Faces Places (Visages villages, France, 2017)

Still worth watching

Agnès Varda’s last feature film is a true joy. Crowd funded to allow her and street artist, and co-director, JR, to travel in his photo booth to shoot locals and briefly turn them into icons on their walls. There’s a wonderful whimsy, not withstanding the horrible animation of the credit sequence, to the project that conceals the directors’ desire to celebrate the under-represented. These aren’t ethnic minorities, I spotted only two black people in the film, but the ordinary person who populate the parts of France they visited. Thus miners and dockworkers of the working class are shown as well as women.

It’s obviously JR’s schtick to stick up giant images on buildings. They are only paper so don’t last long; like our lives. The black and white images are incredibly striking; moving the last woman living in old miner’s houses to understandable tears. Varda tells her it’s supposed to make her happy; the director’s humanism shines throughout. One of the few overtly political moments was the contrast between goat farms: one burns off their horns to increase production the other doesn’t.

The unlikely friendship between the artists, 60 years apart in age, is one of the joys of the film which is infused with humour. Their relative size, he seems to be twice as tall as she, is one running joke. In one scene an optician’s letter chart is mimicked by people on steps holding letters. Varda says they need to wobble to represent what she sees; she was suffering from an eye disease. It’s both funny and sad showing how Varda came to terms with her infirmity.

So much of television is full of reality TV where characters get to respond to whatever ‘after’ the narrative has provided them with. In Faces Places, though, the ‘after’ is genuinely awe-inspiring: seeing their images writ large and there is plenty of satisfaction in hearing the ‘ordinary people’s’ responses. At a factory, groups of shift workers are placed together to form a community that is, in reality, never there at the same time.

Varda’s film career started with the French new wave and the only sour note in the film is fellow pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s curmudgeonly non-appearance at the end. Sadness also infuses watching the film now as Varda only died two weeks ago; she comments upon impending death in the film. However, the experience of the film is life affirming because she continued to work and continued to share her humanist perspective with us all. She will be missed.

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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.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia, 2018)

Too insubstantial for the tragedy?

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil-Italy, 2014)

Through a glass darkly

New German Cinema director made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.

What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.

It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.

Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.

Chris the Swiss (Switzerland, 2018) – LIFF7

A child trying to understand

The horrors of the civil war in former Yugoslavia should not be forgotten and debut director (who also scripted) Anja Kofmel investigates the time and place through a personal journey. Her cousin, Christian Würtenberg, was a fearless journalist who was killed when Kofmel was eight years old. Twenty years later she, and the film crew, try to find out how he died.

Of course there’s no doubting the heartfelt nature of the documentary, it supplements actuality footage and interviews with animation, the visual style of which is apparently derived from a nightmare she had as a child about Chris’ death. However, although we do find out details about Chris’ demise, the detective work feels perfunctory and doesn’t reveal much about the war (except Opus Dei seem to have been involved with the Pope’s blessing). Although Kofmel wrote the script in the first person, and she appears on camera, the English voiceover is spoken by New Zealander Megan Gay in a middle class English accent (at first I’d assumed Kofmel to be English because of this). The credits also list a ‘German narrator’. I’m not sure of the point of doing this but it distanced me from the narrative, which, given its personal nature, was a disadvantage.

It was difficult to gauge the reliability of the interviewees and, although the conclusion is convincing, the reasons behind Chris’ death necessarily remain speculative. The animation, an expressionist monochrome, looks good but features evil-like skittering black things that are too close to Hollywood and they undermine the realism of the documentary. The weak script renders commonplace the extraordinary events; maybe the film suffers overall because of Kofmel’s inexperience as a filmmaker. Certainly it is worth seeing, if only to remember the terrible time, but this personal journal does little to enlighten.

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.


Welcome to Britain (UK, 1943)

A ‘special relationship’ explained

This documentary made to familiarise American troops with British mores is more than an historical curiosity for two reasons. Firstly it’s an example of a ‘self reflexive’ documentary that draws attention to the making of itself. Bill Nichols, who theorised about different modes of documentary, saw this as a late development; for example he cites Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (US, 1988). So Welcome to Britain was well ahead of its time. In it the narrator, and co-director with Anthony Asquith, Burgess Meredith discusses with two generals, who are greeting arriving troops, what to say in the film. We see Meredith directing the camera and marshalling the sound. It’s works well as a folksy technique that’s designed to get soldiers to listen to friendly advice.

The rest of documentary eschews the self reflexive, though Meredith continues to chat to camera. Suitably enough he starts in the pub, a key location in Britain. What follows is pedestrian by today’s standards though there are some good jokes: Meredith asks a guy if he’s been living in his cottage ‘all his life’? The reply: “Not yet.” Bob Hope has a cameo and his huckster persona is put to good effect.

The second reason this is an interesting document is when a ‘nice old lady’ invites a, what the documentary terms, ‘niggra’ (negro) soldier and Meredith to tea. The latter explains to camera that this sort of thing happens here because the British are less prejudiced. In his excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga relates how a white soldier attacked a black one when he found they’d both been invited to tea. Apparently the British liked black soldiers more because they were polite; no doubt because they had learned to tread on eggshells, particularly when talking to white women. The brazen admittance of prejudice is quite shocking to see but at least it is honest.

Asquith went on to have a long career in film and Meredith became best known as the Penguin in the 1960s Batman television series.