Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.

Blank City (2010)

As part of the my ‘documentaries about women image makers’ themed week, this documentary isn’t exclusively about that subject, but covers lo-fi no-wave indie filmmaking in New York from the late-1970s onwards, many of whose key creators were women.


An interesting enough documentary that marshals a number of clips, as well as rounding up interviews with the key participants in the so-called “no wave” film/musical movement in NYC in the late-70s and early-80s, as it morphs into an anarchic and nihilist cinema of transgression. It’s interesting to see how the early filmmakers were responding to the city they lived in, with all its chronic underinvestment, poverty, drugs and the resulting bohemian artistic scene. They were all largely based in the downtown area near the Bowery, where clubs like CBGB’s could be found, just after the first breaking of punk music and into the post-punk scene. Some of them went on to mainstream success, while others moved far more into the art world, with varying degrees of success. The film is also keen to stress the central role that women played, not just as stars but as creative participants and directors of films within the movement, and we hear quite a bit from them also, like Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver, Beth B, Susan Seidelman and others. In all, it’s an interesting introduction to a fecund era of artistic creation, which could be every bit as obnoxious and off-putting as it could be cool and inspiring.

Blank City film posterCREDITS
Director Celine Danhier; Cinematographers Ryo Murakami 村上涼 and Peter Szollosi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017)

Agnès Varda made a lot of documentaries, and her final one, Varda by Agnès (2019), was the most direct film to deal with her own work. However, this penultimate film — while ostensibly being about pseudonymous French street photographer and sort-of-graffiti artist JR — is about her own practice as an artist in some way, or at least captures something of the spirit she brought to her feature filmmaking.


This is a sweet film in much of the way of Varda’s documentary works (a lot of which are extras for DVD releases, and all of which are worth watching), a very self-consciously confected tale of two people meeting and collaborating on artworks across a series of small French villages. JR’s art seems to involve photographing people and pasting them on buildings and other large-scale public spaces, which is fairly whimsical, and then there’s a made-up meet-cute and they hit the road in a picaresque tale of encountering small-town people on their level and then (very literally) aggrandising them. I’d feel weird about seeing myself on walls, but most of the people here don’t, and perhaps that’s Varda’s power. She is so sweet but always there’s that slight undercurrent of shade, such as hinting at JR being a Godard-like figure and then revealing later that Godard is a bit of a pr!ck (or a lot of one, though she’s quite nice about it). It ambles along amiably enough as a film, and perhaps that’s all any film needs.

Faces Places film posterCREDITS
Directors Agnès Varda and JR; Writer Varda; Cinematographers Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet and Raphaël Minnesota; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)

Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.

Continue reading “Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)”

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018)

There have been women making films since even the start of cinema, as evidenced by the new documentary about French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, and this documentary takes a personal look at an important indigenous New Zealand woman filmmaker who isn’t perhaps as well known as she should be.


I’m rather surprised this gained a release (however small) in the UK, given that it’s hardly likely many people in this country have access to have seen Merata Mita’s work. I studied film when growing up in Wellington, so I’d seen her key works: Patu! (1983), a documentary about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in the face of anti-apartheid protestors; and Mauri (1988), an evocation of small town Maori life. We get clips of those works here, contextualised within her career, but most fascinating is the figure she cuts: from being a working mum — a teacher in a small town bringing up several kids from a couple of unpromising husbands — to getting into film almost by accident, as a byproduct of her own outspokenness on social issues (which within the context of conservative New Zealand society of the time, made her something of an activist). Her earliest screen appearance is speaking out about an abortion in the late-70s, and from there she went on to make several short films which culminated in the work on Patu! But throughout her career, in the clips marshalled here by her son Heperi (an archivist, who also narrates the film), we see the way she confronted the kind of changes she wanted to see in NZ society and the actions she took to achieve them. Later in her life, she advocated around the world on behalf of indigenous filmmakers, living in Hawaii and working extensively among First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. Hers is an inspiring story, and despite its framing as a family documentary, her voice and work on decolonisation and the representation of indigenous narratives is wonderful to see.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen film posterCREDITS
Director Heperi Mita; Cinematographer Mike Jonathan; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 7 May 2019.

Shooting the Mafia (2019)

A new documentary called Be Natural about Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering woman filmmaker of the silent era, is released to (presumably limited) UK cinemas this Friday. Therefore for my themed week on the blog this week I’ll be covering films (documentaries mostly, I imagine) about women filmmakers and photographers.


This new film by veteran documentarian Kim Longinotto is, ostensibly, about Letizia Battaglia, a now elderly woman who made a career in photography, capturing the spirit of her home (the island of Sicily), and particularly in documenting the atrocities committed by the Mafia there. However, Letizia is in fact just a guide into this world of organised crime, and the film spends more of its time — including archival video footage, TV news and interviews, quite aside from Letizia’s photography — tracking the way in which the Mafia controlled society, and were progressively brought down by prosecutors, many of whom met their own unfortunate ends thanks to this violence. It’s a film about the legacy of violence on a people, and it also happens to be about one woman who played her own small part in documenting that and helping to shed light on the injustice.

Shooting the Mafia film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Kim Longinotto; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 21 December 2019.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.


Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

The London Film Festival has just finished, which means it’s straight into the BFI’s recent tradition, an in-depth focus on a particular theme that will run until the end of the year. They’ve done sci-fi and Black stars recently, amongst others, and this year it’s musicals, with a big UK cinematic re-release of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) planned for the end of this week. As such, I’m going to be doing a week focusing on that genre too, although as a fan of the genre, reviews have shown up in my other theme weeks (like the Australian 2009 musical Bran Nue Dae for that week, or Been So Long for my British women directors week). Unlike many of my theme weeks, this one may end up featuring more white male directors than usual, but the form has  a long heritage, with women taking key roles more often in front of the camera, or in writing and editing, not to mention (of course) the glamorous costumes and make-up. My first film I want to feature is one I recently saw, which also has a notable  sequence focusing on the lindy hop, a dance with roots in African-American culture.


This film is undeniably a lot. It is very extra. It revels in cramming gag after gag, absurdity upon idiocy every few seconds, such that even when we get a fairly ‘straight’ sequence — the young man singing a sweet love song towards his enamorata — the filmmakers superimpose cards over the screen asking a member of the audience to go home, that culminates in everyone on-screen turning towards the camera and admonishing this young man for watching. Because, indeed, another of the film’s formal features is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, whether actors on screen are addressing us or the projectionist (who for some reason controls where the camera is pointed, though it hardly seems fair to quibble). There are throughout moments of inspiration, even as everything else is piling on in an overwhelmingly zany way. For example, there’s the sequence where a male photographer is snapping attractive young women at a pool party and asks blousy Betty (Martha Raye) to step out of the frame, before she seizes the camera and starts objectifying the men diving into the pool instead, pushing the middle-aged guys in suits out of the frame instead. And of course there’s the entire lindy hop sequence, which is almost entirely self-contained, but also just a beautiful bit of pure cinema, capped by the (white) stars and director character scaring them off and then saying they’ll definitely find space for the troupe in their next movie. It’s all so meta that it feels like something conceived in the 90s, like something that must have inspired a generation of absurdist comedians, but yet it’s very much there in the 1940s and it’s a wonder.

Hellzapoppin' film posterCREDITS
Director H. C. Potter; Writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (based on the musical by Harold Johnson, John Olsen, Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias); Cinematographer Elwood Bredell; Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 14 December 2018.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Look, everyone else has registered their opinion on this film by now, and the discourse is frankly probably pretty boring to you all. But I wrote this when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I might as well put it on my blog, because I have mixed feelings.


I don’t think the world needs another review of this film, and those I’ve seen (at least amongst the people I follow on here, and in the press) have run the gamut, to say the least, and among them have been some very solid critiques and responses. My own feelings are fairly mixed, and the experience reminds me somewhat of Blue Is the Warmest Colour in the sense that it mixes technical prowess I really love to watch with some amazing performances, but has other stuff I feel is deeply questionable (and also is almost three hours long).

So let me focus on the positives. Some of the earliest criticism I’d seen focused on Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate — and sure, she doesn’t say much — but in the end she had the scenes I enjoyed the most, and was the heart of the film. Those scenes of her in the cinema (with, yes, her feet up in the foreground), totally digging the film she’s watching, the film she herself stars in, and getting a kick out of the audience reactions around her: that was pure cinema. I loved that. (What Tarantino is to Godard, so Robbie here is to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie.) I also loved the scenes of her next door neighbour Rick, the washed-up TV star, when he’s making a pilot for a new Western show — it’s where DiCaprio does his best acting (and it’s lovely to see a bit of Luke Perry, too). Usually I hate when filmmakers depict their own craft, because they rarely show how films are actually made and instead make them into these continuous scenes with barely any intervention. Well, I went with it here partly because the framework of this whole film is fantasy, and so when Tarantino shows the filming of a show, he completely omits all the cameras except the one we’re watching through (and the off-screen voice of the director, in this case “Sam Wanamaker”).

But then there’s the more troubling stuff, and I suppose it comes down to how you’re responding to this, and what you think Tarantino’s position is. He’s doing a lot of pastiche work here, and I imagine that recreating 1969 Hollywood, the films and TV shows themselves, the look and feel, the road signs and the fonts and the adverts and the packaging and all that, was probably a really big part of the appeal. When Tarantino talks about films he loves (as he does on podcasts and interviews with film publications), I am convinced by his all-out nerdery, and I think he’s extremely knowledgeable about that stuff. But pastiching a nasty exploitation film within the film (such as when Rick plays a character with a flamethrower burning up some Nazis in an on-screen role for some kind of Corman B-movie quickie) and making that part of your own filmed fantasy world (such as the next time we see that flamethrower) feel like qualitatively different things, and I’m pretty sure he’s getting off on the fun of staging it all rather than considering its moral implications.

Then again, for me, part of it is also just hearing people react with pleasure and enjoyment around me in the cinema when this kind of nastiness is happening, so maybe it’s not all on QT, but it’s also not unrelated to his strategies in the film and as part of his involvement in wider film discourse. I think he takes great pains to problematise this stuff in, for example, Cliff’s character — almost a leaf from the Haneke playbook (and, to be clear, I dislike most of Haneke’s films). Pitt’s laidback golden boy likeability as Cliff is clearly intentionally offset by his use of weird little off-hand racialised slurs and, more to the point, the insistent hints about his character’s dark past. This comes to a head in the scene with Bruce Lee via the forthright and unironic response of Janet (who plays the wife of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator character Rudy, but is also OUATIH‘s actual stunt coordinator, and given that Brad Pitt is playing a stuntman himself, is I think a pointed intervention). It’s an intervention from 2019, and it’s hardly the only one, but there’s plenty enough that doesn’t feel particularly informed by present circumstances, and so when I dislike this film, it feels particularly egregious because there’s so much stuff he’s doing — technically and visually, but also with some of the characters — that I love and could have made for a more rewarding film.

But I don’t want to be that person critiquing a film for not being the film I wanted it to be. And so I shall continue to think about Margot Robbie looking up at the movie screen with such sheer unalloyed pleasure in the moving image, and wish that I could be her.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho [35mm], London, Tuesday 20 August 2019.

آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)

As one of the world’s great cities (and most ancient), plenty of films have been made and set in Cairo. Aside from the film in the title of this post, a pseudo-documentary fiction about the city focused on a filmmaker (for Cairo is also a centre for Arabic language filmmaking), I’ve also included a short review of a short film directed by the great Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine.


Somehow I’d got it into my head before going to see it that this was a documentary — a poetic documentary perhaps, a city symphony of sorts, but a documentary nonetheless. It’s not, but it does hover somewhere on a border that makes the fiction it tells somehow more imbued with melancholy and a sort of immediacy, even if it’s been over six years since the scenes were filmed. It also serves as an effective love letter to Cairo, a city in flux even as it was filmed, with buildings crumbling and disappearing. It uses the character of a filmmaker (Khalid Abdalla), making its fiction endlessly metatextual, as we see him manipulate the image, discuss the project with filmmaker friends, even commission the calligraphy which appears as this film’s title card in the end credits. There’s no grand plot besides his own work to finish the film, but there are threads of a life in turmoil: looking for a flat, nursing his mother, pining after his girlfriend, and fearing for friends in other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cairo the filmmaker captures is such a beautiful place, and plenty of the shots hardly need to do more than frame a sunset or a city skyline.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Tamer El Said تامر السعيد; Writers El Said and Rasha Salti رشا سلطي; Cinematographer Bassem Fayad باسم فياض; Starring Khalid Abdalla خالد عبد الله; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 27 September 2017.

Continue reading “آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)”