I started this year with such good intentions about my documentary watching. After the success of last year’s documentary a month project, I was excited to up my game and try to watch 25 feature documentaries. I got a good start to the year at the Glasgow Film Festival, but then, well life got interesting and documentary watching fell by the wayside. I managed to catch a few documentaries on the iPlayer from the Storyville strand but at the end of September I had only watched 6 feature length documentaries. I needed to up my game.
Thankfully, my local arts cinema (Eden Court) was having a good month for documentaries so I was able to arrange a triple bill of documentaries across October. (I actually ended up watching four documentaries if we count Häxan from my last post, which I do.) If I were only aiming for twelve documentaries again this year I’d be feeling quite positive about the challenge – I was actually at the same stage in October last year before I had my epic four documentaries in two days session – but as it is I’m searching for ways to keep the momentum going.
Salt for Svanetia
Its essentially a 1930s Soviet propaganda film about the state building a road that will connect Svanetia with the rest of the U.S.S.R.. (The Svan are an ethnic minority in the mountains of the Georgian caucuses.) However, other than the last ten minutes or so, you’d never know. The rest of the film feels like one of those odd silent ethnographic documentaries of that period that leave the modern viewer uncertain how much of what they’re seeing is actually an insight into a now lost way of life and how much was made up for the cameras at the time. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way. The director apparently set out to make a fictional film set in Svanetia but could only get funded to make a documentary/propaganda film, which explains the rather jarring change of tone and tacked on feeling of the ending.
What really made this film for me was the live musical accompaniment. The Bo’ness Hippodrome’s Silent Film Festival commissioned the band Moishe’s Bagel (jazz influenced Eastern European and klezmer music…) to write a new score for it and for my money it succeeded admirably. The music was gorgeous and complimented the images and events perfectly. It did a good job of making some of the more sensational sections more human and real, making the Svan people more sympathetic than pitiable.
I think that objectively, this was probably the best of the documentaries I saw this month. Oddly enough it’s a sports documentary about, of all things, a horse race held twice every summer in a small Italian city for hundreds of years. One of the oldest sports events in the world and the only horse race where a horse can win even if it lost its rider. (It’s a bareback race and my goodness those horses don’t half lose their riders in style.) I knew nothing about the race, about the wider sport of horse racing – everything I do know I learned from reading National Velvet as a teenager – and, having bought the tickets at the start of the month, by the time the screening came around I had completely forgotten what the film was even about. Yet, somehow, the film is utterly compelling. The Palio is a horse race that’s largely not actually about the horses. Each rider taking part in the race represents an area of the city (traditionally the jockeys would be from that area but this is no longer the case and the area compete for the best jockeys – the horses are chosen in a lottery) and the wealthier the area the more money they have to spend on getting the best jockey to ride for them. While for most of the population the race is about history, civic pride, a place to play out centuries long local rivalries and a metaphor for life in the city, for the movers and shakers, the powerful and the jockeys, it is game of strategy, skill and corruption. Ever was it thus. In recent years, though, it has recently become much more about the latter element, with average rather than exceptional horses being selected again and again and one jockey coming to almost complete dominance in the race. But all that might change in the face of a young Sardinian jockey ready to challenge his former mentor. Will he take the advise of another legendary jockey and pursue the best horse rather than going for the contrade with the most money for bribes for his fellow ‘assassins’?
There’s a lot of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack, which does wonderful things for maintaining the atmosphere and plays nicely into the thematics with the young underdog preparing to face off against his former mentor turned competitor. A compelling and almost gladiatorial show down.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
Music documentaries are always a bit of a weird trip for me. Largely because I’m not usually a big fan of the band in question. (I do wonder what these films are like for fans of the band, who aren’t only there for the music and the fallouts. I suspect music documentaries are my reality TV, all vicarious voyeuristic pleasure.) The Damned were no exception. I’ve always been a bit confused by them, they always turn up on punk compilation albums but my mental image of them is more New Romantic than Punk (Dave Vanian and this vampire aesthetic have a lot to answer for). They were the first punk band in the UK to get a single and an album out, but they’ve been pretty much entirely eclipsed but the rest of the movement. The Damned are…essentially more of an argument than a band and pretty much always have been. Watching the film you do wonder how they ever managed to get albums written let alone stayed together long enough for one tour let alone to still be touring. Mostly it occurs that their greatest claim to fame ought to be that they all survived!
The best review I can really make of the film is that, I came away from the film not really liking any of them as human beings, but thinking that if they did happen to tour near me anytime soon, I’d likely make the effort to go see them. Make of that what you will.