Behemoth (Bei xi mo shou, China-France, 2015)

Hell on earth

I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.

In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US, 1988).

In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.

The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.

I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.

The Cave (Syria-Denmark-Germany-Qatar-US, 2019) – LFF6

Seeing and believing

A documentary set in an underground hospital regularly peppered with bombs and rockets: what’s not to like? It wasn’t as gruelling an experience as I expected because of the amazing fortitude displayed by the staff, particularly paediatrician and hospital administrator Amani Ballour. She not only has to deal with the patients, and the logistics of an under-resourced hospital in inhospitable circumstances, but also the ingrained sexism of some of her patients! The film celebrates the good in people even when they are victims of what can only be characterised as evil.

The ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world are possibly more blurred than ever as misinformation infiltrates information. The fact that this is a National Geographic presentation raises a question mark with me as America has a particular agenda in the conflict. Director Feras Fayyad was Oscar nominated for Last Man in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria, 2017), which I haven’t seen, that focused on the work of White Helmets. These appear to be engaged in criminal activities (this apparently was not the subject of Fayyad’s film); elsewhere it is suggested that they are victims of Russian propaganda… So although The Cave appears to be absolute authentic we should (always) be sceptical.

The documentary is primarily observational with occasional voiceover from Ballour. However, Fayyad’s use of sound is more in keeping with a fiction film as it uses a design that emphasises the immense cacophony of a military attack; brilliantly done – Peter Albrechtsen supervised 16 sound technicians according to imdb . Matthew Herbert’s score, too, seeks to squeeze the emotion out of the spectator. These are both extremely effective but also leave question marks over the image, as if what we’re seeing isn’t enough to make us believe the terrible events. Similarly, the end credits state the film is based on Ballour’s diaries and so the observational rhetoric of the film is tempered by subjectivity; to what extent did Fayyad stage events recorded in Ballour’s diary? I’m not suggesting subterfuge (after all the source is credited) but The Cave is clearly not a straightforward presentation of Fayyad’s experiences.

Apparently 500 hours of footage was filmed, which took a year to edit. A chemical attack in Ghouma, that took place in 2013, serves as the climax. At least I think it was a chemical attack; again we must understand that misinformation is rife, for example the apparent chemical attack last year in Douma is highly contentious. I’m not saying the attack shown in the film didn’t happen; how can I know? All documentaries are representations of reality but what’s real in Syria is nebulous at best from the perspective of a cosseted westerner in a London cinema.

The observational stance the documentary takes means we learn nothing of the logistics of supplying food and medicines to the hospital. Though it is understandable why Fayyad rarely steps out of ‘the cave’, this means the film raises as many questions as it seems to answer. One telling line, from Ballour, is when she asks ‘is there a God?’ The same question had arisen in The Two Popes, that I’d seen a couple of hours earlier, with reference to the Argentinean military junta’s atrocities. The answer given by The Cave, as I read it, is ‘no’.

The Valley (Italy-France, 2019) – London Film Festival1

Humanity in a divided world

Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.

Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.

As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.

In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.

 

The Great Hack (US, 2019)

Pod person takes over planet

The Great Hack tells an essential tale of the corruption of, the already wonky, democratic process; however it does so in such an incompetent way the detail is lost in the broad sweep. It could be that the complexity of Cambridge Analytica’s debasement of the democracy is so complicated that a two-hour documentary will only be able to offer a vague impression. However, I think the decision to structure the information via two individuals, the admirable David Carroll and the conflicted Brittany Kaiser, has compromised the film. I’m not a fan of ‘expository’ documentaries, which employ an omnipotent ‘voice of god’ voiceover to anchor the meaning, but in this case it was probably the only way to ensure understanding.

However, the film has been well reviewed, The Guardian gave it five stars, and my difficulty with it may be because, having followed Carole Cadwalladr’s diligent reporting, I knew most of the content. In other words, I’ve now got my own way of understanding what happened. That said, there are moments where the documentary is opaque: for example, when a top executive of Cambridge Analytica talks about his devastation when C4 news reported Alexander Nix’s mendacity: was he devastated because his boss lied or because the company was about to go up in smoke? Steve Bannon gets a sound bite but the links between him, Farage, Trump and the Mercer family are not dealt with. The only thing I learned was that Cambridge Analytica had also screwed the 2010 election in Trinidad and Tobago..

Tech companies’ hegemony over information is a key issue of our time. The fraudulent Leave.EU has been under investigation for over a year by the Metropolitan Police and the chances of Banks, Wigmore, Bilney and co. being held to account have greatly diminished given the British Cabinet is now constituted with many of those implicated with the lies used to prise the UK out of the EU.

One sane response to The Great Hack is to get rid of your Facebook account (as I did over a year ago). PM Johnson is already using the platform to gain information prior to disseminating propaganda during the next election. It would be great to know how many people watch the film to try and assess its impact but Netflix is now also a tech company and the only time it releases figures are for PR purposes. The next General Elections in western countries are all going to be key for if the right consolidates its power then the tech companies will have no regulation to fear and authoritarianism will rule while the planet burns.

 

Nae Pasaran (UK, 2018)

The people united

The right still excoriates the trade union movement, justifiably because it stands in the way of rampant exploitation of the workers. The propagandistic aspect of this vilification in the 21st century is obvious because the unions have been emasculated by Thatcherite legislation which, shamefully, the Blair government refused to undo. In the 1970s the unions did have power and it’s no coincidence that inequality in British society has been steadily rising since they were defeated. Nae Pasaran is a timely reminder of the importance of international solidarity, even more so now when the insular xenophobes are on the rise, with its story of Scottish workers refusing to repair Hawker Hunter fighter jet engines.

The year was 1973 and on September 11th General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was American backed as corporations were worried about Allende’s policy of nationalisation. Nixon was the president and Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State (unbelievably he won a Nobel Peace Prize): enough said. I remember (as a youngster) thinking Kissinger was some kind of hero as he was repeatedly represented on television news as a peacemaker in the Middle East. That was a lie then propagated by mainstream media; ‘fake news’ isn’t new. The current American government is trying to engineer a coup, shamelessly supported by the EU in recognising the unelected opposition leader as the the man they want in power. One thing that distinguishes the Trump administration from that of Nixon’s is that, amongst all the lies, the truth sometimes appears. National Security Advisor John Bolton admits the attempted coup is about oil; something Bush jr. didn’t say about Iraq.

Hence Nae Pasaran is particularly timely as it reminds us of America’s disastrous interventions in Latin America; Pinochet tortured political prisoners and thousands were killed. It also shows us how powerful international solidarity can be as the consequences of the workers ‘blacking’ the engines included the release into exile some of the political prisoners. These exiles included writer-director Felipe Bustos Sierra’s dad and he tracked down the surviving members of the trade unionists who were instrumental in ‘blacking’ the engines. After the documentary’s title sequence, that fills in the history of Chile 1973, we arrive in Scotland and meet these ageing heroes. If this sequence is a little long, they tell Sierra what they remember of the time, there’s a pay-off at the end when their achievement receives official acknowledgement. The middle parts of the documentary consist of tracking down the fate of the engines and the impact the Scottish boycott had.

I just managed to catch the film on BBC’s iPlayer service (it disappeared yesterday) as it was only broadcast in Scotland; a rather parochial decision as it would have been a public service to ensure the film was broadcast to the nation.

The Raft (Flotten, Sweden-Denmark-USA-Germany, 2018) – LIFF1

The windblown survivors

My first film at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival was a fascinating documentary retelling an anthropological experiment, organised by Santiago Genoves in 1973. In what would now be a fatuous ‘reality TV’ format, Genoves placed 10 multinational, five men and five women, along with himself, on a raft that drifted across the Atlantic in over three months. He’d chosen the participants because he thought their differences would lead to violence; no books were allowed so boredom would ensue. He used questionnaires to test the psychological well-being of the participants. Director Marcus Lindeen reassembled the surviving members (above) to discuss their memories on a replica raft in a studio. 16mm footage from the voyage intersperses their dialogue.

Presumably because no British people were on board, I don’t think this ‘sexperiment’, as some newspapers salaciously covered the story, impinged upon the UK at the time (at lease I don’t remember it). The experiment now appears to be a horrendous abuse as the participants were at great risk.

Everyone survived the expedition but only six have out-lived death and Lindeen’s coup is show the narrative of ‘the raft’ via their memories and actuality footage. The reformatting of the 16mm for the widescreen leaves the image extremely grainy; a perfect metaphor for memory. Genoves is represented via the voiceover narration based on his writings: so he is another teller of the tale. Hence the documentary is as much about ‘telling tales’ as it is about the raft.  In many ways The Raft is an ‘observational documentary’ as Lindeen ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’; the voiceover, although telling, is clearly showing one person’s perspective.

It appears that the audience is left to make their own mind up about what happened whereas, of course, Lindeen – particularly through editing – is the master narrator. As someone who knew nothing of what happened it was interesting to see the documentary, at its conclusion, come to the same view as mine. Except, of course it’s the other way around; which is not to say it is not the truth.

Spoilers: Genoves failed to find the violence he was looking for so he sought to stir it up. He’d placed Maria Bjornstam as skipper of the crew thinking the men would be resentful. He usurped her place when she said they should shelter from a hurricane. When threatened by a cargo ship he panicked but Maria’s calm expertise saved them; she took back control. We see, ultimately, the Genoves’ experiment tells us much about the type of man he was: full of self-regard, controlling and determined to be successful. His crew get along great amongst themeselves. In a short post-raft TV interview, shown during the end credits, Genoves admits he discovered much about himself but he doesn’t say what he learned. I suspect he blamed others for the expedition’s ‘failure’ whereas it was a great success in that they all survived and the people got along great.

Many of the memories of the survivors are, unsurprisingly, vague and they contradict one another. The abstract reconstruction of the raft, it’s full-sized but not equipped, brightly lit in the blackness of a studio gives a dream-like feel to the mise en scene

African-American Fé Seymour movingly tells of how she hallucinated that drowned slaves appeared to her as she realised they were tracing the route of the slave ships. Japanese photographer, Yamaki Eisuke, shyly relates who he’d fancied on the voyage. These human touches stand in contrast to Genoves’ hubris; but Lindeen is right to give him the voiceover as it was his experiment and he damns himself with his words.


Koyaanisqatsi (US, 1982)

Mind blowing, mind expanding eco cinema

The content of the images of this film, mostly shot in the ’70s, may have dated but its portrayal of human (capitalist?) stupidity is even more relevant as our planet is now kicking back at us for the way we have treated it. The screening I saw had a live accompaniment, of their new score for the film, by GoGo Penguin. It was a fantastic performance.

Godfrey Reggio’s (mostly) fast motion montage of city life – bookended by images of the Grand Canyon – is in the tradition of the city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (Germany 1927). Graphic matches in the editing, for example fast motion clouds flowing over hills is cut to water flowing, link the images but the lack of a voiceover requires the audience to construct the narrative. Reggio’s purpose, however, is clear; shots of sausages being produced on a production line are followed by (fast motion) people flooding into a commuter station, tells you what you need to know about his opinion of modern life. Toward the end the frenetic pace accelerates and I felt like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) – see image above – as he enters a worm hole (or something).

The shots of factory workers operating robotically shows the dehumanising effect of the production line. Today their function will probably have been taken over by actual robots. On one level this is an improvement; on the other, it’s not: what jobs are there for the factory workers? The answer is low paid, ‘flexible’ (for the employer) hours contracts. Instead of using the savings created by using robots, in time and money, to better the life of humanity, wealth has percolated upwards to those who don’t need it. This madness, which won’t end well, is different to the madness of modern life portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi but, nevertheless, is incredibly stupid.

I’m a fan of GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), but was sceptical about what they could bring to a film that benefited enormously from Philip Glass’s hypnotic score. At first I found the live performance distracting as you have to concentrate on the images, remember what follows what to create the narrative, and so can’t ‘follow’ the music. However, I soon tuned in and was gobsmacked by the trio’s integration with the images; if they missed a cue it was only by tenths of a second. The crashes of cymbals as bombs exploded was truly visceral. Brilliant playing of a superb score.

35 years after the film’s release, which only happened thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola, we are surely at a watershed in terms of whether we are going to repair our planet in time. In America the disconnect between political leadership and the need for ecological change could hardly be greater. This week California experienced record temperatures for the time of year and winter is now two weeks shorter than it was one hundred years ago. One scene in Koyaanisqatsi shows dollar bills being counted and for many money is all that matters. For an increasing number that’s simply a matter of survival; for the rich… Well, I don’t know why they need more; do they?

The only thing I missed hearing in this screening was the Hopi Indian chants of ‘koyaanisqatsi’ (‘unbalanced life’) that occur, if I remember correctly, at the end. If life was unbalanced in the ’80s we’re now in a tail spin.