Criterion Sunday 256: A Constant Forge (2000)

An extensive and sprawling documentary about John Cassavetes, though really just about his films and filmmaking (there’s an all-too-brief mention of the cirrhosis that killed him in the end, but very few other personal details are offered). Indeed, much of the documentary focuses on clips from the five films in the Criterion box set, which I can only assume is due to rights issues (there’s a lot that’s great about Minnie and Moskowitz, and I’d have liked to have heard more about the studio movies or his last films in the 1980s), but all the same it does a good job of laying out his philosophy and practice. The structure appears to be along fairly oblique lines, cued up by somewhat pretentious quotes, and finished with a bit of verse, but it’s making for a case for Cassavetes as something quite unlike the ordinary run of American directors, which is understandable, though beyond these little flourishes it never really manages to be as distinctive as the films it’s about. Obviously, at over three hours it could have been a bit tighter, and it’s solidly conventional in form, with a range of talking heads and clips, but it’s nice to hear from his frequent collaborators (plus a few academics, including the ubiquitous-when-it-comes-to-Cassavetes Ray Carney).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The original DVD of this had some poster galleries, but the Blu-ray edition added those images to the separate films, and relegated this entire documentary to the supplements on the Shadows disc, so despite having its own spine number, it no longer really has a separate identity as a film within the Collection.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charles Kiselyak; Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Lelia Goldoni, Carol Kane, Sean Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Voight, Al Ruban, John Sayles; Length 200 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 26 March 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 18 July 2019).

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አድዋ Adwa (1999)

As my week of African cinema draws to a close, one final documentary, which for a change touches on a successful instance of 19th century resistance to the European coloniser. It was made by the Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, much of whose work has been made in the United States, as a leading proponent of what has come to be known as the “LA Rebellion” of African and African-American filmmakers working and studying at UCLA.


This is essentially a documentary about an important battle, about the way that battle shaped a country and, to a certain degree, a continent, but it’s also at least in part about who gets to tell these stories. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its resistance to typical documentary conventions. Instead of the authoritative figure of a scholar or critic seen as a talking head and lecturing the audience, instead filmmaker Haile Gerima gives these words to a variety of Ethiopians. Sure one of them could be an academic (he’s seated at home and wearing a suit), but others appear to be people in the street, farmers or peasants, from all walks of life, though there are no on-screen titles so it’s unclear.

The point is: this story belongs to everyone in Ethiopia, because it’s a story of resistance against the tide of European colonisers forcibly trying to annexe vast swathes of Africa during the 19th century. This is a story of a battle fought by the Ethiopian leader Menelik II against the Italians in 1896, who like the rest of Europe’s powers were involved in carving up Africa for profit (leading to the so-called “scramble for Africa”). Ethiopia’s successful resistance meant that it was one of the very few places on the continent not colonised at that time (it succumbed briefly later during WW2), giving it a totemic place in the burgeoning Pan-African movement.

Gerima’s film therefore narrates his film through these people who know parts of the historical tale and context, but also through images (artworks, carvings, other visual representations of the Battle of Adwa and the events surrounding it) and, vitally, through folk songs. There are many layers of interpretation swirling around her, overlaid on one another, not complicating the history but rather rendering it richer and perhaps better suggesting its importance.

Adwa film posterCREDITS
Director Haile Gerima ፕሮፌሰር ኃይሌ ገሪማ; Cinematographer Augustin Cubano; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 8 August 2019.

Welcome to Sodom (2018)

My week themed around African cinema has focused on films by African filmmakers dealing with their own history, political issues and lives, whether in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad or Mauritania (and, in my previous themed week of Arab-language cinema, in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well). However, when looking at cinema about Africa it’s impossible to avoid Western voices. Even in many of the films that I’ve looked at, most notably La Femme au couteau (1969), the coloniser is an unseen but powerfully abusive presence throughout. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out that this documentary about Ghana is by two Austrian filmmakers, and while the subject may be on an environmental catastrophe largely wrought by Western demand for consumer electronics, it also perhaps betrays a certain way of looking at Africa, which you can also sometimes perceive in films by auteurs like Claire Denis, who frequently deals with Black and African bodies, given her upbringing in colonial Africa, or Bertrand Tavernier in Coup de torchon (1981).


This documentary is filmed in Agbogbloshie, an area of Ghana’s capital Accra where electronic waste is dumped and recycled by an itinerant community which has sprung up around this former swamp land. There are some rather thin statistics that start and end the film (translated indifferently into English), which hint at Western complicity in this very literally dirty business, but most of what we see is just the tangible sense of this lived reality. The sense I get of what the filmmakers are trying to do is the kind of epic cinema of fallen humanity as in, say, Herzog’s Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992), for this film really privileges the visuals over any kind of contextualising or historical research. And like Herzog’s film, this Austrian film could also be critiqued for its white European gaze on a treacherous African hellscape, but when dealing with Africa on film the European gaze becomes inevitable to deal with at times.

That the area, nicknamed “Sodom” by its inhabitants, is polluted is evident in every frame, and the many fires which are set to strip valuable copper wiring of their plastic must account for much of the health risks. We also hear from a number of people (I’m not clear if they are the voices of the people themselves, or of actors, as they are overlaid on the soundtrack), but the stories are more than just your standard ones of people living in poverty: these are people who have chosen for various reasons to come here, and who despite the horrific reality of life have found value in living and working there. We hear from a gay Jewish man who has fled his native Liberia and is living on the margins to escape persecution, from a boy who resists the identity he was assigned as birth, and prefers the manual labour of the men in the camp. We see plenty of the women too, many of whom are engaged in cooking for the camp, or transporting packs of water in chilled buckets on their heads, which are used by the men tending the fires to keep themselves and their wires cool.

It’s a very tactile film that goes big on the senses — and there’s some rather catchy hip hop music being produced by inhabitants of the area too, which breaks up the action a little — but don’t expect to learn too much about why this area exists or what’s being done to mitigate its evident environmental dangers. This is a cautionary tale intended to make us think about our own use of consumer electronics and where they ultimately end up.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer; Writers Roland Schrotthofer and Weigensamer; Cinematographer Christian Kermer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha Dochouse), London, Sunday 17 March 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye

Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye”

حقول الحرية Huqul Alhuriya (Freedom Fields, 2018)

Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).


Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.

They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.

Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love

Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love”

Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)

On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.

Continue reading “Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)”

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)

Varda was doing a number of talks around the world in the last few years before she passed, and this film is sort of based around those, going back over her life with clips from her films, as she talks about what made her excited, what she liked to film, her philosophy of living, as well as some of the people she met along the way. Given its clip-show format it’s hardly the equal of her recent documentaries, or her greatest fiction filmmaking (all of which is imbued with a documentary fascination with peoples’ lives), but if anyone has earned this kind of warm and gentle summation, then it’s certainly Agnès Varda. And of course this film, like her presence — which is a constant throughout — is very much warm and gentle.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claire Duguet, François Décréau and Julia Fabry; Starring Agnès Varda; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis”

Criterion Sunday 212: Ingmar Bergman gör en film (Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, 1963)

A documentary tracking Ingmar Bergman during the making of Winter Light, split into five roughly half-hour chunks, as it was originally made for Swedish TV. That film is one of my favourite of Bergman’s efforts, and he seems relaxed talking about its making in great detail. We also get a chance to see some of the filming, as well as comparisons of differently-edited versions of the same scene, all presented by the director of the I Am Curious diptych. Fans of Bergman will undoubtedly get a lot more out of this fairly dry documentary than I did, but it gets into the craft a lot more than most filmmaker puff pieces.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vilgot Sjöman; Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 146 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 23 April 2018.