Generation Revolution (2016)

Seeing this kind of politically-committed documentary — about youthful revolutionary protestors (specifically people of colour in London) fighting against multiple intersections of oppression, whether racist, capitalist, sexist, imperialist — in a plush central London cinema feels strange. Indeed, this probably isn’t the kind of venue where it will get most traction; it’s surely more a means towards getting the message into at least the film columns of broadsheet newspapers. That said, although it’s about activists and conveys the potency of a very real and urgent struggle (ever more so since it was made, since events of even just the past week), it’s not simply a work of activist agitprop.

The film’s participants are careful and reflective about their voices and the ways they are trying to engage and confront a system of interrelated oppressions. They don’t always agree about either methods or ideology, but all of them are doing so much more than most of us, in our complacency (certainly those of us watching in posh central London cinemas, let’s be fair), and that’s important to see, just as it’s important to know and acknowledge this work is happening. My favourite participant is Tej, a sweet guy taking part in feminist consciousness raising, not to mention idealistically helping out homeless people and worrying over the details (whether his care packages are missing roll-on deodorant for example). There’s also the woman who calls out her fellow revolutionaries for being insufficiently inclusive, and the young woman near the end who bashfully admits she doesn’t know how to talk to people even as she strikes up an easy friendship with one unfortunate homeless woman outside Euston station.

Generation Revolution is filled with such portraits. It shows a side not just of political activism, but specifically of activism and community engagement amongst black and minority ethnicities in this country, that is rarely represented in the media, and gives me at least a strength of hope in future generations against what feels like a relentlessly cynical and ironic tone to much of the mainstream coverage of politics. It’s worth seeking out, as finding more ways to engage with political change is sadly becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the western world.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis | Length 74 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 12 November 2016

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Bringing Greenham Home: Two Films about Greenham Common

It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.

The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.

Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.

The screening ended with a discussion chaired by Sophie Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.


Club des Femmes logo

Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson | Cinematographer Amanda Richardson | Length 69 minutes

Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie | Length 46 minutes


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Club des Femmes
Seen at Rio, London, Saturday 23 January 2016

Zabriskie Point (1970)

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 27 October 2014 (and several times previously on VHS) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© MGM

It’s fair to say that in the year 2014 one of the last things I expected to get a cinematic re-release would be a cleaned-up digital print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. After decades of critical acclaim for his brand of existential non-thrillers made in his native Italy, this film was his pitch to the American market, getting on-board with such contemporary topics as student activism and free love. Needless to say, it was far from either a critical or commercial success at the time, and has at best a cult reputation now (largely due to its soundtrack album, I suspect). Yet in many ways it’s a fantastic film and a successor to Antonioni’s earlier works in its sense of characters adrift in vast threatening landscapes, as well as a film rightly critical of consumerism and rampant property development (themes which are still very much a part of the world 35 years on). I can’t in all good faith, however, recommend it to people who like strong dialogue and witty repartee: the flat line delivery, period affectations and (somehow typically Italian) use of imprecise post-synching can easily come across as lazy screenwriting. But these are not characters who are able to enunciate their issues with the world: on the one hand, there’s Mark (Frechette), angrily adrift at university, listening to articulate Black Power activists and witnessing his friends’ radicalisation, able only to offer cheap jokes (he gives his name to a cop as Karl Marx); on the other, Daria (Halprin) is a PA at a property developers’ office, where a succession of identikit men in beige suits delivers boardroom presentations so dull that even the camera seems to prefer losing focus, drifting away to off-centre framing, and frequently reflecting the discussion in mirrors and through other surfaces. As characters, these two uneasily inhabit their own respective worlds of words, but only meet in the centre of the film, as Mark buzzes over Daria’s car in a light plane he’s stolen for a joyride, out in the middle of the desert. The two make love in dusty Death Valley, at the Zabriskie Point of the film’s title, as their bodies hallucinatorily multiply, after which point they return to separate narrative strands. It’s here that Mark’s story, which has dominated the first half of the film, cedes to that of Daria, as she travels on to Phoenix for a conference with her bosses. It doesn’t always work perfectly — whether the actors’ jarringly disconcerting delivery of the script, the modish alienation effects, or the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism — but when it does, it just seems perfect. The pulsating psychedelic drone of the soundtrack, the dizzying procession of vapid billboards in Los Angeles, the subtly interwoven and interleaving narrative strands, the long takes, and of course that apocalyptic desert dream of an ending, in which a materialistic world is beautifully pulled apart in the most visceral way. These are all things I continue to love about this overlooked classic of the American cinema.


CREDITS || Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe | Cinematographer Alfio Contini | Starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin | Length 110 minutes

Pride (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Rio, Dalston, London, Friday 12 September 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Pathé

It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.


CREDITS || Director Matthew Warchus | Writer Stephen Beresford | Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe | Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine | Length 125 minutes

LFF: Night Moves (2013)


BFI London Film Festival 2013 FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Director Kelly Reichardt | Writers Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt | Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt | Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard | Length 112 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 17 October 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Cinedigm

I feel like I’ve been using terms like “watchful” a lot about films I’ve seen recently, as if there’s a lot more filmmakers making observant little stories about people which are suffused with a sort of quiet observancy as they go about their lives, and Kelly Reichardt’s films more than most have this quality. Her earlier features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are filled with this kind of tense tranquillity, and I particularly loved Meek’s Cutoff (2010) for its story of a group of women in 19th century Oregon picking their way slowly across country. This new film too is set in Oregon and has all of the same qualities, a slow-burn story of a group of friends splitting apart.

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The East (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Zal Batmanglij | Writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling | Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov | Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson | Length 116 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 30 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s always a precarious thing, trying to capture in a fiction film a flavour of contemporary counterculture. You only have to look back to attempts to depict the earnest ferment of young minds in the 1970s to see how laughable the outcome can seem in hindsight. Of course that’s not entirely fair: it’s not all to do with the filmmakers or the period fashions. In part, it’s to do with the way that earnestness (much like faith) comes across on film: in the darkness of the auditorium, passively taking in images, it’s difficult not to be a jaded, judgemental cynic. This is never more so than when faced with the passionate belief of characters who are trying to actively engage with a corrupt system. There are times when the protagonists of The East, young ecological activists (anarchists, perhaps, or “terrorists” to the authorities), come across as a bit ridiculous, but they’re certainly not fools.

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