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’.

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.

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.