How to be at Home

The other day, purely by chance, I came across a lovely little film about dealing with lockdown and isolation – How to be at Home. It’s a charming little animated film poem from the National Film Board of Canada, tender sweet and relatable. Having watched that it was all too easy to easy to slide gently into the fascinating depths of their website to watch more and more excellent animations. I think the last time I fell down a rabbit hole watching NFB short films, was when I was doing research on John Grierson’s work the best part of a decade ago, but I may have fallen down again since. They have a fair amount of useful resources, so I may have got distracted doing legitimate research – they do have a decent chunk of Norman McLaren’s work – or perhaps I’ve just been sensible enough to put their YouTube page in another tab and promise myself a browse when I was done with the current project and resisted temptation. However, as the only pressing deadline this month is to write a blog post, as many days in the month as I can, there’s really no reason not to head willingly down the rabbit hole.

In order to stop myself getting completely lost down the rabbit hole, I intended to focus on their most recent playlist, a collection of new animated shorts marking International Animation Day – called ‘Get Animated!’ Unfortunately the vagaries of film rights meant that my choices were rather paired down, with almost all the films that caught my fancy turning out to be not available in my location. Though I must give an honorary mention to the film Mamie that was both compelling and beautifully animated – for some reason I kept expecting it to be in French, it felt very French.

My travels have therefore been rather more haphazard. Yet, time and again, I keep coming back to the film that started me off on this journey. I’ve spent time watching lots of Andrea Dorfman’s back catalogue, which have all so far been charming with a clever twist. There is, nonetheless, something special about this particular film. Every time I watch it, I feel like a find another detail that makes me smile or brings a lump to my throat. (Remember how many people it takes to make a story, just to make a picture move.) It feels very much of this moment – how could it exist without this pandemic – but it also feels like a very necessary piece of art in a broader sense. When there is so much talk about the conflicting ways in which the Internet makes us more connected to each other than we’ve ever been and more isolated then we ever were. As though isolation was new, as though the urban isolation and alienation has not been a subject with newspaper columns as long as there have been newspapers – perhaps as long as there have been cities. Perhaps it’s just more visible now, or perhaps it’s just expressing a truth that we need to learn over and again, that we’re all connected and there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely.

How To Be At Home is a sequel to another film that director/animator Andrea Dorfman and poet Tanya Davis made a decade ago, called How to be Alone. You don’t need to have seen the first film to enjoy this one, but having now watched them both it is clear that the second film is very much in dialogue with the first one. As beautiful as the poem that the film is based around is, there are a couple of lines that felt like non-sequiturs in it, but that having seen the first film make perfect sense – they’re not non-sequiturs they’re call backs, little private jokes between the collaborators themselves and between them and their audience.

A really nice part of watching the films in the ‘wrong’ order is that you get to see how much both halves of the collaboration have developed as artists in the intervening years, the animation much smoother and more cleverly executed, the poetry somehow more secure in it’s vulnerability. (It sounds like Tanya Davis has read a lot more of her poetry out loud in the intervening years, that indescribable element of having found ones voice.) As though everything they’ve been trying to say in the intervening years has been distilled down into this one practically perfect piece of art.

If you enjoy this pair of films I’d also like to recommend you Flawed another animation by Andrea Dorfman that is available on the NFB website, though this one is in water-colour storyboard format. It’s really lovely too.

Official Secrets

I didn’t intend to make today’s post about the film Official Secrets (Hood, 2019) but one of my colleagues suggested we see it, and having seen it I cannot think about anything else. It’s a deeply compelling film, with some excellent performances that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in either the topic or whistle-blowers in general. One of the great strengths of the film is the way that it portrays the slow build of frustration and anger that leads the whistle-blower to act and then the slow grinding toll that it takes upon her, her life and her relationships in the aftermath.

My colleague mentioned that it was nice to see Keira Knightly in something that wasn’t a period drama, but in a way it did feel like a period piece, with it’s careful reconstructions of early 2000s technology and websites. But beyond the fashions and the flip phones, beyond the slightly grainy archive footage, the zip drives and the answerphones, it feels like stepping into another world. Post 9/11 but before the financial crisis; before waterboarding and extraordinary rendition were terms that we recognised with resigned familiarity. If Katherine Gun feels naïve in her actions, its partly because with the benefit of hindsight we all seem naïve, in believing that once a lie has been revealed as a lie it would lose its power. (Also the journalists feel like actual journalists, rather than someone’s idea of what journalists are like.) The vast majority of the most damning things said in the film, are not spoken by actors, but are instead news clips of the things that those politicians actually said at the time. The archive usage in general is a clever move, as they’re all people that our protagonist never met and the pivotal information is what they actually said on the news to the public. It also removes that element of distraction and doubt that would creep in if they were being played by actors – focusing us not on the performance but on the words themselves, and removing the potential to be accused of re-scripting the words for dramatic effect.

Arguably this film doesn’t really tell you anything that you didn’t already know. That the Iraq war was illegal. That the government – both UK and USA – lied to their people. That there were no WMDs in Iraq. Any revelations it might have had to offer are sixteen years too late. And yet, it felt like a revelation, or perhaps more of a reminder that so much of the whole mess we’re in, in terms of politics and journalism and so much more, starts here.

It is in fact a timely reminder to those of us who work within the third estate, that it is our job to not blindly accept the word of officialdom, of press offices and publicists, to instead question and investigate. That there is a world of difference between being a public service broadcaster and being a state broadcaster; that both the press, and the civil servants at all levels, work not for the government of the day but for the people. That the government serves the people not the other way round. Naturally we should commend them when they get things right and improve things; but the other side of that coin is that we hold them to account when they get it wrong. Holding our elected officials to account is both our responsibility and an essential part of the democratic process.

The Return of the Take One Action Film Festival #TOAFF18

Once again, I seem to be attempting to see a year’s worth of documentary films in the last quarter of the year, in fact I suspect I’ve seen nearly as many documentary feature films this month as I have the whole rest of the year. I’m not entirely sure that it’s just me, I think there’s a definite skew of documentary film release dates towards the latter part of the year. I feel a bit cynical suggesting that it’s anything to do with the upcoming awards season, but surely if it wasn’t we’d see a flurry of documentary releases in the aftermath of the Sheffield Documentary Festival in June instead?

Regardless of the above, the end of November marks the annual visit to Inverness of the Take One Action mini film festival. I usually go for the environmental themed films at this festival and this year’s selection looked to have some cracking offerings on that front. (The trailer for Anote’s Ark in particular, looks worth tracking down.) Unfortunately, due to work commitments, those weren’t the films I ended up seeing! Instead I saw a couple of documentaries that could be considered to belong to the genre of ‘one person against the world’. But what they actually do is subvert this cliché, by giving these – often charismatic and also important in their own right – figures and place them back in their own context, showing the support structures and the colleagues that have pulled them up and held them back in turn.

Naila and the Uprising

I knew very little about the film before going in, only that it was about female empowerment against a wider activist movement. The wider movement in question in this case is the first Palestinian intifada.

The film uses animation to portray segments of the stories that by their very nature have no illustrative footage. Including those of imprisonment and torture, which allows the film to address the subject directly without making it feel exploitative of the activists past pain. The animation manages to be almost poetically beautiful without either obscuring the truth with rose-tinted glasses or undermining it’s point with too much gory detail. It’s impressionistic in all senses of the word and all the more powerful for it.

It’s both fascinating and somewhat depressing to see how much hope and activism there was towards real change during this time, even in the face of so much violence and oppression. To hear from all these clever, passionate women who stepped up into leadership positions during the latter part of the intifada only to be side-lined completely during the peace negotiations and within the new government. Lingering underneath all the interviews, is that feeling of an opportunity lost, the ghost of another solution that might have been, and whether that might have been a better more lasting solution.

Silas

Silas in turn is about an anti-corruption activist in Liberia. It’s also a fascinating look at Liberia itself, in the aftermath of a brutal civil war, and in all it’s contradictions. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the compromises and sheer volume of persistence required to make a lasting impact on any one cause. We learn early in the film, that Silas and his colleagues at SDI have been long-term activists, and that their research and activism around illegal logging had been instrumental in helping bring former dictator Charles Taylor to justice. The film’s central focus is on the campaign to protect one particular community from the predations of a multinational logging company, as a prism to look at the wider issues within Liberia, along with the ways in which the international community both interferes with and turns a blind eye towards these issues.

IFF18 @EdenCourt – Other Pleasures

During last year’s film festival I organised my film reviews using the festival’s own themes – Highlights, New World Cinema, Documentaries, Altered States and Shorts – which worked well as my viewing centred on a couple of the categories allowing me to corral them neatly. However, this year my viewing was rather less thematic as I saw a rather more disparate selection of films. So I find myself with three remaining films to write about that don’t seem to really hang together. However, arguably, these three films epitomise the theme of the films I saw over the course of the festival. Which is that of the importance of love – whether romantic, familial or platonic – and it’s absence, to our lives and how they interact with the world around us.

Capernaum

I picked this film out from the program because I’d seen Nadine Labiki’s first feature film Caramel several years ago, during my first run through of the 12 films challenge. And the film certainly lived up to my expectations even if it could not have been more different in subject and tone. It’s a film about poverty and exploitation, about cruelty and kindness, the price of survival and whether or not it is worth paying. Caphernaüm, we are told in the opening title, means chaos and that’s as apt a description as any of the world the characters inhabit. An invisible world of desperate poverty, petty crime, illegal immigrants and refugees.

Capernaum is like Caramel in one important aspect, in that it is a film about love and the lack of it. Most of the action is driven by Zain’s on-going quest to be a good older brother, first to Sahar and then to Yonas. To defy those who insist that love is only something to be exploited and abused for profit. The film’s only true moment of grace feels like a reward for Rahim who, despite her own troubles and struggles, finds the space to be kind to Zain in a way that almost no-one else in the film even tries to be.

Anna and the Apocalypse

I’m not sure what category this film should be put under. It doesn’t really fit under any of the film festival categories – for that matter, it’s a complete genre mash-up. It’s very definitely not a Hollywood movie though; it’s fundamentally a very Scottish movie – less about the accents than the news anchor of choice being Jackie Bird. I picked it because it was one of the young film programmer’s choices, and they gave us one of the gems of last year’s festival Cloud Boy and they did not let me down. This film was a delight.

It’s not a great work of cinema but it is genuine pleasure to watch. I knew it was a comedy horror going in, but not that it was also a musical and that could have gone horribly wrong. However, the second musical number makes it very clear that the film knows full well it’s ridiculous and isn’t remotely embarrassed about it. It’s the perfect balance between silliness and sincerity that allows them to pull it off. Though it probably also helps that the horror elements work really well, the gore effects are excellent, there are real moments of tension and some good jump scares to sit alongside the physical comedy that goes along with fighting zombies.

Birds of Passage

This is a film about the drugs trade in Columbia like no other. For a start it’s about marijuana rather than cocaine – and frankly in the day-to-day lives of the protagonists, it’s alcohol that causes the most damage. Additionally it’s set among the Wayuu people of northern Columbia – the largest indigenous ethnic group in the country – so not only is about 80% of the dialogue in an indigenous language, people both adhering to and ignoring cultural traditions affect everything that happens. In fact, everything that happens later is a product of our central character Rapayet’s quest to get the dowry for his chosen bride. As such the film ends up being not only about greed and corruption but also the battle to keep cultural traditions alive in the modern world. It’s sort of a gangster film in the family saga tradition, but it’s also something much more interesting and much stranger.

The Sound of A Quiet Place

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a bit of a fan of horror movies that make good use of sound. So when I heard that A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) made both good and plot significant use of sound I absolutely had to see it on the big screen with – most importantly – a stonking great sound system.

I would definitely recommend seeing A Quiet Place in the cinema if you can, and failing that with a bunch of other people. This is a film that definitely benefits from the collective experience, of being alone in the dark with lots of other people. I saw it in a packed screening on a Friday night, and more than the sound system or the big screen, it was the building claustrophobic tension both on screen and in the room that made the film such an enjoyable experience. The soft susurration of sixty or seventy people inhaling sharply or softly gasping, as they valiantly try not to scream has it’s own strange power.

The idea of the genre-savvy horror film has become so over-used that it’s become a cliché – practically a sub-genre in its own right – in and of itself, but A Quiet Place is a very different kind of genre savvy. It is a horror movie that knows all the audio tricks that are much beloved by horror films and their fans, and uses them to its advantage. The film is effective without that extra knowledge, but for those in the know, there is an extra layer of subtext and enjoyment as the film-makers play with our expectations.

A surprising number of modern horror films still revolve around the screaming point, that cathartic female scream of horror. (Amusingly, for all Chion’s talk of masochistic pleasure in identification, the most ‘iconic’ and arguably overused scream sound-effect of recent years – the Wilhelm Scream – is in fact a man’s scream.) But for this film it is instead the absence of the scream that provides the tension. In this film to scream is to bring certain death, so that even the archetypal scream of life, that which accompanies birth, is denied to us, being masked by an – intentional – explosion.

The screaming point of A Quiet Place is a man’s scream rather than a woman’s scream, but no less powerful or raw for it. The moment is only lightly foreshadowed so while we see it coming, the realisation comes when the action is already inevitable, events are already in motion, an act of desperation yet one entered into deliberately. Yet the moment that breaks the tension is the conversation that precedes it, a moment of profound emotional catharsis, conducted entirely in sign language. An intimate and tender moment, between two characters, underwritten by the tension as both the audience and the other half of the conversation come to understand what he’s about to do. The scream we’ve been longing for has its thunder stolen, serving instead as cover for an escape and as stand-in for the grieving that must necessarily be conducted quietly.

(As an aside, this is the second film I’ve seen this year with significant portions of the dialogue being delivered in ASL with subtitles and seriously, why is this still an issue? The young actress playing Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is brilliant, a really compelling young actress. I want to see Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017) purely on the strength of her being in it. Her performance neatly turns audience expectations of mute characters in horror movies on their head. She is no blank sheet or cypher for meaning to be inscribed upon or onto. Instead she drives plot and conflict, expressing herself clearly, not only in ASL but her wonderfully expressive face, indicates her ‘loudness’ and ‘silences’ that have nothing to do with the amount of sound she’s actually making at a given moment. And while she might indeed hold the secret to their survival, as soon as she realises it she has no problems communicating it. The film itself ending on a – deeply satisfying – moment of shared understanding between mother and daughter that requires no words.)

Otherwise the film uses sound, both in plot and practical terms, in both clever and consistent ways. The big plot significant revelation that we get, feels both earned and believable, with the clues that were left for us along the way combining to leave us feeling as though the answer has been lurking just out of…hearing range.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – New World Cinema

As is probably obvious to regular readers of the blog, this week has been the Inverness Film Festival. This year I decided to try organising my feature-film reviews about the festival by means of its own themes and threads. It’s probably inevitable that the ‘New World Cinema’ thread would be my favourite thread of the festival, as for me, that’s what film festivals are about, seeing obscure films from far flung or unusual parts of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see. This year felt like a particularly good one for this thread as none of the films that I saw that came under that heading earned any less than ‘very good’ vote on my audience choice award slips.

Blade of the Immortal
Apparently, Blade of the Immortal is Takeshi Miike’s one-hundredth film. Do you know what that means? That means there are ninety-five or so more films by him that I can watch! To a certain extent, if you’re at all familiar with Miike’s work you know what you’re getting with his films, and this film delivers that in spades. This year, I’ve seen two of his films – I managed to catch Yakuza Apocalypse on Film Four at the start of the year – and what I can mostly conclude about his film-making at this stage in his career, is that his films are much more fun these days. Blade is brutal and bloody certainly, but its also a film with a great sense of both humour and fun, and most importantly it has heart. It’s also really nice to have a film like this where the central relationship is platonic. Rin reminds the immortal Manji of someone he loved and lost years before, but that someone is his sister. Which neatly allows them to evolve a deeply devoted companionship – with appropriate sibling-style insults and arguments – while neatly avoiding any creepy undertones to the whole teenage girl and much older immortal bodyguard dynamic.

I laughed, I cried, I gasped with shock: a truly excellent film.

Pomegranate Orchard
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film from Azerbaijan before. Or about Azerbaijan for that matter. (For those of you struggling to figure out where Azerbaijan is on the map, its either as far East in Eastern Europe as its possible to be or as far West as its possible to be and still be in Western Asia, depending on your perspective.) This is director Ilgar Najaf’s third film and the second film of his to involve pomegranates. (Some quick research reveals that pomegranates are one of the national symbols of Azerbaijan, and the Goychay Pomegranate Festival that features in the film is a significant cultural event.) Apparently the plot is based on Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and as such features a prodigal son returning home to the family he abandoned twelve years before.

It’s a film full of space and silences. The family that Gabil left behind have co-existed together for a long time without him and do not seem to feel the need to infringe on each other’s space and thoughts too much. Both the characters and the filmmakers seem content to give each other space in which to be themselves and to make their own decisions. They’re conversations are measured as though they’ve learned to think before they speak, perhaps a necessary adaptation to avoid re-opening the emotional wounds that Gabil’s departure has caused. There is a great deal of play made of the relationships between fathers and sons, and the absence of Gabil’s dead brother. But for me the defining relationship of the film is the one between Jalal and his grandfather Shamil, with its quiet devotion and loyalty. Both of them men of few words, but with emotions deeply felt.

I spent the entire film feeling that Gabil was clearly up to something, but nonetheless, the twist was a proper gut-punch of a reveal. A really good film, atmospheric, beautiful and bleak.

The Nile Hilton Incident
An excellent Egyptian thriller for a Saturday night. A singer is killed in a hotel room, a member of the domestic staff is a witness and barely escapes with her life, and important people want the case to just quietly go away. Set against the background of the 2011 Tahir Square protests, by the end of the story the endemic corruption and utter failure of the justice system has both the viewer and the central anti-hero feeling no little sympathy for the urge to burn the whole rotten system down.

Leading man Fares Fares for some reason really reminds me of Christopher Eccleston, both in looks and in acting style. Which is no bad thing, as he’s an excellent actor too. His long serious face makes him look perpetually caught between sadness and grumpiness, but there’s so much going on with his eyes. An excellent performance as a corrupt cop discovering just how far across the line he will and will not go.

Cloudboy
Not technically part of this strand – this was actually one of two films to be shown as a result of the young cinema programmers project that Eden Court runs – but as a Belgian film set in a Sami community in Sweden I think it counts.

This is such a lovely film, one of my favourites of the festival. The protagonist Niilas is obsessed with sound and radios, recording things and people, and the film is full of all the weird perspectives and recordings that he makes. It’s such a warm-hearted film, with Niilas as this fish-out-of-water, finding his place in the life and family that his mother has built. The bonds he eventually makes with his siblings and mother feel all the more real for how hard fought they are. (And that his actions have real world consequences in this life.) And his stepsister Sunnà is clearly the most sensible, head screwed-on right person in the entire film.

I’m not entirely sure if the elk that keeps appearing at significant moments is an actual animal or a supernatural one, but the film gets away with it either way.

12 Films Project (Part 3)

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

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.

Stranger Than Fiction at the @Glasgowfilmfest

As regular readers of this blog will know, I always try to organise myself for an epic day of film watching at the Glasgow Film Festival. There’s always so many things I want to see and even when I worked in Glasgow there was never enough time to see them all. This year I decided to pick a theme as my more successful previous trips have had that in common. Given my avowed desire to watch 25 feature documentaries this year, choosing the Stranger Than Fiction documentary strand seemed the obvious choice. So, on Saturday I headed to Glasgow to see three documentary films back to back at the CCA. As I tweeted on the day: ‘Yes usher, I would most DEFINITELY like a cushion.’

First up was a little bit of a strange choice, Burroughs: The Movie a documentary about William S Burroughs from 1983. I’m not a great fan of the beat poets and the romanticism and mythologizing that goes on around them and their work. I’ve been trying to read On the Road on and off for years and mostly having to leave off because I wanted to smack Jack Kerouac round the head with the book. (I did enjoy the film of Howl but I suspect that the less I know about the people involved personally the more I like their work.) It’s really quite an odd experience to watch a documentary about a man who comes across a delightfully eccentric old gay man, when previously the main thing I knew about him was that he killed his wife in a drunken game of ‘William Tell’…

Second up was the rather more modern and more kitschly strange film Electric Boogaloo: The Untold Story of Cannon Films. For the uninitiated Cannon were responsible for such gems as Superman 4 and Masters of the Universe…oh and Zefferelli’s version of Othello. The driving force behind the company was a duo of Israeli cousins who moved to Hollywood and set about making the oddest mix of films. I get the impression that they wanted to be the kind of Hollywood studio that hasn’t existed since the 30s, churning out historical epics, action adventure films and musicals – without the Hayes code restrictions. What they actually made were closer to a cross between 1950s B movies and 70s exploitation films. The interviewees are an odd mix of actors who almost all despise them and technicians and other former staff who are an odd mix of affectionately loyal and despairingly frustrated in the ‘we could have had it all’ mould, The bittersweet outcome of the film is that some of the team that worked with them mostly learned what not to do and now make slightly toned down version of exactly the same kind of films to much greater success. They were pioneers and trailblazers, and good taste was a stranger to them, but as a lover of terrible 80s B movies I salute them. Some of us like Masters of the Universe.

Last but not least was arguably the best and most interesting of the three documentaries and the one I most wanted to see. Limited Partnership is the story of a 40-year battle for a US/Australian gay couple to have their marriage acknowledged and accepted to allow them to stay together. It’s a sweet and heart-breaking story of love, friendship, family and state intolerance. In its way it’s a history of the gay rights movement in the US and a lesson in the way that any civil rights movement is not a straight line from intolerance to tolerance, with steps forward and backwards along the way. Tony and Richard are such articulate advocates for their cause, so unflinching in their loyalty to and love for each other that its hard to comprehend that anyone could consider there to be anything ‘limited’ and lacking about their partnership.

Docs of 2013

I didn’t watch very many documentaries this year. Just five feature length documentaries, all of them very interesting and worth seeing, but only two of them – Side by Side, on the great film vs. digital debate and Fire in the Night on Piper Alpha – was actually released this year. I’ve written previously about the short documentaries I saw at the Glasgow Film festival at the start of the year, so things certainly started well, but trailed off quite quickly. To be honest, I just didn’t know about documentaries that were coming to the cinema, last year there was all sorts of excitement about films like Searching for Sugarman and, well actually all the other examples I was going to give turn out to be from 2011 rather than 2012 which just goes to show how few documentaries have penetrated the white noise of the multiplex. This year, Fire in the Night caught my eye in the press, but was promoted more as a Scottish film – it’s about the Piper Alpha disaster, and while it was a Scottish disaster, I don’t think the appeal is purely to the home audience, I think the subject has wider appeal, especially in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster a couple of years ago. Other than that, well I’m vaguely aware of Blackfish in as much as its caused a fair bit of controversy around Killer Wales and SeaWorld in the states, and of We Steal Secrets though only in the sense of The Fifth Estate being compared unfavourably to it. I seem to remember hearing about an interesting, if strange, sounding film about former members of the Khmer Rouge but needless to say that I’ve seen none of these films, I’ve not even seen them advertised nor listed as being screened anywhere near me.

The documentaries I did see though, they were good. Side by Side is, I won’t lie, a little bit pretentious. It’s a film student/geek film, it’s about digital vs. film and while it is fascinating, it’s a pretty niche interest, even with Keanu Reeves narrating. Though it did spark an awful lot of conversations between my friends about why though we’ve never actually made a film on actual film we still think it would be a tragedy if they stop making film stock. Probably the same reason that as a sound person I’ve only ever worked in digital format – well unless you count dubbing music across double tape decks as a teenager making mix tapes and fake radio shows – but retain an inexplicable protective love of vinyl. Man on Wire is essentially the story of the French high wire walker, Philippe Petit, who is best known for having done a high-wire walk between the towers of the Twin Towers in New York when they still under construction. It looks at why he did it and how he (and his small and dedicated team) pulled it off. Though personally I found the footage of him walking between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris more impressive, the Twin Towers adventure got a bit too James Bond for my taste. Bus 174 is a fascinating and despair-inducing look at endemic poverty and horrific prison conditions in Brazil. Officially its about a young street kid, Sandro do Nascimento, who held up the bus in question, held the passengers hostage and was essentially beaten to death in the back of the police van taking him away afterwards. He’s essentially a metaphor for many of Rio de Janiero’s social ills, but while the film does use him as a way to examine wider issues, it also makes him a human, three-dimensional character, whose life and choices were indelibly shaped by personal tragedy and police brutality, beyond the TV footage of an angry young man with a gun. The film caught my attention on the library shelf this summer because I wanted insight into the summer’s riots in Brazil and my goodness it fulfilled that role. Extranjeras (Foreign Women) is an interesting little Catalonian documentary about the diverse immigrant communities that live in Barcelona. From the older Chinese ladies who have lived in the city for 30 or 40 years and worry about their grandchildren having no interest in learning Chinese to the young girls from Eastern Europe and North Africa cleaning offices, struggling with the language and just trying to make it through the winter. The documentary felt like one of those educational TV dramas that you get in language class at school, informative but distant letting the interviewees speak for themselves, giving insight into the communities they’ve left behind and those they’ve brought with them. It was an interesting alternate/more realistic view of a city that I have a decidedly romantic holidaymaker’s affection for. Fire in the Night is a dramatic, heart-wrenching and even-handed look at the Piper Alpha disaster on its 25th anniversary. It’s one of those news stories that I remember from childhood, the image of the flaming rig seared onto my memory, along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square protests and the Braer Tanker disaster. It was weird to re-experience it as an adult but of all the documentaries I’ve seen this year – it’s the film I’d recommend most wholeheartedly.

I need to seek out documentaries again. I really enjoyed the challenge I did a couple of years ago where I saw one feature-length documentary a month, the way it made me realise how many excellent documentaries out there if you just looked out for them. It was also quite frustrating to realise how many excellent films would have passed me by if I hadn’t been so focused on looking for them – though that’s more of a film marketing issue. I’m your target audience (I’m regularly one of half a dozen people in a documentary screening at my local art-house cinema) if you’re not reaching me…what are you doing wrong? Time to find out…