Summer Documentaries

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We’ve steamed straight past the half-way point of the year, which means it’s high time for another documentary review post. I started off the year quite well seeing a documentary a month, but that somehow fell by the wayside, so with the return of the Storyville strand, this summer has been all about catching up with the backlog.

Over the Limit
There’s something about certain types of sports documentaries that I find strangely compelling. Something about the kind of person who pushes their body to such extremes that makes for a compelling protagonist. Rita (Margarita Mamun, main representative of the Russian Olympic Gymnastic Team and gold medal winner at Sochi) is no exception.

Her main coach Irina Viner, makes much play about Rita’s eyes, about her sad eyes working in her favour, and they really do. For a documentary in which the protagonist almost never speaks directly to camera, she tells us a great deal with only her eyes. She has trained the muscles in her face not to give her away just as strictly as she has trained the muscles in the rest of her body. But her eyes always give her away, which both makes her training harder, and makes it far easier for the viewer to empathise with her. We can never forget how young she is, how much of her young life has been devoted to this work, and how much of an emotional and physical toll that has taken on her. That she is not a robot to be programmed to perfection, but a person with thoughts and feelings, desires and fears and ambitions.

There’s something about the mixture of care and cruelty in the way her coaches treat her, that is at once utterly compelling and deeply disquieting. There’s something quietly triumphant about the end title that tells us that she’s retired from rhythmic gymnastics, a satisfying feeling of closure knowing that she got out on her own terms. That she was truly working towards the end of her career and that whatever she goes on to become is in her own hands.

City of Ghosts
At the end of last year, I talked about changing my focus on documentaries from the Oscar winners and nominees to the Bafta equivalents. So this was the first of this year’s nominees – other than An Inconvenient Sequel which I saw on its release – I’ve managed to track down. I’m glad that I did. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. It follows the work of the young citizen journalists behind the website Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. Originally started to counter the narrative coming out of Raqqa after ISIS invaded in 2014, it has transformed into the major focus of internal attempts to resist within the city. Almost all of the original members are either dead or in exile, but the continuing determination of Daesh to try to hunt them down even in Germany, speaks to the impact and importance of their continuing work.

The film makes a fascinating comparison to Rouge Parole about the many other untold stories that have unfolded from the Arab Spring. (It’s so strange to be back there at the start of the film. It all feels so long ago, yet less than a decade has passed, there seemed so much more hope in the world back then.) But the most deeply unnerving part of the film for me is watching the propaganda war unfold in Raqqa. The evolution not only of a bunch of rebellious students, from citizen journalists into what is essentially the main alternative news media for their city, but also watching ISIS learn the value and power of propaganda, and the terrifying slickness and professionalism of their own media output. (Not just recruitment videos shot with all the slickness and budget of an actual country’s military, but also execution videos shot like Hollywood blockbusters.) Working in news media, I’ve grown accustomed to their triumphalist propaganda, its uses and dangers, but this was something else entirely.

Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World
This one wasn’t a Storyville documentary, instead it happened to be screening at my local arts centre last month as part of a ‘new Canadian cinema’ strand. (Despite being a music documentary and, based on the blurbs, the film I would have most expected to be well-attended out of the whole strand, I was one of a whole two people in the audience. I blame the weather.) It’s a documentary on the role and influence of Native Americans on the wider North American musical culture.

It’s a lovingly detailed documentary about the role and influence of various musicians, both those whose native ancestry was known and those were it wasn’t. The contrasting approaches of those who hid their identity in order to get work and those whose identities were erased for political reasons. (One Canadian musician puts it best when he talks about being taught from a young age to ‘be proud of who you are, but be careful who you tell’ which I think sums up the experience of being part of any ‘minority’ culture even today.) A story of forgotten, hidden and erased histories, and some really good tunes.

One Deadly Weekend in America
Is a documentary about gun crime in the US, focusing in tightly on gun crimes that took place over the course of just one weekend, and the impact of those crimes on both victims and perpetrators. The variety of crimes considered – from self-defence to cold-blooded murder, attempted suicide, police violence and one awful accident – and the uneven and seemingly arbitrary application of justice, is quite the eye-opener.

(There is something terribly, unarguably damning about listening to the testimony of one of the victims, one failed suicide attempt behind him, attempting suicide by cop. This is America, if I’m armed they’ll kill me. Made worse by the knowledge that its not the cops that shot him that are doing twenty years in prison, but him for ‘attacking’ them.)

I think the most effective part of the documentary is the way it flips the perspectives back and forth, aligning the viewer with different parts of the stories, so that everyone involved becomes a person to be empathised with, rather than an outline to be judged. The repeated sentiment that the presence of guns had accelerated situations, to make bad decisions worse – arguments that might have been settled with a fist-fight, ending in death. It’s a remarkably un-polemical film, determinedly non-judgemental in its narrative voice, giving its subjects space and a voice to give their testimony. A gentle rebuttal if you will, to the polemical and fear-mongering voices objecting to any revision of gun laws in the states, with the reminder that where there are rights, there need to be responsibilities too.

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Sounds of Other Cities

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After the success of last year’s location recording adventures in Budapest, I felt duty bound to take my little recording device away with me. I’ve recently been debating replacing my recorder with one whose age isn’t actually in double-figures, but the wealth of options available these days means that it kept getting pushed down the to-do list. I’d tried getting a bigger memory card for it, but it proved too old to accept the shiny new card I bought for it, and when I put the old one back in ahead of my holiday, I found that it now claimed to only have space for about a three minute recording, despite all the recordings from my last location recording adventures having been cleared off it.

Thankfully it occurred to me that I could just reformat the memory card, so I tried that, and it worked! I now had over three hours of recording space on my recorder rather than the thirty minutes of more recent history. I didn’t need a bigger memory card at all! (Cue much embarrassment that I’d missed such an obvious solution.) Realistically, I do actually need to replace my recorder as some of the buttons are starting to stick and become unresponsive at inconvenient moments, however, I have a reprieve that means I can still make recordings while I thoroughly research the replacement.

Recording in Riga was a very different experience to recording in Budapest, and not just because the weather was substantially wetter in Riga. While in Budapest sound recording in public made me oddly invisible, in Riga I felt thoroughly conspicuous. I’m used to the compulsion that lots of people here have to associate people with a mic and big headphones with radio vox poppers and come up for a natter, but this was different. I’ve never been stared at so much when making sound recordings. Perhaps public transport is considered something more normal to record, but having stumbled across a pedestrian crossing that made some distinctive sounds, I found myself subject to many, many strange looks. Maybe it was just because the passers by were stopped too, so they had a proper chance to take in what I was actually doing, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people stop dead, nudge their companions and point, or look obviously baffled by my actions. Listening back to my recordings my own audio labels even sound hesitant and whispered. I’ve got some nice recordings from Riga but not as many as I’d have hoped because frankly I was feeling a bit self-conscious about the whole thing.

I had no such problems sound recording in Helsinki. The friend I was visiting found my hobby fascinating and assured me that even if passing members of the public thought what I was up to was weird, they would be far too reserved to say so! She was correct; I was once again invisible making sound recordings in Helsinki, though most of my recordings were public transport based, so I can’t be entirely certain that that isn’t a factor more generally. Public transport and church bells do seem to be the common theme among my location recording adventures, likely because they’re the kind of sounds that are easily captured if you’re in an unfamiliar place. All to often I would hear an interesting sound – a siren or a bird – and either not be in a position to capture the sound or for the sound to be too transitory, having been and gone before I could get my recorder out to capture it.

Despite my fondness for recording public transport, I utterly failed to get any recordings during the not inconsiderable time I spent in airports while I was away. There’s something about airports that mean, despite the plethora of interesting sounds they contain, that I never seem to manage to get any recordings when I’m there. I suspect it’s something to do with the strange liminal nature of airports that you always seem to have both too much and not enough time all at once. Also there’s the whole crossing borders thing, which I think causes a certain level of unconscious stress – a low level existential angst – you’re never entirely certain what you are and are not allowed to do.

At the Foot of the Stone: Art films @EdenCourt

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At the Foot of the Stone is the first of what promises to be a bi-monthly series of screenings of short art films and visual arts pieces presented by Lux Scotland at Eden Court in Inverness. (Lux Scotland is a visual arts agency focusing on the archiving, development and support of visual and moving image art in Scotland. They’re currently attempting to engage with the subject outside of the usual centres in the Central Belt.) Forthcoming screenings will have different curators and – while I enjoyed Lux Scotland director Nicole Yip’s talk about their work and the selections she’d made – I’m looking forward to seeing how different a perspective we get from screenings curated by artists and curators living and working in the Highlands.

Almost all the films in this collection seemed caught between styles and genres, and more importantly from my perspective, between being purely abstract or being tied to a narrative. (For me, Midgie Noise from Video Artefacts worked best – it was the shortest and the film I could most have wished for a longer running time – because it was a purely abstract work, not trying to be anything else. It could therefore be enjoyed for what it was aesthetically, a brief but beautiful and mesmerising moment.) With the longer films – BRIDGIT and to a lesser extent April whose last gorgeous couple of minutes caused me to forgive instantly any confusion I’d suffered before – it took a while to establish whether, and how, the images and the voiceover related to each other. Did they exist in harmony with or in contradiction to, each other? Was the relationship purely abstract or was there some deeper symbolic or metaphorical meaning that I was missing. Patterns and rhythms certainly emerged but mostly they worked better when I stopped trying to assign meaning and narrative and just let them flow over me.

Other than April and Plum the films didn’t seem to resolve at the end. There was no narrative conclusion, leaving me somewhat bereft, struggling to assign meaning and message to the works. Was that the intent? Is that fundamentally the point of the art film, to leave you to draw your own conclusions rather than lead you to any one answer or message? I found this particularly frustrating with Sorry not Sorry as the film which seemed to have the most interesting things to say of the collection, but left me feeling that it had an insight that was just about to emerge, but the film ended before it could break the surface.

The films themselves are bound together by the thread of the artists all having been awarded The Margaret Tait Award – and it is perhaps her role as a writer and poet, rather than her pioneering film-work that best sheds light on all of these films. Her concept of visual art as essentially a visual, moving-image poem is particularly helpful – to me at least – in understanding these films. They owe much less to short stories, and the narrative quirks and charms of those, and rather more to poetry. They are experiments in form and expression, and while there may well be an overarching narrative, that’s not necessarily the point of the exercise. Instead they explore and manipulate their own central ideas, turning them around to look at them from different perspectives, tearing apart or playing with them, as the artist sees fit.

The Sound of A Quiet Place

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Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a bit of a fan of horror movies that make good use of sound. So when I heard that A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) made both good and plot significant use of sound I absolutely had to see it on the big screen with – most importantly – a stonking great sound system.

I would definitely recommend seeing A Quiet Place in the cinema if you can, and failing that with a bunch of other people. This is a film that definitely benefits from the collective experience, of being alone in the dark with lots of other people. I saw it in a packed screening on a Friday night, and more than the sound system or the big screen, it was the building claustrophobic tension both on screen and in the room that made the film such an enjoyable experience. The soft susurration of sixty or seventy people inhaling sharply or softly gasping, as they valiantly try not to scream has it’s own strange power.

The idea of the genre-savvy horror film has become so over-used that it’s become a cliché – practically a sub-genre in its own right – in and of itself, but A Quiet Place is a very different kind of genre savvy. It is a horror movie that knows all the audio tricks that are much beloved by horror films and their fans, and uses them to its advantage. The film is effective without that extra knowledge, but for those in the know, there is an extra layer of subtext and enjoyment as the film-makers play with our expectations.

A surprising number of modern horror films still revolve around the screaming point, that cathartic female scream of horror. (Amusingly, for all Chion’s talk of masochistic pleasure in identification, the most ‘iconic’ and arguably overused scream sound-effect of recent years – the Wilhelm Scream – is in fact a man’s scream.) But for this film it is instead the absence of the scream that provides the tension. In this film to scream is to bring certain death, so that even the archetypal scream of life, that which accompanies birth, is denied to us, being masked by an – intentional – explosion.

The screaming point of A Quiet Place is a man’s scream rather than a woman’s scream, but no less powerful or raw for it. The moment is only lightly foreshadowed so while we see it coming, the realisation comes when the action is already inevitable, events are already in motion, an act of desperation yet one entered into deliberately. Yet the moment that breaks the tension is the conversation that precedes it, a moment of profound emotional catharsis, conducted entirely in sign language. An intimate and tender moment, between two characters, underwritten by the tension as both the audience and the other half of the conversation come to understand what he’s about to do. The scream we’ve been longing for has its thunder stolen, serving instead as cover for an escape and as stand-in for the grieving that must necessarily be conducted quietly.

(As an aside, this is the second film I’ve seen this year with significant portions of the dialogue being delivered in ASL with subtitles and seriously, why is this still an issue? The young actress playing Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is brilliant, a really compelling young actress. I want to see Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017) purely on the strength of her being in it. Her performance neatly turns audience expectations of mute characters in horror movies on their head. She is no blank sheet or cypher for meaning to be inscribed upon or onto. Instead she drives plot and conflict, expressing herself clearly, not only in ASL but her wonderfully expressive face, indicates her ‘loudness’ and ‘silences’ that have nothing to do with the amount of sound she’s actually making at a given moment. And while she might indeed hold the secret to their survival, as soon as she realises it she has no problems communicating it. The film itself ending on a – deeply satisfying – moment of shared understanding between mother and daughter that requires no words.)

Otherwise the film uses sound, both in plot and practical terms, in both clever and consistent ways. The big plot significant revelation that we get, feels both earned and believable, with the clues that were left for us along the way combining to leave us feeling as though the answer has been lurking just out of…hearing range.

March of the Podcasts

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A couple of years ago I started doing a regular feature here, where I wrote about the sound-based content (whether sound art and installations, podcasts, radio plays or radio documentaries) I consumed that month or that I made that month. As well as being an enjoyable project, it was a great motivator to both listen to and create more sound-based content. There are far too many deadlines at my main freelance gig for me to enjoy them outside of it, but accountability is always helpful and motivating.

I’m breaking myself in gently this month with a review of my recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.

First up I’ve taken up yet another language based podcast. The Allusionist is a podcast that looks at the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Unlike the linguistics podcasts that I also follow, this podcast is less about the mechanics of language – the syntax and grammar – and more about the cultural and historical influences and impacts of the language. It’s a podcast that appreciates the essential weirdness of English and likes to pull those strange bits out and examine them.

I’ve been bingeing the entirety of 2017’s episodes over the last few weeks, and have been left with the desire to go back to the start of the podcast in 2015 and listen to every single episode, which I always feels bodes well for the staying power of a podcast. If it holds up to binge listening, it’s likely to stay the distance in my affections.

Next up there’s Twenty Thousand Hertz. I actually came across this podcast thanks to The Allusionist as they did a guest episode on accents. Though as I’ve been working through their archive I discovered they’d also done a guest episode of 99% Invisible on the NBC chimes. It’s one of those podcasts that I come across and have to wonder how I didn’t know about it before. I feel sure that someone I know who’s also into podcasts must have recommended it to me before, as it’s the most relevant to my interests podcast I can imagine existing. (Basically, if I were going to make a podcast, it would be this podcast.) However it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve left an interesting link open in a tab and forgotten about it. I used to use twitter as a bookmarking device for that sort of thing but there’s far too much content on there these days for that to be effective.

Anyway, the podcast itself is a delight to listen to, it’s beautifully produced and mixed – you’d hope so from a sound design podcast – and, while it took them a wee while to get into the swing of things, they manage to strike a good balance of being general enough to engage a non-specialised listener, but detailed enough to keep a more dedicated sound design geek like myself coming back for more.

Finally, we have the Hammer House of Podcast, which is a much newer series – it only started at the turn of the year. In which two writers – and sci-fi geeks – watch and review their way through Hammer Films backlog of horror films. As longer term readers of this blog will know, I have strong feelings about Hammer Horror films. (For newer readers, when I first graduated from university I spend some time writing academic film reviews for a now defunct film review website Montage films. As my specialism at university was sound in horror films, I ended up with all the horror films to review, and there were a lot of Hammer Horror films released on DVD in that period. As such, I know more about late 60s – early 70s Hammer Horror films than I ever wanted to.) I’m enjoying the reviews so far – very funny, and honestly I hadn’t realised how much I wanted more podcasts where someone has a Scottish accent – but I strongly suspect that as we get on to the ones I know best I will spend a certain amount of time shouting ‘you’re wrong’ at my computer. Which, in fairness was a considerable part of my enjoyment of the Wittertainment podcast – 80% nodding in agreement, 10% cackling gleefully, 10% shouting ‘you’re wrong, Mark!’ at my radio.

1. The Shape of Water

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The Oscars made their arrival last weekend. For all that the entertainment press in the UK sporadically make their regular cry of ‘The British are Coming’ that never actually seems to be the case. However, looking at the winners of the Best Director category over the last few years, it would perhaps to be fair to make the claim that ‘The Mexicans are Coming’, with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu – twice – and now Guillermo del Toro having all got the nod recently. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Oscars these days, without at least cursorily addressing the diversity issues that have been raised about it. Which in turn reminded me that I’d intended to have another go round at the 12 films project and an unexpected Oscar winner would be a good place to start.

Having been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade ago, I was both surprised and delighted to find both The Shape of Water and its director nominated for so many Oscars this year. (Just because I happen to think that del Toro is one of the best and most interesting directors working today, that doesn’t mean I expect the Academy to agree with me!) Having now seen the film itself, I’m no less baffled but even more delighted. It’s so rare to see genre films do well at the Oscars, especially ones as unapologetically strange and political as this one.

The Shape of Water is a delightfully strange and beautiful film, a cold war fairy tale with all the whimsy and darkness that ought to go along with that. Fundamentally, it’s a story about love – both romantic and platonic – and hope. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, embodying both the optimism and creeping insecurities – not to mention explicitly displaying the casual bigotry of the times – of both the films and wider society of the US in the early 1960s. In particular both the diner and the car show room, embody the duality of those Atomic age B-movies and the time they were made, with the shiny futuristic surfaces and the bubbling undercurrents of tension flowing just below it.

(Arguably, you know you’ve spent too much time in the horror and science fiction genres, when you hear Theme from a Summer Place and understand instantly its dual role in both comforting and quietly creeping out the audience.)

There’s something a little Amelie-esque about the theme that Alexandre Desplat has given to Elisa, but more widely the score and the soundscape in general arguably owe more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier work with Marc Caro, Delicatessen. There’s both a tenderness and a nightmarishness to both films, a sense of something pure and good struggling to survive in the face of terribly mundane evil.

It’s a film to warm your heart and remind you that, even in these troubled times; people are still capable of great kindness and bravery. So while it may have been an unexpected to choice for the Oscar, it was not, I think, an undeserved one.

Sounds of the City Part 2 – The Cities & Memories Remix

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been watching with interest as the Cities and Memories project has expanded in scope and public awareness. I also joined their mailing list a while back and have been enjoying poking through the sounds that they’ve been looking for people to remix. But until now I haven’t actually taken part in any of their projects. There are some brilliant and clever remixes and re-imaginings up on the site and I decided that I ought to have a practice with my own sounds before I experimented with the sounds of anyone else. As much as they insist that there’s really no wrong way to tackle the re-imaging of the sounds, I’ve never done any remixing in the conventional sense before, so throwing myself head first into a collaborative project seemed a bit too much like running before I could walk.

I decided, for this first re-imagining, to start with what I know best. As a sound designer, the bread and butter of my work is taking sounds recorded on location, in the foley studio and out of the archive and putting them together to create a sonic landscape that is entirely constructed but that feels believable as the soundscape of the location. I would start with a single field recording (in this case the sound of the fountain outside St Mattius church in Budapest) from a place, and combine it with other sounds recorded nearby to create a soundscape that was entirely imagined and yet was true to the spirit of my memory of the place.

Back in July I posted about the location recordings I made in Budapest when I was there in the summer. I have a whole collection of recordings that I made while I was there, that were collected not for any particular project but instead just for the fun of recording sounds in an unfamiliar place. Each recording paints a picture in my mind with an aural photograph, reminding me of how I felt and what I experienced when I was making the recording.

The soundscape of this reimagined sound is entirely imagined. For one thing, two of the recordings that make it up were made in Pest and the other two were made in Buda, but that seemed an entirely fitting combination to reflect the way the twin cities combine to create a greater whole.

Having made this first foray into re-imagining sounds, I’m itching to do more, to try something more adventurous and experimental. I’ve got the seeds of an idea germinating at the back of my mind, and I’m looking forward to see what sprouts in the coming weeks.

Art in Inverness

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One of the best things about many Scottish urban spaces, is the way the surrounding landscape forces its way into the urban skyline at unexpected moments. There are few more breath-taking moments for me in autumn, than rounding a corner, as the light is fading and being surprised by some gap in the skyline revealing the play of light shade on a distant hill. Even in the centre of a city as densely populated and built up as Glasgow, you can still walk down Buchanan Street on a clear day and look up at the right moment to find you can see all the way to the Cathkin Braes. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Highlands, where the lines between urban and rural are so blurred that it is easy to lose track of where they lie. Indeed, a fair amount of the art I’ve seen since living up here – at least from locally based artists – has explored that mutability to a greater or lesser extent and effect.

Art is everywhere here. When I first moved up to Inverness, despite favourable first impressions, I did wonder how much art – let alone interesting art – I was likely to find on anything like a regular basis. Most of the really interesting art I’d seen in over a decade of living in and around Stirling had been stuff that I’d stumbled on, mostly by accident. And almost all the art that I’d gone actively looking for in that time had been in Glasgow or Edinburgh, cities I already knew to a certain extent. Indeed, at first I only really saw art in the galleries upstairs in the local museum and the local arts centre, but as time passed, I’ve learned to sniff out the clues. It turns out that once you know what to look for, art can be found all over the place here, bursting out all over.

The on-going grind of the recession has left Inverness, like almost every other town in Scotland, with its share of mournful looking empty retail units. However, over at the Victorian Market, they seem to have come up with an idea that feels like it ought to have been an obvious idea. They’re using one of the empty units as an exhibition space. It’s currently displaying art from UHI students, which I hope continues, given that while the college itself is rather a charming piece of architecture, it’s apparently rather lacking in spaces in which to make and display art. We can only hope that this results in rather more innovative and experimental takes on producing and displaying art from the resident art students. In the interim, I’ve certainly been enjoying finding odd bits of art and craft-based sculpture in unexpected corners of the market and in unlikely shop windows.

Market Exhibit

Social media has been a great boon in my search for new art. I’ve spent a fair amount of time, working on identifying a collection of good local sources that promote art locally and nationally. But its definitely one of those situations where the more you find out, the more you find there is to find. Or often in my case, the more I find I’ve just missed.

Upstairs Gallery

Something that I often narrowly miss, are the exhibitions at Upstairs. Between 2pm and 4pm on week day afternoons, an architecture firm on Academy Street opens their doors to art lovers. Small exhibitions by local artists are the order of the day and there’s something delightfully transgressive about the whole experience. Although the gallery has managed the rare trick of being open at precisely the time-frame when I’m least likely to be free to enjoy some art, on those occasions that I’ve managed to make it along to see the art, I’ve both greatly enjoyed the art – the current exhibition of constructed photography by Michael Gallacher is well worth a visit – and the feeling that I’ve snuck in somewhere I’m not supposed to be.

The building itself is a bit of a hidden gem, with a lovely tiled entranceway, and nicely understated glasswork on the stairwell windows. And the advantage of the gallery space being in an Architecture firm, if you’re me anyway, is that even if the art turns out to not be your taste, they’ve got some fascinating little architectural models of their own on display that you can enjoy while you’re there.

A Curious TurnDay of the Dead

This month, even the more conventional location of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery’s upstairs art gallery had rather an eccentric exhibition. A Curious Turn is a visiting exhibition from The Craft Council, on the history and resurgence of automata as both a craft and art form. It’s very rare that I see art exhibitions that feel like they’ve been carefully crafted into a work of art themselves. The exhibition is full of delightful details from the hand-cranked exhibition sign, to the little mule that draws himself, to the odd assortment of cogs, cranks and accoutrements that let younger visitors build their very own automata. (When I visited someone had put together the kind of macabre assemblage that only small children and art students are capable of creating.) My own favourite part of the exhibition was that almost all the automata on display were operable, if their handles were too small and fiddly for general use, they’d been wired up so that you could make them run in their glass cases with a push of a button.
Schematic

Docs of 2017

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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.