The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final, Peru, 2017)

Political-personal civil war

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state (such as the recently blogged Marshland) and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. Imdb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)

The Reckoning (UK, 1969)

No place like home

With John McGrath writing the script you can be pretty confident there will be a sensible political message and this thriller (well, generically it’s not quite clear, but thriller might be the best category) is both of its time and about a system that is still with us.

At the start, where Nicol Williamson’s protagonist (Marler) is having ‘rough sex’ with his wife to be followed by aggressive driving of his jaguar, I thought we were in a gangster film. It has a similar look to the concurrent Performance (UK) and shares the time’s love of exaggerated zoom shots; both had major studio backing: Columbia and Warner Bros. respectively. However, it soon becomes clear he’s a go-getting executive (not so different from a gangster really). However, he has to return to his roots, a Liverpool that still has pre-war housing and bomb sites, as his father’s ill.

Unsurprisingly, for he’s been living in Virginia Waters in a massive detached house, he finds Liverpool’s anti-establishment ethos gives him perspective. On his return south he gatecrashes his wife’s dinner party (it is in his own house), drunk, and tells the pinstriped tossers what he thinks of them. The class tensions remind us that although the 1960s were more egalitarian than the decades before, however McGrath makes it clear that the ‘old order’ is still in charge.

Apart from the distracting zooms, Gold’s direction is confident. He shoots crowd scenes well and there’s a great moment at a wrestling match where the contestants suddenly realise that the audience has erupted into a riot. They stand together bemused, watching the mayhem. McGrath was born in Birkenhead which vouches for the authenticity of this portrayal Liverpool.

Williamson’s career was ended by drink but he’s a formidable presence in the film, even if it is difficult to understand why he has such a ‘way with women’ (the misogynistic tones are of its time). Rachel Roberts is great as a ‘good time’ mother who clearheadedly knows what she wants and what she can get.

Apparently McGrath suggested that his script prefigured Thatcherism and it’s true that the ruthless corporate culture is still with us, evidenced by the CEO of Bet365 paying herself £217m in 2017.

Peterloo (UK, 2018)

Words not actions

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.

The Hate U Give (US, 2018)

An apartheid state of mind

Hollywood and overt politics (‘overt’ because it’s directly engaging with the political) are unlikely bedfellows hence film buffs tend to celebrate anything subversive to come out of that commercial – hence conservative – institution because it ‘gives it to the man!’. This adaptation of a YA novel, written by Angie Thomas and adapted by Audrey Wells, is entirely political as it portrays racial discrimination in America in a gripping and highly intelligent fashion.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter (referencing Beyoncé who she name-checks?) a teenager from the ghetto whose protective parents enrol her in a suburban, ‘white school’. At the start of the film her dad is giving her ‘the talk’ but it’s not about sex, it’s about what to do if the police pull you over when you are in a car. Immediately the different world people of colour have to live in is made clear and the film filters Starr’s coming of age through the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist of America.

It can be difficult to make political statements when working in mainstream institutions (the film was distributed by Fox 2000) but the film’s brilliance is it manages to effectively convey the political message through the conventions of the ‘teen pic. So, for example, Starr’s ‘girlfriend’ problems, from her white friends at school, manifest themselves as incomprehension of what it is like to a person of colour. Starr realises that she isn’t seen as black because she is like her middle class peers at school; she hides her ‘ghetto persona’ as a survival mechanism. Her relationship with her boyfriend (a miscast KJ Apa who looks too old) is also subtly done as he’s sent to the margins at the climax; there’s no danger, in this film, of having ‘white saviours of black folk’.

The film reminded me of the great Boyz n the Hood (1991) which also dealt with ghetto life and had a keynote speech, delivered by Laurence Fishburn, where he explained that drugs in the ghettos were not an accident but a form of repression. The Hate U Give has at least three such speeches but they never feel like they are being delivered via a soapbox, they are fully integrated into the narrative and are crucial lessons for both POC and whites.

In a chilling scene Starr runs through a scenario, with her black cop uncle, about the different ways a white man in a suit would be treated compared to a person of colour if pulled over. The uncle’s response reveals the racist core of America (and any society tainted by racism – it was revealed last week that, in the UK, not one person on the 240-strong parole board is ‘minority ethnic’). With the bellicose Trump in charge that isn’t going to change soon but, after last week’s mid-term elections, there is a sense that the ‘times are a changin” – let’s hope so.

A Squandered Sunday (Zabitá nedele, Czechoslovakia, 1969) – LIFF3

Post-’68 ennui

This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed of Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.

Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.

Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.

This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech, at one point he tries to cut stale bread with a razor, and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.

There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.

Eva doesn’t sleep (Eva no duerme, Argentina-Spain-France, 2015)

No rest for the good

I’m unfamiliar with writer-director Pablo Agüero’s work but shall be seeking out his films as he’s clearly got a brilliant cinematic eye. Nominally this film stars Gael García Bernal but his contribution is probably no more than a day’s work and a boost to the film’s financing. Another well known international actor, Denis Levant, has a meatier role as the Colonel who’s transporting Eva Perón’s corpse after the coup d’état in 1955.

The film investigates, tangentially, the mythic status of Eva Perón in Argentina in a few highly stylised scenes. Iván Gierasinchuk’s brilliant cinematography, often looking almost monochrome, gives a mythic edge to the mise en scene. Agüero’s often static camera observes conversations between: Perón’s embalmer and a cleaner (representative of those Perón championed); the Colonel and a Private (resulting in a stunningly choreographed fight); the kidnappers of the General, who became President after Juan Perón, and their prisoner. The action covers 25 years and is framed by Bernal’s Admiral who represents the military Establishment’s hatred of Eva.

As someone unfamiliar with Argentinean history the film, though certainly not a lesson, was enlightening. However the most striking aspect was the Agüero’s presentation of a fascinating story. It reminded me of Death and the Maiden (UK-France-US, 1994) based on Ariel Dorfman’s play (and directed by Roman Polanksi), though the latter is far less visually stylised. (Netflix)

BlacKkKlansman (US, 2018)

Emotional truth

Spike Lee’s brilliant return to form has been criticised for not being true to the facts. Although it is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of infiltrating the KKK, most of the film is fiction. Anything that’s ‘based on a true story’ is unlikely to be trying to be a documentary so assuming the film must be entirely based on actuality is nonsense. That said, if it hadn’t been based on a true story, black cop infiltrates the KKK but needs a white cop to appear in his stead, the central premise would seem ridiculous. As it is, we get a slightly surreal situation entirely in keeping with the stupidity of racists, even though Jasper Pääkkönen’s portrayal as the demented Felix is slightly too ‘swivel-eyed’. However, it must be remembered that ‘going over-the-top’ is how Lee often works as he is a melodramatist at heart.

Lee’s also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as the former couches its narrative in terms of individuals whilst the latter requires analysis of society. Lee overcomes this, to a degree, with Brechtian devices, where he draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film in order to get us thinking. For example, in BlacKkKlansman a discussion of blaxploitation films of the time (it’s set in the early ’70s) is illustrated with split screen film posters: the ‘fourth wall’ is clearly broken. More powerfully the film ends with footage from Charlottesville, August 2017, and Trump’s disgraceful excuses for the fascists: there’s no doubt what Lee is saying about now.

Spoiler alert: Jack Lowe’s critique that the film whitewashes the police force makes some good points. The scene where the overtly racist cop is arrested contradicts Flip’s (the Jewish cop who was Stallworth’s proxy) statement earlier in the film that the police are ‘family’ and so even tolerate racists in their ranks. Both the chief of police and Stallworth’s sergeant come across as too liberal particularly as Stallworth was the first black cop in Colorado Springs; the conventions of portrayals of the time, from a liberal perspective, would suggest that Stallworth would have had a much harder time. The arrest of the racist cop is so unbelievable that maybe that was Lee’s point and the seemingly happy resolution is a fantasy. Lee saves his trademark ‘double-dolly’, a shot where characters ride on the camera and are moved without walking, for the final scene when Stallworth, and his black activist girlfriend, move forward in tandem, guns drawn, as a KKK cross burns in the distance. This shot signifies that the characters are not in control of events and so further undermines the happy ending. That this is followed by the Charlottesville montage is further evidence of this.

Lee proselytises through Kwame Ture’s (aka Stokely Carmichael) rousing speech and Harry Belafonte’s cameo, discussing ‘old time’ racism with youngsters. These are powerful scenes. In addition, whilst at film school (New York University) Lee almost didn’t get to complete his studies as some in the faculty objected to his short ‘The Answer’ where he emphasised that the ‘classic’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a racist film. His professors (as did mine) merely used it to demonstrate innovative film craft rather than a disgraceful recruiting tool for the KKK. Lee incorporates footage of the film where, in different places, both the activists and the KKK watch the film with predictably different reactions.

It’s gratifying to see BlacKkKlansman do good business at the box office, Lee won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the film, and kudos to Jordan Peele (of the brilliant Get Out) for suggesting Lee make the film and for Blumhouse Productions for producing.

Snowden (France-Germany-US, 2016)

Blessed are the truth tellers

At the start of Snowden, a biopic of the NSA whistleblower, I wondered whether there was any point in watching it as it was recreating scenes directly from Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary Citizen4. However this film’s focus on a libertarian’s (he was a fan of Ayn Rand) slow realisation that the system he was part of is corrupt makes riveting viewing. Directed with restraint, by Oliver Stone (not something necessarily associated with him), and anchored by a convincing performance in the lead, Joseph Gordon Levitt, this film is a vital record of how we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society that even Orwell did not dream up. I say ‘vital’ because it acts as a warning by letting the general public know what’s being done by those in power.

But there’s a problem: Citizen4 enjoyed the high profile of winning an Oscar and although Snowden flopped at the box office, millions of people have likely seen it. Has anything changed? Snowden’s life has, he’s in de facto exile in Moscow. Whistleblowers often find their lives in ruins for doing the right thing something that is not a coincidence. Those in power do not want to be held to account. Stone’s early film, the brilliant Salvador (UK-US), showed the moral corruption of American intervention in other country’s politics but that didn’t change the way American governments behave. Snowden’s revelation of illegal mass surveillance, in the name of security, caused some embarrassment but it will still be going on. Brave are the people who do the right thing in the face of the general populace’s inertia, which is fed by the misinformation of mainstream media, and the damage it does to their lives.

MSM is often vilified by those on the right and left for its partial reporting. We are living in scary times where the right is cementing its power through propaganda, which is distinct from MSM’s partiality, disseminated through social media, newspapers like the Daily Mail and Fox News. The Overton Window, the political breadth defining what is acceptable to the mainstream, is palpably shifting to the right. The BBC included extreme right commentators Anne Coulter and Kassam Raheem in its broadcasts this week and they must have a subscription to Nigel Farage as he’s on television again tomorrow; the current leader of UKIP (now a spent political force) was on Question Time this week. The BBC claim these voices are offering ‘balance’ but I doubt we’ll hear any extreme left wing views to counter this, which shows that the centre has moved right. Indeed, and I’m trying to avoid thinking conspiracy, at least three times recently the BBC have misrepresented Jeremy Corbyn (who they probably define as ‘hard left’): yesterday they allowed Tory supporter Dylan Jones to ridicule him on the flagship Radio 4 Today.

This shift to the right, most obviously seen in America, is dangerous. My generation were brought up in the shadow of World War II and it was ridiculous to think anything like the Nazis could happen again but we are on that path. Snowden reminds us that we should do the right thing and not be scared of standing up to power in whatever form it takes.

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.