Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.

Criterion Sunday 340: Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko: A Talking Gorilla, 1978)

This documentary, about a young woman (Penny Patterson at Stanford University) teaching a gorilla to speak using some apparent version of American Sign Language, is interesting partly in the ways in which it has dated in the interim forty-something years. I suspect that ideas of animal rights (if not personhood) have advanced somewhat, though these questions are explicitly addressed by the film’s narrator towards the end of this film. And as I in the audience am not a behavioural scientist, I can hardly assess the techniques that Patterson uses (I don’t know quite how robust her scientific methodology is), but the fascination is in watching her and Koko interact and drawing one’s own conclusions. That said, there are occasional talking heads which pop up to elucidate some of the questions demanded by watching this footage. Still, I end up feeling a bit bad for Koko: the lives of animals in zoos are too often poor, especially compared to their natural habitats, and Koko feels rather forced into this arrangement. The film leaves us with the question of whether it’s even fair to assess a gorilla in relation to human society; there is a sense of the “civilising” work of missionaries at times to the single-mindedness of Patterson teaching her sign language, and who can know whether Koko’s life was improved as a result. Still, she lived a long life — she only died two years ago in 2018 — and the film remains an interesting reflection on something about that life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only major extra is a 12-minute interview with the director from when the Criterion DVD was released, in the mid-2000s, in which he discusses the filming and some of the key members of the crew.
  • Otherwise, there are both (subtitled) French and English versions of the narration available, though all the footage is in English and (thankfully) isn’t dubbed.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 July 2020.

Unlocking the Cage (2016)

In the subsection of crusading documentaries bringing attention to a particular issue, this one dealing with animal rights — and specifically the legal attempt to claim them as legal persons (which is, in the States, a legal right that is also claimed by companies, I believe) — is an interesting one, which intersects with certain trends right now. It also exemplifies the place that any documentary festival has for the latest work by longstanding creators in the genre. That said, it’s a fairly minor final film from one of the great 20th century documentarians (Donn Pennebaker), who died in 2019, and there are also troubling aspects to some of the legal arguments in light of this particular historical juncture (the review below was written in 2016 when I saw the film).


This is a solidly made documentary (as you’d expect from the talent) about the issue of animal rights. It’s lovely that people are out there trying to make a difference on this and given my own (vegan) dietary choices, I’m certainly on-side with their struggle. However, it never really convinces me that the particular legal path they’re going down is the best avenue. Still, any attempt to help animals, even arguing for their “personhood”, is a good cause, and who knows, maybe we’ll all look back in 50 years and wonder that such rights ever needed fighting for. But for now, I do strongly wonder if slavery analogies are the most tactful in this respect.

Unlocking the Cage film posterCREDITS
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographer Hegedus; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 16 June 2016.

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

Blackfish (2013)

As someone who was never likely to trouble the doors of a marine theme park, at least not one that entertains audiences with orcas (known more commonly as ‘killer whales’ or ‘blackfish’) doing tricks, I’m probably not the target of this documentary. And I can’t say that any of what it presents is really a surprise, except in so far as I’d never really thought about the practice of running such a theme park. But it turns out that it entails a fair amount of animal cruelty, not to mention some brazen disregard for the safety of human trainers. I have no doubt that working practices for the humans have improved at SeaWorld and other such facilities presented here, but to a certain extent this documentary isn’t even about the trainers — though the deaths of several of them are covered — but about the whales. Chief among them is Tilikum, a whale who has not only lived longer than many in captivity (reaching over 30 years, though still a fraction of an orca’s lifespan in the wild), but has also sired a huge number of SeaWorld’s orca stock, and, as it happens, caused the injury and deaths of more than one trainer. The chief insight then is into the lifespan of a captive orca, using ‘Tilly’ as an example: from capture, to being passed around a number of parks, kept in a variety of conditions, and required to take part in shows for sometimes scant reward. All of this, Blackfish suggests, seems to contribute to a level of psychosis in the whale that leads to them lashing out. Whatever the reasons for the whales’ violence under captivity, the clear message remains that capturing them and exploiting them for entertainment is just a bad idea for everyone who’s involved in it.

Blackfish film posterCREDITS
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite; Writers Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres and Tim Zimmermann; Cinematographers Jonathan Inglis and Christopher Towey; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 21 September 2015.