Ethics and truth in the land of documentary come under the microscope in our discussion of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s love letter to his childhood friend, Andrew Bagby, is a sensational and moving film that you should know as little as possible about before watching. It’s exceptionally effective, built out of a combination of interviews, home footage, still photos and more, masterfully edited to generate emotional affect – but despite its qualities, there are real issues fundamental to its form. It’s a hybrid of two types of film that find themselves in competition here: it’s a documentary, a form about openness and truth; and a thriller, withholding information until it reshapes everything you’ve learned so far. It’s a tension that may well be impossible to avoid – to resolve it might be to totally change Dear Zachary from the deeply personal, passionately made film it is.
The story Dear Zachary tells is powerful, moving and utterly gripping, and the conversation to which it will lead you is rich and illuminating. We recommend it without reservation, even though we have serious reservations about it.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
The beautiful song that opens Ron Mann’s Altman (2014), the superb documentary on Robert Altman now on Amazon Prime, has been a gorgeous ear-worm since I first listened to it. I could not find it on youtube. That, and Altman’s own opening statements of how he sees cinema, is the reason for posting this:
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael gives us the opportunity to reflect on a woman who, for José, stands above all other popular film critics, and whose work has always remained resonant. Pauline Kael effused about, excoriated, and defined an era of cinema and the culture that surrounded it, and changed the way films were written about. Through interviews with other critics, filmmakers and her daughter, Gina James, What She Said tells the story of Kael’s life, work, philosophies, and controversies.
And not very well. The documentary doesn’t ask interesting enough questions about Kael’s life, glossing over areas that just beg to be explored, such as the relationship that produced Kael’s daughter, which is handled only with a cursory line of superimposed text. José finds fault with the use of Sarah Jessica Parker to recite excerpts of Kael’s reviews, feeling it to be wasted time; Mike argues that we’re here because of her work, so it’s sensible to include examples of it, and the use of appropriate film clips to accompany the words works well. Wasted time or not, the film doesn’t show much interest in digging deep.
However, there’s pleasure to be had in spending time with What She Said‘s interviewees, and sinking into its vast assortment of archive footage and illustrative film clips. It’s a fan film, in the end, and enjoyable if approached with that in mind, and though Mike finds it hagiographic, José is glad of it as a corrective to Kael’s detractors, of whom there were many, who saw her as a harridan and whose sparring with her almost always had an obviously misogynist component. It’s an unsatisfying documentary, but well-meaning, and recommended to anyone with an interest in film culture and its history.
The latest winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory is a complex and brilliant examination of a clash of cultures and management styles and the diminishment of a class of workers having to grovel for jobs they cannot do without.
In 2014, the recently closed GM factory in Moraine, Ohio, was acquired and reopened by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company; many of the former GM employees, often out of regular work since the closure in 2008, would occupy new jobs there. While the film depicts clashes between the Moraine locals and the Chinese employees flown in to supervise them, it also ensures that it doesn’t accept any indulgence in xenophobia, instead showing employees of both nationalities spending leisure time together and getting along. The film is less interested in moderating the clash between the Chinese and American supervisors – a trip to a Chinese plant, intended to show the Americans how things should be done, with robotic employees, militaristic roll calls and company songs, long hours, hardly any days off, non-existent safety standards and a focus on quantity of production over quality, is met with raised eyebrows by all but one conspicuously enthusiastic visitor. That those unconvinced bosses are eventually replaced by more Chinese overseers is no surprise – nor is it a surprise that a bubbling movement to unionise the Moraine workers is suppressed by an appeasing extra couple of dollars of pay – that still keeps salaries at half of what they’d been at GM – and an expensive propaganda campaign that successfully scares most of the employees into voting against unionisation.
There’s a vast amount going on in this concise and potent film, and Reichert and Bognar work magic to marshal a sprawling web of people, plots and themes, and to allow the workers to narrate their own story smoothly and with little outside help (just a few lines of superimposed text here and there). It’s available on Netflix, and you should not miss out on it.
Luis Ospina, the influential Colombian filmmaker who died very recently, was last month the subject of an mini retrospective of his work by MUBI, who showed three of his films: Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty (1977, co-directed by Carlos Mayolo), Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger (2008), and his final feature documentary, Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (2015), and we’re grateful to them for making these works available to us with subtitles. We begin by considering how such an influential filmmaker, not only in Colombia but across Latin America, remains so little known in Anglo-American film cultures. We talk about the ‘Caliwood’ group and how we’re so used to talking about structures that we forget how individuals make a difference. A group of young friends with shared interests get together and share a house, turning it into studios, an art gallery, a publishing house and a cinema. This group happens to include, amongst others, Luis Ospina, Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo. We’re shown how shared cinephilia leads to collaborative cultural production, one that’s left an imprint, proven to be very influential and now become part of the cultural history of Colombia and Latin America.
In Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End we see how the friendships and shared interests of these irreverent, druggy, countercultural dissidents bore fruit and left a legacy – which is not to say that structures are not important (they wouldn’t have been able to do so had they not been of a particular class, one with relatives who could afford to lend out empty houses). The film serves as an important reminder that individuals can make a difference and that collaboration is essential. Harold Innis’ observation in Empire and Communications that colonised people need to be fully conversant with their colonisers’ culture as well as their own is amply evident in the conjunction of the group’s programming and their own production.
All three of Ospina’s works are concerned with documentary, representation, ethics. In Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger, the Zelig-like mockumentary about an imaginary person, the form itself acts as a way of commenting on broad strands of cultural and political movements internationally that had an effect on the local and synthesises and evokes all of the virtues we admire: the playfulness, quirkiness, intelligence, the concern with politics and ethics but also fun, a pin-prick to pomposity. And we share admiration for the savage satire of Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, a statement against the exploitation of the poor, unfortunate and mentally ill on the streets of Cali, by filmmakers keen to sell their work, and the image of Colombia that goes along with it, to Europe.
José is in thrall to Ospina’s work and the culture to which it speaks, and has boundless thoughts; and although Mike asks questions of the ethics at play in Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, even in a film so clearly well-intentioned and with such a valid point, and comments on weaknesses he perceives in the cinematic quality of Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End, finding it less expressive artistically than simply informative of a time, place and culture, he’s glad to have spent this time exploring Ospina’s work.
This episode has been released early (keen listeners will have noticed a jump from number 196 to 200), and that’s to coincide with yesterday’s homage for Luis Ospina, hosted by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, one we hope will be but the first of many to come.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Agarrando pueblo/ The Vampires of Poverty, directed by Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo is a scathing satire of poverty porn, very funny, quirky, self-referential and multi-faceted. A crew of filmmakers working for German TV are tasked with filming poverty. They chase after poor people on the streets, pay children to take their clothes off and go swimming for money, pin the most vulnerable to their poverty, all the while thinking ahead to the whorehouse they hope to visit later. The film alternates between black and white and colour film to startling effect, showing the differences in information conveyed and experience incited by a simple change of stock, Throughout bystanders interrogate the filmmakers: ´why always focus on the worst. Is this the only aspect of our culture Westerners are interested in? If you´re making money off our suffering, shouldn´t we be paid? ´At the end some of the real people who were performing the aspects of their lives most desired by Western consumers have a good laugh about it all, but not before one of them wipes his ass with the filmmakers money. Essential viewing for those of you interested in poverty porn and documentary ethics. A prime exemplar of Colombia´s ´Caliwood´filmmaking group.
Images from the great ‘Delphine Seyrig Defiant Muses ‘exhibition. The greatness of the exhibition is in conveying a range of feminist practices, collective and social, international, ranging from issues on abortion to sex work to trans performances of classic American plays, to the liberation of video as form, to the value even of unproduced feminist film projects (Calamity Jane). And a range of relationships between women (Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnès Varda, Simone de Beauvoir and so many more whose names don´t mean as much to me. I was delighted to see Jean Genet speaking up for Angela Davis and the Black Panthers as part of the work produced by Seyrig and the feminist collectives she was a part of.
Here is the program:
Plus some more images and text I thought some of you might find interesting:
Following his critically acclaimed documentaries about Formula One legend Aryton Senna and troubled jazz singer Amy Winehouse, Asif Kapadia turns his inquisitive lens to Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, and a man who moved rapidly from the slums of Buenos Aires to worldwide fame, winning the World Cup with Argentina and leading declining Italian club Napoli to two league championships. Kapadia’s film beautifully and economically tells his story, making understandable and human the dark side that accompanies the success, including an illegitimate son, his infamous addiction to cocaine, and perhaps less well-known, his association with the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime syndicate.
Mike has never really “got” these kinds of documentaries, and José is more than happy to oblige him with his impressions of what they do, and in particular what this one does so well. It is not just about the man but about the times, places, people and cultures that were the environment of his life. Maradona is rendered deeply human as the film details the grip that not only the Camorra held on him but also his football team, Napoli’s president refusing to sell him at his request, a capitalist demand for the value he holds, and then, when he is used up, this once-idolised, deified icon of Napoli is unceremoniously discarded, left to quietly slink away as his former worshippers turn on him – and all the while, the human cost to Maradona is incalculable, his extraordinary level of fame extraordinarily difficult to cope with, his descent into deeper drug dependence tragic and his punishment for beating Italy at the World Cup brutal. The film draws an important and poetic distinction between Diego and Maradona, as described by Fernando Signorini, his former fitness coach at Napoli: Diego is the youngster from the slum who loves to play, has insecurities and worries, and is, as Signorini says, “a wonderful boy”; Maradona is the star, the mask that cannot show any weakness, and an unpleasant counterpart to Diego – but without Maradona, Diego would still be in those slums. What the world has always seen is Maradona. What Kapadia shows us is Diego, hidden away, a victim of his own success, further and further buried but, nonetheless, always present.
We also talk a little about Amy, Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, which Mike has watched recently as José’s suggestion and truly loathed, finding it as exploitative and demon-feeding as the media frenzy it depicts and decries. José believes that Mike is too moralistic, but Mike disagrees, and that’s where we leave it.
But! Diego Maradona. It’s a truly great documentary, complex and rich, subtle and tragic, beautifully, smoothly edited, and featuring plenty of thrilling footage of one of the greatest footballers of all time doing the things that gave him that reputation. It’s fantastic. Don’t miss it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
A 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film in the form of a semi-dramatised lecture, we had absolutely no idea what to expect of Häxan, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. And what a great surprise it was, as we discover an extraordinary, perceptive, original, bold, witty piece of work that details the history of witchcraft, visualises medieval beliefs in wild set-pieces, and draws interesting parallels with modern-day institutionalisation of “hysterical” women.
The projection was out of this world, a 2K 2007 restoration by the Swedish Film Institute with unimaginable clarity, sharpness and contrast. It was unbelievable to look at. (Thanks to Holly Cooper for finding the technical details out for us.) And the film is full of images that benefit from the restoration; Bosch-esque dramatisations of Satanic seductions, a Witches’ Sabbath, and unholy births of demonic creatures. It was the most expensive silent film to ever emerge from Scandinavia, and it shows. Though neither Mike nor José is an expert on horror, and indeed despite Häxan‘s fundamental differences from horror, in its imagery its possibly foundational influences on several subgenres of horror is palpable.
There’s a remarkably sceptical, anti-clerical theme that runs throughout the film. While not strictly atheist, Häxan says clearly from the start it will discuss what folks in the Middle Ages believed without asking us to buy into it. Indeed, there’s a frankly dismissive tone: “Of course, this is all nonsense”, the film effectively says, “but let’s learn about it anyway, shall we?” This set-up, while unexpected, arguably creates a lack of direction and drive until the final chapter, in which we are brought into the modern day (of 1921) and Christensen draws direct links between the superstitions of old and what real-life events, phenomena and afflictions they may have been responding to. And that would be interesting, but the film goes further, talking about this all as not just a difference in the understanding of the physical world between people of different eras, but as a continuum of oppression and abuse of women. Burning at the stake, Christensen says, has been replaced by the mild shower of the mental institution, but how much progress does that really represent? Women are now considered to be ill or troubled rather than in league with the Devil, but is the difference between murdering and imprisoning them really so great? Not only does it pose these insightful and powerful questions, it even proposes things as specific as institutional sexual abuse keeping women in an inescapable cycle of incarceration and continued abuse; assaulted by the very men charged with running the system that’s supposed to protect them, they are left permanent victims, unable to plead their cases, for anything they say will be considered symptomatic of their hysteria, just as women on trial for witchcraft had no escape from torture and murder in a system that was ostensibly just.
We could go on. And in the podcast, we do. The 2007 SFI restoration we saw is available through Criterion, and you owe it to yourself to see it – it’s available on DVD and digitally on Amazon and iTunes, though the Blu-Ray appears to be available only in North America, unfortunately. Brilliant film.
(P.S. José would like to apologise for saying silent films ran at 8 frames per second, when they actually had frame rates that varied from 16-24 fps and often changed due to being hand-cranked.)
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
A documentary in the hard-hitting, extraordinary revelations, true-story-you’ve-never-heard mode, Three Identical Strangers follows three identical triplets, separated at birth, discovering each others’ existences at the age of 19. At first a joyous reunion, the story takes dark twists as the triplets and their families investigate the reasons behind their separation. That’s all for your summary – we won’t spoil the story for you!
Suffice it to say, we have severe reservations about the film, and in many respects. José is particularly unimpressed with the storytelling and weak focus – there are significant obstacles that the film has in understanding what happened to these men, obstacles that are no fault of its own; however, the things the film could investigate, such as their life experiences, it shows little interest in pursuing.
Mike, more forcefully, takes significant issue with the film’s ethics and failure to build a convincing case for most of what it wants to argue. Some of what the film decries is already self-evidently bad, requiring no elaboration; in other aspects, the film seems to assume we’ll all concur, doing the bare minimum to put across a point of view, expecting us to uncritically agree rather than arguing its case. And he finds it a deeply cynical and manipulative piece of work, accusing it of unethical behaviour just as it accuses some of its subjects.
As the conversation goes on, Mike takes against the film more and more, in what can surely be described as a hard-hitting and dramatic podcast worthy of many many awards.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.
Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.
We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.
As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.
All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.
Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.
A road movie about cultural dislocation. Arash has been living in Paris for the last five years but is returning home to Iran to sit for his law exam. He hasn’t taken to France. ‘French people don’t have a reason to be interested in you,’ he says, ‘what I’ll miss most is the alcohol aisle in the supermarket’. All his friends are Iranians. Two of them, Ashkan and Hossein, convince Arash to go on holiday in the last two weeks before he’s due to return home, hoping he’ll stay. Maybe he’ll meet someone and fall in love…
Like with all road movies, what the characters learn on the road is something about themselves and something about the country made of up of the places they visit. What makes this film distinctive, and thus more interesting than most of this type, is that what they learn about the country they are visiting is always dialectically counterpoised to the country they originate from: thus the reference for the South of France is the North of Iran; the girls they meet on the road are shown how women in Iran wear a scarve and what the various ways of wearing the scarve signifies etc.
Through the trio’s travels in the South of France, we learn about Iran:
Arash: I don’t know about you but I’ve been doomed since childhood.
Arash: They used to call me the son of the Devil.
Arash: Whenever I heard the call to prayers or religious hymns, I would hide behind the drapes and start screaming.
We learn that the very obese Arash originally put on the weight as a deliberate ploy to avoid military service; that Hossein had to mortgage his family home in order to give the government the fee necessary to guarantee his return from Paris to do his military service. Hossein who’s since married a French woman is stuck. Imagine at 33 having to return to work for someone else for free for two years. Does he abandon his wife in France, ask her to meet up with him in two years in Iran, or forfeit the home where his family leaves in Iran. Hossein’s problem is that he misses Iran; he sleeps better there; he’s happier there; but he’s more himself in France; can only fully realise himself – come closest to the person he’d like to be — outside of the strictures of home.
The film presents a very different picture of Iranians than one is accustomed to from the media. Here we see an easy, affectionate friendship between three blokes, who talk of love, poetry, and Tarantino; and why they don’t want to go to the mullah’s version of heaven: ‘That’s why I only drink the hard stuff, I’m going to hell on a high speed train’. It’s where he’s sure his friends will be. And who wants to spend eternity with mullahs? We get to see little of French culture, the landscape, a few village parades, the odd exchange of cigarettes with the natives. Even the girls they meet and share part of the road with them seem to me to be immigrants (I don’t think the film is explicit on this but when they perform a song, they sing in Spanish; one of the other girls they talk to, a waitress, is of mixed origin – her father is Moroccan, etc.)
We do get to see a group of men—funny, open, emotionally at ease with each other — restrained still by the patriarchal, authoritarian culture of home – Arash, surely close to thirty or more – has to answer to his father on the phone like a teenager; distant, perhaps excluded, from French culture but already changed by it in a way that makes a return for most difficult, perhaps impossible. Arash, modest, funny, at ease with himself as with others is a character you’ll come to love. France would miss him if it had ever bothered to get to know him.
An imaginative and exhilarating documentary on a group of teenagers in Aulnay-sous-bois, a council estate on the outskirts of Paris. The film is made up of interviews, recreations, and imagery usually found in slick sci-fi pictures (drones invading la cite, an owl descending for its kill). It looks very beautiful but more importantly, the film’s subjects and what we learn about them feel true, rounded, lovely.
These teenagers are first generation immigrants from various former French colonies. Some dream of the village they left behind, others hope never to return to it; none feel French, or rather they do, but second-class French, not like the ‘real’ French, the French de souche, who they imagine as being blonde and blue-eyed. They rarely see them because though they used to live in this council estate, they moved out once the blacks and arabs moved in.
Unlike most films of this type, this one doesn’t focus on the drugs and shootings on the estate, though that is constantly there as background but instead on the dreams and aspiration of these children: they want to be architects, stylists, successes in a world that they know doesn’t have much room for them and will try to keep them out.
All of them seem to have suffered from some trauma; some are in care, others have parents who are strangled by debt, many of them live with a single parent; those rare ones who enjoy two parents rarely see them as they work all the time; the children talk about the responsibility of illiterate parents who rely on them even to fill out the simplest forms. The voices of some of them seem silenced by the memory of past traumas. Most of them have a problem with trust. They talk of all the fights. The girls are ostensibly the worst they tell us. One of them started looking like Beyoncé but during the fight all her hair got pulled out and she ended up like 50 Cent. Many of the boys talk about the temptations of getting work as a lookout for the drug dealers. You’ll wonder what once happened to these beautiful children and the lives they’ll lead subsequently.
The film’s success is that it draws them out. As the film unfolds, each child, from so many different countries, believing in so many different religions, but with a shared experience of life in a council estate where drugs and killings are a way of life, is caught in that cusp of adolescence. Still children but on their way to adulthood, capable of independent thought, very articulate, and each in their own way beautiful.
My heart particularly ached for a fat young queen who’s an avid fan of the American soap opera ‘The Young and the Restless’ and can voice every plot detail. Régis N’Kissi likes being different, makes his own clothes and dreams of being a stylist: ‘all my dreams are about fashion’. He swaggers through the school corridors wearing fur and shades. He’s well-known and well-liked he tells us, then adds modestly ‘not like Beyoncé,’ but well-liked nonetheless. Though he always wears a bow-tie, Régis’ earned the respect of his colleagues by fighting one of the tough guys in the parking lot behind the school they call the Stadium, going three rounds and winning. No one’s bothered him since.
Each child is allowed to tell his or her story and voice his or her aspirations. The drugs and the shooting are part of their shared culture but so is the school and their experience of each other. Swagger’s a film that both gladdens and brings a slight ache to the heart.
Those of you who love celebrities and fashion will enjoy this documentary on the world’s most famous shoe designer. An eccentric of Hungarian descent who grew up on the Canary Islands, modelled himself on Cecil Beaton and constantly dreams of Sicily, Manolo Blahnik, wearing beautifully tailored suits and with scarves and socks carefully colour co-ordinated, is very much himself and a joy to behold. His career is legendary and touches on everyone who’s anyone in fashion: Diana Vreeland encouraged him to focus on shoes; Anna Wintour took solace in his company and his shoe-shop before either of them were famous; Paloma Picasso hung out with him in Paris; a thin André Leon Talley became pals with him in London in the 70s; he was the first man to grace the cover of Vogue in 1974, shot by David Bailey and with Anjelica Huston by his side. All of these people alongside Rihanna, Rupert Everett, Penelope Tree, Sofia Coppola and many others come to sing his praises. The film itself charts his career from an unknown emigré in Paris to becoming a fixture in fashion in the 1980s and household name in America in the 90s thanks to Sex and the City. It’s an enjoyable film to watch and, as expected, a delight to the eye.
There is only one moment however that seems to break out of the luvviness of the fashion world and hint at something deeper. John Galliano appears at Blahnik’s shop in the middle of a shoot. They clearly adore each other, lavish each other with compliments and then begin an homage to legendary Spanish flamenco diva Lola Flores. As they look into each other’s eyes and sing ‘Pena, penita, pena’, that classic and classically excessive song of hurt, both equally adoring but each trying to out-trill the other for the cameras, two lost boys are revealed; homeless, exiled, lonely and finding a connection in a shared appreciation of a culture they’ve largely lost but perhaps the more meaningful for that: it’s camp, silly, touching. I wish the film had gone deeper. Manolo Blahnik claims that there is nothing deeper to find, that shallowness is all there is when it comes to him. That’s what the film offers. But Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, in flashes of moments like those with Galliano, hints that it’s not quite so; that there’s a much more interesting story to tell, although it could very well be it’s not one Blahnik wants told.
Ai Weiwei brings displaced peoples from across the world together in his documentary on the global refugee crisis. In the podcast below, we discuss their plight, the film’s use of poetry, Weiwei’s imagery, and the countless ways in which he humanises people who are insulted, ignored, used as bargaining chips, and condemned to lives of confinement with no end in sight. Weiwei is kind, respectful, occasionally playful; the film itself is uncompromising. It’s a film that makes you want to do something about what you’ve just seen,
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link
A touching documentary about a gay man, Saar Maoz, born and raised in a religious kibbutz in Israel who’s kicked out of it for ‘not following the rules’, ie. being gay. He moves to London in his early twenties, meets a man he loves and starts a long term relationship. It doesn’t last. Amidst the sorrow and sexual experimentation that follows the break-up, he becomes HIV. He finds support from the London Gay Men’s Choir and then, at 40, finds himself in complicated discussions with the very extensive members of his family about whether to return to live in Israel. What makes it so moving is that the family is very loving yet almost murderously homophobic: ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’, asks one of his brothers. This is the type of film where the wish for a sibling’s death encased in an avowal of love is rendered understandable.
Saar Maoz is a great subject: charismatic, exuding energy and intelligence, emotionally transparent yet very vulnerable; moving fluidly between a learned ironic stance and a need for love so naked it feels an ache. What at first seems a contradiction becomes reduced to a tension as the film progresses. It’s encapsulated also by the London Gay Men’s choir, at once camp in their movement, kitschy in their song selection, yet simultaneously pure and true in their singing. The film places Maoz between family, where he is loved but is outcast (the scenes with his father are great), and community where he is a cherished but minor part of a very large group. In between them, Maoz suffers and longs.
Ultimately, London, with it’s cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic culture and make-shift support group of choir, medical lifeline, exes and friends, is nonetheless seen as a place of exile: where Maoz has gone to spare his family angst and shame, at great cost to himself. In the end, he decides to return to Israel, and to his family, in a job — running an HIV/AIDS organisation — that requires him to be out about both his sexuality and his HIV status. It’s a choice that raises lots of interesting questions: what is community? what is family? what does Maoz find in blood-ties that he couldn’t invent or construct for himself in London?
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now is not a formally daring or innovative documentary. But it will resonate and be of interest to anyone familiar with cross-cultural conflicts within families.
A meditation on art and history focussing on two characters credited with saving the Louvre from the Nazis during the occupation, Jacques Jaujard, director of French National Museums and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, appointed by the Nazis to see to the protection of artworks in the Rhineland and Occupied France during the war. Alexander Sokurov, isn’t afraid to meander, to be silly, or to be poetic. Historical characters pop up to comment on the Louvre, how it was kept safe during the occupation, and the significance of its survival to European culture whilst all around there was death and destruction. There’s marvellous deployment of historical films and photos intermeshed with areal photographs and dramatised sequences. The soundtrack appears visually on the left hand of the screen and the end credits start at the beginning. An essay in the old fashioned sense of a try, a personal one, akin to whispered thought. You end up feeling a renewed love and fear for all the skill, wisdom, the powers of expression and the sheer beauty of so much, much of it spoils of war, much of it the results of terror, all under constant threat. I like it very much. An excellent companion piece to Russian Ark.
A scathing critique that comes across as heart-warming and sweet; the structure of a fable to explain the present; poor people suffering hardship depicted with beauty and dignity: Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is quite special. Is it one film or three? Is it documentary or fiction? If it’s hard to categorise, I also find it hard to review: I simply find myself unable to remember, much less describe and evaluate, six and half hours of film on the basis of one viewing. So I leave you with a sketch, hopefully with reasons to see a great film, one that Richard Brody has rightly praised for re-inventing political cinema.
At the beginning of the first episode, ‘The Restless One’, Gomes begins to make a version of ‘1001 Nights’ but has an epiphany: austerity measures in Portugal are so harsh and so inhuman that the project seems frivolous; why not send all his crew to collect stories about how citizens are living through these times and then use the structure of Arabian Nights as a means to encompass them all? After all, what’s at stake in the telling for Scheherezade is the same as for the citizens of Portugal: survival itself.
Of the first episode, I remember the fantastical judgment of the cockerel, where a rooster is put on trial for waking up the neighbours; the way a woman gives a man some chocolate for having helped her and so that it might sweeten his heart; the businessmen so excited to screw everyone out of everything they can’t get rid of their erections; the rituals, festivals, dances as well as the christening of the ships in the dockyards; there’s also that international (and symbolic) collective cold-water swim which ends the episode. But what I remember most is the footage of the dockworkers, left not only without a job but, perhaps more important, also without a way of life.
There’s a wonderful moment in Arabian Nights where one of the dockworkers, screwed out of a settlement by the government and fired by the company, says that he’s only 50, too young not to work. He’s got a sister in Switzerland and he could get a job there. But if he has to go to another country to work, he’ll sell his house, leave Portugal and never return. If he can’t be allowed to subsist in his own country, he also won’t be extorted out of money by what he sees as a mafiosi alliance of big business and government. It’s angry and moving and made me think we’re probably all in the process of becoming 21st century equivalents of Corleone peasants.
Volume 2 is called ‘The Desolate One’, and begins with the story of ‘Simon Without Bowls’, who’s killed his wife, daughter and two other women. He’s hiding out in the countryside, careful of behaving honourably according to his code, and being supported by the populace for doing so. In fact he becomes a hero. The other story starts with a young woman, just having had sex for the first time, who calls her Mom for advice. Her Mom turns out to be a judge and we get to see not only the advice she gives her daughter but the reasoning behind her judgments on several of the stories we hear, which as each case develops, turns out to implicate someone from a higher and higher class. The final episode is about a dog called Dixie who passes on from owner to owner, each one telling a story of malaise and hardship.
Tom Bond, writing in Little White Lies, finds the story of the judge to be the most intriguing:
‘An evening trial begins in an amphitheatre, with a mother and her son accused of selling the contents of their rented flat. The case seems straightforward enough, but with the judge poised to deliver a sentence, a third party takes the stand and complicates the issue. Like a farcical legal version of Spartacus, the sequence continues with victim after victim standing to deliver new evidence. Some of the perpetrators have committed their crimes because of greed (or, in a prime example of the film’s absurdism, a rogue genie), but most have done so because of poverty.
There’s the mother and son forced to sell their belongings to clear a debt; the deaf woman who acted as a go-between in the sale of some stolen cows because her ex refused to pay child support; and the man who stole her wallet because he couldn’t afford to eat. Gomes suggests that austerity and unemployment don’t just impoverish individuals, but risk creating a butterfly effect. When those too poor to pay their way find inadequate support from the state, the only option left for them is crime. Their victims are often equally impoverished, creating a situation where those struggling the most are pitted against each other’.
Together all of these stories tell a tale of survival and loneliness, of the present imbricated in the past, of the otherworldly or fantastical being more real than the real. It’s like a magical realist fable shot in documentary style.
Volume Three, ‘The Enchanted One’ focuses much more on Scheherezade but what I remember most vividly is what the stories of the Chaffinches, their trappers, owners trainers, tells us about the current state of Portugal. There’s also the morality tale of the young Chinese girl who fell in love with the Portuguese man and has her heart broken. The film sometimes meanders. It’s sometimes overly whimsical. But I dare you not to well up at various moments and be completely charmed by people’s imagination, inventiveness, pragmatism and kindness.
Part of the problem with writing criticism and perhaps with viewing is that we want everything to cohere, to be balanced and measured, to make sense, for each part to be necessary to the whole. And the thing with great art is that it sometimes spills over, it delights with incoherence, it might move us through its tangents, we might learn something because of the moments of narrative incoherence.
In the introduction to a special issue devoted to Arabian Nights, the editors of Little White Lies write: ‘Back in 2012, we awarded our annual film of the year prize to Tabu, a sweeping colonial love story featuring a melancholic crocodile by the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. His follow-up, the singular, whimsical and boldly romantic Arabian Nights, premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – and we haven’t been able to get it out of our minds since’. I feel the same.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is great art. Nowhere in cinema that I can remember have poor people in crises being treated with greater empathy, dignity and a kind of beauty. Nowhere that I can remember has such a relentlessly scathing critique come across as so charming, so inventive and so delightful in almost every way (encompassing melancholy and sadness). A humanist perspective and humour obviously buys a lot of leeway. We might get restless and desolate at moments whilst watching it but I at least ended up completely enchanted. It’s a folly and it’s a great film. It’s unique. It deserves to be more widely seen. I’m very grateful that the tenth edition of Flatpack brought it to Birmingham.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre as part of the Flatpack Festival
Viacheslav ‘Slavik’ Kryklyvyy and Joanna Leunis once won the World Championships in ballroom dancing in the ‘Latin American’ category. But that was ten years ago. Their partnership’s since broken up; he subsequently retired; she’s continued garnering ballroom glory. As the film begins, Slavik announces a comeback with his new on and off-stage partner, Anna Melnikova. Slavik is sof-spoken and very charismatic, very focused, very controlling and a bit volatile. He’s in competition with his former dance partner and feels he’s got no option but to win. But his new partner is a beautiful woman with lots of other options. The film is a good portrait of Slavik, of the world of ballroom dancing and is also insightful into the power dynamics of any relationship. An entertaining film with some lovely dance sequences.
One sometimes can’t help but hoot at the notion that method actors created a new, more ‘realistic’ style of acting. One sees them now in old movies – James Dean, whom I love, is the most famous name that comes to mind — flailing about and being ever so ‘intense’ and, when one recovers one’s composure, one reads it, at best, as a style, different but no better, and sometimes a lot more mannered and worse than what preceded and followed it.
There are exceptions to all of this of courses. And Marlon Brando is one such. He’s simply a great actor, a monumental one. There are reasons why he was instantly celebrated, instantly influential, why he changed the course of American acting, first on stage and later on film. It is also worth remembering that in his heyday as a box office film star, his competition consisted of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford; more traditional film stars who often surpassed him in the box office rankings.
Brando was not only instantly influential but also instantly mythologised. In ‘The Glamour of Delinquency,’ writing not only from another century but from what seems another world, Pauline Kael says, ‘The United States has now achieved what critics of socialism have always posited as the end result of a socialist state: a prosperous, empty, uninspiring uniformity. (If we do not have exactly what Marx meant by a classless society, we do have something so close to it that the term is certainly no longer an alluring goal). What promises does maturity hold for a teenager: a guaranteed annual wage, taxes, social security, hospitalization insurance, and death….It may be because this culture offers nothing that stirs youthful enthusiasm that it has spewed up a negative reaction: for the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn’t even have a program, and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando.’
That’s quite a burden to put on anyone, much less young and anguished artist.
I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Marlon Brando. I’d read all the biographies, including his own rambly autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me; I’d seen the key films, and I felt my interest in Brando had been satiated, exhausted frankly. But Listen to Me Marlon is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. What the film has to offer that’s new is vast amounts of audiotape that Brando recorded for himself, sometimes to meditate, sometimes because he couldn’t get to sleep, sometimes because he wanted a record, evidence. But the film also edits these mountains of tape into a structure and a narrative and finds excellent images to accompany Marlon’s voice, speaking in his twilight years, in the night, and into the void, as a means of making sense of what’s happened, what he searched for and what he lost, what turned him from a beacon and into an overweight depressive who couldn’t even take care of that which he loved most, his children.
The film begins by Brando telling us that his face has been scanned by a computer, in motion, and whilst conveying different expressions and that, out of these, the computer could then generate much more, i.e. the actor is now unnecessary, even the actor’s job has been taken over by a machine. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why this can never be so, as we hear Brando recite some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, interspersed throughout the film, usually spoken to himself from memory — this is a language he loved that expressed something he felt to be true — to make sense of his life, very movingly. The first is from Macbeth:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Brando’s career is a metaphor for America in what’s been called ‘The American Century’: so much talent, so much beauty, so much genius, so many gifts bestowed by the gods, so easily corrupted, thrown away, deprecated, debased; an amazing talent to turn the many bounties bestowed by the Gods into nasty, self-agrandizing ugliness. Yet, the film makes us understand this. The abusive father, the shame and pity incurred by his mother’s being the town drunk, the insecurity engendered by the feeling that he wasn’t very bright, that all he had to offer was his beauty, his escape to New York and the freedom and release he found there. One senses that this rejection of Omaha, middle America, all the Rockwell Saturday Evening Post certainties, also gave him freedom. Impossible to dictate behaviour, norms, societal niceties to a child if one parent’s a wife beater and the other passes out on Main Street.
The freedom is what enabled him to search and to express that which he found, that which he found lacking, and that which he was searching for but couldn’t find. The film demonstrates what a great, versatile and original actor Brando was through a whole series of clips of his most celebrated performances: The Men, The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and many of his most infamous flops, including Chaplin’s The Millionairess and Mutiny on the Bounty. The one that struck me most is the moment in The Godfather where he’s told of his son Sonny’s death, acknowledges it, clearly tries to restrain the emotion that he’s feeling, but then he exhales from one side of his nose and half his face seems to collapse, indicating the depths of his grief thought an uncontrollable moment of breath. It’s such an original and beautiful acting choice: so right. One can’t imagine anyone else doing it and one can’t imagine Don Corleone feeling anything less.
Near the beginning of the film, when Brando’s describing his first days in New York, how kind Stella Adler had been to him and how much she taught him, the revelling in his triumph in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film evokes the same kind of nocturnal, alcohol fuelled, sexual freedom Gore Vidal so well describes in Palimpsest as being characteristic of New York in the late 40s. It was the ‘American Century’ but Americans had come back changed from the war and didn’t believe the old verities. Everything was possible.
Much of the film is devoted to showing the descent into tragedy; but the film very cleverly interweaves the triumphs with disaster; the great performances with the failed relationships; what his island in Tahiti meant to him with the fact that even an island couldn’t protect his children from misfortune; the box-office success wit the relationship with his father; his fight for civil rights and the rights of indigenous people with his own inability to keep his own home together. It’s a messy life the film presents, a complex one, riveting and moving
When he begins reciting Sonnet 29 into his tape:
‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising’
We don’t miss the last few lines of the sonnet:
‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
The film makes us understand and feel his loneliness, his sense of failure; we regret that he gave up on acting around the time of Apocalypse Now. Decline was perhaps inevitable but Brando’s fall and the way he fell…it’s not only that he turned into a joke — the great beauty and sex symbol now so fat he could barely move, though even as a joke he never lost his popularly acknowledged title as ‘the greatest film actor of his generation, but that decline turned to tragedy: a son jailed for murder, a daughter committing suicide, nothing but fast food for comfort and only audiotape to talk through and make sense of his life.
It’s a great film; and though I’ve focussed here on the audiotape, there is also fantastic footage, not only from the films but from press conferences – Brando flirting with a journalist in the early sixties is something to behold – old tv shows showing him interviewed at home with his father, his marching with Dr. King and his speaking on behalf of Native Americans on Cavett. It’s a complex weave of a life with a central insight – that Brando overvalued sex and couldn’t understand or accept love, presumably until he had his own children. And there’s an interesting tension that the film provokes between how he saw himself; a small-town boy, abused and mistrustful, fundamentally decent, not too bright and what the world saw; a beautiful, explosive actor, seemingly capable of understanding and expressing all that people are capable of feeling.
Listen to Me Marlon is a film to see. In a superb recent interview with the director and some of his children in The Guardian, one of them, Miko Brando says, ‘This film is about as close as you get to knowing him without ever meeting him’. One senses that, even as it makes one want to know more.
 Pauline Kael, ‘The Glamour of Delinquency’, I Lost It At The Movies, New York, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 1965, p. 45