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.

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.

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 Shock Doctrine (UK, 2010)

Well, it’s certainly not working for the people

Naomi Klein’s book (2008), of the same name, is a brilliant analysis of how free market economics has destroyed democracies and the lives of millions of people for  the benefit of corporations and the pigs that run them. This documentary is an entirely effective run through of her arguments, with the added benefits of actuality footage. Klein’s book is brilliantly researched and extensively annotated; no one would think it was simply a product of left wing dogma (well, no one without a prejudiced viewpoint). So it’s dispiriting that, after the Great Recession that started in the year of the book’s publication, politicians can still speak with approval of the ‘free market’, the economic ‘system’ that created the crisis in the first place.

Free markets can only exist in theory as they require that everyone in that market must have access to all the available information, otherwise the market won’t operate properly. That isn’t possible and the only reason the Friedman’s (and Hayek’s before him) ideas have thrived for so long is that they serve those in power: hence the rich get richer etc. What’s mind boggling is that a majority of the  ‘people’ seem to accept the need for ‘austerity’; that is, we pay for the mistakes of the rich! Hopefully, in the UK, Osborne’s entirely economically inept, if ideologically honest, budget will serve as a watershed and this hegemony will fail.

Watching The Shock Doctrine will help in that; better still read the book too.