Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017

Lost in Lebanon (2017)

I was actually in Beirut and Lebanon the week this was released in UK cinemas (well, in one cinema), and I can attest to the fact it’s a very small country — we did some travelling within the country and it only takes a few hours to drive across the width of the country, through the fertile Bekaa Valley towards the Syrian border (there are some very beautiful Roman ruins at Baalbek), and it can’t be that much longer north to south. It is also, not just relatively but by most measures, a very peaceful country.

Prior to the war in Syria, it had somewhere around 4-4.5 million people, with a fairly even mix of religions, but now there’s fully a third more just of Syrian refugees, most of them Muslim. Everywhere you go, you can clearly see these encampments, and Lebanese resources are stretched thin dealing with the issue. It’s not of course just Lebanon’s problem, though, and there’s one European aid worker in the film (Fritz) who is very clear about the way that the western governments (who have done little to mitigate the effects of war in Syria, and much to fuel it) are largely derelict in their duty of care to those displaced.

What Lost in Lebanon does is to humanise the issue through focusing on a handful of those displaced from neighbouring Syria. It’s not all gloomy — they are all trying their best to help their fellow refugees, to get involved with educating the children, and trying to find a diplomatic solution and a way to keep improving facilities — but the film captures very well the frustration, the sadness and even, at times, the rage. Nobody wants to live away from their home, especially when it’s so close you can practically see it at times, and certainly not as a virtual prisoner within another country, unable to move around or take a job or get further education or improve your situation. That said, the people in this film do their best to present a vision of relative normalcy in what is an unfortunate situation, and one can only hope that one day Syria will return to stability and peace, and that the people here are able to be involved in its rebuilding.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Georgia Scott and Sophia Scott | Cinematographer Sophia Scott | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 1 June 2017

Complicit (2017)

There’s almost a subgenre of documentary that deals with activist issues of social justice campaigning, and that’s very much the wheelhouse of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Complicit is a fine example, focusing on the global electronics industry, specifically their factories in South-Eastern China (on the Pearl River Delta). It’s not so much the sweatshop conditions here as the workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals (benzene most notably, which causes leukaemia), a situation not really being tackled by the enormous global companies contracting out the work. The filmmakers here are canny to focus not on the Chinese government but on these companies in their (as the title suggests) complicity with human rights violations — though that complicity obviously extends to the audience also, those who use these electronic devices (a certain fruit-based designer is particularly targeted). It’s the stories of the workers, and their often futile attempts to get recompense from or to even be heard by the companies, which are the heart of the film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Director Heather White and Lynn Zhang | Writer Christopher Seward | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017

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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands | Cinematographer Ewan McNicol | Length 82 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 16 March 2017

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)

There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.


FILM REVIEW
Director Connie Field | Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin | Length 65 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017

Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden (My Brothers and Sisters in the North, 2016)

In telling the story of a South Korean woman who travels to the North (via her German citizenship; it’s a German-produced film) and makes a documentary there, this film seems to know it hardly need do more than just point a camera and bear witness to a still largely-unseen society. The North Koreans we hear often brim with enthusiasm (for the cause, for their fellow citizens, for possible reunification one day, for their leader), their daily rituals filled with songs and dances — almost all of them mentioning their dear political leaders, present and past — but the director doesn’t mock or belittle them. It’s more a frank testament to the people she encounters in various places — not just Pyongyang but a smaller city on the coast, and rural settlements where people farm the land. There’s some of that same spirit that Joris Ivens captured in How Yukong Moved the Mountains (albeit that was about the Chinese Cultural Revolution). There’s also a simplicity to the style — lots of slowed-down tracking shots, beautiful landscape and skyline photography, interviews between director and workers. We get a sense of some of the way people live, in so far as we are allowed to perceive it directly. Quite how accurate it is may not be knowable but it’s a fascinating document nonetheless.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sung Hyung Cho | Cinematographers Julia Daschner and Thomas Schneider | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 May 2017

All This Panic (2016)

There are, I suppose, no shortage of films — no shortage even of woozy impressionistic documentaries — about the teenage experience of girlhood, but this one seems pretty engaged. Its New York-based subjects are, for example, hardly idiots (frustrating, piqued, flighty at times, but not stupid). Indeed, there’s some discussion amongst its (mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class) subjects of how young female voices are routinely mocked and ignored — an argument I’ve seen recycled quite a bit over this past winter of Teen Vogue‘s growing political ascendancy. Well, there’s no such danger here, as we watch this loose group of friends grow up and go to university (or not). It’s sweet, sad, and hopeful, often all at once. It’s also shot in tight close-ups, hazy in the camera’s focus, and always gorgeous to look at.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jenny Gage | Cinematographer Tom Betterton | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 25 March 2017

Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains, 1976)

A sweeping documentary achievement (though one suspects it’s one that would be a multi-part television series were it made today), veteran documentarian Joris Ivens and his partner Marceline Loridan spent many years filming in China in the early-1970s to cover the Cultural Revolution. There are 12 parts, several of them feature-length, and several which are short films (for example, “The Football Incident” — which can be found on YouTube — runs at only 20 minutes, and there are a couple of under-half hour pieces about the circus and opera in Beijing), and needless to say I watched it over a period of weeks when I could steal some time.

For all that its aims could be broadly stated as propagandistic in nature — or at least, not exactly out of step with Chinese government policy of the era — it still captures some wonderful material touching on people’s lives being lived in the period. Much of it is filmed along the Eastern coastal stretch of China, from the oilfields in the north-east to a couple of pieces about Shanghai (one touching on the work of a city pharmacy, and another just an impressionistic sense of the city as a whole), to a fishing village somewhere in between those two, as well as the short films about the Peking Opera and Circus. (There are a couple of pendant 1977 short films about ethnic minorities in the north-west, The Uyghurs and The Kazakhs, which are boxed up with the French DVD release.)

Ivens’s camera is often in motion, moving around its subjects, as they talk to each other in meetings, gather at lunchtimes to debate how best they can meet their work targets and improve their engagement with one another, and sometimes speak directly to camera. Largely eschewing subtitles (except in a sung scene from the opera), instead we get a man and a woman’s voice (in English or French depending on the version watched) either commenting on the scene or translating the words heard, presumably intended to reflect the two filmmakers. The colours are rich and the camerawork fluid: what is presented is clearly the best of the Cultural Revolution in action, though it does largely stick to workers (in the oilfield, in shops, in factories, making dolls and, the shortest of the films, a university professor grappling with the new dialectic method).

For me, the two most striking things were firstly the constant engagement with dialectics: in the classroom scene, even the teachers admit their fallibility and try to engage with the students as equals; the professor laughingly admits he has had difficulties; and in the factories there are constant discussions about how to best and most fairly resolve collective work disagreements. Secondly, the role of women is celebrated and given equal time (the final of the films is “One Woman, One Family” which focuses a single woman in her factory work, where she is a leading union organiser, and her family life — though it does take in some of her co-workers arguing that maybe she shouldn’t be at the centre, because many others do equally valuable work). Throughout all the episodes, it is made clear that — in the ideal revolutionary world being shown — women are every bit as effective as their male comrades. There’s an all-woman fishing boat crew, while women take visible and leading roles in the factories’ work (less so the oilfields).

It’s a broad canvas, and not entirely exempt from criticism — would that the revolutionary unity depicted in the film were either sustained or borne out by history — but it’s a beautiful, moving film about the work and lives of ordinary people.


FILM REVIEW
Directors Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan Ivens | Cinematographer Joris Ivens | Length 763 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 128: Carl Th. Dreyer: Min metier (Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier, 1995)

Dreyer is an interesting director and had a fascinating life after a fashion, but he’s never really been cool and this documentary does little to remedy that. It’s informative, it has interviews with surviving collaborators, and its formal strategy appears to consist of filming them in high-contrast black-and-white to fit in with the film footage. Hardly deserving of its own Criterion spine number, one feels.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Torben Skjødt Jensen | Writers/Cinematographers Torben Skjødt Jensen and Prami Larsen | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 20 June 2003 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 123: Grey Gardens (1975)

Clearly these two ageing women, scions of the Bouvier family (and hence related to Jackie O), make for great documentary subjects. They sit in their dilapidated Long Island home, bickering with one another in front of the camera. The mother Edith still seems like the sensible one and her daughter Edie flighty and irrepressible, prone to song and dance, improvising fashion including endless variations on headscarves to hide her greying hair, though wistful at the idea of living with so many cats and raccoons. Yet at the same time, it hovers on the edge of uncomfortable exploitation of what is clearly mental illness: Edie is very much aware of the camera and is equally clearly playing to it. She makes constant references to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, flirting with them and at times opening up to them, and so their use of her at times feels like it could be stepping over a line. Of course, these two have wealth to continue being able to live like this, but there’s a basic dignity that’s not always evident and seems to me to push at the edge of documentary ethics.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer | Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016