The film I’m reviewing today has been picking up plaudits all year, and I believe is already on Amazon Prime so well worth checking out, but I was pleased to give it my support and watch it during the London Film Festival.
This is a film. It’s the second black-and-white film I’d seen in the same day dealing with Black lives in modern America (after Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version), but this has a richness in the telling that belies its origins. A lot of it is archival footage, covering the way that a woman, Sibil Fox Richardson (or “Fox Rich” for short), has been waiting and campaigning for her husband to be released, after a 60-year sentence for an ill-advised robbery committed when he was younger. A lot of the film just tracks her through various events and life stages, as her kids grow up and she speaks about her attempts to reform the system, chasing up judges and parole boards. It all coalesces in the final minutes in a sequence that really floored me, in its beauty and its empathy, and I feel revived in a very real way.
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographers Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.
The Middle Eastern and North African films are always a highlight at each London Film Festival, and the one I saw this year was this one, a tense thriller set in a contested area of fragmented borders in the State of Palestine. (PS Do excuse the way I’ve written the title; it turns out having two languages read in different directions plus numbers creates havoc for WordPress.)
This Palestinian film is a pretty tense thriller in which a Palestinian father (Ali Suliman) — who, for reasons, lives in a different home from his wife and children — has to get to his son at short notice. The only problem is an Israeli wall built between their two homes, only 200m apart, and an expired ID card meaning he isn’t able to get across. So he enlists the help of a people smuggler, and that’s where the drama starts as it’s hardly a straightforward process and involves a long drive to a mountainous area, a change of cars, and an enormous amount of paranoia from just about everyone. But in utilising this generic format of a tense thriller, it effectively shows up the daily struggle of those trying to navigate these borders in what is a hugely fractured territory, and the way that bureaucracy keeps people apart as much as (or indeed more than) it helps to ensure security.
Director/Writer Ameen Nayfeh أمين نايفة; Cinematographer Elin Kirschfink; Starring Ali Suliman علي سليمان, Anna Unterberger; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.
This was my second film at the London Film Festival this year, and while I do not generally post reviews of films I have not fully seen, sadly I was thwarted a little by this new world of online film festivals. I cannot speak of the ending because my session “expired” 20 minutes from the end, for reasons that elude me (I think there was only a limited time to watch once you click play, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site). Still, I think enough was clear from the first 105 minutes, and I will certainly be seeking out future opportunities to see it (hopefully on a big screen some day given its typically Tsai qualities of beautiful stillness).
Director Tsai, especially in recent years (such as in the remarkable 2013 film Stray Dogs), has been slowly stripping back his cinema more and more, and this film, although a narrative feature, is almost abstract in its rhythms, like his ‘Walker’ series of short films or documentaries like Your Face (2018). It’s “intentionally unsubtitled”, though the only words we hear are mixed very much in the background (and aren’t heard until half an hour into the film). The film shows two men going about their days (one of whom is of course Tsai’s partner and regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), a slow accretion of details of two different lives. These two come together (literally) about two-thirds of the way in, and then drift apart again. The images are beautiful, dark, sometimes completely empty and still, and often water-laden (of course, because it’s Tsai), but it’s captivating and shows his continued mastery of the ‘slow cinema’ form.
Director/Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮; Cinematographer Chang Jhong-yuan 張鍾元; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy 亞儂弘尚希; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.
The final LFF film I had a chance to watch before getting on a plane to the literal opposite side of the world was this horror chiller from Argentine director Natalia Meta, and it’s pretty effective at what it does.
I remember watching the director Natalia Meta’s first feature Death in Buenos Aires (2014) on a whim on Netflix a few years’ back and I think it’s generally underrated. She shows terrific flair at times in this new film, a dark psychological horror, following Inés (Érica Rivas), a woman who works as a film dubbing artist and who starts to get hallucinations and be driven a little bit insane by people who may be living in her mind, or may not be. It’s not perfect, and I think it meanders a little at times, but when it hits it’s really effective at creating suspenseful shivers. There’s enough really bravura filmmaking and control of tension to make it a really interesting watch.
Director Natalia Meta; Writers Meta and Leonel D’Agostino (based on the novel El mal menor “The Lesser Evil” by C.E. Feiling); Cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez; Starring Érica Rivas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.
The 2020 London Film Festival (LFF) just closed yesterday with a smaller more focused programme, conducted largely online via the BFI Player, though they offered some socially-distanced screenings of the more popular titles — along with one or two only in the cinema. I wasn’t ready for the in-person screenings, though as I’ve chronicled on this blog I have recently ventured back to a few (carefully selected to be sparsely attended) cinema screenings. Anyway, I’m now in a managed isolation hotel in Auckland (day five, certified Covid-free for now), so I missed the last few days of the LFF, but I did get to see some of the first week of titles and I’ll be doing a week focusing on those.
Some of the best American films are stories of immigrants making their way in the big city. Last year in the LFF we had the fabulous Lingua Franca and this year is this story of an African family (from Tanzania via Angola during the latter’s civil war) reunited finally after 17 years apart. The husband has been working as a New York taxi driver, and we meet them as they come together at the airport, before following each of the three of them in separate strands which loop back and then intersect again in a few places. These are lives in flux, and the film has empathy for each of the three — the father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is trying to hide that he’s had a previous long-term relationship, before the return of his wife Esther (Zainab JAh), who after the stress and troubles of the war and the loss of her husband has found solace in Jesus, and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), trying to hide her interest in dance from her mother. It’s a gentle film in many ways, though there are emotional traumas not far below the surface that it alludes to throughout, and it’s a beautiful one as well.
Director/Writer Ekwa Msangi; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Saturday 10 October 2020.
A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?
Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.
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.
Director/Cinematographer Abbas Fahdel عباس فاضل; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 9 July 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.
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.
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.
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.
I think my favourite documentary at the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online programme 2020 was this French documentary about its overseas dependency of Martinique, which ties in environmental damage with a legacy of colonialism and slavery in surprising and interesting ways.
It’s fairly common to see films about the global environmental crisis, and also occasionally one sees films that deal with the legacy of slavery and colonialism, but it’s particularly interesting the way this film deals with both. In many ways these topics are interlinked, particularly on the island of Martinique where this film is set. Here the French colonialist legacy of sugar plantations (and their ongoing importance to the economy and its export trade) ties in with agricultural pesticides which have undermined the environment, as well as the primarily Black workers whose lives have been threatened by both these things, and who keep herbal remedies alive from generations before. Interviews are filmed with these farmers and plantation hands as they do their work, which exerts its own fascination, and the film’s thesis comes out gradually.
Director Florence Lazar; Writers Lazar and Jean Breschand; Cinematographer Roland Edzard; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.