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.