Glasgow Film Fest: African Stories & Documentary Edition

In a change from your regularly scheduled film festival blogging, I’m sending you dispatches from the Glasgow Film Festival this month. Early in the pandemic I had the idea that I’d celebrate the end of the pandemic with a wee trip to the Berlin film festival, but as things have continued to make international travel unwise, I decided to take the safer option of the Glasgow equivalent. Despite having lived in the Central Belt for most of my life, and even worked in Glasgow for a while, I’ve never really done the full festival experience. (I used to do the Short Film Festival instead, cramming as many screenings of short films into a weekend as was reasonably possible.) Unlike the Berlinale, this festival is only spread over two cinemas, both of them just off – opposite ends of – Sauchiehall Street, which significantly increases my chances of still making the screening in the not unlikely scenario where I turn up at the wrong location for the screening in question. With so much choice on offer I decided to focus on two of the festival’s threads – African Stories and documentaries – in an attempt to narrow down my options, and several of the films I saw qualified for both categories.

Blind Ambition

This was the first film I saw at the festival and also the first to qualify for both categories. It was introduced as a ‘feel good documentary’ which I feel set it up for failure. It’s an interesting and quite charming underdog story certainly, but this was also a film with quiet undercurrents. The film follows the fortunes of a team of Zimbabwean sommeliers as they prepare to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship. (I should clarify that the tasting is blind, not the tasters, the wording of the blurb was not as clear as it could have been.) All four of the team members are charming and compelling on screen presences, and for all that they’ve all been through some fairly harrowing experiences, it only shows in how determined they are to succeed against the odds. They seem to worry most about letting down the people who crowdfunded their trip to the competition, but the pride of their sponsors in both Zimbabwe and South Africa that they got as far as they did, is the biggest endorsement of both their countries that the film could possibly give.

In a lot of ways, this is a film about telling stories. The four young men at the centre of the film, are all of them trying to reshape their own stories. All of them are refugees from Zimbabwe, determinedly building new lives in South Africa, yet they are all of them immensely proud to be representing their homeland, pleased to be able to upend some assumptions and prejudices about Zimbabwe both in South Africa and beyond. There are also a lot of other people in this film trying to tell other stories through and around these young men. One of the wine experts interviewed in the film, Jancis Robertson, explicitly comments on the overwhelming whiteness of the culture and that if they want the industry to be more diverse and less insular they can’t just talk about it, they have to do something to attract new blood to both the competition and the wider industry. It’s also nice that we see that their story doesn’t end with the competition, we see little bits of their post-competition lives, the doors that its opened for both those competing in the competition and the careers of the team members themselves.

Rebel Dread

If the intro to Blind Ambition promised a ‘feel-good’ documentary and the film itself didn’t quite deliver on it, then Rebel Dread was the opposite, the intro gave the impression it would be a serious, slightly worthy documentary and it turned out to be an irreverent and delightful journey through Don Letts’ life and career. Thankfully the audience clearly got what they were expecting – a not insignificant chunk of the audience were clearly there because they’re a fan of his 6Music radio show – and the packed house laughed, cheered and heckled along as appropriate.

The film definitely benefits from having the man himself front and centre, narrating his own life story in a disarmingly honest and unpretentious fashion. Possibly I’ve seen too many documentaries lately where the documentary makers have attempted to render themselves invisible, to create the impression that we are watching reality and that could have really done with a voiceover to keep the structure in place, so it was quite a relief to have a strong narrative voice to guide us. All documentaries about individuals are in their way dialogues between the story the people making the film want to tell and the story the subject(s) of the documentary want to tell. Perhaps inevitably with a film about someone as involved in the music and media industries as Letts this was a film that acknowledged that and even played with it a little. He comes across as quite the raconteur and something of a jack-the-lad – and how often is that a role working class Afro Caribbean blokes are allowed to play in the narrative? – but also as someone who has had to work hard to be taken seriously and respected professionally, and having achieved that, doesn’t need to take himself too seriously personally.

This is a film made with a great deal of affection for both its subject and the wider musical scene of the time, but without having rose tinted glasses – or if it does have rose-tinted glasses, this film is looking at us wryly over the top of them.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda

You may, if you’re the kind of film fan who spends a lot of time in the more esoteric parts of YouTube watching the delightful weirdness that exists in the parts of the industry where people have much larger imaginations than budgets, be familiar with the films of Wakaliwood. In which case the characters of this film will need no introduction. If you’re not, then the important thing to know is that Issac Nabwana is a Uganda low budget action film director who has become something of an internet sensation. The film is the story of the unlikely friendship and working partnership between him and his producer, displaced New York film nerd Alan Hofmanis and their attempts to take Nabwana’s films to the next level.

I was reminded somewhat of a film I saw a few years ago The Prince of Nothingwood about an Afghani film star and producer, making films on a tiny budget largely through force of personality. And perhaps this film would best be described as a cross between that and Talking About Trees a film about Malian film club trying to put on one of their members film in an old abandoned cinema. Another film about people who love films and filmmaking so much that they will try to build a whole film industry/culture in their home country against the odds largely through sheer force of will. It’s also a fascinating look at the reality of what the ‘democratisation’ of film making the digital revolution is supposed to facilitate actually looks like outside of the major film-making centres. There’s something both poignant and defiant about watching a film crew roll out an immaculate green screen backdrop over a set that is simply a blocked off street strewn with rubbish and bordered by an open sewer. (Also Dauda the one man props department is an old school ‘mad engineer’ making props, models and occasionally who vehicles out of cobbled together parts, I can only imagine what wonders he could create with an actual budget.) The electricity may be unreliable and the sanitation non-existent but they’ve got themselves a couple of decent digital cameras and a refurbished laptop that will run editing software and the world is almost their oyster.

(The film makes a couple of explicit digs at the wider international film industry and its snobberies, noting that they’d have an easier time getting funding if they were making ‘serious’ films – about the horrors of the civil war or the grind of local poverty – aimed at the film festival circuit, rather than making fun overblown action movies – primarily aimed at a Ugandan audience and secondarily aimed at an international action movie audience. Apparently cartoon violence is more offensive to certain funders than poverty porn.)

At it’s heart I feel that this film is about two men in their early forties from opposite sides of the world, facing up to the decision of whether to keep pursuing their dreams or settle down. It’s a mid-life crisis of a movie and it absolutely shouldn’t be as charming as it is. There’s just something about the pair of them, their odd couple dynamic, their unswerving devotion to making these charming B-movies that charmed me against my will. And maybe, just maybe they’ll manage to charm the rest of the world, if only just enough that none of them have to give up on the dream.

Sambazinga

This one swings in the opposite direction to Rebel Dread being the only film I saw as part of the African Stories thread that wasn’t also a documentary.

Sambazinga is a 1972 film – though it was banned in Portugal until after the 1974 Carnation Revolution – set just over a decade before at the start of the Angolan War of Independence covering the inciting events that led to a prison raid in the eponymous part of Luanda. It follows to contrasting paths of a married couple, first following construction worker and secret revolutionary Domingos as he is arrested, beaten and taken to jail to be ‘interrogated’, focusing on the solidarity between him and his fellow prisoners, and the capricious violence of his captors. The other path we follow is his wife Maria, as she travels from prison to prison occasionally being helped, occasionally being outright abused but mostly just being lied to and sent from pillar to post. As you might imagine from a film about events that prompted the kind of protests that when crushed start widespread civil unrest, this doesn’t end well for Domingos.

(There’s an interesting moment during one of the interrogation scenes where it becomes quite clear that the element the white police officers are most upset about is that one of the members of the revolutionary group – and we only really see them producing leaflets, they seem as interested in forming a workers union as they are in overthrowing the colonial government – Domingos is part of includes one of his white colleagues on the construction site. It seems to offend them on some deep level that they can’t articulate and at some points it feels like they’re attacking Domingos less for what he himself may or may not know or have done, but as a substitute for his unknown colleague.)

One Take Grace

This was my final screening of the festival, and I think both the film and I lost our way somewhat about two thirds of the way through this film. It started off promisingly, dark, strange and compelling, with a strong narrative voice courtesy of it’s protagonist Grace. Grace is a magnetic presence, drawing your attention and holding it. She’s a woman with the kind of history that could make her the subject of pity, but she has no interest in being seen as a victim. She doesn’t want her audience to pity her, she wants them to listen to her, to give her space to her story in her words. I don’t know the story behind the documentary but it felt as though director and subject had met in a professional context – Mothiba Grace Bapela to give her her full name, is an actress having changed careers in her forties – and decided her colourful life-story ought to be a film. There are various points in the film when we see Grace on film sets and stages where she seems very much to be in control – there’s a whole sequence where a younger woman that I think is the director is playing a younger version of Grace while Grace gives her direction – so it very much feels like a collaboration between the two of them. Even the POV shots of Grace at work as a cleaner, just the fish-eye body camera view of the inside of a house, with Grace’s lightly scathing commentary are both clever and compelling, adding to the sense that the documentary wants to put us in her shoes. There are some brilliant visualisations on past events, spare, hand-drawn animations that provide just enough distance from the awful reality of the stories, that the whole process seems therapeutic for, instead of exploitative of Grace herself.

At some point, around half way through the film we discover that Grace has been diagnosed with cancer and as her treatment progresses, so the film begins to, not quite fall apart but to lose focus. As though the film cannot quite hold together without Grace’s drive and creativity, it becomes a documentation of her illness and recovery, but the story they were trying to tell in the first place has got lost somewhere along the way. (Understandably subsumed in Grace’s energy being focused on surviving and being there for her children.) The documentary is fairly experimental in style throughout, but it seems like it needs Grace in the driving seat with her full attention on the project to keep it being good weird rather than bad weird. As it is the film sort of drifts to a conclusion, seemingly a little bereft now that Grace’s attention has moved on to other projects.

Netflix Docs

With cinemas once again off limits for a fair chunk of the start of last year, I decided to make a concerted effort to catch up on at least a respectable chunk of the documentaries available on Netflix while I had the chance. As dubious as I’ve been about Netflix having gone on a campaign to make a name for themselves in both funding and distributing documentaries, I accept that the main way that most people see documentaries is on television. Even for a dedicated documentary feature film fan like myself, who regularly seeks out documentaries at film festivals, or even just my local art cinema, the vast majority of my documentary watching is on the small screen. (And realistically, as someone who doesn’t own a television that’s mostly been streamed, since around about the dawn of the iPlayer.) There are definitely documentaries that really benefit from being viewed on the big screen – Free Solo comes immediately to mind, and while I certainly enjoyed The Dawn Wall on the small screen I did wish I could have seen it full size – but in general it’s a genre that I’m happier to watch on the small screen than most others.

As the vast majority of US documentaries don’t make it to UK screens until they’ve been nominated for a major prize – in most cases unless they’re a break out hit, or they get an Oscar nomination, it’s unlikely they’ll show up here outside of the film festival circuit – my opinions on the Oscar documentary category will be shaped mostly by whether or not I liked the one nominated documentary I’ve actually seen, and catching up, despite my best efforts is often a frustratingly lost cause. But now, theoretically it should be easier to do, though I suppose I won’t really know until we get a ‘normal’ Oscar season where I can got hunting ahead of time and prepare to have opinions.

I’m delighted that feature documentaries are starting to gain their own cult audiences on streaming services. My Octopus Teacher was an utterly charming nature documentary that would likely have passed me by had not it been the topic of delighted water cooler chatter.

Oddly enough one of the best documentaries I saw all year was a 2004 film about percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Touch the Sound which had some genuinely gorgeous sound design. (Definitely worth putting the good headphones in for, though it’s quite an immersive, almost overwhelming experience through headphones, it’s well worth it, just maybe turn the sound down a bit to start with, that big drum at the start is a lot otherwise.) It was a really compelling look at an artist at work, and one of the best attempts I’ve encountered at using sound design to get the audience inside a musician’s head. I stumbled across it quite by accident while looking for something gentle to watch while feeling rather burnt out from the news cycle and it fit the bill admirably. Understated and very good at what it set out to do, highly recommended.

In the middle of December, I realised that I was five documentaries short of my target for the year – twenty feature length documentaries – and given that it’s become something a tradition for me to spend the last week or so of the year trying to cram as many feature documentaries in as possible, I decided to make a determined go at it. I ended up watching a run of documentaries that proved to be accidentally on a theme. This is particularly easy to do with Netflix as once you’ve finished a particular film it will immediately offer you more films that you are statistically likely to watch. In this case they were all already on my mental list of documentaries I wanted to watch, in what I thought of as two separate streams, but that proved to be interconnected.

The first stream was a three film run of films about social media manipulation. I started with Coded Bias which is largely about facial recognition and the problems of systems in the US being programmed by a largely homogenous group of programmers – mostly white and male – meaning that they often struggle to identify faces that aren’t widely represented amongst that group. It travels through the dangers of these supposedly ‘impartial systems’ simply absorbing the structural bias and discrimination inherent in the the data that they are trained on, onto the utterly dystopian ubiquity of facial recognition systems in China and their tie in with their social capital system. Then we had The Social Dilemma that was consuming so many column inches with arguments and counter arguments last year. It’s a bit…simplistic in it’s arguments, very didactic and a bit overdramatic – subtle in making it’s points this film is not – but it definitely makes it’s points clearly. Though for me, the real power to the arguments was in the number of interviewees who’d worked for these companies and left, lining up to admit that they’d tried to create something good and made a monster. There’s a particularly depressing sequence about a time when one of the contributors had essentially laid what they were doing wrong and the harms they were causing, his essay/manifesto had essentially gone viral within the company – with people all across it contacting him to thank him for saying ‘out loud’ what so many of them were thinking/fearing – yet within a couple of weeks everything was business as usual, corporate inertia winning the day. Which as someone working in news media, watching scandal after scandal be exposed to no real impact is relatable to a painful extent. The third film of this thread, that really tied both threads together for me, was The Great Hack on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s a film of many different faces, that clearly evolved as revelations from various whistle blowers come forward and investigations revealed further information that seem to sideswipe even the whistle blowers. At it’s heart its a film about the way that power and money corrupts and co-opts people and the dangers of hubris when combined with powerful new technologies. Taken together all these films feel like a parable of the dangers of thinking that you’re too smart to be fooled and that you can manipulate people to make them/society ‘better’. That is, after all the story of so many politicians, you start of wanting to make a better world and get co-opted into the system. Why would we think that political systems wouldn’t learn to co-opt social media to it’s own ends? The problem with ‘move fast and break things’ is that while sometimes you break things for the better, but sometimes you break things for the worse.

(It also ties into Knock Down the House on a different level because it’s star whistle blower had started out doing social media for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Kaiser’s asked at one point how she ended up working for the Republicans and essentially her answer is that they were the ones willing to pay her. Her parents lost their home to medical debt, so she left non profit work and took a corporate job to help, and went down the rabbit hole. And if that story isn’t emblematic of all that’s rotten in the state of US politics I don’t know what is.)

The second stream was kicked off by Knock Down the House about first time candidates standing for congress during the 2018 US mid-term elections. All four of the candidates are women, from a diverse set of backgrounds, part of a wider movement not just to change red seats to blue, but to change the type of Democrat in congress in a bid for wider change. (It was particularly jarring to see Joe Manchin in the news just before Christmas proving just why they were campaigning so hard to unseat him in this film.) It’s quite fascinating to watch how these campaigns work at the grassroots level where they’re explicitly refusing corporate money so they aren’t beholden to anyone but their electors, in a system that is so very reliant on money. Though their use of social media to level the playing field in some ways definitely feels different in the aftermath of watching the other thread of films. And then it felt only right to take another run at The Edge of Democracy which I bounced off earlier in the year, that covers the dramatic upheavals in Brazil’s political scene over the last decade, with historical context. I hadn’t really expected this film to tie in quite so much with the rest of the films, but social media mobs and manipulation, along with creeping authoritarianism turns out to a big part of that story too. I found it particularly fascinating to see how late in the game Jair Bolsonaro came to the fore of the crisis the film depicts given his current prominence. It’s strange how differently both those films seem now after having seen The Great Hack than they would have been before that story came out.

Lasts and Firsts @EdenCourt

Last week, amidst a news agenda full of grim and saddening stories, a moment of lightness and joy reached me. Eden Court was re-opening. It might sound trite but it’s nonetheless true, having an excellent wee – actually fairly big as these things go – arts centre practically on my doorstop has been high on my list of reasons to counter the puzzled questions as to what possessed me to move to the Highlands and more than that, to have stayed.

So obviously the first thing I did when I read the official re-opening announcement, was book myself in for a pre-work morning documentary screening and lunch afterwards. I was amused to discover that pretty much the entire audience of the screening I was in remained in their seats throughout the credits, until the lights came up fully, as though we were collectively soaking up the previously under-appreciated joy of seeing a film, in the cinema, with an audience.

In a moment as delightful symmetry I discovered that not only was the first film I saw in Eden Court since it re-opened a documentary, but the last film I saw there before it closed was also a documentary. They were also both films made last year that have proved to very much of this year’s moment.

The last film that I saw before Eden Court closed for the duration, was a Sudanese documentary called Talking About Trees. It’s a film about loving film, more about loving cinema, of sharing the collective magic of a film screening. In the documentary four aging cineastes run a small film club, screening classic films for small passionate audiences, so far so average film club story. The difference is that Sudan has no mainstream cinema-going culture to contrast it against. After a coup some thirty years before, almost all the cinemas closed and the film industry collapsed, for nearly two generations, the cinema going that we take for granted – or did take for granted – has been non-existent. The film follows these four as they set out a deceptively simple task, to hold a proper cinema night in an actual cinema. The face all kinds of challenges, from the dilapidated nature of the abandoned cinema they’ve got permission to use, getting the correct permits to put on the screening in the first place – not an easy task between government corruption, religious inspired censorship, and sheer grinding administrative indifference – to the purely logistical difficulty of getting a profession cinema screen and projector delivered to Sudan. Each individual challenge enough to put most people off, but not these four, these are men accustomed to disappointment, and not accustomed to giving into it. All this is interspersed with their day to day lives, running the film club, making their own films – one of the four holds the honour of both having had films screened at international film festivals, and having had most of his films banned by various Sudanese governments over the years – and reminiscing about their memories of the past and dreams of the future for their country. And do they succeed, you may ask? Well that would be telling.

The first film I saw after the cinema re-opened, the morning it re-opened in fact, was White Riot, a film about the Rock Against Racism movement and a film as in your face as Talking About Trees is meditative and contemplative. Though I suppose in it’s own way it’s quite an elegiac film. It’s a film about a particular time and place, about young people coming together because of a shared love of music and hatred of racism. The decision to make the most of the copious archive material by using the visual language of the zines around which the movement came together, is a great one, and really well executed. It really gives a sense of how raw and confronting those original materials were while incorporating lots more archive material than you otherwise could have fit into the film, in a way that keeps it vibrant and interesting instead of dusty and dull. The subject wasn’t exactly new to me, having been a teenage alternative music fan in the early 00s, and part of the induction into being a ‘proper’ punk fan was learning about the politics and Rock Against Racism – or Love Music Hate Racism as they became – was an important part of that. However, it was really good to see a thoughtful, well-made film that both treated it’s subject seriously and as something worth remembering. (The film has also got some cracking tunes, and gave me a bunch of new old punk and ska bands to check out.) The film is partly an arty little documentary about music subcultures in the late 70s, and partly it’s a damning indictment of the evils of the abuse of power, media propaganda and systemic racism. It also draws a whole bunch of unspoken parallels with today’s issues around racial justice and immigration, it doesn’t hit you over the head with them, just lays out the facts and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. This is definitely a film that says: sure things used to be much worse and these folks helped make it better, but there’s still a lot of work to do. But I imagine that message felt a lot subtler and less urgent when the film was made last year than it does in this present moment.

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.

Oct Docs

It’s Autumn and that means one thing round these here parts. It’s time to binge watch documentaries. New documentaries, old documentaries, popular documentaries, obscure documentaries, it is officially documentary season both here on the blog and in cinemas in general. Although most of the documentaries I saw this month were in fact from this year, they were fairly diverse in terms of subject matter and stylistics. From the making of seminal horror movie, through the varied works of the New York Public Library system, across to Beekeeping in rural Macedonia and through the siege of Aleppo, these documentaries take the audience to places they’d never expect to go.

Ex Libris

I saw the trailer for this when it was showing at the Inverness Film Festival a couple of years ago. It looked a bit ‘Oscar-bait-y’ but interesting, so even though scheduling clashes meant I didn’t end up seeing it, I’ve kept an eye out for it coming back. Finally it came back as part of the Ness Book Festival, and even better it was a free screening. And thank goodness it was free.

This film is long. Three and a half hours long. And it feels every minute of it.

There’s probably a good film hidden in there somewhere – in fact if you gave me a copy of the film and let me take a run at it with Avid, I’m fairly confident that I could cut at least an hour from the film without you loosing anything of great import from this film. It feels like a rough cut, before the voiceover has been added, in fact before the script for the voiceover has been written. Individual sequences are interesting or compelling, but it really doesn’t hang together as a complete film. I haven’t the faintest idea what the film was trying to say. Everything is observational, so there’s not even any straight to camera interviews to provide context or explanation for events. It hops around between libraries and aspects of the library system’s work as though the filmmakers couldn’t decide which threads to pick and follow. I learned a lot of random – fascinating – stuff about the NYPL but in a completely scattershot fashion that left me completely dissatisfied.

The only theory I have about this film that makes sense is that they were shooting some kind of fly on the wall television series about the New York Public Library, the series got cancelled and they tried to salvage a documentary from it.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

At just over an hour and half, this film was the polar opposite of the above film and I probably enjoyed it more for how much of a palate cleanser it was. For a start, it’s something of a master-class in how to tell a story/present a thesis through your interviewees words, without using voiceover. I really liked the conceit they used for handling the archive interviews with all three of the central characters of the film – making it a feature rather than an absence. The way it incorporated archive footage in general, along with the voice-only interviews was really deftly done.

Much like 2017’s 78/52, this is a film student’s film – more than that a film nerd’s film – something of a love letter to a film. However, as I’m considerably more of a fan of the Alien films than I am of Psycho I personally got a lot more out of this film than I did from 78/52.

I didn’t always agree with the thesis that the film was arguing but at least it had something to say and said it clearly and concisely. (Though I admit to having no idea what was going with the Furies at the start, but just bear with it if you watch it. It get’s a lot less off the wall quite quickly.)

Honeyland

I picked up Sight and Sound magazine the other week with the intent of doing some research on films that might show up at the upcoming film festival. I didn’t end up finding any tips for that, but I did read an article about this documentary that made me want to track it down and there it was in the cinema listings for the following week. It was most definitely worth tracking down.

This is fly-on-the-wall (I guess ‘bee on the wall’ would be the better term here) documentary making at it’s best, where the camera acts less like a peeping tom and more like a nosy neighbour, watching everything unfold, asking awkward questions but avoiding interfering. Much like Ex Libris there are no conventional interviews – though there are certainly times when our protagonist is clearly speaking directly to camera – and no voiceover, yet there is a clear narrative structure to the film. This film has a lot to say about people living on the margins of society and they ways in which poverty, desperation and greed can interact, but it says it quietly and gently in a circular fashion. This is to a certain extent a film about cycles, the life cycles of bees and humans, the turning of the years, and the crushing cycles of poverty, alongside intergenerational tensions. It’s compelling and oddly soothing film.

For Sama

This was also a discovery from last month’s Sight and Sound, though I think I’d originally heard an interview with the directors of this documentary on the Film Programme a couple of months ago, though I think that was before it went on general release. By chance I saw that it was screening on Channel 4 and ended up watching it slightly time-shifted on 4oD – or whatever they’re calling it now, I confess I’m not a fan of not being able to pause the stream if you’re watching it like that. However For Sama was definitely worth wrestling with the stream.

This is a very different documentary from the rest of this month’s viewings and not just because it’s the only one with a voiceover. For Sama is a film with a very clear narrative voice, that of co-director Waad al-Kateab, being composed almost entirely of footage that she shot herself, both as a journalist and as a witness to and participant in the uprising and subsequent siege of Aleppo. This is film that makes no pretence at impartiality; it wears its partisan nature on its sleeve, a badge of honour. Our narrator starts out reporting on a popular uprising – fighting to give an alternative narrative to that of the regime – and ends up documenting the siege of her own city. From the joyful cross-communality of the uprising’s early days, through the creeping presence of ISIS – and the circular debates around whether what help they can offer to the uprising is worth the price the caliphate will demand in return – to the whole-scale devastation of the Russian bombardment. This is in many ways a film about hope – that lovely phrase of Obama’s the audacity of hope – about reckless hope, hope in the darkness and the slow grinding of the crushing of hope under bombardment.

Despite the darkness and despair that we follow her into, despite the way the film ends with them fleeing an almost entirely destroyed Aleppo into exile it remains a defiantly hopeful film. For all that this film is dedicated – right there in the title – to her daughter who we watch grow through the film, it is an explanation not an apology. This is why we fought, says the film, this is why we stayed and why we had to leave, this is the price we paid, and I would do it all again. It defiantly insists that they were right to fight for a better life for their children, that even though they lost, it remains something worth fighting for.

After all, where there is exile, there remains the hope of return one day, if not for them, for their children.

2. Widows

When I first saw the trailers for Widows earlier this year, I had two main thoughts, the first one was predictably enough, how cool a movie it looked, quickly followed by the growing feeling that I’ve seen this movie before. Wasn’t that the plot of one of those Lynda La Plante dramas in the 90s? (Okay, I admit it; I also thought two female-led heist movies in one year? Hollywood you are spoiling me! I do love a heist.) Turns out it was actually from the 80s but they must have re-run it when I was a teenager in the late 90s because I was definitely too young to have watched it the first time round. But the important bit, was that yes, it was the same story – enough of the same story that La Plante gets a story credit – which made it an interesting choice as the follow-up film for Steve McQueen to have made after the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave. Yet in another way it’s a film that fits perfectly into McQueen’s filmography, which has always had a focus on bodies as political and interaction between politics and identity.

For all that Widows is set in Chicago, there’s something fundamentally British about the film and it’s preoccupation with class over race. I’m not sure you could see this film and think the director was from the US. Perhaps it’s better to say that this is a film about the immigrant experience of America. It’s a film of outsiders looking in; that contrasts the story of the American Dream with the generations long struggle of immigrants to both belong and become ‘respectable’. (Never more viscerally than in the stand-off between Veronica Rawlins and Jamal Manning early in the film, and all the layers of meaning to his chilling comment of ‘welcome back’.) It also highlights how fragile the realisation of that dream truly is, how easily it can be pulled out from under you, and all the ways your past can be used against you or simply catch up with you.

It’s really interesting to see the younger Mulligan consciously make the choice to offer a truce to his rival Manning in the aftermath of his own father’s bitter rant. An unspoken acknowledgement of Jamal’s earlier argument that the move from crime to politics is both a well-trodden path and one his own fore-bearers made. (Given the amount of Americans I have seen playing ‘Irish’ gangsters with correspondingly terrible accents, it was a strange pleasure to see the two major Irish-American characters played by actually Irish actors who’ve made their careers in Hollywood. I also suspect that there was a little quiet commentary on the fact that there are still a statistically significant percentage of the much-maligned ‘illegal immigrant’ populations in the US are Irish.) It does make you wonder how differently that whole scene might have gone if Jack Manning could have said that out loud in a way that Manning could have heard. That despite all the superficial differences of race and class and respectability, they are fundamentally the same kind of people, men cut from the same cloth.

All of the women involved in the heist are trying to pull themselves upwards – however different their methods – and that is fundamentally what ties them together. One of the eponymous widows, Linda, has a line when she opts into the heist where she says that ‘if this thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know I didn’t just sit there and take it, I did something’. And that attitude seems to apply to all the characters we follow in the film, rich and poor, they all feel trapped by their lives and they all want to fight back against that. Fundamentally that feels like the theme of the film, people kicking back against a world that fundamentally doesn’t care about what they want and will crush them if they stop fighting for a moment.

This is a film with layers, and the more you dig in the more you’ll find; just as surely as the wheels within wheels that the characters keep discovering and revealing, will crush them if they stand still for a moment too long.

October Documentary Catch-up

I started this year with such good intentions about my documentary watching. After the success of last year’s documentary a month project, I was excited to up my game and try to watch 25 feature documentaries. I got a good start to the year at the Glasgow Film Festival, but then, well life got interesting and documentary watching fell by the wayside. I managed to catch a few documentaries on the iPlayer from the Storyville strand but at the end of September I had only watched 6 feature length documentaries. I needed to up my game.

Thankfully, my local arts cinema (Eden Court) was having a good month for documentaries so I was able to arrange a triple bill of documentaries across October. (I actually ended up watching four documentaries if we count Häxan from my last post, which I do.) If I were only aiming for twelve documentaries again this year I’d be feeling quite positive about the challenge – I was actually at the same stage in October last year before I had my epic four documentaries in two days session – but as it is I’m searching for ways to keep the momentum going.

Salt for Svanetia

Its essentially a 1930s Soviet propaganda film about the state building a road that will connect Svanetia with the rest of the U.S.S.R.. (The Svan are an ethnic minority in the mountains of the Georgian caucuses.) However, other than the last ten minutes or so, you’d never know. The rest of the film feels like one of those odd silent ethnographic documentaries of that period that leave the modern viewer uncertain how much of what they’re seeing is actually an insight into a now lost way of life and how much was made up for the cameras at the time. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way. The director apparently set out to make a fictional film set in Svanetia but could only get funded to make a documentary/propaganda film, which explains the rather jarring change of tone and tacked on feeling of the ending.

What really made this film for me was the live musical accompaniment. The Bo’ness Hippodrome’s Silent Film Festival commissioned the band Moishe’s Bagel (jazz influenced Eastern European and klezmer music…) to write a new score for it and for my money it succeeded admirably. The music was gorgeous and complimented the images and events perfectly. It did a good job of making some of the more sensational sections more human and real, making the Svan people more sympathetic than pitiable.

Palio

I think that objectively, this was probably the best of the documentaries I saw this month. Oddly enough it’s a sports documentary about, of all things, a horse race held twice every summer in a small Italian city for hundreds of years. One of the oldest sports events in the world and the only horse race where a horse can win even if it lost its rider. (It’s a bareback race and my goodness those horses don’t half lose their riders in style.) I knew nothing about the race, about the wider sport of horse racing – everything I do know I learned from reading National Velvet as a teenager – and, having bought the tickets at the start of the month, by the time the screening came around I had completely forgotten what the film was even about. Yet, somehow, the film is utterly compelling. The Palio is a horse race that’s largely not actually about the horses. Each rider taking part in the race represents an area of the city (traditionally the jockeys would be from that area but this is no longer the case and the area compete for the best jockeys – the horses are chosen in a lottery) and the wealthier the area the more money they have to spend on getting the best jockey to ride for them. While for most of the population the race is about history, civic pride, a place to play out centuries long local rivalries and a metaphor for life in the city, for the movers and shakers, the powerful and the jockeys, it is game of strategy, skill and corruption. Ever was it thus. In recent years, though, it has recently become much more about the latter element, with average rather than exceptional horses being selected again and again and one jockey coming to almost complete dominance in the race. But all that might change in the face of a young Sardinian jockey ready to challenge his former mentor. Will he take the advise of another legendary jockey and pursue the best horse rather than going for the contrade with the most money for bribes for his fellow ‘assassins’?

There’s a lot of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack, which does wonderful things for maintaining the atmosphere and plays nicely into the thematics with the young underdog preparing to face off against his former mentor turned competitor. A compelling and almost gladiatorial show down.

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead

Music documentaries are always a bit of a weird trip for me. Largely because I’m not usually a big fan of the band in question. (I do wonder what these films are like for fans of the band, who aren’t only there for the music and the fallouts. I suspect music documentaries are my reality TV, all vicarious voyeuristic pleasure.) The Damned were no exception. I’ve always been a bit confused by them, they always turn up on punk compilation albums but my mental image of them is more New Romantic than Punk (Dave Vanian and this vampire aesthetic have a lot to answer for). They were the first punk band in the UK to get a single and an album out, but they’ve been pretty much entirely eclipsed but the rest of the movement. The Damned are…essentially more of an argument than a band and pretty much always have been. Watching the film you do wonder how they ever managed to get albums written let alone stayed together long enough for one tour let alone to still be touring. Mostly it occurs that their greatest claim to fame ought to be that they all survived!

The best review I can really make of the film is that, I came away from the film not really liking any of them as human beings, but thinking that if they did happen to tour near me anytime soon, I’d likely make the effort to go see them. Make of that what you will.