Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Nous (We, 2021)

I have a lot of time for Alice Diop’s films, since first seeing her documentary On Call (2016) at the London Film Festival. She seems to make films about people in French society — all people, not just those of African heritage, though as her subjects are often working people, there’s no lack of ethnic diversity. Mubi has a little season of her films, including this one, On Call and a few others she’s made over the years; well worth checking out if you subscribe to that service.


Maybe I just watch too much of what currently gets pumped into our cinemas, but I like a film (a documentary in this case) which is willing to let its scenes play out, not force-feed us information. Of course, there’s a canny directorial nous at work here, an autobiographical underlying thread that pulls us as firmly as the RER B line which links the film’s suburban subjects to the metropolitan centre of Paris. What starts as a series of portraits of the surrounds of Paris (perhaps just Drancy to Paris’s northwest; I don’t know enough about France to be sure, but I believe it’s a variety of scenes along the line) becomes intertwined with fragments of filmmaker Alice Diop’s life, her mother and father and her childhood, clips of old home movies and her voiceover. We even eventually see her on screen, suitably distanced with cameras and mics and assistants moving elements of the background, that suggest a deeper level to the practice here, a hint of the manipulations underlying observational documentary, and that the people we see — crossing all kinds of racial and class lines — aren’t quite as randomly chosen as maybe it might seem. But that never becomes the film itself, as more clever-clever filmmakers might once have done: this is still, whatever else, very much a portrait of modern Paris, about people and the lives they lead, and it has all the rich depths of life lived in the shadow of a metropolis.

Nous (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Diop; Cinematographers Clement Alline, Sarah Blum and Sylvain Verdet; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Thursday 30 June 2021.

Global Cinema 35: Chile – Beyond My Grandfather Allende (2015)

Chilean cinema has been through periods of strength over the years, and there have been some notable international talents that have flourished after early starts in Chile, like the prolific Raúl Ruiz and veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán (who made the epic The Battle of Chile). Modern filmmaking has continued to flourish under a new vanguard of directors, both of features (like the excellent Too Late to Die Young by Dominga Sotomayor, or No by Pablo Larraín) and documentaries like the one covered below. This personal story should be viewed alongside a wider overview of the events of Allende’s overthrow (as in Guzmán’s epic three-part film mentioned above), but it gives a different perspective on such an important modern figure.


Flag - ChileRepublic of Chile (República de Chile)
population 17,574,000 | capital Santiago (5.4m) though the legislature is based in Valparaíso | largest cities Santiago, Valparaíso (804k), Concepción (666k), La Serena (296k), Antofagasta (285k) | area 756,096 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (36%) | official language Spanish (español chileno) | major ethnicity (estimates) white (64%), mestizos (35%), Amerindians (5%) | currency Chilean peso ($) [CLP] | internet .cl

The southernmost country in the world occupies a narrow stretch of land (64km at its narrowest) between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, covering a huge number variety of landscapes and climates, and controlling a number of island groups including Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Juan Fernández Islands. Its name is theorised to come variously from the name of a tribal chief via the Incas, or from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or the Mapuche for “where the land ends” or the Quechua for “cold”. There is evidence for some human presence in southern Chile 18,500 years ago, though more permanent settlements date back 10,000 years. The Incan empire briefly extended into the northern area of modern Chile, but the Mapuche in the south resisted successfully, ending with the Battle of the Maule in the late-15th century. Magellan was the first European to set foot in 1520, and more Spaniards (including Pizarro’s lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia, who founded Santiago) followed in the mid-16th century, annexing it for its fertile central valley. Mapuche insurrections (including one resulting in Valdivia’s death) persisted into the 17th century until the Spanish abolished slavery in 1683. Independence from Spain was proclaimed on 18 September 1810 (the date commemorated annually in its National Day); war followed, but a final victory over royalists thanks to Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín came eight years later, though society remained largely unchanged. Territory expansion followed, entrenching landowner and rich financial interests, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a reformist president was elected. Coups and instability followed for much of the rest of the century, most notably to depose Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 with the help of the USA. The military leadership of Augusto Pinochet was not toppled until 1989 and democracy was restored, with an elected president having a term of four years.

The earliest film screening in Chile took place in 1902 and the first feature was made in 1910, though the industry struggled for much of the 20th century. A “New Chilean Cinema” developed in the late-60s under directors like Raúl Ruiz and Miguel Littín, but a slump took place during the Pinochet years. New directors like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio have emerged in recent years.


Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)

This is a somewhat different proposition from most documentary films made by someone about their own family. It’s not that the family story is lacking in incident or drama: the filmmaker’s grandfather Salvador was the socialist president of Chile, deposed by military coup in 1973 and who committed suicide rather than be taken, and his family was an illustrious one which continues to be filled with politicians and nationally influential people. Rather, what marks it out is the way that nobody the filmmaker talks to, not her mother Isabel, nor aunt Carmen, nor grandmother (Salvador’s wife, “Tencha”, who died while the film was being made), nor even her cousins will open up about Salvador, called by his nickname “Chicho” throughout the film. Perhaps it’s his suicide (which turns out to have been how her other aunt and another family member departed), or the enormous emotional trauma his downfall had on all of them, but to have this emptiness at the heart of a story can be a difficult one to overcome, for the audience. I think the filmmaker Marcia handles it well, though, and from the documentary and filmic evidence, you get a little hint of how Chicho was in life (the film is less concerned with his political legacy), but throughout all of it there’s this sense of a story only half-told.

Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)CREDITS
Director Marcia Tambutti Allende; Writers Allende, Paola Castillo, Bruni Burres and Valeria Vargas; Cinematographer David Bravo and Eduardo Cruz-Coke; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 19 May 2018.

Criterion Sunday 533: Crumb (1994)

Robert Crumb is undoubtedly a messy human, but that just makes him a more fascinating documentary subject, and it’s something that his old friend Terry Zwigoff just knows by this point. Zwigoff’s film of a decade earlier following an obscure blues man Louie Bluie, was just a warm up for this in-depth portrait which he seems to have been making for much of the decade between the two films. And in telling Crumb’s story — which necessarily involves getting into his sexual fetishes, given the themes of his comic art — what Zwigoff uncovers is really a story about more than just a single man, but about a whole family. Indeed much of the Criterion release feels as much about Charles Crumb, Robert’s younger brother who passed not long before the film was completed and after Crumb had picked up to move to France with his family. The box artwork features a reproduction of a drawing sample done by Charles as a kid, as well as his obsessive scrawls hinting at writing but never quite resolving into anything, making beautiful abstract patterns on the inner lining. Charles gives the film its heart, while Robert doodles himself around the edges, a man with a complicated relationship to his mother, to all women, to sex and violence — and the talking heads argue various interpretations of his work, but with almost thirty years hindsight and with his brothers as comparison, it seems almost sweet that it’s just art in which he expresses these feelings (or at least that’s the feeling the film gives, and I earnestly hope it’s the case, because in many ways he bounces around like an eager child looking for inspiration and diversion). In terms of documentaries about outsiders in American society whose existence somehow provides a kind of key to decoding that society, this is up there with Grey Gardens.

NB The Criterion release lists this as 1995, but the IMDb page suggests that it premiered at the Toronto film festival in 1994.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographer Maryse Alberti; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 15 May 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1997).

Criterion Sunday 532: Louie Bluie (1985)

This hour-long documentary has some consistency with the later work of director Terry Zwigoff, which (like Crumb and Ghost World at least) is quite obsessed with the world of both blues and outsider art. In this case, its protagonist Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong is a fiddle player (amongst other instruments, including the mandolin) and also the artist of some odd little works, the chief one of which appears to be his own Bible of sorts, albeit about p0rnography. He is an interesting raconteur of course — the chief necessity of any documentary subject — and we get several extended clips of him playing his blues music with his little band of similarly elderly practitioners. It’s a charming little film about an odd and interesting life lived in the margins.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographers John Knoop and Chris Li; Length 60 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 May 2022.

Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.


This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)CREDITS
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Among my favourite films of the year is this music documentary contender, which is almost teasingly pitched between a conventional talking head sort of style (John Cale still has plenty of style to spare in his interviews) and something a bit more experimental, in keeping with much of the direction of the music. There are split-screen effects, an interesting narrative structure and plenty of messing around at the edges of this film. Both informative even for those fairly au fait with the Velvets’ music, but also a good primer.


If there’s something I can say about Todd Haynes it’s that he’s not likely to do something that has no visual interest, even if he’s making what is ostensibly a fairly down-the-line documentary. Indeed, one does get the standard tropes — archival footage, talking heads (though not, let’s be clear, the band Talking Heads), and a largely chronological order. But nothing’s is quite so straightforward, so we often get these things intertwined or superimposed. Artfully shot interviews match the Warhol screen test footage of each of the band members, audio snippets, contextualisation from other artists, and of course a densely rich soundtrack all add up to a pretty great portrait of not just the band but also the culture ferment that produced them — and Cale, being the most alive and most eloquent of the band, leads a lot of that early material (and seems like one of the most interesting characters, both personally and musically, in much of this artistic scene anyway). I was surprised to discover that La Monte Young is still around, as an aside, but it’s nice to see Moe Tucker and hear from other collaborators of them, as well as those strongly influenced by their sound as well (of which there is hardly any shortage).

The Velvet Underground (2021)CREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Apple TV+ streaming), Wellington, Saturday 30 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)

Following up with the last few reviews from films screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, this Polish-German co-production has had a UK cinematic release recently, and it’s certainly the kind of diverting, prettily shot and slightly magical comedy-drama that could do well. In the context of a festival, it feels like a little bit of whimsy, but we all need that from time to time.


Not many documentary films earn their comparisons with the work of Frederick Wiseman, but this one does. It quietly, and of course without narration or context, shows the work of the titular teacher in a small yet diverse German school (though we do see one or two of the other teachers at work, making me wonder if the filmmakers were perhaps undecided about who to focus on initially). Mr Bachmann is a man close to retirement but who still cares passionately about all his kids, who come from a variety of backgrounds (Turkish, Bulgarian, Kazakh, and more) and I guess one of the themes is finding a common ground among all these cultures. We see classes on all kinds of subjects but the film’s focus is on bringing the individuals — not just the teacher but also his students — closer to us, on dramatising what motivates them and maybe in the end to convince us that the kids aren’t all bad. Certainly it feels like a film that finds the spark at the heart of being a teacher (and I do wonder how it would play to them) but the running time rushes past.

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Maria Speth; Writers Speth and Reinhold Vorschneider; Cinematographer Vorschneider; Length 217 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ailey (2021)

I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.


Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.

Ailey (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.