S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.

Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

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Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach

I’ve not been having the greatest success at keeping my ‘Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday’ strand going, so I’ve decided to change it up a bit to be more film-focused. I recently watched two films by French-Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach, and they each struck me as interesting works. Digging into her biography, she was born in 1960 of an Icelandic architect mother and a German-Romanian father who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied psychology in Paris, and then filmmaking at FÉMIS, and lived much of her life in France. She sadly died of cancer not so long ago (2015) at the age of only 54. She has a number of documentary works to her name, as well as these feature films below (two of six features she made in total, or seven if you include her TV film) — for some reason each of them having an English language title, even in France. Needless to say, I believe she deserves to be better known.

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پنج عصر Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.

At Five in the Afternoon film posterCREDITS
Director Samira Makhmalbaf سمیرا مخملباف; Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف and Samira Makhmalbaf; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Samira Makhmalbaf; Starring Agheleh Rezaie عاقله رضایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)

Surely Charles Burnett is the most adaptable of modern directors, able to work successfully at all levels of production (indie and mainstream, feature-length, short film or, as here, hour-long History Channel-type TV documentary). This is a film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, but it’s equally about the impossibility of knowing or representing this event, filtered as it is through so many other voices, not to mention experiences of the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Burnett’s documentary presents not just interviews with historians and commentators, but also recreations, recreations of interpretations, and even behind-the-scenes of those recreations. It’s really excellent, powerful stuff, and surely the only film you need about not just Nat Turner, but about the pitfalls of historiography on screen.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Burnett; Writers Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg; Cinematographer John Demps; Length 57 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 8 December 2016.

铁西区 Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing 王兵; Length 551 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016.

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May. See below the cut for reviews of…

Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)

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Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.

The Story of Marie and Julien film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016.

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

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January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.

Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)

Continue reading “January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”