia, the main town of Magnitogorsk in the South Urals and home to the Kombinat, one of the largest iron and steel works in the country. 

But Gabriel Tejedor then narrows his gaze onto the human story behind the billowing pipes and red hot furnesses. That of the locals who live here, and the wider social implications, asking the question: What makes us stay in a place that is potentially detrimental to our health and livelihood?.  The focus here is a family who live in the shadow of the vast industrial complex whose rhythm has dictated their lives from generation to generation, socially, economically and politically. Work in the factory is gruelling and dangerous, requiring heavy protection from frequent electric shocks. 

But the toxic nature of the surrounding environment also has a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of this family and their relatives. And it seems this plant also dominates their leisure time. Lena and Sacha live with their little daughter Dasha. Lena teaches the salsa lessons suggested by the factory. And this helps Sacha to dance away his problems and forget the pressure of work. Meanwhile his brother and his wife are hoping to move to Novosibirsk in Siberia, to escape the heavy pollution that is causing their daughter neurological problems. 

Over the seasons, Gabriel Tejedor (Rue Mayskaya, VdR 2017) paints a portrait of this new generation of workers and young parents whose living conditions seem to be inevitably determined by the Kombinat and State capitalism which feels much the same as Communism in its extreme control of citizens. Not as insightful or darkly amusing as Vitaliy Manskiy’s documentaries about modern Russia such a Pipeline, or Motherland, Kombinat is nevertheless a thoughtful and upbeat snapshot of today’s Russian working class and what it means to belong to a place.MT

VISIONS DU REEL | International Feature Film Competition 2020

https://youtu.be/KL6EhLpjgKY

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Sascha Schöberl | Germany, Doc 84′ 

The cult of beauty and celebrity coalesce in this deeply unsettling documentary that looks at Beijing-based plastic surgeon Dr Han and his permanent quest for perfection, not only for himself but for his clients. The film once again connects to the narrative of live-streaming, a big business in China, as we saw in Present, Perfect (2019) the Tiger Award winner at Rotterdam last year.

In her sophomore feature, German filmmaker Sascha Schoberl makes no judgement on Han’s own self-focus. This is not a case of a little nip and tuck here and there, done discretely for women of a certainly age. Dr Han’s patients are young slim, and business orientated, and their surgery is plain for all to see.

Live fashion photos of the Dr Han in various natty outfits decorate the walls of his practice. In the firmament of China’s burgeoning plastic surgery industry, he is a star. Nor does the director question his unusual professional approach, allowing a roomful of spectators to attend the and record the live surgery on their mobile phones. The patient, a young Chinese model who undergoes the procedure without general anaesthetic, has given permission because this is all part of the process of monetising live-streaming, And it cuts both ways. The participants all garner something from the process, although why the camera looks at the patient’s face rather than the operation itself, is unclear. Clearly her stoicism – and tacit endurance – adds to the compelling nature of the footage. 

But beyond achieving beauty, girls in China are really looking to make money from the process of improvement surgery. And this is made possible and achievable thanks to Chinese massive social media platforms WeChat and Weibo who attract millions of followers to experience the surgery – live-streamed from the operating theatre to art fairs via fashion shows, and the private homes of this vast nation – they will use their mobiles not only as a form of contact and entertainment, but also to finance their lives. 

Drone footage hovers over Beijing’s vast tower blocks in the opening scenes as the camera descends on Dr Han’s substantial headquarters in the centre of the Chinese capital. Dr Han goes through his spiel encouraging and mentoring as the women congregate to attend the breast enlargement operation for a young flat-chested model whose sole aim, apart from achieving her desired breast size, is to create a platform where she can showcase her assets and make money from garnering followers on social media. The only slight criticism here is a lack of backstory: who are these girls, what are their personal stories, and how about some more clarity on Dr Han?

The procedure completed, the good doctor is not relieved that things have gone well, and that the patient has emerged fit and fulsome; he is clearly dismayed not to have attracted more followers, just click bait. Meanwhile, the enhanced model is pouting happily in her white bed holding a bunch of flowers for her followers delights, having been forced to look chipper throughout the procedure, her face having being filmed continuously by another woman encouraging her to smile, despite her nervousness.

Being a woman is highly competitive business all over the World, as increasingly so. Intelligence and personality are clearly not enough, and surgeons like Dr Han have cottoned on these women’s susceptibility and panders to their vanity and insecurity. A compelling film that questions beauty as a simultaneously essential yet vain element of society in the era of selfies. MT

Visions du Reel 2020 Online | April – May 2020, Nyon, Switzerland 

 

Mimaroğlu: Robinson of Manhattan Island (2020) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Serdar Kökceoglu; Documentary with Ilhan Mimaroglu, Güngör Batum, Rüstem Batum; Turkey/USA 20219, 76 min.

Serdar Kökceoglu is a composer and filmmaker whose first feature is a vivid portrait of fellow Turkish composer, filmmaker and artist Ilhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012), a leading composer of electronic music.

Structured in three chapters and using a dreamlike soundscape and evocative visual style the documentary recounts how Mimaroğlu emigrated from Turkey to the USA in 1959, spending the rest of his life in Manhattan as a composer and all-round artist. Mimaroğlu gradually develops into a diary of contemporary music-making in Manhattan in the late twentieth century. But equally important was his relationship with his wife Güngör Batum, whom he married in 1959 back in Istanbul. Both were idiosyncratic in their life style, but, as she said “We were like one person”.

After finishing law school at Istanbul University in 1949, Mimaroğlu had already made his name as a music critic. Later awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he went on to study musicology under Paul Henry Lang at Columbia University. He would also work for the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre with Edgard Varese and Vladimir Ussachevsky. For Mimaroğlu,, cinema and music were one and the same, his compositions were “like collages, similar to editing a film”.

One of the highlights were his collaboration with Fellini for Satyricon. Working at Atlantic Records in the 1970ies, with Freddie Hubbard and Charles Mingus among others. Mimaroğlu founded his own label, Finnadar Records. German electronic visionary Karl-Heinz Stockhausen was one of his heroes, as was Jean Dubffet, who published Mimaroğlu’s own jazz compositions like ‘Tract A: A composition of Agitprop Music for Electromagnetic Tape’. Under his own record label, he met pianist concert pianist Idil Biret in 1972, the two of them working together for ten years, producing nine albums. After Finnadar Records folded in the 1980s, the composer stepped away from music and focused on street photography and films.

Mimaroğlu was always aware of status near the margins: “I am a composer, that’s one suicide. On top of it I am contemporary composer. And a composer of electronic music – and I compose political music.” He never wanted to go to a conservatoire in Turkey, “because they might teach me the wrong things”. And even in New York, he was critical of the places of higher learning: “University is a self-serving institution. This whole country, being the graveyard of culture, its universities being its mausoleums.” For him, music was alive, he collected tapes for sleeping from sounds of daily life. He compared himself to a preacher in the Sahara, nobody listening to him. “Even if they do, they fail to figure out what I was talking about”. He made a short film about people walking in slow-motion into a mall, past a poster which he had created, showing the MacDonald’s label with the inscription “Mc Lenin”. Like his friend and music critic David Toop said “his records were almost like Graffiti, that’s why he later became interested in Street Photography – the absolute immediacy.” And music writer Evin Ilyasoglu gave the feature its title” I think, he was mad, that people did not understand him. The Robinson of Manhattan. That’s why he was so pessimistic.” He felt that everyone was out to shoot contemporary composers. “Don’t shoot us, we are just innocent bystanders. When I am confronted with Mozart and Elvis, the question is, whom do I shoot first, its a matter of priority: Business or pleasure. And: “Do you think that I am paranoid in this respect? If so, there is a reason for it: Strauss Elvis, Mozart, all in the same bag”.   

The third chapter concentrates on Güngör Batum, who had to branch out into business during her husband’s middle age, “becoming a left-wing artist and a business woman at the same time”. She was shattered at his death, living in denial of it for the rest of her life. “Shortly after losing him, I thought I could only manage the world with a new perspective. Because we had been really close, supported each other in every way. I had to work out how to live without him. The hardest period of my life”. Her son Rüstem, whom she left behind when she left the USA, talks abut the couple’s relationship:” When my mother had guests, Ilhan would just come into the room for a moment, would not greet anybody and leave the room. He was an anti-social person. I could not bond with him, only our relationship with cinema kept us going. He watched some films ten times. They were the polar opposites. He always lived in an apartment at Columbia university, where he always returned for the night.” After having spent many years on the balcony of her NYC apartment, Güngör Batum re-emigrated to Istanbul, reconstructing her life out of memories. In Istanbul she talked to friends about “Ilhan coming soon to join her in Turkey. “Than we can all meet together”. As Rüstem said, his mother had a way of deny certain occurrences in her life. So, for her it was “like living still with him, but by myself.”  

With wonderful archive material, partly shot by the composer himself, this a real art history lesson. DoP Levent Türkan avoids too many Talking Heads, and concentrates Instead on conjuring up a palpable Cinematic essence of the man. A truly unique documentary about music and relationships, with Mimaroğlu having the last word: Old composers never die. They just turn into index cards”.   AS

Burning Lights International Competition | ON VISIONS DU REEL | NYON SWITZERLAND | APRIL- MAY 2020

Elena (2012) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Petra Costa; Doc with Li An, Elena Andrade, Petra Costa; Brazil/USA 2012, 80 min.

Brazilian director/co-writer Petra Costa’s debut documentary is a melancholic portrait of bereavement for her much younger depressive sister Elena who became a successful actor in New York in the late 1980s.

Mental illness is often a taboo subject for film makers – Kathy Leichter’s Here one Day being one of the exceptions. Petra Costa’s multi-layered study is as painful for the audience as the director. When Elena left her native Sao Paulo, then New York, at the age of seventeen, she left behind a younger sister who was fascinated by Elena, who filmed her with a cam-recorder. The sisters’ parents were revolutionaries, fighting the military dictatorship – but avoiding taking up arms, due to Li An’s pregnancy with her soon to be born daughter Elena. But divorce was to follow, and Li An took Petra to New York where she tried in vain to fight Elena’s depression: “If I’d had a car in New York, I would have put Elena’s body in the boot, put Petra on the seat next to me and driven into the river.” Somehow, this image has found its way into the documentary, with girls floating Ophelia-like in the water weeds.

Super 8 mm portraits of the city and audio tapes of Elena transmit these feelings of homesickness back home to her mother, creating an atmosphere of doom. No wonder Li An told her youngest daughter “never live in New York or become an actor”. Needless to say, Petra studied Drama at Columbia, asking friends of her late sister about details of her demise. It turns out Elena was not alone – but she felt that way. 

We watch her audition tape for a part in Godfather III, listen to the sober voice of the pathologist, enumerating the substances found and the weight of Elena’s organs. Petra talks to her dead sister, they are very much look-alikes: “You are being re-born a bit for me.” And at the beginning of the feature: “I perform your death, I find air to be able to live”. Watery images fill the frame in a dreamlike, poetic narrative suffused with mournfulness: “Little by little, the pain becomes water and then memory, and gradually fades away. But some find solace in the small openings of poetry. You are my inconsolable memory, made of shadow and stone”.

DoPs Janice D’Avila, Will Etchebehere and Miguel Vassy create ethereal images of floating flowers and leaves, the director distilling the essence of her sister into dreamy evocations of feminine beauty and gentleness. There are shades of Agnes Varda, and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. But mainly a deep sisterly longing for her lost, and very much missed, sibling. AS

VISIONS DU REEL | NOW ONLINE | APRIL – MAY 2020     

 

                

The Russian Woodpecker (2015) **** Now on Prime Video

RUSSIANWOODPECKER_still2_FedorAlexandrovich__byArtemRyzhykov_2014-11-20_05-25-34PMDirector: Chad Gracia 80min | War Documentary |

In his darkly informative documentary Chad Gracia has found and an amusing interpreter in the shape of wild-haired Russian artist Fedor Alexandrovich who does his best to enlighten with a potted history of Ukraine from the hungry thirties of to the Chernobyl conspiracy and culminating in the Maidan uprising in Ukraine. But his story reveals a troubling secret.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, rightly awarded Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema at Sundance this year, refers to the telegraphic pecking sound made by a transmitter that had been in operation since the Cold War days in 1976, as an early warning system. The “Duga” was a low frequency device that worked by grabbing information and then bouncing it back to base thanks to the Earth’s shape. A Russian speaker, American-born Gracia allows Alexandrovich, a Chernobyl survivor himself, free rein to expound his conspiracy theory on why the  reactor blew up (or was detonated in his view) in 1986, causing lethal and widespread damage. Flighty and fleet of foot, Feodor whisks us through his Iron-Curtai controversy incorporating his own family memoir of being radiated by strontium at the age of four – but he wears this experience patriotically as a badge of honour. In a fortuitous natural twist, it emerges America was protected from the Duga, a massive mesh of secret military ironwork, by the Northern Lights. Remarkable footage shows the frighteningly vast metal transmitter surging up, maniacally victorious, over the surrounding forests.

Fedor is convinced that the Duga was connected to the Chernobyl disaster and he sets off with Gracia, and his friend and cinematograapher Artem Ryzhykov, to investigate the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. The place is full of mangled metalwork, broken glass and overgrown buildings and Fedor sees fit to strip naked at this point as he fashions himself as part of the scary scenery, shooting his own film in the process.

Later, Fedor, Chas and Artem chat informally to elderly Soviet scientists, military men and Communist Party faithfuls, filming some of them clandestinely, and discover that the Duga was actually a failure due to its vast cost which ran into the billions. Feodor hatches his theory round the premise that the Chernobyl reactor was blown ‘on purpose’ by the Russians in 1986 so as to destroy the Duga radar, in an attempt to cover their error.  At this point Feodor becomes emphatic and almost beligerant as he expounds his tenuous theory while Ukrainian secret police make ominous threats against him and his family, at which point he attempts to renege on his claims and is seen fleeing the country. It does seems that the Russian are still very much feared by the Ukrainians. There are scenes shot during the Independence Square protests, which were gradually dispersed by Russian troops. Some of the footage is extraordinary showing the Russian riot Police in action, fires blazing, and flashbacks to Fedor patrolling the Duga naked in his suit of plastic cladding. Artem himself is shot and nearly killed during the protests but is later speaks to the camera claiming: “it was a peaceful protest” before he breaks down in tears.

Gracia manages to inject absurdist humour into this melancholy and disturbing documentary but this is raw, real and compelling filmmaking. Feodor claims: “Ukraine is just the first step in the re-birth of the Soviet Union – the second step is World War III”. During the riots we learn that 100 protesters were shot dead. And in a hair-raising final scene we see Fedor tuning it to his radio system: After 23 years of silence, the Woodpecker signal has returned to the airwaves and been traced to the heart of Russia. MT

ON PRIME VIDEO

 

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (2013) *** Streaming with Q&A

Dir: Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin | Cast: Mariya Alyokhina, Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. | 90min  Documentary, Russian

Three young women face seven years in a Russian prison after an explosive performance at Moscow Cathedral in 2012

Along with Andrei Gryazev’s Tomorrow, Pussy Riot furthers the dialogue on freedom of speech and the individual in the Russian Federation with this stirring and well-crafted documentary.  Even if you don’t like the band’s particular brand of music: a blend of early British Punk Rock with jazzed-up ecclesiastical overtones, you have to give the Pussy Rioters top marks for raising awareness of the country’s current social and cultural climate.

Opening with an apposite Bertholt Brecht quote, this snapshot of modern Moscow kicks off with one of the trio, Nadya Kolonikova, airing her feelings in a pleasant and gentle way about the cause she fervently espouses, stating candidly that her hatred of Putin stems from his overzealous nationalism on the World stage. Meanwhile on the Church stage in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ, the band sport brightly coloured ‘fluor’ balaclavas. They look like jokey bank-robbers but their only crime is violating the Church’s dress code, genuflecting with guitars and offending local worshippers with their insulting riff, along the lines of “Occupy Red Square”; and “Rid Us Of Putin”.  This leads to forcible arrest.

The film has an experimental feel: A handheld camera yields dizzying footage of the streets of Moscow intercut with timelapse sequences of the skyline at night, contrasting with the drab interiors of the court room and the detention centre where the girls are taken on their arrest in February 2012.  The tone of the piece is calm and inquiring rather than dramatic or subversive and interviews with the girls and their families are measured and informative without a hint of bitterness or anger.  Nadia speaks softly and convincingly of her plight and love for her father.  He decided to support her musical talent and gives insight into her rebellious streak, hinting at his divorce from her mother as possible grounds for her need to seek recognition in this way: it’s a portrait of a loving and affectionate dad.

To Western eyes there’s nothing scandalous about these girls in hooded balaclavas rampaging around with guitars, albeit in a Church. It all rather feels like a storm in a teacup. What is serious though is the image that emerges of modern Russia as an old-fashioned society full of traditional and draconian figures and a repressive legal system that forces petty criminals to give their evidence from within metal cages in the city court rooms, while outside frenzied protesters chant slogans for freedom amid the whirring of cameras from the Press pack . For his part, in dour interview mode, Putin claims he has a duty to protect the views of the orthodox mainstream. As a result, two of the girls are sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony.

In a flash of glamour, Madonna wades in to Moscow to lend her support or maybe just to garner publicity for yet another physical transformation: it’s difficult not to be cynical but it feels as if the Russian Federal Republic, from a human rights perspective at least, is still hiding behind a rather dishevelled ‘Iron Curtain’ of sorts, despite its pretensions as a 21st century World power. MT

Watch Pussy Riot – A Punk Player on BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, Youtube, iTunes, or Google Play.

Then watch the DocHouse Q&A with co-director Mike Lerner here.

PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER TOOK THE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE AT SUNDANCE 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017)

Dir: Sara Driver | Doc | US | 78′

Sara Driver’s first documentary Boom for Real is a lively loose-limbed look at the high octane force of nature that was Jean-Michel Basquiat – arguably one of America’s most mercurial and influential artists of late 20th century, whose work is now more valuable than ever, a painting selling for USD 81 million in Christie’s New York in May 2021.

Under a pseudonym SAMO (which was originally the duo of Basquiat and Al Diaz) Basquiat was barely out of his teens when he sprang to fame in the Lower East Side art scene by means of sharply sardonic graffiti epigrams that were posted on school walls – US Bansky-style, announcing his critical talent to amuse, for want of a gallery to sponsor him. And it’s through Basquiat’s prodigious teen and twenty-something output that Sara Driver chronicles the early days of hip hop, punk and street art, brought to life with sparky commentary from his friends and collaborators. With its choppy editing style and blitzy soundtrack, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat  sketches out a life pulsating with vim and vitality that soared like a meteor but would eventually crash and burn in New York’s Neon nightclubs and graffitied backwaters.

Chipping in with wit and repartee there is Jim Jarmusch, Fab 5 Freddy, and Patricia Field who offer intimate access to Basquiat’s electric personality and creative energy and the effect it had on the contemporary art scene. This impressionistic documentary catapults us right into the era, picturing the pivotal sociocultural switch from the 70s to the 80s. Driver invigorates her film with a plethora of paintings, posters, audio recordings, original film and archive footage.

Intriguing and entertaining, Driver’s film captures the free-wheeling, chaotic intensity of a time in history where she was also a protagonist working as a director in her own right, and an actor featuring in Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Despite its rather scattergun approach, actually working to its advantage, Boom for Real is chockfull of insight and pithy commentary, conjuring up the sporadic nature of this drug-fuelled creative geyser.

Serving as the perfect companion piece to Celine Danhier’s Blank City (2010) Sara Driver’s doc further fleshes out that Neo-expressionist era, with a highly personalised and first hand testament to a time of gritty uncertainty – danger even – when the New York’s power structures and politics where artistically critiqued by the clever creative genius of this legendary wild child. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Talking About Trees (2019) **** Digital release

Dir|Writer|DoP: Suhaib Gasmelbari

Director Suhaib Gasmelbari scripts and photographs this sorrowful love letter to the demise of Sudanese cinema that explores the efforts of a group of retired directors hoping to revive their country’s love of film.

Talking About Trees is also about the impactful and collective experience of watching films in the cinema, sharing the buzz of humour or sadness, and the cultural exchanges that come through the medium of sight and sound on the silver screen.

The Sudanese Film Club consists of a group of directors: Ibrahim Shadad, Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim and Altayeb Mahdi, who have been forced into retirement against their own volition. Efforts to reopen a cinema in their city of Omdourman, near of Khartoum, have been unsuccessful to date. The country’s dominating Islamist regime and its restrictions has put paid to any enjoyment film-wise taking place in the public domain.

These filmmakers were trained outside the country and they share clips of their impressive oeuvres throughout the documentary. Clearly influenced by French New Wave and Soviet montage, their visual language is muted and reflective of political regimes that conflict with the current status quo in Sudan. After a military coup in 1989, the government fell under the control of Islamic fundamentalists, and Sharia law has prevailed since the early 1990s.  Khartoum still has a few theatres showing mainstream fare, but indie features are banned.

Shadad and his friends host free screenings in their town squares, and these are massively popular and stimulate interest with young and old alike. But red tape soon strangles their efforts, even before the finances run out. The country’s culture becomes moribund before our eyes: it’s akin to seeing someone losing their life right in front of you as you look on powerless to intervene.  “We are smarter, but they are stronger,” is the comment one of them makes. But they persevere, upbeat and full of hope tinged with remorse. A tragic and deeply moving experience. Let’s hope Martin Scorsese comes to the rescue, as he has done before. The film ends with a salient takeaway that says it all. “Seeing a movie with friends is better than watching one alone at home.” MT

ON RELEASE from 27 APRIL | Curzon HOME CINEMA

 

 

The Whalebone Box (2019) **** Home Ent release

Dir/Wri: Andrew Kötting | UK, Doc with Anonymous Bosch, Andrew Kötting, Nick Gordon Smith. Philippe Ciompi, Eden Kötting, Iain Sinclair, Philip Hoare, Macgillivray, Kyunwai So, Ceylan Ünal, Helen Paris, Steve Dilworth.

Artist, writer and director Andrew Kötting has built up a string of quintessentially British films. The Whalebone Box is another of his experimental jaunts made with his regular collaborator Iain Sinclair, and the photographer Anonymous Bosch.

Discovered in LondonM the box in question is bound in fishing nets and reputed to convey healing properties in the Scottish town of its origin, which is desperately down on its luck. So the two men start their eventful journey north to return it to the Scottish home of the sculptor Steve Dilworth, a Hull native who has settled on the island of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.

What is the secret behind this enigmatic container? Is it a relic, a survivor from a mysterious shipwreck, or a magical totem?. The mystery gives rise to an expedition suffused with evocative reveries, drenched in strange fairytales, folklore, dark humour and sonic interludes. The travellers are gradually mesmerised by the power of this enchanted object which gradually becomes “heavier and heavier, turning into a different substance”,

A parallel strand intertwines with the 800 mile pilgrimage, this features Andrew Kötting’s daughter Eden, who has already appeared in several of his earlier films. Eden suffers from Joubert’s disease and her presence lends an eerie vulnerability adding texture to the fascinating narrative. From the depths of her sleep, or adorned with a magnificent crown of flowers and binoculars, she is the film’s muse and guide, attempting to interpret the strange and mystical goings on. But so is a whale with its mournful atavistic cries – embodying nature’s suffering at the hands of humanity.

As usual there are cul-de-sacs and detours, and these feature the dead poets Basil Bunting and Sorley MacLean and the sculptor Steve Dilworth – the film also borrows from Pandora and Moby Dick and takes its 10 chapter headings from Philip Hoare’s novel Leviathan, or the Whale. One thing is sure – the box must never be opened, and therein lies a sense of anticipation and wonder – little did the men know the delirium they would unleash. Eventually they reach the white sands of Harris where they intend to return the box to its original resting place. Shot in Super 8, 16mm this is a strange, haunting and magical film. Just watch out for the post credit sting. MT

NOW ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD |

 

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words (2019) London Fashion Week

Dir: Reiner Holzemer | With Sandrine Dumas, Pierre Rougier, Lidewij Edelkoort, Cathy Horyn, Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfield  | Doc, 90′

Early on in his transformative career elusive clothes designer Martin Margiela cottoned on to the fact that anonymity and exclusivity meant power in the fashion world. During his career Margiela reinvented with his innovative designs and revolutionary shows; never compromising on his vision. After abruptly leaving fashion in 2009 he is now regarded as one of the most influential designers of modern times. Reiner Holzemer’s (DRIES) film presents a never-before-seen, exclusive look inside the creative mind and vision of Martin Margiela.

This frank and fascinating new biopic is the third film to scope out the life of the 62-year-old Belgian maverick whose vision turned the tables on high glamour to offer a softly deconstructed version of Rei Kawakubo’s Avantgarde label Comme des Garçons.

We don’t meet him but we do get to see his graceful hands moving swiftly on the pattern cutting table (“I liked his hands,” comments one model, “When he dressed you backstage it was with finesse.”). Meanwhile his soothing narration conveys a slightly insolent, provocatively subversive figure. Margiela gives a reason for this reclusiveness, and we discover it was not a sales ploy: “Anonymity, for me, was a kind of a protection — that I could work. And the work was hard. And that I had nothing on my schedule, like all the appointments one can have with press. I’m not against those appointments. But I could not cope with them. They would bring me out of my balance.”

Using the usual talking heads approach combined with archive footage of the shows and the models, seasoned fashion documentarian Holzeme conveys Margiela’s subtle thoughtfulness as he prepares for the “Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009” exhibition, a 10-year retrospective that took place in the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris.

Born on the 9th of April 1957 in Leuven, Belgium, Martin Margiela remembers watching his dressmaker grandmother cutting patterns and then making them up. She was the most important influence in his life, but he also impressed by the Courreges models at a show on TV in 1966 – they wore opaque white glasses and white toeless boots with a white cotton summer dresses and that captured the young Margiela’s imagination. Attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp he graduated in 1979 just a year ahead of the design collective known as the  ‘Antwerp Six’ which included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. From the early 1980s he developed his distinct concept and vision and after a spell with Gaultier’s mentoring (“Martin you don’t realise you have a style and a taste, and you should stick with that taste for your future”) he went on to found the ready to wear label Maison Martin Margiela with fellow Belgian Jenny Meirens in 1987.

The first show in 1989 embraced the label’s deconstructed aesthetic, taking place in an abandoned kids’ playground in the suburbs of Paris where fashion luminaries mingled with ordinary locals hanging out and cheering in a rock concert ambiance (echoed here by a offbeat soundtrack by the Belgian rock band dEus). Margiela models wore heavy make-up and messy hair and were heavily scented with Patchouli when they took the catwalk.

Rather than concentrating on intricate couture and exquisite fabrics like Dior and St Laurent, he focused on the look and image and the message he was sending out to his fans: One iconic design involved photographing a garment in black and white and then printing the flat image directly onto the fabric to achieve a tromp l’oeil look. Another was his cloven hoof “Tabi” high-heel boots. Often he shot black-and-white cinema verité-style short films to showcase his collections.

Margiela put the counter-culture on a pedestal and made it cool. But the often violent reaction against his rebellion was another factor that sent him behind closed doors, shunning the press and avoiding interviews. In this way his anonymity became vital to his work, helping him to retain his integrity of vision which he felt would be dissipated by negative reactions if he allowed the outside in. In the end, his lack of a public persona became irreverent because of the strong message of his work. Other standout shows would see his models wearing masks or with wigs covering their faces giving them a ‘back to front look’ that somehow evoked insularity. Garments were often fashioned from bits and pieces of socks made into tailored garments. The silhouette was long and wide at the bottom, with a focus on the shoes. “When you look at the shoulders and the shoes, they dictate the movement of the body, and that’s what I’m interested in.”  Mixing second hand clothes with new designs – his 1991 collection involved long dresses often worn coat-like over teeshirt and jeans, and left open at the back.

Paris allowed him to experiment and be free. Rather like Prada’s little red tag, the calling card of Margiela’s brand was the invisible label framed by four whites stitch marks. Margiela would enjoy working with a number of fashion houses, one in particular was the supremely classic house of Hermès where he was creative director for six years from 1998. Seeing the big picture, he went to the essence of the brand and managed to create something unique but at the same time classically elegant; balancing grace, comfort and timelessness in subtle tones and hues.

During the 1990s the label generated a keen celebrity following of Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Amanda Peet and there were flagship boutiques in Los Angeles. But he suddenly stepped back claiming he had drifted away from his focus: “By the end, I became, in a certain way, an artistic director in my own company. And that bothered me, because I’m a designer. I’m really a fashion designer, and a designer who creates, and I’m not just a creative director who directs his assistants.” His abrupt parting with the brand in 2008 meant he was unable to say goodbye to his collaborators and contacts. And this film is another tribute them.

Today Margiela paints and sculpts and continues to live in solitude. But the takeaway from this informative film is his response when asked if he is done with fashion. The answer is a firm’No’. MT

ON DEMAND COURTESY OF DOGWOOF

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    

        

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CPH:DOX 2020 | ONLINE IN CERTAIN TERRITORIES

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

 

 

The Ponds (2018) Netflix

Dirs: Patrick McLennan, Samuel Smith | UK Doc | 76′

“If you can face the water at 5 degrees, you can face anything”  

Hampstead is still reeling from the unauthentic romcom that took its name in 2017. So hurrah for this  documentary that reflects the real Hampstead, London’s hilly heartland and home to 320 hectares of woods and pastures. Hampstead Heath also has several fresh water ponds where all year round visitors can wallow and frolic or simply just swim.

The Ponds is Patrick McLennan’s debut as co-director/producer along with Samuel Smith, and he also wrote the script. Drone footage captures the changing seasons chronologically, beginning with early Spring. We meet regulars Dan, David and Jim who extol the virtues – and rigours – of this open air communal bathing experience. There are even some local swimmers in their 80s who consider it a must for their health and social life – even though at times the water is a spine-tingling 2 or 3 degrees. But the endorphin rush is addictive and life-affirming.

From the 1880s these ponds were regulated for the local community. Tom is part of a hard core of 60 or so bathers who take a dip at least once or twice a week in the chilly brackish waters. He considers it his place of ‘religious’ worship. From the 1920s local women got their own segregated pond which is regarded by the female regulars as a spiritual place to reunite against life’s hardships, and maintain confidence in their bodies – even though they may not even know each other names. And although the men’s ponds see more nude swimmers, some female interviewees gives us a flash of their assets, just to be going on with.

Tom forms the connective tissue of the film with his eventful life story. He sees his swim as a chance to disassociate from the “silliness of life”. This was particularly important when he was nearly killed in a road accident in Oxford Circus. Another regular Carrie, has battled cancer and found the Ponds invaluable for keeping her hope alive. And she doesn’t get so many colds!

Oliver completely fell in love with the Heath and its ponds and when his romance finished. He felt bereft moving back to Camberwell. He now returns to the Heath every day. Another keen bather suffers from degenerative blindness and describes how his daily fresh water exercise is a life-saver.

Whilst the older swimmers talk of the spirituality, social and health benefits of pond swimming, the young express their joy of escaping the city to enjoy the open air with their friends in the heat of the summer. It’s a melting pot for rich and poor, old and young, gay and bisexual, families and singles. David now prefers the open-air freshness to his local gym experience and he’s incorporated his workout into his swimming time. In his youth he even used to wear a weighted vest to improve his strength and endurance.

Made on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, The Ponds is a graceful and cinematic documentary that shows how the trend for fresh water swimming can provide a bonding experience, enriching and supporting the local community. The film ends on a high note at the end of the season – with a competitive swim for Christmas. Keeping up with the zeitgeist, some locals air mixed feelings about trans-gender bathing, but a more burning issues is why the women’s pond has no diving board. “We want to bounce ourself in”, said one feisty female. I’ll second that. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

Rescue the Fire | Rettet Das Feuer (2020) ***

Dir.: Jasco Viefhues; Cast: Jürgen Baldiga, Aron Neubert, Ulf Reimer, Meitta Poppe, Paula Sau, Michael Brynntrup, Mignon, Renate; Germany 2019, 83 min.

Berlin’s Gay Scene at the end of the 20th Century provides the backdrop to this revealing biopic about painter, photographer and gay activist Jürgen Baldiga (1959-1993). Rescue the Fire is a thoughtful first film from writer director Jasco Vifhues. It recalls the time when the Aids/HIV epidemic was taking a grim toll, German government cuts making things worse. .

Visiting the ‘Schwules Museum Berlin’, Baldiga’s surviving friends present archive material of his work. These also link up with the directors and festival organisers of the Berlinale of that era. Baldiga was working as a photographer at that time and took photos of Derek Jarman, Wim Wenders and Dolveig Dommartin among others. He was also a friend of the first Panorama director Manfred Salzgeber, and his Wieland Speck who took over when her died of AIDS.

Growing up in the Westphalian town of Essen, Baldiga arrived in Berlin in 1987. He developed from a mere ‘snap-shot’ amateur to become a professional photographer. During the ‘Tunten’ scene in Berlin, he apposed Government cuts which were having a punitive affect on the gay community at a time when Aids/HIV was rife. A laudable exception to the negative face of authority was Anne Momper, wife of the West Berlin mayor, who joined the HIV infected in the public bath in Krumme Strasse, racing them in a competition.

Baldiga celebrated his 31st birthday at a demonstration to abolish the infamous law number 175, which criminalised all homosexuals. But by then he was already infected; his answer was “to live faster, more intensively”. The filmmaker Michael Brynntrup remembers his collaboration with Baldiga, who not only took stills but shot some scenes on 35mm. The rest of the short film was in 16mm. In Pioneer Seriös two men wrestle in the bath, one covered in yellow paint, the other in blue. Brynntrup remembers he had difficulties asking the actors to proceed, but Baldiga had no such problems: “The camera was his proverbial rabbit – just the opposite of me”. Baldiga focused on his bodily changes. Being ‘positive’ meant much time was spent finding the right doctors, avoiding getting colds and other infections. And: “Educate, don’t hide”.

For many years, he also wrote a diary, which he bequeathed to his friend Aron Neubert: “I know, your hands will keep them well. Take the photos and put some of commentaries from the diaries next to them.” In 1991 Baldiga was hospitalised with pneumonia. But he still posed in drag as Louise Brooks. His wig went up in smoke, after he leaned too close to the spotlight. He also went to extremes, showing the horror of the Karposi Sarcomas on his legs. He had his first Sarkoma cut out and put in a box with ornaments like a relic. The more his body disintegrated the more he yearned for something physical. From the attractive poster boy of the gay scene, “I have deteriorated to something decrepit, ugly, a shrivelling and dying person”. 

But he was not alone, his good friend Melitta went to the hospital and died inside thirty minutes. That was Baldiga’s dream death, he took all the medicine and morphine (his friends had in vain tried to hide the from him) and fell into a coma, from which he never recovered. He instructed one of them to take a last photo of him “ICH BIN TOT (I am dead), Jürgen Baldiga 4.12.1993. I loved 4000 men, in the end the fabulous Ulf.” Then there is one of his last photos, where he eats ice cream with a morphine drip in his arm, subtitled “Isn’t life great?” But for most of his last year, he ‘was often lonely in his thoughts’.

Rescue the Fire is a not an easy documentary because Baldiga’s friends followed his advice, and told all. In the end this a long ‘Trauerarbeit’, with evocative images by DoP Hendrik Reichel. Those who who witnessed the era will never be the same again. Too much was lost well before time. AS

SCREENING DIGITALLY DURING BFI Flare 2020

The Green Fog (2018) **** Now on Vimeo

Dir.: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson; USA 2017,63 min.

Guy Maddin’s’ love letter to San Francisco and Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a montage of clips from features shot in around the Californian coastal city: around one hundred or so – no new material was filmed. Aesthetically, Green Fog settles somewhere in between Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and another Maddin/Johnson collaboration, Forbidden Room from 2015. There’s no real narrative to speak of, but Green Fog will appeal to those who like their film history served with a dizzy twist of the insane.

Oblique and opaque, Green Fog shows an overbearing obsession with Hitchcock: morbid and melancholy, we follow Scottie and Judy on a drive through the city, morphing into a hell-raising ride, where love turns to disillusionment. Novak and Stewart are played by various actors: Faye Dunaway, Susan Saint James, Gina Lolabrigida; Anthony Franciosa and Dean Martin. As one actor melds into another, one forgets that they look different in this headlong rush, on foot and in automobiles, as they’re drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge and oblivion.The film’s quotes range from the thrilling (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) to the downright bizarre (Confessions of an Opium Eater of 1962 and So I married an Axe Murderer of 1993), via obscure gems such as Obayashi’s Take Me Away! 1978, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The common thread is their Vertigo locations; if not directly then metaphorically. The titular fog, which saturates Judy from the neon street sign, re-appears throughout: under water, most menacingly in a hospital corridor. And there are even in the clips from The Great Fire, – which was started by a film fan no less.

Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism is celebrated in many scenes, from surveillance rooms, to men gazing at the screens, unsure of their targets – rather like Rock Hudson, on being quizzed “what are we looking for, Sir?” by a tape operator, to which Rock retorted: “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything”. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco are frequently found in their search for more contemporary perpetrators. Green Fog is a ghost story, a collage of landscapes and rooms (echoing Un Chien Andalou) which are haunted by loss and death, their doom underpinned by a Hermannesque score from Jacob Gavchik. Despite of the gravity of it all, Maddin still manages to be playful and impish throughout. AS

NOW AVAILABLE ON VIMEO

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

In Touch (2018) *** Kinoteka

Dir.: Pawel Ziemilski; Documentary; Poland/Iceland 2018, 61 min.

Pawel Ziemilski finds an ingenious way to tackle the timely topic of distance relationships in a challenging new documentary which won the main prize at IDFA in 2108.

Since the 1980s, the Polish town of Stare Juchy (Old Blood) has seen its population dwindling with most of the young moving to Iceland, of all places. Desperate to stay in touch, those left behind resort to electronic methods of communication. And Skype seems to be the most popular. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Gradually a different modus vivendi takes hold as the emigres adapt to their new environment, become influenced by the change of language and social set-up. Most of them will never return.

But In Touch goes beyond a study of citizens chatting to relatives and friends on a screen. Ziemilski records images of the landscape in both locations and then literally projects the footage via electronic means onto a vast canvass, a sort of moving art installation that keeps the communities in touch with each other, and their environment – rather like google Earth on a grandiose scale. Ziemilski can even project absent family members into a life-size Easter meal, or show a distant daughter painting her mother’s nails in another country. A goalkeeper on the Polish pitch tries to save shots not only from the Icelandic strikers, but also from opponents elsewhere. Sounds amazing? But – and it is a big but – the whole concept fails to convince because we never find out exactly who we’re dealing with, or how they feels about the situation. Brief, subjective, person-related information would have been so much more effective than just pictures: Greta putting her Icelandic co-workers down, telling her friend in Stare Juchy that she went for a job interview at the airport, and hoping she’ll get the job “since only Icelandic girls seem to be working there”.  

The sheer variety of these visual devices is extremely impressive, opening up new ways of enabling interaction by reconfiguring the conception of spaces, and exploring the topic in formally imaginative ways. But the concept is undermined by the plethora of sub-approaches, which often reduces the outcome as pure gimmickry.

All very imaginative in theory, but the human interaction feels impersonal and lacks real  intimacy. In Touch would work far better in the formal confines of an art gallery where visitors could drift in and out. As a cinematic experience it is often too limited by its formalism, which strangles the human touch. AS

Showing 24 March @ 8.30pm at the ICA as part of KINOTEKA | The Polish Film Festival in London, Kinoteka.org.uk

  

Cunningham (2019) *****

Dir: Alla Kovgan | US Doc, 93′

Mercier Philip Cunningham or “Merce” (1919-2009) was an American dancer and choreographer whose groundbreaking style is celebrated here in a stunning 3D documentary. Cunningham is a first feature for documentarian Alla Kovgan. In keeping with Merce’s innovative approach, she combines archive footage and new works never performed in public in this dynamic front row experience of visionary dance style. The dancer refused to describe his work as Avantgarde or even modern: “I don’t describe it, I do it” he opines during the VoiceOver narration. The film refreshingly avoids a talking heads approach, focusing on dance as a purely visual expression of “animal authority and human passion”, rather than an accompaniment to music.

Merce was also passionate about working with artists from other disciplines including composer John Cage, Cunningham’s longterm partner; the painter Robert Rauschenberg; and Andy Warhol whose collaboration is particularly striking in Merce’s 1968 Sci-fi themed dance work Rainforest which featured Warhol’s metallic helium-filled silver balloons (the Silver Clouds) that float around the dancers like something from outer space.

Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919 Merce was always adamant about his craft that was at the forefront of American dance for more that 50 years until his death in 2009, age 90. He performed in 1999 with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater for his 80th birthday. In common with virtually all artists he describes the endless need to practice from dawn ’til dusk, and his battered feet are pictured in close-up going through the motions of a dance routine.

Kovgan explores the first 30 years of a career that would play a part in transforming ballet and dance. Most of the movements are radical – bestial even – neck muscles ripple and pulsate, torsos quiver. The film’s structure is fluidly organic rather than chronological, making striking use of DoP Mko Malkhasyan’s aerial photography and ground-level camerawork that allows sequences to flood off the screen making us feel part of the dance routine. The 3D adds to the dancers’ lithe physicality, and their syncopating movements — the New York skylines stand out in pin-sharp vibrancy, as do the vivid outdoor settings that zing with freshness and acuity. The soundscape adds weight and depth but is never intrusive.

Conversations and correspondence between his contemporaries Cage, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Jasper Johns contextualise Cunningham’s vision; his disciplined, prolific and experimental concepts facilitating a counterculture that transformed the postwar dance-scene – although it wasn’t well-received by everyone. During an international tour in 1964 Parisians threw tomatoes during performances – “if only that had been apples”, claims Rauschenberg, “we were hungry and wanted something to eat”.

Money was tight in the early years when the troupe took off across America in a minibus but gradually this new and expressive form took off during a 1964 world tour when his reputation for being outlandish slowly faded – to his chagrin: his aim was always to cutting edge. Eventually Merce became an old father rather than a instructive companion to his fellow dancers but his inspiration lives on in his disciples Paul Taylor, Karole Armitage and Alice Reyes who have gone on to form their own companies with memorable routines such as Suite for Two; Winterbranch and Second Hand. MT

CUNNINGHAM IS ON RELEASE FROM 13 MARCH 2020 | ANDY WARHOL’S SILVER CLOUDS CAN BE SEEN AT THE TATE MODERN, LONDON, IN A MAJOR EXHIBITION OF HIS WORK | 11 MARCH 2020

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2020) ***

Dir: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders | Doc, US 120′

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is an award-winning TV and feature documentarian known for raising the profile of the BAM and LGBTQ+ community, most notable through The Black List: Volumes 1-3.  Here he turns his camera on this fiercely proud black American writer (her own words) who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 best seller Beloved which inspired Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film of the same name. Morrison bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

More an atmospheric distillation of Morrison’s warm and wise spirit than a straightforward fact-filled biopic, we meet the Ohio-born Morrison (who died last year at 88) talking straight into the camera about her slow-burn struggle for recognition as a writer inspired by her God-fearing father, who paved the way with his own writings. This illuminating film is enlivened by adoring talking heads, Graham Willoughby’s lush visuals of sunsets and archive footage notably of the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Sweden. MT

UK and Ireland release 6 March 2020

Running on Empty | Jetzt Oder Morgen (2020) **** Berlinale

Dir.: Lisa Weber; Documentary with Claudia, Daniel Gabi Gerhard, Marvin; Austria 2020, 89 min.

Video games and mobiles have had a corrosive effect on one Austrian family. Lisa Weber follows them as they struggle to make ends meet drowning in debt and an addiction to TV and computer devices which dictate the daily lives of this dysfunctional bunch.

Four years in the making the film centres around twenty-year old Claudia and her son Daniel (five), who live with Claudia’s mother Gabi and her brother Gerhard in a cramped Vienna apartment. Running on Empty is all about  over-whelming interdependence, the four characters have simply lost the plot and any kind of initiative, mentally or physically. Gerhard and Gabi are obese sofa-loungers who are either stuffing their faces with junk food, or burying them in their devices. Even the cat lolls around comotose.

Claudia has split with Marvin, Daniel’s father, who is looking for a flat for the family. Claudia has no secondary school certificate, having left school when pregnant with her son. They all live off welfare, fighting about the distribution of their spoils. Claudia is slim, and her brain is more lightweight, as she sinks in debt. When the siblings discuss emigration, Claudia questions why Muslims get a Christmas bonus when they don’t believe in God. Gerhard is a little more politic, not wanting a re-run of fascism. Hoping to celebrate his birthday in a posh restaurant, he is disgruntled about his mother and sister showing no inclination to finance it. The only car he will ever drive is the racing version on his console. Daniel’s fifth birthday ends with his parents having an row.

This is a torturous watch largely due to the family’s near catatonic way of life. Weber and DoP Carolina Steinbrecher are literally in the faces of their protagonists, who do not seem to mind: they are oblivious of anything and seem to spend their days sleeping or ‘chilling out’, a rolling camera doesn’t make any impact of their lack of decorum. Running on Empty is a decadent study of total stasis: A group of people who have given up on life, just vegetating along, letting the world go by, and they survive on state handouts. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020   

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) **** Berlinale Special

When Lambs become Lions (2018) | ****

Dir: Jon Kasbe | Doc | US

When you fight to survive in the vast arid plains of East Africa life is tough. In his deeply affecting feature debut, award-winning filmmaker Jon Kasbe (Heartbeats Of Fiji) explores whether human life in Northern Kenya is more valuable than that of endangered species. The subject of poaching is certainly an emotive issue that strongly divides the nation’s inhabitants, many of whom are deeply opposed to the illegal practice on moral grounds. But the lucrative trade goes on.

This is the latest in a series of conservation-themed features that started with Blackfish, The Cove and last year’s Trophy. Stunningly captured on the widescreen and in intimate close-up the film contrasts Kenya’s natural beauty with the less palatable aspects of animal slaughter, that takes place not for food but for trophy hunting. And the animals do not die a quick death but a long, drawn out and painful one due to being inexpertly shot or poisoned with venomous arrows. The film’s atmospheric score adds gravitas to the melancholic episodes where Asan silently contemplates his doubtful future. And these sequences contrast with the high-octane nighttime forays into the bush to locate victims and escape the rangers’ onslaught.

Kasbe’s non-judgemental thriller unspools with a growing dramatic tension as it moves stealthily between the lives of two men: an unlikeable ivory trader (X), and his ranger nemesis Asan, who is also his cousin. The glassy-eyed macho X boasts of making a successful black market business selling ivory. As he swaggers around chain-smoking defiantly and invoking ‘Allah’, he claims not to do the killing himself. Hot on his tracks is Asan and his fellow government employed rangers who are heavily armed with rifles and threaten the poachers with their zero tolerance approach. But rangers have little to gain financially from their work, although many feel sadness for the elephants’ plight. Heavily armed with automatic rifles they also have an axe to grind against the government claiming they have not been paid two months’ wages due to an administrative error. Meanwhile, the poachers make a lucrative living. X’s sidekick Lukas posits the powerful adage “if we do not hunt we will be hunted”. The pressure to earn a pittance is also putting a strain on Asan’s marriage and growing family, and he fears he may have to go back to the petty crime of his youth. 

Although poaching is a blot on the landscape, so is the plight of the people who inhabit this impoverished region. President Uhuru Kenyatta confiscates and burns all illegal ivory stashes claiming – on a television programme – that “ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants”. Meanwhile X and Lukas watch silently desperately wishing they could lay their hands on the truckloads of bounty destined to be destroyed by the government’s crackdown. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Garage People | Garagenvolk (2020) *** Berlinale 2020

Dir.: Natalija Yefimkina; Documentary; Germany 2020

Natalija Yefimkina’s first feature documentary is a bleak look at human survivors in the remote landscape of northern of Russia. Still toiling on long after the end of the Soviet Union, they are treated like the industrial scrap they collect: the mining industry which was once the only employer in the region but has more or less vanished, the work force living in garages at the foot of the mountain, trying to make a living amidst the post-industrial landscape. 

These garages, not a single one occupied by a car, are falling to rack and ruin like everything in the vicinity of the old mining shafts. Gas pipes poke out like medieval weapons, vestiges of a warworn past.  Scrap is collected and sold on, an old bus dragged along with a tow truck, later the two men in charge will take the roof from the bus, laughingly calling it a cabriolet.

Survival is the name of the game in this bizarre setting. Victor, an old man of 73, has dug five floors under his garage using only a shovel and a bucket. Victor has been grafting away since the age of 27, his own son just a little boy. Most of his friends have now drunk themselves to death, leaving Victor to tell his lonely story. Nothing left but to move to the ugly city nearby, dominated by the Prefab housing, to live with his wife Tatiana. “Your garage life is over”, she tells him. Victor will die in 2018, followed a year later by Tatiana, who died of liver cirrhosis having worked most of her life in the mines. Vitalik, who had the idea of creating a roofless bus, dies in 2018, just 36 years old. His closest friend was president Putin, the two met via his portrait on the wall and had long discussions about the meaning of life.

Then there is Pavel, a middle-aged icon maker. The priest visits him to commission a special icon. Pavel promises to deliver, and later we watch the priest return to collect the icon intended as a  gift for the CEO of what is left of the mining company, the director, in turn, supporting the church financially. Amazingly, there is a fledging band in all this squalor. John, Lena and Ilja L. make music in one the garages, the first two dream of a life in St. Petersburg. When they have gone, Ilja is depressed, but still goes on writing poetry. Sergej, producing dumb bells from the metal he scavenges, is suffering from progressive Parkinson’s, but goes on working. And then there is Roman, the success story of the community, raising broiler chickens and making a good living from the birds. In a restaurant called ‘Behind the Polar Cycle’, Roman meets Julia, and they fall in love, finding happiness against all odds. But for most of them it’s a grim existence, Viktor’s sums his life up in these poignant words: “I am digging in the dirt like a worm”.

Yefimkina and DoP Axes Schneppat  showcase the dreadful conditions without resorting to talking head overkill. The only of change comes in the shape of snowfall capturing the melancholic atmosphere of overriding gloom in this despondent post apocalyptic backwater.  AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020

Midnight Family (2019) ****

Dir.: Luke Lorentzen; Documentary with Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Josue Ochoa; Mexico 2019, 81 min.

Mexico City has a population of 9 million people; there are fewer than 45 public ambulances to service them. Luke Lorentzen’s observational feature documentary follows the Ochoa family who operate a private, for-profit ambulance which competes with other private emergency services for patients and a livelihood.

Shot on 85 nights over three years, Midnight Family is an emotional rollercoaster ride: three members of the Ochoa family drive their private ambulance through the hazardous streets of Mexico City, their professional label is Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT). The city council has designated just 45 ambulances for a metropolis of nine million. The reward for the private ambulances is meagre or even non-existence, the work dangerous, to say the least.

Juan, seventeen, is the real head of the family as his father Fer suffers from high blood pressure and is unwilling to cut down on food and soft drinks. Little brother Josue is only nine, and would much rather go on these eventful night forays than attend school (who wouldn’t). But Juan keeps a tight rein on him. The dysfunctional system dictates that these private ambulances can only go out, if no public ambulances are available. Even though the competition is fierce, ambulances race each other dangerously to be first at the scene of the accident. Midnight Family has a lot in common with the Romanian film When Evening Falls in Bucharest 

The police make things difficult: they either hang about waiting for bribes from the EMTs, or simply to ask for equipment to be updated before the crews are allowed to work. But payment is not guaranteed: many of the victims’ relatives cannot pay at all, others complain about the service, and pay only a pittance. Police, EMTs and private hospitals (who pay the ambulances for every patient delivered) are interdependent, they fight like dogs for the lion’s share of the business – with the EMTs at the bottom end of the heap.

Juan keeps the family together: he organises the shopping for the meagre meals, negotiates with the police and the victims’ relatives and chats amicable with his girlfriend Jessica on his mobile. One cannot believe that Juan is only seventeen, his braces are the only clue. The sheer pace of it all has ruined his father’s health, and the fear is that Juan might suffer the same fate.

The highlight of Midnight Family is the scene where are severely injured young woman is rescued. She fell from a fourth floor flat and suffered traumatic brain injuries. Father and son shout at cars and buses to get out of way, they give each tips for the short cuts, while the woman’s mother sits catatonic in the back. Lorentzen has dedicated the documentary to her daughter, who did not survive.

Bu the end, the audience is as exhausted as the Ochoa family. They are trying up to make up for a non-existent health-care system, being short-changed themselves in the process. But the way Juan is keeping family and job together deserves our admiration. Midnight Family is a nightly tour-de-force, a documentary film-noir, another They Rode by Night. It makes us cherish our own NHS even more. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

  

 

 

 

Quezon’s Game (2019) *** Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Dir.: Matthew Rosen; Cast: Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Gallion, David Bianco, James Paoleli; Philippines 2018, 127 min.

This bio-pic chronicles the final years of President Manuel L. Quezon (1878-1944), who helped to rescue 1200 Jews from Europe and gave them a home in the Philippines. Despite an over-emotional approach and the slight manipulation of historical dates, Matthew Rosen makes an important contribution to the history of the Holocaust. Few of us were aware of Quezon’s mission, which was cut short in 1941 when Japan invaded Quezon’s country, the latter spending his last years in exile in the USA, where he died from Tuberculosis.

Quezon (Bagatsing) is shown as a reformer and humanist, who, upon learning about the plight of German and Austrian Jews, set in motion a rescue programme, putting him at odds with President Roosevelt and Congress, who then rejected a rise in the quota of Jewish emigrants to the USA. Quezon’s action is particular courageous, since the Philippines were (until 1946) part of Commonwealth of the USA, and de facto a colony. Quezon was helped by a young Dwight Eisenhower (Bianco) and Roosevelt’s political associate Paul McNutt (Paoleli). Help also came in the from of a Jewish lawyer, Alex Fiedler (Gallion) who (together with his brother Herbert) found a way to get the exit visas into the hands of the waiting Jews, before the death camps made escape impossible.

Meanwhile, Quezon’s wife Aurora (Alejandro) and daughter Baby (Alejandrino), who would go on to be assassinated in 1949, provide the dutiful supporting cast. It also emerges that the real Quezon was quite a lady’s man and, so much so that “Aurora had to seek refuge in prayers” (according to her biographer). Even though Quezon was sixty when the film starts, Rosen casts a much younger actor to play his part, Bagatsing portrays the president as a Dandy who coughs  non-stop.

There are some inconsistencies: It is hardly likely that Eisenhower would have been posted to a regional backwater like the Philippines just five years before Operation Overlord. Also, the bookends of the feature, showing Manuel and Aurora watching newsreels from the liberation of the death camps (Manuel whispering, like Schindler, that he did not do enough) is hardly credible, since Quezon died in the of August 1944. 

But whatever the machinations of writers Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen, Manuel L. Quezon was a beacon of light of light in a dark time – much more than his American counterparts: Democrats and Republicans both condoned segregation; Jews, People of Colour and Dogs were advised by signs not to enter restaurants and other public places, and the Statue of Liberty was an empty symbol long before Donald Trump. Quezon’s Game might be aesthetically questionable at times, but it it does not detract from its importance.AS

IN HONOUR OF HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY | 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. 

  

Meanwhile on Earth (2020) MUBI

Dir: Carl Olssen | Doc, Sweden 71′

Clinically and with precision, a pine coffin is loaded onto a carrying device that takes it into the funeral parlour. Meanwhile a black limousine glides through the leafy suburbs of Swedish suburbia and a mortician puts the final touches to a corpse while listening to the weather forecast predicting rain. The banal fact of life is that death is a high tech business here in Sweden. Efficient, designer led and elegantly crafted as is Carl Olssen’s wry and timely look at the business of death

When we die, there are practicalities that need to be taken care of before our time among the living is finally over. Carl Olsson offers a factual and artfully framed overview of Sweden’s contemporary funerary industry in his calm and cinematic documentary that makes every step enjoyable and informative. Straightforward, fixed camera positions and placcid, symmetrical compositions satisfy our curiosity as a process that is rarely discussed and is still taboo in most European countries. Essentially a series of vignettes set to a cheerful upbeat occasional score, the film pictures every ritual and the routine procedures that accompany the transition. A bit more about what actually happens to the dead bodies would have been welcome. One bizarre scene pictures dozens of redundant funeral bouquets – all red and white – laid out in a gravelled area, brings sense to the familiar and sensible phrase: “family flowers only”. These will no doubt end up in the tip. Another meaningless job for these chipper funeral workers.

For those who work to make the process seamless, death is just a job. Banter is jovial and often irreverent as they go about their business, rehearsing music to accompany the service or discussing last night’s dinner or their family dogs, while they dig graves. These ordinary moments are interleaved with scenes of the elderly still going about their daily lives – or what’s left of them ; playing bingo or eating lunch. Meanwhile of Earth avoids sentimentality or pathos. Yet there are also moments of calm contemplation in this thoughtful and informative portrait of our final exit from this world. MT

NOW ON MUBI | ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 

#AnneFrank: Parallel Stories (2019) **** Holocaust Memorial Day

Wri/Dir: Sabina Fedeli/Anna Migotto | Italy, Doc 95′

Italian filmmakers Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto (Father Lenin e i suoi fratelli) commemorate the life of Anne Frank with a parallel portrait of the young diarist. Helen Mirren reads excerpts from her diary. Meanwhile five female Shoah survivors, about the same age as Anne, talk about their experiences and the fight to keep memories alive.

Mirren is filmed in the claustrophobia of a re-constructed room where Anne Frank lived in hiding for over two years, before her arrest and consequent deportation on 4th of August 1944 to Westerbrook transit camp. To break away from the cramped domestic setting, these readings play out to a background of filmed sequences of a woman (Martina Gatti) travelling around Europe to create a sort of video diary of Frank’s life with some rather corny observations. By far the most important part are the interviews with three Croatian Holocaust survivors including Arianna Spörenyi; the sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci; as well as fellow survivors Helga Weiss from the Czech Republic and Sarah Lichtsztein-Montard, who escaped from the Parisian Velodrome round-up, were she was incarcerated on 16th July 1942.

Weiss kept her own pictorial diary in Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp – her father encouraging her to draw only what she could see. Terezin was a special camp in many ways: The Nazis used the old fortress to gather Jewish artists and scientists together – even asking the well-known Jewish film director Kurt Gerron (ex-UFA) to make a propaganda film (The Führer gifts the Jew a City), showing the Jews living a live of cultural relaxation, while the poor German citizens were suffering from Allied bombing raids. When the fake documentary was eventually aired worldwide, Gerron and his family were already dead, murdered in Auschwitz. Worse, the Germans convinced a Red Cross delegation on site, that Terezin was a sanatorium after all. Anne Frank and her older sister Margot were deported from Westerbrook to Auschwitz and thence to Bergen Belsen, where both died of Typhus in February 1945. They are buried in a mass grave.

Fedeli and Migotto are rightfully critical of contemporary Italian politics: “refugees are drowning on our coasts”, but they fail to mention the Nazi collaborators in the Holland where more than 100, 000 men joined the Waffen-SS and became active soldiers for the Third Reich. 

DoP Alessio Viola’s images convey the incredible loss and the struggle of these survivors who have difficulty sharing the trauma with their own children about life in the camps. Padded out with some redundant detail, #AnneFrank is nonetheless a moving portrait of a young women who was robbed of a creative life by a unique and monstrous death machine – feeding off the ongoing Anti-Semitism which continues to spread through Europe and elsewhere. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 27 JANUARY 2020 | HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY 2020 

 

 

No Fathers in Kashmir (2019) ****

Dir.: Ashvin Kumar; Cast: Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Ashvin Kumar, Shushil Dahiya, Natasha Mago, Abdul Rashid; UK/India 2019, 108 min.

Oscar-nominated writer and director Ashvin Kumar (The Forest) is well known for his active support of Kashmiri independence. Claimed both by Pakistan and India, the region has recently lost its autonomous status inside India, and is now governed with an iron fist by the nationalist Indian government who is fighting militants in the region, often sponsored by Pakistan. But this is really a proxy war between Hindu nationalism of India and Muslim annexation orientated Pakistan – with the local population caught between the two nuclear powers.

The film centres in sixteen year old British Kashmiri teenager Noor (Webb) who is wedded to her mobile like most of her generation, and lives with her grandparents in a Kashmiri village. Her mother Zainab (Mago) is trying to convince her missing husband’s parents to sign his death certificate so she can marry politically well connected Wahid (Dahiya). Said husband was arrested by the Indian army and never returned home. Noor has fallen for the slightly younger Majid (Raina) whose father has also disappeared. Noor, unaware of the tensions in the village, challenges her grandparents and mother, wanting to know more about her father’s fate. Zainab finally manages to get the old couple to declare their son dead –  Wahid helps by offering to secure them a good pension – but then Noor strikes up a friendship with a Arshid (Kumar), who seems to be collaborating with the Indian army, and at the same time hiding militants from the authorities. 

There is a telegraphed solution to it all when Arshid tells the village teacher Kharbanda (Rashid) that his son. along with his fellow fighters, were “just revolutionary romantics. What kind of freedom would this have been for Kashmir without the Muslim faith?” Noor pushes on, and talks Zaina into a nighttime trip into the mountains bordering Pakistan where the political prisoners like her father had been interrogated. When they are captured by the Indian soldiers, the adults’ lies unravel – in spite of Noor’s release – thanks to the powerful Wahid.

Kumar, also co-editor and co-producer, needed crowdfunding for this project and also had to be sanctioned by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, more or less a censorship agency. He directs with great skill but his script is an awkward mix of coming-of-age love story and political rant. There are just too many programmatic speeches. Neither Noor nor Majid are really at an age to be spouting these moral lessons, and particularly not Noor, who is a total stranger. DoPs Jean Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme make good use of the overpowering landscape all captured impressively on handheld cameras. Overall, No Fathers is more worthy than convincing, but held together by a brilliant cast. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 24 JANUARY 2020

 

Midnight Traveler (2019) ***

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache (2018) Prime

Dir: Pamela B. Green | Writers: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon| with Jodie Foster, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Julie Delpy, Agnes Varda, Ben Kingsley, Michel Hazanavicius, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, Gale Anne Hurd, Andy Sandberg, John Bailey, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Marjane Satrapi, Anne Fontaine, Peter Farrelly, Jonathan Glickman, Mark Romanek, Kevin Brownlow, Kevin Macdonald, Geena Davis, Pierre William Glenn, Jan-Christopher Horak, Glenn Myrent, Serge Bromberg, Howard Cohen, Valerie Steele, Jean-Michel Frodon, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Janeane Garofalo, Jon M. Chu, Mark Stetson, Anastasia Masaro, Dino Everett, Stephanie Allain, Claire Clouzot, Anthony Slide, Cecile Starr | US Doc 103′

Pamela B. Green’s fast-moving and fascinating first film chronicles the life of one of cinema’s early pioneers and female filmmakers, Alice Guy-Blaché

Green started her own career as a title sequence director and that very much comes to the fore in this well-crafted and informative documentary that uses a wide variety of visual effects to enliven a collection of old photographs and drawings, including Guy-Blaché’s own film archives (The Cabbage Fairy (1896) is a particular delight), and even interview footage taken just before she died in her early 90s. There are a few too many random talking heads making this often feel bitty. Some don’t have anything to say beyond admitting they had never heard of the French director, but it could well have been condition of funding that each contributor had their ‘say’.

Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) was born in Paris and would go on to make over a 1,000 films, including silents and those with sound (which she pre-recorded), although many of these were attributed to men. Clearly luck played a big part in her success: women in the late 19th century were – on the whole – housewives and mothers. But Guy-Blaché had dogged perseverance along with her talent, working as a secretary for inventor Leon Gaumont – considered a plum job at the time – she was there when the Lumiere Brothers first set their apparatus running on everyday life in their local town of Lyon.

Narrated by Jodie Foster, the film (funded through Kickstarter) charts the early days of cinema from Paris to New Jersey and California before going back to Europe, tracing an art form where women seem to be very involved, much more so than nowadays, possibly because commercialisation hadn’t quite taken hold of the cottage industry: films were still considered the domain of the female chattering classes and kids. Something to keep women amused while men were doing more important things.

But the film’s co-writer Joan Simon and curators and historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Claire Clouzot offer the most salient contribution to the film, outlining the cultural significance of Gay-Blaché’s contribution, including the invention of synchronised sound. Above all, she was a highly inventive pioneer who just happened to be a woman, and whose talent and perseverance is celebrated in this valuable feature debut. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Present. Perfect (2019) ***

Dir: Zhu Shengze. USA/Hong Kong. 2019. 124mins

Live-streaming in China is big business. The severely disabled, wheelchair-ridden and low-paid have finally found a nifty way of making an extra yuan. Sharing their everyday lives on the internet brings them an income as well as garnering support and emotional inter-dependence. It works both ways as the streams establish a mutually beneficial connection.

Present.Perfect makes for compelling viewing – up to a point. It’s a strong premise but the execution is flawed.  What initially seems intriguing to watch eventually becomes tedious. And by the end the doc does its worthy subject matter a disservice, playing out as a laborious and repetitive slog, without any kind of narrative or real explanation. Zhu Shengze made the film from more than 800 hours of filmed footage taken from an output of 12 ‘anchors’ (sharers of their footage) over a period of 10 months. Tighter editing would have made the film more pithy and enjoyable. What we do learn is that 2016 was apparently “Year Zero” for live streaming – and now the industry has expanded exponentially. In 2017, over 422 million Chinese shared streamed films on the internet. But it’s not all doom and gloom, content-wise.

The segments from each showroom are often overlong, and the content can be extremely dull, made more so by the black and white camerawork. Do we really want to watch a woman’s gruelling trip down the road – wheel-chair bound, while she stares pitifully into the camera? Or a physically challenged guy do his washing? And then there’s a man showing his wounds bleeding, clearly he’s into self-harm. But clearly these Chinese audiences do, and they’re prepared to pay for it, finding comfort in these banal everyday lives fraught with trauma (Eastenders, anyone?). Besides the obvious need for recognition, fostered by all types of social media, there is the loneliness and alienation out there, and the streamers have tapped into this rich vein of income, benefiting in more ways than one from the comfort-seeking connection with others. Our hearts go out to the ‘anchors’ but most of us don’t need to experience their pain to understand their suffering. despite their cheerful perseverance. But that’s not the point. For those who become invested in their daily struggle to survive, the film tells a valuable story. One of mutual support, and even entertainment. Distances in China are vast and many peoplelive alone in remote locations miles away from any form of social contact. These ‘anchors’ are actually their keeping them on the straight and narrow, emotionally at least.  

Other anchors have used the streaming device as a way to drum up business. A case in point is a farmer keen on branding his particular form of labour as ‘agritainment’. There is a bored crane driver, who invites us to visit him way up in his cab that towers above a vast building site. Another, a woman, is tooling away at making men’s underpants. She shares the trials and tribulations of her love life with all her followers, as she peddles away at her gruelling work. The more you watch the stories the more you understand how compulsive the experience becomes in providing a vital support system for those reaching out from the desperation of their own lives. In the end, the banal almost becomes beautiful; providing comfort and consistency: we need never be alone. MT

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | ICA CINEMA from 24 January.

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER AWARD WINNER  2019

Lucian Freud: A Self-Portrait (2019) ****

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Writers: David Bickerstaff/Phil Grabsky | With: William Feaver, James Hall, Tim Marlow (RA Artistic Director 2014-19, Jasper Sharp, Curator, Kunthistorisches Museum Vienna | Andrea Tarsia (Head of Exhitibitions RA) | Doc, 85′

“I wanted to shock and amaze” says Lucian Freud in faintly-accented English. Sitting in his workshop where he fought, struggled and experimented tirelessly with his craft – Freud was well into his eighties when he died in 2011 – the renowned Berlin-born portraitist is an intense and furtive figure in the early scenes of this new biopic by David Bickerstaff. The filmmaker’s previous subjects have included Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet. Co-written by Phil Grabsky, the doc interweaves filmed interviews with Freud in his final years, with the usual talking heads approach. Curators and specialists add valuable insight, although a few of the contributors bring little to the party.

The former artistic director of the Royal Academy Tim Marlow takes us round Lucian Freud’s first and only exhibition at the London gallery (until 26 January 2020). Although Freud is seen as a modern artist his work is very much connected to that ‘old master’, painterly tradition of Titian and Rembrandt: Few modern artists have explored the human body with such intensity, and such determination. Of course, he was a gambler, a playboy and a bon viveur, but few artists spent as much time in their studio as Lucian Freud. The RA’s Andrea Tarsia explains how he pitted his developing style against his personal life, scrutinising himself as much as his subjects. His single-minded passion focused on self-portraiture as much as on those his was painting:. “Everything is a self-portrait”. Often his subjects are not even named: what mattered more to him was the immediacy of the situation, the spontaneity of the gaze. Accompanied by a jazzy score the doc conveys the energy and charisma that seems to spin off each hypnotic portrait, even a small canvas can dominate a room.

Born into an eminent but non-religious Jewish family on the 8th December 1922, Lucian Freud’s father was an architect and the youngest son of the analyst Sigmund Freud. The middle son of three, Lucian was his mother’s favourite and as such he was deeply resented by his brothers. His biographer William Feaver (The Lives of Lucian Freud) reports how as a popular teenager he was taken by surprise when the family came under scrutiny by the authorities and had to move to London in the autumn of 1933. He was sent to the progressive Dartington school where he developed an interest in plants and horses, and thence Bryanston whence he was expelled for mooning in Bournemouth High Street, on a bet. A stone sculpture of a horse secured him a place in a London art school in 1937 but this was also short-lived. Eventually Freud fetched up in what he told his parents was “the only decent art school” of the time run by Sir Cedric Morris in East Anglia. Subversive to the last, Freud once again disgraced himself and “burnt the school down”.

But Morris had by this time instilled some discipline into the 18 year old Freud and he produced his first work – a tight and rather flattened oil painting simply entitled ‘Self-portrait,1940′. An ability to draw was the first step on the ladder and led to commissions for various book covers but impetuosity led to Freud joining the Navy for a spell. Returning to London he shared a St Johns Wood flat with fellow painter John Craxston who introduced him to an influential circle of friends. For nearly ten years he and John experimented with architects sample pots producing glossy-looking abstracts and portraits.

In the early 1940s Lucian Freud moved to the more seedy area of Paddington and settled down to a more committed painting style, ‘Man With a Feather’ (1943) was exhibited at his first solo show at London’s Lefevre Gallery. Now in his early twenties, women fell for Freud’s mesmerising allure and powerful presence, and he was able to navigate his way round English society marrying Kitty Garman. But he made a hopeless husband; although he could be sensitive and sociable, focusing on you with an intense gaze, he could also be callous and cruel.

In Paris in 1946 he met Picasso and soon realised the dedication that painting required. By now he was using oils and honing his style of self-portraiture, his face creeping into the frame with surprise, suggestion or a quizzical expression that calls to mind the ‘fourth wall’.  ‘Still Life with Green Lemon’ was a case in point, painted during a visit to Greece in 1946. Ostensibly these were self-portraits – Freud’s face only just intruding into the edges of a work dominated by another subject – he was already displaying the prickly illusiveness that was to become his style. ‘Startled Man’ (1948) ushered in a period of clean, conte-work. This is an extremely accomplished drawing that really flaunts his capabilities. ‘Sleeping Nude’ (1950) and the surrealist ‘Interior at Paddington’ (1951) were actually hyper-realist paintings. By this time John Minton had become a friend, and Freud had also met and painted Francis Bacon. His marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood saw her being incorporated into various works, and she appears in bed in his self-portrait ‘Lucian Freud, 1949’ which was exhibited at the Venice Biennale that year. She left him four years later due to his infidelities. Like most artists Freud wanted his life to be his work, and it was impossible for him to be committed to any woman. His only focus was himself and whoever he was painting at the time.

A sensuality entered the artist’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960 where an emphasis on touch starts to appear. This is most noticeable during a trip to Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye when he painted a Flemish style portrait on a small scrap of copper. It sees him putting his finger on his lips and was the start of this sensuous awareness. The 1960s also marked a switch to hog-hair brushes with ‘Man’s Head’ (1963) and the restless associated portraits, smooth backgrounds allowing the face to stand out. Although Freud admired Francis Bacon’s style of working in a gestural way, his own work increasingly gained a more structural, almost architectural element, as he slotted colours together with pasty brushstrokes, trying to make the paint tell the story.

The film’s focus then switches from Freud’s own work to visit Amsterdam where he often visited the Rijksmuseum to study Rembrandt and understand his approach. Back in London at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, the film shows how Freud’s portraits  actually hold and dominate the room. ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ (2004) was a canvas that required exactitude, the sitter under as much pressure to perform as Freud himself. This portrait of art critic Martin Gayford offers further evidence of the Freud’s obsession with detail. The relationship was intense and required the sitter to be totally committed and, crucially, to return to the studio for sittings that went on several times a week for at least a year. But during this time Freud engaged in avid conversation: highly entertaining he was a raconteur who was as focused on the sitter as he was in himself. But Freud was certainly not an expressionist painter.

Lucian Freud’s large 1993 self-portrait is defiant – he was 71, but still emanated power and excitement; his greatest fear was losing his mind, but he was also concerned about his physical vigour. ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995) sold in 2008 for 33.6million dollars – the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Freud carried on painting voraciously until his death on 20 July 2011. He was 88. “Being with him was like being plugged into the National Grid for an hour” said one sitter. “Freud was one of the great European painters of the last 500 years. He’s one of those big figures across the centuries, rather than representative of an era or a movement” says Tim Marlow. “Tradition is a big word but Lucian challenged tradition constantly”. Jasper Sharp adds him to a list that goes back to Holbein; Durer; Cranach and Rembrandt. And he goes on: “Freud gives that list a little shuffle, making us look at Rembrandt a bit differently and Holbein a bit differently through his eyes, and through himself”. And that is a remarkable achievement for any artist. MT

LUCIAN FREUD: A SELF PORTRAIT | ON RELEASE FROM 14 JANUARY 2020 | SEVENTH ART PRODUCTIONS | ROYAL ACADEMY LUCIAN FREUD 

Sundance Film Festival 2020

In Park City Utah, ROBERT REDFORD and his programmer John Cooper have set the indie film agenda for 2020 with an array of provocative new titles in a festival that runs from 23 January until 2 February. This year’s selection includes the latest US drama from Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely); and new documentaries about Chechnya, Bruce Lee and Woodstock competing in the US Dramatic section. Branden Cronenberg will be showing his latest film, Possessor starring Andrea Riseborough; who also appears in the Egyptian drama Luxor. Noemie Merlant is fresh from Portrait of a Woman on Fire, in Zoe Wittock’s Jumbo. 

UK director Oscar Raby brings A Machine for Viewing​, a unique three-episode hybrid of real-time VR experience, live performance and video essay in which three moving-image makers explore how we now watch films by putting various ‘machines for viewing,’ including cinema and virtual reality, face to face.

EXHIBITIONS

All Kinds of Limbo​ / United Kingdom (Lead Artists: Toby Coffey, Raffy Bushman, Nubiya Brandon) — The National Theatre of Great Britain’s communal musical journey reflecting the influence of West Indian culture on the UK’s music scene across the genres of reggae, grime, classical, and calypso. Immersive technologies, the ceremony of live performance and the craft of theatrical staging bring audiences into a VR performance space. Cast: Nubiya Brandon.

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

47% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition are women; 52% are people of color; 5% are LGBTQ+.

The 40-Year-Old Version / U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: Radha Blank

A down-on-her-luck New York playwright decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, World Premiere

BLAST BEAT / U.S.A. Director: Esteban Arango

After their family emigrates from Colombia during the summer of ‘99, a metalhead science prodigy and his deviant younger brother do their best to adapt to new lives in America. Cast: Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Daniel Dae Kim, Kali Uchis, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama. World Premiere

Charm City Kings / U.S.A. (Director: Angel Manuel Soto

Mouse desperately wants to join The Midnight Clique, the infamous Baltimore dirt bike riders who rule the summertime streets. When Midnight’s leader, Blax, takes 14-year-old Mouse under his wing, Mouse soon finds himself torn between the straight-and-narrow and a road filled with fast money and violence.

Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris, Donielle Tremaine World Premiere

Dinner in America / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Adam Rehmeier

An on-the-lam punk rocker and a young woman obsessed with his band go on an unexpected and epic journey together through the decaying suburbs of the American Midwest.. Cast: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Pat Healy, Griffin Gluck, Lea Thompson, Mary Lynn Rajskub. World Premiere

The Evening Hour / U.S.A. Dir: Braden King

Cole Freeman maintains an uneasy equilibrium in his rural Appalachian town, looking after the old and infirm while selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. But when an old friend returns with plans that upend the fragile balance and identity he’s so painstakingly crafted, Cole is forced to take action. Cast: Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, Cosmo Jarvis, Michael Trotter, Kerry Bishé, Lili Taylor. World Premiere

Farewell Amor / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Ekwa Msangi

Reunited after a 17 year separation, Walter, an Angolan immigrant, is joined in the U.S. by his wife and teenage daughter. Now absolute strangers sharing a one-bedroom apartment, they discover a shared love of dance that may help overcome the emotional distance between them. Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner, Nana Mensah. World Premiere

Minari / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Lee Isaac Chung

David, a 7-year-old Korean-American boy, gets his life turned upside down when his father decides to move their family to rural Arkansas and start a farm in the mid-1980s, in this charming and unexpected take on the American Dream. Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho. World Premiere

Miss Juneteenth / U.S.A. (Dir/Writer: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Turquoise, a former beauty queen turned hardworking single mother, prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she did. Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus Maudlin. World Premiere

Never Rarely Sometimes Always / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Eliza Hittman

An intimate portrayal of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin Skylar embark on a brave, fraught journey across state lines to New York City. Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten. World Premiere

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Nine Days / U.S.A. (Dir/Writer: Edson Oda,

In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born. Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl. World Premiere.

Palm Springs / U.S.A. Dir: Max Barbakow

When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated the next morning when they find themselves unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Peter Gallagher. World Premiere

Save Yourselves! / U.S.A. Dir/Wri: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson

A young Brooklyn couple head upstate to disconnect from their phones and reconnect with themselves. Cut off from their devices, they miss the news that the planet is under attack. Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, Johanna Day, John Early, Gary Richardson. World Premiere

Shirley / U.S.A. Dir: Josephine Decker

A young couple moves in with the famed author, Shirley Jackson, and her Bennington College professor husband, Stanley Hyman, in the hope of starting a new life but instead find themselves fodder for a psycho-drama that inspires Shirley’s next novel. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman. World Premiere

Sylvie’s Love / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Eugene Ashe

Years after their summer romance comes to an end, an aspiring television producer and a talented musician cross paths, only to find their feelings for each other never changed. With their careers taking them in different directions, they must choose what matters most. Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Jemima Kirke. World Premiere

Wander Darkly / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Tara Miele

New parents Adrienne and Matteo are forced to reckon with trauma amidst their troubled relationship. They must revisit the memories of their past and unravel haunting truths in order to face their uncertain future. Cast: Sienna Miller, Diego Luna, Beth Grant, Aimee Carrero, Tory Kittles, Vanessa Bayer. World Premiere

Zola / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris

@zolarmoon tweets “wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Two girls bond over their “hoeism” and become fast friends. What’s supposed to be a trip from Detroit to Florida turns into a weekend from hell. Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo. World Premiere

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people and events that shape the present day. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include APOLLO 11, Knock Down The House, One Child Nation, American Factory, Three Identical Strangers and On Her Shoulders. 45% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition are women; 23% are people of color; 23% are LGBTQ+.

A Thousand Cuts / U.S.A., Philippines Dir/Wri:Ramona S Diaz

Nowhere is the worldwide erosion of democracy, fueled by social media disinformation campaigns, more starkly evident than in the authoritarian regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Journalist Maria Ressa places the tools of the free press—and her freedom—on the line in defense of truth and democracy. World Premiere

Be Water / U.S.A., UK  Director: Bao Nguyen

In 1971, after being rejected by Hollywood, Bruce Lee returned to his parents’ homeland of Hong Kong to complete four iconic films. Charting his struggles between two worlds, this portrait explores questions of identity and representation through the use of rare archival, interviews with loved ones and Bruce’s own writings. World Premiere

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / U.S.A. Dir: Bill Ross, Turner Ross

In the shadows of the bright lights of Las Vegas, it’s last call for a beloved dive bar known as the Roaring 20s. A document of real people, in an unreal situation, facing an uncertain future: America at the end of 2016. World Premiere

Boys State / U.S.A. Dirs Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine,

In an unusual experiment, a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up. World Premiere

Code for Bias / US/UK/China Dir/Wri Shalini Kantayya

Exploring the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s startling discovery that facial recognition does not see dark-skinned faces accurately, and her journey to push for the first-ever legislation in the U.S. to govern against bias in the algorithms that impact us all. World Premiere

The Cost of Silence / US  Dir: Mark Manning

An industry insider exposes the devastating consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and uncovers systemic corruption between government and industry to silence the victims of a growing public health disaster. Stakes could not be higher as the Trump administration races to open the entire U.S. coastline to offshore drilling. World Premiere

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Crip Camp / U.S.A. (Dir: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht,

Down the road from Woodstock in the early 1970s, a revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers, transforming their young lives and igniting a landmark movement. World Premiere. DAY ONE

Dick Johnson Is Dead / US. Dir: Kirsten Johnson

With this inventive portrait, a cameraperson seeks a way to keep her 86-year-old father alive forever. Utilizing moviemaking magic and her family’s dark humor, she celebrates Dr. Dick Johnson’s last years by staging fantasies of death and beyond. Together, dad and daughter confront the great inevitability awaiting us all. World Premiere

Feels Good Man / US. Dir: Arthur Jones

When indie comic character Pepe the Frog becomes an unwitting icon of hate, his creator, artist Matt Furie, fights to bring Pepe back from the darkness and navigate America’s cultural divide. World Premiere

The Fight / US. | Dirs: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres

Inside the ACLU, a team of scrappy lawyers battle Trump’s historic assault on civil liberties. World Premiere

Mucho Mucho Amor / US. Dirs: Cristina Costantini, Kareem Tabsch

Once the world’s most famous astrologer, Walter Mercado seeks to resurrect a forgotten legacy. Raised in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, Walter grew up to become a gender non-conforming, cape-wearing psychic whose televised horoscopes reached 120 million viewers a day for decades before he mysteriously disappeared. World Premiere

Spaceship Earth / U.S.A. Director: Matt Wolf

In 1991 a group of countercultural visionaries built an enormous replica of earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. When eight “biospherians” lived sealed inside, they faced ecological calamities and cult accusations. Their epic adventure is a cautionary tale but also a testament to the power of small groups reimagining the world. World Premiere

Time / U.S.A. (Director: Garrett Bradley

Fox Rich, indomitable matriarch and modern-day abolitionist, strives to keep her family together while fighting for the release of her incarcerated husband. An intimate, epic, and unconventional love story, filmed over two decades. World Premiere

Us Kids / U.S.A. (Dir: Kim A. Snyder

Determined to turn unfathomable tragedy into action, the teenage survivors of Parkland, Florida catalyze a powerful, unprecedented youth movement that spreads with lightning speed across the country, as a generation of mobilized youth take back democracy in this powerful coming-of-age story. World Premiere

Welcome to Chechnya / U.S.A. (Dir: David France

This searing investigative work shadows a group of activists risking unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic. Unfettered access and a remarkable approach to protecting anonymity exposes this under-reported atrocity–and an extraordinary group of people confronting evil. World Premiere

Whirlybird / U.S.A. Dir: Matt Yoka

Soaring above the chaotic spectacle of ‘80s and ‘90s Los Angeles, a young couple revolutionized breaking news with their brazen helicopter reporting. Culled from this news duo’s sprawling video archive is a poignant L.A. story of a family in turbulence hovering over a city unhinged. World Premiere

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Twelve films from emerging filmmaking talents around the world offer fresh perspectives and inventive styles. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include The Souvenir, The Guilty, Monos, Yardie, The Nile Hilton Incident and Second Mother.

Charter / Sweden (Dir/Wri: Amanda Kernell |

After a recent and difficult divorce, Alice hasn’t seen her children in two months as she awaits a custody verdict. When her son calls her in the middle of the night, Alice takes action, abducting the children on an illicit charter trip to the Canary Islands. Cast: Ane Dahl Torp, Troy Lundkvist, Tintin Poggats Sarri, Sverrir Gudnason, Eva Melander, Siw Erixon. World Premiere

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Cuties / France (Dir/Wri: Maïmouna Doucouré, Producer: Zangro)

Amy, 11 years old, meets a group of dancers called “Cuties.” Fascinated, she initiates herself to a sensual dance, hoping to join their band and escape family dysfunction… Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Maïmouna Gueye. World Premiere. DAY ONE

Exil / Germany, Belgium, Kosovo (Dir/Wri: Visar Morina

A chemical engineer feeling discriminated against and bullied at work plunges into an identity crisis. Cast: Mišel Matičević, Sandra Hüller. World Premiere

High Tide / Argentina (Dir/Wri: Verónica Chen,

Laura is spending a few days at her beach house to supervise the construction of a barbecue shed. One afternoon, she seduces the chief builder, who never returns. Over the following days, the builders continually invade her home – until Laura grows ferocious. Cast: Gloria Carrá, Jorge Sesán, Cristian Salguero, Mariana Chaud, Camila Fabbri, Héctor Bordoni. World Premiere

Jumbo / France, Luxembourg, Belgium (Dir/Wri: Zoé Wittock,

Jeanne, a shy young woman, works in an amusement park. Fascinated with carousels, she still lives at home with her mother. That’s when Jeanne meets Jumbo, the park’s new flagship attraction… Cast: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Sam Louwyck. World Premiere

Luxor / Egypt, United Kingdom Dir/Wri Zeina Durra,

When British aid worker Hana returns to the ancient city of Luxor, she comes across Sultan, a talented archeologist and former lover. As she wanders, haunted by the familiar place, she struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Michael Landes, Sherine Reda, Salima Ikram, Shahira Fahmy. World Premiere

Possessor / Canada, United Kingdom Dir/Wri: Brandon Cronenberg,

Vos is a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies, driving them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. When something goes wrong on a routine job, she finds herself trapped inside a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh. World Premiere

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) / Mexico, Spain (Director: Fernanda Valadez,

Magdalena makes a journey to find her son, gone missing on his way to the Mexican border with the US. Her odyssey takes her to meet Miguel, a man recently deported from the U.S. They travel together, Magdalena looking for her son, and Miguel hoping to see his mother again. Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Laura Elena Ibarra, Xicoténcatl Ulloa. World Premiere

Summer White (Blanco de Verano) / Mexico (Dir/Wri: Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson,

Rodrigo is a solitary teenager, a king in the private world he shares with his mother. Things change when she takes her new boyfriend home to live. He must decide if he fights for his throne and crushes the happiness of the person he loves the most. Cast: Adrián Rossi, Sophie Alexander-Katz, Fabián Corres. World Premiere

Surge / United Kingdom (Director: Aneil Karia

A man goes on a bold and reckless journey of self-liberation through London. After he robs a bank he releases a wilder version of himself, ultimately experiencing what it feels like to be alive. Cast: Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson. World Premiere

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection / Lesotho, South Africa, Italy (Dir/Wri Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

When her village is threatened with forced resettlement due to reservoir construction, an 80-year-old widow finds a new will to live and ignites the spirit of resilience within her community. In the final dramatic moments of her life, Mantoa’s legend is forged and made eternal. Cast: Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makheta, Makhoala Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng, Siphiwe Nzima. International Premiere

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness / Iran, France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg (Dir/Wri: Massoud Bakhshi,

Maryam accidentally killed her husband Nasser and is sentenced to death. The only person who can save her is Mona, Nasser’s daughter. All Mona has to do is appear on a TV show and forgive Maryam. But forgiveness proves difficult when they are forced to relive the past. Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Forough Ghajebeglou, Fereshteh Hosseini. International Premiere

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Twelve documentaries by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include Honeyland, Sea of Shadows, Shirkers, This is Home, Last Men in Aleppo and Hooligan Sparrow.

Acasa, My Home / Romania, Germany, Finland (Director: Radu Ciorniciuc, Screenwriters: Lina Vdovii, Radu Ciorniciuc, Producer: Monica Lazurean-Gorgan

In the wilderness of the Bucharest Delta, nine children and their parents lived in perfect harmony with nature for 20 years–until they are chased out and forced to adapt to life in the big city. World Premiere

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange / Ukraine, Lithuania (Director: Iryna Tsilyk,

To cope with the daily trauma of living in a war zone, Anna and her children make a film together about their life among surreal surroundings. World Premiere

Epicentro / Austria, France, U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Hubert Sauper,

Cuba is well known as a so-called time capsule. The place where the New World was discovered has become both a romantic vision and a warning. With ongoing global cultural and financial upheavals, large parts of the world could face a similar kind of existence. World Premiere

Influence / South Africa, Canada (Directors and Screenwriters: Diana Neille, Richard Poplak,

Charting the recent advancements in weaponized communication by investigating the rise and fall of the world’s most notorious public relations and reputation management firm: the British multinational Bell Pottinger. World Premiere

Into the Deep / Denmark (Dir: Emma Sullivan

In 2016, a young Australian filmmaker began documenting amateur inventor Peter Madsen. One year in, Madsen brutally murdered Kim Wall aboard his homemade submarine. An unprecedented revelation of a killer and the journey his young helpers take as they reckon with their own complicity and prepare to testify. World Premiere

The Mole Agent / Chile, U.S.A., Germany, The Netherlands, Spain (Dir and screenwriter: Maite Alberdi

When a family becomes concerned about their mother’s well-being in a retirement home, private investigator Romulo hires Sergio, an 83 year-old man who becomes a new resident–and a mole inside the home, who struggles to balance his assignment with becoming increasingly involved in the lives of several residents. World Premiere

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela / Venezuela, United Kingdom, Brazil, Austria (DirWri: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos,

Once upon a time, the Venezuelan village of Congo Mirador was prosperous, alive with fisherman and poets. Now it is decaying and disintegrating–a small but prophetic reflection of Venezuela itself. World Premiere