13th (US, 2016)

Black voices matter

Black voices matter

13th refers to the 13th amendment that abolished slavery and, at the same time, stripped criminals of their rights. An improvement you might assume but as Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary shows the inhumanity of slavery is now enacted upon those who are incarcerated (and not necessarily guilty of a crime). Disproportionately the criminal population of America is made up of African-Americans and the first striking thing about this documentary is the preponderance of talking heads ‘of colour’. The fact it is striking emphasises the white hegemony of mainstream media.

DuVernay’s history of prisons in US shows how they have increasingly become profit centres and how lobbying groups have been successful in creating government policy to facilitate their money-making. It’s a judicious mix of library footage and interviews, including some right-wing pundits, culminating in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that was created from a reaction against police violence against African-Americans (the actuality footage is truly distressing). Included is the Fruitvale Station shooting.

This is a Netflix original that received some cinema showings and so qualified for an Oscar nomination; I hope it wins.

 

But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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This brilliant memoir of Auschwitz and after is as much about memory and loss as about the depravity of the Nazi machine. Loridan-Ivens featured in Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961), which was ‘spotlit’ in the recently published 2nd edition of Introduction to Film:

SPOTLIGHT: CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

Argos Films

Director: Edgar Morin, Jean Rouch

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961) grew directly out of Free Cinema:

 

Chronicle’s origins can be traced back to 1959, when Morin and Rouch served on

the jury for the documentary-driven Festival dei Popoli in Florence. Impressed by the

sympathetic portraits of complex social worlds in works like Karel Reisz’s We Are the

Lambeth Boys (1958) and John Marshall and Robert Gardner’s The Hunters (1957),

Morin asked his colleague if he’d be interested in collaborating on a film that tried

something similar in Paris. (Di Iorio, 2013)

 

As Michael Chanan puts it: ‘There are very few films that so completely break the rules and

invent new ones’ (2007: 177), making Chronicle of a Summer one of the most significant films

ever made. As co-director Jean Rouch says, in his voice-over at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a

few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.’

 

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type

of film. Like Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité used advances in lightweight equipment to shoot

events as they happened; however Rouch, with Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), departed

from Direct’s rhetoric that the filmmakers were bystanders merely relaying the action, as they

didn’t try to disguise the fact that they were making a film. Both, for example, appeared on

screen in Chronicle talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as

the Algerian war and racism.

 

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about how she felt being

involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox-pop interviewer asking passers-by

if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After

this the film focuses on three students, an African student, an Italian car worker and a union

man. Rouch and Morin were trying to gauge what ‘France’ thought about the world in the

summer of 1960.

 

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely

impressive at the time. From a contemporary perspective the technical brilliance is somewhat

lost; however, the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing. For example

Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she

recounts her time there. This is filmed at she walks through a deserted Place de la Concorde

talking to herself (her lips can be seen clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera

dollies backwards in front of her. Chanan explains:

 

Marceline is talking into a lapel-mic clipped to her dress (they were still experimenting

with its use), the camera mounted in the back of a Citroën 2CV … (2007: 177)

 

It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes

from her, making her look relatively small (see below). This image bridges the moment

with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is emotionally

devastating.

 Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Later, when another participant, Mary Lou, is talking about her fears of being alone, the

close-up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face),

portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. Just as it seems to be becoming exploitative, we are

voyeuristically observing someone’s pain, Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk

about it and the scene is immediately cut.

 

An African student, Landry, talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for

more than their dancing, and he is portrayed as an African explorer in France: a brilliant

post-colonial characterization.

 

 

The film concludes with reflections on itself, fi rst from the participants and then Morin

and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a

rough cut, they appear to disagree on the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’

because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the fi nal version,

though I don’t doubt the veracity). Although Morin originally felt that these reactions

suggested the film had failed, he concluded that the contradictory reactions it generated were

proof of its strength because it showed how diffi cult it was to truly understand other people.

The views the participants have on Mary Lou’s emotional rawness range from suggesting

she is playing up for the camera to ‘she was wonderful’. The conclusion we can draw is that,

ultimately, truth is dialogical in that, in simple terms (following the work of Bakhtin, 1981),

it can only be arrived at through discussion.

The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar , France-Spain-Chile-Switzerland, 2015)

The disappearing

The disappearing

Patricio Guzmán’s poetic documentary returns, partly literally, to the territory of Nostalgia for the Light, his stunning 2010 documentary about Pinochet’s ‘disappeared’. Much of the imagery is beautiful and the tale of the disappearing, through colonial genocide, native Patagonians is interesting, but Guzmán’s attempt to link them to the victims of Pinochet’s murder squads over-stretches the point.

I’m, however, not sure I’m best placed to comment as I have lost my love of film. Since the turn of year the only film I’ve enjoyed is Enemy of the State. I’ve given up on many well-regarded films and seen critically lauded Leviathan and Spotlight, but neither moved me. A temporary malaise or, after 36 years of fairly intense film watching, have I burned myself out? At the end of last year I finally put the second edition of Introduction to Film (out this month) to bed: that was hard work so maybe my ennui was caused by writing the book. Roy Stafford commented, ‘I’ve never heard anything like it’. It’s extremely puzzling because I am enjoying television drama… Anyone come across this; anyone know the cure?

Hence I’ve barely blogged this year; I have nothing to say…

Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK, 2014)

Citizenfour for as all

Citizenfour for as all

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la…’ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful’: they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.

UgbPOwi

Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!

 

The Act of Killing (Denmark-Sweden-UK, 2012)

 

taok_makeup

Blood on their faces

I posted about the seminal film of cinema veriteChronicle of a Summerearlier this year. A recent example of the form is the highly controversial The Act of Killing where director Joshua Oppenheimer allowed the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, in Indonesia during the mid-1960s, to re-enact their foul deeds. The premise itself seems highly dubious and Oppenheimer described how it came about:

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

         Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast.  (Bradshaw 2014)

The killers wanted to reconstruct the atrocities in the form of genres including the gangster film, film noir and there is even a musical section. Oppenheimer’s facilitation of this, which couldn’t have occurred without his presence, firmly situates the film as cinema verite. It has been estimated that two and a half million people were killed because they were designated as communist or they were Chinese. That the killers were keen to talk about their role in the massacres is indicative of the fact that the Indonesian state, and by extension, Indonesian society, sees nothing wrong with their actions. Indeed, at one point a number of them appear on a chat show bragging about what they did though one, Anwar, does appear to feel guilty by the film’s end.

Oppenheimer has been criticised for not explaining the context of the events (see Rayns, 2013) and it is difficult to tell if Anwar’s remorse is genuine or ‘played’ for the cameras.

It did seem to me that his realisation of the evil that he has done is actual. It occurs after he plays the role of a victim, for one of the re-stagings, and he says that he now knows how bad the people he killed felt. Oppenheimer, in one of his few direct interventions, is heard to say it was worse for Anwar’s victims. Anwar seems genuinely puzzled until the director explains that while he knew he would survive, his victims knew they were going to die. At this point Anwar appears to suffer a ‘sea change’ in his attitude to his actions.

None of the other perpetrators show anything other than pride in what they did and politicians’ explicit support of them, and the Pancasila (a paramilitary youth group), shows the corruption of contemporary Indonesian politics. In the light of this, Anwar’s realisation seems genuine given the celebratory nature the killers are still regarded with.

However, in a film that is disturbing throughout (I saw the two-hour version) the obvious distress of children who take part in the re-enactments does raise questions about the ethics of Oppenheimer’s film.

 

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

History made alive

History made alive

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.

 

Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union, 1929

A film about a making a film about a city

A film about making a film about a city

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

Drinking while you work

Drinking while you work

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage… The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

Dziga Vertov, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.