October Documentaries

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First up for this year’s Nano, we’re continuing the theme of September’s post, as I found myself watching a decent number of documentaries last month. I set myself the target of watching twenty feature-length documentaries at the start of the year and until about six weeks ago; I was pretty much resigned to failing miserably. However if I can keep up the current rate of watching documentaries I might actually make it.

Lost in La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha is a comedy of errors of a kind. It’s also kind of painful to watch if you’ve ever been involved in any kind of filmmaking of your own. The sheer fragility of productions, the brinkmanship and the way that sometimes sheer bloody-mindedness is all that will keep a production in motion is acutely familiar and painful. I spent enough time working on micro-budget short films at the start of my career, that I’ve worked on films that were even more of a disaster than this one – call that a rainstorm, try being in Sighthill in a deluge that barely let up for four days, while bulldozers brought down one of the towers – without the benefit of a director of Gilliam’s calibre and charisma to hold things together. And yes, if you wondered, when the insurance guys decide its over, it really is over. You can fight with anyone else but the only people scarier than the folks from the Insurance Company are the ones from HMRC…

Appropriately enough, it turns out that Terry Gilliam has in fact finally got the film made. It’s only taken him another SIXTEEN years, but apparently The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is currently in post-production and expected to be released next year.

Citizen Four & Risk

Next up we had an accidental Laura Poitras double feature. Having recently watched Citizen Four it seemed only right, when Risk was showing on BBC 2, that I watch that two and make a theme of it. And having seen both films, its now almost impossible for me to write about one film, without writing about the other, they are indelibly intertwined. Not least because Poitras was working on the film that became Risk when she started making Citizen Four. Having stopped making one film to make the other there is a little bit of footage that is shared between films.

Citizen Four is the more straightforward film. It’s a portrait of and interview with Edward Snowden in the first days of his emergence as a whistle-blower on the US intelligence community. Poitras’ style is very much observational, letting events play out in front of the camera. It seems to be a style that lets the subjects reveal themselves to the camera without fully realising just what they’re revealing. Which works very much in Snowden’s favour, and in Assange’s case…not so much.

Risk is a messier and more complex film, as is befitting its subject matter. It’s a film mostly about Julian Assange, but also about power and privilege within political activism. It’s a little bit like watching a Louis Theroux documentary about a cult where Theroux has been banished leaving a very worried cameraperson to pick up the pieces.

There is a fascinating and horrible streak of pragmatism that intertwines itself throughout the film. There is after all, a point in any kind of committed political activism against the state, where you have to ask yourself what you are and are not willing to sacrifice. That can range from things like anonymity or privacy, through whether you’re willing to be arrested at a protest, to the physical safety of yourself and those around you. I’m not sure that there’s anything or anyone that Assange wouldn’t sacrifice for this project. (One might argue, his own freedom, but I’m not convinced that being trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy for seven years counts as freedom in anyone’s book except his.) At the end of the film I came away with the feeling that Assange and the wider Wikileaks project had done important work, but that I didn’t trust either him/them or his/their motivations. Do good intentions matter if, in the end, you do more harm than good? And, I think, that’s exactly the question that Poitras wants us to ask ourselves. The conclusions that we draw beyond that are up to us.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

This is such a strange film about a really odd series of events in the early 1970s. It’s one of those stories that of weird events in America that seems to have percolated its way into our collective consciousness, almost entirely divorced from its political and historical context. I’ve vaguely known the story myself since I was a kid, having Stockholm Syndrome explained to me. Patty Hearst remains the classic example, for many people, of Stockholm Syndrome.

The film was previously known, at least in the states, as Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army and there’s definitely something dreamlike about the film. There was definitely a sense from the interviewees of being caught up in some weird terrible dream or bad drug trip. Adding to the surreal nature of the whole piece, in the middle of the documentary having been made, four of the surviving members of the SLA – some of whom served time for kidnapping Patty Hearst, all of whom had built new lives afterwards – are suddenly tracked down, taken to court and go to jail for a murder that took place as part of a bank robbery gone wrong, from several decades before. It’s a fascinating documentary, but it remains a story that, to me, makes less and less sense, the more you find out about it.

If there was a theme at all to October’s documentary watching, it was documentaries without narrators as, other than Lost in La Mancha, which benefits from Jeff Bridges comforting tones, the other three documentaries were almost entirely devoid of narration. Instead they prefer to use informative inter-titles at critical moments to provide additional context. (In Risk we get occasional extracts from Poitras’ film notes, as she gets intertwined in the story, but they seem more designed to admit her biases and illuminate the points where both she and we wonder if she’s being manipulated.) As though neither of the two directors wanted to pass judgement on their subjects and instead prefer to leave the viewer to make up their own minds.

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Nablopomo is Returning

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Nablopomo is returning! 2017 has been a really successful one for me in a lot of ways. I’ve been massively busy on the freelance front – including working in Children’s television for the first time – but writing has somewhat fallen by the wayside this year. Which seems as good a reason as any to take part in NaBloPoMo this year.

For the uninitiated NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where instead of writing a novel during the month of November, bloggers post every day for the month of November.

As usual, I’ll be dividing my posts between here and my food blog, and as usual when I made my list of potential topics to write about this year, I was amazed by how many ideas I had once I got started. But then, I guess that’s always the real point of this challenge, giving you the kick to get started and keep going. I love the challenge and the discipline of writing every day. But, for me, it’s always rather more about getting more of my many, many ideas written down than actually managing to post something each day.

Also, I’ve just passed the 10th anniversary of this blog (happy birthday little blog) so perhaps I’ll even manage some introspection on the subject of blogging and how different internet culture is ten years on.

The Sound of Learning

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This year I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my language skills. I’ve been learning Gaelic off and on for most of the last decade and at the start of the year, that this would be the year that I upgrade my language speaking status from the plateau of Intermediate learner to the slopes of advanced learner. I would develop an accent in Gaelic.

One of the less talked about difficulties of language learning, particularly when it comes to a minority language is the difficult hinterland of being an intermediate learner. There are – relatively speaking – tonnes of resources for beginner learners and increasing amounts of content and literature suitable for the fluent or native speaker of the language. But for the intermediate learner, there are few resources and even less classes, most of which are aimed at younger learners. As it is, I mostly read poetry and comic books in Gaelic. (One day I’m going to track down whoever it was that had the genius idea of translating Tintin and Asterix the Gaul into Gaelic, and buy them a pint.)

As part of my efforts to increase my fluency I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Beag air Bheag, which is a programme expressly aimed at Gaelic learners. There was talk for a while about refocusing the programme on beginner Gaelic learners, because it was felt that the programme was getting too advanced. To my great relief they seem to have tackled this problem by dedicating a section of the programme to beginner learners. The programme as it is – both as a radio show and as a podcast – is one of the few resources that feels aimed at those of us caught in the middle so it would be a great loss.

Speaking of its podcast incarnation, during the season break in the show last year they produced a special mini series revising the Grammar points of the previous series. Oisean a’ Ghràmair is my favourite part of the show, so to have a mini-series dedicated to collecting it together is perfect for me. The series in general, uses examples from Radio nan Gaidheal programs, so unlike the stilted fake conversations of so many language learning courses, instead we have extracts of documentaries, news reports and interviews with poets, musicians, politicians or just people who’ve lived interesting lives. The extracts features colloquialisms, jokes and regional dialect variations, the natural use of the language, full of the nuance and detail that the learner can easily miss or misinterpret. To have those explained – along with their grammatical consistencies and inconsistencies is incredibly helpful. There’s something reassuring having these things treated as an aspect of grammar, as much a key to comprehension as recognising that a particular verb is irregular in certain tenses. There’s something delightful to listening back to the extract with your extra knowledge, and understanding all the things you’d have missed before.

Otherwise, I’ve been indulging my love of languages and linguistics more generally with a couple of excellent podcast series.

I’ve been listening to The World in Words for a while now, having come across it at the height of the Standing Rock protects, via an article about the protest that referenced their episode about the Lakota language outreach work that was going on alongside the protests. (The Standing Rock Sioux’s Other Fight.) The series is a companion piece to PRI’s The World focusing in on language issues, sometimes spun off from issues and stories covered on the parent program others by tangents their reporters have stumbled across while reporting other stories entirely. It mainly focuses on minority languages and diaspora languages, the cultural and political impacts by and on languages and the hows and whys of who speaks which language and where. It’s a really interesting series if you’ve ever wondered about how and why language – particularly minority language – is political.

The episodes are quite short and as such are more short introductions to the issues raised than in depth analysis but the show notes are often extensive and helpful if something piques your interest and leaves you wanting more.

Lingthusiasm is a more recent discovery, and very much more of a podcast about linguistics than about languages. It’s about the mechanics of language, how and why they are constructed and work. It’s actually really useful – in an abstract way – for someone like me who loves learning languages but struggles with a lot of grammar constructions because they don’t actually know what the equivalents are in English. I’m going to learn a lot of useful things as the series progresses.

It’s presented by two linguists, one Canadian – Gretchen McCulloch – and the other Australian – Lauren Gawne – and it’s of the genre of podcasts where you’re essentially listening in on the conversation between two very smart people geeking out about something they both love and are very knowledgeable about. It’s unashamedly geeky and enthusiastic about its topic, but really quite accessible for enthusiastic amateurs or non-specialist listeners.

It’s a lovely, intriguing little podcast and while the production values are a little…amateurish…to start with, it’s worth bearing with them. (For a while the next reward level on their Patreon was ‘lets buy Gretchen a decent mic’ and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being delighted when they made it.) This particular audiophile finds the content well worth the occasional wincing.

I suppose the best review I could give it is this: when I first started listening there were 9 episodes available and I listened to them all – including a 3 and a bit hour special episode – over the course of one weekend.

Autumn Docs

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Autumn is upon us, and once again, as has become an odd sort of tradition on the blog, I find myself writing about having a documentary binge session. There’s something about the turning of this season that seems to bring on an urge to watch documentaries. And not just because we’re three quarters of the way through the year and I find myself looking at my progress towards whatever target for documentary watching that I’ve set myself that year with mild panic.

Autumn is the season of documentary watching for me, and this year is no exception.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Here’s a confession. I’ve never seen the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2006. I was aware of it – it was hard not to be – but I never saw it. Mostly because, well, I didn’t need convincing about climate change. We were a recycling, composting, growing our own vegetables, using energy saving light-bulbs type household when I was growing up. In general, I go to documentaries to learn about something I don’t know very much about. So I went to see the sequel – in the cinema no less – pretty much by accident.

The film is both deeply depressing and also surprisingly hopeful. The predictions for climate change from the original film turned out to be underestimations rather than overestimations. Everything has gotten much worse. But on the other hand, the innovations in renewable energy technology are really quite extraordinary, lighter and smaller and cheaper is the motto all round. As with a great deal of life in general at the moment, it could be summed up as: everything is terrible, but there is still hope.

Salute

Salute is a documentary about the background to one of the most iconic photographs of the 1960s – if not the entire 20th Century. That moment at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, on the winner’s podium after the men’s 200 metres final with Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing heads bowed, fist raised with Peter Norman wearing his Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with them.

It’s a very Australian film, but the advantage of that is that it doesn’t shy away from showing the civil rights movement in Australia. Nor does it shy away from providing the context of the protests and state violence that took place in Mexico City in the run up to the Olympics. The film doesn’t cover the aftermath of the protest in great detail – perhaps because the director feels that story has already been told – focusing instead on providing both historical and personal context for the three participants actions. Indeed all three men point out in different ways that there were lots of layers of meaning and nuance to the protest, but that no-one seem interest in hearing their reasons or letting them explain, being more interested in demanding ‘how dare they’. Perhaps that’s the driving motivation of the film, of giving them a platform to explain in their own words.

At the heart of the film, is the friendship formed between these three athletes, their shared athletic prowess – as of the film’s release, Peter Norman still held the Australian record he set that day – and their shared moment of protest that destroyed all three of their careers in athletics and agreement that it was worth it. That it made a difference.

It feels particularly relevant in the wake of the recent spate of sports protests in the states and the continuing disproportionate approbation that is being heaped on the athletes involved for acts of quiet, peaceful protest on a public stage. Everything old is new again.

Murder on a Sunday Morning

This one was a discovery from the Storyville archive. When I was looking up which year An Inconvenient Truth won the Best Documentary Oscar, I glanced at the rest of the list for the 2000s to see how many I’d actually seen and spotted this film. The name was familiar and when I went and checked the iPlayer I was pleased to discover that it was one of the films available. Though only until this weekend, which seemed like a sign to watch it, if ever there was one.

Once I got past the weirdness of the cameras in the courtroom element, it was a really engaging watch. It helps a lot that the Public Defender who we follow Patrick McGuiness through the trial is an engaging presence who appears genuinely righteously angry about the miscarriage of justice he’s fighting to keep from happening. (That he keeps investigating after he’s cleared his client to find who really did commit the murder, says a lot in his favour.) It also helps, in a way, that the police detectives on the stand are almost cartoonish in their smug complacency, if this was a docudrama you’d tell the actors to dial back the air of lazy entitledness one of them in particular exudes. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to actually have a strategy to properly defend themselves with. They fully expect the system to protect them.

The boy at the centre of the documentary, Brenton Butler, remains something of an enigma throughout the film – for obvious reasons, he isn’t interviewed – we see him through the eyes of his parents, his defence team and the police reports. The only time we hear his own words are as a witness on the stand, as a witness to his own mistreatment at the hands of the police. He comes across as quiet and polite, and more than anything, so very young. Strangely after all that we now know about the extent of police violence in the US, its not the photos of the bruises nor the testimony of intimidation and violence that was most disquieting, but rather the shots of this young boy – just fifteen years old – in shackles.

One of the toughest things about watching the film, in the light of the current political unrest in the states, and the recent visibility of wider police violence and the way it disproportionately targets African-Americans, is that this film was made in 2001. It’s not an obscure film – it won an Oscar for crying out loud – and yet this topic still gets an incredible amount of push back.

Inside Job

Speaking of Oscar winning documentaries, Inside Job won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2010. Given that I was following the crisis itself fairly closely – I’d not long graduated from university and was working in financial services call centres and watching the number of media jobs available reduce at a terrifying rate – and how much I’ve watched and read about it since, it’s unnerving how much new information I gleaned from this documentary and how furiously angry it still makes me. Perhaps it’s a side effect of having literally watched the value of people’s pensions drop, of having had people cry down the phone at me about their mortgages and being utterly helpless to help them. It’s so strange seeing the greed and entitlement of many of the financial advisors I dealt with on a day-to-day basis all those years ago, writ large on senior executives and regulators.

That bone deep frustration I had back then is evident throughout the film, almost every time we hear the director on camera pressing his line of questioning, as so many of his interviewees squirm and prevaricate, his frustration and incredulity is clear. This is a documentary that is politely and firmly, utterly furious, we should be too.

Sounds of the City

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Last year I started making monthly posts about the audio projects and productions I was working on or enjoying each month. Despite being a highly enjoyable project, I somehow fell off the wagon back in April last year and never quite got back into the swing of it. As I seem to have fallen back out of the habit of writing anything at all here, I thought it was high time I resurrected the project.

I started this year with lots of plans and schemes for sound related projects that I would do this year and naturally life happened and most of them fell by the wayside. One of the major problems I have with making New Years Resolutions is that its easy to get half-way through the year and realise that you’ve not got round to half of them and just give up for the year. To tell yourself that you’ll ‘try again next year’. It’s easy to let it become a vicious circle of ‘next year I’ll write more’ or ‘next year I’ll do more field recording’ instead of just getting out there and doing more of the thing.

One of my plans for this year was to go out making field sound recordings more often. I started out with good intentions in January spending an afternoon making some field recordings and setting myself the target of doing that once a month to get myself into the habit. Of course the danger of starting that kind of challenge in January is that, well, it rains a lot in Scotland at the best of times and its really easy to find excuses/reasons to not go out sound recording. It’s entirely reasonable to not go out when you know your recordings are going to be ruined by howling wind or pouring rain. And then with the spring work picks up again and so the world turns.

It’s also all too easy to get hung up on getting the ‘perfect’ recording. Finding the perfect spot and the perfect conditions is all very well when you know the place well but sometimes it can interfere with getting anything recorded at all. And then there’s the ever present doubt of whether a sound is ‘interesting enough’ to be worth committing all that time and energy to capturing properly.

Last month I found myself in Budapest for a long weekend and I made the last minute decision to take my sound recorder with me. Being in Budapest neatly overturned all my doubts and worries about the ‘usefulness’ of the sounds I was recording. Almost everything I saw and heard in Budapest was new and different. The rattle of the trams and the chiming of the cathedral bells, even the buzz of conversation on the street was worth recording because it was unique to the place. I spent some glorious hours puttering around on public transport recording the sounds of engines, echoes and announcements.

I’ve long known that the world sounds different through a microphone and headphones, but I’d forgotten how differently you’re viewed when you’re wearing headphones and holding a microphone. In general there are two different responses to the giant headphones and a microphone, either people want to talk and to hear what you’re recording or you become completely invisible. In Budapest I became invisible, when I wasn’t focused on what I was doing, I watched people recognise what I was doing and – sometimes visibly – categorise me as harmless and ignore me. Even the dreaded ticket inspectors didn’t bother investigating what I was up to, apparently holding a microphone was a license to wander and lurk. The hawkers and street people, ignored me utterly, perhaps they’d learned by experience that I would likely be delighted to listen to their patter, but only interested in recording it. It was like slipping on a disguise or a costume, one that allowed me to shed my tourist skin and blend in as just another piece of street theatre.

I got some lovely recordings of trams and metro trains, of fountains and church bells and street performances. A small flavour of the city. Every time I look at the file marked ‘Budapest’ I feel inspired, I feel delighted, I feel…like I need a bigger memory card for my recorder…

On the Roof of the World

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This a review of a film thread in two parts. It originally ran during the Inverness Film Festival back in November so the first two films that are covered are films that I saw during the festival. The second two films were shown in January this year, films that I wanted to see but that I couldn’t schedule in because they clashed with other commitments. As I’ve previously noted here, I tend to pick my films during the festival based on what I think it’ll be my only opportunity to see. However, Eden Court does seem to use the festival as a test screening for lots of films, so if a film sells out at the festival they usually get it back. While I knew they were getting Eagle Huntress back – the one single film that most people have asked if I saw, or expressed disappointment that they missed seeing, at the festival – but I was surprised and pleased to see Black Hen make a second appearance.

Paths of the Soul/Kang Ripoche

Is a lovely meditative film about going on a pilgrimage. It’s not clear watching the film, whether this is a documentary or a drama and it appears that the lines have been intentionally blurred. (Perhaps as a side effect of the compromises required getting a film so explicitly about spirituality in Tibet past the Chinese censors.) If they’re acting then it’s the most method performance I’ve ever seen.

Not being of any particular religious persuasion, I’d never really given a lot of thought to the physicality of going on a spiritual pilgrimage. Essentially just going on a very long walk to a significant place, which, like any epic journey, gives you plenty of time to reassess your life and place in the universe. Physically tasking but easily comprehensible. Apparently not in Tibet! When the blurb talked about physical pain, I imagined blisters and sores from walking for hundreds of miles in all weathers. Walking is the very least of it. Early on there are fascinating scenes where the pilgrims prepare their equipment, the long aprons of animal skin, the wooden paddles that they wear on their hands. And then they walk, prostrating themselves every few metres in prayer.

There’s something gloriously pragmatic about this act of devotion, tilling fields as payment for food and shelter, washing cars and taking labour jobs when they run out of money. Even the decision to go on the pilgrimage is made without fanfare, several quiet discussions about who will go and why, with each discussion setting off others until the group is formed.

Zud

Is far and away the bleakest film in the series. Whereas all the other films, while showing considerable hardship and poverty, also find a great deal of joy and hope in the lives of the people they portray, Zud is fairly consistently bleak.

Set on the Mongolian Steppe, after the loss of much of his parents livestock, young Sukhbat is pulled out of school and given the responsibility of breaking a wild horse in order to race him, in a last ditch attempt to turn the family’s fortunes around. Ultimately I think the film is trying to say something about the clash of tradition and modernity, or the way that despite the march of progress, subsistence farming is still a brutal way of life. However, it was gloomy to the point of grim and something of an exhausting viewing experience.

The Black Hen/Kalo Pothi

Is a sweet, episodic film about innocence, friendship across cast lines, loss and growing up. Oh, and chickens as a vital source of food, currency and status.

The film has a constant undercurrent of vague threat. Being set during the recent Nepalese Civil War/Maoist Insurgency. There are Maoists lurking about on the edges of the film, but they’re very much an ambiguous presence for most of the film. (The only time we see actual violence, the boys are explicitly somewhere that they shouldn’t be – to the extent that they’ve been warned off by soldiers at a check point – even the one kidnapping is a fairly bloodless affair.) The passing bands of government soldiers appear equally if not more threatening to day-to-day life. The film ends on some stark facts and figures about death tolls, refugees and child soldiers, but the only young people we see actually recruited seem to go willingly – Prakash’s sister seems more motivated by the desire to have a regular wages to support her younger brother. In fact as the film progresses and we see more and more the hardships and indignities that Prakash has to endure because he’s an ‘untouchable’ her decision to join the Maoists seems increasingly understandable.

The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress is an oddly charming little documentary film. At first it seems like it might be one of those clichéd ethnographical efforts that fetishize a ‘lost’ or ‘dying’ way of life. But instead we’re taken right into the action; the protagonists talk to each other and the camera with a frank and disarming honesty. The film is both a delightful coming of age story and a sweet father-daughter bonding adventure.

One of the best parts of this documentary, as a document of these people and their lives is the way it portrays normal life for them. The practicalities of their existence. The stolid acceptance that this is the way their life is now. (The children all stay in dormitories at the school during the week as they live too scattered and nomadic lives to be able to travel to school each day. The deep sibling-like bonds between the girls formed by having grown up together like this.) The combination of the traditional and the modern – trucks with hand crank engines, solar panels to run electricity off, the transistor radio that is the centre of their connection to the outside world – and the way those intertwine with each other. Modern thermal base layers under more traditional garments, the way they seem to have taken what they need from the modern world and used it to preserve their nomadic way of life.

(I like the way the film carefully phrases her status among the other Eagle Hunters. She is the first woman to compete in that particular competition, but they carefully do not call her the first woman to be an Eagle Huntress. The phrasing suggests a fine line being walked, that enough people have suggested there have been others, whether or not they have been acknowledged as such. An acknowledgement of sorts that they can’t prove they existed but they had enough reason to suspect they did and don’t want to erase them if they did.)

I have to wonder, given the focus on her femininity, the little details of her messily painted nails, her long hair and the hair ornaments, at whether previous Eagle Huntresses have always just pretended to be boys. There’s something defiantly girly about the way she presents herself. There’s a telling little exchange between Aisholpan and her mother, her mother commenting that they should have cut her hair shorter, and Aisholpan assuring her that its fine, because she has girl hair. There seems a wealth of unspoken subtext there, not least a determination that she’s not going to pretend that she isn’t a girl. There’s something determinedly ordinary about how she’s portrayed in the film, yes she’s physically strong and tough but that’s a product of the life she lives. She walks a fine line of being both deferential and defiant in her attitude to her fellow hunters. There’s something about the way she stands at the competition registration table, surrounded by all these men, head and shoulders taller than her, that little raise of her eyebrow at the ‘young girl’ comment combined with a placid smile. There’s something, delightfully unsophisticated about the way she expresses her emotions, her open affection for her bird, her honesty about her nerves before the competition, her infectious joy at her successes and her raw frustration at her struggles hunting in the wild.

The old men, the elders of the sport, are so ridiculously stereotypical in their responses to her existence. It’s not remotely difficult to see why she might struggle to take their approbation seriously. It’s all too easy to imagine them in another documentary complaining about how young people don’t want to take up their traditions. Their sour grapes response to her success makes her victories taste all the sweeter to the viewer at home.

12 Films Project (Part 3)

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New Year; new challenges. Plus ça change, as they say. I was looking for a new challenge to keep me writing here regularly, when I remembered about the 12 films project and having felt rather uninspired in my film choices last year, I wanted to diversify my film-watching. Shake things up a bit and try new, or at least different, things.

There’s a considerable part of me that is deeply disappointed that, the best part of eight years after I first did this challenge, this kind of project is still necessary. Yet in these troubled political times, it somehow feels more relevant than it ever was. That we see the world from different perspectives, that we are reminded that people who don’t look or think like us are people too. That their stories are important, and equally deserving of being heard.

To this end, I’m aware that in previous years my challenge films have leant toward those produced outside of Hollywood and Europe, which is both a natural product of my own film preferences and unfortunately plays into certain stereotypes about the kind of films that fit into this kind of challenge. So, this go round, I want to seek out films that qualify but are either in English or from other European countries. Films that you wouldn’t see the title of, and presume that they would qualify.

The Sound of Arrival

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Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) is one of the cleverest and best executed big budget science fiction films I’ve ever seen. To me it is science fiction in its purest form, taking an idea or a theory and extrapolating the consequences.

Arrival is a film that lives in the hinterland where language and science meet. The fascinating mysteries of how our brains are affected by the languages we speak. Thousands of words have been expounded on whether and how our way of seeing the world is influence by the languages we speak. (Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages by Guy Deutscher is a pretty accessible look at the subject if you’re interested.) And the answer is currently, mostly, we don’t really know. Or at least we can’t actually prove anything. Subjectively, I can say that yes, I absolutely do think and see the world differently in Gaelic than I do in English – whether that difference is merely in perspective or an actual neurological change is one for the scientists to argue over, but nonetheless it’s a large part of why this film worked for me on an intrinsic level.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by the sound design. I have a long established pet-hate of the ‘turn it up to 11’ school of blockbuster sound and while some of that can be mitigated by a bit of common sense in the projection box of your cinema – I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD and can now appreciate why it won prizes for its sound editing, but in the cinema my ears were ringing too much for me to notice – there is very rarely any deftness or subtlety to enjoy.

The sound department for this film appear to be mostly French and entirely brilliant. I love that they devoted two separate Sound Designers to the aliens. One for the alien’s themselves and one for their shell ship. The world inside the Shell Ship felt utterly sonically alien, the sense of a sealed environment, an initially claustrophobic but later quite sheltering – womb-like, is presumably what they were going for – soundscape, draws the viewer into the subjective view of the scientists. The aliens are rather cephalopod-like and their vocal language owes a great deal to their Earth bound equivalents. A kind of alien whale song that presumes that the gaseous environment that they inhabit would work like water does for sound here on Earth. (A small niggle, our vocalisations, designed for Earth’s atmosphere, and should surely therefore be as incomprehensible to them as their language is to us?) Strange, yet believably, organically so. The soundscape around them feels, rich and complex, yet spare and subtle. It envelops us yet never overwhelms, in a film so much about language it is necessary that there is enough space given to the dialogue and it manages that with such deftness that you barely notice it – a sure sign of the skill of the sound team if ever I saw one.

A related, but arguably odd observation I couldn’t help but make is that the sound felt French. I spent a lot of time expecting people to break into French. I’m not sure quite how to explain why it felt French, given that I didn’t realise that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve going in – and he’s French Canadian anyway – but I wasn’t remotely surprised when I watched the sound credits and saw all those French names scrolling by. Perhaps it was the restrained yet passionate performances from the cast. Perhaps it’s just that film like this could only have worked being filtered through a bilingual director’s vision. Whatever the reason, the film feels like its being experienced through the filter of a language you’re almost fluent in but not quite. A gorgeously alienating experience. The film in general feels like it should be a much smaller film than it is, having the general ambience of a mid-budget sci-fi film – one big enough to afford decent CGI but small enough to actually be about something. It feels like the kind of film you see by accident or have to hunt down one of the only three screenings it gets anywhere near you. (The closest film to it in terms of atmosphere, that I can think of, is the Korean monster movie The Host/Gwoemul (Joon Ho Bong, 2006) which has the most organic use of CGI I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.) Not the kind of thing that will be showing every night for a week and the usher will tell that they’re extending the run for because its been so popular. It’s a rare gem of a film and I’m glad that it’s getting a wide distribution because it absolutely deserves to be seen widely; I’m just a little surprised.

Radio Drama: Returning to an Old Friend

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As much as I’ve been revelling in the recent rise of audio drama podcasts – in the diversity of stories and genres that this has also caused – I’ve rather been neglecting audio dramas from more conventional sources. Some of this has been for good reason – there was a definite need for new and innovative takes on audio drama that narrative podcasts have taken up and run with – but some of it was just because it had suddenly become much easier to find recommendations of things I would enjoy. Many moons ago, in an interview for a radio internship, I accidentally established myself as ‘the illusive Radio 7 listener’, I really don’t think the gentleman in question meant it as a compliment but nonetheless it was a distinction I wore with pride. So it makes me particularly wistful to think that since Radio 7 became Radio 4 Xtra, I’ve barely listened to the station. Occasionally I would put see a link to an interesting audio drama, bookmark it for later, but by the time I got round to it, it had expired.

In a happy confluence of events, I stumbled across a new one that took my fancy at the beginning of November – an excellent excuse to write about radio drama for Nablopomo if ever I saw one – in the shape of an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How the Marquis Got His Coat Back which is the follow-up to Neverwhere a story that I love dearly already. Even better it was a stand-alone drama rather than a series, so no excuses there. (With sound design by Dirk Maggs! How could I resist.) And then finally a friend – who listens to screeds of audiobooks – has recently got into radio drama and was looking for recommendations, there was a time when I’d have been able to give her a list off the top of my head. All in all it was high time I got back into it.

On a purely performance basis, I was delighted that they got Patterson Joseph back to play the Marquis. My introduction to the strange and wonderful world of Neverwhere was the mid-90s TV series and the actor and the character are indelibly bound up together for me. (Whenever I read the book, I hear the Marquis’ lines in his voice.) To the extent that it would occasionally throw me off when listening to the recent Neverwhere adaption. I liked the way they handled the change in actors – both deft and knowing – and the way the voices of the two brothers complimented each other. Excellent casting work there. (For reasons unknown, Adrian Lester’s radio voice reminds me somewhat of Paul McGann – no bad thing in my opinion, as I could happily listen to the latter read the telephone directory – which I presume is stylistic thing, pitch and timbre and so on, given that Lester is from Birmingham and McGann from Liverpool. Either that or RADA does really odd things to Northern English accents.)

I think my favourite thing about Dirk Maggs’ radio drama adaptations is that he knows what to leave out. For all that I haven’t read the original short story that the play is based on – I understand its now often included with editions of Neverwhere, but my own copy was purchased nearly a decade before the sequel was published – I’m sure there must have been plenty of scenes cut along the way, but you don’t feels their absence. Like all of his adaptations that I’ve previously heard, it feels like a complete, even when I know where the seams should be, in the moment I cannot see where they are. A fealty to the essential essence of the original text; rather than the every word of it. This is reflected in the sound design, there’s a sparseness to the soundscape that conjures up perfectly the feeling of the locations the Marquis traverses, while leaving the aural foreground free for the actors to do their part. To let the dialogue sparkle and the performances shine.

All in all, it felt delightfully like stepping back into a familiar, if half-forgotten, world, not entirely unlike putting on a much beloved coat that you’d temporarily misplaced.

It’s Got Knitsonik On It

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I accidentally gave myself a bit of writers block last week, as I had two more posts I wanted to make about the Inverness Film Festival but wasn’t feeling at all inspired to write them. Therefore I couldn’t write anything else until I’d written them. Completely logical.

Yesterday, I finished catching up with a really interesting sound-related podcast, Knitsonik, so I decided to write about that instead – and hopefully kick the writer’s block to the curb while I’m at it.

Approximately a year ago, at a friend’s birthday party, I got into a discussion with someone about my twin passions of sound design and knitting. Now the relationship between these two things is completely clear to me, but is not something that is always obvious to other people. In fact, until that point the only person I knew who really shared these as twin, interweaved passions, was my former tutor from my masters course Gary Hayton and he’s now a Textile Artist who applies Fibonacci number sequences to knitted fabric. So to casually meet some in everyday life who not only didn’t think it was an odd combination of passions but did in fact tell me they knew someone who had done their PHD in that sort of thing and that they had a podcast about the subject. The idea that there were enough people into both of those things to sustain a podcast was both surprising and delightful.

(The exception is generally if you’re really into maths. Maths geeks – and occasionally engineers – who knit will nod understandingly and talk to me about Fibonacci sequences and the golden ratio and then be horrified that I’m not only not a maths geek but that I don’t actually like maths. Most sound designers seem to come from either a maths/engineering background or a music composition background, I’m neither, I’m first and foremost a craftsperson. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I was altering a knitting pattern the other week – I didn’t have any graph paper to hand so I used an excel spreadsheet – that I realised that I visualise knitting designs the same way that I design soundscapes. Interchangeable blocks that layer and interweave to create something new and unique.)

Having spent the early months of this year clearing out my backlog of podcasts, I was able to justify subscribing to a few new ones and Knitsonik was naturally among the first to be chosen back in March. Why did it take until now for me to work my way through the backlog? Certainly not because the podcast isn’t interesting. It’s not even that the episodes are long, though that does mean I need to carve out time specifically to listen rather than sticking them on in short periods between other things. The problem with the podcast is that it’s…well…too interesting and inspiring. I couldn’t binge listen to it, because I came out of each episode really wanting to go and do some field recordings or make some sound art. Around 50% of my sound recording field trips this year, were as a direct result of listening to this podcast. I’d sit down with a pot of tea and some knitting on a Sunday afternoon intending to have a binge listen and a couple of hours later I’d be standing somewhere unexpected wearing my giant headphones, recording an interesting bird noise or weird echo and wondering vaguely how I’d got there.

I keep forgetting how much listening to other people be passionate about sound design and sound art stirs up my own passion for the work. (You would think that the exponential increase in my sound production work when the hospital radio station I used to volunteer with had an artist in residence would have clued me in but apparently not.) Sound is, in many ways, quite a solitary pursuit. Anti-social even. You spend a lot of time listening really hard to your environment; it’s quite hard to do in company unless you’re working on something that specifically needs another person to achieve. (The idea of embedding sound in a place, or in objects of the place the sound originates from, is increasingly important to me, especially since I relocated to the Highlands.) It is, therefore, quite easy to feel isolated in your work. Especially, if you don’t live in a large metropolis with an established community of sound artists. Even having an outlet like this blog, it can feel a bit like no-one’s listening.

Therefore, it’s been great to have this window into someone else’s sound projects, their passions and quirks, especially that rare confluence of viewing sound design/art as a craft with all that that implies. And oddly comforting to know that someone else finds sheep noises just as compelling and comical as I do.

Perhaps, if this year’s project was to write more about sound, then next year’s project should be to send more sound out into the world. Not just the stuff that I get paid to make, but the little projects that I make just for the joy of making soundscapes too.