Battles (2015)

This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.


There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.

Battles film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.

A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.

ハッピーアワー Happy Hour (2015)

So far in my ‘long films week’ I’ve focused on films which are long due to their aesthetic ideals of slow, long-form cinema which moves very and deliberately slowly, but there are other reasons films go long. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 derives its durational intensity from a series of acting improvisations that cohere around a mystery plot, and in this Japanese film from a few years ago it is again improvisational work (all with non-professionals) which provides the length, as the situations they work on start to build up in complexity and emotional resonance. In such cases, the length may feel necessary for a true depth of character, and makes such films rather closer to the TV mini-series format, whereby character takes prominence over plotting.


Much like the “happy hours” which are advertised in pubs and bars, you know that what you will end up getting will neither be an hour long nor ultimately result in happiness, and so it is in this film. It is five and a quarter hours long, and although it’s not exactly a tragedy, it does seem to deal with four different routes through unhappiness (some of which at least may end up somewhere positive).

It follows four women, all friends in their late-30s in Kobe, all of whom are first seen happily eating together on a hilltop promontory and planning a trip to a spa town. Three of them are married and one is divorced, and throughout the film we get a sense of each of their characters: Jun (Rira Kawamura), the linchpin who brought them together, unemployed and going through a divorce; Akari (Sachie Tanaka), the tough-minded nurse; Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), who keeps the home and raises her teenage son; and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), an administrator for some kind of a creative/arts space. As the film progresses, we get the sense of each of them, and their relationships (with men and with each other).

In taking on a story with four main characters, the film seems interested in the balance between them, and an extended workshop scene near the start facilitated by Fumi with an ‘artist’ (a shady character who comes across like the kind of role Adam Driver might play) uses trust exercises and the like to forge bonds between the performers, looking for natural points of balance in both furniture and people. If he seems to be on the make for a pick-up, the husbands aren’t very much better, being instead rather detached from their wives. Fumi’s husband is a literary editor working with a younger (woman) author, while Sakurako’s is well-meaning but a bit stupid (even his mother has to slap him upside the head at one point, in a particularly amusing moment amidst a family crisis that is not so).

Much of the acting seems to be deliberately downplayed, delivered frontally with clear diction and a noticeable lack of characters talking over each other. It suggests a heightened dramatic register that is perhaps borne out by the trajectories the characters take. The events of the film, indeed, might be considered melodramatic, but any such hint of that particular register is keenly avoided by the filmmakers at every step, and the performance styles certainly contribute to that.

There’s ultimately a lingering sense of mystery (one of the characters even largely disappears about halfway through, à la L’avventura perhaps except for the sense that she’s still in the world somewhere). Relationships are continually fractured and reconfigured, but there’s also a simple joy to the ensemble performances. There are also plenty of sublime moments. For myself, I want to mention the scene where Sakurako listens to the young woman author speak (her name is rather distracting for the English-speaking audience when transcribed: Ms Nose), and then at dinner afterwards offers her halting opinion: that she has shared the same experiences in the same place as the author, but is saddened because she never felt any of the same intensity of emotion — an observation hinting at the lack of stimulation Sakurako receives from life, and which the actor conveys so well in her performance. There are plenty of such observations in the film, and plenty of rewards to receive.

Happy Hour film posterCREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara 野原位 and Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa 北川喜雄; Starring Sachie Tanaka 田中幸恵, Hazuki Kikuchi 菊池葉月, Maiko Mihara 三原麻衣子, Rira Kawamura 川村りら; Length 317 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 10 March 2018.

Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.

Continue reading “Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)”

Uncertain (2015)

At a certain level, this could be a documentary about the crippling environmental effect of a fast-spreading algae across an inland lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, by the town of the film’s title… Except it’s not really about that, it’s instead about a few of the town’s residents, men lost to the world and to themselves, just trying to get by, find meaning, abide. The film creates a deep atmosphere of damaged people trying to repair their lives, while in the background others try to save the lake by essentially introducing the kind of biological conflict the humans have been trying to move away from (weevils that attack the algae; violence permeates the film). Anyway it’s all beautifully shot, with some of the finest scenery you’ll see.

Uncertain film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands; Cinematographer McNicol; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 16 March 2017.

繕い裁つ人 Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito (A Stitch of Life, 2015)

There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.

A Stitch of Life film posterCREDITS
Director Yukiko Mishima 三島有紀子; Writer Tamio Hayashi 林民夫 (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe 池辺葵); Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe 阿部一孝; Starring Miki Nakutani 中谷美紀, Takahiro Miura 三浦貴大; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: Le Cinéma de Chantal Akerman (I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015)

This is a documentary about a great filmmaker, one who sadly died shortly after its completion, presenting interviews with her contextualising her films and work, as well as clips of the films, and fragments of her working on her latest (and as it turns out, last) film, the brilliant No Home Movie. It doesn’t slavishly copy Akerman’s own style but it imparts a sense of it (heightened obviously by the clips), staying grounded in Akerman’s own words and experiences. Luckily, she’s a voluble speaker and a fascinating screen presence. It may not itself dig deep into Akerman’s oeuvre but it allows plenty of jumping-off points for further discussion and research, and that itself has some value.

I Don't Belong Anywhere film posterCREDITS
Director Marianne Lambert; Writers Luc Jabon and Marianne Lambert; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at JW3, London, Wednesday 14 December 2016.

Faaji Agba (2015)

In a manner not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary tracks the efforts of Kunle, the owner of a Lagos, Nigeria-based record shop and label (Jazzhole Records), to bring together a disparate group of largely-forgotten or underappreciated older musicians from his country’s history, so that they can record their music and pass it on to a new generation largely unfamiliar with this musical tradition. His friend Remi Vaughan-Richards was on hand with a camera, and in due time (six years after she started filming in 2009) brought the footage together into this 90-minute film. Sadly, by this point many of the musicians have passed, but their legacy is vividly rendered here. There’s a lot of great music, in a variety of traditional styles (not just Afrobeat and Highlife, but others far less familiar to Western audiences), and some excellent footage of these musicians, as they come together, rehearse, bicker, fall out, reconcile and eventually put on a show in New York City. And although getting the music out to the Western world was never precisely the point of the project or the film, but it’s still obviously a big deal for the group and is given a fair chunk of the running time. The film itself is largely a one-woman operation, so there’s not a great deal of polish to the filmmaking itself — the camera jerks around shakily at times, while the editing tries to cram a huge amount of material in and so everything seems hectic and a bit rushed — but given the means available to Vaughan-Richards and her producer Kunle (i.e. next to none), it’s all fascinating and enjoyable stuff which conveys a great sense of change both in Nigerian music and in Lagos itself.

Faaji Agba film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Richards; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016.

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.

Parisienne film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

I fundamentally liked this film, even if there was a lot of stuff I didn’t believe at all: because it’s set up as a sort of kooky comedy, it often seems a little too cutely precious in the way characters come together, while some of them seem to have been introduced just to push along a magical sense of healing (particularly re: mothers, which provides a little bit too much sentimentality towards the end for my personal liking). Indeed the entire framework — a road trip by two women to scatter a dead friend’s ashes, who addresses them via self-recorded videos (and quotes Kerouac) — could easily be too much self-conscious quirk. And yet there’s something about those three central performances (by Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie as Seph and Alex, and as Jack Farthing as their dead friend Dan) that gets to a kernel of emotional honesty that I found unexpectedly moving. At its best it reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis (a film I adored) in acknowledging the way that emotional pain can cause people to act horribly to one another. Meanwhile, gosh, British filmmaking has no shortage of tall pretty posh young women with cut glass accents acting atrociously while being funny (see also the Fleabag TV series just for a start), though it also makes the all too brief appearance of Alice Lowe (most recently seen as director/star of festival favourite Prevenge) all the more delightful.

Burn Burn Burn film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Chanya Button; Writer Charlie Covell; Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho; Starring Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 November 2016.