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’.

Stories We Tell (Canada, 2012)

Telling not showing

Telling not showing

If you haven’t see this film I urge you to do so before reading this post. I try and avoid knowing much about a film before I see it and in the case of Stories We Tell I think ignorance is crucial to our appreciation of Sarah Polley’s artistry. Before the spoilers, in brief: the film is an investigation into who is actually director Sarah Polley’s father and this is told, mostly, with a mixture of home movie footage and talking heads.

At the start we see Polley, at a sound mixing desk, instructing her father as he starts the narrative voice over of the film. He’s reading a script and refers to himself in the third person. Immediately Polley has set up, in a self-reflexive way, that she is in control of the documentary. Although her father is narrating a story in which he is a key participant (is he her biological father?), the fact he’s reading from a script under his daughter’s direction makes it clear she’s the boss.

One of her siblings says, early in the documentary, ‘why would anyone be interested in our family?’ I was inclined to agree as the only thing that was remarkable was the enormous amount of home movie footage used to partially illustrate the narration and interviews. However, Polley’s parents were theatrical so maybe that wasn’t so surprising.

Polley’s pursuit of the truth soon becomes an engaging narrative and the film works as a (sort of) documentary family melodrama but it also gradually becomes clear that what we’re seeing isn’t quite what we think it is.

It’s amusing to watch montages of the talking heads, who are also participants in the story, contradicting one another when asked the same question. They are not obviously being medacious as our understanding of events, particularly within families, are often diverging. There is a hilarious moment when Polley asks an ex-colleague of her mother’s if they’d slept together; his denial is entirely undermined by his eyes’ leap to the right.

At her mother’s funeral, she died at a relatively early age from cancer when Polley was 11, there is a home movie shot of her real father sitting at the back of the church. Why would anyone, ignoring the question of whether a home movie would be made at a funeral, pick out him in this particular framing?! My first thought was Polley must have digitally edited the shot to enhance the appearance of her real father for dramatic purposes. However by now I’d also noticed that the voice over narration (by her biological father) had slipped into the first person, so emphasising subjectivity. When had that happened?

I will have to watch will film again to unpick the way Polley playfully undermines our faith in both the sound and vision of what she is presenting. It’s likely that the clues are present much earlier than when I noticed: she’s obviously questioning the ontological status of the documentary form as well as telling a story about her family. This formal uncertainty complements the uncertainty about her familial relationships.

The credits are the giveaway that some of the ‘home movies’ are in fact pastiches of the form performed by actors; I didn’t notice the difference between the real and unreal home movies, probably because I wasn’t looking for it.

Peter Bradshaw makes an excellent point that it’s possible that Polley’s motivation in making the film was to pre-empt her real father’s memoir about her parentage. Polley was determined to get her version of the story told but, at least, she is clear that it is a version and not reality.

As a documentary, this is a tour de force and one of the films of the year.

The Stuart Hall Project (UK, 2013)

A force for good

A force for good

This film was a bit of a ‘blast from the past’ not simply because it focused on the 1950s-70s of Stuart Hall’s life, but the form of John Akomfrah’s film  reminded me of the experimental 1980s. Older folk may remember Hall’s appearances on television; from the film it seemed he was used as the ‘voice of the left’ by the BBC at least in the ’60s. I say ‘seemed’ because it’s not a straightforward expository documentary; the voice over consists of Hall’s voice from different contexts. I don’t remember seeing Hall on telly at the time and was intrigued as to how Hall’s Afro-Carribean ethnicity might have affected the perception of his views. However, Roy Stafford – who introduced the film and led a post-screening discussion – said that the wasn’t seen as ‘black’ at the time so his skin colour was irrelevant.

For those who weren’t watching the news in the ’60s, Hall is known for his brilliant work in Media Studies, particularly on representation and audience readings, as well as his Open University programmes. Of course, many won’t have heard of him at all.

Akomfrah’s film took a bit of ‘tuning in’ to but once I was into the rhythms, almost literally with its fantastic Miles Davis soundtrack, the film was an affecting concoction of ideas and history. I’ve just noticed that Riddles of the Sphinx is my next video rental – more nostalgia for me then!

McCullin (UK, 2012)

War after war

War after war

McCullin is a biography of Don McCullin the photojournalist who is one of the greatest war photographers. What’s striking about his work is how it is infused with humanity despite the degradation shown in many of the images. He claims that’s he’s not a poet but the image above proves otherwise even though, as  he says, the woman in the door was happenstance. McCullin was in the place to get the decisive moment.

McCullin comments on his images, and himself, fairly dispassionately; clearly this ‘objective’ position allowed him to actually survive the experiences mentally intact. However, there’s no doubt, particularly when civilians were concerned, that he felt deeply about what he was witnessing. His account comes across as honest and in no way self-serving. Harold Evans, for many years his editor, has substantial input and he speaks about a pre-Murdoch dominated era of journalism where the story was what counted and not creating a suitable environment for advertisers.

Occasionally the editing doesn’t allow us to spend long enough looking at the stunning images, otherwise there’s little to criticise. McCullin ends by saying he’s going to spend the rest of his days photographing the British landscape, which is a bit of a relief. However, he apparently thought he was dying of heart disease when being interviewed and he’s since been to Syria; he’s a war junkie who’s shown us the truth about war. McCullin remembers, with incredulity, when the British government wouldn’t let him go to the Falklands. They clearly didn’t want the truth to get out.

The Spirit of ’45 (UK, 2013)

Are we going back for our future?

Are we going back for our future?

Ken Loach’s documentary, which celebrates the brilliance of the post-war Labour government, is a blast from the past in more ways than one. I can’t remember the last time when I heard the word ‘socialism’ used so frequently in a text and spoken with approval; probably Channel 4’s Eleventh Hour radical strand on Monday night in the 1980s. But here we have it, Clem Atlee stating, proudly, that Britain is going to be socialist. However, Ken doesn’t have rose-tinted lenses for, as Tony Benn says, the nationalised industries were always controlled top-down, often by the same people who’d managed them before, rather than by the people. However, the achievements of the time were wondrous.

Here Loach lets witnesses speak, and they do so with conviction; for example, the guy who explains how amazing it was to find a bathroom inside the council house he was moving into. And there is plenty of footage, from the likes of Housing Problems (1936), to show how things were before the war. These witnesses are now obviously old so it is doubly important to hear their perspective; such as the doctor who, on the day the NHS started, was able to tell a patient not to worry about paying for the medicine as it was now free.

Loach is obviously not celebrating the era for the purposes of nostalgia because we are on the verge of the disintegration of the welfare state as the vandals in government seek to destroy the mechanisms of equality. The last third of the film looks at the effect of Thatcher, the great destroyer, and we currently have a government of men who wish to fill her boots by taking the country to the far right. Today’s Daily Mail features a composite image merging Chancellor Osborne with Thatcher; certainly an honest comment.

I saw the film with two teenagers who struggled to keep awake. That’s not a reflection upon them, as teenagers tend not be interested in the past, and there are a lot of black and white talking heads in the film. But, of course, it is their generation that is going to lose the most if the rich are allowed to consolidate, and increase, their grasp upon the nation’s wealth. Youngsters need to look beyond themselves, as they have been taught to do in the fall-out of Thatcher (and Blair), and think of others to both save the planet (climate change) and themselves from a future of social strife and insurrection.

Catfish (US, 2010)

Facebook romance

This documentary, that follows the Facebook relationship between a New York photographer and a woman in rural Michigan, starts slowly, as there seems little point in making the film, but ultimately nails a key point about the Facebook era. Like Capturing the Friedmans (US, 2003), the documentarists seem to stumble upon something significant; Andrew Jarecki, who made the Friedmans, is credited as a producer of Catfish.

Shelley Turkle, in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, states that ‘People talk about digital life as the “place for hope,” the place where something new will come to them.’ Without spoiling the film, Catfish finds itself investigating the way some people use, in this case Facebook, as a way of escaping their own lives.

Shot on a variety of devices, themselves part of the wired world we live in, of varying quality, Catfish has the look of a home movie, even the sound is wayward, that befits its subject. The two filmmakers, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman , show themselves to be extremely sensitive young men, as does Nev, Ariel’s brother, the photographer, in how they handle what transpires. The subject of the revelation (you see I’m trying very hard not to spoil) is treated with a great deal of dignity and sympathy.