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.