Docs of 2017


It’s the last day of the year, so arguably the best time to make a review of the year’s documentaries. This year’s documentary watching target was twenty documentaries and in the end I made it to eighteen. (I could, perhaps, have squeezed in another today as part of my time-honoured Hogmanay tradition of documentary watching but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.) So near and yet so far! However given that I only watched 34 films in total that I hadn’t previously seen, 18 documentaries was reasonably impressive.

For a change, a decent number of the documentaries – eight of them – were actually from this year, so I’ll be interested, when the awards season nominations roll in at the start of 2018, which of them – if any – show up in the documentary categories. For once, I’ll be able to have an informed opinion.

I didn’t see any ‘classic’ or even just old documentaries this year. All of this year’s documentaries were from the 21st century with the earliest instalment being 2001’s Oscar winning Murder on a Sunday Morning. On which note I saw three Oscar winning documentaries this year – the film that I almost watched today would have made it four, as it was Bowling for Columbine – but I don’t think I’m any closer to figuring out what makes a documentary award-winning than I was two years ago. Over the last few years, I’ve been quite successful in my quest to see more documentaries and while I tend to see documentaries a bit behind the curve, I usually see a fair survey of the previous year’s documentary films each year, and yet looking at the Oscar winning and nominated films for the last three years I’ve only seen two of them – Citizen Four and Last Days in Vietnam, winner and nominee respectively – and while I’ve heard of a few of the rest of them, most of them I never even heard of, let alone saw a review of, much less got a release here. The documentaries that did get a wide release here, or proved popular/influential on a wider stage are almost entirely absent from the listings. Is it purely a sign of the inevitably US-centric nature of the Academy’s voting or simply a matter of taste? For example, I think that Roller Dreams was far and away the best documentary I saw this year, but I’ll be truly amazed if it shows up on any awards nominations lists in the new year. Whereas I suspect that 78/52 will do, as too I suspect will Ex Libris, which I missed, so can only go by the trailer – which was a little Oscar-baity. Perhaps fundamentally, the BAFTAs documentary award is a better metric for my viewing.

If this year’s documentary watching had a theme it was systematic injustice and corruption. It wasn’t intentional, but that seems to have been the theme that emerged, perhaps also the lies that we tell ourselves: about ourselves, about each other and about the world in which we live. Obviously not all of them fitted into the theme – one of the most recent instalments, The Furthest (about the Voyager probes) and Lost in La Mancha and 78/52 really don’t – but overall that would appear to be the thread that wound itself through this year’s documentaries.


Take One Action Double-Feature #TOAFF17


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Continuing my quest to watch a year’s worth of documentaries in the last quarter of the year, I went to see a double-bill of films showing as part of the Take One Action film festival.

This year mark’s the festival’s tenth anniversary, as a project to get more people to see more films about issues of social and environmental justice and concerns. And through this inspire people to make changes in their own locale, empowering them to feel like they can make a difference. (Their slogan being a nice riff on the over-quoted ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’.)

Bending the Arc
Bending the Arc is almost a bio-pic of a NGO. It’s as much a profile of Partners in Health as it is one of the people who founded it. But in a way that’s fitting, because however charismatic and committed those central figures are, they appear united in a certainty that the work is by far and way more important then any one of them. There’s a refreshing honesty about their past failures and mistakes along the way. Along with a willingness to stop and reassess why things aren’t working and try something different. They all – particularly Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim – seem viscerally aware that their successes and failures are counted in human lives. That the price of losing these battles and campaigns is paid in the lives of patients and colleagues and friends.

(An unexpected part of the film, was the advocacy of the – former, but current at the time – Rwandan Minister for Health, Agnes Binagwaho with her big dreams and her enthusiastic commitment to the good they’ve been able to do together.)

In other ways the film is also an explanation for how Jim Yong Kim ended up being President of the World Bank. (The more I read about the World Bank, the weirder an organisation it seems to be.) The film may well downplay how controversial his tenure there has been, but honestly I feel the whole point of giving him the job was for his to be controversial and try different things. Whether they work is a matter for time to tell.

Thank You For The Rain
Thank You For The Rain is probably as different a film from Bending the Arc as its possible to get. It’s a film that grows and changes as it goes along. Evolving from a film about a Kenyan farmer campaigning within his community to minimise the damage of climate change to that community, following him through his transformation into a climate campaigner, into a collaboration between the director and Kisulu as they work together to bring the voices of people living on the frontline of climate change to the people who make the policies and hold the power.

Kisulu’s video diaries prove the driving force to reshape both the film and the arguments within it. His desire to be heard and to make a difference, the determination and optimism that he continues to exude in the face of varied set backs is both inspiring and something of an inditement of the politicians and policymakers. His deeply felt understanding and articulation of the fact that time is short but its not yet too late, is an idea that keeps coming up again and again in recent discussions of climate change.

There’s something slightly eerie about seeing the Paris 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference from a completely different perspective than it appeared in An Inconvenient Sequel. There’s a weird sense of having seen behind the curtain having watched both films, fascinating to compare two very different forms of campaigning and advocacy, but a little weird all the same.

As different as the two documentaries in the double-bill were, they do have something fundamental in common. A conviction, deeply embedded rather than merely paid lip-service to, that in order to really help people in these marginalised communities, you have to work with them and listen to – and amplify – what they have to say and what they actually need. That the solutions to the major issues currently plaguing the world need to be collaborative endeavours to have any chance of making a real long term difference.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Highlights


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As previously noted, I decided that I was going to organise this years reviews and posts about the Inverness Film Festival by means of its own themes and threads. Documentaries, New World Cinema, Short Films and…Highlights. Which is a slightly odd category for a theme but it’s essentially the films that come recommended by the Festival Programmer. It’s a category I tend to avoid most years, perhaps unfairly, because often the films are the ones that are doing well on the wider film festival circuit so a) if you go to a couple of film festivals you’ll end up seeing the same films and b) because they’ve already got a buzz and will be popular at the festival, they’ll doubtless appear again some time in the early new year. Also because, the films in question tend to sell out really quickly. However, this year I’ve ended up seeing three of them so lets see if they prove to be the highlights they’re advertised as.

Dark River
This was the unofficial Opening Film of the festival, according to the programmer’s introduction to the film, this was the last film to be added to the programme. (They had to hold the print run to include it.) Apparently they had to ask for and be refused screening rights a couple of times before they were able to get it. So it was in fact squeezed into the schedule ahead of the official Opening Film of the festival – the rather more commercial Battle of the Sexes. As I told a friend that I bumped into unexpectedly after the screening, it’s the second film in two months I’ve seen about damaged Yorkshire sheep farmers. Much like God’s Own Country, Dark River is at once a beautiful and compelling watch, while also being an intense and far from easy experience. I’m not sure why I’m remotely surprised by that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Clio Barnard directed film that could be described as an easy watch – I’m not sure that she’s ever directed one. So much supressed emotion – both grief and rage – such beautiful scenery, so very many sheep.

If you see the words ‘a new Clio Barnard film’ and your heart – like mine – lifts, then you’re going to enjoy this film.

The Florida Project
So apparently this film was the toast of the Croisette at Cannes this year. Which, if we’re being honest probably tells you already if you’re going to like it or not. I went on the recommendation of a friend whose taste in films I usually coincide with – she’s the friend that recommended Arrival to me and I utterly adored that. But I didn’t make it through the film. I think it’s the first film I’ve seen at this festival – in any year – that I’ve walked out of. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters, I wasn’t even rooting for the kids – charming as they were – everyone just felt so two-dimensional. (Any film where I like the character played by Willem Dafoe the best has some seriously unlikable characters.) Weirdly, I think I’d have liked it better if it had been a documentary. A documentary about the real people who live in a place like that would have been far more interesting, their fictional counterparts felt like sketches of people rather than fleshed out characters.

A sneaky wee last minute documentary. I picked this one more because by Sunday evening at last year’s film festival my brain was completely frazzled so I thought I’d pick some gentle viewing to see me out of the festival. And it delivered on that front. It’s a mediation on the relationship between people and mountains delivered via the compelling tones of Willem Dafoe’s narration and accompanied by some excellent classical tunes, by way of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. (Apparently, in Australia, the orchestra toured with the film, and I can only imagine how truly epic that experience must have been.) Its an adrenaline pumping, whirlwind of glorious vista, epic athletic achievements and horrifying near misses, that does not shy away from the very really dangers of mountains and climbing them. It also gains a secondary soundtrack of the audience’s visceral reactions to the footage, a chorus of gasps – both of awe and terror – exclamations, incredulous laughter and audible flinches. It was one of the most communal cinema experiences I’ve had in a while and a film that I’d highly recommend seeing in the cinema, for that as much as the wide screen footage.

So all in all, do I think the films in this category represented the ‘highlights’ of the film festival? Well, in a word, no. None of my favourite films of the festival were part of this thread. But on the other hand, as a guide to the films that we can expect to see a lot of in awards season, it’s probably a safe bet. I’m sure, come awards season, there’ll be a lot of people in Inverness, who’ll be able to express informed opinions on the nominations – love them or hate them, at least they’ll have seen them.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Documentaries


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There were a lot of documentaries showing this year at the Inverness Film Festival – and naturally the two that I most wanted to see were showing during the only shift I was working over the festival and overlapping with each other. However, I did manage to see three feature-length documentaries over the festival. All of them on vastly different topics.

This is a film for hard-core film geeks. If you’re a film student, former film student or have secretly harboured a longing to be a film-student, then this is the film for you. If you’re not…well unless you really, really love Psycho then this is probably not the film for you.

So, presuming that you fall into the former category, it’s an excellent film. I described it to a friend I bumped into afterwards as like being in a seminar at uni – I did in fact have an lecture on Psycho at uni, although it was about score composing not editing – except instead of my classmates and lecturer, they were famous editors and actors opining on the subject. Due to the aforementioned previous lecture I didn’t actually learn all that much unexpected from it – except, embarrassingly, I’d never realised that Jamie Lee Curtis was Janet Leigh’s daughter – but it was a rather enjoyable ride all the same.

Roller Dreams
This is such a lovely bittersweet little documentary. It’s about the origins of what we now call roller dance or street skating, in Venice Beach, LA. However its also about friendship, music, ambition, loss and black culture in California. It takes the time to provide the cultural and historical background to the rise and fall of the scene. The continuity between cultural appropriation and gentrification in the loss of a community and a culture. It’s a beautiful film and it broke my heart a bit along the way, but mostly it made me want to get my skates on and dance.

What I found really fascinating was something that I’d noticed coming from a roller derby background, that this kind of skating has had a huge impact on how a lot of guys skate. Some of the guys in the documentary talk about it being something they could completely throw themselves into, and how they learned how to turn falling over into part of the act, to make their recoveries graceful and powerful. So many male derby skaters – certainly in the UK – who come from a skating or skateboarding background have some of that same masculine grace – that these guys took to an artform – to throw themselves into the movement and catch themselves as they fall. They’re part of a continuity in skating culture and I hope more people involved in the sport see it and come to appreciate what was lost along the way.

A Stitch in Time
A Stitch in Time is a local film and a very personal one. Although its not the director’s own story, it’s the narrator’s story. (And as such it includes footage that he shot himself at various stages in the story.) Well, more accurately it’s the story of the narrator’s family, specifically his father. If you’ve seen the play or read the book of The Tailor of Inverness this is the story of how Matthew Zajac came to write it.
It’s a strange and moving story about war and grief and re-making your identity. There are a lot of old wounds in this story, both on a personal level of his discovery of his father’s first wife and daughter, and on a wider front, discovering the scars that remain in both Poland and Ukraine from the Second World War and afterwards.

There are joys too though, in the way writing and performing the play have brought Zajac the younger to a greater understanding of his father and their family history and in the new and clearly mutually cherished sibling relationship he has formed with his step-sister Irina. If this documentary is mostly a story about the lies people tell to themselves and the people they love, its also a story of the restorative power of truth.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – New World Cinema


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As is probably obvious to regular readers of the blog, this week has been the Inverness Film Festival. This year I decided to try organising my feature-film reviews about the festival by means of its own themes and threads. It’s probably inevitable that the ‘New World Cinema’ thread would be my favourite thread of the festival, as for me, that’s what film festivals are about, seeing obscure films from far flung or unusual parts of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see. This year felt like a particularly good one for this thread as none of the films that I saw that came under that heading earned any less than ‘very good’ vote on my audience choice award slips.

Blade of the Immortal
Apparently, Blade of the Immortal is Takeshi Miike’s one-hundredth film. Do you know what that means? That means there are ninety-five or so more films by him that I can watch! To a certain extent, if you’re at all familiar with Miike’s work you know what you’re getting with his films, and this film delivers that in spades. This year, I’ve seen two of his films – I managed to catch Yakuza Apocalypse on Film Four at the start of the year – and what I can mostly conclude about his film-making at this stage in his career, is that his films are much more fun these days. Blade is brutal and bloody certainly, but its also a film with a great sense of both humour and fun, and most importantly it has heart. It’s also really nice to have a film like this where the central relationship is platonic. Rin reminds the immortal Manji of someone he loved and lost years before, but that someone is his sister. Which neatly allows them to evolve a deeply devoted companionship – with appropriate sibling-style insults and arguments – while neatly avoiding any creepy undertones to the whole teenage girl and much older immortal bodyguard dynamic.

I laughed, I cried, I gasped with shock: a truly excellent film.

Pomegranate Orchard
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film from Azerbaijan before. Or about Azerbaijan for that matter. (For those of you struggling to figure out where Azerbaijan is on the map, its either as far East in Eastern Europe as its possible to be or as far West as its possible to be and still be in Western Asia, depending on your perspective.) This is director Ilgar Najaf’s third film and the second film of his to involve pomegranates. (Some quick research reveals that pomegranates are one of the national symbols of Azerbaijan, and the Goychay Pomegranate Festival that features in the film is a significant cultural event.) Apparently the plot is based on Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and as such features a prodigal son returning home to the family he abandoned twelve years before.

It’s a film full of space and silences. The family that Gabil left behind have co-existed together for a long time without him and do not seem to feel the need to infringe on each other’s space and thoughts too much. Both the characters and the filmmakers seem content to give each other space in which to be themselves and to make their own decisions. They’re conversations are measured as though they’ve learned to think before they speak, perhaps a necessary adaptation to avoid re-opening the emotional wounds that Gabil’s departure has caused. There is a great deal of play made of the relationships between fathers and sons, and the absence of Gabil’s dead brother. But for me the defining relationship of the film is the one between Jalal and his grandfather Shamil, with its quiet devotion and loyalty. Both of them men of few words, but with emotions deeply felt.

I spent the entire film feeling that Gabil was clearly up to something, but nonetheless, the twist was a proper gut-punch of a reveal. A really good film, atmospheric, beautiful and bleak.

The Nile Hilton Incident
An excellent Egyptian thriller for a Saturday night. A singer is killed in a hotel room, a member of the domestic staff is a witness and barely escapes with her life, and important people want the case to just quietly go away. Set against the background of the 2011 Tahir Square protests, by the end of the story the endemic corruption and utter failure of the justice system has both the viewer and the central anti-hero feeling no little sympathy for the urge to burn the whole rotten system down.

Leading man Fares Fares for some reason really reminds me of Christopher Eccleston, both in looks and in acting style. Which is no bad thing, as he’s an excellent actor too. His long serious face makes him look perpetually caught between sadness and grumpiness, but there’s so much going on with his eyes. An excellent performance as a corrupt cop discovering just how far across the line he will and will not go.

Not technically part of this strand – this was actually one of two films to be shown as a result of the young cinema programmers project that Eden Court runs – but as a Belgian film set in a Sami community in Sweden I think it counts.

This is such a lovely film, one of my favourites of the festival. The protagonist Niilas is obsessed with sound and radios, recording things and people, and the film is full of all the weird perspectives and recordings that he makes. It’s such a warm-hearted film, with Niilas as this fish-out-of-water, finding his place in the life and family that his mother has built. The bonds he eventually makes with his siblings and mother feel all the more real for how hard fought they are. (And that his actions have real world consequences in this life.) And his stepsister Sunnà is clearly the most sensible, head screwed-on right person in the entire film.

I’m not entirely sure if the elk that keeps appearing at significant moments is an actual animal or a supernatural one, but the film gets away with it either way.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Short Docs


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The short docs screening is always the short film screening that I most look forward to at the Inverness Film Festival. Mostly because the films are almost always by or about people from or living in the Inverness area. The rare ones that aren’t always have some connection back to the Highlands. It’s always a timely reminder of how many interesting stories there are to be told about the area and it almost always makes me want to get out there and make my own.

Not least because this year, of the five films, there were only three directors between them.

Ethie & Coire Eilde
Both of these were outdoor adventure films directed by Mike Webster and featuring adventurer and wildlife photographer James Roddie. They both felt a bit like being on a guided gorge walk with them, without the danger of getting cold or wet – or injuring yourself! A couple of vicarious adventures through stunning scenery with personable guides. A very pleasant journey.

Woman Up & Riding Through the Dark
Are both films about cycling, though very different ones, by director Katrina Brown. Woman Up is only three minutes long and is that rarity for me; a short film I wished was longer. Eilidh is a compelling subject and her struggle to find her way to fitness and acceptance of her own body was moving and engaging. And just when I was hooked on her story, it ended.

Riding through the Dark feels like a follow up to the previous film, although it features a completely different cast of characters and a very different type of biking – road biking rather than mountain biking. It follows two very different groups of cyclists, one elite long distance athletes and the other a local cycle to health group. However both groups contain members who have – and continue to – struggled with mental health issues and whose continuing recovery is helped both by the physical act of cycling and the support they’ve found from their fellow cyclists. Often documentaries with a philosophical or metaphorical title can end up being a bit twee and pat in their conclusions, but here the metaphor felt appropriate and apt. The longest film of the lot, but by far my favourite.

This was definitely the oddest film of the bunch. It’s certainly successful in creating a sense of alienation and failure of connection/communication. Perhaps the lack of connection I felt to the interview subject and my failure to really understand what Alexithymia really is – is it a symptom of a mental illness, or an aspect of neurodiversity? – was intentional on the part of director Duncan Cowles. Or perhaps the film just wasn’t very good. Either way, it was a very long ten minutes.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Bridging the Gap: Rebellion


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I normally see the Bridging the Gap short films at the Edinburgh Film Festival, so it was a little odd to see them in Inverness. This year’s theme was ‘rebellion’ apparently, which I’m not actually that sold on as a theme for the films. Looking at the piece I wrote last time I saw a full ‘Bridging the Gap’ screening, it appears that they normally assign the theme first – as the scheme provides new Scottish/based-in-Scotland film-makers with not only funding, but training and support as well – and on that basis I’m not sure that they fulfilled the brief very well. There are some quite nice little documentaries in the selection but none that really blew me away. There’s certainly nothing to compare to Pouters and Polaris from that last time. (Oddly enough I’ve since seen Polaris again since then twice at other short film screenings and I’m never disappointed to re-watch it.)

Far and away the funniest film of the screening. Oddly enough it’s a kind of documentary that I usually hate, in which the director is making a film about some issue or other that they are a little obsessed about and talking to us via the voiceover. They’re usually either terribly worthy or terribly cringey. However, thankfully this one was an exception. I loved the conceit of filming the interview subjects’ mouths so that we focus on their teeth. Perhaps because I have had a difficult relationship with my own teeth and the dentistry industry. (My teeth were fine until I got my first wisdom tooth at fifteen, and it was all downhill from there.) Maybe because it didn’t take its subject matter too seriously and was genuinely funny in its tone. I’ve felt his pain, and so, wincing in sympathy, I laughed with him.

This was the best film of the bunch I think. Apart from some weird arty shots of tadpoles and frogspawn at the start, it was a beautifully shot and perfectly pitched in tone film. It’s about grief and recovery and resilience. It helps that its central character has one of those really compelling voices; he’s lived an interesting life and can express himself well when he’s talking about it. One of those people that if you ended up talking to him on a train, you’d gladly go an extra couple of stops to keep talking to. It’s a subtle and very moving film, highly recommended.

We Are Here
An odd but charming film. It’s a film about friendship and about reconnecting with your best friend as an adult. In this case because the director’s best friend, Stuart, had an accident a couple of years ago and is recovering from a traumatic brain injury. It’s about memory and identity and living in the moment. This fascinating central concept that they agree on that this person is not who he was before the accident, that he’d never be that person again and that that’s fine. That they can still be best friends not just despite that, but also partially because of it.

There’s something missing from this film that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps its just a feeling that there’s a question the director isn’t asking, that he would be asking if his subject wasn’t his childhood best friend. Regardless of this, I liked the film.

Plastic Man
This is a beautifully shot film and its central character is both odd and compelling – I can completely understand why someone would want to make a film about him. However, I came away from the film unsure about what it is he’s actually doing or for that matter what the film is trying to say about it.

Hold is an odd film. It’s about absence and loving someone who isn’t there. In this case because they’re in prison. From what little we learn its presumably white-collar crime – theft, a nine-year sentence, they’re very middle-class – and there’s a kind of naiveté about the whole thing. It’s weird that the little girl in the film seems more practical and accepting of reality – this is how our lives are now – than her mother. Her mother is the one who has, by her own admission, built a fantasy/fiction around the whole situation.

Only My Voice
This is a film about refugee women in Greece. Some of them we never see and the ones we do, we only see in fragments, as though to actively prevent us from drawing conclusions about them and their lives from their faces. This film also has some glorious sound design moments, taking the woman’s voices and playing with them and their context. It’s an interesting concept and is probably the film that best adheres to the theme of rebellion. Almost all the women talk about the way that coming to Greece has both extended and limited their freedom.

I Have Heard the Future: Limetown Returns


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Back in the winter of 2015/16 when I was doing some data entry to get through the winter freelancing lull, I fell down a rabbit-hole of audio drama podcasts. It was Limetown that acted as my gateway into the genre proper. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with Welcome to Nightvale since it started back in 2012, but it never made me want to go looking for other audio drama podcasts. But Limetown made me love, not only it, but also the genre and seek out other shows that I might love. I found some excellent audio dramas to enjoy, whether as short flings or long-term commitments, and perhaps equally importantly I found inspiration to write about sound and work on strange sound projects of my own again. Nonetheless, I would sporadically keep checking back on the show, hoping to find that the second season would indeed be coming soon.

This morning I refreshed my podcasts and for the first time since December 2015, there was something new waiting for me in my Limetown feed. A trailer for the Second Season. It’s short, creepy and intriguing, Lia’s voice speaking to us but not, it appears, actually Lia. I haven’t been this excited about a trailer for any series I like in years. And I won’t even be able to listen to the new episodes until at least the New Year!

In these days of on-demand viewing and binge-watching/listening – which to be fair is my preferred form of drama podcast consuming – it sometimes seems that both creators and fans have forgotten the pleasure of anticipation. The power of having to wait between seasons/series often with nothing but hope for and vague rumours about the next season to sustain you. That peculiar satisfaction and relief when you’ve waited ages and then the new content is good. (I grew up being a Doctor Who fan in the 1990s; it may have had a formative impact on my relationship with fiction.) It’s been two years and I’d pretty much given up on finding out the resolution to Season One’s cliff-hanger, but listening to the trailer there, all the feelings I had about the show came flooding back. What did happen to the people of Limetown? What happened to Lia Haddock? Will we find out, or will we find out something much worse but equally compelling? On one hand, I can’t wait; on the other hand the anticipation that I’ll find out soon, but just not quite yet, is absolutely delicious. After so long, I’ll need to re-listen to the show to get myself back into the mood for it and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything that turns out to be significant. I’m delighted to have the excuse to do so.

Well played little podcast, I’m hooked once more.

Monarch of the Glen & #RealLifeMonarch @InvMAG


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The art gallery portion of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is currently playing host to the National Galleries of Scotland’s travelling exhibition of both Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen and Ross Sinclair’s specially commissioned response to it After, After, After…The Monarch of the Glen – Real Life is Dead. Two more different pieces of artwork it would be hard to imagine.

After, After, After…The Monarch of the Glen – Real Life is Dead

The thing that sticks with me, perhaps the most important thing to take away from the exhibition is that the two pieces have one important thing in common other than the obvious. Both pieces of art are much better in person than, they have a particular presence that causes them to lose something in photographs. The Landseer painting is such a familiar image that its become an almost ubiquitous image of picturesque ‘scotch-ness’, and as such should really have no power at all over anyone who isn’t invested in all the things it has come to represent. Yet, stand in front of it – better yet, stand a little off to the right of it – and there’s something curiously three dimensional about the painting. In the half-lit gallery space, the light and shade of the painting are enhanced and for a moment it seems as if the stag might actually step out of the painting. Away from the bright glare of the usual art gallery setting or the advertising billboard, it becomes just a painting once more, something that it seems possible to project your own meaning onto.

Close up

Likewise, Sinclair’s response is a very different beast to stand in front of. Where in photographs, it seems a messy garish sprawl, standing with it in situ, it has a raw and strangely elegant presence. It’s a literal deconstruction of the kind of ‘scotch-ness’ that the Landseer has come to embody. Like a strangely articulate howl of rage and grief or stumbling unexpectedly across some pointedly political graffiti where you’d least expect it. It manages to be both haunting and confrontational, at once questioning and illuminating – both figuratively and literally – the piece that it responds to. Both a demand for remembrance and a indictment of nostalgia. At once both a joy and cringe indeed.

After, After, After

Both pieces will be on display at Inverness Museum and Gallery until 18th November when they will continue on their tour of Scotland.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Bad’ Movies


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The other day there was a meme of sorts going round Twitter, challenging people to: Type one movie in the GIF bar that you watched more than 5 times and still love it today. Without a second thought I typed in The Fifth Element and up popped this most apt of GIFs. It sums up both what I love about that movie and my entire attitude towards other people’s opinions about the movie. It’s a great movie: fight me.

I didn’t go to university intending to be a film student – I went intending to be a journalist and took a swerve along the way – so I didn’t spend my late teens acquiring a connoisseur’s knowledge of Classic and New Hollywood as so many of my compatriots did.

The movies that shaped my film-watching identity growing up were cheesy 80s action adventure movies and those black and white B-movies that Channel 4 used to run on Sunday afternoons. I’ve still never seen John Carpenter’s famous The Thing but I did see the 1951 The Thing from Another World at an impressionable age. I arrived in film class unencumbered by any notion of film snobbery, other than a firm conviction that people who wouldn’t watch a film because it happened to be in either black and white or had subtitles, didn’t know what they were missing. I was in for a surprise.

The ‘serious’ film students that I knew – the ones who’d grown up watching movies obsessively and started making short films as soon as they could get hold of a camera – all had a favourite director. I was much more a fan of genres of films rather than any one director’s oeuvre. But it turned out to be the first thing that non-film students would ask you as soon as they met you, and the further through film class we got the more often classmates would ask that question on introduction and judge you accordingly. They might have a deep, abiding passion for martial arts movies or slasher films but they’d never try to claim they were great films.

So I did what anyone might do in the circumstances. I decided to troll people. I would pick a ridiculous answer and spend an evening claiming that they were my favourite director. I’ve forgotten the many names I used back then, because, one day, at a party, I claimed Luc Besson and it all went a bit pear-shaped.

Back in my first year of university, for our first proper film studies essay, we had to pick a scene from a movie that we knew well and deconstruct it. At home for the weekend, I scoured my shelves and came across, an old taped-off-the-tele copy of The Fifth Element and ended up deconstructing the fight scene between Leeloo and the Mangalores, focusing on the visual parallels created between Leeloo and the Diva. It’s a great scene, visually rich, cleverly constructed and joyful in its execution.

But what it meant, above all, was that when I claimed that Luc Besson was my favourite director and that The Fifth Element was his greatest film, was that I’d done the reading, and could in fact argue convincingly on the subject. Friends who were in on the joke would find me DVDs of obscure films he’d directed or produced – the less said about Kiss of the Dragon or the Taxi films the better to be honest – for me to watch as research and I picked up a second hand copy of a BFI directors book on him. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being a joke. I’d watched a ridiculous number of his films, and most of them I really liked. I had accidentally become a genuine fan of his work beyond my teenage passion for The Fifth Element. Perhaps it should have been embarrassing, but I was in too deep now for it to get a look in. And yet, there remained something delightfully amusing in watching that moment when the person I was talking to realised that I was serious in claiming Besson as my favourite director, that my love for The Fifth Element was entirely without irony. Even now, almost a decade and a half on from that fateful Christmas party, I still occasionally get asked and get to enjoy that moment once again.

(I have two kinds of film geek friends. The kind who are appalled when I suggest that Alien Resurrection is better and more true to the first two films than Alien3 and the kind who present me with obscure 80s Japanese films with the explanation: it’s got a giant animatronic centipede.)

My quest to watch his entire back catalogue, led me on an adventure first into the films of Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet and through them down parallel paths to nouvelle vague and film noir, and into the gory glories of horror movies. To find myself enthusiastically bonding with my to-be lecturer at my Masters course interview about the joys of Eric Serra’s scores and the wonderful use of sound in Le Dernier Combat. For a while I even found myself having somehow become the go to person to write a serious academic film review of an obscure Hammer Horror film.

I love silent film and film noir, weird Japanese movies and films from Francophone West Africa, serious documentaries and whimsical European films about the meaning of life. But most of all, I love ridiculous sci-fi space operas, with big action sequences and even bigger hearts.

And that, ladies and gentlepeople, is the story of how Luc Besson became my favourite film director. He’s not the best director in the world, and not a director without flaws or failings, but nonetheless my favourite. I’ve never seen a film by him that I haven’t enjoyed and I still seek out his new films in the cinema whenever I can. Because what his films taught me was to embrace the things in cinema that I loved ironically, with genuine enthusiasm. That there is a place for both the silly and the serious in film – sometimes even within the same film.

Some things are indeed worth saving.