Mr Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine, 2019)

Witnessing history

The last film directed by Agnieszka Holland that I’ve seen was In Darkness, a brilliant rendition of life under the Nazis in Warsaw. Since then she’s (co-)directed Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-Slovakia-France, 2017) which wasn’t released in the UK and isn’t available on DVD here, and done a lot of television. I can’t comment on the latter but Holland’s cinematic eye deserves the big screen and, above everything else, Mr Jones is a visual treat. I don’t mean that it seduces with a beautiful mise en scene, as many of the scenes are hellish, but the vistas presented to the spectator are often eye-popping.

The film is the true story of Gareth Jones, a journalist who interviewed Hitler and the film portrays him trying to do the same with Stalin in the mid-1930s. In doing so he discovers what’s happening in Ukraine and the second part of the film, after establishing the milieux in Moscow, concerns his journey there and the aftermath. I’d never heard of Mr Jones and his story is compelling; it’s also entirely modern in the importance of speaking truth to power which corporate journalism has largely forgotten how to do. James Norton is excellent in the role of the somewhat diffident Welshman (are the Welsh always protrayed as such?) who doesn’t waver from his principles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the script by newcomer Andrea Chalupa, whose grandfather witnessed the events. There are occasions where it doesn’t quite gel, although to be fair it could be caused by the problem with biopics which are inevitably compromised by squeezing a life into narrative. That said, although it is about Jones, it’s not a conventional biopic, he’s more the witness through which history is portrayed.

Chalupa fictionalises a meeting with George Orwell (it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the meeting took place) who was writing Animal Farm at the time; I read somewhere that the character in the novel may have been named after Gareth Jones. It’s a useful device as it reminds us how Stalin was, for a time, a hero of the left before disillusionment set in.

The main strengths of the film (apart from the performances) are Holland’s direction, Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography and the editing by Michal Czarnecki. At least three sequences of travel are characterised by editing influenced by Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: the montage is non realist and dynamic. During Jones’ first train journey it seemed as if there were shots interpolated from documentaries made at the time, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The editing was so rapid that I couldn’t see them clearly but even if it wasn’t old footage, the allusion is clear. However, using similar techniques for a rushed journey on a bicycle comes across only as comic.

The cinematography of Jones’ journey into the Ukraine becomes almost, suitably, monochromatic. Fabulous widescreen extreme long shots show Jones as a small black coated figure ploughing his way through a field of snow in the bottom right of the screen. Although the acting is naturalistic throughout, the characters’ faces are sometimes caught (at the start or end of a shot) in an unusual expression. This creates a stylisation to the acting which Holland emphasises through editing; an early shot of a secretary cuts to her open-mouthed. This is particularly true of Peter Sarsgaard’s Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer winning journalist; he epitomises ‘slimy’ and Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ springs to mind.

Vanessa Kirby is effective as Jone’s ‘love interest’ and the sexist characterisation is just about all we get of female characters. It was probably a strain on reality to make her role so big anyway, as the ’30s were obviously more male-dominated than today. And I was amused to see William Randolph Hurst being shown as a hero of press freedom.

The film’s already available on DVD and online but catch in cinemas if you can as Holland’s films deserve to be seen there.

No Fathers in Kashmir (UK-India, 2019)

A story that needs telling

The cover up of the OPCW investigation into the alleged Syrian government’s gas attack in Douma is slowly being revealed (that is the attack never happened and the report into the attack was doctored) though I doubt that anyone, in the UK at least, who relies upon MSM knows this. Moreover I suspect most people wouldn’t care: for them it’s simply an example of scary things happening in far away places. The same could be said of the bombing of civilians in Yemen (in which the RAF is complicit) and the India government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status last year. The latter is why Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir (he wrote, directed, produced, starred and took other roles) is an important film. As Kumar said, in a post-screening Q & A (he’s doing a promotional tour in support of the film the producers are distributing themselves), the disputed territory is on the border between two nuclear powers: we should be interested! Such pieces as this on the BBC website show how important films can be in raising the profile of usually ‘forgotten’ issues.

Kumar leads us into the fraught state of Kashmir through the eyes Noor (newcomer Zara La Peta Webb), a British girl visiting her grandparents, and Majid (Shivam Raina, also new), a local lad who takes a fancy to her. It’s a good device but there are challenges in linking the personal to the political and too often the narrative strains credulity: the youngsters’ foolish walk into the hills for instance. It’s not that people in their position wouldn’t do such a thing, just that the motivation of the characters is not convincing enough.

Like Argentina in the 1970s, Kashmir is plagued by the ‘disappeared’: tens of thousands of people who are arrested by the Indian army and are never seen again leaving behind half-orphans and half-widows. Kumar plays Arshid, a devotee of Wahabism (I’m assuming as such due to the references to Saudi Arabia’s oil money), an extremist form of Islam which, according to the director, is on the increase in the region. This seems an example of the typical ‘blowback’ that occurs in such as situation: extremism increases as a reaction against the oppression leading to increased conflict.

The film is probably at its most effective with the way it emphasises the photographs Noor obsessively and unthinkingly takes, for social media, which lead to complications for Majid. Ashvin dramatises these with a rapid montage and a soundtrack full of electronic clicks. Again the film doesn’t quite convince because the although the Indian army insist on having Noor’s phone, and thus the photographs, they would likely already be in the ‘cloud’.

Directors’ Q & A in Bradford

Ashvin described how he managed to shoot such a ‘subversive’ film in Modi’s authoritarian India and how it was yanked from distribution after four weeks in his home country despite doing decent business. It took nine months to get it through the censors and only then after cuts; this screening was uncut. The world’s biggest democracy’s swing to the right is mirrored in a number of countries; including the UK whose government just voted not to reunite children with their refugee parents. It’s admirable that Kumar, and filmmakers like him, strive to give voice to those without power. Hence I’d recommend seeing the film, the cinematography by Jean-Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme shows how beautiful the former tourist attraction Kashmir is.

Sorry We Missed You (UK-France-Belguim, 2019)

Do as you’re told in Tory Britain

I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.

Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.

Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.

Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, Czechoslovakia, 1965)

Two buffoons

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won – and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scene, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

The Great Hack (US, 2019)

Pod person takes over planet

The Great Hack tells an essential tale of the corruption of, the already wonky, democratic process; however it does so in such an incompetent way the detail is lost in the broad sweep. It could be that the complexity of Cambridge Analytica’s debasement of the democracy is so complicated that a two-hour documentary will only be able to offer a vague impression. However, I think the decision to structure the information via two individuals, the admirable David Carroll and the conflicted Brittany Kaiser, has compromised the film. I’m not a fan of ‘expository’ documentaries, which employ an omnipotent ‘voice of god’ voiceover to anchor the meaning, but in this case it was probably the only way to ensure understanding.

However, the film has been well reviewed, The Guardian gave it five stars, and my difficulty with it may be because, having followed Carole Cadwalladr’s diligent reporting, I knew most of the content. In other words, I’ve now got my own way of understanding what happened. That said, there are moments where the documentary is opaque: for example, when a top executive of Cambridge Analytica talks about his devastation when C4 news reported Alexander Nix’s mendacity: was he devastated because his boss lied or because the company was about to go up in smoke? Steve Bannon gets a sound bite but the links between him, Farage, Trump and the Mercer family are not dealt with. The only thing I learned was that Cambridge Analytica had also screwed the 2010 election in Trinidad and Tobago..

Tech companies’ hegemony over information is a key issue of our time. The fraudulent Leave.EU has been under investigation for over a year by the Metropolitan Police and the chances of Banks, Wigmore, Bilney and co. being held to account have greatly diminished given the British Cabinet is now constituted with many of those implicated with the lies used to prise the UK out of the EU.

One sane response to The Great Hack is to get rid of your Facebook account (as I did over a year ago). PM Johnson is already using the platform to gain information prior to disseminating propaganda during the next election. It would be great to know how many people watch the film to try and assess its impact but Netflix is now also a tech company and the only time it releases figures are for PR purposes. The next General Elections in western countries are all going to be key for if the right consolidates its power then the tech companies will have no regulation to fear and authoritarianism will rule while the planet burns.

 

Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

The Candidate (US, 1972)

There’s no business like politics

It’s striking that, although it was made 40 years before The Ides of March,The Candidate is almost as up-to-date. The cynicism, alongside extraordinary naiveté, that characterises American politics is beyond satire with The Trump in the White House; I should say the same is true for the UK with our on-going Brexit-driven stupidity. The only striking difference I noticed in the film is the Republican candidate keeps emphasising how they need to keep America great; nowadays Trump’s tagline is ‘make America great again’. Otherwise the bullshit remains the same.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right politics (the former is far preferable of course!). Robert Redford’s ‘candidate’ is an idealist who, despite is best efforts, gets enmeshed in the ‘machine’ of party politics. However, he would be a far better senator than his opponent. One of the exciting things at the moment in American politics is Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who brilliantly emphasised the corruption inherent in the American democratic system – see here. She, single-handedly it seems, has shifted the Overton window (which frames what can ‘legitimately’ be discussed) to get a progressive taxation on the agenda.

Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate reeks of authenticity which isn’t surprising as he was principal speech-writer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; he won an Academy Award for his effort. Michael Ritchie’s direction complements the script brilliantly, shooting in Academy Ratio (to give a televisual feel thus mimicking the way many watch political campaigns?), the camera moves in a documentary style seemingly chasing the action rather than shooting action staged for it. I’m not sure whether Ritchie counts as a New Hollywood director as I haven’t seen Prime Cut, released just before The Candidate; his debut was a Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969). The Candidate, though, certainly fits into New Hollywood as it’s a thoughtful film with a ‘message’ and was distributed by Warner Bros. Redford and Ritchie made the film through their own company; presumably constituted solely for this film as they didn’t produce another together.

I saw the film nearly 40 years ago and could remember the ending clearly, an indication of how effective it is in a low-key way. I doubt Redford was ever better (I have little to say about his recent The Old Man & the Gun (US, 2018) other than Sissy Spacek was great): his star charisma is undercut by uncertainty in his eyes as his doubts about what he’s doing dog him throughout. I love his puzzled expression when an old mate, from his ‘eco-warrior’ days, congratulates him on doing well whilst knowing it’s ‘bullshit’. The candidate has clearly been taken in.