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So…Summer? That was a thing that happened, right?

Time to dust myself off after the heady whirl of a packed freelancing schedule and get back into blogging I think.

Back at the start of the year I committed to watching 20 feature-length documentaries this year. To say that I’m behind on my target would be…entirely accurate. Circumstances have transpired that I was more behind on my documentary watching than normally. In normal circumstances I watch a lot of documentaries early in the year, have a lull during the summer and then do the bulk of my documentary watching over Autumn and Winter, motivated by both the approaching deadline of the end of the year and the burst of documentaries we always get in the run up to Oscar season.

(Not being in Glasgow for the film festival this year has had more of an impact on my film watching in general than I expected it to. I haven’t completely missed the Glasgow Film Festival in years; last time I missed it was because I was in Berlin for their film festival.)

As so often when I find myself behind on my documentary watching I turned to Storyville for help. My usual experience with watching the Storyville documentaries on the iPlayer is that either there’ll be lots of documentaries I want to watch and I’ll only have time for one, or I’ll have loads of time to watch them and there’ll be nothing at all I fancy. This time however, while the series doesn’t appear to be running right now, there are a bunch of archive documentaries from previous seasons up on their page so I was able to enjoy a few of those.

I hadn’t really given it much thought before, but almost all the documentaries I’ve watched as part of this strand previously have been by or at least about Americans. I only really noticed this time round because the documentaries were rather more skewed towards European topics than I would normally have expected. Given the current political climate, one wonders if this was intentional or just the scheduler unconsciously responding to the zeitgeist.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
First up was this odd little documentary about a group of what were, in the early 2000s, essentially the most successful jewellery thieves in the world. Largely by dint of being a rotating cast of criminals – largely from Serbia and Montenegro – working in groups across Europe and the Middle East, having found a formula that worked they applied it everywhere there were high end jewellery shops while the shifting make-up of the teams made it harder for the various police forces to pin down an accurate MO for them. The main focus of the documentary is the campaign to catch them (the Dubai police do not mess around) but there’s a darker more bittersweet undertone to the confessions of members and former members who agreed to be interviewed. (The longing for security and stability almost all of them express, the desperate struggle for survival in post-conflict society, offered not as excuse but as matter of fact explanation of how it was.)

Cod Wars
The oldest of the documentaries on offer, this was a fascinating look at the messy rivalry between the British (specifically the deep sea trawlers out of Hull and Grimsby) fishing fleets and Icelandic coast guard in the run up to and aftermath of the UK joining the European Union. It provides an interesting and really quite helpful perspective on how we ended up with the disaster zone that is the common fisheries policy and just why the east-coast fishing industry has such a fraught relationship with it.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Despite being on the topic I knew most about, this was definitely the oddest film of the set. A couple of years ago Pussy Riot were quite the phenomena, brightly coloured balaclavas, political punk and show trials all round. Iconic and mysterious. The film is about context as much as anything else, – mostly for the group themselves – explaining the background of the protests and the history of political art and protest in post-Soviet Russia. It also takes the time to give the context of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state that explains why the protest was taken so badly by that section of society. (Arguably there was no way it could have been taken well given historical context and the chasm of political difference between worldviews.) Interestingly context as an important part of the effectiveness of political protest is something that comes up a lot in the film. The idea that the audience for the protest has to understand the protest; for the protest to be effective and not counterproductive. Weirdly this idea is most coherently and blatantly stated by the prosecution lawyers who come across in their interview as faintly exasperated as though they are carefully talking around saying, we understand what you were trying to do but this was not the way to do it. (Some of which is undoubtedly respectability politics and some of it has merit.) It’s interesting that what they were trying to do seemingly made more sense to an international audience than it did to a local one.

Russia’s Toughest Prison: The Condemned
Black Dolphin Prison is a contender for the most remote and isolated prison in the world. It is a maximum-security prison, exclusively for murders, in the heart of a forest bigger than Germany and seven hours drive from the nearest city. (Just in case you needed a reminder of how truly HUGE Russia remains.) It has two very different facilities. One for death row prisoners whose sentences were commuted to 25 years in prison, who live in dorms and do manual labour and menial jobs to keep the place running. The other for murders convicted since the death penalty was suspended, who are imprisoned in small bare one or two person cells 23 hours a day, and see the sky from not much larger outside box where they’re allowed to take a walk once a day. It’s a bizarre double-system. Unsurprisingly enough, some of the most interesting interviewees are those who are most unrepentant, most at peace with what they’ve done and who they are as people. There’s a great deal of acceptance that they are all terrible people and they deserve to be punished, though where they stand on whether either of these methods or something else entirely is the best way to punish them, varies wildly.

Arguably the most interesting part of all is the way that prisoners from both halves of the prison, despite living under very different regimes, feel equally incapable of reintegration. The shared belief that it would have been kinder to execute them, rather than make them live with the things they have done, that they are without hope of redemption both internally and externally was both fascinating and horrible.