Criterion Sunday 340: Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko: A Talking Gorilla, 1978)

This documentary, about a young woman (Penny Patterson at Stanford University) teaching a gorilla to speak using some apparent version of American Sign Language, is interesting partly in the ways in which it has dated in the interim forty-something years. I suspect that ideas of animal rights (if not personhood) have advanced somewhat, though these questions are explicitly addressed by the film’s narrator towards the end of this film. And as I in the audience am not a behavioural scientist, I can hardly assess the techniques that Patterson uses (I don’t know quite how robust her scientific methodology is), but the fascination is in watching her and Koko interact and drawing one’s own conclusions. That said, there are occasional talking heads which pop up to elucidate some of the questions demanded by watching this footage. Still, I end up feeling a bit bad for Koko: the lives of animals in zoos are too often poor, especially compared to their natural habitats, and Koko feels rather forced into this arrangement. The film leaves us with the question of whether it’s even fair to assess a gorilla in relation to human society; there is a sense of the “civilising” work of missionaries at times to the single-mindedness of Patterson teaching her sign language, and who can know whether Koko’s life was improved as a result. Still, she lived a long life — she only died two years ago in 2018 — and the film remains an interesting reflection on something about that life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only major extra is a 12-minute interview with the director from when the Criterion DVD was released, in the mid-2000s, in which he discusses the filming and some of the key members of the crew.
  • Otherwise, there are both (subtitled) French and English versions of the narration available, though all the footage is in English and (thankfully) isn’t dubbed.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 339: 一一 Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two, 2000)

I daresay A Brighter Summer Day may attract more plaudits for director Edward Yang, but this three-hour family drama is its own perfectly-satisfying work, channelling something of the quiet reflectiveness of an Ozu film without being hackneyed. In fact, there are a number of themes that could easily have been executed in a heavy-handed manner (not least this idea of the kid taking photos of the back of people’s heads) but which seem integrated into the film’s structure, which generally seems to prefer little scenes that don’t immediately connect up with one another but build into a patchwork that pays dividends by the final third. Yang’s camera often frames scenes via reflections, giving these dense deep frames through glass, reflecting both the outside world and the interior dramas scarcely contained within them, which is why when those dramas do exceed the frame in a rather bloody way near the end it seems so surprising (and maybe even a little unnecessary). That aside, the emotional arcs of the three main characters — dad NJ (Wu Nien-jen), frustrated by corporate greed at his workplace, and his children Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), each dealing with their own alienating circumstances — are all handled with aplomb and move towards a satisfying conclusion.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Edward Yang 楊德昌; Cinematographer Yang Wei-han 楊渭漢; Starring Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, Kelly Lee 李凱莉, Jonathan Chang 張洋洋, Issey Ogata イッセー尾形, Elaine Jin 金燕玲, Chen Xisheng 陳希聖; Length 173 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 13 July 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 25 July 2020).

Global Cinema 12: The Bahamas – Children of God (2009)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bahamian flagCommonwealth of The Bahamas
population 385,600 | capital Nassau (274k) | largest cities Nassau, Freeport (47k), West End (13k), Coopers Town (9k), Marsh Harbour (6k) | area 13,878 km2 | religion Protestant Christiany (80%), Roman Catholicism (15%) | official language English | major ethnicity Afro-Bahamian (91%) | currency Bahamian Dollar ($) [BSD] | internet .bs

A country taking up much of the almost 700 islands of the Lucayan Archipelago, between Cuba and Florida, with the capital located on the island of New Providence (where more than 70% of the country’s population is based). The name comes from the Taíno phrase ba ha ma for “big upper middle land” or else from the Spanish baja mar for “shallow water”, but either way the definite article is formally part of the country’s name. The Taíno were the earliest inhabitants, coming from South America around the 9th century CE, and came to be known as the Lucayan people. Christopher Columbus may have made landfall in The Bahamas (it is disputed which island precisely); thereafter the Spanish were in control but their main involvement was to enslave many of the native people. The British arrived in the mid-17th century and settled first on the island of Eleuthera, and later New Providence, before granting proprietory control to the English Province of Carolina under whose rule the islands became a pirate’s haven, before the British wrested back direct control. Liberated slaves were resettled on the Bahamas after the British ended their own direct involvement in the slave trade. After World War II, a strong movement for independence formed, and this was achieved on 10 July 1973. The British monarch is retained as head of state, with rule by a Prime Minister, head of the party with the most seats in the House of Assembly.

There is hardly a strong film industry in The Bahamas, though it has been used as a backdrop and filming location to plenty of foreign productions. Local filmmaking starts to take off in the 1990s and there has been a slow trickle of films since that time.


Children of God (2009)

Needless to say I’ve not seen many Bahamian films (if any; though certainly I imagine I’ve seen plenty that are partially shot there), but I can buy the divisions that are at the heart of this film. It focuses on Jonny (Johnny Ferro), a scrawny white art student who is sent away by his art instructor to go put some emotion into his technically competent paintings (we don’t actually see his work, which is probably for the best), and while off on a remote island he meets Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams). The complications that ensue are amongst family and the local community: people are agitating against gay people and gay rights, while the local pastor is flirting with young men, and his wife is trying to put her life together around this. There are a lot of intersecting struggles, and sometimes the ways they are linked can be a little clunky, while some of the confrontation feels forced. However, this is a film with its heart in the right place, making its points about tolerance in this small island community.

Children of God film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kareem Mortimer; Cinematographer Ian Bloom; Starring Johnny Ferro, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Margaret Laurena Kemp; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 1 August 2020.

Black Is King (2020)

I’m posting a second recent film today, which I don’t usually do… however, this new ‘visual album’ from Beyoncé was released today, therefore I watched it and present my thoughts below.


I haven’t seen the 2019 remake of The Lion King nor have I listened to the compilation that Beyoncé curated for that film’s release (The Lion King: The Gift), but I’ve seen this film now, and it obviously ties in stylistically to what she’s been doing for the last few albums, most notably with Lemonade (2016). Again there are the musical segments, choreographed and beautifully designed and costumed, sitting alongside the poetic fragments of voiceover (Warsan Shire’s poetry pops up once more, along with what I assume are clips from The Lion King film). If that previous visual album was harking back to a specifically African-American history, this one obviously looks to Africa instead, and Beyoncé has recruited a range of co-directors both from the continent and from its diaspora to capture the textures, colours and rhythms of some of the countries within it. It’s impossible (for me) to really meaningfully critique this work: it stands or falls on how much you love Beyoncé I suspect (and I do), but it’s also bold in the way it takes its influences and shapes them into something hovering right on the edge of narrative, neither a music video nor a feature film as most of us understand them, but something beautiful and opaque and fascinating.

Black Is King film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere and Dikayl Rimmasch; Writers Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow; Cinematographers Muhammad Atta Ahmed, David Boanuh, Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant, Erik Henriksson, Danny Hiele, Laura Merians, Nicolai Niermann, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Malik Sayeed, Benoit Soler; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), London, Friday 31 July 2020.

The Old Guard (2020)

I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.


I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.

The Old Guard film posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.

حقّ الخُبزات Haq Alkhubzat (Bitter Bread, 2019)

Another interesting film I saw at Sheffield Doc/Fest was this new piece by Abbas Fahdel (director of Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, which I’ve yet to catch up with), dealing with refugees displaced by war in Syria into camps scattered throughout the Beqaa Valley, a fertile region of Lebanon.


I visited Lebanon a few years ago; it’s a tiny country, and I vividly remember while driving through the Beqaa Valley seeing all these ad hoc communities of white plastic tents alongside the roads, nestled in amongst the farmers’ fields and vineyards. Looking out across the whole valley, you could see so many of them dotted around and their preponderance is of course because of the now long-running civil war in Syria which has displaced so many millions of people. The majority of them are in Lebanon, with Syrian people now making up something like a quarter of the country’s total population. This documentary gives a little bit of context, via on-screen text that flashes up to explain certain things (like the role of the Lebanese man who oversees some of the camps, or the governmental restrictions on expanding or building new tents), but for the most part this is just a portrait of what one such camp is like, how it feels to live there, the problems they face and the chronic lack of money (which must have become even worse now as the Lebanese economy has fallen off a cliff). The majority of refugees are kids, and we see them helping in the fields, or with domestic chores, playing football in the camps’ open spaces, usually by muddy flowing drains or busy roads (a fence at least exists, albeit because of a recent fatality). They live their lives, trying to remain upbeat, but it’s clear how bad things are and how little help can realistically be provided.

Bitter Bread film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Abbas Fahdel عباس فاضل; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 9 July 2020.

Volverte a ver (To See You Again, 2020)

Continuing with my reviews of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 films, is this Mexican piece about government cover-ups of extrajudicial murders. It’s a fairly confrontational topic but handled well, focusing on the women — often mothers or partners of the disappeared — who drive this process.


A patient, insistent documentary about continuing governmental cover-ups of extrajudicial murders and ‘disappearances’, following the efforts of a group of women who appear to follow the discovery of various mass graves, and volunteer to work with forensic investigators to try and identify the dead, hoping (but yet not hoping) that their own missing relatives and children will be discovered among them. The official line appears to be that these missing people are due to the operation of drug cartels and organised crime, but clearly that’s not always the case, and lies about how the bodies are found and how many there are in these mass graves, along with statements claiming these graves were for people unclaimed by their family, are shown plainly to be false due to the patient work of the (largely) women who only want to find out the fate of their dead relatives. The cameras cannot go into these sites, but we see the women suiting up in protective gear, and speaking eloquently, including in confrontation with local politicians, about the nature of the work, the decomposing bodies (still relatively recent, as the grave we see being exhumed is from around 2013), the painstaking methods of identification. We see the sheets they fill out, noting all the details of clothing and condition of the bodies, identifying marks, before these are whisked away, often to be lost again in bureaucracy. It’s a very specific story of a group of people, while also seeming to be about a pattern of human rights abuses taking place across Latin America and the world, one that requires we bear witness and continue not to allow this to happen.

To See You Again film posterCREDITS
Director Carolina Corral Paredes; Writers Pedro G. García, Paredes, J. Daniel Zúñiga S., Magali Rocha Donnadieu; Cinematographer Zúñiga; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Sunday 21 June 2020.

我們有雨靴 Ngor moon yau yu her (We Have Boots, 2020)

I don’t have a specific theme for this week on my blog, so I’m just continuing to post some reviews from the Sheffield Doc/Fest.


This feels like a particularly urgent documentary, and as such it has a rather scrappy quality to it. There’s a lot of text and a few interviews, but mainly what it thrives on is the first-person footage of the protests, the civil disobedience, that have galvanised pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the last five or six years (at least). As someone who is far outside this particular conflict, there are a lot of people and details to take in, and it can be difficult to follow it all, but then again maybe a proper accounting of this time would take an epic length multi-part documentary. Even the two or so hours we get here (and I gather there have been several edits; this one has an epilogue which takes it up to May 2020, making it very fresh) ping all over the place, but they have an anger and a focus to it that becomes clear, from the covert colonisation being done by mainland China, to the various autocratic laws announced or sponsored on its behalf through pro-China HK leadership, plus the almost inevitable captions for each person we see announcing how they’ve been cracked down on or jailed or censured for their involvement. And as the ending makes clear, this is all very much just the beginning; protest and democracy is an ongoing process and will unfold for many years yet.

We Have Boots film posterCREDITS
Director Evans Chan 陳耀成; Cinematographers Lai Yick Ho, Mo Ming, Wong Hing Hang, Nero Chan, Jeong Hun Lee; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Monday 6 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 338: Equinox (1970)

Undoubtedly a very silly film, something akin to a student film in the shlocky Corman monster movie vein extended to feature length. Two guys and two girls go for a picnic and to visit a scientist, during which they stumble across some caves where a crazed old man presents them with a book that opens a Pandora’s box of monster which attack them, and there are demons and park rangers and maybe they’re the same and basically, yes, it’s very silly. It seems to filmed in the same place as the climax of Short Cuts: certainly the whole thing had me expecting Robert Downey Jr and Chris Penn to pop up, being very dubious while out for a picnic, such that I took the occasional withering sexism as a commentary on toxic masculinity (though I suspect it was more intended as cheap laughs). However, the stop-motion effects are all rather delightfully done and it maintains a level of consistent silliness that keeps it from ever being boring or offensive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Jack Woods [and Dennis Muren, uncredited]; Writer Woods; Cinematographer Mike Hoover; Starring Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Christopher, Jack Woods; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 23 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 337: À nos amours (1983)

Maurice Pialat had something of an outsider’s relationship to mainstream cinema, it feels at times, a bit like Cassavetes or similar filmmakers who thrived on improvisation and documenting raw emotional states. This film focuses on Sandrine Bonnaire’s Suzanne, a fantastic debut performance and very much the heart of the film, whose coming of age blends with a sense of rebellion against her dysfunctional family and also, it’s hinted, deriving from depression (perhaps something to do with her family situation). The family, sadly, are the weakest part of the film, at least from an acting point of view (both the mother and the brother are frustrating to watch and come across as particularly and screechingly one note; Pialat himself plays the dad). It certainly is close to the surface, these growing pains that Suzanne is going through, her flings with men and her aimlessness, but for all that the dramas are evident, her own feelings are buried and largely inaccessible to any of those around her. She is a steely mystery at the heart of a messy film, and one that I suspect will grow if I revisit it, but another fine film in Pialat’s oeuvre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Dominique Besnehard, Evelyne Ker; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 18 July 2020.