Beyond the White (2021)

Dir: Evgeny Kalachikhin | Wri: Anastasia Gorokhova | USSR, Doc, 90′

If your idea of heaven is vast open seascapes and silence then Beyond the White is a documentary that may appeal

Cut off from civilisation the Northern Russian villages of the Kola Peninsula are scattered along the shores of the White Sea a southern inlet of the Berents Sea. Here on the Tersky coast wild white horses roam freely, rather like in the Camargue, and bring to mind Andrey Konchalovskiy’s award-winning film The Postman’s White Nights (2014).

In this remote location the twenty or thirty inhabitants live in traditional blue painted wooden houses surrounded by water, forests, and sand. Most have now moved to the larger cities and the major port of Arkhangelskaya. The weather-beaten inhabitants that remain live in blue-painted wooden houses and survive from dwindling fish stocks -mostly herring – home-baked bread and pies that are cooked in kiln-like ovens built into the chimney.

The focus is a fire that has been burning across the flat steppe like-terrain providing cause for concern reflected in Alessandra Medianikova’s incendiary images. But Anastasia Gorokhova avoids a traditional narrative relying instead on the stunning landscapes themselves and an often epic soundscape to paint a vivid panoramic picture of the locals and their animals – including mosquitoes- living in communion with nature in the wild beauty of the primitive elements at the end of the world. MT




Tlamess (2019) Zurich Film Festival 2021

Dir: Ala Eddine Slim |Cast: Abdullah Miniawy, Souhir Ben Amara, Khaled Ben Aissa Tunisia/France |121′.

Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim follows his striking cult debut The Last of Us with another visually alluring reverie that is rather too opaque for its own good. Verging on the biblical, it once again contemplates themes of isolation and our relationship with nature. The evocative storyline focuses on a loner caught up in the wanderlust of his desert surroundings in a atmospheric soundscape created by Oiseaux Tempete with mesmerising art direction from Malek Gnaoui and imaginative camerawork by Amine Messadi.

S (Miniawy) is a lieutenant in the army. State terrorism is the order of the day and we witness a brutal suicide. After hearing about the death of his mother S is overcome by grief and absconds from his army service to go home, becoming Tunisia’s most wanted man. S soon meets the newly pregnant F (Amara), a bored and unhappy housewife left alone in luxury surroundings while her rich husband gads off around the world. The relationship develops into something more, F enjoying the wilderness much more than her pampered home.

The pair communicate only with their eyes, these extreme close-ups inscribed with Arabic are an expression of intimacy, the motives being fear, desperation and a new found equilibrium on F’s part. The monolith in the forest is a nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Full Metal Jacket is also referenced in the military scenes. Slim uses extreme contrasts: light and dark, sound and silence, open spaces versus claustrophobia, tradition collides with modernity Many of the protagonists are mute, Slim drawing much from silent cinema, the characters whirl through time and space in this hostile terrain. Tlamess is a visual triumph, leaving the audience much room for interpretation. MT


From the Wild Sea (2021) Zurich Film Festival 2021

Dir: Robin Petré | Doc, 77′

Weather conditions are becoming much more extreme. Marine animals are needing emergency care due to injuries caused by the effects of climate change on tides and changing oceanography.

The caring efforts of marine conservationists are at the heart of this cinematic nature doc From the Wild Sea from Danish documentarian Robin Petré known for her unconventional short nature films (Pulse, Stream and Distant Water) that push the borders beyond the norm. Along similar lines to Leviathan and Bird Island (2019) this deeply sensory film shows how vets in coastal regions are building up a strong support system of rescue centres to rehabilitate mammals and sea birds.

The sheer power of an image is all that’s needed to convey the tragedy of our changing climate which has given rise to powerful storms raging into Europe from the Atlantic, bringing with them injured and confused animals such as seals, dolphins, whales and seabirds. The film is swift to point out that untrained human interference in nature – however well-intentioned – is not helpful. Moving injured animals that have been washed up on the shore should be avoided at all costs. The changing tides have had a deleterious effect on seal mammals who rely on echolocation to get their bearings and forage of food: One such seal recently lost its sense of direction and headed to Morocco, wildly off course. After rehabilitation in Cornwall it made its way back north, then took a wrong turn at the Continental Shelf and headed South again only to be re-homed in the Cornish sanctuary. The release of these healthy seals back into the wild is the film’s highpoint.

Although the work being done in animal rehabilitation is an admirable labour of love, this is a really upsetting film to watch: we see seals in great distress – some of them uttering almost human cries as they struggle to breathe, their airways caught up with plastic or infection as the trained staff work to help them recover. We watch another seal gradually losing its fight for life, flippers twitching as it cries out in pain, its mottled fur coat is a thing of exquisite beauty, its soulful eyes speak volumes of the tragic marine odyssey that has led to its death.

Many animals are suffering the effects of starvation. One seal enjoys a basinful of fish, while another waits patiently for attention by the side of a ceramic bath. It’s extraordinary to imagine that an animal that spends most of its time under the sea can demonstrate so much awareness of a human setting on dry land. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that thousands of years ago we too came from out of the sea.

Whales fare particularly badly: we watch as a 19-metre-long whale lies beached like a massive, punctured tyre, off the coast of Cornwall. The team rushes to help but it’s already too late. The animal will not just die from its bleeding injuries but because its sheer weight will crush the organs, unless the tide favours transport back into the sea. Many whales die due to head-butting from a boat, or multiple injuries from propellers. An autopsy takes place on the beach itself, it must be one of the few times the pathologist actually gets inside a body to do his work. We also witness a fascinating autopsy of a small 4-5 year-old dolphin who has been terribly badly scarred by marine craft and survived and healed, before finally dying of other injuries.

Birds are particularly difficult to handle, and a white swan hisses savagely when it is given a bubble bath to wash off black marine diesel in the clinic, and here the camera offers intense close-ups of the meticulous cleaning process, including a blow-dry to return the bird to its snow white beauty before release. Frequently the camera pulls out to pan the coast in widescreen images of waves crashing down on the raging ocean. Nicholas (de) Montsarrat was not wrong when he called his 1951 war novel: “The Cruel Sea”.

Robin Petre maintains a respectful distance from her subject matter avoiding anthropomorphism at all times while filming with a deeply humane perspective.  A really immersive film for those interested in animal welfare and suitable for all the family (except for the very young). MT


Ascension (2021) Zurich Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Jessica Kingdon | Documentary; China 2021, 97′

Mesmerising in its imagery, Ascension is a frightening impressionistic portrait of China’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labour, consumerism and wealth.

In her documentary debut Chinese-American Jessica Kingdon explores this study of Chinese superiority by those whose crafted the system. But there is also the hankering after western values and traditions, coupled with a search for perfection in every aspect of working life. Through sheer determination this stealthy dragon will soon be the number economic power on the globe – a nightmarish vision.

The film is structured in three parts, ascending through the hierarchical levels: workers running factory production, the middle class selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites revelling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary “Chinese Dream” remains an elusive fantasy for most.

Job-seekers gather in front of buses which will ferry the chosen ones to their factories and dorms. The pay is a couple of dollars an hour, but there are restrictions: Only applicants between 18 and 38 are welcome, men are not allowed to have tattoos or ear-studs – and no illegals will be accepted let alone those with a criminal record. Then there is the roll call for the HUWAI bus, under a big sign of “Work hard, and all wishes come true” the workers put their luggage away before entering the bus. Other poster slogans tell the workers “Be civilised, set good examples” before we set off for the factories.

In a plant producing water bottles from plastic, the female workers discuss the role of the manager: “It does not matter how many days you work, the manager will decide how many days you get paid for. I buy the boss lunch, right after having been paid. We all plead to buy lunch for him so he can pull some strings for us.” In a factory producing jeans, the workers are told “to work harder”, because these jeans are for export: the stitching reads “Keep America great”. In front of a factory producing sex dolls, the chorus shouts slogans like “I love my company, I love my colleagues, I love my career even more. My fate is tied to the company’s, my glory bound to the company”.

Books are given out to workers and they are exhorted to study them with diligence, since the boss spend much time on writing the advice for his workers. During work hours, role play about how to be a perfect workmate is transmitted via loud speakers. We see workers marching like soldiers in front of factories. Meanwhile in the sex doll factory, the workers earnestly discuss the colour of the nipples and the trimming of the pubic hair.

A little more up the food chain, the middle-managers are equally enthusiastic about paying good money to listen to champion managers, who have a large fan base. “Monetise your personal brand. Knowledge must be monetised”. Others have participated in a two-day course and promise “to make millions and millions” in the coming months and years. There are other expensive courses that tell you how to smile (show eight teeth), nod and hug, the latter not being very popular in China.

At a lecture by the Senior International trainer we learn “either you influence me, or I influence you”. There is a training school for butlers too: The new Chinese ruling classes want to copy their European counterparts. “You may not have much time for your personal life, or your family. The rich people do what they want to do, and you have to accept it. They are the people who pay you, no matter how much they humiliate you”.

We watch a group of young men being trained as body guards for the big bosses – unfortunately the applicants fail: the boss has been killed. A group of rich Chinese business people complain about the West calling them out for their Human Rights violations. “They don’t understand the poor have to learn to survive, there is no place for human rights, just survival.” One of the directors tells the audience of employees that “If your intelligence does not match your wealth, Chinese society has hundreds of ways to take your wealth away”.

Before a rather melancholic ending, we are reminded again “that dreams are”. Kingdon keeps the tone understated, letting images and the slogans talk. The result is a mixture of false naivety – on behalf of the upper classes – and a kind of religious fervour of obedience from the workers. But whatever the future holds, the mixture of state capitalism (after all the Party rules supreme) and expanding consumerism, which will see China overtake the USA’s GDP by five times, is a reason for trepidation – to say the least. A brilliant study of a communist nation on the march. AS


Ulrich Seidl – A Director at Work | !0th International Zurich Film Festival 2014

Director: Constantin Wulff

52min Documentary Switzerland/Austria/Germany

Ulrich Seidl, the never-far-from-controversy Austrian director of Dog Days, Import/Export and the Paradise trilogy, is the subject of this striking portrait that follows him as he shoots his newest documentary project, Im Keller (In the Basement).

For Seidl, basements are places of darkness and fear, where people go to fulfil their deepest desires, while the living space above is only used for show. Opening on a shot of a woman naked inside a cage barely bigger than she is, the natural inclination is to imagine that we’re about to witness something dealing in depravity and degradation. And yet it proves to be not as prurient as you perhaps might have expected, with these spaces used much of the time as a place for (primarily) men to drink and do DIY. That’s not to say there isn’t eye-opening content here, much of it relating to S&M practices although, as Seidl himself says, much of what he shows is harmless stuff, meaning it’s left to the audience to fill in the gaps. Interestingly, given some of the dark events of his country’s recent past, none of this is presented as a singularly Austrian pursuit, nor is the name Fritzl ever mentioned.

The subtitle is A Director at Work, and this is very much what we get; he’s shown as a meticulously hands-on creator, managing every little detail both on In the Basement and on stage, where we join Seidl as he and his actors rehearse for his new play, Böse Buben/Fiese Männer. It’s a largely improvised examination of men’s souls, starkly evoking the likes of Fight Club with its bastions of unchecked masculinity. As extensive as the behind the scenes footage and clips from his earlier films are though, hearing from Seidl himself is the real draw. The candid interviews reveal him as a thoughtful and intelligent man, as well as his process to get to the truth of human nature, to uncover that which is buried. It’s this that ultimately marks out this short but revealing film as a profound insight into why he thinks we should be making art. PG


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